Read a first time

by Nick

In the Old Testament, God creates the material world by speaking. In Parliament, by contrast, the act of creation is dependent on reading.

This may seem a strange assertion, given that the majority of what happens in the Commons and Lords involves speaking: whether that is maiden speeches by new MPs, the back and forth of Prime Minister’s questions, speeches for and against crucial votes, or cross-examination of witnesses in Select Committees. But it was a point that struck me a few months ago while sat watching the Commons debating a Bill. To begin its passage through each House, the House has to agree that the Bill “be read a first time”. Before a Bill can proceed to line-by-line scrutiny, it has to be read a second time. And to pass from one House to the other, a Bill has to be read a third and final time.

First Reading is a formality, without a vote, but Second and Third Reading most definitely are not. If either declines to give a Bill its Second Reading, it falls: likewise with Third Reading.¬† While rare, such refusals can happen. In the Commons, Thatcher’s Shops Bill was lost at Second Reading in 1986, and in 1977 Callaghan’s Local Authority Works (Scotland) Bill was defeated at Third Reading. More recently, in 1990 the Lords refused to give a second reading to the War Crimes Bill, and in 1999 did the same with an attempt to equalise the age of consent.

So reading is what brings laws to life, and the absence of reading is what prevents them from being born. The actual words of a Bill may technically have been drafted by lawyers, but as a text it does not exist until each House has read it. This should not be a surprise: book historians are well-used to conceiving of individual readers as engaged in a creative act. The author, if not dead, is nonetheless not the only person who creates meaning within texts. And yet I am not aware of anything that has been written about institutions carrying out similar acts of creativity through reading. Parliament is certainly not the only institution which does so: the Church of England reads banns to ensure a marriage is valid, the Riot Act 1715 had to be read by magistrates before protestors could be required to disperse, and royal proclamations binding a monarch’s subjects were publicly announced in order to bring them into force.

Paradoxically, what Parliament considers reading is not what most people would recognise as reading. First Reading consists simply of the clerk reading out the short title of the Bill, at which point a Minister stands up and nods. The Bill is then deemed to have been read a first time. Second and Third Reading are set-piece debates that mark the start and the end of a House scrutinising a Bill, and do not even involve the title being read out. Instead the House votes on a motion that the Bill be read a Second or Third time: if this is passed, then the Bill is deemed to have been read and can move to its next stage.

At some stage in the development of the legislative process, however, Bills were actually read out to MPs and peers.¬†This was presumably a necessity until the point first at which members’ ability to read could be guaranteed, and second at which print technology could produce hundreds of copies of Bills at relative speed. In late Tudor Parliaments, for example, Bills still seem to have been read aloud at First Reading at least. Holinshed’s Chronicles (1577) describe the procedure as follows:

There is another in the upper house called the clerke of the parlement, whose office is to read the billes. For everie thing that commeth in consultation in either House, is first put in writing in paper, which being read, he that listeth riseth up and speaketh either with it or against it.

The accuracy with which MPs’ diaries record the contents of Bills after First Reading debates, despite the slim chances of actually having scrutinised the manuscript version, confirms that Bills (or at least a summary of them) must have been read out. By the second half of the sixteenth century a practice had evolved of producing a “breviate” of the Bill: a brief summary prepared either by the proposer or the Speaker that was a forerunner of today’s explanatory note.

By the early Stuart Parliaments, so far as I can tell, the practice of reading Bills in full began to fall away, with debates starting with the clerk reading the title and the breviate. By 1640 the practice also seems to have emerged of reserving debate until the second reading, as with this incident in the Long Parliament on 24 December of that year;

Sir Robert Pye began to speak to the bill but he was told it was not to be spoken unto upon the first reading but after the second reading, and so he sat down.

Later the same day Sir Simonds D’Ewes checked himself from doing the same thing:

Then was read a bill about the assembling of a Parliament yearly though the King did not assemble it by writ. (This I misliked but did forbear to speak against it until the second reading).

By the early eighteenth century, set rules had emerged about the number of copies of a Bill the clerks had to arrange to be printed at each stage of its scrutiny. This presumably put an end to the need to read Bills out loud, but the formal procedure of reading Bills remained (despite the meaning of that process having changed entirely). This is still reflected in the formal language that Ministers used to open Second and Third Reading speeches:

I beg to move, that the Bill be read a Second/Third time.

It may simply be down to the persistence of tradition that First, Second and Third Reading have survived. But I wonder if there is also something about the constitutive power of reading, as MPs, peers and the rest of us experience at a personal level, that has also contributed to it surviving at an institutional level.

This post is my first in a very long time, and is (I hope) the start of a return to blogging slightly more regularly. It was inspired by a conversation with @njstevenson, whose own blog I thoroughly recommend.