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MPs are vital in influencing legislation

John Baron MP
April 18, 2024

A theme of my recent articles has been to speak up for our Parliamentary system, which is frequent knocked by those who claim it is outdated, unresponsive, broken and ineffectual. This analysis is wrong. Over my 23 years I have found the system in general to be responsive to its electorate’s needs, even if its its bureaucracy and concomitant timetable can sometimes create a different impression. In this instalment I consider how Parliamentarians – and by extension, constituents – can influence the legislative process.

Under the British system, the three branches of government – the executive, legislative and judiciary – are largely fused, though their roles are distinct and act as checks and balances against each other. For centuries MPs have played a central part to the passage of legislation, using their votes accordingly, and to a greater or lesser extent independently. The basic passage of a Bill through three readings in both Houses, and its final emergence as an Act after Royal Assent, has been remarkably unvaried throughout this time, and probably at least from the time of Elizabeth I.

The passage of legislation became more streamlined with the emergence of political parties, as MPs with similar worldviews clubbed together to support each other’s legislation. The formalisation of the role of political parties gave rise, in due course and along with the extension of the franchise, to candidates standing under a party banner and on a common manifesto. Whipping operations, headed by a Chief Whip, marshalled Parliamentary forces and helped ensure that legislation promised in manifestos was passed. In large part, this system remains.

Yet the Opposition and backbenchers alike have long held the ability to influence the Government’s programme of legislation. A well-timed Parliamentary question, allied with the implicit understanding that the Minister’s response is truthful, can shed light on issues, force undertakings or answers from the Government – even if it is a telling silence – or at the very least ensure Ministers take the time afterwards to request a briefing from their officials.

The Opposition and backbenchers alike have long held the ability to influence the Government’s programme of legislation Quote

This is the general tactic that my colleagues and I used in 2013, when the Coalition Government was giving active consideration to providing weapons to groups opposed to the Syrian régime. I held to the view that Western governments did not fully appreciate the extent of penetration by less desirable groups such as the al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda &c, and the difficulty of restricting supply to just the ‘good’ rebels. Though these weapons would have been supplied with the best of intentions, and to groups vetted by the Government, there could be no guarantee they wouldn’t fall into the wrong hands.

Motivated by concerns we could make the situation worse, I led a set of back bench debates, during which the Government conceded an undertaking that there would be a Parliamentary vote before suppling lethal support to the rebels. This laid the groundwork for the vote in August 2013, when Parliament was recalled during the summer recess, as a result of which British forces carried out no strikes – apparently the first time a Government had lost a Parliamentary vote on military action since 1782. The United States subsequently followed suit.

The Syrian example shows an issue which emerged quite suddenly and was covered as a major news story at the time. However, Parliament is often at its best when a long period of determined campaigning, sometimes over a number of years, gradually builds a consensus and leads to backbenchers changing the political weather.

A good example is the campaign for an EU referendum. I had long favoured a referendum, and was frustrated when Labour’s pledge of a referendum came and went, and was also vexed it was Nick Clegg, as Liberal Democrat leader, who first called for an in/out referendum in 2008. As it turned out, the 2010 Parliament, which had a higher than usual churn given the change of government and the 2009 expenses scandal, contained more Eurosceptic MPs than people realised – as was dramatically shown in the October 2011 back bench debate in favour of an EU referendum in which over 80 Conservatives backed the motion.

I have written on this site about this campaign at greater length before, but in short the debate persuaded a number of us to meet once a week to maintain momentum behind the idea of a referendum. One particular idea which took hold was to persuade the Government to pass the required referendum legislation in the current Parliament for a vote after the General Election. Time was needed for a meaningful discussion, with a focus on the facts rather than the emotion.

Whichever party won the 2015 election, they would have a hard time explaining to eager voters why a referendum had been cancelled.

We started talking to other MPs, and by June 2012 had delivered to the Prime Minister a letter calling for referendum legislation signed by almost 100 Conservative MPs. This, a further letter in November and the foundation of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for an EU Referendum, which I chaired, really helped to build momentum and led David Cameron to announce in January 2013 that, if re-elected in 2015, a Conservative government would hold an in/out referendum after a period of renegotiation. The rest is history.

Leaving the EU is the most momentous decision Britain has taken in several decades, but MPs can also use their influence on legislation to achieve things closer to home. As the Chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Cancer for many years, I knew one of the main reasons the NHS lags behind international counterparts when it comes to cancer survival rates is because it tends to detect cancer late, when treatment options are harder, invariably less successful and more costly.

One way of encouraging earlier diagnosis is to focus less on processes, such as the two- and four-week waits, and more on outcome measures such as one-year survival rates. As an obvious way of improving these is to diagnose cancers earlier, I tabled a simple amendment to the Health & Care Bill when it was going through the Commons to ensure NHS England focuses more on outcome measures. This was eventually supported by over 80 MPs, and also won support from the Government when it became clear we were not for moving. With a little amount of re-drafting and no shortage of support in the Lords, it is now Section 5 of the Health & Care Act 2022 and is making a difference to cancer patients and their families alike.

MPs can also scrutinise and advocate for changes through membership of APPGs and Select Committees, which I shall write more about later in this series. Yet outside these, MPs can still be effective in holding the Government to account and shaping legislation as they wish. Naturally these abilities are magnified when there is a hung parliament or when the Government has a small majority, but overall history suggests not much can stop determined backbenchers when they set their mind to it and organise themselves accordingly.

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John Baron is the Conservative MP for Basildon and Billericay and a former Shadow Health Minister.

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