The government is backing plans to revolutionise the links between
parliament and the people with the launch of a new e-petitions procedure - but there are fears that it may delayed until after the next general election.
Government business manager and deputy Labour leader Harriet Harman has belatedly endorsed plans to drag the ancient paper-based petitions process into the 21st century, but is not giving MPs a chance to vote on the idea until towards the end of the year.
And parliamentary IT administrators are believed to have warned that it will take 18 months to two years after approval has been given to procure the necessary systems and get them up and running - meaning the earliest opportunity to make a start will be late 2009 to early 2010. The next general election must be held by May 2010.
The complicated change could have wide-ranging implications for the way the Commons operates, since it will become impossible for MPs to ignore petitions. One example of a successful petition was one submitted to 10 Downing Street which embarrassingly demonstrated massive opposition to road-charging just as ministers were poised to support it.
No 10 is hoping to wind down its petitions system once parliament's takes off.
Harman has formally told the procedure committee that the government welcomes its outline proposals for an e-petitions system which would "help to make a major contribution to making the House more accessible to the public".
The intention is to preserve a role for local MPs by giving them the right to endorse petitions which comply with strict procedural rules.
After a period to gather support, the Commons would formally receive the petition and the government is due to decide within two months whether it will be able to cope with expected demand.
Petitions will also be considered by select committees which may inquire into them further and propose a few for debate in the Commons chamber.
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