Any new law is first introduced as a bill, into either the House of Commons or the House of Lords. That House will then debate and amend the bill through a number of stages (First Reading, Second Reading, Committee Stage, Report Stage and Third Reading). The bill then goes through the same process in the next House.
Both the House of Commons and the House of Lords need to agree on the wording of the bill before it can gain Royal Assent – approval from the king – and become law.
If the two Houses don’t agree on the wording of the bill, they send the bill back and forth,responding to each other’s proposed changes. This process is what is known as ‘ping-pong’ or formally as ‘consideration of the Lords/Commons amendments’.
This process, however, does not apply to money bills – for example, the annual Finance Bill – because the Commons’ ‘financial privilege’ prevents the Lords from amending them.
The first House considers the amendments proposed by the second House and may, in the case of each amendment:
- agree to the amendment
- agree to the amendment with amendment(s)
- disagree to the amendment (in which case they have to offer a ‘reason’ why)
- disagree to the amendment and offer one or more ‘amendments in lieu’.
The bill is then sent back to the second House which may, in the case of each amendment:
- not insist on an amendment rejected by the first House, in which case agreement is reached
- not insist on an amendment rejected by the first House, but propose an amendment in lieu
- insist on their amendment and offer a ‘reason’ why
- disagree with amendments offered by the first House in lieu and give a reason
- propose amendments in lieu of those disagreed to by the first House.
This process continues until agreement has been reached on each amendment or until ‘double insistence’ takes place, in which case the entire bill is lost.
Normally both Houses will make every effort to reach compromise over a bill so that it can become law.
However, if one House insists on an amendment and the second House insists on its disagreement with that amendment, or if they have clearly reached a stalemate, the bill is lost. This is what happened to the European Parliamentary Elections Bill 1997–98.
The amendments sent back from the second House to the first House are often grouped for debate in the same way that amendments might be in the earlier stages of a bill’s progress. ‘Packaging’ refers to a practice that has developed during the later stages of ‘ping pong’ – most often in the Commons – where a number of related amendments are grouped together for the purpose of decision as well as debate.
For example, the first House might treat two amendments as a ‘package’, disagree with them and offer a single amendment in lieu of both – as happened in the later stages of ping pong over the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill in 2004.
Either House, if it receives amendments from the other in the form of a package may choose to consider them together or separately. The Lords has previously decided that packages from the Commons should only be considered together if they are confined to closely related issues.
Normally the Lords sees its role as sending amendments back to the Commons in order to ask ‘are you sure?’ and allow MPs an opportunity for further debate. The Lords usually tries to avoid frustrating the will of the elected House. Consequently, it is rare for the Lords to engage in multiple rounds of ping pong.
In theory, if the Lords disagreed fundamentally with a bill, it could deliberately cause it to be lost by insisting on an amendment until a stalemate was reached or ‘double insistence’ took place. In this unlikely circumstance, the Government could use the Parliament Act (passed in 1911, updated in 1949) to pass the bill in the following session.
Resorting to the Parliament Act would delay the passage of the legislation, therefore the Government normally works with the Lords to find compromises where there are disagreements.