‘Human rights are at stake’: Covid-19 laws need proper scrutiny through parliament, says Harriet Harman

Katherine Johnston (30 September, 2020)

Report also calls for appeal process for fines and criticises government's communication strategy during pandemic

31615Harriet Harman

Harriet Harman’s human rights committee has called on the government to put COVID-19 restrictions before parliament for debate rather than imposing them with emergency legislation.

In the report published on September 21, ‘The government’s response to Covid-19: human rights implications’, the committee – jointly chaired by the Camberwell and Peckham MP – explained: “Whilst the use of emergency procedures such as fast-tracked legislation and made affirmative statutory instruments may be justified in the exceptional circumstances in which the nation found itself in March, the use of emergency procedures must be limited to what is absolutely necessary. This is especially the case when human rights are at stake.”

Although broadly in support of national and local lockdown legislation, the report highlights confusing messaging over what is ‘guidance’ and what is a ‘legal requirement’, and how certain groups have been disproportionately affected by the greatest loss of collective freedom in living memory.

Evidence analysed by MPs includes how restrictions have impacted on whole sections in public life from the criminal justice system, children’s education, healthcare, to particularly vulnerable groups including those detained under mental health acts, mothers in prison and elderly people in care homes.

“Each set of regulations has been accompanied by government ‘guidance’ which has been published online,” the report notes. “This has been supplemented, and sometimes preceded, by ministerial statements and interviews. The communications of the guidance and laws has at times been confusing, leading to widespread misunderstanding as to what people are and are not permitted to do.”

Worryingly, the report details how people from black or other minority backgrounds were more likely to be given fixed penalty notices under lockdown regulations – at a rate of 1.6 times higher than white people. There is currently no way to appeal these decisions.

The Crown Prosecution Service has reviewed the first 200 cases prosecuted under both the lockdown regulations and the Coronavirus Act. It found that 12 of 187 prosecutions under the Regulations (6%) and all 44 of 44 prosecutions under the Coronavirus Act were wrongly charged. The report calls for all legislation to be scrutinised by MPs first, and recommends an appeal process for lockdown fines is put in place.

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