Parliament has little impact on the policy making process
Parliament is essentially the legislative section of the British political system. It is an asymmetric bycameralist system (consists of two unequal parts), the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The House of Commons is easily the more dominant. Its’ functions are fundamentally five fold; representation; legislation; scrutiny and influence of the executive; debate on contemporary issues; and recruitment to Government. The House of Lords generally holds the same functions, but can be seen as weaker. It also holds extra elements such as judicious and constitutional safeguard roles.
Policy making can therefore no longer be seen as a role for Parliament. This essay will show that Parliament does not have much impact on the policy making process, essentially because that is not its role. Furthermore, the extent on to which parliament does influence policy is due to the personalities involved rather than any constitutional precedent. It is difficult to argue for a change in the roles as it appears to the author that this is the correct way for the British system to work. However safeguards could be introduced to prevent such dominance by one individual or party to allow greater democracy.
Throughout the world, three types of legislature can be identified, Policy-making; Policy-influencing; and those with little or no policy effect. Parliament is generally regarded as a policy-influencing body, it relies on the executive to formulate policy and then reacts to it. The growth of the party machine has reinforced the power of the executive to initiate policy. Parliament fundamentally is not involved in the policy making process as this is the role of the executive. Parliament does however retain a minor number of initiation processes, which, to a small extent allows policy not from the executive to be passed.
The Government controls Parliament but cannot always rely on it passing bills, there are four main factors which allow control; its possession of a majority and loyal voting by its own supporters; its ability to determine the parliamentary timetable; its ability to curtail debate; and its control of drafting. The policy making process is usually a lengthy one. Bill Jones identified three main stages; initiation, formulation and implementation. Initiation is where the original idea comes from. More often than not, it arises from debate or a general climate of opinion.
It can originate from any part of the political spectrum; from the Executive, the Civil service, Parliament, Pressure groups or the General public, and can gain entry into the political system either from personal beliefs or influence by others who hold a certain view. A principle source of policy is the Governments’ election manifesto. Winning parties have a very good record in implementing their manifestos. Different parties have different ways of forming them, it could however be generalised that the executive of the party together with appointed interests have the largest amount of influence.
Appointed interests may include leaders of back-bench committees but there is little evidence to support the idea that they contribute greatly to the policy process. Other measures are introduced due to a particular crisis (Dangerous Dog Act 1991), international agreements (Maastricht 1993) and as a result of discussion with Government departments. Private members’ bills (those introduced by Parliament) contribute very little in the way of legislation, in the 1987-1992 Parliament, 584 private members’ bills were introduced, most were never debated and only 65 (11%) were passed.
When this is compared to 202 out of 213 (95%) Government bills passed over the same period. This example is greatly enforced when the lengths of bills are compared. The total number of private members’ bills pages passed would probably only equal four or five Government bills. Policy formulation is where the idea is put into the system to create a coherent proposal that will create legislation that applies to the original idea. Parliament has an input in what it feels a bill should include but has little impact on the formal drafting of the measure.
The details of Government bills are determined by ministers after substantial discussion. Members of Parliament (MPs) and peers have no formal involvement in these discussions. Considering evidence from ministers and advisers, little consideration is given to back-bench dissatisfaction when formulating a major bill. If such a reaction is anticipated then it is more likely that relevant MPs are ‘encouraged’ to support it. This, together with party partisanship usually means that the bill will be passed.
However, a minister will not wish to continually annoy his contemperies and may alter a bill before it reaches Parliament; due to the secrecy of the system, it is not known exactly how often this occurs. The second part of policy formulation is the drafting by Parliamentary counsel. The bill is drawn up how the Government wish it to appear on statute. MPs have little or no influence in this stage. Private Members’ Bills are either drawn up by the relevant MP, peer or group behind the motion.
Little assistance is provided for this practice and as such the bill has a high risk of being technically flawed. Policy implementation takes up around one third of the time in the House of Commons and nearly two thirds of the House of Lords. Parliament is a public arena where much debate occurs and ministers are called to justify their bills, this allows Parliament considerable authority in its achievement of its duties. However it can be argued that bills leaving Parliament are rarely of substantial difference to when they entered and so little influence has been enacted on them.
The considerable amount of time does not create notable changes to many bills, Government is usually assured of having both the principles and the details being passed. There are a number of constraints that may mean the Government does not get the backing of its own MPs in sufficient numbers to allow a bill to pass unamended or even at all. All these constraints increase the power of the legislature. Firstly, there are financial constraints, resources may not be available to implement a policy or key decision makers are unwilling to free relevant finances.
The minister instigating the policy needs to be competent enough to push the bill through at sufficient speed and with enough support. Furthermore, not all decision makers are rational, they may have other personal aims such as a desire for status, ambition and rivalries that may lead them to oppose certain policy objectives. The European Union (EU) is a good example of how key decision makers may not agree with Government policy. Time in the legislature is extremely overloaded and the Government must make time to introduce a policy so it can be passed before the end of a parliament.
The actual timing of a bill is also crucial, a controversial bill is more likely to be passed soon after a general election because the Government has a fresh mandate from the public and the threat of loss of seats at the next election is minimised. The public are believed unlikely to vote against the Government because of a bill passed up to five years previously. Policies that are not clearly under the control of one department tend to be at a disadvantage because, certain critics ague that their co-ordination is inefficient.
