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Welfare policy under New LabourViews from inside Westminster$

Hugh Bochel

Print publication date: 2007

Print ISBN-13: 9781861347909

Published to Policy Press Scholarship Online: March 2012

DOI: 10.1332/policypress/9781861347909.001.0001

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Introduction

Introduction

Chapter:
(p.1) One Introduction
Source:
Welfare policy under New Labour
Author(s):

Hugh Bochel

Andrew Defty

Publisher:
Policy Press
DOI:10.1332/policypress/9781861347909.003.0001

Abstract and Keywords

Welfare reform is a central part of the modernisation programme adopted by the Labour governments of the UK since 1997. This introductory chapter discusses the fundamental shift in Labour Party thinking regarding the principle of universal welfare provision, as demanded by several demographic pressures generated by expansive patterns of demand for pensions and healthcare for an ageing population, coupled with the pressures of globalisation to drive down taxes and regulation. This chapter presents the results of several surveys conducted to study the values and attitudes of Members of Parliament with regard to welfare policy. It also presents the methodology of the study conducted between October 2005 and January 2006 that examined parliamentary attitudes on welfare reform during Blair's second government.

Keywords:   Labour Party, political parties, UK, globalization, attitudes, government policy, public policy, welfare policy

Welfare reform is a central part of the modernisation programme adopted by the Labour governments since 1997. Demographic pressures generated by expansive patterns of demand for pensions and healthcare for an ageing population, coupled with the pressures of globalisation to drive down taxes and regulation, have led to a fundamental shift in Labour Party thinking regarding the principle of universal welfare provision. Despite a commitment to increased public expenditure on some areas of welfare provision, in office New Labour followed many of the policies of the previous Conservative government, including spending restraint, the use of market principles in the state sector, an emphasis on selectivity, and a more modest approach to the direct delivery of services, targeted at those who can demonstrate the most need. The government's policy priorities and Labour's attempt to steer a ‘Third Way’ between traditional concepts of universal welfare provision and the New Right commitment to the market, has led some to identify the emergence of a new political consensus on approaches to welfare. However, the extent of support for such a consensus within parliament and among the public is at present far from clear.

Recent years have also seen renewed debate about the role of parliament in the scrutiny of government policy. Successive governments have presided over a shift of responsibility for significant areas of policy away from Westminster to the European Union and quasi-independent bodies such as utility regulators and the Bank of England. Since 1997, the Labour governments have pursued an extensive programme of constitutional reform that has seen the devolution of power, including large areas of social policy, to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. There have also been significant changes in the operation and composition of the Westminster Parliament, with reform of parliamentary procedure designed to ‘modernise’ the House of Commons; and substantive reform of the House of Lords, in an effort to make the upper House more representative and legitimate. The removal of the hereditary peers has for the first time led to Labour being the largest party in the Lords, and also prompted an influx of new life peers, from a range of (p.2) backgrounds and experience, including a number with backgrounds in social policy. There have also been significant changes to the composition of the House of Commons since 1997, with a surge in the number of women elected to parliament in 1997, up from 60 to 120, and a less significant rise in the number of non-white Members of Parliament (MPs), up from 6 to 9. These constitutional and compositional changes have led to considerable debate about the effectiveness of parliament as a body for scrutinising the executive and renewed debate about the representative function of parliament.

This book focuses on the perceptions and activities of MPs in relation to welfare policy since 1997, and seeks to assess their influence on policy and legislation. Based on interviews with 76 MPs from across the House of Commons, it examines the extent of cross-party consensus on approaches to the role of the state in welfare, and the level of intra-party debate about welfare policy. It also examines the relationship between MPs' attitudes to welfare and those of the general public, in order to determine the extent to which any shifts in the political consensus on welfare is reflected in public opinion, and raising important questions about the nature of representation at Westminster. Drawing on additional interviews with 10 peers from each of the main parties, and from the crossbenches, the book also assesses the role of the reconstituted House of Lords in the scrutiny of welfare.

