Fast-track Legislation: Constitutional Implications and Safeguards - Constitution Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 334 - 339)


Baroness Royall of Blaisdon and Chris Bryant MP

  Q334  Chairman: Lord President, Mr Bryant, may I welcome you most warmly on behalf of the Committee and thank you very much indeed for joining us this morning. We are being audio recorded. Could I ask you, please, to formally identify yourselves simply for the record and then thereafter to make a brief opening statement if you so wish.

  Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: Baroness Royall of Blaisdon, Leader of the House of Lords and Lord President of the Council.

  Chris Bryant: I am Chris Bryant. I am Deputy Leader of the House of Commons and MP for the Rhondda.

  Q335  Chairman: Lord President, did you want to say a few words by way of introduction?

  Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lord Chairman, My Lords, perhaps I may make a brief opening statement putting into context the written submission that the Leader of the House of Commons and I have already provided you with. It is a great pleasure, of course, to appear before this Committee and we are both grateful for the opportunity to contribute evidence to your timely inquiry on emergency legislation. Our view is that it is difficult to apply precise categories for emergency legislation. It is a term generally applied to bills which have an expedited passage through Parliament. The extent of the expedition has varied greatly, depending on the need, but in all cases it is done through cross-party agreement and all such bills have been subject to the same stages as other bills in both Houses. Bills are expedited in this way only because there is cross-party agreement on a deadline for Royal Assent. Reasons for such a deadline can vary, as can the amount of time available for the stages of parliamentary scrutiny depending on real world circumstances. Historically these reasons have included the need to respond quickly to court judgments, real world crises or the discovery of gaps in existing statute law, but this is not a prescriptive list. In all cases, ensuring the maximum possible degree of parliamentary scrutiny is paramount in such circumstances. Both Chris and I regard it as being a key facet of our roles as business managers within government to uphold the rights and legitimate expectations of both Houses in the legislative process and this will continue to be the case. We of course look forward to your questions.

  Q336  Chairman: Lord President, thank you very much indeed. Perhaps I could kick off by asking you to expand more specifically on what you have said in your very, very helpful opening statement. In the written submission which you kindly sent to the Committee you said that "the range of circumstances in which it might be necessary to expedite the passage of a bill is so great that it is not possible to come up with a rigid set of criteria." Could you say what you think the circumstances are that make it justifiable for the Government to seek to fast-track bills through Parliament? What constitutional principles or conventions (if any) ought to inform parliamentary consideration of whether to give a bill an accelerated passage?

  Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: Constitutionally I do not think that an expedited bill is any different from any other bill which is passing through Parliament. An expedited bill merely means that the timing is different, but it still has to go through the same legislative process as any other bill, therefore I do not think that constitutionally there is any difference. In what circumstances? I think it is extremely difficult to define the circumstances because who knows what the circumstances might be. I have mentioned already that sometimes we have to respond to court judgments, as, indeed, we did with the Criminal Evidence (Witness Anonymity) Act 2008. Sometimes it might be to respond to world economic crises, as with the Banking (Special Provisions) Act 2008; and sometimes it might be in relation to the discovery of gaps in existing statute law. I think it is very difficult—and not only difficult but I think it would be wrong—to define circumstances because expeditious legislation or emergency legislation is there precisely to react to certain circumstances which by their very nature are indefinable.

  Q337  Chairman: Thank you, Lord President. Do you have anything further?

  Chris Bryant: The only thing I would add is that in the House of Commons we have to have an allocation of time motion for us to be able to proceed in the first place, and during that debate, inevitably, the whole nature of the discussion is whether or not we should be expediting this particular piece of legislation and the Government has to defend its argument. I think we also rely very heavily on the fact that in your House you have to work by cross-party consensus, so that is a very important sort of stricture on us. We have our process through the allocation of time motion and you have your process through the cross-party consensus that you have to achieve that makes sure there is a constitutional certainty about the way we proceed with expedited legislation.

  Q338  Lord Woolf: Over the past 20 years, we understand, there have been about 34 bills that have been fast-tracked. Obviously that is a very small percentage, which does suggest that it is being properly used, but what are your views about the number of bills? When you are deciding a question of whether it is to be expedited or not, is it the bill as a whole which you consider or is it sometimes just put on a particular provision?

  Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: You are absolutely right, My Lord, that in fact it is only a very small percentage. As I understand it, there have been over 900 Acts of Parliament passed in the last 20 years, so 34 is a relatively small amount. I cannot remember the exact number, but about 11 of those relate to Northern Ireland, and of course, with the Northern Ireland Peace Process, that has meant that there have had to be a lot more emergency Northern Ireland bills than one would necessarily have expected. Is this the right number? Is this the right percentage? Only time will tell. It is very difficult to know what would have happened if those bills had not been expedited; therefore it is very difficult to judge whether or not that was the right percentage.

  Q339  Lord Morris of Aberavon: Lord President, I have read with very great interest the most helpful memorandum from the Leaders of both Houses. If I may say so, it is an excellent document. Lord Goodlad has put to you the relevant paragraph, paragraph 15 of the memorandum, which we have also put to other witnesses, and it seems to me, and I would like your observations on it, that it is an open-ended criterion: anything the Government thinks with the agreement of the other parties is good for the course. There are no limitations. Would that be right?

  Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: Yes. I think I would agree, My Lord, that it is by necessity open-ended, because if one were to put strictures on it that might be very dangerous because a situation might arise in which expedited legislation was necessary and it would be difficult, if not impossible, to put forward that legislation precisely because limits had been set.

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