Beware emergency powers!

Submitted by martin on 29 March, 2020 - 7:44 Author: Mohan Sen

The government’s Coronavirus Bill passed into law on 25 March after four days discussion in Parliament. It went through the House of Commons without a vote, since the Labour Party did not force one.

The government conceded to Labour’s demand that the powers granted by the Act would be reviewed and actively renewed every six months. That's better than the two years the Tories originally proposed, but a very long time on the scale of the epidemic. Labour should have insisted on every month or two months. And Parliament will be able to vote only on renewing or cancelling the whole Act, not individual measures within it, placing the bar for overturning the government very high.

It contains at least some powers which are dubiously related to fighting the Covid-19 epidemic, such as a power to forcibly detain and isolate people, for any amount of time, and the removal of requirements for deaths in police custody to be investigated.

Other measures weaken the duty of various authorities and bodies to provide services. This looks like throwing disabled people, for example, off the bus to lighten the load. The whole question would not arise unless the Tories had spent a decade gutting public services. The first call from Labour should have been for all lost funding to be restored.

Of course some exceptional measures are necessary, and Britain has not been transformed suddenly into a dictatorship. But it would be foolish to ignore the dangerous detail of the Coronavirus Act and the authoritarian record and bent of the Johnson regime.

If the Tories start to lose popularity and struggles over the consequences of the virus heat up, they will be armed with many exceptional powers. Labour should change tack, demand the right for Parliament to renew individual emergency powers and fight to weed out those that are disproportionate or have little to do with Covid-19.

• More on emergency powers…

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