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Coronavirus Bill

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 24th March 2020.

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Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

I will make a brief contribution on behalf of the Scottish Conservatives and say at the outset that we will support the legislative consent motion at decision time.

It is essential that both the UK and Scottish Governments have the emergency powers that they need to tackle the unprecedented national crisis that we are facing. The UK Parliament bill that the LCM relates to aims to protect the nation’s public health and to ensure that NHS and social care staff are supported to deal with significant extra pressure. It also contains a number of measures to ensure that the public are protected.

As Bruce Crawford said, in normal times there would be concerns about the reach of some of the measures before us. There would be perfectly legitimate concerns about civil liberties; I fully recognise and understand those concerns. Under normal circumstances, many of the powers contained in the legislation would not be deemed acceptable. However, we are not dealing with normal circumstances. We are dealing with exceptional circumstances, and it is right for Governments to have the powers contained in the bill—powers that, in a liberal democracy, we would normally believe go too far in the balance between individual freedom and the power of Government.

A good example of that is what the cabinet secretary just signalled in terms of the emergency powers that he intends to take to restrict public gatherings to avoid the spread of infection. In normal times, we would regard that as overreach by Government; in these times it is a necessary step to take to protect the public.

The measures in the bill fall into five categories: containing and stopping the virus; easing legislative and regulatory requirements; enhancing capacity across essential services; managing the deceased in a dignified way; and supporting and protecting the public.

It is important to state that there are many powers that Government already has to deal with the situation that we are now in, where legislation is not required. It is also important to state that the bill is time limited. Initially, it was proposed that there would be a two-year time limit, and there were quite legitimate concerns about whether that period was appropriate. Like the cabinet secretary, I am pleased that the UK Government has now agreed that that period should be reduced to six months, with a provision that that should be extended if possible. That is a welcome approach that shows that the Government has been listening to the concerns that were raised.

Crucially, the bill respects the devolution settlement, and it has been drawn up with the full agreement of and in consultation with the Scottish Government and the other devolved Administrations.

There is a great deal that I could say about the detail of the bill, but what we have already heard in this debate from the speakers before me gives us a flavour of the measures that are required. They are, in my view, appropriate and proportionate and are only to be used when strictly necessary. Those principles should also underline our legislation in this Parliament, which the cabinet secretary will introduce next week. It needs to be proportionate, evidenced based, as tightly drawn as possible and time limited. That is important, given the lack of opportunity that there will be for detailed parliamentary scrutiny and for external consultation about the impact of the measures that are being proposed.

A priority in the bill is the protection of life and ensuring that NHS and social care staff are supported to deal with the significant extra pressure that they are under. We need to remove the bureaucratic hurdles that stand in the way of bringing new people into the NHS, including those who are recently retired, and ensure that hospital space is freed up and front-line staff are given the space to focus on caring for the sick.

I said at the outset that we are living in unprecedented times. They require an unprecedented response, with the whole of the United Kingdom working together to tackle the crisis before us. It is essential that the peak of the virus is delayed, preferably until the summer months, when the NHS is typically under less pressure. The measures in the bill today will help to achieve that outcome. For all those reasons, I believe that Parliament should unanimously pass the legislative consent motion that is before us.