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.

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Legislation at Westminster – and how parliament matters more than many people think

The Westminster parliament is famous throughout the world, but often presented as relatively non-influential when it comes to making the law. Meg Russell and Daniel Gover‘s new book Legislation at Westminster is the most detailed study of the British legislative process for over 40 years, and challenges these assumptions. Here the authors summarise their findings on how different groups of actors at Westminster exercise subtle and interconnected influence, contributing to what they dub ‘six faces of parliamentary power’.

The Westminster parliament inhabits one of the most famous buildings in the world – emblematic both of Britain and of stable democracy. Yet when it comes to policy-making, and particularly to making the law, many see Westminster as relatively non-influential. In the popular media, parliament is frequently portrayed as a mere ‘rubber stamp’, where a docile Commons majority approves what government puts before it. Among academic authors views are generally more nuanced, but a mainstream public policy textbook nonetheless claims that ‘parliament plays only a limited role in decision-making in the British Westminster model’, while a recent British politics textbook suggests that ‘the House of Commons is misunderstood if viewed as a legislator’. Even scholars who celebrate parliament present the early stages of initiating and formulating legislation as ‘overwhelmingly a government-centred activity’. Despite the ostensibly central role of the ‘legislature’ in the legislative process, these specialists instead emphasise parliament’s other crucial functions, such as representation, scrutiny and legitimation.

Perhaps because it is thought likely to be fruitless, but also due to the painstaking work involved, until recently no large-scale study had been conducted on influence in the Westminster legislative process since Griffith’s classic 1974 Parliamentary Scrutiny of Government Bills. Griffith’s key finding was that many government amendments proposed to bills in parliament in fact responded to earlier proposals from non-government parliamentarians – showing that influence was more complex than it seemed. A major Constitution Unit project, funded by the Nuffield foundation, sought to explore how these dynamics may have changed, and specifically whether the ‘rubber stamp’ claim is correct. Our early quantitative results, based on study of over 4000 amendments to 12 case study bills passing through parliament during the period 2005-12, showed that it was not. The majority of government amendments with substance were traceable to parliamentary pressure, while the ‘failure’ of non-government amendments could not be taken at face value. Our newly-published book, Legislation at Westminster: Parliamentary Actors and Influence in the Making of British Law, tells a fuller story, drawing not only on amendment analysis, but also wider documentary analysis, and over 100 interviews with those closely involved in the passage of the 12 bills.

Part of the difficulty in assessing parliamentary influence is common perceptions of power. Looking for on-the-record changes wrought by parliament provides only a very narrow view. But it is often acknowledged in the politics and international relations literature that power takes many forms. One classic account suggests that it has three distinct faces, others that it has four or more; there are notions of hard and soft power, persuasive versus coercive power, and the ability to exercise power both positively and negatively. Such alternative conceptions have rarely been teased apart when discussing the power of parliaments.

Our study is organised by the various ‘actors’ in the policy process at Westminster, each of whom has a dedicated chapter. After introducing the basics of the legislative process and the case study bills, we go on to describe, using numerous quotations and examples, the diverse contributions that these actors make. This post provides a very short summary of our findings.

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What will the Lords do with the Article 50 bill?

Meg-Russell

The bill authorising the Prime Minister to trigger Article 50, enabling the UK to leave the EU, has cleared the Commons. It begins its consideration in the Lords today. In this post Lords expert Meg Russell discusses how the second chamber is likely to treat the bill. She suggests that this illustrates important dynamics between Lords and Commons, which are often disappointingly misunderstood both in the media and inside government.

The European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill is a simple two-clause measure to authorise the government to trigger Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union and thereby begin negotiations on the UK’s exit from the EU. This follows the ‘Leave’ vote in last June’s referendum, followed by the Supreme Court ruling that parliament’s authorisation was required. A previous blog considered the bill’s likely reception in the Commons, where it completed its initial stages on 8 February. Today the bill begins its consideration in the Lords, where it is due a two-day second reading debate, followed by two-day committee stage next week, and a day spent on remaining stages the week after that.

There has been much discussion of how the House of Lords will treat the bill – including wild speculation about possible retribution if peers try to ‘block’ the bill. Much of this fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between the two chambers of parliament, and the constraints within which the Lords always operates. The bill in fact nicely illustrates some of the subtleties of these relationships, and – while unusual in many ways – can serve as a case study of how the dynamics at Westminster work. By setting out how the Lords is likely to respond to the bill, this post seeks to communicate those wider dynamics.

As a starting point, two key features of the Lords are clearly pertinent, and feature prominently in stories about how it might respond to the Article 50 bill. First, the government has no majority in the chamber. As of today the Lords has 805 members, of whom only 252 are Conservatives. Labour has 202 seats, the Liberal Democrats 102, and the independent Crossbenchers – who do not have a whip or vote as a block – 178 (the remainder comprising bishops, smaller parties and other non-aligned members). This obviously, on the face of it, makes things look difficult for the government. Furthermore, the Lords is known to have an innate pro-‘Remain’ majority. The other obvious feature is that the Lords is unelected. This means (as further explored below) that it generally defers to the will of the elected House of Commons. Of course, the Commons also includes an innate pro-‘Remain’ majority. This presented MPs with various representational dilemmas (explored in the previous post) when debating the Article 50 bill. But the great majority concluded that the will of the public as expressed in the referendum must be respected – and hence that the bill should be approved. It passed its second reading by 498 votes to 114, and its third reading by 494 votes to 122. This is the starting point for debates in the Lords.

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