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.

Backbench rebellions

The government needs the votes of its backbenchers to retain a majority so, as Anthony King pointed out in 1976, they are the group that most obviously holds the key to parliamentary influence. Early post-war parliaments saw extremely low levels of backbench dissent – during two sessions in the 1950s not one rebellious vote was cast. But by the 1970s this was starting to change and in recent years backbench dissent has increased significantly. The 2005-2010 parliament saw rebellions in 28 per cent of divisions, a post-war record, surpassed by a new record of 35 per cent under the Conservative/Liberal Democrat.

Writers wishing to downplay the influence of majority party dissidents emphasise the fact that Commons defeats remain extremely rare. However, this discounts the impact of rebelliousness on parliamentary anticipated reactions. Deals are done with backbenchers to avoid defeat and to minimise discontent. Rebellions therefore lead not only to defeats but also to retreats, and the impact of the latter is often significantly greater. Retreats can take three forms – the complete withdrawal of legislation in the face of backbench dissent (e.g. the coalition’s House of Lords Reform Bill, and Gordon Brown’s proposed privatisation of Royal Mail), the amendment of legislation in response to backbench pressure (see below) and making an issue subject to a ‘free vote’, where the government do not take an official stance (e.g. the vote that resulted in the complete ban on smoking in public places in 2005). By their very nature it is difficult to quantify government retreats, but their extent does seem to be growing. This need for responsiveness to parliament at the decision stage in turn increases parliament’s influence through anticipated reactions at earlier stages of the policy cycle – requiring backbench opinion to be taken into greater account during policy formulation. Such influence is not new, but it has been enhanced by a more rebellious backbench culture.

Lords defeats

 A second substantial body of research has focused on the lasting policy impacts of government defeats in the House of Lords. The House of Lords Act 1999 removed all but 92 of the previously predominant hereditary peers. As most hereditary peers had been Conservatives the post-reform chamber was far more politically balanced, with roughly equal numbers of Labour and Conservative peers, and the balance of power held by Liberal Democrats and independent Crossbenchers. Some (probably including ministers) predicted that evicting the hereditaries would strengthen the government. But this did not prove to be correct. The reformed House meant various majorities could form against the government, and gave peers a new ‘boldness’. Between 1999 and 2010 Labour suffered 458 defeats in the Lords, with Liberal Democrats usually the pivotal voters. The coalition also frequently lost votes in the Lords, though somewhat less often than Labour had, whilst the current Conservative government has – as I predicted on this blog in May 2015 was likely – already been defeated 21 times.

It might be expected that these defeats would be ineffective, because the Parliament Acts allow the Commons ultimately to get its way. However, the government usually prefers to negotiate, and the post-1999 House of Lords was less inclined than its predecessor to back down. Detailed tracking of the 406 unique legislative defeats between 1999 and 2012 found that 44% resulted in either a Lords policy ‘win’ or a ‘draw’. These ‘wins’ included significant policy reversals such as subjecting Tony Blair’s anti-terrorism legislation to greater judicial oversight, rejecting a new offence of ‘religious hatred’ and outlawing caste discrimination.  Following an initial spike in Lords defeats after 1999 their number gradually reduced up to 2010. This almost certainly reflected not a growing timidity among peers but more effective adjustment by government to what the Lords would bear – that is, again, ‘anticipated reactions’ influencing policy formulation. The current government may have much to learn from Labour about how to handle a relatively assertive Lords in which they lack a majority.

Bill amendments and the legislative process

Our third study focused on the passage of 12 government bills through both chambers in depth, including all debates and amendments (as summarised here). In total we tracked 4,361 amendments, 886 of which were government amendments with the remainder coming from non-government parliamentarians. 95 per cent of the former were agreed, compared to just four per cent of the latter. If amendments overturned at a later stage (e.g. due to Commons’ responses to Lords defeats) are discounted, fewer than 0.1 per cent of non-government amendments were agreed. At first glance these figures create the strong impression of executive domination. Yet closer examination found that nearly three-quarters of government amendments had little policy substance, and that of those government amendments with substance over 60 per cent could be traced to influence from non-government parliamentarians – usually through prior amendments withdrawn when ministers promised to reconsider. In most cases no defeat was involved but some changes were significant. They included changes to trade union membership rules in Labour’s Employment Bill and the deletion of a schedule of 150 bodies facing abolition in the coalition’s Public Bodies Bill. We found that external pressure groups were often active in encouraging many government and non-government amendments, suggesting that parliament – contrary to what public policy scholars often assume – is now an important site of influence for such groups.

Select committees

Specialist select committees at Westminster are conventionally seen as weak in the comparative literature, given that they do not take the formal committee stage of legislation. But although select committees have limited formal involvement in the legislative process, this has enabled them to develop relatively free from partisan control. They set their own agendas, face little interference from party whips and usually produce unanimous cross-party reports. We found significant select committee influence over our 12 case study bills. Debates included over 1,700 references to these committees, and of the 117 substantive government amendments responding to parliamentary pressure, at least 50 could be traced at least in part to a select committee recommendation. A particularly high profile example was the role that the Health Select Committee played in forcing the free vote on the smoking ban in Labour’s Health Bill, as referred to above.

Our main study of study of select committees extended beyond the legislative process, and beyond the decision-making stage. We catalogued the activity of seven of the 19 Commons departmental committees over the 13-year period from 1997 to 2010. A total of 1,831 recommendations aimed at central government were analysed. We found that the government fully or partially accepted 40 per cent of them, and that 44 per cent of 1,334 recommendations judged ‘measurable’ were implemented in full or substantial part. If this sample was representative our results implied that around 450 Commons departmental select committee recommendations were being implemented each year, of which 200 demanded a medium or large change to policy. Furthermore, the qualitative part of the analysis suggested that implementation of recommendations was not necessarily select committees’ primary form of power: ministers and civil servants that we interviewed emphasised the deterrent effect of the committees and their influence on behind-the-scenes discussions, particularly during policy formulation and implementation. One official commented that the biggest influence was ‘the fear of having to appear in front of them’.

Parliament has significant policy influence

A popular recent book on policy failures in British government claimed that as a legislative assembly ‘the parliament of the United Kingdom is, much of the time, either peripheral or totally irrelevant. It might as well not exist’ (p. 361). Our research finds this claim to be wholly inconsistent with the empirical evidence. Instead the evidence shows that the UK parliament has significant influence, at all stages of the policy process. This influence has almost certainly increased rather than declined over the past half-century (though without comparable historical data this is hard to prove). Since Westminster is frequently placed as lying at one end of a spectrum, from influential to non-influential legislatures, our conclusions have potentially wide implications. If the UK parliament is in fact significantly more influential on policy than is commonly thought, this suggests that the policy dynamics in parliamentary systems in general may not be what they are often assumed to be.

To read our full article ‘The Policy Power of the Westminster Parliament: The “Parliamentary State” and the Empirical Evidence’ in Governance, please click here.

About the author

Professor Meg Russell is the Director of The Constitution Unit.

One thought on “The policy power of the Westminster parliament: The empirical evidence

  1. Pingback: Voting records, Labour leaderships and anti-politics – The Ambivalent Leftie

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