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Artillery Row

My amendment achieved its aim

greater scrutiny will act as a discipline on ministers and their advisers

Parliamentary procedure rarely catches the imagination of the public. But for a moment last week, my proposed amendment to the motion extending the Coronavirus Act did exactly that. Such was the demand for parliamentary scrutiny to be restored that people in passing cars would shout, “keep going Sir Graham!” and messages flooded in from all over the country wishing me success.

Having spoken to Mr Speaker in private on Tuesday, I knew that he had been advised that it would be a procedural stretch to select an amendment to that particular motion because its wording implied a straightforward yes or no vote. So it came as no surprise when he stood up in the Commons chamber and announced that it would not be debated or voted on. Having lived through the problems caused by an activist Speaker who was willing to disregard precedent and the advice of the clerks, I respect his decision.

Crucially though, the level of support for my amendment, both in parliament and beyond, had already struck home. Even a week before Wednesday’s debate, I sat down with Matt Hancock to discuss a way forward and he readily accepted that things had to change and proper parliamentary scrutiny had to be restored.

On the day of the debate itself, the government put forward its proposals to me and other interested MPs as to how that scrutiny would be enabled. Essentially, ministers adopted the (very measured) language of my amendment and undertook to allow prior debate and approval by parliament where reasonably possible and where measures were significant national interventions.

The Health Secretary went further and said that to show good faith, the new procedures would also be used for important regional restrictions. As would have been required by my amendment, the procedures will apply not just to measures under the Coronavirus Act but to those under other legislation such as the Public Health Act 1984.

the fundamental principle is achieved that parliament will have a say

To give a thumbnail sketch of the process: Statutory Instruments will be introduced as now but with a “commencement date” to bring them into force a few days later. Before that commencement date, a debate and a vote will be held. The debate will be just ninety minutes – far from perfect – but the fundamental principle is achieved that before major new incursions on personal liberty, family life or economic freedom can be introduced, parliament will have a say.

So there you have it. My amendment achieved its aim without being selected for debate or put to a vote. By  demonstrating that parliament was determined to begin again to fulfil its core functions of scrutiny and holding government to account, we persuaded ministers to do the right thing.

Now parliament is in a position to do its job again, we will have to see what it does with its power. I hope, at least, that the prospect of greater scrutiny will act as a discipline on ministers and their advisers, helping to restrain the most excessive or ill-considered measures from seeing the light of day.

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