It’s been a busy and exciting first year for the new Petitions Committee and the petitions site. The e-petitions site was created so that members of the public can petition the House of Commons and ask the Government to take action. They are an easy and quick way for all British Citizens and UK residents to let Members of Parliament and the Government know about the issues they care about.
WHERE ARE PEOPLE STARTING PETITIONS?
Number of creators of accepted petitions from each parliamentary constituency July 2015 to July 2016
In this first year, it has been encouraging to see so many people deciding to get involved. Between July 2015 and July 2016, over 10 million unique email addresses were used to sign petitions in the UK. In total, there were over 20 million signatures on petitions.
WHERE ARE PEOPLE SIGNING PETITIONS?
Total number of signatures received from each parliamentary constituency July 2015 to July 2016
By making the site easy to use, we hope that a wide range of people can have their voices heard – especially people who wouldn’t normally engage with politics or Parliament.
Signing a petition can be just the start of someone’s involvement with Parliament. It can lead to them watching a debate, in person or online. They might learn about a select committee inquiry and watch an oral evidence session – or even decide to send in their own written evidence or take part in a web forum. In some cases, they may even be invited to give evidence in person to a committee.
It’s vitally important that Parliament is open to everyone and that a whole range of voices are heard at the heart of our democracy. Petitions are one way of making that happen.
NUMBER OF PETITIONS CHECKED JULY 2015 TO JULY 2016
Once a petition has been started and signed by five other people, it comes to Petitions Committee staff to be checked. The staff are checking whether petitions meet the rules that the House of Commons has agreed on for petitions.
From launching the site in July 2015 to the following July, we received 23,232 petitions. We accepted and published 6121 petitions and rejected over twice as many because they didn’t meet the rules. This shows we still have a lot to do to help people understand what types of petitions we can and cannot accept.
About half the petitions we rejected were very similar to a petition that was already open on the site. We can’t accept a new petition when we already have one about a very similar issue. This avoids splitting support for a cause across multiple petitions. You are more likely to get action on an issue if you sign and share a single petition.
The other main reason we reject petitions is because they are asking for something that the UK Government and the House of Commons are not responsible for. When this happens, we try to help people by explaining who is responsible for the action they want. For example, they may need to petition their local council or one of the devolved Parliaments or Assemblies in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. We always explain why we have rejected petitions.
WHY HAVE PETITIONS BEEN REJECTED?
THE WORK OF THE PETITIONS COMMITTEE
We are a group of MPs from different political parties, independent from the Government. We have responsibility for overseeing the petitions site and ensuring that petitioners are treated fairly. We also make decisions about which petitions we take action on. This doesn’t mean that we can change the law or do what the petition is asking for. It means that we can decide that the issue raised by a petition needs to be looked at further. That might mean that it needs to be debated by MPs or investigated by an expert committee. Sometimes we decide to investigate petitions ourselves and make recommendations to the Government for action.
GOVERNMENT RESPONSES TO PETITIONS
When a petition reaches 10,000 signatures, we send it to the relevant Government department for a response. In the first year, the Government responded to 264 petitions. It should respond within 14 days and no later than 21. As a Committee, we keep an eye on how well the Government is keeping to these deadlines, and press Ministers to do better when we need to. We also look at the quality of responses to petitions. If we don’t think that the Government has given a clear and direct answer to a petition, we ask Ministers for a better response.
WHAT HAVE PEOPLE BEEN PETITIONING ABOUT THIS YEAR?
Whenever a petition receives more than 100,000 signatures, we consider whether it should be debated in the House of Commons. Almost all petitions with more than 100,000 signatures are debated. If they’re not, it’s usually because there’s recently been a debate on the same subject, or there’s already a debate happening soon.
The Petitions Committee has been given our own dedicated time just for petition debates on Monday afternoons from 4.30pm. It’s quite rare for MPs who aren’t in the Government to be able to schedule debates. Having our own dedicated time for debating your petitions shows how seriously petitions are taken by the House of Commons.
