UK Government Coronavirus Bill: speech by Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, Europe and External Affairs

Speech on the UK Government Coronavirus Bill by the Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, Europe and External Affairs Michael Russell MSP to the Scottish Parliament on Thursday 19 March 2020.

Thank you, Presiding Officer.

I want to start by echoing the words and sentiments of the First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport earlier this week.

We are, as a country and across the globe, facing an unprecedented set of challenges.

None of us have experienced these challenges before. We can only meet and defeat them if we work collectively to protect, sustain, support, nurture and help each other.

Addressing these challenges will mean change – profound and sometimes difficult change for us all.

Every life will change. Nothing will be and can be the same from now on.

But we need to change with hope in our hearts. We need to change with a determination to look after ourselves, our loved ones, our communities and our future.

The First Minister, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport, the Deputy First Minister, and other Cabinet Secretaries have already outlined to this chamber the steps that are being taken.

Today I want to talk about the necessary legislative changes we need to bring about quickly in order for our nation to change and respond in the most effective manner.

The first tranche of these comes in the UK Coronavirus Bill, for which the Scottish Government will recommend granting legislative consent.

The four nations coronavirus action plan, published earlier this month, set out measures to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak and information on the 4-stage strategy: contain, delay, research, mitigate.

The action plan outlines a collective approach, reflecting the closely-integrated planning process established to help prevent the spread of the outbreak and combat the impact and consequences of it.

This includes reference to legislation that might be necessary, in order to ensure that public bodies across the UK have the tools and powers they need to carry out an effective response.

The Bill introduced today at Westminster underpins the action plan.

It is the result of a great deal of intensive work between the UK Government and the devolved administrations – unique and extraordinary given the virtual stand off on other legislation that has been the norm for the past three years - and is required because of the extraordinary public health and economic challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic.

We are grateful to everyone who has been part of that process and particularly the officials across all the Governments and many departments who have worked tirelessly to make sure the bill is now available for scrutiny and passage.

Of course the Scottish Government has made clear that - while we acknowledge the benefits of alignment across all 4 UK nations - it is also important that devolved matters can be fully analysed and considered against the emerging situation here in Scotland, and the specific measures and action that we and others need to put in place to respond to that.

It is good to know that that positon has been respected, just as we have respected the need for specific measures and actions in the other 3 nations of the UK.

Presiding Officer it is clear that this bill cannot be scrutinised in the way we that we would all normally wish. The immediacy of the unprecedented challenges that Scotland and the UK face at this time do not permit that.

However, we must also be conscious of the fact that with any legislative urgency, no matter how extreme, must also come a parallel and urgent recognition of the concomitant need to be vigilant in the protection of human rights particularly of those who are least able to protect themselves.

I hope that those at Westminster and more widely who are rightly concerned that the two year sunset period for this bill needs to be looked at very carefully and safeguards put in place for regular reporting, review and renewal if required will be heeded in their concerned and constructive criticism.

The intention is for a Legislative Consent Memorandum to be considered at Committee on Tuesday morning and for a motion to be debated by this Chamber on Tuesday afternoon, subject of course to the Parliament’s agreement.

This LCM does not require renewal nor is there a statutory reporting function for this Parliament and the Scottish Government in the legislation, though there is for the UK Government. However, I make a commitment here today that we will institute, after discussion across the Parliament, appropriate reporting on how and when the powers in the bill have been used by the Scottish Government and in our own further emergency Coronavirus legislation, which we hope to bring forward to put other urgent legislative changes specifically for our own competences on the statute book, hopefully before Easter. We will embed such reporting and renewal - including on our use of provisions in the UK Bill - in law.

Presiding Officer

The measures in the Bill cover a range of topics and sectors, and include bespoke provisions for Scotland to reflect our different legal systems in devolved areas. Combined with measures already being taken by the Scottish Government and our partners, they will help assist in ensuring our health and social care services remain effectively resourced, protect people, and assist in slowing the spread of coronavirus.

