I wish that we were not in the situation in which I am required to introduce legislation to extend the temporary measures to respond to the pandemic, but I am pleased to present the bill and to set out its general principles. Before I turn to the principles of the bill, I will set out the reasons for the timing of its introduction and passage.
As members will understand, the path of the pandemic has been unpredictable and that, in response, we have needed to take action to tackle the public health threat that it has created. Part of our response was to introduce temporary measures through the Coronavirus (Scotland) Act 2020 and the Coronavirus (No 2) (Scotland) Act 2020. The temporary measures in those acts will expire on 30 September 2021. Given the pre-election period and upcoming summer recess, it is necessary that the bill complete its passage before recess in order to ensure that a number of the measures that we consider to be essential can continue beyond that date.
I appreciate that that means that there is limited time to consider the content of the bill, but I reassure members that the primary purpose of the bill is to extend measures only temporarily. The bill does not introduce any new provisions, it does not modify or amend any of the temporary measures that are already in place and—I say to be crystal clear—it does not relate either to international travel or to regulations that impose restrictions on our day-to-day activities.
Progressing a bill under the emergency procedure is never a decision that the Government takes lightly. However, passing the bill this month will not only take account of the time that is needed for it to come into effect but will, crucially, give public services and people in Scotland more time to plan for what the extension or expiry of measures will mean for them.
It is, quite understandably and appropriately, for the Presiding Officer to determine the scope of the bill and admissibility of amendments, but I consider it very unlikely that it will be possible to amend the bill to add new or amended temporary measures. I appreciate that that might be frustrating for members who wish to introduce new topics, but it is not the appropriate bill for that purpose. The place for that will be in the coming months, when there will be an opportunity to consider fully what further legislative changes might be required.
Is the reason why we are not able to add to the bill simply that we will not have enough time to debate any additional provisions, amendments or issues that members want—justifiably—to bring to the table? If they were to do so, we would be sitting here until midnight tomorrow. Is that the only reason why we are being limited in such a way?
No—that is not the reason, in any respect. This is an extension and expiry bill on existing provisions for which Parliament has already legislated. I have made it clear that the Government will consult on what we are referring to as a permanence bill, which will look at longer-term issues. The Parliament has already looked at all these questions and has considered how the statute book should be amended to handle the impact of the pandemic. I am simply introducing—
If Jackie Baillie will forgive me, I will continue for a moment.
I am simply introducing a bill that either extends or expires conclusions on which the Parliament has already decided. There will in due course be scope for the Parliament to legislate on other issues that it considers to be appropriate, but there is no scope for that in the context of this narrowly defined bill.
If Jackie Baillie will bear with me for a couple of paragraphs, she might be encouraged by what I have to say—as, I know, she always is. [Laughter.]
Some members have expressed concern about whether the temporary ban on evictions that was in place in areas that have been in levels 3 and 4 should be extended to areas that are in level 2 and below. Through the extensive range of protections and support that we have already put in place, including the ban on evictions, we have been seeking to encourage landlords and tenants to work together to ensure that sustainable tenancies are secured, and that evictions are prevented altogether and not just delayed.
The Scottish Government has taken action from the outset of the pandemic to support tenants. I am delighted to announce that we will go even further by committing to introduce a new £10 million grant fund to support tenants who have fallen into rent arrears as a direct result of the pandemic. We will work towards making the grant fund available later in the year, and we will work with stakeholders over the coming weeks to develop the details. We will deliver a new national awareness-raising campaign to ensure that all tenants are aware of their rights. Those crucially important interventions will help tenants and landlords to move towards a sustainable and fair recovery from the impact of the coronavirus.
Since developing the bill, we have listened to the views of stakeholders. As a result of that engagement, I confirm that I will lodge a stage 2 amendment to extend rather than to expire the anti-irritancy measures in relation to commercial leases. It is clear from discussions with the Federation of Small Businesses that extending that measure will assist small businesses that might face short-term cash-flow difficulties over the summer, into the autumn and beyond.
Over the summer, we will consult on proposals to make permanent some of the temporary measures that have been put in place by the coronavirus legislation, where that will improve delivery of public services without any significant detrimental impact. As part of the wider lessons that we have learned from the pandemic, we will consider whether further legislation is required as we seek to recover and rebuild. I encourage all parties in the chamber to contribute their thoughts to that process.
I certainly give the assurance that the bill will not be introduced as an emergency bill. I anticipate that the consultation period will be of the order of eight weeks. I know that ordinarily there would be a consultation period of 12 weeks, but that eight-week period will be to enable us to move on to a permanent footing before the temporary legislation—if I can use that terminology—expires. The clock ticks too fast to allow us to do that and allow for proper time for parliamentary scrutiny in the normal fashion. I confirm what Mr Fraser has asked about, with the exception that I expect the consultation period to last for eight weeks, not 12, in the first instance.
I appreciate and welcome the offer of consultation on the proposed permanency bill. Inclusion Scotland gave us briefings ahead of the debate and highlighted that it feels that disabled people have been excluded from the serious decisions that have affected their lives over the course of the pandemic. Will the cabinet secretary commit to involving disabled people specifically in that consultation, and to taking extra steps to ensure that their human rights are adhered to in the proposed permanency bill?
I am very happy to give that assurance. In the discussions that I am taking forward in my wider responsibilities for Covid recovery, I include the voices of disabled people at all stages, as part of the consultation exercise that I am undertaking.
I think that Graham Simpson wanted to intervene, but I will take guidance from the Presiding Officer.
It would be helpful if we could have brief interventions, questions and answers and brief speeches that stick to their time limit, because we are very pushed for time today.
Presiding Officer, I turn to what the bill seeks to achieve.
Coronavirus continues to pose a significant threat to public health in Scotland, and the continued response to that threat requires the parties in Parliament to come together to agree necessary actions to ensure that our public services can continue to operate, in that context.
I had better make some progress. I will be happy to give way in my closing speech.
Progress has been made in our fight against the pandemic, which enables us to expire some measures by way of the bill, but there remains a need for some measures that were introduced by the Scottish coronavirus acts to be extended. The bill will expire a range of measures whose continuation has been deemed to be unnecessary beyond 30 September. The bill will also extend the Scottish coronavirus acts, initially for up to 6 months. The bill provides for the acts to be extended once more up to 30 September 2022, should that be needed in order to respond further to the pandemic. That will, of course, be subject to Parliament’s approval of the required regulations.
I emphasise to members that the bill will ensure that the safeguards of the first two Scottish coronavirus acts will also be extended. That means that the Government will continue to report every two months to Parliament on the use and status of provisions, and on the relevant equality and non-discrimination duties. The Government will also be required to keep under continual review whether provisions are no longer necessary and can be expired early.
I believe that that is a strong package of protections that will ensure that Parliament and the public will be informed about use of the powers, and that the powers will not last longer than is proportionate or necessary.
As I have already made clear, the bill will not add any new temporary measures, nor does it seek to amend any of the measures that were introduced in the Scottish coronavirus acts.
Let me first cover expiry. The bill will, on the basis that they are no longer necessary, expire some of the measures that were brought in to respond to the immediate emergency that was created by the pandemic. We seek to expire 12 of the measures through the bill. I note that all 12 of the provisions are contained in the two Scottish acts that have already been expired in line with the Government’s commitment to remove provisions that are no longer required in our response to the public health emergency.
Extension is being sought for measures that have been used or, for measures that have not been used, for when expiring them would have a significant impact if they were to be needed—for example, in respect of emergency directions for care homes. Extension is also being sought when it is necessary because of direct or indirect impacts of the pandemic, such as in the case of the backlog in courts, and when there is broad support of key stakeholders for extension.
The bill seeks to extend part 1 of each of the Scottish acts, thus extending the measures for enabling hearings in criminal and civil courts and tribunals to be held remotely, and continuing an increased notice period of six months to protect private and social sector tenants from eviction up to the pre-pandemic 28-day notice period.
The bill represents one part of a wider range of measures that the Scottish Government is putting in place to protect the people of Scotland. It includes some important protections that are essential for those who most need them, and it is important that they continue to be available after 30 September.
That the Parliament agrees to the general principles of the Coronavirus (Extension and Expiry) (Scotland) Bill.
I start by reminding members of my entry in the register of members’ interests, which states that I am a member of the Law Society of Scotland and I own property from which I derive rental income.
The bill seeks to extinguish certain measures that are contained in the coronavirus acts that were passed by the Parliament in spring last year and to extend other provisions. Before coming to the detail of the bill and our view on its various provisions, I would like to set in context the decisions that we are being asked to take today.
Covid-19 has been an unprecedented challenge for us all in the past year and more. I suspect that there is not one person in Parliament who has faced anything as serious during their lifetime. We have not previously had to make such difficult choices about the provision of health services, the need to support individuals and businesses from the public purse, and restrictions on our everyday lives.
Last spring, the Parliaments at Holyrood and Westminster passed emergency legislation giving ministers an unprecedented and extraordinary set of powers allowing them to pass regulations to prevent people from leaving their homes, restrict travel, force businesses to close and redirect public services. Those regulations amounted to an enormous imposition on the lives of individuals in a free, liberal and democratic society. However, we agreed that the restrictions were necessary because of the unprecedented health crisis that Covid presented and the real risk of the NHS being overwhelmed.
The original coronavirus legislation gave ministers those exceptional powers for a period of six months, with an option to extend for two further periods of six months. At that time, I do not think that any of us thought that that 18-month period would be insufficient. Sadly, Covid has proved to be an even greater threat than we originally foresaw.
That said, excellent progress has been made. The success of the UK vaccination programme means that substantial protection is now in place for the majority of the population, and certainly for the most vulnerable groups. By midsummer, all those who wanted to be vaccinated should have had that opportunity. That means that Covid is no longer the serious threat to health that it was this time last year, and that the risk of overwhelming the NHS is now substantially reduced, if it has not gone away altogether.
I want to caution Mr Fraser about his assessment of the pressure on the NHS. In her statement today, the First Minister made it clear that the NHS is resuming a great deal of operational activity, which is creating congestion, so there is not the spare capacity that there was when all that activity was paused. Mr Fraser is a public figure, and people need to be properly informed about the pressures that the NHS could face because of the resumption of routine health service activity should there be an upsurge in the number of Covid hospitalisations.
I am grateful to the Deputy First Minister for that intervention, although the point that he addressed was not really one that I made in my remarks. I accept his point that Covid recovery will involve a massive catch-up within the NHS and that, if there was a risk of another spike in cases leading to hospitalisations, that would be a matter of concern. However, I do not think that that risk is substantial at present, because of the progress that we are making in relation to vaccination.
Covid will still be with us: there will still be cases, some people who catch it will need to be hospitalised and, very sadly, some people will die. However, as we heard from the First Minister earlier, because of the progress that we are making, we are looking at the restrictions being lifted in August, and that would not be the case if we were not confident that the NHS could cope.
Against that backdrop, it is right to ask how long the extraordinary, unprecedented powers that have been given to ministers should continue. Will they be necessary beyond the end of September, which is still more than three months away? In fairness, I do not think that we can answer that question at this point.
However, I should acknowledge that most of the powers that restrict our lives derive from legislation that is passed not in this Parliament, but at Westminster. The travel bans, the closure of businesses and the requirement for people to stay in their houses are powers that Scottish ministers have as a result of Westminster legislation, and those are not the provisions that we are discussing extending or extinguishing in the bill before us.
However, significant powers are contained in the two Scottish coronavirus acts, and it is fair to discuss the extent to which those powers should continue, given the progress that we are making in tackling Covid, as the First Minister accepted just a few moments ago.
The bill before us is being introduced under emergency powers. It was first published on Friday afternoon, so there has been no time for public consultation and very little time for parliamentary scrutiny. No committee of this Parliament has been asked to consider the bill in detail, take evidence or produce a report on its provisions. Yet, over the course of the next three days, Parliament will be expected to consider, amend and, if appropriate, pass the bill into law. It is our view that that is insufficient time for parliamentary scrutiny of very significant powers being extended beyond the end of September—initially for a six-month period and, potentially, for six months thereafter. The provisions in the bill could mean that the Scottish ministers will have had extraordinary and unprecedented powers for two and half years from when they were first granted, which would be truly remarkable.
