6 October 2020

Last week, the Coronavirus Act (“the Act”) was subjected to its six-month review in Parliament. The Act is in force for two years, with its temporary provisions subject to review every six months. This was the first six-month review of the temporary provision of the Act. Under the Act, only the House of Commons has to approve a motion of the Act to continue every six months. There is very limited possibility for the Act to be amended or changed, unless this change is put forward by the Government. When the Act was first being discussed in March, we raised serious concerns about the “review” process and the lack of parliamentary scrutinyMPs have little means to change it, and the House of Lords do not even have a specific approval role. Nonetheless, both Houses held debates for the six-month review.  

Ahead of the review, we published Briefings outlining our concerns around the impact of the Act on human rights, grounded in our work and research since March. We sent Briefings to the House of Commons and the House of Lords and wrote a general Briefing. Our key message to the Government was: commit to preserving people’s human rights and to democratic oversight or scrap the Act. You can find all our work for the six-month review by clicking on the button below:

 

Outcome of the Review

House of Lords

During the debate on the House of Lords, strong concern was raised about the impact of the Act on disabled people and people with learning disabilities. Crossbench peer Baroness Campbell of Surbiton explained that “there is mounting evidence that disabled children, adults and older people are experiencing disproportionate stress and serious health risks as a direct result of decreased care and support services during this pandemic.” Similarly, non-affiliated peer Baroness Uddin asked for assurance that “the vulnerable elderly, the disabled and children’s safeguarding and safety remain paramount and will never be compromised, particularly in light of the British Institute of Human Rights report about the abject failure to provide sufficient protection for our precious elders and those with learning disabilities and autism”. We are pleased that Baroness Uddin specifically drew on the findings of our recent reports on the impact of the Government’s response to the Covid-19 for people with care and support needs, and raised these concerns on the floor of the House of Lords.

Peers from across the House also voiced strong concerns over the lack of Parliamentary scrutiny of the Act and related provisions since March. Presentations were made from Conservative, Cross Bench, Liberal Democrat, Non-affiliated and Labour peers, and Bishops alike.

 

House of Commons

In the House of Commons, similar themes of debate emerged ahead of the MPs voting on whether to renew the temporary provisions of the Act. They voted to renew the provisions with an overwhelming majority of 330 votes in favour and 24 votes against – you can see the breakdown of the votes on the Parliament website. By renewing the temporary provisions of the Act, MPs have voted to keep those provisions of the Act in force for at least another six months, at which point they will need to be voted on in Parliament again.

This vote means that all the temporary provisions in the Act remain in force, including provisions which we’ve raised concerns about in our research and policy work. In particular, this means the provisions which ease various duties relating to health and social needs assessments and meeting those needs across the UK.

It is important to note that the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Matt Hancock, made a commitment when MPs voted on the Act to remove the specific provisions which relax duties relating to mental health care. He said, “these powers are no longer required in England and will not remain part of the Act. We will shortly bring forward the necessary secondary legislation to sunset these provisions”. This is welcome news, and means that reduction of safeguards in care given to people under the Mental Health Act will no longer be lawful. However, the provisions are actually still the law until the Government introduces new secondary legislation to remove them. For more information on changes to mental health law and policy during Covid-19, you can read our Explainers on exactly this.

Finally, the Government also made some assurances that Parliamentary scrutiny of Government will increase going forward. This has been a huge issue with the law which the Government has passed since March. The Secretary of State promised that “for significant national measures with effect in the whole of England or UK-wide, we will consult Parliament; wherever possible, we will hold votes before such regulations come into force.” While such assurances are certainly welcome, they are quite weak. The promise is to hold votes on new law “where possible”, and the Secretary of State went on to say that “responding to the virus means that the Government must act with speed when required, and we cannot hold up urgent regulations that are needed to control the virus and save lives.” This means that going forward, we will hopefully see more laws scrutinised by Parliament in the ways laws usually are – but the Government has made clear that they will still bypass Parliament where necessary when responding to the virus.