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Wednesday 6 November 2002

guide to legislation

Houses of Parliament. Picture: Britain on ViewA law is formally known as an Act of Parliament. Before any government policy becomes law, it must first be written out as a Bill, or draft Act.

MPs and members of the House of Lords discuss the Bill and suggest changes in Parliament before a Bill becomes law.

A Bill has to pass through many different stages in Parliament before it can be given Royal Assent and pass into law. Bills can be introduced into either the House of Commons or the House of Lords.

The process

Making a law can be a long and complicated process. If needed, people and organisations have to be properly consulted on the idea; the Bill has to be written in a way that is acceptable to Parliament; and then be thoroughly debated.

Different parts of the Bill (or clauses) are voted on and amendments made; more debating and negotiation can follow between the House of Commons and the House of Lords before the Bill is agreed and passed for Royal Assent.

Primary legislation can take anything from a few months to many years to pass into law, depending on the complexity and opposition to Bills in Parliament.

 The initial idea

The idea, or inspiration, for a piece of legislation can come from a variety of sources, including political parties (often as part of their election manifesto) and government departments, interest groups and research organisations, consumer or trade associations, or expert bodies. Sometimes a piece of legislation is introduced in order to make an international treaty or a Directive from the European Union part of United Kingdom law.

Government departments also think ahead, by commissioning research, seeing how other countries tackle similar problems, and holding discussions with relevant European Union bodies and international organisations.

The Cabinet decides what the priorities are for each legislative session. A session lasts about a year, usually starting around November. The Parliamentary timetable has room for only a limited number of major Bills in each session, generally about 15-20.

The Cabinet has to balance manifesto commitments, the demands of individual government departments and other priorities. Once the decision has been taken to go ahead with a particular proposal, the next step of writing the Bill can begin.

 Writing the Bill

Ministers and their civil servants are responsible for the content of Bills. Ministers determine the overall scope of a Bill; civil servants are responsible for working out the detail. Government lawyers known as Parliamentary Counsel draft the Bill. They have to make it as precise and clear as possible so that everyone knows what it means and it does not contain any loopholes.

Before starting to draft a Bill, the government often organises a period of formal consultation. Either a ‘Green Paper’ or a ‘White Paper’ is published, and the general public and interested organisations can submit their comments and suggestions. A White Paper is a statement of fairly definite legislative intentions. A Green Paper (or consultation document) is more exploratory, and is often issued when the government has not decided what action to take. Sometimes a White Paper follows a Green one and both may be debated in Parliament before the government proceeds to legislation.

The Bill does not take shape in isolation. Ministers and civil servants carry out extensive informal consultations to ensure that it covers everything and works in practice. The people and organisations consulted vary according to the subject matter of the Bill. They generally include experts, trade organisations, unions, MPs and other politicians, the Treasury and other government departments and international agencies.

A controversial Bill may go to the Cabinet, or to one of its Committees, for further discussion. Bills are increasingly being published in draft form to allow more time for public scrutiny and consultation.

When the Bill has been drafted, agreed by Ministers, and consulted upon, it is ready to be introduced into Parliament for its first reading.

 First reading

After all the preparatory work the Bill that is presented to Parliament for its first reading is not a ‘rough draft’. It is a refined version, the one that the government wants to have passed by Parliament. This is the reason why in many cases relatively few policy changes are made as a result of the discussions in Parliament.

Government Bills can be introduced in either the House of Commons or the House of Lords. Most controversial Bills, and all those concerned with finance, start their life in the Commons. This account of the legislative procedure assumes a Bill has been introduced in the Commons.

The process of introducing a Bill to Parliament is known as its first reading. It is in fact a purely formal introduction, without discussion, after which the Bill is printed. The Bill is then ready to proceed to its second reading.

 Second reading

The second reading debate is a general and wide-ranging discussion of the principles and scope of the Bill. Usually the debate lasts for one day - about six hours in practice - though MPs sometimes debate complex and controversial measures for two or three days.

Ministers and their Opposition counterparts make the opening and closing speeches. The rest of the debate consists of speeches by backbench MPs from each side of the House. MPs with a special interest in the subject contribute, as do MPs whose constituencies are affected by the Bill.

If the Bill is at all controversial, the debate concludes with a Division, or vote. It is very rare for a Government Bill to be defeated at second reading. As the Bill represents government policy, the government’s MPs can virtually always be relied on to support it.

The Bill must then proceed to the Committee Stage.

 Committee stage

The committee stage is a detailed, clause-by-clause examination of the content of the Bill. This is normally carried out by a specially-appointed standing committee of 18 to 25 MPs, selected in line with party strengths in the Commons. The Minister responsible for the Bill and his or her opposition counterparts are always members, and occasionally junior ministers as well. There are two Whips (MPs who ensure their colleagues vote with the party leadership), one each from the government and opposition parties. The remaining members are backbenchers from each side of the House, often with special expertise or interest in the subject concerned.