It is not just us who take that view; in submissions in advance of the debate, groups such as Amnesty International and Inclusion Scotland have expressed concern about the lack of consultation with various groups prior to the bill being introduced. As Pam Duncan-Glancy reminded us a moment ago, Inclusion Scotland makes some significant points about how it believes that a lack of consultation with disabled people falls foul of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and we should pay attention to those concerns.
The Scottish Government claims that the bill has to be passed this week because the powers run out at the end of September, but I simply do not accept that argument. Parliament is sitting for the month of September. If the bill was brought to us in the first week back, that would, at least, provide a period for broader consultation and discussion over the summer.
Not if there is not time for scrutiny or consultation. The point that I made to the chamber, and will repeat to Mr Mason, is that those powers do not expire until the end of September. Parliament is sitting in the first week in September, so it would be possible to consider the bill—even as an emergency—then, which would give us eight or nine weeks over the summer to properly consult.
By the time that we get to September, we will be in a much better position to understand more clearly where we are with Covid, where the risks are to the health service, what the other risks are to public services and whether the extension of the powers is necessary. There would still be time for the bill to achieve royal assent by 30 September.
As to whether the powers that are contained in the bill are necessary and appropriate, the Scottish Government’s approach of trying to push the provisions through Parliament in the last few sitting days prior to the summer recess, when there is no necessity for it to be done, is simply not required. We cannot support this rush to legislate, particularly given that external stakeholders are telling us that they have not had the opportunity to give any input into our serious discussions.
I turn to the detail of the bill. We welcome the expiry of several of the provisions that were in the previous coronavirus act. Those who were in Parliament at the time remember that there was a heated debate around the provisions that restrict the opportunity for couples to marry or enter civil partnerships—my former colleague, Adam Tomkins, was particularly exercised about that issue. It is welcome that those restrictions are now being removed. Equally welcome is the proposal to remove the restrictions on freedom of information requests—a matter that was also the subject of heated debate last year. The Scottish Government has now accepted that the powers that were granted were used on a very limited basis. Accordingly, it is welcome that they are being expired.
On the provisions that are to be extended, there are several areas where we have concerns. Later in the debate, my colleague Jamie Greene will say more about the provisions on justice, where there is a raft of measures. We have concerns about the extraordinary powers held by the Scottish ministers to release prisoners early being extended by potentially up to another 12 months. At a time when the Scottish prison population should be vaccinated against Covid, we question whether the powers are still necessary, particularly given the fact that they have not been used—as far as I am aware—in the past 15 months.
On the question of tenancies, which the Deputy First Minister referred to in his speech, there is a proposal to continue the six-month period protecting a tenant before an application can be made by the landlord to repossess the property for non-payment of rent. We have had representations from landlords’ groups and registered social landlords about the impact of the extension of the provisions on them. In its briefing for the debate, the Glasgow and West of Scotland Forum of Housing Associations expressed a lot of concern about the impact that the measure will have on its members. No one wants to see tenants losing their homes, and there is no doubt that many tenants are in financial difficulty due to Covid. However, as the housing association forum points out in its briefing, extending the evictions ban is essentially tackling the problem from the wrong end: all it will do is to postpone the eviction, rather than find a long-term solution.
We welcomed the establishment of the tenant hardship loan scheme by the Scottish Government when it was announced last November. Unfortunately, it has had a very limited impact: of the £10 million pledged, less than 5 per cent of the total has been paid out and two thirds of the applications have been rejected. I am aware of tenants who have been refused financial support because of having poor credit scores—their poor credit score has only occurred because they are in financial difficulties due to Covid. The Scottish Government needs to address that area. I welcome the Deputy First Minister’s comments about a grant scheme and I look forward to hearing more detail on that in due course.
I will bring my remarks to a close and let my colleagues go into more detail about our views on the provisions. We will lodge amendments at stage 2 tomorrow to address our concerns. Our overall view is that the bill is simply not necessary at this time. By September, we will be much clearer about whether the extensions are required and we will be in a far better position to judge whether the extraordinary powers should be extended, potentially for one further year, and there would also be time for greater public consultation on the bill, which was only published on Friday afternoon. There is no need for this rush to legislate in the last few days of the term. For those reasons, the Conservatives will oppose the bill at decision time.
Scottish Labour supports the general principles of the bill. However, we have concerns about several areas, which I will set out to Parliament.
There is no doubt that we have lived through the most extraordinary 15 months. Although my job in Opposition is to hold the Government to account, I think that the Government has acted swiftly in putting emergency legislation in place, building on provisions derived from the UK Government’s legislation. The context for that emergency legislation was the coronavirus pandemic—the severity of which we could only imagine at that point. It was a time when the country was effectively shut down, schools and businesses were closed and Parliament was suspended. Much has changed, although we are not back to normal yet.
I consider the extension of emergency powers to be justified, in part. However, it is unfortunate that the bill has been, in my view, deliberately constrained to focus only on extending or expiring existing provisions, not on anything new, and there are policy gaps.
My first concern, though, is about process. Covid-19 regulations currently define the entirety of social interactions—everything from the number of people who can meet up in households to whether businesses can open and under what circumstances. It is not appropriate for ministers to sidestep Parliament when exercising what are far-ranging powers, or for them to enact criminal offences while avoiding democratic scrutiny and debate. What has changed is that Parliament is sitting and committees have been established. Members expect to be able to scrutinise the Scottish Government’s decisions in the chamber.
I could not agree more. I had hoped that the Government would concede the position of every other party in the Parliament about the need to set up committees quickly, but there we go.
Let me illustrate the point that I was making. The regulations on the ban on cruises embarking or disembarking in Scotland will not be considered by the Parliament until September, but the decision was made by the Scottish Government at the end of May and beginning of June. There was virtually no debate or scrutiny. There was no opportunity for ministers to explain the rationale. There was no meaningful opportunity for members to ask questions and to represent the interests of their constituents. To be frank, the average cruise ship customer is probably over 50 so will have been vaccinated twice, and they would be tested on arrival and on return. Cruises are safer than many other recent events that have been allowed to take place, but we could not scrutinise the decision.
We can all agree that it is important that laws are clear, consistent, understandable, fair and justified by the data. I genuinely worry that, in recent weeks, the Scottish Government’s approach has undermined those fundamentals. Different groups in different parts of the Government are making different rules, and there is no sense checking of whether the rules form a coherent whole. The education recovery group advises on the rules for nurseries and says no, while Jason Leitch, the national clinical director, has taken his occasional appearances on “Off the Ball” to heart and says yes to different rules for football. I do not begin to underestimate the difficulties, but I offer those comments because I am concerned that, if people do not see the logic of the regulations, compliance will become an issue. The contrast between 6,000 fans a day in a fan zone with alcohol and 12 parents and children, socially distanced, at a nursery is such that the rules do not make sense. Prohibiting travel to and from Manchester but not Dundee when case rates are similar does not make sense.
We are learning to live with the virus, but we should seek a better way of shaping our response in the future. Scottish Labour wants the bill to be used to improve the transparency and scrutiny of the Scottish Government’s Covid-19 strategy. It is right that Parliament should sense check the regulations. That is why we sought to lodge a reasoned amendment to the bill at stage 1. It was not selected, but we will persist, because we do not believe that the powers in the bill should automatically be extended beyond March 2022. Such a decision, if it is necessary, should require parliamentary legislation.
I turn to the substance of the provisions. There is much that we supported in the original emergency acts. Indeed, we sought to improve and shape them. Provisions from Monica Lennon provided for a support fund to prevent financial hardship for social care staff if they fell ill from Covid. My amendments on bankruptcy and debt made it easier for people who were struggling to get assistance. Additional reporting on domestic abuse was proposed by my colleague Pauline McNeill. There were amendments from Mark Griffin on inclusive information and from Neil Findlay on freedom of information provisions. We will work with the Government when we believe that its measures can be improved.
Covid-19 has, without a doubt, cost lives and livelihoods, and it is still doing so. It has exacerbated inequalities in our society. If someone is poor, their chances of survival are statistically worse, they are more likely to lose their job and they struggle to cope. The position with regard to levels of poverty was not great prior to the pandemic, and it is worse now.
Although restrictions continue and the economy has not fully opened up, the furlough scheme is about to unwind. No one can say with any certainty whether those who are on furlough will have jobs to go back to or will be underemployed. That adds up to an enormous potential crisis in jobs and income, the likes of which we have not seen for generations. I hope that that will not be the case, but I worry that it might be.
In that context, it falls to the Government to act to protect the interests of the country. As I said, the scope of the bill is drawn in such a way that we can only extend or expire the existing provisions of the emergency acts. That is disappointing, because there are gaps in the protections that are afforded to people.
I reassure Jackie Baillie that the legitimate issues that she raises do not all require legislation. They require policy action and leadership from Government. The Government is focusing on that and is actively engaging with members from across the Parliament to ensure that we have a Covid recovery strategy that addresses the substantial issues that Jackie Baillie raises.
I am grateful for that and I look forward to debating those issues in the next couple of days and in the future.
It falls to the Government to protect the country’s interests—a point that I can illustrate by talking about the eviction ban. That should come as no surprise to John Swinney; I have consistently raised the issue of the ban in the Covid recovery steering group and my colleague Mark Griffin has raised it in and outwith the chamber.
The existing ban, which rightly does not apply to evictions for antisocial behaviour or criminality, covers tenants who live in areas that are in levels 3 and 4. All of Scotland is now in level 1 or 2. People are still struggling to pay their rent. Some lost their jobs at the start of the pandemic; some are on furlough and have not received 100 per cent of their salary; some are back at work but underemployed; some are still on furlough with no guarantee of work when that ends. The future is uncertain and financially precarious.
Landlords are already in court seeking eviction orders. In some cases, that will be because of rent arrears caused by the pandemic. We should not remove the safety net at this stage. We heard from Murdo Fraser that the Scottish Government has established a tenant hardship loan fund of £10 million, which offers loans to help people who are in financial difficulty. The fund’s criteria are so tight that less than 5 per cent of the fund has been allocated and twice as many applications have been rejected as have been approved. It is entirely wrong at the best of times to place people in more debt and put them in danger of losing the roof over their heads and it should not be happening in a crisis.
Scottish Labour will lodge an amendment to extend the eviction ban to areas that are in levels 1 and 2. We would have lodged amendments to turn the loan fund into a grant fund so that we can offer people protection when it is most needed, so I welcome the cabinet secretary’s announcement. I congratulate him on listening to and accepting Labour’s suggestion. I hope that he will continue to accept our suggestions. I hope that we will be able to debate the eviction ban at stage 2, because there is no other legislative opportunity to close the gap and people might lose their homes as a consequence of the current approach. The grant fund must have flexible eligibility criteria. Will the cabinet secretary convert the loans that have already been awarded by that fund into grants, to make the system fair across the board?
There is much to welcome in the bill. The Government intends to expire provisions on freedom of information and on changes to social security determinations. We support all of that. There is a balance between continuing emergency measures and having more scrutiny in Parliament. Labour members do not believe that the legislation should continue beyond six months and we will lodge amendments to ensure further scrutiny, but we support the general principles of the bill at stage 1.
The emergency presented by the Covid pandemic has, in some senses, brought out the best in us. We have seen the Government act quickly to implement practical measures to tackle the pandemic, keep our public sector functioning and protect people who are struggling. I hope that the Government and members of the chamber will remember what an emergency response looks like: it might come up again.
The response to an emergency must be swift, practical and dynamic, always prioritising human lives and livelihoods and supporting our public sector. The Scottish Greens agree that we are not yet at the end of the pandemic and that it is right that the emergency legislation be extended so that it does not lapse and expose gaps in the cover and provisions provided by the legislation.
We also agree that the Coronavirus (Extension and Expiry) (Scotland) Bill should be considered as emergency legislation due to the timings involved. We support the extensions to allow continued operation of the public sector during the pandemic in areas such as children’s hearings and court proceedings. Some of the measures to be extended in the legislation are intended to make easier the lives of people who are going through hard times—for example, people who are struggling with debt—and some measures to be extended have the effect of making it easier to access public services and functions. I am pleased that those measures are being extended, but it makes me think that if we can make life easier for struggling people during hard times, surely we can make life easier for them during good times. Society does not have to be heartless. I hope that we will be able to make some of those measures permanent when the pandemic is over, so that our society becomes that little bit more equal and supportive.
