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The Process of New Laws

The process of drafting new laws and getting them through the UK Parliament is complicated. MPs and members of the House of Lords vote on legislation but members of the public can get involved at several stages of the process.

It is important to be aware of where in the process new laws are if you want to have your say. It might be too late to get your point of view heard by the time a new law is in the headlines.

1. First steps to legislation

The government is responsible for the majority of new laws. Individual MPs and opposition parties can suggest laws but normally there isn’t enough time or support to get these through the parliamentary process.

Most government-backed laws are proposed well before a bill (a draft law) is actually brought to parliament.

Manifestos

Political parties set out their main aims in the manifestos they publish before general elections. Manifestos often contain quite specific suggestions for new laws.

The Queen’s Speech

Each year, the government publishes an outline of the laws it wants to pass in the Queen’s Speech. You can find a list of bills and a copy of the full text of the last Queen’s speech on the BBC Parliament website.

2. The consultation process

Consultation is an important stage in the process of developing new laws. The government usually seeks out the opinion of experts before producing new legislation, and often they ask for feedback from the general public. This type of exercise provides an excellent opportunity to have your say.

UK online keeps an index of government consultations.

Green Papers

The government sometimes publishes what is known as a ‘Green Paper’ before drafting new legislation. For example, in September 2003 the Department for Education and Skills published a Green Paper on the protection of children at risk.

A Green Paper begins a formal period of consultation, usually about three months, where the government seeks feedback and ideas from specialists and the general public.

The government will publish a consultation document and often a form for making your response. These will be available from Her Majesty’s Stationery Office and from the website of the relevant government department. You can find contact details on Action Network’s government departments issue page.

White Papers

After the formal consultation period is over, the government will normally publish a ‘White Paper’. However, the process can begin with a white paper, skipping the green paper stage.

In a White Paper, the government states its intention to introduce legislation and indicates its central ideas. Although white papers do not provide the same scope for the public to get involved as green papers, there is still usually a period to make comments on the proposals. Normally, this would involve writing to the relevant government department.

Other government consultations

The government doesn’t just consult about new laws. There are also consultations on smaller rule changes that will not require legislation in parliament. For example, between January and March 2004, there is a public consultation on plans to increase the charge for applying for work permits for foreign workers.

UK online provides some useful advice to the consultation process.

3. Government bills

Once the government has decided exactly what law it wants to pass, it introduces a parliamentary bill.

At any one time, several government bills will be going through parliament. You can find a list of bills currently in parliament, with details of what stage they have reached on the BBC Parliament website.

At any stage during this process, you can try to influence the outcome by lobbying your own MP. As a bill progresses through parliament, amendments are made which affect what the final law will be. If a lot of MPs receive feedback about a particular aspect of a bill, it is more likely to be amended.

You can find contact details for your MP on your local information page on Action Network. Most MPs also hold surgeries where you can meet them in person.

You can also write to ministers in the department who are introducing a piece of legislation, or to other MPs who are known to take a keen interest in the subject of the bill.

4. Stages in the parliamentary process

Bills are considered by the House of Commons, the House of Lords and in parliamentary committees. A bill has to have several ‘readings’ before it becomes a law. Most bills start in the House of Commons and go through a number of stages before they become acts of parliament. These stages are:

  • 1st and 2nd reaing in the House of Commons
  • Committee stage
  • 3rd reading in the House of Commons
  • House of Lords
  • Royal assent
  • House of Commons

Bills are formally introduced in a ‘first reading’ and then debated more thoroughly in a ‘second reading’. If a bill passes its second reading - and almost all government bills do - it usually passes to a standing committee made up of MPs from all the major parties.

Committee stage and amendments

At the committee stage, the details of a bill are considered in depth. Committees can suggest amendments to a bill. In addition to lobbying your own MP, you can also write to the MPs who are considering a bill in committee. This might be a good approach if you are concerned about a specific detail in the bill.

The committee reports back to the House of Commons where there is a chance for further debate followed by the final vote on the bill. If the bill passes, it moves on to the House of Lords.

House of Lords

The process in the House of Lords is similar to that in the Commons, with the bill going through a series of readings and a committee stage.

The House of Lords also suggests amendments to bills. If these are accepted by the House of Commons, then the bill is passed. However, if the Lords rejects a bill or makes amendments that are not accepted by the Commons, then it is held up. The bill must go back and forth between the Commons and the Lords until an agreement is reached.

Since 1911, the House of Commons has had the power to overrule the Lords if agreement is not reached, by invoking the Parliament Act. However, this has happened surprisingly rarely. It was last used in 2000 to push through legislation to equalise the age of consent for gay and straight sex.

Royal assent

Once a bill has gone through the parliamentary process, it is sent to the Queen to receive royal assent. It then becomes an ‘act’ of parliament.

More detailed information on the law-making process can be found on the BBC Parliament website and also on the UK Parliament website.

5. Enacting the law

Even after the parliamentary process has been completed, it is not necessarily too late to have your say.

Acts of parliament usually come into force on a particular date some time after they receive royal assent. In some cases, they become effective in several stages over quite a long period of time.

It can be possible to influence the way in which an act is implemented, even if it is too late to do anything about the act itself. For example, the idea that successful asylum seekers should attend a citizenship ceremony and make an oath to the Queen was contained in the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act (2002). But the exact form that the ceremonies will take has still not finally been decided.

In some cases, it is possible to mount a legal challenge to parliamentary legislation. In recent years, acts covering the rights of asylum seekers and police powers to deal with the threat of terrorism have been challenged on the grounds that they contravene the European Convention on Human Rights.

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