This book follows from an earlier study, Parliament and welfare policy (1992), by Hugh Bochel, which examined MPs' attitudes to welfare during the 1980s. That study drew on a series of interviews with 96 MPs undertaken by Bochel and Peter Taylor-Gooby in 1986 and 1987 (Taylor-Gooby and Bochel, 1988). The timing of Taylor-Gooby and Bochel's survey was propitious. The broad postwar consensus on the welfare state was challenged in the 1980s by the Conservative governments of Margaret Thatcher. A deteriorating economic situation, consequent rises in unemployment, and an ageing population had led to new and expansive patterns of demand for welfare provision. These economic and demographic pressures, coupled with the ideological imperatives of the New Right that were driving the Thatcher government's commitment to reducing the role of the state, led to successive cuts in welfare spending and an expansion in private provision. At the time of Taylor-Gooby and Bochel's survey, the Thatcher government was nearing the end of its second term, and apparently unassailable in the polls. Interest in social policy had been aroused by the Thatcher governments' attempts to rein in the welfare state, and the survey coincided with two pieces of welfare legislation – the 1986 Social Security Act and the 1986 Disabled Persons (Services, (p.3) Consultation and Representation) Act, both of which were the subject of detailed case studies in Parliament and welfare policy (Bochel, 1992).

Taylor-Gooby and Bochel's survey confirmed the widely held view that in the 1980s there was a distinct absence of consensus in parliament about welfare policy. MPs interviewed by Taylor-Gooby and Bochel were clearly divided on party lines. This, they found, was particularly the case at the broad philosophical level, with Conservative MPs generally in favour of a minimal ‘safety net’ role for the state, while Labour MPs wanted a high standard of state provision and universal social services. While the parties were ideologically divided, intra-party divisions were not pronounced, and Taylor-Gooby and Bochel found that, in general, MPs' responses to questions about welfare were well within the parameters of their parties' policies, and closely reflected the views of the party leadership. In general, they concluded, the potential for consensus was slight, although there was some broad cross-party agreement on the existence of some groups who were particularly in need, or ‘deserving’ of state support, most notably older people and people with disabilities. Interestingly, they also discovered that MPs from all parties were concerned about the ‘presentational’ aspects of their policies, most notably in relation to the public perception of the Conservatives as a party of cuts, and Labour as profligate (Bochel, 1992).

The survey on which this book is based is similarly timely. Undertaken between October 2005 and January 2006, it examined parliamentary attitudes at a similar point in the lifetime of the second Blair government. At the time of most of the interviews, the Blair government was in a strong position in the polls, and had a larger majority in parliament than the second Thatcher government. Like Thatcher, Blair has sought a fundamental reform of the postwar consensus on welfare. Blair's welfare reforms have generated considerable interest among the public, academics and public sector workers. However, the response to Labour's welfare reforms, particularly within parliament, suggests that in some respects consensus may be more evident between the parties than within them. Intra-party debate about the role of the state in welfare provision has been considerable, not least within the parliamentary Labour Party. The largest government rebellions of the 1997–2001 Parliament were generated by cuts in Lone Parent Benefit (1997), and proposed reform of Incapacity Benefit (1999). Welfare reform continued to be the cause of disquiet on Labour benches throughout Labour's second and third terms, with substantial revolts on foundation hospitals (2003), tuition fees for higher education (2004), and access to schools (2006), and further controversial proposals (p.4) to reform Incapacity Benefit (2006). The survey also coincided in part with leadership contests in both the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Parties. These contests served to highlight significant divisions within both parties, not least over approaches to welfare and the role of the public services.

Taylor-Gooby and Bochel's earlier work not only provides a model for this research but also provides a body of data with which to compare MPs' attitudes today, and those of MPs sitting in the 1980s, at a time when a different party was in power, and the welfare environment was markedly different. This is particularly important in determining whether any shift in MPs' attitudes is indicative of a movement towards a consensus in political attitudes to welfare. Taylor-Gooby and Bochel were not so fortunate in being able to compare their findings, which suggested the decline of consensus, with similar data from earlier periods said to be characterised by a greater degree of consensus, such as the 1960s. Studies of the attitudes, beliefs and values of MPs were, and remain, relatively sparse. Among such studies as have emerged there exists great variation in the aims and objectives and in the concepts and methodologies employed. Many studies focus in particular on the attitudes of MPs from one party. Moreover, welfare-related issues have figured only in minor or rather general ways in the existing studies.

