How (most) laws are made
Most new laws passed by Parliament result from proposals made by the government.
Proposals aim to shape society or address particular problems.
Normally, they are created over a period of time.
An issue or problem emerges on the government's agenda
Initially, a government's agenda is informed by the general election. Political parties compete for support from British voters by campaigning on their vision for the country and how they would change things. The political party that wins then forms the government, and bases its legislative agenda on its election manifesto. However, where no single political party decisively wins the election - as happened in 2010 - two or more parties may form a coalition government. They may have to negotiate a joint vision and agree on which new laws to champion in the upcoming parliament.
Once in government, other events and influences also compete for ministers' attention. Unexpected crises, such as an act of terrorism or a natural disaster, may require an urgent response. The UK's European Union commitments can lead to new legislation. Campaigning by special interest groups, private citizens or other politicians - often through the media - may raise the profile of particular causes or problems. More widely, the media's reporting on issues, government and Parliament all inform and influence Britain's political agenda.
Ideas for addressing an issue are considered
Identifying an issue is one thing. Deciding what to do about it is another. Proposals for addressing particular goals or problems may come from a variety of sources. The political party is one. Governing and opposition parties are expected to have policies on a range of issues, such as taxation, health and education. Recommendations for new laws may also come from public inquiries, civil servants or lobbyist and campaign groups. No matter where a policy idea originates, it normally won't get far without the backing of a government minister. This is because ministers are in a position to champion an idea to government colleagues.
Interested people and groups are consulted
Even a minister's backing, however, isn't enough to guarantee an idea will find its way to Parliament and become a law. Ministers normally - where time allows - shape and inform their proposals by consulting with experts, interest groups and people likely to be affected by the plans. Often, these interested parties are asked to comment on a 'green paper' - an initial outline of an idea. Sometimes a 'white paper' will be produced, which is a firmer statement of the government's intentions.
Cabinet ministers must agree which proposals to take forward
Having consulted on a proposal, government ministers then aim to persuade colleagues to support the idea. The merits of various policies are debated in cabinet committees, made up of ministers from across government and chaired by a senior member of the cabinet. Even with approval from a cabinet committee, a proposal must still be selected by the committee responsible for drawing up the government's legislative programme. The Legislation Committee makes the final decision as to whether a proposal will be presented to Parliament for scrutiny by MPs and peers.
Proposals are made into 'bills'
After a proposal is consulted on and approved by the cabinet, the minister responsible draws up instructions for what should go into the bill. Highly specialised lawyers - called parliamentary counsel - work to translate the principles outlined in the government's proposal into detailed legislation. All the bills the government intends to introduce in a parliamentary session are announced in the Queen's Speech - the main feature of the near-yearly State Opening that opens each new session of Parliament.
Parliament considers and scrutinises bills
To become law, a bill must be approved by both MPs in the House of Commons and peers in the House of Lords. Bills go through a very similar process in both Houses.
The Houses of Parliament consider proposals, called bills, most of which are introduced by the government.
A bill may begin its journey in either the Lords or the Commons chambers. Any bills that relate to taxation begin in the House of Commons.
- First reading
The bill's title is simply read out in the chamber. The bill is then made available to all members of Parliament.
- Second reading
MPs or peers discuss the main principles of a bill. MPs may vote at the end of this stage, particularly if a bill is controversial. A bill in the House of Lords passes to the next stage without a vote.
- Committee stage
A bill is then considered, line by line, by committees of MPs or peers. Changes - called amendments - are proposed and voted on. Commons bill committees normally consist of around 20 MPs. The entire House of Lords often takes part at this stage.
- Report stage
The bill, with amendments or changes, is 'reported' to the House. All members can review the amended bill. Those not involved at the previous stage may suggest further changes.
- Third reading
MPs debate and vote on the bill in its final form. In the Lords, further amendments may still be introduced.
MPs in the House of Commons.
A bill approved by one chamber is considered by the other
If a bill begins in the House of Commons - and is approved - it is then sent to the House of Lords, where it goes through the same stages. If the Lords were to make changes to the bill, it would return to the Commons for MPs to consider the Lords' amendments. Both the Commons and Lords must agree on the final shape of a bill before it can become law.
The Queen's 'assent' turns a bill into an Act
With approval from the Lords and the Commons, a bill will also receive formal approval by the monarch - called 'Royal Assent'. The Queen always gives her approval on the advice of ministers. A bill then becomes law, and is described as an Act of Parliament.
Useful references and further reading:
Parliament in British Politics Philip Norton
British Politics Leach, Coxall and Robins
Guide to the Passage of a Bill UK Parliament