The Parliament of the UK has 3 roles. First to debate and pass legislation, secondly to scrutinise the work and role of the government and thirdly to provide a mechanism for the government to raise taxes. This guide will concentrate on the first role, the passing of legislation.
The UK Parliament consists of 2 houses and broadly speaking any decision made in one of the houses must be approved by the other.
The House of Commons is made up of elected members (MPs) and the party that holds a majority of seats usually forms the government. This is where the majority of debate on big political issues takes place and from this the proposal of new laws. The Commons is the only place where the third role of government takes place (although advice can be taken from the Lords on financial matters it can not oppose them).
House of Lords is made up mainly of those appointed by the King but there are members internally elected and a small number from the Church. (Since 2000 there has been an independent House of Lords Appointments Commission.)The Lords has a major role in the passing of new legislation and as advisers on policy and special topics.
New legislation is presented to Parliament as a Bill which has to go through a number of stages in each House before it receives Royal Assent and becomes an act. The Bill is debated in the Commons and Lords and this debate is recorded in a publication which is commonly referred to as Hansard or Hansard Debates. Hansard became more important as a research tool after 1993 and the judgment in a case called Pepper v Hart. In this judgment it was held that the intention of parliament could be taken into account when interpreting legislation. There are also committee stages that the Bill has to pass through. In the Commons the bill goes to a Public General Committee (which used to be called Standing Committees) and these discuss the details of a bill. These debates do not appear in Hansard but can be found separately on the Public General Committees Debates website. In the Lords the committee debates are either a debate of the whole house (and therefore in Hansard) or in a separate committee called the Grand Committee. For more information on the progress of a bill through Parliament see the box below.
A Bill can start in the House of Commons or the House of Lords, above is the progress of a bill which starts in the House of Commons. The picture is reproduced from the UK Parliament Website and there are some very useful guides as to the different stages of a bill linked below (again from the UK Parliament website).
Parliamentary debates of the House of Commons
Parliamentary debates of the House of Lords
Older Hansard online (1805 - 2005) - Millbank's database
Standing Committee Debates
Below is the RSS feed for bills currently going through Parliament. You can subscribe to this feed by going to http://services.parliament.uk/bills/.