The UK government has caved in to demands that MPs be given a vote in parliament on any new UK or England-wide coronavirus restrictions, after up to 100 Conservatives threatened a rebellion.
MPs agreed a deal with ministers to give them new powers to scrutinise restrictions in advance, though the government has reserved the right to act faster if needed. MPs will not get a vote on any localised lockdowns.
An overwhelming number of backbench MPs had publicly backed an amendment to grant them more say, though that was thwarted by parliamentary procedure.
Amid rising anger at the lack of scrutiny of new rules, the health secretary said the votes would be granted over the introduction of “significant national measures with effect in the whole of England or UK-wide”.
Matt Hancock said: “We will consult parliament, and wherever possible, we will hold votes before such regulations come into force. But of course, responding to the virus means that the government must act with speed when required.
“And we cannot hold up urgent regulations which are needed to control the virus and save lives. I am sure that no member of this house would want to limit the government’s ability to take emergency action in the national interest as we did in March.”
Speaking at a debate ahead of a vote to renew the Coronavirus Act 2020, Hancock said: “This virus moves quickly. And so we need to have the powers at our disposal to respond quickly, and it is deeply important to me that we strike the right balance between acting at pace and proper scrutiny.
“I believe in the sovereignty of parliament and I believe that scrutinised decisions are better decisions. And I believe in the wisdom of this house as the cockpit of the nation.”
In a tacit admission of MPs’ discontent, he said scrutiny had not always been conducted “as well as we would have liked”.
MPs voted to renew the act on Wednesday, though seven Conservatives and six Labour MPs voted against, as well as all the Liberal Democrats.
The Conservative MP Graham Brady, who had put forward the amendment, said he was pleased with the government’s concession, saying he was “grateful that [Hancock] and other members of the government have understood the importance of proper scrutiny in this place and the benefits that that can bring to better government as well”.
Earlier on Wednesday, the Commons Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, accused the government of showing “contempt” for parliament but said he was unable to select Brady’s amendment.
“The way in which the government has exercised its powers to make secondary legislation during this crisis has been totally unsatisfactory,” Hoyle said, adding that new powers had been published “a matter of hours before they come into force” and the explanations had been “unconvincing and shows a total disregard for the house”.
The Speaker said MPs should have the opportunity to amend, debate and vote on the new powers and the operation of the Coronavirus Act, which MPs are voting whether to renew later on Wednesday.
He said he had been advised there would be legal uncertainty if any amendment were accepted to the act. “Lack of clarity in such important matters risks undermining the rule of law,” he said.
“I have not taken this decision lightly, and I am looking to the government to remedy a situation I regard as completely unsatisfactory. I now look to the government to rebuild trust with this house and not treat it with the contempt that it has shown.”
A number of MPs including former cabinet minister Esther McVey and the vice-chair of the 1922 committee, Charles Walker, voted against the renewal of the act, as well as the former Labour shadow cabinet ministers Rebecca Long-Bailey and Dawn Butler, and the Green MP, Caroline Lucas.
Conservative backbencher Peter Bone, who also voted against the act, said: “They were brought in because we were at the height of a pandemic when parliament was not sitting and operating … I don’t see why government ministers making decisions is better than parliament making decisions. So the logic is: why do we need the act?”
The Lib Dem leader, Ed Davey, whose party voted against renewal, said the party had “deep reservations about the serious implications for people’s wellbeing, rights and freedoms … Most alarming to me is the watering down of care for elderly, disabled and vulnerable people.”
Hancock said it was essential to renew the act at this point. He said the virus was “still the most serious public health emergency that the world has faced in a century”.
He added: “These are extraordinary measures, but they remain temporary, time-limited and proportionate to the strength that we face. Some of the measures we seek not to renew. Some have thankfully not been used, but it’s imperative that we maintain the ability to use them if needed.
“And some of these measures have proved critical to our response and are now used to keep people safe, every day. So to stand down this act now would leave Britain exposed at a time when we need to be at our strongest.”
Nick Thomas-Symonds, Labour’s shadow home secretary, said it was with regret that the party would support the renewal of the bill.
“We’ve recognised that in a pandemic any government needs extraordinary powers available, and that is why with a heavy heart today, and facing this highly unsatisfactory situation of an all or nothing motion, we will not be blocking its passage today,” he said.
Several MPs raised concerns that the concession did not include votes on local restrictions, which could affect millions of people.
The former Labour cabinet minister Ben Bradshaw called it a “meaningless concession, which excludes the draconian ‘non national’ measures imposed without local consultation with local communities and gives the executive a get-out clause on the national measures”.