David Natzler on Covid-19, how a virtual parliament conducts business, and why politics is a “contact sport”by Alex Dean / April 28, 2020 / Leave a comment
How should parliament function in the age of coronavirus? The government’s new powers are unprecedented in scope, meaning proper scrutiny is more important than ever. Parliament has been dragged into the 21st century over recent weeks, with the pandemic forcing remote working, leading to the unusual sight of elderly peers using Microsoft Teams. With the legislature back in action, can it continue to adapt and hold the government to account during a period of national emergency?
To discuss these questions I phoned David Natzler, who worked in parliament for 43 years—most recently as Clerk of the House, the principal constitutional official, from 2014-2019. Those were some of the most turbulent years in British parliamentary history and included the Brexit vote and its difficult aftermath. Now they look comparatively tame. Had he ever seen anything like the coronavirus legislation before?
“No,” the 67-year-old replied when I put the question to him on Monday, the week after parliament started working again. “I suppose after every major terrorist incident the government brings in new counterterrorist legislation… But it doesn’t give them anything like this range of changes in power, powers over very many ordinary people. No, nothing like that.”
Parliamentary scrutiny of new regulations is thus “absolutely crucial.” “People are entitled to say, you know, ‘is this working properly, these particular provisions, have they been activated, and were they actually necessary?’” The legislation “was obviously raced through and how it’s all working in practice, someone has to keep looking at.”
What does that mean specifically? You have to look at measures’ “legality, whether they’ve gone beyond the vires”—the scope of the Act meant to provide for them—“and the merits of whether [the government has] wisely used the endless powers given them.”
There are also questions concerning “some of the individual items, particularly the thing about social distancing” between people and “whether the 13 or whatever statutory excuses for ‘being out’ could be better phrased,” though Natzler offered no personal view on these exemptions.
There is understandable reticence among some MPs to look like they are compromising a national effort. Some of them “don’t want to seem to be carping at what’s going on, you know, sort of ‘wartime spirit,’ but at the same time, you want to know whether or not” regulations are working.…