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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 20 May 2020

Agenda: First Minister’s Question Time, Business Motion, Coronavirus (Scotland) (No 2) Bill: Stage 3, Coronavirus (Scotland) (No 2) Bill, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time


Contents


Coronavirus (Scotland) (No 2) Bill

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani)

The next item of business is the stage 3 debate on motion S5M-21791, in the name of Michael Russell, on the Coronavirus (Scotland) (No 2) Bill. I invite Michael Russell to signify Crown consent to the bill before he opens the debate.

18:10  

The Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, Europe and External Affairs (Michael Russell)

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 (Scotland) (No 2) Bill, has consented to place her prerogative and interest, so far as they are affected by the bill, at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of the bill.

I will start in a traditional, heartfelt way by thanking the bill team. It would be extraordinary enough to have produced the bill in the available time, but I regard the fact that the bill team has produced two emergency bills in little more than six weeks, during a time of lockdown, while working at home or with social distancing when it has been possible to meet in Parliament—as it was yesterday, for stage 2—as utterly remarkable.

It is true that not all heroes wear capes and, to me, the bill team have been heroes. The tradition at the Scottish Parliament is that, at the end of a bill, the minister takes the bill team for a drink. This bill team is very large—I was totally unaware of how many people had been on it at some stage—but I would be happy to buy them a drink. I just wish that I could do so at this particular moment. I make a public statement on that because I intend to so—they know that.

I also thank my private office, who have been particularly extraordinary on the matter and have entered a little into the legend of this place. I can now reveal that the cause of yesterday’s fire alarm during stage 2 was a sweet potato that was placed by a member of my private office staff in the microwave in the kitchen next to my office. I am afraid to say that I was, therefore, directly responsible for the interruption—not just once, but twice. Mr Lindhurst twice tried to make a speech and twice failed because of the burning baked sweet potato. [Laughter.] One could use that means in the future if one did not want to make a speech.

I also thank my ministerial colleagues, particularly Kevin, who has taken a lot of the burden of the bill with regard to tenancy issues and whom I know believes passionately in protecting and providing rights to tenants and will go on doing so. In my own portfolio, I thank Jenny and Graeme—

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Might I interrupt, cabinet secretary?

Michael Russell

You want me to use—

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Yes. Could you please use members’ full names, for the benefit of those at home and the Official Report?

Michael Russell

I am clearly being far too familiar.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Yes, I think you are.

Michael Russell

I will be more formal. I thank Kevin Stewart, Graeme Dey and Jenny Gilruth—the latter became a minister on 17 February and has now completed her second bill. At this rate, there will be a new world record by the end of the year.

The Minister for Europe and International Development (Jenny Gilruth)

No more!

Michael Russell

I agree that there should be no more. We have said that the end of the emergency bills is in sight. We will need to continue looking at what we must do with regard to legislation—if we need to legislate on occasion, we will. However, I think that the bulk of that work has been done and I hope that it has all been done. I am grateful to my colleagues for taking the work forward and, more widely, to everyone across the chamber.

I will say a couple of things about what we have achieved and how. We are about to pass a bill that does significant things. I am glad of such an achievement as the carers supplement, for example. We have done other things as well. We have agreed on significant interventions in the social care sector, which we hope will make a real difference and save lives.

I thank Monica Lennon for lodging her amendment—I am embarrassing her yet again this afternoon. We have taken money, and I know that she has been, and will be, negotiating those resources with the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport—that is above my pay grade—and we will be able to assist individuals who work in care homes who are suffering and have difficulty.

Monica Lennon (Central Scotland) (Lab)

I am grateful to the cabinet secretary for his remarks. However, what is more important than that there are discussions between me and the Government is that there are trade unions around the table. Can the cabinet secretary give me an assurance that the trade unions will be part of the discussions about the scheme and the regulations?

Michael Russell

I am happy to put on record my strong support for the involvement of trade unions in all such matters, including this one. I know that one member has questioned that constantly, but I assure the member that that is not at question. I look forward to ensuring that trade unions are fully represented and to ensuring that that money goes directly and effectively to those who need it. That is what we are trying to do.

The bill has done some other important things. For example, a part that was not amended at any stage concerns what will happen to the European championships 2020, which will become the European championships 2021. That is another area where we could agree that there were some things that needed to be done that could not be left undone, and which this bill is able to do.

