Coronavirus: MSPs to agree emergency laws


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PA Media

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MSPs have been meeting in a near-empty chamber on increasingly infrequent occasions

MSPs are set to push through emergency powers to tackle the coronavirus crisis in a single day at Holyrood.

The Coronavirus (Scotland) Bill sets out new rules to prevent tenants from being evicted and to keep the judicial system running during the lockdown.

Constitution Secretary Mike Russell said the “exceptional powers” would be used “exceptionally carefully”.

The legislation is sure to pass, having been drafted in consultation with opposition parties.

However, there is dispute over some points, and amendments will be debated as the bill passes through parliament on an emergency timetable.

Some proposed changes to the justice system have proved controversial, with the Scottish Criminal Bar Association (SCBA) calling them “premature, disproportionate and ill-advised”.

The bill is due to pass through the full legislative process at Holyrood in under nine hours, with the parliament only sitting for one day this week due to the pandemic.

A maximum of 79 of the 129 MSPs will be allowed in the chamber at any one time in order to maintain social distancing.

The legislation is designed to work alongside the emergency bill passed at Westminster last week, which MSPs gave their consent to and which underpins new police powers to enforce the lockdown.

It will introduce new rules in specific devolved areas, focused mainly on housing and justice.

These include:

  • moves to protect tenants from eviction by increasing notice periods to six months
  • an overhaul of the justice system, allowing anyone to participate in court hearings by video or audio link
  • powers to have trials held before judges, without a jury
  • provision for the early release of some prisoners from jails if staff levels fall dangerously low
  • relaxed rules for local authorities, including longer deadlines for planning and licensing decisions and to respond to Freedom of Information requests

Mr Russell said that “we are in an emergency and these are emergency powers that are necessary to allow us to concentrate on the absolute priority of dealing with the pandemic”.

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PA Media

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Constitution Secretary Mike Russell said there were “many safeguards” on the new powers

The constitution secretary added: “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.

“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.

“We are also providing more direct help to protect private and social tenants from eviction and provide security to households facing financial hardship in the coming months.”

There is to be a strict time limit on the new powers, which will initially be in force for six months.

MSPs will have the opportunity to extend this by a further six months on two occasions, to a maximum period of 18 months overall. Ministers have also pledged to report back to Holyrood on the use of the powers every two months,

Scotland’s coronavirus deaths

The legislation was drawn up in consultation with opposition parties, so the bill is expected to pass through Holyrood fairly smoothly.

However there will still be debate on some points, with opposition parties tabling amendments on key issues.

The protection from evictions appears to only apply to notices issued after the legislation was put down – similar to measures in the Westminster legislation which were criticised by Labour and housing charity Shelter.

The Greens want to strengthen the ban on evictions by temporarily barring landlords from serving any eviction notices, while allowing students to get early termination of leases in private accommodation they are now not using.

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Scottish Court Service

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Lord Carloway warned that a backlog of more than 1,000 trials could build up by early summer

The Conservatives and Lib Dems have put down amendments seeking to remove sections of the bill which would allow for more trials to be heard by judges without juries – a move which is not mirrored south of the border.

Ministers said this might be needed to prevent a backlog of “the most serious cases” building up, and that this would only happen subject to further parliamentary scrutiny – but the Tories said trial by jury was “an important safeguard of human rights which we would be most reluctant to see removed”.

Scottish lawyers also hit out at this proposal, with the SCBA saying it would be “at best a knee-jerk reaction to an as-yet unquantified problem, instigated by panic, and at worst something far more sinister”.

However Scotland’s most senior judge, Lord Carloway, said delays to serious cases were “likely to stretch into years rather than months” if no action was taken, with a backlog of more than 1,000 trials building up even if restrictions were lifted by the start of summer.

And Victim Support Scotland backed the move “to prevent victims of serious crime waiting even longer for their cases to be heard”.

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