The policy power of the Westminster parliament: The empirical evidence


The UK parliament continues to be dismissed as powerless in many academic and popular accounts. Drawing on a large body of quantitative and qualitative research conducted over more than 15 years, a recent article by Meg Russell and Philip Cowley argued that the Westminster parliament is in fact an institution with significant policy influence. Meg Russell summarises here.

In the study of public policy, legislatures tend to be portrayed as relatively weak institutions. This applies to the UK parliament in particular. The classic comparative view associates the Westminster model, of which the UK is seen as the emblematic case, with centralised executive power and an acquiescent legislature. Assumptions of Westminster’s weakness are not, however, confined to comparative scholars or to the recent past. In a 2011 article Matthew Flinders and Alexandra Kelso traced gloom-laden statements of British parliamentary powerlessness back over a century and more. Meanwhile, a public policy textbook published in 2012 reflected the view of many scholars in the field when stating that ‘Despite the name “parliamentary democracy”, the parliament plays only a limited role in decision-making in the British Westminster model’ (p. 139).

Yet in recent years scholars specialising in the study of the UK parliament have found evidence of significant parliamentary influence on the policy process. This may in part be due to changes in parliamentary structures and behaviour, but also simply result from more exhaustive research approaches. I have contributed to this literature through my work on the House of Lords, and the policy impact of the Westminster parliament. Professor Philip Cowley has also contributed greatly, particularly through his work on the Commons. In a recent article in the journal Governance we drew these various strands together – using four large quantitative data sets, complemented by more than 500 interviews with key parliamentary and government actors – to demonstrate that Westminster’s influence is both substantial and probably rising. We conclude that parliament’s critics make two key mistakes – by concentrating largely on the decision-making stage of the policy process, and focusing almost exclusively on visible parliamentary impact (e.g. government defeats on legislation). We broaden the focus to take into account both visible and less visible impact, with a particular interest in anticipated reactions. Our arguments are summarised in this post.

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The Lords, politics and finance


In the aftermath of Monday’s Lords defeats on tax credit cuts there has been much talk of a ‘constitutional crisis’. In this post Meg Russell argues that whilst Monday’s vote was certainly unusual, the most significant change is the wider political context: that it is a Conservative government on the receiving end of repeated defeats in the Lords. Much like Labour ministers under Blair and Brown, Conservative ministers will need to learn how to handle a relatively assertive House of Lords in which they lack a partisan majority.

A Conservative government seems to be at war with the House of Lords. The Daily Telegraph claims that the Lords is ‘undermining democracy’. What on earth is going on? Has the Lords suddenly lost hold of its senses and begun acting entirely without precedent? To listen to some government supporters, in particular, one would assume so. Ministers have suffered a string of defeats since May 2015 – a total of 19 up to and including this Monday. The most controversial, of course, was the chamber’s decision to delay approval of the tax credits regulations, which has caused some to proclaim a ‘constitutional crisis’– and has subsequently sparked the government to announce a review into the chamber’s policy powers.

There are aspects of Monday’s tax credits vote which were undoubtedly unusual. As explored in an earlier post on the Constitution Unit blog last week, defeats in the Lords on ‘delegated legislation’ (the proposed vehicle for the tax credit changes) are relatively rare. There have been only four previous occasions when such measures were blocked outright by the Lords. None of these (on sanctions against Rhodesia in 1968, the London mayoral elections in 2000, the Manchester ‘supercasino’ in 2007 and access to legal aid in 2012) had such major financial implications as Monday’s vote. This fuelled claims that the Lords was breaking centuries-old convention by not respecting the Commons’ financial primacy. Yet the parent act, the Tax Credits Act 2002, had explicitly given the House of Lords a veto over such orders – even though it is quite possible for explicitly financial legislation (as detailed in this excellent Hansard Society blog) to create orders that require the approval only of the Commons. The well-respected Lords Statutory Instruments Scrutiny Committee had drawn the measure to the attention of the House on the basis of inadequate information about its impacts (a circumstance which the 2006 Joint Committee on Conventions explicitly suggested could merit use of the veto power (para 229)). In fact, the most clearly innovative thing about Monday’s vote was that the Lords did not reject the government’s proposals outright via a ‘fatal’ motion, but only imposed a delay – in the case of  Baroness Meacher’s motion until further information became available.

