Monday, August 13, 2007

The Pointlessness of Number Ten Petitions

As you may know, I refuse to link to any of the Downing Street petitions because they're a waste of time. The PM hasn't a clue how many people have signed them and isn't even given a Top Ten in his red box each week. The European Referendum petition is a good case in point. It reads...
We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to refrain from signing any
agreement to create a new European Union treaty without first holding a
referendum to ascertain the opinion of the British public.

The people who have signed this petition have now received a response from 10 Downing Street. It is several parapgraphs of well written, pro European prose, which singularly fails to address the question of a referendum raised in the petition, despite covering virtually every other subject. Here it is...
This Government believes strongly that it is in the UK's interests to be a leading player in Europe. EU membership has brought real benefits for the UK in terms of wealth, jobs, peace and security. Around 3 million British jobs are linked (directly and indirectly) to our trade in goods and services with other EU countries, and over half of UK foreign trade is with other EU countries. It is estimated that the EU's single market boosted total EU GDP by 2.2 per cent (around £150 billion) in 2006. And as a member of the EU, working closely with other countries, the UK is able to deal more effectively
with cross-border issues like climate change, migration, jobs and protecting consumers. These are issues that all our citizens care about. Recent EU initiatives to tackle climate change emissions and bring down mobile phone roaming charges have demonstrated the concrete benefits of membership.

To deliver the results that Europe's citizens want, we need to equip the EU to operate more effectively. This means reforms to improve the way the institutions operate now that there are 27 Member States. At the European Council meeting on 21-22 June, EU leaders discussed the basis for a new Treaty to make the necessary changes to the EU's institutional arrangements. We agreed a way forward that the Government is confident represents a good result for the UK and a good result for Europe. The EU will now be able to focus on the issues which will make a real difference to peoples' everyday lives - meeting the challenges and opportunities of globalisation, and delivering prosperity and security to our citizens.

Following the agreement at the European Council, the Treaty designed to establish a Constitution for Europe has been abandoned. Instead, a new Reform Treaty will be agreed by an Inter-Governmental Conference (IGC) - representing
all Member States - in line with the decision reached at the European Council. The new Treaty should be finalised by the end of 2007. It will then be for Parliament to debate and vote on the contents of the Treaty. This ensures that the values presented in the Treaty are compatible with the UK's, and that any concerns that may be raised as part of the democratic process, by Members themselves or on behalf of their constituents can be fully addressed, as is only right and proper.

In preparation for discussions at the European Council, the Government identified four key areas of fundamental importance to the UK's sovereignty. In the subsequent discussions, the Prime Minister successfully defended these 'red
lines', protecting the UK's control over key policy interests. Specifically: there will be nothing in the new Treaty which challenges or requires us to change our existing labour and social legislation; our common law system and our police and judicial processes have been protected; our independent foreign and defence policy will be maintained; and our tax and social security system will be protected.

As the Prime Minister himself stated during a press conference with Chancellor Merkel, "We as a United Kingdom had a number of negotiating objectives, these included objectives in relation to the Charter of Rights, justice and home affairs, foreign and security policy, the social security elements of the amending treaty and national security itself. We are satisfied that in the document that was laid before us, our negotiating objectives have been met. We now look forward to the intergovernmental conference producing in detail the amendments and therefore the resolutions on which our parliament will eventually have to vote".

The agreed basis for the new Reform Treaty states "The constitutional concept, which consisted in repealing all existing Treaties and replacing them by a single text called 'Constitution', is abandoned." The Reform Treaty will be clearly based upon the existing EU Treaties, and will be a traditional 'amending Treaty', along the lines of previous EU Treaties such as Maastricht, Amsterdam and Nice. The UK has never held referendums on amending treaties in the past.

So the new Reform Treaty will improve the efficiency of the Union and enable us to focus more sharply on delivering results for our citizens. It sets out what the EU can and cannot do. It ensures that foreign policy remains an issue for national governments. It will strengthen the voice of national parliaments in the EU. And it provides the framework for an enlarged Union of nation states to work together for mutual benefit.

