The law-making process of the House of Commons consists of four basic steps, or “stages.” These essentially correspond to the introduction of the bill, an extended study leading to one or more changes (called “amendments”) to the bill and final approval or “passing” of the bill. At this time, it is sent to the upper house of Parliament for approval and then given to the Crown for royal assent. The following guide describes the House of Commons of the United Kingdom and its equivalent in Canada, but the process is essentially the same for other Westminster-style parliaments, like the House of Representatives in Australia and New Zealand.
In a bicameral parliament, there are two houses and a bill must receive approval from both of them before it can become law. These are the House of Commons and the House of Lords in Britain, and the House of Commons and the Senate in Canada. (In the United States, the House of Representatives and the Senate have similar roles, except that in Britain and Canada, the upper house is not elected and plays a less important role in debating legislation.) Bills can be introduced in either house and then passed to the other one for approval. In practice the majority of bills, especially bills that involve taxation and spending authority, are introduced in the elected House of Commons.
What happens next is explained in detail on the websites of the UK Parliament as well as the Parliament of Canada. First, a bill is tabled in the House by a Member of Parliament. Any MP has the right to table a bill for debate, but those introduced by Cabinet ministers, known as “government” bills, receive priority. Bills tabled by any other MP, either on the government or opposition side, are known as “private member’s bills.” This introduction is called “first reading.” Normally, there is no vote on whether to accept a bill at first reading: the responsible MP simply stands and announces that he is introducing the bill to the House.
Although the formal process for considering bills is the same regardless of how it is introduced, there are usually too many private member’s bills for all of them to be considered. In both Canada and the United Kingdom, a limited number of private bills are selected at random, and they will be the only ones which can be introduced in that session. (In the United Kingdom, members can also announce potential legislation via the so-called Ten Minute Rule.) Limited time is allocated to considering private member’s bills, so few of them are able to pass through all the necessary stages over the course of one session. In contrast, the government can allocate all the time it feels necessary for its own bills to ensure that they will be passed as long as they have enough votes.
After first reading, usually anywhere from several days to several weeks later, a bill moves to what is called second reading. Second reading is the first opportunity for Members of Parliament to debate with one another over the merits of the bill. The government minister or private MP who introduced the bill is typically first to speak. In rare cases, the bill may have unanimous support, in which case there will be no debate. At second reading, the debate usually focuses on the general principles or objectives of the bill, as opposed to the precise details, such as the wording of specific clauses. Second reading ends with a vote, and the bill must win support from a majority of MPs present in the House in order to proceed to the next stage.
Usually (but not always), the vote which ends second reading will also refer the bill to a Parliamentary committee. Committees in the House of Commons are formally separate bodies and can decide for themselves how extensive a study of the bill they will carry out. If a party holds a majority of seats in the House of Commons, it will normally also reserve a majority of seats on each committee for itself, so government bills continue to receive priority. Committee study may take the form of a brief and cursory approval of a bill, or it may involve a much more extensive inquiry, moving clause by clause through the bill searching for potential problems and holding hearings at which private individuals, or representatives of companies, NGOs, and the government may be called to testify about aspects of the bill and about the consequences of its passage.
When the process is completed, the committee holds its own vote on the bill (potentially with amendments) and then sends it back to the House of Commons. This is known as the reporting stage. When the bill is reported back to the House of Commons as a whole, MPs who were not sitting on the committee are given the chance to debate the bill, ending with a vote to take the bill back in its original form or to accept amendments which have been proposed by the committee.
Once a bill has been reported back from committee, debate moves to what is called third reading, which is the final opportunity for MPs to debate the contents of the bill. In the United Kingdom, bills are normally not amended at third reading. In Canada, bills can be amended at third reading, or they can be “hoisted” – that is, postponed until further notice. In either case, third reading ends with a vote to pass the bill. Once again, the bill must be supported by a majority of MPs.
Because the United Kingdom and Canada have bicameral parliaments, any bill must go through the above process in both houses. If the bill originated in the House of Commons then, after it passes third reading there, it is introduced in the upper house (the House of Lords in the United Kingdom and the Senate in Canada), where it must go through the same procedure. The same is also true in reverse; a bill which was first passed in the upper house must still go through all the necessary stages in the House of Commons. Once the bill has passed both houses, it is given to the Queen, who signs it into law. Today royal assent is essentially merely a formality, as the Crown is required by convention to pass any bill given to her by Parliament. In Canada, the Governor-General signs on behalf of the Queen.