UK: Renewal of the Coronavirus Act: Emergency powers need parliamentary scrutiny


Six months after it was passed into law, the Coronavirus Act is due to come before parliament for a vote on its renewal. However, renewing the act would allow the government to continue passing new laws without any parliamentary scrutiny of individual measures. This would mean the continuation of what one former Supreme Court judge has called government by decree.

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A rebellion against the renewal of the Act has been brewing for a while, with dozens of conservative MPs calling for an amendment that would require parliamentary scrutiny of new measures.

The government, for its part, argues that it needs to act quickly to respond to the pandemic - although many would argue that it is in fact largely responsible for the continued spread of the virus, due to a series of ineffective and counter-productive measures introduced since March. Thus, greater parliamentary scrutiny would not only ensure democratic accountability but may actually improve the response to the situation.

Lord Jonathon Sumption, a former Supreme Court judge, has said that "we have been governed by ministerial decree since March and in a democracy that is a very serious issue, whether you agree with the Government's measures or not."

Sumption pointed to the 2004 Civil Contingencies Act, which confers extensive emergency powers on the government - but unlike the Coronavirus Act, regulations made under the 2004 legislation can be amended by parliament and must be approved by a vote every 30 days.

The former lord chief justice of England and Wales, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, has said the measures introduced by the Coronavirus Act are "draconian" and that proper parliamentary scrutiny is required to ensure democratic accountability and the rule of law.

Despite rising concerns, the wording of the Coronavirus Act may mean that a vote on a proposed amendment that would introduce regular parliamentary scrutiny of new regulations will not be permitted, reports The Guardian:

"...constitutional experts have said they believe the unusual circumstances of Wednesday’s vote – which does not create new legislation, merely giving a choice over whether to continue an existing law – means Hoyle [the speaker, who determines what gets put to a vote in parliament] would be unlikely to allow any amendments."

As of midnight last night, 59 MPs - including 52 conservative MPs - had backed the motion to amend the Act. The Conservative government currently has a majority of 80 in parliament.

With the vote due tomorrow, it remains to be seen whether the amendment will be introduced and put to a vote. Nevertheless, both Liberty and Big Brother Watch are continuing with their campaigns calling for the Act to be scrapped altogether.

Liberty argue that:

"The Government has an obligation to take steps to protect people’s lives and this involves restrictions on individual freedoms.

But in times of crisis, states have a habit of going too far.

Viruses are not cured by removing people’s rights and freedoms, but that is exactly what our Government has done – treating the pandemic as a criminal justice issue, prioritising immigration control over human life and failing to protect the marginalised.

Liberty has always supported proportionate action to protect lives. This isn’t that. The Government needs to scrap its current coronavirus policies and focus on a response that protects our rights."

Research by Big Brother Watch published earlier this year found that every charge made under the Coronavirus Act's detention powers - at that time, 141 people had been charged - had been found unlawful by the Crown Prosecution Service upon review.

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