Sunday, October 03, 2004

The legislative process as it is and as it should be #1

To argue our way through what is happening to our legislative process, we need to understand how it is supposed to work and why it is not working in that way. The form may have survived but the substance is no longer there.

To get a couple of misunderstandings out of the way first: legislation is not passed by the House of Commons alone; it is also important to remember, as the media rarely does that the Second Reading of a Bill in either House is not the end of the process. The Second Reading is almost invariably passed but the real work starts at Committee stage.

The Legislative Process as it should be:

1. A Bill is introduced in either House, by the Government or the Opposition or, even by an individual member. By and large a Private Member’s Bill has little chance of getting very far in the Commons, though several have gone through the Lords, where time is not decided on by the leaders of the main parties.

2. The Bill has its First Reading, which is a formality. A simple introductory speech and the Bill is laid before the House and ordered to be published.

3. The Second Reading takes place at which the general themes of support and opposition are outlined.

4. Committee stage at which amendments are moved. This stage can take place in the whole House or go off to a Select Committee, whose membership is allocated according to the proportions of party members in the House, if it is in the Commons. In the Lords, most Bills go before the Committee of the whole House, except for some that go to the Standing Committee, whose membership is decided on by agreement.

5. Amendments may or may not be moved and may or may not be accepted. Government amendments are usually accepted for obvious reasons.

6. The Bill goes to a Report stage, which is invariably before the whole House, where further amendments may be moved and voted on.

7. Third Reading, which can have more amendments, though usually it is the whole, possibly amended, Bill is debated.

8. The Bill goes to the other House, where the procedure is repeated. If there are amendments in the other place, the Bill returns to the one of origin for the amendments to be accepted or rejected as the case may be. If there are disagreements between the Houses, the Bill may pass back and forth for a while until some agreement is reached.

9. The Bill is signed by the Sovereign and becomes an Act of Parliament.

This process is known as primary legislation. Apart from this there is a bevy of Statutory Instruments, known as secondary legislation. SIs are laid before both Houses by the relevant Ministry. Affirmative Instruments have to be debated in Standing Committee in the House of Commons. Negative Instruments lie before the Houses for 40 working days, when they become law, unless somebody challenges them. In the Commons the challenge is often in the form of an Early Day Motion or a Private Member’s Debate, neither of which is likely to lead to anything. In the Lords there is a procedure, known as praying against an Order (Statutory Instrument). This may lead to a debate and even to the SI being voted out (something the Government usually tries to ignore).

To be continued

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