Every picture tells a story

The extent to which legislation can change in parliament poses challenges to effective scrutiny by legislators and wider society. In this post Ruth M. Dixon and Jonathan A. Jones visualise the amendments to three recent bills to reveal the political drama of the parliamentary process.

The scrutiny of legislation and of legislative amendments is an important function of parliament. But what do amendments reveal about the politics of the parliamentary process? The vast majority of agreed amendments are proposed by the government, but why does government sometimes radically alter legislation that it only recently drafted? How much amendment actually takes place, and what implications does that have for parliamentary scrutiny and the quality of legislation? Such questions have been difficult to address as the process of analysing amendments by hand is time-consuming and laborious.

So, as a first step towards answering these questions, we developed a streamlined semi-automated method to compare pairs of bill versions, and to visualise the resulting differences. We illustrate this with three bills that underwent considerable amendment in the UK parliament. We found that the main reasons for the high level of amendment of these bills were, respectively, events, responsiveness, and rescue.

Events

The Financial Services (Banking Reform) Act 2013 was the most-amended legislation in the 2012-13 session. Figure 1 demonstrates that the bill increased hugely in length at the Lords committee stage. The “event” that triggered these changes was the publication of the final report of the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards (see this article by Muhammed Korotana for further discussion).

Figure1.png

Figure 1. Changes to the Financial Services (Banking Reform) Act 2013. Key: blue (text added); black (substitutions with no change in length); red (text removed).

Although the government amendments were all agreed, peers and MPs expressed strong objections to this way of legislating, which bypassed much of the normal scrutiny and consultation processes.

Lord Turnbull: “Because of the piecemeal way in which the Bill has been constructed, we now have a piecemeal presentation of the secondary legislation procedure as it applies to each bit—and I have completely lost track of it. […] there are important provisions here that need to go to various committees which we have set up in this House to examine such things.”

(Hansard, Lords Committee Stage)

Cathy Jamieson MP: “…this House had to consider the partial Bill before the final report on standards and culture had been published. […] I wish to put on record our concerns about that method of legislation. The Bill is now three times bigger than the one that was originally introduced, and consideration of Lords amendments took place only a couple of days after Third Reading—again, without much opportunity to consider matters in detail.”

Gordon Marsden MP: “My hon. Friend is detailing, forensically and importantly, the logjam that this process has produced. Does she agree that if we had had longer, organisations and groups outside the House, which feel very strongly on these issues, would have had more opportunity to make representations? The Government’s failure to allow that, by tabling these amendments as they have done, has circumscribed the public process.”

(Hansard, Commons consideration of Lords amendments)

Responsiveness

An example of amendments arising through government responsiveness to criticism was the Childcare Act 2016 (Figure 2). This brief piece of legislation was much criticised in the Lords committee stage for containing almost entirely “enabling” legislation. The government conceded those criticisms, excised the offending portion and added new, more detailed, provisions.

Figure2.png

Figure 2. Changes to the Childcare Act 2016. Key: blue (text added); black (substitutions with no change in length); red (text removed).

Rescue

Finally, we show an example of a bill where the government had to make major concessions to allow it to pass at all. Originally introduced in the 2008-09 session, the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill spent two days in the House of Commons Committee of the Whole House before being carried over to the following session of parliament, completing a second committee stage at the beginning of 2010. It finally reached the House of Lords in March 2010, and fell victim to the so-called “wash-up” period before the General Election when unfinished legislation must either be hurriedly completed or be lost. The Lords stages took place on a single day (7 April 2010), during which the Lords removed a number of controversial clauses, as shown in Figure 3.

Figure3

Figure 3. Changes to the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010. Key: blue (text added); black (substitutions with no change in length); red (text removed).

As the then Home Secretary, Jack Straw, said on 8 April 2010 when the bill returned to the Commons:

“I greatly regret the fact that we have had to remove certain aspects of the Bill, particularly on the alternative vote and the removal of hereditary peers. […] I am very sorry, as I know everybody is, about having to remove the national audit provisions […] but otherwise we would not have had any Bill at all.”

In an article about this bill, Mark Ryan points out that it was very unusual for such an important constitutional bill to be caught in “wash-up.” He quotes the House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution saying “This is no way to undertake the task of constitutional reform.” Ryan points out that the date of the General Election was not unexpected, so the fate of the controversial aspects of the bill in the Lords might have been avoided by more adroit timetabling.

Putting these examples in context

These examples demonstrate one application of our novel methodology: the identification and visualisation of highly-amended bills. But were those bills untypical outliers?

We used our methodology to analyse 56 government bills from three recent parliamentary sessions. Figure 4 shows that while our three examples represent one extreme of this sample, they are far from unusual in receiving considerable amendment. Over three-quarters of bills received alterations in at least twenty per cent of the lines of legislative text.

Figure 4. Percentage of lines of legislative text changed in government bills in the parliamentary sessions 2008-09, 2012-13 and 2015-16..png

Figure 4. Percentage of lines of legislative text changed in government bills in the parliamentary sessions 2008-09, 2012-13 and 2015-16. The first and final versions of each bill were compared. All government bills (including carried-over bills) in those sessions were analysed, apart from finance and appropriation bills, and bills containing fewer than 150 lines of legislative text.

Implications for scrutiny and the quality of legislation

This study shows that legislators are expected to evaluate not only the first draft of each bill, but to take on board often radically changed text in successive versions, and to debate the effects of lengthy amendments. In the cases of both the Financial Services (Banking Reform) Act 2013 and the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, the huge amendments were found to be virtually impossible to scrutinise in the time available. Furthermore, the manner of their introduction bypassed the usual opportunities for pre-legislative scrutiny by parliamentary committees and the wider public.

We don’t know whether this high level of amendment resulted in “worse” legislation, or whether the amendments performed their intended function of improving the legislation. It would be interesting to determine whether highly amended bills are more likely to receive judicial challenges or to require further legislation to alter their provisions than bills that passed relatively unchanged.

Notes

Dr Ruth Dixon is a Research Fellow at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford. You can follow her on Twitter: @ruth_dixon 

Professor Jonathan Jones is a Fellow of Brasenose College and Associate Professor in Physics. You can follow him on Twitter: @nmrqip

The images in this post are licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License

The PSA Parliaments blog welcomes new contributions. Please contact Communications Officer Alexandra Meakin on psa.parliaments@gmail.com for information on how to submit a post for the blog.

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