I can go through more such examples. There have been significant movements on taxation and the issue of land and buildings transaction tax. I am grateful to Liam McArthur for lodging an amendment on that, which we were happy to accept. On housing and tenancy, we made progress in the first emergency bill and we continue to make progress in this bill.

However, we cannot do everything in emergency legislation—it is important to recognise and acknowledge that. Emergency legislation does what it says on the tin: it involves things that we require to do quickly and as effectively as possible. What I said yesterday with regard to ensuring that what we do is proportionate, possible and practical has been quoted several times today. Those are important considerations.

Some things cannot be done by emergency legislation. I have had to say that on a number of occasions. Equally, in this crisis, there are some things that should not be done by emergency legislation. Whether we should be passing primary legislation to affect the secondary legislation of lockdown is a key issue, because we should allow the review of the lockdown arrangements to be driven by medical and scientific evidence, not necessarily by political priorities that have not taken account of medical and scientific evidence. I am grateful to those people who have recognised that and have allowed that to happen.

Andy Wightman (Lothian) (Green)

I agree with the cabinet secretary broadly on those points, but there is a flaw in his argument in that the emergency regulations have never been subject to parliamentary scrutiny, and many of us, as he knows, have concerns about elements of that. I would like his reassurance that, when members write to him about these things, the Government will consider their concerns seriously and will consider the kind of amendments that might reflect some of those concerns during each review period, not simply look at whether the regulations should continue to be in force.

Michael Russell

That is a fair point. There are a lot of opinions on that matter. The provisions are capable of scrutiny by this chamber and, indeed, the reporting process that we put in place will ensure that that happens. I have referred on several occasions to the fact that I intend to consider issues in the light of discussion here or amendments that have been agreed to. I take the point and will take it forward.

My last point concerns how we can best manage this process—not just the process of emergency legislation but the legislative process in general, which should not always divide us. There are all sorts of possible combinations of parties and individuals who can work together on key issues. The way that we can do that is by ensuring that there is engagement. We have had some heated discussion about engagement in the chamber, and I do not want to open that up again now. I simply say that it is not enough to say, “Here is an email setting out what I intend to do.” It is important to say, “Here are some ideas. Can you include them or is there way for me to take them forward?” or to say, “I have this objective and you have that objective, so how do we bring those two objectives together to allow us to make progress?”

I think that I have acceded to every party in this chamber in that regard in relation to the bill. I would like to think that we are learning from the process and that, in the future, we can apply it to other bills that are not emergency bills, because that will make for better legislation. It will also make for better politics in Scotland—I will finish by agreeing with Patrick Harvie on that. This crisis is, in no sense, an opportunity, but we would be very foolish to say that we will simply go back to the way that we were doing things. If we can find a way to have a better Scotland and to embrace that, one of the things that we must do is ensure that we have a better politics in Scotland, which means that we must do things differently in here as well as outside.

I move,

That the Parliament agrees that the Coronavirus (Scotland) (No. 2) Bill be passed.

Neil Findlay (Lothian) (Lab)

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. I apologise, but I will be brief. In a speech earlier today, I made a reference to the Scottish Care website carrying adverts for jobs, but it was in fact another website—a commercial organisation’s website. I just wanted to correct the record on what I said. Thank you.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I am sure that everyone will have taken note of that.

18:20  

Murdo Fraser (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

This is the end of a short process for the bill, although it has at times felt like a very long one—it certainly felt like that during yesterday’s stage 2 consideration of the bill by the COVID-19 Committee. I thank my fellow committee members for their co-operation in handling 56 amendments by remote technology so efficiently. I also record my thanks to the committee clerks and all the Parliament staff who helped us with what was in the end a relatively smooth and seamless process that was interrupted only by the unexpected and untimely fire alarm in the building—and we now know who to blame for that. I also thank the cabinet secretary for the open and co-operative way in which he has approached the bill, and I echo his thanks to the bill team. I also put on record my thanks to those in the Parliament’s legislation team for all their help with Opposition amendments, which was much appreciated.

The bill deals with a wide range of provisions in response to the extraordinary circumstances that we are now in. A range of new powers are being granted to the Scottish Government—albeit on a temporary basis, until 30 September—with the power for ministers to extend that by up to a year. As we heard in the stage 1 debate, the measures include new protection for students who are renting property; the introduction of a new carers allowance; provisions on bankruptcy; a number of changes to rules on criminal justice to take account of the circumstances that we are in; and an extension of the deadline for lodging the accounts for registered social landlords, which was an amendment that was specifically requested by my colleague Graham Simpson.

