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Thursday, August 4, 2011

Government's e-petitions website crashes on its first day as debate over capital punishment heats up

-MPs could be forced into the landmark poll on the death penalty if e-petition attracts 100,000 signatures
-Some Tories 'planning to vote yes on capital punishment'
-Site receiving more than 1,000 hits a minute

By James Chapman

Fail: The highly-anticipated e-petition website crashed within hours of going live

It is the much-hyped Government website bringing democracy directly to the people - but the project crashed as soon as it was launched today due to high traffic.

The new site for e-petitions allows members of the public to have their issue debated in Parliament if they get enough support online - with the death penalty among the most hotly-contested issues.

The two most popular petitions - winning up to 420 signatures by lunchtime today - both called for the return of capital punishment.

Almost 2,000 petitions have now been registered but when users tried to add their name to one - an error message popped up instead.

It was also impossible to create a new petition for a cause.

A Government spokesman said the technical difficulties were because of high traffic on the site - more than 1,000 people were accessing it every minute.

He said: 'We apologise for any inconvenience experienced as people try to access ePetitions – this is a result of greater then expected demand.

'We are getting 1000 unique visits a minute – this is equivalent to nearly 1.5 million visits a day and is far more then the old ePetitions site on Number 10 ever received.'

Among those who had managed to access the site, capital punishment looks set to be one of the first issues up for discussion in the Commons, with dozens of signing in favour of bringing back the death penalty in the UK. MPs face being forced into a landmark vote on restoring the death penalty.

The initiative allows the public to help set the Government agenda and means anyone can set up an Internet petition on any subject.

If it attracts more than 100,000 signatures, MPs must consider debating it in the Commons.

Other e-petitions that can be signed on the site include leaving the EU, anonymity for rape defendants and limiting jail food to bread and water like 'the good old days'.

The HS2 rail link, decriminalising recreational drugs and creating an absolute right to self-defence in your own home were other hot topics.

Some 154 petitions have already been rejected - many relating to sports on TV.

The scheme was officially launched today, but it has already backfired on the Coalition because Right-wing internet bloggers have been collecting signatures for the last few days.

The restoration of hanging for the murderers of children and policemen is by far the most popular serious issue.

Commons leader Sir George Young – writing in today’s Daily Mail – says Westminster cannot ignore this popular groundswell.

The intervention of Sir George, who is overseeing the e-petition scheme, paves the way for the first Commons vote on capital punishment since 1998. The last hangings in Britain were in 1964.

‘What else is Parliament for?’ he says. ‘People have strong opinions and it does not serve democracy well if we ignore them or pretend their views do not exist.’

Opponents say the e-petitions will allow the Commons to be hijacked by special-interest campaigns and will mean MPs spending precious Parliamentary time debating proposals which have little or no chance of becoming law.

But Sir George insists the petitions, details of which will be published by the Government today, will ‘revitalise public engagement’.

‘There have been some who have been concerned by some of the subjects that could end up being debated – for example, the restoration of capital punishment,’ Sir George writes.

‘The last time this was debated during the passage of the Human Rights Act in 1998, restoration was rejected by 158 votes.

'But if lots of people want Parliament to do something which it rejects, then it is up to MPs to explain the reasons to their constituents.’

Although there appears little or no chance of a Commons vote in favour of bringing back the death penalty, some Conservatives are signalling that they will vote Yes.

Priti Patel, MP for Witham in Essex, said: ‘Polls have consistently shown that people want a debate on this, which is quite frankly overdue.

‘It will provide a good opportunity to talk about the failings of our existing criminal justice system. So many victims of the most horrendous and heinous crimes have no sense of justice.

‘People aren’t happy with the current system. Without a doubt, I would favour restoring capital punishment for the most serious and significant crimes, like child murders. For me that would be unquestionable.’

Tory MP Kwasi Kwarteng pledged to oppose any moves to restore the death penalty, but backed calls for a parliamentary debate.

He told BBC Radio 4's World at One programme: 'It's absolutely right for the House of Commons to debate something people are very interested in and have strong views about.

'It's something which arouses a lot of passion. The fact that it's being debated generally by the public means the House should certainly debate it.'

He believed Britain had 'moved on' from capital punishment and raised fears that victims of miscarriages of justice could be wrongly executed.

Mr Kwarteng added: 'You can always get the wrong people and that's a terrible, terrible tragedy.'

Horror crimes: Andrew Turner MP said crimes committed by Ian Brady, the Moors murderer, left, and Roy Whiting, right, were 'evil beyond understanding'

However Philip Davies, MP for Shipley, said: ‘It’s something where once again the public are a long way ahead of the politicians. I’d go further and restore it for all murderers.’