From the outset, we have aimed to maximise the potential for petitioners and other members of the public to be involved with the debates that are triggered by petitions. Over the first year we’ve held events where petitioners have shared their views in person with MPs before a debate, and provided opportunities for people to share their views online with MPs in order to inform the debate - including chats on Twitter and Facebook and discussions on existing forums such as NetMums, Mumsnet, and Money Saving Expert.
It’s important to be clear about what these debates actually mean. They don’t, for example, result in a vote to implement the request of a petition. This often leads people to ask “Well, what’s the point then?”. The answer is that raising your issue through a debate in Parliament is a great step for any campaign. You should never underestimate the power of making the Government defend its position, or respond to an issue it might not otherwise have been thinking about. It’s also a great way to raise the issue amongst MPs, who can then continue to press the Government for action even after the debate has finished. Petition debates are now among the most watched and read debates in Parliament, so they are a great way of raising the awareness of your campaign amongst the wider public and within the media. A debate will almost certainly not be the end of your campaign but it is a hugely valuable step.
HOW MANY PEOPLE ARE SIGNING PETITIONS?
Number of unique users from each parliamentary constituency
As a Committee, we also have the power to carry out our own inquiries (in the same way as other House of Commons select committees do). We obviously can’t investigate every petition, so we try to choose petitions where our investigation could make a real difference – by bringing new information and voices into Parliament and shedding new light on a subject. We look for petitions that have a substantial amount of support, on issues that are not already being debated or investigated in Parliament and where we are not satisfied with the Government’s response to the petition.
FUNDING FOR RESEARCH INTO BRAIN TUMOURS
Our first inquiry, which began in October last year, was into a petition which called for more funding for brain tumour research. The petition was started by Maria Lester to mark the anniversary of the death of her brother, Stephen, from a brain tumour. Stephen was diagnosed when he was just 19, and died when he was 26. When we first came to look at the petition, it had about 20,000 signatures and had had a response from the Government. We were disappointed that the response did not give us confidence that the Government had grasped the seriousness of the concerns highlighted by the petition. We therefore decided that the subject deserved more detailed examination.
We were keen that this should be a public-led, as well as public-initiated, inquiry. We opened a web thread on which people could share their views and experiences, and received 1100 responses in five days. We invited some of those who responded to a private event, where we were able to talk in more detail informally in small groups. We also held two formal oral evidence sessions, including taking evidence from the petition’s creator, Maria Lester, and her parents, Peter and Elizabeth Realf. The evidence we heard was compelling and the whole Committee were in agreement that something needed to be done so in March this year we published a report calling on the Government to take action.
It was standing room only in Westminster Hall when the petition, and our report, was debated on 18 April – for MPs and the public alike. In response, the then Minister responsible, George Freeman, announced that the Government now accepted that it needed to do more to increase the amount of funding for brain tumour research. This was a huge change from the Government’s initial response to the petition. The Government has set up a working group of clinicians, charities and officials (including those involved with the petition and Peter Realf, Stephen’s father to discuss how to address the need for more brain tumour research. As a Committee, we will be keeping a close watch on this to make sure that some concrete actions come out of it. Maria Lester who started the petition and Sue Farrington Smith from the charity Brain Tumour Research have both written short pieces for us about their experiences.
HIGH HEELS AND WORK PLACE DRESS CODES
This petition was started by Nicola Thorp after she was sent home from work for refusing to wear high heels. The Committee decided to see how widespread the problem was. We opened a web thread and received over 700 stories from people who had had similar experiences to Nicola’s at work. We invited two women who had commented on the thread, along with Nicola and some other experts, to give formal oral evidence to the Committee. It was a real eye opener for us to hear in detail the experience of female workers. Nicola has written a short piece for us about her experience.
