How are Laws Made in Great Britain

Great Britain defined

The titles “United Kingdom” and “Great Britain” are often used interchangeably. Great Britain comprises England, Wales and Scotland. The first two share a common legal system, whereas Scottish law derives from a mixture of common and Roman law.

Since devolution in 1999, the Scottish Parliament has had law-making power on domestic issues, whilst national policy remains the preserve of the English Parliament. By definition, laws relating to the whole of Great Britain are national laws, and as such, this article will concentrate solely on how the English Parliament creates law.

Genesis of English law

The English Parliament us consists of two houses – the House of Commons, which is populated by elected Members of Parliament (MP’s) and the House of Lords – consisting of a mixture of hereditary peers and political appointments. New law, which starts life as a Bill, can generally be proposed in either house. The exception are “Money Bills” for raising or spending public money (such as taxation), which can only be raised in the Commons.

There are essentially two different kinds of bills – Public Bills, which are introduced either by the Government, or by a sitting MP, and Private Bills – introduced by individuals or organisations. Parliament only “sits” for a finite period during the calendar year. The Government sets out its legislative programme during the Queens Speech in November, and during the Parliamentary year, most bills are introduced by one of the Government’s ministers (so-called Government Bills).

This leaves very little time for Bills introduced by anyone else (i.e. Private Member’s Bills introduced by MP’s who are not ministers and Private Bills) most of which will “time out” before the end of a Parliamentary session. In reality, very few Bills other than Government Bills will pass, and as such, many are used for publicity, or to highlight issues and causes, in the hope that the Government may add it to the following year’s legislative programme.

Formulation and public consultation

Once announced in the Queen’s Speech, the relevant Government minister will manage a  team of civil servants and Parliamentary Counsel (government lawyers) who will work on formulating and drafting the Bill.  This work is rarely done in isolation. The Government will usually issue one of two kinds of consultation papers to the general public and interested parties – a Green Paper or a White Paper.

The Green Paper is usually exploratory in nature, inviting free comment and discussion, with a view to teasing out the eventual scope of the proposed Bill. A White Paper is more specific, often asking for input on selected clauses, concepts or procedures outlined in a Bill. It is unusual for a Bill to proceed to the next stage without a Green or White Paper, and often, both kinds of consultation will be used on the same Bill.

First and Second Readings

Following the consultation, a Bill will be introduced in the House of Commons for its “First Reading”.  This stage is a formality – there is no discussion on the contents of the Bill – and once the First Reading is completed, the Bill is sent to be printed. This printed version is then made available to Parliament, and will form the basis of any debate on the merits of the proposed legislation. Parliamentary time is scheduled for this discussion, which is known as the “Second Reading”.

Committee and Report Stage

Once the allotted time for debate has ended, a Bill will be submitted to a Standing Committee of eighteen to fifty MP’s, made up of the minister who proposed the bill, at least two Government Whips, and a selection of MP’s from other parties. How many depends on how big the opposition party or parties are In Parliament, and as such, there will always be a Government majority

The Committee will undertake a clause by clause review of the Bill, assessing and approving each clause. The Committee can suggest amendments to the proposed legislation, but the Government is under no obligation to consider or adopt them. In fact, on Government Bills that are considered key to a the governing party’s legislative programme, the Whips sitting in Committee can ensure that none of the party’s own MP’s depart from the party line.

The time taken in this stage varies considerably depending on the nature and complexity of the Bill, but once the considerations are concluded, the Bill proceeds to a “Report Stage” where the amendments and changes are reported to the MP’s.

Third Reading

Parliamentary time is then scheduled soon after the report is produced for the Bill’s “Third Reading”. The amendments and changes are debated by the full House of Commons, and, at the end of the allotted time, the Bill will be put to a vote. If it passes the vote, it will then go to the House of Lords, and the whole cycle from First Reading to Third Reading is repeated again. If it fails the vote, the Bill dies.

Role of the House of Lords

When the Bill completes the Third Reading in the House of Lords, it is returned to the House of Commons (and vice versa if a Bill started life in the House of Lords) so that the Commons can consider any amendments proposed by the upper house. There is usually a period of back and forth (called Ping Pong for obvious reasons) between the two Houses to reach compromise on changes to the Bill. Once both Houses agree, the Bill will receive the Royal Assent and become law.

On very rare occasions, where no compromise is reached, a Bill will die. However, the House of Commons has a limited powers under the Parliament Acts to pass the Bill into Law despite any objections from the House of Lords. These Acts are seldom used, with only seven instances on record since the first parliament Act was passed in 1911.

Royal Assent

Under English constitutional law, the role of government is delegated to Parliament by the reigning monarch. As such, all Bills must receive the Royal Assent before becoming law. In reality, this is a mere formality that is automatically applied. The Royal Assent has not been given in person by any monarch since Queen Victoria in 1854. Given that law being presented for Assent will have been passed by their own parliament, the monarch has never refused to give it.