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A legislative scorecard for the coalition government

Yesterday’s Queen’s speech set out the coalition government’s legislative agenda for the second session of the 2010-15 parliament. In its first session, the coalition was seen by many as hyper-active, pressing ahead simultaneously with large-scale reforms across many policy areas at once. But what does the data tell us about how busy the 2010/12 session actually was?

Yesterday, the Queen opened the second session of the current parliament. This follows the unusually long 2010-12 session that began after the May 2010 election; each session begins after the monarch’s speech and divides up the ‘parliament’ that lasts from one election to the next. The coalition government has been perceived as having front-loaded legislation for this (presumably) five-year parliament into its long first session. There have been major reforms in education, health, legal aid, pensions, and to the constitution with fixed-term parliaments and changes to electoral boundaries. But the level of legislative activity does not reflect this perception of hyper-activity. Number of acts The 2010-12 session was one of the busiest of the last 15 years with 49 acts passed into law, 42 of them introduced as government bills and seven as private members bills brought forward by other MPs and Lords. From this perspective it does look like an active first term. However, this figure is smaller than the session immediately after the Labour election victory of 1997, the last time that a new government with a reforming agenda took office. The 1997/98 session saw 62 bills become acts over 18 months, and was retrospectively seen as a ‘wasted’ first term. 2010/12 also saw fewer bills reach the statute book than the session following Blair’s 2005 election win, when 57 bills became acts. Taking into account the differing length of parliamentary sessions, 2010/12 looks even less productive in legislative terms, with only 24.5 acts passed per year (see chart below). This is in fact the lowest annual rate for any session in the more than fifteen years covered by the detailed data provided by the parliament website. Acts passed in each parliamentary session Cycles of activity The data shows that four of the peaks in acts-per-year are the short November-April sessions immediately before the last four elections. The two peak sessions were those before the 1997 and 2010 elections, which were both expected to bring about a change of government. This pattern is not surprising as governments have attempted to pass their remaining planned legislation quickly during the short final session before possibly losing power. As the Institute for Government will discuss in a forthcoming report, the latter stages of a coalition government may feel very different. Instead of a single party approaching an election wanting to finish off its legislative programme, the parties in government will be looking to emphasise their individual identities and may therefore be reluctant to rush bills put forward by their coalition partners onto the statute book in the run-up to an election. Size of legislation Although the absolute number of acts passed in the 2010/12 period was no higher than normal, this might be because the pieces of legislation passed were particularly large and complex. In the graph below, legislation is categorised by calendar year rather than session, making direct comparisons difficult, but we can compare 2011 and 2012 with other calendar years. The average length of the 37 acts passed in those two years was 100.5 and 107.5 pages respectively. While high by historic standards, these figures are similar to most of the latter Blair-Brown years. Number and average length of acts passed The long-term trend has been for a decline in the number of acts passed each year but an increase in the average size of each act. Both the numbers of acts in 2011 and 2012 and their average lengths are in keeping with those trends, suggesting that modern legislation tends to be more detailed but less frequent than 20 years ago or earlier. A busy session? The 2010-12 session was quite busy in absolute terms, with 49 acts passed. Spread out over two years, however, this was not an extraordinarily busy session of parliament. Despite the passage of several signature large-scale reforms, the number and size of acts of parliament was inkeeping with recent trends and were not much different to the years before the 2010 election. Data of this sort cannot, of course, measure the impact or importance of legislation or other government activity. It is simply a way of assessing how much change the government has made to the laws of the country. It also tells us something about how busy MPs and peers have been, and how heavy the burden of legislative scrutiny has been. Complaints of a hyper-active government may reflect differences in the pattern of legislation passing through this session compared to its shorter predecessors, but in its totality the 2010-12 was much like previous sessions.

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