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Impact of the House of Lords: Analysis of Parliamentary Session 2016–17

Published Thursday, July 25, 2019

This House of Lords Library Briefing is the result of an initiative by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology to foster collaborative work between academics and Parliament. As part of this scheme, the House of Lords Library hosted Dr Ruth Dixon of the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford, to explore the impact of the House of Lords, focusing on the chamber’s legislative role. In this briefing, Dr Dixon describes how she used her novel methodology to analyse amendments to government legislation in the most recent completed parliamentary session, 2016–17. This analysis is followed by two case studies which explore interactions between the Government and legislators during the same session. The first outlines the response of Parliament in April 2017 to the unexpected announcement of a general election. The second analyses the fate of part of the Children and Social Work Act 2017: clauses that were intended to allow local authorities to apply to be exempted from statutory provisions in children’s social care. Overall Dr Dixon concludes that the impact of the House of Lords is relatively subtle. In order to influence policy through legislation, Members must not only gather cross-party support within the chamber, they must also gain the support of the Commons. Her analysis shows various ways in which this is achieved.

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Understanding the impact of the House of Lords requires a nuanced approach. Some academic studies conclude that not only is the UK Parliament "weak" in international comparison, but the House of Lords is not an influential second chamber. Other scholars find that Parliament, and specifically the Lords, have a genuine effect on public policy, though much of the influence is behind-the-scenes and hard to measure. A multifaceted approach is therefore needed to describe this impact.

In this briefing, the impact of the House of Lords is explored through analysis of the most recent full parliamentary session, 2016–17, focusing on the chamber’s legislative role. After a discussion of the academic literature, the briefing analyses how government legislation was amended. This is the first quantitative analysis of the amendments from a whole session since the 1980s. Government bills in the 2016–17 session were substantially amended, with an average of a quarter of the lines of legislative text being altered by amendment, and in some cases up to 80 percent. Although almost all agreed amendments were proposed by ministers, the Government suffered defeats in the Lords on eleven bills, and offered concessions in regard to more than half of the defeats.

The quantitative analysis is followed by two case studies which explore interactions between the Government and legislators. The first outlines the response of Parliament in April 2017 to the unexpected announcement of a general election. The ensuing ‘wash-up’ period was characterised by a high degree of cooperation and coordination between the two chambers, while maintaining critical scrutiny of the Government’s remaining legislation. The second analyses the parliamentary scrutiny of part of the Children and Social Work Act 2017: clauses that were intended to allow local authorities to apply to be exempted from statutory provisions in children’s social care. Cross-party opposition to these provisions in both chambers resulted in their eventual removal.

Professor Meg Russell of University College London identified three ways in which the House of Lords influences policy, namely through "defeat", "negotiation" and "anticipated reactions". This study concludes that these types of impact can all be identified in the 2016–17 session. The Lords, however, used its veto powers relatively sparingly, overturning Government proposals that were opposed by a strong cross-party consensus. They were most vocal on constitutional issues, arguing that there are dangers of ceding wider powers to ministers. Cooperation between the chambers was required to secure the—sometimes unwilling—agreement of ministers to make the changes ‘stick’. Thus the impact of the Lords cannot be seen in isolation, and this briefing illustrates how each chamber responds to, and influences, the other.

This briefing was written by Dr Ruth Dixon, University of Oxford. Dr Dixon held a Parliamentary Academic Fellowship hosted by the House of Lords Library in 2018–19. This fellowship was arranged by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology and was enabled by a grant from the ESRC Impact Acceleration Fund.

Lords Library notes LLN-2019-0100

Author: Ruth M Dixon

Topics: House of Commons, House of Lords, Members of Parliament, Members of the Lords, Parliament

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