Parliament is back in business after the initial lockdown forced it to close. MPs are expected to be physically present in the House of Commons, except for those who are at high risk of coronavirus or have caring or parental responsibilities. Those MPs will be able to take part in some proceedings remotely and exercise their vote through a proxy system.
The House of Lords have begun hybrid proceedings which will be used to conduct all business in the House, including legislation. Peers will be able to participate in business, either physically in the chamber or online.
These new proceedings, including the continued need to respect social distancing, mean that almost every aspect of parliamentary business will take longer, thus reducing the time available for legislation, scrutiny and other business.
The consequences for parliamentary business
Parliament’s staff and the Procedure Committee have been working overtime to ensure that parliament can work as effectively as possible, given the limitations. But no amount of careful planning or innovation can remove some of the serious issues that have arisen.
First, there is a legislative logjam. There is huge pressure on the parliamentary timetable because of the new working arrangements and a queue of bills is now waiting to enter committee, the stage when MPs consider them in detail and discuss how they might be improved. There are only two general committee rooms on the Committee Corridor large enough to accommodate the minimum membership of a public bill committee under socially distanced conditions. The rumoured shortened summer recess could give more time to consider legislation.
Second, scrutiny will suffer at a time when it could not be more important. When Peers debate the Agriculture Bill in two days’ time, on 10 June, they will have to keep their speeches to two minutes which limits the number of points they will be able to make. Given the limited resources available and the inevitable prioritisation of primary legislation, the scrutiny of other legislation in committee could suffer. And, as this is the ‘nuts and bolts’ of our legal system, scrutiny really matters.
Why the Environment Bill must make a speedy return to parliament
Several important bills are now waiting in the wings for the green light to proceed. As the flagship in the government’s legislative programme, every day the Environment Bill is delayed raises questions. It was good to hear Environment Minister Rebecca Pow’s hopes that the bill would be back before recess in our World Environment Day podcast. A more concrete timetable would be very welcome.
The timetabling of bills is not just down to the government; the opposition plays a key role too through what’s mysteriously termed ‘the Usual Channels’. This is basically where the whips from both sides get together and decide on the order of play and timetabling of legislation. For any whips or friends of whips reading this blog, here are three reasons why the Environment Bill should be brought back quickly.
The first is timetabling. The size of the bill means it can’t be squeezed in between other things. It still has 18 sessions of committee left. The longer its return is delayed, the greater the chance it will run out of time and its scrutiny will be detrimentally squeezed. The first part of the bill contains provisions that must become law before the end of the implementation period on 31 December 2020, so the clock is ticking. These include the new environmental watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection, which ministers have assured parliament will be ready to act from 1 January 2021. That can’t happen unless the Environment Bill is passed by then.
The second is that the bill is urgently needed. It is just the first step in laying the legal foundations to address the crisis in nature and provide the government with the necessary tools to ensure that the economic response to the pandemic is environmentally led.
The third is political intent. The government has promised to have the most environmentally ambitious programme of any country on earth. Labour has pledged to tackle the climate and environment urgency and recognised the “great responsibility” that comes with debating this bill. The public wants a nature-rich world, clean air to breathe and a thriving society which is kinder to the planet. The Environment Bill promises to deliver all of that, so it’s vital that it comes back to parliament soon.