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The triumph of EVEL: What next for the English Question?

akfBTj4-_reasonably_smallDan Gover

Yesterday MPs voted by 312 to 270 to adopt changes to the House of Commons Standing Orders that will allow ‘English votes for English laws’ to take effect. In this post Michael Kenny and Daniel Gover highlight some of the issues that will need careful monitoring and reflect on the wider implications, arguing that the implementation of EVEL is very likely to impact on debates about the future constitutional character of the UK.

MPs voted yesterday to approve controversial changes to the House of Commons Standing Orders that implement the principle of ‘English votes for English laws’ (EVEL). This attempt by the governing party to address the ‘West Lothian Question’, and to frame its response as a key part of its answer to the question of English devolution, is a watershed moment in the history of parliamentary government in the UK. The ethos underpinning the development of devolution in non-English parts of the UK has now been applied to the largest territory within the UK, and the Conservative party has moved away from the unionist assumption that England rests content to be governed by British institutions. This effort to identify and institutionalise an English dimension to the workings of the UK parliament has attracted a good deal of procedural comment and political controversy. But whatever the political calculations and interests it reflects, the constitutional significance of this attempt to offer some form of devolution for England should not be overlooked.

English votes for English laws: a recap

Under the new procedures the Commons Speaker will be required to ‘certify’ bills, or clauses within them, that meet two criteria: first, they relate only to England (or England and Wales); and second, comparable policy decisions are devolved elsewhere in the UK. On such legislation, MPs representing English (or English and Welsh) constituencies will have the opportunity to give their ‘consent’ to the provisions, through two new mechanisms: first, a Legislative Grand Committee of English (or English and Welsh) MPs will vote on a ‘consent motion’ prior to the bill’s third reading; and second, a ‘double-majority’ voting system will apply when MPs consider Lords amendments (which will also apply on secondary legislation). The effect of these reforms is a ‘double veto’: to pass, certified legislation will require the support both of UK-wide MPs and those representing English (and/or English and Welsh) constituencies. Detailed discussion of the government’s original proposals can be found here. These changes will come into effect immediately, and will affect the passage of a number of bills, even though there is no immediate threat of a ‘West Lothian’ situation in the House of Commons.

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The Lords and tax credits: fact and myth


The power of the House of Lords over ‘delegated legislation’, and financial matters, has become a hot topic due to threats to defeat the government’s planned cuts to tax credits. There have been claims and counterclaims about the conventions governing these matters, and also some fairly wild claims about how the government might retaliate if defeated. Here Meg Russell provides some factual background.

The current question over tax credits

The current argument concerns the Tax Credits (Income Thresholds and Determination of Rates) (Amendment) Regulations 2015, published on 7 September, which significantly limit people’s eligibility for tax credits. This is a piece of ‘delegated legislation’ (a ‘statutory instrument’) meaning that it is subject to an expedited parliamentary process, much less onerous than the process for passing a bill (see summary here). The government is seeking to use powers delegated to it under the Tax Credits Act 2002, which allows for regular updating of rates and bands. This kind of delegated power is commonplace, to ensure that a new bill is not required every time there are small changes to the implementation of policy. Delegated legislation may be either ‘affirmative’, meaning that it requires the explicit approval of both chambers of parliament, or ‘negative’ meaning that it will pass into law automatically unless one of the chambers objects. This is an affirmative instrument, which was agreed by the Commons on 15 September, and is due for debate in the Lords on Monday. Notably, delegated legislation cannot be amended, only rejected or agreed.

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Farewell to the Commons: Reflections on parliamentary change over 40 years


On 4 March Jack Straw and Sir George Young spoke at a Constitution Unit valedictory event where they considered how parliament has changed since the 1970s. Sam Sharp offers an overview of the discussion.

Jack Straw and Sir George Young have 77 years of parliamentary experience between them – Straw was first elected in 1979, and Young in 1974. With both set to retire in May, they reflected on how parliament has changed since they joined in the seventies. The event was chaired by Tony Wright, while Meg Russell provided a ‘myth busting’ role. Both speakers described a parliament that has changed for the better, in both its culture and efficiency.

For Jack Straw one of the biggest changes has been in the atmosphere of the House of Commons. He remembered previously having to ‘swim through thick clouds of smoke’, with the chamber itself being the only complete escape. Alcohol abuse was also prevalent and Tony Wright recalled actually once carrying a passed out member through the division lobby. In general, parliament was very white and male with a Gentleman’s Club culture and the few women present were very much made to feel like outsiders. Straw argued that the change in the gender balance, although ‘not far enough’, has ‘actually changed how the House feels’.

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Does Commons “financial privilege” on Lords amendments need reform?

