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Online petition plans to go ahead

Moves to give the public a say on what new laws are debated in Parliament would put power in the hands of "the obsessed and the fanatical", a Labour MP said today.

The Government is pressing ahead with plans to allow petitions attracting significant voter support to be debated in Parliament - with those attracting the most signatures even translated into Bills.

Details of the system - which was among promises set out in the Tory/Lib Dem coalition agreement in May - are yet to be set out or agreed with Commons business chiefs including Speaker John Bercow.

But it is expected that the new backbench business committee will be asked to co-ordinate the timetabling of debates on public-inspired demands for action submitted via the DirectGov website.

It could also be asked to help find backbench MPs willing to lead the cause of any legislation drafted on the basis of the most popular cause.

The guarantee of a formal debate for any petition securing 100,000 or more signatures and the chance of seeing a proposal put into law was among ideas suggested by David Cameron while in opposition to improve voter engagement in the wake of the expenses scandal.

It was strongly criticised however by Paul Flynn, a Labour member of the Commons public administration committee.

"This seems to be an attractive idea to those who haven't seen how useless this has been in other parts of the world when it's tried. If you ask people the question 'do you want to pay less tax?', they vote yes," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"If we get the e-petitions in there will be some asking for Jeremy Clarkson to be prime minister, for Jedi and Darth Vader to be the religions of the country.

"The blogosphere is not an area that is open to sensible debate; it is dominated by the obsessed and the fanatical and we will get crazy ideas coming forward."

Ministers are examining how to ensure support is not artificially boosted by repeat votes and how best to incorporate social networking sites and other websites in the process.

The last government's e-petition system on the Downing Street website was suspended when the coalition came to power pending discussions on more effective ways to reflect the public mood.

Several causes garnered massive support on the site - such as opposition to road tolls, which attracted 1.8 million signatures.

A call for Gordon Brown to resign as prime minister was backed by around 70,000 - with almost as many backing his replacement by Top Gear host Clarkson.