Post No.: 0460
A ‘bill’ is a proposed piece of legislation. In the United Kingdom, after a bill is proposed, it is considered by the legislature, which is the Parliament of the United Kingdom, and if it passes into law then it will receive royal assent from the monarch and become an ‘Act of Parliament’.
‘Public bills’ (these are government bills, and private members’ bills (teehee private members) or backbenchers’ (which include Lords) bills) affect everyone in the country equally. ‘Private bills’ (which are initiated by persons or organisations outside of parliament, such as local councils) affect specific individuals, groups or organisations. And ‘Hybrid bills’ affect a mix of the public at large but also certain individuals or groups in particular.
Government bills (which are introduced by government ministers) are the most likely to pass because more time is dedicated to them, and because the government has an inbuilt majority on Public Bill committees.
Private members’ bills (which are introduced by MPs who are not in government, and Lords, and can be about anything) rarely become law without governmental and broad cross-party support because little time is dedicated to them. There are only so many hours in the week and so many bills and so much other constituency and parliamentary work for MPs to consider. However, a less palatable reason is because the devious strategy of filibusters is occasionally used to obstruct the progress of bills, which was also explained at the end of Post No.: 0374.
‘White papers’ are produced by the government when they set out their proposals for future legislation. ‘Green papers’ are consultation documents produced by the government to allow people, from both inside and outside of parliament, to give feedback on its policy or legislative proposals.
Suggestions for new laws or changes to existing laws can emerge from individuals, pressure groups, lobby groups, businesses, industry sectors, charities, trade unions, lawyers, law enforcement, the medical professions, scientists, and so on. And whilst the government, who’ll be made up from the current elected political party in power, has the biggest say in proposing new bills for consideration in order to progress its own policy agendas or pre-election manifestos (which is fair enough) – it’s the combined membership of everyone in the House of Commons and House of Lords overall that ultimately passes, alters or rejects them. So no single person, single group or single chamber can unilaterally pass or change any law. Thus if a law has been passed in the UK then know that it has gone through a lot of different people and a lot of steps.
These steps are the first reading, second reading, committee stage, report stage, third reading (all these steps happen in both Houses, firstly in the chamber where the bill first originated, then the other), and then the consideration of amendments (which can involve a potential back-and-forth ‘ping-pong’ between the Houses until every single word is agreed upon – if it ever does – via majority votes, or ‘divisions’, in each House). If everything finally achieves agreement then a bill will reach royal assent – but although the monarch has the right to refuse a bill, passing it at this stage is regarded as a formality.
It can therefore take a long time to implement new laws or amendments. With this extensive legislation process, research, tons of papers to read, debating, reviewing and scrutiny and so forth, conducted by many different personnel in parliament, different parties and stakeholders – a dictatorship or communist state would be far less bureaucratic (in the sense of the amount and complexity of administrative procedure) and less slow, and maybe therefore more cheaper to run. But, on balance, one would rather not have it any other way! It’s easy to think that there must be a government conspiracy if one’s opinion isn’t the opinion that everyone else or parliament seems to generally agree with – but, in the UK at least, understand that laws cannot pass without the agreement of many people. Laws don’t arbitrarily appear due to governmental whim – not least because of the parliamentary checks and balances in place. Meow.
‘Statutory instruments’ can allow an Act of Parliament to be altered without parliament having to pass a new act, but both the Houses must still expressly approve them, or they can annul them via a resolution. An ‘Order in Council’ can be made under the royal prerogative, but in limited cases and they’re not quite like executive orders in US politics.
Every bill ought to be thoroughly discussed before being passed into law. Whatever bills are proposed, we shouldn’t rush the legislation process unless it’s categorically urgent to – whether it’s snooping laws, new taxes, criminalising something or decriminalising something. We shouldn’t let a new surveillance law pass without proper deliberation, and we shouldn’t let any other new law pass without proper deliberation either. The details can matter. It can frequently be quite tricky trying to cover up any loopholes in a bill to ensure that it’ll be effective, at the same time as not making a bill too broad in scope so that it’ll overly impinge on liberties.
And whilst ignorance is no defence against the law, a secret law is not law at all – hence all new laws must be properly promulgated or announced to the public via government gazettes and/or government websites. Most citizens likely won’t end up reading up on them but they must be able to do so. (Ignorance might be a valid defence if you were coincidentally out at sea or in the wilderness during the time when a new law you’ve just breached was passed and you’ve yet had a chance to check up on it, or it may reduce your sentence if you’ve been advised wrongly by officials, though.)
