Parliaments and Public Policy

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Exploring Attitudes to Social Policy

From the mid-2000s, Hugh Bochel and Andrew Defty have undertaken interviews with MPs and Peers to explore their attitudes to social policy issues (such as the role of the state in providing welfare, how welfare provision should be financed, and more specific issues such as the NHS and the social security system), and also their views on the role of Parliament in scrutinising the actions of government.

This work has been published in a book, Welfare Policy Under New Labour (Policy Press, 2007), and in a series of articles in journals such as Journal of  Social PolicyParliamentary Affairs and Social Policy and Society.

Find out more about our research on parliaments and policy.

Welfare Policies

Research by Samantha Shave examines past parliaments’ role in the making and breaking of welfare policies. In particular, Samantha is interested in the development, impact and discontinuation of poor relief policies and practices in England, and how people from all areas of society were involved in this past ‘policy process’. This research has culminated in Pauper Policies: Poor Law Practice in England, 1780-1850 and a paper in The Historical Journal.

Using a ‘policy process’ perspective, Samantha has demonstrated the importance of early welfare scandals, especially after the centralisation of poor law administration in 1834. Scandals impacted on the development of welfare policies, and also allowed for the opinions and experiences of the poorest to reach Parliament. An essay in the edited collection Medicine and the Workhouse and more recently a paper in Continuity and Change have examined the role of scandals in the development of medical and child treatment policies respectively.

Key to this research has been the complex linkage of various documents held in The Parliamentary Archives, The National Archives, digitalised collections of British Parliamentary Papers and Hansard’s Parliamentary Debates, as well as local record offices. Samantha is now undertaking research into welfare scandals prior to 1834, and the implementation of deterrent workhouse systems beyond England.

Legislature Size and Welfare: Evidence from Brazil

In 'Legislature Size and Welfare: Evidence From Brazil', Danilo Freire and his colleagues analyse how legislature size impacts public service provision. On the one hand, larger legislatures facilitate the electoral success of underrepresented groups, which may lead to a wider provision of public goods. On the other hand, larger chambers have a higher number of potential veto players, and this can have a negative impact on policymaking efficiency. To tackle this issue, the authors leverage an exogenous change in the Brazilian electoral legislation, which increased the number of city councillors in selected municipalities, to evaluate whether the additional legislators have a positive or negative impact on education and healthcare.

The authors find that the increase in legislature size significantly improves social welfare. Increasing the city council size by one legislator lowers infant mortality by 2.01 children per one thousand infants born and reduces post-neonatal mortality by 0.90 children per one thousand infants who survived their first 28 days. Larger councils also increase enrolment by 2.58 children in elementary education classrooms without reducing school quality.

The mechanism, curiously, is partisanship. The results indicate that larger city councils changed the composition of mayoral coalitions and the number of appointed bureaucrats in the municipality. The extra city councillor had a 91 per cent chance of belonging to the mayor's pre-electoral coalition. Therefore, mayors face lower bargaining costs in larger legislatures and are able to boost public investments with fewer constraints. Each additional legislator also leads to 104 politically appointed bureaucrats, and research shows that political appointees improve public service provision and enhance accountability in Brazil.

To assess the robustness of their results, Danilo and his co-authors also surveyed 174 former councillors who served during the 2005-2008 term, the period they analyse in the article. The councillors confirm that mayors use bureaucratic appointments and political favours to secure legislative support. The findings are in line with quantitative evidence from a novel dataset, collected specifically for this research, which included 346,553 laws passed in 63 municipalities. While all municipalities mention public goods in their legislation, those with larger city councils had 15 per cent more proposals about public service delivery.

The article is available at and is forthcoming in the American Journal of Political Science.


Image: Copyright UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor - Parliamentary copyright images are reproduced with the permission of Parliament.