Background information on making laws in a digital age

A Bill is a proposed law which is introduced into Parliament. Once a Bill has been debated and then approved by each House of Parliament, and has received Royal Assent, it becomes law and is known as an Act.

Legislative process

Some Bills represent agreed government policy, and these are introduced into Parliament by ministers. Other Bills are known as Private Members’ Bills: these are introduced by back-bench Members of Parliament, but only a handful of these will become law each year.

The legislative process is complex.  It starts with proposals (often accompanied by consultation) from Government, proceeds to its passage through Parliament and ends with the publication of statute law by Government and implementation of the measures it contains. 

Scrutiny of legislation by Parliament may also take place before a Bill starts its formal passage (draft Bills published for consultation) or after an Act has been implemented (known as post-legislative scrutiny). 

It is therefore, in practice, a process that is jointly-owned by Parliament and Government.  Many regard the legislative process as off-putting and inaccessible to those outside the Westminster village.  In recent years a number of proposals for reform have been made involving the use of technology.

The Wright Committee

In 2009 the Wright Committee (the Select Committee on the Reform of the House of Commons) called upon the House to open up the process of legislation, noting that:

"An individual citizen [...] has few opportunities for involvement in the legislative process, beyond taking opportunities to influence individual Members."

Public Reading

The Conservative Party’s General Election manifesto in 2010 included a proposal to introduce a ‘public reading’ stage of bills.  This would enable the public to comment on Bills online.  To date, this innovation has been piloted on three separate occasions by both Government and Parliament itself.

Good Law

The Cabinet Office Good Law initiative aims to make legislation more accessible and understandable for UK citizens, partly through digital means.  The Government acknowledges that laws and the law-making process are complex, and a review by the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel (the Government office responsible for drafting legislation) concluded that some of the causes of complexity in legislation “are unavoidable in a complicated world in which law is used to balance competing interests.”  Nevertheless, the Government is concerned that constant changes to the interconnected web of legislation can tend to lead to an exponential increase in its complexity.  The Good Law initiative poses the question “how we can either reverse or manage this growth in complexity.”

Bills online

Groups such as MySociety have campaigned for changes to the way Bills, amendments and debates on Bills are presented online to make the law making process easier to follow.  This example from 2009 demonstrates the complexity of the current process:

The Health Bill has just finished its Committee stage; here is the Bill as introduced to the House of Commons. Now here is the list of amendments for 16th June, the first day the Committee met. As a first question, can you tell me what Clause 2 would look like if all Stephen O'Brien's amendments were accepted? Or what Sandra Gidley's Clause 2 amendment does? The proceedings of the first meeting are elsewhere, as is the summary of proceedings – can you tell me what Clause 2 looked like given the proceedings as to which amendments were made or withdrawn?

Acts online

The National Archives is responsible for publishing Acts which are passed by Parliament.  In 2010 it launched legislation.gov.uk, which presents all UK legislation online in its current form; this is generally accepted to have made the laws of the UK more accessible to at least some of its citizens, but many (including the Government) would argue that there is more to be done.