11 June 2024

Paul Chamberlain, partner and head of employment at JMW Solicitors LLP, explains the legislative process that occurs when new laws are introduced


Given the upcoming general election and the potential for new legislation to come into effect, now is as good a time as any to refresh ourselves on the legislative process and what goes on in the background to facilitate new laws being introduced.

How does government decide which legislation to focus on?

At any one time, there may be several legislative issues which the government may wish to consider. In order for Parliament to focus on matters which need addressing the most, the government will have a legislative ‘programme’, containing Bills to be considered in any given session. Most sessions are one year long, but there has been exception to this (such as the two-year 2017 / 2019 session). Generally, government departments submit bids to the Parliamentary Business and Legislation (PBL) Committee, which in turn makes recommendations to the Cabinet as to the programme for the upcoming session.

There are many competing interests when it comes to determining the legislative programme. Often it is considered whether laws can be passed through secondary legislation or without the need for legislation at all. When there are urgent matters that come up due to discrepancies in important case law or due to a scurry of media attention, then Bills can be slotted into the programme as necessary. The King’s Speech at the beginning of each parliamentary session will usually announce the upcoming legislative programme.

 

What if Bills are given a slot in the programme?

A team for each Bill is put together so that policy advisors and the government’s legal counsel can work together to put together a draft legislative instrument. A draft piece of legislation is sometimes published for consultation prior to going to the PBL Committee for approval, so that experts in the field may have input in order to comment on the draft proposals. This occurred recently in the sphere of holiday entitlement and pay, where the new regulations were consulted on in 2023 prior to being introduced in January 2024. A pre-legislative consultation is particularly helpful in complex legal areas such as holiday pay.

Bills may also be preceded by ‘Green Papers’, which put more general ideas forward for future consideration and ‘White Papers’, which may set out more definitive government policy plans.

Once a draft piece of legislation is approved, this will be submitted to the PBL Committee, which will in turn confirm that it’s ready for introduction, make any necessary minor amends and decide whether it should begin in the House of Commons or the House of Lords. Often a decision is made so that each House has a balanced legislative programme, however certain Bills must start in one House over another. For example, Bills which are mostly financial in nature must start in the House of Commons.

 

What are each of the parliamentary stages?

A summary of the stages are as follows:

First reading

The title of the Bill is read out. A government minister must present a statement regarding the compatibility with the rights protected by the European Convention on Human Rights.

Second reading

The Bill is presented by the government minister and then responded to by the opposition. It’s then debated and while no amends can be made, they can be suggested and discussed. A vote takes place at the end and if a vote is lost by the government, then the Bill cannot proceed to the next stage. This reading usually takes place no more than two weekends after the first reading and can last anywhere between a few hours to a few days.

Committee stage

Each line of the Bill is read and scrutinised in detail, and the process is slightly different for the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Amendments can be made but they must be sufficiently similar to the subject matter in question and these must be approved by the PBL Committee. The committee stage usually takes place around two weeks after the second reading, and if the Bill starts in the House of Commons, evidence can be taken from external experts and interest groups.

Report stage

Consideration must be given here as to the potential amendments. If no amendments are suggested, then this is a formal stage only. Again, the report stage usually takes place around two weeks after the committee stage, and while there’s no defined period of time, it‘s usually a shorter session as compared with the committee stage.

Third reading

A further general discussion of the Bill takes place and no amendments are discussed. This usually happens on the same day as the report stage in the House of Commons and around three days after the report in the House of Lords. A vote then takes place at the end of the reading.

The House of Commons and the House of Lords must be in alignment as regards the contents of the Bill before it comes into effect, and therefore if one House proposes changes, then this must then be sent back to the other House for consideration. This back-and-forth stage (known as ‘ping pong’) is often what causes delays due to the discussion surrounding the potential amendments. However, once there is agreement, then the Bill received Royal Assent and becomes an Act of Parliament. It may, however, come into practical effect at a specified time after Royal Assent is received in order to give the government time to produce guidance or for those affected to take advice and make any necessary changes to their practices.

 

What will happen now that the general election has been announced?

Since the general election has been announced to take place on 4 July 2024, the most recent Parliamentary session ended on 30 May 2024 following a formal request made from Prime Minster Rishi Sunak to King Charles. The new Parliamentary session will be put in place after the general election and once the new Members of Parliament are elected.

The general election was previously meant to take place by 28 January 2025 at the latest, and therefore it was thought that the most recent Parliamentary session would have more time to consider and finalise outstanding Bills in their legislative programme. Now that the general election is taking place on 4 July, all Bills that didn’t receive Royal Assent before May 2024 may not progress further unless the newly formed government adopts them. We can expect to receive a new legislative programme on 17 July 2024, after the new Parliament has its first meeting on 9 July 2023. 

 


 

This article featured in the July - August 2024 issue of Professional.