Skip to content
Skip to main content

About this free course

Become an OU student

Download this course

Share this free course

Law and change: Scottish legal heroes
Law and change: Scottish legal heroes

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

3 The UK Parliament and law making

The UK Parliament as we know it today stems from 1801 and it legislates on reserved matters (and also on devolved matters where the Scottish Parliament has passed a legislative consent motion).

There are a number of reserved matters:

  • the constitution
  • foreign affairs
  • defence
  • international development
  • the Civil Service
  • financial and economic matters
  • immigration and nationlity
  • misuse of drugs
  • trade and industry
  • aspects of energy regulation (eg electricity, coal, oil and gas and nuclear energy
  • aspects of transport (eg regulation of air services, rail and internationanl shipping
  • employment
  • social security.
  • abortion,genetics, surrogacy, medicines
  • broadcasting
  • equal opportunities.

Law making in the UK Parliament is a very different process to that in the Scottish Parliament. Unlike the Scottish Parliament, the UK Parliament has two chambers, the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The House of Commons is democratically elected. The House of Lords is not an elected body and its function is to refine and add to law.

An Act of the UK Parliament also starts off as a Bill, which, if approved by a majority in the House of Commons and the House of Lords, becomes an Act of the UK Parliament.

Table 2 Summary of law making process in the UK Parliament
Bill starting in the House of Commons 
First readingThe title of a Bill is read out and copies of it are printed but no debate takes place. There will be a vote on whether the House wishes to consider the Bill further.  
Second readingThe general principles contained in the Bill are debated. Frequently, the second reading stage is the point at which public attention becomes drawn to the proposal through press coverage and, on occasion, vociferous campaigns for and against the Bill by groups affected by it. At the end of this debate a vote is taken; a majority must be in favour of the Bill in order for it to progress any further. 
Committee stageAt this stage a detailed examination of each clause of the Bill is undertaken by a committee of between 16 and 50 MPs. The committee subjects the Bill to line-by-line examination and makes amendments. The committee which carries out these discussions comprises representatives of the different political parties roughly in proportion to the overall composition of the House. Often there will be a government majority on the committee; however, an attempt is made to ensure representation by minority parties. The membership of the committee will usually be those with a special interest in, or knowledge of, the subject of the Bill under consideration. (For Finance Bills the whole House of Commons will sit in committee.)
Report stageA Bill that has been amended in committee stage is reviewed by the House where it started. The amendments will be debated in the House and accepted or rejected. Further amendments may also be added.


Third readingThis is the final vote on the Bill. It is almost a formality since a Bill which has passed through all the stages above is unlikely to fail at this late stage. In fact, in the House of Commons there will only be a further debate on the Bill if at least six MPs request it. In the House of Lords amendments are sometimes made at this stage.


If a Bill started life in the House of Commons it is now passed to the House of Lords where it goes through all of the stages outlined above. If the House of Lords makes amendments to the Bill, it will go back to the House of Commons for that House to consider those amendments.

With some exceptions, the House of Commons and the House of Lords must finally agree on the text of a Bill.

The monarch formally assents to a Bill in order for it to pass into law. Royal Assent has never been withheld in recent times. Queen Anne was the last monarch to withhold a Royal Assent, when she blocked a Scottish Militia Bill in 1707 as she feared a Scottish militia might be turned against the monarchy.

The monarch signs what are known as Letters Patent which announce that their assent has been given. Alternatively, the monarch signs a document known as a commission which commands certain Lords, known as Royal Commissioners, to let both Houses of Parliament know that Royal Assent has been given. Once Royal Assent has been given, the Bill is an Act of the UK Parliament.

Following Royal Assent, the Act of the UK Parliament usually comes into force on midnight of that date. However, there has been a growing trend for Acts of the UK Parliament not to come into force immediately. Instead, the Act itself either states the date on which it will come into force or responsibility passes to the appropriate Government minister to fix the date when the Act will come into force. In the latter case, the Government minister will bring the Act into force by issuing a commencement order.

Before devolution, all Bills affecting Scotland were introduced in the UK Parliament. Some of those Bills were limited in extent to Scotland, while others applied to the whole of the United Kingdom (although often with some distinct provisions applicable only to Scotland).