Parliament and COVID-19: the Coronavirus Bill and beyond

sir_david_natzler.smiling.cropped.3840x1920.jpgThe Coronavirus Bill introduced by the government last week will be debated by parliament in circumstances where it is harder for both Houses to meet, scrutinise and vote than at any time in recent memory. How should parliament respond to both the legislation and the crisis that prompted it? Former Clerk of the Commons David Natzler outlines the key issues facing MPs and peers as they consider how parliament should function in the coming months.

Just as the dust is settling on the first phase of the Brexit marathon, and the Constitution Unit and others are examining the role played by Parliament over the past three years, COVID-19 presents itself wholly unexpectedly as a challenge to all the nation’s institutions. Parliament was settling in for five years of single-party majority government and it looked as if, Brexit deal aside, it would be relatively smooth sailing. Now parliament faces the challenge of fulfilling its role in a COVID-19 environment.

The Coronavirus Bill

The government published its Coronavirus Bill on Thursday 19 March, having already revealed the policy proposals to which it gives effect in its Action Plan (published on 3 March) and a more detailed prospectus (published on 17 March). The bill has 87 clauses and 27 Schedules, totalling 321 pages of legislative text. The Explanatory Notes run to 73 pages, and there is a 31-page long memorandum on the implications for human rights.

Commons scrutiny

The bill is to be debated in the House of Commons on Monday 23 March for a maximum of six hours: up to four hours on second reading and two hours for committee of the whole House and remaining stages. The House decided on 18 March to disapply the EVEL Standing Orders in relation to the bill, so it will be spared the rigmarole of forming a Legislative Grand Committee.

It has been possible to table amendments since the bill was introduced. Four amendments and four new clauses were tabled on the day of its publication, and more may be expected in so-called ‘manuscript’ form on the day. They mainly address the issue of for how long the Act will be in force. The bill establishes that its provisions will apply for two years, with provisions for individual powers to be ‘sunsetted’ earlier or indeed revived if it falls due to a sunset clause. It also provides for a general debate in both Houses after one year. Both the official opposition and a cross-party group are proposing systems of six-monthly debate and renewal only if the House so decides. It is perhaps significant that the Irish parliament last week passed a similar bill and as a result of amendment decided that it should last for one year. This is an area where some change is likely; both the Scottish Government, and independent human rights organisations such as Liberty, have expressed concerns about the sunset and scrutiny provisions as currently drafted. Continue reading

How would Emmanuel Macron govern without a parliamentary majority?

An Emmanuel Macron presidency would not represent quite the political earthquake of a Marine Le Pen presidency, but in some respects it would nonetheless take France’s political system into uncharted territory. Macron’s En Marche! movement currently has no MPs and, even if it performs well at the parliamentary election in June, it is highly unlikely to win a majority. Andrew Knapp explains what this could mean for a Macron presidency, suggesting that the most likely possibility is the formation of a minority government relying on different majorities on different issues.

Emmanuel Macron could still lose to Marine Le Pen at the second round of France’s presidential election on 7 May. If he continues to behave as if he has already won – which he mostly has since his first-round victory on 23 April – voters could return the favour and stay at home for the run-off. Or he could perform disastrously at the debate with Le Pen set for 3 May. Or a particularly fruity scandal could break over his head (his declaration of his own net worth, for example, looks suspiciously modest when set alongside his earnings when a banker with Rothschild’s). Barring these eventualities, however, Macron will become the eighth President of the Fifth Republic: the margin of victory suggested by current polls (62 per cent to Le Pen’s 38), very much greater than that expected for the Remain vote in the UK, or for Hilary Clinton in the United States, could well be reduced, but is unlikely to be reversed. Macron would also be the Fifth Republic’s youngest president by a margin of nine years (the current record-holder is Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, elected in 1974 at age 48).

What then? Would President Macron govern, or merely reign? To categorise the Fifth Republic as a semi-presidential system, which it broadly is, does not take us very far towards an answer, because semi-presidential systems vary so widely among themselves. France’s President is clearly the EU’s most powerful head of state, which is why he (not, so far, she), and not the Prime Minister, represents France at the European Council. But is he also the most powerful head of the political executive of any EU state? That is more debatable. The formal powers vested in the President by the Constitution of the Fifth Republic are considerable, but quite insufficient to govern as he chooses. To do that, he needs the backing of a parliamentary majority. The chances of Macron getting that, in the legislative elections to be held on 11 and 18 June, are very uncertain.

Untangling those presidential powers that stem from the constitutional text from those that depend on circumstance is a favourite pastime of students of French politics. And the Macron case offers a new terrain for speculation in this area because his victory on 7 May would, in certain respects, take France’s political system into uncharted territory.

Continue reading