A number of studies have surveyed MPs' attitudes using interviews and postal questionnaires. Several of these preceded and informed Bochel's earlier study. In 1969 Kornberg and Frasure measured differences between the parties on a range of issues during the period of Harold Wilson's second Labour government (Kornberg and Frasure, 1971). Their objective was to put to empirical test two existing views about the ideological distinctiveness of the parties. Information was collected by postal questionnaire from 197 Labour and 126 Conservative MPs. Of the 10 issues used to test difference, only five were found significantly to discriminate between Labour and Conservative respondents. One of these was comprehensive education, the only social policy issue included by the researchers. Also in the 1960s Putnam (1971 and 1973) collected data by interview from 93 British backbench MPs to compare with that obtained from 83 Italian deputies. Putnam's interest was in investigating aspects of ‘elite political culture’, and particularly the ‘political style’ of respondents, to establish whether and what differences existed between the two countries. While he asked respondents to discuss issues including one or two related to social policy, Putnam's interest was in how they conceptualised these and in their values in relation to their democratic political systems.

For a study of ideological variations within The Labour Party, (p.5) Whiteley (1983) analysed responses to a number of postal surveys carried out between 1975 and 1978, one of which was directed to MPs. Using reactions to 25 Likert-scaled statements related to ‘all controversial political issues’ within the party, Whiteley compared the attitudes of 51 MPs with those of parliamentary candidates, local councillors and conference delegates. His results indicated the existence of a distinct left–right continuum of attitudes in the party, the conference delegates and parliamentary candidates being further to the left than MPs and councillors. Among his 25 statements Whiteley included two relating to welfare policy, both on the public private issue in health and education. Both figured among the seven issues attracting the highest degree of consensus among the pool of respondents.

More recently, Donald Searing's (1994) monumental study of MPs' roles was based on lengthy interviews with 521 MPs in the early 1970s (83% of the then House of Commons). Searing sought to assess the various political roles adopted by MPs, both as backbenchers and ministers, identifying distinctive roles developed by MPs themselves such as constituency members, policy advocates and ‘parliament men’, and the manner in which MPs adapted to established roles such as those of whips, parliamentary private secretaries and ministers. This research included some investigation of MPs' values. Using a ranking technique for 36 values, Searing found that those most sharply separating Conservative from Labour MPs were social equality, freedom, socialism, social planning and public order. However, Searing found little evidence that values played an important part in the roles adopted by MPs, and his focus on political roles precluded detailed assessment of MPs' attitudes towards specific policy areas such as welfare.

Between 1994 and 1996, the MPs Project assessed the attitudes of Conservative and Labour MPs towards European integration using postal questionnaires, to which 33% of both Conservative and Labour MPs responded (Baker et al, 1995, 1996; Baker, 1997). While dealing with an issue that has caused major faultlines in British politics, within the main parties as much as between them, the survey included questions on the social dimension of European integration. Despite the overall intra-party divisions on Europe, on the social dimension they found some level of agreement, with overwhelming Conservative backbench support for opting-out of the social chapter of the Maastricht Treaty (Baker et al, 1995), and near-unanimity among Labour MPs in support of harmonisation of social policy in general, and working standards in particular (Baker et al, 1996).

More comprehensive evidence of the divisions between the parties (p.6) has been revealed by the British Representation Survey (BRS). At successive general elections since 1992, the British Candidate Survey in 1992, and the BRS 1997, 2001 and 2005, have collected quantitative data on attitudes by a postal survey sent to all parliamentary candidates and MPs standing in the general elections, with the response rate generally consisting of around one third of sitting MPs. The BRS is designed to collect information on the selection process of parliamentary candidates, their political attitudes and personal backgrounds, and includes scalar questions to assess respondents' ideological positions on issues such as nationalisation versus privatisation, the redistribution of wealth, European integration and gender equality.

