Now Labour are being rather hypocritical here, and I will explain the different sorts of urgency. In essence there are four version of urgency. They are
- Extraordinary urgency. This is incredibly rare and can only happen if the Speaker consents to it. It tends to be used for tax bills only, and means the House sits without pause (except meal breaks) until the bills covered by the extraordinary urgency are passed.
- Urgency to pass a bill through multiple stages. This is when the House goes into urgency (which means longer sitting houses) to pass a bill through all stages, without referring it to a select committee. This is generally quite undesirable as bypassing select committee both robs the public of a chance to submit, but also means drafting flaws are less likely to be corrected.
- Normal urgency. This extends the sitting hours of the House, and effectively cancels question time, but bills do not generally go through more than one stage at a time.
- Urgency with question time.This is when the Government goes into urgency to extend the sitting hours, but modifies it so the House can still have question time every day. This reflects the importance of the Opposition being able to hold the Government to account through question time.
Now a lot of people don’t realise that the House normally sits for relatively few hours each week. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays it sits from 2 until 6pm, then 7.30pm until 10pm. On Thursday it sits from 2pm until 6pm.
That’s 17.5 hours. That sounds like quite a bit of time for the government to pass bills. But remember that Question Time happens each day between 2pm and 3.15-3.30. On Wednesdays there is a general debate between 3.30 and 4.30. And every second Wednesday is a members’ day, when the government can’t advance government business.
All this means that in a normal week, the government gets only around 12-13 hours (depending on how long Question Time lasts) to pass Bills. Every second week it gets only 7.5 hours! I won’t even get started on urgent debates (granted by the speaker), motions of condolence, etc, all of which take more time. Overall it tends to mean less than 10 hours a week on average to actually pass laws.
Urgency means that the House extend its sitting times. From the day after the motion is moved (so Wednesday if moved on a Tuesday) the House sits from 9 am to midnight, which is 13 hours a day excluding meal breaks.
In theory the House could sit until midnight Saturday, which would be 58.5 hours. In reality normally the House still rises on a Thursday, so the extra time gained is Wednesday and Thursday mornings plus Thursday evening.
This is what the government has been doing lately – just extending the hours on Wednesday and Thursday.
The problem of lack of time to pass Bills is not one that has just affected this government. That is why Labour is being totally hypocritical over the use of urgency. Grant Robertson and Chris Hipkins in particular know better given they were advisors to the last government. Dr Cullen regularly put the House into urgency between 1999 and 2008 and a helpful reader has done the numbers for me.
In the 1999-2002 Parliament, Labour took urgency 22 times and extraordinary urgency twice. 23 bills passed their 3rd reading under urgency. Indeed in Labour’s first year in office, they took urgency ten times.
In the 2002-2005 Parliament, Labour took urgency nineteen times and a massive 78 Bills passed their 3rd reading under urgency!
In the 2005-2008 Parliament, Labour took urgency ten times and 48 bills passed their 3rd reading under urgency.
Urgency was often moved in October, November, and December of each year under Labour, as the end of the year approached. That’s what this government appears to be doing as well. It’s nothing to do with poor House management – it’s simply extending sitting hours in the traditional pre-Xmas period.
The other thing that I want to stress is that urgency normally means question time is not held, how ever National has consistently arranged urgency so that question time is still taken, ensuring Ministers remain accountable to the House. This was very rare under Labour.
I expect as the Parliamentary term goes on the use of urgency will decline a bit. Further down the track the government might like to take a look at the sitting hours and practices of the House. Should the House sit regularly on Thursday night for example? Is there potential to have the House sitting regularlyin the morning even while select committees are considering Bills?
Personally I would change Standing Orders also, to reflect the different types of urgency. I personally would not call merely extending the sitting hours “urgency” if question time (and members day) is retained. I would also look at whether the Speaker’s permission might be needed for urgency which is used to bypass select committee, to make it harder for Governments to do so.