Coronavirus emergency legislation must be scrutinised

“The Bill contains legislation that sets aside our civil liberties more than any other act of Parliament has done in my lifetime. It is aimed at keeping us safe, but the transfer of unchallengeable power to the state is huge.” Green Peer Jenny Jones raises concerns about the long-term implications of the Coronavirus Bill, urging scrutiny and oversight to ensure the emergency measures remain short-term.

Jenny Jones speaking
Jenny Jones speaking

Image: Stephan Röhl / Flickr / cc by-sa 2.0

Jenny Jones

Will Parliament still be sitting in September? If the answer is yes, then why can’t the government review its 300-page Emergency Powers Bill in six months’ time and have another vote? Why wait two years? If the answer is no, that Parliament won't be sitting, then democracy is in real trouble and we need to urgently set up video conferencing and electronic voting for both Houses. Problem solved.

Emergency legislation, born out of crisis, always has the power of ‘necessity’ to push it through. 

Healthy scepticism is set aside and for the Covid-19 Emergency legislation MPs and peers have a mere four days to plough through 300 pages of detail. I’m happy to say that much of the Bill is helpful common sense designed to get us through the saddest of times. 

However, it also contains legislation that sets aside our civil liberties more than any other act of Parliament has done in my lifetime. It is aimed at keeping us safe, but the transfer of unchallengeable power to the state is huge and we need to bring an end to these draconian laws as quickly as we can.

For example, the prohibition of public events and gatherings seems sensible enough in the short term, but this goes beyond what is contained in the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 by removing the standard protections for strikes and industrial action.

These are frightening powers for any authoritarian government to wield and become more so when married with the use of modern technologies. Phone companies are already exploring ways of notifying the authorities of groups of people gathering in close proximity. Drones were being used in China to encourage people to return home for curfew and to remind them to use facemasks. If we match that up with a facial recognition system that actually works then state intrusion becomes very dystopian indeed.

If we are rushed into granting two year powers now, then can anyone guarantee that come September we won’t have the Sports Minister and the FA deciding to kick off the next season of top flight football by reopening stadiums, while the Home Secretary is banning protests against the government’s incompetent handling of the crisis? We may see challenges launched by Judicial Review, but the point is that Ministers shouldn’t have this leeway if Parliament feels the worst of the crisis has passed at that point.

The existing safeguards on mass surveillance are weakened with the quadrupling of time review limits for urgent warrants.

The Bill contains powers to detain and test ‘potentially infectious’ members of the public and even children in unidentified isolation facilities on threat of criminal sanctions. Quarantine orders are already in place on thousands of people in the USA and again, this seems driven by necessity, rather than by some malicious Big Brother power grab. 

The problem is that mistakes are made and while there is a safeguard of appealing to a magistrate's court, those processes can be slow (especially with the criminal justice system being in an ongoing crisis). We also must be careful not to create a system with limited responsibilities for treatment and care for the victims of this disease. We are passing laws in anticipation that the levels of testing will get to the levels that we need them to be if we are going to stop this pandemic. It is the tests and having a health care system that can cope with the numbers of victims that is the priority right now, not the emergency laws.

The reality for individuals quarantined can be very difficult. In 2004, health specialists from the US found themselves in indefinite quarantine after returning from Liberia after setting up an IT system to monitor the spread of Ebola cases. They had no symptoms, no contact with any Ebola victims and the tests were negative, but they found themselves hungry prisoners in their own homes with nervous police officers on their doorstep stopping groceries being delivered.

The law also empowers police, immigration officers and public health officials to: demand documentation; detain and isolate members of the public, potentially indefinitely, including children; and forcibly take biological samples for testing. Again, this sounds as if it might be necessary in rare, exceptional circumstances, but will it become the new normal?

An initial 12-hour detention to allow for testing and a consequent 14-day detention can all seems sensible, but our system of immigration controls and detention can be pretty repressive at the best of times and under the stress of staff sickness and a society in crisis, I am worried about the consequences of this. Parliament needs the chance to collate the evidence of good and bad practice, along with hearing about the effectiveness of this containment measure, before agreeing to extend the powers.

It is right that government is taking rapid and robust action to protect public health, but our country faces challenges best when we hold onto our values, not abandon them.

Jenny Jones is a Green Party peer who sits in the House of Lords as Baroness Jones of Moulescomb.