Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Are Petitions an effective Democratic Tool?

This is another post on how we engage with our elected representatives – this time it’s petitions.

We were supposed to be getting an e-petition facility on Redbridge-i but that seems to have been kicked into the long grass. Frankly, I’m not fussed. Why? Because petitions are so open to abuse I’m not sure if politicians actually take any notice of them, even if they say they do as at the end of this report in the local Guardian which reviews some of the petitions submitted to Redbridge Council recently.

Quite often there will be two petitions, one for and one against whatever proposal or problem it is. And here’s the thing – often it is the SAME signatures on both. How does this happen? Well, people don’t actually read what is written on the petition sheet and listen to what the petitioner says in his/her request to sign it. Sometimes the “petitioner” can be so overbearing people will sign just to get rid of them off their doorstep. Typical patter will be “If this goes through it is the thin end of the wedge and we can expect (insert appropriate scare story)”. Even with no pressure tactics (if someone is doing a petition one can expect them to be passionate about it) this still happens. You just have to look at some of the e-petitions where comments by the signatories are allowed. People “sign it” and then put in a comment contrary to the petition’s objective. And then people can cheat by signing with several different names with different email addresses.

But are they effective? Well, we know when they are not and from my experience that seems to be most of them. Like, for example, the petition for a replacement swimming pool. Quite often a petition will be asking for something that simply can’t be done (at present), or something over which councillors have no control. Planning decisions are a case in point here, where on the face of it councillors make the decisions, but in reality they are constrained by Planning Law. But do we know when a petition is effective? No, we don’t. We have no way of knowing if the outcome would have been the same if the petition had not taken place. It is not a direct cause and effect relationship – there are a whole bunch of other factors at play.

And here we come to an earlier comment from the ‘Portly One’ – he reverses the question and says that councillors should engage with us. Now, councillors are, for the most part, also local residents. They pay the same Council tax as we do and use the same services we do, or not if they’ve been surgically removed from the council’s dwindling budget. In my view any councillor worth their allowance will know what’s going down on their patch. They read the local papers, they read the local blogs, they will get out and about and talk to people. They will attend the local Police Ward Panels, Barkingside 21 meetings, and gatherings of other local community/faith groups. And they will have surgeries. I don’t know all 63 of them but most I know are pretty good at keeping their ear to the ground and their finger on the pulse (you can tell by the way they walk). Members of Parliament, particularly if they are not local, are another matter.

The reason I attended that first Area 3 meeting, mentioned in an earlier post, was because I had helped an adjacent neighbourhood watch do a petition. We were advised to do the petition by a Councillor who attended the NHW meeting where the problem was raised, but unfortunately we didn’t know the rules for speaking at council meetings at that time. So somebody else got up and spoke against the petition, saying he had done a survey and had found no evidence that there was a problem. He didn’t know, of course, that a few weeks earlier one of those councillors had been in a room full of people complaining about that very problem - so his intervention fell on deaf ears.

Since then, the council and councillors have, in my humble opinion opened up somewhat. They now seem far more relaxed and flexible with public participation at council meetings, even Cabinet, but of course Full Council is still very formal as it should be. I can’t speak for all of them and it will depend on the Chair (or Chairman as some of them like to be called). When a large number of people turn up with angry faces, as they did over the Downshall Centre at Cabinet, and Jacques Hall at Area Committee 3 you know there is a problem – you don’t need a petition to figure that out.



  1. Barkingside 21 talks in riddles but I am pretty sure I can guess what it is all about.
    I started attending Area meetings when I became very worried by the Allotment Strategy and I will forever owe a debt to many Councillors of all parties who were so helpful.
    However, at some meetings I was puzzled that people can gain respect simply by describing themselves as Dr, which seems to command some kind of instant respect. (Strangely enough I can think of two examples at least, one male member of the public who goes on and on and one female, no, not that cllr !)

  2. e-petitions are here:



    1. And here is a list of the active and completed e-petitions ...Click!

      As you can see it a nice round figure - Zero

      Could this be because nobody knows the facility exists? When and where has it been publicised?

    2. Heaven forbid that anybody should be encouraged to use it!

    3. Going back some 14 years when I was involved in organising a petition I was warned by a councillor not to present a 'Stop & sign' petition, They were accepted in the front door and straight out the back. Being an easy to way to amass many
      signatures, most not even bothering to ask for details, they were regarded as not representing a balanced public opinion. I think e-petitions would carry the same importance. Also a cabinet member, at the time, said that just one letter recieved by a councillor was equall to 70-100 similar concerns from the public and should not only require an answer but would help enormously in assessing a more balanced opinion. Their advice worked.
      Ron King.