With Parliament now on a pause for four weeks, serious questions are being asked about how life-changing decisions will be scrutinised at this time of crisis.
In March, Parliament voted through a raft of emergency powers for the government’s use in the fight against COVID-19. Straight after, Parliament ‘broke up’ earlier than planned, as meeting in person was no longer tenable given the pandemic. So who is holding ministers and officials to account?
Earlier this week I wrote about how Parliaments around the were handling the crisis –from a designated Select Committee in New Zealand, to a rollout of ‘proxy voting’ (representatives voting on isolating colleagues’ behalf) in several US states. The European Union too has moved to e-voting and committee hearing via video link.
Commons Liaison Committee?
One proposal from the ERS was for the Commons’ Liaison Committee – which grills ministers and officials – to hold sessions online, able to drag in the Prime Minister and other ministers while Parliament was in recess.
This Committee comprises of all the elected Chairs of the Commons select committees – meaning it can have real clout and broad policy expertise.
The problem with this, however, is that while the chairs of select committees have now been elected (elections for members and chairs are held after every General Election), this is not yet the case for the Liaison Committee.
The government tried to get around this by installing an ally as the chair of the Liaison committee. Other chairs on the Liaison Committee opposed this decision to appoint someone who was not already a member as chair – Sir Bernard Jenkin. That’s despite examples of Liaison Committee chairs not being members themselves occurring before, such as with Robert Sheldon (chair between 1997 and 2001) and Alan Williams (2001-2010)
With MPs now not debating the motion to appoint Sir Bernard until 22nd April – in other words, after recess – this means the government will be given an almost free reign on its policies for a month, including during the expected peak of the virus.
This is incredibly worrying, particularly given that the last couple of elections have removed several experienced ex-ministers and backbenchers, further impacting both the quantity and quality of government scrutiny now undertaken.
We need to avoid the ‘slow-motion collapse in checks and balances’ of government scrutiny. We would do well to follow the likes of New Zealand, whose opposition-led scrutiny committee now meets several times a week – with the full powers of a normal parliamentary committee.
It’s also worrying when you consider that the daily press conferences – while often useful – are run by No 10, rather than a proper scrutiny forum that would see members summon witnesses, evidence and properly challenge officials.
In the UK, one suggestion that had been gaining traction is a move towards a ‘virtual Parliament’. What could it look like?
Some progress has been made. After the ERS contacted the Parliamentary authorities, the Speaker allowed Commons select committees to hold meetings online.
And just this week, the ERS joined cross-party MPs in calling for the Speaker to establish a ‘virtual Parliament’ – proper cross-party scrutiny and debates, meeting online – while MPs are unable to meet in person.
On Thursday, the Speaker backed the calls for a ‘virtual Parliament’ during recess. The ERS are urging the Leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg, to offer the full cooperation of the government on this, in the interests of the public.
Every day there are fresh signs that we are in unprecedented times. This should not, however, extend to removing all the existing channels of government scrutiny. Quite the opposite. The handling of a national emergency involved making hundreds of contested, complicated and sometimes controversial decisions that should be held up to the spotlight – from the rollout of testing, to the police’s response to enforcement guidance, to Personal Protective Equipment and more.
Measures now implemented across the world, from e-voting to e-committees must be rolled out quickly if we are to emerge from this crisis as a strong, democratic country. It is time for us to step up to this challenge.