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Evidence on House of Lords select committees, 1991

The following evidence was given to the House of Lords Select Committee on the Committee Work of the House in November 1991 and printed with its Report of Session 1991-92, HL Paper 35-II, on pp 250-2.

Evidence by Dr Michael Rush, Head of the Department of Politics, University of Exeter

Introduction

1. Parliament has long been a focus of attention for pressure groups, but there is evidence that such attention has increased significantly in the post-war period generally and in the last twenty or so years in particular, the publication in 1990 of Parliament and Pressure Politics(1) by members of The Study of Parliament Group(2) provided detailed evidence of the levels and nature of pressure group activity in Parliament. The study included a survey of 253 pressure groups or organisations outside Parliament and government, only 4.3 per cent of whom said they had had no contact with Parliament.(3)

2. The general picture that emerged from the study is that most pressure groups are well aware that the key actors in the making of policy decisions are ministers and senior civil servants, who were placed first or second by 60.1 per cent of respondents in answer to a question on influence on public policy; Parliament came a poor fourth. Nonetheless, groups value Parliament as a forum for expressing their views, especially as a means of influencing the details of policy, which are often their concern.

The House of Lords and Pressure Politics

3. Pressure group contacts with Parliament

Type of contact % n
Regular or frequent contact with MPs 74.7 189
Presented written evidence to a select committee 65.6 166
Regular or frequent contact with peers 58.7 148*
Presented oral evidence to a select committee 49.0 124
Contacts with all-party groups 47.6 120*
Contacts with party subject groups or committees 40.9 103*

Source: Parliament and Pressure Politics p 14.

Note: * 1 respondent did not answer.

It is abundantly clear from the Table that, not only are pressure group contacts with Parliament extensive, but that contacts with the House of Lords in particular figure prominently in the activities of many groups. These contacts take a number of forms, such as asking individual peers to put down a parliamentary Question, table a motion or an amendment to a bill, speak in a debate, sponsor a Private Member's bill, arrange a meeting at the House for the organisation, or arrange a meeting with a minister, but it also includes presenting evidence to select committees.

4. Although most pressure groups also know that politically the House of Commons is much more important than the House of Lords this does not prevent them paying a good deal of attention to the upper house and its members. This is hardly surprising given, on the one hand, the frequent concern of groups with the details of policy and, on the other, the opportunities that the House of Lords provides for influencing such details. Thus in response to another question a quarter (23.6 per cent) of the organisations surveyed thought the House of Lords was more useful than the Commons "in seeking to make representations or to influence policy" and nearly a half (47.7 per cent) thought the two Houses were about equal in this respect. Moreover, as many as 81.8 per cent found their contacts with the upper house "very useful" or "useful".(4)

House of Lords Select Committee and Pressure Politics

5. Although no specific questions were asked about House of Lords select committees, respondents were asked to mention particular committees to whom their organisations had submitted oral or written evidence. Lords committees were mentioned twenty-two times--a fairly high rate, bearing in mind the small number of select committees in the upper house. The committee most frequently mentioned was the Select Committee on the European Communities, which was cited by eleven respondents, followed by the Science and Technology Committee, cited five times.

6. From additional comments made by pressure groups in response to questions on the value of select committees in both Houses and in separate correspondence, it is clear that Lords committees are highly valued, as two typical comments illustrate:

We have a high opinion of Lords committee work, particularly because it is less pressured and bound by party entrenched positions than those in the Commons. We have submitted evidence, written and oral, to many Lords committees including the one on hazardous wastes and those that scrutinise EEC proposed legislation. Our views have been solicited and often included in recommendations.
We have come to regard the Lords Select Committee on the European Communities as a particularly useful forum, especially as its views are highly regarded by the European Commission.(5)

Conclusion

7. From the point of view of pressure groups it is somewhat misleading to isolate select committee inquiries from other procedures, since outside organisations see them as one of a number of avenues for getting their points of view across. In some circumstances parliamentary Questions, debates, motions, amendments to bills, select committee inquiries and so on are alternatives, but in other they are complementary, especially over time: in short groups will consider and often take any opportunity to present their views. That being so, many groups would not be averse to a considerable widening or extension of select committee activity in the House of Lords. Certainly the expansion of select committee activity in the House of Commons, particularly with the establishment of the departmental select committees, has not only widened opportunities for pressure groups but resulted in a considerable increase in the amount of evidence submitted by groups to Commons select committees, both proportionately and absolutely. The proportion of evidence from pressure groups in 1957-58 was 24.5 per cent, compared with 43.5 per cent in 1985-86;(6) and the sheer increase in select committee activity produced much more evidence from pressure groups.

8. It does not follow, however, that the House of Lords should emulate the House of Commons, either by increasing massively its use of select committees generally or by setting up a parallel range of departmental committees. While parallel committees would doubtless conduct many different inquiries from their Commons counterparts, there would inevitably be a degree of duplication, if only over time, such as the duration of a Parliament. Some duplication already occurs with departmental committee inquiries into policy matters that cross departmental boundaries and between departmental committees and the Public Accounts Committee. In any case it is doubtful whether the House of Lords has sufficient regular attenders among its members to sustain such an expansion.

9. The House of Lords should therefore build on the success of its existing committees--both permanent and ad hoc. The Science and Technology Committee was consciously set up in response to the disappearance of its Commons counterpart on the creation of the departmental committees.(7) It is widely regarded as a successful committee, as is the House's other sessional committee--that on the European Communities.(8) Indeed, the European Communities Committee is likely to become increasingly important as European integration develops. Ad hoc committees in recent years have also been used successfully, though in limited numbers.

10. Any recommendation to expand select committee activity in the House of Lords should rest on a realistic assessment of the number of committees and level of activity that the House can sustain, especially in terms of active members. The House should resist a duplication or semi-duplication of Commons committees, which would do less to enhance Parliament's ability to scrutinise the executive than a modest expansion of existing practice. The House should therefore continue and develop what it has demonstrated it does well in using select committees:

12 November 1991

Notes

1. Michael Rush (ed), Parliament and Pressure Politics, Oxford University Press, 1990. In particular, see Nicholas Baldwin, "The House of Lords".

2. The Study of Parliament Group consists of academics and officers of the two Houses of Parliament who have undertaken research on Parliament. However, the views expressed in this memorandum are entirely those of the author and not those of the Study of Parliament Group collectively, nor of the contributors to Parliament and Pressure Politics.

3. The survey was conducted in the summer of 1986 and the response rate was 73.1 per cent.

4. Parliament and Pressure Politics, p 164, Tables 7.7 and 7.8.

5. Ibid, p 166.

6. Ibid, p 143.

7. Second Report of the House of Lords Select Committee on Procedure, HL 97, 1979-80, p 1.

8. See T St J N Bates, "Select Committees in the House of Lords" in Gavin Drewry (ed), The New Select Committees: A Study of the 1979 Reforms, Oxford University Press, 1985, 2nd ed, 1989, pp 49-52.

© Michael Rush, 1991.


Prepared by Simon Patrick, 8 June 2001