Role of Interest Groups
Why do Interest Groups work through the Westminster Parliament?
Parliament passes legislation that has an impact on the members of interest groups (current Bills before Parliament relate to, for example, regulation of agents letting rented property, the protection of bats, the fire resistance of children’s clothing that manufacturers must meet and access for disabled spectators at sports grounds). In practice, decisions on the content of most legislation are made in Government Departments by Government Ministers, their advisers and senior civil servants and then the MPs who are the Government whips make sure that everything is voted through by the MPs of the Governing Party. Decisions on public spending are also made within Government Departments. Nevertheless MPs can propose amendments and put pressure on the Government to accept these amendments and so interest groups will brief MPs on what amendments to put forward and the arguments to make.
Each year Backbench MPs enter a ballot and first names drawn out have a chance to introduce their own Bill, called a Private Member’s Bill, and try to get it passed as legislation. Interest groups will contact the MPs who come at the top of the ballot to persuade them to introduce legislation that the group wants to see passed. To get through it will need Government approval but, if it is relatively uncontroversial ,it may well succeed.
MPs are more open to being lobbied than Government departments which often only talk to insider groups. Most MPs will have an interest in a range of issues and may, before they became MPs, have worked in a particular profession or even for an interest group. MPs may have an important employer in their constituency and so be keen to promote the interests of the interest group that represents that industry. If an interest group has a branch in the MP’s constituency then it will be easier, as constituents of the MP, to get to see him or her.
Backbench MPs have a range of ways in which they can raise issues in Parliament and so put pressure on Government to change legislation, spend on areas with which groups are concerned or abandon plans that groups are unhappy about:-
- MPs can ask questions to Ministers either verbally or in writing or can ask the Prime Minister a question during the Parliamentary sessions on Wednesdays. In addition, MPs may have a chance to talk directly to Ministers.
- MPs can put forward what is called an Early Day Motion. It is not debated in Parliament but is published and other MPs can sign to show their support. If a significant number of MPs support one of these Motions Government Ministers will take notice.
- MPs can intervene in a debate on legislation or a general topic and Ministers will reply to the points made. They can put down amendments to legislation but they are extremely unlikely to be carried unless there is Government support. MPs are also able to raise an issue if they are able to get an Adjournment Debate at the end of the day’s proceedings. They speak on it and a Government Minister replies. MPs are also able to initiate what is called a Westminster Hall debate on an issue. Other interested MPs join in the discussion and a Minister attends to reply to the debate.
- MPs can set up an All Party Group to discuss a topic area as long as there is support from MPs of different parties. These Groups often have close relationships with interest groups who may even provide financial support for their activities such as visits and researchers. These Groups are more likely to get media attention and be able to meet with Ministers than individual MPs.
The House of Lords plays a major role in proposing amendments to legislation many of which are accepted by Government. Members of the House of Lords remain there for life and so the Government whips have much less influence over them while many are entirely independent of political parties. They have more ability than MPs to propose amendments to legislation and get these adopted by persuading other peers. They are also able to ask questions to Ministers and raise issues in debates. Like MPs they have a range of issues that they are concerned with and they may have had a career in an area which is related to an interest group.
Interest groups with enough resources can employ firms of political lobbyists and these are expert at understanding which MPs are sympathetic to particular causes and how to promote issues to them. This provides an easy way for interest groups to have influence. As a result of concern about a few MPs who were paid by political lobbyists there has been some tightening of the rules but MPs are still able to act as paid consultants for interest groups though they have to declare this to Parliament.