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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A woman’s place is in the House: reclaiming civility, tolerance and respect in political life

Dame Laura Cox, author of a 2018 report into the bullying and harassment of House of Commons staff, argues that the behaviour of too many parliamentarians is misogynistic and a cause of capable women MPs leaving parliament, or having to accept behaviour that would not be permitted in any other workplace. She says that this is in part an institutional problem, and calls for a more open, tolerant, respectful and conciliatory politics.

We are living currently in a very angry world. Our parliament, the central institution of our representative democracy, should be setting an example of tolerance and civility, but instead, civility and willingness to compromise seem to have faded. Political discourse generally has been impoverished by antagonism and extremism. Those more constructive qualities of reflection, cooperation, collaboration and consensus seem to have fallen by the wayside.

In addition to bitter, adversarial politics, there has been an upsurge in reports of abuse, intimidation and assault. In recent years, independent inquiries into events at Westminster – including my own report into the bullying and harassment of Commons staff – have recorded a disturbing number of acts of bullying, harassment and sexual harassment alleged by members of staff and MPs against other MPs, as well as among staff and members of the House of Lords.

The macho behaviour and posturing so frequently displayed in our political debates have disproportionately and adversely affected women in public life. The women affected are not only politicians. Women journalists, academics, campaigners and political activists have all reported instances of intimidation, abuse and even physical violence. In June 2016 a serving MP, Jo Cox, was brutally killed on the street in broad daylight.

Why has our politics become so misogynistic? There are, in my view, a number of contributing factors, including the still unacceptably low numbers of women politicians; the rules and customs of the parliament where they serve; and the resistance to change of parliament as an institution.

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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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Deliver us from EVEL? Is the government right to abolish ‘English Votes for English Laws’?

Following reports that the UK government is considering abolishing the ‘English Votes for English Laws’ procedures in the House of Commons, Daniel Gover and Michael Kenny argue that, although EVEL has some flaws as a solution to the ‘West Lothian Question’, abandoning it will also leave open bigger questions about how England should be represented within British parliamentary government.

According to a recent report in The Times, the UK government is preparing to abolish the ‘English Votes for English Laws’ standing orders in the House of Commons. This suggested that ministers have already been consulted on the move and look set to lend it support. The change would also need to be approved by MPs, but only a single vote in the Commons would be needed to make this important constitutional change.

That such a move is being considered by the current government is surprising and unexpected in equal measure. Proposals for various forms of EVEL, as an answer to the infamous ‘West Lothian Question’, have been championed by the Conservative Party ever since the advent of Scottish and Welsh devolution in the late 1990s, and have featured in every one of its general election manifestos between 2001 and 2015. Despite agreeing to an independent commission, the Liberal Democrats ultimately blocked this reform during the period of coalition government. It was only in October 2015, once the Conservatives held power alone, that the change was implemented. Few would have expected that a government with such a strong focus upon English voters outside large urban areas would seek to repeal it.

One part of the explanation for this may be an increased willingness of the current Conservative government to disown elements of the Cameron legacy. But it also reflects the influence of a rising current of ‘neo-unionist’ sentiment within the party, which believes that the imperative to secure Scottish consent, in the wake of growing support for a second independence referendum, is more important than English grumbles about the West Lothian anomaly. This is perhaps ironic, since EVEL was envisaged by its architects as a means of assuaging discontent with the Union, by protecting against a situation in which MPs from outside England’s borders could make the difference on England-only legislative decisions.

What is also notable about the idea of repealing EVEL is that little sense of how it has operated has informed this declaration of intent.

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