The ongoing Brexit crisis is symptomatic of a number of issues in British politics, most of which have been discussed to death over the past three years. One particular theme keeps returning: the ever-widening gap between politicians and the public.
In the context of the referendum, most people voted to leave but most MPs didn’t, and this tension remains at the heart of the problem. Still, the tension isn’t new. There is a powerful sense of distance between MPs and their constituents, and some efforts have been made to bring the latter closer to the former. For example, David Cameron made a promise that every petition reaching a certain threshold – 100,000 signatures – would be debated by MPs.
Some of these petitions get rather big. The most recent monster petition, “Do not prorogue Parliament”, has gathered over 1.7 million signatures in one week. An earlier petition asking Parliament to revoke Article 50 (in effect, cancelling Brexit) gathered 6 million names.
These particular petitions mostly seem to be howls of rage disguised as an attempt to get something done, but their eventual fall into irrelevance doesn’t reflect the work of the Petitions Committee which, since 2015, has overseen this process.“When we set up this committee, we decided that we would try out different ways of public engagement… whether it’s one-to-one meetings, whether it’s Twitter, chats, online forums, because we want the public’s view of what is happening,” says Labour MP Helen Jones, who chairs the committee. “Members of the committee undertake a lot of work outside meetings, in preparing for debates, in meeting members of the public, petitioners, and others who were involved.”
A good example is the petition on online abuse, launched in 2017 by celebrity Katie Price, whose disabled son had been a target of relentless online bullying. “Make online abuse a specific criminal offence and create a register of offenders” was signed by 221,914 people, and led to an inquiry that reached way beyond Westminster.
“[Our] staff did events all around the country, talking to disabled people and listening to their experiences,” Jones explains. “It made it clear to us how widespread the problem was; this is something disabled people experience every day. It was quite horrifying.”
The MPs themselves also got a chance to speak to disabled people who had been abused online, which, as Jones points out, isn’t something that always happens in policymaking: “You might have one person come to your surgery, but having a public engagement process where person after the person comes in and tells you that this is happening has a huge impact on us.”
Though this can be relatively standard procedure for members of select committees, there is a crucial difference here: what they look into is directly influenced by what the public care about.
From high heels in the workplace to medicine for cystic fibrosis, whatever gets enough signatures can be investigated by the group of MPs.
“Many of these debates are ones that wouldn’t otherwise be debate at all – they’re usually things that aren’t really on the normal agenda”, says Martyn Day, one of the committee’s members.
“Essentially, we’re talking about things that people have asked us to talk about,” Paul Scully adds. “We finally started doing something that people actually want us to do.”
This may sound too self-congratulatory, but Scully has a point: a glance at the data shows that, perhaps predictably, people tune in when Parliament discusses topics they feel are relevant to them.
The top ten most-read debates in Hansard in 2018 were all petitions debates, and petitions debates are the most watched in the House of Commons.
Many of the people behind the petitions also get vindication from them. Nicola Thorp was working as a temp when, in 2016, she was asked to wear a “2in to 4in heel” in an office. She complained and said that men were not subjected to such a strict dress code, and was sent home without pay.
Furious, she did some research and realised that the law wasn’t clear on restrictive workwear, so weighed her options. “I started the petition after having googled ‘how to change the law’ and that was the top result,” she says. “I chose to file a petition on the official website as they offered set outcomes depending on how many signatures I got; there was a course to action which appealed to me more than other petition sites.”
Her petition called on the law to “be changed so that women have the option to wear flat formal shoes at work, if they wish,” adding that current rules were “outdated and sexist”. She wasn’t alone in this complaint; in six months, 152,420 people signed it.
As it went viral, Thorp received support from the committee – “They explained clearly how everything worked, what to expect and supported me with the press coverage and PR of the campaign” – which then launched an inquiry into workplace dress-codes.
After looking into the medical consequences of having to wear high heels all day, into the existing legal framework, and into how well those laws work in practice, the committee concluded that “the law is obviously not working in practice to protect employees from discriminatory practices and unsafe working conditions”.
To combat this, they called on the government to review the relevant laws, make sure employment tribunals are fit for purpose, and issue much clearer guidelines on workwear – all coupled with an awareness campaign targeted at workers, employers and students. The actual outcome was some updated guidance on workwear, but not much more. As far as Thorp is concerned, “the petition certainly achieved everything I wanted it to – the government, however, did not.”
This is the crux of the issue; the committee can mean well and work efficiently and capture the attention of parts of the public who wouldn’t usually care about Parliament, but it often does not translate into real influence on policymaking.
Getting clearer guidelines on workwear certainly was a positive development, and so was convincing the government to allocate £40 million to brain tumour research funding, but these are relatively minor changes compared to the sheer scale of the operation.
An average of 250 petitions used to be created every week on the website; that number has now risen to 385. Of these, 300 end up being rejected by staff for being duplicates, offensive, irrelevant, or a combination of the three. Between September 2017 and June 2019, a total of 27,023 petitions got at least five signatures.
To deal with all of this, the committee has five full-time members of staff working as moderators, as well as a pool of 11 other people working on other committees who can temporarily join the team at especially busy times. This is a lot of resources, for mostly paltry results.It may well be that the committee is yet another victim of the vortex that is British politics right now. After all, in the four years since it was launched, Parliament has not had a second to stop and think. In quieter times, petitions and the work done around them may well get their due.
Maybe, though, the gap between the public and their politicians simply is too wide to bridge, and petitions do not have an impact because, fundamentally, the public’s interests are not those of Westminster.
Photography by Getty Images