Bypassing scrutiny and accountability – is THAT taking back control? We have to update…AGAIN.

This government’s evident resistance to undergoing any process of scrutiny is now taking the country into very dangerous territory. This country allegedly operates a parliamentary democracy, with our elected representatives scrutinising, debating and voting on new laws and changes to existing legislation, holding the executive to account, including checking and approving spending and taxation.

UPDATE: An unelected bureaucrat, David Frost (the very epitome of the focus of the Brexit cultists’ ire) has 1) been ennobled; 2) been promoted to the post of Minister for Relations with the EU, supplanting Gove in the role of handling and communicating ongoing negotiations with the EU. A couple of weeks ago, Johnson said Frost was going to be his special advisor on security. Frost was one of Johnson’s special advisors (SpAd) during Johnson’s disastrous, gaffe-riddled stint (or should that be ‘stunt’) as Foreign Secretary.

More importantly, Frost was also responsible for the catastrophic headline-rich, detail-light Trade and Cooperation Agreement with the EU. It’s his monster and the only way he gets away with the impact of its existence on him and Johnson’s government is to make the EU its creator. Make no mistake, responsibility lies with our government and Lord Frost.

If you needed any further evidence that this government was going to pursue an aggressive, damaging and anti-democratic strategy of blaming the EU for its own incompetence, hiding its ongoing activities and denying parliament the opportunity for scrutiny, then this is it. Not acceptable. Write to your MP!

UPDATE: We have a Secretary of State for International Trade, Liz Trusss, who not only ducks questions on her miscellany of small trade deals, but also refuses to answer vitally important questions about the devastating impact the Trade and Cooperation Agreemement with the EU is having on businesses up and down the country right now. In an abuse of her power and position, she has had all such questions removed from the order paper.

Shadow international trade secretary Emily Thornberry is justifiably livid not only on Labour’s behalf but a cross party group who want answers for their beleagured constituents. Thornberry has written Truss a letter, signed by six of the opposition parties, demanding that she do her job.

This evasion of scrutiny is wholly unacceptable. The Conservatives have resorted to coupling their refusal to answer a question with a pathetic strategy of just firing back an irrelevant question to their interlocutor. The Speaker, who has so far proved a little less effective than a chocolate teapot, was provoked into giving Truss a tiny slap on the wrist whilst indulgently cooing that he expected better of her. It had no effect, clearly. He must bring her to book. If she will not do her job, she must resign.

Truss and the rest of the front bench appeaar to have forgotten that they work for us. It’s OUR money they’re squandering and our future they are wrecking. They are accountable to parliament and to us.

This tweet summed it up rather well:

Parliament’s powers and responsibilities are being eroded on a daily basis, often using the excuse of the pandemic and the special powers conferred under the Coronavirus Bill.

Public money is being spent for political advantage and using bully boy tactics to try to shut down investigation into the propriety of PPE deals struck, on the face of it, with Conservative Party donors and friends. NO SCRUTINY!

The Committee on the Future Relationship with the European Union has been disbanded and will not be replaced, despite Brexit being very far from done and damage being done to all parts of the economy. NO SCRUTINY!

The government has announced it will not produce any impact analysis of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) with the EU even though it is producing analysis on all the ‘new’ trade deals it is rolling over with much, much less significant trading partners. NO SCRUTINY!

Laws have been introduced without consulting parliament – most recently, the introduction of sentences of up to to 10 years for lying to avoid Covid-19 quarantine measures. NOT debated by parliament. NO SCRUTINY!

On 9 Feb, in a shocking derogation of responsibility, the Conservatives, bar 13 rebels, once again voted down an amendment to the Trade Bill which would have given MPs a guaranteed vote on future trade deals – in short, the power to do their job.

The result means that the UK has LESS democratic scrutiny of trade deals than all of the European Union, the United States and Japan. So much for taking back control.

Just 13 Conservative MPs rebelled to support the amendment, two more than last time but far short of the number required for it to pass. In our region, (Cornwall, Devon, Dorset and Somerset) only Simon Hoare, North Dorset and Neil Parish, Tiverton and Honiton had the guts to rebel and vote in support of the democratic process. Good for them.

