Updated: Jan 4
Signing petitions is an accessible way for us to be political activists and contribute to change.
A lot of us take those few minutes to add our name to the petition and go about our day feeling like we have done our part. However, have you ever stopped to think what happens after you sign a petition?
This guide will break down exactly what a petition is and how it works.
What is a petition?
A petition is a formally drawn request for action, usually written to a governmental authority or individual public office holder. Petitions usually relate to a single political issue and originate from one, or multiple, concerned members of the public. These members seek to gain signatures from others to endorse their position on the issue at hand. It is a means for the general public to influence decisions, to protest something or to get something changed.
Traditionally, petitions would have been drawn up on paper with the cause, or reason behind it as the heading. They would have been physically circulated amongst people in the same area and if they agreed to the statement, they would sign it.
In recent times, websites like Change.org and 38 Degrees have become a popular way to share petitions instantly across social networks. Online petitions are easier to create and more effective than ever before in reaching people all over the world.
What happens after I sign a petition?
Different platforms operate in different ways.
A petition set up on the UK Government’s official petition website is pretty straightforward. Petitions will stay open on the website for six months and the Petitions Committee can decide to do any of the following with a petition:
ask for more information from petitioners, the Government or other relevant people or organisations
write to the Government or another public body to press for action on a petition
ask another parliamentary committee to look into the topic raised by a petition
put forward petitions for debate
The general thresholds are:
At 10,000 signatures the petition on the UK Government and Parliament site gets a response from the Government.
At 100,000 signatures the petition on the UK Government and Parliament site will be considered for a debate in Parliament.
Nonetheless, these thresholds are simply starting points for the Petitions Committee to consider which petitions should be debated. It will not be able to take action on every petition and will carefully decide which petitions to consider and what action is appropriate for each one. It might not necessarily put forward a petition for debate if it has over 100,000 signatures or if the same subject has recently been debated.
With websites like Change.org, people can address petitions to companies, organisations, and individuals. Whilst this does not guarantee a response, more signatures will result in more pressure being put on the party in question. The idea is that under this pressure they will acknowledge the petitions and take the requested action.
What happens in Parliament when a petition is debated?
Debates from petitions are generally held in Westminster Hall, which is best described as an annexe to the main House of Commons chamber and can be thinly attended due to the hall’s size. The Petitions Committee can decide that a petition should be debated in the main House of Commons Chamber, in which case it would take that request to the Backbench Business Committee.
In a debate, an MP introduces the argument and explains the government’s stance on the issue. The debate will take place and a response will be agreed by a majority. Usually the response is a justification of current government policy.
Does any substantial change result from petitions?
In short, it depends.
In terms of petitions addressed to the UK Government, it is usually difficult to achieve any sort of policy change, but it is not impossible. One example of a change in UK law that resulted from an online petition is the sugar tax. On 30th November 2015, MPs debated introducing a sugar tax, in response to a petition signed by over 155,000 people. The debate was well attended, the arguments passionate and overwhelmingly in favour of doing so. But minister Jane Ellison told it to MPs straight. The government had "no plans" to introduce a sugar tax and would announce its obesity strategy at a later date. However, in his March 2016 budget, the then Chancellor George Osborne announced a levy on soft drinks manufacturers, linked to the amount of sugary drinks they sell. A policy not dissimilar to a sugar tax.
Petitions addressed to companies and non-governmental organisations have had greater success. Change.org claims that nearly every hour, a petition on its site achieves victory. A remarkable victory in the UK in recent years was a petition started by sisters Ella and Caitlin McEwan, aged 10 and 8, who campaigned for Burger King and McDonald’s to remove free plastic toys from their children’s meals after they learned about the harmful impact of plastic on the environment. After reaching over 500,000 signatures and media attention, Burger King and McDonald’s responded by saying in the coming years their toys would be made from sustainable materials in order to protect the environment.
Petitions are indeed a very useful tool for effecting change. One person’s voice is rarely enough to influence a large government body or company and petitions allow citizens’ voices to be amplified and heard in unison. They are also an important element within a democracy by offering a central point of contact between the public and policymakers. However, petitions alone do not do anything. It all comes down to how campaigners use the petition to put pressure on the government, companies and organisations in question. But when pressure is applied effectively, they can be a very valuable tool for change within government and society.
Want to learn more about the UK government? Head over to our UK Politics section.