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I will set out for Parliament the Government’s plans for managing its legislative programme in the light of the impacts of Covid-19.
Scotland, as countries around the globe do, faces an unprecedented challenge. The fact that Parliament will spend the lion’s share of today on the emergency Coronavirus (Scotland) Bill is ample evidence of the current reality. The next few weeks and months are likely to be extremely difficult, and will need sustained collective national endeavour in response.
Every organisation the length and breadth of the country is having to find creative, innovative and flexible ways to respond to this unique and challenging situation: the
Government is no different. Not only are we having to manage the crisis nationally under the leadership of the First Minister, but we must, like any other employer, protect our staff and ensure their wellbeing, and accept that, despite our best endeavours, our workforce will be impacted.
Along with every other organisation, we are under pressure, and we are having to manage our resources as carefully as we can so that we can devote the maximum effort to concentrating on the nation’s response to the Covid-19 crisis.
The self-same challenges face Parliament, as is demonstrated clearly by the fact that we are, in order to follow guidelines, meeting for only one day this week, and with reduced numbers. I therefore record my gratitude for the constructive way in which members, committees and Parliament officials have responded to what is confronting us.
As the First Minister has made clear, we expect that the Government’s response to Covid-19 will be sustained over an extended period. The chief medical officer has said that restrictions could be in place for 13 weeks, and the United Kingdom’s deputy chief medical officer has indicated that the situation could impact on our lives for six months, or perhaps more. We therefore need to make some pragmatic but fundamental and essential changes to the legislative plans that are before Parliament.
The Government’s legislative programme absorbs a lot of the time and resources of the Government, Parliament and beyond. I am sure that members will accept that it is entirely inevitable that we have had to consider carefully the implications of the Covid-19 outbreak for that programme. I am clear that delivery as expected of the existing or intended programme is not possible; a different approach is required. I will, therefore, set out the principles that I am, in that context, adopting in managing the Government’s legislative programme.
The first principle is that the Government will prioritise legislation that is needed to respond to Covid-19. In particular, we will introduce any necessary emergency legislation beyond what is provided for in the UK Government’s emergency Coronavirus Act 2020 and the Coronavirus (Scotland) Bill, which we are in the midst of scrutinising today.
In addition to the introduction of more justice-related legislation immediately after the Easter recess, on which a commitment was given by ministers this morning, it is highly likely that we will have wider emergency legislation to consider before May, such is the scale and volume of the issues that require to be addressed.
The second principle is that the Government will also prioritise other essential non-Covid-19 legislation. As members know, Parliament routinely passes a wide range of essential secondary legislation that is needed to ensure that our public services and other parts of society can continue to operate effectively. Government and Parliament officials are working collaboratively to identify the most efficient means of dealing with the most pressing secondary legislation.
The third principle is that we will deprioritise any legislation, primary or secondary, that is not identified as being essential in the immediate term. Although it remains my view that every piece of legislation that the Government proposes has an essential purpose, it is obvious, in these exceptional circumstances, that not all essential purposes can be treated as equal. In other words, not all of our current programme can, or will, be delivered according to the timescale that we had previously announced—not when Parliament, its committees and its members must, in their own ways, respond to the challenges that Covid-19 presents. I am therefore taking steps to ensure that resources and parliamentary time can be diverted from legislation that is not time bound, in order to free up our capacity to deal with Covid-19.
The fourth principle is that we will work openly and collaboratively with Parliament—including the Parliamentary Bureau and the committees—in managing delivery of legislation during this difficult period. I want to acknowledge the importance of the committees and their conveners in all this. I highlight the Agriculture (Retained EU Law and Data) (Scotland) Bill and the Forensic Medical Services (Victims of Sexual Offences) (Scotland) Bill as examples of our working collaboratively to overcome challenges that are related to Covid-19.
Stage 1 of the Agriculture (Retained EU Law and Data) (Scotland) Bill is still to be concluded. I do not intend to ask the Parliamentary Bureau to schedule it in the immediate future because I wish as many members of the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee as possible to be able to participate. We hope, all being well, provisionally to target a date in early May.
It has, as a consequence of coronavirus, proved to be impossible for the Health and Sport Committee to scrutinise the Forensic Medical Services (Victims of Sexual Offences) (Scotland) Bill properly, thus far. Following discussions with the committee’s convener and the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport, it has been agreed that we will seek to extend the stage 1 deadline.
I make it clear, however, that both those bills are extremely important and necessary, and that it is my intention that both will continue and be completed.