MENINGITIS B VACCINE
One of the biggest petitions we received in our first year was the Meningitis B vaccination petition, which was signed by well over 800,000 people. The petition achieved most of its support after the parents of Faye Burdett, who tragically died at the age of two, shared their story in public. Before scheduling a debate on this petition, we wanted to investigate the issue to ensure that the debate on this important issue was well informed. We worked with our colleagues on the Health Committee and heard from families – including Mr and Mrs Burdett and Lee Booth, who created the petition. We also heard from charities and medical experts. It was important for us to give the families the chance to have their voices heard in Parliament, on an equal footing with medical experts and government officials.
The petition was debated on 25 April. During the debate, Health Minister, Jane Ellison MP, announced a new Government awareness campaign about the symptoms of meningitis. This came in direct response to some of the points raised by families in oral evidence. The Government is also reviewing how decisions about the cost-effectiveness of vaccines are made. This work is still ongoing - the Minister said that the Government would publish the report of this group when it is ready later this year and share it with the Petitions and Health Committees. As a Committee we are monitoring the Government’s work on this very closely. Lee Booth has written a short piece for us about his experience.
SUGARY DRINKS TAX
Another petitioner, Jamie Oliver, along with the campaign group Sustain, created a petition calling for a tax on sugary drinks. The Health Committee was already doing an inquiry into the Government’s policy on childhood obesity, so it made sense for us to refer this petition to them as part of their work. Jamie Oliver and Sustain were invited to give evidence in person to the MPs on the Health Committee as part of its work.
At the end of its inquiry, the Health Committee recommended that the Government should introduce a tax on sugary drinks. We arranged to schedule a debate on the petition to coincide with the publication of the Health Committee’s report. Despite saying that it “had no plans” to introduce such a levy in its initial response to the petition, on Wednesday 16 March the Chancellor announced that the Government would be introducing a sugar levy on the soft drinks industry in 2018. Obviously it wasn’t the petition alone which led to this – but it was a significant part of the campaign which ultimately led to the changes.
PROMOTING THE WORK OF PARLIAMENT MORE WIDELY
We do our best to keep people who create and sign petitions informed, not just about the progress of their petition, but also about other debates or inquiries that are happening in Parliament on the same subject. For example, we try to link petitioners up with the work of other select committees, so that people signing petitions know about other ways in which they can share their views with MPs. This has led to members of the public, who might otherwise not have been aware of these committee inquiries, to take part.
For example, the creator of a petition calling for transpeople to have the right to define their own gender was invited to give evidence to the Women and Equalities Committee as part of its inquiry into Transgender Equality. In its report, the Committee recommended that the process should be reformed and quoted the evidence given by the petition creator.
E-petition debates and other debates in Parliament which we have emailed petitioners about are some of the most watched and most read debates ever. Our emails have helped increase the readership of Hansard (the record of everything that is said in Parliament) by 75% and the viewing of Westminster Hall debates by around 900%.
Getting a change in Government policy is not an easy task – not even for experienced MPs - so we can appreciate how frustrating it must feel at times for people outside Westminster. All petitions, however large or small, will raise the profile of an issue. It is unrealistic, of course, to expect all petitions to lead directly to change. Sometimes it can take years of campaigning and hundreds of petitions.
Our historical “petition of the month” feature illustrates that petitions have often played an important part in raising awareness of an issue as part of a wider campaign. This was particularly apparent in the celebration of the 150th anniversary of the first mass women’s suffrage petition which we celebrated on 7th June 2016. Others include abolition of the slave trade and the 1816 petitioning campaign to repeal the income tax.
But not all campaigns take decades to achieve their aim. In our first year, we’ve already seen petitions change Government policy and have an influence on what happens in Parliament. As we look ahead to the second year of the Committee’s work, we hope to see even more people using the petitions system to engage with Parliament and make a difference.
WHERE ARE USERS OF THE PETITIONS SITE COMING FROM?
PETITIONS WHICH WERE SCHEDULED FOR DEBATE BY THE PETITIONS COMMITTEE IN ITS FIRST YEAR
To debate a vote of no confidence in Health Secretary the Right Hon Jeremy Hunt (Contracts and conditions in the NHS)
Make the production, sale and use of cannabis legal.
