Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid)
Meeting date: Tuesday, June 28, 2022
Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, Independence Referendum, Coronavirus (Recovery and Reform) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Business Motion, Coronavirus (Recovery and Reform) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Coronavirus (Recovery and Reform) (Scotland) Bill, Business Motion, Point of Order, Decision Time
- Time for Reflection
- Business Motion
- Topical Question Time
- Independence Referendum
- Coronavirus (Recovery and Reform) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3
- Business Motion
- Coronavirus (Recovery and Reform) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3
- Coronavirus (Recovery and Reform) (Scotland) Bill
- Business Motion
- Point of Order
- Decision Time
Coronavirus (Recovery and Reform) (Scotland) Bill
The next item of business is a stage 3 debate on motion S6M-05217, in the name of John Swinney, on the Coronavirus (Recovery and Reform) (Scotland) Bill.20:42
I am pleased to open the final debate on this important bill. I would like to thank the conveners, members and clerks of the COVID-19 Recovery Committee, the Criminal Justice Committee, the Local Government, Housing and Planning Committee, the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee and the other scrutiny committees, and all the individuals and organisations that have helped to shape and inform the bill that Parliament is considering today.
The Scottish Government’s priorities this session have been to continue to lead Scotland safely through and out of the Covid pandemic and to address inequalities that have been made worse by Covid, progressing towards a wellbeing economy and accelerating inclusive person-centred public services. Individually and collectively, the provisions of the bill support those ambitions as set out in the Covid recovery strategy and the updated Covid strategic framework.
The Government recognises that the powers contained in the bill to prepare for future public health threats are substantial. However, it is fair to say that we need those powers to address the gap that existed in the statute book at the start of the Covid pandemic. The powers have been demonstrated to be essential.
I have made it clear previously that the test of proportionality is central to all our judgments, and that is reflected in the bill. The bill as introduced contained significant safeguards around the exercise of those powers, but I recognised at stage 1 that the right balance had not been struck between the need for swift, effective action to deal with the implications of a pandemic and the need to do so with the maximum amount of robust parliamentary scrutiny available in such circumstances.
I want to touch on some of the improvements that have been made to the bill as a consequence of the hearing of evidence by the committees and the engagement that the Government has had with other members of Parliament and stakeholders.
It is an important part of the parliamentary process that, where the Government brings forward proposals and there is evidence marshalled to committees that indicates that we could move to a stronger and more appropriate position, we are prepared and willing to do exactly that.
I will address some of the changes that have been made to the bill to strengthen oversight and parliamentary scrutiny and the exercise of powers under the bill. Where the bill allows for regulations to come into force immediately under the made affirmative procedure, an explanation will be required as to why ministers consider that the regulations need to be made urgently. Such regulations must also contain an expiry, or sunset, provision where they are not already time limited in some way.
Any regulations engaging the so-called Henry VIII powers, which allow ministers to modify primary legislation by regulations in relation to public health protection, would require parliamentary approval before they could come into force. Moreover, key aspects of the public health protection and education continuity powers in the bill will also be subject to a gateway vote mechanism to ensure that they could be used only with parliamentary authorisation in the event of a future public health threat, with an appropriate alternative mechanism for situations such as dissolution when Parliament would be unable to consider a gateway vote mechanism.
In making all those changes, the Government has listened to the concerns expressed by external stakeholders and members of Parliament. We have done so in order to satisfy the objective of ensuring that our statute book is updated so that we have the necessary powers to deal with a pandemic—an important lesson that has been learned from the exercise of powers during the past two years or so—and that the exercise of those powers is undertaken in a fashion that is consistent with the appropriate level of parliamentary scrutiny in an emergency situation.
I turn to the public services reforms in the bill. Scrutiny committees rightly cautioned against possible risks of digital exclusion, and the Government shares the view that, while we must support online and telephone public services where they offer convenience to service users, we must recognise that such an approach will not suit all service users all of the time. It has always been Government policy that nothing in the bill should preclude the provision of traditional paper-based and in-person public services, and amendments were agreed at stage 2 to emphasise that point in the bill.
Although the bill is not, and cannot be, a complete solution to the cost of living crisis, I am pleased that amendments were agreed at stage 2 that amend bankruptcy and diligence law and provide important protection to people who are experiencing financial difficulties. Those measures increase the length of time that people with unsustainable debt have to seek advice without the threat of creditors taking action to pursue the debts, and they increase the sum of money that a person can keep in their bank account when they are subject to debt recovery procedures.
