Yesterday, Parliament dedicated three hours of its time to debate the notion that potential future President of the United States and professional shock merchant, Donald Trump, should be banned from entering the UK. The debate originated from a petition, signed by over half a million UK citizens, calling for the exclusion of the New York based businessman on the grounds of ‘hate speech’.
The debate has to rank as one of the more bizarre political spectacles of recent years. Not only did MPs not vote on the topic, Parliament itself does not have the power to ban Trump from the country, even if they were able to vote on it. That power resides exclusively with the Home Secretary, Theresa May, who is realistically not going to bar a potential future US President from the UK.
Quite apart from the procedural peculiarities, the whole topic of debate was questionable. Should the world’s oldest Parliamentary democracy really be debating whether to ban a man from the country because of his desire to block a group of people from his? As odious, ill informed, and downright stupid as Trump’s comments no doubt are, the solution must never be an outright ban.
In the end, the whole debate was little more than a political circus for the amusement of a generation of bored internet users who had decided to sign the petition; a bit of political light entertainment before returning to the drudgery of actual Parliamentary work.
What then was the point?
Parliamentary e-petitions are supposed to open up a new dialogue between Parliament and the electorate, ensuring a greater level of representation in an era of increasing disengagement. However, there are two major problems with the concept.
Firstly, it is not clear that the petition system delivers the level of engagement it purports to offer. The standard progression of a popular petition through Parliament begins with a vague or dismissive response from the Prime Minister’s Office, proceeds to a debate on the merits of a wider debate in the Petitions Committee, and ends with a Westminster Hall debate in which the only agreement reached is that ‘this House has considered an e-petition’. There is no guarantee, likelihood, or precedent for further action on the substance of the petition.
Secondly, as a mechanism designed to improve democratic participation, e-petitions do not reach the right people. The popularity of petitions is such that MPs are increasingly expected to take time out of representing their constituents to air the views of the much smaller demographic of people who routinely choose to sign petitions. This means that a disproportionate amount of Parliamentary time is dedicated to debating the issues of a group of people whose engagement with a topic goes no further than the time taken to sign a petition; giving voice to a generation of slacktivists who will already have moved on to the next hot-button issue by the time the petition is debated.
E-petitions do not hold the Government to account; it is too easy for the Government to point to a Westminster Hall debate and declare the matter closed, debated and considered by the country’s law makers. At best they provide an entertaining diversion as Parliament is asked to debate a range of bizarre and outlandish topics. At worst they institutionally embed Government inaction.