To assist with preparation and processing of the emergency bill that we are debating today, the Government has delayed the introduction of the hate crime bill and the social security bill, but I hope that the delay is merely temporary. It is our intention that the bills will proceed and be completed in this session of Parliament.
To be absolutely clear, I say that we hope to conclude stage 3 of the Consumer Scotland Bill, the Scottish Elections (Reform) Bill and the Disclosure (Scotland) Bill as soon as it is practical to do so.
I reiterate that—as the cabinet secretary, Michael Russell, has previously said—for the time being no additional work is being done on the UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Legal Continuity) (Scotland) Bill, although we will be forced to revisit that quickly if the UK Government does not move to a commonsense extension of the transition period.
The fifth principle is that we will, once we are operating in a post-Covid world—we all look forward to that—work with Parliament to consider how we effectively manage the remaining Government and non-Government legislation that we hope to deliver before the end of the current session of Parliament.
It is clear to me, however, that given the scale of the challenge that is ahead of us, and the timescales that we think will be involved, we will not be able to deliver all the legislation that we had intended to deliver. That is not simply because of pressure on parliamentary time. Just as great a consideration is, as I have said, the need for Government resources to be focused on Covid-19 matters.
The practical impact of that is that it will not, in all probability, be possible to restart, in the current parliamentary session, some of the bills that the Government decides to pause, and that other bills that we had hoped to deliver will not be introduced. I am sure that Parliament will understand that the same consideration will need to be given to non-Government legislation, in due course.
Members will be aware that we have already made the difficult but sensible decision to not progress with the transient visitor levy bill at this time. I also advise members that we do not now intend to introduce in this parliamentary session the good food nation and circular economy bills, which were scheduled to be introduced shortly. All three are important bills, but the current emergency, its unknown timescales and consequences, and the need to prioritise mean that—very regrettably—we need to pare back legislation and focus on the immediate term. The Government will reflect further on that when determining the shape of our year 5 programme.
I also advise Parliament that, as we focus our energies on responding to the challenges that are caused by the pandemic, it is, regrettably, the case that work in Government is being halted—for now—on planned bills on moveable transactions, on reform of the Gender Recognition Act 2004 and on fox control. I am afraid that that is an unavoidable consequence of focusing resources on efforts to deal with the virus.
As the Covid-19 crisis unfolds, there might well be more difficult decisions to come, so I undertake that we will maintain lines of communication with the relevant committees and wider Parliament as we are able, and that a revised programme will be published in September, as we enter the final year of this session of Parliament.
I understand that the need to pause or delay aspects of our legislative programme will be deeply disappointing, and that those who have waited a long time for the reforms will be frustrated that we can no longer achieve all that we wanted to achieve. However, this is a challenging time for us all, and there will be many more challenges ahead. The Government is taking a pragmatic but essential approach.
I know that members will have questions; I will do my best to respond to them.
I thank the minister for prior sight of his statement. I also commend him on his diligent and very courteous engagement with the Opposition parties at what is clearly a very difficult time for us all.
I am sure that the minister will agree that striking the right balance between ensuring that Parliament abides by Government regulations on health advice and social distancing, and permitting effective scrutiny of the Government by elected members—who, after all, sit in Parliament to represent the best interests of their constituents—is not easy, but that is an essential part of parliamentary business during the Covid-19 period.
What measures will be put in place during the coming weeks in which Parliament is due not to sit, or to sit on a restricted basis, to ensure effective scrutiny of the Scottish Government at a time when many constituents are anxious and are asking us important questions?
In his statement, the minister rightly highlighted criteria that he has used in setting provisional timescales for the Government’s forthcoming legislation, but are other factors—in particular, health factors—being considered to address what could be a lengthy period of dealing with Covid-19?
At what stage will the minister review the measures that have been proposed in his statement, to ensure that Parliament is working as effectively as possible during this very difficult time?
I thank Liz Smith and all the parties’ business managers for their constructive contributions to our work.
Liz Smith is right to mention the need to balance social distancing with the ability to hold the Government to account. I am open to suggestions—I have heard one today—about different ways of working to ensure that the Government is scrutinised and that Parliament is seen to be functioning as it ought to function. I am happy to hear other constructive suggestions: this is a time to be innovative and to find ways of working that we might never have considered before.
The question about the flow of information has come from a number of directions. The Government is considering its response to that. One option might be to create some question-and-answer responses.
I hope that members will recognise the strain on the organisation and the pressures on fit and healthy staff. Over the weekend, more than 30 Scottish Government officials, including 16 lawyers, worked into the early hours of two mornings to produce the emergency bill that we are considering today. I have a duty of care for them and their health.
