A Guide to the Legislative Process in the UK

The UK legislative process is more straightforward than it first appears.

The UK legislative process is relatively straightforward. Whilst the House of Commons has primacy over the House of Lords, the process that a bill goes through under normal circumstances is the same in both houses. This article seeks to outline some of the key issues in the legislative process and go through the different stages that a bill has to advance through in order to become an Act of Parliament. It will also address some other questions that might be of interest.

What is the difference between Serial and Parallel Processing?

Serial processing is where there is one bill that transfers between the Houses of the legislature in question. Parallel processing means there are two bills which are then reconciled at the end of the process.

In the US Congress, separate bills go through the House of Representatives and Senate before they are amalgamated.

The U.K. has a serial processing system of legislation. This means that the same bill goes through one Chamber of Parliament before then progressing through the other. This means that, under normal circumstances, a bill must be agreed by both the House of Commons and House of Lords before it then goes on to receive Royal Assent. The exception to this is when the House of Commons invokes the Parliament Act. This means that if the House of Commons passes the same bill in consecutive parliamentary sessions they can bypass the House of Lords by invoking the Parliament Act (for example, the House of Commons did this with the Hunting Act in 2004). This system compares, for example, to the US which has a parallel system of processing. In the US, a separate bill has to be introduced into both the House of Representatives and the Senate before they are eventually amalgamated.

What are the different types of bill?

Public Bill – A public bill is one that impacts the general population, or a large section of the population. These are the most common types of bill. They are often introduced by the Government, in which case they are called Government Bills. An example of a Public Bill is the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) 2020 which formally saw Britain withdraw from the European Union.

Private Bill – A Private Bill is a bill that impacts a much smaller proportion of the population. These bills are much rarer. An example is the New Southgate Cemetary Act (2017) which saw powers given to a local company to increase the size of New Southgate Cemetary.

HS2 unveils Crewe Link £1.6bn civils bid plan - Pinnacle Recruitment
The next phase of High Speed Rail will have a huge impact on local communities.

Hybrid Bill – A Hybrid Bill is a bill that has both the characteristics of a Public Bill and of a Private Bill. They will have both a national impact, but also a particular impact on local communities. These bills are most often big infrastructure projects, like the expansion of Heathrow Airport and the construction of High-Speed Rail. An example of a recent Hybrid Bill is the High Speed Rail (West Midlands-Crew) Act 2021. This made provision for the next section of High Speed Rail 2 to be built.

Private Members Bill – A Private Members Bill is a bill that is introduced by a backbench MP or member of the Lords. As these bills do not normally have the support of the government (who normally have a majority in the House of Commons) it is unlikely they will become law. In fact, since the 2015 election only 47 Private Members Bill have received Royal Assent. There are four types of Private Members Bills:

  1. 10 Minute Rule Bills – These are introduced under the 10 Minute Rule in the House of Commons. Four of these bills have gained Royal Assent since the 2015 election. The last 10 Minute Rule Bill to become law was the Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) Act 2019 which extended a 2009 bill which would force museums to return objects acquired during the Nazi era to their rightful owners.
Conservative MP Mark Jenkinson came first in the 2021 Ballot. His proposed bill will extend careers advice to Year 7s in Secondary School.

2. Private Members Ballot Bills – Each year, a ballot takes place in the House of Commons to award 20 slots to Backbenchers to introduce Bills on one of thirteen Fridays put aside for backbench Bills. Since 2015 34 Ballot Bills have gained Royal Assent. Of the 20 slots awarded, only the top few are guaranteed sufficient time to push their bill forward. Since 2010 the average number reaching debate has been 6.5. This means finishing near the top of the ballot is a major victory for a backbench MP. The last Ballot Bill to become law was the Animals (Penalty Notices) Act which received Royal Assent in April 2022. This allows for penalty notices to be given for offences related to animals.

3. Ordinary Presentation – This method involves introducing a bill without debate. These bills will rarely make it past First Reading and very rarely become law. Since the 2015 election only 8 bills by Ordinary Presentation have become law. A significant example of this was the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2019. This was introduced by Yvette Cooper in 2019 to force the Prime Minister to seek an extension from the EU to the Article 50 deadline.

4. Lords Private Members Bill – This is a Private Members Bill put forward by a peer in the House of Lords. Since the 2015 election only one Lords Private Members Bill has made it onto the Statute Book. This was the Children Act 1989 (Amendment) Female Genital Mutilation Act 2019. This Act extended the powers of the court to protect girls at risk of Female Genital Mutilation.

