The Scottish Government has introduced a Covid Recovery Bill that will embed some of the reforms made in response to the pandemic, while considering what further provisions might enhance Scotland’s ability to respond to any similar events in the future.
A consultation on ‘Covid recovery: public health, public services and justice system reforms’ opened on 17th August 2021 and closed on 9th November 2021. It contained 86 questions – 43 closed questions, each with an optional free text response box. In total, 2,905 valid consultation responses were received; 130 were organisational responses and the remainder were from individuals. Due to the nature of consultations, the views of consultation respondents do not necessarily represent of the views of the population. There was significant repetition of views within and across responses, particularly in comments expressing opposition to the proposals. Respondents consistently raised concerns about an undemocratic overreach of government power which many felt breached human rights. Others believed the pandemic was not a justifiable reason for introducing or prolonging emergency powers, with calls for Scotland to ‘return to normal’.
Public health resilience
Proposals enabling the Scottish Government to direct educational establishments to close, and to enact public health protection regulations such as lockdown measures, face coverings, and limiting the size of gatherings, elicited a range of views. Many doubted the effectiveness of these measures in controlling Covid and were concerned about the harm restrictions have caused to education, physical and mental health, and the economy. However, supporters suggested such measures would help the Scottish Government to act more quickly in response to future public health emergencies.
Supporters of the provision to allow health professionals other than doctors to administer vaccinations noted this would increase vaccination capacity. However, several felt that only doctors should be responsible, due to their greater level of training and competence. Specifically, their ability to answer questions would ensure informed consent, and their access to medical records would enable them to offer appropriate advice to patients.
Some supported allowing local authorities to hold public meetings in a virtual setting because it could make meetings more accessible. However, several respondents raised concerns about digital exclusion or felt virtual meetings were less transparent than face-to-face events. Several suggested a hybrid model, where meetings take place in-person along with an option to attend online, allowing as many people as possible to attend.
Public services and justice system reform
Modernisation, efficiency, and flexibility were themes expressed by those who endorsed extending provisions for public services and justice proceedings to be carried out through remote, virtual, or electronic means. For example, proposals for remote registration of births and deaths were seen to offer a more streamlined process, particularly for those in remote, rural and island areas.
However, concerns about digital exclusion were raised consistently. Respondents feared remote or virtual services could exclude or disadvantage those with poor broadband access or low levels of digital literacy, such as elderly people, people with disabilities, low-income households and remote and rural communities. Concerns were also expressed around security and the potential for fraud, and restricted public access to hearings.
Many respondents supported provisions being made permanent under hybrid systems where the option to conduct proceedings in-person is retained. Another common theme was a desire for further review and greater understanding of the impact and risks of change before making the provisions permanent. Less commonly mentioned reasons for opposition to extending other public service and justice measures varied considerably given the wide range of provisions under consideration.
The provisions for tenancies and protection against eviction attracted many responses. Several welcomed the measures, noting they strengthen tenants’ rights and offer a layer of protection against eviction and homelessness. However, others felt the provisions would have a negative impact on private landlords and could risk driving them out of the market, potentially resulting in a shortage of affordable accommodation for rent.
The impact of Covid in the justice system
Many organisations supported conducting court business by electronic means and virtual attendance. Some felt greater use of technology would modernise and improve court processes and help reduce the Covid backlog. Cost and time savings for all parties were also envisaged. However, several questioned the effectiveness of virtual hearings and highlighted the potential for discrimination. Most desired a hybrid of face-to-face and online options to allow flexibility to adapt to different circumstances and the seriousness of each case. Most in the legal and justice sector called for default in-person attendance for civil proofs and jury trials, with less opposition to remote procedural hearings.
While some other justice measures were supported due to the practical value they offer if the pandemic continues, concerns over their appropriateness were evident. Respondents felt some provisions, in particular the early release of prisoners and expiry of undertaking provisions, could diminish the justice system. A small number opposed the proposal for a national court for cases beginning with an appearance from custody as they felt justice should remain local and that Sheriffs were best placed to understand their own jurisdiction.
Views on extending time limits were very mixed. Some supported an extension to improve flexibility and efficiency in the court system. Conversely, there was opposition to measures which could lengthen the judicial process. Respondents were particularly concerned about the potential negative impact on those who spend longer on remand as a result.
The responses of the large number of individuals and informed stakeholders who took part in the consultation provide a useful evidence base of diverse perspectives for the Scottish Government to draw upon when developing the final Bill. Overall, the key message from respondents was that decisions to extend the temporary measures should be made with careful consideration. Doing so will ensure that Scotland moves towards a fair, safe and secure recovery from the pandemic.
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