There’s a danger in the UK of equating policy-making with the halls of Westminster. While this undeniably a key component of UK policy making it is not the only one. In order to affect change in the UK it is essential to understand where different jurisdictions lie and act accordingly. Lobbying your MP to change your local bin collection for example is unlikely to yield results. This blog will cover 4 of the major arenas in which decisions are made that affect the UK: Local councils, devolved powers, UK Parliament and international policy arenas.
Local authorities have devolved powers to shape policy in local areas. However ‘local authority, although democratically elected and representative of the area, is not a sovereign body and can only do such things as are expressly or impliedly authorised by Parliament’.
Local Authorities operate in different ways, with county, district and unitary authorities all operating with different structures. How policies and decisions are made therefore vary from location to location. Different authorities will hold different remits and therefore it is necessary to look at your specific context individually.
However, there are 1300 legal duties on local government. In general the following policy areas have decision making at a local government level:
|Education||e.g. providing schools, transport to school, providing opportunities for adult learning|
|Housing||e.g. finding accommodation for people in need and maintaining social housing|
|Social Services||e.g. Caring for and Protecting children, older people and disabled people|
|Highways and Transport||e.g. Maintaining roads and managing traffic flow|
|Waste Management||e.g. collecting rubbish and recycling|
|Leisure and Cultural Services||e.g. providing libraries, leisure services and arts venues|
|Consumer Protection||e.g. enforcing trading standards and licensing taxis|
|Environmental Health and Services||e.g. making sure food provided in restaurants and pubs is safe to eat, controlling pollution locally|
|Planning||e.g. managing local development and making sure buildings are safe|
|Economic Development||e.g. attracting new businesses and encouraging tourism|
|Emergency Planning||e.g. planning for things like floods or terrorist attacks|
Within local councils decisions are made at different levels. Councils predominantly operate through committees on which elected councillors sit. In addition to this there are full council meetings of all councillors to agree to larger decisions such as the budget. Many councils also have a cabinet made up of the majority party on the council with representatives covering each of the major areas.
Devolution, in its modern iteration stems from the late 1990s when the Scottish Parliament, National Assembly for Wales and Northern Ireland Assembly were created. Each of these devolved administrations follow the same framework of a legislature (e.g. UK Parliament) and an Executive (e.g. UK Government). Unlike a federal or confederal system of government where each part of the state has autonomy and sovereignty, “parliamentary sovereignty” in the UK remains. These devolved powers all operate differently, with different powers. According to the former PM Tony Blair the purpose of devolution in Scotland and Wales was “to bring about a settlement between the constituent parts of the UK so that decision making was brought closer to the people who felt a strong sense of identity.” A review 20 years after this devolution by the Institute for Government identified by this definition, devolution has proven to be a success.
|Policy Area||Scotland||Wales||Northern Ireland|
|Health and Social Care||D||D||D|
|Education and training||D||D||D|
|Agriculture, forestry and fisheries||D||D||D|
|Justice and policing||D||R||D|
|Some social security elements||D||R||D|
|Sports and the Arts||D||D||D|
|Broadcasting (NI may legislate with SoS consent)||R||R||R|
The policy areas devolved are as follows:
Policy areas that are devolved (D) and reserved (R) by UK parliament. Adapted from Civil Service
Parliamentary Sovereignty is a central principle of the UK constitution. This means it is the supreme legal authority in the UK which can create or end any law. It is therefore constitutionally, the centre of decision-making in the UK. As discussed in devolved and local administrations, Parliament has the authority to supersede decisions made at these levels.
Within this process there are several arenas in which decisions are made, with feedback mechanisms in place to ensure verification and evaluation are incorporated. G
Policy is predominantly created in government departments. Of course, this overlooks the web of external discussions in charities, lobbying groups, the Cabinet and occasionally members of the public, which may have occurred to bring the policy issue to the attention of a government department. Government departments are the place in which policies are explored, options are considered and rationale is offered. This is then likely to be shared across other government departments in the form of a green paper to encourage debate and feedback from others. After this a more formal white paper may be offered for public consultation, allowing external parties to submit their expertise and views on the potential policy. However, none of this is compulsory, and governments can bring a bill to Parliament without this process taking place.
