Parliament and legislation: Perhaps Westminster is more powerful than you think?

Dan GoverMeg-Russell

Government defeats on the floor of the Commons, as seen last week, remain exceptionally rare, perpetuating assumptions that parliament is relatively weak. However, through analysis of 4361 amendments to 12 government bills, and over 120 interviews, Daniel Gover and Meg Russell find empirical evidence that parliament has significantly greater influence on government policy than is often assumed.

The Westminster parliament occupies a highly visible place within British politics and policymaking. Despite this, the conventional wisdom is that parliament’s impact on public policy is relatively weak. In recent years, Westminster has been dismissed by commentators as ‘an elaborate rubber-stamp’, ‘a legislature on its knees’, and even ‘God’s gift to dictatorship’. This pessimistic account has been largely shared by academics, albeit with greater nuance, who have tended to regard Westminster as an extreme example of an executive-dominated legislature. One of the primary reasons for this assessment is that there are few explicit signs of conflict between parliament and the executive. For example, government defeats on the floor of the Commons, as was seen last week over Europe, remain exceptionally rare.

Yet recent research has begun to challenge this consensus. One of the central strands to this new research agenda is our own major investigation into the Westminster legislative process – the first results from which were recently published in Parliamentary Affairs. Our study is based around detailed analysis of the passage through parliament of 12 case study bills: seven from 2005-10 under Labour, and five from 2010-12 under the coalition. The bills were selected to reflect the diversity of legislation considered by parliament. Some were high-profile and contentious, such as Labour’s Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Bill, its Identity Cards Bill, and the coalition’s Public Bodies Bill. But others were more routine and less controversial, on which different dynamics might be expected to apply, such as the coalition’s Budget Responsibility and National Audit Bill and Labour’s Energy Bill. Our research involved painstaking analysis of the origins and outcomes of over 4000 legislative amendments proposed to these bills, as well as around 120 interviews with key actors on them including ministers and their shadows, backbenchers, civil servants, and outside pressure groups. Our findings strongly suggest that the Westminster parliament is far more influential on legislation than is often assumed.

Assessing government dominance of the legislative process

Primary legislation must normally be passed by both Houses of Parliament, and during this process MPs and peers have several opportunities to propose amendments to it. (For a guide to the legislative process, click here.) Our starting point was to look at the formal outcomes of every amendment proposed to the 12 case study bills. Out of over 4000 amendments proposed, around one fifth were agreed to by parliament. But we found stark differences based on who proposed them: whereas 94% of amendments sponsored by the government (i.e. ministers) were agreed to, less than 1% of those proposed by non-government parliamentarians (e.g. backbenchers, opposition, and non-party) were passed. If we discount the Public Bodies Bill as an outlier, the picture becomes even plainer – with government success rising to 99.5% compared to 0.6% for non-government parliamentarians.

On the face of it, these figures appear to conform to the stereotype of an executive-dominated legislative process. By digging more deeply, however, we uncovered six ‘reasons to doubt’ this conventional view. They are as follows:

  1. Most government amendments have little substance. Although almost all government amendments were approved, many of these made very little difference to policy and consequently were unlikely to be contested. We categorised all amendments on a three-point scale for ‘substantiveness’. We found that less that a third of government amendments to our bills could be considered substantive, compared to over two-thirds of non-government proposals.
  1. Most substantive government amendments respond to parliamentary pressure. One of the most important findings of our research is that many ministerial amendments are in fact proposed as concessions (sometimes in watered-down form) to earlier demands from non-government parliamentarians. This might be to head off the threat of defeat (particularly in the Lords), but it is just as likely to reflect a genuine willingness to incorporate suggestions that improve the legislation. As a consequence, looking only at the formal sponsor of an amendment is often misleading. Most commonly, we found that government amendments responded to earlier non-government amendments. On the Saving Gateway Accounts Bill (which legislated for a new savings scheme for low-income groups), for example, Labour backbencher Stephen Ladyman proposed an amendment to make recipients of Carer’s Allowance eligible for the scheme. His amendment was not itself successful, but the government subsequently produced its own amendments in response to this pressure, which parliament accepted. While it might be assumed that ministers would simply accept non-government proposals as they are, this does not usually happen because of the need to ensure that any new text is legally watertight and approved by other government departments.

