Decoding the legislative process

February’s Policy Lunchbox session was with Naomi Saint from Parliamentary Outreach. Naomi came to introduce the legislative processes in Parliament, and how organisations like the BES can get involved. It was an informative and anecdote-filled session, with the opportunity for burning questions from across a range of scientific societies and organisations to be answered.

Naomi broke us in gently to the subject area, covering who forms Parliament – House of Commons, House of Lords, and the monarch – and what Parliament does – forms legislation, scrutinises Government, and addresses key issues.

We then focused on legislation and the processes behind it. Most new legislation comes from Government, with individual bills led by ministers. The majority new legislation is through Public Bills which focus on anything that affect general law at a national level. For laws that are implemented at a local level, legislation will come through Private Bills. There are also Hybrid Bills, which are a mixture of both Public and Private Bills.

It’s not just ministers who have the opportunity to introduce legislation – MPs can as well, through private member Bills. At the start of the Parliamentary year, a ballot is held to pick the 20 MPs who will be able to put forward private member Bills. Over the course of the year, 13 Fridays are allocated to discuss these bills. Due to time constraints, however, private member Bills rarely get through to be passed as legislation. In some circumstances, private member Bills can be used to introduce legislation the Government wants to pass, but can’t due to controversy.

In the majority of cases, a Bill must go through both the House of Commons and House of Lords to become legislation. The powers of the House of Lords can be limited if necessary by the Parliament Act. In cases where there is disagreement between the Houses, and the House of Commons believes legislation is in the public interest, the Parliament Act removes the vetoing power of the House of Lords. Only seven Bills have gone through this process – the most recent was the Hunting Act in 2004.

Due to time constraints of MPs, there is often greater scrutiny on Bills in the House of Lords than the House of Commons. The only Bills that peers will not oppose are those featured in party manifestos. Parties and their representatives have been voted in through a democratic process, so it must be assumed that the promises in their manifestos are wanted by the public.

For those interested in commenting on proposed Bills, good points to get involved are at: pre-legislative scrutiny stage (usually select committee), public bill committees in each House, and by working with an MP or Lord who is involved with changes. A good way of assessing each Bill’s content is through the House of Commons briefing, which is produced for each Bill once it hits the 2nd reading stage.

This informative Policy Lunchbox was a good way for learned societies and similar organisations to understand the legislative process and how to get involved. Parliamentary Outreach provides free guidance and introductions to the work of Parliament. Information about the House of Commons or House of Lords is available at any time through the respective information offices.