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Tuesday 15th November 2011 | 17:40
By Isabel Hardman
The Government is considering watering down the power of public e-petitions after a series of embarrassments, PoliticsHome has learned.
Sources have indicated that ministers are discussing raising the threshold for the number of signatures that a petition needs before it is considered for a House of Commons debate from 100,000 to 150,000, and moving the location of the debate itself to Westminster Hall.
Number 10 has officially denied that any changes are afoot, but a source said the move would enable to Government to avoid regular rebellions from backbenchers on issues popular with their constituents. Last month 81 Tory MPs defied a three-line whip to endorse a motion calling for a referendum on Britain's membership of the EU, and a second rebellion on a motion on fuel prices is expected this evening.
A source close to ministers said: "They are considering different options, including changing the threshold and moving the debates to Westminster Hall."
The source added that ministers were wary of further rebellions or motions which would demand furious behind-the-scenes campaigning from the Whips.
Natascha Engel, chair of the Backbench Business Committee, which considers each petition that reaches the 100,000 threshold and allocates time for debates, said: "The Government has not thought through e-petitions at all. They can't raise the threshold: I think that would just send the signal to the public that politicians and Parliament can't be trusted when e-petitions were brought in to address that problem in the first place."
She added that she had been calling for debates triggered by e-petitions to go to Westminster Hall if there simply was not available time in the Commons, rather than for Westminster Hall to become a default location.
A Downing Street spokesperson said: "There are no current plans: 100,000 remains the qualifying threshold for a referral to the Backbench Business Committee."
A spokesman for Leader of the House Sir George Young also denied the claims. He said: "The position is that 100,000 signatures means you are eligible for a debate."
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