The compressed scrutiny of the Brexit deal is the latest example of a government whose dismissive approach of parliament will ultimately make life harder for ministers, says Dr Alice Lilly
On Wednesday parliament was recalled to pass a bill enacting the UK–EU trade deal. Because the government let Brexit negotiations drag on until just days before the end of the transition period, little time was left for parliamentary scrutiny. The bill passed in one day, with the government’s curtailed timetable and coronavirus restrictions combining to allow each MP just a few minutes to speak – and with dozens more unable to speak at all.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Leader of the House, said that the five hours available to debate the bill in the Commons were appropriate given “that we have now been discussing this subject for four, five, six or perhaps nearly 50 years.” But as he should know, parliament’s role is to scrutinise legislation, and not just rubber stamp it. After all, Rees-Mogg previously criticised the Benn-Burt Act, a backbench bill ruling out a no-deal Brexit, for its hasty passage, telling MPs they “should be very careful about emergency legislation, for they may find they are at the wrong end of it in the future.”
The Future Relationship Bill is only the latest example of Boris Johnson’s government asking parliament to pass legislation with little opportunity for scrutiny. Last year, the government initially planned to take the Withdrawal Agreement Bill through the Commons in just three days.
Then, since the spring, the pandemic has required the government to make decisions that need implementing quickly. This has meant that coronavirus regulations – which restrict the liberties of the public – have often received little debate or have been approved after coming into force. In the early stages of the pandemic, when the government was grappling with a new virus and rushing to pass coronavirus regulations for the first time, a lack of scrutiny was perhaps understandable. But it has persisted since, through several local and national lockdowns. This is less forgivable, given the government is now used to having to make and implement restrictions quickly.
Rushing through legislation may be procedurally possible, but it doesn’t make for good government. By picking through the detail of bills, parliament helps the government spot problems and unintended consequences – its scrutiny improves laws and should be welcomed by ministers.
Earlier this year, during debates over the Coronavirus Bill, MPs were able to highlight flaws and problems that the government had missed. Ministers took these points on board and made changes to the bill, for example, on Statutory Sick Pay. Matt Hancock, the health secretary, acknowledged the role of parliamentary scrutiny in improving the bill, telling MPs that “accountability helps to get the response right.” But the government has not followed through on this by maximising opportunities for scrutiny. Instead, time and again, political expediency has won out and legislation has been rushed through.
Parliamentary scrutiny is uncomfortable for most governments – as it is supposed to be. But the current government seems to view it as an obstacle, forgetting that scrutiny can help them make better laws and pursue better policy. In the long term, this increases the chance of errors and mistakes that may pose problems for the government.
The government’s reluctant approach to scrutiny isn’t just limited to legislation.
Government is answerable to parliament, and so major policy announcements should first be made in the Commons. But as the Speaker has repeatedly pointed out, ministers have developed a bad habit of making announcements in press conferences – or through leaks to the media.
Take the changes to school openings announced on Wednesday. The measures were leaked to the media before the education secretary stood up in the Commons. A week previously, the prime minister announced the new strains of coronavirus and changes to Christmas coronavirus restrictions earlier in December while parliament was in recess, meaning MPs could not question the government.
This makes it harder for MPs to learn more from ministers about policy changes and the evidence behind them. In turn, it denies ministers the chance to learn from parliamentarians. MPs can draw on the situation in their own constituencies, as well as their backgrounds – for example, as doctors – to highlight areas of concern or the need for other changes in policy. This can help improve the government’s work.
The government has also limited parliamentary scrutiny in its approach to the Commons’ procedures during the pandemic. The Lords is working entirely virtually, but in the lower House, where the government has greater influence over procedure, the government has tried to limit virtual proceedings as far as possible.
MPs can participate in questions virtually and were temporarily able to participate in legislative debates on the EU trade deal. They can also vote by proxy, which almost 500 MPs are registered to do – despite the technology existing for remote voting.
Despite the Commons having the ability to sit and vote virtually, the government has chosen to extend Christmas recess by a week. It is understandable that ministers do not want MPs travelling across the country to London, where coronavirus cases are high. But this means that the Commons will not be sitting at a time when the pandemic is surging and a major vaccination programme is beginning – and when mass testing is being rolled out in schools. Some forms of scrutiny – like select committee hearings – will still be possible. But MPs will be unable to ask questions about ministers’ actions at a time of national crisis. There is no good reason for the government to choose an extended recess over a virtual sitting of the Commons.
More broadly, the must government recognise that parliament can be useful. Thinking otherwise is short-sighted. It increases the chance of mistakes and poorly thought-out law. It limits ministers’ access to new and different ideas.
By sidestepping scrutiny now, the government is storing up problems for the future.