I recognise that some members would wish to go further on some of those measures, in particular in relation to support for tenants. The final version of the bill maintains provisions that have supported tenants and prevented evictions, despite some calls for those provisions to be removed or significantly limited. In the earlier debate on amendments, the Minister for Zero Carbon Buildings, Active Travel and Tenants’ Rights emphasised that we will continue our detailed work with stakeholders to further raise awareness of tenants’ rights, and to explore how we can make better use of existing powers and increase access to rent adjudication, which is key to challenging unfair rent increases.
Time does not allow me to speak to all the important reforms in the bill, from facilitating future vaccination and immunisation programmes to the modernisation of licensing practices, but there are measures in the bill that all members and all parties can support. In that spirit, and in the light of what I consider to be formidable movement by the Government at stage 2 to enhance parliamentary scrutiny of the exercise of these emergency powers, I urge members and parties to support the provisions in the bill.
That the Parliament agrees that the Coronavirus (Recovery and Reform) (Scotland) Bill be passed.20:49
My remarks will be relatively brief, not because it is past my bedtime, but because we have extensively debated the issues in the bill over a period of many weeks and I am not going to repeat everything that I have said before.
I start by putting on record my thanks to the legislation team for all their assistance with the drafting of amendments at stages 2 and 3 and to my colleagues on the COVID-19 Recovery Committee for the work done together in handling stage 2.
There are some aspects of the bill that we would be happy to support, had they been brought forward in some other form. For example, there are entirely sensible measures to allow nurses to administer vaccinations; there are entirely sensible reforms that allow movement towards using digital and online services to deliver public functions; there are also some necessary reforms in the criminal justice space to deal with what continues to be a major backlog in relation to trials and the administration of justice.
However, too much in the bill seemed to us to be simply not necessary at this stage and represents a power grab on the part of Scottish ministers, which is not something that we could support.
During consultation, the COVID-19 Recovery Committee heard evidence of how much concern there was from stakeholders about a lot of what was proposed in the bill. The committee’s survey had almost 4,000 responses, which may well be unprecedented, with as many as 90 per cent of those who responded expressing concern about what was proposed in the bill. When the general principles of the bill were debated in committee, it was supported only following a casting vote by the convener. There is no broad consensus in support of the bill and I think that, when we come to decision time, we will find that all the Opposition parties will oppose the bill.
That is essentially because, in our view, the bill puts too much power in the hands of ministers. I recognise that there has been some movement from the Scottish Government, which has made a number of concessions, but those are not enough to satisfy our concerns.
I have listened with care to Mr Fraser in the past few weeks. It strikes me that his objections are not only about the allocation of powers to ministers, albeit with, as he correctly notes, significant changes to improve parliamentary scrutiny. Is his objection to the Government putting measures in place to tackle the deficiencies in the statute book? Is he in fact objecting to that?
There are two possible ways in which the Government could approach what was a serious problem. One way was to do what the Government has done, which was to legislate to give ministers power to bring forward, in regulation, the legal measures necessary to deal with an emergency situation. That is the choice that the Government made.
The alternative approach, which was the one that we talked about at stage 1 and which also came up during stage 2, was to sit down with Opposition members of Parliament and stakeholders to prepare draft legislation that could sit on the shelf and could be introduced as and when it was required. This Parliament demonstrated two years ago that it could legislate very quickly when that was required in an emergency.
There is a very significant difference between the two approaches. To take the second approach would put Parliament, not the Government, in the driving seat. Doing this in the way that the Deputy First Minister has done means that Parliament does not have the power to amend the measures being brought forward. If we had done this in the second way, which was the one that was suggested to the committee by Professor Fiona de Londras of the University of Birmingham among others, that would have given Parliament the ability to amend the legislation. Regulations cannot be amended. That is the essential difference between me and the Deputy First Minister.
It was because of that that we were concerned about what was being proposed. We were also concerned, as Mr Rowley explained earlier, about the Henry VIII provisions. Although those have been watered down and qualified, they have not been removed altogether, which causes us very serious concern.
I will make one more point, which is in relation to the measures in the bill that affect the private rented sector. We have heard very serious concerns from stakeholders in that area, including bodies such as NFU Scotland and Scottish Land & Estates, that there may be unintended consequences of what is in the bill.
Already, the evidence is showing that landlords are withdrawing from the private rented sector because of the concerns that they have about some of the legislation that this Government is introducing. We know that the Government intends to introduce more tenancy legislation, and we look forward to seeing that in due course. I just say to the Government that it should be careful that we do not see an even faster exodus of private landlords from the market, because the consequence of that would be that the shortages that we already see in the private rented sector for tenants who are seeking somewhere to live would simply be exacerbated. I urge the Government to tread carefully.
With that, I will close. This is not a bill that we can support. There may be measures in it that are sensible reforms, but overall it represents a power grab by the Scottish Government, and we cannot support that.20:55
This has been a marathon meeting, so I particularly thank the Parliament staff, the clerks and the bill team for staying late into the evening. I think that it is fair to say that the Parliament is not particularly family friendly tonight.
