What we can learn from the hybrid Parliament
The 2019-21 session looked as though it would be a return to business as usual. A government was elected with a large majority, and was able to finally push through a Brexit deal and begin to focus on other matters. But then the pandemic hit, and the session ended up being anything but ordinary.
Coronavirus dominated every area of policy—and forced Parliament to experiment with new ways of working. All of this raised one fundamental question: what is the right balance between urgency and scrutiny?
The Institute for Government’s latest annual Parliamentary Monitor report, which looks back across the 2019-21 session, argues that the balance too often—and for too long—titled towards urgency.
This was especially the case on coronavirus. Early on in the pandemic, the government quickly passed the Coronavirus Act within just four sitting days. It also began to make a raft of secondary legislation—which was five times as likely as non-Covid secondary legislation to come into effect prior to parliamentary approval. And ministers began to prioritise direct communications with the public in the form of Downing Street press conferences.
Given the rapidly changing situation in the spring of 2020, when the virus was spreading and the future was uncertain, it made sense for the government to quickly legislate to ensure it had the powers it needed. And in the midst of a public health emergency, when the behaviour of individual citizens really mattered, it was understandable for ministers to try and address the public directly.
But these habits persisted throughout the rest of 2020 and into the spring of 2021. Even as the pandemic began to ease—or at least become more predictable—the government still prioritised urgency over scrutiny. For example, our analysis finds that more than one in 10 of all pieces of Covid secondary legislation came into force before Parliament even had sight of them. And major policy announcements all too often emerged first in press conferences or in the media, rather than being made in the Commons—making it harder for MPs to ask timely questions or reflect the views of their constituents to the government. Little wonder, then, that the Commons Speaker was so annoyed he threatened the then-health secretary with “an Urgent Question every day”.
As Parliament returned to in-person working this week, the government still seemed focused on urgency over scrutiny
Government’s preference for urgency over scrutiny also spilled over into other policy areas. Its flagship trade deal with the EU was passed through Parliament in just one sitting day — the inevitable consequence of ministers letting negotiations with the EU drag on for so long. And after announcing a cut to overseas aid spending in November 2020, it wasn’t until July 2021 that MPs were finally allowed a vote on the matter—months after the cuts had come into effect.
There are some signs that MPs’ patience is wearing thin. A number of senior Conservative MPs have public criticised the government for its approach to scrutiny. During the 2019-21 session, almost a third of Conservative MPs rebelled against the government — something at least in part tied to frustrations about reduced opportunities for scrutiny.
Poor scrutiny, and a disdainful attitude to Parliament, is not only bad for party management. It is bad for government. Mistakes can be missed. Unintended consequences are a danger.
However, as Parliament returned to in-person working this week, the government still seemed focused on urgency over scrutiny.
The Prime Minister announced plans for tax changes to pay for social care reform on Tuesday—and MPs were asked to approve a motion on the matter a day later. They will have just one day next week to scrutinise the legislation implementing the rise.
As Parliament returns to usual, and virtual sittings end, so government should reset its approach. Ministers should rely less on urgency. They should commit to give more time for scrutiny.
Alice Lilly, is a senior researcher at the Institute for Government.
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