The bill also extends the period for claiming back the additional dwelling supplement when individuals are moving from one main residence to another. The bill originally extended that period from 18 months to 27 months, and I was pleased yesterday to support an amendment in the name of Liam McArthur, which was moved by Beatrice Wishart, to extend the period to 36 months, which seems a reasonable proposition that will bring Scotland into line with the situation south of the border. Of course, the property market in England has been reactivated this week, whereas it has not been reactivated in Scotland, so it does not seem unreasonable for us to have at least the same amount of time for properties to be sold as applies there.

A number of issues that came up during yesterday’s stage 2 proceedings are now addressed in the bill. Following Government amendments, there are new powers for the Scottish ministers to intervene in care homes that are in financial difficulty or which are not meeting the requisite standard of care for residents. Although we supported those amendments, that was not without some concern. We all know that there is a crisis in our care homes, with a tragic level of deaths of residents and serious questions being asked about access to testing and personal protective equipment. We need to be careful about sending any sort of message that responsibility for those failings lies at the door of the care home providers in all but a tiny minority of cases.

The great majority of care homes in Scotland, whether they are run in the private sector, by local authorities or by charities, are institutions that are run by people who take their responsibilities very seriously, with dedicated and hard-working staff, and that provide a safe and happy environment for residents. We should not scapegoat care homes because of failures in Government and elsewhere to provide them with adequate support.

Other new provisions in the bill will allow local authorities to acquire care homes. Although we would not object to that, I wonder how many local authorities want to get back into the business of running care homes, when so many have disposed of their care homes to the private and voluntary sectors in recent decades. Both we and care home providers will look carefully at how those new powers are implemented.

The other major area of contention at stage 2 was the changes to the laws on freedom of information. In the original Coronavirus (Scotland) Bill, the Scottish Government substantially extended the deadlines for freedom of information requests in the teeth of opposition from all four non-Government parties. It was only because of a lack of numbers in the final stage 3 debate that the Government was able to get its way at that point. The current bill has provided the opportunity to rectify that injustice, and I am pleased that it was taken yesterday when a combination of Conservative, Labour, Green and Lib Dem amendments were all agreed to by the COVID-19 Committee, thereby removing some of the worst aspects of what was achieved in the first bill.

That is important. Freedom of information is, if anything, more significant at a time when the public want to know the information that underlies the vital decisions that Scottish ministers are taking on a daily basis, which will have—literally—life-and-death consequences for many of our fellow citizens.

I appreciate that freedom of information requests put a burden on public servants, but that must be weighed against the need for the public to be informed. I am pleased that the situation has been reversed, and that the bill before us restores a proper balance.

This will be the last emergency coronavirus bill, and I am glad of that. It will put in place temporary measures that will run until the end of September. I sincerely hope—as, I am sure, we all do—that they will not have to be renewed at that point.

We are in unprecedented times, in a situation that none of us thought that we would be in. We all want it to be over as quickly as possible. However, the bill is necessary because of the situation that we are in, and it provides proportionate and time-limited measures. For those reasons, we will support the bill in the final vote.

18:26  

Alex Rowley (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

Labour will support the Government’s bill. I, too, thank the bill team and the Parliament’s legislation team, whose staff have equally been run off their feet over the past period; the COVID-19 Committee for its work; and the Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, Europe and External Affairs for the very genuine approach that he has taken to engaging with other people, even when we have disagreed.

Although it is right that the Government is focusing on the immediate impacts of Covid-19, it also has a huge opportunity to look at additional measures that can be put in place to address the huge inequalities that exist within Scotland. Coronavirus has starkly highlighted those inequalities, and people will look to the Government at this time of crisis and at the measures that it is taking to address the issues. It is clear from the rejection by the Government and the Tories of some of the key progressive amendments that we have considered today that much more needs to be done. We need to be much more willing to address the big issues, instead of simply saying what cannot be done. The world simply cannot go back to the way that it was before the virus. We need to create a fairer, more equal and more just society, and the political will to deliver that society must be there.

There has been considerable talk by the Government about learning from the mistakes and whether, in hindsight, different decisions should have been taken. I therefore turn, instead, to foresight. It is easy to see that there will be difficult times ahead for us after the coronavirus pandemic is over. Governments around the world are rightly looking at what measures to take to bring about economic recovery. I urge the Scottish Government to ensure that, as it looks at potential measures, it considers those in our society who are most at risk of hardship and poverty, and that it does not simply introduce means to protect business alone, but introduces means to support people.

