I remind members that social distancing measures are in place in the chamber and around the Holyrood campus. I ask that you take care and observe the measures, including when exiting and entering the chamber. Please use the aisles and walkways only to access your seat and when moving around the chamber.
I advise that, as we are running quite a bit ahead of schedule, I intend closing the debate an hour after we start, as opposed to the scheduled time. I am sure that that will meet with widespread approval—except from the Deputy First Minister, by the looks of things.
I call the Deputy First Minister to speak to and move the motion. You have around seven minutes, Deputy First Minister.
For the purposes of rule 9.11 of the standing orders, I advise Parliament that Her Majesty, having been informed of the purport of the Coronavirus (Extension and Expiry) (Scotland) Bill, has consented to place her prerogative and interests, in so far as they are affected by the bill, at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of the bill.
I am pleased to present the Coronavirus (Extension and Expiry) (Scotland) Bill to Parliament for debate at stage 3 and I invite members to agree to pass the bill.
As we have been conducting our proceedings this afternoon, and during the course of the past 40 minutes, the funeral has been taking place in Arbroath of my dear friend and colleague Andrew Welsh, who was the member of the Scottish Parliament for Angus and my neighbouring member of Parliament for the Angus East constituency when I was a member of the House of Commons. Andrew and I shared a political journey over the past 40 years that I have had the privilege to know him and experience his support, loyalty and commitment. It is a matter of enormous personal regret to me that I am not able to be at his funeral this afternoon, although the First Minister is addressing the funeral on our behalf.
Andrew Welsh is, in my view, one of the finest individuals I have ever had the privilege to know in my life: a man of deep integrity, loyalty, faithfulness and commitment who served the people whom we both represented in the county of Angus with devotion for many years. He was rightly accorded an honour that he cherished enormously, which was to be made a freeman of Angus in recognition of the devoted service that he gave to the people of his beloved county. I am grateful to have the opportunity to place on the record my own tribute to one of the finest individuals I have ever met and to extend my love and sympathy to Sheena and Jane at this heartbreaking time for them and their family. [
It is against the backdrop of on-going uncertainty and continued necessary restrictions and changes to ways of working and living that we can see why this bill is vital to our continuing response to Covid-19.
I am grateful to the many members from across the chamber who approached the bill in a constructive way to ensure that necessary adjustments can remain in place beyond 30 September. The debate during the past couple of days has been characterised by an entirely reasonably argument by the Conservatives that the debate was taking place in an accelerated timescale and the argument by the Labour Party that the bill should have been more extensive and expansive. I have tried to set out to Parliament a genuine, practical observation: that I wanted to make sure that public authorities, businesses and others were clear about what would be expected of them on 30 September when the current legislative framework would be due to elapse and allow them to plan for the circumstances that will arise.
I have a question about the impact of the legislation and the reporting framework on theatres and cultural venues. The impact of the restrictions is a critical issue for them as they are planning ahead for Christmas performances. They also have issues about how the restrictions will operate over the next few weeks. Can further clarity be given on the limits on the numbers of people who are able to access our theatres and cultural venues during the summer and after the end of September?
I would certainly have hoped that the First Minister’s announcements on Tuesday—especially what she said about physical distancing, which is one of the principal factors that affect the capacity of artistic venues—provided the necessary clarity for the theatre and cultural sector. We are optimistic that the control of the pandemic will enable us to sustain the commitments that the First Minister made on Tuesday. Obviously, the culture ministers, Angus Robertson and Jenny Gilruth, will engage with the sector to make sure that it has sufficient clarity, and I am happy to ensure that that remains the case.
I apologise for not clarifying that the issue that I was getting at is whether there will be a cap on the number of people in venues, in addition to the restrictions on 1m distancing. I thank Mr Swinney for allowing me to make that clarification.
Any detail about caps on particular venues is specified in the strategic framework and what it says about level 2, which some parts of the country continue to be in, level 1 and level 0. Beyond level 0, there will be no caps, because there will be no physical distancing. I hope that that provides the clarity that Sarah Boyack sought.
The provisions of the bill that I hope that Parliament will pass shortly will ensure that there is no gap between the Scottish coronavirus acts expiring and the new provisions taking effect, which would only add to the confusion that has been caused by coronavirus.
I am grateful to members for their amendments to the bill. I think that it has been a constructive process. The Government has engaged substantively on the issues in an effort to ensure that we responded positively to the suggestions that were made.
I want to make it clear at the outset that the Government recognises that, when Parliament grants extraordinary measures of the type that are contained in the Scottish coronavirus acts, it is essential that there is transparency about how those measures are used, and whether they remain necessary and appropriate. I welcome members’ contributions to strengthen further the extensive system of reporting that is already in place.
The first Scottish coronavirus acts put in place a robust reporting regime to deliver that transparency and continual review. The Government recently published the seventh bimonthly report, and it will publish the next report in August. Bimonthly reports, which will now cover reporting on measures in respect of tenants’ rights, will continue to be published for as long as the measures in the Scottish coronavirus acts are in use. I assure Parliament that we will aim to make the reports as helpful to Parliament and other observers as we can.
The amendments that have been agreed to today will ensure that there will be a single omnibus, one-off report that will cover the information that Parliament sought on wedding and civil partnership ceremonies, support to help business, fiscal fines, live music, social security, support for carers and social care services.
