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A fast-tracked bill, also known as an expedited bill or emergency legislation, is a bill which passes through all the normal parliamentary stages in both Houses, but on an expedited or fast-tracked timetable. When looking at the issue in 2009, the House of Lords Constitution Committee used the definition of fast-tracked legislation which the Clerk of the House of Commons had provided to it in evidence, namely legislation:
[…] which the government of the day represents to Parliament must be enacted swiftly… and then uses its power of legislative initiative and control of parliamentary time to secure their passage.
The length of time it takes for a public bill to progress through Parliament varies, but a bill must go through set stages. Paragraph 8.4 of the ‘Companion to the Standing Orders and Guide to the Proceedings of the House of Lords’ includes recommended minimum intervals between the stages of a bill in the House of Lords, including:
- two weekends between first reading and the debate on second reading
- 14 days from second reading to the start of the committee stage
- on all bills of considerable length and complexity, 14 days from the end of the committee stage to the start of report stage
- three clear sitting days between the end of report stage and third reading
Similar minimum periods for the House of Commons are outlined in the Cabinet Office’s ‘Guide to making legislation’.
In contrast, fast-tracked legislation might complete several stages in one day. For example, in the 2022–23 parliamentary session, the British Nationality (Regularisation of Past Practice) Act 2023 received first reading in the House of Commons on 24 May 2023, before completing all of its remaining stages in the Commons on 6 June 2023. In the House of Lords the bill received first reading on 7 June 2023, second reading on 19 June 2023 and committee stage, report stage and third reading on 21 June 2023.
1. When might fast-tracked legislation be used?
Reasons for the use of fast-tracked legislation can range from responding to unforeseen or exceptional circumstances to closing legal loopholes or responding to recent judgments in the courts. For example, the British Nationality (Regularisation of Past Practice) Act 2023 outlined above was fast-tracked following a recent court judgment affecting citizens’ nationality status.
Fast-tracked legislation has been used to respond to issues arising during the Covid-19 pandemic and implementing agreements on Brexit. The Coronavirus Act 2020 was introduced in the House of Commons on 19 March 2020. The bill completed all its Commons stages by 23 March 2020 and all of its Lords stages by 25 March 2020. It included provisions to restrict civil liberties and to grant extensive delegated powers. The Constitution Committee concluded that “the need to respond quickly to the pandemic constituted an exceptional circumstance that justified the passage of such significant measures”. Other legislation, such as the Corporate Insolvency and Governance Act 2020 and the Business and Planning Act 2020, introduced and passed in the same session, were designed to help businesses adjust to the challenges of the pandemic.
In the case of the European Union (Future Relationship) Act 2020, the bill was published on 29 December 2020 and fast-tracked through all its stages in both Houses on 30 December 2020. It received royal assent the same day. The bill implemented the Trade and Cooperation Agreement and the Security of Classified Information Agreement between the UK and the EU.
Several pieces of fast-tracked legislation relate to the Northern Ireland peace process and devolution settlement. Recent examples include the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Organ and Tissue Donation) Act 2023, which was considered and passed in both Houses during February 2023. Amongst other things, the bill extended the deadline for forming a Northern Ireland executive to 18 January 2024 and allowed the secretary of state to set an Assembly election date earlier than this if no executive had been formed. It also allowed regulations to be made about the rules for organ donation in Northern Ireland in the absence of a functioning Assembly.
2. Process for fast-tracking legislation
The process for fast-tracking legislation through the House of Commons reflects the government’s control over parliamentary time. An ‘allocation of time order’ or ‘business of the House motion’ can be used to ensure time between stages is compressed.
In the House of Lords, the fast-tracking of a bill requires the agreement of members. Standing Order 44, dating from June 1715, states that no two stages of a bill can be taken on one day. In order to fast-track the legislative timetable, members of the House of Lords must therefore consent to the temporary suspension of this rule.
3. Issues with fast-tracking legislation
- constrained parliamentary scrutiny
- pressure on the procedural process
- less opportunity for campaigners and interested groups to feed into the development of the legislation
- a “something must be done” approach leading to a “knee-jerk” reaction to events
- including non-urgent matters in a fast-tracked bill
The committee recommended ways to improve the process for fast-tracking legislation. These included:
- requiring the minister responsible for the bill to provide an oral statement to the House of Lords outlining the case for fast-tracking the legislation
- principles which the minister should address in his or her justification of fast-tracking legislation
- requiring reasons for fast-tracking legislation to be in the bill’s explanatory notes
- a presumption in favour of sunset clauses in fast-tracked legislation, which would allow Parliament to renew or replace clauses and provide an additional safeguard on legislation
- a presumption in favour of post-legislative scrutiny of fast-tracked legislation
It indicated its “strong support” for pre-legislative scrutiny and urged the government, where possible, to allow relevant parliamentary committees and stakeholders the opportunity to respond to proposed fast-track legislation ahead of second reading in the House where the bill is introduced.
The then government response to the committee was published on 7 December 2009. It included a commitment to “consider how we can use and improve the pre-legislative scrutiny process with future fast-tracked legislation, on a case-by-case basis”. The response also stated that “ministers remain prepared to justify the need for any expedition to the House, including covering those issues set out in the committee’s report”. The government reaffirmed its commitment to post-legislative scrutiny but said it would consider the use of sunset clauses on a case-by-case basis.
In 2019, the Constitution Committee considered the process again as part of its report on the legislative process. It welcomed the fact that the Cabinet Office’s ‘Guide to making legislation’ now requires a justification for fast-tracking legislation. The committee also noted the large number of bills relating to Northern Ireland which were subject to the fast-tracking process, something which it had identified in its original inquiry into fast-tracking legislation in 2009. It argued that the use of the fast-tracking process for legislation relating to Northern Ireland had become a common process and that “routinely fast-tracking in this way is unacceptable, unsustainable, and should only be used for urgent matters”.
Responding, the government argued that whilst it acknowledged that more fast-tracked legislation has been used in relation to Northern Ireland “than Parliament or government would like”, this reflected the “exceptional circumstances” which currently existed in Northern Ireland.