Britain needs a more effective, efficient, coherent EU. The improvements contained in the Reform treaty will enhance the EU's capacity to act effectively to meet the shared challenges we face. As a result it is believed that the agreement reached in June represents an excellent deal for the UK's interests and for Britain's future within Europe.

I must have missed the parapgraph that explain why, when the current treaty is 96% similar in content to the old one, we don't deserve a referendum.


Wrinkled Weasel said...

Indeed, as if they were going to declare,

"I say, there are a lot of cheesed off people who have written a petition"

"Oh bugger" comes the reply, "Perhaps we should think again".

Tony said...

As with everything Gordon Brown says, the reality is the complete opposite. the petitions site is simply a way of saying "Look, we are listening".

As the reply shows Iain, listening is the last thing the government has done. I defy anyone to find a single petition that has been run on Number 10 where the reply said "In hindsight the government feels you have a case and your concerns are going to be addressed."

All petitioners ever receive when there is a large volume of signatures is a propaganda email that fails to address a single point and says "We know better than you". Everything to do with Labour and Gordon Brown is a con trick where nothing stands up to scrutiny.

Ewan Watt said...

"Around 3 million British jobs are linked (directly and indirectly) to our trade in goods and services with other EU countries, and over half of UK foreign trade is with other EU countries."

What does this have to do with the Constitution? If we decide to reject the Constitution (or pull out of the EU for that matter) are remaining 26 members going to stop trading with us?

What a lot of nonsense.

Mulligan said...

I believe it's called listening to the people (as promised by Mr Brown), what he forgot to mention was the bit about completely ignoring what the people said. (speaking as one of the 1.8 million whose petition against national road pricing was similarily glibly ignored)

David Boothroyd said...

The reason why a referendum was given on the Constitutional Treaty is because of its status as a Constitutional Treaty which made it in a class above most EU treaties, not because of its provisions.

The Reform Treaty is not a constitutional treaty, and does not have any status above the many other EU treaties, none of which had referendums on them.

There is no case for a referendum on the basis of the provisions of the Reform Treaty because they are relatively minor and technical. Which is why this case is never made.

Anonymous said...

I do so hope that Brown is tempted to go for an election in October. It will get hijacked by the single issue of the Euro-Constitution - a vote which will polarise between Brown who will (at least initially) campaign that a public vote isn't needed - and the Tories who will correctly judge the public mood by insisting that they will offer one. The LibDems will continue to be squeezed between the two positions.

Brown would lose his overall majority and may well not be the largest party. The Murdoch press would give him a rough ride if he refuses to budge - but if he has to move his position part way through the election campaign, he will appear very weak.

Brown will play the long game, not going to the country until the Euro-Constitution has been passed by Parliament with no public vote. He will judge that the public move will be less inclined to start a fight over a matter already decided.

Anonymous said...

david boothroyd is clearly an idiot.

Mulligan said...

The space shuttle crashed due to "technical" failure, which would have been "relatively minor" if it hadn't been a couple of miles up in the air at the time.

If Brown thought he could win a referendum on the treaty the date would already have been announced, end of story.

Tapestry said...

DB is an idiot - as is Gordon Brown for thinking he can get away with ducking this issue.

Nich Starling said...

Iain, I think we share 79% of our genes with a banana, but it does not make us bananas ?

However, I support a referendum, so I am just being pedantic.

Flavious said...

What a load of Tosh D.Boothroyd,

As has been said more times than needs to be counted, if it walks like a duck and quacks like one, you can call it whatever the hell you want. It's still a duck.

Anonymous said...

David Boothroyd's claim has no basis. The principal reference in the original draft constitutional treaty that gave it the status of an EU constitution (Title III, Article 10) was claimed to invest no new powers but rather confirm the existing arrangements. To dispute that now would be to admit that the original draft treaty had greater legal significance than was claimed for it.

