Speaker urged to convene emergency scrutiny committee amid expansion in executive powers

Posted on the 31st March 2020

  • Statement from the Electoral Reform Society for immediate release, Tuesday 31st March 2020.

Democracy campaigners have urged the Commons Speaker to ‘step in’ and convene a crucial scrutiny committee during recess, following a significant expansion in the government’s powers.

A spat before Parliament adjourned means there is currently no chair of Parliament’s Liaison Committee [1] – a crucial scrutiny body that could play a key role in holding the government to account ‘virtually’ during recess, when far-reaching, life-changing decisions are being made by ministers.

The row over whether a candidate was being ‘parachuted’ in by No 10 caused a delay, and MPs will not now debate the motion to appoint a new chair until at least the 22 April – triggering a ‘slow-motion collapse in checks and balances’, according to the ERS.

As the BBC reports, ‘the unintended consequence that there is no overarching scrutiny mechanism available during the hiatus – a gigantic consequence for a rather niche procedural spat’.

In New Zealand, an opposition-led scrutiny committee has been established to meet several times weekly (online), with full powers to scrutinise the government and call witnesses during the parliamentary recess [2].

After the ERS contacted the Parliamentary authorities [3], Standing Orders were amended before recess to allow Select Committees can now meet virtually during recess.

Some are doing this, but the scrutiny is ‘issue-based and sporadic’ according to the ERS, while many crucial committee hearings have been delayed or cancelled during the coronavirus crisis.

The ERS are calling for the PM, Ministers and officials to be held to account regularly during recess by committee chairs, allowing forensic examination and full use of Parliamentary authority and powers. Some police forces have come under criticism in recent days for ‘heavy handed’ interpretation of new powers.

The call comes after the Prime Minister chaired the first ‘fully online’ Cabinet meeting – a ‘clear sign’ that representative politics can and must continue despite the coronavirus crisis.

The Liaison Committee takes evidence from the Prime Minister on matters of public policy, and monitors departments’ and ministers’ performances.

Darren Hughes, Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society, said:

“The government has seen a vast expansion of its powers following new emergency legislation, and it’s crucial that checks and balances aren’t thrown out of the window due to a Parliamentary spat. We’ve already seen  confusion over how these powers are used, for example by police forces, and that can and must be properly monitored by MPs.

“While it’s welcome that Parliament backed the ERS’ call for Select Committees to meet virtually during recess, this could be stepped up a gear – with the Speaker temporarily chairing the Liaison Committee during this long pause in democratic oversight.

“Far-reaching, life-changing decisions are being made by ministers each and every day right now. Daily press conferences are welcome, but ministers and public officials must be held to account by those with a full suite of powers to call evidence, witnesses and use the full clout of Parliament.

“Cabinet is showing that politics can continue to function during this crisis. Parliament must show the same, with the Speaker leading the way in providing accountability at this urgent hour.”


Notes to Editors

[1] How will MPs hold ministers to account during coronavirus closure? https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-52094017

[2] https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/political/412520/special-committee-set-up-as-parliament-is-adjourned

[3] https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/latest-news-and-research/media-centre/press-releases/campaigners-write-to-speakers-calling-for-extension-of-proxy-voting-amid-collapse-in-attendance/ And see here: https://twitter.com/electoralreform/status/1243083508517568512?s=19

Parliament will be closed until at least April 21st – and could return as a ‘rump Parliament’ with far fewer members able to attend and vote, a ‘pale imitation of proper scrutiny’, according to the ERS  https://www.thetimes.co.uk/edition/news/coronavirus-parliament-to-close-for-at-least-four-weeks-fpkr2g32w

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