During its initial passage through the House of Lords in 2011-12, the government suffered seven defeats on amendments to the Welfare Reform Bill. The defeats concerned highly contentious policies, including changes to housing support (the “bedroom tax”), the introduction of a benefit cap, disability benefits, and the reform of the child maintenance system. When the bill returned to the Commons, MPs overturned all seven defeats and asserted their “financial privilege” (or primacy over tax and spending matters). It was argued that, by convention, the Lords could not then insist on its changes. The episode revealed significant confusion about the process, and led to claims that the government had abused parliamentary procedure to avoid unwelcome scrutiny of its policies.

Even to seasoned observers of parliament, financial privilege may be something of a mystery. To shed light on it, Meg Russell and I conducted a research project into the operation of financial privilege between 1974 and 2013, funded by the Nuffield Foundation. The aim of our research was twofold: to clarify how financial privilege works in practice; and to consider whether arrangements in Westminster should be reformed. Yesterday we published our conclusions in Demystifying Financial Privilege, and launched these at an event in parliament, with responses from well-respected Crossbencher and senior barrister Lord Pannick, and former first parliamentary counsel Sir Stephen Laws.

One major complaint voiced is that the government controls financial privilege for its own political purposes. In reality, ministers have far less involvement than is sometimes assumed. When Lords amendments are received by the Commons, an impartial clerk first identifies whether any have tax or spending implications (or “engage” financial privilege). Government officials will often argue their case – which, as we identify in the report, is a potential problem – but it is ultimately for the clerk to make a decision based on precedent. The next step is for MPs to decide what to do with each amendment. They have three broad choices: if they agree it, financial privilege is automatically “waived”; if they make an alternative proposal (eg an amendment in lieu), financial privilege does not arise; and if they reject the amendment outright, financial privilege is “invoked”. Although the government usually determines the Commons’ choice (by virtue of its majority), it does not determine whether privilege was engaged on the amendment in the first place.

A second complaint, particularly made since 2010, is that financial privilege is being used in a way that it wasn’t in the past. Financial privilege is certainly not a new innovation: it is one element of the Commons’ “financial primacy” over the Lords, a principle that dates back centuries and was formalised in the late 17th century. The Commons claimed financial privilege on Lords amendments throughout the period we studied (160 amendments, 1974-2013), with the highest absolute number (36) in the 1974-79 parliament. However, in 2010-13 the Commons asserted financial privilege in response to a particularly high proportion of Lords defeats: 24%, compared to just 6% in 2005-10. But this change did not result from privilege being interpreted more broadly than before (although we do identify the possibility of “creep” over a longer period); instead, the key political battlegrounds are now over spending matters, which means that a higher proportion of Lords defeats engage financial privilege.

An important complaint is that the financial privilege process lacks transparency. At present there are no clear definitions as to what falls within Commons financial privilege. And once privilege has been invoked on an amendment, the Commons gives no explanation as to why. Such lack of transparency makes it difficult for peers to anticipate whether financial privilege will be applied to their amendments, and has fed perceptions outside parliament that the process is being abused. There is also some lack of transparency about how the Lords may respond when faced by a claim of Commons financial privilege. Notably, some overseas legislatures manage arrangements better in this respect: in Australia, statements are published explaining how and why an amendment is judged to be financial, while in Canada statements have specified the costs involved.

It seems clear to us that existing arrangements surrounding financial privilege are unsatisfactory, and that more could be done in particular to improve transparency. Both Houses (especially the Commons) should consider how clearer information could be provided about financial privilege, for example by expanding the text on the parliament website. We believe it is reasonable for peers to be given an explanation of why their amendments engage privilege, including an indication of the amount of money involved. Most importantly, the Commons should publish a clear definition of what types of amendment it considers to be covered by privilege. The Lords should also make clearer in its own guide to procedure its interpretation of how the Lords may respond to the Commons’ claim of financial privilege.

Commenting on the report at the launch event, Lord Pannick (who has experienced his own amendments being rejected on financial privilege grounds, without clear reasons) said “the Constitution Unit, Meg Russell and Daniel Gover have done a very great service in identifying the principles of financial privilege” and said that the report was “particularly persuasive” with respect to transparency. He concluded saying “I hope the report will encourage the Commons’ authorities to look again at their procedures. At the moment, the procedures are indefensible”.

Ultimately, however, our report notes that arrangements around financial privilege rest entirely on convention, and (contrary to some claims) there are currently no absolute restrictions on how the Lords may respond. All parties – and especially the government, when determining how the Commons responds to Lords amendments – should thus exercise caution, to ensure that tensions are not inflamed too far.

