Ministers must remain answerable for their actions during the Coronavirus crisis
Hallowed traditions must not be used as an excuse to stop not just the House of Lords, but the House of Commons too, doing its job over the next few months, writes Lord Newby | PA Images
Throughout this crisis, it is more important than ever that Parliament maintains its role of scrutinising legislation and holding the government to account in its response.
If you had told me a few months ago I was planning to have the Liberal Democrat peers’ weekly meeting via a digital app called ‘Zoom’, with all 91 of us invited, I would have laughed and said you were mad.
The image will seem comic to many I am sure, but if the G20 can hold its summit through video conferencing, I like to think we will manage.
The House of Lords is often depicted as an archaic and antiquated institution, and some of those criticisms are legitimate. But hallowed traditions must not be used as an excuse to stop not just the House of Lords, but the House of Commons too, doing its job over the next few months.
The coronavirus crisis is unprecedented and of course it is right that Parliament takes every measure to keep people safe. But throughout this crisis it is more important than ever that Parliament maintains its role of scrutinising legislation and holding the government to account in its response. Ministers must remain answerable for their actions.
Parliament also has a vital role to play in improving public policy development by feeding into the process, by drawing to the attention of the Government what is really happening on the ground across the country and raising people’s concerns.
The importance of keeping Parliament going is precisely why we need to change our ways. For example, in my view there is no reason why committees cannot begin video conferencing. Or we look at voting electronically.
Of course, the Liberal Democrats as well as other opposition parties want to work constructively with the Government as it attempts to tackle the spread of coronavirus. But democracies never give the executive a blank cheque. As a Parliament we must retain our ability to provide scrutiny and accountability – and if we do, it will help the Government and the country get through this crisis together.
So as Parliament goes on recess for Easter, the House authorities must set in motion the changes we need to see so that Parliament can continue its vital role. Otherwise Parliament will find itself in the position of discriminating against those who are over 70, those who are disabled, those who have underlying health conditions and those who live outside London and cannot travel to Parliament.
Politicians must practice as they preach and enforce social distancing where possible. It is on each and every one of us to follow the advice and protect those around us. That is why I have written to Parliamentary authorities with various suggestions, such as I have mentioned above, to ensure that no only can Parliament keep doing its job, but more importantly we can do our part in helping stop the spread of coronavirus.
Lord Newby is the leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords.
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