What are the two pre-legislative phases?

If a bill is a Government Bill it will often go through two pre-legislative phases. This is because the Government want to ensure that by the time the bill reaches the floor of the originating House it is already in good shape. The two stages are:

Green Paper – A Green Paper is the first public consultation on a potential bill. In a Green Paper the Government will attempt to seek input from a variety of stakeholders to the issue in question.

An example of a Green Paper can be found here.

White Paper – A White Paper follows the Green Paper. In this document the Government set out the proposals for their legislation in detail. In this way, it can often be seen as a ‘draft bill’. Following the publication, the Government will continue to seek further feedback before drafting a bill that is ready to be introduced for first reading.

An example of a White paper can be found here.

In which House does a bill start?

House of Lords | British government | Britannica
Its a common misconception that all bills begin in the House of Commons and since 2010 over a quarter of all Government Bills have been introduced into the House of Lords.

Where the bill starts will depend on the type of bill that it is. If it is a Private Members Bill it will start in the House of that particular member. If it is a Government Bill, the Government will choose where it starts. If it is a low-key bill, they may choose to start it in the House of Lords. For example, the Government currently plans to make changes to post-16 Education. The Skills and Post-16 Education Bill was introduced into the House of Lords rather than the House of Commons. However, if it is a sensitive bill or a high-profile bill (for example something that was in their manifesto) it will usually be introduced into the House of Commons. Between 2010 and October 2021 there were 407 Acts of Parliament that were passed. Of these, 104 (25.5%) originated in the House of Lords. This is primarily as the Government often uses the House of Lords to begin the passage of lower profile bills and therefore avoid a logjam in the House of Commons.

What happens at First Reading?

Caroline Lucas - Wikipedia
Green MP Caroline Lucas introduced a 10 Minute Rule Bill called the Decarbonisation and Economic Strategy Bill.

If it is a Government Bill or a Private Members Bill this stage is a formality. The bill is announced and arrangements are made for Second Reading. The term reading comes from the fact that, before mass printing was available, the Bill would be read out in full. Now, it is just the title of the bill is read out at First Reading. However, if the Bill is a Ten-Minute Rule Bill (in the House of Commons), the First Reading will involve the presenting member giving a speech lasting ten minutes to extoll the virtues of their bill.

What happens at Second Reading?

At this stage the proposer of the bill, and a Government Minister if it is a Government Bill, will outline the merits of the bill to the House. A debate will follow in which other MPs can give their view of the bill. Following this, there is normally a division on the bill. If a majority of MPs or Lords vote in favour of the bill, it will advance to Committee Stage. If they do not, the bill will cease at Second Reading.

How to divisions work in Parliament?

Rishi Sunak - Wikipedia
During COVID-19 the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, accidently supported an Opposition motion while voting electronically.

Most legislatures around the world utilise electronic voting. For example, this is commonly used in both the US House of Representatives and in the Scottish Parliament. However, apart from a brief introduction during the COVID-19 pandemic, these systems have not been instituted in Britain.

Rather than voting with their hands, British MPs and Lords vote with their feet.

When a division is called, the Speaker will ask the question to which he will receive an oral response. He will read the question and say “as many of that opinion say aye, of the contrary no”. MPs will then shout aye or no, depending on their preference. If the response is unanimous or very clear, the Speaker will accept the voice vote. However, unless it is very clear, he will call a division. The same process is used in the House of Lords, however, the wording is “content or not content” instead of “aye or no”. When the Speaker calls a Division, MPs have 8 minutes to walk to either the aye or no lobby. The bells sound across the nearly 400 bells on the parliamentary estate and the nearly 200 outside of it (including in local pubs). When they walk through the lobby, their name is recorded. After this process is completed (which usually takes around 15 minutes) the results are read out in the House. This can be very time consuming, especially when MPs or Lords are voting on multiple amendments to a bill.

What happens at Committee Stage?

House of Lords calendar - UK Parliament
In the House of Lords the Committee Stage is conducted as a ‘committee of the whole house’.

