Unnecessary Legislation: the Coronavirus Bill

EdinburghEye on Ko-FiThis was first posted on Facebook on 23rd March 2020, with support from my Ko-Fi network.

Look, imagine an afternoon when you settle down to listen to Parliamentary debate for eight hours (with breaks for tea and food and actually a glass of wine about 8pm because OMG) and it is interrupted by:

The Alex Salmond verdict (at least 8 out of the 13 jurors decided Not Guilty for most of the charges, Not Proven for the attempted rape charge, and a horde of sexist gits all over Scotland rose up to cheer, including, unfortunately, SNP MPs Angus MacNeil and Joanna Cherry).

The Tokyo 2020 Olympics have been postponed by the IOC to 2021.

Boris Johnson announced at 8:30pm that from tomorrow the UK is in lockdown.

And all the while, in the Commons, the Coronavirus Bill is passing at a gallop through the Second Reading debate, the Committee of the Full House debate, and he Third Reading vote. It’s now off to the House of Lords.

The Deputy Speaker of the House, Eleanor Laing, said at the start of the debate that she wouldn’t accept any call for a division unless she was convinced there was an overwhelming need for it, and many MPs said – when presenting an amendment or an objection – that they didn’t want to have a division.

This is because, while MPs were sitting in the Chamber a good metre or two apart, a division of the whole House requires MPs to pack themselves into the division lobbies and stay there while two MPs for each lobby do a head-count. There is no social distancing possible during a Commons vote. And MPs know that COVID-19 is in the Commons – an unknown number of MPs are known to be infected from association with confirmed cases.

Calling for a division would have absolutely ensured that all MPs who took part in the vote got infected.

You may think that the House of Commons ought not to be still operating on such an antiquated (and tiresomely slow) method of having major votes, and you’d be right, but in consequence, while the Ayes from the government side on amendments were at times thin, nobody called out for a No vote – and the Deputy Speaker in the end galloped through a long list of government amendments to the bill without a single division and without, as far as I could tell, any of the amendments by Labour or LibDems or rebel Tories even being put forward for a vote.

The point made by both David Davis, Conservative MP for Haltemprice and Howden, and Chris Bryant, Labour MP for Rhondda, made very clearly in the Second Reading debate, was that this new legislation is unnecessary.
There are two Acts which have already been made use of by the UK government in the crisis – the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, and the Public Health Act 1984, both of which give the government extraordinary leeway to do things in an emergency that it would not ordinarily be allowed to do. Both were drafted, debated, and ultimately passed after much more debate than a single afternoon, and both include considerable checks and balances both parliamentary and judicial to prevent the government over-extending on its powers. As David Davis noted this afternoon in Parliament, the chief reason for the government drafting its own emergency legislation is to remove all of those checks and balances.

And while the UK governmet offered a compromise of six-monthly review, it’s far from clear, as Chris Bryant said, that this six-month review within the two-year sunset clause will allow Parliament to review and remove parts of the Act, or whether this will be simply an up-down vote where MPs will be invited to approve or not the entire bill. To be clear, the latter gives the advantage to the government – it might lose a vote on individual bits and pieces, whereas for the whole Act, Tory MPs will vote with the government rather than remove it.

The one opposition amendment which the government did accept, was a clear protest led by a Muslim MP with wide cross-party support, that even though the Coronavirus Bill urged cremation rather than burial, no one should be cremated against their known wishes.

Many MPs – Conservative, Labour, LibDem, and Green – made the clear point that if you are effectively banning people from going to work, the government has got to do more to make sure people have enough money to live on. Statutory sick pay needed to be raised; the generous offer of 80%-wages paid by HMRC ought to start in March, not on 1st April: self-employed people don’t get anything and will need to claim Universal Credit: people on Universal Credit already don’t get enough to live on and all those made jobless as businesses close down will have to wait 5 weeks to get anything, assuming Universal Credit even continues to function under the circumstances: tenants can still be evicted, the govenment’s only required landlords to give an extra month’s’ notice. The million undocumented workers in the UK must work or starve, they’ll get no financial help: refugees are still required to travel to Liverpool or Croydon to claim asylum: people stuck in the UK on visas about to run out are still at risk of being detained and eventually deported. One MP mentioned a woman from the Ukraine in her 80s who had expected to fly home at the end of her viist and was being told by the immigration authorities that she could always drive. (This is a 2400km journey by road through France, Belgium, Germany, and Poland, which Google Maps calculates would take a driver 24 hours “without traffic”.)

All these points raised were excellent, and aside from a few details like allowing refugee doctors and nurses to work in the UK for the duration of the emergency if the BMC/the RCN approve their credentials, I don’t doubt the government will ignore all of them, especially those that involve giving people enough money to live on for the duration of the emergency.

Boris Johnson was not present for the debate. Of course he was busy prepping for his video appearance.

The rules he announced were in essence close enough to the Spanish lockdown rules, I am advised: as of tomorrow, people will only be allowed to leave their home for the following reasons:

  • any medical need, to provide care or to help a vulnerable person
  • shopping for basic necessities, as infrequently as possible
  • travelling to and from work, but only where this is absolutely necessary and cannot be done from home
  • and

  • some form of exercise a day – for example a run, walk, or cycle – alone or with members of your household

Now I’m no longer walking to and from work and can’t go to the gym or for a swim (the plan is to work from home, once I get the hardware sorted out, which hopefully should be soon) my plan is for daily exercise, to take one walk a day – I intended as a routine to go round the local park and down the cycle path, which is just under a mile. Not a lot of exercise, but better than nothing. (I strenuously observed the 2-metres-distance rule, but noted that most cyclists and no joggers were bothering to do so, perhaps assuming that speed meant they wouldn’t be infected by the people they were passing.)

Of course Johnson is two weeks too late in instituting this kind of lockdown – and a lockdown where so many people will have to leave the house because the alternative is starving at home, is not much use as a public health precaution. I gather that Boris Johnson’s willingness to actually spell out clearly what “don’t leave the house” means to people who can afford not to, was inspired by the spectacle, over the weekend, of so many people jaunting off to enjoy the early spring sunshine on the beach, in the parks, hanging out with their friends.

But the jam-packed commuter trains apparently didn’t affect him at all.

To spell this out:

  1. People who are fortunate enough to be in paid employment will get 80% of their pay (up to £2500 a month) from HMRC from the beginning of next month If their employer fired them because the business had to shut down before the wages-protection scheme was announced, well, too bad, they need to get another job or apply for Universal Credit.
  2. People who are self-employed get nothing if they don’t work, except – if they fall ill – Statutory Sick Pay, £94 a week.
  3. People who aren’t working can apply for Universal Credit and wait 5 weeks to get it.
  4. Undocumented workers get nothing unless they carry on working.
  5. The Coronavirus Bill also exempts local authorities in England from the legal obligation to provide social care.
  6. If you own your own home and are in financial difficulty you can apply for a three-month mortgage holiday: but if you rent, your landlord can still evict you for non-payment of rent, just with an extra month’s notice.

If you want people to stay home and avoid spreading infection, you have to be sure they can afford to do that. And this Boris Johnson’s huge powergrab of a Coronavirus Bill fails to do – especially given the lockdown is from Tuesday 25th but even the most generously-supported will see no financial support from the government til Wednesday 1st April.

And Brexit was barely mentioned – by one LibDem MP.

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Filed under Benefits, Brexit, Coronavirus, Employment, Poverty

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