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June 4, 2013 / C H Thompson

Pressure Group Methods

Pressure groups try to influence decision makers via a number of methods – minister and civil servants; MPs; public opinion; direct action or the courts. The exact method they try to use will depend on:

  1. resources available to them
  2. whether or not they are an insider or outsider group
  3. what they are trying to achieve at any particular time.

Ministers and civil servants

Pressure groups are likely to be at their most effective when policies are being drafted, are at their discussion stage or are in a detailed implementation stage. Therefore insider groups which have contacts with senior civil servants and ministers will be able to have a major input into new legislation.

The contacts may be formal – involving official discussions with ministers and detailed negotiation with civil servants – or more informal, involving an exchange of views and opinions. These contacts may be enhanced by ‘social’ connections, such as public school or university friendships, trade union relationships, etc.

It is not only the groups which gain from this process: the government gains also, by finding out useful information which would not otherwise be available to it and by gaining cooperation from organisations which may be required to put new measures into operation.

The implementation stage of legislation offers a further opportunity for pressure groups to exert influence. This is mainly concerned with the details, but much legislation does not become operative until secondary legislation (in the form of statutory instruments) is issued by the appropriate minister, and it is possible for groups to enter into detailed negotiations on points of concern to their members or even to delay for a considerable period.

Members of Parliament

This is one of the biggest and most rapidly growing areas of pressure group activity. In recent years there has been a significant increase in the number of professional lobbyists, who will work on behalf of pressure groups or commercial organisations in influencing the views of MPs. And pressure groups have traditionally aimed much of their effort at MPs and members of the House of Lords to seek a voice for their points of view.

The methods used to influence MPs include the following:

  • paid consultancy posts for MPs to represent a particular commercial interest in Parliament – for example, tobacco companies, drug companies, the drinks industry
  • appointments to boards of companies
  • detailed briefings on issues relevant to the group, provision of information, even ready-made speeches
  • “expense account” perks – meals, trips, etc
  • provision of research assistants for MPs
  • promotion of Private Member’s Bills – some important pieces of legislation have come from Private Member’s Bills, including Abortion Law Reform, the abolition of capital punishment, etc
  •  Select Committees – pressure groups can give evidence to these committees and have an influence on the final report which is delivered to Parliament
  • The House of Lords provides an opportunity for pressure groups to secure detailed amendments to legislation. On occasion, the Lords may even reject a piece of legislation, delaying it and forcing the government to think again.

Public opinion

Many pressure groups, especially cause groups which do not have insider status, have to resort to other methods of influencing the decision making process. This can be by influencing public opinion with the intention that, in time, this will in turn influence opinion formers and decision makers.

The methods of influencing public opinion include

  • letters to the Press
  • press releases
  • public meetings
  • petitions
  • marches, demonstrations, etc.

Direct action

Direct action may be taken, both as a means to make something happen or (more usually) not happen and to draw the issue to the attention of the public. For example:

  • Greenpeace has conducted many actions against whaling ships, nuclear installations, oil rigs, etc
  • animal rights groups have used extreme violence and intimidation against individuals, companies and property to oppose scientific animal testing
  • environmental protesters have attempted to stop the building of new roads and airport runways (Manchester)
  • fuel protestors attempted to block motorways and oil refineries to object to increases in fuel prices
  • the Countryside Alliance have used high-profile events, including invading the House of Commons chamber, to oppose the ban on fox-hunting
  • the “Fathers for Justice” group has used stunts to publicise their cause.

 In general, these actions are less effective in achieving their immediate aim than in putting the issue on the political agenda.

The courts

Increasingly, pressure groups have sought to use the courts as a means of challenging the decisions of the executive. For example:

  • the Countryside Alliance challenged the fox-hunting ban in the High Court and Court of Appeal
  • the Law Lords ruled the government’s detention of foreign terror suspects without trial was unlawful
  • The European Court of Human Rights has also proved to be very useful to pressure groups, both in reversing decisions of the executive, in embarrassing the government and in enforcing changes in policy or practice
  • the McLibel Two won a case against the government on the grounds that they had not had a fair trial because of the operation of the libel laws
  • the Countryside Alliance is taking a case to the ECHR arguing that their human rights have been infringed because hunting is banned
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