The BRS has been used in particular to assess the impact of women on parliament in terms of representation (Norris and Lovenduski, 1995; Lovenduski and Norris, 2003). Since 1997, this work has been augmented by a number of studies that have used interviews to examine the experiences of women MPs (Bochel and Briggs, 2000; Childs, 2004), and also MPs from minority ethnic groups (Puwar, 2004). Although these studies did not look in particular at social policy, their conclusions inform research on MPs' attitudes in terms of understanding the operation of parliament and the development of the public policy agenda. Bochel and Briggs interviewed 39 female politicians from across the UK, including 24 MPs. They found that women politicians often feel that they operate in a different manner to their male counterparts, being less confrontational and more willing to cooperate, and that they may bring different perspectives to the political arena (Bochel and Briggs, 2000). These findings were supported by Childs who interviewed 34 of the 65 newly elected Labour women MPs in 1997, and re-interviewed 23 of them three years on (Childs, 2004). Childs found that while some new Labour women MPs believed that women would employ a new ‘feminised’ style of politics, in practice they felt pressurised to conform with the masculine style of the Commons. Perhaps most importantly, while many women MPs claimed that their presence in parliament was important for the representation of women, Childs concluded that the reality was more complex than this, and that in questions of policy preference other factors such as party identification are at least as important as the gender of MPs. Puwar (2004) argues that the model into which black and Asian MPs are pressurised to conform is not only defined by established male-dominated parties, but the “hegemonic culture of upper/middle class whiteness” (Puwar, 2004, p 77).

(p.7) Interviews and questionnaires are not, of course, the only means of determining the values and attitudes of MPs. An alternative approach is to make use of the established instruments for recording parliamentary opinion, such as early day motions (EDMs), and voting records. EDMs are resolutions tabled by MPs to express views about topical issues and signed by any other MP wishing to indicate agreement. The attraction of EDMs as a tool for researching MPs' attitudes is that these resolutions are initiated and signed by MPs without interference from the whips – “spontaneous unwhipped backbench manifestos” (Finer et al, 1961, p 7). The analysis of EDMs, as indicators of backbench opinion, was pioneered in the 1960s and 1970s by Finer et al (1961), Berrington (1973) and Berrington and Leece (1977). The aims of these studies included the investigation, for both the main political parties, of the relationship between the political attitudes of backbench MPs and their social backgrounds, and of the existence of different ‘opinion blocs’ within the parties. While only a small part of their study considered attitudes to social policy, on the basis of their analysis they were able to allocate Labour MPs to distinct ‘wings’ of the party, but this was not possible in the case of the Conservatives who were generally more homogeneous, and among whom divisions on social policy were more attributable to constituency concerns, or the “variegated nature of electoral support”, rather than any coherent social philosophy (Finer et al, 1961, p 102).

More recently, Childs and Withey (2004) studied sex differences in the signing of EDMs by Labour MPs in the 1997 Parliament, in order to test whether Labour's women MPs were acting for women. They concluded that while women were less likely to sign EDMs in general, Labour's women MPs were more likely than Labour men to sign EDMs that related to ‘women's’ and especially ‘feminist women's’ issues, adding weight to the arguments made elsewhere (Bochel and Briggs, 2000; Lovenduski and Norris, 2003; Childs, 2004) that male and female MPs behave differently, and that the gender of representatives in parliament is therefore important.

Researchers' enthusiasm about the potential value of EDMs as a “splendid mine of information on backbench opinion” is understandable (Finer et al, 1961, p 8). However, there are methodological problems connected with its use as an indicator of attitudes: not every potential supporter signs EDMs – there are always absentees from the House, some MPs may be too busy, some will be apathetic about the particular topic, and the motions show only those in favour and not those indifferent or opposed. Moreover, while this (p.8) may not have been the case in the 1960s, these motions are today neither solely backbench, unwhipped or spontaneous.

