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October 1, 2020

British govt offers MPs greater say over virus laws

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P
Pa
October 1, 2020

LONDON: Boris Johnson’s government has been forced to promise MPs a vote over major coronavirus laws “wherever possible” after being accused of treating Parliament with contempt by the Commons Speaker.

In a strongly worded statement, Sir Lindsay Hoyle hit out at the “totally unsatisfactory” way that Parliament had been sidelined, with new laws being brought in without scrutiny and sometimes published just hours before coming into force.

But the Speaker threw Johnson a lifeline by saying there would not be a vote on a rebel Tory bid to require the government to give Parliament a greater role in future. In an effort to placate Conservative critics, Health Secretary Matt Hancock offered a concession over new national measures.

“For significant national measures, with effect in the whole of England or UK-wide, we will consult Parliament — wherever possible we will hold votes before such regulations come into force,” he told the Commons.

“But of course responding to the virus means that the government must act with speed when required and we cannot hold up urgent regulations which are needed to control the virus and save lives.”

The Commons is expected to back the renewal of the emergency powers in the Coronavirus Act later on Wednesday but more than 50 Conservatives had signed an amendment calling for ministers to give MPs debates and votes on measures.

The amendment, tabled by Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the Tory 1922 Committee, had enough support to inflict a defeat on Johnson if opposition parties backed it. Sir Graham said the move by Hancock showed the government now “understood the importance of proper scrutiny in this place and the benefits that can bring to better government as well”.

The Speaker said he was unable to select any amendments ahead of a vote on the renewal of the powers to avoid causing uncertainty and “undermining the rule of law”. However, he indicated his support for MPs who feel they have been shut out of the process of scrutinising regulations introduced to limit the spread of the virus by curbing people’s freedoms.

“All too often, important statutory instruments have been published a matter of hours before they come into force and some explanations as to why important measures have come into effect before they can be laid before this House has been unconvincing and shows a total disregard for the House,” Sir Lindsay said, just before Johnson faced Prime Minister’s Questions in the Commons.