The criteria that have been deployed came from recommendations that I made to the First Minister and to the Cabinet. They were suggested for a number of reasons, not least of which was the resource that each piece of legislation would demand. The proposed bill on moveable transactions is a good example of that. That would be important legislation that could bring considerable economic benefits, but would require considerable resources.
I commit myself to continuing to work with the other parties.
We do not know what position we will be in next week, never mind next month. It will be important to prioritise and I respect what the minister has said.
Unite the union, the GMB and Unison have written today to the First Minister to raise specific issues about front-line staff. We have all come across those issues. Who gets or does not get personal protective equipment? Social distancing is a major issue for front-line workers, as is the testing of workers. Who are key workers? We can be sure that the virus will continue to spread at an unnecessary rate if we cannot establish an effective lockdown.
I acknowledge that Alex Rowley is not a business manager and so may not be sighted on the discussions that are going on and the offers that I am making on behalf of the Government.
For example, the Government is open to requests for statements on specific subjects. Those need not be extended statements such as these; they could be shorter. The offer is there. [
.] I hear Mr Findlay chuntering in the background, as he is prone to do. Yes, the Parliament will soon be in recess, but I have already committed—if Mr Findlay had been listening—to mechanisms to try to improve the flow of information.
I have one brief plea for members. There is already a lot of information out there. Government staff are hard at work dealing with the crisis. Members should look at the information that is already available and should disseminate that to help to alleviate the pressure on Government officials. We also undertake to improve the flow of information. [
In his statement, the minister did not mention a number of bills. What is the status of the civil partnership legislation, which was introduced to correct non-compliance with the European convention on human rights? The minister might be interested to know that there is committee consensus on the need for that bill and the way forward.
The member is right about the importance of the Civil Partnership (Scotland) Bill. I did not mention a number of bills, because they are not in the category of being paused. The Civil Partnership (Scotland) Bill is essential in resolving an ECHR incompatibility and it is due to proceed to stage 1 in the week commencing 27 May. All being well, we hope to stick to that timetable or—Covid-19 impacts permitting—something like it.
I am grateful for the statement. No one imagines that the current public health emergency would not have a significant impact on the Government’s legislative programme. However, it is deeply regrettable that so much of what is being set aside comprises measures to address the climate and ecological emergency. Surely we should learn from the current situation that, if we take it seriously, we are capable of responding with speed to an emergency.
I will also ask about a human rights issue with regard to the reform of the Gender Recognition Act 2004. Four years ago, during the election, all political parties in this chamber made clear promises, but the reforms have been repeatedly delayed and consulted on, and members of the public found out through anonymous briefings that the reforms were likely to be delayed. Surely it is possible at least for the consultation analysis to be conducted? That could be done by officials who are working from home or outsourced to university research capacity.
I acknowledge Patrick Harvie’s constructive contribution to what we are trying to do. I recognise his point about the climate and ecological situation. As the former convener of the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee, the Circular Economy Bill is close to my heart. As a country, we have to follow the direction of travel that it establishes and supports. However, is it a priority right now? As a small example, at present, how viable is it to have an emphasis on reusable cups? In the immediate aftermath of the crisis, what would be the appetite for that? It is an important bill; so are some of the others, and we need to return to them in due course, but this is about prioritising.
Patrick Harvie asked about progress on the GRA consultation. The cabinet secretary is making the point to me that, as soon as we are out of the pandemic, we can look at the consultation. I acknowledge that a lot of people will be disappointed about the announcement today, but I keep returning to the point that this is about prioritising for the here and now.
In his statement, the minister said that no further work will be done on the continuity bill, although it will be revisited if the UK Government does not revisit its position on the transition period. What impact does the minister think that coronavirus will have and should have on the Brexit transition period?
The member is right to raise the implications of trying to complete the UK’s departure from the European Union by December. Before the onset of coronavirus, the timetable was, to say the least, challenging; now, it is impossible. From the perspective of parliamentary process, let alone the many serious aspects of the matter, the UK and the EU need to agree a commonsense delay.
I will briefly outline one example that might benefit the Parliament’s thinking. Before the end of the year, the Scottish Government anticipated having to deal with circa 50 Brexit statutory instruments in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs space; a few weeks ago, the UK Government advised us that it could be as many as 150. Given the impacts—known and currently unknown—of Covid-19 on both the Governments and this Parliament, no one in their right mind would suggest that it is realistic to anticipate completing the work to the current timetable. Just as the Scottish Government is showing common sense and pragmatism today, so the UK Government needs to get real on the transition timetable.
