Education Team Assistant, Emily Bourne, examines the process by which legislation is passed in Parliament and the different opportunities available for individuals to affect changes to legislation.
When we think of the legislative process, our minds are drawn to images of rowdy and adversarial debates in the House of Commons.
However, this is only one part of what can be a complex and lengthy process whereby Parliament considers and approves bills which then become law.
It can sometimes feel as if we have no control or influence over the shaping of legislation, leading to feelings of apathy and indifference. But there are number of opportunities to engage with the process at its different stages. It is important to be aware of these as we seek to impact legislation for the glory of God.
Lords and Commons
The UK has a bicameral parliamentary system. This means that our legislative body, Parliament, is made of two chambers: the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Bills can be introduced in either chamber but both Houses must agree to the same version of the bill before it becomes law.
After being formally introduced at the First Reading, the Second Reading of a bill is the first opportunity for MPs or Lords to debate the core underlying principles of the bill. A line by line examination of the bill will then take place at the Committee Stage, after which the Report Stage offers further opportunities for scrutiny and potential amendments.
The Third reading is the final chance for the bill to be debated and, once both Houses have agreed any final amendments, it is sent to the Monarch to receive Royal Assent.
Although the process is virtually the same in both Houses, there are subtle differences which provide multiple opportunities to influence legalisation.
The Committee Stage
The significance of the Committee Stage is that it is the first opportunity for a detailed examination of the Bill to take place. It is actually where the majority of time is spent in the legislative process by Parliament.
In the House of Commons, most bills are dealt with in a Public Bill Committee (PBC). These are temporary committees which aim to examine, in detail, each clause and each line within the clauses of the bill. They consist of approximately 20 MPs from all parties, with the government always having a majority. MPs who are members of the committee can propose amendments to particular aspects of the bill.
You can encourage your MP, if they would be helpful, to offer themselves to be on such a committee. As well as writing to your local MP, you can find out which MPs are currently sitting on PBCs and write to them if you have concerns about an upcoming bill and suggest amendments for them to make.
PBCs also have the power to receive written evidence from outside organisations and members of the public and to take oral evidence from interested parties. This is something that anyone can do and guidance on how to do this can be found here. Although it is not possible for the House of Lords to take evidence in this way, any Member of the Lords can take part in the Committee Stage and, in contrast to the House of Commons, they can continue to propose amendments even at the Third Reading. This gives further opportunities to advocate for changes to legislation even towards the end of the process.
The House of Lords
The UK is unusual in that representatives in one of its legislative chambers – the House of Lords – are not elected by the public.
There are almost 800 members of House of Lords, whose purpose is to perform a revising role. This is enabled by the wide range of expertise and experiences of its members and its independence of thought – a large proportion of its members have no political affiliation.
Critically, governments do not have a majority in the House of Lords and the government is being increasingly aware that they can be defeated by the Lords. In 2021-2022 Parliamentary session, government defeats in the Lords reached record levels.
We should take opportunities to lobby members of the House of Lords, especially if the legislation relates to their area of expertise. You can search for the contact details of current members of the House of Lords by party or policy interest on the parliament website.
Private Members’ Bill
The vast majority of legislation is proposed and written by the government. Because of the government’s majority, these bills are the most likely to succeed.
However, there are opportunities for MPs and Lords who are not government ministers to propose new laws. These are called Private Members’ Bills and, like government bills, they must go through the same set stages.
Although it is less likely that these bills will become law, since the government allocates less time to their debate, it is still worth writing to an MP or Lord to ask if they will consider introducing a Bill on an issue you are passionate about as they can sometimes be successful.
Mary Whitehouse used this method to great effect when she helped secure the passing of the Video Recordings Act which sought to protected children from being able to buy violent and explicit videos.
The Abortion Act of 1967 was also a Private Members Bill, since which over 10 million unborn babies have lost their lives. This shows the power that those in positions of responsibility have to effect change in our society – either for good or for evil. But we must not forget that we also have a part to play.
Whilst it can sometimes feel like a frustrating process, it is important to engage with the system as much as we can. It is easy to find out who your local MP is and how to contact them as well as members of the House of Lords.
When writing to politicians, it is important to keep correspondence as succinct and clear as possible, making them more inclined to read and process your message.
It can be tempting simply to rant, but it is more effective to suggest specific solutions and steps the recipient can take. Offer to meet with them in person and encourage your networks to do the same. Share specific examples which they can quote that exemplify your point. The more people that contact politicians, the more likely they are to respond.
The most important thing is not to do nothing. Romans 12:21 says “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Although the system is not always perfect and indeed can at time support evil, we should be thankful that we do have opportunities to engage in the legislative process. As we do so, we see that there is an even bigger opportunity to witness to our leaders about Jesus Christ and the gospel.
We are called to pray for politicians, so next time you write to them, let them know that you are praying for them and that the decisions they make can lead to a peaceful society where all can flourish under the will of God.