This briefing paper sets out trends in petitioning to the UK Parliament and devolved institutions. It provides a range of statistics on the number of petitions, the geography of participation in petitioning, and provides information on the largest petitions submitted to the UK Parliament and other bodies.Jump to full report >>
The presentation of petitions to Parliament has a long history, though before the Civil Wars of the 1640s petitions generally dealt with personal grievances. Since the later eighteenth century, radicals and reformers used petitions to make demands on parliamentary reform, the abolition of slavery, and religious toleration. These movements culminated in the mass-petitions of the Chartists in the 1830s and 1840s.
People have continued to use petitions to express their opinion: the Hansard Society survey of political engagement in 2018 estimated that 28% of the population had signed at least one e-petition in the previous year.
Paper Petitions to the UK Parliament
Public Petitions may be presented to both the House of Lords and House of Commons in paper form, in line with historic traditions.
From the First World War onwards, possibly reflecting the extension of the franchise, the number of Public Petitions declined substantially from its nineteenth-century peak. A recovery in petitioning numbers took place in the 1980s and early 1990s. An average of 176 petitions were presented per session in the 2000s, compared to an average of around 18 per session from 1968 to 1979.
The largest known petition submitted to the UK Parliament was in November 1945 on the issue of pensions, being signed by 6 million people— 18% of the Parliamentary electorate at that time.
E-Petitions to UK Parliament
In 2015, a new e-petitions system, run collaboratively between the Government and the Commons, was established. This sees the House of Commons Petitions Committee examining both paper and e-petitions, debates held in Westminster Hall, and responses being provided by the Government.
According to data from the House of Commons Petitions Commitee, from July 2015 to July 2019, 99,031 e-petitions have been submitted, collecting more than 59.3 million signatures. As of July 2019, 66 petitions have been debated in Westminster Hall under the current system.
The majority of e-petitions started on the Petition’s Committee website routinely gain less than 1,000 signatures. Only three petitions since July 2015 have collected more than 1 million signatures, and 132 over 100,000.
The largest e-petition to the UK Parliament was entitled ‘Revoke Article 50 and remain in the EU’, which garnered nearly 6.1 million signatures in early 2019. This number is equivalent to 13% of the UK Parliamentary electorate.
Source: House of Commons Petitions Committee
Petitioning to the Scottish Parliament
In the Scottish Parliament, a paper petitions system was set up in 1999 and an e-petitions system was introduced in 2004.
From May 2000 to May 2019, 1,495 petitions were presented to the Scottish Parliament.
In 2004, 160,000 signatures were gathered by the ‘Cod Crusaders’ who called upon the Scottish Parliament to oppose EU fisheries policy and return control over the fishing industry to Scotland. This was equivalent in size to 4% of the Scottish Parliament electorate in 2004.
Petitioning to the Welsh Assembly
An e-petitions and paper system were introduced to the Welsh Assembly in 2007 and 2008 respectively.
From May 2007 to December 2014, over 830 petitions were submitted. Of these, 583 were deemed admissible and submitted to the Petitions Committee for consideration.
The largest petition presented to the Welsh Assembly during the 5th Assembly is ‘Pembrokeshire says NO!! To the closure of Withybush A&E!’ being signed by 40,045 people. The number of subscribers is equivalent in size to 1.8% of the registered Welsh Assembly electorate.
Petitioning to the Northern Ireland Assembly
Since 2002, paper petitions have been submitted to the Northern Ireland Assembly, and plans were submitted in 2016 to introduce an e-petitions system.
Petitions included one signed by 120,000 people that opposed any changed in the abortion law in 2007, being equivalent in number to nearly 11% of the Northern Ireland electorate.
Commons Briefing papers CBP-8620
Author: Philip Loft