Coronavirus Act: Senior MPs pile pressure on Boris Johnson over emergency powers ahead of crunch vote

Imposition of restrictions without MPs’ vote ‘not widely acceptable’, warns Commons committee

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Tuesday 29 September 2020 18:57 BST
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Sir Graham Brady
Sir Graham Brady

Ministers’ continued use of emergency powers to force through lockdown restrictions without parliamentary debate is “not widely acceptable” and could be unlawful, the House of Commons’ most senior backbench committee has warned Boris Johnson.

The warning piled yet more pressure on the prime minister on the eve of his likely defeat at the hands of Tory rebels as he tries to secure MPs’ permission to keep using the Coronavirus Act for a further six months.

Former Tory chief whip Mark  Harper said that more than 100 Conservative MPs - easily enough to inflict defeat on the PM with opposition support - are ready to back a rebel amendment on Wednesday.

If selected for debate by Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle, the amendment  would force ministers “as far as is reasonably practical” to ensure Commons votes before any further social or economic restrictions are imposed under the Act or other emergency legislation.

The vote comes a day after Mr Johnson provoked fury among local government leaders in the northeast of England by getting the details wrong on new rules imposed on the region without any debate in parliament and without councils being provided with a full explanation.

Following talks with health secretary Matt Hancock on Monday, leaders of the rebels seemed increasingly confident of a climbdown by ministers.

The amendment’s tabler Sir Graham Brady, chair of the influential 1922 Committee of backbench Tories, told the PA news agency: “They know we have the numbers. So likely to be an accommodation reached.”

Mr Harper told Times Radio: “If there's no compromise, and the government doesn't bring something forward, and there's a vote tomorrow on Sir Graham's amendment, the government will lose, I think that is certain.”

The letter from the Liaison Committee - a 37-member cross-party panel bringing together all the chairs of Commons committees, including four former Tory cabinet ministers - put additional pressure on the PM to back down.

Signed by committee chair and senior Tory MP Sir Bernard Jenkin, it noted “widespread concern” at the exercise of emergency powers to apply “the most exceptional restrictions on individuals and families, with severe consequences for their livelihoods and quality of life”

And it said: “At the outset of the crisis, such measures without parliamentary scrutiny or control were more acceptable than now.

“Various proposals are being made that would require the approval by a vote of the House of Commons before or immediately after new restrictions come into force. The majority of us support this principle and expect that the government will also wish to accept it.

“The idea that such restrictions can be applied without express parliamentary approval, except in dire emergency, is not widely acceptable and indeed may be challenged in law. 

“We trust the Government will accept a suitable amendment or agree a motion to that effect, at the earliest possible opportunity at or before the debate on Wednesday.”

Leading rebel and Tory former minister Steve Baker said the current situation was “extraordinary”

“Ministers have had the ability effectively to rule by decree over the past months,” he told The House magazine. “While we all appreciate this may have been necessary early on to allow the government to take swift action, it is clear we are in a much better position now.

“Of the over 247 pieces of relevant secondary legislation – including the national and local lockdowns – fewer than 5 per cent have been subject to express parliamentary approval prior to their implementation.

“It is extraordinary. In no other circumstances would MPs surrender their influence over such important measures.”

Mr Johnson appealed to MPs ahead of Wednesday’s vote to renew the powers in the Coronavirus Act by saying the nation remained in a “serious situation”.

Answering questions after a speech in Exeter, he rejected suggestions from some of his own MPs that the government is acting like an authoritarian dictatorship in a George Orwell novel.

“Nobody wants to do these kinds of things. Nobody in their right mind wants to stop people singing and dancing in pubs or enjoying themselves in the normal way,” said the prime minister.

“I appreciate the (Orwell) characterisation but if we all work together and get this thing down, get this virus down, then we can keep going with our strategy, keep education open, keep the economy moving and work for the day when I believe that those medical scientific improvements will truly deliver the long-term liberation we need.

“And to deliver it we’ve all basically got to work together and follow the guidance. That’s what I respectfully say to my colleagues in parliament and they will, as I know they all want, have an opportunity to talk about these issues, to debate them properly, and discuss them as parliamentarians should.”

The PM reiterated his commitment to give more regular debates on coronavirus in the Commons and promised that MPs will be able to question the Government’s scientific advisers more regularly.

Some 55 Conservatives have publicly backed Sir Graham’s amendment to the legislation, and Labour have indicated “sympathy”, spelling almost certain defeat for Mr Johnson if it is forced to a vote.

But seven other amendments have been tabled and Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle will not decided which - if any - to select for debate until after consulting with parliamentary clerks on Wednesday morning.

Some constitutional experts believe that he cannot select any amendments, as the scheduled debate on whether to extend the Coronavirus Act for a further six months is a straight ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question.

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