I thank the minister for the advance sight of his statement and for his constructive work on the Parliamentary Bureau. None of this has been a surprise; it is pragmatic and sensible to proceed in this way. Ministers have been open with our party in getting us the answers that we are seeking and, if we hunt for them, many of the answers are out there already. Officials are doing a remarkable job; in many areas, they are in effect setting up a new system in a short space of time.
However, many people will be disappointed by the decisions to delay some bills or postpone them considerably. Is there an easy means of communicating directly with such people, to explain the reasons? They might not be listening to the statement and might welcome and appreciate an explanation.
I thank Willie Rennie in particular for his comments about the civil service, because civil servants are carrying out an enormous amount of demanding work and have very much risen to the challenge.
Willie Rennie makes a good point. There will be disappointment out there about some of the decisions that we have taken about bills. I can tell the member that the relevant ministers are engaging directly with stakeholders on that very subject, to explain the rationale.
First, I thank Rona Mackay for promoting me.
The member makes a good point, as many members have done. That hate crime bill is coming; it will not be very much delayed. In the meantime, yes, we can set an example and tackle some of the issues out there, particularly at this time of national crisis, and remind everyone of what type of country we want Scotland to be.
The public sector and charitable organisations that are very much at the forefront of the response to Covid-19 are the same organisations that often provide invaluable evidence to committees of this Parliament. Given the current constraints on their resources, what provision will be made to assist such groups should they be required to provide evidence on proposed legislation while at the same time fighting Covid-19 on the front line?
That is a good analysis of the situation, which underpins some of my thinking about the approach that we take. Bill development is not just about the Government and the Parliament; the member is right to point out that all sorts of bodies, charities and interest groups contribute to the development and scrutiny of proposed legislation.
The Health and Sport Committee, for example, has struggled recently to allow people to come and give evidence. We must be cognisant of the situation.
As we come out of the crisis, it will be the case that many organisations will have been working flat out to respond to it—indeed, they will still be responding to it. That must inform and is informing our thinking about how we take legislation forward and ensure that organisations are in a position to contribute to the process of informing the legislation that this Parliament produces, in as normal a way as is possible at this time.
I thank the minister for his tremendous work during this time.
I know that the crisis will have a knock-on effect on Government bills and members’ bills. However, my proposed licensing of funfairs (Scotland) bill seeks to address a 38-year wrong, which was caused by the United Kingdom House of Commons in 1982. Will committee and chamber time be constantly reviewed in an attempt to accommodate members’ bills during this session, including next year?
A considerable number of worthy members’ bill proposals are progressing through the Parliament. As we heard, the member has a bill proposal of his own.
I hope that Richard Lyle appreciates that I am not entirely comfortable, as a minister of this Government, with expressing a view on whether such proposals should proceed. Clearly, the case can be made that if a number of Scottish Government bills are not to be progressed, members’ bills might be subject to the same approach, in whole or in part, in these unprecedented times. However, these matters should be left to the Parliament and its committees to determine. I have every faith in the ability of committees and conveners to come to the right conclusions.
Everything that the minister has said is understandable, of course, but given the limits of the current parliamentary session, something that has not been mentioned is the election. Will the minister say what discussions are going on at the heart of Government? Will he clarify whether it is credible or even possible that an election will take place with any or all of the provisions of the Coronavirus (Scotland) Bill on the statute book?
Although I disagreed with Mr Findlay earlier, I very much welcome the question that he has just asked, which is entirely valid.
No consideration of that issue has been made by the Government, so it follows that no discussion on it has taken place with the Parliament. Right now, everyone is, rightly, focusing 100 per cent on responding to the challenges posed by Covid-19. The election is a year off, and we have more pressing matters with which to concern ourselves.
It is worth noting, however, that the measures contained in the emergency bill that we are now considering will be subject to possible renewal in six months’ time. To pick up Mr Findlay’s point, logically, if we were to find ourselves having to invoke the renewal provisions in October, because the measures currently proposed remained absolutely necessary, we might then consider whether an extension of the present term would be appropriate. However, of course, such consideration would be a matter for all the parties in the Parliament—not just the Government.
The good food nation bill is designed to underpin the significant work that is already being done across the Government to deliver its ambitions on Scotland’s becoming a good food nation. The specific aims on improving access to nutritional food and the sustainability of our food industry will resonate entirely, both today and throughout the current crisis.
I will ask the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Tourism to write to Mr Coffey in more detail on the perfectly valid issue that he has raised. There is an opportunity to advance those aims without the legislation.