A massive programme of reskilling will be needed, and opportunities will need to be created. That means having clear planning and an industrial strategy that will address the issues and ensure that people are able to take advantage of the available jobs.

There can be no return to austerity after this virus is over. More than a decade of austerity has left us as a country less able to deal with the impact of Covid-19, which will be wide reaching. It is vital that we protect the poorest in our society from bearing the brunt of the economic cost of coronavirus. We should all remember the Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne saying, “We are all in this together,” as he brought in policy after policy to attack the weakest and the most vulnerable.

The Tories will want to do the same again; I hope that today’s coming together of the Scottish National Party and the Tories to vote down progressive measures will not continue and that we will stand united to fight austerity and to ensure that those who have suffered the most under a failed Tory austerity programme will not suffer as we move forward. Austerity did not work then and it will not work now.

However, I offer my genuine thanks to the cabinet secretary, and I hope that we can work together to find a way forward that protects the many instead of the few.

18:30  

Patrick Harvie (Glasgow) (Green)

Like others, I thank the COVID-19 Committee and the Parliament’s officials, in particular the legislation team. When normal legislation goes through the Parliament, the legislation team works hard to make sure that all MSPs have the ability to bring proposals that are as well drafted as possible to the chamber for debate. Doing that for an emergency bill means that those officials have been working at breakneck speed. They have done their job extremely well and I am grateful to them.

Michael Russell

Because I got bogged down in issues such as sweet potatoes, I did not thank the committee or the parliamentary bill team; I thank both of them.

Patrick Harvie

I hope that we all agree with that. I also thank the Government for working constructively to reach agreement, where it has chosen to do so—it has not done that on everything.

There have been a few tetchy moments today. Perhaps some of us have been cooped up in our flats and houses for so long that we have forgotten how to play nicely together. Perhaps a few of us were never good at it. However, I suspect that something deeper has led to the disagreements. At the outset of the crisis, there was an understandable and necessary desire for consensus—for us to work together and not politicise the crisis. Now that we are some way down the line, there are real political choices to make, and they will divide us. I suspect that some of that division has spilled out into today’s debates.

The First Minister said that she believes that the rebuilding of our economy after the crisis must be about building a fairer, greener and more equal Scotland. That will not happen by wishing for it or stating it. It will happen only by taking bolder and necessary actions. Not just this Government but Governments around the world have not been asserting the authority of Government to shape society. For too long, the notion of the unfettered free market has been dominant throughout most of the western world, but it is now clear that, in a pandemic, there are no free market capitalists. The market is dependent on the support and intervention of the state in society. If we make them with boldness, our decisions now will determine whether we can build that fairer, more equal and greener society.

The cabinet secretary was reluctant to use the word “opportunity” about the changes that society is going through. Of course, the virus is a profound and devastating threat to many people’s lives, but the work of rebuilding faces us with an opportunity to decide what kind of society and economy we want to build. My amendments 93 and 94, on tax havens, are one small step in the direction away from the dominant assumption that swathes of our economy can be registered in tax havens and refuse to make a vital contribution to the public purse. Government after Government, at the United Kingdom level and in many other countries, has not only accepted but actively facilitated that kind of behaviour. This needs to mark a moment when we say that that will end.

As never before, the crisis has also exposed the vulnerability of people with precarious incomes and housing. The Scottish Government is willing to talk about a radical measure such as universal basic income, but it is more concerned about offering support to landlords than it is about supporting tenants who face the vulnerability of precarious housing.

We must build an economy that works to address social need and the transition to sustainability. The work of rebuilding from a crisis gives us the opportunity to assert how Governments will do that and how our population will expect them to do so. I hope that the Parliament will grasp that opportunity with enthusiasm and boldness.

18:35  

Alex Cole-Hamilton (Edinburgh Western) (LD)

As others have done, I add my thanks to the legislation team, to the Government bill team and to the ministers, for the open-handed manner in which they have sought out consensus on the bill.

As we have heard, the bill that we have been debating is the second emergency bill on the coronavirus that the Parliament has dealt with. As others have said, I hope that it will also be the final one. However, it will not be the final bill that the Parliament will pass in the shadow of the virus. This is just the beginning, because we have no idea for how long social distancing or aspects of lockdown will dominate our lives or of the sheer economic impact and the human pain and suffering that the virus will cause. I think it very likely that, if a recession should lead to a depression and all the things that come with that, each of us—every member in the chamber—will be passing legislation in the shadow of the coronavirus for the rest of our political careers. As one journalist put it, the virus will be to the 21st century what the second world war was to the 20th century.

