This seems timely as we head into urgency again. Late last year, after the filming of a Backbencher episode in which I had bemoaned what I considered to be the excessive use of urgency by the National led government I was approached by blogger and National Party doyen David Farrar. He, correctly, said it would be good to get some hard information about the use of urgency over recent years so we could make some informed judgements on the issue.
As everyone will know I don’t agree with David about much, but I do know that he has respect for the Parliamentary process. He indicated that overuse of urgency by any party was something that concerned him. Over the next while we discussed what questions we could ask, and the end result was a request from me to the Parliamentary Library. Their full answer can be found here.
David and I are both writing a post on this. It was to be a joint post, but we, of course have some different perspectives. We do have some similar conclusions, but more of that later. David’s post can be found here.
So, the key points
• One statistic stands out for me. While urgency has been used to a greater or lesser degree by all governments, the by-passing of the Select Committee process has exploded under this government. In just over two years 17 bills have been passed without referral to a select committee, compared with five or fewer in the full three years of the three previous Parliaments. Now, there will be reasons to justify this from time to time. For example, in 2010 a bill to ensure Police who had made their oath to become officers under an incorrect procedure were still regarded as sworn officers did not go to a Select Committee. That was the right decision for the integrity of the Police. But where it is, say the bill to introduce National Standards for primary schools, that should go to a select committee. Select Committees are an essential part of ensuring democratic participation in our law-making, and to making sure the law works as well as it possibly can. They should not be by-passed at the rate they have been over the last couple of years.
• Overall for the three Parliaments under the last Labour government the total percentage of time used for urgency was 13% (99-02) 21% (02-05) 10% (05-08). National have not completed their three years but are sitting at 31% after just over two years. Although they have another year to go, I think we can say on balance that National has used urgency more overall particularly because the percentage of time in urgency has remained high (see below)
• Government’s use of urgency tends to peak in the first (or part thereof) and third years of a Parliament. For instance for Labour the percentage of time in urgency in the first year after the 2002 election was 35% and 23% after 2005 election. National had a massive go at that in 2008 with a whopping 83%.
• Under Labour the amount of urgency taken tended to tail off significantly in the middle years. Here National has taken a different tack with 2009 and 2010 having 26% and 22% of the House sitting hours under urgency.
So what conclusions do I draw from this data
1. By-passing the select committee process should be something that is done in only the most exceptional circumstances. It may be that a different kind of urgency motion should be required for that, with perhaps 75% of the House having to agree.
2. We should investigate whether there is a way of extending the sitting hours of the House in a way that does not compromise the integrity or quality of the legislative process. One suggestion that has been floating around is to allow for the Committee of the Whole House to sit on Wednesday and Thursday mornings when the relevant Select Committee is not sitting. I am sure there will be other suggestions.