The provisions of the revised treaty are far from 'relatively minor and technical' but rather constitute a paradigmatic change on a par with the Single European Act and the Treaty on European Union (the Maastricht Treaty). As Theo Sommer, the editor of 'The German Times', wrote: 'The constitution project has been tossed out but the Reform Treaty will preserve many of its features'. The treaty extends powers in areas that have no relevance to the original intent of the European Community while diluting it in respect of one of its essential economic goals, that of competition.

There is the additional point to be made that, whether the provisions are relatively minor or actually make profound changes, we deserve adequate time to consider them. As things stand, that will not happen. Within government, it is generally regarded as a done deal.

Sea Shanty Irish said...

Post & comments makes some good points re: referendum.

BUT Europe is a good issue for Labour, because it hightlights Tory divisions AND obsessions. At least as long as Labour ignores it to the maximum extent possible, which appears to be Brown's strategy.

OT - Last week, Iain did a post praising the frank speech of Oz politicos.

So note that this week the Australian Liberal Party of Prime Minister John Howard (don't let the name fool you!) dumped a Liberal candidate for the upcoming general election, becaue he (the candidate, not Howard) referred to a Labour state minister (a woman) as a "bitch" and "f--kwit" on his BLOG.

In announcing his removal as a candidate, the Victoria state Liberal chair said, "He has published a very indiscreet and improper blog site, which makes his candidacy untenable."

Rich Tee said...

E-petitions are not just a gimmick, I would go as far as to say that they actually damage democracy.

There is already a perfectly good way of getting your opinions heard. You join a political party, you meet people, you persuade them, you get elected.

During this process you learn about compromise, you learn about history and you learn about how every decision in a society has costs and consequences.

People who sign e-petitions don't have to worry about any of difficult stuff. They just see an opportunity to make their selfish demands on the state without having to worry about the consequences.

Then, when these demands are quite predictably not met, they can then sit back and say "Told you! Nobody listens", thereby reinforcing cynicism and apathy.

Like Travis Bickle above.

Hughes Views said...

Thing is, is blogging more or less pointless than the number 10 petition web-site or (controversial statement alert) are they both equally pointless?

And where does leaving pointless comments on other peoples’ pointless blogs rank on the pointlessness scale?

Anonymous said...

Dear Iain,

Please can we have a competition to invent the best spoof Guardian NONJOB advert? first prize, a night out with J prescott and second prize TWO nights out with big J!
Just a silly thought?

Unknown said...

Not a leading question - genuinely interested to know about the small print of the latest treaty:

If the Conservatives could take the UK into Europe and adopt large-scale treaties without a referendum then why should Labour have to hold one?

Cards on the table, I'm a man of the left, but I am not fishing - I am poorly read about the finer points of European legislation and want to know what the arguments GB will face are.


Anonymous said...

Maybe it's not surprising that 39% of those entitled failed to turn up at the polling station at the last election.

I despise pretty well all our politicians. Spinning porkers, telling porkies with their noses in the trough. And don't you dare ask to see their expenses.

I don't agree with Dennis Skinner's views but I do respect him. I'd even vote for a party led by him if I thought it would bring back some integrity to politics.

pxcentric said...

I don't think non-jobs have to be invented.

Here is a man who was offered counselling to help him overcome the emotional trauma of having his wheelie bin nicked.

Now that is a non-job.

Wrinkled Weasel said...

Dear Ethelred

Yes I know what you mean, but as someone with considerable insight into what you describe (trust me) this seemingly trivial incident may have been the tip of the iceberg, in that it could have been a little old man who was being vandalised on a regular basis. Secondly that it turn might have uncovered a raft of problems that needed to be addressed, such as personal care etc.

When a victim support volunteer visits a client, a full assesment is made of their needs, including the necessity to bring in other services.

Unfortunately those who suffer from this kind of petty crime tend to be on the bottom rung of the social ladder and may be ill equipped to deal with even the simple task of getting a replacement bin. The "counselling" on offer may have been entirely practical in this case.