However, on this bill, the Parliament has done its job. When crisis demanded the handing of unprecedented levels of power to both the Government and the police, the Parliament did its job and scrutinised the bill’s proposals to great effect. However, like Willie Rennie, I look forward very much to the day when we can repeal every provision that has handed such power away from the Parliament.

In scrutinising the many provisions that we have seen in both emergency bills, the Parliament has answered the colossal roar of human pain that each of us heard in the days before lockdown, when it became clear that we would have to bring in restrictions and when people had no idea how they would put food on their tables or pay their bills.

I absolutely recognise—I have referenced such cases today—that we will not have got things right for everyone. People, businesses and communities will continue to slip through the cracks created by the provisions on the virus. However, I say to them that we are looking out for them, we are hearing them and we will not forget them. In considering all the legislation that the chamber will pass from this day onwards, it will be incumbent on us all to recognise the individuals who have still been left behind, or who will be left in the days to come, either by the virus or by the economic impact that befalls them.

As I have said several times, the Parliament has done its job. I am very proud that it has done so, particularly because our unicameral legislature exists as a check and a balance on the power and the agenda of the executive branch. On both emergency bills, we have shown ourselves to be capable of doing just that.

In the context of the first bill, we saw off the potential abolition of jury trials for the duration of the emergency. In Scotland, such trials have gone on uninterrupted for nearly 800 years, persevering through wars and pandemics. I am grateful that the Scottish Government has moved on that issue, and I look forward to continuing to work with it in answering the question of how we can allow such trials to take place in safety.

Adam Tomkins has already eloquently described the multiparty work that went into seeing off the original provisions on freedom of information. Just by dint of the numbers being askew on the day on which we voted on the first coronavirus bill, those would have seen an encroachment on freedom of information rules that no other country in the democratic world has adopted. I am glad that we reversed that threat, and I am also grateful for the Government’s movement in that regard.

There have been some small wins, too, in other exciting little areas of policy that I had never really thought about before but on which I have had to become an expert in short order. Those include business rates relief. I am grateful for the provisions, which the cabinet secretary has alluded to, on extending the time limit before the additional dwelling supplement kicks in. I am also grateful for the understanding that hospitality industries need to know that there is a route out of the current crisis and that the Parliament is thinking about how they can get their businesses back on to a paying basis. There has also been recognition of not only the importance but the vulnerability of our small newspapers and our need for them, at this time, to hold both the Government and the police to account.

The bill that is before us and its predecessor have been good for people such as carers, renters and students, but many more have been missed out and have fallen through the cracks. As I said earlier, it is incumbent on us all to look out for them and to hear them as we go forward and in passing legislation here.

18:39  

Michael Russell

I acknowledge Patrick Harvie’s reference to being able to “play nicely” again after so much time in which we have been locked away elsewhere. Despite all the difficulties today, this has been a reasonable and consensual debate, for most of the time.

We need to remember why we are doing this, so I will conclude by mentioning the issue with which we started the whole process, when we considered the first legislative consent motion at the end of March. We are doing this because we are facing an unprecedented crisis. We are doing this because nothing is normal, and the situation will not revert to what we understand to be normal. We are doing this because we believe that we have to save lives, and that to save lives we need to ensure that people stay at home, and we need to protect the national health service.

That means that we have to make changes in how we do things in every part of our lives. Part of our lives, certainly in the chamber, and more widely, is about legislating for the people of Scotland and serving them by ensuring that there is a good active and relevant statute book. It serves nobody’s interests if we allow it to decay, to become out of date or to become irrelevant to what we are trying to do. We have done active things, particularly on the social care front, and there are things that we could not have avoided doing if we are to have an accurate and effective statute book.

I am pleased with the work that we have done. It has not been without its difficulties and tensions, and it has not, at times, been without its frustrations, but we have produced legislation that is, although it is not perfect in the views of many members—even in mine—perhaps as good as we could do in the very severe circumstances.

I think that we have risen to the challenge, and I hope that we will continue to so, in Parliament. If we can recapture something, it should be the spirit of working together to ensure that we are greater than the virus, and that we are able to suppress it and allow our country to move on, even if we move on to very different circumstances.