According to a House of Lords committe, the UK government’s use of emergency COVID-19 powers ‘significantly constrained’ parliamentary scrutiny. Lack of clarity around laws also led to wrongful criminal charges.
In the report published today, the Lords constitution committee states most coronavirus laws – ‘including the most significant and wide-reaching’ – came into effect as secondary legislation, many cases without the prior approval of parliament. The report states:
‘When parliamentary democracy is operating as it should, significant policy decisions should be enacted in primary legislation subject to full scrutiny by parliament,’
‘The government chose not to include a general lockdown power in the Coronavirus Act 2020. Had it done so, parliamentary oversight of the use of lockdowns in England in response to the Covid-19 pandemic would have been improved.’
Baroness Taylor, chair of the Constitution Committee, said:
“Since March 2020 the Government has introduced a large volume of new legislation, much of it transforming everyday life and introducing unprecedented restrictions on ordinary activities. Yet parliamentary oversight of these significant policy decisions has been extremely limited.
The vast majority of new laws, including the most significant and wide-reaching, have come into effect as secondary legislation and without prior approval from Parliament. When scrutiny is limited through the fast-tracking of legislation, or the extensive use of secondary legislation, essential checks on executive power are lost, and the quality of the law suffers.
We acknowledge that there have been a number of occasions throughout the COVID-19 pandemic where legislative measures have been urgently required to limit the spread of infection. That does not, however, justify the publication of significant measures hours – and in some case minutes – before taking effect. Emergency legislation is never an acceptable alternative to effective government planning for periods of crisis.
Government guidance and public statements have – on multiple occasions – undermined legal certainty by laying claim to legal requirements that do not exist. The Government does not have, and must not assume, authority to mandate public behaviour other than as required by law.”