Home > Lobbying > Opening up the legislative process

Opening up the legislative process

Last week, a House of Commons report called for MPs to be given greater independence from party whips and for more public input into parliamentary business. In the Guardian, Richard Bellamy criticises these proposals, arguing that freeing MPs from the constraints of party discipline will make them more vulnerable to lobbyists and other outside interests. At present, those backbenchers that are successful in the ballot for a private members bill (and can propose their own legislation) often find themselves targeted by outside interests seeking to promote pet projects. There is nothing wrong with MPs listening to outside groups – after all it is part of their job. Richard Bellamy’s argument suggests that the pressure will intensify if the Committee’s proposals are enacted, and highlights a concern that better resourced groups will be more likely to get MPs’ attention.

It might be thought that problems of lobbying and privileged access can be countered by opening up the legislative process, which is something the Committee also looked at. The Committee considered greater direct citizen input into parliamentary proceedings, for example through e-petitions to parliament. More ambitiously, the Committee looked at agenda initiative which allows citizens to collect signatures on a particular proposal and, when a threshold of signatures is met, for that proposal to be debated.

Yet if such changes were really to provide an avenue for influencing legislation, it could provide a new channel for well resourced groups or organisations that can afford a lobbyist, rather than a counterweight to those voices. For example, in addition to existing lobbying services, public affairs consultants might offer a service in collecting signatures for the petitions. The practice is well known in relation to initiatives in the US. Alternatively, if a high threshold is set for the number of signatures to trigger a debate, it may amplify the voice of those newspapers that are best placed to communicate with and mobilise potential signatories. It may be that there are ways of avoiding these problems, through the design of the system or disclosure requirements. If these concerns are not addressed, the use of initiatives and e-petitions may increase rather than remedy the problems of unequal access to the legislative process.

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Categories: Lobbying
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