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Parliament’s overriding function is the making of laws. The starting point is the drafting of a bill, and government bills are drafted on the instructions of the Ministry responsible for the subject. When the draft has received Cabinet approval it enters either the Commons or the Lords.
The main stages of the bill’s progress in each House are known as ‘readings’. Nowadays the first reading stage is a formality, and it is during the second reading that the crucial debate takes place. The Minister or other Member in charge of the bill explains to the Members the whole purpose of the bill and the means proposed for putting it into effect. At the end of this debate, if the House votes in favour of the bill, it is then usually sent to a committee for detailed examination clause by clause, and word by word. For the most important bills the House itself may go into committee (‘Committee of the Whole House’).
After days or weeks in committee the bill then comes back to the House, and when the committee has reported on the conclusion of its work there may be further discussion. On the third reading the final text of the bill is then approved – or, in rare cases, rejected.
In the Commons this lengthy and complex examination, which takes place for all proposed legislation, may last four or five months. Bills that have had their first readings in the Commons in November soon after the Opening, for instance, may therefore go to the Lords in April. There they pass through almost exactly similar stages, with the exception that in the Lords all public bills are normally taken in Committee of the Whole House.
The assent of the Lords is not essential for a ‘money bill’ dealing only with taxation or expenditure, which may become law within a month even if rejected by the Lords. If the Lords refuse to pass other bills sent up to them by the Commons, powers exist under the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949 to present the bills for Royal Assent after one year, though these powers are very rarely used.
The Lords debates can contribute a great deal to the formulation of the texts of bills and, in addition, the stages in the Lords give the Government further opportunities to introduce amendments.
If a bill goes to the Lords in April any amendments made there may perhaps be reported back to the Commons in May or June. Then, if the Commons accepts the amendments, the bill is ready for its last stage. The final approval, given on behalf of The Queen, will enact the bill, turning it into an Act of Parliament.
Nowadays the Sovereign’s approval may be conveyed simply to the two Houses by the Lord Chancellor and the Speaker respectively. Sometimes, however, a more ancient ceremony is used. The Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod is sent to the Commons, where the doors of that House are closed in his face to assert the Commons’ independence of any royal messenger. He is then allowed to enter and summon the Commons to the Upper House. There, Members find the Lords awaiting them, with perhaps five peers (Lord Commissioners) robed in scarlet sitting in front of the throne. As the Clerk of the Crown reads the name of each bill, The Queen's Assent is pronounced by the Clerk of the Parliaments, in words that have not changed since the Middle Ages – for a Supply (or Finance) Bill, ‘La Reyne remercie ses bons sujets, accepte leur benevolence, et ainsi le veult’, or for other Public Bills the simpler and more famous phrase, ‘La Reyne le veult’ (‘The Queen wills it’). These words are subsequently inscribed on a record copy on vellum which is then stored in the House of Lords Record Office in the Victoria Tower.