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From capital punishment to feline Facebook: 10 years of parliamentary petitions
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From capital punishment to feline Facebook: 10 years of parliamentary petitions

Thursday 23 September 2021

The e-petition site set up by the coalition government is ten years old. To mark the occasion, we’ve sifted through its earliest, biggest and strangest petitions to discover… does it make a difference?

Let’s go back, just for a moment, to 4 August 2011. David Cameron was Britain’s prime minister and, alongside his Lib Dem deputy Nick Clegg, he was at the head of the UK’s first coalition government since the Second World War. It was a government that did many big things – not least implement a post-crash programme of austerity cuts – but on that particular date it had made a small but quite significant change: it introduced the parliamentary e-petitions website.

Brought in as a successor to a previous e-petitions site launched by the Blair government in 2006 (which had proved a hit – almost 3,000 petitions were set up in the initial six months), its stated aim was to make parliament “more accessible and transparent”. The key difference between the two was that if petitions introduced on the later site reached 100,000 signatures within six months, they would be considered for a debate in parliament by the petitions committee.

So, to mark a decade of its current incarnation, we decided to take a look at the parliamentary e-petitions site. What causes have the British public been passionate enough to get behind? Which ones warranted a parliamentary debate? And, most importantly, did parliament actually do anything about any of them?

The first petitions

Here are few of the causes the British people saw as the top priorities to raise on day one of the new site:

Restore Capital Punishment

Date opened: 4 August 2011

Number of signatures: 26,351

Status: Closed without debate

The site’s first day saw several petitions calling for the death penalty to be reinstated, but this one was the most popular, urging parliament to “review all treaties and international commitments which may inhibit the ability of parliament to restore capital punishment”. Of all the initial petitions, this received the most media attention – and a lot of support from MPs, including the current home secretary, Priti Patel.

Make Prison Mean Prison – Bread and Water that’s it

Date opened: 4 August 2011

Number of signatures: 988

Status: Closed without debate

A petition that really does what is says on the tin, it echoes the tough-on-crime sentiment that’s present in the capital punishment petition, though without as detailed plan for how to get there.

Unfortunately for this petitioner, this particular cause would be stymied by the UK’s membership of the European Convention on Human Rights, not to mention the scurvy and possible organ failure prisoners would experience were such a minimalist diet to be implemented.

Legalise cannabis

Date opened: 4 August 2011

Number of signatures: 28,507 

Status: Closed without debate

It wasn’t all harsher punishments: a petition to legalise cannabis was also set up in the early days of the site. But while it failed to reach the threshold required for a debate, the fight was not over, with parliament forced to debate another similar petition in 2015 after it received nearly 237,000 signatures. In the end, though, the government rejected the idea.

The weird ones

At time of writing, the total number of petitions stands at 32,248. Among them are some that are, however you spin it, just downright strange…

Prohibit the possession of dangerous media

Date opened: 24 August 2011

Number of signatures:

“In recent years our country has been plagued by satanic media that has been hypnotising our children and is making them do things that they wouldn’t normally do.

We feel that the Government should prohibit the possession and distribution of dangerous music such as that produced by Justin Bieber and Rebecca Black as well as the movies and books known as “Twilight” written by Stephenie Meyer”

Change the number of gears on the £2 coin such that they can feasibly rotate

Opened: 15 June 2012

Number of signatures: 34

“The current design of the £2 coin contains 19 gears in a connected ring surrounding the centrepiece that if actually built could not feasibly rotate. We petition the the mint to correct this mistake as it reflects poorly on the industrial prowess of the nation.”

save olly cats facebook account

Date opened: 7 September 2013

Number of signatures: Rejected before it could gather any signatures

“Facebook are closing accounts that are opened by a third party ie human on behalf of an animal friend, as you may know or even heard off our friend Olly Cat she lived at Manchester airport for many years outside Olympic House she even had a plane named after her after winning a facebook competion,she was retired from the airport around two years ago but has kept in touch with all her friends world wide and at the airport though fb but this is to be closed what harm is this account doing to anyone plesse sign if you know Olly Cat she needs our help”

The big ones

There have been some genuinely big hitters in the site’s history, with five actually achieving over a million signatures. But while these obviously show that petitions can be a good way of demonstrating support for a cause, they also reveal the system’s limitations.

The two most popular ever, for instance, were to do with Brexit: one directly after the 2016 referendum demanding a rerun of the vote on the basis of insufficient turnout, the other demanding the revocation of Article 50, when the deadline for a deal loomed in February 2019. Both were debated by parliament in the months following; both were rejected by the government.

When news broke in August 2019 of the government’s intentions to prorogue parliament, a petition demanding that not happening surpassed a million signatures on the same day. The petition was debated by parliament on 9 September; the very next day MPs cried “shame” as parliament was prorogued. 

One that slightly bucks the trend is Marcus Rashford’s petition to “End child food poverty”. While the government swiftly batted away the England forward’s demands, the 100,000 threshold was reached after just ten hours, rising to a million ten days later. Despite the government initially voting against Labour’s motion to extend free school meal vouchers until Easter 2021, they eventually caved and extended the vouchers into 2021’s Easter, summer and Christmas holidays.

Did it work?

Was Rashford’s petition a one-off? While the government indeed acquiesced to its main demands, the other – to “expand free school meals to all under-16s where a parent or guardian is in receipt of universal credit or equivalent benefit” – has still not been met. And this was just one part of a wider campaign Rashford waged, utilising his platform as a premier league footballer – hardly an example of the website handing the public the “megaphone” the government originally said it would. 

Defining a petition as “successful” is a pretty murky business. If success depends on a petition being made into law, the legislative outcome often differs greatly from the petitions’ original specific stated aims. One petition, for instance, asked for “police dogs and horses be given protection that reflects their status if assaulted in the line of duty”. After being debated by parliament, an appropriate amendment to the Animal Welfare Act 2006 was passed in 2019. But while the legislation prevents those who attack serving animals from claiming self-defence, it doesn’t give police dogs and horses equal standing to police officers, as the petition originally demanded. 

It’s actually almost impossible to quantify the number of petitions that have been successful on the basis of them being made into law. But if success is measured just by whether a petition makes it to a parliamentary debate, well that number is staggeringly small.

But it’s clear from the sheer number of petitions, ranging from ending child food poverty to forcing bells on cats, that the public do think the site matters, and see it as a viable means of making their voices heard – and if they’re loud enough, to actually generate action. Now where’s the petition for more tortoises in public life?