There is now a large body of academic research demonstrating that the Westminster parliament has considerable policy influence, yet claims that the UK has an executive-dominated political system persist. On 15 March Professor Meg Russell and Professor Philip Cowley, who between them have carried out much of the key research in this area, spoke at a Constitution Unit seminar on the policy impact of parliament along with Sarah Champion MP, who offered an insider perspective. Ruxandra Serban reports.
Public and media discourse is often shaped by a longstanding assumption that the Westminster parliament is weak relative to the executive – but is this really true? A closer look demonstrates that it is a complex and often misunderstood institution. On 15 March the Constitution Unit, in collaboration with the Hansard Society and the Parliament and Constitution Centre of the House of Commons Library, hosted a seminar in parliament with Professor Meg Russell (Director of the Constitution Unit), Professor Philip Cowley (Queen Mary University of London), and Sarah Champion MP, to discuss parliament’s policy impact.
The legislative process, the Lords and select committees
Speaking first, Meg Russell suggested that the constant portrayal of parliament as a weak institution should be a matter for concern, as perpetuating an inaccurate assumption may drive down trust in the political process. The impact of parliament on policy has been a major strand of the Unit’s research in recent years, including extensive work on the legislative process, the House of Lords and select committees.
Tracing amendments in both chambers on 12 bills (2005-2012) revealed that although at first glance government amendments were much more successful than non-government amendments (94 per cent were passed, compared to 0.7 per cent of non-government amendments), in fact 60 per cent of government amendments that made substantive policy change were traceable to parliamentary pressure, mostly through previous non-government amendments. Select committee recommendations can also lead the government to bring forward amendments of their own , notably including the reversal of the Labour government’s manifesto policy on smoking in public places from a partial to a complete ban. These findings are elaborated in an article by Meg Russell, Daniel Gover and Kristina Wollter, recently published in the journal Parliamentary Affairs.
However, a significant proportion of parliament’s impact on legislation consists of ‘anticipated reactions’. Bills are drafted in Whitehall in preparation for the exposure that they will get in parliament, as the government has to second guess potential reactions by its own backbenchers, by the opposition, and by the Lords. The official Cabinet Office Guide to Making Legislation explicitly sets out ‘parliamentary handling strategies’ (p.136) that bill teams in Whitehall need to prepare, confirming that thinking through parliament’s response is an established part of policy-making in the pre-legislative stages. In reality, even before these strategies are drafted, legislation (and other government policy) is prepared very much with parliament in mind.
Often dismissed as inconsequential and criticised on various fronts, the House of Lords regularly defeats the government on major policy issues. Tracing 406 unique defeats between 1999 and 2012, the Unit’s research showed that 44 per cent were ultimately accepted by the government. A major recent example was the series of defeats on tax credit cuts in October 2015, which led to the government withdrawing its policy. But defeats only scratch the surface. Influence is often exerted in less visible ways, including through the government bringing forward its own amendments in response to pressure from peers. Changes negotiated in this way make up the majority of the total.
Select committees produce numerous reports containing policy recommendations, but have no means of forcing government to accept their proposals. They might therefore be assumed to have little policy influence. But tracing policy recommendations from seven departmental committees over 13 years (1997-2010) showed that 44 per cent of those aimed at central government were implemented. Scaling up across the committee system as a whole, this suggested that roughly 450 recommendations were implemented every year, of which about 200 were on medium or large-scale policy change.
Select committee reports are only one of a number of ways in which parliament can contribute to agenda setting. For example, early day motions and private members’ bills are often dismissed as ineffective, but use of these mechanisms by backbenchers played a significant part in getting the Labour government to bring forward its Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Bill. Recent developments such as the introduction of the Backbench Business Committee (first recommended in a Constitution Unit report in 2007) have enhanced this role even further. Lastly, parliament can also exert influence by supporting government policy: for example, select committee recommendations were cited by ministers in support of existing government policy in various debates on bills.
On closer inspection, policy-making is hence not solely government-driven, but instead is a complex, multi-stage process, in which various groups in parliament exert influence.
