Why is this Government so afraid of the scrutiny of the British people?
Petitions Committee chair Catherine McKinnell says peititons signed by more than five million people are yet to be scheduled for debate
There are currently 25 petitions waiting to be debated in the House of Commons, with a combined total of more than five million signatures. If the government truly believes in the importance of scrutiny, they will not continue to deny the British people the right to have their voices heard
The Government has ended the hybrid Parliament and called on MPs to return to Westminster from next week. For better or worse, this now means MPs will resume debating in person in the House of Commons while following social distancing rules. But this is only a half measure. When the Leader of the House Jacob Rees-Mogg announced the business for the first week back, many people across the country noticed he failed to include any petitions debates.
So, I ask, why is this Government so afraid of the scrutiny of the British people?
The UK Parliament petitions system is the most popular Parliamentary initiative of its kind in the world. Amid the Coronavirus crisis, our expert Petitions Committee staff are receiving more than a thousand petitions a week. The popularity of the process is very simple; petitions connect people with Parliament, they have the power to set the agenda, but more importantly than all of this, petitions really can make a difference. For instance, campaigners have used petitions to push for access to life extending drugs for cystic fibrosis on our NHS, which in time led to the government and drug companies finding a workable deal.
Only petitions submitted on our petition.parliament.uk website are automatically entitled to receive a direct Government response once they receive 10,000 signatures. And once they receive 100,000 signatures, they will be considered by the Petitions Committee for debate in the House of Commons.
There are currently 25 petitions waiting to be scheduled by the Petitions Committee for debate, with a combined total of more than 5.29 million signatures. That is more than five million voices not being heard by the Government. More than five million signatures calling for action on issues my Committee wants to raise and debate – but the Government is blocking us.
We live in a society where people expect to be able to petition their elected representatives and Government directly, and it is in these times of national crisis that we need that spirit – and determination – of the British people to hold this Government to account and raise awareness of issues that may otherwise go under the radar.
There arr more than five million signatures calling for action on issues my Committee wants to raise and debate – but the Government is blocking us
In his speech to the House on 13th May, Jacob Rees-Mogg said: “I want us all to be first rate—to get back to being a proper Parliament because democracy is essential. What we do is essential. Holding the Government to account is essential”. If Mr Rees-Mogg really believes this, he will not deny British citizens and UK residents their right to have their concerns debated in Parliament.
We are in unprecedented times, and my Committee has worked hard to put the issues raised by petitions to the Government, in the absence of being able to hold debates. From scrutinising the Government through virtual evidence sessions to extensive correspondence and online engagement with petitioners.
While these innovations have allowed the Petitions Committee to continue the most essential scrutiny, we are missing an essential tool from our toolbox, the ability to question a Government Minister in person every week and hold their feet to the fire in a debate in the House of Commons.
My Committee will continue its scrutiny of the Government through any means necessary, and until we can hold debates, we will continue to organise virtual evidence sessions on the vital concerns of our petitioners.
Later this month, we will be questioning Government Ministers in sessions on issues including maternity leave and student fees. But it is time for this Government to re-evaluate its priorities as the House returns.
If the Leader of the House truly believes in “proper democratic scrutiny” then he will seriously consider my request urging the Government to end the suspension of petitions debates. No more half measures, it’s time for the Government to start listening to the voices of five million petitioners.
Catherine McKinnell MP is Chair of the House of Commons Petitions Committee