The main measures that we are disappointed have not been extended are around the right to housing. Even before the pandemic, the protections that we had in Scotland for tenants were poor compared to the protections that tenants enjoy in the rest of Europe. Evictions here have resumed and people are losing the roof over their heads and being made homeless through no fault of their own, but because we are still in the middle of a pandemic, as the emergency nature of the bill attests. People are still out of work and are struggling to find work. If the UK Government winds down the furlough scheme as planned, another huge wave of redundancies might come over the next few months. Struggling to pay rent under those circumstances is not a personal failing.
People’s human rights, including their right to housing, should not be at risk due to economic circumstances beyond their control. The tenant hardship loan fund was not working. It was a cruel joke to ask people who had lost work or whose jobs were at risk to take on debt just to make sure that their landlord did not realise any risk on the investment that they had made. Protecting landlords from the risks of their investments and seeing them rewarded by inflicting further hardship on tenants—always with the threat of homelessness hanging over their heads, forcing them to pay up—was poor policy. I am therefore pleased to hear about the new grant fund for tenants, although I expect that we will burn through £10 million quickly as it might be insufficient, given the potential level of redundancies that we might face as furlough ends. I would like that matter kept under review.
The Scottish Greens largely agree with the bill’s proposals on which measures should be extended and which should expire.
We have the opportunity now to think about what aspects should be kept for the longer term. The Scottish Greens were pleased when the Parliament supported our amendment that business support grants should not be given to companies that use tax havens. That is the kind of conditionality that we should apply to all forms of public funding and support to ensure that we support good business: businesses that pay their fair share of taxes, pay their workers living wages and have fair working practices; and businesses that take their responsibilities to their communities and the planet seriously.
The state’s role in supporting Covid recovery represents an unprecedented opportunity to reshape the economy along ethical and sustainable lines. It does not have to cost the earth to make the world a better place. We can use mechanisms such as conditionality of support to nudge our economy and society in the direction that we would like them to go and, as so much of the Covid legislation has done temporarily, make our society fairer, more accessible and a little less heartless.
I rise for the Liberal Democrats to offer guarded support for the bill’s provisions. Before I continue, I put on record my and my party’s thanks to all those on the front line of this emergency. It is much easier to come to the chamber and debate Covid-19 than it is to face it head on every day of one’s working life.
I echo other members’ discomfort about the bill’s timetabling. As a legislature, we are being asked at the end of June to empower the Executive to deal with the virus as it will be at the turn of the year. To rush through such an important piece of legislation in the last three days of a parliamentary term is not a welcome precedent to set.
Some 14 months ago, when the Coronavirus (Scotland) Bill was first brought to the Parliament, the Liberal Democrats supported it, along with all the other parties. I will say now what I said then: there are virtually no other circumstances in which our party would have supported the bill. The restrictions on personal liberties and freedoms jar against the very fabric of liberalism, but exceptional times require exceptional measures.
Earlier today I opposed the timetabling of the Coronavirus (Extension and Expiry) (Scotland) Bill, because scrutiny matters. Indeed, without the intervention of my party, in collaboration with others, the Coronavirus (Scotland) Bill would have allowed the suspension of trial by jury. That would have interrupted an unbroken tradition in Scottish justice that has lasted nearly 800 years and upended with it a cornerstone of our human rights.
Remote jury centres enabled 197 evidence-led trials to proceed in the latter part of 2020. That brought us to a return to pre-pandemic throughput, demonstrating that the cessation of trial by jury that the Government proposed in the Coronavirus (Scotland) Bill at the behest of the Lord President was, indeed, unnecessary.
I welcome the continuity of several aspects of the Coronavirus (Extension and Expiry) (Scotland) Bill, and I associate myself with Jackie Baillie and Lorna Slater’s remarks in relation to why many of the provisions have given comfort and security to people who would otherwise have been made destitute in the teeth of the crisis.
However, we in the liberal Democrats have serious concerns that continuing other aspects of the legislation beyond 30 September could still have serious consequences for human rights across society. For example, the bill in its current form proposes to continue with the suspension of certain time limits in criminal proceedings under section 5 and schedule 4 to the Coronavirus (Scotland) Act 2020, which allow for an increase of the maximum time period that an accused person can be held on remand prior to trial.
Of course, people are often held on remand, because it is the most practical way of keeping them and the public safe. However, 90 per cent of prisoners are still awaiting trial. Delays caused by the provisions of the Coronavirus (Scotland) Act 2020 have seen the untried remand population rise by 35 per cent. We need to resource the judiciary and the criminal justice system sufficiently to handle the backlog.
Reports from the Law Society of Scotland paint a very concerning picture that increased periods of time in remand threaten to skew the outcomes of criminal cases. For example, accused persons who might wait 12 or 18 months on remand had they pled not guilty, might instead choose to enter a plea of convenience and plead guilty in the expectation of a discounted sentence, rather than face the long wait behind bars for trial. The continuation of increased time limits allows that drift to happen in the first place. There were backlogs before the pandemic and the continuation of the measures will only exacerbate the situation. It poses a threat to the very integrity of our criminal justice system.
The purpose of the original legislation was to protect Scotland’s most vulnerable from a disease that, 18 months ago, we barely understood. There are provisions in the legislation that I have always spoken out against because of the potential harm that they could do to some of those vulnerable citizens. The legislation offers ministers the power to increase emergency detention on mental ill-health grounds from 72 hours to 120 hours and suspends the need for a medical practitioner to consult, or get the consent of, a mental health officer before granting a short-term detention certificate. In short, if activated, the power would make it easier to secure compulsory treatment orders. That was done at a time when we did not know what pressures would befall the national health service and what healthcare professionals would be available. However, we now know that we can cope with the situation.
The provision is dangerous. I am sure that that is why the Scottish Government has never chosen to activate the powers. That begs the question why we need to retain them in the first place. As long as the provision remains in place, it presents a potential assault on the rights of those experiencing a mental health crisis and puts us out of step with our commitments to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. I hope that the Government will work with me to put those powers beyond use.
I echo what others have said in and beyond the chamber about the need for transparency. Transparency is one of the most important tenets of our democracy—without it, we would not have been able to access the information that reveals the true extent of the tragedy in a care homes—but the Government has repeatedly undermined that transparency and disrespected the supremacy of the Parliament in the way that it often announces dramatic changes to Covid regulations.
I am gratified that, this afternoon, the Presiding Officer challenged the Government’s use of Government-initiated questions for major policy announcements—in this case, on the Manchester travel ban. GIQs are never accompanied by commentary or information to increase public understanding of a decision, and they afford no opportunity for parliamentary cross-examination. In taking that approach, the Government undermines not just the Parliament and its members but members’ staff. Caseworkers and researchers are put in a position in which they have to attempt to help or explain things to constituents but do not have access to information or the chance to raise concerns before the ban is due to come into place.
Whether it is in relation to how the Government announces policies or the unprecedented powers that the bill affords the Government to control how we live our lives, there is not a free pass for Government to ignore the Parliament’s democratic mandate. Although we in the Liberal Democrats will support the bill as it transits through the Parliament, we do so in hope and expectation of the time when its provisions can finally fall away.
I believe that we need to legislate at this time, and that September would be too late. When we passed the coronavirus legislation in spring 2020, most of us hoped that Covid would be sorted by now but, sadly, that has proved not to be the case. It was sensible to review the legislation after the election in case the people of Scotland had perhaps wanted a change of direction. However, the people of Scotland said in the election that they have confidence in Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish National Party, so it is right to continue some of the legislation for at least a few more months.
I think that we all agree that the vaccines will win—we certainly very much hope that they will—but we have not yet caught up with the virus. The issue is at what point we will catch up and overtake the virus. That has not yet happened, and we are pretty sure that it will not happen by 30 September. It is worth reiterating that the bill means a reduction in powers for Government ministers and that the powers that are continuing are not being changed, so it is difficult to see why there should be much fuss about any of it.
I recently looked back at the legacy report of the COVID-19 Committee. I appreciated being a member of that committee towards the end of the previous session, and I think that I am the only member of it who will be a member of the new COVID-19 Recovery Committee. The legacy report said that the enhanced scrutiny arrangements had generally worked well, and referred to
“the opportunity to take evidence from Scottish Ministers and public health officials at its weekly meetings”.
The report recommended that a similar committee should continue
“in the early part of the new session”,
as should that opportunity to take evidence.
In some ways, it is disappointing that committees are starting only this week, as Gillian Martin pointed out. I am still not exactly clear which issues the new COVID-19 Recovery Committee will deal with and which issues will be for the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee. For example, which committee will deal with new variants and vaccination rates?
The legacy report also refers to post-legislative scrutiny and suggests a review before new legislation is implemented. I accept that that will not be possible with the bill, but the point holds good for the future. The Law Society of Scotland has raised a query about whether we should rely more on civil contingencies legislation than on coronavirus-specific legislation.
Throughout the pandemic, the Conservatives have argued for more certainty and more decisions to be made further ahead so that businesses and everyone else can have time to plan properly. That is a fair argument, but if decisions had been made further ahead, that would probably have meant that schools, businesses, pubs and restaurants would all have been closed for longer. The Government has always had a difficult balance to strike between, on the one hand, trying to make the best decision with the latest available data—even if the decision had to be made late on—and, on the other hand, giving longer notice periods and making earlier decisions based on less complete data.
I think that the Conservatives understand that dilemma, but they seem to have chosen to ignore it for the sake of simplistic messaging about how bad the SNP Government is. With the bill, we are being offered more certainty, because we are dealing with it before the summer recess, but the Conservatives still complain that they want more flexibility and to leave decisions on legislation until later.
Human rights are clearly a factor in our reaction to Covid. Like other members, I am sure, I have had many emails from constituents arguing that children have the right to be at school and that visiting family members in care homes or meeting friends and relatives are also human rights.
However, it has been necessary to curtail all our rights temporarily to ensure that as many of our fellow citizens as possible—especially our most vulnerable fellow citizens—have their right to life and health better protected. I do not think that any of us wants to be dealing with the bill this week—we all wish that it was not necessary—but it is necessary, and we have a duty to take it forward, while perhaps improving it through the course of the week.
On the subject of our rights, I want to mention churches and religion in my speech. In Scotland, we have a long tradition of the separation of church and state, unlike in England, where the Queen is head of the Church of England. Within the church in Scotland, the Queen is a citizen like anyone else.
We all have the right to worship God or not as we choose, and the state does not have the right to stop us doing so. Therefore, the state must be very wary of interfering with the churches or, for that matter, with any religion. Similarly, I accept that the churches and other religious groups should not seek to dictate to the elected Government. Broadly speaking, churches accept health and safety and employment law, and similar healthy and practical legislation.
However, we still need to be careful about the dividing line between religion and the state. I was critical of some of the churches just before lockdown, when many did not meet on Sunday 22 March last year, even though lockdown did not start until Monday 23 March. I think that that sent out the message that the churches would do whatever they were told, which was unfortunate.
By contrast, earlier this year, some of the churches challenged the Government rules that said that they should be closed and, in broad terms, they won in court. I did not agree with that particular legal challenge, nor did many other churches. Despite that, most are still sticking to the other rules and guidelines on maximum numbers, social distancing, the absence of singing and so on. It is encouraging that those limits are to be relaxed over the next few weeks.
None of us wants emergencies and none of us wants emergency legislation, but the pandemic is continuing—indeed, many countries are only starting their vaccination programmes now. Therefore, although we might not like having to pass such legislation, I strongly believe that we have a duty to do so.
Before I call Annie Wells, I advise the chamber that we are 23 minutes or so behind schedule, for very understandable reasons. However, I do not want to truncate the debate or to discourage members from making or taking interventions. The business managers are currently consulting on a revision to decision time, and I am sure that the Presiding Officer will inform the chamber of the decision.
I call Annie Wells, to be followed by Stuart McMillan.
At the beginning of the Covid pandemic, when a new crisis threatened to engulf the globe, Conservative members of the Scottish Parliament supported the Scottish Government’s emergency powers as a necessary and justified response to protect public health. Sixteen months later, I am unconvinced by the case that the cabinet secretary has put forward on the necessity of an urgent extension to the emergency powers beyond 30 September.
