Supporters hail new e-petitions website – but can they be trusted?

 

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Mob-rule.co.uk or a means to reinvigorate our representative democracy? The Government yesterday launched its new "e-petitions" website, where members of the public can submit their demands, and, if they can raise the support of 99,999 other like-minded individuals (or set up a lot of fake email accounts) see their point debated in the House of Commons.

The site, epetitions.direct.gov.uk, crashed repeatedly under the weight of traffic – although the rush to reinstate the death penalty was hampered when proponents could not agree on the exact wording of their plan.

Other early frontrunners included the legalisation of cannabis, the continued broadcast of Formula One on terrestrial television, the absolute right to self-defence within one's home, and an end to the ban on gay men giving blood.

Other petitions launched yesterday proposed policies such as restricting food for prisoners to just bread and water, the re-nationalisation of the railways, and for Britons to be forced to drive on the right-hand side of the road.

By yesterday afternoon, a counter-petition to retain the ban on capital punishment was the most popular on the site, with over 3,000 signatures.

The site will be monitored by civil servants in Whitehall, who will reject petitions deemed to be libellous, offensive, duplicates of existing open petitions or unrelated to government business.

Any petition signed by more than 100,000 British citizens goes to the cross-party Commons backbench business committee, which will decide whether it is worthy of debate. Sir George Young, Leader of the House of Commons, warned yesterday that this threshold may be raised if it was too easily reached.

The website is likely to be targeted by existing online lobbying communities such as Mumsnet – already credited with influencing government policy – and the online campaign group 38 Degrees, which managed to reverse the proposed sale of forests and helped to delay reforms of the NHS.

38 Degrees welcomed the new scheme, saying its campaigns could work alongside the new system. Hannah Lownsbrough, campaigns director, said: "Anything where politicians are increasing the number of ways they can talk to the people who are voting for them, our members see those things in a positive light."

Praising the new website, Sir George warned that ignoring strong opinions among the electorate damaged democracy, and that MPs could not "pretend that their views do not exist".

"There have been some who have been concerned by some of the subjects which could end up being debated – for example, the restoration of capital punishment. The last time this was debated – during the passage of the Human Rights Act in 1998 – restoration was rejected by 158 votes. But if lots of people want Parliament to do something which it rejects, then it is up to MPs to explain the reasons to their constituents. What else is Parliament for?"

The shadow Commons leader, Hilary Benn, also praised the scheme, but questioned whether Parliament would have the time to debate the petitions. "Anything that helps to put Parliament at the centre of national debate has to be a good thing," he said. "However, the Government is going to have make more time available in the House."

Voice of the people?

Leading e-petitions at 7pm yesterday:

* Petition to retain the ban on Capital Punishment (3,241 signatures)

* Keep Formula 1 Free To Air in the UK (1,501)

* Restore capital punishment (1,421)

* Legalise cannabis (577)

* Britain wants referendum to leave EU (564)

* Absolute right to self-defence within ones [sic] home (380)

* Return of Hanging for Serious Crimes (333)

* Decriminalise recreational drugs (270)

* Remove the ban on gay blood donation (233)

* Formula 1 and other sports events (221)

Hijacked: When internet results are not as they seem...

* Time magazine's "most influential person of the year" vote in 2009 was hijacked and a man named Christopher Poole as the popular choice for number one. Poole, aka moot, is the founder of 4chan, the website on which online activism group Anonymous was formed. Members of the site rigged so many of the placings, they were able to use the first five as an acrostic, spelling out a lewd message.

* Cristiano Ronaldo may have succeeded in getting Wayne Rooney sent off during the 2006 World Cup, but where did it get him? His country were knocked out in the next round and, after his winking antics were caught on camera, a concerted campaign fired up to vote for a rival player in Fifa's Young Player of the Tournament in protest at his perceived lack of fair play. Lukas Podolski was named the best young player, ahead of Ronaldo. That'll learn him.

* Angered at what they saw as Simon Cowell's domination of the charts around Christmas with his strategic release of middle-of-the-road pop, a couple started a Facebook group with the aim of getting "Killing in the Name" by Rage Against the Machine to the Christmas No 1 spot ahead of Cowell's man Joe McElderry. The song became a chart success 17 years after it was first released.

* On the previous incarnation of the Government's petition website, one of the most popular implorations was for then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown to resign, a request supported by upwards of 60,000 people. Mr Brown did go, eventually. But it is unclear what role the petition played, compared with losing a general election.

* Horse racing had never been able to boast that one of its own was the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year. That is, until all the forces of equine darkness were summoned to ensure that jockey Tony McCoy won last year's poll.

* Roland Bunce from Bangor, Northern Ireland is "perhaps not what might be considered classically handsome". But, even if that were true, Roland could console himself with the knowledge that he came close to becoming Next's Top Model 2011. His online fans voted in their thousands for him to win the competition this year. Roland, however, dropped out after he received threats.

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