Making new laws is one of the main tasks of the Oireachtas. A draft of a proposed new law is called a Bill. Once a Bill is signed into law by the President, it becomes an Act and is added to the Statute Book. The Oireachtas passes approximately 40 Acts each year.

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Overview

Before a Bill can be enacted, it must be passed by both the Dáil and the Seanad. In order to be passed, a Bill must go through several distinct Stages in each House.

A Bill that is initiated by a TD is debated first in the Dáil. If the Dáil passes the Bill, it is then debated in the Seanad. A Bill initiated by a Senator is debated first in the Seanad and then in the Dáil. Only when both Houses have passed a Bill can the President sign it into law.

If the Dáil passes a Bill, the Seanad can delay its becoming law, not stop it. If the Seanad votes not to pass a Bill, the Bill will lapse after 180 days. However, the Dáil has the power, within those 180 days, to pass a resolution declaring that the Bill is deemed to have been passed by both Houses.

Who can bring forward a Bill

Government Ministers can bring forward Bills, and these are called Government Bills. Other TDs and Senators can also bring forward Bills, and these are called Private Members' Bills (PMBs). Senators may not initiate Money Bills or Bills to amend the Constitution.

In 2018, 142 Bills were brought forward, of which 45 were Government Bills and 97 were PMBs.

Government Bills

If the Government wants to repeal or change an existing law, it does so by creating a new Act. For example, the Children Act 2001 repealed several laws including the Children Act 1908, and the Children (Amendment) Act 2015 amended the Children Act 2001 to amalgamate the child detention schools.

The Government implements its annual budget by introducing and enacting a Finance Bill and a Social Welfare Bill each year.

The Government may also need to introduce legislation to enact European Union laws or decisions by the European courts. For example, the Criminal Law (Human Trafficking) (Amendment) Act 2013 was passed to implement the EU Trafficking Directive.

The Government lists the Bills it is bringing forward and the Acts it has passed in its legislative programme.

Private Members' Bills (PMBs)

Members of the Dáil or Seanad can seek to introduce a new law or amend an existing law by bringing forward a Bill. For example, an independent TD brought forward the Fossil Fuel Divestment Bill 2016 to divest public money from fossil fuel companies. The Bill was enacted in 2018.

The Intoxicating Liquor (Amendment) Act 2018 was sponsored by a group of Senators. It amended various Licensing Acts to removed the prohibition on licensed premises from trading on Good Friday.

The legislative process

Drafting

Government Bills

Before the Government publishes a Bill, there is usually a consultation process.

The relevant Department may publish a Green Paper setting out the Government’s ideas and inviting opinions from individuals and organisations. For example, the Green Paper on Energy Policy in Ireland was launched in May 2014 and 1,200 submissions were made during the consultation process.

Before a Bill is finalised, a general scheme of the Bill may be published, and this is often called the heads of the Bill.

Private Members' Bills (PMBs)

TDs and Senators who are not members of the Government do their own research on the policy proposals behind their proposed legislation. The Office of the Parliamentary Legal Advisers (OPLA) helps these Members explore the legal issues arising from their policy proposals and provides assistance with drafting the PMB.

Scrutiny by an Oireachtas Committee

Both Government Bills and Private Members' Bills may undergo scrutiny by the relevant Oireachtas Committee. The Business Committee may waive this requirement in certain circumstances.

Government Bills ‑ pre-legislative scrutiny

The general scheme, or draft heads, of a Government Bill undergoes scrutiny by an Oireachtas Committee before the text of the Bill is finalised. The relevant Oireachtas Committee may invite stakeholders to participate by attending meetings to discuss the general scheme or draft heads of the Bill.

At the end of the pre-legislative scrutiny, the Committee produces a report and lays it before the Houses of the Oireachtas. The report makes recommendations on the Bill based on the Committee's scrutiny.

An example of pre-legislative scrutiny is the Committee on Justice and Equality's scrutiny of the General Scheme of the Gender Pay Gap Information Bill. The Committee invited three representative organisations to a public hearing on 21 November 2018. In February 2019 it published its report with recommendations to the Government on the final draft of the Bill.

Examples of pre-legislative scrutiny reports for particular Bills can be found on the dedicated webpages for individual Committees. These dedicated webpages also contain other information on each Committee, including membership details, contact details and a copy of the Committee’s work programme.

