MPs must be able to scrutinise the handling of Britain’s coronavirus crisis | Bernard Jenkin | Opinion

Parliament rose on Wednesday 25 March. The lockdown followed and the government has made many new decisions and announcements. We are now passing a third week in which the coronavirus crisis continues – and in which there is no parliamentary scrutiny of the decisions made, barring a few online select committee evidence sessions. Then there will be a fourth week before parliament is due to reconvene on 21 April.

The absence of parliament gives ministers more time to deal directly with the crisis. There is still plenty of media scrutiny, but scrutiny by parliament matters. This was demonstrated after the government announced its £350bn loans package to support business, on Tuesday 17 March. There was still far too little support for smaller businesses. MP Greg Clark tabled an urgent question to tackle the issue on the Thursday and his call was supported from all sides of the House. On the Friday, the government announced the massive jobs furlough programme and then, on 26 March, the package to secure the incomes of the self-employed was announced.

Proper, considered, penetrating, constructive scrutiny does really matter. This is not about hauling ministers before MPs to blame them for the problems they cannot instantly resolve. Former cabinet secretary Gus O’ Donnell should be commended for his searing honesty when he recently admitted, without prompting, that he should have advised previous governments to commit far more resources to flu pandemic planning. This crisis calls for the same candour and transparency; that is what speeds up the learning process, leading to better decisions and more effective action.

A wise committee will not be prosecuting its witnesses to find blame. If there is an atmosphere of blame, people tend to hide uncomfortable truths. Fear of blame does not just affect a few frontline ministers and officials. It can permeate whole organisations. If we want there to be openness and transparency within government departments and the NHS, then public scrutiny must foster an atmosphere of trust.

You can see this in the way ministers react to the media. Journalists are channels for public anger and are often looking for scapegoats or an admission of failure. The strength of cross-party select committees is that they are set up for more considered and constructive scrutiny.

These are terrible times. Ministers and departments are desperately overloaded, stressed and anxious. It was shocking to have the prime minister himself struck down by the virus. Still, I would urge this government to appear before MPs in public, rather than just in press conferences, while the House of Commons remains in recess.

I have been pressing for ministers to appear in public before the liaison committee, the gathering of select committee chairs. These chairs are understandably anxious to carry out their collective scrutiny role. The government has proposed me as chair of this committee. I would not be worthy of that job if I did not represent those views and concerns to the government now.

The public will wonder why journalists get to ask their daily questions, but this group of senior members of parliament does not.

The government offered us a private video-conference briefing, but this could not achieve what only public scrutiny can do. I continue to press for a public session in the coming week.

We should all understand that the government needed a breathing space over the past week, of all weeks. This coming week, a public evidence session would demonstrate clearly that our democratic institutions are continuing to function. The government can show its own confidence in its willingness to accept high-level public scrutiny from parliament. In particular, it will enhance public confidence in the continuity of the government while the prime minister is incapacitated.

Bernard Jenkin MP is nominated to be chair of the House of Commons liaison committee

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