The Isle of Wight’s Andrew Turner said the death penalty was the ‘proper punishment’ for some serious crimes and that it was ‘high time that this issue is debated’.

‘My instinct is that some crimes are so horrific that the proper punishment is the death penalty,’ he said.

‘A few people commit acts so evil they are beyond understanding, for example Ian Brady, the Moors murderer; Roy Whiting who abducted and killed eight-year-old Sarah Payne and, more recently, those who tortured and were then responsible for the death of Baby P.

'Like many people I have concerns about the possibility of wrongful convictions, so perhaps we should consider whether before a death sentence could be passed, a higher standard of evidence would be needed than “beyond reasonable doubt” which is used to secure a criminal conviction.

‘Some people have suggested that there should be proof “beyond the shadow of a doubt” before a death sentence could be passed.’

Barbara Potter, a member of the Leicestershire Police Authority, said: ‘I believe in an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth and a life for a life.

'With all the DNA technology we can be 100 per cent sure that someone is guilty and when we are 100 per cent sure that this man has killed this child and the evidence is there, then capital punishment is appropriate.’

David Cameron has signalled his opposition to any restoration of capital punishment.

In an interview for a book by Dylan Jones, the Prime Minister said: ‘If someone murdered one of my children then emotionally, obviously I would want to kill them. How could you not?

Making a return? Prison executions have not been carried out in Britain since 1964

‘But there have been too many cases of things going wrong, of the wrong people being executed, of evidence coming to light after the execution, and sometimes there is just too much of an element of doubt. And I just don’t honestly think that in a civilised society like ours that you can have the death penalty any more.’

Amnesty International’s UK head of policy and government affairs, Jeremy Croft, said: ‘In our experience public support for capital punishment falls dramatically when people are confronted with the grim reality of what it means to put a person on trial for their life and then kill them.’

He pointed out that concerns remained about victims of miscarriages of justice, such as the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four, or former murder suspects Stephen Downing and Barry George.

Under the e-petitions scheme, it will be up to the Commons back-bench business committee to assess those which qualify and decide whether they should be given time from the 35 days allocated during each Parliamentary session for non-governmental business.

Number Ten’s previous e-petition site, which was not accompanied by the right to trigger issues for consideration by the Commons, was suspended ahead of the general election then shelved by the Coalition.

It had been host to a series of highly embarrassing campaigns during the Labour years, including demands for Gordon Brown to quit as prime minister, backed by nearly 100,000 signatures.

The website can be found at www.direct.gov.uk/e-petitions

A clamour MPs can no longer ignore


Over the last week, we’ve seen hundreds of submissions to a new website which will let the public tell politicians what issues they want discussed in the House of Commons.

Subjects for these ‘e-petitions’ have ranged from setting up an English Parliament to ensuring Formula One remains free-to-air.

It sounds simple – and it is. If you can secure 100,000 signatures, your e-petition could become the subject of a parliamentary debate.

Of course there have been some suggestions which are frivolous. That’s the nature of the internet. But those petitions which have got over the moderators’ hurdles will start to be published today, allowing other people to add their signatures.

Those which reach the threshold will be considered by a committee of back-bench MPs, who have the power to allocate time in the Chamber of the Commons – pushing matters of public interest on to the House’s agenda, with the potential for a vote.

Parliamentary time is not unlimited and we want the best e-petitions to be given airtime. That’s why we will be closely monitoring the site over the coming months to assess whether the threshold is right, or whether it should be lowered or raised.

The site has been widely welcomed as a realistic way to revitalise public engagement in Parliament. But there have been some who have been concerned by some of the subjects which could end up being debated – for example, the restoration of capital punishment.

The last time this was debated – during the passage of the Human Rights Act in 1998 – restoration was rejected by 158 votes.

But if lots of people want Parliament to do something which it rejects, then it is up to MPs to explain the reasons to their constituents. What else is Parliament for?
People have strong opinions, and it does not serve democracy well if we ignore them or pretend that their views do not exist.

People are beginning to wake up to the fact that this is a new era for the House of Commons. Two years ago, battered by scandal and with public confidence at an historic low, many wrote off Parliament as irrelevant.

Over the last 12 months, it has not only been more responsive to the public, it has been fighting for the public interest, for instance by leading the debate on the phone hacking revelations.

There’s no room for complacency: Parliament needs to keep on connecting with the outside world.

But if politicians want to regain the trust of the public, then they need to trust the public. Giving people more power is the right place to start.



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