Publications / Guides

The Parliament Act 1911: A procedural guide

24 Mar 2024
©UK Parliament
©UK Parliament

The Parliament Act 1911 is one of the UK's most important constitutional laws. It removed the veto of the House of Lords over legislation (subject to certain conditions) and has been central ever since to the centuries-old debate about the proper role of the House of Lords in our democratic system.

The Parliament Act 1911 (later amended by the Parliament Act 1949), removed the veto of the House of Lords over legislation.

Subject to certain conditions described below, the House of Commons can invoke the Parliament Act procedures to present legislation for Royal Assent without the approval of the House of Lords.

Section 2 of the 1911 Act required a Bill which was not a 'Money Bill' to have been passed by the House of Commons in two successive parliamentary Sessions before, in the third Session, if the House of Commons passed it yet again in identical form, the procedures could be applied. The Parliament Act 1949 reduced this so that the procedures could be applied in the second, rather than the third, Session. That was the only substantive change made by the 1949 Act.

No, the Parliament Act procedures apply only to Public Bills – that is Bills that change the general law. They cannot be applied to Private Bills (legislation which only applies to specific individuals or organisations rather than the general public).

However, the procedures do not apply to a Public Bill which:

  • was first introduced in the House of Lords rather than the House of Commons;

  • attempts to prolong the duration of a Parliament (the period between two general elections) beyond five years.

In practice the procedures can only be applied to Government Bills as it would take a very peculiar combination of circumstances, challenging to orchestrate, for a Private Member’s Bill (PMB) to be passed using the Parliament Act procedures.

There are two key elements to the Act:

  • the procedures that relate to Money Bills, which are engaged regularly during a parliamentary Session; and

  • the procedures that relate to other Public Bills (with the two exceptions) which have been used only rarely since the Act was passed in 1911.

Money Bills are legislation that relate to government expenditure and taxation—for example, the Supply and Appropriation Bills that authorise government spending on its policies.

A Finance Bill may sometimes qualify as a Money Bill but more often does not because of the inclusion of matters like tax administration.

Section 1(2) of the Act gives an extensive definition of what counts as a Money Bill.

If a Bill that the Commons Speaker has certified as a Money Bill passes the House of Commons, and is not then passed by the House of Lords within a month of it being received, it can be sent for Royal Assent without the Lords’ approval.

Money Bills cannot be amended by the House of Lords.

Section 2 of the Act applies to all other types of Public Bills (with the two exceptions described above). However, the Parliament Act procedures can be invoked in relation to these Bills only if certain conditions are met.

The conditions which must be met before the Parliament Act Section 2 procedures can be used are:

  • That the House of Lords has failed to pass a bill sent to it in “identical” form in two successive Sessions. That means:

    • either that the Bill has been rejected outright by the House of Lords on its Second or Third Reading; or

    • that it did not complete its passage in the House of Lords; or (most commonly) that the Lords has insisted on amendments that the House of Commons refuses to accept.

  • That at least one calendar year has elapsed between the date in the first Session that the House of Commons gave the Bill its Second Reading and the date in the second successive Session that the Commons gave the Bill its Third Reading.

  • That the House of Lords received the Bill from the House of Commons at least one month before the end of the two successive parliamentary Sessions.

  • That the Bill does not change between the two Sessions. There are two exceptions to this final condition:

    • changes that are necessary because of the time elapsed during the process are permitted.

    • changes may be made to reflect amendments made by the House of Lords in the first Session, even if they were not agreed by the House of Commons. The choice to incorporate changes made by the House of Lords in the first Session is at the Government's discretion. There is no requirement for the Government to do so.

The Parliament Act also allows the Government to send a separate package of amendments that could be made to the Bill to the House of Lords when it is sent to them in the second Session. This enables the areas in which it the Commons is prepared to compromise with the Lords to be made clear – if the Lords agree to these suggested amendments and no others then the Parliament Act procedures need not be used. If the House of Lords go beyond the suggested compromises, then the Commons still retains the right to invoke the procedures.

In effect these conditions mean that a Bill must have been delayed by the House of Lords for at least 13 months (across two Sessions) for the Parliament Act procedures to be invoked.

Before a Bill can receive Royal Assent using the Parliament Act procedures, the Speaker of the House of Commons has to certify that the conditions listed above have been met.

The Commons may expressly resolve that the procedures are not to be used even if the conditions have been met.

But there is a complication. It is far from clear in what circumstances the House of Lords can be deemed to have done enough for the Speaker to certify that they have “rejected” the bill in the second Session – unless they have voted against it on its Second or Third Reading.

If all the necessary conditions listed above have been met, then when the Bill goes to the House of Lords in the second Session they have the option of agreeing it (possibly with the inclusion of suggested amendments). If they do so before the end of the Session, then it goes for Royal Assent in the usual way. But if they fail to agree it by the end of the Session (or reject it outright on Second or Third reading, or make amendments without the scope of any suggested compromise), then under the Parliament Act the House of Commons can ask for the Bill to be sent back and then present it for Royal Assent without the agreement of the House of Lords.

If this happens, then there is a special 'enacting formula' (the words of which are set out in Section 4(1) of the Parliament Act) which must be included at the beginning of the Act to indicate the circumvention of the agreement of the House of Lords.

The Labour Government's concern for the fate of its post-war nationalisation programme led the Attlee Government to produce its own Parliament Bill to reduce the House of Lords suspensory veto from three Sessions to two. The Parliament Bill was passed by the House of Commons in 1947 but only received Royal Assent in December 1949 under the terms of the 1911 Parliament Act.

The citation clause of the 1949 Act says: “This Act and the Parliament Act 1911, shall be construed as one and may be cited together as the Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949 …”. This has led many into the error of referring to “the Parliament Acts”. However, the only need for construing the two Acts together is the temporary retrospective effect of the 1949 Act for the new and reduced two Session rejection requirement to be applied to any Bill that had already started its parliamentary career, even before the 1949 Act received Royal Assent.

Once that provision had ceased to be needed (and it was in fact never used) the double citation (the use of the word "may" indicates this was contingent rather than mandatory) ceased to be necessary, and the correct usage would seem logically to be simply the Parliament Act (singular, as it is for any other Act that has been subsequently amended).

Unfortunately, in 1999 when the Act was used the solecism of referring in the enacting words to “the provisions of the Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949” crept in, an error which was repeated in 2000 and 2004 and has been incorporated by an over-zealous editor into the text of the online 1911 Act on legislation.gov.uk.

Section 1 of the Parliament Act relating to Money Bills is applied regularly and usually without any controversy.

Section 2 has been used only seven times since 1911 to secure passage of:

On three occasions (for one of which see our account of the Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Bill in 1976), Bills have been introduced in a second successive parliamentary Session to potentially allow the Parliament Acts to be used—only for the House of Lords to agree to the Bills, thus making use of the procedures unnecessary.

However, the existence of the Parliament Act procedures means that the House of Lords, knowing that they can ultimately be excluded from the process of making the law, will often back down in the first Session. It is not possible accurately to estimate how often this reserve power might have had this effect.

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