The Committee Stage is the first significant difference between procedures in the House of Commons and the House of Lords. In the House of Commons, a Public Bill Committee is established. The Committee is made up of members from across the House and has a minimum number of 16 and a maximum of 50. Whilst the size my vary, the composition always reflects the party balance. This Committee can invite outside input into the bill and seek evidence from different parties. For example, for the Agriculture Bill of 2020 the committee sought evidence from groups ranging from the National Farmers Union and the RSPCA to companies like Arla Foods. Each individual clause of the bill will be talked through and amendments will be made and voted on. In the House of Lords, the process is different. In the House of Lords the Lords will sit as ‘a committee of the whole house’ and all peers are able to take part. Whilst the composition of this stage is different, the idea is the same in that the bill will be scrutinised in much more detail that it was at Second Reading. Occasionally, for very big or controversial view, the House of Commons will also sit as a committee of the whole house for a bill. For example, during the Committee Stage of the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill in 2020 the House of Commons sat as a Committee of the whole house. However, this is much rarer and most bills are dealt with through a bespoke Public Bill Committee.

What happens at the Report Stage?

Following going to Committee, the bill is then reported back to the House. MPs or Lords have the chance to make further amendments to the bill. Depending on the complexity of the bill, this Report Stage may last a number of days or be completed in a single afternoon. Following the Report Stage, the bill is moved to a Third Reading.

What happens at Third Reading?

A further debate follows on whether the bill should be pass or not. Importantly, amendments cannot be made to a bill at Third Reading, MPs or Lords can only vote for or against the bill as it stands. If members vote in favour of the bill it then advances to the other house, or to the monarch for Royal Assent if it has already gone though the process in the other house. If it is defeated, the bill dies.

What is Parliamentary Ping Pong?

Bernard Jenkin on Twitter: "A historic moment. @billcash is virtually the  last to vote for the Third Reading of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill. It is  then signed by the Clerk and tied
A bill passed by one house is physically walked to the other by a Clerk of parliament.

The fact that the same bill has to be agreed by both the House of Commons and the Lords can lead to a process of Parliamentary Ping-Pong. This means that a bill goes back and forth between the House of Commons and House of Lords until they can reach an agreement on any amendments that they have made. If the Houses cannot reach an agreement, the bill will die. This happened in 1998 with the European Parliamentary Elections Bill. Notably, this bill was passed in 1999 with the House of Commons invoking the Parliament Act.

Sometimes, a bill will have to go back and forth numerous times in order for agreement to be reached. For example, in 2005 the Prevention of Terrorism Bill was considered five times by the House of Lords and four times by the House of Commons. The terms of the bill were eventually agreed by both houses after 30 hours of debate.

What is Royal Assent?

Anne, Queen of Great Britain - Wikipedia
Queen Anne was the last Monarch to refuse Royal Assent.

Once the bill has been agreed by both Houses it is sent to the Monarch for Royal Assent. This is done the Monarch issuing Letters Patent. This stage is purely ceremonial, the last time a Monarch refused to grant Royal Assent was Queen Anne in 1708. When Royal Assent has been granted, this is announced to both houses. From this point it ceases to be a bill and becomes an Act of Parliament.

When does an Act come into force?

Just because an Act has been passed it does not mean it necessarily comes into force immediately. This will depend on what has been stated in the Act itself. For example, the Freedom of Information Act was given Royal Assent in November 2000. However, the act commenced in stages and it was not until 1st January 2005 that members of the public could request information from public authorities under the Act. Contrastingly, for example, the Terrorist Asset-Freezing (Temporary Provisions) Act 2010 was deliberately passed very quickly. As such, the Act commenced immediately upon being given Royal Assent.

How important in the Parliament Act in this process?

Most bills pass through both Houses before becoming law. However, if the Parliament Act is invoked the bill only has to pass through the House of Commons.

The People’s Budget crisis placed George V, a constitutional monarch, in an unenviable position.

The first Parliament Act was passed in 1911. This was a response to the People’s Budget Crisis of 1909 to 1911 which had produced the biggest constitutional crisis in British History. In 1906 the Liberal Party won the election and began a socially reforming programme. In 1909 they proposed a budget that would see a dramatic increase in taxation to pay for the new welfare programmes being proposed. This budget was blocked by the House of Lords but, under the threat of King George V flooding the Lords with Liberal Peers, they accepted the budget and the Parliament Act (1911) that followed. This act removed the power of the House of Lords to block legislation and limited it to delaying legislation for two years. Between 1911 and 1949 it was used three times:

Government of Ireland Act 1914 – Also known as the Home Rule Act, this bill legislated for self-government for Ireland whilst it remained inside the United Kingdom.

Welsh Church Act 1914 – This Act separated the Church of Wales from the Church of England.