The following diagram depicts the process in which bills pass through Parliament to become law. Throughout this process MPs and Lords have the opportunity to discuss the Bill and suggest amendments.
House of Commons
In the House of Commons Chamber all MPs can seek to speak in a debate or ask questions of the Member tabling the bill. Whilst most bills come from the government as discussed above, individual members can also put forward “private members bills”. These are usually on a more specific issue, however historical records have shown the Private Members Bills have only an 11% success rate of becoming law in comparison to 94% of government bills. Decisions are made by vote, with a question posed to the House and the choice of “aye” or “no”. It is important to recognise the importance of Party whips in this decision making. There are one-line whips which are given as guidance to the party members regarding which way the party wishes to vote on an issue; a two-line whip which are stricter instruction to attend and vote and finally three-line whips which are usually reserved for the most key issues. Ignoring or voting against a three-line whip is usually seen as a rebellion against the party and can result in disciplinary action. It is important to recognise for those seeking to engage with their MPs the limitations placed on their actions in certain instances.
Public Bill Committees
These committees are also an important arena in policy making. This is where laws are scrutinised by MPs of different parties. Committees take evidence from experts and interest groups outside of Parliament and amendments to the Bill can be voted on. Every clause in the Bill is agreed to, changed or removed although this may happen without debate. The Committee is selected to represent the party make-up of the House, therefore it is rare for amendments to be made that do not reflect the views of the Government.
House of Lords
Public Bills that are agreed to in the House of Commons then pass to the House of Lords where similar debates and scrutiny takes place in the House of Lords Committees. Here the committee members scrutinise the bill line-by-line and a member can speak on an issue for as long as they want meaning this committee stage usually lasts around 8 days but can be much longer.
Private Members Bills can also begin their passage through Parliament in the House of Lords.
Policy-making does not just happen at the national level, it also occurs in international arenas. There are many multilateral organisations that contribute to international policy making however some of the most powerful arenas are discussed below.
The Unite Nations is an international organisation that brings together states to address global issues. Its primary objectives are: preventing and resolving conflict, protecting human rights and supporting action to tackle climate change. The UN General Assembly makes decisions to represent the weight of global opinion, with each of the 193 member states having one vote in the chamber. However these decisions are not binding. The UN Security Council can take decisions that are binding for all UN members. The main power of the UN is in its capacity to “advise, encourage, cajole and criticise” but it has few enforcement powers.
However its successes have been seen in concerted effort across the globe for example to eradicate ozone-depleting substances across the world and in transforming human rights in international justice where the death penalty, recruiting child soldiers and administering colonies are now widely (though not wholly) rejected.
This is a term generally used to refer to organisations that encompass various states. These all vary in terms of their role in policy-making and authority covering things such as economic trading agreements, human rights or peacebuilding efforts. The EU is the most well-known of these, consisting of a Council made up of Ministers from Member states, the EU Parliament made up of MEPs and the Commission which operates similarly to the Civil Service in the UK. It began as an economic union but has since evolved into an organisation that spanned policy areas including climate, environment, health, security, justice and migration.
Some Multilateral organisations also play an important role in policy making such as the IMF and World Trade Organisation. The WTO operates a global system of trade rules and acts as a forum for negotiating trade agreements. The topmost body of the WTO is the Ministerial Conference in which member states meet to make key decisions. The IMF works to “foster global monetary cooperation, secure financial stability, facilitate international trade, promote high employment and sustainable economic growth, and reduce poverty around the world” Rather than a system that gives each member state a vote in decisions, the IMF executive board consists of 24 executive directors that represent member countries through constituencies. These constituencies are determined by financial contribution with some countries representing a single constituency. This has been referred to as the “one-dollar, one vote system”.
Decision making happens in many different arenas as discussed above and it is therefore crucial to understand how each level effects any policy changes you may wish to campaign on. Of course, this document only explores the formalised policy arenas, it does not address the hidden arenas in which policy decisions are influenced. One document on influencing local councils for example stresses the need to identify both the formal power distribution of council meetings and also the informal power regulations that are at play. This can be applied at all levels of decision making, with the conversations had in the lobby or cafeteria also being a key part of where decisions are made.