Apart from the European Union, the Oireachtas is the only institution in Ireland with power to make laws for the state. Most legislation is developed in the form of a Government Bill apart from Private Members Bills (which are presented by individual Oireachtas members or parties).
- Government indicates that they will bring forward legislation to deal with a particular issue. This commitment is usually made in a Programme for Government, Strategy document and or in debates in the Oireachtas or elsewhere.
- The relevant Department will undertake preparatory work/research and draft Heads of the Bill (key areas covered by the legislation) which are circulated to other Departments for comment and brought to the Cabinet for approval. The Heads of Bill should be viewed as a draft publication which sets out the key objectives, the chapter headings and the main provisions in each chapter (section). The Heads of Bill is important in setting the framework but will not contain all the detail, so just because an issue is not referred to in the Heads of Bill doesn’t mean it will not appear in the draft legislation.
- If approval has been given by the Cabinet the process moves to the next stage. Traditionally Heads of Bill would not be published and Departments would proceed with the development of the full legislative text. In the past they would engage in consultation with relevant stakeholders formally or informally.
- In the last year the Government has published the Heads of Bill of some legislation and referred the text to the relevant Oireachtas committee for further consideration. This is seen as good practice and a further opening up of the legislative process as it allows stakeholders to make comments on the overall thrust of the legislation and outline deficiencies and/or gaps at an earlier point. There is an opportunity in this case to make submissions to both the Department and Oireachtas committee.
- After analyzing the feedback from the consultation the Department officials instruct the parliamentary counsel (based in Office of the Attorney General) who draft the full text of the Bill and the explanatory memorandum. When the draft Bill is finalized it is now ready to begin its passage through the Houses of the Oireachtas.
- First Stage:
Permission is sought either by a Minister or Minister of State in either House (Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann) to introduce the Bill. If granted, the Bill is printed and circulated to members. An Order is made by the Dáil for its second reading. Once the full text is published it’s a good opportunity to review and develop detailed response.
- Second Stage:
This is a debate where the general principles of the Bill are considered. This involves the relevant Minister making a speech outlining the key aspects of the legislation and the merits and objectives of the Bill. Oireachtas members from both the Government and opposition contribute. It is at this point that opposition spokespersons would outline key deficiencies, defects and omissions from the legislation. Good opportunity for stakeholders to brief opposition spokespersons in advance of key issues and ensure they are raised to ensure they are raised at this point. When the 2nd stage is finalized an order is made for the Bill to be considered in committee (third) stage.
- Third (Committee) Stage:
This is the most important stage of the process because this is where the Bill is considered in great detail, usually on a line by line basis. This is the point where opposition spokespersons, but sometimes Ministers bring forward amendments to the initial text. It is important to remember though that while the Government may accept amendments before the next stage these are normally technical or minor changes. If stakeholders are seeking to make significant policy changes at this point they are unlikely to succeed without some commitment/change of heart by Government.
- Fourth (Report) Stage:
This consists of a review of changes made at Third Stage. Consideration is limited to amendments tabled which arise from proceedings at Third Stage.
- Fifth (Final) Stage:
The Bill is finally considered before it is passed. A Bill amended by the Seanad is sent back to the Dáil for its agreement. Finally when the Bill is passed by both Houses, it goes to the President for her/his signature and is declared law.
- A Bill which is commenced in the Dáil and goes through the stages outlined above then proceeds to go through all the same stages in the Seanad. If commenced in the Seanad it likewise goes through the five stages in the Dáil. Therefore there is a second opportunity to raise issues.
Once a Bill is signed by the President it becomes an Act and comes into operation on that day. Some Acts do contain provision for its commencement in whole or in part (becoming law) by way of Ministerial order at a later date. It is up to the relevant Minister to decide on this date. This is common where more time is considered necessary before the law applies.