Parliament Act (1949) – This Act saw the Lords power of delay being reduced to one year. This meant that if the Lords rejected a bill but they same Bill passed the House of Commons the next year, the Parliament Act could be invoked. Since 1949 the Parliament Act has been invoked four times:

War Crimes Act (1991) – This allowed UK courts to try suspected crimes committed on behalf of Nazi Germany during the Second World War.

European Parliamentary Elections Act (1999) – This changed the voting system used in European Parliamentary Elections in the UK from First Past the Post to the D’Hondt method of proportional representation.

Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act (2000) – This equalized the age of consent for homosexual sex with that of heterosexual sex .

Hunting Act (2004) – This prohibited the use of dogs in the hunting of wild mammals (especially foxes).

Importantly, the fact that the Parliament Acts have only been invoked seven times since 1911 does not make them unimportant. The very existence of the Parliament Act makes the Lords must more deferential to the House of Commons and much more likely to back down in any stand-off.

How are ‘English-Only’ Bills treated differently?

David Cameron lobbied No 10 and Hancock for Greensill | News | The Sunday  Times
Under David Cameron there was an attempt to solve the West Lothian Question.

Whilst the legislative process has changed very little for hundreds of years, one significant change was made in 2015 through the introduction of English Votes for English Laws (EVEL). Since devolution there had been a fundamental imbalance in the House of Commons. Whilst English MPs could not vote on devolved issues (like Education in Scotland) there was nothing to stop Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs voting on issues that would only effect people in England. For example, in 2004 a bill to introduce Tuition Fees in England only passed because Scottish Labour MPs voted for it, even though it would not impact their constituents. David Cameron pledged to fix what was long known as the West Lothian Question and tried to do so by introducing EVEL.

Under this process, if a bill related exclusively to England the Speaker could initiate a number of additional stages:

  • An England only Committe Stage would be set up for English MPs to consider the issue in question. Like a Public Bill Committee, this would be made up in proporition with the number of MPs each party has in England.
  • If some of the bill relates excluively only to England, it will be considered by a Legislative Grand Committee. This Committee can reject parts of the bill the Speaker has said are relevant only to England.
  • The bill is then reported back to the whole house, but then returns back to the English-Only Committee. At this point, MPs in the Committee can veto clauses relating only to England.
  • The final bill goes through the House of Commons for Third Reading as normal.

One of the problems with this systems is at Third Reading all MPs can vote on the bill, meaning the West Lothian question was not fully solved. For example, in 2016 changes were being voted on for a change in Sunday Trading Laws in England and Wales. These changes would extend the opening hours available to shops on a Sunday. This bill was defeated by 317 to 286 after SNP MPs voted, despite longer Sunday opening hours being in place in Scotland for years. Such were the problems with EVEL that it was suspended during COVID and was abandoned entirely in July 2021.

What does it mean if a bill is ‘on the nod’?

Bills passed without any debate or division are said to have passed ‘on the nod’. The Speaker will read the question and take an oral gauge of the House. If there are no objections by MPs, he will record the question as having been agreed to. It is very rare for bills of any significance to be passed ‘on the nod’. However, this does happen, even for significant legislation. The Coronavirus Act (2020), the primary legislation than enabled lockdowns, track and trace and the variety of weapons to tackle the virus, was passed ‘on the nod’. Given the significant of the challenges being faced the Opposition parties agreed to work together on this legislation.

What are the differences between the Lords and Commons in this process?

Whilst the process is largely the same in both houses, there are some differences between the Lords and the Commons in this process:

  1. A number of constitutional conventions limited the power of the House of Lords. The most significant are:

Financial Privilege – It is a long held convention that the House of Lords does not reject a Money or Supply Bill. This is any bill that spends or raises money.

Salisbury Convention – Since 1949 there has been a convention that the House of Lords does not reject a bill that was specifically part of a Government’s Manifesto.

2. The Parliament Acts limit the power of the House of Lords. Whilst these have been rarely used, the very fact they exist makes the House of Lords deferential to the House of Commons.

3. The biggest non-procedural difference is simply the amount of time spent on bills in the House of Lords. Generally, much more time is spent on bills in the House of Lords than the Commons and they are scrutinised in much more detail. Many Lords also have specialist expertise that they can deploy to the issues in the bill. A good example of this differential in time is shown in the Agriculture Act (2020). The House of Commons spend 32 Hours and 45 minutes considering this bill whilst the House of Lords spent 96 hours.

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