There is a theme that emerges when we look back over the 15 years for which the SNP has been in Government, and it is the same theme that runs through the bill that we are debating this evening. It is the centralisation of power in the hands of the executive. During the SNP’s time in Government, many powers have been sucked up from local authorities and moved to St Andrew’s house or indeed to one of the 129 quangos that the SNP has set up—one for each of us in this Parliament.
The bill would see the level of scrutiny that comes with primary legislation removed from the Parliament and power handed over to Government ministers. I welcome John Swinney’s concessions at stage 2 to allay the fears that were expressed by members of the Parliament, members of the public and civic society organisations alike, but they simply do not go far enough. The executive will still have far-reaching powers that will potentially lead to ministers making rushed, ad hoc decisions without the benefit of the appropriate level of scrutiny.
The mistakes that were made at the beginning of the pandemic were not made because of the absence of those powers. If the Government had made the decision to lock down just two weeks earlier, 2,000 lives could have been saved. If the Government had not sent untested and infected people into care homes with Covid, thousands of elderly and vulnerable people might not have died. Making those calls did not need the legislation that we are debating today, and passing the bill today will not help Governments to make these decisions in future.
What will help future Governments that are faced with public health emergencies are the lessons learned from the past two years. The inquiry into the Government’s handling of the pandemic will identify where things went wrong and ensure that its mistakes are not repeated in the future. The inquiry is at its starting point, and while I have every confidence in Lady Poole’s approach, it is concerning that the Government would attempt to pre-empt its findings by pushing the bill through today.
We cannot assume that future public health emergencies would take the same form as that of Covid-19. It is also foolhardy to pass legislation that is informed by what this Government has done since March 2020 while not allowing ourselves to be informed by the inquiry that will consider the actions taken. We are setting ourselves up to repeat the mistakes from before.
Will the member take an intervention?
To be honest, I do not have time and I do not have the energy.
The bill would not, in and of itself, lead to a better response to a future pandemic, and it would diminish scrutiny and accountability. Those of us who have been around the Parliament for many years can recall emergency legislation being passed quickly, but nevertheless being considered by Parliament and key stakeholders. As such, the importance of Alex Rowley’s amendment to remove the so-called Henry VIII powers cannot be overstated. It is also the case that the Scottish Government’s suggestion that Henry VIII powers are used in the same way in the UK Parliament is simply not accurate.
Let us be clear about what ministers are attempting to do today. They are wrapping up a plethora of issues into one Frankenstein-like bill, which is wholly unjustifiable. It is fundamentally a bad way to legislate. There could have been separate bills so that each of the changes could be debated on its own merits. Indeed, there are plans for legislation in the immediate future that would have presented suitable vehicles for making changes to policy.
Labour supports many individual provisions, but the Government has deliberately wrapped them all up in a bill that hands sweeping powers to ministers. Where there was the opportunity to be bold and agree to amendments such as Mercedes Villalba’s on protecting renters, the SNP and the Greens have simply turned their backs on people who might be struggling. It is appalling to watch those in ministerial office abandon their principles.
I remind members that 85.8 per cent of people who responded to the consultation on the bill opposed giving ministers permanent powers. The Government should reflect on that and should stop this gross overreach. Centralising power and diminishing scrutiny without learning lessons from the pandemic is not the right approach. Scotland deserves better than that, and I regret, for that reason, that I will vote against the bill.
Beatrice Wishart joins us remotely.21:00
I am pleased to speak for the Scottish Liberal Democrats at stage 3 of the bill, but I must say that my party and I do not believe that we should be here in the first place.
It is the view of the Liberal Democrats that the bill represents an unprecedented and unsavoury power grab by the Scottish Government. It seeks to retain powers that it solemnly promised it would return as soon as possible.
Let us remember that, in March 2020, as millions of people were put into lockdown, the First Minster said that she was clear that emergency powers were necessary, but that they should only exist and be used if and when it was deemed necessary. She went on to say that when the Government uses emergency powers that restrict our liberty, “scrutiny is absolutely essential”.
However, today we are being asked to vote for legislation that removes the scrutiny of Parliament over vital decisions that would affect all our lives, so what has changed? Why does the Government no longer believe in limiting its ability to use those unprecedented powers, and why does it want to undermine parliamentary scrutiny?
There can be absolutely no justification for the Executive to permanently retain the ability to shut schools, release prisoners and impose lockdowns. The Government will argue that it is retaining those powers to keep us all safe in the face of a future pandemic, but we could not have legislated for everything that we needed to do to respond to Covid-19 before we had heard of it any more than we can now legislate for the next variant of the virus or the next pandemic that might come down the track.
