So what did you think of the six month review of the Coronavirus Act 2020 last week? You know, the one that happened on Wednesday at Westminster? If you didn’t know about it, you’re in good company. It had virtually no MSM coverage and the debate itself was a measly hour and a half long. For a bill which imposed sweeping emergency powers on the UK and which was rushed through in four days in March, it seemed like less than decent haste.
The key feature about the debate, was something that is becoming a signature for this government. The review was a ‘take it or leave it’ review. Parliament was not given the power to amend the act in part- that is, take out the bits that weren’t working and leave in the rest. They either had to accept the whole act or reject the whole act. Given that coronavirus isn’t going away any time soon, no reasonable MP wanted to cancel all the legislation associated with it. However, it meant that Parliament itself could not apply proper scrutiny. In the end, most of the Conservatives voted for the motion. Labour abstained and so did the SNP. A smattering of Conservatives, Lib Dems and Labour MPs actually voted against it. William Wragg, the Conservative chair of the scrutiny committee that has been responsible for monitoring the Coronavirus Act, didn’t get to speak. He voted against it as well. It was blackmail of a peculiarly parliamentary kind.
The power of amendment has been given instead to Cabinet ministers via statutory instrument (secondary legislation). This is a procedure where an amendment to legislation gets placed before the House and if there’s no objection after 21 days, then it goes ahead, but even this has been truncated, where the amendment is being immediately enacted, and being approved later. So far there have been 173 statutory instruments related to this legislation. That in itself is a case for a thorough debate and review by Parliament, but it didn’t happen. It was all the more unjust considering that the original bill was put through in four days and when there was already legislation (the Civil Contingencies Act) that could have been used instead.
In short, the government’s conduct over this was an absolute disgrace. It was also alarming. We spoke in an earlier article (The Baroness, the Privy Council and Scotland) about growing executive creep and the battle between Parliament and the executive for control of legislation. This is further evidence of the kind of liberties with law making that Westminster intends to take when Brexit comes upon us. It is no comfort that at a point where we might want to make our voices heard that we are subject to laws that allow unprecedented powers of arrest, detainment, dispersal of assemblies and curfew. It is also no comfort that there is a deafening silence from the press about what is going on in the halls of Westminster.
So what does this all mean for Scotland ? Well, one power that the Coronavirus Act contains, is the power to postpone elections. And Scotland has arguably the most important elections since devolution next May. It isn’t clear from the legislation whether general elections come within its purview, (it initially applied to local elections ) but given that this straw in the wind appeared a couple of weeks ago, the Scottish government appear to think that postponement is a possibility and could come within the scope of the act.
Of course people have to be sensible. Of course we have to be considerate of other people’s health and well being. But we must also be careful that one of the last opportunities that we have to make our voices heard in Scotland and have a plebiscitary election is not taken from us under the cloak of coronavirus.
It’s time for Scottish MPs to make a stink. They need to be questioning every decision taken under this legislation and getting it into the press. If necessary, object to the secondary legislation being passed and force a debate on it. It’s not customary to do this, but nothing is customary now and there is no respect from this government for the democratic norms of Parliament.
The next review of this act is in March. The ground needs to be prepared well before then. And in the meantime, the Scottish Government should be working out every last detail of how an election could be held under coronavirus restrictions. This is not a time to meekly throw the towel in and go for postponement. Doing that could have consequences far beyond coronavirus and far beyond the power of Scotland and its people to remedy.