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Commons Speaker quashes Tory rebels’ bid – but warns government over COVID rules

Written by on 30 September 2020

An effort by Conservative rebels to force the government to give MPs a greater say over COVID-19 restrictions has been quashed by the Speaker of the House of Commons.

Sir Lindsay Hoyle told MPs he would not allow any attempts to alter emergency coronavirus legislation, introduced at the start of the pandemic in March, when the Commons is asked to renew its approval for it later on Wednesday.

This dealt a blow to attempts by a sizeable group of Tory MPs to ensure the Commons can debate and vote on new COVID-19 measures before they come into force.

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New restrictions including a 10pm curfew on pubs, bars and restaurants were announced by the government last week

However, it is understood a deal has since been reached between the Tory rebels and the government, with Health Secretary Matt Hancock to set out the details later on Wednesday.

In his statement to MPs, Sir Lindsay said he had “decided not to select any of the amendments” to Wednesday’s motion on the renewal of powers in the Coronavirus Act.

He revealed he had received advice that “any amendment to the motion before the House risks giving rise to uncertainty about the decision the House has taken”.

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“This then risks decisions which are rightly the responsibility of parliament ultimately being determined by the courts,” Sir Lindsay added.

“Lack of clarity in such important matters risks undermining the rule of law.”

However, the Speaker appeared to urge the government to reach a compromise with the large number of MPs who want a greater say over COVID-19 restrictions.

He told ministers that the way in which they had exercised their powers in introducing coronavirus measures was “totally unsatisfactory”, as he criticised them for publishing laws only “a matter of hours before they come into force”.

Lindsay Hoyle, Speaker
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House of Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle accused the government of showing ‘contempt’ for parliament

“Some explanations why important measures have come into effect before they can be laid before this House have been unconvincing and shows a total disregard for the House,” Sir Lindsay said.

“The government must make greater efforts to prepare measures more quickly, so that this House can debate and decide upon the most significant measures at the earliest possible point.”

The Speaker urged the government to “remedy a situation I regard as completely unsatisfactory,” adding: “I now look to the government to rebuild trust with this House and not treat it with the contempt that it has shown.”

Sir Graham Brady, the chair of the influential 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers, had tabled the amendment – which will now not be selected – through which a cross-party group of MPs were hoping to achieve a greater say over coronavirus restrictions.

He said: “The Speaker set out his reasons for not selecting any amendments but he also made it clear that he expects the government to ensure proper and timely parliamentary scrutiny.

“I am hopeful that the government will respond appropriately this afternoon.”

His fellow rebel ringleader, former Brexit minister Steve Baker, said: “Mr Speaker’s decision is entirely reasonable and his statement will reassure all MPs supporting Sir Graham.

“I hope and expect to reach a good compromise with the government shortly so we can advance as one team.”

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Sir Lindsay’s statement came ahead of Wednesday’s session of Prime Minister’s Questions, during which Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer took aim at Boris Johnson’s failure to recall his own coronavirus rules.

The prime minister was forced to apologise on Tuesday for getting confused by COVID-19 restrictions in northeast England.

“One of the major problems, as we’ve seen in the last 24 hours, is widespread confusion about the local restrictions and I don’t just mean the prime minister not knowing his own rules – having sat opposite the prime minister at PMQs every week that didn’t come as a surprise to me,” Sir Keir said.

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Quoting concerns from a Conservative council leader about the “complex” restrictions, Sir Keir added: “If the prime minister doesn’t understand the rules and his own council leaders are complaining about mixed messages, how does the prime minister expect the rest of the country to understand and follow the rules?”

Mr Johnson replied: “Actually, I think that the people of this country do understand and overwhelmingly do follow the rules, and that I may say is in spite of the efforts of (the Labour leader) continually to try to snipe from the sidelines, to undermine what we are trying to do, and he mentions the restrictions in the North East, and I cleared that matter up as fast as I could.”

Sir Keir also asked the prime minister why only one area of England – Luton in Bedfordshire – had ever come out and stayed out of local lockdown restrictions.

“The reason, I think, for the success of Luton is that the local people pulled together to suppress the virus, to follow the guidance, and that is the way forward for the entire country,” Mr Johnson responded.

“That is what we did before in March and April, and I have no doubt that that is what we’re going to do again.”