The police do as they are told and do not exercise discretion about referrals at street level. Can you imagine the situation if they did?

Victim support services deal with hundreds of cases each year ranging from nicked bins to violent deaths. I don't suppose they worry too much when the odd letter proves to be irrelevant.

Anonymous said...

If one was to compile a list of Labour lies and general corrupt bullshit over the last ten years. It would reach half way round the globe and then some.

So how come they have a 10 point advantage in the opinion polls?

Here are some clues, for those that still can not face the TRUE reality that this country is no longer a functioning democracy, and has almost no chance left whatsoever of becoming one, EVER again.

It costs £ 3.5 billion a year. (which is about twice the GDP of a small 3rd world country.)
It is accountable to no one except its employees.

It is a Government invention
It is a socialist invention
It is a British invention
It is a Broadcaster
It is a Corporation

Got it yet?

OK see if this helps.

It will continue to let Gordon Brown do anything he wishes for as long as it takes to make this country a ONE PARTY STATE or a NO PARTY STATE OF EUROPE, which ever is sooner.

When you have had a good think about this one for a while, text your answer to the BBC on 0783...4825 calls will cost you £2 and everything that is worth having.

Anonymous said...

When I left No 10 (in May of this year) the PM was receiving a regular report on the number of petitions, if anything I suspect that the current PM receives more regular updates on these than Tony Blair.

I have also heard the current PM when he was Chancellor quote the number of signatures on petitions in Cabinet meetings - suggesting that he's very much aware of them. The e-petitions system is not ideal, but it's an important innovation (which is why it has won two internet awards this year) and has provided campaigners with a direct route to the PM and in return a direct route for the PM back to them.

It's a pity that other web innovators, like yourself, fail to at least acknowledge that.

Ben WP

You can read more here on all of this:

Alan Douglas said...

My futile gesture of the week, this letter to GB:

Mr Brown, (Spinmeister ?),

Re the CON-stitution

Is there someone with a learning difficulty in charge of this response ? NONE OF US wanted to know all that guff about the EU - what we wanted was the referendum that YOU and your party PROMISED in its last manifesto for British involvement in the EU Constitution.

Changing the TITLE and another few words does NOT change the FACT of it being a CONSTITUTION - ask the many European leaders such as Merkel, and other bigwigs such as Giscard who wrote the frigging thing, who assure us it is 90 %, 94 %, 98 %, 99 % the SAME as it was before when it was still called a Constitution.

Do you Gordon Brown have ANY HONOUR ? Somehow I doubt it, but you could still surprise me.

We want the referendum YOU promised us in your holy manifesto, which you are so keen to trumpet on many other issues, not this propaganda.

Anyway, if you are so certain of the benefits, then DO trumpet them - while promoting your case in the promised referendum. Since you are so certain of your facts, and your case, please TELL us - we can then agree with you by voting once you have convinced us of these benefits - I'm amazed you do not grasp this chance to win your argument fair and square. Anything else will merely prove that you are as dirty with spin as your not much-lamented predecessor.

Alan Douglas

IF I get any answer I will duly inform ....

Mulligan said...

Realpolitik 20:35

Interesting. So 1.8 million protesting against a scheme that has so many holes in it (privacy, dealing with errors, open to abuse (2 million uninsured cars), no public transport alternative etc etc) are being selfish are they?

Blair set this site up as a gimmick, not us horrible selfish unreasonable voters (you know, the great unwashed who only matter once every 5 years), if they don't want our opinion take it offline, but of course the real sting will be when everyone gives up bothering signing their names to such petitions and the government will turn round and say "well nobody bothered to complain...."

Cynical = guilty as charged
Apathetic = most certainly not.

Barnacle Bill said...

Yes Iain I agree with you about the pointlessness of these petitions.
We all know it is a con, nothing ever comes of them, and it was a ZaNuLabor gimmick.
But should not the Conservatives be looking at these petitions as a potential gold mine of vote winning policies?
I realise 99 per cent of them are self centre'd loony ideas, but the other one per cent?
I have not heard DC say he is against road pricing.
Redwood - how much money could be saved if we did not introduce ID cards?
These very petitions that both you and ZaNuLabor so easily dis-miss, might have the potential to come back and bite!