A number of studies have sought to assess MPs' attitudes through analysis of voting behaviour. Studies of parliamentary rebellions, by Norton, and more recently Cowley, have respectively sought to assess the level of cohesion in the parliamentary Conservative and Labour Parties (Norton, 1975, 1978; Cowley, 2002, 2005). Cowley's studies of Labour rebellions in the first two Blair governments are particularly relevant to this study. Based on analysis of voting records coupled with interviews with Labour rebels and whips, Cowley has shown that there has been significant and growing discontent within the parliamentary Labour Party about various aspects of policy since 1997. Contrary to frequent claims that Labour MPs have been overwhelmingly loyal and supine, he has demonstrated that Labour MPs are prepared to rebel, and rebel in large numbers, when sufficiently exercised by the issue in question, and moreover, that the government has been prepared to respond to such discontent by making significant concessions on policy (Cowley, 2002, 2005).

However, while it is clear that a significant proportion of Labour MPs have been sufficiently exercised by various aspects of welfare policy to set aside party loyalty to vote against the government, what is not clear is the extent to which such backbench rebellions are indicative of a wider disquiet on Labour benches. As Norton (1978) has observed, voting against the whip is just one means by which MPs may express dissent about their party policy, but it is merely the tip of the iceberg. There are numerous other fora in which intra-party dissent may be expressed, both preceding and succeeding its expression in the division lobbies. Verbal or written dissent may be expressed privately at party meetings, in meetings with ministers and whips, or publicly in the House, constituency, or in the media. Such dissent or concerns are of course much more difficult to measure than the quantifiable data provided by voting records. Scrutiny of parliamentary debates, speeches and MPs' statements in the media may provide a useful indicator of opinion within the party. Beyond these public expressions of dissent, Norton suggests, interviews with MPs can provide a much broader and deeper analysis of the extent of parliamentary dissent, and more importantly the reasons for that dissent (Norton, 1978, pp 27–8).

Moreover, while analysis of rebellions has served to highlight opposition to Labour policies, it is less helpful in explaining the extent of parliamentary support for the government's reform agenda. As analysts of parliamentary dissent such as Norton and Cowley are at (p.9) pains to stress, voting against one's own party remains a minority pastime in Westminster, and party cohesion is the norm. However, explaining cohesion is perhaps more difficult than identifying the causes of dissent. Critics of party government will argue that MPs are effectively restrained by a combination of threats and rewards orchestrated by the whips office. However, as Cowley has argued in relation to Labour MPs, cohesion since 1997 is evidently not the result of any lack of backbone, as many have been prepared to rebel when the issue warranted. Rather, he suggests, cohesion may be explained by a broad agreement on the part of many Labour MPs with the government's programme. Agreement, which may be explained at least in part by a shift in political attitudes in The Labour Party (Cowley, 2002, p 231).

However, the evidence for such a change in MPs' attitudes is not clear, and certainly cannot be deduced from voting behaviour alone. In order to determine whether there has been a genuine shift in the political attitudes of MPs one must make a more forensic analysis of their attitudes and the extent to which they correspond with party policy, and moreover, whether these views are noticeably different from those expressed by MPs in the past.

Methodology

Detailed research on MPs' attitudes and opinions is notoriously difficult to conduct. Any attempt to construct a representative sample of parliamentary opinion is dependent on the willingness of MPs to agree to lengthy face-to-face interviews. Nevertheless, this research is based on a substantial sample of MPs that is broadly representative of the House of Commons as a whole, according to a number of criteria. Seventy-six MPs were interviewed between October 2004 and January 2006, a sample comprising at least 10% of each of the main parties in the Commons, balanced to reflect the balance of the parties: 35 Labour, 22 Conservative, 14 Liberal Democrat, 2 SNP, 2 Plaid Cymru, 1 Independent.

