Is 100,000 a big number?

Even I would concede that 100,000 maltesers would be quite a large number, but what about when it comes to signatures on a petition? The fear that all sorts of humorous and trivial ideas could get 100,000 verified signatures from people on the electoral register is one of the reasons some people have given for criticising the government’s plans to give proposals that get 100,000 signatures some debating time in Parliament.

I think those criticisms are misplaced because, as I said previously, “The usual tiny number of votes deliberate joke candidates get at election time (unless there is a serious point hiding under the joke) show that the public is quite capable of distinguishing between the serious and the frivolous as the context requires it”.

Another piece of supporting evidence for this view is the record of the No.10 Downing Street petitions website when it was up and running. It allowed anyone to sign a petition with only minimal protection against multiple signatures and allowed people not on the electoral register to sign too. Although it was therefore easier to get 100,000 signatures on those petitions than it would be under the new proposals, the list of topics which got to 100,000 gives some idea of what topics and how many of them might make the cut.

The Downing Street petitions website ran for just over three years, during which time only eight petitions breached the 100,000 mark and they were:

  • Scrap the planned vehicle tracking and road pricing policy – 1,811,424
  • Create a new public holiday, the National Remembrance Holiday to commemorate The Fallen and our Nation, with the holiday falling on the second Monday in November each year, the day after Remembrance Sunday – 531,400
  • Allow the Red Arrows to Fly at the 2012 Olympics – 502,625
  • Reduce Fuel duty to bring fuel prices back to an acceptable level – 304,641
  • Abolish plans to build a £100 million mega Mosque 281,882
  • Fuel duty reduction, now VAT has increased to 17.5%, please deduct the duty which was levied when VAT was reduced to 15% 170,378
  • Ensure that inheritance tax is scrapped in this year’s Budget – 128,622
  • Create a dedicated Military & Veterans Hospital within the UK – 113,979

What to make of those eight? Most importantly, there were only eight. Also, the topics chosen are all pretty good choices for what Parliament should spend time on – caring for the armed forces, debating tax types and rates and so on.

None are of the comic or frivolous variety, though one (the Red Arrows) was based on an urban myth – one that was widely reported elsewhere, so even in that case, flushing out the myth in the glare of publicity does no harm.

Another (the mosque) may make many liberal feel uncomfortable, but setting the Parliamentary agenda simply on the basis of what topics are liberal is hardly a democratic approach.

Compared to the sort of topics that many MPs choose for Westminster Hall debates or even early day motions (they do not get debated, but are a form of MP petition), it is a list that makes the public’s choice of topics look no worse than the choices MPs have made themselves.

Of course the past is not a certain guide to the future, but this is another piece of evidence which casts doubt on glib assumptions expressed with utter certainty that a 100,000 threshold would somehow obviously see the silly or trivial rise to the top.

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