I want to put to one side for a moment the content of the bill and look at the nature of the way in which it has been brought before the Parliament. In the final week before recess, as the term draws to a close, the bill is being rushed through at incredibly short notice, with little time being allocated for scrutiny or debate. We have been provided with only three parliamentary days to debate a bill that, if it is passed, could result in emergency Covid legislation staying with us until September 2022. It is no wonder that several organisations, such as Inclusion Scotland and Amnesty International UK, have raised concerns with the Scottish Government, particularly over the lack of formal consultation on the bill. I share those concerns.
As my colleague Murdo Fraser highlighted, there would have been ample time during the summer recess for a proper consultation with the relevant stakeholders who will be impacted by the emergency legislation. We could then all have worked together on a cross-party basis to consider any new legislation in September, after Parliament had returned from the summer recess on 31 August. However, as I mentioned, the Government has insisted on rushing the bill through Parliament by the end of the week, thereby extending its wide-ranging powers, which is alarming.
The bill before us is not the only recent example of the Government’s seeking to frustrate the ability of MSPs to properly scrutinise its actions.
They are protected just now until 30 September. We are saying that now is not the time to debate the legislation because no consultation is taking place.
Only last week, it was revealed that the SNP Government had agreed the Manchester and Salford travel ban on Thursday morning and—notwithstanding the cabinet secretary’s remarks about emails—the First Minister only announced it on Friday. The SNP failed to come before Parliament to justify its decision, despite Thursday being a sitting day.
As parliamentarians who are elected to represent our constituents, it is our duty to hold the Scottish Government to account by robustly scrutinising in the chamber its decision making. That process is a healthy and essential part of our democracy, and the Scottish Government’s conduct in recent weeks in that regard has regrettably fallen far short.
As I said in the chamber a fortnight ago, the SNP’s case for why the powers must be extended is weak, and that remains true today. As such, the Scottish Conservatives will oppose the extension of the emergency powers.
In response to my colleague Gillian Martin, Annie Wells advanced the argument that she would want to see protection in place for tenants should they face eviction. However, she then said that we should delay the legislation until September. If there was not enough time by 30 September to secure the parliamentary passage of and royal assent to the legislation, how would tenants be protected?
Yes, there will.
Wide-ranging powers that were introduced as temporary measures should not be in place for a minute longer than necessary. With the success of the UK’s vaccination programme, Scots have clear reasons to be hopeful that they will soon be released from the clutches of the pandemic. Although the delta variant has undoubtedly presented itself as a new challenge given that it has led to a rise in cases and hospital admissions, we know that adults who are fully vaccinated have significant protection from serious illness.
The First Minister herself has repeatedly said that the vaccination programme in Scotland is the route out of the restrictions. With the confirmation in her statement today that, by the end of the week, over-50s, carers and those who are clinically vulnerable will be fully vaccinated, there is reason to be highly optimistic. After all, it is the Scottish Government’s own target to have all adults vaccinated by mid-September. By then, the state that we are in with Covid could look considerably different.
Despite the substantial progress of the programme’s roll-out and the optimism that is associated with it, the bill will give the SNP Government extensive emergency powers for an additional six months until March 2022—and possibly for even longer, as we have heard. As more people are vaccinated and life in Scotland starts to return to a state that resembles pre-pandemic life, people will rightly be perplexed as to why the Government is in such a hurry to extend the emergency powers. It surely makes more sense for the SNP Government to use the time that it has over the summer recess to consult experts, stakeholders and the public to ascertain whether such an extension is required. For that reason, an extension to the emergency powers is both inappropriate and unnecessary at this stage, and I will vote against the bill at decision time.
First, I do not believe that any of us wants to stand in this chamber today to speak about the extension of the Covid legislation. The fact that we are doing that—and must do so again—is a stark reminder that we are still living with Covid.
I know from speaking to constituents that they are fed up with how we are living. We are all fed up. We also know, however, that we have to find a way to live with the coronavirus. We all know that the numbers are on the rise, with a stronger mutation of the virus—who knows what we will get in the future?—and that now is not the time for letting our guard down.
I believe that the bill is necessary to ensure that our public sector can continue to do what it needs to do once the current regulations come to an end, on 30 September. Were the regulations to end then, the public sector would have a vast job to undertake in planning, preparing and delivering any changes that would be required thereafter.
The facts are clear. We are still in the midst of this global pandemic and we are not yet in a place to relax all restrictions. Some measures are no longer needed, which is the reason why they are not in the bill. That is a good thing, and it maintains the commitment that the Scottish Government gave when the bill was introduced. First and foremost, we need the safest possible route out of the pandemic. We all want to reopen the country as quickly as we can, but that must be done safely.
Great play has been made by the Deputy First Minister of the fact that things are being left out of this legislation. We heard a fairly optimistic prognosis, I think, from the First Minister earlier today. Can Stuart McMillan not imagine that we could be in the first week of September with the measures in the bill no longer being necessary? If that is the case, would he support a repeal of the bill if—as seems likely, let us be frank—it gets through Parliament this week?
I will not answer the question immediately, because I am about to come on to some of those points in the rest of my speech.
Earlier today, the Minister for Parliamentary Business, my colleague George Adam, highlighted the necessity of the emergency legislation being introduced and debated this week. I note that Mr Adam used the phrase of not leaving anything “to chance”. I am not a member of the Parliamentary Bureau, so I am not privy to the discussion that takes place there, but after listening to Mr Kerr’s comments and his reply to the parliamentary business manager, I now understand why Mr Adam said what he said.
Stephen Kerr indicated that double vaccination is providing “immunity” from “all known variants”—I am sure that he will correct me if I am wrong about that. However, I suggest to Mr Kerr that that is exactly why we need this legislation: all known variants are one thing, but those still to come are another. Who knows what the variants that are ahead of us will be like? [Interruption.] Maybe Mr Kerr knows. If he does, will he please talk to the Scottish Government’s scientists?
That is an argument for keeping the restrictions in legislation for ever, which is not acceptable. We cannot operate on that basis in a free society. What I actually said was that the vaccines have been proven to be efficacious with all the known variants. While we are talking about things that we do not know about, we could be talking about this legislation being with us for ever, and that is not acceptable.
I am sure that Mr Kerr will read the Official Report later, but he did use the word “immunity” in his earlier comments. [Interruption.] I am afraid that it does matter, Mr Kerr.
Mr Kerr also suggested that we should be more optimistic, and Annie Wells touched on that. Certainly, we all need to be more optimistic about the future, and we heard some positive comments from the First Minister in her address to the chamber earlier. However, the reality of the situation is clear: the numbers are still going up, and we heard about that, too. The virus is not going away but is increasing and having an impact on what Scotland is doing right now.
The bill in front of us does not deal with any of the measures in the UK Coronavirus Act 2020—the lockdown powers, for example—and it does not provide for any extension to public health guidance on restrictions on travel, as those are not legislated for under the Scottish acts. The bill continues the reporting requirements that exist in the first two Scottish acts and it gives the Scottish Parliament the power to extend the Scottish acts for a further six months, to 30 September 2022, if necessary.
In recognition of the far-reaching and unprecedented nature of some of the provisions in the Scottish acts, they contain a number of safeguards, including that the relevant provisions in the acts automatically expire less than six months after they come into force, although the period can be extended by the Scottish Parliament for two further periods of six months. That is a very strong safeguard, along with the Scottish ministers having the power to bring provisions in the acts to an end earlier when they consider that they are no longer necessary.
The fact that we have the bill in front of us today deals with the first of those points: Parliament, sadly, must extend some powers. However, the second point, about provisions being brought to an end earlier when they are no longer needed, was discussed by the Parliament’s Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee today. We spoke about the Coronavirus (Scotland) Act 2020 (Early Expiry of Provisions) (No 2) Regulations 2021 (SSI 2021/236), and we agreed to draw the instrument to the attention of the Parliament on reporting ground (j), as it had been laid less than 28 days before coming into force, in breach of section 28(2) of the Interpretation and Legislative Reform (Scotland) Act 2010.
I will, Presiding Officer.
In effect, the Scottish Government, in using the safeguard in the Covid legislation by removing the powers that are no longer necessary, will take a small hit under another piece of legislation.
I will support the bill, and I hope that it passes through the Parliament this week.
I will begin by stating the obvious. We MSPs have been protected somewhat from the financial issues that others face and that many of our constituents have. I always try to see things from the point of view of the Government in managing the worst crisis of our time, but we must be alive to the fact that we—MSPs, ministers and even the First Minister—can easily lose touch with the devastation out there. We need to show that we understand that we must, if necessary, meet in the summer recess. We also need access to decision makers in the next eight weeks so that we can work hard on behalf of all those who are concerned about the legislation and the regulations and try to bring the country together.
The nation is distressed and tired, and it is losing a lot of trust in decisions. Indeed, some people are cynical. Businesses feel that they have complied only to find that the Government has changed its position. People are rightly asking harder questions about the inconsistencies in the approach that we are taking, and the narrowness of the bill will reduce our role as representatives. As Jackie Baillie said, the Parliament should not be sidestepped.
The Deputy First Minister has suggested, in a casual way, that we can make any additions that we think are necessary in September. However, there is no way that I, as an elected politician, am going to rubber-stamp any legislation—that is not what I am elected to do. It is important to see what the public think of that.
I would, of course, welcome the fund for tenants. That is a really positive announcement, and I consistently called for that over a year ago.
Today’s announcement by the First Minister at least gives some hope to some sectors about the restrictions being relaxed. I speak on behalf of thousands of musicians, solo artists and bands from various sectors who feel forgotten about. Their livelihoods have been lost and their mental health is in steep decline. They can now be hopeful about 9 August and 19 July, and about live music being played at weddings under level 0. That is great news, but I still want the chance to amend the legislation where I think it is failing.
We need clarity on the announcement that there will be no social distancing after 9 August if, as the First Minister said, the vaccine roll-out and so on go as planned. Can there be bands at weddings? Has socially distanced dancing at level 0 been considered? Can pubs and events have a live band? It sounds as though they can, but I would like further clarification on that, and I hope to get that in the coming days.
Why are we not able to amend the bill? We have many questions about the regulations. Murdo Fraser said that we are taking away freedoms and liberties in the interests of public health, and a huge number of people have questions about that approach. The night-time industry is asking whether it can plan for the date now, whether it can open up and whether it can take out the necessary insurance to plan for when restrictions are relaxed, on 9 August.
I want to concentrate on some concerns that I share with other members about the extension of justice provisions. The rationale behind introducing fiscal fines was to free up the courts to deal with more serious offending behaviour, but I am not clear what offending behaviour would attract such fines, and that should certainly not become a permanent change. I am interested to know whether the Government would consider reporting to Parliament on the range of offences that might be so identified by procurators fiscal.
I have deeper concerns about time limits. Certain time limits will be disapplied so that there is a period during which they will not apply and the court can adjourn a case for such a period as it considers appropriate. Beltrami & Co said:
The amendment serves only to extend the strict time limits within our existing framework, without the need for the court’s prior approval.”
A more serious concern is the extension of time limits on remand. At topical question time today, I said that Scotland’s remand figures are of deep concern. The Howard League commented on that in its report entitled “The Scandal of Remand in Scotland”. I understand the reasons for using emergency powers to extend the time for which people can be held in custody, but we must monitor that closely to ensure that we comply with health and welfare considerations. I hope to raise such concerns tomorrow.
The provisions on hearsay evidence are probably my biggest concern. The 2020 act allows evidence by statement when there would be
“a particular risk ... to the person’s wellbeing attributable to coronavirus, or ... of transmitting coronavirus to others”.
A statement cannot be cross-examined by the defence. Are we talking about the situation for the complainer or for other victims in the process? Why can we not use Zoom, for example? Through amendments at stage 2, tomorrow, I hope to examine such questions and other aspects of the legislation that are not well drafted.
I regret that there is not more scope to amend the bill in the way that I have outlined, but I look forward to stage 2.
I will open by talking about scrutiny and agility. In spring last year, the Parliament responded to the coronavirus in an agile and robust manner. The 2020 act was put in place at haste because everything that was in it demanded such haste. In session 5, all parties in the Parliament rose to the challenge and did important and swift work, which has carried the country through one of our worst years ever.
