In March 2015, the House of Commons adopted amendments to the Standing Orders to introduce an e-petitions system. At the start of the Forty-Second Parliament, in December 2015, the system was launched on the House of Commons website. Electronic petitions are a direct continuation of the ancient right of petitioning Parliament. They are governed by the same principles as paper petitions. However, the virtual nature of these petitions has necessitated the adoption of a series of new, distinct rules, which are presented below.61
Starting an E-petition
To initiate an e-petition, a petitioner must first fill in a petition form based on the classic model (see Figure 22.3, “Form of a Petition”) on the House of Commons website.
The Standing Orders require that the petition must not exceed 250 words62 and must not contain universal resource locators (URLs), or other links or web-based references.63 The petitioner must also provide the contact information of at least five individuals whose support is required to continue the process.
To be published, an e-petition must also be sponsored by a Member.64 It should be noted that the fact of sponsoring an e-petition does not necessarily mean that the Member supports its content. As with paper petitions, the role of a Member is to act as an intermediary between signatories and Parliament.
The Member selected to sponsor the petition has the option of agreeing to do so or not. If the Member agrees, he or she is responsible for ensuring that the petition does not contain impertinent or improper matter.65 If the Member declines or does not respond within 30 days, the petitioner is notified and given the opportunity to select a second Member to be the sponsor. This process for finding a sponsoring Member can be repeated up to and until the fifth selected Member declines to be the sponsor, which puts an end to the process. There is no limit to the number of e-petitions that a Member can sponsor at one time. Once a selected Member agrees to be the sponsor, the petition is automatically sent to the Clerk of Petitions for examination.
If a sponsoring Member ceases to be a Member at any point prior to an e-petition being presented to the House of Commons, the petitioner may select another Member and the process for finding a sponsor starts anew. If the sponsoring Member ceases to be a Member once an e-petition has been opened for signature, the petitioner has the option to find another sponsor, but this is not a requirement. If need be, the petition can be presented to the House by another Member. A sponsoring Member cannot rescind his or her sponsorship of an e-petition once having accepted to do so.
Publication and Signing Period
The Clerk of Petitions is responsible for examining all draft e-petitions against the guidelines, standards and rules applied to paper petitions, insofar as they apply. In addition, an e-petition must not be substantially the same as one already published and open for signature on the House of Commons website.66 A petition is considered substantially the same as another if the grievances expressed and the actions requested are essentially the same.
Furthermore, a petitioner cannot have more than one petition open for signature at the same time.67 If need be, any additional petition will be set aside until the signing period for the petition already online has closed.
Once the e-petition has been certified, the Clerk of Petitions arranges for its publication in English and in French. The petition remains open for signature for 120 days.68
Following the expiration of the 120-day deadline, certification is granted to an e-petition only if it has received a minimum of 500 valid signatures.69 The Clerk of Petitions then has the certificate sent to the sponsoring Member for presentation to the House of Commons. The certificate is accompanied by the text of the petition and the number of signatures collected, but not the signatures themselves. The process for presentation to the House is the same as for paper petitions.70