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Most new laws passed by Parliament are as a result of proposals made by the government. These proposals will normally need the backing of a government minister who is able to support an idea and gain the backing of government colleagues. The need for a new law may arise from public inquiries, civil servants or lobbyist and campaign groups or from necessity.
Ideally these proposals are put before experts, interested groups and those likely to be affected by the plans. They will be asked for their comments on a 'green paper' which will be the initial outline of the idea. A 'white paper' sometimes follows which is a firmer statement of the government's intentions. The final decision to present a proposal to Parliament is taken by the Legislation Committee. Once approved by the cabinet the Parliamentary Counsel will put the government's proposal into detailed legislation. These proposals are now ready to start their journey, as Bills, through Parliament for the consideration of both Houses.
In recognition of the growing importance of consultations as part of the pre-legislative process some Statutory Instruments, albeit secondary forms of legislation, must follow 'super affirmative' resolutions under the enabling Acts which authorise the making of delegated legislation. This requires the appropriate minister to show that they have properly considered representations which have been put forward as part of the consultative process.
Public Bills are the most common Bills and deal with matters of public policy. Most are introduced to Parliament by Government ministers. They tend to be general in character and affect everyone. A Public Bill introduced by MPs and Lords who are not government ministers is known as a Private Member's Bill. Few Private Members' Bills become law but they can create publicity about a concern which may have an indirect affect on legislation. Private Bills are promoted by individuals or organisations such as local authorities or transport bodies and do not change the public law. They only change the law as it applies to specific individuals or organisations.
A Bill goes through a number of stages before it becomes an Act. A Bill may be started in either the House of Commons or the House of Lords and will need to go through the same procedure in each House and all the stages before it can become law. Bills that relate to taxation will begin in the House of Commons.
First Reading – this is a formality when the Bill is first introduced to the House. A government Bill will usually be introduced by the appropriate government Minister. A private member's Bill, which is not being promoted by the government at this stage, will be introduced by the backbench MP whose Bill has been selected for progress in this way. There is no debate at this stage the name of the Bill, known as the short title, is read out and an order is made for the Bill to be printed and made available to all members of Parliament.
Second Reading – This is the first chance for debate on the Bill and MPs take the opportunity to debate the main principles. The debate is controlled by the speaker as he or she gives their consent to those who may speak during the debate. At the end of the debate there will be a vote and a majority must approve the Bill if it is to progress. A Bill can have a second reading with no debate - as long as MPs agree to its progress.
Committee Stage – There are too many MPs (650) to be able to consider the Bill so at this stage it is referred to a committee and detailed consideration is given to the Bill on a line by line basis. The Committee will be made up of between 16 and 50 members chosen according to their qualification and experience as well as the political composition of the House of Commons. This ensures that the opposition and minority parties are properly represented. These are known as Standing Committees. Every clause in the Bill is looked at and either agreed to, changed or removed from the Bill.
Report stage – This is vital if members are to be kept up to date with developments. A report will be made, to the whole House, of the amendments put forward and approved at the Committee Stage. The Bill may have to be re-printed if amendments have been made. At this time further changes to the Bill can be suggested by members not involved in the Committee Stage. There will be no Report Stage if no amendments were made at the the Committee Stage and the Bill will be sent straight to the Third Reading.
Third Reading – This, in effect, is the vote on the Bill in its final form. There can be a further debate on the Bill but it requires at least 6 members to request the debate. This will be unusual as it is virtually a formality at this stage bearing in mind it needed to have a majority to progress to this point. This does not rule out the possibility of amendments being made in the House of Lords at the Third Reading stage.
The Other House – If the Bill started in the House of Commons, the above five stages are then repeated in the House of Lords. If the Bill had started in the House of Lords then it passes to the House of Commons. There can be disagreement between the Commons and the Lords and this gives rise to amendments. The result being that the Bill passes to and fro between the two Houses. After a Bill has passed its third reading in both Houses it goes back to the first House (where it started) so that the changes proposed by the second House can be considered. The wording of the Bill has to be agreed by both Houses.
