The Daily Telegraph

Where is Parliament’s voice in this crisis?


The final Prime Minister’s Questions of the parliament­ary session was played out before a smattering of MPS in the Commons, a depressing­ly familiar sight throughout the pandemic emergency. The legislatur­e has been endeavouri­ng to work within the constraint­s imposed by social distancing but its focus has been on piecemeal issues, not the bigger picture.

The most severe curtailmen­t of civil liberties in peacetime went through Parliament without a vote weeks after the laws had already taken effect. There will be no vote either on the extension of public health laws to require the wearing of face coverings in shops from tomorrow. The regulation­s will only be published today when the House will not be sitting. It is hard to believe that a Government diktat enforcing the wearing of masks is to take effect with nary a peep from Parliament.

There have been remarkably few objections from MPS to the exercise of this executive power. Inevitably, circumstan­ces have allowed the Government to bypass the usual parliament­ary procedures and everyone understand­s that the state has to act quickly in a crisis. But even if Parliament is reluctant to gainsay ministers on tactical decisions, it still has a role in determinin­g strategy but has ducked it.

True, as Boris Johnson has confirmed, there will be a public inquiry into how the pandemic has been handled and whether more should have been done to mitigate its worst impacts. However, that is unlikely to be convened for a year or more and will take as long again to report. Yet there are lessons that need to be learned now, not least because scientists fear a second wave of the virus will hit in the autumn.

Questions about the competence of state bodies like the NHS and Public Health England are perfectly legitimate matters for Parliament to discuss. So, too, is the balance to be struck between the health risks and the wider impact of the lockdown on jobs, livelihood­s and well-being, let alone on personal freedoms. Where were the debates on these big subjects?

MPS are now in recess until September so their chance has gone. A year ago, the Commons was all powerful, assuming powers normally exercised by the executive as the great Brexit battle played itself out against a government with no majority to impose its will. Today, in the midst of a far greater crisis, its voice is hardly heard at all.

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