A parliamentary committee has called for the pending public inquiry into the government’s handing of the coronavirus pandemic to take a look at ministers’ use of emergency powers after concluding that public trust was compromised last year.
The House of Lords’ Constitution Committee said the government’s response to the pandemic had resulted in a range of new laws that did not receive proper parliamentary scrutiny and created situations that risked undermining public confidence.
Committee members said the lack of checks resulted in guidance and ministerial statements “often failing to set out the law clearly, misstating the law or laying claim to legal requirements that did not exist”.
Peers said there were a number of occasions in which new laws were misrepresented in public-facing forums. “This created a lack of clarity around which rules were legally enforceable, posing challenges for the police and local government, leading to wrongful criminal charges, and potentially undermining public compliance,” they said.
In addition to demanding that a review of the use of emergency powers is included in the public inquiry, which prime minister Boris Johnson has said will start next year, committee members called for other improvements in the shorter term.
They said all future ministerial statements and government guidance on changes to Covid-19 restrictions should clearly distinguish information about the law from public health advice. They are also calling for “a presumption in favour” of using sunset provisions in all regulations introduced during a national emergency.
In a damning indictment of the government’s track record from last year, peers said the approach adopted in response to the pandemic “must not be used to justify weakened parliamentary scrutiny of government action in response to future emergencies”.
Committee chair Baroness Ann Taylor said peers acknowledged there have been a number of occasions throughout the pandemic where legislative measures were urgently required to limit the spread of infection.
But she said the need to act quickly did not justify the publication of significant measures hours, or sometimes minutes, before they were due to take effect.
“Emergency legislation is never an acceptable alternative to effective government planning for periods of crisis,” she 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.
“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.”