I recognise that members would have liked to have gone further in introducing new measures beyond the limited scope of the bill, but the limited scope was entirely necessary to assist with parliamentary scrutiny in the time available.
Having the bill agreed to by Parliament today will allow appropriate time for it to receive royal assent early in August. My officials will use that time to make sure that all necessary guidance is updated and made available to stakeholders and the public more widely, so that it is clear to all which provisions Parliament has decided should remain available beyond the end of September and which ones will expire at that time, and what that will mean for those who will be impacted.
I believe that the bill makes an important contribution to our national response to the pandemic, and I am very grateful for Parliament’s swift action in addressing the matter.
That the Parliament agrees that the Coronavirus (Extension and Expiry) (Scotland) Bill be passed.
I associate myself with the Presiding Officer’s comments, and those of the Deputy First Minister, about Andrew Welsh. Andrew Welsh and I served together on a number of committees in the Parliament. Although we were political opponents, he was always a very decent and courteous man with a strong Christian faith, and he will be sadly missed by all in the chamber and everyone who knew him.
The bill process has been very short. I thank members of the Parliament’s legislation team for their assistance with preparing the amendments that my colleagues and I lodged. The very tight timescales put a great deal of pressure on the team; they had to work late into the night, and we certainly appreciate the extra lengths that they had to go to.
In the stage 1 debate on Tuesday, we set out our concerns about the pace at which the legislation has been introduced. I do not intend to rehearse all those arguments today, as they are on the record, but I think that the manner in which we dealt with amendments yesterday tells its own story. We were trying to deal with significant issues in a very short space of time, and there was limited opportunity for any detailed parliamentary scrutiny, or indeed any external input from stakeholders. We nevertheless did our best to engage with the bill and lodged a number of amendments for discussion.
At the time, I noted Jackie Baillie’s attempt to widen the scope of the bill. Although I understand her reasons for doing so, I do not believe that that would have been a helpful move when we were already trying to rush through too many measures without sufficient time for scrutiny.
At the heart of the bill process lies an essential contradiction. On the one hand, on Tuesday, the First Minister told members in the chamber that things were getting better, that restrictions were on track to be eased and that by mid-August we should, all being well, be back to some degree of normality. In contrast, the Deputy First Minister has said that the extraordinary and unprecedented powers for ministers must be extended for at least another—
I accept that her statements were caveated—I have already conceded that point—but the powers that we are being asked to agree to today will extend for at least another six months after the end of September, and potentially for another six months after that, so we are looking at having the measures in place for some eight months after the point at which the First Minister is telling us that we should be getting back to normal. In the worst-case scenario, they could be in place for a year and two months, which is quite extraordinary.
That confusion and lack of consistency cut right across the Government’s approach to Covid. I know from my communications with constituents how concerned they are about it. People simply cannot understand why they are unable to attend graduation ceremonies for children who are leaving nursery or stand in a field, socially distanced, to watch their children’s sports day when the Scottish Government has sanctioned 3,000 fans gathering together in the fan zone in Glasgow, where—if our TV screens are to be believed—very little social distancing has been enforced. Similarly, people cannot understand why a travel ban has been introduced for Manchester, when there has been a very similar case rate in Dundee but no steps have been taken to restrict travel in and out of that city.
Some weeks ago, when large numbers of Rangers fans gathered in George Square to celebrate their club’s historic 55th league victory—again, with very little sign of social distancing—there was strident condemnation from the First Minister and the justice secretary. They were right to condemn those breaches of the rules and yet, when perhaps as many as 30,000 Scotland fans travelled to London last week—again, with little sign of social distancing—we did not hear a peep from either of those individuals in condemnation.
This week, we have seen a spike in the number of Covid cases in Scotland among younger males in particular, which may well be attributable to people gathering to watch the football. I have certainly been told of at least one busload of Scotland supporters travelling back at the weekend where every single person on the bus subsequently tested positive for Covid. People struggle to understand why there should be one rule for some and another rule for others. That lack of consistency and clear messaging is undermining confidence in the public health communications.
We even saw confusion during the passage of the bill, as we discussed earlier. Yesterday, my colleague Graham Simpson lodged an amendment seeking to remove the restriction on the public attending meetings of licensing boards after 30 September. A parallel amendment was lodged by Alex Cole-Hamilton to do the same for local council meetings. Yesterday, the Deputy First Minister accepted Mr Cole-Hamilton’s amendment but rejected Mr Simpson’s. That was utterly illogical—there was no basis for taking a different view on licensing board meetings as against local council meetings. Again, there was a lack of consistency and confusion.
Although the matter was cleared up this afternoon and rectified when the Government agreed to support Mr Simpson’s amendment if he brought it back to the chamber, that small episode illustrates my point about the rushed nature of the bill process, which has left little time for consultation and not enough time for scrutiny or detailed consideration.
I set out on Tuesday why we cannot support the bill as it stands, and our position has not changed. Although there are some measures that we support, there are others about which we have serious concerns. Overall, the measures should not have been railroaded through Parliament in the course of three days without detailed scrutiny and consultation. There would have been ample time to have the matter considered in September, when we will be much clearer about the Covid situation in the autumn.
For all those reasons, we maintain our opposition to the bill.
I associate the Scottish Labour Party with the remarks that the Deputy First Minister made about the sad death of Andrew Welsh. I offer condolences to his family. I recall Andrew as a gentlemanly person, who was always very kind but nevertheless determined. As he was a former chief whip for the Scottish National Party, I suspect that, as we speak, he would have been in pursuit of Bill Kidd to mark his card.
