Main Image Credit Courtesy of Roman Boed/Wikimedia Commons
The legal framework empowering the British government in fighting the current pandemic needs to be made more predictable and robust.
In 2018, as part of RUSI’s Modern Deterrence project, I questioned whether the UK understood what the impact would be of an aggressive attack on our infrastructure and whether politicians were doing enough to inform people and build societal resilience. Little did I realise that this argument was going to be tested – in a different context – so soon.
A global pandemic is not the time for party politics or accusations. Rather, we all need to work together to provide the essentials for people’s safety. But that does not mean that we should not be considering what is working, what is not, and what we should have had in place as a country to make this level of unprecedented state intervention easier if we ever need to replicate it – whether because of a new virus, a terrorist attack or the actions of a hostile state. After all, some of us do have time, while at home, to think about the structural changes we as a country may need to implement after the crisis and what kind of country we want to build.
On 25 March, the Coronavirus Act became law. If the political establishment have decided to work collaboratively in order to give government, at every level, the necessary powers to keep the country functioning, then the question needs to be asked: why did we need new legislation? Why do we not have expedited mechanisms for that legislation? Why was the Civil Contingencies Act insufficient? And what emergency economic powers need to be available to the government in a clear state of emergency?
The Civil Contingencies Act of 2004 was the first time since 1950 that the government has updated our emergency legislation. With the rapid technological advancements we have seen in the last two decades, it should not have been a surprise that this legislation would need to be supplemented. But why are we not reviewing the legislation every five years as a standard? After all the precedent exists – parliament has to pass the Armed Forces Act every five years, so our defence forces have the legal right to operate. Surely a similar review of emergency legislation and powers by a Joint Committee of both houses would not be unreasonable at the beginning of each parliamentary session?
As the crisis continues, it may become clear that the government needs extra powers. Parliament will not be sitting, so they will be reliant on Orders in Council – the Privy Council acting at the will of the Monarch, with limited scrutiny, as outlined in the Civil Contingencies Act.
I understand why the government would be so reluctant to use these powers – as they should be – but we need to find a more democratic and comfortable medium, which means that we need to plan better. That should not be too much to ask.
There is also the question of the role of the general public in the preparation for this kind of event. We have seen extraordinary acts of kindness as coronavirus has changed our lives, so we should have faith that the general public can be our chief source of resilience.
Ruth Smeeth served as a Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent North from 2015 to 2019.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.