- Noah Keate
Accountability: why all ministers must face questions amidst the coronavirus crisis
There are aspects of politics that remain crucial however awful the specific crisis is. While coronavirus has transformed so many people’s lives around the globe, the principle that ministers - those governing us - must be accountable for their actions remains wholly relevant today. To be accountable is to fulfil one’s duty to the electorate, who decide which people should make decisions about the UK’s future. In the time of coronavirus, which dominates government policy, the logical answer is that ministers should be held more responsible, scrutinised to a higher degree and probed severely to justify their actions.
Yet for some ministers, that hasn’t taken place. The Prime Minister is simply incapacitated. Though it is a great relief that Boris Johnson has been discharged from hospital, he remains in recovery at Chequers. It would be unwise for him to return and lead the government’s response any time soon. As First Secretary of State, the Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab must therefore take charge of the government’s direction. Despite daily press conferences, where both a government minister and scientific advisers are questioned on the day to day events, it has been tricky to acquire answers about the government’s response to coronavirus.
This is partially due to the absence of Home Secretary, Priti Patel, from the public eye. Despite fronting her first press conference on April 11th, she has been notable for her lack of any significant public statement. Even though she claimed to be working ‘every single day’ during the outbreak, a greater presence in the media would be expected from someone holding one of the Great Offices of State. The Home Office covers police and security which are key during the coronavirus pandemic. When many (including myself) believe the police’s powers are too great, it remains vital that a key government secretary of state can face accountability.
There had been discussion, just like the Brexit argument, of a government of national unity to resolve the coronavirus pandemic. I don’t believe this is the answer. Such an approach would depoliticise the virus and mean debate and scrutiny could become insignificant. It is neither possible nor desirable to remove an opposition. The UK government has chosen a specific approach to deal with coronavirus, the incorrect response in my view. Though I am no scientist, if the UK had entered into lockdown earlier, the consequences of the pandemic may have been reduced. This could have meant that the UK left lockdown earlier (though everything is hypothetical).
Accountability must not be conflated with party political point scoring. While I want scrutiny, individuals opposing the government for the sake of opposition help nobody. So far, I believe Keir Starmer has correctly tried to be a constructive opposition. This opposition must scrutinise all departments, not least of the Home Office. With citizens across the world virtually under house arrest, it is vital that MPs question the emergency powers of government and ensure they are repealed as soon as possible.
However, it is possible for ministers to work without drawing attention to themselves. Clearly, I would prefer Priti Patel to spend her time dealing with the 120% increase in calls to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline and supporting victims of fraud who have collectively lost £1.8 million. The absence of Priti Patel could be linked to her proposals around future immigration, which deem cleaners and many NHS staff low skilled. Whoever is speaking, the public must have some guidance and awareness over the government strategy. Realism is necessary. Optimism is delusional; pessimism demoralising. A credible account of how ministers are responding and the prospects for the UK’s exit strategy are necessary.
It is pleasing that Parliament has returned in some capacity. MPs have the ability to scrutinise the government’s Finance Bill as well as legislation relating to free movement within the UK. While coronavirus continues, the business of politics cannot stop. Whether in person or remotely, sessions like Prime Minister’s Questions must take place so Boris Johnson or Dominic Raab can be questioned. Similarly, select committees must interview various ministers and experts to ensure the correct approach is being taken and the electorate are represented. For our democracy, it is vital that opposition and scrutiny continue.
In her press conference, Priti Patel deemed she was sorry if ‘people feel there have been failings over PPE (Personal Protective Equipment)’. But apologies are not enough. Action is required to give the public confidence the government is competent. Ultimately, historians will look back not on a specific press conference but the broader government response. In the present however, public confidence links to a ministerial presence. This can only be the case if all senior ministers - including the Home Secretary - are willing to face scrutiny from journalists, politicians and the electorate.