The short version of the story is that in the UK, Bills are scrutinized by Parliament, and if passed, they become law.
Once we get into the detail of how this happens, things become a bit more complicated.
What types of Bill are there?
Public Bills are the most common type of Bill. If passed, they become law that applies to the general public. A Public Bill can be initially presented in either the House of Commons or the House of Lords. Most originate from the government, and these are known quite simply as Government Bills. A recent example would be the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act 2014, which was government legislation initially presented in the House of Commons and sponsored by Home Office ministers Theresa May and Lord Taylor. Government Bills have a high success rate. Public Bills which do not originate from the government are known as Private Members’ Bills. A Private Members’ Bill is put forward by an individual member of the House of Commons or House of Lords who is not part of the government. These bills have less chance of succeeding, but can draw public and media attention to an area the MP or Lord has made their particular concern. A recent example is the Assisted Dying Bill 2014-15 introduced in the House of Lords by Lord Falconer. The UK Parliament website provides further detail on different types of Private Members’ Bills and how they originate.
Private Bills deal with individual powers held by a particular, named organization, such as a church or a county council. They are submitted in November and go through the Examiners of Petitions for Private Bills, before being timetabled for Parliamentary discussion in January. There are additional opportunities for the public to petition if they are concerned about a Private Bill impacting upon their rights.
Hybrid Bills are relatively rare and are a combination of Public and Private, mixing specific legislation with consideration of the public interest. In recent times, this is usually when there are significant changes to public transport, and the proposed HS2 railway line has been put forward as a piece of hybrid legislation.
How are Bills written?
Traditionally, Parliament is opened in November with the Queen’s Speech, in which the government sets out its main plans for legislation in the coming year. Government ministers then work together with civil servants on the formulation of individual Bills, with ultimate responsibility for the wording lying with the Parliamentary Counsels.
It is increasingly common for legislation to start off as a Draft Bill. The Draft Bill can be examined by a select committee in either the House of Commons or the House of Lords, or by a joint committee made up of members from both Houses. Alternatively, the government can issue a paper inviting public discussion and response. A Green Paper contains proposals for future government policy and often contains several options for discussion. A White Paper is issued by a specific department within the government and contains more well-defined, in-depth proposals for legislation. Going through this process can save time when the Bill is considered before Parliament, because it has already been subject to some scrutiny.
How does a Bill become law?
A Bill only becomes law if it is passed as an Act of Parliament. There are multiple stages in achieving this.
Stage 1: progress through the initial House
As we have already seen, a Bill can be first introduced in either the House of Commons or in the House of Lords. In whichever House the Bill has been introduced, it needs to pass through:
* the First Reading (this is a short introduction stating the Bill and its aims)
* the Second Reading (MPs / Lords debate the general principles)
* the Committee stage (detailed examination of the Bill, including consultations with experts in the relevant field)
* the Report stage (MPs / Lords debate potential amendments arising from Committee stage)
* the Third Reading (final presentation, ending in a vote on the Bill)
Stage 2: progress through the other House
After the Bill has had its third reading and been passed by the House it originated in, it swaps over to the other House: so, a Bill that started off in the Commons is now given to the Lords, and vice versa. It is then scrutinized again in the same stages, ending with a third reading and vote in the second House. (This is a slightly simplified description, as there are minor differences, but the basic five-tier structure is the same.)
Stage 3: agreeing on amendments
The Commons and Lords must then agree on any amendments they would like to see made to the Bill. This stage can get very slow, with legislation shuttling between the two Houses over minor points of contention. Once the amendments have been agreed upon, the Bill has been approved by Parliament.
Stage 4: Royal Assent
As the Queen is the Head of State, she must give Royal Assent before the Bill can become law. This is usually attained quickly. Unless otherwise stated, the approved Bill will become an Act of Parliament at midnight, effectively making it law from the day following royal assent.
What can prevent a Bill from becoming law?
Royal Assent is never withheld, so any Bill which is agreed upon by both Houses will become law. If the House of Lords votes against a Bill, it will usually result in a delay of legislation rather than an outright defeat of it, due to the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949. An exception to this is if the Lords allow a Private Members’ Bill to run out of debating time, a process known as filibustering. In January 2014, the Lords (led by Lib Dem and Labour peers) voted that a Bill introduced by James Wharton on an EU referendum should not be allocated any more debating time, effectively killing the bill.
Government defeats in the House of Commons are relatively rare: firstly, because the government is usually formed from a party or parties that make up the majority of the MPs; and secondly, because the Opposition has only 20 days in which it can timetable subjects for debate, with the government otherwise deciding the business of the House.
“No” votes in the Commons can, however, theoretically happen at any stage. Under James Callaghan, the Reduction of Redundancy Rebates Bill in 1977 was thrown out by the Commons after its second reading. Tony Blair’s government suffered a defeat at the report stage when the Commons voted against the clause to increase the period of detention without charge for terrorist suspects to 90 days. However, it was only this measure which was defeated by the vote, and when the figure was changed to 28 days, the Bill progressed through Parliament to become the Terrorism Act 2006.
Repeated failure to pass legislation is more difficult to ignore. After the February 1974 General Election produced a hung parliament, Harold Wilson’s Labour government did not have a majority of Labour MPs in the Commons, and during that summer its legislation was defeated 18 times in the space of two months. Wilson was forced to call a second General Election, which was held in October 1974 and produced a slim Labour majority of three MPs.
In practice, therefore, it is relatively easy for either House to prevent Private Members’ Bills from becoming law, but Government Bills can only effectively be stopped if the House of Commons votes against them. For the government, control of the Commons therefore equates to the ability to fully implement their legislative programme.