How laws are made

The United Kingdom Parliament is the body which makes British laws.  Parliament is made up of the elected MPs in the House of Commons and the appointed members of the House of Lords.  Almost all law has to be passed by both Houses and then approved (given ‘Royal Assent’) by the Queen, although in reality she would never now reject a law made in Parliament.

The House of Commons considers laws in a series of stages:

House_of_Commons.jpg‘First Reading’: the publication of a bill.  A ‘bill’ is a draft law and is an actual document (usually written by the government) that is published and made available to MPs and the public.  Most bills are announced in the Queen’s Speech each autumn although it may take many months for them to be actually published.

‘Second Reading’: this is the occasion for a debate about the general principles and ideas in the bill.  Many MPs often contribute to these debates.  As a shadow minister and parliamentary party committee chair, Martin has contributed to many Second Reading debates.  A vote may be called on the bill as a whole at the end of the debate. If this happens, MPs literally ‘divide’ into two groups - the 'ayes' and the 'noes' - and walk through lobbies on either side of the House of Commons where they are counted one by one.  If the bill is defeated at this stage, it is lost but this rarely happens to bills backed by the government.

Committee stage: every bill is then passed to a committee of MPs to consider it in great detail.  A short bill can spend one day in committee, a complex one can take weeks.  Although the government always makes sure it has a majority on these ‘Public Bill Committees’ and so wins almost all the votes, opposition parties can and do propose many amendments – and occasionally win.  Government amendments – in effect, correcting their own Bill - are almost always passed.  In the last parliament, Martin jointly tabled one of the most significant opposition amendments to a bill in recent parliamentary history, raising the UK's carbon emission reduction target to 80% in the Climate Change Bill. 

‘Report’ and ‘Third Reading’.  The bill returns to the whole House after its committee stage and there is one last chance for any MP to propose amendments to it.  Once this ‘report’ stage is complete, the House moves straight away to an often brief ‘Third Reading’ debate on the bill as a whole.  There is one final vote on the bill as a whole at the end of this debate.

After a bill has completed all its stages in the House of Commons, it is sent to the House of Lords and goes through a similar process there (unless it began life there in which case the process is reversed).  Because the government doesn't command a majority in the House of Lords, key votes are more often lost there on amendments or even whole bills.  If the bill is amended by one House after it has been considered by the other, it has to go back again for those amendments to be agreed – a process nicknamed ‘ping pong’!   This is often when governments are forced into making big concessions as they become worried that they will never win over the other House and may run out of time altogether.  As a last resort, the elected Commons can use the Parliament Act to force the Lords to back down.

The very end of the process is Royal Assent by the Queen which is either reported to Parliament during the year or, at the end of a parliamentary session,  in a rather weird ceremony in the House of Lords involving cloaks, ceremonial hats and some Norman French, just before Parliament is ‘prorogued’ or suspended before the next Queen’s Speech when the whole process starts all over again with the next batch of Bills.  The bill has now become an Act of Parliament.  Acts usually still take some time to come into force and become the law of the land.

Other elected assemblies also pass laws or scrutinise government policies that affect British citizens, such as the Northern Ireland Assembly, Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament.  In England, only London has its own Assembly with devolved powers.  The elected European Parliament votes on laws for the whole of the European Union that also have to be agreed by the European Council representing all the 28 member governments.