The Legislative Process
Before a law becomes a law, it is known as a bill. When passed by Parliament into law, it is known as an Act.
The process of a bill becoming an Act of Parliament is as follows:
Initial stage: ‘Draft Bills’ are issued for consultation before being formally introduced to Parliament. This allows proposed changes and amendments to be made before the Bill’s formal introduction. Almost all of these are created by the Government. Most Draft Bills are examined either by select committees in the Commons or Lords or by a joint committee of both Houses. The consultation process on Draft Bills may involve the government issuing a paper for public consideration, for example White Papers (ideas for a specific policy) and Green Papers (more general ideas for a future policy).
First reading: the bill is introduced (read out) to Parliament, with no debate or voting.
Second reading: a full debate takes place considering the details of the bill, which can be defeated at this stage.
Committee stage: the bill in considered in detail by a public bill committee (around 18 MPs). Some bills may be considered by the whole chamber (Committee of the Whole House). Amendments can be made at this stage. If the bill only impacts England, the committee will be made up of English-based MPs.
Report stage: the committee reports its findings, and any amendments, to the Commons, which can amend or reverse any changes.
Third reading: this is another full debate of the bill, but no amendments can be made. Usually bills will be passed at this stage.
The second chamber: once passed by the Commons, the same process takes place in the House of Lords. Sometimes bills may start in the Lords before going through the Commons.
Royal Assent: once passed by both chambers, the bill is given to the monarch to grant Royal Assent. Once this happens, the bill becomes law.
The majority of bills are proposed by the government and are known as ‘Public Bills’ and are usually successful at being passed into law. Another type of bill is a Private Members’ Bill. These are introduced by MPs or Lords who are not government ministers. A minority of Private Members’ Bills become law but, by creating publicity around an issue, they may affect legislation indirectly. Like other Public Bills, Private Members’ Bills can be introduced in either House and must go through the same set stages. However, as less time is allocated to these Bills, it is less likely that they will proceed through all the stages.
How the Commons and Lords interact during the passing of laws: Lords are able to propose amendments for consideration by the Commons. The Commons can adapt these amendments, or reject them (as in the Article 50 bill example). The Lords can then argue against the rejection- this may result in a process known as ‘ping-pong’, where a bill goes back and forth between the two chambers. The Lords will generally accept the bill eventually but can delay it by up to a year. If there is a division between the two, the Commons takes priority, as it is democratically legitimate. Exceptions are bills outlined in a government’s manifesto (the Salisbury convention) and money bills, which will not generally be delayed by the Lords. An exception to this was when the Lords voted to delay proposed government cuts to tax credits in 2015, which Chancellor George Osborne suggested ‘raised constitutional issues’. If there is a coalition, the Salisbury convention may be weakened, as manifesto commitments may be amended or abandoned during the formation of a coalition.