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Wednesday, 7 September 2011

E-Petitions Hit Parliamentary Snag

David Cameron's high-profile pledge to allow people to e-petition Parliament hit a hitch last night. A plan to stage the first debate to be triggered by a subject attracting at least 100,000 signatures was abandoned because of "problems" with the new system.

Fail: The highly-anticipated e-petition website crashed within hours of going live.

The delay was revealed by the backbench business committee, which controls the relevant part of the House of Commons timetable. Natascha Engel, the committee's Labour chairwoman, declined to explain in details what the problems were. The MP did protest that the committee had not been fully consulted about the operation of the new system, which had raised "quite a few problems".

In the interim, subjects will be considered for debate only if they are raised with the committee by an MP - the standard process before the introduction of the e-petition system.

Engel told the committee's weekly meeting: "Everyone really supports the idea of e-petitions and public engagement, but I think there are quite a few problems that have risen their heads. All of us really want, in the long-term, to make sure e-petitions work, but that they work properly."

The government has pledged that any issue reaching the 100,000-signature threshold on the e-petitions website will be considered for discussion by MPs in Parliament.

The prime minister said the idea was part plans for "fixing broken politics", saying: "It will allow members of the public to table a bill that could end up being debated and voted on by MPs."

Two petitions have reached the 100,000 landmark so far, the first a call for people convicted of involvement in recent inner-city riots to be stripped of state benefits the second a demand for all official papers relating to the 1989 Hillsborough disaster, in which 96 Liverpool football fans were killed, to be released.

The hold-up means neither petition can be debated until October at the earliest, after the Commons resumes sittings following the party conferences.

Even then, only one slot will be available each month - triggering warnings that the government has raised expectations that cannot be met.

However, supporters of the Hillsborough petition pledged to press ahead with asking the backbench committee to back a debate, at its meeting next Tuesday. Andy Burnham, the Liverpool-born Labour former Cabinet minister, said: "We'll put strong case for debate at earliest opportunity."

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