A really useful guide to how laws are made

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Your journey to becoming a how-laws-are-made-politico whiz starts here. 


Houses of Parliament (iStock photos)
"Politics is who gets what, when and how."

           -- Harold Lasswell

Where do laws come from? How are they passed, amended or even defeated? This is a guide to how Parliament and government create and shape UK laws.



The process: How (most) laws are made

Number 10 Downing Street (iStock images)An overview - from origin to Act - of the process of making UK laws. 



 

The real world: UK legislation today

UK legislation today (iStock images)A comprehensive guide to decisionmakers, influences and documents in the UK's legislative process.



 

Things you might not know

Palace of Westminster (iStock images)Creating legislation can be a complex and variable process. Here are a few things you might not have known.

 

 

how (most) laws are made


The making of a law can be thought of as a process with a number of stages.


How (most) laws are made

The prime minister leads the government from Number 10 Downing Street (iStock images)
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 Westminster Parliament (PA photos)


The Houses of Parliament consider proposals, called bills, most of which are introduced by the government.

 




Parliamentary stages
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 (PA photos)


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

 

UK legislation today


A real world guide to the decisionmakers, influences and documents in the UK's legislative process.


Governing Britain

Most new laws passed by Parliament result from proposals put forward by the government.


Who's who? Who does what?


Government priorities
Following the 2010 general election, the Conservative Party and Liberal Democrats agreed on aims for a coalition government


Influences on the government's agenda

There are many important issues. Those that gain a high profile among politicians, the media and the wider public, however, may rise more quickly to the top of the government's legislative agenda. 


General elections
'Big issues of the moment' can emerge during the national debate that involves voters, politicians and the media.


Unexpected events or crises
New legislation can be triggered in response to sudden events.

Parliament passed the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 in response to the 9/11 attacks in America in 2001, for example.


The media
News organisations, broadcasters and political commentators inform and influence public debates. A variety of political opinions get aired in the media.


Where do policies and ideas for bills come from?

The creation of new policies can be a complex business.


Political parties 
Governing and opposition parties are expected to have policies on a range of issues, such as taxation, health and education.


Public inquiries, inquests and royal commissions
Public inquiries, often sparked by major events, may recommend changes to the law.

The Royal Commission on Criminal Justice, for example, led to changes in the Criminal Appeal Act 1995, establishing an independent body to consider suspected miscarriages of justice.


Civil servants
New policies may arise from civil service proposals. Government departments are headed by ministers and administered by civil servants. The top civil servant in each department is known as a permanent secretary and works closely with ministers.


Private members
MPs or peers can introduce private members' legislation to Parliament, though few private members' bills actually become law.

Private members' bills enacted in recent times include the Sports Ground Safety Authority Act 2010-11 and the Wreck Removal Convention Act 2010-11


Campaign, lobby and interest groups
Many bills result from pressure and discussion with interest groups and other bodies.

The work of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), for example, has led to tighter controls on animal welfare.

Business organisations such as the CBI, civil society groups such as Oxfam, and UK charities such as the Salvation Army, may all aim to influence government legislation on particular issues.  

  

Going from proposal to bill

Even where a government minister agrees a change is necessary, it's no guarantee the proposal will be brought before Parliament.


Consulting with the public and interested groups
The government consults the public on many more proposals than it can take forward.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport, for example, publish details of their public consultations online.


Debates within government
A minister must persuade cabinet colleagues that his or her proposal is needed. The minister's plan goes to the relevant cabinet committee, chaired by the prime minister or a senior cabinet minister.


Who decides which proposals will go before Parliament?
It's then up to the cabinet's Parliamentary Business and Legislation Committee to decide which bills the government should take forward and present to Parliament.


Drafting bills for parliamentary scrutiny
Approved bills are prepared for introduction to Parliament by highly specialised lawyers. With instructions from the relevant government ministers, Parliamentary Counsel translate the government's principles into detailed legislation.


Parliamentary scrutiny

The work of members of the House of Commons and the House of Lords includes scrutinising legislation.  


The Queen's Speech
The government's legislative plans for the upcoming session of Parliament are announced at the State Opening


Government bills currently before Parliament
Most of the bills currently being considered by the Houses of Parliament have been proposed by the government.


Private members' bills currently before Parliament
Bills introduced by backbench members of Parliament go through the same stages as government bills.


Debating in the Lords and Commons chambers 
Every debate or proceeding related to a bill - at every parliamentary stage - is recorded in Parliament's official record, known as Hansard.

MPs and peers examine the issues around legislation and other matters with the support of parliamentary staff.


Parliament's legislative powers
The UK Parliament legislates for the whole of the UK on many policy areas. However, since 1997, Westminster has delegated some of its lawmaking powers to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies.


Royal Assent
One of the Queen's roles in Parliament is to give formal approval to bills passed by both Houses. The monarch's assent makes a bill into a law.

  

Acts of Parliament

Once a bill is approved by the monarch it becomes law, and is described as an Act of Parliament. 

While we can't be responsible for the content of external links, we regularly review this page to give you the most relevant, up-to-date sources.

things you might not know


Creating legislation can be a complex process. Dig into the detail in this Q&A section.


Coming soon!

This section will look at: 

  • Who else can introduce bills for Parliament to consider?
  • How and why is the government able to get its bills passed so frequently?
  • What happens when the Commons and the Lords can't agree?
  • Where do Parliament's lawmaking powers extend to?

You'll find answers to these questions and more... Coming soon!

 

 

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Lawmakers who's who

  • At the centre of government is the prime minister and the cabinet. Cabinet ministers lead departments such as education and defence, with help from junior ministers. It is convention that members of the government are drawn from the ranks of MPs and peers.

  • MPs and peers (and the Queen). While MPs are elected to the House of Commons, members of the House of Lords - also called peers - are appointed by the prime minister. The monarch is represented as well. The Palace of Westminster is home to the Houses of Parliament.