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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Wales has put effective legislation in place to make the Senedd polls COVID-safe

For the sixth time since devolution in 1999, voters in Wales have the opportunity to participate in a Wales-wide election, with all 60 seats of the Welsh Parliament in play. Elections across the UK were postponed last May due to COVID-19, but the ones set for this spring look like they will go ahead. Toby James and Alistair Clark argue that Wales has taken significant steps to ensure that voters are able to participate in a safe and fair election.

To postpone or not to postpone? That has been the question facing elections scheduled for May across the UK. All of these contests are important, but those being held in Wales have a special importance for Welsh citizens. They will have the opportunity to elect all 60 members to the Senedd Cymru (Welsh Parliament). It will be the sixth general election since devolution in 1999 – but the first time that 16- and 17-year-olds will be able to take part.

The pandemic, however, has led to arguments about whether elections should be postponed. There is a health argument for postponement. Restrictions have been put on many aspects of life in order to prevent the spread of the virus. But the quality of the election can also be compromised by the pandemic. Restrictions on campaigning might be in place, such as bans on leafleting, which smaller parties have complained are unfair on them. So what should be done?

The evidence from around the world

As part of an ESRC-funded research project, we have been tracking how elections have been run around the world since the pandemic began, in collaboration with International IDEA and the Electoral Integrity Project. We have published case studies that have described the experience on the ground, alongside data on the measures put in place to make elections COVID-safe.

Many countries did postpone for a while. Elections have been postponed in at least 75 countries since last February. But at the same time, over 100 eventually held their contests. Proposals to postpone elections are at first glance associated with undermining the democratic process and denying citizens their right to vote. Postponements, as was shown in a recent article in Election Law Journal, are not all just power grabs by would-be dictators or incumbent governments. They can be for multiple different reasons, and there is a humanitarian case for postponement where there is a threat to human life. 

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Boris Johnson and parliament: misunderstandings and structural weaknesses

On 21 January Unit Director Meg Russell appeared on a panel with two former Conservative Chief Whips, reflecting on Boris Johnson’s troubled relationship with parliament as Prime Minister. In this post she presents her central arguments – that the Johnson government in its early months has seemed to demonstrate some basic misunderstandings about parliament and its role; but also the government’s behaviour has highlighted some of parliament’s key weaknesses.

In early September 2020 I wrote a blogpost on Boris Johnson and parliament, which documented 13 unhappy episodes in 13 months. I had originally aimed at producing a list of 10 such episodes, but found that there was just too much material. Some of the incidents were obvious – such as the attempted prorogation the previous September, ultimately ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court. Others have continued to bubble along unhappily in the subsequent months – including the persistent refusal by Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg to provide time for MPs to debate and agree proposals from the Procedure Committee to allow them to work virtually during the pandemic (frequently covered on this blog – see here and here), and the sporadic suggestions from government sources that the House of Lords should move to York. Some incidents were more obscure, but worth recalling for the record – such as Downing Street’s attempt to impose Chris Grayling as chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee (which rather dramatically backfired).

Of course that post was written five months ago, and the list continues to gets longer. It predated, for example, the dramatic showdown with former Conservative leaders over the government’s Internal Market Bill. It predated the announcement of the new Christmas lockdown rules during Commons recess, and the government’s refusal to allow a recall to debate them – despite protests by numerous Conservative backbenchers. It noted Johnson’s excessive first round of Lords appointments, but not his second within six months – both in clear breach of the Lord Speaker’s hardfought attempts to control the size of the chamber. It predated Johnson’s overruling of the House of Lords Appointments Commission’s recommendations on propriety, for the first time by any Prime Minister in the Commission’s 20-year existence.

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Taking back control: why the House of Commons should govern its own time

Various high-profile tensions between parliament and government – including over Brexit and COVID-19 – have focused on what the House of Commons can discuss and when. In a major new report published today, Meg Russell and Daniel Gover highlight the problems that result from the government’s default control over the Commons agenda, and make proposals for reform. They argue that the fundamental principle guiding House of Commons functioning should be majority decision-making, not government control. 

The last few years have been turbulent ones in the House of Commons. First over Brexit, then over COVID-19, tensions between government and parliament have sometimes run exceptionally high. This was perhaps predictable during 2017-19 under minority government, but has remained the case subsequently despite Boris Johnson’s 80-seat Commons majority.

A common theme throughout this period – as highlighted in a major new report, published today – has been frustration about the extent to which the government decides what MPs can discuss and when. Brexit saw headlines about MPs ‘seizing control’ of the Commons agenda (some suggesting that this marked the ‘end of politics as we know it’), followed by worldwide media attention on the government’s attempt to prorogue parliament (ultimately overturned by the Supreme Court). During the COVID-19 pandemic, complaints have focused on parliament’s limited opportunities to scrutinise ‘lockdown’ restrictions, and ministers’ resistance to MPs’ ability to participate in the Commons virtually. On all of these matters, MPs have struggled to secure debates on their own priorities at key moments – despite the Commons’ status as the senior chamber in a supposedly ‘sovereign’ parliament. Even when lacking a Commons majority, ministers have generally been able to exercise agenda control.

Controversies about government control of the House of Commons are nothing new. At one level, they are part of a tussle for dominance that dates back centuries. In more recent times, they were a key focus of the Select Committee on the Reform of the House of Commons (generally referred to as the ‘Wright Committee’) which reported in 2009. It recognised ‘a feeling that the House of Commons, as a representative and democratic institution, needs to wrest control back over its own decisions’, and made a series of recommendations to achieve this. Some – including the election of select committee members and chairs, and establishment of the Backbench Business Committee – were implemented. But others were not. The failure to resolve these issues helped fuel the tensions of recent years.

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