An important function of Parliament is to pass legislation (laws) – indeed, the House of Representatives is often called the legislature. A piece of legislation before it is passed is known as a bill. After it is passed it becomes an act of Parliament.
Types of legislation
Parliament deals with four kinds of legislation:
- local bills, promoted by local authorities, concerning the application of law to a specific locality
- private bills, promoted by individuals or organisations for their own private interests
- members’ bills, put forward by individual MPs
- government bills, introduced by ministers to advance the governing parties’ policies.
How bills become law
To be passed, a bill must be ‘read’ three times in the House. The readings follow the formal introduction of a bill, when it is circulated to the House. Several days must usually elapse before the first reading to give MPs time to consider the measure. Each reading involves debate on the bill. When the debate is completed, the House votes on the bill. This process, which also includes consideration by select committees, ensures that bills are rigorously examined.
‘Reading’ a bill
The term ‘reading’ refers to the days when bills were literally read out in the British Parliament.
At the first reading, the MP responsible for the bill gives the reasons for its introduction. Then the various parties state their initial positions on it. At the end of the debate, the House votes on whether to ‘read the bill a first time’ and consider it further. If the majority vote in favour, the bill is sent to a select committee, which examines it, hears public submissions and reports to the House. The select committee may recommend amendments to the bill. The government’s financial legislation and some bills given urgency bypass select committees.
After the select committee has reported, the bill has its second reading. This debate concerns whether Parliament should adopt the bill in principle, and is the main debate on the bill.
If it passes the second-reading vote, the bill is considered by a committee of the whole House. It is assessed in detail – clause by clause or part by part. At this stage, MPs can propose further amendments to the bill. These amendments are often published on a supplementary order paper. The committee of the whole House then votes on whether to amend the bill as proposed.
At the third reading, the bill’s general principles are reviewed again, and MPs may summarise issues raised, particularly during the committee-of-the-whole-House stage. After being read a third time, the bill is passed in the House. The clerk then checks the bill and it is reprinted and taken to the governor-general for royal assent.
Priorities for dealing with bills
Government legislation has dominated business since the early 20th century. In the 19th century members’ bills featured more often. However, since mixed-member proportional representation (MMP) was introduced, members’ bills (which are considered every alternate Wednesday that the House sits) have become more numerous and have a higher profile. They are often introduced simply to highlight issues. Occasionally they pass in their own right or are adopted by the government. As only a limited number of members’ bills can be dealt with, they are selected by ballot.
Local and private bills are also dealt with on alternate Wednesdays. These bills are infrequent, and those requesting them pay a fee to cover the costs of processing.