A bias for the South-east is often noticed in Government policies, for example, the granting of defence contracts, this is because most Decision makers live in the home counties, it has a more buoyant economy and it is the Conservative heartland. The growing dependence of the British economy on many other economies means that there is a limit to what can be done in the economic sphere. Formal constraints are the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 1976 and the European Union. Informal checks can be the oil price increases in the early 1970s.
Wars have a major impact on policy implementation, for example the Falklands war (1982) while the changes in former communist countries have altered drastically foreign policy. Treaty obligations and the increasing institutional powers of the European Union means that, increasingly, there are more powerful constraints on the Policy making process. For example, the current controversy over fishing rights in ‘the Irish Box’ will be decided by the European Union next week, not by the British Government. The most important constraint is political support.
This can be seen as support for a policy or Government within Parliament and the level of support outside Westminster. Support is needed to gain endorsement for an idea and also to guarantee the policy to be passed. The support is particularly necessary in the Governments own back-benches, without this it is unlikely to get through the process. However, executives’ support is usually, the majority in the House of Commons and for this to completely fail is relatively rare. If parliament has little confidence in the Government or a particular individual linked to the policy, it will be harder for the executive to implement its policy. Back-bench’ rebellion will be more likely, resistance to policies can kill them off, therefore, it can be seen to be a factor when formulating policy. The recent back down by the Governments’ budget measure to increase Value Added Tax (VAT) on domestic fuel is a classic example of what happens to main Government policy if back-benchers are unhappy about the executive or the policy. However, as mentioned before, evidence appears to show that on main policy objectives, ‘persuasion’ is used more often than not.
It is not often that the Government is defeated, especially on manifesto promises. “I think hard of…. getting free to argue for Toryism l’outrance, to scorn the obligations of Party discipline (so often nothing more than the convenience of the Whips’ Office) and become a true Maverick. ” The functions of parliament act to legitimise the actions of the executive. It serves and continues to serve as the fundamental agency where “the rulers are accepted by the ruled. ” Parliament is representative of party, pressure groups and constituencies in the form of an MP.
This is because the House of Commons is an elected chamber. The House of Lords is unelected and so represents party and pressure groups but is also more likely to show self interest. Even though Parliament no longer makes policy, its endorsement and the set way it is done is compulsory if a bill is to become statute. Without it Government could not be described as legitimate, democratic or have the right to rule. The rise of the organised party system is often cited as the biggest single influence that removed the role of policy making from Parliament.
It greatly increases the ease that the executive can pass their bills and has made Parliament a weaker body in being able to amend or reject a policy. Further links can be made to this; personalities and the size of the majority also play a major part in the ease of policy being passed. Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979 and brought with her a style of a political mobilizer. She was the longest serving Prime Minister this century (139 months – winning three consecutive elections) finally resigning on November 22nd 1990.
Mrs Thatcher used many of her powers in such a way to give her enormous influence over the policy making process and Parliament. She exercised great discipline over the Conservative party, created the ‘Number 10 Policy Unit’ creating a buffer between her and the civil service, her personality was also known to be sometimes fierce. “Norman’s [Tebbit] own position is particularly strong, as he is known to be a special favourite of the Lady [Mrs Thatcher], of whom they [the civil service] are all completely terrified.
And with good reason. “. She also interfered greatly with the affairs of departments, taking an unprecedented close interest in the promotion of Mandarins. The large majority in the Commons together with the Labour party undergoing a series of splits and metamorphoses for much of her reign as Premier, made Parliament almost a rubber stamping facility. Most of the significant defeats came at the hands of the Lords, for example, the GLC Paving Bill (1984) and a number of amendments throughout her reign.
John Major has a much smaller party following in the Commons than Mrs Thatcher (in fact it is now a minority Government with the withdrawal of the whip from eight ‘Tory euro rebels’, the resignation of the whip by another Member of Parliament plus the landslide defeat of the Dudley West by-election). This together with his more relaxed style, it was soon leaked after his instatement that his cabinet meetings were more like discussions, means that Parliament has been able to reassert some of its authority in being able to defeat or amend the Government.
It shows that the Parliament as much depends on rules and regulations to work as it does on personalities and the composition of the Houses. The Lords has quite a large Conservative majority although they are not as cohesive as the Commons, never the less the last Labour Government (1974-1979) was defeated 347 times, compared to Mrs Thatchers’ first Government which was defeated 45 times and only 19 times in the 1983-1987 Government. Parliament does not greatly impact the policy making process. This is the role of government.
Consequently it is difficult to perceive how it could have a large impact. A small provision still exists in the form of Private Members’ Bills but these are insignificant when compared to the level of legislation passed by government. The enormous majority of the governments in the 1980s together with a strong leader, led to Parliaments ability to amend or reject was reduced. the demise of Margaret Thatchers’ Government has allowed Parliament to reassert some of its authority over the executive.
However power still firmly rests with the Government because of the four factors identified by Coxall and Robins. The enormous strength of the Conservative Governments during the 1980s did appear to be excessive. Some form of safeguard against such dominance does appear to be needed, the greater use of Select Committees and specialised Standing Committees for scrutiny of the executive does begin to increase Parliamentary power, but more is still needed.