The History of England

from Celts through 20th century


Category: Politics

For a law to be enacted it must be approved by the Queen in Parliament. That is a Bill (a draft law) must be presented and go through all the necessary stages in both Houses of Parliament and the Queen must signify her approval (which is a formality). The Bill then becomes an Act and comes into force on the day in which it receives the Royal Assent, unless some other date is expressly provided.

Most Bills are public Bills involving measures relating to public policy. There are also private Bills which deal solely with matters of individual, corporate or local interest. Public Bills can be introduced by a Government minister or by a private member. Most public legislation is in practice sponsored by the Government.

Before a government Bill is finally drafted there is normally considerable consultation with professional bodies, voluntary organizations and other agencies interested in the subject matter. Proposals for legislative changes are sometimes set out in Government ‘White Papers’ which may be debated in Parliament before a Bill is introduced. From time to time consultative documents, sometimes called ‘Green Papers’, are published setting out for public discussion of major government proposals which are still at the formative stage.

Public Bills can be introduced in either House. As a rule, however, Government Bills likely to raise political controversy go through the Commons before the Lords. A Bill with a mainly financial purpose is nearly always introduced in the Commons, and a Bill involving taxation or the spending of public money must be based on resolutions agreed by the House, often after debate, before it can be introduced. The process of passing a public Bill is similar in both Houses of Parliament.

The various stages through which a Bill has to pass are as follows: first reading; second reading; committee; report; third reading. The stages follow at intervals of between one day and several weeks, depending on the nature of the Bill. In the House of Commons, the report and third reading are usually taken on the same day.

The first reading of a public Bill is a formality. The Bill may be presented and read for the first time as a result of the House agreeing to a motion for leave to introduce it, or it may simply be introduced, read for the first time and ordered to be read a second time. Once presented, it is printed and proceeds to a second reading.

The stage of second reading provides the first main occasion for a wide debate on the general principles of a Bill, including alternative methods of achieving its purposes and the means proposed for giving effect to its provisions. The Opposition may decide to vote against the Bill on its second reading, or to move an amendment to the motion that the Bill be read a second time.

When a Bill has passed its second reading, it is usually referred for detailed examination to a standing committee consisting of from 16 to 50 members. Occasionally the Bill may be referred to a committee of the whole House, which is the entire Commons sitting under another name. This is often the case with Bills of constitutional importance and with parts of Finance Bills which incorporate budget proposals. Very occasionally a Bill will go to a select committee, which has the power to call witnesses. The object of the committee stage is to study the details of a measure.

During the report stage the House considers the Bill as amended and makes any further amendments that may be necessary. The report is, in practice, very like the committee stage, except that only the amendments and not the clauses of the Bill are discussed.

At the third formal reading a Bill is reviewed in its final form, which includes the amendments made at earlier stages.

When the Bill has passed its third reading in the House of Commons, it is sent for consideration in the Lords. If the Bill originated in the Lords, it goes to the Commons after the third reading. If the second House amends the Bill, it must be returned to the House where it originated for consideration of the amendments. If it proves impossible to reach agreement, the Commons can make use of their powers under the Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949 to present a Bill originating in the House of Commons for Royal Assent after one year and in a new session even if the Lords’ objections are maintained. The assent of the House of Lords is not essential, subject to certain conditions, in the case of ‘money Bills’. Bills that deal only with taxation or expenditure must become law within one month of being sent to the Lords, whether or not the Lords have agreed to it, unless the Commons directs otherwise.

When a Bill has passed through all its parliamentary stages, it is sent to the Sovereign for Royal Assent. After this the Bill becomes law and is known as an Act of Parliament. The Royal Assent has not been refused since 1707.

At the beginning of each session private members in the Commons may introduce a Bill on one of the Fridays in the session specially allocated for unofficial Bills. Private members’ Bills are not always debated owing to pressure on parliamentary time, and many of those which are debated proceed no further than second reading. But a few succeed in becoming law each session.

Private members’ Bills may be introduced in the House of Lords at any time during the session, without notice. The time that can be given to them in the Commons is, however, strictly limited.

Private Bills are quite different from private members’ Bills. While a private member’s Bill is a general public Bill introduced by a member of either House who is not a member of the Government, a private Bill is legislation of a special kind conferring particular powers or benefits on private or sectional interests outside Parliament such as individual local authorities, private companies, nationalized industries or occasionally private individuals. Private Bills may be sometimes in conflict with the general law. A private Bill is introduced through a petition presented to Parliament by its promoter who will be responsible for its costs. Unlike public Bills, private Bills may be carried over from one session to the next.

Question time in the House of Commons, in its modern usage, is largely a development of the twentieth century. It is a period when for an hour (from 2.30 until 3.30) on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, ministers answer MPs’ questions. From forty to seventy questions are asked and answered during the hour each day.

Both Houses of Parliament have an organized system of committees which comprises: committees of the whole House, select committees, House of Commons standing committees on public Bills, joint committees of both Houses sitting and voting together, and private Bill committees.

Either House may resolve itself into a committee (of the whole House) to consider Bills in detail, clause by clause after their second reading. Proceedings in committee of the whole House are conducted on the same lines as normally followed by the House, except that the committee is presided over by a chairman instead of the Speaker (the Chairman of Ways and Means in the Commons, and the Chairman of Committees in the Lords).

Select committees are generally set up to help Parliament with the control of the executive by examining some aspect of administration and reporting their conclusions to the House.

House of Commons standing committees include those appointed to examine public Bills at the committee stage, and, in certain cases, at the second reading and report stages. In standing committees the balance of parties reflects that in the House as a whole.

Joint committees are committees of members of both Houses, appointed to consider either a particular subject or a particular Bill, or to consider all Bills of a particular description — for instance, Bills dealing with statute law revision and consolidation Bills. The proposal to commit a particular Bill to a joint committee must come from the House in which the Bill originated. The members of a joint committee are usually chosen in equal numbers by the respective Houses.

The whole parliamentary procedure of Britain is aimed at creating the impression that it is in Westminster that all important decisions are taken on the initiative of MPs as a result of public debates.

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