We have reached the stage 3 debate at breakneck speed, having started stage 1 only two days ago, on Tuesday. I thank the Parliament and in particular its legislation team for the drafting of amendments at incredibly short notice. I thank the cabinet secretary, who was occasionally there, as well as his civil servants and in particular his special adviser, with whom I was negotiating last night and this morning. I also thank the Scottish Labour team, which has worked hard to improve the bill.
For many colleagues, this has been the first legislation that they have engaged with in this Parliament and boy, oh boy did they make an impression! I hope that, like me, they think that the effort has been worth it overall.
Pauline McNeill pursued changes to reporting on live music, pubs and weddings, and Pam Duncan-Glancy, with a little help from Bill Kidd, pursued changes to reporting on the extension of the act with regard to social care and on the need to restore care packages and respite to pre-pandemic levels. Changes to monitoring and reporting, and changes to providing information to the Parliament in advance of decisions being made were also pursued, all of which will help to improve the legislation.
Aside from the specifics of the bill, we genuinely cannot return to the Parliament debating and voting on issues weeks after they have been decided on. If the United Kingdom Government and Parliament can ensure that there is scrutiny and that members can vote on changes within days, there is no reason why this Parliament cannot do likewise. That will help with consistency, which was raised by Murdo Fraser. There is concern that, if there is no logic to the decisions that are made and no consistency, compliance will diminish as a consequence.
I remain to be convinced that we need emergency legislation in place beyond April 2022. There appears to be more hope about containing the virus in the future, due to the roll-out of the vaccination programme. I understand that case numbers are going up but, unsurprisingly, that is among younger men. Some have noted that that causal effect might be because of the association with football and the Euros.
Further, Parliament is sitting, its committees are constituted and, as we have demonstrated this week, we can deal with emergency legislation quickly. Therefore, I caution the Government on extending emergency legislation for any longer than necessary. The cabinet secretary knows that I believe that the bill has been too tightly drafted, thereby preventing members from adding in areas of policy in which they feel there is a gap. Nevertheless, we have found creative ways to at least have the debate and to place reporting requirements on ministers so that such policy areas are still in the spotlight.
Nowhere is that clearer than in the debate about continuing the ban on evictions under all levels of Covid restrictions. Let me be clear again that the only area of concern is with housing arrears that have arisen for tenants due to Covid. If a tenant is responsible for antisocial behaviour or criminality, that should not be included in a ban on evictions. Our concern stems from the fact that the economic impact of the pandemic has still not been fully experienced. Some people lost their jobs at the very start, others are back at work but are underemployed and others are still on furlough and might not have a job to go to when the scheme finishes, so there are considerable financial uncertainties ahead. We know that eviction orders are currently appearing in sheriff courts across Scotland; people are in danger of losing the roof over their head. If that is for Covid-related reasons, we should not allow it to happen.
I therefore welcome the new tenant hardship grant fund. The cabinet secretary has acknowledged that the previous loan fund simply did not work. Scottish Labour had been raising that for some time and I am very glad that he listened. However, I also asked him about loans being converted into grants and about payments being deferred in order to avoid people getting into more debt. I am not sure that I got a response, so I will try again. I would welcome any response that he can offer, together with information on when the fund will be open, who is eligible, how they can apply and when the funding will be dispensed, because there is not a moment to lose.
As I said at the start of stage 1, we have lived through an extraordinary 15 months. No one could have anticipated the length or depth of the pandemic or the tragic loss of life for far too many people. Emergency legislation was required to cope with the scale of the response that we needed, but the key message for the Scottish Government is that, in exercising those powers, it must understand that it should co-operate with the required scrutiny by this Parliament.
Scottish Labour will support the bill at stage 3 at decision time.
I put on the record my thanks and those of my party colleagues to the wonderful team of clerks and the wider Parliament staff who have worked hard to make the progress of the Coronavirus (Extension and Expiry) (Scotland) Bill as smooth as possible, particularly as it has had such a short timeframe. For us newbies, this emergency legislation has been a frantic and fascinating learning opportunity.
It is unfortunate that the bill is necessary. The pandemic is not over and new cases continue to rise. As we have heard, some may wish simply to see how Covid develops over the summer, but if the past 18 months have taught us anything, it is that that approach is simply short sighted. There can be no doubt that the vaccination programme is our best route out of the pandemic, but we would be failing the people of Scotland if we chose not to prepare.
We should hope for the best and plan for the worst, which means maintaining both the public health measures and the social protections that people need. At stage 1, my colleague Lorna Slater set out our disappointment that the bill does not provide greater protections for tenants, many of whom are still facing the threat of looming redundancy as the furlough scheme ends. We also regret that it was not possible to extend the eviction ban to all until such time as the coronavirus restrictions are lifted.
I welcome the provision that we have agreed to insert into the bill that will require reporting on the status of eviction provisions. That will provide the Parliament with valuable data on the extent of the problem. However, Scotland lags behind much of Europe in how we protect those who rent their homes and I hope that Parliament will get an opportunity to tackle properly the deep-set problems that they face.
The Scottish Greens are pleased that amendment 3 was agreed to as we believe that it balances the need for transparency and accountability with the need for the Care Inspectorate to directly support care providers. It recognises that, although it is not currently necessary for the Care Inspectorate to report to Parliament, circumstances may change and, if a new and more dangerous strain was to enter the country, it may be required once more. I am glad that the concerns that Scottish Care expressed were listened to, and I am grateful to Jackie Baillie and the Deputy First Minister for taking on board my colleague Gillian Mackay’s suggestion.
