Making laws is perhaps the most famous and publicly recognised function of Parliament. The process of making laws needs close cooperation between Parliament and Government.
Making Laws – The Process
The Government introduces most plans for new laws in line with their election manifesto and political agenda, with many included in the Queen’s Speech at the opening of each session of Parliament, and changes to existing laws. However, new laws can also originate from an MP or a Lord.
Many other circumstances such as emergency issues such as the threat of terrorism, pressure on the Government to update old laws and case-law in the courts, interpreting, clarifying and re-applying established principles of statute law, all also contribute to the need of new or amended legislation. The government in these circumstances must then create proposals, that can eventually become law.
Consultation – Before draft laws, known as Bills, are introduced into Parliament, there is often consultation or a discussion period. The government or creator of a bill proposal will share their ideas with relevant and interested parties such as professional bodies, voluntary organisations and pressure groups. This is to gain an early indication of support and possible improvements, or suggestions from relevant experts.
Draft bills – The practice of publishing Draft Bills has become more frequent in recent years. Draft Bills are issued for consultation before being formally introduced to Parliament. Almost all Draft Bills are Government Bills. Government departments produce Draft Bills and issue them to interested parties. Draft Bills may involve the government issuing a paper for public discussion and response, The best-known examples of this are White and Green Papers. Green Papers usually put forward ideas for future government policy that are open to public discussion and consultation. White Papers generally state more definite intentions for government policy. There is no requirement for White or Green Papers to be introduced before a Bill is introduced into Parliament. A Draft Bill is a Bill that is published to enable consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny before a Bill is formally introduced into either the House of Commons or House of Lords. A Draft Bill is considered, often by a departmental select committee in the Commons or by a joint committee of Lords and Members of the Commons. This allows MPs and Members of the Lords to have early influence on the Bill. This process is known as pre-legislative scrutiny.
Bills – Once a proposal has been decided upon, a group of high specialised layers called “parliamentary counsel” – work to translate the principles outlined in the government’s proposal into detailed bills. A bill is a proposal for a new law, or a proposal to change an existing law that is presented for debate before Parliament. It is important to note a bill is not an Act of Parliament. Bills can be introduced by the government, individual MPs and Lords and private individuals and organisations. There are four different types of Bill: Public, Private and Hybrid Bills and also Private Members’ Bills, they can all start in either the House of Commons or the House of lords.
Passage of a bill through Parliament – A Bill can start in the Commons or the Lords and must be approved in the same form by both Houses before becoming an Act (law), except for money bills, where the Lords has lost any power over financial affairs in the 1911 Parliament Act. The picture below shows the general passage of a bill starting in either the House of Commons, or the house of Lords. This though is a relatively simplified diagram, and often the process is a lot more long winded. This is because any amendment made in either the House of Commons, or the house of Lords must be approved by the other House. This is not surprisingly known as “ping-pong” in the legislature and can be extremely frustrating.
Royal Assent – When both Houses have agreed on the content of a Bill it is then presented to the reigning monarch for approval (known as Royal Assent). This is now purely ceremonial and the royal Assent has not been refused since 1708. (This happened when Queen Anne resisted the passage of the Scottish Militia Bill, which abolished the Scottish Parliament. She was brought quickly back into line, the Act then quickly passed. No Monarch has since tried to defy Parliament).
Act of Parliament – Once a bill has been approved by both Houses, and received Royal Assent it become an Act of Parliament. Therefore an Act is simply an approved Bill by all three sections of the legislature. An Act may come into force immediately, on a specific starting date, or in stages. The practical implementation of an Act is the responsibility of the appropriate government department, not Parliament. For example, laws relating to transport issues would come under the administration of the Department for Transport. Parliament or its committees may also investigate and advise how the government should implement the Act and would consider any future Bills that amended or replaced it. Once it has been implemented An Act of Parliament is now a law, enforced in all areas of the UK where it is applicable.