On 14 October, Boris Johnson spoke about the “misery” a second national lockdown would cause. But this week, his Government once again imposed lockdown restrictions upon the British public. On Wednesday, MPs took just three hours to debate and vote on the new lockdown legislation which Iain Duncan-Smith, the former leader of the Conservative Party described as “the second largest decision that any Government has taken since the Second World War”. Despite the clear magnitude of the decision, the Prime Minister himself was absent for almost all of the debate.
By a margin of 516-38, Parliament voted in favour of the legislation which restricts the ability of families to meet, denies freedom of assembly, prevents religious ceremonies from taking place and gives the police the power to impose hefty fines upon members of the public who are deemed to be in breach of the rules.
The regulations, which were published less than 24 hours before the start of the debate in Parliament, prohibit the entire population from “leav[ing] or be[ing] outside of the place where they are living without a reasonable excuse.” There is a long, complex list of exemptions to this requirement, which include to buy goods from any business or service permitted to open, for exercise, for the purposes of work (if it is “not reasonably possible” to work from home) and education. Breaching the rules could land an individual with a fine of up to £6,400. Anyone found to be the organiser of a gathering of more than 30 people could also face a Fixed Penalty Notice of £10,000.
Opposition to the measures was once again largely limited to a small group of Conservative backbench MPs which included former Conservative Party Leader Iain Duncan Smith and former Prime Minister Theresa May. No Labour, Lib Dem or Green MPs voted against the legislation. However, those raising their concerns about the new measures dominated the debate.
Chairman of the 1922 Committee Sir Graham Brady criticised the intrusive nature of the Government’s approach to COVID-19 regulations stating:
“I want to ask whether the Government actually have any right to take the measures they are taking. What troubles me most is that the Government are reaching too far into the private and family lives of our constituents. There is an arrogance—unintended, perhaps—in assuming that the Government have the right to do so, that they have the right to tell people whether they can visit their elderly parents in a care home; that they have the right to tell parents and grandparents that they cannot see their children or grandchildren; and whether they have any right, for heaven’s sake, to tell consenting adults with whom they are allowed to sleep.”
Former whip and MP for the Forest of Dean, Mark Harper raised his concerns, which we had also raised in our briefing, about the expansion of powers of force when it came to COVID-19 legislation. He said:
“One further reason for me is that these regulations also give the power to use reasonable force to enforce them to officers of the state who are not trained to safely use that power. The Secretary of State knows I have raised this on the Floor of the House and with him and his Ministers. I had understood a review was to take place to remove it. That power should only be used by police officers who are properly trained to safely use it. For those reasons, I am unable to support the Government and will be voting against the regulations later today.”
In a passionate speech, Conservative backbench MP Sir Charles Walker spoke to wider concerns about the gradual creep of invasive and authoritarian policy-making:
“I will not live in fear of the virus, but I am living in fear of something much darker, hiding in the shadows, and when the sunlight returns, and it will return, I hope that it chases those shadows away, but I cannot be sure that it will. I cannot be sure, and that is at the heart of my anxiety and the anxiety of so many of the people whom I represent in this place.”
Only two Labour Members of Parliament spoke in opposition to the restrictions, though they did not vote against them. MP for Blackley and Broughton, Graham Stringer, spoke about the need for broader and more transparent information from the Government when he said:
“There are two reasons for a lockdown: to save lives, and to buy time to improve the situation. I do not believe that, when one looks at the details, the Government have provided the information necessary to vote on those issues”
His colleague, Derek Twigg, MP for Halton said that he would not support the restrictions due to the “hardship” that they would cause to his constituents.
Big Brother Watch sent a briefing to every single MP in advance of the debate. We are seriously concerned about the inadequate scrutiny of the Government’s coronavirus measures. We have long held that the Government will fail both to protect health and to uphold the democratic values our country is built upon as long as it relies on complex and ever-changing criminal sanctions.