Law in the UK comes from one of a number of different sources, but ultimately the power to produce laws is vested in Parliament.
In the UK the principle parliament is based at the Palace of Westminster, although since 1998 the territories of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have had their own legislatures with varying degrees of power to create new law.
In Scotland the Scottish Parliament, which sits in Holyrood in Edinburgh, has fairly significant powers to create new laws. In Wales and Northern Ireland there are assemblies that perform a similar task, although the scope of their ability to create new laws is more limited.
In addition to Parliament, the courts interpret law and this ‘case law’ often effectively generates new laws that have an effect on the whole country.
Finally, above our national Parliament sits the Parliament of the European Union, which has the power to produce new laws that are often binding on the UK. In some cases European laws must be written into UK law by our national Parliament, but in other circumstances EU law can have a ‘direct effect’, meaning that it is binding on UK citizens regardless of whether the UK Parliament has endorsed the law or not.
Who comes up with new laws?
Most new law is generated by the government of the day, following their legislative agenda. That agenda is derived from policies, and it is on the basis of these policies that one or other of the main political parties campaigns each general election.
The winning party is said to have a ‘mandate’ to produce new laws based on their electoral policies. In addition to election policies, political parties also generate ideas for new laws in government, usually as a reaction to events that take place, or in response to a government-commissioned report or study.
In addition to ideas from the Government, the UK Parliament has a system of creating laws by individuals. They are referred to as ‘Private Members’ Bills’ and can be put before Parliament by an individual from the House of Commons or the House of Lords for debate.
What is the difference between a paper, a bill and an act?
New laws must go through several stages and processes before they become law. The most common early stage for any policy proposal that could become law is for the Government to produce a paper on an issue. Papers can either be white, or green.
Green papers are the earliest form of new law and are discussion documents seeking consultation on an idea for a new law. White papers are proposals for new laws, which present the Government’s ideas on an area of policy and invite feedback, prior to the drafting of a more formal legal proposal.
A bill will often result from the responses to a White Paper, but needn’t so. Bills are a proposed law, drafted in a legal style, setting out how the Government materially wishes to change the law. The bill will make a passage through Parliament, where it will be read, amended, and ultimately voted on to decide whether it will become law.
An Act is the end result of the legislative process in Parliament. An Act of Parliament, once passed, becomes new law in a particular area. For a bill to become an Act it must be approved by Parliament, typically both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, and receive Royal Assent.