Lockdown curtailed parliamentary scrutiny — we need to bring it back
Is Covid just a conspiracy by politicians to grab more power? One of the problems with that theory is motive. Yes, politicians love power — but right up until the pandemic what they used it for was to build a global economy of hyper-mobile, hyperactive workers and consumers.
Lockdown achieved the exact opposite of that.
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However, there is one aspect of lockdown that suits government very well — the curtailment of parliamentary scrutiny. A blogpost from the Constitution Unit at UCL points out that it’s been a year since the House of Commons returned from the Easter 2020 recess in much diminished form.
Obviously, measures had to be taken to stop Covid spreading through our national legislature and executive. The fact that that the disease came alarmingly close to killing the Prime Minister himself was a demonstration of the severity of the threat.
Inevitably, the Commons has struggled to conduct its business in socially-distanced fashion. Forcing MPs to vote in person resulted in farcical situations like the ‘Mogg Conga’, a kilometre-long queue of Parliamentarians.
But worse for democracy are practices like proxy voting. This is how Professor Meg Russell and her fellow Constitution Unit authors describe what’s still going on:
At a time when government is wielding extraordinary powers and spending extraordinary amounts of money, we need more Parliamentary scrutiny not less. Russell and her colleagues remind us that more than 400 Coronavirus-related statutory instruments have been laid before Parliament, an “unusually high share” of which became law without being scrutinised first.
In an emergency, a government has to move at speed — especially when faced with an enemy that multiplies exponentially. But now that the threat is subsiding, the restoration of normal parliamentary procedure — and, indeed, its improvement — is a key test of government good faith.
We need proof that our leaders haven’t got too attached to their emergency powers. Naturally, we’ll look for that reassurance in our lives first — in being allowed to do the things we took for granted before.
However, as important as it is that restrictions on our freedom of movement are lifted, it’s equally important that they are reimposed on the government’s room for manoeuvre.