Can one person change the world? A guide to the legislative process

This article will explore whether it is possible for one person to change the law in the UK. How are laws created in England and Wales? Who comes up with ideas for new laws?

The recent campaign to create a specific criminal offence for the act of ‘up-skirting’ is a good case in point. To ‘up-skirt’ is to take a photo or video under a person’s clothes without their consent. Gina Martin was a victim of up-skirting and has subsequently campaigned to change the current law, under which victims have to seek justice under harassment or indecency legislation. She would like a specific offence created, similar to existing Scottish law.

The campaign gained not only open, public support, but also that of MPs and the Ministry of Justice. However, the campaign has temporarily hit a snag on its way to becoming law. Here is why.

The process of a campaign becoming a law

In English law, new legislation is created by Parliament. Parliament can make laws on any subject it chooses. New legislation will be contained within an ‘Act’.

An Act begins its life as a problem brought to the Government’s attention. This may be from speaking to constituents during election time, from campaigns by special interest groups, or other sources.

This problem will usually need to gain the attention and support of a government minister, as they are the people who can take the idea further by exposing the issue to colleagues. If enough support is gained, the proposal may find its way in front of the legislation committee, who have the final say on whether the proposal will be presented for scrutiny by Parliament.

If the proposal makes it this far, it becomes a ‘bill’; which translates the proposal into workable legislation. The House of Commons and The House of Lords must then scrutinise and ultimately approve the bill before it can become law. To achieve this, the bill must go through a process of being read, evaluated and amended before the final stage of receiving ‘royal assent’. This means that the monarch has ‘signed off’ on the legislation.

If the bill has made it through those processes, it is now an Act of Parliament and therefore law.

What happened in the up-skirting campaign

The issue gained enough support to become a bill. When the bill was put before the House of Commons, it did not pass, due to objections by one conservative MP.

At the time of writing, the MP in question has agreed to meet with campaigners to discuss the issue and Gina Martin remains confident that the bill will eventually pass.

So, although it is a long and winding road, one dedicated person, with the right backing, may be able to bring about legislative change in the UK. Conversely, one person may also prevent it, at least temporarily.

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