The COVID-19 Committee was set up to continually scrutinise the Government’s response and how the legislation and other policies that affected our Covid response were working. The committee had the ability to meet during the parliamentary suspension for the election period, if that was deemed necessary, but thankfully it was not.
The First Minister takes questions on Covid in the chamber every week, often for more than an hour. She is open to parliamentary scrutiny every Thursday at First Minister’s question time. She gives almost daily briefings on national television and takes questions from the media on the detail. Party leaders have the opportunity to comment straight after that.
The First Minister has appointed John Swinney as the dedicated Cabinet Secretary for Covid Recovery, in addition to the relevant cabinet secretaries who appear frequently in the chamber to be questioned on all aspects of the impact of Covid. Every detail of the legislation and other policies for the Covid response and recovery is constantly up for scrutiny, yet people would not know that that was the case if they listened only to Opposition members today.
I gently suggest that if Boris Johnson had put himself up for the same level of parliamentary and media scrutiny on all things Covid, we might have a better general situation with regard to the impact of decisions that are taken at the UK level, particularly about people entering the UK. Stables and horses and the locking and bolting thereof come to mind.
John Mason was right to point out to Murdo Fraser that getting the changes through now gives more certainty. The Conservatives’ criticism is often that the Government does not go fast enough—that was the thrust of Douglas Ross’s questions to the First Minister today.
For as long as the legislation is in place, the Scottish Government will continue to meet its commitment to publish reports and to give Parliament the opportunity to scrutinise them. The committee on Covid has reconvened at last. As I said in my intervention, if certain members had not denied the election results and delayed decisions on committees, we might have had a fighting chance of at least stage 2 going through the committee and of evidence being taken. However, we are where we are, and three days of debate await.
Today, we move another inch forward towards getting back more of the freedoms that we once took for granted. That is the cheering part. It has been a long 18 months—some have felt that more keenly than others. We must be mindful that the pandemic continues, so keeping in place the safeguards that we need is essential.
The virus continues to fox us with new variants, and we must acknowledge that the lack of caution and the slowness to act on people from spiking parts of the world coming into the UK have been a problem. I worry that those who make border-based decisions do not seem to have learned that lesson.
It is only right that we maintain emergency operational measures in respect of children’s hearings and child protection to ensure that children’s rights are protected throughout the pandemic. It is right that people who are being hit financially have a safety net and that tenants continue to be protected. If they are not, we face a potential homelessness crisis further down the road.
The grant fund is welcome. It will protect vulnerable people and families who, as Lorna Slater rightly said, are in financial difficulty through no fault of their own. Those who are in debt will have more protection through the increase in the minimum debt level that an individual must owe before their creditor can make them bankrupt.
Safety nets such as that save society money. People in desperate debt situations can find it hard to get a foothold again and may suffer extreme mental health complications. We must be preventative whenever we can. We all know the cost to wellbeing for those who lose their homes and, consequently, the enormous amount of public money that it can cost to address that trauma. Often, we cannot completely address the trauma, but we could prevent it.
We need to be fleet of foot when it comes to Covid. We did it before and we can do it again. We are affording people certainty and safety nets. The safety nets might never be needed, but is that not the point of a safety net? We do not need one until we absolutely do.
I say to Gillian Martin that the Conservatives are absolutely in favour of safety nets, but safety nets are not really the substance of the bill. The bill is a cynical and rushed power grab by the SNP. In principle, I support Governments using emergency powers in times of national crisis, but I balance that with a full commitment to parliamentary democracy, and the Parliament should be able to scrutinise the decisions that are taken by the Government. A few minutes ago, somebody said that it is the duty of all members of the Parliament to scrutinise the executive. That also applies to those who are members of the party of government.
Oh, my goodness me. I am not sure whether John Mason will be proud of that intervention when he looks back on it. The bill still consists of considerable powers, and the Parliament should take the time to scrutinise the bill and consider whether those powers are necessary. That should be the concern of every parliamentarian.
My first concern is that three days of parliamentary debate is not enough time to fully scrutinise the bill. It is not only my Conservative colleagues and me who have that concern. Amnesty International said:
“While Amnesty has listened to the arguments made by ministers for the extremely short time period allowed for the scrutiny of this Bill, we would take this opportunity to highlight the unsatisfactory restrictions the timescale places on scrutiny and participation in decision making, including the lack of formal consultation.”
I do not know whether Patrick Harvie wants to intervene to disagree with that observation from Amnesty International. I suspect that he does not.
I do not think that anybody thinks that this—or anything about living in a global pandemic—is satisfactory, but it is necessary. If Stephen Kerr wants to call it a power grab, can he point to any power that the Government will have as a result of passing the bill that it does not currently have?
If I may say so, that is the whole point. As we go through the summer, the situation is changing rapidly. There is no need for us to rush the bill through Parliament in the next three days. The powers that we are debating will expire on 30 September 2021. Between now and then, the Government should be consulting experts and members of the public about the powers. The weeks of parliamentary time after recess could be used by Parliament to scrutinise in detail the Government’s proposals and whether they are fit for purpose at that time, and then we could consider all our legislative options for the situation in which we find ourselves. However, that is not what the SNP Government is about. It is trying to steamroller the bill through Parliament—that is a power grab.
The Government should give up the powers when it no longer needs them, and we should be reviewing that when we get to the first week of September, because 30 September is a long way away.
Does Mr Kerr accept that, as the example that I provided to the chamber a short time ago shows, the Government is already removing some of the powers that it had because it no longer needs to have them? Does Mr Kerr agree that the Scottish Government is doing the right thing? It is following the law that was passed by the Parliament.
Oh, come on. I welcome the fact that the Government is giving up those extraordinary powers in some areas. I asked Stuart McMillan during his speech whether he would support my suggestion that, if we got to the first week of September—if the bill gets pushed through Parliament with this undue haste—the act, as it would be then, should be repealed, but he could not answer then and he is not answering now.
This piece of legislation will hopefully be passed this week. As the legislation indicates, when the powers are no longer required within the six-month period, the Government will not use them. As Mr Kerr will already know, the bill will have to be considered again in six months’ time.
How does the member know that we will need the powers in the first week of September? The member does not know that. The Deputy First Minister once again remonstrates with his hands in that way that he has, but this is a serious point. How does he know that we will need those powers in the first week of September? We should wait until then to review the situation and consider the progress that the First Minister highlighted in her statement. She also highlighted the success of the vaccine—the vaccine miracle, as we could rightly call it.
It is due to the foresight of the procurement of the UK Government—I mention Matt Hancock and Nadhim Zahawi in particular—that we have enough vaccines in this country to deliver to every adult, and perhaps even to every youth. We also have to thank our front-line NHS staff and volunteers across the UK, who have played such an important role in putting vaccines into people’s arms. Through the collective effort of those people and many more, thousands of lives have been saved.
I sense from the Presiding Officer that my time is up. I would go on longer if she would allow me—I can see that that would be a popular policy.
The reality is that, if there is a successful roll-out of the vaccine in the next few months, the situation that we come back to after summer recess could be dramatically different. That is why I asked the Government to postpone the debate on the extension of emergency powers until after recess and use the remaining parliamentary time this week to debate the issues that Scotland immediately faces due to the pandemic. Had I more time, I would have expanded on that. There are serious issues that the Parliament should be debating this week.
It is good to be back in Parliament alongside colleagues old and new from all parties. When the virus first emerged in Scotland early last year, I am sure that none of us thought we would still be here around 15 months later debating the extension of the legislation. However, the reality is that the virus is still here and people are still losing their lives because of it.
In the past week alone, there have been more than 10,000 new positive cases in Scotland, and there were more than 2,000 just yesterday. Fifteen people have died as a direct result of the virus and more than 170 are in hospital.
Yesterday’s daily positive total was the highest since 15 January this year. That surely illustrates why this is a matter of great concern.
It is clear that we must agree to extend the provisions in the bill beyond September to continue the fight against the virus and to protect the public as best we can. What other choice do we have that offers greater protections for the public?
When I served on the previous session’s COVID-19 Committee, week by week colleagues would look at the provisions in the legislation and hope more than anything else that this would not last for as long as it has lasted. The then cabinet secretary Mike Russell attended our committee almost weekly, alongside Professor Leitch, to explain the proposals and to answer detailed questions from members about the impact of the virus on public health, our economy and people’s livelihoods. Hard decisions are never popular, and the bill’s timetable is far from ideal, but the lesson that we learned back then was that we have to act faster than the virus if we are to stay ahead of it and its increasingly transmissible variants.
As some members have said, the bill does not propose to confer any new powers, and it is good to see a number of provisions being dropped as we no longer need them. I hope that that pattern will continue as long as we get the figures in our communities down again.
Some protections will be extended if the bill is passed, one of which is the continued protection from eviction for private and social sector tenants. I was pleased to hear about the £10 million grant fund that is to be made available to help all those who are in arrears. With the exception of cases involving antisocial behaviour, criminality and abandonment of a property, tenants will continue to be afforded some protection from eviction during the critical times when the legislation applies.
I am grateful to Michael Clancy and the Law Society for their detailed briefing, which covers that topic in some depth. They recognise that the pandemic has led to many job losses and a reduction of income for many households in Scotland, with people unable to meet their financial obligations under their tenancy agreements. Although the Law Society supports the extension of the provision, it points out that landlords also need support to allow them to meet or to suspend their liabilities as a result of being denied the income that is not being paid to them by their tenants. I hope that the cabinet secretary might say something about that during his summing up.
Court hearings will continue to be held remotely if the bill is passed—the Law Society also supports that measure. There are a number of issues with participation in courts using digital technology, particularly if data links are not reliable and if evidence is not properly heard.
Like those in all other parts of Scotland, my constituents in Kilmarnock and Irvine Valley have suffered at the hands of the virus. For the very youngest to the most senior of citizens, family life and education have been disrupted, jobs and businesses have been lost and, worst of all, loved ones have been lost. There have also been some incredible stories of resilience, exceptional care for our fellow citizens and wonderful ingenuity that gives us hope that, even at this awful time in our history, we can see a better future on the horizon. Our Government is doing its best to lead us there as safely as possible. I hope that our people will not have too much longer to wait, but we must pass the bill at stage 1 to make sure that the journey to recovery is as safe as possible, and that it protects citizens to the maximum of our ability.
I put on the record my thanks to the NHS staff, social care staff, and other care workers across the country for the essential work that they have done during the past year to get us all through the pandemic.
I think I have been drinking the brave juice today, so before I read the speech that I have prepared, I want to respond to some of the things that we have heard today about timelines. A number of members have made a point about the time taken to get the committees settled and said that that has caused a delay and means that we have to rush the bill through.
One of the reasons why we had to delay the committee settlement was because of questions around the potential to scrutinise the Government on matters such as social security, and it was incredibly important for us to do so. When we rush things through Parliament, it is not only scrutiny that is at stake but the innovation that we have seen in communities across our country in the past year, which we might miss out on if we do not ask for their input and advice. Today, I seek to cover scrutiny as well as talking about harnessing and growing the innovation that we have seen from our citizens and communities in the past year.
When the bill first came to Parliament at the beginning of the pandemic, it was emergency legislation. The Parliament acknowledged then that it would not get everything right, but members united in a very short time to pass the bill in the best interests of the people of Scotland. We had to act fast to save lives and protect people from infection but, 15 months on, the extent of the damage that has been done is becoming clearer. The effects of the virus and infection are not over and the rebuilding job is huge.
There has been unprecedented poverty and job losses; young people are worried about their future; disabled people have gone without care for a year; families are at breaking point; and hard-won human rights—such as the right to be involved in decisions about our lives and the right to essential healthcare and support—have been denied. Those rights were the first to go in a time of crisis, and many fear that they will never return.
The bill before us does little to comfort people who have those fears. It did not need to be hurried through the Parliament in a matter of days, and it did not have to be set out in a way that allows such little scope for amendment. The unsatisfactory restrictions that the timetable places on scrutiny and participation in decision making—including the lack of formal consultation—is difficult to understand. The emergency coronavirus legislation created safety nets, made allowances and aimed to protect people as we headed into an unprecedented situation, where none of us knew what lay ahead. That is not where we are now.
