Leader: Are e-petitions good for democracy?

Sure - but they're unlikely to influence government policy
Written by silicon.com staff, Contributor

Sure - but they're unlikely to influence government policy

Have you had an email from Tony Blair this week? If you've been involved in the fierce debate on the government's controversial road-charging plans or the ID card scheme, there's a good chance you have indeed got mail from the Prime Minister sitting in your inbox.

Why is Tony emailing you? It's related to the e-petitions hosted on the PM's Downing Street website, which hit the headlines over the past week when more than 1.5 million people went online to sign a petition calling for the government to scrap the plans for a 'pay-per-mile' road-charging scheme using satellite technology to track car journeys.

The volume of protesters signing up even brought down the website at one point and forced one unnamed minister to call the person who came up with the idea of allowing petitions on the PM's website "a prat".

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The road-charging petition closes this week and Blair will be sending out an email to all of those who signed it, dismissing their concerns and arguing that it is the only way to beat congestion and pollution.

And it isn't only road-charging protesters getting the personal touch from Blair. More than 27,000 people who signed a separate petition calling for the ID cards scheme to be scrapped received an email from the PM this week too.

In it Blair argues ID cards will help secure the UK's borders and tackle fraud, crime and terrorism. He also let slip that the government will allow police to check every fingerprint held on the National Identity Register to try and solve crimes.

In the end, though, the net result of the petitions is getting quite a few people frothy-mouthed and angry about car taxes and ID cards. The whole e-petition idea is, unfortunately, unlikely to give ordinary people much influence on government policy. Don't forget more than one million people taking to the streets to protest against going to war with Iraq wasn't enough to force the government to change its policy.

On the other hand it's a case of the government being damned if it does and damned if it doesn't. At least the e-petitions appear to be encouraging some participation in the democratic process, which has to be better than citizens remaining ignorant or apathetic. The petitions are certainly proving popular - aside from these two petitions on road taxes and ID cards, there are more than 3,000 others currently on the go on the Downing Street website.

We're off now to sign the petition calling for the PM to 'improve letterboxes' and the one calling for all traffic policemen to be forced to wear clown suits while on duty...

And while we're on the subject of petitions, don't forget to sign up for silicon.com's own petition as part of our 'Fair Wi-fi' campaign against rip-off charges for wireless internet access in hotels.

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