Those interviewed reflected a broad range of parliamentary experience, including MPs first elected to parliament between 1970 and 2005. While the relatively small numbers involved make cohort analysis difficult, the sample is broadly representative of the balance of experience in the Commons: 54% of the sample were elected at the time of the 1997 General Election or since, a group which comprises 61% of the House as a whole. The survey also included a number of MPs elected to parliament for the first time in the General Election of May 2005. The 2005 General Election saw 122 new MPs enter (p.10) parliament: 40 Labour, 54 Conservative, 20 Liberal Democrat and 8 from other parties. The newly elected MPs comprise 19% of the current House of Commons and 20% of the sample, once again balanced to reflect the balance of the parties, with no less than 10% of each of the main parties' new intake interviewed: 7 Labour, 5 Conservative, and 3 Liberal Democrat.

Another marked feature of the House of Commons since 1997 has been the relative growth in the representation of women in parliament, and this is reflected in the sample. In the 2005 Parliament, 20% of MPs were women, compared to 24% in the sample.

The sample also reflects a broad spectrum of parliamentary experience and opinion. MPs interviewed included current and former MPs, parliamentary private secretaries, current and former whips, and new and long-serving backbenchers. Members of both the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Shadow Cabinet were interviewed. Although the highest ranking Labour MPs interviewed were junior ministers, several former secretaries of state were interviewed. Given the nature of the research, a particular effort was made to interview members of the relevant select committees, and as a result the sample includes interviews with members of the Commons select committees for Work and Pensions, Health, Education and Skills, and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, including serving or former chairs of these committees.

There is a danger with surveying parliamentary opinion that the only MPs prepared to take part in such a survey will be those with a particular interest in the subject matter; consequently, any results may exaggerate the level of parliamentary interest and knowledge of a particular policy area. So, while it was considered important to interview those MPs with a particular expertise in social policy, or a particular responsibility for scrutinising this area of policy, the research also sought to interview MPs with no apparent interest or expertise in the field. Once again, the representative nature of the sample in this regard was dependent on the number of MPs prepared to be subjected to a detailed interview on a subject of which they had little experience. Nevertheless, a number of those MPs interviewed had little apparent interest or experience of social policy, had not held a ministerial post related to welfare, or served on any of the relevant select committees, and in some cases openly confessed their relative ignorance. These MPs displayed a wide variety of expertise in other areas, including former government and shadow ministers with briefs including defence and the environment, and members of a diverse range of select committees including Science and Technology and Foreign Affairs. One (p.11) Conservative MP, a recognised expert on defence, admitted to limited knowledge of welfare but took great delight in using the work of the military strategist Carl von Clausewitz to illustrate the failings of the NHS!

A more problematic question relates to whether the sample comprises a balance of opinion within the parties. Many MPs are reluctant to classify themselves as sitting on the right or left wings of their parties, and consequently determining the range of opinion within the parties was one of the objects of the research. However, in drawing conclusions about the state of opinion within the parties the research may fairly be criticised for over-representing the opinions of small groups of MPs who may be disproportionately represented in the sample. This problem is difficult to overcome, but some factors may be used to suggest a broad spectrum of opinion has been represented. Firstly, the larger the sample involved the greater the likelihood that the opinions expressed represent the range and balance of opinion within the parties. This sample, which included at least 10% of the MPs from each of the main parties, comprises a significant number of MPs. It is also possible to determine whether particular groups are over-represented according to other indicators such as cohort (see above), or indicators of opinion such as voting behaviour. Thus, for example, one of the broad conclusions of this research relates to the level of dissent within the parliamentary Labour Party, about government policy on welfare. Of course, dissent on such issues is well known, as indicated by parliamentary revolts on welfare legislation. However, the number of well-known Labour rebels, the so-called ‘usual suspects’ included in this survey, represents a small proportion of those Labour MPs who expressed concern about government policy. Of the 30 most rebellious Labour MPs from 2001–05 identified by Philip Cowley (2005), only three were interviewed as part of this research. This suggests that the level of dissent revealed in this research is not the result of many interviews with a small group of well-known Labour rebels, but is indicative of concerns expressed by a broader range of Labour MPs.