As my colleague Alex Cole-Hamilton has said previously, it would be far better to instruct civil servants to prepare draft legislation—a toolkit—to put on the shelf ready for any such eventuality. Let us not forget that, at the start of the pandemic, we turned the necessary bill around in days. We could do so again in the future, and even quicker with draft legislation.
The other thing about the bill is that it represents yet another attempt by the Government to centralise power. The ability to make changes to our justice or education systems should come from the ground up. That power should lie with local authorities and those who understand the systems that they work in. Changes should be made by people who have an existing responsibility for managing those systems and are able to monitor the impact of any changes that are made.
We all want the Government to have a plan for future pandemics, and we want it to be prepared. Its Silver Swan strategy planned for the wrong type of pandemic. It ignored care homes and did not have a plan for testing. We need something better, but this bill is not it. Let us not forget that, during the recent pandemic, the scrutiny of the Parliament prevented the Government from unnecessarily stopping jury trials for the first time in 800 years. Parliamentary scrutiny matters.
In closing, I note that lessons have undoubtedly been learned from the pandemic, and it is right that sensible reforms are made in response to that. My party agrees with some of the changes that have been made to the bill, such as those that protect tenants’ rights, but there is no need for them to be wrapped up in legislation that undermines our democracy. That is what the bill does, which is why my party will vote against it at decision time.21:04
There is a lot in the bill that we can all agree on, and we certainly found that to be the case in the committee. We considered issues such as bankruptcy and the temporary measures that had to be put in place during Covid to give added protection to those in difficult financial circumstances. Those measures were found to have worked well, and there was widespread agreement that what had been intended as temporary measures should be made permanent.
A few put the counterargument that, rather than combining so many issues in one piece of legislation, perhaps we could just have waited until the particular area of legislation was due to be looked at again later on. However, that would have meant good and successful measures being dropped for an indefinite period until Parliament had the opportunity to consider more specific legislation later on.
Other examples of generally welcomed changes have included the remote registration of births and deaths, and certain licensing procedures being conducted remotely. However, there was justifiable concern that such online or remote interactions might become the default position, with councils and others no longer providing face-to-face services at all. I think that most people felt that that would not be a good move, as there is the challenge of digital exclusion for some and the advantage of face-to-face communication in particularly sensitive cases. Therefore, I very much welcomed the fact that the Government introduced protection for such in-person meetings at stage 2.
In the area of protection for tenants, for example, there have been suggestions both that the Government has gone too far and has disadvantaged landlords, and that it has not gone far enough, for example by not controlling rents to a greater extent. I believe that we have reached a middle position today, and I feel certain that housing and tenants’ rights are issues that we will return to before too long.
We have had the major question of how far the Government and Parliament should go in preparing for the next emergency—whether that is a pandemic or something else. One school of thought was that we managed perfectly well in 2020 and successfully pushed through primary legislation very rapidly, so we might as well sit back and do the same next time. However, the other school of thought is that we could have been better prepared last time round, and we should be taking advantage of what we have learned in order to be off our marks more quickly next time round.
Again, the question has been how much power should be transferred from Parliament to Government, and when exactly that should come into effect. Should it be all set to go as soon as the bill is passed, or should Parliament have more of a say once we are clear what the particular emergency is? The Government has clearly moved on that with amendments at stage 2, and I think that a reasonable compromise has been reached. Powers will come into play if Parliament says so, and that effectively gives Parliament a veto or the gateway vote. Therefore, I find it disappointing that other parties still claim to have concerns about that. Mind you, they still have time to change their minds.
Overall, I think that the bill is a good move. It is unusual in covering such a wide range of topics, and it is only happening because of Covid and because some of the measures that we took turned out to have been worth while. I hope that all members will support it, as I am happy to.21:07
I can read the room, and I note the weariness of some people around the chamber.
I thank the legislation team for helping me to lodge 44 amendments at stage 2. That was quite a task. The legislation team helped me to do that when I was incapacitated in hospital. It also managed to draft the amendments in such a way that I would have to get the committee to vote against my amendments if I wanted to achieve what was in them. Trying to explain that to my party and my colleagues was not easy. However, the team was extremely helpful. That shows the professionalism of the service that we get.
I have been able to say a huge amount of what I wanted to say, and I do not want to rerun it all. However, there are some things that I would like to say about part 4 of the bill.
