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Oftel's five-minute guide to….Parliamentary process

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As Parliament considers the Communications Bill, Oftel News explains how a decision becomes law.

A Bill is a draft law. The Communications Bill is a Public Bill, which means it has been introduced by Government (private Members' Bills are introduced by backbench MPs).

After the Government has announced its intention to introduce new legislation, often as a Manifesto commitment, the first stage is a green paper (which makes proposals and invites comments from interested parties) or a white paper (which sets out more definite plans).

A green paper or a white paper will usually be published before the Bill is approved by the sponsor Department and the Cabinet. The Bill will then be announced in the Queen's Speech in November and will be drafted by a team of writers drawn from the sponsor department.

The reform of communications regulation has been considered by the Government for some time. The White Paper, A New Future for Communications, was published in December 2000. Unusually, the Communications Bill involves two Departments, because the DTI is responsible for telecommunications and the DCMS looks after broadcasting.

The Draft Communications Bill is currently subject to pre-legislative scrutiny by a Committee made up of members from both Chambers of the House (the House of Commons and House of Lords). This is an unusual step but has been decided in this case because the Bill is a major and wide ranging piece of legislation.

The formal publication of the Bill is called its First Reading and alerts MPs and stakeholders to the fact that it has been published. At this stage the title of the Bill is simply read out in the House and copies are printed. The Second Reading, around two weeks later, gives MPs their first opportunity to discuss the principles of the Bill in a debate in the House, which can last several hours.

The next stage is the Committee Stage where the Bill is scrutinised clause by clause by a Standing Committee, consisting of between 15 and 60 members, including Ministers and MPs from the three major parties in proportion to overall party strengths (Clauses are the individual articles in a Bill. When the Bill has been enacted they are called Sections).

Committees meet on Tuesdays and Thursdays to discuss amendments that have been proposed by members of the Committee. Government amendments may also be put down by the Minister if during the course debate or lobbying by interested parties they decide to change a particular aspect of the Bill.

Meetings of the standing committees are public. All proceedings are published and made available online.

When an amendment is discussed, Ministers may agree to look at an area again and reconsider their proposals. However the decision on whether or not to accept the amendment may be made by taking a vote if it is opposed by the Government. MPs may put down a probing amendment, which means they want to know what the Government's thinking is on a particular clause, rather than necessarily wanting to change the clause.

The next stage is the Report stage, when the Bill is reprinted and discussed on the floor of the House of Commons. Amendments can again be tabled by any Member or the Government. The Bill is then reprinted again and given a Third Reading (often an informal approval) before going to the House of Lords.

The Lords debate the Bill again and the stages are broadly the same as in the Commons, except that the Committee stage is always taken on the floor of the whole House (which means any peer present can contribute), and that Report Stage and Third Reading are taken separately with a gap in between, unlike the Commons. Amendments are also possible at Third Reading on the floor of the Lords.

If the Commons does not agree, the 1949 Parliament Act can be used to force the Bill through. The Parliament Act can only be used after a bill has been rejected by the Lords and one year has elapsed. In practice, this is very rare and the Act has only been used three times since 1949.

Alternatively, the Bill may start in the House of Lords and then go to the House of Commons. The procedure is the same in both cases.

Finally, a Bill receives Royal Assent which means that the Queen's approval is formally notified to both Houses. The Bill then becomes an Act. Much of the detail is added by secondary legislation in the form of statutory instruments which make particular bits of the Act work in law: specific regulations are laid before Parliament for a set period of time, often passing into law without debate unless there is tremendous all-party concern .

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