David Cameron often speaks about openness in government, but a Downing Street innovation to encourage greater public
participation has been quietly shelved. Officially, the No 10 e-petitions website, launched by the previous government, is under review.
Senior Whitehall sources insist it will not return, however, partly because of the negative publicity it generated. Online petitions were used to embarrass Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Shortly after the site's debut, 1.6 million people signed a
petition demanding an end to road pricing, and nearly 100,000 used it to demand Brown's resignation in April last year. [Cameron's communications chief] Andy Coulson does not want to see a repeat of that, said a Whitehall insider.
A line on the No 10 website says e-petitions were suspended when the general election was called and hints they may return.
Martha Lane Fox, the government's digital tsar, is understood to have considered their future as part of a wider review of DirectGov, the website for all public services, commissioned by the Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude. But her report,
presented to Maude last month, made no recommendations on e-petitions, and civil servants are convinced the experiment is at an end after four years. [It's] been kicked into the long grass, the Whitehall source said.
A Cabinet Office spokesman has said that the government had already committed to pushing for a formal debate in Parliament for any petition that draws more than 100,000 signatures from the British public. The petition with the most
signatures would then be tabled as a Bill. Indeed, the proposal is laid out in the Coalition's recently published business plan for the next four years.
The government said it will present its petitions proposal to the House of Commons next month and, if Parliament approves, it will have a petitioning mechanism introduced in November 2011.
What's less clear is whether the 10 Downing Street e-petition website, which was largely ignored by the previous government, will be ditched in favour of bringing such a service under the roof of Directgov.
A government e-petition website has gone live, showing petitions that have been accepted for consideration for debate in the Commons.
The leader of the house, Sir George Young, has said petitions that garner more than 100,000 signatures should warrant consideration for debate.
Speaker John Bercow is supporting the move, privately complaining the current written petition system is little understood and appreciated. Once received, written petitions, he points out, are put in a plastic bag behind the Speaker's chair, a
fate he claims speaks volumes about the seriousness with which petitions are taken.
Bercow is understood to be flexible about how parliament should be seen to be responding to an e-petition garnering big support. He does not necessarily think every issue should be considered at a full-length debate, but might simply require a
minister to come to the house and answer a question on the issue.
It is widely expected that supporters of capital punishment, immigration controls, withdrawal from Europe and opposition to green taxes will initially dominate. An e-petition will only be allowed to stay on the website for a year, and duplicates
will not be allowed.
The system replaces a previous system set up by Tony Blair's aides on the Downing Street website, which was suspended before the 2010 general election. Then there was no requirement for Downing Street to do anything formal in response to an
Update: E-Petitions shunted into the sidings
Oops the out of touch government doesn't want to talk about what the people want to talk about.
David Cameron's pledge to allow the public to choose topics for parliamentary debates is being watered down following a series of political
embarrassments, Westminster sources have claimed.
Ministers have discussed increasing the number of online signatures needed before a petition is considered for a Commons debate from 100,000 to 150,000. Some debates generated by e-petitions have been moved away from the main chamber to the
lower-profile Westminster Hall where they are not put to a vote.
Critics claim that some of Cameron's biggest political problems have been exacerbated by e-petitions, which are open to the public on a government website. Last month, 81 Tory MPs defied a three-line whip to endorse a motion generated online that
called for a referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union. On Tuesday, a motion on fuel prices, sparked by another e-petition, forced the government to come to a compromise with Tory MPs to head off a rebellion.