The Constitution Unit


An Elaborate Rubber Stamp? The Impact of Parliament on Legislation


Conventional wisdom holds that the British parliament is a relatively non-influential, and perhaps even peripheral, institution with respect to policy. The House of Commons in particular is widely criticised, being described in the media as ‘a legislature on its knees’ or ‘an elaborate rubber-stamp’. It might be expected that such widespread criticism would be based on clear and incontrovertible evidence. But in fact there is remarkably little evidence, and remarkably little study, on parliament’s policy influence. Our research assesses whether this picture is accurate by taking a closer look at the passage of bills through the Commons and the Lords.

The project involves detailed tracking of all amendments to 12 case study bills in the 2005 and 2010 parliaments including identifying ‘policy strands’: amendments at different legislative stages which concentrate on the same issue. This allows us to track influence between party groups and between chambers. This analysis, collectively covering thousands of amendments, enables us to quantify the visible influence of different actors in the process, and connections between them. 

This detailed amendment analysis is complemented by interviews with key actors involved in each bill, drawn from both chambers, from government and outside groups. Interviews are used to verify conclusions from the quantitative analysis, and to collect evidence of less visible behind-the-scenes influence and relationships. This includes the power of ‘anticipated reactions’, in terms of government tailoring its policy in order to avoid parliamentary dissent.

The current Nuffield-funded project builds on a smaller pilot project examining the impact of parliament (both Commons and Lords) on legislation. This traced all amendments to the Identity Cards Bill 2005-06 to determine their ultimate success, including picking up subtle forms of influence such as where the government moves amendments in response to backbench and opposition concerns. See paper Bicameral Parliamentary Scrutiny of Government Bills: A Case Study of the Identity Cards Bill.

Case study bills