There is also post-legislative scrutiny to assess the impact of laws that have already been passed. This is carried out by select committees and public feedback. Talk to your local MP or a relevant member of the Lords if something has affected you – if something is important to you, you should try your best to make your voice heard through the right channels, which mightn’t be on social media unless you’ve got a huge following that’ll reach the right MPs or members of the Lords. Democracy is far more than just voting once every few years.
To help a law become successful, there should be ‘nothing about whom it concerns without involving whom it concerns’. And the costs of enforcement must be considered from the start and throughout too to make sure that the law and its enforcement are practical and not just moral. Either the police will enforce the laws or we, the public, will enforce them by suing people or otherwise bringing claims against individuals, businesses or organisations if they breach a law. (But it sometimes helps if you’ve got the courage, time and money to do so.)
Laws can also be appealed against and are often successfully done so. Laws (in ‘full democracies’ at least) are always dynamic. One case in the UK was the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act 2014, which was repealed and replaced by the Investigatory Powers Act 2016. The latter was also appealed against via petition and so The Data Retention and Acquisition Regulations 2018 amended parts of that Investigatory Powers Act 2016. And this legislation will continue to be scrutinised.
Now and again, laws consolidate and get ‘tidied up’, for arguably better or worse. One example is the Equality Act 2010, which consolidated and replaced existing anti-discrimination legislation.
Maybe we wouldn’t need so many laws and everything would be all right if everyone just behaved. That’s true in an ideal world, but we don’t live in one! We also constantly need new laws or amendments because of a constantly evolving society – cultures, lifestyles and attitudes change over time, and new technologies bring new concerns and challenges. For example, new and unforeseen technologies, such as cryptocurrencies, usually create incredible new opportunities for those who understand them, but also new opportunities to exploit those who don’t. Sometimes these people are just greedy but sometimes they’re desperate and vulnerable. So rather than a repressive nanny state – laws protect the vulnerable and, if enforced with rewards and/or punishments, incentivise the public to follow common rules so that consistent civil order can be achieved within a nation. (It’s like a sport without rules – it’d be chaos. Indeed it’d be like the ‘Wild West’ without effective laws and enforcement.)
If we agree with a law but think it’s unnecessary because people behave themselves enough already, then perhaps it does no harm to have that law anyway to make things unambiguous for the few who won’t? Or if a law is considered unenforceable or not working in practice then it could still slowly shape the attitudes of future generations. Examples include regarding passive cigarette smoke in cars carrying children, or the equal treatment of people of every colour. Expectations of what is deemed civil behaviour can later lead to the public shaping future legislations. So laws can affect social and attitudinal change – those raised during a time when they’ve seen no capital punishment tend to believe that capital punishment is wrong. (Pleasing one group can mean displeasing another group in the meantime though, such as when the freedom of slaves displeased the self-interests of slave owners and traders.)
Governments can also encourage innovation through regulations – after all, the mother of invention is necessity, and tighter vehicle emissions laws or stricter buildings regulations, for instance, can instigate this state of necessity. Rules and ‘red tape’ bureaucracy help counter chaos, abuse or fraud too, although at the cost of some time, inconvenience and some people hiding behind procedures and behaving like jobsworths with excuses like, “I’m just following my orders” or, “Computer says no”! (It’s oppressive when something slows us down, but it’s too lax if there’s not enough being done to fight fraud if other people exploit a loophole(!)) Laws can also uphold our negative freedoms (which are freedoms from interference by other people) by protecting us from exploitative employment contracts or by protecting our freedom from violence, for instance, too.
Lobbying as a group is far more effective than alone, and you can do so through websites like Change.org, 38degrees or the petitions (UK Parliament) page. But one criticism is that, with a click of a mouse, we can register our outrage whilst still watching TV. We might then also brag about this insignificant effort on our own social media pages and pat ourselves on the back because we’ve ‘done our bit’(!)
Lobbying via a personal letter or email to your local elected MP will have more impact than a template. You can provide research and evidence to an MP or relevant member of the Lords to back up your stance, or invite MPs or members of the Lords to a meeting or event where they can find out more about an issue.
Thousands of e-petitions are about issues that are incredibly niche, trivial, seemingly absurd or aren’t the responsibility of the government, thus we cannot expect MPs to review them all. So the government will currently only give a response to those that receive 10,000 or more signatures, and consider for parliamentary debate those that receive 100,000 or more signatures. (Published petitions are open to signatures for 6 months.) However, because of their workload, even those petitions that exceed 100,000 signatories cannot always be meaningfully debated, which might cause the public exasperation.
But then lots of new laws or regulations are accompanied by media headlines that suggest ‘the government has bowed to pressure to x’, which would imply that it’s not a top-down decision from the government but a change in law due to pressure from the public. Hence the public does sometimes get its way. Maybe it just goes to prove that – whatever happens – there’ll always be people who won’t be happy about it!