In the second part of our Insights on petitions, we look at the more modern process of e-petitions.

Going online

Set up in 2015 as a joint House of Commons and Government system overseen by the Petitions Committee, the e-petitions website allows the public to start petitions online.

There are standards for e-petitions which must be met before they go live on the website. These are set out on the petitions website.

As of the 2019 General Election, there had been nearly 23 million unique validated signatures since the formation of the e-petitions site in 2015. This is equivalent to almost 35% of the UK.

Numbers needed

An e-petition requires a Government response from the relevant department if it reaches 10,000 signatures. If an e-petition reaches the threshold of 100,000 signatures, the Petitions Committee can recommend it for a Westminster Hall debate. The committee’s decision will depend on various factors, such as whether the same subject has been recently debated.

Similarly, an e-petition that has not reached 100,000 signatures may also be considered for a debate if the Petitions Committee see fit. Sometimes, petitions on similar subject areas are grouped together when assessing their suitability for debate. A petition reaching 100,000 signatures does not necessarily guarantee a debate.

Highest signature count in 2017-19
The most signed petition during the 2017-19 Parliament was: “Revoke Article 50 and remain in the EU.” It was signed by over 6.1 million people.

E-petitions in the 2017-19 Session

E-Petitions in 2017-19 Parliament Count
Total number of unique users of the e-Petitions website 16,166,387
Total number of petitions submitted 33,181
e-Petitions rejected 25,027
e-Petitions successfully opened 8,154
e-Petitions which received a Government response 456
e-Petitions debated in Westminster Hall 74

Source: Petitions Committee correspondence
Notes: Unique users measure how many different people signed an e-petition website regardless of the number of petitions they signed during the Parliament. It is possible for one email address to have two signatures in order to allow for couples who share an email address but these make up a small proportion of the unique users data.

Nine of the ten most read debates on Hansard in 2019 were on subjects petitions had been submitted on. Between them, they were read over 535,000 times.

During the 2017-19 Parliament, the Petitions Committee conducted two inquiries following the receipt of petitions: online abuse and the experience of disabled people and fireworks. In total over 63,000 people contributed to the fireworks inquiry.

The committee also followed up on its inquiries from the 2015-2017 Parliament relating to petitions on the funding of research into brain tumours and the meningitis b vaccine.

E-petitions by constituency

By analysing the e-petitions data by constituency, we can see which constituencies the signatories live in and look at which areas were the most active and successful.

In terms of receiving a Government response, the most successful e-petitions in the 2017-19 Parliament were started in the Cities of London and Westminster constituency; seven got a Government response.

The next most successful was Oldham West and Royton with six Government responses, followed by Bermondsey and Old Southwark, Holborn and St Pancras, Totnes and Witney (five).

The data indicates that petitions originating in 45% of constituencies in the UK (293 out of 650) received at least one Government response over the course of the Parliament.

How many people signed e-petitions?

It’s also possible to analyse the level of engagement by looking at the constituencies which had the most ‘unique signatories’. In other words, how many different people engaged with the site and signed at least one e-petition. Signatories from British citizens overseas are not counted towards individual constituencies.

The map shows the activity of unique signatories by constituency in the 2017-19 Parliament. Dark green denotes many signatories moving towards light green for those constituencies that had fewer unique users.

The most unique signatories were in Bristol West (58,343), whereas the fewest were in the constituency of Na h-Eileanan an Iar (5,214). 25 constituencies had more than 40,000 unique signatories across the 2017-19 Parliament.

A map showing the activity of unique signatories by constituency in the 2017-19 Parliament

Electoral regions and e-petitions

To find which parts of the country have engaged most with the e-petitions website, we can look at the unique signatories by electoral region. London had the largest number of unique signatories across the region (2.4 million) followed by the South East (2.3 million) and the North West (1.6 million).

A fairer measure, however, is to look at the unique signatories per constituency in the electoral regions, as some have more constituencies than others (see chart below).

This still places London at the top and the South East in second place (33,090 and 27,407 per constituency retrospectively). However, on this measure, the South West comes third with 24,653 per constituency compared to 24,590 for the East and 22,033 for the North West.

A chart shows number of unique signatures per constituency in electoral regions

Further reading

E-petitions: Is there a link between general elections and signing petitions? House of Commons Library.

Online petitions and parliamentary debate: How do UK parliamentary petitions grow over time? House of Commons Library.

This is part of a series on House of Commons trends to mark Parliament Week 2020. You can find more analysis and data in our full briefing.

Read the rest of the series.

About the author: Chris Watson is a researcher at the House of Commons Library, specialising in parliamentary data.

Image: ©UK Parliament / Jessica Taylor under CC BY 2.0, cropped

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