The Joint Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill: steps in the right direction for democracy

The government’s draft Online Safety Bill does little to protect democracy from damage caused by online actors, despite a previous commitment to take action. Alex Walker argues that this was an error. Here, he analyses the December report of the parliamentary joint committee tasked with examining the bill. A post in early February will critique the conclusions and recommendations of the DCMS select committee, which published its report earlier this week.

In December, the joint committee tasked with scrutinising the government’s draft Online Safety Bill published its report, the conclusions of which were outlined by its Chair, Damian Collins, on this blog. The committee recommended significant overarching changes to the draft bill, which represents the first major attempt in the UK at online regulation.

Since its publication in May 2021, the draft bill has been subject to extensive criticism, including on this blog. In previous posts, I’ve highlighted that it fails to address online threats to democracy. The government’s 2019 Online Harms white paper acknowledged the seriousness of this issue and set out measures to tackle it. These proposals were then later abandoned.

Positively, the committee noted the government’s change of direction and concluded to the contrary that online harms to democracy should be tackled by legislation. Whilst the committee’s recommendations have their own limitations, if adopted they would better protect democratic processes from online harm than at present.

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18 months of COVID-19 legislation in England: a rule of law analysis

Eighteen months after the first COVID-19 lockdown began, the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law has produced a report analysing the extent to which the government’s pandemic response has changed over the last year so as to address rule of law concerns that were brought to the government’s attention in the early stages of the pandemic. Katie Lines, author of the report, argues that the government has failed to enable proper parliamentary scrutiny, made it hard for public and politicians alike to know what the law actually is, and that its response to rule of law concerns has been lacking.

The initial crisis stage of the pandemic has now passed, and many are asking what lessons can be learnt from the government’s response. Last month the‘lessons learnt’inquiry held jointly by the Health and Social Care Committee and Science and Technology Committee published its first report, and an independent public inquiry into the pandemic is due to launch in spring 2022.

A central question is how far the existing legal framework and institutional arrangements for responding to public health emergencies adequately protect the rule of law. The rule of law is a foundational principle of any constitutional democracy, and should not be set aside during a national emergency: sustained compliance can actively assist an effective pandemic response by promoting transparency, equality, and accountability, among other principles. 

Our main rule of law concerns with the UK’s legislative response to the pandemic can be grouped into two categories:

1. Parliamentary scrutiny; and

2. The accessibility and clarity of coronavirus legislation.

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Reliance on secondary legislation has resulted in significant problems: it is time to rethink how such laws are created

The legislative challenges posed by Brexit and the unusual circumstances of the pandemic have led to a significant increase in the use of secondary legislation. The former Head of the Government Legal Department, Jonathan Jones, argues that mass use of statutory instruments is problematic, and that there should be a fundamental rethink of how and when they are used, debated and approved. He calls for a new Statutory Instruments Act to enable this ‘reset’.

Brexit and the pandemic have led to an increase in secondary legislation

Both Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic have seen the government making increased use of secondary (or subordinate) legislation. This is where ministers make law in the form of (usually) regulations contained in a statutory instrument (SI), under powers conferred by parliament in an earlier Act. It’s ‘secondary legislation’ by distinction with ‘primary legislation’ – Acts of Parliament.

It is easy to see why governments like secondary legislation. The process of making regulations is normally much quicker and easier for ministers than trying to pass a new Act each time.

Well over 600 SIs were made to give effect to Brexit – mainly to make sure that pre-existing EU law ‘worked’ in the UK once we had left the EU. Some of the changes were technical and minor, though others were much more substantial. In addition, ministers have made over 500 SIs to legislate in response to the pandemic – including imposing lockdowns, travel restrictions and the closure of businesses.

There is nothing inherently unconstitutional about this. Secondary legislation is an established part of our system of law-making. It is open to our sovereign parliament to confer whatever powers it wants on ministers, subject to whatever conditions, limitations and procedures it wishes to impose. And ministers are entitled to exercise those powers, subject to review by the courts.

