Since the scheme was launched, almost 1,500 e-petitions have been created, of which only six have passed the 100,000 threshold. Those that have crossed the threshold regarding Hillsborough, Europe and cheaper fuel have all been fully debated in the main chamber of the Commons. It is with great disappointment and anger then that we learned that our e-petition to put Babar Ahmad on trial in the UK, which secured almost 141,000 signatures, making it the third largest e-petition to date, was to be tagged onto a pre-existing general discussion on extradition listed in Westminster Hall.
Our campaign did not have the backing of a national newspaper and campaigners worked day and night for several weeks to raise signatures. Many of those who promoted and signed the petition were engaging with the political system for the first time in their lives, inspired by the blurb on the e-petition website that the e-petition system was “an easy way for you to influence government policy in the UK”.
Seeing that other e-petitions which crossed the mark were being debated in the main chamber with a vote motivated others to sign the petition. People collected signatures on the streets, outside churches and mosques, on university campuses, in supermarkets and going door-to-door. A plethora of online videos were made by sympathisers encouraging people to sign the petition. No stone was left unturned in raising awareness about Babar Ahmad’s detention without trial which has now entered its eighth year.
Natascha Engel, chair of the Backbench Business Committee which made the decision, claims that there is simply not enough time to debate all e-petitions which cross the threshold in the main chamber and that there is a danger of the system getting out of control. The statistics suggest her concerns are without basis. Of the almost 1500 e-petitions created to date, the vast majority have not even secured 100 signatures. Even issues of great public concern such as increased policing and the NHS have failed to secure 25,000 signatures.
With respect to time, other e-petitions which secured far less signatures than our e-petition were debated in the main chamber. Furthermore, Engel has proposed to list the e-petition to reduce immigration, which was aggressively run by the Daily Mail, and which also secured 20,000 fewer signatures than our petition, for a full debate in the New Year. We simply do not understand why the same cannot be done with our petition.
Since the decision was made, petitioners from around the country have been frantically writing to their MPs requesting that they convey their frustration to Natascha Engel and push for a full debate. Members of the Backbench Business Committee have also complained about being inundated with calls and emails regarding the issue. Earlier this week, one hundred senior barristers and solicitors wrote to the Leader of the House Sir George Young expressing their shock at the decision and their concern that it would “alienate a public whose goodwill is being taken for granted”.
This concern is real and valid and only exacerbated by the responses from members of the Backbench Business Committee such as Philip Davies who has told petitioners that they are being “unreasonable” by not accepting the Westminster Hall debate and that “this decision will not be changed irrespective of how many people now email us about it.”
The committee chair recently wrote to us claiming that “there is a misapprehension that Westminster Hall is somehow less important than the chamber”. “It is absolutely not. It has exactly the same value,” she said, adding that all the debates that have taken place there “have been extremely well-attended and over-subscribed”.
Apart from the fact that there is no vote, Engel herself in June this year said that the debates “aren’t that well attended.” We do get the sense that we are being sold some magic beans.
Engel is right about one thing: the system will lead to disillusionment. Sir George Young has publicly said that it is her decision what items to debate in the main chamber. If she is so concerned, she should respect the wishes of 141,000 people. We are not asking for favourable treatment – just equal treatment.
Fahad Ansari is from the Free Babar Ahmad Campaign