Stephen Young is a reference librarian at The Catholic University of America, Kathryn J. DuFour Law Library. Stephen has written a number of articles in the area of U.K. legal research and has taught an advanced legal research course on the subject at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law.
Parliament is a bicameral legislative body. The elected chamber, the House of Commons, is comprised of 659 Members of Parliament (MPs). The House of Lords, the subject of much revision in the past few years, is comprised of 92 hereditary peers (both elected and appointed), 695 life peers, and 26 bishops. This article will summarize the passage of a bill through the parliamentary process and provide references to electronic resources that are available to help track the bill along the way. A more complete and official guide to the parliamentary process is available in the House of Commons Factsheet L1, “Parliamentary Stages of a Government Bill.” A concise, yet very usable guide to the parliamentary process is located in the first chapter of Donald Gifford’s “How to Understand An Act of Parliament” (1996). Researchers should also consult the chapter on Primary Legislation in Peter Clinch’s excellent “Using a Law Library: A Student’s Guide to Legal Research Skills” (2001).
The Pre-Legislative Stage
The origins of bills are varied and complex, however researchers can point to a number of sources in trying to determine the genesis of legislation. The most recognizable source for legislation introduced into Parliament resides in the government’s agenda. This will have been outlined in general terms at the time of the election and will be more explicitly stated when the Sovereign speaks at each subsequent state opening of Parliament.
Clues as to the direction in which the government may wish to pursue legislation can also be gleaned from the White Papers and Green Papers published as part of the Command Papers series. White Papers are statements of government policy. Green Papers are consultative documents that put forward proposals for consideration and public discussion. Both are useful in gauging the level of the government’s interest in a particular area.
Types of Bills
In many ways, the process through which a bill becomes an act of Parliament is not unlike the process through which a bill introduced in the United States Congress becomes a Public Law. A bill may be introduced into either chamber, the House of Commons or the House of Lords. If a government minister introduces a bill it is referred to as a Government bill. The likelihood of a government bill surviving the legislative process is far greater than if the bill is introduced by a “backbencher.” These bills are referred to as “Private Members” bills and usually have only a one in ten chance of surviving the parliamentary process (see House of Commons Factsheet L2, “Private Members’ Bill Procedure”). A further distinction needs to be made between “Public,” “Private,” and “Hybrid” bills. Public bills are those bills that affect the general public. Private bills, not to be confused with Private Members bills, are those bills that affect an individual or a corporation (e.g., a bill providing for citizenship for an individual). Hybrid bills, as their name suggests, are those bills that include elements of both public and private bills. For the purposes of this article discussion will focus on government public bills.
Since coming to power in 1997 the Labor government of Prime Minister Tony Blair has implemented important changes in the parliamentary process as recommended by the Select Committee on the Modernization of the House of Commons. These recommendations, outlined in two reports, Programming of Legislation and Timing of Votes (HC 589, July 2000) and The Legislative Process (HC 190, July 1997) have sought to make the process more efficient without adversely impacting its effectiveness. In particular, the changes called for an overhaul of the timetabling mechanism and the introduction of “programming motion.” Under this system the old “guillotine motion” can still used by the government to assert it’s majority, however the normative process is the “Program Motion” that formalizes a consensual approach to timetabling. This topic is explored in more detail in Factsheet P10, “Guillotine and Timetabling Motions.”
The First Reading
When a bill is introduced in Parliament it follows one of two paths, depending on which chamber of Parliament it was introduced (see chart). Bills introduced into the House of Commons follow the procedure outlined below. Bills introduced into the House of Lords follow the procedure outlined for the House of Lords before completing the process in the House of Commons. It should be noted that to complete the entire process usually takes a few months from introduction of the bill to Royal Assent. In certain conditions the process is greatly compressed, and can even be accomplished in a matter of days. Assuming a bill is introduced into the House of Commons it will first appear in the Daily Order Paper. At this “first reading” stage there is usually no discussion of the bill, this is merely an introduction of the bill and a request that the bill be printed up. Copies of the bill are made available on the Parliament’s “Public Bills before Parliament” page very soon after their introduction. In addition to the text of the bill, which has by now been assigned a sequential bill number, there is usually an explanatory note to accompany the bill. This note provides background information and a summary of the bill’s purpose and intent. The bill is also mentioned in the House of Commons Weekly Information Bulletin. The Bulletin serves as an important source of parliamentary information and will be discussed at greater length later in this article.
The Second Reading
The second stage for a bill is the first substantive stage. The second reading usually occurs within two to three weeks of the first reading. At this stage there is often considerable debate on the purpose and principles of the bill. The full text of this discussion is made available in Hansard the following day. Hansard coverage of the House of Commons on the Internet extends back to the 1988-89 parliamentary session in “bound volume” form, and usually extends back a few months in “daily” form (the most recent five days appearing first). Not all bills are debated on the floor. A few, less controversial bills, are sent to a Second Reading Committee that determines whether the bill should proceed or not.