On 9 February we wrote about Newton Abbot MP Anne Marie Morris standing up to Michael Gove:

“At the meeting, Ms Morris’s focus was transparency. She was unhappy that parliament only hears about the decisions of the Joint Committee (on the operation of the Northern Ireland Protocol) after they have been made; she wanted parliament to have a greater say. Sounds reasonable, right? After all, when VoteLeave wanged on about “take back control”, most of us interpreted that to mean ‘parliament’.[…] She insisted on ex-ante scrutiny; not solely ex-post.’

So what happened on 10 February? Where did that hunger for scrutiny go? This tribal loyalty is anathema to transparency.

We can well imagine that, amidst the mayhem and devastation created by Johnson’s toxic and far from oven-ready deal, the executive is now desperate to sign pretty much any deal with anyone, including regimes committing genocide. In fact, 8 Feb provided another example of government high-handedness and determination to disempower parliament.

Ministers used their control of the Commons order paper to prevent a clean vote on a Lords amendment which would have given the High Court a role in advising parliament if a country with which the UK may negotiate a trade deal is committing genocide. It was a vote the government knew they would lose. Instead, ministers mashed up two separate issues – the Labour proposal for human rights audits of trade agreements and the proposed role for the UK courts in genocide – into a single vote on the order paper, so that voting in favour would also be a vote for the Labour amendment.

Instead, they voted narrowly in favour of a (weak) compromise proposed by the government. By way of a plaster over the wound, trade minister Greg Hands said a committee could trigger a debate in parliament if they thought a potential trade partner was guilty of genocide rather than subcontract the matter to the courts. Whoopiedoo. But as Nusrat Ghani, one of the Conservatives organising the rebellion said,  committees could already prepare reports on genocide, but there was no obligation on the government to act.

She added:
“As the government has said repeatedly, the only time they will accept, use and recognise the term genocide is when it has been discussed, debated and evaluated and come to a determination in a judicial setting. Without the courts, the UK government – just as it has always done over the last 75 years – will not accept the term genocide, so we need a court process engaged in this.”

The whole sorry saga got right up Sir Iain Duncan Smith’s nose:

“The government’s attempts to deny MPs a vote on the genocide amendment are cynical to the extreme. Now is not the time for parliamentary games. Members from across the house have voiced their support for this amendment and they must be heard.”

The government is, presumably, terrified that the situation in China with the Uighurs will ‘interfere’ with trade negotiations. It is also getting windy about the potential for some ‘newbie’ MPs to get a taste for rebellion. As it was, its fudged amendment only passed with a majority of 15. The Lords are going to try one last time in the hope that MPs will finally be given a clean vote. Government defeat on this emotive issue would seem to be a racing certainty unless they pull yet another stunt which, given the ire these shenanigans provoked, would be a risky strategy.

But for many observers alarmed at the erosion of the democratic process, the tiny ray of hope generated by the reaction of several Tory backbenchers has been dimmed if not extinguished by the vote on the Trade Bill. If so many MPs feel so strongly about this issue, WHY did they then vote to take themselves out of the trade deal scrutiny process? It makes no sense, unless it is all about the optics of being seen to back a human rights cause…or am I being too cynical?

I asked Exeter’s Labour MP, Ben Bradshaw what the mood was like in parliament at the moment. He said:

“We know that Boris Johnson holds Parliament and basic norms of democracy in contempt because he broke the law when he shut Parliament down. The emergency powers the Government has given itself during Covid are terrifying. In the last 48 hours they have prevented MPs voting to curb trade deals with countries guilty of genocide and introduced ten year prison terms for people who fall foul of their shambolic quarantine rules – with no vote by MPs.”

It certainly seems as though parliament, far from taking back control, is giving it away or having it taken away/undermined by a, frankly, dangerously out of control executive. It’s not good. And if this government persists in attempting to thwart all attempts to scrutinise its actions, then we must step up to the plate and do it as best we can ourselves.