The Covid-19 virus, our personal health and safety and the response by the government and public health authorities are rightly occupying much of our work and home life at present. A rapid metamorphosis in how parliament operates is underway to deal with the threat. This could lead to both opportunities and challenges for how we engage with parliamentarians, how laws will be scrutinised and how the government will be held to account.
Legislation to deal with the virus has moved at breakneck pace
The government published its Coronavirus Bill on 19 March. It was debated in the Lords on 24 March and was given Royal Assent on 25 March. Described as “extraordinary legislation for extraordinary times” by the Institute for Government, the bill grants government ministers, public health officials and in some cases police officers, wide powers to contain the spread of the virus. While the powers in the bill must be exercised only where necessary and proportionate and last for two years, this does highlight how quickly and efficiently new laws can be made where there is an urgent need. Parliament will have an important role in monitoring how the powers are used, especially once the current outbreak has receded.
The operation of Parliament needs to change
As the Leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg, said in Business Questions on 19 March, “we need to ensure that the legislature is operating efficiently, even if it has to operate differently, to ensure that we carry out our proper role”.
There are many changes on the way. Tuesday’s Order Paper in the House of Commons included a temporary order to facilitate remote participation and reporting by select committees until 30 June. It’s not yet clear whether such arrangements would also extend to bill committees.
Westminster Hall debates were suspended, votes were conducted more slowly to allow for social distancing, MPs collaborated to avoid over-populating the Commons and there could be electronic signing of Early Day Motions.
With parliament now on an extended Easter break for the next month, this gives the House authorities time to put in place some of the measures that could allow parliament to operate safely, effectively and more virtually during this time of crisis.
Innovation must be allowed to flourish
Parliament is rich on tradition and conventions. It’s clear that innovation must now also join this list. Embracing technological developments, such as video conferencing, would enable parliament to operate more safely but could also allow it to engage more widely across the UK, following in the footsteps of initiatives such as the citizens’ assembly on climate change. Earlier this week, the Petitions Committee held an evidence session on the government response to Coronavirus. The Committee wanted to give a voice to communities across the country, and received an unprecedented 45,000 questions from the public, following parliamentary petitions with more than 1.8 million signatures. It’s clear the public appetite to engage with our elected representatives remains high.
Three questions which must be addressed:
What will happen to critical legislation related to EU exit? The Environment Bill has been paused part-way through its Committee stage and the Fisheries and Agriculture Bills are similarly in limbo. The Trade Bill was only published last week and has yet to start its parliamentary journey. Each contains essential legal provisions related to Brexit, so their passage and scrutiny remain of utmost importance.
How can stakeholders engage with select committees when these may be operating virtually with constrained capacity? This could be especially important for technical committees that monitor secondary legislation, such as the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments and Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, as well as those scrutinising time critical legislation or policy measures, including the government’s Covid-19 plans and response.
With campaigners calling for the Covid-19 rescue response to be green, what role can parliament play in enabling this? Last May, parliament declared a climate and environment emergency. That hasn’t gone away and we all must play our part in enabling this to remain part of the political narrative and government priorities.
For more insights about what the COVID-19 crisis means for parliamentary processes and public engagement with important environmental legislation, listen to the interview between Ruth and parliamentary expert Sir David Natzler on our podcast now.