Shortly after MPs return from the conference recess, they will debate a petition that orders the government to ‘close all borders and prevent more immigrants from entering Britain’ because ‘foreign citizens are taking all our benefits’ and ‘many of them are trying to change UK into a Muslim country’. It then adds that ‘there is footage of foreigners destroying British soldiers [sic] graves, which is a huge disrespect to us’. The petition has sailed past the 100,000 signature threshold and has over 185,000 names on it, which means it must be considered for debate in Parliament. MPs on the Petitions Committee have given it a Westminster Hall debate on 19 October.
My lobby colleague Jon Walker of the Birmingham Mail covers this petition here, with an angry quote from Labour's Steve McCabe, who thinks that Parliament should not ‘dignify the views of total bigots with a Commons debate’. But Tory MP Paul Scully has agreed to be the lead MP for the petition, which at first glance may make him look as though he is supporting these ludicrous claims about immigrants trying to turn Britain into a Muslim country and desecrating graves. Scully, though, thinks the petition should be debated. He tells Coffee House:
‘The decision was taken [to debate it], which I was more than happy with: as over 150,000 people signed the petition they wanted to have at least the courtesy of a voice in Parliament. My views on immigration have been pretty consistent: I think that immigration in general is a good thing but that mass uncontrolled immigration is a bad thing, and I say that as someone who is half Anglo-Indian.’
He said he would use the petition debate to talk about immigration policy more generally and that he would disagree with many of the sentiments expressed by the authors of the petition. He will not be proposing the petition’s text, but that the House has considered what it says.
The question is whether this validates the petitioners’ beliefs about migrants, or whether it is an opportunity to politely disagree with them. To refuse to do so would be to suggest that Parliament doesn’t want to talk about immigration (though contrary to the claims of those who claim that they’re not allowed to debate immigration, Parliament does manage to discuss it rather a lot). But it would also suggest that MPs aren’t sufficiently confident in the powers of argument to knock out the petition’s claims while addressing its point about border and controls on immigration. It wouldn’t require that much power to knock most of the claims over, either.
Another question is how respectful of the petition’s signatories MPs need to be. Politicians always want to appear sensitive to their electors, but they are elected to Parliament to be able to argue on behalf of, and sometimes be better informed than, their constituents. In this instance, most MPs will want to vehemently disagree with the contents of this petition, which is a good test of their powers of argument and reason. But disagreeing with something isn’t a reason not to debate it. MPs cannot just select the petitions they agree with so that they can sound nice and consensual: a session of explaining why those who signed the petition are wrong could be far more valuable than one involving lots of agreeable noises about motherhood and apple pie.