Stop allowing immigrants into the UK
Make an allowance for up to 2 weeks term time leave from school for holiday
Introduce a tax on sugary drinks in the UK to improve our children's health
Don't kill our bees! Immediately halt the use of Neonicotinoids on crops
Keep the NHS Bursary
Block Donald J Trump from UK entry; Don't ban Trump from the United Kingdom
Scrap plans forcing self employed & small business to do 4 tax returns yearly
Make fair transitional state pension arrangements for 1950’s women
Scrap the £35k threshold for non-EU citizens settling in the UK
Jeremy Hunt to resume meaningful contract negotiations with the BMA
Fund more research into brain tumours, the biggest cancer killer of under-40s
Give the Meningitis B vaccine to ALL children, not just newborn babies
Stop Cameron spending British taxpayers’ money on Pro-EU Referendum leaflets
Restrict the use of fireworks to reduce stress and fear in animals and pets
Stop spending a fixed 0.7 per cent slice of our national wealth on Foreign Aid
Include expressive arts subjects in the Ebacc
No more school penalty fines and bring back the 10 day authorised absence
Stop retrospective changes to the student loans agreement
PETITIONS COMMITTEE INQUIRIES IN ITS FIRST YEAR:
Funding for research into brain tumours Meningitis B Vaccine High heels and work place dress codes
BRAIN TUMOUR RESEARCH
'My brother Stephen Realf was just 26 when he died from a brain tumour. As the first anniversary of his death approached, I decided to write an article about his short life for YOU magazine - where I work - to try to raise awareness of this cruel illness.
While researching my piece, I came into contact with a charity called Brain Tumour Research, which really opened my eyes to some shocking statistics. They told me that brain tumours were the biggest cancer killer of children and the under 40s, that they were on the rise (up by around 25% since the 1970s) and yet they receive just 1.5% of the national spend on research into cancer. (To put this into perspective, brain tumours received just £35 million out of £4.5 billion spent on cancer research between 2002 and 2012, compared with £351 million for breast cancer and £290 million for leukaemia.)
I was deeply saddened by these figures, so I decided to end my article by launching a petition calling for increased funding for research. It was easy to set up - I just had to find five friends to support it - and after it launched I was able to easily track the number of signatures online.
A couple of months after the petition launched, I heard from the Petitions Committee, who had decided to make it the subject of their first ever inquiry. Along with charities, medical experts and patients, I was invited to Westminster to give evidence - and I felt this was a wonderful opportunity for all of us to make our voices heard. Later, when the Committee’s excellent report came out, it stated that “successive governments have failed brain tumour patients and their families for decades.” That felt like a real milestone in the campaign.
About a fortnight before the petition closed, I was still about 40,000 signatures short of the 100,000 needed for parliament to consider a debate. It seemed like a tall order, but with the help of family, friends, colleagues, Brain Tumour Research and others - especially the brain tumour patients and their families who shared their own moving stories in the media - we managed to hit the target with three days to go, and the petition eventually closed with 120,000 names.
In April this year, I was invited back to Westminster to watch the debate. It wasn’t quite the argumentative discussion I was expecting, as there was such overwhelming support for more research, but I did feel very privileged to have the chance to see democracy in action!
This summer, the Government issued its formal response to the inquiry report, acknowledging that “a greater level of brain tumour research is urgently needed so that patients can experience better outcomes”. It has now promised to create a working group of clinicians, charities and officials to look at ways to address the issue, and I very much hope it will be the start of real, meaningful action.
This isn’t the end of my quest. There are still young lives being lost to this cruel disease: in fact one of the inspirational young patients I met through the campaign died just yesterday while I was writing this piece. A petition alone is not going to change the world. But perhaps - just perhaps - it might catch the attention of the politicians who can.'