Private Members' Bills (PMBs) - pre-Committee Stage scrutiny

PMBs undergo scrutiny by an Oireachtas Committee only if they pass Second Stage in the Dáil. After Dáil Second Stage, the Member who is sponsoring the Bill asks the relevant Committee to undertake the pre-Committee Stage scrutiny of the Bill. Alternatively, the sponsor may ask the Business Committee to waive the need for scrutiny. The relevant Oireachtas Committee may invite stakeholders to participate by attending meetings to discuss the Bill, or by making submissions on the Bill.

After completing the pre-Committee Stage scrutiny, the Committee produces a report and lays it before the Houses of the Oireachtas. It also sends a message to Dáil Éireann recommending either that the Bill proceed or not proceed to Committee Stage.

If it is recommended that the Bill proceed, the Bill sponsor may move the Order for Committee Stage (the motion that progresses the Bill to Committee Stage) without debate. If it is recommended that the Bill not proceed, the sponsor may still move a motion in the House to progress the Bill to Committee Stage, but the motion must be debated. If the motion is carried, the Bill can progress.

Pre-Committee Stage scrutiny was introduced following a report of the Sub-Committee on Dáil Reform.

Stages of a Bill

A Bill must pass through five Stages in both the Dáil and Seanad before it can be enacted. The Stages are detailed in the Standing Orders of the Dáil and the Seanad.

First Stage

The Bill is initiated

In general, Bills may be initiated in either the Dáil or the Seanad. However, money Bills and Bills to amend the Constitution must be initiated in the Dáil while private Bills can be initiated only in the Seanad.

There are two ways for Members to initiate a Bill. In general, a Government Member may present a Bill, whereas an Opposition Member must seek leave to introduce a Bill. A Bill introduced by an Opposition Member is known as a Private Members' Bill (PMB) and debates on it must take place during Private Members' time.

When a Bill is presented, provided it complies with Standing Orders, it is automatically added to the Order Paper and it proceeds to Second Stage.

When a Member seeks leave to introduce a Private Members' Bill, the House may or may not grant leave. If leave is granted, the Bill is added to the Order Paper and proceeds to Second Stage.

In the Dáil, Government Members may present Bills. Other Deputies may also present Bills, but must do so as a group of seven or more Deputies, and each group may present only one Bill at a time. In the Seanad, the Leader of the Seanad may present a Bill on behalf of the Government. Groups of five or more Senators may also present up to three Bills at a time.

In the Dáil, any Member may seek leave to introduce a Bill, while in the Seanad, it takes three Senators to introduce each Bill. There is no limit to the number of Bills a Member may seek leave to introduce.

Read a Dáil First Stage debate and Seanad First Stage debate.

Second Stage

The general principles of the Bill are debated

Members are allocated a limited amount of time to make a statement on the law the Bill would create. They may also suggest other provisions they would like to be included in the Bill.

At the end of Second Stage, the House may, or may not, agree to allow the Bill to proceed to Committee Stage. A Member may call for a division on the question by saying “Vótáil”.

Read a Seanad Second Stage debate.

Third Stage – Committee Stage

The Bill is examined section by section and amendments may be made

Committee Stage is a detailed examination of each section of the Bill and an opportunity for Government and Opposition Members to make changes to the text. Committee Stage in the Dáil is usually taken in an Oireachtas select committee.

Once each section of the Bill has been agreed to, the Bill is set down for Report Stage.

Before Committee Stage, Members who want to change a Bill may put down amendments, and a list of the amendments is published. During the Committee Stage debate, Members are called on to move each amendment and discuss it with the Minister.

There is no limit to the number of times a Member may speak on an amendment, so Committee Stage can be lengthy. The Minister then says whether he or she accepts the amendment. A Member who disagrees with the Minister’s decision on an amendment may call for a division by saying “Vótáil”.

Read a Dáil Committee Stage debate.

Fourth Stage – Report Stage

Amendments arising out of Committee Stage are considered

Report Stage is the last opportunity for Members to make amendments to the text of a Bill. Members may not bring forward any new amendments, only amendments which arise from Committee Stage. Unlike Committee Stage, Members may speak only twice on each amendment, and their second contribution is limited to two minutes.

When all the amendments have been dealt with, the Bill is received for final consideration. Fifth Stage may be scheduled for another day, but is usually taken immediately after Fourth Stage.

If the Government wants to introduce new amendments on Report Stage, it may do so by recommitting the Bill. Effectively this returns the Bill to Committee Stage in respect of an individual amendment.

Read a Dáil Report Stage debate.

