A core task of the UK parliament is passing legislation, which begin life as bills. There are three types of bills:
- Public bills apply to everyone and either the government or backbench MPs propose them. Most bills are public.
- Private bills change the law for a limited set of interests such as a single organisation or an individual.
- Hybrid bills combine aspects of public and private bills and are used in very specific circumstances when a bill both has a broad public purpose and will affect people at a local level.
Each type is subject to different procedures. A public bill must undergo five steps in each House of Parliament – first reading, second reading, committee stage, report stage and third reading – before the two Houses resolve any differences between them and the bill receives royal assent to become an act, and law. Some bills will also undergo an optional pre-legislative scrutiny stage before any of these and others will undergo scrutiny after they become law.
Bills can start their passage through the UK parliament in either House. This explainer outlines first the passage of bills in the Commons and then the differences in the Lords.
This is the first official stage of a bill. The short title of the bill is read out and then an order for the bill to be published is made. This is when the full text of the bill is made public, usually accompanied by explanatory notes. It is a purely procedural event. There is no vote and the bill cannot be discussed or amended in any way.
This is when a bill is first debated. For a government bill, a minister opens the debate and then shadow ministers and backbench MPs have the opportunity to make their points about the proposed legislation.
The details of the bill cannot be changed at this stage but an MP can table a ‘reasoned amendment’ opposing the bill. If the Speaker selects the reasoned amendment for a decision, it will be voted on before the vote on second reading
If the bill is defeated at second reading, it cannot be re-introduced during the same parliamentary session. Defeat at second reading is a rare occurrence for government bills, with the last one happening in 1986.
After the vote on second reading, the House approves a programme motion setting out the timetable for the remaining stages.
This is generally the longest stage of a bill’s passage and where the most thorough scrutiny takes place. Most bills are referred to a public bill committee. The membership reflects the party composition of the House, and a majority government therefore rarely loses a vote in committee. Constitutional bills, bills of major importance and highly controversial bills are taken in a committee of the whole House, meaning all MPs can contribute.
MPs conduct clause-by-clause scrutiny and public bill committees can also take oral evidence from key stakeholders. Each clause must be agreed to, amended or removed and new clauses may be proposed and agreed to. The government tables almost all of the amendments made. If it agrees with the idea behind an opposition or backbench amendment, it will normally try to introduce an amendment on the subject at report stage.
Report (consideration) stage
This stage usually takes place two weeks after committee stage. (If the committee stage was taken in the whole House, then this stage is skipped, unless the bill was amended there.) The debate can take place over more than a day but normally lasts between three and five hours.
All MPs can propose amendments or new clauses to the bill and the Speaker decides which ones are discussed and voted on. This stage generally leads to fewer amendments being debated than at committee stage but more amendments are made overall.
This is the final opportunity to debate a bill – usually immediately after the report stage ends, often on the same day, and usually lasting up to an hour. The debate often involves MPs and ministers making speeches congratulating those who have worked to get the bill to this stage.
MPs then vote on whether to approve the third reading of the bill. The last defeat of a government bill at this stage was in 1977.
House of Lords
The House of Lords follows the same bill stages as in the Commons, with a few key differences.
The Lords is self-regulating so there is no limit on time spent on debate.
During the committee stage, rather than being sent to a bill committee, the bill is usually debated on the floor of the House, or in the case of minor bills in ‘grand committee’. All members can take part. While amendments are tabled, it is rare for them to be voted on at this stage – this usually takes place at report stage.
At third reading, a bill can be amended if the amendments focus on something that has not been voted on at a previous stage. Usually this stage is used for tidying up the bill, rather than making major changes to it. The Lords Speaker does not select amendments, so every amendment can be debated. Members tend to only press amendments to a vote if they are very concerned about an issue and they want the government to think again.
If a Commons bill is defeated in the Lords then it falls. But since the Parliament Act 1911, if the Commons pass an identical bill again in the next parliamentary session, it can receive royal assent without going to the Lords. Under the same act, the Speaker can designate financial bills as ‘money bills’ if they deal solely with taxation, loans or public money. A money bill can be presented for royal assent even if the Lords do not agree to it. Under the ‘Salisbury Convention’ the Lords will not block bills at second reading that are part of a government’s manifesto commitments.
Consideration of amendments
After the Lords have considered a bill, it will be sent back to the Commons, or vice versa. If the second House does not amend the bill then it goes for royal assent. If it has been amended then the amendments return to the first House, which can reject the amendments, agree to them or propose new ones. The bill then returns to the second House for it to consider any changes the first House has made. This process, known as ‘ping pong’, continues until both Houses are in agreement. If a deadlock is reached, then the bill falls.
This is the final stage of a bill. Once both Houses agree on it, or just the Commons if the Parliament Act has been used, it then goes to the monarch, who will then officially agree to make the bill an act of parliament.
Before a bill is introduced into the UK parliament, it will sometimes undergo pre-legislative scrutiny by either a specific ad-hoc committee – often a joint committee of both MPs and peers – or a departmental select committee. The committee will take evidence from groups and individuals with an interest in the draft legislation and the text of the draft bill will be examined.
The committee will then produce a report, setting out its conclusions and recommendations. The government is expected to respond to the report. If it does not make any changes to the bill, this will affect the debate on the bill when it is formally introduced.
After a bill has become an act of law, parliament can scrutinise whether it is working as intended and propose possible solutions if it is not. Government departments are expected to produce a memorandum on the act three to five years after it has passed, although this does not always occur. This is then presented to parliament where each House can decide whether to conduct further scrutiny.
The process differs in the Commons and the Lords. In the Commons, a departmental select committee carries out the scrutiny, whereas in the Lords an ad-hoc committee usually does it. Since 2012, the Lords have committed to at least one post-legislative scrutiny committee a year. This scrutiny is conducted less frequently in the Commons because departmental select committees have greater constraints on their time and tend to prioritise other work.