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 House of Commons Committee concluded that
"Within the sunset provision was a six-monthly review which allowed Parliament to vote on a motion which would keep the Act in place or not. The Committee has concerns about this procedure which was ultimately a ‘take it or leave it’ motion and did not allow for amendments. This had a deleterious effect on Parliament’s ability to scrutinise and amend emergency provisions. Future legislation of this kind should address this."
The full summary read:
With the ‘Living with Covid’ announcement from the Government on 21st February 2022, we now have a better idea of how the country will be moving away from the rules imposed by legislation like the Coronavirus Act 2020 (“the Act”) during the pandemic. We also know that with the exception of the four non-temporary provisions which are being absorbed in to separate legislation, all other non-temporary provisions will fall at the expiry date of the Act (midnight on the 24th March). With that in mind, the Committee wanted to look back briefly at the Act and the scrutiny mechanisms available to Parliament.
The first of these was the sunset provision, which is more commonly known as the sunset clause. This set a two-year expiry date, (pending six-monthly re-approval), on the Act. The Committee noted that that these clauses should be carefully considered in any future legislation. The inclusion of a sunset clause is a useful legislative tool, but it can also lead to stronger and broader powers being passed through Parliament.
Within the sunset provision was a six-monthly review which allowed Parliament to vote on a motion which would keep the Act in place or not. The Committee has concerns about this procedure which was ultimately a ‘take it or leave it’ motion and did not allow for amendments. This had a deleterious effect on Parliament’s ability to scrutinise and amend emergency provisions. Future legislation of this kind should address this.
The Committee also looked at the quality of the two-monthly reports to Parliament which the Government is required to do whilst the Coronavirus Act 2020 is in place. We received evidence which questioned the thoroughness of the reports. However, we note the recent improvements in the reports.
The Committee welcomes the Government’s draft terms of reference for the Covid-19 public inquiry published on Thursday 10th March 2022. The Committee recognises the importance of the inquiry being conducted in a thorough and timely manner to ensure that clear conclusions are reached and recommended improvements to emergency planning are implemented as soon as possible, while the experience of the pandemic is fresh in the mind. We also recommend that a detailed analysis of the necessity and proportionality of each of the sections of the Coronavirus Act 2020 is included in the scope of the UK Covid-19 Inquiry to aid in the drafting of future emergency legislation.
We appreciate the difficulty of trying to legislate for events that have not yet occurred. However, we believe that the Government could allow Parliament to scrutinise draft legislation that sets out, at the very least, a framework to ensure that any legislation necessary in an emergency is up to date, fit for purpose and has sufficient scrutiny mechanisms in place.
The Committee welcomes the Government’s willingness to consider the improvement of data availability going forward. We also welcome the commitment to consider how the use of guidance is used in future legislation, noting that bypassing adequate Parliamentary scrutiny is unpalatable.