17 May 2016

With attention shifting to the Queen’s Speech and the legislation to come in the next parliamentary session, Gavin Freeguard looks back at what happened during the first session of this parliament, and how it compares to previous parliamentary sessions.

Last year’s Queen’s Speech contained more bills than any since 2007.

1 Number of bills in Queen

There were around 26 bills in last year’s Queen’s Speech, which announces the legislative agenda for the parliamentary session ahead. According to the House of Commons Library, 13 of those bills have become law, and the proposed bill on Northern Ireland eventually became two.

Those 26 bills represent the busiest Queen’s Speech since 2007, the first with Gordon Brown as Prime Minister (28), although the 2005 Queen’s Speech following Tony Blair’s final election victory was the busiest in recent times with 45. (We have used data from the Guardian Datablog back to 1994.)

23 government bills received Royal Assent during the 2015-16 session.

2 Number of bills per session 1997-2016

As well as the 15 bills announced (or alluded to) in the 2015 Queen’s Speech, a further eight government bills made it to Royal Assent by the end of the session, making a total of 23. Overall, this figure is low. In only three parliamentary sessions since 1997 have fewer government bills been passed into law than in the most recent session: 2000-01 (21), 2004-05 (21) and 2008-09 (22).

Parliamentary sessions vary in length – which means that simply counting the number of bills does not give a full picture of legislative activity.

One government bill passed into law every seven sitting days in the 2015-16 session.

3 Number of bills per sitting day 1997-2016

In terms of bills passed per sitting day, the most recent session was the second quietest since 1997, with 0.14 government bills receiving Royal Assent per sitting day, or one bill passed on average every seven days. The 2010-12 session also had one bill passed into law around every seven days. The first sessions of parliaments under New Labour were much busier – one government bill became law every 4.6 days in 1997-98, every 5.2 days in 2001-02, and every 3.9 days in 2005-06.

As we have previously written, passing fewer bills isn’t necessarily a bad thing – there may be better uses of parliamentarians’ time. And as our new report on the 2016 Queen’s Speech argues, ‘less but better’ legislation would ‘contribute to government effectiveness’ as government prioritises its legislative programme.

However, the fewer bills receiving Royal Assent in 2015-16 may owe more to the government – with its small majority in the Commons and lack of majority in the Lords – finding it more difficult to get bills through parliament (it has been defeated three times in the Commons and many times in the Lords) and being forced into various U-turns.

Fewer pages of government legislation were passed per sitting day than in any session since 2005.

4 Pages per sitting day 1997 to 2016

Not all bills are created equal – some are longer than others, and so counting the number of pages of legislation is another way of quantifying legislation. On average, 10.4 pages of government legislation were passed into law each sitting day in the most recent session, four pages fewer than in the second quietest session since 2005-06 (2010-12, 14.5 pages).

The Treasury was responsible for the most bills…

5 Bills by department 2015-16

As was the case in every session of parliament under the Coalition, HM Treasury was responsible for the most government bills that became law (seven). A number of these – the Finance Act (No. 2) 2015, and two Supply and Appropriation Acts – are necessary to allow the Government to raise and spend money. But the Treasury also sponsored three bills jointly with other departments: two with the Cabinet Office, one on the Bank of England, financial regulation and banknotes and another on charity sector regulation and social investment; and one with the Department of Work and Pensions on National Insurance.

Just over a sixth of the last session’s acts were related to devolution of power in some way: Cities and Local Government Devolution Act (DCLG), two acts on Northern Ireland (Stormont Agreement and Welfare Reform, both Northern Ireland Office) and the Scotland Act (Scotland Office).

…and for the most pages of government legislation.

6 pages by department 2015-16

Given the number of Treasury-sponsored bills, it’s unsurprising that it was also responsible for the most pages – 520. But in a clear second and third place are the Department for Communities and Local Government, and the Home Office.

7 Bills and pages by department, 2015-16

In DCLG’s case, this owes much to the Housing and Planning Act, the third longest act of the 2015-16 session ( approx. 230 pages – the final version has not yet been published). The Home Office’s Immigration Act was the second longest act of the 2015-16 session (236 pages), only a few pages behind the longest, the Finance Act (245). Next were the Enterprise Act (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, 99 pages); Scotland Act (Scotland Office, 96 pages) and Energy Act (Department of Energy and Climate Change, 88 pages). Even these are smaller than many passed under the Coalition government.

The Government intended to pass a lot of bills during this session, and – as we saw with the publication of the Government’s Single Departmental Plans – the tendency to commit to too many things is not confined to legislation. The government needs to focus on what it really cares about. As we argue in our new report, the Queen’s Speech ‘provides the Government with an opportunity to demonstrate it still has momentum’ amidst the turmoil of the EU referendum campaign and other constraints. But it will need to prioritise this session’s legislation carefully.

Further information

Please note: the Planning and Housing Act 2016 has not yet been published on legislation.gov.uk. We have used the page count from the most recent April 2016 version.

Abbreviations for government departments can be found here.

Read Daniel Thornton's report previewing the Queen's Speech.