Role of Interest Groups
How do MPs represent interest groups?
Society is not homogeneous but consists of different groups with different concerns. People in rural areas will be concerned about the infrequency and cost of bus services, people living in social housing are affected by the bedroom, tax/spare room subsidy, younger women will be concerned about changes in the abortion law, families with a member who has dementia will be concerned about what support there is for this condition, Sikh people were concerned about the law requiring people to wear motorcycle helmets because their religion requires men to wear a turban ( the law was changed by a Private Member’s Bill), teenagers may be interested in the discussion about lowering the voting age to 16, small businesses are concerned about the level of business rates that they have to pay and so on. All these issues are likely to be raised by MPs in Parliament. Many of these issues are difficult either because resolving them costs money are because there are different views about them.
Many of these different groups are represented by organisations. e.g. farmers by the National Farmers’ Union, people with mental health issues by Mind, Anglicans by the Church of England and so. These groups look to influence MPs so as to create a climate of opinion in their favour and, if it affects them, to influence the details of legislation. They will therefore look to lobby MPs by talking to MPs directly and by sending information about what they would like to see happen. MPs in any case may be interested in policies that affect the groups and may be sympathetic to them. They may even belong to or have worked for an interest group. There are a range of ways in which MPs can help the causes of a group:-
- They may be on a Public Bill Committee and so can push for the group to give evidence and argue for amendments to legislation that the group would like to see.
- They can ask to see a Minister and put forward the case for the group
- They can raise the issue in a general debate. Parliamentary rules also allow them intervene and make a point on an issue that another MP is speaking on
- They can apply for an Adjournment debate. This allows an MP to speak briefly on an issue at the end of the day’s proceedings and a Government minister has to reply
- They can initiate a Westminster Hall debate. This takes place not in the main Chamber but in a separate room near to Westminster Hall, which is part of the Parliamentary buildings. Other MPs with an interest in the topic take part and a Government minister replies.
- They can ask a question to the Prime Minister or to other Ministers. As well as Prime Minister’s Question Time on Wednesdays, Ministers from each Department take it in turn to answer questions from MPs. MPs can also put down a written question, or even a series of questions, to the Departmental Minister to pursue an issue.
- MPs can put down an Early Day Motion. This is not debated in Parliament but allows other MPs to sign the motion to show that they are also concerned.
- MPs can put forward a Ten Minute Rule Bill which is a legislative proposal. It will not actually become law but allows an MP to speak on the need for a change in the law and a Government Minister has to reply.
- MPs can form an All Party Parliamentary Group related to the interest group if there is support from both Government and Opposition MPs. They can meet regularly to discuss the issue, go on fact finding visits and issue reports. A Minister is much more likely to take notice of representations from an APPG than from an individual MP.
- All of these forms of Parliamentary activity can be used to get coverage in the media and so highlight an issue.
There has been concern at the close relationship of some MPs to interest groups
- During most of the twentieth century MPs’ wages were low compared with other professions and so MPs took on paid work such as journalism or company directorships and also paid consultancy for interest groups, generally groups that they had connections with, so that they would speak on issues that concerned them and brief the group on any developments in Parliament or Government policy.
- In the 1980s political consultancy firms developed which sought to pay MPs to look after the interest of their clients which might be firms or interest groups.
- In 1994, Sunday Time journalists, pretending to be representing a firm offered a range of MPs money to ask Parliamentary Questions for them. Almost all MPs refused or said they would raise the issue without payment but two MPs agreed to accept payment.
- There has been a concern that some APPGs are funded by interest groups who pay for research staff, visits etc. APPG Chairs have said that this does happen but does not mean that the APPG always says what the interest group wants.
The ‘Cash for Questions’ scandal led to the Nolan Report which concluded that consultancy in general terms was acceptable and gave MPs an understanding of issues but that acting as clients for any group that a political consultancy gives to them should stop. The system has now been made much more transparent with a Register of Members’ Interests so that all payments and involvement with groups has to be made public and MPs must declare any interest before they speak on a topic in Parliament.
Although interest groups do look to regularly lobby MPs the influence that MPs in deciding what Government does is often limited and very general in impact. Policies and the main content of legislation are decided by Ministers and civil servants. The most influential interest groups often have a close relationship with these.