Fifth Stage – Final Stage

The Bill is passed by the House

Fifth Stage often follows directly after Report Stage. No amendments may be tabled and there is generally no in-depth discussion of the Bill. Instead, Members usually make short statements on whether the Bill would constitute good law. Then the House agrees to pass the Bill, and a Member may call a division by saying “Vótáil”.

When a Bill passes Final Stage in the House in which it was initiated, it is sent to the other House. There, it must go through the Stages of debate, beginning on Second Stage. Any amendments made by the second House may be rejected by the House in which the Bill was initiated. These amendments are known as the "cream list". Therefore, if the second House makes amendments to a Bill, it is returned to the first House, where it goes through some of the Stages of debate again.

Once a Bill has been passed on Fifth Stage by both Houses, and all cream list amendments have been dealt with, the Bill is ready to be enacted.

Read a Dáil Final Stage debate.

Enactment

The Bill is signed into law by the President

Once a Bill has been passed by the Dáil and Seanad, the President signs it into law. It becomes an Act and is added to the Statute Book.

Some Acts come into force immediately, while others are commenced on a later date by the relevant Minister.

In certain rare circumstances, the President has the power to decline to sign a Bill. The President consults with the Council of State before taking such a decision.

All laws must be compatible with the Constitution. The President may refer a Bill to the Supreme Court to seek a judgment on whether it is constitutional. If the Supreme Court finds that the Bill, or any part of it, is unconstitutional, the President declines to sign the Bill and it is not enacted.

Members of the Dáil and Seanad may petition the President not to sign a Bill on the grounds that it contains a proposal of such national importance that the will of the people should be sought. If a majority of the Seanad and at least one third of the Dáil petition the President not to sign a Bill, the President may agree to the request. The President then declines to sign the Bill until the proposal has been approved by the people in a referendum or by a new Dáil after a general election.

To learn more about the President's role in enacting legislation, visit the President of Ireland website.

Legislation and the Constitution

The Constitution of Ireland, Bunreacht na hÉireann, sets out Ireland’s basic laws and describes how the country should be governed, the main institutions of the State and the rights and fundamental freedoms of citizens. All legislation must be compatible with the Constitution of Ireland.

If the Government wishes to change the Constitution, it must hold a referendum which allows the people to vote for or against the proposed change.

Before holding a referendum, the Government must introduce a proposal to amend the Constitution in the Dáil as a Bill. The Bill must be passed by both the Dáil and the Seanad. Only then can the referendum take place.

If the majority of the votes cast at the referendum are in favour of the change, the Bill is enacted and the Constitution is amended. For example, the 2015 referendum on marriage equality resulted in the enactment of the Thirty-fourth Amendment to the Constitution (Marriage Equality) Act 2015.

Secondary legislation

The Acts passed by the Oireachtas are the primary legislation of Ireland. There is another category of laws known as secondary legislation or statutory instruments.

The Oireachtas does not enact statutory instruments. Instead, the power to enact them is delegated to certain people or bodies including Government Ministers, local authorities and regulatory bodies.

Secondary legislation must be consistent with, and based on, the legislation adopted by the Oireachtas. If it is not, it can be overturned by the courts.

Statutory instruments can take the form of ministerial orders, regulations, rules, bye-laws and schemes. Hundreds of them are issued each year.

Some Acts provide for a Minister to decide when to bring them into force. For example, the Paternity Leave and Benefit Act 2016 empowers the Minister for Social Protection to bring it into force. The Minister did so by enacting Statutory Instrument No. 435 of 2016, known as the Paternity Leave and Benefit Act 2016 (Commencement) Order 2016.

The European Communities Act 1972 empowers Ministers to make regulations to implement European treaties and directives. For example, the Minister for Health gave effect to Directive 2014/40/EU, known as the European Tobacco Products Directive 2014, by enacting Statutory Instrument No. 271 of 2016, known as the European Union (Manufacture, Presentation and Sale of Tobacco and Related Products) Regulations 2016.

An Act can delegate powers to a Government Minister to legislate in day-to-day matters arising from the Act. For example, the Animal Health and Welfare Act 2013 empowers the Minister for Agriculture and Food to make certain animal health and welfare regulations. The Minister used this power to enact regulations on the microchipping of dogs in Statutory Instrument No. 63 of 2015.

Local authorities are empowered to make bye-laws relating to anything within their remit by virtue of the Local Government Act 1994. Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council used this power to enact the Parks Bye-Laws 2003.