Cristina Leston-Bandeira features in Committee Corridor podcast on parliamentary petitions

Committee Corridor is a pilot podcast series from the House of Commons select committees, which aims to open a door into the world of scrutiny through the lens of some of the UK’s most pressing concerns.

Hosted by select committee chairs, each episode features an insight interview with a leading figure combined with updates from MPs on the work of their different select committees across Parliament.

In July, Cristina Leston-Bandeira (Chair of the International Parliament Engagement Network and Professor of Politics at the University of Leeds) took part in a UK Parliament Committee Corridor podcast exploring what happens to parliamentary petitions.

Around a quarter of the UK’s adult population have signed a petition to Parliament, as a way to alert Members of Parliament to concerns that matter to them and try to make their voices heard.

Since launching eight years ago, more than 30,000 petitions have been created on the UK Parliament e-petitions site, attracting more than 110 million signatures. 350 of them have been debated by MPs.

“Around a quarter of the UK’s adult population have signed a petition to Parliament.”

UK Parliament website

Hosted by Catherine McKinnell MP (then Chair of the Petitions Committee in the House of Commons), the podcast looked at how the process works and how petitions can make a difference.

Discussing their experience of petitioning were campaigner Andy Airey, one of the 3 Dads Walking who petitioned the UK Parliament to make suicide prevention a compulsory part of the school curriculum, and Nick Fletcher MP, the Member of the Petitions Committee who opened the debate on Andy’s petition in the House of Commons.

The podcast explores Andy Airey’s experiences of petitioning and the wider area of campaigning to affect change. Describing themselves as ‘accidental campaigners’, 3 Dads Walking – Andy, Mike Palmer and Tim Owen – came together to raise awareness of suicide prevention and of Papyrus (a charity dedicated to the prevention of suicide and promotion of mental health and wellbeing in young people).

Andy describes how they set up their petition, having been advised that it would be a useful tool to raise awareness, and talks of the activities they undertook as part of their campaign to get the message out to engage others with the issue. He highlights the challenges of needing to get at least 10,000 signatures to get a response from government and 100,000 for it to be considered for debate.

Nick Fletcher MP further discusses how petitions can raise awareness of serious issues and how they can be used as a springboard for further work. He outlines how the UK Parliament debated the petition in March 2023 and the outcome, which included a review of the Relationships, Sex and Health Education (RSHE) curriculum.

Professor Cristina Leston-Bandeira works on how parliaments engage the public, particularly through petitions. In the podcast, she sets out why petitions are important and how the UK compares to other countries and legislatures.

Leston-Bandeira says of the importance of petitions:

“Petitions are one of the easiest ways to get involved in politics. So, even just that should show why petitions are so important for our societies as a way of people bringing in issues, things that they really care about.

“It doesn’t take a lot of effort and they’re easy to collect, to go round and get your friends and people you know.

“Another reason is that it becomes a key channel to bring issues to Parliament that MPs may not be aware of. MPs often have a very good close relationship with their constituents – they’ll have issues brought to them, but they don’t necessarily get that overall picture of how much is it affecting constituents at the national level.

“It’s what we often refer to as the fire alarm function of petitions to bring those matters to Parliament. A really good example of that was a petition that we had on maternity care during lockdown. This petition was asking for an extension of maternity leave in light of the circumstances created by covid-19, but it led to a much wider inquiry by the Committee.

“Through a series of public engagement initiatives, a number of unpredicted consequences from the rapidly arranged regulations to deal with covid-19 were unveiled. These meant that, for instance, it was easier for a new father to go down to the pub than to accompany their partner to hospital when their baby was born. The actions from the Committee would eventually lead the government to amend their regulations in the second lockdown wave.

“Petitions are also a way of the citizens shaping the parliamentary agenda and bringing issues outside of party politics that citizens care about to Parliament.”

“If the people do not understand the process, they can’t necessarily be involved and put on the pressure at the right moments.”

Cristina Leston-Bandeira

Cristina outlines four key challenges for people looking to use a parliamentary petition to bring about change, based on her research:

“One of the challenges is what I would refer to as democracy literacy, in that a lot of people do not necessarily understand how Parliament works or the parliamentary processes associated with petitions. If the people do not understand the process, they can’t necessarily be involved and put on the pressure at the right moments.

“Another challenge is IT literacy or digital poverty.

“And then there’s a process of making your petition matter – achieving high thresholds of signatures is not necessarily that easy. People need campaigning skills that they may not necessarily have, so to get noticed amidst the thousands and thousands of other petitions is actually quite difficult.

“I would say the final challenge is about generating the campaign around the petition. I often say the petition itself is just a hook: the petition itself doesn’t make a change. It’s what you do with the petition, how you campaign with it.

“And that’s why the process associated with the petition is so important. But again, it’s a challenge for someone who’s not necessarily used to doing campaigning.”

After highlighting some of the many frustrations that citizens have with the petitions process, Cristina wraps up the podcast with some suggestions for how to improve things – specifically around strengthening the understanding about petitioning and the processes involved, and better integration with other parliamentary business.

Listen to the full podcast on the House of Commons website.

About Cristina Leston-Bandeira

Cristina Leston-Bandeira is Chair of the International Parliament Engagement Network (IPEN) and a Professor of Politics in the School of Politics and International Studies at the University of Leeds. She has conducted research on Parliaments for nearly 30 years. Her research focuses on the relationship between Parliament and citizens, particularly public and digital engagement.


Courtesy of Cristina Leston-Bandeira

Article published 27 September 2023