To reach the final wording the Bill can go backwards and forwards several times between the two Houses for amendments to be debated and agreed. This movement between the two Houses is often referred to as 'Ping Pong'.
Royal Assent – This is the final stage at which point the Bill becomes law. The stage requires the approval of the Monarch. This is a constitutional formality under the Royal Assent Act 1961 and the Queen does not have to read the contents of the Bill . The last time a monarch refused to sign a Bill was back in 1707 when Queen Anne refused to give her assent to the Scottish Militia Bill.
The Bill will come into force on a date given in the Act or on a date appointed by the appropriate Government Minister. If the Act is silent on the matter, the Act will take effect at midnight following the Royal Assent. Modern statutes can be very complex matters and often they will provide for the Act to be implemented at a later date or over a period of time by the introduction of regulations by way of statutory instruments made by the appropriate minister.
The second House, namely the House of Lords, is an unelected House but it still carries out important work as a scrutinising body and as a revising chamber. The Lords contain numerous peers who have gained experience and knowledge in particular areas and they are able to bring this expertise to debates during this part of the law-making process. A question that is often asked is, 'what would happen in the event that the Lords refused to approve of legislation passed to it by the House of Commons which consists of elected MPs?' The answer is that the House of Lords' ability to hold up or prevent Bills from becoming law are now limited by the Parliamentary Acts 1911 and 1949.
In the case of 'Money Bills' which may deal with financial matters such as taxation, the Government may, in order to avoid delay, reintroduce the Bill in the House of Commons after one month and, if it is passed a second time, it becomes law. In the case of ordinary Bills the House of Lords cannot delay their progress after a year. The House of Commons does not have things it own way and a recent example of a conflict arose with the government's proposed reform of tax credits when the House of Lords voted to delay tax credit cuts and to compensate those affected. It was argued that peers did not have the right to block financial measures approved by the House of Commons and that the measures formed part of the government's mandate as a result of their success at the general election. Many in the Lords argued that the measures amounted not to a financial Bill but to welfare reform over which they had every right to scrutinise and criticise as they saw fit. Either way the Chancellor is expected to to bring back revised proposals.
It is accepted that the House of Lords does carry out a check and balance upon the House of Commons so that the House of Commons rarely resorts to using the Parliamentary Acts. Recent examples can however be found in the War Crimes Act 1991 and the Hunting Act 2004.
The War Crimes Act 1991 was concerned with the ability to prosecute war criminals for war crimes even after a long period and the House of Lords' opposition was considered out of touch. Having been rejected by the House of Lords it went on to become only the fourth statute since the 1911 Parliament Act to be enacted under its terms and the Bill was passed with just the authority of the House of Commons. Similarly The Hunting Bill had met sustained opposition from the House of Lords despite apparent widespread support for the proposals elsewhere. After many years of frustration and lack of progress, the Parliamentary Acts were invoked by the speaker of the House of Commons and The Hunting Act was finally pushed through.
It is also worth noting that the Scotland Bill which amends the Scotland Act 1998 is currently in the House of Lords having passed through the House of Commons. The Bill sets out the powers that are being transferred to the Scottish Parliament and or the Scottish Ministers and follows the proposals of the Smith Commission Agreement 2014 which in turn follows the referendum on Scotland's independence. As a by product of Scotland's new powers, there will be a new stage added to the usual law-making process at Westminster. This will allow MPs for English constituencies to vote on issues deemed to only affect England – 'English votes for English laws'. The new measures would permit English MPs to veto the legislation before all MPs from across the United Kingdom voted in the bill's final readings. At present the Bill gives the task of deciding whether a Bill only affects England to the Speaker, and all MPs in the Commons will still have to pass legislation at other stages of the process. The Speaker will be permitted to explain his or her reasoning for certifying an issue as English or English and Welsh only and may call on two senior MPs to help make the ruling.
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