Democratic Audit Shorts: Parliament remains insufficiently responsive to the outside world

Taken from Section 2.4.6 of the 2012 Democratic Audit report- ‘Parliament’s relationship with the public and relevant interests’

Over this Audit period there have been some limited improvements in parliament’s relationship with the outside world. In particular, select committees now utilise online forums; and all written petitions sent to an MP who agrees to present them to parliament receive official replies from the government. The number of petitions presented to parliament each year fluctuates enormously, although there was a clear decline after the early 1990s (see Figure 2.4j).


However, it seems likely that public petitions will become more frequent in future. The coalition government has introduced measures to ensure e-petitions receiving 100,000 signatures within a year are eligible for formal debate in parliament, with the final decision whether to hold a debate resting with the Backbench Business Committee. The coalition has also established a ‘public reading stage’ for bills, enabling online comments on proposed legislation, with a ‘public reading day’ where those comments are debated by the bill committee (see Section 2.4.2).

Figure 2.4j: Petitions presented to parliament, 1989-90 to 2007-08


  1. Short sessions (October 1991 to March 1992; October 1996 to March 1997; December 2000 to May 2001; November 2004 to April 2005)
  2. Long sessions (April 1992 to October 1993; May 1997 to October 1998; June 2001 to November 2002; May 2005 to November 2006)

Source: Lightbown and Smith (2009).

Yet while parliament has devoted additional resources to facilitating public awareness of its work, there remain worrying levels of professed public ignorance about its basic functions – thereby making wider involvement more difficult. Data from a survey commissioned by the Hansard Society in 2008 (Kalitowski, 2008, p.4) shows that just 32 per cent of respondents said they had a ‘good understanding of the way Parliament works’. The most recent Hansard Society Audit of Political Engagement (Hansard Society, 2011) showed an increase in those saying that knew ‘a fair amount’ or ‘a great deal’ about Parliament’, from 37 per cent in 2010 to 44 per cent in 2011, but this figure – under half of those questioned – could still be regarded as unsatisfactorily low. As far as interest groups are concerned, there is a tendency for parliamentary committees to take evidence repeatedly from limited circles of individuals and organisations, with attempts to reach more widely by committees often proving unsuccessful. It could be that these two deficiencies are mutually re-enforcing, with the lack of public awareness causing and being perpetuated by the reliance of select committees on small groups of individuals.

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