We identified two further sources of parliamentary pressure that government responds to: recommendations made by select committees; and, very occasionally, comments made only in the legislative debates. Together, we found that 60% of all substantive government amendments to our bills could be traced to one of these three forms of earlier parliamentary pressure. Importantly, none of these involved the government being defeated on the floor of the Commons.

  1. There may be several non-government amendments on the same issue. As described above, non-government MPs and peers may table very similar amendments across multiple stages in the hope of a government concession. Another scenario is where a cause is pursued by different parties acting independently of each other. On the Energy Bill, for example, Conservative, Lib Dem and Labour MPs tabled separate amendments all calling for an ‘emissions performance standard’ for power plants. This has the effect of multiplying apparent failure, even if the end result (as happened in this case) was that ministers agreed to make their own amendments. 
  1. Many non-government amendments do not aim to change the bill. Whereas all government amendments are intended by ministers to be accepted, the same is not true of non-government proposals. One of the most common purposes is to ‘probe’ government policy. In such cases, one MP told us, ‘you have no intention ever of pushing [it] to a vote … but the whole point of it is it just gives you the opportunity to raise that as an issue’. Other motivations include ‘signalling’ to those outside parliament, or ‘game playing’ to embarrass the government. Once these diverse motivations for non-government amendments are taken into account, it is less surprising that so few ultimately succeed. 
  1. Parliament influences policy before the formal legislative process begins. Of course, the above analysis doesn’t alter the fact that the broad parameters of most legislation is set by the government. However, we found strong evidence of parliamentary influence even here. In some cases, government introduces legislation directly in response to pressure – among our bills, the introduction of the offence of corporate manslaughter was demanded by Labour backbenchers against the apparent reluctance of some senior ministers. More routinely, government takes great effort to anticipate parliamentary opposition, and tailors its legislation accordingly.
  1. Parliament influences policy after the legislative process is complete. Even if parliamentarians are unsuccessful during the course of a bill’s passage, this is not necessarily the end of the story. Causes that were pursued unsuccessfully on one bill may be conceded by government on a later occasion. Parliament also scrutinises policy implementation – notably through select committees – which can allow further influence.

Parliamentary influence

In fact, contrary to the conventional wisdom, we found many clear examples of parliamentary influence on the 12 bills. These included a number of very high profile policy shifts. Under Labour, parliament effectively blocked the introduction of identity cards, secured a comprehensive ban on smoking in public places (rather than the partial ban that the government had originally intended), and ensured that the offence of corporate manslaughter applied to deaths in police custody. Under the coalition, successes included protecting from abolition a large number of public bodies including the including the Youth Justice Board, and preventing the government from gaining the power to sell off public forests. Alongside these major changes, parliament also wrought a large number of smaller policy changes.

Our findings provide firm empirical evidence that parliament has significantly greater influence on government policy than is often assumed. This conclusion is clearly important for our understanding of the Westminster parliament and of its place in the British policymaking process. Those interested in policy development would do well to look more closely at the role parliament plays – not only at the formal legislative stages, but also in conditioning what the government proposes in the first place. Our research also demonstrates how this influence tends to work: rather than looking for conflict with the executive, Westminster achieves change primarily through more hidden forms of negotiation. By challenging dominant stereotypes of parliamentary weakness, we hope that our findings will contribute towards greater confidence in our democratic processes.

To read our full publication Does The Executive Dominate The Westminster Legislative Process?: Six Reasons For Doubt in Parliamentary Affairs, please click here.

About the Authors

Daniel Gover is a Research Assistant at the Constitution Unit and currently completing a PhD at Queen Mary University of London.

Meg Russell is Professor of British and Comparative Politics, and Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit.

5 thoughts on “Parliament and legislation: Perhaps Westminster is more powerful than you think?

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