Process of a Bill

The multiple steps that must occur before a Bill becomes an Act of Parliament

Note: This entry refers to Public Bills before Parliament. For Private and Hybrid Bills, a more convoluted process will occur.

In Short

Before a Bill becomes an Act of Parliament, it must complete a long process of scrutiny and amendment before both Houses of Parliament, before being presented to the Sovereign for Royal Assent.

So how does that work?

A Bill must complete five stages in each House of Parliament. Bills that originate in one House must complete the process in that house before repeating the process in the other House. Once the second house has considered and amended the bill, a process called 'Ping Pong' occurs in which the houses accept or reject the amendments of the other.

Once the text of the Bill has been agreed by both Houses of Parliament, it is sent to the Sovereign for Royal Assent. The date at which the (now Act of Parliament) comes into effect is either specified in the Bill, or at midnight following Royal Assent.

I disagree with a Bill, or it may have unexpected impacts. What can I do about it?

Everybody is aware that legislation may have unintended consequences, and may require additional provisions to address edge cases. Despite the popular impression of Parliament as hopelessly politicised, Governments are perfectly willing to accept changes that would make better legislation.

If you fundamentally oppose a Government Bill, understand that it is extremely unlikely that the Bill will not be passed in some form. Amendments to outright revoke clauses that have already passed in a vote will be ruled out of order and not accepted. It is more productive to suggest amendments that will make the legislation better.

For example, in response to a number of assaults in which victims were disfigured by concentrated acid, the Offensive Weapons Bill proposed prohibiting online sale of acid above a defined strength. The proposal attracted a great deal of concern from retailers and manufacturers of car batteries, whose acid concentration would brought them under the provisions of the Bill. After consideration of the objections, the Government proposed an amendment to the legislation to exempt batteries from the legislation.

Public Bill Committees do issue calls for evidence, to which any member of the public may respond. Otherwise, the only channel to communicate your objections is contacting an MP. The likelihood of an MP adopting your cause can be greatly enhanced if you can show that it will directly affect their constituency, provide objective, factual and well-argued points, and provide your view at a time when it would coincide with the Parliamentary agenda.

As with most things in life, the earlier in the process you try and make changes, the more likely it is to occur. As legislation proceeds through the Houses, the probability of changes being accepted becomes lower.

The earliest stage can be a Draft Bill that has not been officially tabled.

So what are these stages?

The information below relates primarily to the House of Commons. Lords stages may differ in form and detail.

First Reading - Formality

The First Reading is when the bill is officially laid before the House. This requires only a short title and description (or 'Long Title')to be given rather than the substantive text, and, with the exception of a Ten Minute Bill, takes only a minute.

Second Reading - Substantive

The second reading is a debate on acceptance of the broad provisions of the Bill, followed by an 'all or nothing' vote on the Bill continuing forward. If second reading is passed, subsequent amendments may not eliminate the general provisions of the Bill.

A second reading debate takes at least several hours, and for major legislation may extend to several days. Failure to find time for this debate to occur is the most common reason for a Private Members Bill not to proceed beyond First Reading.

During Second Reading, the broad issues of the Bill will be discussed, and backbench MPs will begin arguing for extra provisions or amendments that should be included within the final bill.

For Government Bills the debate is typically opened by the Secretary of State for the Department tabling the Bill, though a junior Minister will be responsible for advancing the Bill through the remaining stages.

At the end of the debate, the Speaker will call for a vote ('division') on whether the Bill should be passed. If the Bill is rejected at this time, it cannot be reintroduced during the same Session.

It is rare for Government Bills to be defeated on Second Reading, the last time this occurred was in 1986.

Abstaining from a second reading vote may also prove controversial, Labour's decision to abstain on the Welfare Bill 2015 provoked widespread discontent within the party.

For Government Bills, at the conclusion of Second Reading, there will then be tabled:

  • A programme motion - setting out the deadlines by which each future stage must be concluded
  • A Ways and Means motion - giving Parliamentary approval for any taxes or fees that may be introduced by the legislation
  • A Money Bill - giving Parliamentary approval for any Government expenditure that may occur as a result of the Bill

By the Salisbury Convention, the House of Lords does not hold a division on Government Bills on Second Reading.

Public Bill Committee - Substantive

Public Bill Committees are formed of around 20 MPs, and chaired by an experienced MP who is a member of the Panel of Chairs. The Chair has broadly similar powers as the Speaker when chairing the Committee, including the power to select amendments on the Bill. Only those MPs who are members of the Committee may speak, vote or table amendments to the bill.

The Committee will perform a clause by clause examination and debate of the precise details of the Bill. For Government Bills, the Committee may issue a request for evidence from the public on issues affected by the bill, and hold oral evidence sessions from organisations that have direct expertise of the issues affected by legislation.

During the Public Bill Committee, the Shadow Minister and other main party representatives may table amendments to the Bill, provided those amendments are in order. These amendments are frequently withdrawn (so to not prejudice them being reintroduced later) but require the Minister to give their view on the amendment.

'Wrecking amendments' that are inconsistent with the passage of Second Reading will not be accepted.

For example, Amendment 12 of the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill 2017-2019 proposed:

    "Page 2, line 7, leave out Clause 3"

Eliminating the entirety of a Clause passed by Second Reading was out of order, and the amendment was not selected by the Committee chair.

Viewing a Public Bill Committee would not give a particularly edifying view of Parliament. The MPs that bulk out a Committee do not even pretend to participate in the proceedings, performing other work on their computers and looking rather like children sentenced to detention.

In the House of Lords, a separate Bill Committee is not usually formed, the Committee being formed of the whole House.

Report Stage - Substantive

At Report Stage any MP may table amendments to the Bill, and a division may be called on these amendments.

This stage is often the most publicised proceeding, as those clauses considered too controversial to risk including in Second Reading may be tabled, and even Governments with substantial majorities may be defeated on clauses that are supported by their own backbenchers.

The majority of 'Government defeats' occur on amendments tabled at report stage.

Third Reading - Formality

Third Reading typically occurs immediately after the Report Stage, and is an all or nothing vote on the Bill. As the Bill has already passed Report Stage at this point, there is little of substance to debate.

Third Readings are usually an hour of valedictory speeches in which Minsters and MPs praise the work that has been done to bring the bill to the conclusion of the House process.

(Once the process has been concluded in the second House) Ping Pong - Substantive

Once the Bill has finished Third Reading in the second House, it has numerous amendments to the text which departed the first House. The first house must then vote on whether to accept or reject these amendments.

Rejections are then sent back to the second house, who may amend them further or chose to drop them, before re-submission. The newly amended clauses are then subject to another vote, and so on. The process of back and forth amendments and votes, earns the name of the process 'Ping-Pong'.

There are complicated rules around Ping-Pong for the extent to which rejections can occur, a compromise acceptable to both Houses may be reached, or the Government may have to accept amendments that it does not feel it can muster the votes to overcome.

Royal Assent

Once the Bill has been passed by both Houses of Parliament, it is sent to the Sovereign who signs the Bill, finalising its creation as an Act of Parliament.

Royal Assent is usually granted a few days after the completion of the Parliamentary process. The Royal Assent is then announced in the House of Lords and the House of Commons.