This time, as we extend the legislation, things are different. The Government and Parliament have time and experience that did not exist when we began this journey. With those luxuries, we should fix the bits that we did not get right, strengthen the protections that safeguard people and, crucially, harness the innovation of the past year, which has been found in every home, workplace, community and in small places close to home, by ensuring that there is enough time to bring the people of Scotland with us on our journey.
Indeed, in order to get the solutions that we need, it is not only sensible and necessary to bring that innovation into this chamber; our international human rights obligations require that we do so. Despite the parliamentary timetable this week, we must use any opportunity that we have to harness the innovation that has been necessary this year and build on it so that we rebuild a better Scotland than we had before. That means walking the walk on human rights.
As the Government seeks to move forward with a further extension of the legislation, we want a commitment that it will expedite the commencement of a public inquiry to give effect to the level of scrutiny that is needed. Scottish Labour and other parties across the chamber will move amendments this week and do our best to strengthen the bill where we can, but I am sure that the Government is well aware that, because of the way that the bill has been introduced, there is more to be done than we are able to call for. For example, my colleagues and I would have liked the evictions ban to be not only reinstated but extended to those in lower-tier areas that are not currently covered by existing provisions.
We remain in the grasp of a public health emergency; social housing rent arrears continue to rise as people struggle with precarious work; and businesses are still closed, so protecting basic rights—such as the right to a warm, accessible, sustainable and affordable home—should be the utmost priority at this time. Forced evictions violate that right.
We would also have sought to introduce new provisions, in order to provide protection to groups that have fallen through the cracks because they have not had adequate support. For example, we would have sought to introduce a £5 a week supplement to the Scottish child payment for families with a disabled person. We do not yet know the impact that the coronavirus pandemic has had on the lives of disabled people and we cannot begin to assess the full extent of the support that is required to repair their lives, but we know that they have struggled to access food, lost essential care and been more likely to be on furlough. That is why we believe that we need to make a Covid payment to disabled people, as we have done for carers, to recognise the hardship that they have faced.
We must recognise the importance of not only protecting people from poverty but bringing them up to the income that they need in order to flourish. Scottish Labour would have wanted to take the opportunity to see the uplift to the carers allowance supplement remain permanent—doubling the amount that carers receive. Jobs and employment are more precarious than ever, so we would also have looked to end the full-time study rule and allow carers to earn more from part-time work.
We want stronger support for people whose incomes have been hit as a result of the restrictions on their workplaces and businesses, such as people in the creative industries who are struggling on precarious means, many of whom have lost their income. It is estimated that more than 100,000 self-employed people have been unable to access appropriate support through the various schemes that exist.
We want to see those schemes relentlessly promoted so that where help is available, people know about it and are able to access it. We would also like self-isolation grants to be made available to any individual who needs one.
The past year has been the hardest in living memory. It is hard to believe that anything good could come through it. However, it has shone light into some very dark corners and it has forced us to do things differently. The bill could have been an example of that. I hope that, despite its timetabling, the Government will commit to going out to communities, respond to the harms and harness the will for change quickly.
Often, from hardship and pain come strength and hunger for change. Now is that moment and I ask everyone here today to meet that moment. We must do everything in our power to protect, fulfil and promote the human rights of everyone in Scotland. Despite the speed at which we are going through this situation, I ask people not to lose sight of the desire and need to change, and the will and innovation out there to do it.
We all long for the day when the bill will expire in its entirety and our lives will get back on track. No one will ever forget the fear, uncertainty and sense of unknown of what was ahead of us back in March 2020 when the world went into lockdown. There was no guidebook on how to handle a pandemic on such a huge global scale, and Governments around the world did their best to steer their countries through one of the most difficult times that any of us has ever known.
Thankfully, we have come a long way since March 2020, but coronavirus continues to pose a significant threat to public health. That is why it is still so important that our priority is to lead Scotland out of the pandemic and reopen the country as quickly and safely as possible.
I am sure that other elected members receive correspondence from people who are keen to get their lives back to normal and are frustrated by restrictions not being lifted quickly enough. We all want our lives to be back to normal: we want our kids back at school, carefree and enjoying their lives as they should; we want our businesses truly without restrictions; and we all want to go on holiday. However, the stark reality is that Covid is still with us and is still a threat.
Covid-19 is ageist, sexist, ruthless, dispassionate and opportunistic—as we have seen from the new variants emerging in recent months. Many of us have lost loved ones to this cruel pandemic and families have been devastated. Recently, I met a grieving constituent from Ayr, whose family had been torn apart by Covid-19. Lee Dodds from Ayr, aged 32, his wife and children all contracted coronavirus in March 2021. Lee was a fit and healthy hard-working man who had never been in hospital in his life. Tragically, Lee lost his life on 2 April, leaving behind his wife, a 10-year-old son and a six-year-old daughter. The family asked me to remind everyone that Covid is still a concern and to say, “Don’t think it won’t happen to you. Please stay safe.”
The bill is welcome and will ensure that the provisions to maintain essential public services can continue beyond 30 September, on our road to recovery. There is no quick fix for a pandemic, but we have learned lessons in the past 15 months. The bill will not add any new measures to restrictions, but will expire several provisions that are no longer necessary. That is progress in the right direction.
In what has been a difficult year for so many people, we have also learned about resilience, innovation and the importance of support within the community. I have been out in my constituency in recent weeks, talking to local businesses. In what we cannot deny has been a very difficult time for them, many have come up with innovative ways to trade and to work with restrictions in a positive way. It is of huge importance to those businesses to keep their staff and the general public safe. Many businesses have chosen to close for a period if they were at risk of an outbreak. Times continue to be tough, but there is optimism and responsibility and care for the local community, which is admirable.
Although we are on the long road to recovery, I still have concerns for our youth, who have suffered greatly during the pandemic. Thankfully, we have some routine back in our lives, and the dark days of attempting to home school, with even the play parks being closed for our young ones, are becoming a distant memory.
However, life is not back to normal for children. With the new variant, schools continue to have outbreaks and many students in recent months have had to isolate up to three times, for 10 days each time. That absence from school has a further hugely detrimental impact on our children’s education. It is not easy days for them and it is not easy days for teachers, who are working to the best of their ability in the most challenging of circumstances.
With South Ayrshire reporting a high number of positive cases in recent weeks, our local schools have had to put in place preventative measures to contain the spread. I understand the frustration of parents, as we all wish that life could get back to normal, but I must applaud those who have gone way and beyond to adapt and to make all the special occasions, such as our kids’ nursery graduations, as magical and memorable as possible for our students.
My five-year-old leaves nursery this week. Unfortunately, her primary 1 induction day was cancelled due to a local outbreak, and her first ever sports day was videoed by the team of dedicated teachers, who captured every moment and sent the video to all the parents. It is not everybody’s first preference, but the extraordinary efforts that are being made during these times by teachers cannot and should not be dismissed.
Although the pandemic is not over, the efforts that have been made by people all over Scotland since March last year and the success of the roll-out of the vaccination programme have allowed us to be optimistic about our future. Although we have had setbacks from time to time, we have started our journey towards national recovery. Now more than ever, it is important that all political parties across the chamber put the interests of the country first in order to guide Scotland through the pandemic and into recovery, so I will support the bill today.
The Covid-19 pandemic presented a set of challenges that no one in the chamber had ever faced: a global health crisis of a type that had not been seen for more than 100 years. We all accepted that we needed to act swiftly and collectively. When ministers suggested that 100,000 of our fellow Scots could lose their lives to the disease and that councils and the military might have to undertake mass burials, we were all shocked and concerned, as Gillian Martin outlined, and we worked constructively to facilitate the powers that ministers said they needed at the time in the national interest. The variation of some regulations was also justified at earlier stages of the pandemic.
However, today’s debate must acknowledge that we have come a long way since the start of the pandemic. The First Minister has admitted that Scottish ministers got things wrong due to a lack of consultation. It is therefore concerning that ministers have left us with only three sitting days until recess to consider the measures and the intended—and often unintended—consequences that they will have. Ministers say that the powers will be extended for an initial period of just six months, but it is likely that they will be extended for a longer period. As I have outlined, the emergency response at the start of the pandemic was appropriate at the time, but it is not appropriate for ministers to try to keep hold of the powers, and there has been a failure to genuinely consult businesses and individuals whose lives and livelihoods will be affected by the consequences of the further extension of the powers.
Today, the First Minister committed, in principle, to the lifting of restrictions, which is due entirely to the success of the United Kingdom’s vaccination programme. The question is why it is therefore necessary to consolidate the powers beyond the return of Parliament after the summer recess. Both those things do not go hand in hand. Full consultation and cross-party input and discussion over the summer would allow for proper scrutiny and for the negative impacts of the extensions to be fully understood by the Government. I agree with my colleague Murdo Fraser that it is simply unnecessary to extend the exceptional powers in the way that the bill provides for without that vital scrutiny.
In relation to housing, as a few members have touched on, the initial coronavirus acts provided protections to students and tenants and made reasonable accommodations regarding notice periods and council tax. This has not been mentioned in the debate, but it is important to note that, during the pandemic, landlords have actively and responsibly tried to support tenants and small businesses to meet the rent payments and challenges that we know from our constituency mailbags that many people have faced.
As has been highlighted, extending the evictions ban, and therefore postponing the work of tribunal proceedings further, might only deliver more uncertainty and build up new problems for renters, rather than leading to the long-term sustainable solutions that all members want to see. Before the pandemic, the average amount of debt that was owed by tenants who were being evicted for rent arrears was, at the point that a tribunal decided to grant an eviction order, 8.9 months of rent arrears. During the pandemic, with the powers in place, the average amount has risen to 13.3 months of rent arrears.
I know from discussions that I have had with housing and poverty organisations since taking over my portfolio that there is a growing concern at the significant increase in unmanageable rent debt. There is no doubt that many tenants face significant financial difficulties due to unemployment or to a reduction in take-home pay during the pandemic.
The Deputy First Minister is not in the chamber at the moment. As my colleague Murdo Fraser said, we welcomed the establishment of the tenant hardship loan scheme when it was announced last November, and I welcome what the Deputy First Minister outlined today regarding the £10 million grant fund. However, the devil will always be in the detail, and I look forward to seeing the criteria and knowing how that will be delivered on the ground.
As we emerge from lockdown and hope to see the restrictions lifted, there is concern about the long-term impact that poor credit scoring will have on tenants seeking rentals and on the rental sector, especially here in the capital where the private rental market comes at a higher price.
In relation to local government, it is a concern that the bill seems to give local authorities powers to continue restricting access to meetings, to delay the publication of reports required by statute and to further relax local planning guidelines. Our previous debates about FOI and access to information show that that must urgently be looked at so that we can properly scrutinise decisions taken by local government. It is vital to fully scrutinise decisions and to hold local authorities, as well as the Scottish Government, to account.
Although it is essential to move cautiously, it is more important than ever to remember that the decisions that we take impact on people’s livelihoods and businesses and on the fragile economic recovery that we all want to see. Parliament should be able to do the important job of properly scrutinising Government decisions. The Deputy First Minister says that he will allow eight weeks for consultation in the future. We have an eight-week period ahead of us in which we could have done that consultation and then come back to look properly at the regulations. SNP ministers are preventing the Parliament from doing that work, and that is regrettable. I hope that they will think again as we take the bill forward in the coming days.
I have six minutes but I could say what I need to say in about six sentences. We are in unprecedented times. We are still in the midst of a pandemic. The citizens of Scotland expect and trust the Government to take the necessary action to protect lives and our health service. There is no valid reason to delay the bill; there are no new powers in it. It does not provide for an indefinite extension and it will remove powers that are no longer required. Therefore, it is the right thing to do.
I have listened carefully to a lot of the concerns that have been raised and the valid points made by Jackie Baillie, Pam Duncan-Glancy and Ms Slater about debt, human rights and disabled people. However, I take great comfort from what the Deputy First Minister said about the fact that a lot of those issues can be addressed by policy direction and co-operation and do not require legislation. I trust that the Scottish Government will look into that.
