Catherine McKinnell MP: We must build trust between the public and Parliament
As newly elected chair of the Petitions Committee I will work hard to give a voice to those fighting to be heard, writes Catherine McKinnell MP
The United Kingdom has been shaped by those fighting for what they believe in. Campaigning on issues that are important to us is a vital democratic right.
For hundreds of years, petitions have had the power to connect people with Parliament, raise awareness of important issues, and help bring about real change to people and communities around the country.
That is why I am delighted to be taking the Petitions Committee forward into a new decade and a new chapter.
I am only the second ever chair of the Petitions Committee, established in 2015 to consider and take action on petitions created on the website run by Parliament.
I have been a member of the committee since 2016 and, from holding the Government to account on protecting the public online, to setting up specialist working groups to tackle brain tumours and improving guidance for employers on the 2010 Equality Act, I have seen the difference petitioners can make.
When petitioning Parliament, people are asking for change. They want to have their voices heard, and the Petitions Committee has worked hard to ensure that happens.
The committee has now been re-established following the general election and petition.parliament.uk is open for new petitions. More than 23 million people have started or signed petitions on the site since it launched in 2015 and it has been inspiring to see so many people getting involved and actively engaging with Parliament and democracy.
Our committee takes its responsibility to give a voice to those fighting to be heard incredibly seriously, especially on issues that may not be considered mainstream or high profile.
Many people in Westminster are surprised to learn petitions debates are some of the most popular pieces of Parliamentary business with which the public engages, regularly receiving 10 times the viewers or readers of prime minister’s questions.
A 2019 Hansard Society report highlighted that, after voting in elections and contacting elected representatives, petitioning is the next most popular form of democratic action, which underpins the immense responsibility that comes with chairing this committee.
While scheduling and leading debates on petitions and securing responses from government make up much of the committee’s work, we can also, where appropriate, hold inquiries.
Since 2015, the Petitions Committee has looked at subjects including online abuse and experiences of disabled people, funding for research into brain tumours, the availability of the meningitis B vaccine, the sale of fireworks, and workplace dress codes – issues that may otherwise never have quite reached Parliament’s agenda.
Our inquiries hear from people across the country – charities, campaigners, social media organisations and many others – to produce reports that press the government for change.
A petition on funding for research into brain tumours in 2016 helped improve the status of brain tumour research in the Department of Health and made a significant contribution to the Government’s decision to allocate £65m in extra funding.
A petition against being made to wear high heels in the workplace led to an inquiry into workplace dress codes, and resulted in the Government issuing new guidance on workplace dress codes, and the Equality and Human Rights Commission to run a campaign aimed at young women to promote awareness of the rights and the law.
Since 2015 the Petitions Committee has helped tens of millions of people engage directly with Parliament and government and I am looking forward to building on that work as the newly elected chair.
At a time when many people can feel disconnected from the decision-making process, the work of the Petitions Committee is crucial to building trust between the public and Parliament, which is needed now more than ever.
Catherine McKinnell is Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne North and chair of the Petitions Committee