Next, and perhaps more important, is the need to look forward. The Government has indicated that some aspects of the changes that came in as a response to Covid will have longer-term value and will be made permanent. It has said that there will be a permanence bill to achieve that, but that that will be a long-term piece of work. Some aspects might be uncontroversial, such as measures to make online and remote working more routine, but others will be contested, such as measures to protect tenants’ rights or protect people from exploitative working conditions and precarious incomes. There will be questions about economic justice on which parties have different views.
We should not shy away from that debate, which should be seen as an historic opportunity to reshape the economy in fair, ethical and sustainable ways. We must take care not to pursue a shallow understanding of recovery and not to race back to business as usual with a sole focus on anything that increases gross domestic product, regardless of the social and environmental consequences.
Nobody likes the fact that emergency legislation has been needed, and nobody should pretend that the process is ideal—we have already heard from my colleagues that it is, in fact, far from ideal—but it is necessary to ensure that we put the right protections in place for the people of Scotland in the coming months. The Scottish Green Party will support the bill.
I start by offering the condolences of the Liberal Democrats to everyone who knew Andrew Welsh, who was a fine figure of a man.
I thank the legislation and clerking teams for the work that they have put into the bill, which has been no small feat.
I rise on behalf of the Liberal Democrats to explain why, after careful consideration, we will not support the bill at decision time tonight. That is not because we think that we do not need some kind of legislation—we do—but we want to see a better, more considered bill that does not extend power to such an extent or for such a length of time.
As liberals, we have been instinctively uncomfortable with the coronavirus acts, despite the security that they have offered some groups in our society and the protections that they have sought to give the most vulnerable. The bill offers the Government powers for far longer than we believe it will require. It also gives the Government unprecedented rights to introduce legislation without the level of scrutiny that we should expect in any healthy democracy—and, thanks to the vaccines, this nation is far healthier than it was when those acts were passed.
As I said yesterday, the fundamental principle of the bill is that it creates emergency powers that should exist in the context of an emergency. We in my party are not persuaded that the emergency in which we find ourselves will last for the length of time for which the legislation might empower ministers. Simply put, the Liberal Democrats do not believe that it was necessary to introduce in such short order a bill whose provisions last so long.
The Government’s answer to concerns voiced by my party, the Conservatives and others about the duration of the extension of the powers in the bill is the threat of new variants. That threat, however, might never expire; the threat that the variants might evade the vaccine is just as real for the next decade as it is for next week. Throughout the pandemic, ministers have shown that they are willing and able to legislate quickly. If the Government can find time to push through a bill as important as this one in just three days, it can introduce legislation that we can pass just as quickly should the vaccines fail us.
The Government has stretched and at times broken with the tolerance and good faith of members when it comes to making announcements to Parliament. Therefore, I am grateful for the agreement that Jackie Baillie and the Deputy First Minister’s office reached on the future conduct of such announcements.
The decision not to support the bill was difficult for the Liberal Democrats. We do not have a cavalier attitude to the virus or our route out of the pandemic, but we value the importance of scrutiny in parliamentary democracy. The bill as it stands is an overreach of ministerial power that we just could not countenance. It is not a considered piece of legislation; we have had barely more than two hours to look at amendments to a bill that has so much potential to give the Government so much power for so long.
We do not suggest that there should be nothing, and that the powers and protections of the original acts should just fall away. Instead, we appeal to the Government to use the summer to introduce a better bill to Parliament after our return—one that is informed by the landscape of the pandemic in late summer, safeguards the supremacy of the chamber and shortens to the bare minimum the amount of time that ministers have to exercise those powers.
We need something. The Liberal Democrats support the protections from eviction and the other rights that the bill affords tenants. We want to continue those protections, which should form the central precept of any future bill. A new bill would also need to disapply the extension to time limits on criminal proceedings, which, as I have said before, delay criminal justice and lead to an increase in the remand population.
The legislation is important, but it is because of its importance that we ask the Government to think again.
W ith your leave, Presiding Officer, I add my comments about colleague and 99er Andrew Welsh, who was a serious and gentle politician with a fun side. Members might not know that he could play the whole Buddy Holly playlist faultlessly on his guitar. Now that is a tribute.
As is set out in the policy memorandum of the bill, the bill will
“update a range of existing legislative measures which support various aspects of” coronavirus regulation. I understand that the measures were to fall at the end of September, so we now have something to take their place. The purpose of the bill is not to introduce new measures, but to allow those that we no longer need to fall, and to allow those that need to be extended to be extended. The bill is not about introducing anything new, so I will come to Mr Sweeney’s amendment 11 in a minute. I will also come to Pam Duncan-Glancy, whom I commend for her persistence.
In broad terms, the question is whether the legislation is proportionate to the challenge, and whether the regulations that are to continue will last only as long as is necessary. I believe so.
I, too, sat through yesterday’s stage 2 amendments. I commend Graham Simpson—who is a lovely man—for persisting, which was the right thing to do. Licensing boards should be sitting in public if councils are doing so. It is good when members on the Government party front bench see that something is amiss and immediately remedy it. That should be the subject of applause rather than condemnation.
I always think that Jackie Baillie is formidable. She remained so in relation to care homes, and got the right result.
