The period of ‘emergency’ legislation is over. This week, MPs took less than 90 minutes to debate and renew the draconian Coronavirus Act and all its executive powers to suspend elections, close ports, ban protests and detain ‘potentially infectious’ citizens. Is this, perhaps, the new normal?
The controversial Act had sped through parliament on a three-day emergency timetable with barely a glance before the March lockdown on the promise of greater scrutiny in the weeks and months to come. It was a promise unfulfilled. If you thought three days to pass an Act of constitutional significance that incurred the greatest suspension of liberties in peace-time was too little, then 90 minutes six months later was an “utter, utter disgrace,” as Sir Charles Walker MP furiously put it.
Strangely enough, this fast-tracked legislative approval happened amidst a Conservative backbench rebellion against – er – fast-tracked legislation. Backbench MPs, led by Sir Graham Brady, demanded prior debates and votes on sweeping restrictions and lockdown laws and made a credible threat to inflict a government defeat if they did not get it. Matt Hancock gave a watery promise that prior votes will be offered only on “significant” national laws “where possible”, merely restating the default role of parliament as though it were something to be grateful for. This was hardly a concession, but a shattering reflection of how deeply power has been vested in Ministers’ hands.
We are not a democracy simply on the promise of parliamentary scrutiny, but the actual performance of it. But like the Grand Old Duke of York, Sir Graham marched his sizeable rebellion, on which so many had pinned their hopes, back down the hill. The irony is that in the course of arguing for more time to scrutinise and vote on legislation, not much scrutiny of the Act actually happened and half of the House refused to vote.
What this dreadful Act really needed was a thorough cross-examination, a dissection of the facts, an evaluation of necessity and proportionality. If only there were a highly capable QC in the Opposition who were actually willing to do the job.
Keir Starmer’s strategy to stand by on matters of such magnitude, passively watching Ministers rule by decree and Tory liberals fight within their own party for democracy, is reprehensible. With lives, liberties and the economy at stake under this expansive Act, all but six Labour MPs abstained on Starmer’s instruction. Following the Napoleonic maxim to ‘never interfere with an opponent when he’s in the process of destroying himself’ could not be more cynical in this moment, with so much at stake.
The former DPP could have mustered an opposition on the basis that, if nothing else, every single one of the prosecutions under the Coronavirus Act so far has been found unlawful by the CPS on review. Even the counter-terror years did not produce detention powers so extreme, arbitrary and unchecked that 100pc of prosecutions were unlawful. But it was left to the rebels – an unlikely motley crew of liberals and leftists, spanning Sir Graham Brady, Steve Baker, Rebecca Long-Bailey and Dawn Butler – to propose an amendment to repeal the detention powers.
This parliamentary debacle is a sign of things to come. Ministers will cling to failed powers for the sake of pride, Starmer will stand by like a furloughed management consultant, vaguely assuring everyone there was a better way to do it without explaining how, and meanwhile we risk losing the country we loved.
This is a moment when we desperately need people across the political spectrum with the courage to put principles before power. And although the Coronavirus Act rebellion may have been a damp squib this time, it was a serious warning shot – and the Government ought to be on guard. Because with fresh diktats this week banning dancing in bars and prescribing decibel limits for music, overnight lockdowns, changing rules dictating every inch of our work, family and social lives, and students held captive from their friends and families, a rebellion may well start to grow among the public too.
by Silkie Carlo, Director of Big Brother Watch