Using regulations to prescribe technical or procedural detail, pursuant to policies and structures set out in Acts of Parliament, is normally unexceptionable and indeed sensible: it avoids parliament being clogged up with unnecessary mundane business. On the other hand, some of the powers conferred on ministers are very wide and go well beyond merely technical or procedural matters. COVID-19 regulations have been used to impose the most intrusive restrictions on all aspects of national life.

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The marginalisation of the House of Commons under Covid has been shocking; a year on, parliament’s role must urgently be restored

A year ago today, the House of Commons returned from Easter transformed by Covid. Since then, accountability for far-reaching government policy and spending has often been limited, many MPs have been excluded from key virtual proceedings, and whips now hold over 500 proxy votes. Meg Russell, Ruth Fox, Ronan Cormacain and Joe Tomlinson argue that the combined effect in terms of parliament’s marginalisation has been shocking, and that there are risks of government becoming too comfortable with decision-making which evades proper parliamentary scrutiny. One year on, more robust parliamentary accountability must urgently be restored.

A year ago today, the House of Commons returned to business transformed by Covid. Since March 2020, the public has lived under some of the UK’s most restrictive peacetime laws, and to support the economy public money has been spent on a vast scale. Yet parliamentary accountability for, and control over, these decisions has diminished to a degree that would have been unthinkable prior to the pandemic. One year on, with lockdown easing, the restoration of parliamentary control and functioning is now an urgent priority.

This post highlights five ways in which the government’s approach to the House of Commons during Covid has marginalised MPs. In a parliamentary democracy, government accountability to parliament is a core constitutional principle. But in a national emergency, when time for normal process is short, the gravity of the situation can require that parliamentary scrutiny be temporarily sacrificed in exchange for broader accountability. Yet the government has failed to keep its side of the bargain. Too frequently, announcements have been made at press conferences, or briefed privately to the media, rather than presented for democratic scrutiny and questioning by MPs. Ministers have sought extraordinary powers while consistently excluding both the House of Commons as a whole, and certain MPs, from participating in proper oversight.

In the early days of the pandemic necessity arguably justified this approach. But a year on, a real risk exists of damaging precedents being set. This is magnified by the fact that some recent developments have accelerated negative trends predating the pandemic. Unless MPs collectively take a stand against parliament’s continued marginalisation by ministers, what was once extraordinary risks becoming the norm.

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Parliaments and the pandemic

Earlier this year, the Study of Parliament Group published a collection of 25 essays on how parliaments across the UK and further afield have responded to the pandemic. They consider not only aspects of the response in the two Houses at Westminster, but also in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Crown Dependencies, New Zealand and other international comparisons, including case studies of the Maldives and Bahrain. Paul Evans summarises some of the themes here.

Executive assertion and parliamentary compliance

As the full scale of the threat posed by COVID-19 began to be recognised, governments wanted to take powers and parliaments were for the most part initially willing to cede them, with little protest when the normal procedures were abrogated. In most cases the legislatures, initially at least, willingly handed over very extensive powers to their governments to make emergency legislation and this was generally done with unusual expedition and, as a result, scant scrutiny.

The problem was perhaps most acute in the area of delegated legislation, resulting in government more or less by decree, as Tom Hickman sets out in his contribution to the volume. At the best of times, the scrutiny of this at Westminster – particularly in the Commons – is open to, and regularly receives, criticism. When actions were first taken to control the pandemic, it was widely suspected that the UK government was deliberately reducing the level of potential parliamentary scrutiny. This suspicion applied to a lesser extent to other executives, which introduced a large number of instruments which took effect in advance of being approved by the legislature.

However, as all the examples, domestic and international, demonstrate, there is an eternal conflict in the procedures underpinning democratic systems between a diversity of voices and a unity of purpose, between efficiency and accountability, between deliberation and decisiveness, and between consent and control. The pandemic, like any national emergency tends to, dramatically highlighted these tensions. In one essay in the volume, Paul Seaward notes that the extent of the use of emergency powers seen in the UK parliament in 2020 is unprecedented in peacetime .

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