Anonymous said...

You get a similar sort of brush off if you make a complaint to the BBC. The patricians do not engage with hoi polloi.

Flavious said...

"You get a similar sort of brush off if you make a complaint to the BBC"

Think yourself lucky they actually deemed your complaint worth of a response.

On the two occasions I have gone through the process, they have not even had the decency to bother responding.

The sooner the bloody lot is subject to market forces and self raising of revenue like every other broadcaster in the country the better.

Anonymous said...

The thing I'm still intrigued by is why so many are so keen for a referendum to prevent Brussels from syphoning off British sovereignty, when referenda by their very nature undermine the one fundamental of the British constitution - the sovereignty of parliament - far more effectively than any number of EU directives.

As for where that little missive explains why a referendum isn't necessary: third to last paragraph - "the constitutional concept is abandoned".

The reason a referendum had any justification when the text was known as the constitution was that it was then designed to replace all the existing EU treaties, including the one over which a referendum was previously held back in 1975. The current treaty - though very much the same in terms of content - simply isn't a constitution, as all it does is add to or amend previous treaties.

In other words, that 4% difference in content is - in terms of international, constitutional and European law - hugely significant. It was not the content of the constitution that was important, but the fact that it WAS a constitution.

Little Black Sambo said...

So if it's not called a constitution, it is not a constitution. How very trusting, not to say naive.

Jim said...

Oh come on… Firstly only 821 people signed this earth shattering petition. Are you now swinging to the right? It does seem that the Tories are beginning to lean towards that direction, but no-one has informed Cambo. Europe is back on the agenda, anti Scott sentiments, while Tory run councils indulge in an orgy of service cuts, and then to cap it all John Redwood has been let out to play. You just don’t get it; I almost feel sorry for poor old Cambo, he is doing the right thing, he does need to drag the Tory carcass to the centre, but the core are resisting with all their might.

The Downing Street petitions are a perfectly good vehicle for the public to engage with government. It gives all sides the opportunity to have their say.

The road pricing petition did influence government, and it gives government the chance to gauge public opinion and for the public to highlight areas that would normally receive little or no press coverage…. Isn’t that a good thing, apparently not?.

Anonymous said...

If Jim's figure is correct then about 44,388,064 UK electors haven't as yet signed this petition.

Is this issue really the hot potato that some of you chaps seem to believe it to be?

Anonymous said...

The writers who say that the Amending Treaty is not the old constitution are burying their heads in the sand.
Use the internet to search for the truth it's all out there, even the details, the worst of which I believe is the so called 'ratchet clause', because this allows the council of ministers in the EU to add any new laws they want to without any reference to anyone.
By the way I am old enough to have voted for the EEC (anyone remember that).Now the French government have vetoed the free trade agreement, which makes the Economic Community obsolete, so what is the point of staying in the EU. I have a privately run web site at:-
There are plenty of articles and information on the treaty there. Have a read and if you are not angry you are not paying attention.

Anonymous said...

Little Black Sambo - No, the fact that it has none of the characteristics of a constitution is important.

Constitution, noun - the system of fundamental principles according to which a nation, state, corporation, or the like, is governed ; the document embodying these principles

It does not, as the old constitution did, provide a framework for the functioning of the entire EU. It does not, as the old constitution did, replace every existing EU treaty.

It doesn't matter what you call it, it doesn't matter that it contains a huge amount of the same stuff that was in the old text, it's simply not a constitution.

The precedent that would be set by having a referendum on a bog standard international treaty, meanwhile, could potentially be catastrophic.

Anonymous said...

Can I just clarify the Tory position on referenda? You're for them on Britains position on Europe but against them on Scotland's position in Britain?


Iain Dale said...

