The UK's e-petitions initiative, intended to get the public's issues debated in the Commons, has fallen at the first hurdle, with two petitions on ice due to lack of time.
The e-petitions website lets the public start a campaign and invite people to sign to support it. Once signatures go over 100,000 – as has been the case for a petition for cutting benefits for rioters as well as one seeking the release of documents on the Hillsborough disaster – the issue is supposed to be debated by the House.
Unfortunately, the group that is supposed to get a chance to discuss the issue, the Backbench Business Committee of MPs, is complaining that the one day a fortnight it has scheduled for debate is chock-a-block with its own issues and the government hasn't given it any extra time to deal with e-petitions.
"The government has not provided any additional time to debate e-petitions and our existing limited supply is already oversubscribed," it said after its first meeting since e-petitions started. "The committee will continue to press the government to provide specific time for debates on e-petitions so that there is an effective way for the public to engage with Parliament."
As well as being too busy, the committee is also hamstrung by the lack of MPs proposing a debate. Even with the e-petition hitting its target, the committee doesn't have the authority to schedule a debate unless an MP tells them they want to take part in it.
"The government has not provided any way to link petitions to members of Parliament who wish to sponsor them on the e-petitions site, or any advice to petitioners on what they might need to do. Unfortunately, this means that no members of Parliament have yet come to ask us for a debate on an e-petition," the committee said.
The thorny subject of when to find time for democracy was broached in the House today, and Sir George Young, leader of the Commons, said he "hoped" more time could be found.
"I very much hope that in the weeks and months ahead it will be possible to allocate more time to the Backbench Business Committee, and to give it the headroom that it needs to accommodate debates about e-petitions," he said.
Unfortunately, the House is off on 15 September for the party conference season and won't be back again until 10 October, so we'll probably have to wait till then to see how the government will fit e-petitions in.
Young also pointed out that action had already been taken on one of the e-petitions, since the Cabinet Office had made all papers on the Hillsborough disaster available to an independent panel and said it had no objection to them going public (once the panel decided they should, of course).
The e-petition to release the papers on Hillsborough, when 96 Liverpool FC fans died in a human crush, was signed by over 135,000 backers. The other petition to have reached the threshold, advocating that convicted London rioters lose all benefits, has been signed more than 222,000 times. ®