The bill is a smorgasbord of legislation in areas that should have been properly scrutinised and subject to committee scrutiny and post-legislative scrutiny so that we had the right ideas. In part 4, we saw a change to private residential tenancies. I believe that there is a lot in there that could have been done by consulting all the sectors, but things were done without doing that and without consideration. I found it deeply disappointing when I met the minister to discuss that. I heard the debate this afternoon. People peddle untruths. Whatever tenancy is set up—whether it be a regulated tenancy under the Rent (Scotland) Act 1984, a short assured tenancy or an assured tenancy under the Housing (Scotland) Act 1988, or a private residential tenancy under the Private Housing (Tenancies) (Scotland) Act 2016—there is a way to stop rent increases and appeal against them. If members are saying to constituents who write in that there is no way of stopping such rises, they are giving bad advice. My door will remain open to people seeking advice on how to appeal rent reviews.
My concern, which has been well debated this afternoon, is that the bill is a move of powers into the middle, which will prevent the Parliament from scrutinising the Government’s position on legislation. Therefore, I cannot support it.21:10
The Covid-19 pandemic exposed many of the underlying inequalities in our society. From insecure work, to the undervaluing of our key workers, the pandemic highlighted the need for us to make real transformational changes. However, the bill before us today, which is supposedly focused on building a fair post-pandemic recovery, leaves many injustices untackled—and none more so than rip-off rent hikes, which continue to cause so much financial hardship for tenants in the private rented sector.
Today, the Scottish Government had an opportunity to act in the interests of tenants, but those in power have voted for the benefit of landlords. I welcome the tenancy provisions in the bill, but they will do nothing to address the rent costs that tenants face now. Changing eviction grounds from mandatory to discretionary on a permanent basis will strengthen private sector tenants’ rights, as will provisions that relate to putting the pre-action protocol on a permanent footing.
However, we should reflect on the landscape that tenants will still face, irrespective of those changes: tenants will continue to face years of potential rent hikes until the Scottish Government delivers on its promise to introduce rent controls by the end of 2025; there will be no restrictions on the level of rent increases that landlords can propose until then; and there will be no relief from the Scottish Government, with not a single rent pressure zone having been designated yet.
If the Scottish Government had supported an emergency rent freeze, tenants across the country would have had urgent relief. They would not have been subjected to further rent hikes for a period of two years. Given that average rents in Scotland have increased by nearly 35 per cent in the past decade, that would have been a welcome reprieve for tenants ahead of the introduction of a national system of rent controls. Instead, the Scottish Government has shown that it is unwilling or unable to take action in the midst of the cost of living crisis.
Although there are notable exceptions on the Government’s back benches, ministers seem to have been cowed by the vested interests of landlords and the threat of legal challenge. That is concerning, given that the Scottish Government would have us believe that it will introduce rent controls later in the session—in the face of opposition from landlords and the threat of legal challenge. After watching every other party vote down a rent freeze this evening, it is hard not to question the promises that those parties have made about bringing in a national system of rent controls.
The bill presented us with a unique opportunity to address the underlying injustices in our society. Green MSPs once championed a rent freeze. In 2020, Scottish Greens criticised the SNP for
“lining up with the Tories and landlords to vote down Green proposals for a rent freeze”.
Today, Scottish Greens deployed the same spurious arguments to talk down rent freeze amendments—the same arguments that the SNP used against them in 2020. As progressive parties, we should be working together to outnumber Tories and landlords, to win a rent freeze for tenants, rather than undermining redistributive policies using the establishment’s tactics.
The Tories are a minority in our communities. We should be making their profit-hoarding, wage-robbing beliefs a minority in the Scottish Parliament, too.21:14
The process of passing two pieces of emergency legislation at the height of the first phase of the pandemic and before remote participation arrangements had been made was a difficult one for this Parliament, but it was one that I believe showed us in our best light, responding to a crisis generally collegiately and with common purpose.
The process for those bills did not get everything right, though, and that is one of the key questions that the bill addresses. Do we want to leave ourselves in a position of needing to go through that process again? Do we want to delay potentially life-saving actions and self-evidently obvious ones, even for a matter of days, if we are, once again, hit by a pandemic unlike anything previously seen in living memory, or do we consolidate what we have learned from this experience so that the necessary powers are available in the event that they are needed? I welcome the addition of a gateway clause—something that the Greens were keen to see introduced—to address the perfectly valid concerns about the primacy of Parliament over Government.
Beyond the powers that are specific to the circumstances of a public health emergency, we can all recognise that some of the changes introduced by the two coronavirus acts simply made sense and probably should have been in place all along. The most obvious example is of processes that were previously only able to be completed in person via hard-copy papers, but which can now be done digitally. If we are committed to the delivery of efficient, effective and easy-to-access public services, returning to the pre-pandemic situation in that regard would clearly be a backward step. Those provisions will be of particular benefit to those in more rural communities, for whom the reality of travelling to a council office to register a relative’s death, for example, is quite different from that of urban residents. However, it is important to highlight that this is not an either/or situation; the bill does not give councils permission to move some services entirely online.
