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An Elaborate Rubber Stamp? The Impact of Parliament on Legislation

April 2011 - September 2014

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.

  • This project is funded by the Nuffield Foundation, and runs from April 2011 to May 2013.
  • It is led by Dr Meg Russell, with Daniel Gover as research assistant.
  • Kristina Wollter and Dr Meghan Benton previously worked as researchers on the project.


We are currently in the process of publishing our results from this project. In addition to those listed below, we plan to write a book about the legislative process based on our findings.

Journal papers
  • Russell, M. Gover, D. & Wollter, K. ‘Does the executive dominate the Westminster legislative process?: Six reasons for doubt’ Parliamentary Affairs (forthcoming)
  • Russell, M. Gover, D., Wollter, K. & Benton, M. ‘Actors, Motivations and Outcomes in the Legislative Process: Policy Influence at Westminster’ Government and Opposition (forthcoming)
  • Russell, M. & Cowley, P. 'The Policy Power of the Westminster Parliament: the 'parliamentary state' and the empirical evidence' Governance (forthcoming)
Conference papers
  • Russell, M. & Gover, D. (2014) 'Parliamentary Influence Beneath the Radar: Westminster Select Committees and the Legislative Process', 11th Workshop of Parliamentary Scholars and Parliamentarians, Wroxton College, Oxfordshire, 26-27 July 2014.
  • Russell, M., Gover, D. & Wollter, K. (2013) 'An Elaborate Rubber Stamp?: Reassessing executive dominance of the Westminster legislative process', Political Studies Association annual conference, Cardiff, 25-27 March 2013.
  • Russell, M., Benton, M., Gover, D. & Wollter, K. (2012) 'Measurable Difference: Assessing the Westminster Parliament’s Impact on Government Legislation, 2005-2010', European Consortium of Political Research parliaments and legislatures conference, Dublin, 24-27 June 2012.
  • Russell, M., Benton, M., Gover, D. & Wollter, K. (2012) '"A Parliament That Bows and Scrapes"?: The Westminster parliament’s impact on government legislation 2005-2010', Political Studies Association annual conference, Belfast, 3-5 April 2012.


Please refer to the outputs tab of the Policy Impact of Parliament webpage for articles produced prior to the start of this project.

For this project we have studied 12 case study bills: seven from the 2005-10 parliament, and five from the first session of the 2010-15 parliament.

The bills from 2005-10 are:

  • Identity Cards Bill 2005-06
  • Health Bill 2005-06
  • Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Bill 2006-07
  • Further Education and Training Bill 2006-07 
  • Employment Bill 2007-08
  • Saving Gateway Accounts Bill 2008-09
  • Energy Bill 2009-10

The bills from 2010-12 are:

  • Identity Documents Bill
  • Savings Accounts and Health in Pregnancy Grant Bill
  • Budget Responsibility and National Audit Bill
  • Public Bodies Bill
  • Welfare Reform Bill

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Meg Russell's new book, The Contemporary House of Lords:
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