Scottish Parliament to vote on emergency coronavirus bill
An emergency coronavirus bill, proposing judge-only court trials, releasing some prisoners and protecting tenants from eviction among other changes, will be voted on by the Scottish Parliament tomorrow.
The Coronavirus (Scotland) Bill was formally introduced to the parliament on Tuesday and will be scrutinised and debated by MSPs on Wednesday.
The bill comes as First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced positive cases of COVID-19 in Scotland had increased by 430 since yesterday, to 1,993 confirmed cases, with 60 deaths from the virus.
The emergency bill proposes changes to planning and local authority licensing deadlines, allows public bodies to simplify their reporting, extends the period which they have to respond to FOI requests from and increases the minimum notice period of eviction for tenants to six months.
It grants the justice system the power to allow for judge-only trials in the most serious cases and gives ministers the power to design a programme for release of certain prisoners. There are also provisions to allow many criminal, family and civil justice hearings to take place remotely.
Constitution Secretary Michael Russell said the emergency powers were necessary to allow the Scottish Government to “concentrate on the absolute priority of dealing with the pandemic”.
“Some of these measures are about the continuing function of the justice system and public services to maintain public confidence and to keep our communities safe,” he said.
“For example, we cannot simply summon juries at present - that would be completely impossible. The procedure to have solemn trials without a jury is in the bill, but there are many safeguards. These are exceptional powers and, if they are used, they have to be used exceptionally carefully.”
He said private and social tenants would be given more direct help to prevent eviction, and that the government would provide security to households facing financial hardship.
“We have fully involved opposition parties in the bill’s development, and it is important for democracy that we tell the people of Scotland regularly when and how it is being used and be fully accountable for our actions,” Russell said.
The bill will expire on 30 September 2020, but this can be extended to 31 March 2021 or 30 September 2021.
During the vote tomorrow, parliament will only allow 79 MSPs in the chamber due to social distancing rules. If a greater number of MSPs attend and either wish to participate, or just vote, the parliament said it “could accommodate this”.
“For divisions this would involve extending the period for each vote to provide additional time for members to vote while maintaining social distancing measures,” a parliament spokesperson said.
Westminster passed an emergency coronavirus bill last week, which gave the UK Government and devolved governments the powers to ban gatherings and enforce social distancing rules.