Another problem relates to the extent to which MPs are candid in responding to surveys such as this. This is particularly important when seeking to assess the level of support for party policies. Short of using a lie detector, there is no way of ensuring that the MPs interviewed were not offering their own considered opinion but simply reciting the party line. Studies of MPs' attitudes, including Bochel's earlier study, have often employed anonymous surveys in an attempt to overcome MPs' propensity to toe the party line and their natural desire not to upset party managers and colleagues (for example, Bochel, 1992; (p.12) Childs, 2004). This is a model that has been followed with this study, and which it was hoped would allow MPs to speak with candour about their values and attitudes. Interviews were conducted on a confidential basis; MPs were reminded of this at the time of the interview, and encouraged to articulate their personal attitudes and beliefs. They were also reassured that the study was not primarily intended to determine the opinions of particular individuals, but how MPs as a group view welfare policy, and how such policy is developed and scrutinised by parliament as an institution. Reference to party affiliation and status may be used in the final text, but has been kept vague enough not to identify the MP concerned (for example, ‘Labour backbencher’, ‘former minister’).

Moreover, while it may be anticipated that many MPs will use the opportunity of an interview to highlight the achievements of their particular party or the failures of the rest, in practice it was rare for MPs interviewed to express unequivocal support for their party's policies. Examples of unwavering support, such as the Labour MP who declared tax credits to be “the best thing ever invented” were mercifully rare. Similarly, many MPs expressed begrudging admiration or support for a number of policies pursued by the other parties that their party did not support. Indeed, the success of the interviews may be indicated by the number of MPs from all parties who were prepared to express opinions at variance from party policy. However, as Cowley (2002) reminds us, we should not be surprised if MPs express strong support for party policy. It should be recognised that MPs within the same party tend to share the same beliefs and values. Those who express support for party policy should not be dismissed as toeing the party line. MPs should be expected to support the party line more often than not, not because they feel they have to but because it coincides with their personal beliefs.

Candour was also encouraged by the format of the interviews. The survey was conducted through face-to-face interviews with MPs. These interviews generally lasted between half an hour and an hour, and took place in a range of locations across Westminster, generally in MPs' offices; a small number of interviews took place in constituency offices, and one was conducted on the telephone. The interviews were semi-structured. In general, interviews in social research have been divided into structured and unstructured types (Fontana and Frey, 2000). The structured approach, usually associated with survey research, seeks to ask each person the same question in the same way so that both questions and responses follow a closely worded and strictly sequenced schedule. This method permits close comparability between responses, (p.13) and is particularly advantageous when surveying large groups. Unstructured interviews are more open-ended in character, and allow the interviewee the freedom to range across a given subject, only loosely guided by prompts and probes from the interviewer. These formats are not, however, intended to be rigidly applied and a semi-structured interview that combines structured and unstructured questions allows interviewees the freedom to answer questions on their own terms, while providing a degree of structure that allows comparability between interviews (May, 2001).

For this research a questionnaire was designed that combined both structured and unstructured aspects aimed at eliciting both general and specific responses regarding MPs' attitudes to welfare and welfare policies. The questionnaire comprised three sections. The first section sought to elicit MPs' general attitudes towards welfare, what might loosely be described as their ‘philosophy of welfare’. In this unstructured section prompts were used to introduce or amplify several broad themes such as selectivity or universality. Having outlined their broad views, MPs were asked a series of more structured questions about specific areas of welfare policy. In consideration of time constraints it was decided to ask questions on just four specific policy areas: healthcare, pensions, the benefits system and income maintenance. These areas, it was felt, were currently the subject of some concern and debate in parliament, scholarship and indeed, among the public. MPs were not, however, discouraged from straying into areas not covered by the questionnaire, and indeed were encouraged to identify areas of welfare provision they felt were neglected. Finally, MPs were asked about the role of parliament, and about their own perceived role in the formulation of welfare policy. This section sought to address two broad questions: what factors influence MPs in their thinking about welfare? And what influence do MPs have on welfare policy? The former sought to determine in general what factors influenced MPs thinking about welfare, with prompts on such issues as personal experience, party policy, and key thinkers. In addition specific questions were asked about the influence of lobbying, the media and constituents. The latter section dealt with internal and external limits on policy formulation, with questions on parliamentary scrutiny and the perceived decline in parliamentary power, and the impact of the European Union on the formulation of welfare policy. In this section in particular, respondents were encouraged to be reflective, to think about their own position in the policy process, the power they wield as MPs, and any potential conflicts between their values and attitudes and their party and parliamentary position.

