The two main conclusions of the inquiry were largely as predicted in this blog's previous post on the committee's inquiry.
Most importantly, the procedure committee says debates should take place in a dedicated time slot on a Monday afternoon in Westminster Hall, rather than in the Commons chamber.
"We recommend that the Standing Orders should be changed to allow the Backbench Business Committee to schedule debates on Government e-petitions between 4.30 and 7.30 pm on a Monday in Westminster Hall. The sitting would only take place if the Backbench Business Committee had set down the subjects of e-petitions for debate. The debate would take place on the motion 'That this House has considered the e-petition from [petitioners] relating to [subject of petition]'. We recommend that this change should be introduced on an experimental basis for one year and that its effectiveness should be reviewed at the end of that period. "
It has been argued that moving the debate out of the Commons chamber would suggest to the petitioners that their concerns are given a lower priority, though the committee rejects that and notes that frontbench spokesmen would be required to set out their positions during the debate.
Arguably more significant is the change to the format of the motion being debated.
Whereas last October's Commons debate on the Hillsborough disaster was on a motion which "calls for the full disclosure of all Government-related documents", presumably the new equivalent would have been that the Commons "has considered the e-petition relating to the disclosure of Hillsborough documents" – a much weaker formulation, with a vote not on supporting or opposing the actual disclosure but on agreeing just that the issue had been discussed.
Unless I have misunderstood the proposal, that seems like a backwards step.
The somewhat less significant recommendations call for clearer text on the ePetitions website and improved communication with the sponsors of the petitions. The committee says:
"We recommend that the Government should remove the sentence 'e-petitions is an easy way for you to influence government policy in the UK' from its e-petitions
website and replace it with a statement that more accurately reflects reality. We
propose: 'e-petitions are an easy way for you to make sure your concerns are heard
by Government and Parliament'.
The aim is to essentially downplay what might be achieved by an ePetition. And the MPs also call for more information for the petitioners to help them understand the process better, particularly when it comes to ensuring they know to contact an MP to take their petition forward.
For example, the ePetition on pensions uprating has reached the 100,000 threshold but so far no MPs have told the backbench business committee that they are prepared to lead a debate on it.
The committee says its report is focused on dealing with some of the more obvious flaws in the ePetitions system and does not address deeper issues of public engagement with parliamentary processes.
"We have not, in this short inquiry, sought to address wider questions about public engagement with Parliament, reform of the House's own procedures for petitions, the treatment of e-petitions other than those submitted on the Government's website, and the role of the Backbench Business Committee. We believe that all of these subjects are worthy of more considered examination by us in the future."
So another review of these issues seems likely, and could further improve public engagement with Parliament at some point in the future. It might be after this that the whole ePetitions system is transferred from the government to Parliament.
The committee also said that there should have been more consultation with Parliament before ministers took the plans forward.
"We agree with the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, Natascha Engel, that 'a lot of the problems that have arisen were perfectly foreseeable and had there been a debate, and perhaps even a vote, they would have been highlighted.'
"We regret that the Government did not see fit to refer its proposals for its e-petitions system to us or to place its plans formally before the House for debate and decision before the scheme was introduced."
I think the MPs are right that plenty of the problems thrown up were totally foreseeable.
That said, however, the government's use of ePetitions as a test of its move towards more agility in IT was always likely to involve something of a culture clash when pitched against the less-than-agile decision-making processes in Parliament.
If it had been left to Parliament, it seems more than possible that assorted committees and officials would still be pondering the £1.3m price tag previously estimated for the first year of such a project, while the government got it built and running for around £132,000.
It isn't ideal, but this is an issue where the 'just do it' approach was probably the right one. If the committee and the House wanted more control over the system then they could and should have built it themselves (although the procedure committee would probably argue that no time was ever given to vote on its previous proposals, which is a separate set of problems).
Without the government getting on with it, however, the significant level of public interest and engagement which has been generated (and which the committee welcomed) would never have materialised.
Disruptive technology wins out, and can now be iterated and improved having been introduced. Not a smooth process in this case given the inter-institutional tensions, but on balance probably as good as it was going to get. Better some innovation than none.