Why we should ban e-petitions

If MPs want to connect with voters, they should get out and engage with them, not hide behind a webs

The government's e-petition web site is live, and the people have spoken. Well, not so much spoken as e-mailed. Or filled in an e-form, if you want precision.

And you do. You clearly do. At least, your government thinks you do. It's after proof, you see. Cold, hard, incontrovertible, silicon-generated evidence. Your thoughts, codified.

There was a time when politicians took the pulse of the public. Not any more -- now they demand a computer generated sample of our political DNA.

"People have strong opinions and it does not serve democracy well if we ignore them or pretend that their views do not exist," said Sir George Young, the somewhat unlikely standard bearer for this new populist cyber-revolution. But he's right, of course. Let's take the fashionable example of capital punishment. In the fifty years since it was abolished, the very fabric of British democracy has been rent asunder by the pro-hanging lobby. Not a week goes by without another enraged mob parading down the streets of our fair land, nooses in hand, bellowing that all too familiar chant: "What do we want? Death by lethal injection! When do we want it? Now!"

Thanks to Sir George and his e-petition, calm will hopefully now be restored. The savage breasts of those who would have the necks of their fellow citizens broken in a moment of premeditated vengeance will be soothed. "OK, we didn't get a change in the law," they'll will say, "But thanks to Sir George our voices were heard. They may have been totally ignored, but never mind. Our faith in democracy is now restored."

Let's, for a moment, take Sir George at face value. What does the e-petition system say about us and our priorities as a nation? Taking today as a snapshot, and moving away from the debate on capital punishment, we can deduce the following. We don't like the Human Rights Act. By "pm, 152 people had agreed with Peter Chuah that it should be abolished. People don't want their libraries closed. Over 140 of them signed Ruth Bond's call for the government to "ensure that a comprehensive and efficient library service is provided". And apparently we want to abolish the monarchy. 114 people agree with Brian Mendes that "The heredity principle of our head of state is inimical to the principle of the sovereignty of the people. The existence of the monarchy is therefore anti-democratic".

So there you have it. Britain speaks. And it when it does, it tells us to tear up the Human Rights Act, re-open all our libraries and get Kate and Wills to start polishing their CVs.

There are some things, though, that we don't seem to care about. We're apparently not all that bothered about Ben Needham, the 21 month year old boy who went missing on the Island of Kos in 1991. Scott Morrison's call for a full police investigation into his disappearance, similar to that being undertaken for Madeleine McCann, had attracted one signature. That's eight fewer than the number of people who agreed with Stuart Loades that 26 October should be designated King Alfred the Great Day.

Nor can we seem to agree on a solution to the problems in the Middle East. The number of people calling on the government to force Israel to lift the siege of Gaza, seven, was closely paralleled by those urging the Palestinians to recognise Israel as a Jewish state, six. That said, those expressing concern over the centuries old conflict between Jew and Arab were somewhat overshadowed by the 6,000 people who want to keep Formula 1 on the BBC.

"Anything that helps to put parliament at the centre of national debate has to be a good thing," said shadow leader of the House, Hillary Benn. No Hillary, it doesn't.

The e-petition system is a grubby, tacky, sordid, sleazy, headline-grabbing gimmick. It is the worst sort of X Factor style politics, cheapening and debasing our politicians and our political process.

Far from placing power in the hands of the people, e-petitions serve only to put more power in the hands of those who have ways of influencing the people. The lobbyists, the activists, the business interests; those who have the time, money and resources to manipulate them in their favour.

If our politicians want to demonstrate empathy with those who elected them, they should get out into the country and engage with them, not lock themselves in the Cabinet Office, hiding behind a website. And they can explain face-to-face how they have absolutely no intention of withdrawing from the Human Rights Act, re-opening our libraries or abolishing the monarchy.

I've just submitted an e-petition calling on the government to ban e-petitions. I hope you'll sign it.

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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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