This stage can take anything from a single meeting to several months. On a major Government Bill the standing committee will meet at least ten or twelve times over about six weeks. A senior backbencher - not necessarily from the ruling party - chairs the committee and remains impartial during the discussions. For lengthy Bills, two backbenchers (one from each side of the House) are often appointed to chair the committee.

What does the committee do?

The job of a standing committee is to discuss and approve every clause of the Bill. It does not debate its overall scope and purpose. Discussion is usually based on amendments to individual clauses. Any member of the committee may propose an amendment. The Opposition, or backbenchers from either side of the House, may want to alter a specific part of the Bill; the government may respond to improvements suggested during the second reading debate, or to arguments submitted by outside organisations or interest groups, and decide to make changes itself.

Since MP’s usually vote with their parties, the government’s built-in majority ensures that usually only those amendments acceptable to it are passed. On the whole, these consist of second thoughts by the government, technical amendments such as improvements to the wording, and minor concessions on detail. Significant changes can only be made if opposition members combine with backbenchers who disagree with their government.

Who else can take part?

Sometimes, the committee stage is taken ‘on the floor’ in a ‘Committee of the Whole House’, enabling every MP to take part in the discussion. This time-consuming procedure is usually only used for some parts of the annual Finance Bill and for Bills dealing with major constitutional questions. A Bill that needs to be passed urgently will be sent to a Committee of the Whole House, to avoid spending time setting up a standing committee. It is possible to split a Bill, so that some provisions are dealt with in Committee of the Whole House, with the remainder going to a standing committee.

Once the Bill has passed through this rigorous process, it can move on to the report stage.

 Report stage

This stage (also known as ‘the Consideration’) is a detailed examination of the Bill as amended in committee. This time, all MPs can take part in the discussion. Fresh amendments and clauses are discussed and voted on. Many of these are introduced by the government in response to commitments made during the committee stage. Amendments already rejected in committee are not normally discussed again. The report stage can last from a few minutes to several days.

The Bill then goes back to the floor of the House of Commons for the third reading.

 Third reading

This is a final debate on the overall content of the amended Bill. It is often very short and frequently held immediately after the report stage.

After its third reading the Bill automatically moves on to The House of Lords.

 The House of Lords

In the House of Lords, discussion proceeds on broadly similar lines. A formal first reading is followed by a major general debate at second reading. Then come detailed discussions with amendments at the committee and report stages, followed by a concluding debate at the third reading.

But there are a number of important procedural differences between the two Houses. For example the committee stage in the Lords almost always takes place on the floor of the House, not in a standing committee, so any Peer may speak or suggest amendments.

If a Bill passes through the House of Lords unchanged, it is immediately submitted for Royal Assent. But, if any amendments have been made, the Bill returns to the Commons, which then debates each Lords amendment. The Commons can accept the amendment, replace it with another amendment of its own, or reject it. If it takes any of the last three options, the Bill returns to the Lords once again, accompanied by a statement of ‘reasons’ for the Commons action.

At this stage the Lords generally accepts the situation (so acknowledging the pre-eminence of the Commons). This is not always the case though, and if the Lords insist on any of its amendments the Bill will continue to be passed between the two Houses until agreement is reached. If the Houses ultimately fail to agree, the Bill falls. This has only happened on a very few occasions since 1945.

There are two important restrictions on the legislative power of the Lords. First, it may not delay a Bill for more than one Parliamentary session. A Bill lost in the Lords in one session and passed by the Commons the following session will automatically receive Royal Assent even if the Lords opposes it the second time around. Second, the Lords does not consider so-called ‘money Bills’, i.e. Bills dealing with taxation or that vote money to the government. These pass formally through the Lords without discussion. Both these restrictions assert the pre-eminence of the democratically elected Commons over the unelected Lords.

Once the Bill has cleared the Lords, it is sent to Buckingham Palace for Royal Assent.

 Royal Assent

As one of the three branches of Parliament, the Sovereign formally signifies assent to the Bill, which now becomes an Act and part of the law of the land. The words used are the Norman French ‘La Reyne le veult’ (’The Queen wishes it’).

As soon as the Queen has given the Royal Assent, the Bill becomes an Act of Parliament. All that remains is for the Act to be implemented.

 Implementing the law

When an Act comes into force depends on its wording. In some cases, its provisions apply immediately. In others, a starting-date (or more than one if different parts of an Act may come into force at different times) is laid down in the Act. In other cases, a Commencement Order must be made to activate the Act, or certain parts of it.

Once the Act has been implemented it is the law of the land. The lengthy and thorough process of legislation has finally come to its conclusion.

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