Coronavirus (Recovery and Reform) (Scotland) Bill (Emergency Powers)

– in the Scottish Parliament on 23rd March 2022.

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Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

7. To ask the Scottish Government whether it will remove the provisions on the extension of emergency powers from the Coronavirus (Recovery and Reform) (Scotland) Bill. (S6O-00900)

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

The Government will, of course, consider carefully the views of Parliament as it completes its stage 1 scrutiny of the bill, but I must stress that removing key provisions from the bill in the way that Ms Baillie suggests would mean that Scotland would not have the public health protection measures in place that are needed to counter future public health threats, and I do not believe that that is in the public interest.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

The Deputy First Minister has chosen to use the made affirmative procedure, which means that measures can be routinely introduced without parliamentary scrutiny or approval in advance. That does not allow for consultation or for the voice of our constituents to be heard in the chamber.

The Parliament has demonstrated that it can operate quickly. I remind Mr Swinney that we have passed primary legislation in a week—indeed, that was the case with the very first bill that the Parliament considered—and Covid bills have subsequently been passed in a matter of days.

Rather than risk the other positive measures in the bill, will John Swinney change the provisions on the extension of emergency powers so that they are at least subject to scrutiny in advance?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

I do not think that, in these circumstances, Jackie Baillie’s characterisation of the issue is appropriate. The made affirmative procedure is only ever used where time circumstances do not allow us to undertake the normal consultation and dialogue around the affirmative procedure.

I have gone on the record before the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee to make it clear that the Government does not routinely intend to use the made affirmative procedure. We would prefer to use the affirmative process, to enable the type of dialogue that Jackie Baillie talks about.

What the Government is trying to do—I am very keen to engage with Parliament on this question—is ensure that we have a statute book that enables us, having learned the lessons of Covid, to respond swiftly and promptly to challenges that may come towards us. Jackie Baillie knows the issues of Covid well; she knows how quickly events have changed in front of us. The legislative framework that we are putting in place is designed to create the capacity for us to act swiftly.

I am keen to ensure that I work with parliamentary colleagues to try to address the legitimate concerns on this question, but, fundamentally, we must have a statute book that is fit to deal with the challenges of the pandemic, and that is my objective in this legislation.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I have received a number of requests for supplementaries, and I intend to take all of them. The first is from Sandesh Gulhane.

Photo of Sandesh Gulhane Sandesh Gulhane Conservative

In order to ensure that Parliament is able to scrutinise emergency powers in advance of their being enacted, could we agree a raft of emergency powers and leave them dormant? If the need arises, we could get a statement—either virtual or in person—and we would, in the time that it would take to play a football match, be able to grant the Government those powers.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

Well, that is a rather interesting development of the Conservative position, which I am very happy to explore with the Conservatives, since we are now talking turkey on the issue. That is very welcome. Maybe Jackie Baillie will catch up with the new reformist thinking of the Conservatives, who have once again moved ahead and dumped her from the better together alliance.

I welcome Dr Gulhane’s suggestion. What we are trying to do—I go back to my answer to Jackie Baillie—is ensure that there is a framework of legislation in place that enables Parliament to act quickly, where we require to do so. Dr Gulhane has offered an interesting perspective on that, and it is obviously something that can be advanced in the legislative process. If he would care to write to me, I would be happy to meet him and his colleagues to explore what might be involved in that, because—as always—I am keen to build consensus in the chamber.

Photo of Willie Rennie Willie Rennie Liberal Democrat

Well, that is a very interesting development of the Government’s position, because when I asked the very same question of the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, at the Education, Children and Young People Committee, she rejected the suggestion out of hand. I suggest a bit of co-ordination on the Government side.

The Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland gave some important evidence on the bill to the committee. He said that he had

“considerable concerns” that

“Permanent powers ... may ... not be lawful under ... Article 15 of the ECHR.”

Why is the Deputy First Minister ignoring the concerns of the children’s commissioner?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

I am not ignoring them—I am addressing them. I understand the perspective of commentators and commissioners, but ministers have duties to protect public health. Members such as Mr Rennie come to the chamber and complain, if ministers do not act quickly enough to protect public health. I see that Mr Rennie is shaking his head, but I have sat here and listened to him complaining about ministers not acting quickly enough to do certain things.

I am happy to engage in discussion and dialogue on the provisions of the bill, but there is one fundamental point: we must have in place a legislative framework that will allow us to act quickly, should appropriate circumstances arise. That is the purpose of the legislation, and the Government will engage constructively with Parliament to try to achieve it.

Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party

Opposition members often whine when Scotland is a little bit different from England. Will the Deputy First Minister clarify whether the provisions will move us closer to the position in England, or further away from it?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

The statute book in England and Wales contains many such provisions, and they have enabled the UK Government and the Welsh Assembly to act, within their legal framework, swiftly and immediately.

Mr Mason has characterised how the Opposition parties sometimes contribute to the debate. I will not comment on his assessment, but I will say that Opposition parties often come here and ask us to learn lessons. We have learned a lesson from the pandemic, which is that our statutory framework was not adequate to deal with the issues, which is what I am trying to address in the legislation that is before Parliament.