Use of Urgency

In a first for the blogosphere, Kiwblog and Red Alert have teamed up to do co-ordinated posts on the use of urgency.

Both the current and former Governments have been criticised for their use or over-use of urgency – which is the provision that allows the House to sit for extended hours, and sometimes bypass the select committee process.

I wanted to do a proper study of the use of urgency since 1999, and Wellington Central MP Grant Robertson kindly agreed to help supply the information (which comes from the Parliamentary Library). We agreed that it would be good to do co-ordinated posts on this issue as we think that both parties should commit to less use of urgency.

It’s important to note that not all urgency is the same. Some uses of urgency (to sit on a Wednesday morning for example) are relatively benign, while other uses (by-passing select committees) are bad and should be done only when strictly necessary.

Hence, this analysis goes well beyond just the headline figures, and examines the use of urgency in depth.

There are effectively four parts to the parliamentary cycle. Year 0 is the brief period after an election and before the calendar year ends. Year 1 is the first full year of Government. Year 2 is the mid year and Year 3 is the portion of the third year that falls before an election. Generally we have compared Year 1s with Year 1s as they have different profiles. The year after an election is often very busy implementing election promises. Year 3 is often not so busy.

  Year 1s   Year 2s
  2000 2003 2006 2009   2001 2004 2007 2010
Sitting Hours 624 594 482 576   591 583 529 600
Urgency 70 89 19 155   79 117 32 134
Ordinary 554 505 463 421   512 466 497 466
Sitting Weeks 34 33 29 30   32 31 31 31
Av Hours/Week 18.4 18.0 16.6 19.2   18.5 18.8 17.1 19.4
Week x 17 hrs 578 561 493 510   544 527 527 527
Extra hours 48 33 -11 66   47 56 2 73

 The total number of hours the House sat was a record 624 in 2000 – the first year of a new Government. National’s total number of hours in 2009 was below the average for the former Government. However in 2010 the House sat for 600 hours – a record for Year 2, but only nine hours more than in 2001.

Where there is a difference is the number of hours spent in urgency. National had the most hours in urgency in both 2009 and 2010. However be aware that this includes time which would normally be ordinary sitting hours. For example the House normally sits for 6.5 hours on a Wednesday. Under urgency it sits for 13 hours. All of those 13 hours count as time under urgency, even though 6.5 of them were normally scheduled anyway.

As the sitting week is normally 17 hours, I’ve tried to estimate how many “extra” hours occurred each year due to urgency. They do clearly show that National has been using urgency the most to gain additional hours – 73 hours in 2010 and 66 hours in 2009. That is equal to almost eight additional weeks of sitting time over two years.

The House used to meet for 34 weeks a year, and in recent years has been 29 to 31 weeks. One solution to reducing urgency could be to schedule more sitting weeks.

Now let us look at what was done legislatively during these sessions

  Year 1s   Year 2s
  2000 2003 2006 2009   2001 2004 2007 2010
Bills passed 93 127 91 70   102 111 113 127
Bills passed not referred to select cmte 2 3 1 3   0 1 1 7

 The number of bills passed is not necessarily a good or a bad thing. If you like the bills it may be good, if you do not like the bills it may be bad. In terms of quality of law making, it is also subjective. If you pass very few laws it may indicate a Government not able to deliver policies, but if you pass too many laws they may not be getting the attention they deserve.

The total number of bills passed averaged 95 for Year 1s, and 113 for Year 2. Not a big difference between Labour and National Governments.

But it is in the area of bills passed without going through a select committee, that National should attract the most criticism. In 2009 and 2010 it passed 10 bills without giving the public the chance to submit on the bills at select committee stage. Sometimes there may be a good reasons to do so (Canterbury Earthquake etc), but the total level is far too high. The power to bypass select committees should happen very very rarely – it was only 1 – 2 times a year under Labour.

People unhappy with the level of bypassing select committees, should let their local National MPs know. Note that in 2008 National also passed seven bills into law without select committee – now again some of these could be justified as implementing clear election promises or a simple repeal – but 17 bills bypassing select committee in just over two years is frankly an outrageous level. National needs to not just look at these bills in isolation, but about the collective total and the message it sends. 

  Year 1s   Year 2s
  2000 2003 2006 2009   2001 2004 2007 2010
Weeks with an urgency motion 8 5 3 11   8 7 2 9
No of urgency motions 8 4 3 15   8 7 2 7
No of extraordinary urgency motions 1 1 0 0   0 0 0 1
Friday Sittings 1 1 0 2   3 3 1 1
Saturday Sittings 1 0 0 1   0 0 0 0
Question Times     81 86       87 87

 As I said earlier, not all urgency is the same. Urgency sessions which extend past Thursday into Friday and Saturday are the “worst” as they seriously disrupt MPs scheduled activities in their electorates. The number of urgency sessions in 2010 is slightly more than in 2001 and 2004, but the number of Friday and Saturday sessions is reduced.

This indicates the Government is using urgency to extend sitting hours on Wednesdays and Thursdays, but generally avoiding Friday and Saturday sessions. This puts pressure on select committee attendance and means MPs have to stay at Parliament until midnight instead of 10 pm (or 6 pm on Thursday) but apart from that isn’t too bad.

Extraordinary urgency is very rare, as it needs the permission of the Speaker.

Urgency normally takes precedence over all other business, so it has traditionally meant that question time and/or private members day is cancelled. Indeed, it has sometimes been suggested that Governments go into urgency to avoid question time. But as you can see the number of question times is as high or higher in 2009 and 2010 than it was in 2006 and 2007. This is because the Government has deliberately sought to include provision for question time in urgency sessions. This is commendable, and it would be good to have standing orders change so that question time always occurs, regardless of urgency.

So what’s the overall position in terms of the current Government and urgency:

  1. The total number of sitting hours in 2009 and 2010 are consistent with 2000 and 2001.
  2. The number of hours spent in urgency were higher in 2009 and 2010 than any other year, reflecting an increase in the average number of hours the House sits each week, but fewer sitting weeks.
  3. The total number of bills being passed is not significantly changing
  4. National has so far passed 17 bills under urgency, bypassing select committees. This is a massive increase on past practice. Labour on average only passed 4 bills per term under urgency bypassing select committees. Such a high level of select committee circumvention undermines good parliamentary practice.
  5. Thoe House has gone into urgency more often than in the past, but the number of urgency sessions extending beyond midnight Thursday have not increased.
  6. Despite the increase in the use of urgency, the number of question times has stayed constant, as the Government has generally maintained them during urgency

Some thoughts or recommendations for all parties and/or MPs and to consider for the future:

  1. That standing orders be changed so that a bill can bypass select committee stage only with approval of the Speaker (as is needed for extraordinary urgency).
  2. That standing orders be changed so that question time automatically carries on, even if the House is in urgency
  3. That the number of sitting weeks be increased, hence reducing the need for so much urgency, from 31 to 33 by reducing the number of two week recesses from five to three.
  4. That standing orders be amended to distinguish between “extended sitting hours” which would merely extend the sitting hours on Wednesday and/or Thursday and full urgency (where you specify particular bills, and the House keeps going until they are disposed of)

 I quite like the suggestion Grant has made, that you could have the House sitting as the Committee of the Whole on Wednesday and Thursday mornings. This would free up House time more for first, second and third readings.

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