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The legislative process of the United Kingdom Parliament

Posted by Zenaira Khan on 17 October 2016

The origins of a Bill

The main Bills constituting the government’s legislative programme are announced in the Queen’s Speech at the State Opening of Parliament, which is usually in November.

There are various ways in which Bills may be introduced:

  1. Much prominent government legislation can be traced to a political party manifesto, where a political party establishes its intentions if elected to govern.
  2. A significant number of Bills have been inspired by international treaties, such as the Treay of Rome or the European Convention on Human Rights.
  3. Suggestions within departments by reform commissions, such as the Law Commission, and recommendations from a Royal Commission established for a particular purpose, such as the reform of the House of Lords (the Wakeham Commission), have also influenced Bills.
  4. Any individual MP can introduce a Bill. This type of Bill is known as a Private Members’ Bill. The chances of such a Bill becoming an Act are rather limited: for example, only eight such Bills received Royal Assent from 1998 to 1999.
  5. There are routine Bills, which are passed every year whichever government is in power. Approximately a quarter of Government Bills are of this type. Examples include Finance Bills and Consolidated Fund Bills.

The Government may also introduce a Green Paper and a White Paper as a preliminary to the actually introduction of a Bill before Parliament. Green Papers and White Papers are types of command papers and may be the subject of statements or debates in the House of Commons.

 

Green Paper

A Green Paper is a consultation document, issued by the Government, which contains proposals for future government policy to be raised for debate and discussion. Each proposal usually includes several alternatives which are discussed before a final decision on the best policy option is made.

The government would then issue stronger recommendations in a White Paper.

 

White Paper

A White Paper is the last stage before the proposals it contains are brought before Parliament in the guise of a Bill. It is sometimes produced following the consultation process undertaken when the government issues a Green Paper.

Unlike a Green Paper, a White Paper is issued by the government department to which it relates (e.g. Health, Employment, etc.) and will contain in-depth proposals for legislation.

The introduction of a White Paper is made to the House by the Secretary of State responsible for the department sponsoring the proposals. The introduction usually includes a statement concerning the contents of the White Paper and its implications for future legislation.

 

Types of Bills

i) Public Bills
Public Bills deal with matters of public, general interest and fall into two categories:

  • Government Bills – those introduced by a Minister.
  • Private Members’ Bills – those introduced by MPs of any party.

As stated above, Public Bills, introduced by a Minister – hence the Government – are far more likely to be enacted than those introduced by way of a Private Members’ Bill.

ii) Private and Local Bills
These Bills affect specified persons, categories or localities. They are introduced into Parliament through a petition by the individual persons or organisations, such as local authorities, desiring the Bill.

iii) Hybrid Bills
These are usually Government Bills which specifically affect particular individuals or groups. They are therefore treated in many ways like Private Bills. An example would be the Channel Tunnel Act 1987 because it had a specific impact on landowners in Kent.

 

Stages of a Bill through Parliament

The stages of a Bill as it makes its passage through Parliament are as follows:

i) First Reading
This is when the title of the Bill is announced and copies of it are distributed. Many Private Members’ Bills fail at this stage, but it does give the MP sponsoring the Bill the opportunity to draw public and governmental attention to the matter and to express why they feel the legislation is needed.

ii) Second Reading
This is the stage when the House debates the general principles contained in the Bill. It is very rare for a Government Bill to be denied a second reading.

iii) Committee Stage
Most Bills will then pass over to a Standing Committee (designated by letters, i.e. Standing Committee A, B, C) which is constituted for the specific purpose of dealing with Bills. It consists of approximately 18 MPs and reflects the state of the parties represented in the Commons. At the Committee Stage, the Committee or the House, which can itself sit as a Committee, subjects the Bill to a thorough line-by-line examination and makes amendments where necessary.

(Note: Standing Committees should not be confused with Select Committees or Joint Committees. Select Committees tend to take evidence rather than just debate issues. Any recommendations or findings emerging from these Committees are then passed to the Commons as command papers. Joint Committees consist of a Select Committee from each House appointed to meet under one chairman.)

iv) Report Stage
Here, the Bill that has been amended during the Committee Stage is reviewed. All members of the House have an opportunity to speak and vote at this stage, making it distinct from the Standing Committee Stage, where the scope for debate is rather limited.

(Note: in the Scottish Parliament and Northern Ireland Assembly, the Report Stage is known as the Consideration Stage.)

v) Third Reading
Here, the House looks at the final version of the Bill in its entirety. This stage is usually quite brief, as no major amendments are made to a Bill passed on from the Report Stage. If substantial amendments are demanded, the Bill has to be sent back to the Standing Committee for further consideration.

(Note: some Bills are also subject to guillotine motions, that is, debate on a Bill is limited so that it can be quickly enacted. This mainly occurs if the Government has called a general election and wishes to use its majority in the Commons to rush through parts of its legislative program. There is also a new stage to the process called a Programme Motion, introduced in 1999. Here, a programme or timetable is put before the House, setting out specific dates for the various stages of the Bill.)

vi) Lords Stages
These are similar to the various stages of the Commons. Changes to a Bill in the House of Lords after it has completed all its stages in the Commons will necessitate an extra stage in the Commons, called Lords Amendments Considered, in order to approve or disapprove of any amendments made by the Lords. The Commons accepts around 90% of these Amendments because they are generally not controversial.

The Lords may delay a Bill if, for example, it feels that there is no popular mandate for it. A recent example is the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill (now the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 2000 Chapter 44). The Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949 limit the delaying power of the Lords to thirty days in the case of Money Bills and up to one year in the case of other Bills.

Unless the House of Commons invokes the Parliament Act, both Houses of Parliament must agree on the final text of the Bill.

vii) Royal Assent
The final stage is when the Crown formally assents to the Bill in order for it to pass into law. The Sovereign, as the third pillar of Parliament (along with the Commons and the Lords), must give consent to a Bill for it formally to become an Act. The last time Royal Assent was given by the Sovereign in person was in 1854.

Since the UK is a constitutional Monarchy, the Sovereign is bound to Assent to any Bill, except in the most extraordinary of circumstances. Assent has not been withheld since 1707, when Queen Anne refused a Bill for settling the militia in Scotland (the Scottish Militia Bill).

 

Conclusion

Given that approximately 70% of legislation initiated by governments is not voted on when it comes to the second readings of Bills, it can be said with confidence that the Government is the dominant player when it comes to getting legislation passed.

Bills are discussed, on average, for 7½ hours, but this allocation is not equally distributed between or within Acts. During the Commons processes, much legislation is therefore passed with little or no scrutiny.

Due to strong party affiliation within the UK system of government, many controversial Bills can be forced through all of their parliamentary stages. One such Bill was the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill, which was opposed almost unanimously by the Opposition. Because of the government majority, however, the Bill survived, its original content practically unscathed, to become an Act.

This has led to concerns that the Commons is being used as a rubber stamp by governments with large majorities and that backbenchers are becoming increasingly irrelevant when faced with a strong and dominant executive.

Many commentators have been calling for greater scrutiny of legislation. There have been suggestions that the role of the Committee could be expanded. For instance, perhaps a Hybrid Committee could be created from the current Standing and Select Committees. Ministers could be summoned to appear before such a Committee to account for certain provisions that are either absent from or included in the proposed legislation, and to explain the reasoning behind them.

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