One year ago Parliament passed the biggest infringements to our rights and civil liberties that this country has ever witnessed. We were promised that there would be meaningful reviews of the provisions and that the Government would repeal anything that was not absolutely necessary and proportionate. A couple of days later, the Government published the real rules in the lockdown regulations, which imposed even tighter restrictions than were ever anticipated in the Coronavirus Act.
Yesterday the House of Lords hosted a Motion To Take Note entitled ‘Covid-19: One year report’ and I said:
One year ago Parliament passed the most incredible legislation, all in one day, with the biggest infringements to our rights and civil liberties that this country has ever witnessed. We did that in good heart, and with good intent, because of the immediate and urgent health threat that was facing us all. We were promised that there would be meaningful reviews of the provisions and that the Government would repeal anything that was not absolutely necessary and proportionate.
A couple of days later, the Government published the real rules in the lockdown regulations, which imposed even tighter restrictions than were ever anticipated in the Coronavirus Act. Because they used the public health Act from 1984—coincidentally quite a resonant year—this Parliament did not do its usual scrutiny. On the one hand, excessive restrictions on things such as the right to protest and how far we are allowed to go to exercise have been part of the chaotic mess of legislation, government guidance and ministerial diktats. On the other hand, we have seen lockdowns imposed too late and opened up again too fast, and the doomed “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme, which reseeded the virus and created the breeding ground for our very own UK variant, which is now running rampant across Europe.
I will be very interested to hear the Government’s response to Liberty and 19 other organisations on their document about a “Protect Everyone” Bill. I would like to hear from the Minister about this. Could he please make a note? I should also like him to promise that the Government will give a line-by-line response to those proposals, which aim to remove the most coercive and arbitrary parts of the Coronavirus Act. The Minister himself called it an unloved Act, and it absolutely is.
We should replace the coercive and arbitrary parts of the Coronavirus Act with a public health-focused system which supports people to comply with the health guidelines. Most important, to my mind, would be the repeal of Section 51 of and Schedule 21 to the Act, which have resulted in an unprecedented 100% unlawful prosecution rate. The Minister must surely feel embarrassed to have overseen the passage of such a provision and the decision that, even as dozens of other provisions are being repealed, this one is still being retained. The Government’s promise that only necessary and proportionate measures would prevail is shot to shreds by the continuation of this disastrous legislation. It is not a piece of law; it is a piece of unlaw, and how it got past the Government’s lawyers I have no idea. We have our own lawyers here in the House and I hope that they will speak on this as well.
The next issue is the protection of the right to protest. We have all known this was a problem, but it really came to a climax point with the extremely poor policing decisions at the Sarah Everard vigil. It seems that many times in the past the police have made terrible decisions, not because they were incompetent but because the Government did not give them clear instructions. Going forward, I very much hope the Government will do that. Having conceded in the High Court that a total ban on the right to protest would have been unlawful for the vigil, the Met continued to impose a total ban on protest. The images of women being manhandled by male police officers, in already very sad circumstances, were absolutely chilling. They mark a particularly dark moment in an already horrible year.
The Government and the police must get to grips with how we can facilitate safe and lawful protest. That should be easy enough to do. We already know that the Government are keen to get people back to pub gardens and outdoor dining, but socially distanced protest has always been possible and part of our democratic process. There has been no excuse for the blanket ban, without any attempt to work constructively with the organisers of protests.
Coming back to the Coronavirus Act as a whole, I would have been worried about voting it down as that would have been tantamount to throwing the baby out with the bathwater. But as the Government’s own review shows, they have already drained most of the bathwater from this Act. The unlawful, coercive and nasty parts of the Act must be repealed and a public inquiry launched.
Read the whole debate on Hansard