There is one very important point that I want stress here, and on which I anticipate that assurances will be sought as the Bill undertakes its passage across the UK and devolved parliaments. This is that creating these additional powers does not automatically mean we will be required to use them, or that all of the powers available to us will be implemented at the same time should the bill gain Royal Assent.

We recognise the seriousness of the current situation, and the further risks we now face if - as the scientific advice indicates - we are now on the cusp of a rapid escalation in the spread of COVID-19.

The next few weeks and possibly months will be a uniquely difficult time, when the people of Scotland will be asked to take unprecedented action as part of our collective efforts to protect our citizens and save lives.

In using the powers we have, and will gain, we will always be guided by the principle that decisions will be taken at the appropriate time on actions and measures to be taken, based on the situation here in Scotland and other parts of the UK.

Moreover we will use those powers in the appropriate way , informed always by our own response planning and by ongoing joint work with the UK Government and other devolved Governments.

Presiding Officer, I now want to briefly outline some of the measures in the Bill in a little more detail.

These areas of action can be broadly categorised as:

  • Firstly, additional public health measures to assist with containment or to mitigate the spread of the disease, including powers relating to events and ability to effect screening for potentially infected persons.
  • measures to allow for increased numbers of health and social care workers to join the workforce - for example, by removing barriers to allow recently retired NHS staff and social workers to return to work. Here in Scotland, in addition to retired persons, this will include those who are on a career break or are social work students to become temporary social workers.
  • the relaxation of certain regulatory requirements within existing legislation in order to ease the burden of staff who are on the frontline of our response, enable reduction in administrative tasks, and prioritisation of care towards those with the most significant and urgent needs.
  • Measures to ensure management of deceased persons with respect and dignity, in acknowledgement that we have already seen tragic loss of life due to this pandemic.
  • And provisions to support the economy, including issues around statutory sick pay which are aimed at ensuring that Coronavirus impact on small businesses and individuals is lessened.

The Bill contains a range of powers that can enhance our response, and ensure that action taken can be enforced.

One example is on the powers within the Bill to require information to be provided by those within or closely connected to a food supply chain, where a failure to comply with a request or to provide false or misleading information will attract a financial penalty.

But of course a route of appeal is also set out in the legislation for many of the enforcement actions.

Presiding Officer, the Bill contains a range of other items of importance and the accompanying information from the UK Government is now available on line. I would be happy to talk to my opposite numbers in other parties about the detail and I have suggested we get together by phone later tonight or tomorrow in order for us to do so. I’m also happy to inform other members of this chamber if they have questions.

Presiding Officer I’ve used the word unprecedented several times in this, but of course that is in our time, not in all time before us. As a nation, as a generation and as a civilisation we have been here before.

The experience of pandemics is not a modern one, but a very ancient one.

Again and again humanity has had to face this challenge.

It has been recorded and commented on by countless individuals. It has led to great reflections on what it is to be human and to be part of a society under threat.

The common thread in all of those works has been not just fear and worry for oneself and those we love. It has also been a thread of community solidarity, concern for all of those around us, generosity of spirit and action and hope for the future.

And a thread that emphasises a shared belief in human creativity, ingenuity and survival

“In the dark times / will there also be singing?”

Asked Brecht just before the second world war.

And he answered himself by saying

“Yes, there will also be singing / about the dark times.”

On the wall outside this Parliament, there is a quote from Fletcher of Saltoun about the relationship between the songs of a country and its laws.

We are going to need both to see us through. I reluctantly leave the singing to others but as to the laws I will do all I can, with my colleagues and with this chamber, to put in place what we need to get through.

We must do the right thing for everyone. We must take action to protect, to enhance and to strengthen not just our response, but ourselves.

As part of this effort, I look forward to engaging further with colleagues across this chamber in the coming days on this vitally important piece of legislation and further legislation we will be required to bring.

Let me finish as I started, with the sentiments expressed by the First Minister.

We should all thank the people of Scotland now and going forward for all of their effort, concern and understanding. It will still be needed in the weeks ahead, but together we can and will win through.

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