Coronavirus Act: Renewal
The Coronavirus Act is a vital piece of legislation in our national response to the Coronavirus pandemic, and one which I fully support. The purpose of the legislation is to protect us all and ensure that, throughout the pandemic, sufficient staff are available and deployed where they are most needed, as well as supporting members of the public, containing and slowing the virus, and managing the deceased with respect and dignity. The Act would have expired at the end of March 2021 and so needed to be renewed to ensure that Local Authorities, the Police and the NHS continue to have the powers needed to respond to the pandemic and to implement restrictions if needed. The powers are also necessary as we move forward with the cautious easing of restrictions set out in the Prime Minister's Roadmap.
All the measures in the Coronavirus Act are temporary and proportionate to the threat we face. It is important that they will only be used when strictly necessary and will only be in place for as long as is deemed necessary to respond to the pandemic effectively. I welcome, therefore, that the Government has carried out an extensive review of the provisions within the Act and, because of the excellent progress in our fight against this virus, the Government is now able to expire and suspend a raft of measures within the Act.
The measures outlined in the Government's Roadmap provide a path out of this pandemic, offering us a route to normal life. I am encouraged that we are currently meeting each of the Government's four tests for easing restrictions and remain on track to deliver on vaccine commitments, meaning we have now moved forward to the next stage of the Roadmap (on 29 March). The Government has also committed the remaining stages of Roadmap into law.
As we move forward with the Roadmap, it is vital that the tools needed to continue to fight this virus and support families, our public services, and the economy through it, as provided in the Coronavirus Act, are maintained.
UK Spending on Overseas Aid
This country has been, and always will be, open and outward-looking, leading in solving the world's toughest problems and striving to be a force for good in the world. Whether it is stepping up to support desperate Syrians and Yemenis in conflict zones, leading the way in eradicating Ebola and malaria, or supporting millions of children to gain a decent education, I am proud that UK aid is keeping the UK safe while helping the world’s poorest. Nevertheless, we must be honest about where we are. The UK is currently facing the worst economic contraction in 300 years because of the pandemic, and a budget deficit caused by the 2008 financial crisis.
At this time of unprecedented crisis, tough choices must be made, which is why the Chancellor announced a temporary reduction in the UK’s aid budget from 0.7% to 0.5% of the UK's Gross National Income (GNI). This is not an action that I, or my Ministerial colleagues, want to have to do, but I believe it is unfortunately necessary. I have been assured that the UK will return to 0.7% as soon as the fiscal situation allows.
The “Protect Everyone Campaign”
I understand that lockdowns and other restrictions have caused enormous stress and disruption to people’s lives, and we must be mindful of the other side effects that lockdowns cause when considering policy options.
The Coronavirus Act is a vital piece of legislation in our national response to the Coronavirus pandemic. The purpose of the legislation is to protect us all and ensure that, throughout the pandemic, sufficient staff are available and deployed where they are most needed, as well as supporting members of the public, containing and slowing the spread of the virus, and managing the deceased with respect and dignity.
While temporary emergency powers have been granted to Ministers to handle the pandemic, I welcome that we, as elected Members of Parliament, have had many opportunities to vote on and debate changes to regulations where possible. I, like my colleagues, take my responsibility to represent my constituents at these debates incredibly seriously.
It is vital to balance the need to restrict the spread of the virus without infringing on civil liberties, while allowing the restoration of economic and social life going forward. I understand concerns regarding the restrictions, however this is an extraordinary time and I have concluded that the current action to stop the spread of the virus is necessary, albeit uncomfortable, for us all.
Thanks to the hard work and enormous sacrifices of the British people, as well as the incredible success of our vaccination programme, I am delighted that the Government is now in a position to cautiously start easing lockdown restrictions and has begun to do so with the return of face-to-face learning. I welcome the Government's roadmap to guide us cautiously, but irreversibly, towards reclaiming our freedoms and way of life.
Democratic Scrutiny and PPE Procurement
Being able to procure PPE at speed has been critical to the Government’s response to Covid-19 and, at the outset of the coronavirus outbreak, it was made clear to all public authorities that they may need to procure new services with extreme urgency. For the avoidance of doubt, this is not a change to the public procurement regulations; there are well-established procedures in the Public Contracts Regulations for handling extremely urgent procurements and they have been used by a variety of public authorities including the UK Government, and devolved administrations. Other countries followed similar urgent procurement processes.
Unfortunately, as you may be aware, the Secretary of State for Health has acknowledged that, despite intentions, not all the detail of every PPE contract awarded was published within set time frames as required by law. While this is disappointing, I do appreciate the pressures that the Department for Health and Social Care was under last year. I am pleased to say that work is well underway to tackle the backlog in publication, with the Department for Health moving towards complete compliance again. I was also encouraged that the Good Law Project’s contention that Government deliberately deprioritised compliance with transparency obligations was not accepted by the Court. I am pleased to say that work is well underway to tackle the backlog in publication, with the Department for Health moving towards complete compliance again.
Vote for national lockdown
I recognise and appreciate that many people, felt that we needed to go into another lockdown much earlier, but these decisions are not taken lightly.
I also recognise that many people feel that going into lockdown is entirely wrong. I agree that there are significant consequences and problems that arise from going into a lockdown. Health, mental health, economic health and education – all are affected by a lockdown but at the same time all would be significantly affected by not addressing the exceptional rise in cases nationally since the end of December, where it is estimated that 1 in 50 people in England are Covid positive.
It is very disappointing that 2021 has had to start with another national lockdown, but the situation with the new variant, and significant pressure on much of the NHS, unfortunately in my mind makes this a necessary step. We have seen the highest number of daily deaths within the past week, and the pandemic, with the introduction of the new variant, is unfortunately at its very worst.
The vaccination programme will rollout alongside this lockdown, which I hope will give us all hope that this will be the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel.
Reform of the Electoral Commission
“The good functioning of our democracy depends on fair and transparent political campaigns. The Electoral Commission exists to run and regulate elections fairly but there is increasing concern that it is no longer operating effectively. The Committee on Standards in Public Life, which advises the Prime Minister on ethical standards of conduct, believes that it is now time to review the work of the Electoral Commission. It will be focusing particularly on the Electoral Commission’s role in regulating donations and campaign expenditure by political parties.
Recent cases pursued by the Electoral Commission have highlighted concerns over its lack of accountability, strategy and leadership. Proposals such as a new regulatory policy statement could set out the Electoral Commission’s remit so that it is more clearly understood. The Electoral Commission should also take more guidance from the party-nominated Election Commissioners who can provide specific expertise.
Should the Electoral Commission fail to reform, the Government has indicated that the only option would be to abolish it. Its functions would be transferred to other governmental bodies and the police. This would ensure that elections are regulated impartially and that democracy is delivered in accordance with the law.”