The government must drop its dismissive approach to scrutiny as parliament returns to in-person sittings.
Parliamentary Monitor 2021 finds that the efforts of MPs and peers to hold ministers to account during the 2019–21 parliamentary session were impeded by ministers’ frequent use of emergency powers and side-lining of parliament.
While the need to legislate rapidly was understandable at the start of the Covid pandemic, the new government – emboldened by the largest majority in 20 years – sought to avoid scrutiny and rush through legislation on issues beyond the pandemic too, including giving MPs just a single day to debate its Brexit trade deal in December 2020.
Parliament itself adapted rapidly to the practical difficulties of the pandemic. It experimented with new ways of working, including virtual sittings and proxy voting, some of which it should consider making permanent. Implemented at impressive speed, these changes are calculated to have cost parliament a net £20m in day-to-day running costs.
Parliamentary Monitor 2021 sets out how:
- The Commons spent over a fifth of its time on the pandemic, though Covid restrictions meant that some forms of parliamentary business, including debates initiated by backbenchers, were limited at certain times.
- Key Covid legislation was often introduced without proper scrutiny: more than one in 10 Covid-related statutory instruments came into force before MPs even saw them.
- The government limited scrutiny of other business, restricting the time available for MPs and peers to examine its Brexit trade deal and attempting to deny MPs a vote on its cuts to overseas aid.
- The expansion of proxy voting in the Commons, rather than the continued use of remote voting, saw party whips exert greater control over their MPs: during the period of expanded proxy voting, 95% of all proxies were cast by whips.
- Ministers prioritised making major announcements in press conferences rather than in parliament – Boris Johnson spent more time in Downing Street press conferences than giving Commons statements. While understandable early on in the crisis, this continued throughout the session, unnecessarily limiting opportunities for Commons scrutiny.
- The government’s attitude to scrutiny frustrated increasingly restive backbench MPs, with almost one-third of all Conservative MPs rebelling at least once during the session.
- The government has got used to working differently in the pandemic, and in many ways, on its own terms. But as an extraordinary period in UK politics comes to a close, there is no longer any justification for ministers to continue to act in extraordinary ways. Just as the government has returned parliament to pre-pandemic norms, it must now reset its own working practices.