Parliament Act 1949: reducing the power to delay

What Did the Act Do?

In 2004, the Hunting Act received royal assent, even though the House of Lords rejected it. How can the House of Commons pass laws the Lords disagrees with? The answer lies in two key pieces of legislation. The Parliament Act 1911 provided that any public bill rejected by the House of Lords could still be passed as long as three sessions over a two-year period had elapsed from its original second reading to its final third reading in the House of Commons. The Parliament Act 1949, passed 70 years ago, reduced that time period to one year and two sessions. This means any public bill (apart from a money bill or one seeking to extend the length of a parliament beyond five years) originally introduced in the House of Commons and passed by the Commons in two successive sessions can be presented for royal assent even if rejected by the Lords, subject to those rules on timings.

The 1949 Act was introduced by the Attlee Government and itself required the provisions of the Parliament Act 1911 to receive royal assent. The Labour Government sought to reduce the time period set out in the 1911 Act over concerns it affected the Government’s ability to introduce contentious legislation in the last two years of a parliamentary cycle. In effect, this limited the parliamentary cycle for controversial or ambitious legislation to three years. The Attlee Government wanted to bring forward legislation to nationalise the iron and steel industries towards the end of that parliament and was concerned about possible opposition to the move.

The legislation was initially introduced at the end of 1947 and, following rejection by the House of Lords in that session and the next, eventually received royal assent on 16 December 1949 under the terms of the 1911 Act. To date, four Acts have received royal assent under the provisions as amended by the 1949 Act: the War Crimes Act 1991; the European Parliamentary Elections Act 1999; the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 2000; and the Hunting Act 2004.

Why Did Some See it as Controversial?

The fact that the provisions of the 1911 Act were used to pass the 1949 Act attracted some controversy. As explained by the House of Lords Constitution Committee in 2006 (see Constitutional Aspects of the Challenge to the Hunting Act 2004), critics of the Act argued that when enacting legislation under the 1911 Act, the House of Commons and the Sovereign would be acting as delegates of the monarch in Parliament. Therefore, they claimed legislation passed under the 1911 Act was delegated legislation. They then stated that there was a “general legal principle that a delegate cannot enlarge his own power: that can only be done by the delegating authority itself” (eg the monarch). As a result, the critics argued that this invalidated the 1949 Act.

This view was tested in 2005 by a judicial review case challenging the validity of the legislation in the context of it being used to pass the Hunting Act 2004 (Jackson and others v Her Majesty’s Attorney General). The case reached the House of Lords, with the law lords rejecting the appellants’ claims that the 2004 Act should have no legal effect. Lord Bingham set out two grounds for this. First, the 1911 Act specifically stated that any legislation receiving royal assent under the provisions would become an Act of Parliament (this, he said, is specifically understood to mean primary legislation). Second, the 1949 Act had not sought to extend the powers of the House of Commons but instead restricted the powers of the House of Lords.

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