How a bill becomes law
There are several stages that a bill passes before becoming an Act of Parliament. These stages ensure that a bill is subject to public debate and scrutiny. Some of these stages also provide an opportunity for a bill to be changed.
- First reading
- Select committee
- Second reading
- Committee of the whole House
- Third reading
- Royal assent.
The term ‘reading’ dates from the time when bills were read aloud in the House of Commons in Great Britain. Only the title is read aloud in the New Zealand House of Representatives.
A bill is publicly available after its introduction. Introduction is an administrative process that is later announced in the House. A bill has no formal existence until it is introduced.
A first reading debate provides the first chance to debate a bill in the House. It can occur no sooner than the third sitting day after a bill’s introduction. This delay allows members time to look at a bill and decide if they agree with it. It also allows the Attorney-General time to make sure that a bill is consistent with the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act, 1990.
At the end of the debate the House decides if a bill should progress and votes on whether it should be ‘read a first time’. If a bill is defeated in the vote, that is the end of the bill. If the ‘first reading’ is agreed, the bill is usually referred to a select committee to be considered in more detail.
Once a bill is referred to a select committee, the committee usually has 6 months to examine the bill and prepare a report for the House.
Select committees normally invite public submissions on a bill. Then they hold public hearings to listen to some of those who made submissions. After hearing submissions they work through the issues raised, and decide what changes, if any, should be made to the bill.
The select committee’s report contains:
- a reprint of the bill with recommended changes (known as amendments)
- a commentary in which the committee explains its recommended changes and the issues it has considered.
A bill can be read a second time no sooner than the third sitting day after the select committee reports to the House. Members can then debate the main principles of a bill, and any changes recommended by the select committee in its report.
Changes not supported by every committee member are subject to a single vote at the end of the second reading debate.
Changes that are supported by every committee member are automatically included in the bill if the second reading is agreed.
If the vote is lost, that is the end of the bill. If the second reading is agreed, the bill is ready for debate by a committee of the whole House.
Committee of the whole House
Any member of the House can participate when a committee of the whole House debates a bill. The members sit in the Chamber but the Speaker does not take the chair. The debate is less formal than other debates, but is no less important.
Members have many chances to make short speeches and debate the provisions of a bill. These debates are a chance to examine the bill in detail. Ministers and members can propose changes. These changes may be published before the debate in a supplementary order paper (SOP).
There is no time limit on these debates. Large or controversial bills may be before a committee of the whole House for several days.
Once the final form of a bill is agreed, it is reprinted to show any changes that have been made. The bill is then ready for third reading.
This is usually a summing-up debate on a bill in its final form.
The vote at the end of the debate is the final vote in the House to either pass the bill or reject it. Bills are rarely rejected at this stage. If the bill is passed there is one final step before it becomes law — Royal assent.
A bill is not a law until it is signed by the Sovereign or the Sovereign’s representative in New Zealand, the Governor-General. This is called the Royal assent.