The Coronavirus Act is the most frightening piece of legislation of my lifetime. It’s responsible for paralysing meaningful opposition to government policymaking and for encouraging corruption. It’s the biggest threat to our liberty for almost a century. But, like most dangerous threats to our liberty, it has a respectable face to it and hopes to be invited across the threshold by its unsuspecting victim.
The government tells us the Act allows it to work fast in unprecedented times to relieve our fears. However, the powers conferred by the Act destroy democracy in the process, in the same way Pennywise the Clown, from Stephen King’s “IT”, lures unsuspecting children to their death because their fears were easy to manifest.
However, thanks to the amazing human immune system and modern science, the original fear of Covid-19 has now subsided. You may want life to return to normal considering that vaccines and natural immunity have granted us the breathing room to even consider normality. Yet the prospect of ever having the freedom we once took for granted seems out of reach. The goalposts are continually moved and the state does what it wants, despite howls of impotent protest from MPs and a few media outlets.
You may be fed up with wasted tax-payer financed resources spent on new companies with limited histories and uncomfortable political associations. Perhaps you’re still confused about what you can and can’t do or are angry about paying yet more tax for a health service that you’ve been protecting by not using for the past 18 months. Whichever it is, rest assured you’re not alone in thinking that for anything to change will take a miracle, a general election, or even a revolution. But realistically, none of these options is likely to happen, At least, not in the short term.
And, even if they did, they all miss the real reason for bad governance – a flawed decision-making process, focused on speed and not on justification. This is the true consequence of the Coronavirus Act – it makes Ministers’ lives easier, and ours worse off.
The late Peter F. Drucker, a management guru, described effective decision making as being a systematic process with clearly defined elements and a distinct sequence of steps. Therefore, a good decision is not based on intuition or knowledge – it’s about the process of making it. Thinking through any decision from a wide range of perspectives and debating the potential consequences and outcomes is critical to a good decision. It’s even more crucial to the process than the original intention. It’s why our Parliamentary system is based on debate, and why legislation passes to and fro between the Houses of Parliament for amendments. Because of the strengths of this process for discovering truths and stress-testing decisions which will affect millions of lives, our Parliamentary democracy has been the benchmark for democratic governance for centuries.
The Government must make and defend its case to make laws, and MPs must be given enough time to scrutinise any proposed legislation for inconspicuous consequences, or the system breaks down and bad law results. The Coronavirus Act is a huge threat to this vital process of deliberation.
According to the Institute for Government, although there is no set time to pass legislation it’s usually around 6-7 weeks. Now compare that with the four days in March 2020 it took to pass the Coronavirus Act, with a single day allowed for debate in the House of Commons. My local MP had 24 hours to sift through 378 pages of legislation, comprising 102 sections and 29 schedules and ask himself what it all meant. I suspect he wasn’t the only one.
Perhaps if our MPs had had more time, they would have fully understood the consequence of Sections 72-74 of the Coronavirus Act 2020 regarding National Insurance Contributions (NICs). These sections removed the legal cap on NIC increases. Under the Social Security Administration Act 1992, increases were capped at 0.25 per cent on the previous year. Had the Coronavirus Act not been in force, or had been properly scrutinised, it’s unlikely the government could have made a case for increasing NICs to pay for social care as it did last week.
But what about the urgent need for equipment, such as personal protective equipment (PPE), that couldn’t be procured quickly enough? To deal with this, the Coronavirus Act enables the government to spend unlimited amounts without parliamentary scrutiny. In addition, the normal procurement procedures are disposed of because ministers need to be quick and ‘efficient’.
Now, if I need to get something done quickly, I will often outsource it to someone I know, or someone who is recommended by word of mouth. Government Ministers probably work the same way. There doesn’t have to be any ill intent on the behalf of a minister. It only needs a well-intentioned desire for efficiency and speed, and we have a situation where companies with political connections are being awarded contracts paid for with taxpayer money and without competition. It is obvious that these decisions will be viewed by outsiders and voters as textbook corruption cases.
And, however well-intended at the time, these decisions have consequences. It’s not likely that many of our ministers have much experience with procuring large amounts of equipment and mistakes will be made. Yet, the Coronavirus Act gives them the power to do exactly this, and to spend billions taxpayer money in the process. And in doing so, it has damaged trust in the government response to the pandemic and potentially exposed decision-makers to legal scrutiny. Far from providing an ‘efficient’ procurement service, the powers conferred by the Act have degraded peoples’ trust in government.
This situation would have been avoided if procurement decisions were subject to Parliamentary oversight. Indeed, this is one of the recommendations made by a report by Transparency UK, that also states it’s time the public sector went back to competitive procurement.
Now the government seeks yet another six months of unlimited power under the Coronavirus Act, claiming it needs ‘temporary’ emergency powers for issues such as protecting renters from eviction and giving sick pay to those self-isolating. It does not. It can do these things by sticking with due process. It’ll just take a bit more work for the government to do so.
The philosopher Karl Popper once observed that a good democratic process avoids situations where a bad ruler causes too much harm. This is the true purpose of parliamentary checks and balances.
We can restore the integrity of our democratic process and get back to normality. Tell your MP the Coronavirus Act must go.