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Law reform - effect of public opinion and pressure groups

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 Pressure groups and lobbyists

Influence groups

Hundreds of large and small groups seek to influence the legislative process.


These are not political parties in the usual sense: they have no desire to govern the country, and limit their pressure to particular aspects of policy.

Interest groups

The following are just of few of the better known groups formed to promote their own interests:


The National Farmers' Union (very powerful)
National Union of Teachers
Confederation of British Industry
Federation of Small Businesses
Trades Union Congress (TUC)
The Police Federation
Bar Council
Law Society


They exist permanently and usually have other functions besides trying to influence legislation that may affect their members' lives.

Cause groups

Cause groups are not formed for the interest of their members but for a "cause"


Some long-term e.g.

Electoral Reform Society
The League Against Cruel Sports
Stonewall (Lesbian, gay bi-sexual)

Some short term e.g.
Anti-Poll Tax Federation (The Fed)
Road protest groups, of all sorts, famously the Newbury By-pass protestors.

Short term groups exist until they achieve ultimate success or disappear because of failure. 


Other groups whose interests are other than their members

These groups continue as their cause is never won or lost


Amnesty International and Amnesty UK
SPUC (Society for the Protection of Unborn Children).

News media

Television and radio

Television and radio are required by law to maintain a political balance in their broadcasting, but there is no such restriction on newspapers and the print media can, and often do, take strong positions on particular legislative proposals.


Freedom of expression for news media (including newspapers)

Media pressure persuaded the government to amend the Human Rights Bill to give special protection to the right of free expression even where this violated a citizen's right to privacy.


Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 and the Sex Offenders Act 1997

In neither case was the risk to members of the public any greater than it had been for many years previously - and it was a very small risk in each case - but the government in each case could not afford to ignore an expression of public concern whipped up by the media and felt compelled to take action.


More detail on dangerous dogs here


Private individuals

Individuals can exert influence by:

Joining a political party or pressure group.

Responding to government consultation documents (remarkably few do).

Being invited to give evidence at Public Enquiries, notably academic lawyers (e.g. Scarman - Brixton Riots).

Writing to their Member of Parliament, sometimes "open letters" to newspapers.


There are many examples of the direct influence of the wealthy.

They include:
£1 million donated to the Labour Party by Bernie Ecclestone, the Formula 1 racing boss, was seen by many in 1998 as almost a bribe for the Government not to legislate against tobacco advertising.

Party funding is a very murky area in public life and the Neil Committee - a Parliamentary standards agency - have made a number of reports on it. More here.


Protests and demonstrations

Sometimes undertaken by individuals at party conferences for a private concern (e.g. justice for a family member).


More effectively public demonstrations locally or nationally bring dramatic attention to a pressure groups cause.


Topical issues

Extreme pornographic material



Jane Longhurst

The possession of violent and extreme pornographic material will become a criminal offence punishable by up to three years in prison under proposed new laws announced by Home Office Minister Vernon Coaker (30 August 2006).

The Government aims to legislate (Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill) as soon as Parliamentary time allows.

It follows a campaign by Berkshire woman whose daughter Jane Longhurst, a Brighton schoolteacher, was killed by Graham Coutts. Coutts will probably be given a retrial, following a House of Lords ruling that manslaughter should have been put to the jury.

News report here




Gangmasters (Licensing) Act 2004

In October 2006, it became a criminal offence for gangmasters to operate without a licence after 21 cockle-pickers drowned after they were caught unawares by the tide. 


Gangmaster Lin Liang Ren, originally from China, denied being responsible for the Morecambe Bay deaths in February 2004, but was convicted of manslaughter.


News report here


Animal cruelty and hunting mammals with hounds (fox hunting)

Michael Foster’s private members bill; Hunting with Dogs Bill, which was effectively talked out in the 1998 Parliamentary session. Ken Livingstone’s Wild Animals (Hunting with Dogs) Bill was talked out in April 2000 (as it happens the Government then introduced a new Hunting Bill in March 2001, but this fell when Parliament was dissolved in May 2001, revived in the Queen’s Speech of 20 June 2001, and became law in 2004.


Inquiry into Hunting with Dogs

An enquiry into the best way to control foxes was chaired by Lord Burns, it provided evidence on whether fox hunting was or was not cruel.


80 years campaigning and the effect is doubted

After 80 years of campaigning and political lobbying, the League Against Cruel Sports finally managed to make the Hunting Act, banning hunting with dogs in Great Britain, a reality. This was accomplished in 2002 in Scotland and in 2004 in England and Wales.


Whatever the merits of each side's arguments the passing of legislation has had virtually no effect on the fate of foxes or other mammals, and the hunters still enjoy their recreation.


Report in the Guardian, here.


Aggression of animal rights activists

The activities of animal rights protesters caused Parliament to legislate to protect individuals working in animal laboratories. Section 45 of the  Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001 now prevents individual directors in target companies from being identified.


This section was enacted as a direct result of an attack on the Managing Director of Huntingdon Life Sciences.

Other influences

Parties and manifestos

Hunting manifesto commitment

Although a political party is elected on the basis of its manifesto, it is under no legal obligation to pass legislation when it comes to power. The Labour Government elected in 1997 promised a free vote in Parliament on whether hunting with hounds should be banned by legislation, it did so, but it did not pass legislation or require party MP’s to vote in any particular way. 

Labour Party Manifestos over the century, here.


Outside influences


New inventions, and social problems sometimes need legislation particularly when public concern is great, internet crimes are an example.


Green Papers

Green papers make tentative proposals to which any person can respond and influence government thinking.

White Papers

Government White Papers make firm proposals to which any person can respond and influence government thinking. Most important are the civil servants who draft these documents.


New problems that emerge

Following the terrorism attacks on 11 September 2001 (nine / eleven) the police received unusually high numbers of hoax calls, all of which received serious attention.  This required swift changes to the law to increase the penalties to reflect public revulsion.


 Football hooligans

A loophole in the law exploited by football hooligans lead to the  Football (Offences) Act 1991


The public annoyance forced the government to take action.


Dunblane Massacre



On the 13 March 1966 sixteen infant schoolchildren were killed in their school by a loan gunman who had a hand gun. 


The incident led to the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997, which band possession of all handguns.


Lost discs November 2007

Personal records of 25 million people on two CDs were lost in transit between HM Revenue and Customs and the National Audit Office.  This enormously increased the level of public concern about how and why individuals' personal data is shared.


The government launched a review by the information commissioner, with a view to changing the Data Protection Act.


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