A Tory rebellion over coronavirus laws is set to be thwarted this week despite mounting anger over fines and rules brought in with minimal notice and a lack of parliamentary scrutiny.
A raft of new measures for England came into force on Monday including a ban on mass singing in pubs, £1,000 fines for falsely reporting that someone must quarantine, and a £4,000 first-time fine for those deemed “reckless” for coming into contact with large numbers of people when they should be self-isolating, for example by going to an office. They were published on Sunday evening, hours before coming into force.
Nearly 2 million people in north-east England also face fines of up to £6,400 if they mix with other households indoors in a significant extension of the government’s lockdown powers. For the first time since the pandemic began, it will be illegal for people in part of the UK to meet people they do not live with in pubs, bars or restaurants.
There were growing concerns over England’s 10pm curfew for pubs and restaurants, with the mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, saying people rushing to buy alcohol from shops after last orders at the weekend indicated the measure was “doing more harm than good”. Last week, the rule was dismissed by a government scientific adviser as “trivial” and likely to have a “very small impact on the epidemic”.
Downing Street rejected the criticisms by saying crowds were localised and brief, and the 10pm cut-off was working well.
More than 50 Conservative MPs, and other cross-party parliamentarians, had been expected to rebel in the Commons on Wednesday, voting for an amendment to the law setting out some coronavirus restrictions, which would give them a vote on future changes.
But on Monday night, constitutional experts said the Commons Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, would be unlikely to allow a vote on the amendment. There were signs that ministers could make concessions, however, as the health secretary, Matt Hancock, and Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg held a meeting with key rebels including Steve Baker.
In other developments on Monday:
The former lord chief justice of England and Wales, Lord Thomas, told the Guardian that greater parliamentary scrutiny of the emergency coronavirus legislation was needed because vital freedoms are being “curtailed”.
A former chief constable predicted that police forces would pay only “very cursory” attention to enforcing the new Covid-19 laws.
The Coronavirus Act, which was passed without opposition in March, gave ministers sweeping emergency powers to enforce lockdowns but requires a vote by MPs after six months to stay in force.
An amendment to the vote this week, tabled by the senior backbencher Sir Graham Brady and understood to be backed by significantly more than the 50 Tories who have so far signed it, would dictate that any new restrictions must first be approved by MPs.
Downing Street vehemently opposes this, saying ministers need the ability to act fast in response to the pandemic. But with Labour indicating they would back the Brady amendment, it appeared set to overcome Boris Johnson’s 80-seat majority.
However, constitutional experts have said they believe the unusual circumstances of Wednesday’s vote – which does not create new legislation, merely giving a choice over whether to continue an existing law – means Hoyle would be unlikely to allow any amendments.
“The act clearly envisages the vote as a yes/no question,” said Dr Hannah White, deputy director of the Institute for Government thinktank. “It doesn’t envisage, ‘yes, but’. Just on those grounds, what parliament intended with that bit of the Coronavirus Act, the Speaker would probably be justified in saying: ‘I’m not going to select an amendment to it.’”
A government source reportedly told Sky News: “It’s now clear the Brady amendment [is] out of scope so will not be voted on.”
Some 59 MPs, including 52 Tories, have so far signed the amendment but Brady, chairman of the influential 1992 Committee of Conservative backbenchers, told the Guardian a “significant number” of his colleagues would also back it.
Brady said he was still hopeful Hoyle would select it on Wednesday. “It is obvious the House of Commons would like to debate on it and, given the clerks have said the amendment would be in scope, there is no reason why the speaker couldn’t select it although it is entirely a matter for him to decide,” he said.
Another Conservative backing the amendment, Isle of Wight MP Bob Seely, said that while be believed ministers were trying to keep Covid rules as simple as possible, parliament should be used as “a common sense filter”.
He said: “If a government make errors, MPs can point this stuff out, even if it’s a bill where we support the principles. We are here to provide scrutiny, and that’s an important principle, in principle. Parliamentary scrutiny makes for better laws and better government.”
Speaking in a Commons debate on coronavirus on Monday, Hancock said he was “looking at further ways to ensure the house can be properly involved in the process in advance where possible”, and hoped to hold talks with Brady soon. Later, Baker said he and other MPs had met Hancock and Rees-Mogg for “cordial and constructive” talks.
One concern has been the late notice for new rules. Not for the first time, regulations setting out the full set of new penalties for people who fail to self-isolate when told to by the NHS’s test-and-trace system only emerged late on Sunday, hours before they came into force.
The shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, said there was a danger of over-complexity: “The chopping and changing rules causes confusion when clarity is vital in a pandemic. People want to follow the rules but they need to be made clear what they are.”
Speaking to the Guardian, Lord Thomas, who was lord chief justice from 2013 to 2017, said: “The rule of law requires proper scrutiny of and accountability for measures promulgated by a government under delegated powers. This is a duty that parliament must carry out, particularly when important freedoms are curtailed.”
His comments follow a lament by Lady Hale, the last president of the supreme court, that parliament “surrendered” control of its constitutional role subjecting legislation to effective scrutiny at the start of lockdown. She described the regulations as “draconian” and said it was “not surprising the police were as confused as the public as to what was law and what was not”.
A former senior police chief told the Guardian that overstretched forces are unlikely to devote many resources to enforcing new rules. Sir Peter Fahy, ex-chief constable of Greater Manchester police, said: “In terms of the 10pm closures you are dealing with people who are very drunk [and] are hard to deal with, and now on top of that the police have to keep a look out for people who are supposed to be self-isolating. It will only be a very cursory look I would imagine.”