In the fourth episode of our Parliament Unpacked podcast, we’re continuing the discussion on how a Bill becomes law by focusing on how it works in the House of Lords.
Bills starting in the House of Lords
In essence, a Bill starting in the House of Lords follows the same five stages as the House of Commons which we outlined in the third podcast episode. This means that it has formal First Reading where no debate takes place, a substantial debate on Second Reading, the moving of often detailed and varied amendments at both Committee and Report Stage, followed by further debate at Third Reading. Also, the Government handily highlight which Bills start in the Lords by including HL in square brackets after the name.
How does the process differ in the House of Lords?
Despite following the same five stages, there are a number of differences between the processes in the House of Commons and Lords. Starting with the Committee Stage in the Lords, a Bill can be committed to five different kinds of committee for consideration but only two are commonly used – a Committee of the Whole House and a Grand Committee, with any member of the Lords able to take part. In the Commons, most Bills have their Committee Stage in Bill Committees with a limited membership of MPs. In the Lords however, proceedings in Grand Committees are effectively the same as Committees of the Whole House where any Peer can take part if they wish to.
Secondly, there is no selection of amendments in the Lords. Therefore, every amendment published on a marshalled list or supplementary sheet is called unless notice is received that the amendment has been withdrawn or it is pre-empted by an earlier amendment. There is also no allocation of time or ‘guillotine’ motions as they’re known which have been used by governments to limit the amount of time that MPs can spend debating a particular stage of a Bill.
In terms of timings, Committee Stage in the Lords usually starts at least 14 days after the Second Reading and often takes place over several days. In comparison, Committee Stage in the Commons typically starts shortly after Second Reading and can take anything from one meeting to two per week for some moths. Report Stage in the Lords also starts at least 14 days after the end of Committee Stage, with the Third Reading taking place at least three sitting days after the end of Report Stage.
Unlike in the Commons, it is also possible to move amendments at Third Reading in the Lords so long as the issue has not been considered and voted on during either Committee or Report Stage. That being said, amendments at Third Reading are often used to get the government minister to publicly clarify specific parts of the Bill and to allow the government to make good any promises of changes they made at earlier stages of the passage of a Bill.
Consideration of Amendments
As noted in the third episode, 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. But ahead of this stage, a Bill is returned to the first House where it started for any amendments made by the second House to be considered. So, if a Bill starts in the Lords and then goes through the Commons, it is returned to the Lords after its Third Reading in the Commons, for the Lords to consider any amendments that may have beenmade to it. The Lords must consider them and either agree or disagree to the amendments or make alternative proposals – and it’s exactly the same with a Bill that has started in the Commons.
It is worth pointing out that a Bill may go back and forth between each House until both Houses reach agreement on the exact wording of the Bill – with this process known as ‘ping pong’. Typically, a compromise will be reached or the Lords may back down, as if a comprise isn’t reached a Bill will fall, as it cannot receive Royal Assent without agreement. Additionally, the Commons can use powers in a piece of legislation called the Parliament Acts to pass a Bill without the consent of the Lords in the following session, but this is very rarely used.