Petitions, Perceptions, and Practicalities

During the past couple of weeks,  petitions in Europe and the UK relating to law and religion have reached important milestones, and the following discussion examines the growing trends towards their use, and the reliance in their findings.

European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI)

Pro-life supporters marked an important milestone with the announcement

“On September 17th, the General Assembly of the European Citizens Initiative One of Us, with the presence of the members from the different National Committees, has presented at the European Parliament the current situation of the Initiative One of Us: 1. More than one million signatures had been collected by the Organizers; 2.- Eleven countries have surpassed the minimum number of signatures required by the Commission.”

The significance of this grandly worded statement lies in the achievement of the One of Us Campaign [1] in meeting the criteria for the European Citizens Initiative, i.e. the collection of more than one million signatures which in at least 5 Member States must exceed the minimum number in Annex I of Regulation (EU) 211/2011The procedurally important components of the ECI will not commence until 1 November 2013, after which the European Commission has three months to respond with a Communication adopted by the College of Commissioners, following a meeting with the organisers and a public hearing in the European Parliament.

European Voice notes the strategic importance of the timing of this Communication: “before 1 February, just as campaigning for the European Parliament gets serious before the elections on 22-25 May”. It continues

“The initiative puts the Commission in a difficult spot. By instinct, it is likely not to want to act on the initiative. It has the freedom, under the ECI rules, to refuse to do so, (although it has to explain why). Responding with a legislative proposal might be seen as undermining its own assertion, in answer to MEPs’ questions on the topic, that it has acted fully within its legal and political mandate in funding the development organisations”.

Nevertheless, as one of the first two Initiatives [2], the organizers are to be commended in securing the necessary pan-European coordination and exceeding the ETI signature criteria in a number of large Member States, though not in the UK and Ireland where  the thresholds are 54,000 and 9,000 respectively.

e-petitions in the UK

On 24 September, the BBC reported “Richard III parliamentary petition misses target”, the story referring to the fact that the e-petition “Richard III to be re-interred at York Minsterhas closed after the allocated time of one year and securing 31,333 signatures – i.e. substantially short of the 100,000 required to trigger a debate in Parliament [3].  As we have noted earlier, it is difficult to assess such e-petitions objectively, either absolutely or relatively, and reliance on these can be misleading.  In Plantagenet Alliance Ltd, R (o a o) v Secretary of State for Justice & Anor [2013] EWHC B13 (Admin) the judge noted [para.30] that

“public interest is particularly strong in the two main geographical areas which assert historical claims to where Richard III should be reburied. 26,553 people have signed a petition that the remains of Richard III should be re-interred at York Minister. 8,115 people have signed a petition that the remains of Richard III should be re-interred at Leicester.”

This supported his earlier assertion that “there can be little doubt as that the matter has given to a great deal of strong public feeling”, as expressly acknowledged by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Helen Wright MP), in a letter to the MP for Richmond, Yorkshire (the Rt Hon. William Hague MP) dated 22nd March 2013.  Implicit in this statement are the assumptions that: i] e-petitions are  per se  a good reflection of “public interest”; ii] the figures quoted represent “strong” public interest. Some might suggest that the figures also indicate that there was greater public interest for a York interment, but this was not the point at issue, i.e. whether the MoJ should have consulted the Claimant and others.

In addition to the 100,000 signature threshold, once an e-petition exceeds 10,000 signatures, a response from the relevant government department will be added, although in contentious areas (such as for both of the York vs Leicester petitions) this is absent.

Comment

Although e-petitions and the ECI are relatively recent developments [4], the practice of petitioning the Westminster Parliament is long-established, dating from the reign of Richard II.  Parliament makes a distinction between lobbying and petitioning on the basis of the generality of the request and the channel through which it is pursued [5].  However, both are designed to persuade legislators and regulators of the value of a particular course of action, or to bring a particular issue into the public domain, and as such it is pertinent to consider them together and question what reliance may be put upon the number of signatures received.

At the upper limit, both rely upon similar population–based criteria – the e-petitions threshold being 0.16% of the UK population, and the ECI figure just under 0.2% of EU 27 – and some significance should be placed upon the achievement of these criteria, although in neither case is further action guaranteed. It could be argued that most petitions owe much of their success to the skills of those promoting and organizing them rather.  Apart from bloggers and journalists who are short of copy, it is difficult to imagine who might actively log on to http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/ or to  http://ec.europa.eu/citizens-initiative/public/initiatives/ongoing. although whilst the latter currently lists a mere 17 open initiatives, the UK e-petitions comprise a total of 295 pages each containing 20 petitions. The “One of Us” Campaign was underpinned by the beliefs of Roman Catholics and others on abortion, and benefitted from the pan-European support of a number of pro-life groups and endorsement by Pope Francis.

At the lower end of the signatures spectrum, a poor response could be taken to indicate a lack of interest in the initiative/petition, such as Recycling of graves which closes tomorrow after one year having attracted only 3 signatures, presumably the promoter and two others. However, between these two extremes, care must be taken in the interpretation of results, particularly before the completion of the time allowed, and in the comparison of initiatives addressing an apparently similar issue.

With regard to the former, Plantagenet Alliance Ltd, R (o a o) v Secretary of State for Justice & Anor demonstrated that the importance of the time factor.  Whilst the court was informed of the 26,553 to 8,115 ratio of York to Leicester signatures, [para.30], subsequent figures present a different picture: the “York e-petition” closed at 31,333 signatures, and the “Leicester e-petition”, which is due to close on 12 October, is now [6] at 29,774 signatures.

There is clearly scope for further study on the relevance of measures such as these that are designed to give a degree of public involvement in the development of legislation. Critical factors include: the relative ease in establishing and subscribing to an initiative/petition; and whether the objectives of the originators extend beyond increasing exposure of their particular issue.


[1] The Campaign’s Press Release states:  “. . . . based on the definition of the human embryo as the beginning of the development of the human being, which was given in a recent ECJ judgment (Brüstle v Greenpeace), “One of Us” asks the EU to end the financing of activities which presuppose the destruction of human embryos, in particular in the areas of research, development aid and public health”, and was discussed in our post “Human Embryos, the beginning of life, and EU Citizens”.

[2] The other being “Water and sanitation are a human right! Water is a public good, not a commodity! launched by public-service unions to block the privatisation of utilities in Member States and to shield these utilities from the EU’s internal-market rules. Signature collection has now closed, with a total of 1,857,605 signatures recorded.

[3] Although a  Westminster Hall debate took place on 12 March 2013, such debates are to give “more time for individual MPs to raise issues of importance to them with a series of Private Members’ adjournment debates”, and not the same as a full-dress debate in the Chamber in Government or Opposition time.

[4] D N Pocklington, “Petitions and e-petitions”, [2011] 23 ELM (2) 321.

[5] “ . . . the public lobby their MP or a Lord directly but petition either the House of Commons or House of Lords as a whole. Lobbying is an attempt to influence the opinions of MPs and Lords on specific subjects. Petitioning is making a request to the House of Commons [or rarely the House of Lords] to take action on a specific issue, which is presented to the House by an MP, often on behalf of their constituents.”

[6] i.e. at the time of writing, 2 October 2013, 12.24.

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