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Thu, 29 October 2020

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Confusing and inconsistent Covid rules aren’t working – changes to the Coronavirus Act are needed

Confusing and inconsistent Covid rules aren’t working – changes to the Coronavirus Act are needed

You could be hit with a £10,000 fine without any adequate explanation of why you were given that fine and have no way to appeal, writes Harriet Harman MP. | PA Images

3 min read

The Joint Committee on Human Rights has found there is confusion over what is law and what is guidance, leaving people open to unequal levels of punishment for breaking the rules. The law needs to be much clearer going forward.

Most people recognise that to keep up with, let alone get ahead of, the deadly Covid virus, unprecedented restrictions are needed.

As we approach 6 months since Parliament granted the government unprecedented powers in the Coronavirus Act 2020, it’s time for this legislation to be reviewed. The Joint Committee on Human Rights, which conducted an inquiry into the operation of these powers, yesterday published its report and will be publishing draft amendments that we feel are needed.

The law needs to be much clearer going forward.

Undoubtedly confusion was caused when guidance said people should meet in groups of no more than 6, and the law said no more than 30. If police officers all over the country, let alone the public, are to understand the rules, they need to be clear and simple. To help get the message out clearly, there needs to be consistency across the UK.

We’ve seen over the past 6 months the police sometimes get it wrong, especially when the law changes so quickly

Everyone understands that local infection rates need local measures, but policy differences across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland create confusion.

For example, if children don’t count in the Rule of 6 in some parts of the UK, they shouldn’t count anywhere. As the Prime Minister is leading on this, he must do better on getting the rules agreed.

Most importantly, there needs to be a way of challenging fines. You could be hit with a £10,000 fine without any adequate explanation of why you were given that fine and have no way to appeal - only the prospect of a criminal court case. 

We’ve seen over the past 6 months the police sometimes get it wrong, especially when the law changes so quickly. They might fine the wrong person by mistake or misunderstand and misapply the ever-changing law. There must be at least an opportunity for administrative review, if not a full-blown appeal.

The laws need to be consistently applied to everyone.

We are all bound by the rules and they should apply in the same way to ministers and their advisors as they do to members of the public. This is vital for us to feel like we’re all in it together. It’s time for the Prime Minister, the Cabinet and their special advisors to lead by example, or risk being fired if they put a toe out of line. The ministerial code should be amended to make this crystal clear. 

Parliament should be involved.

The government has brought new laws into effect without laying them before Parliament, under the argument they don’t have time. The law should be amended so that new powers lapse after 7 days if they are not brought to Parliament and retrospectively approved. Yesterday evening, the Committee published an amendment to the government's motion that Parliament will debate next week, to renew powers insisting on new safeguards.

The government is under huge pressure, but their decisions need the insight and legitimacy of Parliament.

Parliament does not want to hamstring the government, but it can help it do better.

 

Harriet Harmon is the Labour MP for Camberwell and Peckham and chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights. 

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