The House of Commons is generally considered to be ineffective when it comes to amending government legislation. The statistics back this up: no government legislation was rejected outright in the last Parliament. Even in the much less public confines of the committee rooms, 99.9% of government amendments are accepted and successful opposition amendments are rare, averaging less than 1%. But simply counting votes and amendments won or lost in the chamber and in committees doesn’t do the House of Commons, or its members, justice. Looking in more detail at what is actually going on behind the scenes as bills make their way through Parliament tells a very different story.
My research delves beneath the surface of amendments moved to legislation. It considers over 3,500 hours of committee and report stage scrutiny and over 24,000 amendments tabled to 139 government bills between 2000 and 2010. It demonstrates not just the level of parliamentary activity but also its real effect on legislation. Ministers may be quick to resist amendments moved in committee but they actually agree to make many more changes than previously thought. This is because they often give an undertaking to address issues raised by MPs outside the confines of the committee room. These undertakings are not simply false promises. Ministers are quite often true to their word and their consideration of amendments often brings significant changes when bills go back to the floor of the House for their report stage.
A small snapshot of the data collected shows the difference that MPs are really making to government legislation:
1. Labour ministers may have resisted 99% of amendments moved in committee, but they gave an undertaking to reconsider 16% of them; that’s around 6 changes in each bill.
2. They agreed to update or amend 125 regulations and pieces of guidance accompanying bills.
3. 104 changes were made through government amendments while bills were still in committee in response to issues raised by MPs in earlier sittings. The exclusion of the imitation firearms used in historical re-enactments was one of these changes, made at the committee stage of the Violent Crime Reduction Bill (2005-06).
4. 22 government amendments made in committee began their lives as opposition amendments, only to be signed by the government minister before consideration in committee began.
5. At least 58% of the undertakings made by ministers to consider amendments further resulted in changes at report. This resulted in 75 new clauses, one new schedule and 164 amendments to bills.
6. In addition, they made a further 1331 changes based on amendments that had been moved by MPs in committee; an average of 10 in each bill. Extending the powers of staff in FE colleges to search students for weapons was one such change, again made during the passage of the Violent Crime Reduction Bill.
In reality the impact of opposition and backbench MPs is probably even greater than this. There are likely to be many more changes made by the government in which credit is simply not given to committees and MPs where it is due or where a change is made later on, in the House of Lords.
We see evidence in the current Parliament of backbenchers becoming increasingly assertive; select committees growing in stature and MPs rebelling more frequently than in any other post-war Parliament. But we must not judge this new assertiveness against a false understanding of the House of Commons’ previous influence. MPs may be making a more public show of what they are capable of, but they have been making a real difference to legislation via committees throughout the twenty first century and they continue to do so now.
Louise Thompson has recently completed her PhD at the University of Hull examining the impact of bill committees on government bills under an ESRC studentship.