Human Rights and COVID-19 in Parliamentary Inquiries: Reflections on One Year of the Pandemic

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As part of the CVRO’s assessment of COVID-19 Review, we have carried out an analysis of COVID-19 related inquiries carried out by parliamentary committees over the last year. A list of all COVID-19 related inquiries carried out so far can be found here. The purpose of the analysis is to track the role of human rights principles and discourse in these key modes of accountability and scrutiny.

Inquiries by Parliamentary Committees as a mode of accountability

Parliamentary committees were first established in 1979. As the Parliament website puts it, these groups of parliamentarians “consider policy issues, scrutinise government work, expenditure, and examine proposals for primary and secondary legislation”. Usually this takes place by way of the Committee calling an ‘inquiry’, carried out on the basis of a set of questions the Committee would like to consider (often referred to as the ‘terms of reference’ of an inquiry). Committees have wide-ranging powers to collect information for the purpose of scrutinising such issues. For example, they may call for Government officials to come before them and offer evidence in the form of information about a particular Government activity. Committees may also call experts, including from the general public and civil society, to offer their perspectives on issues relevant for considering the Government’s approach to the issue under consideration. Furthermore, Committees ordinarily accept submissions from the general public (including experts and civil society) when they publish the details and terms of reference of an inquiry. You can find more information on the different types of parliamentary committees here.

As a mode of accountability, committee inquiries have several strengths. First, such inquiries enable Parliament to consider Government policy in depth. As noted by Bochel, Defty and Kirkpatrick (2015), committees can bring considerable knowledge of a particular area and apply that to scrutiny of government departments. This is particularly valuable during COVID-19, which has raised many complex policy questions and generated policy responses across a number of government departments, requiring coordination and cohesion. Access to specialist expertise is of huge value for navigating such complexity, and scrutinising the responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Second, committees can develop expertise across inquiries which enables them to learn lessons over time and improve scrutiny as each parliamentary term progresses. In light of the unprecedented and fast-moving pace of the pandemic, it has been crucial for Parliament and its committees rapidly to develop rapidly new sets of knowledge, analytical approaches and expertise in order to apply adequate scrutiny as each new issue arises. The capacity of committees to function as repositories of knowledge and sources of expertise that  build up over time is a key resource for Parliament to fulfil its accountability function in this fast moving and complex policy context.

Third, committees represent small groups of cross-party parliamentarians who work together to focus on a particular area of government policy. Given the disruptions and impairments to everyday parliamentary work and business (including the hybrid Parliament) that the pandemic has caused, the ability of small groups of parliamentarians to work in concert in this way has been vital over the last year.

Scholars and parliamentarians have long been noted (Kelso, 2009) that these unique attributes mark committees as integral for the purpose of Parliament keeping a check on government activity. This is even more so in the circumstances of the pandemic. Thus, committee inquiries are a particularly important focus for any research, such as that of the CVRO, which seeks to understand how, when, why and why not rights form part of the discourse of parliamentary review and accountability in the COVID-19 pandemic.

What our Analysis Shows

The CVRO has carried out an analysis of all committee inquiries on COVID-19 matters since 30 January 2020, the date on which the WHO first declared the transmission of COVID-19 to constitute a global health emergency. As part of this analysis, we have collected the terms of reference for each inquiry considering matters related to COVID-19, and assessed engagement with human rights in these terms of reference. Our findings are as follows:

  • Out of sixty-one COVID-19 related committee inquiries launched since the beginning of the pandemic, only two of the inquiries mention human rights in their terms of reference.
  • Both inquiries were carried out by the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR).
  • As can be seen from the Terms of Reference contained in the table below, both inquiries carried out by the JCHR engaged very broadly in considering the impact of human rights by the pandemic and the Government’s response to the pandemic. However, both focused primarily on civil and political rights protected via the HRA as well as international human rights law, with little attention to socio-economic rights and non-incorporated treaties.
Inquiries referring to human rights Terms of Reference
The Government’s response to Covid-19: human rights implications

 (JCHR inquiry)

 

As this situation develops the UK Parliament’s Human Rights Committee will seek to examine the Government’s actions to ensure that its approach is compliant with human rights – not least the right to life (Article 2 ECHR). While it is likely that steps will need to be taken that interfere with human rights, for example the right to liberty (Article 5 ECHR) and the right to respect for family life (Article 8 ECHR), this must be done in a way that is proportionate.
 

The Government’s response to covid-19: human rights implications of long lockdown (JCHR inquiry)

 

 

This inquiry will examine the impact of lockdown restrictions on human rights and whether those measures only interfere with human rights to the extent that is necessary and proportionate. In particular, we are interested in the impact of long lockdown on certain communities.

Discussion

 These findings show that, to date, the JCHR is the only parliamentary committee carrying out human rights assessments of the pandemic and responses so far. This is despite the fact that inquiries that have clear connections to rights have been undertaken by other committees. For example, the Public Accounts Committee has recently carried out an inquiry on ‘COVID-19: Supporting the vulnerable during lockdown’. This issue has clear rights implications, related to the Government’s positive obligations to protect the right to life under Article 2 of the ECHR. The Women and Equalities Committee has carried out a human rights-related inquiry on the unequal impact of the pandemic, such as the impact on ‘disability and access to services’, with clear implications for the right to non-discrimination in conjunction with, for example, the right to family and private life under Articles 14 and 8 of the ECHR, as well as general international human rights law. The lack of human rights framing in the terms of reference for these inquiries meant that the rights-related dimensions of the phenomena under consideration were inadequately attended to.

The failure to engage with rights at all in the Terms of Reference of these inquiries, and indeed in resultant reports, suggests that such inquiries contribute in only a very limited way to Parliament’s monitoring of human rights in the pandemic. We note that this narrow approach contrasts with the approach taken by committees in the Scottish Parliament, such as the Covid-19 Committee (Scotland) which we discuss in more detail here. We have highlighted that this committee takes a broader approach than that of many of the Westminster committees referred to above. So far the activity of the committee suggests it is an effective vehicle for gathering information about the lived experiences of the pandemic and responses –including human rights implications–from the government, stakeholders and the wider community.

We further note that the breadth of each JCHR inquiry suggests the committee is currently facing a large burden of work as the only committee explicitly considering human rights impacts during the pandemic. This burden limits the prospect of the committee understanding, in the fullest way possible, the impact of the pandemic. This includes its impact on rights, and the multi-factored and inter-related rights impacts of the responses to it. This in turn restricts Parliament’s engagement with rights not only in its response to the current pandemic, but future ones as well.

Photo credit: Copyright UK Parliament

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