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.