Coronavirus: Boris Johnson avoids rebel vote, but is accused of treating Commons with ‘contempt’

Ministers’ imposition of Covid restrictions without debate has been ‘totally unsatisfactory’, says Speaker

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Wednesday 30 September 2020 12:50 BST
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Speaker accuses government of treating Commons with 'contempt'

Boris Johnson has avoided potential defeat in the House of Commons over emergency coronavirus powers, but was given a humiliating dressing-down by Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle for treating parliament with ‘contempt’.

In dramatic scenes in the Commons chamber, the Speaker delivered a stinging rebuke to the prime minister for pushing through new Covid restrictions affecting millions of people in a “totally unsatisfactory” way.

Up to 100 Tories had been expected to back a rebel amendment this afternoon designed to force ministers to allow future coronavirus restrictions to be subject to scrutiny and vote in parliament before being implemented.

But Sir Lindsay said that procedural reasons meant he could not permit a debate and vote on the amendment, tabled by the chair of the influential 1922 Committee of backbench Tories, Sir Graham Brady.

Instead, MPs will be presented with a straight choice between approving a further six months for the Coronavirus Act, which underpins restrictions to social and economic activity to fight the disease, or striking it out altogether.

However, Mr Johnson did not escape scot-free, as the Speaker unleashed a withering judgment on his record of forcing through changes without debate and providing details of new legal offences on some occasions only hours before they come into effect.

It came just a day after the PM was forced to apologise after he blundered when trying to explain new restrictions on public contact in the northeast of England, which ordinary citizens can now be fined for breaching.

“The way in which the government has exercised its powers to make secondary legislation during this crisis has been totally unsatisfactory,” said Hoyle.

“All too often, important statutory instruments have been published a matter of hours before they come into force, and some explanations why important measures have come into effect before they can be laid before this House have been unconvincing and shows a total disregard for the House.”

Sir Lindsay said the onus was now on the government to “make greater efforts to prepare measures more quickly, so that this House can debate and decide upon the most significant measures at the earliest possible point”.

He said there was “particular concern” over the use of a parliamentary device known as an affirmative statutory instrument, under which measures can be signed into law by a minister with MPs only being allowed to debate them as much as 28 days later.

The Speaker said he was ready to allow emergency debates in such cases to force ministers to come to the Commons to justify their actions.

“I am looking to the Government to remedy a situation I regard as completely unsatisfactory,” he said. “I now look to the Government to rebuild trust with this House and not treat it with the contempt that it has shown.”

Explaining his decision not to select the rebel amendment for debate, Sir Lindsay said that today’s vote was on a “narrow, binary choice” of whether the temporary provisions of the Coronavirus Act should be allowed to expire.

With only 90 minutes available for debate, he said that any amendment to this simple question would risk uncertainty which could mean the issue ending up in the courts.

But he made clear that he hoped there would be an opportunity for a future debate on a “substantive amendable motion” on scrutiny of the Act and ministers’ use of the powers it grants them.

Leading Tory backbench  rebel Steve Baker said: “Mr Speaker's decision is entirely reasonable and his statement will reassure all MPs supporting Sir Graham. I hope and expect to reach a good compromise with the government shortly so we can advance as one team."

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