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A tale of two bills highlights the government's parliamentary problems

The fates of two very different bills in the run-up to the Commons’ summer recess point to problems ahead for the government’s legislative agenda.

The home secretary at the dispatch box
The Illegal Migration Act 2023 was passed in July, but only after the government was defeated 20 times in the Lords.

MPs have risen for summer recess and will soon be followed by the House of Lords. Parliament will return in September, then rise again for conference season, before the current parliamentary session ends ahead of the King’s Speech on 7 November. That will mark the beginning of the final session of the 2019 parliament – and the last chance for the government to set out its legislative stall ahead of the general election

Ministers’ choices about what goes in the King’s Speech will be shaped by two factors: the political and the procedural. Politically, they will know that parliamentary handling tends to get harder over time, as a government loses political capital and its MPs begin to nervously eye the election. And procedurally, the government will have to take stock of where it has got to with the 18 bills it currently has before parliament. Some of these will make it into law before the end of the current session, but others may struggle and have to be ‘carried over’ to prevent them from ‘falling’. The more legislation the government has to carry over into the final session of this parliament, the less scope it has to bring forward new bills.

The different fates of two very different bills – the Illegal Migration Act and the Online Safety Bill – in the run-up to summer recess show the mixture of political and procedural headaches that the government may face in the autumn.

The Illegal Migration Act revealed an assertive Lords and rebellious Commons

Ministers managed to get the Illegal Migration Act into law just before the summer break, succeeding in overturning during ‘ping pong’ several changes proposed by the Lords. On the surface, getting such a controversial piece of legislation through relatively quickly – the bill was only introduced in March – appears to be a big legislative victory for the government.

But dig a little deeper and things aren’t so straightforward. The bill did not pass unscathed: the government was defeated 20 times in the Lords, where much of the detailed scrutiny took place (sometimes into the early hours) as so little time had been allotted to debate the bill in the Commons. The upper house did largely relent in the face of Commons opposition, conscious of the latter’s primacy and the looming threat that ministers could force the bill through using the Parliament Act. But its work still led ministers to make changes of their own to the bill.

This is part of a bigger trend in the current parliament of an increasingly assertive House of Lords: since the 2019 election, the government has been defeated over 340 times in the upper chamber; it was defeated just 99 times in the whole of the 2010–15 parliament. While the government can often overturn Lords defeats in the Commons – as with the Illegal Migration Act – peers can sometimes still force changes, and at the very least require deft parliamentary handling.

Legislating is also tricky in the Commons, despite the government’s majority – something else the Illegal Migration Act made clear. Several backbench Conservative MPs, including a former prime minister in Theresa May, rebelled during the act’s passage. They did not succeed in defeating the government, but they did manage to win some concessions from ministers, something that has again become a pattern since the 2019 election. All of this requires time and energy from the government, and it can slow down its legislative progress: while it got the Illegal Migration Act onto the statute books before recess, it ran out of time on other bills, such as on its politically contentious bill relating to the legacy of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

The government faces tricky decisions about timing for its legislation

While the government was celebrating passing the Illegal Migration Act, it was also seeking to extend the legislative timetable for a very different piece of legislation: the Online Safety Bill.

Introduced in spring 2022, after considerable pre-legislative scrutiny, the government’s decision to hold a Queen’s Speech weeks later meant that the bill almost immediately had to be carried over. There it has languished, becoming a political football during two Conservative leadership campaigns and with a succession of culture ministers shifting the priorities of the bill. But procedural rules – that bills can only be carried over between sessions once – mean that the government must pass it into law by the end of this parliamentary session. Specifically, thanks to the motion the government passed before summer recess, it must receive royal assent by 31 October.

With MPs’ fleeting presence in the Commons in September – they return for two weeks before rising for nearly a month to attend party conferences – the government won’t have long to get the Online Safety Bill through its final stages. In practical terms, ministers will have to prioritise this bill because of its specific and immediate timetable.

But they also have 17 other bills in progress. The less controversial or more developed ones will make it through by the end of the current session. For the rest, the government will need to make a decision – carrying them over into the next session will prevent them being lost, but will reduce the time available for new legislation in the run-up to an election, when governments usually want to get things done (or at least look like they’re getting things done).

With several politically tricky bills, rebellious MPs, an increasingly assertive House of Lords, and difficult choices on timing and scheduling, the return of parliament in September could yet pose a several headaches for the government.

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