Coronavirus: Fears that Boris Johnson will escape scrutiny as parliament is shut down for four weeks

‘I am very uncomfortable that we’re going into recess before the support package for self-employment is announced’

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Wednesday 25 March 2020 10:27
Rees-Mogg fails to give 'guarantee' that parliament will return on April 21

Parliament will be shut down for four weeks to help curb the coronavirus epidemic, prompting fears that ministers will be able to dodge questions about their handling of the crisis.

The planned Easter recess has been brought forward to begin on Wednesday evening, with MPs and peers not due to return until 21 April – and then possibly only in a limited form.

The move triggered fierce criticism in the Commons, where Jacob Rees-Mogg failed to guarantee a return on that date if the crisis worsens.

The Commons leader said the government would aim to be back in four weeks – while Boris Johnson said MPs would be kept informed, which some said was not the same as scrutiny.

“I don’t think it’s the right thing for parliament to go into recess early, and I’m worried at how long it will be until we return,” said Wes Streeting, a Labour MP.

Demanding a guarantee, he pointed to “concerns about the lack of testing for NHS staff, the fact we still don’t have details on support for the self-employed, the fact the health secretary can’t believe he can live on statutory sick pay of £94 a week but we still expect people across the country to do that”.

Sarah Jones, a fellow Labour MP, said all MPs were “Zooming left, right and centre” – holding remote conference calls – and said it must be possible for them to put questions to ministers via video links.

And Peter Kyle, another Labour MP, said: “Normally in times of crisis parliament is recalled, it isn’t closed down.

“So, considering that he is doing something so extraordinary, shouldn’t he also be announcing extraordinary new measures so that we remotely can hold government to account in this time?”

Andrew Adonis, a Labour peer and former cabinet minister, pointed out that Winston Churchill had ensured that parliament found ways of meeting “all through the Blitz”.

The move comes despite growing controversy over the government’s telling construction sites to remain open where possible – and workers that they must carry on turning up.

Mr Rees-Mogg said ministers were exploring how scrutiny could be maintained, insisting: “Parliament is not being closed down, the date for returning has been set.”

Parliament is expected to return for two weeks to pass the finance bill needed to enact the Budget and make progress on the immigration changes after Brexit.

But the authorities are believed to be exploring a system where MPs sit for just two days a week – probably Tuesday and Wednesday – with limits on numbers.

A Labour spokesman told The Independent its scrutiny would continue, saying: “We have engaged constructively with the government to ensure that the emergency legislation to deal with the unprecedented coronavirus crisis could be passed quickly.

“Given the circumstances, it is appropriate that parliament goes into recess slightly earlier than planned.”

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