On reporting to Parliament, I was interested to see a list relating to the omnibus report. I have the list here—although I know that the Presiding Officer is not happy with props. I think that the omnibus report is the right way to go.
I commend Pauline McNeill for persisting on the issue of live music. I have great sympathy for the sector. We all have events in our constituency, so reporting on progress in relation to allowing music events, whether pipe bands, silver bands or discos, is a good move. Pauline McNeill was good at pursuing the matter—I like her style.
I think that Mr Sweeney and I will tangle again on occasion, and I am looking forward to it. His amendment 11 was a strange amendment, but he gave me a wonderful opportunity to give my local bus service a pat on the back, and I will do so again. It does not mean that I will get free transport; I have a concessionary bus pass, anyway.
Borders Buses has done a lot. It is important to know that it is not a big commercial company, but a family business that is currently run by the third generation. What a difference the company has made. First Scotland East, which ran the service before it, was rubbish. I see that Rachael Hamilton is agreeing with me. Borders Buses has brought in a new fleet and a new app to help people, and it has provided free travel for care and health workers. I will not have a word said against Borders Buses, because the company does not deserve it.
It was third time lucky for Pam Duncan-Glancy in relation to her amendments.
Poor Bill. What can one say? Thank goodness he has recess coming up. I noticed that our chief whip is back. Believe me—people do not tangle with George Adam lightly, so Bill’s card is marked heavily. Poor Bill. He will be listening. I will help him out; I am used to taking on the whips. [
Emergencies will continue. I am a bit of a pessimist, because every time we seem to be getting through things, there is another variant. Therefore, I do not have concerns about extending the measures for six months to March. Any legislation can be repealed if we get through the pandemic, and if our vaccines run ahead of any variants and we are able to live with the virus. I do not want short-term legislation that we need to extend. The news that we are hearing so far regarding variants is not brilliant, which is why the bill is necessary.
I thank members for their support, which I hope the bill will get.
It has been a far more interesting afternoon than I expected it to be. I thank the legislation team for all their help, and my parliamentary team for slogging it for the past couple of days.
I do not want to rerun all the arguments of the debate, because, as Murdo Fraser put it, they are all already on the record. It is fair to say, however, that over the past few days concerns have been raised about not just the nature of the emergency powers that we are extending but the entire process through which they are being extended. Those concerns came not just from Conservative members but from members across the chamber.
Labour rightly probed the Government on a number of issues, including wedding restrictions and live music, which we heard a lot about today, and more sombre issues, including the effect that the emergency powers that the Government wishes to extend is having on disabled people, for example. Labour was right to probe it on those issues.
The Liberal Democrats sought to allow the public to participate more fully in local council meetings again, and Graham Simpson tried to do the same with alcohol licensing boards. The Government conceded on one yesterday but, curiously, not on the other. Of course, it is always good to see Mr Swinney seeing sense. I know that he always does in the end and today we saw that—rightly so. I thank Mr Swinney.
I tried in earnest to raise awareness of some live issues that have been raised by stakeholders who have had a very limited opportunity to engage with us, as lawmakers. I tried to remove provisions that will allow ministers to grant prisoners early release and to write off community orders, both of which I believe are completely unnecessary in the current climate.
The only apparent success yesterday was the amendment on hearsay evidence, which the whole chamber felt strongly about. There was a sensible outcome on that issue.
In my view, that was not the only issue that merited success. The blunt instrument that was available to us in the bill was simply to revoke powers or let them expire. I understand why that was unpalatable to many members. I do not blame them for that, because the whole process has been far from ideal.
We wanted to meaningfully add to the bill. We could have added sunset clauses and additional checks and balances. We could have made the extension subject to further enhanced legislative scrutiny by Parliament or our committees—scrutiny is the whole point of committees. All those would have helped to curb what is, in our eyes, unnecessary and over-long extension of what were, initially, emergency powers that were granted in a time of emergency.
Those are complex policy issues and we have debated them in just a few short hours, without proper scrutiny or external consultation. The stage 2 debates yesterday threw open a Pandora’s box of those complex issues. I am afraid that I do not buy the argument that the bill could not have achieved royal assent in time if we had had stage 3 in September, after robust consultation throughout the summer.
I know that it is not the most contentious bill in the world, nor are the powers that the Government is seeking the most contentious, but that is not the point. The next bill might be contentious; that is what worries me. We are setting a precedent by rushing the bill through Parliament. Just because there might be a simple political majority in the Parliamentary Bureau or in the chamber, that does not make it right. There must be checks and balances.
The issue raises a conundrum for us all, and it is a process conundrum, not a political one. Who decides what constitutes an emergency, and how is that decided? What is Parliament’s last defence to stop us making errors of judgment? Our legislation must be watertight and it must be subjected to the very highest levels of scrutiny wherever possible. In my view, that should never be compromised, because we all have a duty to respect and protect the robustness of our lawmaking. That is why so many of us are irked this week.
Rushed law is never good law; I am afraid to say that history vindicates that view. Regretfully, I, too, will oppose the bill at decision time.
This has certainly been a brief but intense apprenticeship in the ways of legislating in the Scottish Parliament, but it has been interesting and enlightening. Although the Labour Party will support the bill, because it is essential to the functioning of the country, there are important considerations that we can take away from today’s proceedings.
