Many people learn of new petitions when they are shared online via social media. But the more traditional method of petitioning is the paper/public petition.  

In this first of two Insights on petitions, we look at this more traditional method of petitioning. 

What are paper petitions? 

The right to petition the monarch for redress of personal grievances has been exercised since at least 1215 with Magna Carta. 

Paper petitions (also known as public petitions) have historically been presented on the floor of the House of Commons by an MP. It’s now possible, however, for the public to submit their own petitions on the e-petitions website. 

A petitions committee, set up after the 2015 General Election, now takes charge of both types of petitions (public and e-petitions). 

Paper petitions are presented by MPs on behalf of constituents or other members of the public and receive a response from the Government. The Petitions Committee also considers paper petitions for debate. There is no minimum number of signatures needed for this to happen.  

Petitions presented over time 

According to data from Parliamentary Search, there were 487 paper petitions presented in the 2017-19 parliamentary session. The following chart shows the number of petitions per sitting day for each session back to 1992-93. 

A chart to show average paper petitions per sitting day by parliament sessionThe average for the whole period was 1.48 paper petitions per sitting day. 

The 2009-10 session 

There is a clear outlier in the 2009-10 session. This was a relatively short session (69 days) but had 510 petitions presented. Looking deeper into the data, it appears that a large majority of these came in one month. 

Despite the session lasting from November 2009 to April 2010, 272 of the petitions were presented in December. This was more in one month than some sessions had in total.  

The main driver for this surge was the Badman Report on elective home education in June 2009, and subsequent Home Affairs Committee report in December 2009. There were 218 petitions on the issue in December 2009, making up 80% of the total that month. 

A recent increase in paper petitions (but not in this session?) 

As the chart above shows, in recent sessions there has been an increase in the average number of paper petitions presented per sitting day. 

This increase could be due to the rise in public awareness of the petitions process, following the formation of the Petitions Committee and the e-petitions process. 

However, early signs suggest that the 2019-21 session is not following the same trend. Data available up to summer recess 2020 show there’s been an average of just 0.75 paper petitions per sitting day.  

If this remains the same for the whole session, it would be the lowest rate since 1997-98. It’s possible the current pandemic may also have had an impact on paper petitions. 

Further reading

More information can be found in the petitions section of the MPs Guide to Procedure. 

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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