MPs must find new ways to scrutinise the life-or-death decisions being made by ministers every day.
Many lives rest on getting the response to coronavirus right. Huge amounts of public money are being spent. It has also been necessary to heavily curtail people’s freedom of movement and rights to gather.
Given the high stakes, public spending and curtailment of civil liberties it is vital that the government is subject to proper scrutiny of its approach to dealing with coronavirus. The daily media briefings are useful for this but they still leave many questions unanswered.
Here are seven ideas for how the government could be held to account over coronavirus.
The Speaker of the House of Commons is working on some of them, such as plans for virtual Prime Ministers’ Questions – but there is more to be done.
1. Epidemic Response Committee
In New Zealand a special select committee, the Epidemic Response Committee, chaired by the leader of the opposition, and with an opposition majority has been set up. It has been meeting remotely via video conference three times a week and taking evidence from a range of sectors including health, business, police, and civil defence. A similar committee could be set up in the UK to scrutinise the government over coronavirus.
2. Virtual Select Committees
The Liaison Committee, which includes the chairs of Parliamentary Select Committees, could take a lead in scrutinising the government’s approach to coronavirus through virtual hearings. Individual Select Committees (e.g. Health, Treasury, BEIS, Public Administration) could hold also hold virtual hearings.
3. Speaker’s Conference
Speaker’s Conferences have traditionally been used to deal with cross-party electoral reform matters. They are generally made up of both MPs and Peers and are chaired by the Speaker. Given the commitment of both the government and the opposition to cross-party working in relation to Coronavirus, a Speaker’s Conference could be an appropriate model for scrutiny of the government.
There are no fixed or statutory rules governing the creation of a Speaker’s Conference. However previous conferences have been established by the Prime Minister issuing an invitation to the Speaker to preside over an all-party conference. The Speaker normally informs the House of his acceptance and explains the terms of reference. There is no need for a formal approval or otherwise by the House. Speaker’s Conferences usually include both MPs and Peers.
4. Virtual Prime Minister’s Questions
PMQs could be held virtually or could be slimmed down to only the Prime Minister, leaders of other political parties and those who have been pre-selected to ask questions. A similar approach could be taken for the questions sections that usually take place for specific government departments.
5. Participation of the Opposition in COBRA
COBRA is shorthand for the Civil Contingencies Committee that is convened to handle matters of national emergency or major disruption. Its purpose is to coordinate different departments and agencies in response to such emergencies.
However, COBRA is meant to be an executive/coordinating body rather than a scrutiny body. One of the criticisms of COBRA is that it draws resources away from more operational duties. There is a risk that involvement of the Opposition could accentuate this problem.
6. Social Partnership
Social partnership is a structured process for bringing trade unions and employers together to discuss and collaborate on issues of mutual interest. Recently, it has been used by the Welsh government and is in the process of being put on a statutory footing in Wales.
The social partnership model could be applied to the current crisis, by creating a coronavirus partnership panel to bring together employers, trade unions and other groups, such as charities and civil liberties organisations. The panel could be used to facilitate cooperation between the government and these group and allow these groups to scrutinise government plans at an early stage.
7. Citizens’ Select Committee / Question Time
A more radical (although possibly complementary) approach would be to have a Citizens’ Select Committee chosen through lottery to scrutinise the government. Alternatively, there could be a citizens’ question time where members of the public are able to question the Prime Minister and other government figures by video conference.
Whichever approaches are used, it is vital that on such an important issue that the government is subject to proper scrutiny. As Keir Starmer has said, this is not scrutiny for its own sake or to score points but because scrutiny improves decision making.
If we want to protect the NHS and save lives to the greatest extent possible, we need to make sure that the government’s approach to dealing with coronavirus is subject to scrutiny and challenge.
Omar Salem is Labour Party member in London.
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