Placing such an intense burden on parliamentarians has not been an effective way to legislate. Given the amount of time that we had available to us over this month, we could have spent much more time deliberating this and, indeed, expanding the scope of what I am sure will become the act to allow for greater scope for delivering better policy outcomes for Scotland, which I think we all share a common objective on.
Given the constraints, it is great that we have in large part been able to work together effectively to achieve meaningful changes, although not in the case of my amendment. However, it has been a worthwhile exercise. Jackie Baillie’s efforts to improve scrutiny and Government reporting to the Parliament in order to show it the respect that it deserves were worth while, as were Pauline McNeill’s efforts to improve how we support sectors that have been overlooked, particularly hospitality and entertainment venues. Pam Duncan-Glancy’s rather unexpected breakthrough on social care reporting was also a worthwhile exercise. Perhaps the Government will learn that accepting Opposition amendments is not such a bad thing and is perhaps a worthwhile thing to have achieved in the bill.
I know that there has been certain controversy around my proposals. I was wanting to test that effort, because it is not something that is going to go away. It is something that we are going to have to get to grips with sooner or later, which has pointed to a number of policies that we need to rise to the challenge on. Whenever this country has been confronted with a crisis, it has been used as a great opportunity to reform and to massively improve public policy. We need to rise to a similar challenge going into the autumn. I hope that the cabinet secretary will take cognisance of that point and speak to it in his closing remarks.
The evictions time bomb is just one example of something that is not going to go away. The arrears that people are facing and the pressures that housing associations and other landlords are facing are not going to go away, and we will have to have a point of correction as a country. I would like to see us move to a more socialised system of tenure, with an extension of state support for those facing arrears. We expressed those desires in the amendments that we lodged, and the Government should give the space for that to be considered in more detail, with more patience.
Similarly, we can achieve other public policy improvements. As I made clear, the Parliament has already agreed that we need greater co-ordination, integration and regulation of public transportation in this country if we are to meet our climate emergency objectives and, indeed, improve our society. That is what I was trying to probe in the amendment, which, sadly, was unsuccessful.
I feel that there are non sequiturs floating around the chamber around, for example, hammering family-owned bus companies. I have no quarrel with that bus company. I have a quarrel with, primarily, First Glasgow, which I put on record is an atrocious operator that is failing the people of Glasgow, and has done so for years. I do not want to see the spectacle of ministers going to that company and begging it to keep routes going when there are sufficient provisions in legislation to effect the change that we want. That is not what we send MSPs to this Parliament to do and it is not what we elect the Government to do. We elect them to govern, not to beg private companies for mercy and to deliver basic public services. We need to rise to the challenge on that front and, similarly, on the fair work agenda.
Although I am not sure that I followed the logic of it, Mr McMillan made an interesting point about Texas Instruments being an example of a company that might somehow have been stymied by trade union organisation in the efforts to save that plant from closure. If anything, as we just heard about at First Minister’s question time, and in previous campaigns such as at the Caley in Springburn, trade unions are essential to ensuring that the effort is at least put into saving facilities, plants, jobs, and skills—the life-blood of the Scottish economy.
Trade unions are not an enemy of enterprise. The state should be more entrepreneurial, and we need to work together in a spirit of collaboration to achieve better public policy outcomes for Scotland. Although the bill might not be giving the scope that it needs to, that issue is not going to go away, and we need to create the space in the autumn to discuss it in more detail.
I am grateful to have the opportunity to speak in today’s debate. Scotland currently has the highest rate of infections among all the UK nations. Yesterday, we recorded the highest daily number of cases since the start of mass testing. Despite the incredible success of the vaccination programme and the very welcome lifting of restrictions, it is clear that the pandemic is not over and that, unfortunately, emergency legislation is still very much needed.
According to the latest data, only a quarter of those aged 30 to 39, and less than a fifth of those aged 18 to 29, have received both doses of the vaccine. Our young people are still vulnerable and there is significant evidence that people in those age groups are now driving infection.
The delta variant is moderately resistant to vaccines, particularly in people who have received a single dose, and people infected with delta are around twice as likely to end up in hospital as those infected with the alpha strain. We need to continue to support people to isolate when they are infected and encourage them to engage in regular testing. We are not out of the woods yet.
I am pleased that Jackie Baillie’s amendment was agreed to and I hope that it addresses the concerns of those in the care home sector. As we all know, the pandemic has been an extremely difficult time for care services and it is vital that they have the support that they need to recover from Covid-19. Given that the Care Inspectorate has responsibilities for regulation and inspection of care services, it will play a vital role in supporting care homes to deliver the best standard of care possible.
Like others in the chamber, I regret that the scope of the bill could not be widened so that we could assist those who will undoubtedly be affected by the on-going pandemic but who are not protected by the provisions that are currently contained in the coronavirus legislation. I agree whole-heartedly with Pam Duncan-Glancy’s comments yesterday that a provision that instructs local authorities to recommence care packages and respite care would have been a welcome inclusion in the bill.
In addition, the Scottish Greens have long called for self-isolation payments to be made universal so that everyone is supported to isolate and no one is forced to choose between isolating and paying their bills. Yesterday, Pam Duncan-Glancy mentioned her desire to include that provision in the bill, and I am pleased that Labour supports it. I look forward to continuing to engage with parliamentary colleagues and the Scottish Government on those issues after the bill has passed.
