A reading of a bill is a debate on the bill held before the general body of a legislature, as opposed to before a committee or an other group. In the Westminster system, there are usually several readings of a bill among the stages it passes through before becoming law as an Act of Parliament. Some of these readings are usually formalities rather than substantive debates.
A first reading is when a bill is introduced to a legislature. Typically, in the United States, the title of the bill is read and immediately assigned to a committee. The bill is then considered by committee between the first and second readings. In the United States Senate and most British-influenced legislatures, the committee consideration occurs between second and third readings. In Israel, the committee consideration occurs between first and second readings and (for private member bills) between preliminary and first readings.
In New Zealand, once a bill passes first reading it is normally referred to a Select Committee. However, a Government can have a bill skip the select committee stage by a simple majority vote in Parliament.
A bill can be defeated on first reading if a member introduces it and no one seconds it.
A second reading is the stage of the legislative process where a draft of a bill is read a second time. In most Westminster systems, a vote is taken on the general outlines of the bill before being sent to committee.
In the Oireachtas of Ireland, it is referred to as "Second Stage", though the subheading "second reading" is used Dáil standing orders, and the motion at second stage is still "that the Bill is to be read a second time". A bill introduced in one house enters the other house at Second Stage, except that the Seanad second stage is waived for Dáil consolidation bills. Once the bill passes second stage it is referred to a Select Committee of that house or taken in Committee Stage by the whole house.
In the United States Senate, a bill is either referred to committee or placed on the Calendar of Business after second reading. No vote is held on whether to read the bill a second time. In U.S. legislatures where consideration in committee precedes second reading, the procedure varies as to how a bill reaches second reading. In Illinois, for example, legislation is automatically read a second time, after which amendments are in order.
In New Zealand, once a bill passes a Second Reading it is then considered clause by clause by the whole Parliament. If a majority of Parliament agree, the bill can be considered part by part, saving considerable time. Because most bills must have majority support to pass a second reading, it is now very rare for a bill to be considered clause by clause.
A third reading is the stage of a legislative process in which a bill is read with all amendments and given final approval by a legislative body. In legislatures whose procedures are based on those of the Westminster system, the third reading occurs after the bill has been amended by committee and considered for amendment at report stage.
In bicameral legislatures, if the bill passes the third reading, it is then sent to the other chamber of parliament to start the process again at first reading in that chamber. Once the bill has passed third reading in both chambers, it is sent on for promulgation, such as Royal Assent in the Westminster system or signing by the president or governor in the U.S. model. In a unicameral legislature, after passing third reading in the sole chamber, the bill goes on directly for promulgation.
In the Oireachtas of Ireland, the equivalent of the third reading is referred to as the "Fifth Stage" or "Final Stage". The motion is "That the Bill do now pass", except that the Seanad motion for a money bill is "That the Bill be returned to the Dáil". When a bill passes one house, it is sent to the other house and enters at Second Stage. After both houses have passed the bill, it is sent to the President of Ireland to be signed into law.