Expanding Emergency: The 1964 Emergency Powers Act

The 1964 Emergency Powers Act was made law on 10th June 1964. It is only two paragraphs long, and received nothing of the intense political and public attention that surrounded the introduction of the Emergency Powers Act 1920 which it amends (see previous blog post). But it does instantiate a significant change in what can count as an emergency for the purpose of declaring a state of emergency. As part of the project on the UK emergency state, we’ve been looking at the Act.

The Act amends the Emergency Powers Act 1920 and makes permanent the Defence (Armed Forces) Regulations 1939 (to use the armed forces in temporary employment in agriculture or other work considered to be of national importance). The amendment involves a seemingly simple change in wording. The 1964 Act reads:

“Her Majesty may by proclamation declare that a state of emergency exists if at any time it appears to Her that there have occurred, or are about to occur, events of such a nature and on so extensive a scale as to be calculated, by interfering with the supply and distribution of food, water, fuel or light, or with the means of locomotion, to deprive the community, or any substantial portion of the community, of the essentials of life.”

(Emergency Powers Act 1964)

The highlighted passage replaces the below in the Emergency Powers Act 1920:

“any action has been taken or is immediately threatened by any persons or body of persons of such a nature”

(Emergency Powers Act 1920)

The change widens the scope of what qualifies as an emergency. In 1920, the emphasis is on the taking or threatening of action by a ‘persons or body of persons’ commonly understood to be trade unions involved in industrial disputes. The 1964 Act substitutes the actions of an agent for the impersonal term ‘events’. Causes are no longer of consequences. Aside from severity of effect or impact, ‘events’ are not qualified. They could be anything. What matters is their effect on the ‘essentials of life’. When introducing the legislation, the Secretary of State for the Home Department makes reference to a very different type of events to the industrial disputes that were in the background to the 1920 Act:

“It was during the prolonged bad weather of last winter that I first started to think about the limitations on our powers to take emergency action in a national emergency. Clause 1 amends the Emergency Powers Act, 1920. When that Act was passed the country was in the throes of readjusting itself to peace-time after the First World War. As many of us remember, it was a time of industrial unrest. That was the problem in view, and so the Act was directed at emergencies resulting from labour troubles. It was confined to them … Its [the 1920 Act] purpose was, and is, to enable the Government of the day to take measures to maintain supplies which are essential to the life of the community. But there is no obvious reason why the Government should be able to take these measures only when supply difficulties are threatened as a result of labour troubles. The threat may come from other causes; from what the insurance policies refer to as an act of God, or indeed from developments in other countries beyond our control.”


(Secretary of State for the Home Department, Mr. Henry Brooke. Second reading of the Bill, 20th February 1964, vol689 cc1409).

The emphasis on events rather than intentional actions (and by implication causes) remains in the 2004 Civil Contingencies Act, the next significant update to UK emergency legislation (more on this Act in another blog post).

Unsurprisingly, it is the necessity of this expansion of emergency that is subject to debate in the parliamentary debate surrounding the Act (a debate that is much more limited and less intense than surrounded the 1920 legislation). The expansion is justified, in part, on the basis of the unforeseeability of future events, by reference to the unforeseeability of past events. Previous weather events play a key justificatory role:

“The sort of contingency we have in mind is an unforeseen calamity of a wholly exceptional kind. Flooding on an even more serious scale than the grave East Coast floods of 1953 is a conceivable possibility. We did not know that those East Coast floods could be so bad, till they came. Another possibility is a quite abnormally long freeze-up, worse even than we experienced last winter”.
(Secretary of State for the Home Department, Mr. Henry Brooke. Second reading of the Bill, 20th February 1964, vol689 cc1411-1412).

Weather provides an example of an ‘unforeseen’, ‘exceptional’ event. Other ‘new’ emergencies invoked to justify the bill include: mechanical breakdown of nuclear power stations, abnormal weather conditions, natural disaster e.g. floods, stoppage of essential supplies from abroad, and the combination of these eventualities with industrial action. For example:

“The Bill is so drafted that it would be possible for an emergency to be declared under it because of a situation resulting from a combination of natural events and human actions. For instance, a situation leading to the declaration of an emergency could have resulted from a combination of industrial action and abnormal weather conditions suet as might have occurred but did not, fortunately, occur during the very severe winter of last year”.

(The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Mr. C. M. Woodhouse, Emergency Powers Bill, Commons, 20th February 1964)


“Furthermore, in the complex industrial life in which we live today products are being manufactured which have never been manufactured here before, and new scientific techniques and devices are being adopted. It is, therefore, right to visualise the possibility of a quite unforeseen disaster occurring”.
(Sir S. McAdden, Emergency Powers Bill, Commons, 20th February 1964)

In the face of the unforeseen and the exceptional, possessing emergency powers in potential is rationalised as part of what it means to be a responsible government. Hinting to the concern with futures that are happening in that period across government, the bill is presented by the government as an ‘insurance policy’ and ‘wise exercise in foresight’.

“I think that the Bill as a whole is a wise exercise in foresight. It is an insurance policy against contingencies—remote contingencies, perhaps, but real ones nevertheless. It is an insurance policy which costs nothing, except a period of Parliamentary time, and I hope that the House will regard the whole Bill as an improvement in the law which we ought to make.”
(Secretary of State for the Home Department, Mr. Henry Brooke. Second reading of the Bill, 20th February 1964, vol689 cc1414).

Of course, it is precisely the actual or potential ‘cost’ of such legislation that critics of the expansion attempt to articulate in the parliamentary debate (a debate which lacks the intensity of the 1920 debate, conducted as it was within an atmosphere of industrial dispute). Many of the objections are typical of debates around emergency legislation in the twentieth century, and remind us of the different forms of contestation that have always surrounded emergency legislation. They principally concern the power granted to the executive and the role of such powers in democracy. Some comments express a fear or anxiety about the state. There are also some limited attempts to deny the problem of the unforeseen and claim that the government’s existing powers are sufficient. The problem is one of whether past events provide sufficient rationale for the possibility of the kind of future events invoked to justify this type of legislation. Again, the problem is the weather:

“Had the Home Secretary given one situation or an example of one imagined situation in which it would have been necessary to have the Bill to make regulations I would have felt more convinced by his case. Instead of that he simply mentioned the cold weather and floods—I forget what else—and I hope that he will try to find a situation which is a possible situation. I do not mind if it is only barely imaginable, but I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will think of a situation relating to the happening of some natural event which would make it desirable to make regulations under the Bill if it became law” …

(Sir Frank Soskice, MP, Second reading of the Bill, 20th February 1964, vol689 cc1416-17)

Nevertheless, what is striking is how limited objections are in principle, despite the significant expansion of what kind of occurrence can count as an emergency. The Act is part of a wider story, then, about the expansion of the problem of the ‘unforeseen’ to any event alongside an expanded sense of not only what threatens to disrupt, but also the contingencies that prudent government should prepare for.

Ben Anderson and Rachel Gordon

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