The Committee launched an inquiry into the Government’s response to COVID-19 and the Coronavirus Act 2020. This report considers the following matters:
While the Government insisted that the use of the Civil Contingencies Act would have been open to legal challenge, the Committee heard evidence that the COVID-19 pandemic was an appropriate time to use the Act. The Committee was not convinced that the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 could not have been used in response to COVID-19. In particular, the Committee concluded that there was a potential role for the Civil Contingencies Act as a “stop-gap” to permit more detailed scrutiny of the Coronavirus Bill, which was passed and given Royal Assent in just four sitting days. The Coronavirus Act does not include the same strength of safeguards as the Civil Contingencies Act. The Committee recommended that in future if bespoke emergency legislation is passed it should be given safeguards equivalent to those contained in the Civil Contingencies Act, such as regular renewal of powers.
The regulations introducing various levels of “lockdown” were made under the Public Health (Control of Diseases) Act 1984. All such regulations were made under what the Committee described as the “urgent procedure” under the Public Health Act. This meant legislation was brought into force without any form of prior scrutiny. Parliamentary scrutiny is important to improve the quality of legislation and there may have been errors or unnecessary confusion in the lockdown regulations. The Committee concluded that the case for the urgent procedure, particularly for regulations easing lockdown, was not always been justified and the Government should accord greater priority to scheduling debates on such legislation in a timelier manner.
The Government’s use of guidance during the pandemic was also subject to scrutiny. It was not practical for the Government to legislate for every eventuality and guidance was an appropriate mechanism but some of the Government’s guidance suggested that certain activities were banned when they in fact were not. An example of this was the local lockdown in parts of the North of England. On 30 July the Secretary of State for Health said that people were “banned” from meeting indoors with people from different households from “midnight”. But this was not actually given legislative effect until 5 August. The Government misrepresenting the law undermines its own credibility when it seeks to convince the public to follow lockdown and social distancing measures.
The final chapter of the report sets out points of interest for the House for the first six-monthly review of the temporary provisions within the Coronavirus Act. The motion, if negatived, will cause temporary provisions within the Coronavirus Act to be made to expire. The House has no power to compel only certain provisions to be expired. The motion is an “all or nothing” proposition. The Committee concluded that the framework for parliamentary scrutiny of the Government’s approach to COVID-19 is inadequate. The approach that should be taken for emergency legislation is something that the Committee will examine as part of its future work. The Committee has recommended that the Government provide, for that debate, information relating to the original rationale for the temporary provisions in the Coronavirus Act, why those provisions are still justified and the evidence base for demonstrating those provisions are still effective.
Published: 10 September 2020