Housing was area into which Green MSPs put considerable effort during the process for the two emergency bills—specifically, the protection of tenants, including those in purpose-built student accommodation. Since then, we have joined the Government on the basis of an agreement that includes our new deal for tenants proposals, which are now being taken forward by Patrick Harvie as minister for tenants’ rights.
Before the pandemic, it was far too easy for landlords to evict tenants. The protections that were introduced back in 2020 made a real difference to many people who were at risk of losing their homes, and there is simply no good reason for going back to where we were before—to a system in which all the cards were stacked in favour of landlords. If nothing else, it would be comically inefficient for those protections to expire now, given that a tenants’ rights bill is coming soon.
It is worth pointing out that, throughout the consultation process, those representing landlords were happy to see the pre-action protocol made permanent, because, in their view, it simply formalises the kind of best practice that they would expect landlords to undertake anyway before eviction proceedings start. I know that landlords were far less happy about maintaining the ability of tribunals to take all circumstances into account before ruling on an eviction, citing the financial impact that that could have on them. If that is the case, I can only suggest that they consider getting a job.
A number of other progressive provisions, first introduced in the context of the emergency, are now appropriately being extended, such as the bankruptcy protections, which, if I remember correctly, were rightly first pushed for by Jackie Baillie.
The duty on purpose-built student accommodation providers to take account of the chief medical officer’s advice will hopefully avoid a repeat of the scenes that we saw at Murano Street student village in Glasgow and elsewhere in the autumn of 2020. There are other provisions that I am glad to see included in the bill, but I do not have time to cover them now.
The bill takes a pragmatic approach to maintaining the improvements that were brought about as a result of our response to the pandemic. It gives Government the powers that it would need in the event of another such crisis and strikes the appropriate balance between parliamentary oversight and executive action. For those reasons, the Greens support the bill.
I call Emma Roddick, who will be the last speaker in the open debate and is joining us remotely. [Interruption.] Ms Roddick, you are on mute, so you will need to start again from the beginning. [Interruption.] You are still on mute, and we cannot hear anything that you are saying.
I am afraid that we seem to have a problem with Ms Roddick’s connection. Given the lateness of the hour, I would imagine that members would be keen that we continue to make progress with the debate. It is unfortunate, but that is the way it is.
We move to closing speeches.21:19
Given the lateness of the hour, I will try to be brief.
We set out from day 1 that our problem with the bill was the Henry VIII powers. Despite the fact that the Deputy First Minister said that he had gone a long way to try to address some of those concerns, it was a red line for us, and it continues to be a red line. That is why Labour will vote against the bill at decision time.
Jackie Baillie spoke about centralisation, and the centralisation tendencies of this Government. When I speak to Labour colleagues in England, they tell me that they do not want devolution because of what has happened to the powers of local authorities in Scotland. The National Care Service (Scotland) Bill will basically take masses of powers away from local authorities. That centralisation continues in the Coronavirus (Recovery and Reform) (Scotland) Bill.
I wonder whether Alex Rowley, being a former council leader, remembers, as I do, compulsory competitive tendering, private finance initiatives and the ring fencing that went on under a previous Labour-Liberal Democrat Government and, prior to that, the Tory Government.
The cabinet secretary might remember that PFI came in under a Tory Government and that it was the only game in town at that point. Thankfully, local authorities, which had more powers then than they have now, were able to come up with public-private partnerships, which were cost effective. Fife Council has done detailed reports showing that, unless a boiler or something major goes in a school, PPP schemes, such as those that were put in place to build Queen Anne high school and other schools in Fife, are economically and financially sound. The line that the cabinet secretary is pushing about PFI is wrong.
Centralisation is a major issue that must be challenged. We are seeing local authorities being stripped of powers. That is bad for local democracy and for communities.
Through the bill, powers are being taken out of this Parliament and put into the executive. That is a major problem. I wonder whether, if we look back in 10 or 15 years’ time, people will be asking how on earth the Scottish Parliament ended up becoming the big toun cooncil of Scotland.
In fact, the SNP Government is not very good at centralising. The centralisation of the police has left communities without local policing and local policing policy—I could go through every centralisation that has happened. The Government is not that good at running public services, so I really do not know why it is trying to turn this place into the toun cooncil.
On the debate that took place earlier today, whether we have further devolution in Scotland, home rule, independence or the status quo, the reality is that we will own nothing in Scotland. The ownership of Scotland sits with private multinational companies, so it will not matter what type of Government or system we have in place. This SNP Government has failed to take political and economic control of our country.
