The Week in Parliament
An MP, a Peer and a Journalist walk into a Parliamentary Bar at 10:01. The bar tender welcomes them in then ten minutes later kicks them out. Can you work out what happened? Yes, the journalist reported the bar was still open after ten, and the public outcry was sufficient to throw them out again. It wasn’t the only u-turn in Westminster this week, but it was perhaps the most inevitable.
The big fight in Parliament this week was somewhat abortive. It was this week that the Coronavirus Act, the emergency empowering legislation that the government brought in to deal with the crisis (overlooking the more than adequate Civil Contingencies Act- but that’s a different story) was up for renewal. For the media, it was shaping up to be a big story. A massive Tory revolt, to ensure that Parliament was given a say on the implementation of future regulations. To politicos, aware that the motion to renew the act was not amendable, slightly less so. But the threat of the revolt is often more powerful that the revolt itself, and in this case it succeeded in forcing some concessions from the government. This took the form of a promise to consult Parliament on ‘significant national measures’. There are still questions to be asked. What form will this consultation take? What are ‘significant national measures’? Do the local lockdowns still being imposed at a rate of knots count? Apart from the big questions, we have questions of our own. When will the public start being consulted? We hope that parliamentarians will start asking the same questions.
On Wednesday we also saw a petition being presented to the House, protesting the restructuring of Warwickshire County Council from a two-tier authority to a unitary one. Not only that, but allegations of a lack of consultation were made. Naturally our attention was piqued. We’ll be looking into it further. We are also aware of swirling rumours about other reforms to local authorities, drifting around like discarded face masks in the streets of Britain (please put your masks in an appropriate receptacle to dispose of them). Like much government policy, for now the rumours remain vague, but we’re chomping at the bit to see them. When they finally emerge into the light, you can rest assure we’ll be scrutinising them closely.
In the Senedd this week we saw the debate on the legislative consent motion for the Agriculture Bill crawling its way through the corridors of power in London. The Agriculture Bill is one of the places where we are beginning to see the troops lining up for a clash about the use of powers and devolved powers after Brexit. With many powers returning, the devolved administrations are (rightly) keen to defend their hard-won authority. For the Welsh government, who are currently consulting on several agriculture related matters, this then is an important ground to hold. The motion was agreed, but it was noted in the debate that there are often deficiencies in the UK Government’s consultations on matters in devolved areas. This one might have passed through relatively smoothly, but don’t be surprised to see more robust challenges arising as further powers are returned.
In the Scottish Parliament, debate focussed around consultations on the return of students to universities. With thousands of students returning to their (now often online) studies, and moving back into student housing and halls of residence, there has been a huge uptick in cases and confusion over what the rules are. Quizzed in the Scottish parliament, ministers defended their consultation process, stating that they had consulted ‘all the stakeholders’ including trade unions, student bodies, the universities and colleges.
Much of the debate around consultation in NI this week was about the introduction of equivalent legislation to the Prisoners (Disclosure of Information about Victims) Bill currently before in the UK Parliament. The proposed legislation would affect sentencing for criminals who refuse to reveal important information about their victims (locations of bodies etc.). The motion acknowledges that the issue is currently being consulted upon by the NI Executive, but urges haste. “A consultation” Mr Easton, the sponsor of the motion, stated, “makes no guarantees, and doesn’t commit the Minister to bringing this into law”. Whilst this may be true, it doesn’t make consultation any less important. Particularly on sentencing matters, where personal liberties are at stake, consultation is a key part of the legislative process. We look forward to seeing the outcome of the consultation, and seeing what comes of the proposals.