Parliamentary scrutiny of a Unitary Cabinet government during the coronavirus crisis – Part 3

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Even in the society of the independent-minded Dutch, a distinct “rallying around the flag” effect can be seen. The leaders of the populist parties questioning established politics (Geert Wilders, PVV, and Thierry Baudet, Forum for Democracy) or the capitalist aspects of Dutch health care and general government (the Socialist Party) used the first new-style plenary Corona debates for sharp, often ad hominem, attacks with overblown rhetoric on Prime Minister Rutte and his ministers. The debate lasted from 14.00 until around 22.00. The Health minister collapsed at the rostrum from overwork and resigned the next day. That scene had a sobering effect on the three attack dogs and when PVV and Forum lost badly in the next weekly poll they toned down the rhetoric and joined the more practical, factual line of arguing of all other parties.

With that toning down of parliamentary politics after the first dramatic debate, the parliamentary party leaders appear to have started a Whatsapp or Zoom group to regularly consult on Corona and other issues.

The Second Chamber Presidium had asked the government around 20 March to supply a list of all Bills (on non-Corona-related issues) they wanted to see being debated and adopted in the coming months. The government sent back a list with 84 Bills; President Khadija Arib immediately saw that 41 of those Bills hadn’t even been introduced to parliament. She sent the list on to the specialist parliamentary committees, who very soon let it be known that there was an impression that, in some cases, the Government was trying to get some controversial big laws passed. President Arib thereupon asked Rutte for Government to review this list, pointing to the limited parliamentary time in Corona times, and asked for a justification for every Bill that the Government really wanted debated.

Reviewing the list of Bills saw parliamentary committees (re)start meeting online, but journalists soon complained they weren’t able to see what happened in those meetings. The Presidium forwarded written summaries of those meetings to the media. But commentators and parliamentary sketchwriters pointed out that in principle all parliamentary sessions should be open to the public and media. And sketchwriters pointed out that every Prime Minister, however popular, even in “interesting times” of high crisis should be subjected to the same parliamentary and media scrutiny as always.

At the same time, individual ministers wrote letters to parliament (a quite normal way of treating specific points and answering parliamentary questions), confessing errors in informing parliament. For example one by the Defence minister on the number of casualties in a specific (mistaken) air bombardment on an Iraqi village in the coalition fight against ISIS. Normally such a confession would lead to an intense parliamentary debate; that now had to be postponed.

These developments meant the Presidium restarted meeting regularly  and the informal leaders’ meetings abandoned talking about the parliamentary agenda). It led to a call in the media for some form of physical committee debates in parliament to be resumed on urgent issues.

The Presidium used the prolongation on 6 April of the Corona regime for citizens and enterprises to announce that three big meeting rooms in parliament (including the room/hall that had been the plenary parliamentary meeting place in 1815-1992) were being prepared for selected (most relevant) committee meetings (one MP per party, at sufficient distances and with hygienic measures) on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. The first such committee meeting was held on 15 April, on housing legislation (our housing market is just as gridlocked as the British). And Parliament scrapped its early May recess; we remain on board ship.

The Dutch Senate just announced they too would restart meeting on Tuesdays; they were consulting constitutional lawyers about how to interpret the quorum rules about senators present.

These practices could with all necessary adjustments to British Trias Politica arrangements, be copied by the British parliament; with the LibDems in the driving seat of  the rearrangement process.   D66 of course fully supports Ed Davey’s LibDem attempts to get regular parliamentary scrutiny restored.

* Dr. Bernard Aris is a historian, a D66 parliamentary researcher and a LibDem supporting member.

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One Comment

  • Bernard Aris 26th Apr '20 - 1:14pm

    The first sitting in the old plenary hall was a hearing by the ICT & Privacy specialists from all party in which a broad range of experts (online privacy lawyers; IT security companies like Fox-IT, sociologists and behaviorial scientists about the “COrona Track & Tracing app” the government was trying to launch within a month (announcement 15 March; plannen launch date around now).

    The criticism from those experts (who also were very active in the media) f clarity about the apps purpose, the big and justified dounts about the applicability and accuracy of its Bluetooth technology, the ignoring up to then of all criticisms voiced , all helped to stop the “hasty pudding” app project to be stopped in its tracks.
    A slower, more considerating, and much broader (many sorts of experts included from the start) app development project alongside the expansion of classic “track & Tracing” methods using local healt authority personnel was started.

    Scrutiny is usefull in a crisis while managing it.

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