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Parliament Unpacked: Episode Three

In the third episode of our Parliament Unpacked podcast, we’re discussing how a Bill becomes a law starting in the House of Commons by setting out the five stages that take place before a Bill is sent to the House of Lords.

A Bill is a proposal for a new law, or a proposal to change an existing law, presented for debate before Parliament. A Bill can start in either the House of Commons or the House of Lords and must be approved in the same form by both Houses before becoming an Act.


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The Preparation of a Bill


For each session of Parliament the Government will have a legislative programme, which is a plan of the Bills that it will ask Parliament to consider in that session. Other Bills that are not part of the programme may also be passed each session including emergency legislation such as the Coronavirus Act which received Royal Assent in March 2020, after it was fast-tracked through Parliament in just four sitting days in response to the pandemic.


If a Government Department has a proposal for a Bill that it would like to be included in the programme for a session, it must submit a bid to the Parliamentary Business and Legislation Committee which will consider all of the bids for that session and make a recommendation to the Cabinet about the provisional content of the programme.


Once the provisional programme has been agreed by the Cabinet, the Committee will begin a review before the programme is finalised by the Cabinet about a month before the start of the session. This is then announced in the Queen’s Speech at the state opening of Parliament, which begins the session.


The Five Stages of a Parliamentary Bill


The First Reading marks the first stage of a Bill’s passage through Parliament but this is a purely formal stage as there is no debate on the Bill. During the first reading, the MP is called by the Speaker to bring the so-called ‘dummy Bill’ to the Clerk of the House. This includes the short and long titles of the Bill and the names of up to 12 supporters, followed by an order for the Bill to be printed and to be read a second time on whichever day has been named.


The Second Reading is the first opportunity for MPs to debate the main principles of the Bill and usually takes place at least two weekends after the Bill has been introduced in the Commons. However, the Government does not always comply with the two weekends convention and the requirements are more formal in the Lords.


Next is the Committee Stage which usually starts within a couple of weeks of the Second Reading and can take anything from one meeting to two per week for some months. It involves a line-by-line examination of each clause and schedule of the Bill by either a Public Bill Committee, Committee of the Whole House or Select Committee, although most Bills are dealt within a Public Bill Committee which is a specially convened group of between 16-50 MPs that reflects the strength of the parties in the House as a whole.


A Public Bill Committee can take oral and written evidence on the Bill, and will decide whether each clause of the Bill should remain, as well as considering any amendments tabled by the Government or other members.


Every clause in the Bill is then agreed to, changed or removed from the Bill, although this may happen without debate. Once the Committee Stage is finished, the Bill returns to the floor of the Commons for its Report Stage, where the Bill can be debated and further amendments proposed. There is no set time period between the end of the Committee Stage and the start of the Report Stage but it provides an opportunity for members who were not on the Public Bill Committee to move amendments to the Bill.


When all the selected amendments have been disposed of or when the time designated to the Report Stage has expired, the House moves on to Third Reading. This is the final opportunity to debate the contents of a Bill, and usually takes place immediately after Report Stage as the next item of business on the same day. Debate on the Bill is usually short, and limited to what is actually included in the Bill as amendments cannot be made to a Bill at Third Reading in the Commons compared to in the Lords.


At the end of the debate, the House votes on whether to approve the Third Reading of the Bill. The Bill is then be sent to the Lords for its First Reading and the five stages are followed. It is important to note that as both Houses must agree on the text of a Bill before it becomes an Act, if it is amended in the Lords it must return to the Commons for those amendments to be considered but we’ll go into further detail during the next episode!


Receiving Royal Assent


A Bill that has been passed by both Houses becomes law once it has been given Royal Assent and this has been signified to Parliament. It will then become an Act. However, even then it may not have any practical effect until later on and most provisions will either come into operation within a set period after Royal Assent (commonly two months later) or at a time fixed by the Government.


Three to five years after a Bill has been passed, the Department responsible for the Act resulting from it will normally review how it has worked in practice and submit an assessment of this to the relevant Commons Departmental Committee. The Committee will then decide whether it wants to carry out a fuller post-legislative enquiry into the Act.