Procedure for passing laws in the UK

Out-Law Guide | 08 Jan 2007 | 2:28 pm | 3 min. read

In the UK,  the most common form of legislation is that of Public Bills, which are introduced by government ministers and change the general law. They can also be introduced by other members of the...

In the UK,  the most common form of legislation is that of Public Bills, which are introduced by government ministers and change the general law. They can also be introduced by other members of the Parliament. In this case they are called Private Members’ Bills.

The procedure of passing a Public Bill can start in either the House of Commons or the House of Lords. However, Bills involving the introduction of new taxation must be introduced by a government minister into the House of Commons. Bills of controversial political nature are also introduced in the Commons.

First reading

The legislative procedure starts with the first reading which is just a formality in both Houses.

Second reading

Then the Bill must have its second reading (in the case of government Bills, within a fortnight). In the House of Commons the Bill is presented by a government minister. Then the views of the Opposition and other parties are heard. Although the Opposition in the Commons usually votes against it, a Bill progresses almost always to the Committee stage. There is a convention that Government Bills are not opposed by the House of Lords at the second reading. However, amendments can be voted on.

Committee stage

When Bills have passed the second reading in the House of Commons, they are referred to a standing committee for examination. A standing committee consists of from 16 to 20 MPs. Standing committees are chaired by a member of the Chairmen’s Panel. The Chairman votes only in the event of a tie and according to precedence. New standing committee members are appointed for each new bill.

However, certain Bills may be referred to the Committee of the whole House, if they fall into one of the following categories:

  • Bills of major constitutional importance, such as those ratifying the European Union Treaties
  • Bills that must be passed very quickly
  • Bills which are uncontroversial and their committee stage is expected to be very short.
  • Private Members’ Bills which are not expected to be opposed at any stage.

Some Bills, like the annual Financial Bill, can be divided between a standing committee and the Committee of the whole House. Also, the Armed Forces Bill is always referred to a select committee, before being re-committed to a standing committee or Committee of the Whole House. Because the amount of time that a committee can spend on a bill is limited, not all amendments are debated.

In the House of Lords the procedure of the second reading is similar, however Bills are usually referred to the Committee of the Whole House. Because there is no time limit, all amendments tabled may be debated.

Report stage

After the committee stage, the committee that has examined the Bill must report its decisions to the whole House of Commons within two weeks, so that all members have the opportunity to propose amendments or to add clauses. The report stage can be quite lengthy. Bills that were examined by the Committee of the whole House are not normally debated at the report stage.

Also in the House of Lords the report stage follows a fortnight after the committee stage.

Third reading

At this stage the final draft of the Bill is reviewed. In the House of Commons, the Bill cannot be amended substantially at the third reading. However, Bills which have their third reading in the House of Lords can still be amended at this stage.

Having passed through the previous stages, the Bill must be sent to the other House where the whole procedure is repeated. Bills can still be amended at this stage, and both Houses must agree on the amendments. If the Houses cannot reach a compromise on the final drafts, the procedure can be extremely lengthy. Due to time limits, some Bills are lost.

Generally, the role of the Lords is complementary and their legislative power limited by the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949. The House of Commons can present a Bill for Royal Assent event without the assent of the Lords, after one year and in a new session. Also, the assent of the Lords is not essential, under certain conditions, in the case of financial Bills.

The Royal Assent

The last stage of the legislative procedure in the UK is the Royal Assent. The Royal Assent is given by the Queen to the Bill that has completed all the parliamentary stages, and it is declared to both Houses. It is also listed in the Parliament’s record of official proceedings. The Royal Assent is a formality and has not been refused since 1707.

Sometimes, Acts of Parliament give government ministers and other authorities the power to produce delegated or secondary legislation. This legislation, however, is subject to strict limitations and can only regulate issues of administrative nature. (For more on secondary legislation see our guide Procedure for passing secondary legislation in the UK)

See: UK Parliament, Making new law