Emergency legislation

Lord Norton

44589Earlier this year, the Constitution Committee published a report on emergency, or fast track, legislation.   Very little study has been undertaken of such legislation, even though there is a general recognition that legislating in haste may not necessarily produce good legislation.  The report made various recommendations for change, not least that there should be a clear justification by Government for expediting the passage of legislation and this this should be made independent of the merits of the legislation.  It also argued that there should be a presumption in favour of sunset clauses: that is, that the life of the legislation should be limited, enabling Parliament to return to the issue if the Government sought to renew the measure.

The Government seeks to publish a response to select committee reports within two months.  On this occasion, it took four months.  It was not an inspiring response: it made supportive comments but without committing the Government to anything, other than what it already does or claims to do.  Yesterday, the House debated the committee’s report.  You can read the debate here.  I took part and developed the need for mechanisms to be embedded to ensure that the Government does justify legislation that is fast-tracked.  I added a recommendation of my own to those advanced by the committee.   When the Government wants to get a Bill through quickly, it can ask the House to suspend the relevant Standing Order which prohibits taking two stages of a Bill in one day.  However, if the Government seeks to reduce the normal gap between the stages of a Bill, but without putting two stages on one day, it does not need to seek to suspend Standing Orders.  The gap between stages is recommended but it is not stipulated in Standing Orders.  I would like to see it enshrined in Standing Orders.  That way, if the Government wishes to expedite the passage of legislation, it has to put a motion down to suspend the Standing Order.  Any member can object and seek a vote.  I think it would create a useful discipline: the onus would be on Government to justify its action.

My principal point was that without some mechanism being embedded, the danger is that the House will get caught up in the “something must be done” mentality and simply let through a measure without assuring itself that the case for fast-tracing it has actually been justified.

4 comments for “Emergency legislation

  1. Croft
    11/11/2009 at 1:34 pm

    I don’t follow why there should not be a uniform inclusion of a sunset clause where legislation is fast tracked. If there is only a presumption I can’t see why the government won’t argue that almost every occasion they want to rush measure though is an exception to the need for a sunset clause and use their commons majority to force it though irrespective of the views in the lords. Presumptions seem weak restraints. I can see a reasonable argument that reviewing emergency legislation too soon may not allow enough time for the measure to be assessed but that seems an argument about the delay before the s-clause becomes active not the validity of the clause itself.

    • lordnorton
      12/11/2009 at 10:22 am

      Croft: There are occcasions when a sunset clause may not be appropriate. However, if the presumption is that there should be one, then the Government have to justify its exclusion. Getting Government to accept that there should be a presumption in favour of such a clause should create a useful discipline, albeit I accept not the strongest of disciplines.

  2. Matt Korris
    11/11/2009 at 5:54 pm

    Lord Norton,

    In the debate two of the members of the Constitution Committee said that their time on the committtee was coming to an end with the close of the parliamentary session. Are there time-limits for serving on committees in the Lords (I would be surprised if there were), or is it just a coincidence that two of your colleagues have decided it’s time to make way for new blood?

    Matt Korris
    Hansard Society

    • lordnorton
      12/11/2009 at 10:25 am

      Matt Korris: There are indeed time limits. The House applies what is known as the rotation rule. You can serve on a committee for three years (or, in some circumstances, four years) and you are then ‘rotated off’. After having left a committee you can be appointed to it again at a later date. Thus, for example, I chaired the Constitution Committee from 2001-2004 and then re-joined it in 2007: I thus have another session to go. I have also had two stints on Sub-Committee E of the EU Committee.

Comments are closed.