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Thursday, December 27, 2007

Participative democracy

The Welsh Assembly is about to launch its own e-petition site with a direct feed into the petitions sub-committee, so I am quite interested in this initiative by Hazel Blears for English Councils to have a legal duty to respond to a petition signed by 250 voters or 1% of the electorate.

Many Councils already have mechanisms in which petitioners can directly address Councillors and get a formal response to their request. That was largely pioneered by Liberal Democrat-run Councils many years ago but there are honourable exceptions in which Labour and even Conservative run authorities have sought to take petitions seriously.

What is being proposed by the Communities and Local Government Minister will have little impact on how these councils operate because they are already at the place she wishes to take them. Petitions can of course be taken up by scrutiny committees now and full-scale investigations launched into their subject matter.

Community activism and participative democracy form part of the liberal consensus that is developing in the UK but its success is varied depending on where one is based. Personally, I think that this is an interesting initiative by a Labour Government obsessed with control freakery. It will be fascinating to see how their Labour colleagues in local government handle it.

Because the Assembly e-petition site links into an already established process for dealing with petitions then it will clear to all those using it what has happened their petition. There is a mechanism for tracking its progress and for reporting back to those submitting it. If only that were true of the 10 Downing Street petition site.

The Guardian tells us that the Downing Street e-petition site has seen millions signing 22,000 different petitions demanding action by central government. The bulk of these petitions are expressions of popular opinion since, unlike the local community call for action proposed by Blears, there is no requirement for government action in response.

Surely the challenge for Labour is to provide the same rights to people petitioning Downing Street as those petitioning their local Council. Otherwise a potentially useful exercise in empowerment will become another cynical exercise in hypocrisy. How about it Hazel?
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