Fewer Special Advisers run for Parliament than is generally thought, but those that do are quick to climb the ladder

Special Advisers becoming Members of Parliament is a phenomenon seen as symptomatic of a wider ‘professionalisation’ of British politics. Looking at the career progress of those Special Advisers who served between 1979 and 2010, Max Goplerud shows that they do not all seek a berth in Parliament, though those that do tend to experience rapid career progression. 

The notion that Special Advisers (“spads”) turned-MPs dominate the Government and Opposition frontbenches appears periodically in the media as exemplifying the rise of ‘career politicians’ and the ‘professionalisation of politics’. A forthcoming book on Special Advisers by Ben Yong and Robert Hazell of the Constitution Unit explores the profession from 1979 to the present government and provides a detailed look into who they are, what they do, and their relationships and interactions with other actors in the political system.

My recent article for Parliamentary Affairs explores the ‘myth’ outlined above: Is it actually the case that Special Advisers invariably go into politics and rise to the top? The answer, in short, is no. Those Special Advisers who do run for Parliament are not particularly representative of the wider profession.

Despite the presence of some high profile MPs who were previously Special Advisers (most prominently David Cameron and Ed Miliband), the reality is less straightforward. While it is clear that the Special Advisers who do run for Parliament are generally successful (both in terms of their electoral success and subsequently in being promoted), they are not representative of the wider “spad” group. A more satisfactory explanation is that underlying factors drive a certain type of ambitious, politically minded individual to both become a Special Adviser and stand for Parliament. Those individuals are then in a strong position to draw upon the skills and connections they amassed during their time in Whitehall to further advance their political careers.

Special Advisers as Candidates

In total, around 25% of Conservative (1979-1997) and 10% of Labour (1997-2010) Special Advisers ran for Parliament at some point, with most of them doing so after leaving Whitehall. Whilst high compared to the proportion of other groups in the population, it is not so high in absolute terms. These individuals are somewhat younger than the ‘normal’ Special Adviser, with around 40%  of those standing for Parliament aged under 30 on their on their appointment as a special adviser. Conversely, only 25% of ‘ordinary’ Special Advisers are that young.

Figure 1: Number of special adviser candidates by general election



This difference might be uninteresting if these ex-Special Advisers took a number of tries to get into Parliament or contested unwinnable seats. However, that is resoundingly not the case; 80% of “spads” (46 individuals) who stood after leaving Whitehall became MPs at some point. For Labour, 18 out of the 21 former Special Advisers who stood for Parliament have won every General Election they contested.

Special Advisers as MPs

Of those Special Advisers-turned-MPs, nearly half have achieved high office as a Secretary of State (or Shadow Secretary of State) at some point in their parliamentary career, with a full 80% achieving the rank of at least Minister of State. This is very different compared to the great mass of MPs who generally remain on the backbenches.

Special Advisers who become MPs tend to skip the established ‘career ladder’ and head straight to the frontbenches; many become Ministers of State without having first served as a Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) or other comparable junior role. They also tend to be very young upon entering government. The data suggest that 17 ex-Special Advisers became (Shadow) Minister of State before their 40th birthday. Compare this to the median parliamentary candidate who is still attempting to be elected to Parliament at that age. This is also not only a Labour phenomenon—rapid promotion of Special Advisers also occurred under Conservative governments. For at least the last thirty years, Special Advisers-turned-MPs have experienced ‘super-charged’ careers in Parliament, outstripping even other types of ‘career politicians’.

On balance, there is clearly some credibility to the dominant narrative about Special Advisers becoming ministers insofar as those who have ministerial office as their goal seem to be quite successful at achieving it. The evidence suggests that having been a Special Adviser is a good signal that an individual is;

  • loyal to the party, and
  • has valuable prior experience with how government works.

Key actors, particularly selection bodies for parliamentary candidates and the party leadership (who may well be their former boss!) may see this as desirable and therefore push for these ex-Special Advisers to be placed in safe seats and promoted rapidly.

Yet, we should be careful to distinguish between those Special Advisers who do run for Parliament from those who do not. It is possible to be critical of the advancement of the first group whilst making a different evaluation about the desirability of the profession of “spads” more broadly. If one thinks this rapid promotion is normatively undesirable, it is a problem for the political parties to solve rather than an issue with Special Advisers writ large.

Note: this post represents the views of the author. It is based upon an article for Parliamentary Affairs which can be found here. It was originally posted on Democratic Audit: