What is a Bill?
A Bill is a proposal to either introduce a new Bill, or to change an existing law.
The proposal is presented for debate before Parliament, and is debated by both the House of Commons and the House of Lords. If a Bill passes every stage of scrutiny in both houses, they receive Royal Assent and become Acts of Parliament, which will change laws.
Types of Bills
Most bills that become Acts of Parliament are public bills, which means they apply to everyone and affect all people in the same way. Most public bills are Government bills, proposed by a minister.
Public bills proposed by an MP who’s not a minister are known as Private Members' Bills.
Private Members’ Bills are different from private bills. Private bills affect particular groups, people or places in a different way from others. For example, they might affect some local councils but not others.
Hybrid bills combine elements of public and private bills. This means they apply generally but also have a particular effect on specific groups, people, or places. The High Speed Rail (London – West Midlands) Bill is an example of a hybrid bill.
Introducing a Bill to Parliament.
The Bill can be introduced by either a Member of Parliament or a Member of the House of Lords. If it is introduced by an MP, it will start in the House of Commons, if it is introduced by a Lord or Lady, it will start in the House of Lords.
Readings of a Bill
The Bill will go through several stages before it is accepted. This is to ensure there is sufficient scrutiny, and that both Houses, and both sides of the benches have a say on the Bill as it is debated and progresses. Amendments can be made by both Houses, if they feel that the Bill’s details need changing. Sometimes these changes can be as simple as changing the wording, and sometimes the changes can significantly change potential legislation.
For the sake of ease, the next paragraphs will give examples based on a Bill that is introduced by a Member of Parliament, introduced to the Commons.
- The first reading is usually a formality, and takes place without a debate.
- The short title of the Bill is read out and is followed by an order/ direction for the Bill to be printed.
- The Second Reading is the first opportunity for MPs (in this Commons instance) to debate the main principles of the Bill.
- This usually takes place no sooner than two weeks after the Bill is first introduced. This gives MPs plenty of time to look at the Bill and scrutinise it before debating it.
- Usually, the person responsible MP will open the official debate, and then MPs on both sides of the benches will give their opinions to the Bill in a debate.
- At the end of this debate, the Commons decides whether the Bill should proceed to the next stage by means of a vote.
- Sometimes it is possible for a Second Reading to have no debate, as long as all MPs present agree to its progression.
- The Committee Stage is where a really detailed examination of the bill takes place. The Committee Stage usually is dealt with by a Public Bill Committee.
- When the Bill starts in the Commons, the committee is able to take evidence from experts and interest groups to scrutinise the Bill.
- Amendments are selected by the chairman of the committee. At this stage only members of the committee can vote on these amendments, as they have heard all the evidence.
- If any amendments have been voted through, then an amended version of the Bill is printed for the next stage.
- This stage gives the MPs an opportunity to add extra amendments to those changes already made in the Committee stage.
- All MPs can suggest amendments at this stage.
- This is the final chance for the first house (in this example, the Commons) to debate the contents of the Bill.
- Here, the debate focussed on the actual contents of the Bill, rather than was could potentially be added. Amendments cannot be made at this stage.
- This is slightly different in the House of Lords. Amendments can be made at the Third Reading in the House of Lords.
- At the end of the third reading, the house votes on whether they will approve the Bill.
- If the Bill is approved, it will be handed to the other house (in this example, the House of Lords) for its first reading. The second house will then be able to make their own amendments
Why MPs vote the way they do.
Whips and whipping
- MPs and Lords will usually vote based on how they are instructed. The head of their party will inform their whips office how they wish for their members to vote. There are three levels to voting instruction: a 1-line whip, a 2-line whip, and a 3-line whip. A 1-line whip is a more casual direction, whereas a 3-line whip is close to a formal instruction. Beyond this is a confidence motion. This where the vote is considered as a vote of confidence in the Government.
- It is normal that if a piece of legislation is controversial that the whips will take a lot of time hearing from their members to consider amendments prior to it being submitted.
- Defying the whip could mean that the whip is removed from you, which means you no longer represent that party, and you become an independent MP until your whip is restored. This is at risk with a 3-line whip, which is a direct instruction but is a certainty in a confidence motion. For this reason, unless an MP feels very strongly about a particular subject, they will usually vote with their party. It is important to acknowledge this when you ask you MP to vote against their party: would you want them to become an independent MP if their whip were to be removed?
Intention vs practicalities
- It is important to understand that voting is more of a responsibility than simply indicating your viewpoint. MPs and Lords votes are incredibly important as they directly influence the law.
- Sometimes, although a Bill or amendment might be well intentioned, it simply does not make sense in legislative terms, or would cause legal issues. Unfortunately, sometimes amendments and Bills are rushed through to make a point, but in practice would cause several problems.
- Before you angrily email your MP, the Government, opposition, or a party itself, you may want to check why they voted for or against a certain bill or amendment. They may well support the reasoning behind the motion, but not the way in which it has been put forward.
- You are well within your rights to ask your MP why they intend to/ have voted a certain way.
What happens then?
Acts of parliament (made when Bills receive Royal Assent) are known as primary legislation. These are usually quite broad pieces of legislation, with little detail about how they would be implemented practically. To make the laws work practically, secondary legislation will be introduced.
Secondary legislation, also known as ‘delegated legislation’ are laws created by ministers under the power that the Act of Parliament has given them i.e. they are creating laws to put the primary legislation into practice. It is used to fill in the details of the Primary Legislation and provide practical measures that enable the law to be enforced and operate in daily life.
The most common type of secondary legislation is a statutory instrument. These are drafted by a government department to make changes to the law. Sometimes these will need to be approved by Parliament (draft affirmative SIs), and sometimes they will not be (negative SIs). Parliament can either approve or reject a statutory instrument, but cannot amend it.
Most of the scrutiny of these statutory instruments is done by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments (JCSI). They make sure that the law change is clear, and follows the powers given by the act of parliament.