Legislation at Westminster launch seminar: senior parliamentary figures discuss the impact of parliament on government bills

Meg Russell and Daniel Gover’s new book Legislation at Westminster challenges received wisdom about the UK parliament’s influence on legislation. In contrast to common portrayals of Westminster as having only weak policy influence, Russell and Gover present evidence demonstrating strong influence, exercised in a variety of subtle ways. The findings were discussed at a seminar held in parliament on 15 November. Hannah Dowling and Kelly Shuttleworth report.

The UK parliament is frequently portrayed as little more than an ‘elaborate rubber stamp’ by journalists and even parliamentarians. Academics have tended to offer a slightly more nuanced view but nevertheless often present Westminster as a weak legislature and downplay its policy influence. A ground-breaking new book by Constitution Unit Director Professor Meg Russell and Daniel Gover questions the extent to which these assumptions hold true. The book represents the largest study of its kind for over 40 years.

On 15 November, a seminar was held in parliament to discuss Russell and Gover’s findings. The event was chaired by Lucinda Maer, Head of the Parliament and Constitution Centre at the House of Commons Library. Russell and Gover summarised their findings before responses from Labour peer Baroness (Patricia) Hollis of Heigham and David Natzler, the Clerk of the House of Commons.

Daniel Gover

Daniel Gover introduced the central research question Legislation at Westminster seeks to address: How influential is parliament on government legislation? In order to answer this, Russell and Gover analysed 12 case study government bills in the period 2005–2012 and logged the over 4000 amendments proposed. The bills were selected to represent the range of legislation laid before parliament and accordingly varied by sponsoring department, chamber of introduction, length and profile. A total of 120 interviews with ministers, members of the opposition, backbenchers, civil servants and outside groups were also conducted. Of the 4361 amendments proposed, 886 were government amendments; 95% of these were passed, compared to 4% of non-government amendments. On the face of it, these figures seem to support the popular notion of parliament as weak and dominated by the executive.

However, by dividing the amendments into ‘strands’, i.e. collections of similar amendments made at different stages of the legislative process, Russell and Gover were able to trace their origins, which revealed a more nuanced picture of parliamentary power. There were 2050 strands identified, of which 300 were successful. Of these 300 strands only 55% were government-initiated. When  strands comprising only small technical changes were omitted, this dropped to 45% – with 55% initiated by non-government actors,. Amongst these groups, the opposition initiated the most strands (1604), of which 112 were successful. Although government backbenchers initiated fewer strands, 36 of 304 were successful – a higher success rate than the opposition. There were also 155 strands introduced by non-party affiliated actors, primarily in the Lords, of which 12 were successful. Gover stressed the importance of cross-party work, emphasising that strands demonstrating cross-party support had a higher success rate than those without.

Taken together, these figures suggest that parliament does have influence on government legislation.

Professor Meg Russell

Following Daniel Gover’s focus on the quantitative results, Meg Russell spoke more broadly about the qualitative outcomes. She emphasised that while Westminster’s legislative influence is often considered limited, sympathetic academics emphasise its other roles – such as accountability, representation and legitimation. But it is questionable whether these can really be separated. She then turned to views gathered from interviewees on the central question of ‘how influential is parliament on government legislation’, which revealed that the closer a person was to the heart of government, the more influential they regarded parliament to be.

Summarising the conclusions of the book, Russell provided a brief overview of ‘six faces of parliamentary power’. The first and most obvious is visible changes through amendments, which is nonetheless not the most important. The second is the well-known ‘power of anticipated reactions’, also termed ‘generating fear’. Parliament has this power as a whole, as do the House of Commons and House of Lords individually, but the most notable holders are government backbenchers. Much active government planning goes into avoiding conflict with these groups. The third face is even less visible – in terms of government internalising what parliament will accept, and therefore knowing instinctively what not to even attempt.

The fourth face is a more positive form of parliamentary power, that of issue politicisation and agenda setting – i.e. determining what gets discussed. This is exercised partly through mechanisms generally regarded as rather weak, but which can provide high profile opportunities – such as opposition days and Prime Minister’s Questions. The fifth face, ‘accountability and exposure’ results from parliament’s public arena function. Many amendments are tabled just to require government to explain itself – which in turn requires ministers and civil servants to be well prepared. Finally, the sixth face is actual support for the government and counteractive pressure against other forces. Given the diverse views and increasing backbench independence, parliament’s decision to back the government must be seen as an active one, with the example given of support for the government’s proposed smoking ban against the clout of the tobacco lobbies.

Russell and Gover concluded by arguing that the power Westminster has through these six faces renders it very much a ‘legislator’.