The expiry of powers is important. Some of the powers have already expired, in line with the Government commitment to remove provisions that are no longer necessary to support the on-going public health response. That is important because the bill is about powers that are necessary, proportionate and used when required. I see no danger in extending them when we do not yet have a completely clear pathway out of the pandemic. I take the positive points about the vaccination programme, but I also listened to the First Minister today. No one has mentioned her statement that the rules on people working from home will not be relaxed from August. We are still in the midst of the pandemic.
Another cohort of university students will arrive in early autumn, and we know what happened the last time—we know what the problems were. Everyone would love to have prevented some of those problems, but we do not know whether they will occur again. We are about to go into the winter period and if we know anything about Covid, it is that the virus causes us problems and puts obstacles in our way at every turn. We remember the disappointment that people felt during the Christmas holidays, when Covid presented us with a situation that meant that people could not visit family.
Having provisions available to be used proportionately when necessary is definitely the way forward. I commend my colleague Stuart McMillan, now the convener of the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee, for talking about the bill expiring in the technical terms of which he has real experience. The important point is that the bill will never need to be repealed, because it will expire: its powers will go when they no longer need to be used.
The bill does not introduce any new measures. We have lived with the measures through two iterations of the legislation, we know what they are and the First Minister is scrutinised daily on her response to Covid—she takes questions and gives information that people need to know about where we are going and how quickly we can move. We are all used to the provisions. The Parliament’s COVID-19 Recovery Committee will continue weekly scrutiny of the issues, some of which might come out of left field or might be unintentional consequences. Ministers and the Government will be held to account on a weekly basis by the COVID-19 Recovery Committee.
I appreciate that people have concerns because the bill is another bit of emergency legislation, but it does not have new measures, nor does it cover aspects of travel regulations that have been devolved through public health measures or lockdown measures, which, as has been said already, are implemented by Scottish ministers through the UK Coronavirus Act 2020.
I am disappointed that the pragmatic and consensual approach in the chamber to the previous emergency legislation has not been followed today by the Conservatives.
Delaying the bill would affect two particular measures that the bill will extend for a further six months. The first is the ability to have remote hearings for criminal and civil courts and tribunals. In that regard, I have just made an important point about how we are not going back to working in an ordinary office environment. The second is the increase in the minimum debt level that an individual must owe before a creditor can make them bankrupt. That is important as we approach the end of the furlough scheme and do not know what the bigger impacts of that will be.
In the debate on the second iteration of the legislation in May 2020, Jamie Greene said:
“We lend our support to Government to give it the required powers that it needs to deal with the crisis on the principles of temporality and trust in ministers to use those powers responsibly and proportionally. In turn, the general public trust us to judge that balance.”—[Official Report, 13 May 2020; c 74-75.]
The Parliament is having its say on the legislation and it will vote to decide whether to extend the measures. It will have that opportunity again in the future. This is a matter of trust, and there is no doubt that the Scottish people have put their trust in this Government and our First Minister to ensure the safety of the people of Scotland.
I will comment briefly on the debate about the debate, if I can put it that way, in relation to timescale and emergency legislation. I recognise what the Conservatives are saying: they are drawing our attention to the fact that the actual deadline is the end of September, not the beginning. However, when we debate a bill in Parliament, we are not speaking magic words; it is only part of a process. Let us imagine the alternative timeline.
If the Government introduced the bill in, say, the first week of September, we might debate it in the second week, might pass it in the third and might just about get royal assent by the end of the month. Then all the legislation’s measures would need to be implemented. We would be leaving the many people around Scotland who have been working hard to adapt and respond to unprecedented circumstances simply guessing what was to be required of them just days before the emergency measures were either extended or allowed to expire.
I suggest that colleagues such as Stephen Kerr and Annie Wells, who have been genuinely concerned about that issue, should be very glad that they are not working in such roles in these circumstances, trying to keep our public services running. Actually, I am quite glad that they are not in such roles, too.
A number of members have mentioned business support and housing. Clearly, business support will need to continue. However, as Lorna Slater said, we also have an unprecedented opportunity to reshape the economy—and reshape how we deliver that support. Conditionality will be absolutely vital. Indiscriminate support for business owners, regardless of how they treat their workers, customers and communities, or the wider world, would exacerbate the inequalities and injustices of the pre-Covid economy. We have an opportunity to do much better.
On housing, the idea of providing loans to tenants has been widely criticised. There was a suggestion that people facing the prospect of losing their job over the coming months would be willing to take on debt in the interests of their landlords, but that clearly would not work. I am glad that we are moving to grants, not loans. Like others, I question how quickly a £10 million fund might be used up if the furlough scheme winds up over the coming months. Jackie Baillie made important points about that issue.
I think that encouraging good practice, as Mr Swinney put it, simply will not be good enough. I have no doubt that Miles Briggs, given his comments, would remind me that some landlords have gone out of their way to support their tenants. However, we know that there are also landlords who will take every opportunity to put their own interests ahead of the tenant’s right to a home. Simply encouraging good practice will not be enough.
Some members have said that having a grant is the wrong solution and that we should be looking to other solutions. That argument seems to come from those who have a track record of voting against strengthening tenants’ rights and who also clearly intend to vote against rent controls. Those who suggest that we look to other solutions fully intend to vote against those measures. Access to housing is a human right to housing; access to investment income is not. I am keen to see what amendments it may be possible to lodge—Jackie Baillie has something in mind on that.
I want to look forward. As members of all parties have mentioned, there are aspects of the situation that we have lived through for the past year and half and the response to it that have value in the longer term. Covid will be with us for a long time. It might never disappear, but the emergency that it caused will. That emergency has prompted us to make changes in our society from which we must learn. It has shown us how quickly we can address a crisis when we treat it like a crisis.
Even before Covid, inequality was already a crisis; job insecurity was already a crisis; housing was already a crisis; and, in many ways, the state of our public health was already a crisis. Of course, the world also faces a climate and ecological emergency that, at a conservative estimate, is already costing a quarter of a million lives annually, and the figure is rising. It is an existential threat to human existence and the living world around us.
In that context, we must look to the changes that we have made in response to Covid and ask ourselves two questions. First, which of the changes—for example, in relation to secure homes and incomes, sustainable transport and travel patterns and public health infrastructure—should stay because they offer lasting benefits beyond Covid? For example, can working online bring benefits for accessibility, and can continuous teacher assessment offer improvements to our education system, replacing high-pressure, high-stakes exams? We should be willing to ask what changes could bring a permanent benefit.
Beyond that, and more deeply, we must ask ourselves a second question. As a society, how ready are we for the next crisis? For example, how resilient is our economy, how responsive are our public services, how has our political culture acquitted itself in this crisis and, therefore, how ready are we for the next? I hope that the Government will return to those themes in a permanence bill.
I draw members’ attention to my entry in the register of interests, which shows that I am an owner of a rental property.
Guidance issued by the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing notes:
“Housing has become the front line defence against the coronavirus.”
That simple statement is absolutely fundamental to the debate. A good, safe, warm and accessible home is a basic human right and something that every person needs if they are to flourish and reach their full potential. However, for the purposes of the debate, it is clear that a home is the front-line defence against this disease. If someone has Covid-19 symptoms, if they have been in close contact with a positive case or if a member of their household has symptoms, they have to isolate at home. If someone has been to an amber list country or if they have Covid-19, they have to isolate at home. From the outset of the pandemic, the key medical and public health advice to stop the spread of the disease and break the transmission link has been that people should isolate at home.
The reason why the ban on evictions has been a key part of our response to the pandemic is that it is a key part of the strategy to contain the spread of coronavirus. How can individuals or families have certainty that they will be able to isolate at home when they have the threat of eviction hanging over their heads. How can someone who has been evicted and who is sofa surfing in multiple properties isolate at home? Given that isolating at home is a key part of the public health response, the bill must extend the evictions ban to level 1 and 2 areas.
There is that public health argument for extending the evictions ban, but there is clearly a moral argument, too. The Scottish Government has rightly called for an extension to furlough and to the £20 top-up in universal credit. The Government has made those arguments because we are still living with restrictions and because entire sections of the economy are either severely impacted or not functioning at all.
Less than three weeks ago, the First Minister said:
“We have made significant progress on the way out of this pandemic, which has devastated the lives of so many. But we are clearly still in a precarious situation, and it is vital to make sure that we support the people who have been most badly affected by the past 14 months.”
She went on:
“I will be calling on it”— that is, the UK Government—
“to commit to maintain public spending during the period of recovery, and to extend the furlough scheme for as long as it is needed to protect businesses and people who have been required to stop working to protect others, and I will be emphasising that it is managed sensitively in a way that supports longer term recovery.”
I do not disagree with any of that, but surely the Scottish ministers must accept that the exact same arguments apply to the extension of the evictions ban. Many households have been affected by unemployment, reduced employment and reduced earnings. Lots of people have accumulated debts and rent arrears through no fault of their own and because of a global pandemic. We should support those people with grant assistance to recover, rather than piling more debts on top of existing debt just so that they can stay in their family homes. I am therefore glad that the Government has announced today that it is moving on that issue.
The tenants organisation Living Rent warned of
“a cliff edge of orders to evict” in the event of the country entering level 2. Statistics from the Scottish Housing Regulator show that, from June last year to March this year, the number of notices of proceedings relating to a rise in rent arrears being served on social housing tenants increased by 280 per cent. Citizens Advice Scotland has reported that, from 2019 to 2020, requests for advice about rent arrears with private landlords more than doubled.
The Scottish Government’s £10 million tenant hardship loan fund was supposed to help people to avoid the risk of losing their homes because of pandemic-related financial pressures but, so far, as the member who spoke before me set out, only £490,000 has been paid out. It is not a viable solution to people’s housing debt to put them into more debt. I welcome the Government’s grant fund and I am interested to see the new qualifying criteria for it. I am also interested in how the Government intends to convert into grants the almost £0.5 million of loans that have been paid out, so that those who have already accessed the fund do not have to live with unsustainable debt.
What will happen if evictions go ahead in the absence of a ban? Who will pick up the pieces? We will be left with families being pushed into extremely dangerous and vulnerable positions in the middle of a pandemic. Local authorities will be left to deal with a surge in homelessness applications. People will no longer be able to rely on the top-level public health and medical advice to isolate at home, because they will have no home available to them.
A revolving door of evictions and homelessness applications, along with all the human and financial costs and public health risks associated with that, is not what anyone wants.
When the Parliament first debated and passed emergency legislation, we dealt with all three stages of the Coronavirus (Scotland) Bill in one fateful day—1 April last year. However, it was no April fool’s prank. We were just a week into a full-scale national lockdown, and our Prime Minister and our First Minister had addressed the nation on television in what felt like doomsday broadcasts, telling us, “You must stay at home.”
Schools, shops, pubs, factories, offices, nurseries and cafes all had to shut. Flights, trains, buses, holidays and business trips were all cancelled. We all remember the eerie spookiness of our deserted cities and high streets. We all remember the emptiness of ScotRail trains. We all remember avoiding people on the pavement in case they got too close. We all remember—and still do—the constant abject, underlying fear of our loved ones catching this deadly pernicious disease that was spreading like wildfire. It was a glimpse, if I may put it this way, of what it might feel like to be at war.
We were at war—at war with a virus. To an extent, we still are, but what started as a war has now turned into a race: a race between the immense genius of science and the immense unpredictability of nature; a race of time between vaccination and mutation. However, we are now winning that race, as others have said. Some 80 per cent of adult Scots have received their first dose of the vaccine and 60 per cent have received their second. All that has been achieved in just six months since the first jab was administered. In just a few weeks’ time, everyone over the age of 50 and everyone who is clinically vulnerable will have been offered their second dose. That is a tremendous achievement.
Today, however, we face emergency legislation. I want to summarise three points that have been made that are important to this debate. Opposition to the bill is not simplistic belligerence, as some have painted it; it is simply us doing our job. The first proposition that has been made today is that the emergency is no longer upon us in the same way that it was when we introduced the emergency laws with the Coronavirus (Scotland) Bill or when we extended them with the Coronavirus (Scotland) (No 2) Bill. When we passed the first emergency legislation, we were in unprecedented times. We faced a new virus, we had no vaccine and no cure and, at times, it felt as though we had no hope, either. There were serious concerns about the NHS and a fear that our hospitals would fill up, to the extent that we turned a concert venue into a makeshift field hospital.