Gus, that is indeed the Tory position. I have to say it isn't mine.

Tony said...

Nosemonkey, as an exercise in obfuscation your post was masterful. I notice that you have been exceptionally careful to avoid stating the evident truth - this treaty fundamentally changes the relationship between Britain and the EU and how the British people are governed. Given your own definition it is indeed therefore constitutional.

Why is there a need for an old style documented framework if the changes to be ratified affect all the nations and institutions connected with the EU project? Why bother formally amending every EU treaty if the ratification being sought delivers the same outcome, namely transfer of swathes of power to the EU from nation states?

What you describe as a 'bog standard international treaty' is nothing of the sort. It allows for the EU to hand itself more power without a constitution or other treaties - the so called 'ratchet' clause.

The treaty on the table forces bodies such as the European Council to become obligated to promote the values of the EU, advance its objectives and serve its interests. This despite the Council's members being the heads of state of EU member countries, and the obvious conflict of interest this causes. The only catastrophe is for people in nation states who would like to govern themselves.

It never ceases to amaze me that while every head of state in the EU details how much power will be transferred, the UK alone has a government that denies this is the case, in spite of the evidence. If this was a bog standard treaty, maybe you can explain the need for the wholly usless 'red lines' that Labour is desperate to keep mentioning?

Warenne1304 said...


the original referendum was NOT granted on the basis of it being a constitution and therefore a fundamental altering of the UK's relationship with the EU.

Blair said in the Commons when annoucning the referendum 'the treaty does not and will not alter the fundamental nature of the relationship between member states and the European Union.' [Hansard 20 April Column 155]

Blair's justification was that 'It is time to resolve once and for all whether this country, Britain, wants to be at the centre and heart of European decision making or not; time to decide whether our destiny lies as a leading partner and ally of Europe or on its margins' [Hansard 20 April Column 157].

Has that question been resolved one wonders? Have the pro-Europeans won the debate or did they just have it really quietly and we all missed it?

The soveriengty of parliament has already been undermined. It no longer has soveriegnty as it has given it up to the European Union. you are right that referendums challenege the soveriegnty of parliament butt at least they do so democratically and within our own shores. What we have presently is parliament's sovereignty undermined by an external agency.

Anonymous said...

Because Brown, like his former boss, is a scoundrel, dishomest, dishonourable, and in the pay of the Boys from Brussels. There can be no other reason

Anonymous said...

What is your position Iain? Are you more in favour of democracy?

A summary of some of the links on the 'National Conversation' launch are at: including to the document itself which is now available for download.


Iain Dale said...

Gus, are you talking about Scottish Independence or the DS petitions? I assume the latter.

In theory they are a very good innovation, but they are too easily hijacked and despite what Ben WP says above, I remain unconvinced that the PM actually sees the Top 10 every week. People need to understand that politicians are taking note of them and react accordingly, otherwise they are a waste of time. I don;t think they have got the right system in place at the moment.

Rich Tee said...

Travis Bickle 9:01AM: "So 1.8 million protesting against a scheme that has so many holes in it (privacy, dealing with errors, open to abuse (2 million uninsured cars), no public transport alternative etc etc) are being selfish are they?"

These are not the real reasons why motorists don't like it though, is it? They just want to be able to drive as much as possible, anywhere they like at any time and not worry about congestion or pollution. This simply isn't a feasible way forward for the future.

Of course motorists oppose it but sometimes governments have to impose unpopular solutions on the public for the long term good of society and the environment.

Unknown said...

Iaian - Gus is talking about the SNP's launch of a white paper called 'A National Conversation' they hope will lead to independence. It sets out the three options for the Scottish public: the status quo, more devolution, or full independence

Anonymous said...

Have a try and test the feeling, of voting about the EU...
Vote YES to Free Europe Constitution at

Chris Paul said...

4% different or dissimilar can make a hell of a difference I'd have thought. The moment has gone on this for referenda. Or petitions. It's status quo minus. With more red lines and derogations. A triumph for British diplomacy.