Baroness (Patricia) Hollis of Heigham

Baroness Hollis began by praising Legislation at Westminster, calling it ‘admirable, elegant and important.’ She then outlined a few current issues affecting the legislative process, including the increased use of statutory instruments and skeleton bills, as well as the perceived reliance on financial privilege in the House of Commons. Hollis also drew attention to key differences between the House of Commons and the House of Lords that influence the passage of legislation, such as discrepancies in power between the two Speakers and the narrower remits of ministers in the Commons compared to the Lords.

Hollis offered a selection of examples from her career to demonstrate the impact of parliament on legislation. In particular, she focused on the impact of the opposition, which is especially powerful in the House of Lords where the government does not have an overall majority. She cited the case of a transport bill introduced in the 1990s, when she was an opposition frontbencher. She tabled an amendment to permit local authorities outside of London to regulate the minicab industry, but ultimately withdrew it in order for the government to introduce their own amendment. As a Labour minister, she later lobbied internally for opposition amendments to be incorporated into the bill setting up the Pension Protection Fund.

Hollis echoed Gover’s point about the importance of cross-party support, referring to the bill that became the Pensions Act 1995 as an example. Prior to this legislation, pensions were not considered matrimonial property and so did not form part of any divorce settlement. This disproportionately disadvantaged women and Baroness Hollis – despite being an opposition member – was able to garner support from female peers of all major parties, alongside external groups such as the Women’s Institute and the Mother’s Union, to get pensions splitting on divorce written into the bill.

Hollis concluded by reiterating the essential role of parliament in the formulation of legislation and by stressing the importance of the lack of a government majority in the House of Lords, as well as the considerable expertise of the chamber.

David Natzler

David Natzler opened with the salient reminder that the present parliamentary situation is rather different from that in the period covered by the book, which may make the book even more important. The reality of a minority government and the dominance of Brexit was indeed unavoidable as the screens around the room during the seminar broadcast narrowly-contested votes on amendments to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill.

Thanking Russell and Gover, Natzler praised Legislation at Westminster as a ‘fantastic’ book, and an excellent reflection of the reality of parliamentary processes. He was particularly struck by two of the faces of power outlined in the conclusion, namely those of anticipated reactions and agenda-setting. With regard to the power of anticipated reactions, Natzler recalled the term used by a former senior government lawyer that ‘[b]ills are made to pass as razors are made to sell’. Natzler commented that it is perfectly obvious that government does not put a bill in front of parliament that will get defeated. To provide further insight into the power of agenda-setting, Natzler reflected on his personal experience of how issues can be seen to suddenly emerge and become prominent in parliamentary discussion. He gave the examples of same sex marriage, modern slavery and female genital mutilation (FGM).

Responding to Meg Russell, Natzler argued that unlike members of the US Congress, most members of the UK parliament do not come to Westminster expressly to legislate, but to support their parties. Nevertheless, some MPs do become effective and enthusiastic legislators. He also drew particular attention to Chapter 8 of the book, on select committees, which has crushed the idea that select committees are not engaged in legislation – and was a genuine reflection of his considerable experience with them.

Natzler concluded with a suggestion for future research on rebellious opposition backbenchers. There has been a tendency to regard the opposition as a cohesive block, although that mistake would not be made in the current political climate – where both pro-Brexit and anti-Brexit Labour MPs are tabling amendments to the Withdrawal Bill not supported by the party’s front-bench.

Concluding thoughts

Following questions from the floor, the issue of why the power of parliament has been so consistently underappreciated arose. Russell and Natzler were in complete agreement as they asked, ‘in whose interest is it to actually give parliament credit?’. It is not in the government’s interest to broadcast any fear of parliament, or admit extensive influence, and the opposition often feels it has more to gain by complaining about parliamentary weakness and government dominance. This lack of recognition of parliamentary influence, much of which is negotiated behind the scenes, poses a continuing challenge for democratic politics.

Legislation at Westminster is needed to give perspective, both to the individuals within the system, and to those wishing to learn about it. It will be fascinating to observe how these dynamics are changing under a minority government and the all-consuming issue of Brexit.

You can find out more about Legislation at Westminster: Parliamentary Actors and Influence in the Making of British Law and see details about how to order at a 30% discount (valid to 31 December) here.

About the speakers

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

Daniel Gover is a researcher at Queen Mary University of London, and was formerly based at the Constitution Unit.

Baroness (Patricia) Hollis of Heigham is a Labour peer who has served as an opposition frontbencher, minister and backbencher since entering the House of Lords in 1990.

David Natzler is the Clerk of the House of Commons, the chamber’s most senior official, having spent his career in the Commons service.

About the authors

Hannah Dowling and Kelly Shuttleworth are Research Volunteers at the Constitution Unit.

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