As for the Greens, they knew that they were going to force through the bill along with the Government. A little bit of power seems to have gone a long way in terms of where they are, but it is disgraceful that they would not stand up for tenants and for those who are paying the biggest price at this time.
Ross Greer rose—
By all means, I will take an intervention from Ross Greer.
Very briefly, please, Mr Greer, because Mr Rowley should be bringing his remarks to a close.
I simply point out that Labour’s entire argument for the rent freeze rested on a piece of case law that was about a single property that had no running water or toilets. If it had looked at the more recent case law that was about a blanket rent freeze, it would have seen that the measure was, in fact, struck down on ECHR grounds.
The Greens used to stand for strong local government and strong national Government. Clearly, they have moved away from that position. They are moving from a Green Party to a paler shade of white and becoming yellower by the week.
On that note, I will conclude. We will not support the bill tonight. We would have supported it had the Government recognised where our red line was, but there you go, Presiding Officer.21:23
As one of the closing speakers in a long and wide-ranging debate—not just today but through the various stages of the bill—there is a huge amount that I could say, but, at this point, very little that would be new.
As colleagues have set out already, we fundamentally disagree with the Government’s approach to the bill. The final bill is an improvement, but it still falls far short of something that we could support in full. We have heard throughout the debate that there are many unresolved flashpoints across the Parliament.
The bill could have been split up. We could have opted for draft legislation that would have sat ready on the shelf. That would have allowed for amendments, tweaks and changes in thinking and approach; it would also have allowed for the learning from the Covid-19 inquiry to be taken into consideration. I cannot help but feel that we are making the very same mistake again. Just as we planned for a flu pandemic, we are now planning and putting powers into the statute book based on the Covid pandemic.
There is something in the Government’s approach that we have seen throughout the pandemic. At the start, it was keen to work consensually, and we were told that powers would be used only if they had to be and only for as long as was absolutely necessary. Slowly, over time, there has been a breakdown in that approach, and the appearance of exactly the type of centralising “Government knows best” approach that Jackie Baillie and Beatrice Wishart talked about, and that we see all the time in the Parliament.
On something so fundamental, however, through which not just the Parliament but the people of Scotland are being asked to hand a huge amount of power to the executive—to Government ministers—there is a duty to try to build consensus, take people along, and find as many areas of agreement as possible. The approach that has been taken by the Government has not allowed for that to happen.
I still think that such a collaborative approach is best. During the pandemic, the things that worked best were those in which we could find that agreement. I am concerned that, over time, as our collective memory of the pandemic fades—as I hope that it will—there will be a temptation to use some of those powers in an arbitrary way, because that is the easy thing for the Government to do. The hard work for Government is working with partners and building consensus.
Today, we have heard much about democratic consent. I do not want to get drawn into that different debate. However, it is important that the Government’s use of sweeping emergency powers must be on the basis of broad public support or extreme threat.
At decision time tonight, we will be in the position of handing a wide range of powers to the Government for an unlimited period. In no sense does that carry broad public support. We have heard from multiple speakers about the very stark feedback that the committee got during the consultation stage, and no evidence has been marshalled about the extremity of that threat. There are other worrying signs, and we have heard the Deputy First Minister talk to those at several points, but at no point have we heard an explanation of why it is possible for the Parliament to pass an enabling vote but not to pass legislation in draft form, or why we should be willing to lower the bar for allowing those powers to be used. A gateway vote is an improvement, but it is not the same thing as passing primary legislation. It is a different test.
My worry, particularly given the many things that we see happen and how this Government operates—and how all Governments operate, for that matter—is that a Government that has a majority in the Parliament might be willing to hand such a blank cheque to ministers and allow them to grab hold of powers that would be best exercised by the Parliament. I cannot vote for that in good faith.
I call Keith Brown to wind up on behalf of the Scottish Government—for up to six minutes, please, cabinet secretary.21:28
As the cabinet secretary responsible for part 5 and the schedule to the bill—the temporary justice measures—and a number of permanent justice system reform measures in part 3 of the bill, I am pleased to close the final debate for the Scottish Government. Before I turn to points that have been made, I will say a little more about the wider justice policy and legislation, and build on what the Deputy First Minister said about the other provisions in the bill.
The bill is important for the Scottish justice system and the legal professions, and I repeat the Deputy First Minister’s thanks to the organisations, victims, witnesses and other people who are affected by the justice system for their engagement specifically on the justice provisions.
As other members have done, I thank the members of parliamentary staff who have made the debate possible at this late hour.
If the bill is passed, it will extend the temporary justice measures in the schedule, initially until November 2023, giving justice partners increased certainty to aid planning and support recovery as they continue to respond to the effects of the pandemic.
