politics

Covid: MPs to vote on renewing emergency powers


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Part of a London street is cleared of diners ahead of the 22:00 BST curfew

MPs will vote later on whether to extend emergency powers given to the government to tackle coronavirus.

Dozens of Conservative MPs are demanding more parliamentary scrutiny of the multiple restrictions in place.

Talks are continuing ahead of the vote in an attempt to reach a compromise and prevent any rebellion.

Business Secretary Alok Sharma said ministers were “looking at” the options but defended the need to act quickly to save lives as cases rise.

During a BBC interview, he rejected suggestions that many ministers did not understand the varying rules in force across England – after Boris Johnson apologised for stumbling over them on Monday – and criticised what he suggested were “gotcha” questions intended to catch people out.

Ahead of Wednesday’s vote, Conservative MP Steve Baker, one of those seeking more checks over the government’s powers, said it was “a fork in the road” moment.

The BBC Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg said Mr Baker and others, who will meet Chief Whip Mark Spencer later, were an “organised and determined group” who had the numbers to potentially defeat the government, even though it has a Commons majority of 80.

Questioned as he entered Number 10 ahead of a Cabinet meeting, Mr Spencer was asked: “Are you going to give MPs a say?” He replied: “Yeah we are.”

The Commons is to vote on whether to renew coronavirus legislation passed at the start of the pandemic in March, which gives the government sweeping powers to act but has to be extended every six months.

The government is facing growing calls for more parliamentary scrutiny of its Covid policies, amid concerns that recent interventions, such as the “rule of six” limit on social gatherings, the 10pm closing time for pubs and local restrictions in the North East, have been announced with little warning and without being considered by MPs.

‘Reasonable offer’

A growing number of Tory MPs believe the multiple restrictions are confusing and, in some cases, disproportionate. even though they have often been imposed at the request of local leaders.

Former Welsh Secretary David Jones said he could not accept swathes of his country being put into lockdown by “ministerial fiat”.

Dozens of Tory MPs are backing an amendment by Sir Graham Brady calling future regulations affecting the whole of England only to be introduced if Parliament has the opportunity to debate and vote on them in advance.

However, it is thought unlikely that Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle will select Sir Graham’s amendment for debate.

Mr Baker said he and others would “gladly back down” if the government came up with “a reasonable offer which we can accept”.

But, if not, he said they “are not going to go away and we will have to keep on battling on, as I say, with a fierce resolve to preserve the institutions which we are proud of and which we wish to defend in the public interest.”

The business secretary told the BBC that he hoped all MPs understood the government’s priority was to save lives and to avoid having to take “more draconian” action in the future, such as a blanket lockdown.

“What colleagues are asking for is there some way, prior to decisions being made, whether they can be involved,” he told Radio 4’s Today.

“That is something we are looking at and we will come forward with some suggestions.”

What are the coronavirus powers?

The powers that ministers are using to respond to the pandemic are based on two Acts of Parliament.

The Coronavirus Act, an emergency piece of legislation fast-tracked through Parliament at the end of March, grants extensive powers to the authorities to tackle Covid.

It was used to close schools, postpone elections and stop mass gatherings. It also allows the authorities to forcibly quarantine anyone testing positive for the virus.

It is due to remain in force for two years, although there is a six-month review on Wednesday, when MPs will decide whether it should continue.

But most of the major interventions – including the national lockdown and the current local restrictions across England – are based on much-older legislation going back nearly 40 years.

The 1984 Public Health (Control of Disease) Act, passed by Parliament during the Thatcher era, gave her government and its successors very broad powers to deal with medical emergencies.

Successive measures to control the virus, such as the mandatory wearing of face masks in shops and the “rule of six” limit on gatherings, have been introduced through regulations linked to this law.

Regulations are legislative instruments which must be approved by Parliament but are often not debated.

They can subsequently be amended to authorise further restrictions although ministers are required to review the initial regulations every 28 days when Parliament is sitting.

The Health Protection Regulations 2020, which introduced the lockdown, came into force when Parliament was not sitting in late March and were retrospectively approved in early May.

In some cases during the pandemic, government policy has been based on voluntary guidance which, while it does not have legal force, has often been more restrictive.

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