Monday, 19 December 2011

How laws are made - #WRB

This is one of my lunchtime series of blogposts.

Yesterday I was reviewing the progress of the hideously flawed Welfare Reform Bill through the House of Lords and realised that I wasn't entirely sure about what was meant to happen next. Given that I'm something of a political anorak, it suddenly dawned on me that if I didn't understand what was going on then it was highly likely that most people wouldn't understand what was going on either. So this blog post will be dedicated to giving a very brief overview of the way in which parliament passes laws and what this means for the Welfare Reform Bill.

Laws can be written and proposed in either the House of Lords or the House of Commons. A law passed by parliament is called an Act of Parliament while one which hasn't yet been passed is called a Bill.

Procedures differ slightly depending on which House the bill originates in but the basics remain the same. The first stage is the First Reading which is where the bill is formally proposed. It's not voted on at this stage as this is just a formality.

The first test comes at the Second Reading of the bill. At this point a debate and a vote will take place on the principle of the bill. It's very rare for a bill not to be passed at this stage as even people who disagree with the bill will still often vote for it in principle with the intent of amending it later. An example of where this happened is the NHS Reform Bill where Lib Dems who disagreed with a lot of the proposals in the bill still voted for it at the Second Reading so that they could try and amend it later.

After the Second Reading comes the committee stage - this is where the bill is examined and detailed amendments are proposed. This can take quite a while. At the end of it, the bill then enters the Report stage where amendments and the bill as a whole are debated line by line. Finally, the bill will then move onto the Third Reading which will debate and vote on the final version of the bill. If the bill is in the Commons then the votes on amendments will take place at the Report stage - if it's in the Lords then amendments can be voted on and proposed in both the Report stage and the Third Reading.

Assuming the bill is passed, it will then move onto the other House of parliament for the entire process to be repeated again. So if a bill starts in the Commons (such as the Welfare Reform Bill) then it will go all the way through to the Third Reading in the Commons, after which it will be passed to the Lords which will then repeat the same process.

The only time a bill need not go through both Houses of Parliament is if it's a supply bill (e.g. the government's budget) or a confidence bill (e.g. a bill which tests whether the government still has a majority in the House of Commons).

After a bill has made it through the second House then two things can happen. If the second House hasn't made any changes to the bill then it's approved by parliament and goes onto receive Royal Assent and becomes a law. If changes have been made, or the bill has been rejectded entirely, then it has to go back to the House it came from for the entire procedure to be repeated again and the changes either approved, rejected or amended. If the original House rejects the changes, or makes additional changes, then the bill is then sent back to the second House for the same thing to happen there. A bill will ping pong back and forth between the two houses until both of them agree on the same exact text of the bill.

However, the Commons has the option of using the Parliament Act to force through a law without the Lords being able to block or amend it. This is an extremely lengthy and difficult process though, which is why it has only happened in the past for crucial pieces of legislation which the government places a priority on. Most of the time the government will prefer to try and reach some sort of compromise as to try and use the Parliament Act for every bill would tie up parliament so much that only a handful of pieces of legislation would be able to be passed before the next general election.

The Welfare Reform Bill is currently at the Report stage in the Lords and will enter the Third Reading in the new year. As the Lords have already made at least one amendment to it, the bill will have to go back to the Commons. And if the Commons makes any further changes to the bill then it will have to go back to the Lords once again. The long and short of it being that legislative ping pong makes it look like it'll be quite a while before the time limit to ESA gets implemented - assuming it's not scrapped entirely of course.


  1. Excellent George - now why has no one done this before?! : ) Can you tell us - if the Bill will DEFINITELY go back to the commons, and if/when it does, what happens then? Do they just discuss the amendments that have been made or what? Is there any time-limit for how long this ping pong can go on for? Thanks, this has been really helpful.

  2. Well, it very much depends on the government. The quickest outcome is that it goes back, is debated once, the amendments are accepted and the bill is passed into law. The slowest outcome is that the Commons debate it for ages, make other amendments and pass it back to the lords who do the same thing, etc. And we could also see anything in between.

    The process of agreeing on amendments between the two houses means that they essentially skip to either the report or the third reading stage so it's a bit quicker than the initial passage of the bill through each house but it can still take a long time depending on how much the two houses disagree on individual amendments.

    I'm afraid it's anyone's guess as to how quickly the commons will debate the WRB again as the scheduling of parliamentary affairs is made at fairly short notice, but - if Labour has any sense, they'll kick up fuss about the WRB just like they did last time which will delay the bill for at least a while longer.