The Committee Stage
The third stage for a bill is the committee stage. Bills are usually assigned to a standing committee, but may be assigned to a Committee of the Whole House or, in rare circumstances, a special committee (see Factsheet L6, “Standing Committees,” for a more complete description of the committee system). The standing committees are each identified by a letter (e.g., A, B. C. etc.) and are comprised of anywhere from 18-50 members, including at least one minister from the government department in charge of the bill. Despite their name, the composition of standing committees varies each time a committee is assigned to a bill. The composition of the committees, together with their schedules, is listed in the Weekly Information Bulletin. The debates of the standing committees are published in Hansard’s Standing Committee Debates on Bills. These are available online for parliamentary sessions since 1997-98. It should be noted that there are also links to the latest version of the bill on the Hansard pages.
The purpose of the committee is to scrutinize the bill, clause by clause, determining the intent and impact of the bill’s language. This is therefore often considered the most important step in the parliamentary process for researchers aiming to determine legislative intent. It is at this stage that amendments are most likely to be made. If amendments are made the bill will usually adopt a new bill number and be printed again with the following statement on the cover; “As Amended in Standing Committee A.” There is no vote on the bill in the committee stage.
The Report Stage
The Report stage, also known as the Consideration stage, provides an opportunity for members who were not part of the committee debating the bill to consider the amendments made by the committee. Additional amendments may be made but only to those clauses already debated in the committee stage. Although it is possible for the bill to be reprinted after this stage it is more likely that the bill will continue as is to the next stage.
The Third Reading
This is the final stage for a bill in the House of Commons. During this phase the House reviews the complete bill, including any amendments made in committee or in consideration. Once a bill has passed the third reading in the House of Commons it is referred to the House of Lords where it is introduced with a new bill number. All of the stages listed above are clearly indicated in the Weekly Information Bulletin. The House of Commons Public Bill List also provides a useful snapshot of where a bill is in the parliamentary process. The full text of bills and accompanying amendments can always be found on the “Public Bills before Parliament” page (assuming the bill is a public bill and not a private or hybrid bill).
The House of Lords
The process in the House of Lords is very similar to the process in the House of Commons. The bill will have a pro forma first reading, then a second reading. After the second reading the bill will normally be referred to a Committee of the Whole House, unlike the standing committees in the House of Commons. The bill then passes through a consideration stage and a third reading. In the House of Lords amendments may be made in the Committee of the Whole House, the consideration stage, and the third reading (this is different from the House of Commons where no amendments can be made in the third reading). Throughout the process the bill can be tracked using the Weekly Information Bulletin, and will be referenced in the House of Lords Minutes. Debate from this chamber will be recorded in the House of Lords Hansard.
Once a bill has progressed through the second chamber it is essential that a text of the bill agreeable to both chambers be produced. Assuming the second chamber has made no changes this is not a problem, however if further amendments have been made the original chamber must agree to these new amendments. In some cases the bill may pass back and forth between the two chambers a number of times until a version is agreed upon. In some instances there is a deadlock (i.e., neither chamber proposes alternatives), in which case the bill may pass in the following session of Parliament without the consent of the House of Lords (in accordance with section 2 of the Parliament Act 1911).
The Royal Assent
The agreed to text of a bill becomes an act of Parliament when the Crown gives its assent. Although this is now considered a formality, it is still an essential part of the parliamentary process. Unlike an act of the U.S. Congress that may be vetoed by the President, the Crown has not withheld its assent to a bill passed by Parliament since 1707. Only after receiving the Royal Assent does a bill become an Act of Parliament.
Acts are published by Her Majesty’s Stationery Office on the United Kingdom Legislation website within 24 hours of their publication in printed form. The text of acts on the H.M.S.O. site is reproduced on the British and Irish Legal Information Institute’s BAILII site. Coverage on both of these sites extends back to 1988 for public acts and 1991 for local laws. It is important to note that acts of Parliament are not published on the Parliament web site, however a link to the H.M.S.O. site is supplied.
LexisNexis™– provides a bill tracking service through its Halsbury’s Laws of England Monthly Review file. This weekly service includes the progress of bills through both chambers, a descriptive summary of each bill, and a list of those bills that have received the Royal Assent and become acts of Parliament. Public general acts are made available on LexisNexis™– at the end of the parliamentary session.
Westlaw™– provides a form of bill tracking through its United Kingdom Current Awareness Bills database. This database includes abstracts of bills together with their status in parliament. References to Hansard are also provided. The contents note for the database indicates that the material is updated twice daily. Public acts are published on Westlaw™– in a variety of their UK databases.
Lawtel™– is a subscription based UK database supplying domestic and European information to legal professionals throughout the country. Included in its Lawtel UK service is a bill tracking feature archived back to the 1993/4 parliamentary session.
Tabular Guide to Tracking Bills Through Parliament
The following table provides a quick reference guide to websites where one might find specific types of information related to a bill in Parliament. It is not intended to be an exhaustive list of resources, merely a guide to some of the more commonly requested items.
Type of Document/Information Needed Resource Text of Public Bills Public Bills before Parliament Text of Acts United Kingdom Legislation Bill Status in Parliament Weekly Information Bulletin Amendments to Acts Public Bills before Parliament House of Commons Floor Debate Hansard’s House of Commons Debates House of Lords Floor Debate Hansard’s House of Lords Debates House of Commons Committee Debate Hansard’s Standing Committee Debates Parliamentary Procedure HC Information Office Factsheets
The following chart outlines in a simplistic format the stages of a public bill. Listed underneath each stage are some of the resources that can be utilized to locate information on the bill at that stage. This chart does not list all of the available resources at each stage and does not necessarily represent the process followed by every public bill.