How effective has parliamentary scrutiny been during the COVID-19 crisis?

Normally, the relationship between the government and Parliament is characterised by the dominance of the executive. However, there are exceptions to this, for example when there is a minority government. This was seen during the 2 years before the 2019 general election, when both Theresa May and Boris Johnson struggled to pass legislation — particularly in relation to Brexit — and backbenchers asserted themselves more. In this period, the legislature became stronger and the executive weaker. However, since the 2019 election, Johnson’s government has had a healthy majority. In normal times, this would indicate that the UK is moving back to a period where the executive dominates the legislature.

At the start of the crisis, the Coronavirus Act formed the central part of the government’s response to COVID-19. The Act was passed by Parliament in just 4 working days, in March 2020. The speed at which it was passed might suggest that it was subjected to relatively little parliamentary scrutiny, demonstrating the strength of the executive. The Act has given the government an enormous range of powers, largely to impose new regulations in response to COVID-19. These can be introduced without parliament scrutiny.

In addition, Parliament did not sit for a month during the first lockdown, making parliamentary scrutiny of the government impossible. Even when Parliament reconvened in April, scrutiny was difficult as much of the work had to be done remotely. This included questions to ministers and committee hearings. Opposition Day debates and adjournment debates, used by MPs to scrutinise the government, were not held.

In the period up to September 2020, Parliament passed a significant amount of legislation, adding more to the coronavirus regulations. However, this was done through the government creating ‘statutory instruments’. Unlike normal legislation, MPs cannot amend these and can only vote to approve or reject them. By September, 247 of these instruments had been laid before Parliament. This suggests the government was using this method to avoid meaningful parliamentary scrutiny. Even the Commons Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, criticised the government for announcing policy via the media rather than in Parliament, stating that the government had treated Parliament with contempt. This all suggests a lack of effective parliamentary scrutiny.

The Coronavirus Act is both temporary and time limited. Built into the Act was the requirement for a review, by Parliament, after 6 months. There has therefore been a discernible increase in the level of parliamentary scrutiny of the government since September. Some of the impetus for this came from Sir Graham Brady, a leading Conservative backbencher, who chairs the 1922 Committee (an influential group of Tory backbenchers). Pressure also came from backbenchers such as Steve Baker, who helped to set up the COVID Recovery Group, a committee of Conservatives who are concerned by the use of lockdowns.

As a result of pressure from backbenchers, Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced to Parliament a new approach that would allow the government to ‘make decisions and implement them fast, yet also ensure they are scrutinised properly’. This required the government to consult Parliament much more and hold parliamentary votes about new regulations, leading to a much greater level of parliamentary scrutiny in the last quarter of 2020.

In October, for example, the government announced the three-tier system of restrictions in England. This was approved in a parliamentary vote. However, 42 Conservative MPs rebelled against the government introducing a 10 p.m. pub curfew. The decision to move in November to an England-wide lockdown was also voted on in Parliament. And while the government won the vote convincingly — 516 votes to 38 — Sir Graham Brady and 31 fellow Conservatives rebelled by voting against the government.

On 1 December 2020, with England about to move out of national lockdown, Parliament voted on the new three-tier restrictions. The restrictions were passed, but the vote was 291 to 78. There was a significant rebellion by 55 Conservative backbenchers — the biggest rebellion that Johnson has suffered since leading a majority government. Had opposition MPs not abstained, the government may have been defeated. However, in order to prevent a larger rebellion, Johnson was forced to concede a so-called ‘sunset clause’ — with the three tiers (as they were at that time) scheduled to come to an end in early February 2021. This would all suggest that Parliament is becoming more assertive as the crisis goes on.

In the British system of parliamentary scrutiny, the opposition plays a crucial role in holding the government to account. In the early period of the crisis, Labour’s opposition was limited by the fact it was in a leadership contest to replace Jeremy Corbyn. When Sir Keir Starmer won the leadership, Labour’s approach was to provide what Starmer called ‘constructive opposition’. In reality, this meant reducing the level of criticism normally expected from the opposition. As the crisis developed, Starmer started to criticise the government much more, especially during Prime Minister’s Questions. In October 2020, Labour moved away from supporting government policy when Starmer accused Johnson of ‘losing control’ of the pandemic. Subsequently, Starmer called for a national ‘circuit-breaker’ lockdown. This was followed by criticism of the government for the lack of financial support to areas in local lockdowns. However, Starmer whipped Labour MPs to abstain in the December vote on moving to the three-tier system, a decision that meant the government was able to avoid a potential major parliamentary defeat. It is therefore open to debate as to how effective the opposition has been in scrutinising the government during the COVID crisis.

In conclusion, it would seem reasonable to suggest that in the early months of the crisis, parliamentary scrutiny of the government was relatively weak. However, from September 2020 onwards, both Conservative backbenchers and Labour MPs have been more willing to criticise government policy, which would suggest parliamentary scrutiny has begun to increase and become more effective.