A substantive parliamentary public petition system: Advocating the introduction of e-Petition
Politics, political process and institutions are being increasingly alienated from the body politico - the people. People have trust, expectation and communication gap with their representative institutions and this is contributing to disengagement with and declining support for those institutions.
Parliament is not an exception to the trend. Scope for citizens' direct involvement in the policy process, from proposal via deliberation to ratification has been suggested as an alternative. However, this type of direct democracy reforms - referendum say, for example, may not be practicable in every day-to-day nitty gritty and complexity of modern-day governance. Instead, advocacy reforms like petitioning the parliament would influence the process rather than make the decisions outright.
Apart from addressing individual grievances in suitable cases, the petition system constitutes an important tool of parliament's vertical accountability to the electorate. A substantive public petition system has a 'strong agenda-setting potential' in political discourse. Like most of the parliaments in the world, Bangladesh Parliament also has a public petition system.
Currently, the Petition Committee deals with public petitions on "any bill or matter of importance under its consideration or any other matter of public importance" (Rule 100, Rules of Procedure). A paper-based petition so submitted must be countersigned by a Member of Parliament. The committee usually headed by the Speaker suggests remedial measure for consideration of the House.
Unfortunately, the system as established is not delivering the actual good it was intended to. MPs show little or no interest in the system. Public also are rarely aware of the opportunity and hence it is grossly underutilized. Petition Committee also has taken a lacklustre approach the matters referred to it. It rarely sits in a meeting. Striking at the root of the concept, the committees traditionally referred petitions to the ministers concerned rather than to the House.
There is no follow up process or time limit for responding to or acting on the petitions. Out of 248 petitions submitted to parliament between 1991 to July 2010, only 3 were accepted. All others were rejected, withdrawn or lapsed (Nizam Ahmed, Parliament and Citizens in Asia: The Bangladesh Case, 2012). Also, the petitions submitted so far in Bangladesh primarily concerned personal issues rather than legislative policy and public concerns. Unlike the major parliamentary systems of the world, we don't have any office of the Ombudsman in existence that could somehow recompense the fallbacks of this age-old petition system. Given the context, the introduction of an open-access e-Petition system is likely to produce some tangible outcome.
E-Petition marks a move away from the traditional adversarial approach of the Westminster. As a reflection of progress in modern e-governance, e-petitions seek to bolster citizen interaction with parliament. E-Petitioning would also avoid the side-lining of people in policy discourse by the technocrats, pollsters and experts. The e-Petition system has already been successfully implemented in the Scottish, Wales, German, Queensland, Tasmanian and British parliaments. The Scottish system, however, stands in marked contrast with others.
In 1998, operational rules of the new Scottish Parliament were shaped under the guiding principles of power-sharing, accountability, access, participation and equal opportunities. No age limit is required for an individual filing an e-petition. Petitions may be submitted by anyone, in any language and format. Only one signature is enough for an e-petition to be lodged with the parliament. Petitioners, however, cannot resubmit an e-petition on the same or "substantially similar" issue within a year after their petition was closed.
A nine-member committee of the Scottish Parliament deals with the petitions. A staff would assist the petitioners, give advice about the process and wording of the petition. The committee would first see whether parliament has the power to deal with issues covering the petition. For instance, the Scottish Parliament has no power over foreign affairs which belong to the UK House of Commons. The committee cannot rule out a petition on grounds that they find it not good or disagree with its contents. There is no uniform duration for an e-petition. While the petition committee is considering it, e-petition is kept open.
The committee communicates with the petitioner during the process and updates on the progress. In suitable cases, the committee invites the petitioners to provide evidence or argue on merits. Once a decision is reached, it stands closed and the petitioner is notified of the reasons. From 1999 to 2011, a total of 385 e-petitions were filed with the Scottish Parliament. While 12.7% of the issues were implemented, 84.9% of the matters were reviewed by the government, outside organizations and entered the political discourse.
Under the UK system of the e-petition, any citizen or resident may sign and lodge a petition. If a petition receives at 10,000 signatures, the government must respond to it. It will also be considered by the petitions committee for a debate on the floor of the house. After being launched in 2011, around 30 petitions were debated in Parliament for over four years. In 2014 the Procedure Committee of the UK House of Commons proposed to establish the new Petitions Committee that considers petitions for debate in the House and scrutinises the government's response.
While advocating the introduction of e-Petition, it must be noted that acceptance of outcome - positive or negative - of a petition, be it electronic or handwritten, would depend on the individuals' assessment of how 'fairly' they were treated. Therefore, it is important that the petitioners are given a say in the consideration phase.
It is also important that the government is required to respond to all petitions within a reasonable time. Interaction of the public with parliament (as in the case of Scotland) is no doubt important. But the system must also serve the reasonable expectation of petitioners to influence government policy. Not responding to petitions or addressing the matters raised within would undermine the very foundation of the system.
Also, in light of our inexperience with parliamentary interactions, lay petitions submitted must be given a touch of official feedback and support system. This would prevent rejections on mere formal and technical grounds. Again, there must be scope for the public to sign an accepted and published petition and input into its contents through online discussion pane. Side by side, it must be ensured that access to the internet has been recognised as part of peoples' right to information.
Without popularising the system, mere discussion among a few privileged internet users would not lead to the meaningful participation we are looking for.
M Jashim Ali Chowdhury is PhD Researcher (Parliament Studies), King's College London