Where does change happen?

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 Councils

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’[1].

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.

there are 1300 legal
on local government. In general the following policy areas have
decision making at a local government level:

Policy Area Example
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

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

Devolved Powers

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.”[2]
A review 20 years after this devolution by the Institute for Government
identified by this definition, devolution has proven to be a success[3].

Policy Area Scotland Wales Northern Ireland
Health and Social Care D D D
Education and training D D D
Local Government D D D
Agriculture, forestry and fisheries D D D
Transport D D D
Some taxation D D D
Justice and policing D R D
Some social security elements D R D
Sports and the Arts D D D
Defence R   R   R  
Foreign Affairs R   R   R  
Immigration R   R   R  
Trade Policy R   R R  
Constitution R   R   R  
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[4]


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[5].
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.


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.

Figure 1: how a bill passes through Parliament[6]


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[7].
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

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.

United Nations

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[8].
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[9].

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.

Supranational Organisations

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[10].

Multilateral organisations

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”[11]  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”[12].

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[13].
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

[1] https://www.lexisnexis.co.uk/legal/guidance/general-power-of-competence

[2] https://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/sites/default/files/publications/has-devolution-worked-essay-collection-FINAL.pdf

[3] https://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/sites/default/files/publications/has-devolution-worked-essay-collection-FINAL.pdf


[5] https://www.parliament.uk/site-information/glossary/parliamentary-sovereignty/

[6] https://www.parliament.uk/about/how/laws/passage-bill/commons/coms-commons-first-reading/

[7] https://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2013/may/15/eu-referendum-bill-cameron-data

[8] https://www.britishcouncil.org/voices-magazine/how-united-nations-decision

[9] https://www.britishcouncil.org/voices-magazine/how-united-nations-decision

[10] https://europa.eu/european-union/about-eu/eu-in-brief_en

[11] https://www.imf.org/en/About

[12] https://www.brettonwoodsproject.org/2020/04/imf-and-world-bank-decision-making-and-governance-2/

[13] https://smk.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/Influencing-local-government.pdf


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