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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How parliament influences policy: academic and practitioner perspectives

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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.

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The policy power of the Westminster parliament: The empirical evidence

Meg-Russell

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.

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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.

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