Parliament’s role in the coronavirus crisis

This latest report from UK think tank the Institute for Government looks at the role of parliament in the evolving coronavirus crisis.

The government’s ‘wartime’ approach will become less appropriate as the coronavirus crisis develops and a greater parliamentary role will be needed in decisions about lifting the lockdown. Decisions over imposing the lockdown had to be made at pace, but decisions on the exit strategy do not need to be made as rapidly – and must be made more transparently. With parliament set to perform its functions in a ‘virtual’ form once it returns next week, parliament can ensure that the UK’s coronavirus response is effective, legitimate and lawful. This paper points to evidence that MPs have already made a difference on statutory sick pay, support for renters, loans to businesses and guidance on social distancing for key workers. However, so far parliament has had no role in approving the lockdown and only a limited role for MPs is planned. The paper urges the government to rethink this, warning of possible legal challenges if ministers make decisions without putting legislation before parliament. Parliament’s involvement is particularly important during the prime minister’s recuperation from his own illness: while the government’s actions are not legitimised by his personal mandate, it is all the more important that they are legitimised by a mandate from parliament. The paper calls for the government to: secure parliamentary approval for the lockdown regulations at the earliest opportunity; ensure that the lockdown regulations are renewed by parliament; regularly commit to making statements to MPs explaining any decisions taken in mandatory ‘reviews’ of the lockdown; put primary legislation before parliament if there is any uncertainty over whether existing laws give ministers the powers they need to respond to the pandemic; expose itself to the same scrutiny it would have faced if it had responded to the crisis using the Civil Contingencies Act, rather than relying on other laws.

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