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How does the UK parliament pass laws?

Legislation takes the form of Bills which are introduced into Parliament. They become Acts when they are approved by the Commons and the Lords and signed by the Queen. 

The great majority of Bills are Public Bills.  There are a small number of Private Bills each year. These apply to a particular geographical area and go through a different approval process to Public Bills. Most are promoted by local authorities to give themselves specific powers. This is not always the case, for example, the power to build the Channel Tunnel was also a Private Act.

Where do Public Bills start?

Public Bills originate from:-

The Government

The Government puts forward about 30 Bills for each session of Parliament, that is each year. The Government may want to:-

  • Carry out commitments in its manifesto that require a change in the law. The idea of a mandate is an important one in British politics. In the twentieth century with the Conservative and Labour Parties dominant and most people voting, it was argued that the winning party had a mandate to govern and pass legislation based on their election manifesto. The House of Lords would not reject legislation based on manifesto commitments. With the two party system weakening this idea becomes more questionable and governments have been elected in recent elections, with lower voter turnout, with the support of only about a quarter of the electorate. Another problem was the Coalition Agreement, agreed by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties after the 2010 election. It acted as a mandate but was not the same as either party’s manifesto.
  • Over time new issues may arise and government policies may take on a new direction and new laws are needed to deal with these.
  • Expert opinion and departmental civil servants may feel that new legislation is needed in a particular area.  This may also come about because of lobbying by pressure groups.
  • Occasionally there may be a need for emergency legislation. In 1976 drought conditions required control of the water supply.  In 2011 the High Court ruled that people could only be released on bail  for four days after being arrested on suspicion of a crime but without being charged to go to trial.

A Committee of the Cabinet decides which Bills will come forward each session.

Backbench MPs

Every year backbench MPs can enter a ballot and the first 20 names drawn out are given the opportunity to introduce a Bill.

These Private Members’ Bills are given space to be debated on Fridays and proceed further if they are passed with at least 100 votes.

After this stage the Government has to make time for them and so will be unlikely to do so if it is not in favour of the Bill. They therefore tend to be of an uncontroversial nature. 

Any Backbench MPs can also introduce a Bill, known as Presentation Bills, but there is no guarantee that any time will be allocated for them.

What is the process for a Public Bill?

Public Bills whether they come from the Government or Backbenchers all go through the same process.

Bills normally start in the Commons and then go to the Lords. Some Bills that are not so party politically controversial may start in the Lords and go to the Commons. Individual members of the House of Lords can also propose a Bill.

First Reading.

The Government Minister or Backbencher sponsoring the Bill introduces it into the House of Commons by reading out its title and purpose.

Second Reading.

There is a general debate on the main principles and reasons for the Bill with the possibility of a vote on whether the Bill should go further.

Public Bill Committee (called Standing Committee’s in pre-2006 books).

The Bill is then sent to a smaller group of MPs who form a Committee, but with a Government majority, who are meant to look at the bill in detail.

Bills are divided into numbered clauses and the Committee looks at these and can amend them. 

They consist typically of just under 20 MPs and include a Government minister, the opposition spokesperson on the topic and party whips.

The Committee can receive written views from outside bodies such as interest groups and also interview them; both Government and Opposition sides suggest who these should be.

Report Stage.

The new form of the Bill is reported back to the all MPs and there is the opportunity for further debate and amendments in the Chamber. 

Third Reading.

This is the final debate in the Chamber on whether the Bill should be approved.  Amendments cannot be put forward at this stage.

The Lords.

The process here is much the same except that all Lords can take part in the Committee Stage, though they have not adopted the process of taking evidence from outside bodies, and amendments are possible during the Third Reading.

Royal Assent.

The Bill goes to the Queen for signing off and only then becomes an Act.

Some Bills are now referred to Departmental Select Committee or to a joint Committee of the Commons and Lords in a process called pre-legislative scrutiny before they go through the normal legislative procedure so that the Committee can hear evidence about the Bill and produce a report recommending changes to it. 

Government departments also review how a Bill has been working after five years and send their conclusions to a Departmental Select Committee in case they want to investigate further.