BRAIN TUMOUR RESEARCH
Sue Farrington Smith
'We lost my sister’s little girl Alison Phelan to a brain tumour in June 2001, three weeks before her eighth birthday. We were shocked and horrified to discover how little had been invested into research into this devastating disease and to realise that we would lose her.
Ali’s family and friends set up the charity Ali’s Dream. We knew we couldn’t influence change alone and led the coming together of many UK brain tumour charities. We launched the national charity, Brain Tumour Research, in 2009, with the support of member charity The Diana Ford Trust who changed their name.
We also knew we needed to involve the Government. I contacted my local MP John Bercow, now Speaker of the House of Commons. Like many parliamentarians we have met since, John has been incredibly supportive. Now Patron of Brain Tumour Research, John supported the launch of the All-Party Parliamentary group on Brain Tumours in 2005. Through this group, we have continued to call for the Government and larger cancer charities to invest in a cure. John also hosts regular events at Speakers’ House for us.
We’ve always understood that to achieve real rapid change, charity funding needs to be accompanied by Government financial support and have supported several petitions to Parliament over the years. When Maria Lester approached us in 2015, a year after the death of her brother, Stephen Realf, we welcomed the opportunity to champion her cause.
We worked closely with Maria and her family to create a petition that married Stephen’s story with clear demands of Ministers and Government, based on our ‘Invest in a Cure’
manifesto. Calling our activists and supporters into action was crucial to the success of the campaign. Maria and her family were not the only ones to feel disenfranchised we needed to help their voices be heard by politicians.
Brain Tumour Research supported activists to engage with their MPs on every level. Inside Parliament at PMQs, and outside with letters from constituents and clinicians writing in the media we also developed off-line and on-line activities for our supporters, building campaign momentum and awareness.
The Petition closed in February 2016 with 120,129 signatures. At one point, adding 1,000 signatures every 45 minutes. Our supporters were elated to finally have their stories heard. The charity was thrilled to have been a part of this movement which took the issue of brain tumour research right into the heart of Westminster.
This groundswell of public opinion was noticed by the Petitions Committee at an early stage and they launched an inquiry just three months after the launch of Maria’s petition. The Committee’s report came out in March 2016, concluding that brain tumour research funding had been “neglected by successive Governments for decades”.
The petition was accepted for debate in Westminster Hall. Over 70 MPs attended and the then Life Sciences Minister, George Freeman MP, committed to set up a Task and Finish working group to examine research funding. We will play a key role in driving forward this issue through participation in the working group. The opportunity we now have to work alongside the highest levels of Government to really effect change, would not have been possible without the mobilisation of our supporters. Together we will find a cure.'
'Last year I was sent home from work without pay because I refused to wear high heels in the office. I was told that it was ‘company policy’ to require women to wear 2-4 inch heels at all times.
When I called a citizens advice line, I was shocked to hear that an employer has the legal right to distinguish between a male and female dress code, as long as they are seen to be treating both sexes fairly. I argued that asking women to wear heels for 40 hours a week, was unfair and clearly sexist. Not only was it a health and safety issue, but the whole purpose and design of heels is intended to make a woman look ‘more attractive’. The same goes with makeup. There is no reason for a woman to have to wear either to be better at her job.
It seemed to me that the law was unclear, and was currently working against female employees. So I did what any millennial with a burning question would do…I googled it. ‘How do you change the law?’ and one of the results returned to me included a link to the parliament petitions site.
I set to work writing up a petition. It’s not as complicated as you might think, and you only have to write a short title, and a brief description of your cause. You do, however have to be clear on what it is you want to achieve, and why.
Once approved, I then shared the petition on facebook and it was then shared hundreds of times. Because of the nature of the petition, it got a lot of people talking, and sparked a debate….and in turn was picked up by news outlets and shared all over the media. I think the fact that the petition was created using the parliament site and guidelines, meant that people took it more seriously, as it was clear, depending on the amount of signatures, a government response was guaranteed.
