Democracy and coronavirus: How to hold government to account in a national crisis – BBC Newsnight

published on July 26, 2020

the questions the barbs the beads of sweat are worried ministerial Brad all gone cease to be all silence in darkest hours past the familiar sounds of the green benches have been there a comfort for some and irritants and ministers but

Of at least some use to the rest of us mr Chamberlain makes a statement on the progress of a government even fell because of the Commons disquiet at a height of wartime in 1940 but in the middle of this crisis they've been in

Recess and in any case unable to meet for reasons and public health they're due to return on April 21st we're told in some digital form but no one knows how that one quite work yet there's been a great deal of innovation for select

Committees they're now holding virtual hearings and they do also have the ability now to invite members from other select committees to sit in on that so I think the time now is to extend that more widely to the rest of Parliament

Because it is important that ministers can be questioned not only by the new leader of the opposition and his team but also very many members of parliament will bring individual cases and examples from their constituencies and it's

Really important that they have the chance to do that in public not just by submitting written questions in its place the power of the podium the scrutiny of the press through a webcam but beyond their information function

Few are satisfied that they work alone the questions aren't being answered and perhaps the right questions aren't always put you see probably more select committee sittings during this recess but in any previous recess that I can

Remember and they've moved really fast to try to do video links and enable MPs to participate from their constituencies or wherever they are so that that scrutiny can continue what we've been missing are the parliamentary questions

They set pieces in the chamber where ministers can give statements and be held to account and we haven't had there and I think that MPs have been building up lots and lots of questions they kind of flood constituency work once

Coronavirus hit once all the new government measures were brought in that people could access but perhaps they had problems with that there were lots of things that MPs want to be able to ask ministers if not face to face digitally

Face to face we now come to the urgent question if Parliament had been sitting it's easy to imagine that they after day would have seen this urgent question after urgent question on testing on care homes on furloughing you name it as it

Is it is government which sets the agenda sometimes nothing compares with the Bearpit and white heat of the House of Commons the ability to ask questions under parliamentary privilege and to put ministers on the spots with that

Obligation upon them not to mislead those they're speaking to is crucially important and if we think about what we've done over the last few weeks again for all kinds of understandable reasons we have handed to government powers the

Like of which they have never exercised in peacetime they've been handed extraordinary emergency powers they are being asked to make decisions which will determine whether people live or die which will determine the extent and the

Location of economic damage and it is absolutely crucial that entrusting them with that power is balanced by procedures for holding that power to account as it is we have an opposition forced to resort to Twitter threads and

Letters to try and do what they can and then there's the center of it all what's happening in number 10 Downing Street it is still after all the Prime Minister's government but his period of convalescence rightly could extend till

Who knows when where does the buck stop in that time where will it stop can the Prime Minister realistically be held accountable for decisions made in his name but not by himself it all adds an extra layer of complexity to an already

Deeply complex situation and it's more complicated because we've started to think about the Prime Minister the Prime Minister in an increasingly presidential way historically actually constitutionally this isn't particularly

Difficult because power resides in the cabinets the authority of cabinet comes from commanding the confidence of Parliament and so it doesn't rest on one particular individual but the more that we think about the Prime Minister

As someone who has a personal legitimacy which comes from things like having leaders debates and prime ministerial debates in the run-up to elections it comes from the way that party leaders are now elected by their memberships

Suddenly it does actually matter if that one individual who has a particular legitimacy isn't there so again it's a new constitutional problem none of this is easy for ministers but if the scrutiny we're used to can find a way to

Reimagined it helps rather than hinders their endeavours as this crisis lingers and changes as it moves from acute to chronic a parliamentary democracy must mutate with it

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