How Laws are Made in Great Britain

The United Kingdom is a parliamentary democracy with two chambers, the elected House of Commons and the appointed House of Lords. Both Houses are responsible for the creation of laws, as well as debating and questioning the government. Laws are made through a system established by convention and the statute book as Britain has no formal written constitution.

A policy begins its journey towards becoming a law when it is introduced as a ‘bill’. A bill can be introduced in either house, with the exception of bills that pertain to fiscal policy that must be introduced in the House of Commons and passed by the House of Lords without amendment. The government has control over which bills are brought before parliament through its use of the ‘leaders’ of each House.

The leaders of the Houses are responsible for administering the government’s business in parliament, such as what bills are debated. This is crucial for the passing of laws as bills need to be given three readings in Parliament before they become law. After each reading bills are voted on. Thus the government exercises control over which bills are debated and thus which bills are enacted into law, although ‘private member’s bills’ may be suggested by members of any party, not just the government. The assent of both Houses is necessary for any bill to be enacted into law, however, as the House of Commons has primacy over the Lords (it is the superior entity) the Lords may not veto bills passed by the Commons. However, the Lords can amend a bill and thus send it back down to the House of Commons.

Amendments to bills can be suggested in both Houses (except for the aforementioned matter of fiscal policy), but any proposed amendment to a bill must be passed by both Houses. The majority of the work done by the Lords is in this field, amending bills that have been passed through the Commons, rather than initiating bills itself. In amending bills, the House of Lords is constrained in a number of ways as it is not an elected body. One such example is the ‘Salisbury Convention’, where the Lords may not vote down any policy commitment made by the government in a pre-election manifesto. This is due to the fact that by the election of that government, those policies are considered considered the will of the electorate, and are thus not voted down by the Lords.

Once a bill has been approved in its three readings, it is enshrined to law by royal assent. Essentially this involves the reigning monarch approving the law. However, to avoid the monarch becoming involved in the governance of the country, this assent is given automatically when the bill has been approved by both houses. The prerogative of royal assent is simply a relic of older times when the monarch was able to influence parliament, similar to the right to appoint the prime minister, it is nothing more than a ceremonial duty.