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Parliament was not given enough of a say on Coronavirus Act, MPs conclude

The cross-party Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee has expressed "concerns" over Parliament's inability to properly scrutinise and amend emergency provisions in the Coronavirus Act 2020 over the last two years.

In the report, Coronavirus Act 2020 Two Years On, the committee criticised Parliament’s inability to amend the Act, the Government’s lack of explanation for the length of the Act’s sunset clause, and the Government’s use of guidance during the pandemic to change the law, among other things.

The "take it or leave it" nature of the six-monthly votes to renew the Act, which meant MPs were unable to object to individual powers and voting down the Act was the "only option", was criticised by the committee.

The report reads: "Whilst we accept the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care's defence of the length of the sunset clause, we have concerns over the lack of ability to amend provisions at subsequent points. The committee welcomes Mr Javid's acknowledgment that Parliament not being able to amend at least some individual provisions after the initial passing of the Act should be included as part of the 'lessons learned' process."

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As part of this, the committee urged the government to ensure that greater consideration is given in future to Parliament's ability to scrutinise and amend emergency provisions whilst not affecting the overall integrity of the legislation.

In regards to sunset clauses, including their appropriate length, the committee said such mechanisms should be considered carefully for any future legislation. "Whilst a useful legislative tool, they can allow for stronger and broader powers than would otherwise be passed by Parliament, and the Government recognised in their evidence that without the sunset clause, this legislation as a whole might not have been approved by Parliament in the way it was," the report says.

It adds that "any future use of sunset clauses in relation to emergency legislation should come with a clear explanation about why the Government believes that the length of the sunset being proposed is proportionate to the emergency being addressed".

The report also says the Government should not have issued guidance for Covid-19 restrictions to overrule legislation as it avoids parliamentary scrutiny and leads to confusion amongst the public and law enforcement.

The committee notes that the use of guidance to change the law and thus avoiding Parliament was "concerning and not a practice that should continue".

The report also set out recommendations for the upcoming Covid-19 public inquiry, which will examine the UK's preparedness and response to the Covid-19 pandemic, and highlight lessons for the future.

As part of the inquiry, the Government should "set out a more consistent approach to publishing all data that inform decision making, including how those data have been utilised, in any future emergency," the report says.

William Wragg MP, Chair of PACAC, said: "It is unsatisfactory that since the Coronavirus Act was passed, in just three sitting days in March 2020, Parliament has been unable to substantively debate its provisions as was promised during its passage. Strong and broad powers such as those in the Act must be accompanied by equally robust parliamentary scrutiny mechanisms, particularly in a rapidly evolving public health emergency.

"The impact of the provisions in the Act on people should be a key part of any lessons learnt exercise. I welcome the government's announcement on the UK Covid-19 inquiry but urge it to allow for evidence sooner rather than later, before memories fade and key learning is lost.

"We have been forward looking in our recommendations in the hope that the Government will heed our concerns in robustly planning for future emergencies in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic."

Adam Carey

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