In the latest issue of The House, Paul Waugh and Daniel Bond interview William Hague. On the Private Member’s Bill on an EU referendum, introduced last session by James Wharton and introduced in this session by Bob Neill, they ask the Leader of the House of Commons whether the Prime Minister would be ready to use the Parliament Act, if necessary. William Hague replies: ‘Yes, but we have to get it to that position’. The answer should more correctly have been ‘That’s not how it works’.
It may be that because the provisions of the Parliament Act have been so rarely employed to enact a measure – only four times since the Parliament Act 1949 – few people understand how it works. There appears to be an assumption that if the House of Lords rejects a Bill a second time, then it is up to the Prime Minister whether or not to invoke the Parliament Act. The Prime Minister does not have a role in the process. If the House of Lords rejects, or fails to pass, a non-money Bill that was passed in identical form in the previous session by the House of Commons, and that Bill was sent up to the Lords at least one month before the end of the session (and a year has elapsed between the Second Reading in the Commons in the first session and being passed by the House in the second), then the Bill is enacted under the provisions of the Act. It is the Speaker who certifies that the conditions of the Parliament Act have been met.
The Prime Minister may play a role in deciding whether or not a Bill rejected by the Lords is introduced in the next session, and he could ask the Commons to instruct that a Bill not be presented for Royal Assent once it fulfils the conditions of the Parliament Act. Under the Act, a Bill rejected twice by the Lords is presented for Royal Assent ‘unless the House of Commons direct to the contrary’. However, that is not the same thing as giving the Prime Minister a direct role in the process. Formally, the power rests with the House, not the PM. In essence, once a Bill is introduced a second time, and not passed by the Lords, the process is automatic.