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Sat, 28 March 2020

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Some powers in the Coronavirus Bill are draconian and impinge on people’s liberty

Some powers in the Coronavirus Bill are draconian and impinge on people’s liberty

It’s a rule throughout history that governments – even good governments – are quick to take extra powers to themselves and slow to return them, writes Chris Bryant MP.

3 min read

These powers will remain in place for two years. Any measure that restricts liberty should be subject to a renewal clause, so that at the very least Parliament has a say on whether they are still needed.

I don’t doubt for an instant that this is the greatest peacetime emergency we have had to face as a nation and the government will need commensurate and proportionate emergency powers. If it is to stand a chance of rapidly increasing the capacity of the NHS it will have to make special provision for retired doctors and nurses to come back into work. It will want to lighten the administrative burden, too, so that frontline staff aren’t stuck behind a desk. That means doing away with normal rules on certification. It will also want and need additional powers to curtail or prohibit public events and enforce quarantine arrangements, if necessary by force. And it needs legislation to postpone local elections.

As someone who has conducted a lot of funerals in my time, I’m conscious too that if things go badly local government may need to take severe measures to ensure that there is as much dignity in death as possible. The rules on certification and registration of a death will need to be amended temporarily and local authorities may need to take much more drastic and potentially distressing action in relation to cemeteries, funeral homes and crematoria.

Equally importantly, the government will need legislation for whatever package it finally comes up with for Statutory Sick Pay, VAT and National Insurance exemptions.

Nobody will balk at many of these measures – especially where the government is bringing in support for families, individuals and businesses. But some of these powers are draconian and impinge on people’s liberty. Yes, they may be necessarily draconian and yes, the government understandably wants to have every tool for tackling the virus to hand.  But it’s a rule throughout history that governments – even good governments – are quick to take extra powers to themselves and slow to return them.

That’s why I am amazed that the Government is talking about all these powers remaining in place for two years without so much as a by your leave from parliament. Their concession so far is that ministers will make a statement every eight weeks on their use of the powers, but that goes nowhere near far enough. The Civil Contingencies Act 2004 required a government to present any new powers under the Act to be presented to parliament for approval within seven days – and allowed such powers to last just thirty days without their renewal being approved by Parliament. That Act even guarantees that if parliament stands adjourned or prorogued it should be brought back if the government requires an extension.

The powers in this bill that confer an additional benefit to people could stand for two years without explicit renewal, but any measure that restricts liberty should be subject to a renewal clause so that at the very least parliament has a moment to consider whether they are still needed. I would prefer that to be every thirty days, but I accept there may be an argument for an initial period of ninety days followed by regular renewals every thirty days.

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