A Bill is a proposal for a new law, or a proposal to change an existing law, presented for debate before Parliament. It can start in the Commons or the Lords and must be approved in the same form by both Houses before becoming an Act (law).
Commons and Lords – This is the first stage of a Bill’s passage through the House of Commons or Lords – usually a formality, takes place without debate and at any time in a parliamentary session. The short title of the Bill is read out and it is then published for the first time.
Commons – This is the first opportunity for MPs to debate the main principles of the Bill and usually takes place no sooner than two weekends after first reading. The Government minister, spokesperson or MP responsible for the Bill opens the second reading debate. The official Opposition spokesperson responds with their views on the Bill. The debate continues with other Opposition parties and backbench MPs giving their opinions. At the end of the debate, the Commons decide by voting whether the Bill should be given its second reading, meaning it can proceed to the next stage.
Lords – This is the first opportunity for Members of the Lords to debate the main principles and purpose of the Bill and to flag up concerns and areas where they think changes (amendments) are needed. A Bill’s second reading usually takes place no less than two weekends after first reading. The Government minister, spokesperson or Member of the Lords responsible for the Bill opens the debate. Any Member can speak in the debate so this stage can indicate those Members particularly interested in the Bill – or a particular aspect of it – and those who are most likely to be involved in amending the Bill at later stages. Second reading debates usually last for a few hours but sometimes stretch over a couple of days.
Commons – This is where detailed examination of the Bill takes place. It usually starts within a couple of weeks of a Bill’s second reading, although this is not guaranteed. Government Bills are usually formally timetabled after they have received a second reading. Most Bills are dealt with in a Public Bill Committee who can take evidence from experts and interest groups from outside Parliament. Amendments (proposals for change) for discussion are selected by the chairman of the committee and only members of the committee can vote on amendments during committee stage. Amendments proposed by MPs to the Bill will be published daily and reprinted as a marshalled list of amendments for each day the committee discusses the Bill. Every clause in the Bill is agreed to, changed or removed from the Bill, although this may happen (particularly under a programme order) without debate. A minority of Bills are dealt with by a Committee of the Whole House (takes place on the floor of the House of Commons), with every MP able to take part. Bills fast tracked through the House of Commons will receive less consideration. Consolidated Fund Bills do not have a committee stage at all.
Lords – Detailed line by line examination of the separate parts (clauses and schedules) of the Bill takes place during committee stage. Any Member of the Lords can take part. Committee stage can last for one or two days to eight or more. It usually starts no fewer than two weeks after the second reading. The day before committee stage starts, amendments are published in a Marshalled List – in which all the amendments are placed in order. Amendments on related subjects are grouped together and a list (“groupings of amendments”) is published on the day. Every clause of the Bill has to be agreed to and votes on the amendments can take place. All proposed amendments (proposals for change) can be discussed and there is no time limit – or guillotine – on discussion of amendments.
Commons – This gives MPs an opportunity, on the floor of the House, to consider further amendments (proposals for change) to a Bill which has been examined in committee. There is no set time period between the end of committee stage and the start of the report stage. All MPs may speak and vote – for lengthy or complex Bills the debates may be spread over several days. All MPs can suggest amendments to the Bill or new clauses (parts) they think should be added. Report stage is normally followed immediately by debate on the Bill’s third reading.
Lords – This gives all Members of the Lords further opportunity to consider all amendments (proposals for change) to a Bill. Report stage usually starts 14 days after committee stage. It can be spread over several days (but usually fewer days than at committee stage). Detailed line by line examination of the Bill continues. Votes can take place and any Member of the Lords can take part.
Commons – This is the final chance for the Commons to debate the contents of a Bill. It 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 in the Bill, rather than, as at second reading, what might have been included. Amendments (proposals for change) cannot be made to a Bill at third reading in the Commons. At the end of the debate, the House decides (votes on) whether to approve the third reading of the Bill.
Lords – This is the final chance for the Lords to debate and change the contents of the Bill. At least three sitting days usually pass between report stage and third reading. Unlike the Commons, amendments can be made at this stage, provided the issue has not been fully considered and voted on at an earlier stage. Amendments at third reading in the Lords are often used to clarify specific parts of the Bill and to allow the Government to make good any promises of changes to the Bill made at earlier stages.
Considering of Amendments
When a Bill has passed through third reading in both Houses it is returned to the first House (where it started) for the second House’s amendments (proposals for change) to be considered. Both Houses must agree on the exact wording of the Bill. There is no set time period between the third reading of a Bill and consideration of any Commons or Lords amendments. If the Commons makes amendments to the Bill, the Lords must consider them and either agree or disagree to the amendments or make alternative proposals. If the Lords disagrees with any Commons amendments, or makes alternative proposals, then the Bill is sent back to the Commons. A Bill may go back and forth between each House (‘Ping Pong’) until both Houses reach agreement. On rare occasions, a govt may use the Parliament Act, which allows the Commons to force through a bill if it is rejected or amended in an unacceptable way by the Lords.
When a Bill has completed all its parliamentary stages in both Houses, it must have Royal Assent before it can become an Act of Parliament (law) which is the Monarch’s agreement to make the Bill into an Act and this is a formality. There is no set time period between the consideration of amendments to the Bill and Royal Assent – it can even be a matter of minutes after Ping Pong is complete.
After Royal Assent
The legislation within the Bill may commence immediately, after a set period or only after a commencement order by a Government minister. A commencement order is designed to bring into force the whole or part of an Act of Parliament at a date later than the date of the Royal Assent. If there is no commencement order, the Act will come into force from midnight at the start of the day of the Royal Assent. The practical implementation of an Act is the responsibility of the appropriate government department, not Parliament.