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In the News

Weakness of Parliament?

Mike McCartney

11th February 2021

The ten year sentence for breaking covid rules

I have been posting a few entries about how Parliament has effectively scrutinised the executive. Most recently on the use of Opposition Days by Labour. One highlighted was the vote the government lost on cladding for homes.

And just yesterday the government announced £3.5b worth of funding to tackle the issue. So you could say that continued pressure by the Labour Opposition helped bring this about.

But at around the same time, word got out about one of the government's latest travel plans.

According to the Guardian:

'Travellers arriving from coronavirus hotspots could face £10,000 fines and jail sentences of up to 10 years under a package of measures designed to stop new variants entering Britain.

The strictest punishments would be reserved for people who lie about their travel history and conceal recent visits to countries on the “red list”, for example by travelling via exempt countries.

The move prompted consternation from Conservative backbenchers who questioned threatening people with lengthy jail sentences and large fines without a vote or debate in the Commons.'

But it's this last point here that's worth mentioning. When I heard this on the radio I did wonder how nice it would be for MPs to ask the government how this tallies with the Prime Minister's own adviser breaking covid restrictions he himself had broken, and then not receiving any punishment. Or how it has been argued that PPE contracts had been given to companies friendly with politicians rather than being put out to tender. Or a whole bunch of other questions that might involve scrutiny of how the government's covid policies seem to be knee jerk rather than joined up thinking. It also brought to my mind echoes of the Dangerous Dogs Act. If you don't know about this law from the first year of John Major's government, or have forgotten why it was so heavily criticised, here is a summary from a blog by the British Veterinary Association:

Bad dogs or bad law? Problems with the Dangerous Dogs Act - The Webinar Vet

'The Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 is widely regarded as one of the worst pieces of kneejerk legislation on the statute books. Passed by Parliament in an astonishingly short space of time in response to a number of horrific dog attacks on people, it sought to end such attacks by outlawing dogs that had been bred for fighting, and named a number of breeds and types to be completely banned. From the moment it came into force the BVA and many other organisations have been campaigning for the Act to be repealed, particularly the infamous ‘Section 1’ which bans pit bull terrier types and others dog regardless of the character or behaviour of the individual dog.'

So, instead, it was largely the media that drove the debate. For instance, Lord Sumpton, a former member Supreme Court, wrote in the Daily Telegraph that:

'"Ten years is the maximum sentence for threats to kill, non-fatal poisoning or indecent assault," he wrote.

"Does Mr Hancock really think that non-disclosure of a visit to Portugal is worse than the large number of violent firearms offences or sexual offences involving minors, for which the maximum is seven years?"'

As quoted on the BBC: Covid-19: Starmer says 10-year jail term for travel lies 'empty threat' - BBC News

To be fair there was discussion of the policy in Parliament, just not during an debate on the bill that would have preceded a vote.

For instance, Keir Starmer brought it up at PMQs, and there were fairly widespread expressions of hostility from Conservative backbenchers.

See the BBC article above for the former. And here is a link to reports of Tory quiet: Ten-year sentences for Covid rule-breaking 'utterly ridiculous' | World news | The Guardian

Oh, and why was there no debate on the bill. As it says in the article previously, according to Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary (yes, the same one nominally in charge of Britain's 'world beating' track and trace system: “We’re using existing legislation, so there’s no requirement for a vote.”

Yes, that is technically correct, but it can be argued that it very much leaves the impression of a government that has very much lost its way?

Mike McCartney

Mike is an experienced A-Level Politics teacher, author and examiner.

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