Weekly Column

Remaining Stages

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This first week back after the Summer Recess has, as usual for this time of the year, been dominated by “Remaining Stages” of Bills.

In essence legislation is created by a long series of events- running from initial ideas, perhaps proposed by think tanks or the media; very often a ‘Green Paper’ which floats a general idea, a  ‘White Paper’ which lays out the Government’s intention to legislate in detail; then the Bill is drafted; and then finally after what may have been several years in gestation, the draft Bill is presented to Parliament at its ‘First Reading.’ This is the formal presentation of the Bill to allow MPs to read it thoroughly before ‘Second Reading’ which is the full day’s debate on the principle of the Bill.

The Bill then “goes upstairs into Committee”- a group of perhaps 20 or so MPs selected by the Whips and with an inbuilt Government majority. Every word and phrase is then pored over, amended or deleted by the Government or Opposition, in a long series of debates which may last several months. The Bill Committee has two sessions on Tuesday and Thursday, each of which may well last for many hours. One of my duties as a member of the Speaker’s Panel of Chairmen is to act as a quasi-Speaker and ensure proper procedure and a fair debate in Committee. That also precludes me from voting on the Bill- as happened this week with the Energy Bill which I had chaired. I also chair the lesser Chamber, Westminster Hall, where this week I enjoyed hearing Jeremy Corbyn sympathising with Mexico; and had the satisfaction of telling Dominic Raab that he was not allowed to speak in the debate. The idea of ’Committee Stage’ is that irrespective of your view of the Bill, you try to make it sound, workmanlike law. Then the amended Bill comes back to the floor of the Commons for “Report Stage” and then finally “Third Reading” when the principle behind the Bill as amended is considered by the whole House. It then goes off to the Lords where it undergoes a similar procedure. They amend the Bill, and those amendments then come back for ‘Commons Consideration of Lords Amendments’. Parliamentary ‘ping-pong’ can then commence with the bill and its amendments bouncing back and forth between the two Houses, until eventually the Lords by convention concede to the Commons, who after all are the democratically elected House. The Bill then goes off to the King for Royal Assent, after which it becomes law. That must happen every year before the House Prorogues prior to the King’s Speech announcing the following year’s business. This year the King’s Speech will be on 7th November, so the Government have to complete every stage of its Bills prior to that, which can mean some late-night sittings, and often a little acrimony between the two Houses.

Whether you like the law or not, this tried and tested system - the product of 500 years of precedent - works exceptionally well in producing good and workable law. Our practice and procedures for the scrutiny of legislation has been copied by other Parliaments round the world. It can all be hard work- long hours and sometimes pretty dreary debate over minutiae; but it’s the real business of Parliament.So next time you turn on the Parliament Channel, rather than lamenting that the Chamber seems sparsely populated; spare a thought for the dozens of MPs beavering away in the 50 or so Committee rooms ‘upstairs’ doing their best to ensure that our laws are the best than can be hoped for.

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James Gray
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Published Date
September 8, 2023