There are some provisions in the coronavirus acts that I would like to see continue after the pandemic has ended—for example, those provisions that relate to student residential tenancies and the restrictions on giving grants to businesses that are connected to tax havens. Students now have the same rights as other tenants and that should continue after the legislation expires. Likewise, ensuring that there were no coronavirus bailouts for firms that use tax havens was a welcome step during the pandemic, but I believe that we should push further on that issue and end legal tax avoidance permanently.
I will conclude before I completely lose my voice. Although I know that everyone in the chamber would prefer that emergency legislation was not necessary, the state of the pandemic in Scotland necessitates that the bill is passed. I am grateful to those members who have engaged with the Scottish Greens during the process and I look forward to continuing to work to ensure that the people of Scotland are protected from the effects of this terrible virus.
I draw members’ attention to my entry in the register of interests as an owner of a rental property in North Lanarkshire.
For those of us who have been involved in the various stages of this legislation, it has been a fairly hectic week that has highlighted why emergency legislation procedures should be used sparingly. Being in the midst of a global pandemic is obviously a solid reason for using the process, but it has not been without difficulty. There was no formal Government or committee consultation and scrutiny and we had little more than 12 hours after stages 1 and 2 to consider, discuss and lodge amendments, which stifled the opportunity for meaningful discussion between back-bench MSPs and ministers.
Drafting the bill in such a narrow way has limited how members could amend it to best reflect how we feel we should respond to the pandemic. To my mind, that was no clearer than when we were talking about protecting tenancies. I am starting to feel a bit like a broken record, having said basically the same thing in the chamber for three days in a row, but it bears repeating: the ability to isolate at home is the most important response that we have to breaking the transmission of Covid-19. Vaccines are a huge part of that, too, but the evidence on their impact on transmissibility is not yet clear. The most effective way to avoid passing the disease to another person is by isolating at home; to do that, you need to have a home.
On the same basis that the Government argued that furlough and the £20 uplift in universal credit should be extended, which I support, I argue that the ban on evictions should have been extended to areas in levels 1 and 2, and the fact that there is no ability to amend the bill to reflect that is a failing. The Government has made the case to the UK Government on furlough and universal credit because we are still living with restrictions and entire sections of the economy are still severely impacted or are not functioning at all.
Surely the Scottish ministers must accept that the same arguments apply to the extension of the eviction ban. Many households have been affected by unemployment, reduced employment, reduced earnings or surviving on furlough. Lots of people have, through no fault of their own, accumulated debts and rent arrears because of the global pandemic. The response from Government to that should be a combined effort to halt evictions, and to deal with the source of the problem: those arrears built up as a result of the pandemic.
The Government has announced a new grant fund to tackle arrears, which is very welcome, but we desperately need to see the qualifying criteria, a stronger commitment to convert any loans from the current scheme to grants, and an assessment of whether the £10 million mentioned will be sufficient to halt the tidal wave of eviction notices predicted by organisations in the housing sector.
Labour will support the bill at decision time, but we are looking for concrete commitments from Government about the issue of entitlement to and adequacy of the grant fund, and that the volume of eviction proceedings will be closely monitored and urgent action will be taken to protect tenants, if required.
I start by thanking the Parliament’s legislation team for the power of work that it has put in over the course of this week. As Mark Griffin stated, this is not how the Scottish Parliament should function. Members of the Scottish Parliament should have a full opportunity to consult and properly consider and amend bills; indeed, Mr Sweeney should have had the same right as Mr Swinney to influence the legislation.
This week has just gone to demonstrate the key point that the Scottish Conservatives have made throughout the stages of the bill, which is that rushed legislation can often be bad legislation.
The bill leaves Scotland in a landing pattern. Its unprecedented powers will remain in SNP ministers’ hands for at least another three months, until the end of September, and potentially for a further six months beyond that, into 2022. It is critical that the Scottish Government and the Parliament focus 100 per cent on the economic recovery from the pandemic. Small businesses across the country are crying out for help. Yesterday, we saw employees from the travel and tourism sector demonstrate outside Parliament, and soft play businesses and their staff were also forced to protest outside Parliament recently.
The bill will continue to give ministers powers to further restrict and keep those businesses closed and, potentially, to shut them again at any point in future. The soft play sector in Scotland feels totally abandoned by SNP ministers. These popular local businesses have been legally unable to open for more than 470 days—some 15 months—while soft play centres across the rest of the United Kingdom have operated safely between lockdowns with no negative impact on public health. The soft play sector—with the same public demographic and material environment as trampoline parks, play cafes, playgroups and other children’s indoor activities, which have been open for months—cannot understand why it has been selected by the Scottish Government for such severe closure restrictions and a total lack of financial support.
As Pauline McNeill stated, many businesses have asked for but have never been provided with the evidence that SNP ministers state informs their decision making. One soft play operator said to me that
“There is no data to support the Scottish government action against soft play, no data to warrant”—
Throughout the pandemic, I have been engaging with the soft play sector, and the quotes that I am reading out are specifically from that sector. Soft play operators have said that they need to see support from the Government. They need access to the data, too. They are desperately seeking that action from ministers, as they have throughout the pandemic. Before the protest outside Parliament, one soft play operator wrote to me saying:
“Unfortunately, our numbers have considerably diminished from our first time of protesting in September 2020, this is mainly due to the number of our peers whose businesses have been destroyed by the Scottish Governments experiment on our industry, and others whose mental health has had such a battering that they freely admit to having been crushed and left with no fight or strength to face the Scottish Government.”