I had never expected the petition to gain over 100,000 signatures in only three days, and was delighted to attend an inquiry into dress code policy at Westminster some weeks later. And I am currently waiting to hear if the decision will be made to debate the issue to parliament. I hope it does, as I think that the response to the petition shows that this is an issue that many people care about and the time has come for a change in the law to set an example for women’s equality in the workplace, and to move forward in breaking down harmful gender stereotypes.
The attention that the petition received was overwhelming, and at times I thought ‘What on earth have I got myself in for?’, but I felt very strongly about the cause, and the fact that I was sharing a petition through the parliament petitions site made such a difference as it was taken seriously by my peers.'
MENINGITIS B PETITION
'I started the Meningitis B petition after a trip to the doctors for my youngest daughters regular set of inoculations. I was aware that the MenB vaccine had just become available on the NHS and made enquiries about my daughter having it.
I was stunned when I was told my 6 month old daughter was “too old” to get it, and that only newborns would be getting the vaccine. At this point I didn’t really know much about meningitis, but I knew that it could be deadly. I went home and did some research and was horrified at what I found: My daughter, and therefore thousands of other young children, were at serious risk of dying or suffering life changing disabilities, even though a vaccine was available!
I was aware of the petitions website, as I had signed a few petitions before, and decided that I would try and change the system so that no children would be at risk of this horrendous disease.
I started writing the petition, trying to be concise as well as factually correct. I hoped that I would raise awareness and bring it into the public eye - I never imagined how far it would go!
I started the petition on the 14th September 2015. Despite my best efforts to get it to go viral, it didn’t. There were moments where I thought ‘this is It’, but the numbers didn’t rise as fast as I’d hoped. I couldn’t understand it, why were people not signing, it would potentially save children’s lives I expected everyone to sign and support it!
The numbers rose month by month, I got excited when I started getting into the hundreds!.. I’d spent ages tweeting and posting on Facebook etc., but it really wasn’t going anywhere. That was until the night of 13th February, I remember it well as I was away for the weekend with my family, I said to my wife something’s happening- the numbers were starting to climb faster than at any point since the petition started! I was contacted by members of a Facebook group of mums who had all had children in the same month; Faye was one of those children…
After chatting online to various members I became aware that Faye had contracted Meningitis B and was in a serious condition in hospital. Being a father and having children of a similar age, it really affected me. I started to think….. ‘What if I’d started the petition earlier?’ ‘If more people had signed it would she any many others be so ill?’
Then the worst possible news came the next day, on 14th February that Faye died. I was devastated- I even felt guilty (as if it was my fault that I’d not done enough.) I ‘d never felt like this, let alone about someone I’d never met! From that point onwards, and after the pictures were released, the petition soared. People woke up to the dangers of Meningitis (B). I had a new drive, along with the Facebook group, we tweeted the world, and many of us got barred for sending too many Tweets! We needed people to realise there was a vaccine available to stop children dying!
The numbers were unbelievable, the petition reached 10,000 within days and 100,000 within a week; there were 50,000 signatures an HOUR at some times… The phone started ringing constantly, I’m not sure how as I’m ex-directory and had only given my number out once! Meningitis B became headline news, EVERYWHERE!!!
It started off with local radio interviews, and then local TV, then I had to go into BBC Newcastle to do 12 radio interviews nationwide! Journalists were ringing up at all times, TV cameras wanted to come round, with very little notice. It got quite stressful at times; I didn’t want to let anyone down, as the publicity was doing the petition wonders. It was hard though, working, being a father and doing all the media stuff! It became a bit of a joke between me and my wife as to who had been in touch that day, BBC, ITV, Channel 5, SKY News etc…
I’d been invited on a few TV shows, all in London and had to decline as I was the primary carer for my daughter, I just couldn’t do it all… it was hard for my family during this time, as I had this as my primary focus. I attended Portcullis House to give evidence, there were media crews and reporters everywhere. I appeared live on SKY News, I don’t know what had happened to the ’shy guy who shunned the limelight,’ but I just wanted to do the best I could for the campaign. The frenzy continued for weeks, thankfully some periods were quieter than others!
