Independent Politics

Coronavirus: Fears that Boris Johnson will escape scrutiny as parliament is shut down for four weeks

Parliament will be shut down for four weeks to help curb the coronavirus epidemic, prompting fears that ministers will be able to dodge questions about their handling of the crisis.

The planned Easter recess has been brought forward to begin on Wednesday evening, with MPs and peers not due to return until 21 April – and then possibly only in a limited form.

The shutdown has the support of Labour, which believes the public needs to see that MPs are joining the national near-lockdown, with a promise that parliament will definitely return.

But one Labour MP, Wes Streeting, said he feared the ability to quiz ministers on what they were doing to combat coronavirus would be diminished.

“I am very uncomfortable that we’re going into recess before the support package for self-employment is announced,” he said.

Jess Phillips, a fellow Labour MP, said the shutdown was taking place as universal credit was “falling over”, amid shortages of protective equipment in hospitals and with no help for the self-employed.

“We need a process set up to question ministers just like the current lottery for questions,” she argued, suggesting it could be done remotely.

And Andrew Adonis, a Labour peer and former cabinet minister, pointed out that Winston Churchill had ensured that parliament found ways of meeting “all through the Blitz”.

“Government without parliamentary accountability is always a bad thing,” he said. “It is the same today.”

There are particular fears that checks on the government to ensure emergency help is reaching the most vulnerable people will be much harder.

The move comes despite growing controversy over the government’s telling construction sites to remain open where possible – and workers that they must carry on turning up.

But Robert Jenrick, the housing secretary, insisted parliament had to lead by example, arguing senior MPs could continue scrutiny remotely.

“Parliament will return after the Easter break in the usual way,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“There’s been another order in parliament to create ways for select committees, for example, to operate remotely, so I think innovation will happen to make it possible for MPs to hold us to account.”

Parliament is expected to return for two weeks from 21 April, to pass the finance bill needed to enact the Budget and make progress on the immigration changes after Brexit.

But the authorities are believed to be exploring a system where MPs sit for just two days a week – probably Tuesday and Wednesday – with limits on numbers.

A Labour spokesman told The Independent its scrutiny would continue, saying: “We have engaged constructively with the government to ensure that the emergency legislation to deal with the unprecedented coronavirus crisis could be passed quickly. 

“Given the circumstances, it is appropriate that parliament goes into recess slightly earlier than planned.”

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