Coronavirus measures were introduced just hours – sometimes minutes – before taking effect, while ministers mixed restrictions which were guidance with those which were law at the height of the Covid pandemic, a cross-party group of peers have found.
The House of Lords Constitution Committee said in a report released on Thursday that there had not been enough parliamentary scrutiny of laws introduced to tackle the pandemic, with ministers failing to set out the law clearly, misstating the law, or claiming legal requirements that did not exist.
And the peers said legal changes were often set out in guidance or at press conferences, where on a number of occasions the law was misrepresented.
The report came as part of an inquiry launched by the committee on the constitutional implications of Covid-19 and the use and scrutiny of emergency powers.
Baroness Taylor, chair of the Constitution Committee, said: “Since March 2020 the Government has introduced a large volume of new legislation, much of it transforming everyday life and introducing unprecedented restrictions on ordinary activities.
“Yet parliamentary oversight of these significant policy decisions has been extremely limited.
“The vast majority of new laws, including the most significant and wide-reaching, have come into effect as secondary legislation and without prior approval from Parliament.
“When scrutiny is limited through the fast-tracking of legislation, or the extensive use of secondary legislation, essential checks on executive power are lost, and the quality of the law suffers.”
Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle repeatedly expressed his displeasure at ministers making announcements via televised press briefings instead of the Commons during the height of the pandemic last year.
And the Lords committee report said that because these legal changes were often set out in guidance, or via press conferences, “the consequence has been a lack of clarity around which rules are legally enforceable, posing challenges for the police and local government, leading to wrongful criminal charges, and potentially undermining public compliance”.
“We acknowledge that there have been a number of occasions throughout the Covid-19 pandemic where legislative measures have been urgently required to limit the spread of infection,” Baroness Taylor said.
“That does not, however, justify the publication of significant measures hours—and in some case minutes—before taking effect. Emergency legislation is never an acceptable alternative to effective government planning for periods of crisis.”
She said: “Government guidance and public statements have – on multiple occasions – undermined legal certainty by laying claim to legal requirements that do not exist. The Government does not have, and must not assume, authority to mandate public behaviour other than as required by law.”
The committee report added: “The approach adopted in response to the pandemic must not be used to justify weakened parliamentary scrutiny of Government action in response to any future emergencies.”
Sam Grant, head of policy and campaign and human rights group Liberty, said: “During the pandemic, this Government has frequently made drastic changes to our rights and freedoms with barely a moment’s notice with next to no oversight from Members of Parliament.
“But this is not the only way it is attempting to make itself untouchable, and the pandemic only served to exacerbate this trend – not start it.”
He added: “We urge MPs to support this report – and to stand up to the much wider threat to democracy in the UK today.”
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