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Last updated 22 Mar 2021
ACCESS POINTS are the places to which pressure groups go to exert influence.
Assuming they have a choice, it’s a good guide to where the real power lies in a political system.
The amount of access points available depends on the type of political system that operates. In the UK, where there is not a clear separation of powers and checks on the executive are weak, there are fewer access points than in the USA, where there is a clear separation of powers and an entrenched system of checks and balances.
However, the range of access points available to UK pressure groups have increased in recent years with closer integration with the EU, the creation of devolved assemblies, and the creation of a more independent UK Supreme Court, separate from the House of Lords.
Ministers – the favoured access point in the UK, closet to where the decisions are actually made. Only a few insider groups (CBI, NFU) have direct access, but indirect access is available through advisory committees, through the growing number of ministerial special advisors, and for outsider protest groups, online petitions (road pricing). . There are several stages in the policy-making process at which ministers can be approached.
Parliament – Although MPs are limited by party discipline, governments facing an election or who have small majorities (Conservatives 92-97 UWC against post office privatisation ) can be influenced by pressure groups. MPs can be a parliamentary spokesman (Frank Field – Child Poverty Action Group), introduce a Private Member’s Bill (David Steel, Abortion Bill), act as lobby consultants or join an All-Party parliamentary group.
Political Parties – Some ties are formal (trade unions and Labour) and pressure can be applied through conference and funding. Some ties are informal (e.g. Electoral Reform Society and Labour Party 1997).
Courts – Lobbying British judges are not allowed but pressure groups can bring cases under the law to make a point or establish that the law supports their view (2008 Gurkha Veterans residency campaign).
Devolved Assemblies & Local Councils – The devolved assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are being increasingly targeted on areas in which they have authority. The Greater London Authority and local councils are potential targets too as long as the issues involved are London-based or purely local respectively.
The Media and Public Opinion – This tends to be a final target when all other means have failed, because even if you convince public opinion, you still have to persuade government. Examples include the Countryside Alliance 2004 and Anti-cuts movement 2010-2011.
The EU – Pressure groups lobby the EU if the EU has responsibility for the policy area (agriculture), the UK government is unsympathetic, because their sectional interest or cause is supranational, or simply as an additional access point. Under the European Communities Act 1972, European law takes precedence over national laws where the two are in conflict. Since 1986, decisions made by the Council of Ministers are made under a system of qualified majority voting (QMV) rather than unanimity, so pressure groups need to build up broader European support rather than simply lobbying their own national government to use a national veto. Pressure Groups can apply pressure at EU level through national governments if they are sympathetic (e.g. John Major for beef farmers during BSE crisis), through ‘Eurogroups’ of pressure groups (European Trade Union Confederation), and directly to the institutions of the EU (which is why the Law Society has an office in Brussels).