COVID-19 – Remote government scrutiny
Elements of a virtual Parliament, daily press conferences and pressure from the devolved administrations. How has the reality of remote working impacted on Government scrutiny?
With every decision the Government makes being more vital than ever, many questions have been raised in recent weeks about the best way to hold the Government to account, and to ensure that the scrutiny that was in place pre COVID-19 continues (or indeed intensifies) now that remote working has become part of our daily lives.
The hybrid virtual Parliament (with some MPs still attending the House of Commons in person) has been operating relatively successfully since it was brought in following the Easter recess, although debates and questions are put to Ministers only three days a week. PMQs has also taken place in this new setting, with the first face-off between Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the new Leader of the Opposition Sir Keir Starmer yesterday.
Although the debate chamber has been effective since going virtual, Select Committees are the standout thus far. The direct, calmer Q&A approach of committees means that their methods have proven more adaptable to remote working than the sometimes raucous atmosphere of the main chamber. Every committee seems to be working overtime at the moment, with COVID-19 the inevitable focus, and a wide range of Ministers and businesses giving evidence.
The devolved administrations are taking the opportunity to ensure that their voice is heard in the national conversation. This has certainly applied pressure on the UK Government. In recent weeks, both Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Northern Irish First Minister Arlene Foster have publicly discussed the path to ending lockdown, and the Scottish Government recently unveiled a policy paper of the various options (albeit that it stopped short of discussing potential dates for the relaxation of restrictions).
Daily Press Conferences
The daily televised address also continues as it has done since the crisis began, and remains an important avenue for questioning of the Government. It is here that many of the big headlines surrounding testing, lockdown restrictions and PPE have played out, and where major announcements on the next phase are often made.
The current level of scrutiny has undoubtedly had an impact on the Government’s approach to the crisis. In his first address to the nation after recovering from the worst symptoms of the virus, the Prime Minister stated that his intention was to be fully transparent about the reasoning behind any decision on lifting the lockdown.
It is widely expected that Boris will unveil a plan this weekend. As the plan progresses, it will be interesting to see if the existing levels of scrutiny are sustained and whether or not this impacts the extent to which every decision is then outlined and explained to the public.