Votes must be held on emergency and routine legislation. How to overcome the obvious practical difficulties as the pandemic spreads?by Hannah White / March 19, 2020 / Leave a comment
Like the rest of us, parliament has been slowly coming to terms with the implications of coronavirus. After a few days of busily burying their heads in the sand and assuring everyone that nothing has changed, MPs and peers finally bowed to the inevitable and began adjusting their working practices like the rest of the country. If parliament is to keep fulfilling its role and not grind to a halt under the weight of infection and self-isolation, it is crucial that it adapts—and rapidly.
Key among parliament’s responsibilities is to pass any legislation the government needs—both routine laws required to run the country (tax-levying powers must be renewed annually, for example) and emergency powers that the government decides it needs as the pandemic unfolds.
The government already has powers under the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 that include quarantine, detention and compulsory medical examination but, once used, these lapse after 28 days if parliament has not had an opportunity to consider them. The government has also responded to the Covid-19 pandemic by introducing new regulations. These are to allow health officials to impose restrictions on any individual or group who might spread the virus, to enable increased screening and to ensure all public health officials notify of any Covid-19 cases. More secondary legislation may well be required.
And the government has also said it will ask parliament to pass new primary legislation to deal with the wider effects of the virus—changing the rules for courts, health care settings, employers and so on. Parliament will obviously need to be sitting to do so, but there is considerable scope for it to adapt its procedures to reduce the risk of spreading the virus without breaking with any significant constitutional norms.
With several MPs confirming they have tested positive for the virus and guidance on social distancing being to keep two metres away from other people, MPs seem now to have accepted that squashing into the chamber is no longer sensible. We have seen the odd sight of Boris Johnson taking Prime Minister’s Questions in a quiet and sparsely populated Commons. Wherever possible, votes which require MPs to rush through the confined spaces of the division…