Meg Russell’s latest book: Legislation at Westminster
23 August 2017
On 31 August 2017, Constitution Unit Director Professor Meg Russell publishes her latest book, co-authored with former Constitution Unit researcher Daniel Gover. Russell and Gover’s Legislation at Westminster: Parliamentary Actors and Influence in the Making of British Law (Oxford University Press) is the final product of a major Constitution Unit research project funded by the Nuffield Foundation, and represents the most detailed study of the legislative process in the British parliament for over 40 years. It sheds new light on the political dynamics of making law in Britain, showing parliament to be more influential than is often assumed.
The book is based on careful study of 12 bills across a range of subjects – including welfare reform, education reform, the establishment of the Office for Budget Responsibility, the coalition’s attempted abolition of ‘quangos’, the introduction of the ban on smoking in public places, and the introduction (and later abolition) of Labour’s identity cards scheme. In each case the researchers traced every amendment through both chambers of parliament, amounting to over 4000 in total, and conducted interviews with key protagonists on the bills. What emerges is a nuanced account, covering both on-the-record influence and behind-the-scenes discussions and negotiations. The book is organised according to the contribution of different ‘actors’ in the process: the government, opposition, government backbenchers, non-party parliamentarians, select committees and pressure groups. It also reflects on the importance of cross-party working at Westminster, and the influence of parliament overall.
Key conclusions include the following:
- Parliamentary influence on legislation begins before it is even introduced, through the power of ‘anticipated reactions’, whereby ministers and civil servants think carefully about what parliament will accept;
- Apparently non-influential parliamentary mechanisms such as early day motions, opposition day debates and parliamentary questions can be important to getting matters onto the agenda and maintaining pressure on ministers;
- The dominance of government amendments among those agreed in parliament masks the extent to which changes are actually responsive to other parliamentarians’ demands;
- Likewise, non-government amendments don’t necessarily ‘fail’ just because they are not agreed – indeed many were intended for other purposes, such as simply stimulating debate on the bill;
- When parliamentarians are serious about change they frequently work together across party lines, and amendments with cross-party backing have significantly greater chances of ultimate success;
- Similarly, parliamentary influence on legislation is typically cross-cameral, underpinned with by the House of Lords’ potential, given its many respected ‘experts’ and lack of government majority, to throw difficult policy questions back to MPs to reconsider;
- The specialist select committees, despite having no power to amend legislation, are surprisingly influential on debate, and their conclusions are often used to bolster arguments by both ministers and non-government parliamentarians;
- Pressure groups play a very active part at Westminster, in both defending and proposing change to government legislation, working with parliamentarians of all sides;
- Collectively all groups of parliamentarians, in both chambers, contribute to a system in which government is held publicly accountable for its actions, and any questionable action will be strongly challenged. To avoid this, government not only prepares carefully at the outset, but also is often forced to compromise in parliament itself.
In the book’s conclusion the authors reflect on the nature of power at Westminster, and in parliamentary systems more generally. They suggest that parliamentary power is often too narrowly conceived as the ability to force change through amendments. Instead, they suggest that there are six distinct ‘faces’ of parliamentary power in the legislative process. Once this diversity of forms of influence is taken into account, parliamentary institutions are more powerful and important in the making of policy than popular accounts often suggest.