My second time to London was via Manchester where I’d appeared on BBC Breakfast with Mia’s mum and dad, who gave a heart wrenching account of what had happened with their daughter. List ning to their story was very difficult, but it also gave me a renewed purpose and determination to persuade government that the rules should change and no more parents would suffer the heartache they had.
I arrived in Westminster Hall and had a look round before going into the hearing, my heart was pounding and I felt overwhelmed…..I knew what I had to do, but it was so far removed from my comfort zone. Seeing the parents of the children who died from Meningitis gave me the strength I needed. I hoped that whatever happened or what I said that I wouldn’t let them and every other parent down. As I spoke the thought of my own children, Isabelle and Hannah, keep me going- I was doing it for them!
Despite all the evidence, not the mention the 823,000+ signatures on the petition, the government rejected the petition. I was gutted, absolutely gutted! I thought, ‘how can they ignore all that evidence?’,’ how can they keep allowing our children to die and be dismissed so callously?’ I wasn’t expecting vast changes, but I had hoped for more than I got. The meningitis charities were dismayed, as were parents of children that had been lost or suffered meningitis. The JCVI did concede sometime later, that the meningitis B vaccine would be cost effective to be given to the under 2’s, but there wasn’t enough of the vaccine to implement it, bitter sweet!
I was truly gutted by the decision, it didn’t hit me until a few days later though…… I had helped to save children’s lives through awareness alone, for that, it had all been worthwhile. A new TV awareness campaign is due to be launched soon, and parents are paying privately to protect their children, where they can afford to do so. I feel for those that can’t afford to, and hope that someday that may change. I have paid £500 to get my children vaccinated, which is an awful lot of money, but what price can you put on a child’s life?
I would encourage anyone to raise a petition if they feel strongly about an issue. However, don’t expect it to change the world, it will more than likely just raise awareness to your cause… unfortunately cost seems to be the biggest barrier, even against saving children’s lives!'
SUSTAIN: THE ALLIANCE FOR BETTER FOOD AND FARMING
Malcolm Clark, co-ordinator, Children’s Food Campaign
The Children’s Food Campaign wants to see healthier and more sustainable food as available, affordable and advertised as less healthy options currently are. When the Government announced it would be formulating a strategy to tackle childhood obesity, we sought to make the case for brave and bold action.
In September 2015 we teamed up with Jamie Oliver to launch a petition on the new parliamentary petitions website, calling for a sugary drinks tax. Receiving a Government response if we got 10,000 signatures, and the potential of a debate in Parliament if we reached over 100,000 encouraged us to go down this route. Less than 48 hours after the petition was launched, we had exceeded both milestones.
With the petitions process being so new, it felt like uncharted territory … an exciting position, but also a challenge and time-consuming to handle. It was initially frustrating that the Petitions Committee passed on our issue to the Health Select Committee, but actually that turned out to be a real positive.
I was invited to give evidence to the Health Committee’s inquiry into the childhood obesity strategy. It was my first time being officially ‘grilled’ by MPs, and I was nervous. But after the first round of questions, it dawned on me that I was the expert in the room, and settled in to enjoying responding to the MPs and making my points.
We continued asking for a Westminster Hall debate, and that was finally granted. In fact we had a double-bill of the launch of the Health Committee’s report and the debate on the same day – great for media coverage and for amplifying our key campaign calls, which the Health Committee agreed with. The debate enabled MPs of all parties to speak out publicly for the first time in support of a sugary drinks tax. It also gave us a platform to build on both within and beyond Parliament … which ultimately led to George Osbourne announcing a soft drinks industry levy in the Budget in March 2016 – a commitment which has since been reaffirmed by Theresa May’s Government, by putting the measure at the heart of their Childhood Obesity Plan.'