With growing support for action on climate change in the UK, how does public interest and political ambition translate into policy development?
This Insight explains the role of MPs in driving and scrutinising policy change, including how the landmark Climate Change Act 2008 came into force and the current parliamentary activity on climate change.
What can MPs do to influence policy?
MPs can use a wide range of activities in the House of Commons to influence, examine and investigate policy changes. Members of the House of Lords have similar abilities.
MPs can apply for a debate to be held on any issue the UK Government is responsible for. They can argue for or against a policy change during debates in the House of Commons. These debates can be on Government priorities or MPs can apply for a debate about an area of UK Government responsibility themselves.
MPs can ask Government ministers a question in writing or during the ‘question time’ slot for the department concerned. Ministers respond to oral questions in the Chamber, and written questions receive written responses within a few days.
MPs can scrutinise proposals for new laws (known as bills) during Chamber debates and in public bill committees. They can propose amendments to a bill or propose that a bill should be completely rejected. MPs can also vote on proposed amendments.
MPs can enter a ballot at the start of the parliamentary year for one of 20 priority debate slots on their own Private Members’ Bill (PMBs). PMBs provide a route for individual MPs to propose new laws. They also provide an opportunity for MPs to address public concerns or to signify pressure on the Government for a certain policy agenda.
Select committees are small cross-party groups of backbench MPs who scrutinise policy and hold the Government to account. They conduct inquiries into specific issues and hold meetings in public to take evidence from organisations, the public, ministers and officials. Select committees publish reports with recommendations on policy; the Government is expected to respond to these within two months.
Sometimes select committees examine an early draft of a bill in detail, before the final version is drawn up by the Government. This is known as pre-legislative scrutiny.
MPs can use Early Day Motions (EDMS), which are short written statements, to express an opinion, publicise a cause, or support a position.
There are also other tools available to MPs such as presenting petitions on behalf of constituents and joining an All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on a particular issue.
New laws and policies normally need Government support, but MPs using some of these methods can create pressure and develop proposals the Government might adopt.
A separate Insight on The rise of climate change activism examines the role of public campaigning.
A case study: The Climate Change Act 2008
Over a period of three years, a succession of cross-party parliamentary activity, engagement and scrutiny resulted in the Climate Change Act 2008 being passed.
This followed the high-profile Friends of the Earth-led Big Ask campaign and the publication of a number of high-profile reports on climate change. These included the Government-sponsored Stern Review on the economics of climate change and the international panel on climate change’s fourth assessment report on climate change.
What does the Climate Change Act do?
The Climate Change Act 2008 provides the main legal framework in the UK for both mitigating and adapting to climate change. In brief, it requires that:
- Specified greenhouse gas emissions (including carbon dioxide) are reduced by a certain amount every five years (known as carbon budgets).
- An overall target of net zero emissions is reached by 2050.
- The Government assesses and prepares for climate change risks and opportunities (such as flooding and impacts on ecosystems and agriculture).
The Act also established the Committee on Climate Change as the independent body to provide evidence-based advice to the UK and devolved governments.
Amending the Climate Change Act 2008
The Act originally included an 80% emissions reduction target by 2050 which was increased to 100% in 2019. This is explained more in Net zero emissions: a new climate change target?
The lead up to the Climate Change Act 2008
Just prior to the May 2005 General Election, three backbench MPs (Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat) presented a model climate change Bill to the House of Commons.
Following the election, Labour backbench MP Michael Meacher tabled an Early Day Motion (EDM) calling for a new climate change bill to be brought forward. The EDM was signed by 412 MPs from all political parties—one of only six EDMs with more than 400 signatures since 1979. In July 2005, Mr Meacher presented the Climate Change Bill as a PMB to the House of Commons. It wasn’t one of the 20 ballot PMBs and did not progress further.
The Government subsequently announced the introduction of a Climate Change Bill in the November 2006 Queen’s Speech, publishing a draft Bill in March 2007.
The draft Bill was subject to pre-legislative scrutiny by two House of Commons select committees and a Commons and Lords joint committee.
The Bill was introduced into the Lords at the end of 2007, then passed through the Commons, receiving Royal Assent at the end of 2008.
The main campaign issues for nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) where stronger action was sought were in relation to the level of the 2050 target, the inclusion of international aviation and shipping emissions, and a commitment to action at a domestic level to reduce sources of GHG emissions in the UK. All these issues were responded to in some form in the final legislation, and in addition parliament was given a greater role in the institutional framework of the Act, as part of the accountability structure.
What are MPs currently doing about climate change?
Although a lot of activity is currently focussed on the response to coronavirus, MPs are continuing work on climate change.
- Three Commons select committees have inquiries on climate change: the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee is looking at ‘Net Zero and the UN Climate Summits’, the Environmental Audit Committee is investigating ‘Technological Innovation and Climate Change’, and the Foreign Affairs Committee is examining ‘Environmental Diplomacy’.
- Climate Assembly UK is the citizens’ assembly examining public preferences on how the UK will meet its 2050 net zero target. The assembly held six weekend meetings with over 100 participants drawn from the general public. It was commissioned by six select committees and will present its recommendations to Parliament after the summer.
- APPGs are holding meetings with experts and ministers to examine policy action on climate change. Recent examples include webinars by the Net Zero APPG on decarbonising homes, and the Climate Change APPG on national pledges to cut emissions under the Paris Agreement.
- The UK Climate Change Act 2008 – Lessons for national climate laws, Client Earth report.
- Climate Change: an overview, House of Commons Library.
- What do MPs do? Parliament.uk.
- Get Involved Parliament.uk.
About the authors: Becky Mawhood is a committee specialist for the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, and Sara Priestley is an environment and climate change specialist in the House of Commons Library.