(p.14) A significant factor in the drafting of the questionnaire was to construct the survey in such a way as to allow comparisons to be made with Taylor-Gooby and Bochel's survey of MPs' attitudes in the 1980s (1988), and with public attitudes to welfare as indicated in the annual British Social Attitudes survey and other indicators of public opinion such as opinion polls. While it was not intended that the present research should simply repeat Taylor-Gooby and Bochel's survey, it was designed to allow some comparability, and to enable the identification of shifts in MPs' attitudes since the 1980s. Consequently, some of the questions asked by Taylor-Gooby and Bochel were repeated directly in the current survey, most notably those on the broad philosophical level, such as what MPs felt should be the role of state in welfare, and how welfare should be financed.

Some of the more detailed questions on specific policy areas were designed to reflect the kind of questions asked in the British Social Attitudes survey. The British Social Attitudes survey provides a particularly useful database for tracing public attitudes to welfare from the 1980s to the present day. Since the first survey was undertaken in 1983, this annual national survey with a stratified random sample of about 3,500, has been widely regarded as having high methodological standards. The annual survey asks a number of questions relating to welfare, most notably about people's priorities for welfare spending, their attitudes to taxation and the financing of welfare, and the relationship between state and private welfare services. In addition, in recent years individual surveys have asked a number of more specific questions about such issues as pensions, the process of getting people off welfare into work, and the impact of New Labour policies on standards in various sectors of welfare provision (Jowell et al, 1999; Park et al, 2003, 2004, 2005). In order to allow some comparisons between public and parliamentary attitudes, MPs were asked a number of questions that reflected those posed in the British Social Attitudes surveys, most notably: when asked to identify their priorities for welfare spending; to identify which parts of the National Health Service (NHS) are particularly effective; and which are not; whether they considered benefit fraud to be a significant problem; and whether they would support an increase in taxation to pay for increased welfare provision. Although MPs, unlike the public, were not asked to choose between a selection of prepared responses, and their responses were therefore more varied, and invariably longer, they nevertheless provided a useful body of data with which to compare public and parliamentary attitudes.

Through this detailed assessment of parliamentary opinion, and its relationship both to government policy, and public opinion, this study (p.15) of parliament and welfare policy aims to provide a comprehensive examination of the role of parliament in the scrutiny and formulation of welfare policy. Moreover, by offering a detailed assessment of the current state of opinion within the main parties it has a clear bearing on the future development of welfare policy by whatever party is in power. Chapters Two and Three provide contextual background to the substantive research on the role and attitudes of MPs and peers. Chapter Two examines the welfare policies pursued by the New Labour governments since 1997, and policies advocated by the main opposition parties. Chapter Three provides the parliamentary context for the study of MPs' attitudes. It examines the role and functions of the Westminster Parliament, and the manner in which the Blair government has sought to reform parliament as part of its programme of modernisation and constitutional reform. In doing so, this chapter addresses the sustained debate about the perceived decline of parliament, and focuses in detail on the fate of Labour's welfare legislation within parliament. The substantive examination of MPs' attitudes to welfare is provided in Chapter Four, in which MPs' attitudes towards the role of the state are considered alongside attitudes to specific policy areas. The question of political representation is considered in Chapter Five, as MPs' attitudes are compared with public attitudes to welfare. Chapter Six takes the analysis of the role of parliament one stage further by examining the role of the House of Lords in relation to welfare policy. Chapter Seven seeks to examine the extent to which MPs are able to scrutinise welfare legislation and policy, and whether MPs as a group or as individuals have an influence on policy. Finally, Chapter Eight concludes this study by summarising the key points of this research and drawing out the implications about the continued relevance of MPs in the policy process in the field of welfare. (p.16)