This week is UK Parliament Week, an annual festival engaging and empowering people to get involved with the UK Parliament.
Perhaps one of the easiest ways to share your voice, engage with Parliament and push for change is through launching or signing an e-petition. We spoke to Catherine McKinnell, chair of the Petitions Committee to discuss how people can get involved and the impact they could have through e-petitions.
Can you explain in brief how the committee works?
“The Petitions Committee is made up of a cross-party group of MPs, and considers a vast range of subjects raised through people starting e-petitions on the petition.parliament.uk website. We can schedule debates in Westminster Hall, hold inquiries and produce reports that press the Government for change.
“When Westminster Hall debates were temporarily suspended, my Committee remained determined to find innovative ways to ensure the concerns of petitioners could still be heard. We scrutinised the Government through correspondence, discussions with ministers, virtual debates, virtual evidence sessions and detailed inquiries. We also regularly engage petitioners and the wider public through online surveys, forums, social media, and in-person events when possible, to help us better understand how the issues raised by petitions affect people.
“I have been a Member of the Petitions Committee since 2016, and Chair since January this year. During my time working with the committee, I have worked to hold the Government to account on issues including protecting the public online, setting up specialist working groups on crucial health questions and improving guidance for employers on the 2010 Equality Act.”
What work is the Petitions Committee currently undertaking?
“This week, my committee is holding a joint evidence session with the Women and Equalities Committee and Members of the Education Committee on Black history and cultural diversity in the curriculum. This follows petitions calling for greater diversity in the National Curriculum have seen more than 390,000 signatures. This joint work allows the Committee to delve deeper into this important issue, which cuts across several different policy areas.
“Athough the Government’s response to one of these petitions states that the curriculum provides teachers with ‘opportunities…to teach about Britain’s role in colonisation and the transatlantic slave trade’, many petitioners feel this does not go far enough in ensuring that students experience a fully diverse education all year round.
“We will hear from the people who started the petitions, as well as experts from academia and organisations such as the Black Curriculum. As the Black Lives Matter movement has highlighted, it is more important than ever that we ensure our curriculum is diverse and reflects the society we live in.”
Why do you feel it is so important for everyone to engage with Parliament?
“Engaging with Parliament is such an important way for people to make their voices heard. As Chair of the Petitions Committee, I have seen the difference people can make when they engage directly with Parliament through petitions. Campaigning on issues that matter most to us is a fundamental part of our democracy, and starting or signing a petition is an important way that people can make change happen.
“A 2019 Hansard Society report highlighted that, after voting in elections and contacting elected representatives, petitioning is the next most popular form of democratic action, which underpins the immense responsibility that comes with chairing this committee.
“More than 25 million people have started or signed petitions on our website over the last five years. It is inspiring to see so many people getting involved and using their democratic right to engage with Parliament. We take our responsibility to give a voice to those fighting to be heard incredibly seriously, and the pandemic has made our role as a committee more important than ever.”
Why should young people engage with e-petitions and what impact have they had before?
“Young people have a unique perspective on a whole range of issues and we have seen some great petitions in recent years that have been started by young people. During the current coronavirus pandemic, for example, we had four e-petitions on university tuition fees, which surpassed the 100,000 signatures mark, receiving more than 800,000 signatures combined.
“These petitions helped highlight the huge disruption students have faced in the last few months, as well as the challenges universities now face. As a result of these petitions, in July my Committee produced a report which called on the Government to increase support for universities and students during the pandemic.
“In 2019, an A-level student started a petition calling for school to start at 10am as teenagers are too tired, which received more than 180,000 signatures. The debate we scheduled generated huge press interest, and raised public awareness of the differing biological factors which affect teenagers’ sleep and how such a change could benefit them.”
What is the most interesting petition your committee has ever considered?
“It’s hard to choose just one. We have seen petitions started on a huge range of issues, including funding for research into brain tumours, the sale of fireworks, workplace dress codes, pet theft, online abuse and many more.
“The pandemic is constantly bringing new issues to light. Earlier this year, a petition to extend maternity leave by 3 months with pay in light of COVID-19 received more than 238,000 signatures. Through our inquiry into the Government’s response to coronavirus, our committee saw unprecedented levels of engagement on maternal mental health, childcare and parental leave, with over 69,000 people sharing their views and concerns with us through evidence sessions, social media and surveys. Our landmark report on this issue highlighted the significant impact the pandemic was having on families and the additional challenges it was presenting, with many new parents telling us they felt like they were anomalies and like their circumstances had been missed by the Government during the crisis.”
So, petitions are often an effective and easy way to make your voice heard, push for change and make a real difference. Just in the coming weeks, petitions are being debated relating to spectator attendance at football matches, support for live events and weddings during COVID-19 and petitions related to the NHS and trade deals, university tuition fees and more.
If you’d like to get involved, you can start, search for or sign a petition by visiting petition.parliament.uk