    I'm afraid I can't be any more helpful than that though.

  3. Can I just take a moment to point out that Acts are ultimately enacted by secondary legislation through the associated regulations. This is because there needs to be detail on how to interpret or apply any particular clause.

    And it has been known that provisions within a bill passed ages ago has not yet come into force. Eg Data Protection Act 1998 did not come into play until 2001-2

  4. Three's more than one kind of Committee though, right?

  5. Sorry, THERE's more than one kind of committee though, right? :-)

  6. @Ian and @Bill

    Yep, you're right on all counts - don't ask me to go into the detail though as it's still something I don't fully understand and I want to try and keep the blogpost as succinct as possible :)

  7. At least it gives time if nothing else for things to happen.A week is a long time in politics as they say.
    Has a law cannot be backdated.Has in the case of old cars and seat belts.I will be interested to see what benefits will be continued.
    ESA has been Law for a while,but many who were on Incapacity Benefit still are.For the time being anyway.
    Also the fact that the IT infrastructure for such massive reforms are in place on time is doubtful.I see computer cock ups.Some people getting no money,some to much and trouble on the streets.
    A benefits car crash so has to speak.

  8. Using the Parliament Acts isn't actually that hard, believe it or not. What has to happen is that the bill be sent to the Lords in one session, and be actively rejected (even if by indirect means, like a motion to delay) in that session.

    The Commons then has to send the bill, in the same form as it was sent the previous time (aside from changes necessary due to the passage of time, or ones the Lords had agreed the last time), up to the Lords in the next (or later) session, not sooner than one year after it had previously been given Second reading in the Commons. If the Lords reject it (which includes amending it in ways the Commons won't accept), or fail to act on it decisively in a certain time (I think a month, but I'm not sure), then the Speaker of the Commons MUST present it for Royal Assent unless a motion of the Commons tells them not to.

    Given the timescales that we have already seen, that wouldn't be too hard in the case of the Welfare Reform Bill.

    Also, while the Commons can't send it up with new amendments applied (if they want the option to use the Parliament Acts), they can send it up with "suggested amendments". If the Lords accept those amendments, they then don't have to be accepted by the Commons, but if the Lords rejects the amendments but accepts the Bill, the Commons has no chance to reapply them; if the Lords rejects the Bill, the suggested amendments are not applied if it is presented for Assent under the Parliament Acts.

    Note, this technically means that the Parliament Acts can be invoked without the Government of the day choosing to do so - it can happen by accident, and if the conditions are met by accident the Speaker is required by law to present it for Assent. In practice, of course, they know when this is about to happen and make sure the Government knows about it, but a tight vote could defeat a Government motion in the Commons to instruct the Speaker to not apply the Parliament Acts. That's a very unlikely and perverse possibility, though.

  9. On committees... almost all bills are considered by a Public Bill Committee in the Commons (exceptions include Private Bills, which are of very little concern). Sometimes they will get extra scrutiny from some sort of standing committee, like a Select Committee, and the Joint Committee on Human Rights decides what to scrutinise, over the course of its journey through Parliament as a whole. Standing committees of the various sorts, particularly Select Committees, mostly aren't there to scrutinise legislation, they're to scrutinise Government activity more generally, and sometimes more public things (like the Culture Committee questioning the Murdochs). Public Bill Committees are formed for the specific bill. I don't know how the people on them are chosen.

    In the Lords, the committee stage usually takes one of two forms - either Committee of the Whole House, where committee stage takes place in the main Chamber, or Grand Committee, where it takes place in another room (traditionally the Moses Room, though the WRB was elsewhere to give better access to disabled peers). There is no set membership in either case - in a Grand Committee, whoever wants to take part turns up. The difference is in how amendments are considered. In a Committee of the Whole House, they are voted on as you might expect, while in Grand Committee they must be agreed unanimously. In practice, this means that they get withdrawn when the Minister indicates that the Government won't support them, and if the proposer really wants to push the amendment it comes back at Report stage. Public Bill Committees in the Commons always vote, but membership is always such that the Government has a majority in them, and my impression is that the spectre of the Whips is keenly felt.

    Hope that helps people a bit.

  10. @Sam

    Thanks for all that information.

    What I personally find encouraging is that the parliament act can't be used any earlier than the year after the bill has last been debated in the commons - that would move the bill back to 2013 at the earliest and I think it would be unlikely for the government to use the parliament act over this bill.


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