Backbench rebellions have become a permanent feature of Westminster politics, and have often resulted in major policy changes, as Philip Cowley’s extensive research on the topic has shown. The rate of rebellion began to increase from around the early 1970s, and every Prime Minister since then has been defeated at least once as a result of their own MPs rebelling, regardless of their majority. The most recent example was the vote on Sunday trading, where 27 government MPs voted with the opposition. Government backbenchers rebelled in a larger proportion of divisions in the 2010-15 parliament than in any parliament since 1945 (35 per cent).
Although most rebellions just signal disagreement, some result in major policy changes. Dissenting votes derailed a key aspect of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition agreement in 2012 when the second reading of the House of Lords Reform Bill saw the largest rebellion by government MPs against the second reading of a bill since 1945. Rebellions also steered the Conservative Party’s policy on the EU and caused planned military action in Syria to be abandoned. The 2013 defeat on military action led to the Prime Minister delaying the subsequent vote in 2015 until he was certain that he would have the approval of parliament.
However, Professor Cowley acknowledged that despite all the evidence to the contrary the perception of backbenchers always following the whip is hard to dislodge. Claims that there used to be a ‘golden age’ of independent-minded voting, as contrasted with present day behaviour, can be found throughout recent history, and indeed as far back as the 17th century. Although the various ways in which parliament exerts influence on government policy have been thoroughly demonstrated by academic research, Cowley argued that the negative perceptions of parliament might incite further sensible questions: does parliament have enough impact on policy, and is it exercised often enough, for example?
An insider perspective
Sarah Champion, Labour MP for Rotherham since 2012, also highlighted the discrepancy between outside perceptions of parliament and parliament as MPs experience it. She indicated that there are various channels through which MPs can influence policy, but suggested that opposition MPs had more opportunities during the coalition government than under the current majority Conservative government. The conditions under which policy change can be achieved thus depend on circumstances.
Select committees have become a real ‘power bases’, Champion suggested, and have a significant role in driving the agenda and exerting influence on how the government presents and changes policies – not least because of their increased visibility in the media. Public bill committees also offer opportunities for MPs to bring forward changes; but compromises over amendments and a more consensual approach to policy-making depend on the government’s strategy towards particular bills.
As a parliamentary insider, Champion confirmed that much influence takes place behind the scenes, for example in private conversations between MPs and ministers. Such practices should not be disparaged, as MPs try to use every available opportunity to bring issues that are relevant to their constituents to the government’s attention. Many parliamentarians from opposing sides are often on good terms on a personal level and work together, which is not always apparent in the adversarial style of debates in the chamber.
She also suggested that the public has a significant role in encouraging MPs to take action on particular issues. Aside from contacting MPs individually, citizens also have new mechanisms at their disposal, such as social media campaigns, or petitions, which are now considered by the recently established Petitions Committee. MPs can make a stronger case to the government if they can demonstrate public support, and ministers will be more responsive if such support exists.
The evidence discussed by the three speakers, based on rigorous academic research conducted over many years, and on practitioner experience, called into question a series of common assumptions about the Westminster parliament. When examined closely, parliament is seen to be a complex environment with various channels through which members can influence policy. Although high profile cases of government defeats on controversial pieces of legislation may appear to be rare instances of parliamentary assertiveness, they are in fact only part of the story. Parliament regularly encourages the government to rethink its proposed policies, and to tailor them to accommodate different views.
To read Meg Russell and Philip Cowley’s full article on this subject, ‘The Policy Power of the Westminster Parliament: The “Parliamentary State” and the Empirical Evidence’ in Governance, please click here. The article is summarised here.
About the speakers
Professor Meg Russell is the Director of the Constitution Unit.
Philip Cowley is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London.
Sarah Champion was elected as MP for Rotherham at a by-election in 2012. She is Labour’s Shadow Minister for Preventing Abuse and Domestic Violence.
About the author
Ruxandra Serban is a PhD candidate at the Constitution Unit.