Emergency, or fast-tracked, legislation is the term given to a bill sped through each of the required legislative stages in order to make it law in a much shorter time than typical.
Though there is no precise time period set for regular legislation to pass through Parliament, it normally takes weeks or months as it is debated and travels through the various stages in the House of Commons and then through the same stages in the House of Lords. In comparison, emergency legislation will normally be debated and voted in both houses in a matter of days.
Stages of a bill:
The need for emergency legislation occurs when serious conditions arise, meaning the Government is required to create and pass a bill through Parliament at an expedited pace. This allows the Government to respond to a critical situation swiftly.
In recent history, emergency legislation has been used in response to matters such as terrorist attacks and economic collapses. It was also used regularly in the Northern Ireland peace process and devolution settlement. A total of 15 bills related to Northern Ireland were fast-tracked through Parliament between 1995 and 2009.
Passing emergency legislation through the House of Commons
Initially the Government is required to make a statement in both Houses outlining why it intends to introduce fast-tracked legislation.
Fast-tracking a bill through the House of Commons is fairly straightforward as Government controls the parliamentary timetable and can allocate less time than typical to each stage of a bill.
To achieve this, they may introduce an ‘allocation of time order’ or ‘a Business of the House motion’ which sets limits on how much time is spent on the bill. Either of these motions must be supported by a majority of MPs in a vote.
Passing emergency legislation through the House of Lords
The provision for creating emergency legislation in the House of Lords can be a bit trickier. Due to the nature of appointment to the House of Lords, the Government does not enjoy a majority. The chamber is also self-regulating and has different rules for timetabling than the Commons.
For example, in the Commons the report and third reading stages of passing a bill are, almost always, completed in the same day. Whereas in the Lords, the report and third reading amendments are mostly taken on separate days. This is in accordance with a long-time standing order that states no more than one stage of a bill can be completed in a single sitting day in the Lords. To prevent this standing order causing a rift between the two Houses, when the Government is attempting to fast-track legislation it must be suspended through the approval of a majority of Peers.
Another way the Government might try to mitigate this is by introducing two versions of the same bill in both Houses at the same time. The bill will go through the stages in the Commons – perhaps as quickly as one day – and then will return to the House of Lords at committee stage and the other version of the bill.
However, in times of national crisis, such as is posed by the current coronavirus pandemic, the Lords are likely to dispense happily of the necessary standing orders so that the emergency legislation can pass more easily through the House of Lords.
Issues with emergency legislation
When government takes the decision to fast-track legislation, it is expected that they do it for legitimate and urgent reasons. There are, however, some constitutional issues raised.
The time available for debating is restricted due to the increased pace that the legislation moves through each stage of the bill. In effect, handing significant control to the executive who are responsible for composing the vital legislation in the first place and are then able to circumvent much of the thorough scrutiny you would expect to see in the law-making process.
Emergency legislation will often be vast and far-reaching; granting significant additional power to the Government beyond what you would expect to see. There is a danger that the Government will essentially make itself more powerful and is then able to operate largely unchecked.
Other problems with fast-tracked legislation include the increased likelihood of it containing legal errors, that it might end up being used for other outcomes that its intention, and that it puts a sudden heavy burden on departments, ministers, MPs and Peers