By Andrew Allison
Last week, Health Secretary Matt Hancock told MPs that "for significant national [Covid-19] measures with effect in the whole of England or UK-wide, we will consult Parliament; wherever possible, we will hold votes before such regulations come into force." Earlier this week the 'rule of six' was debated, and yesterday Covid restrictions in the North East, North West and the North of England were too. The time allocated for each of the debates was a measly 90 minutes.
After Business Questions this morning, Grahame Morris, Labour MP for Easington, raised a point or order with the Speaker. He commented that backbench MPs yesterday had "150 seconds to hold the Government to account. The Government have endless time at the Dispatch Box and in the media, but MPs had 150 seconds. Mr Speaker, may I refer to your statement of 30 September before Prime Minister’s questions? In your opinion, does the Government’s handling and the opportunities they are giving to Back-Bench Members square with your advice on 30 September?"
Unlike his predecessor, Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle was not going to be dragged into party politics, but his reply was interesting. He said:
"The 90-minute limit for debate to which he refers is governed by Standing Order No. 16. However, it would be within the Government’s gift to vary the time limit by a separate business of the House motion. That would be a matter for them, not for me, but I do have sympathy, given how many constituencies were affected. I recognise that if we did have more time, it would allow Members to give their views and opinions to help the Government to be more informed. I hope that that will have been taken on board."
The North West of England region is divided into 75 constituencies. The North East region sends 29 MPs to Westminster, and Yorkshire and the Humber (which I can only assume makes up the rest of the North of England) sends 54. That's a total of 158 constituencies. Not all of them will be under local restrictions, but a high number of them will.
If the Government really was interested in Parliamentary scrutiny, it would have extended the time allowed for debate. Indeed, during last week's debate on the renewal of the Coronavirus Act, Matt Hancock was rebuked by the Speaker after he said that "under the Standing Orders of the House, this debate is 90 minutes, and neither the Speaker nor we had the choice over that." The Speaker replied, "Let me just say that the Secretary of State said that the time could not have been extended. Yes, it could, and I would have agreed to it."
The Government is still doing its best to avoid meaningful scrutiny. It is paying lip service to democracy. Pressure must be put on the Government to give time for meaningful debates on issues affecting the freedom and liberty of all citizens, and MPs whose constituencies face more restrictions should be allowed to represent their constituents properly. Democracy depends on it. But will ministers listen? Based on experience, the answer is no.