The economic pain from the pandemic is still to be truly realised, and it is increasingly concerning that the decisions of the First Minister and SNP ministers could lead to further economic pain and job losses in Scotland. Perhaps after the summer recess, we will see an SNP-Green coalition announced, although, from what I read in today’s newspaper, I am not sure whether the Deputy First Minister is part of the SNP’s right wing that the Green members seem so concerned about working with.
Scottish Conservatives have tried to engage constructively with ministers throughout the process to see whether the Scottish Government and Deputy First Minister would see the errors of their ways. Perhaps after this afternoon, the Deputy First Minister might wish that he had listened. As he said earlier this week,
“you can take a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink.”—[
, 22 June 2021; c 14.]
Scottish Conservatives will oppose the bill at decision time.
I express my warmest thanks to the Parliament’s legislation team, whose members have had to work extremely hard in difficult circumstances this week; to the bill team, which has supported me splendidly in putting the legislation together; and to the special adviser who supported me throughout the process. That adviser’s contact book has appalled me during the whole process, but, thankfully, it has been of great assistance.
The only comment that Jamie Greene made this afternoon that I agreed with was that this afternoon has been more entertaining than expected. I really wish that Pauline McNeill was here for this moment, because she introduced the concept of cringey dancing to the debate yesterday. This afternoon, Christine Grahame tried—as only Christine Grahame could—to crowbar the concept of discos into the discussion about live music venues. Even I feel sufficiently close enough to real life that I am not altogether sure that we call them discos nowadays, Christine. [
.] Excuse me, Presiding Officer, I should have said “Ms Grahame”—that was a momentary lapse. We will get some up-to-date advice on that word from Pauline McNeill.
I am afraid that I cannot deliver on that particular comment, Presiding Officer.
I associate myself with everything that the Deputy First Minister said about Andrew Welsh, who was my MP and a very good MP, even though we disagreed politically. His words of tribute were wholly appropriate.
With regard to Christine Grahame’s contribution, which I, too, thoroughly enjoyed, does the Deputy First Minister agree with her that, at some point in the lifetime of the act—which it will become—when the powers are no longer appropriate, it should be repealed as soon as possible?
No, I do not. I would not have introduced the bill if I thought that. However, obviously, if the powers are not utilised, the Government will not enact an extension after the initial six-month period if we judge it not to be required. We will carry out that evaluation.
Murdo Fraser had the brass neck to attack the consistency of arguments within the Government. There was a lack of consistency on the Conservative benches, because Mr Simpson was entirely gracious about my support for his licensing amendment today but I did not get a word of thanks from Murdo Fraser in the process. I encourage the Conservatives to get consistent on that.
It is injured pride. In that respect, Mr Fraser is absolutely correct.
Let me turn to the substance of the debate. Ariane Burgess made a number of comments about the limited scope of the bill and the fact that there is a debate to be had about the nature and character of our recovery from Covid. Indeed, in his latter contribution to the debate, Mr Sweeney made the point that out of most moments of crisis comes a substantial reform of public policy. I agree with that. There has to be a substantial reform of public policy to ensure that we address many of the legitimate issues that he raised. He might not have been using the right vehicle to advance his arguments today—vehicles have been very much a subject of today’s debate—but he will be able to get on a Borders bus with a clear conscience after his gallant response to Christine Grahame.
The point of substance is that, as a Parliament, we must engage on the route to recovery. I look forward to doing that in the COVID-19 Recovery Committee, which is convened by Siobhian Brown and will bring together representation from across the Parliament. We must have substantive debate about how we recover from Covid. That goes beyond the operational provisions of the bill, which do not chart new ground but simply extend the provisions on which the Parliament has already legislated. Although that has attracted some criticism, it was the right judgment for the Government to make.
Mark Griffin and Jackie Baillie raised issues about the tenant hardship fund. Yesterday, I indicated that the fund will be launched later in the year. We will consult extensively with stakeholders to establish the details and the criteria, and on the question of the conversion of any loans.
I want to put on record the good work that has been done by a range of stakeholders, including registered social landlords, local authorities and the housing association movement, in collaboration with the Government, in trying to avoid evictions in the first place. It is right for us to focus on the tenant hardship fund, but it is also right for me to put on record the really good work that many stakeholders have undertaken to ensure that we support tenants through difficult times, given the fact that the coronavirus is disrupting the economy and livelihoods and, as a consequence, might disrupt tenancies. We must try to avoid that disruption for individuals, because they deserve our support.
I thank members for their forbearance over the past three days. I want to scotch the rumour that the bill was an early exercise in continuing professional development for new members of Parliament—a crash course in legislation over a three-day period. That was not my intention. I thank members for the way in which they have engaged in the process to enhance the legislation, to advance issues of importance to them and to ensure that we have the correct statutory framework in place to deal with the continuing threat that we face from the coronavirus.
We hope that we are moving into more optimistic times in relation to the management of the virus due to the success of the vaccination programme. However, the data that we are receiving this week demonstrates that the problem has not deserted us in any shape or form.
I assure the Conservatives that the legislation will not be maintained for a moment longer than we think it is required. We will faithfully engage in the reporting and accountability arrangements, which Parliament has strengthened today. We have followed all those since the legislation was introduced, last spring, and we will continue to do that as well as cover new ground as a consequence of the amendments that have been passed today. I look forward to the midnight oil being burned in producing the reports to satisfy the requirements of statute.
I encourage Parliament to support the bill at decision time.