During the bill’s passage, it has been apparent that some of the measures—for example, the extensions to criminal procedure time limits—should remain in place only for as long as they are essential to aid recovery. However, we have heard views from members and from stakeholders that other temporary justice measures that were introduced in response to the pandemic could have a part to play in a longer-term transformation to a modern person-centred justice system. Under the bill, none of those measures can be extended beyond November 2025. However, as our programme of justice transformation continues to develop, the Parliament will be able to consider any permanent legislation that we introduce and to determine the most appropriate approach for the longer term.
It has been a long but—sometimes—interesting debate. I will try to address one or two of the points that members made.
I come first to the Conservative Party. It is clear that, whether in relation to the justice provisions or the wider provisions that have been taken forward by the Deputy First Minister and Patrick Harvie, there have been substantial compromises and that substantial ground has been given, not least in ensuring that the Parliament is well informed. Despite that, it is clear to me, having listened to some of the summing-up speeches, that the unionist block was never going to vote for the bill, regardless of how much ground was given by the Government.
How does the cabinet secretary possibly think that he will build consensus on the measures or secure widespread public support when he makes such political remarks about something that is so important? It is bizarre.
I believe what I said to be true. I do not think that the Conservatives ever had any intention of supporting the bill in its final form. I believe that to be the case.
In relation to the Labour Party, it is unbelievable to hear somebody try to rewrite history. The Labour Party has a history of centralisation, of PFI, of compulsory competitive tendering and of local government ring fencing. Those of us who lived through it know that that is the real history.
In relation to the point about changing PFI to public-private partnerships, I remember putting forward a bid for a trust model to build three new houses, but the Labour Party turned it down and said that PFI must be used. That PFI legacy lives on in councils throughout the land through the debts that they face because of the Labour Party. More than 30 per cent of our funding from the Labour Executive was ring fenced. That is what Labour did in terms of centralisation, so forgive me if I do not take too seriously some of the points that Labour members made on centralisation. They should remember their past.
Will the cabinet secretary give way?
I seem to have enlivened the Labour group, which is good to see.
I am disappointed that some members remain of the view that the current bill process should not be used to enact key public health and education continuity powers now, ahead of the temporary legislation expiring in September.
We also heard that the Government should not act in advance of the conclusion of the public inquiry. I think that we all agree that the public inquiry must be independent and that we cannot fix its timescales. I know in my heart that, if we were to say that we will do nothing just now and that we will wait until the end of a public inquiry, we would be attacked by the Labour Party for sitting on our hands and doing nothing about the situation.
In relation to the current bill process, Professor Fiona de Londras, who was mentioned by Murdo Fraser, has said:
“There is significant scope for public and parliamentary involvement. The bill is a product of a meaningful pre-legislative scrutiny and consultation process. MSPs have been given plenty of time to prepare for the legislative stages. The robust treatment of the bill through this ordinary process is very welcome.”
I agree with the Deputy First Minister that digital pubic service reforms should not disadvantage service users who cannot, or prefer not to, use digital means. We absolutely recognise that some people cannot or do not want to use technology to access services, and we remain committed to offering alternative options. We are also working with partners to support connectivity across Scotland and to minimise the risks of digital exclusion. However, it is important to emphasise, as the Deputy First Minister has said, that nothing in the bill as amended precludes in-person or paper-based services.
The bill’s education provisions are based on our experience of the Covid pandemic. Ensuring continuity of education for children and young people, and students, is at the heart of the measures. The Government is committed to continued engagement with education stakeholders as we implement the bill’s provisions.
The debate on the rent freeze amendment was important. The Government is committed to doing what it can to tackle such issues in ways that are workable and robust. I am very grateful to Ross Greer for the interventions that he made; he put some facts into the debate.
The bill supports Covid recovery in the justice system and the Government’s Covid recovery ambitions more widely. Ministerial colleagues and I have listened to stakeholders, Opposition MSPs and scrutiny committees, and the bill has been improved in the amending stages in the ways in which the Deputy First Minister set out earlier. I have made it clear that engagement on justice system reforms will continue and that there will be further justice bills in this parliamentary session. The most significant public health and education powers in the bill are now subject to additional strong parliamentary safeguards, including, but not limited to, the gateway vote mechanism.
As the Deputy First Minister said, there are provisions in the bill that can be supported by all members, and there is no reason why they cannot be supported by all members and all parties.
That being so, and as the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care said in the stage 1 debate,
“I invite the Parliament to vote to learn the lessons of the pandemic, to complete the statute book and to put in place that preparedness for whatever challenges may come in the years ahead.”—[Official Report, 12 May 2022; c 117.]
That concludes the stage 3 debate on the Coronavirus (Recovery and Reform) (Scotland) Bill.