Emergency legislation

Lord Norton

The Banking (Special Provisions) Bill – the Bill to nationalise Northern Rock – is being rushed through both Houses. The Government regard it as emergency legislation, hence the perceived need to get it passed within three days. In order to enable it to be passed quickly, its provisions are drawn in general terms – that, is it not a Bill for the specific purpose of nationalising Northern Rock. Had it been confined to Northern Rock, it would be a hybrid Bill (a public bill that affects the interests of one party in a way that differs from others in the same category) and thus subject to the hybrid Bill procedure, a potentially lengthy process because it enables petitions to be lodged and for objectors to be represented by counsel.

The passage of the Bill raises important questions about emergency legislation. There is a particular question about this Bill, as to whether it actually requires to be treated as a matter of urgency. More generally, it raises the question as to how Parliament deals with emergency measures. The history of rushing Bills through is not a glorious one – ranging from the initial Official Secrets Act through to the Dangerous Dogs Act – and there may be a case for Parliament standing back and considering whether it needs to introduce specific procedures for such measures and/or whether there should be a convention that any Bill passed under expedited procedures should be subject to a one-year sunset clause: i.e. it ceases to have effect after one-year. There is a sunset clause in the Banking Bill and perhaps this should be a standard feature of all emergency legislation. If such a measure needs renewing, Parliament would be able to consider it in more details when a Bill to extend its life was brought forward.