There are certain rules that a public petition must comply with in order for an MP to present it to the House:
- It must address the House of Commons directly and make a clear request for the House to do something which it has the power to do, or to ask the Commons to urge the Government to take action.
- It should use respectful language and must not be offensive.
- It must have no crossings out, deletions or extra text added to it after it has been signed.
- It must be clear that the final petition is the same one that the petitioners signed.
- It should be in English, or if not in English accompanied by a translation certified by an MP.
- It should have the names, addresses and original, handwritten signatures (photocopies and electronic signatures are not permitted) of the petitioners.
- The signatures should match the description of the petitioners (i.e. if the description is ‘The petition of residents of the UK’, the signatures should be of residents of the UK).
- It should contain the full petition text with signatures on the first sheet and just the ‘prayer’ of the petition (the paragraph beginning ‘the petitioners therefore request’) on any subsequent sheets of signatures.
How are public petitions presented to the House of Commons?
Only Members of Parliament can present public petitions to the House of Commons, but they are not obliged to do so.
There are two ways in which an MP can present a public petition to the House:
MPs can present public petitions in person in the House of Commons (known as ‘on the floor of the House’). This takes place towards the end of the day, just before the adjournment debate (a 30 minute debate at the end of a sitting of the House). On a Monday, this is usually around 10pm; on a Tuesday or Wednesday it is about 7pm, and on a Thursday it is about 5pm.
An MP can make a short statement to explain who the petitioners are, the number of signatures the petition has, and what the petition is about. They should then read out the request that the petition makes to the House.
The Member then walks down to the Table (which is just in front of where the Speaker sits) and the title of the petition is read out by the Clerk (an official who advises the Speaker). The MP puts the petition into the petitions bag, which hangs behind the Speaker's Chair.
You can see whether any petitions are going to be presented each day by looking at the Order Paper.
An MP can also submit a public petition by putting it into the petitions bag, without formally presenting it on the floor of the House. They can do this at any time when the House of Commons is meeting (known as a 'sitting of the House').
These petitions are assumed to be anonymous, unless the MP tells the Clerk of Public Petitions that they would like to be named.
What happens after a public petition is presented to the House of Commons?
Regardless of how a public petition is presented to the House of Commons, the same thing happens to it afterwards.
- The petition is printed in Hansard (the Official Report of the proceedings of Parliament) and recorded in the Votes and Proceedings (which becomes the Journal).
- The text of the petition is sent to the Government department responsible for the subject matter of the petition.
- The petition would normally receive a response (known as an ‘observation’) from the department within two months of it being presented, but this might take a bit longer if there has been a recess. The response is printed in Hansard.
- The Petitions Committee oversees both public petitions and e-petitions submitted through the House of Commons and Government e-petitions website. It can recommend further action on certain petitions.