The problem is that we face none of that today, and I hope that we never do again. The 74 million doses of vaccine have broken the link between catching Covid and dying from it. We are now in a much better position to mitigate and manage the virus. Stuart McMillan said that we might have to learn to live with Covid—that is fine; so be it—but we might also have to learn to legislate properly in response to it.
That brings me to the second point of contention, which has been raised by many members—that of timetabling. It is a fair point to raise. Members are right to raise such issues. There is no justifiable reason to treat the latest iteration of emergency powers as emergency legislation, because we know that when we rush legislation, as we are doing this week, we do not have time to consult stakeholders or to properly scrutinise the proposed measures. As Pam Duncan-Glancy eloquently stated, our lives have been governed by laws that were rushed through in a matter of hours rather than months, none of which was subject to the proper checks and balances that we normally afford legislation.
We did it because we had to, but our argument today is that we do not have to, because we know that mistakes can and will be made. John Mason rightly pointed out the case of the Rev Dr William Philip v the Scottish Ministers—an action that was rightly upheld in the Court of Session. Back then, the Covid-19 Committee was our only real point of defence, because we trusted its members to reach out to, engage with and listen to the people to whom its issues mattered. Today, that committee has not yet sat for a substantive meeting and—guess what?—in three days, we all disappear for two months.
That same committee consulted with the public back in February this year, and said that it wanted to hear its views and to know what we could learn about using emergency legislation. That consultation was open for just two weeks and had 846 responses. I have not read them all, but I wonder how many said that the best way to legislate is the process that we are using this week; very few and probably none, I suspect. It was clear then, as it is now, that there is real value in proper scrutiny, not political commentary, and in real feedback from the real world.
The issues about which we are talking—courts, tribunals, alcohol licensing, bankruptcy, child hearings, evictions—might not be headline-grabbing restrictions in the way that others are, but they matter to the people to whom they matter.
Members quoted from two organisations on multiple occasions today—Amnesty International UK and Inclusion Scotland, which both used the words “inadequate” and “unsatisfactory”. If they are concerned, we should be too. The problem, which illustrates my point exactly, is that only those two organisations are quoted, because no one else has had the time to be properly consulted, or indeed to react. Normally, our inboxes are full to the brim of briefings and feedback ahead of stage 1 debates. Those organisations that are lucky enough to have public policy teams were able to scramble together something over the weekend, but many organisations simply were not.
My third and final point is that I have heard nothing today that justifies why the powers in their entirety should be extended in the way that the bill proposes and I am uncomfortable with that. My team is sitting in my office right now, and probably will be there until the late hours, to scramble together amendments. Of the amendments that have already been lodged, three have been knocked back on the ground of being inadmissible. What sort of shocking stage 2 process is that for members? It is a shameful way to treat the process of legislation, not just for our staff but for the parliamentary staff who are doing their damnedest to help us. Why are we doing it this way?
Some concerns exist about the bill, not just around the fact that the Government wants more time with the powers that we introduced in emergency measures, but about what those powers have done. We supported some of them at the time and we might still support some today, but we know that those measures are for the short term. Against the backdrop of the pandemic, we cannot normalise those powers without question.
That point is abundantly clear from the submission from the Law Society of Scotland. We do not clear court backlogs by watering down people’s human rights; we do not keep people in detention indefinitely—a point of principle on which we have always proudly stood; we do not release prisoners early simply because we cannot manage health emergencies; and we do not deliver justice by writing off hundreds of thousands of hours of community orders.
As a Parliament, we dealt with the pandemic through collaborations between members, parties, Government, the civil service and its advisers, but this feels different and wrong. If the Government needs emergency powers if, or even when, we next face an emergency, let it introduce a new bill to deal with the new emergency, and we will meet that challenge constructively. Today’s process, however, is not a way to legislate, because the people out there who are affected by the decisions that we make deserve nothing less than our earnest attempts to do exactly what I said in the previous debate on these issues: we will do what is needed, when it is needed, but only for as long as it is needed and not a day longer. That is what we promised back then. If we pass the bill in three days, we will have failed people in that promise, and shame on us.
The debate has been helpful and I am grateful to members for their contributions. I want to address a number of the points that have been raised, and I will cover a number of substantive issues.
First, I want to talk about the issues around timing and the timetable. Members have raised those as a substantial part of the debate. The argument has, roughly, focused on the fact that consultation could have taken place over the summer and the bill could have been considered in September.
Aside from the fact that I am sceptical as to whether Parliament could consider the bill in September and secure royal assent before the end of the month, the implication of the suggested timetable is, in essence, that we would have a curtailed process of scrutiny in any circumstance. That is a product of the presence of two things—the election and the summer recess. The Government, through me, has made a choice to bring the legislation to Parliament at this stage, because that is true under whatever scenario we adopt.
The reliable scenario, guaranteeing that we can secure royal assent provided that Parliament agrees to the terms of the legislation, is to complete the process now rather than to risk delaying it until September. That would, as John Mason highlighted, leave a note of uncertainty in the minds of a whole range of organisations as to whether they would still be able to operate in the fashion in which they currently have to because of Covid in exercising their practical functions as organisations.
I do not agree with Mr Kerr that this is a power grab for ministers. It is about enabling a range of organisations to undertake a series of practical functions that have been disrupted by the presence of Covid. Let us take the courts as an example. Nobody can say anything other than that they have been disrupted by Covid, which has led to delays. We have put in place practical arrangements to make it possible for trials to happen and to sustain the criminal justice system through the disruption of Covid. That has not gone away. It is still there and we are wrestling with its implications.
That is my point. We do not know whether the emergency measures that were introduced have had a positive or negative effect on the people who interact with the court system, the judiciary, children’s hearings or any of those factors. The problem is that we do not know because we have not consulted. That is why we need the extra time.
In some circumstances, Mr Greene’s point might be valid in relation to children’s hearings, were it not for the fact that we are expiring some of the provisions. They will not be extended by virtue of the bill that I have introduced.
The point that I am making is that there are deeply practical and operational issues concerning the running of public services that have been disrupted by Covid and will not have recovered by 30 September because of backlogs.
The point that the Deputy First Minister is making about timing is important. As Jamie Greene pointed out, it took only a few days for the emergency measures that were debated and passed on 1 April 2020 to receive royal assent. Should emergency powers be necessary beyond 30 September, what is stopping us from passing an emergency bill and it getting royal assent in that same timescale? It seems illogical.
It relates to the point that I made in response to Mr Mason’s arguments. By passing this legislation now, we are trying to give some operational certainty to organisations about the arrangements that will potentially be in place in September.
The Deputy First Minister talks about the operational parameters under which certain public services need to function as we continue to emerge from the pandemic. This point goes to the heart of scrutiny, which has featured a lot in the debate. Schedule 6 to the Coronavirus (Scotland) Act 2020 amends the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 so that the public can
“be excluded from a meeting of a local authority” should their presence create a “substantial risk” of infection. I am sure that the Deputy First Minister would agree that that risk has abated. Does he not agree that it is now time to repeal that provision to allow greater scrutiny in the corridors of local democracy?
There may well be an argument for a specific point of that nature. However, on what we cannot be certain about, the First Minister made a statement today that was, I accept, more optimistic than the statements have been for a while, but there were still caveats in it about what the circumstances might be in August. If we are trying to provide clarity for the delivery of public services, we have to put in place a framework in which everybody understands where they stand. The powers can, of course, be readily expired, because they can be expired by subordinate legislation without recourse to primary legislation, and a number of the powers have already expired, of course.
“Although short in terms of parliamentary time the provisions are relatively straightforward. The principle of extension has been considered by the Parliament over the past year in the context of the motions to extend to the present day and the regular reports by Scottish Ministers.”
I have given an assurance that that regular reporting will continue. The bill provides for the expiry of the provisions. Clare Adamson made the point that, if the bill is passed, the provisions will expire six months after 30 September without anybody lifting a finger. There is provision for there to be a further six-month extension, but if that is not enacted, the powers will disappear six months after 30 September.
As the cabinet secretary is looking for recourse to the law, the initial legislation was introduced as it was deemed to be necessary. According to the European convention on human rights and the Supreme Court, the word “necessary” has a very particular meaning. Is it still necessary within that definition to bring this forward? If not, what is the legal basis that the cabinet secretary is relying on?
It is necessary for the arguments that I am setting out. A range of public services have experienced disruption as a consequence of Covid, and some of them would not be able to exercise their functions consistent with existing statute if we had not amended statute in the fashion that we already have done and which I am arguing to Parliament should be sustained. Without that, some organisations and some public functions would not be able to be exercised, and that would be detrimental to the exercise of the proper functions of public services.
That has been the Conservative Party’s argument about why we should not legislate in the fashion in which we are. I am grateful to the Labour Party, the Greens and the Liberal Democrats for their support for the principle of legislating in that context.
A number of what I consider to be absolutely legitimate and substantial issues that relate to how we recover from the Covid emergency have emerged from the contributions of several colleagues. Mr Griffin raised eviction issues, Pam Duncan-Glancy raised similar issues, and Mr Harvie raised points on these questions. Those are all legitimate questions, and there were substantial issues in the points that Mr Harvie raised about the way in which we plan and execute our recovery from Covid. Some of that will be about legislative change and strengthening rights, and some of it will be about the policy intentions of Government. Mr Harvie and his colleagues and I are, of course, engaged in conversations about some of those questions, just as we are engaged with all parties in Parliament.
There is a big agenda to be taken forward there. I contend that, given the pressure that we have in relation to the provisions, which I think need to be in place on 1 October 2021—whether we legislate for them now or in the first week in September, as the Conservatives seem to want to us to do—even that opportunity would not provide us with the scope to address the substantive issues that have been raised about legislating for, and acting to take forward, the Covid recovery.
I am committed to engagement in that discussion with other parties, to ensure that we plan our recovery from Covid and carry out the plan in a way that has a meaningful impact on the lives of individuals in Scotland and tackles the fundamental inequalities that, as Mr Harvie was correct to say, existed before Covid but have been emphasised and highlighted by the effects of Covid.
The Government is committed to that, which is why we are taking the time in summer to properly consult on the permanence bill and wider questions about how we plan our response.
During the bill’s passage, there will of course be an opportunity for members of Parliament to make points and advance the propositions that they want to advance. Decisions about the selection of amendments will be for the Presiding Officer, and the Government will respond to all issues timeously, within the structure of the debate.
There is a fundamental point. As we look at the issues and wrestle with the question of whether it is appropriate to legislate in this context, we need to draw on the contribution that Siobhian Brown made to the debate when she recounted the story of her constituent in Ayr who lost his life, and the impact that that had on his family. Covid has not left us and, although we heard a more optimistic statement today from the First Minister, it still has significant implications in our society, which are disrupting the way in which we can operate public services.
What the Government is trying to do with the bill is take an orderly approach to dispensing with the provisions for which the Parliament legislated that we do not think are necessary—obviously, members of Parliament are free to challenge our judgment if they think that we have got it wrong when we argue for the removal of certain provisions. Equally, we are trying to take an orderly approach to determining whether there is legitimate justification for extending provisions that we think should be extended—and I contend that those provisions are necessary to address the continuing impact of Covid on our ability to exercise the public functions that are agreed in statute, in a way that is sustainable in the continuing scenario that we face.
Something that has been unhelpful in the debate has been the conflation of the bill with issues to do with the limitations on personal freedoms, which I totally understand are causing concern. Those issues are not the subject of this bill; they are the products of other legislative instruments, which constrain individual liberties and personal freedoms. As the First Minister said this afternoon, we hope to be able to relax many of those provisions by 19 July or 9 August.
However, as Clare Adamson said, even after 9 August, there will still be an emphasis on the need to exercise caution, because of the threat that the pandemic will still present to us all. The bill is an attempt—this point was reflected in comments that John Mason, Jackie Baillie and Stuart McMillan made—to make a proportionate assessment of the situation that we face and take the necessary powers and responsibilities to enable us to continue to properly exercise the public functions that are at stake.
Of course, Presiding Officer.
In that respect, if we do this task, it will leave us free to consult on the substantive issues to do with Covid recovery that are the subject of the extensive engagement that I am taking forward and on which I look forward to working with colleagues. We will consider all the issues that relate to the bill in the course of this week, with the support of the Parliament at decision time this evening.