JOHN Swinney has defended plans to give ministers emergency rule-making powers permanently, saying it was necessary that the government be able to act at pace during the "coronavirus pandemic or another comparable incident of similar style and scale."
Appearing before Holyrood’s Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee, the Deputy First Minister said provisions within the new legislation would allow the government to take “sufficient comprehensive action".
The new Coronavirus (Recovery and Reform) (Scotland) Bill would allow ministers to permanently keep emergency powers given to them by parliament temporarily. This includes the ability to order a full national lockdown and close schools
The Bill also includes five delegated powers that would allow the use of made affirmative procedure, which allows legal changes to be made before MSPs have a chance to see them.
Asked why that was necessary, Mr Swinney told MSPs on the committee: “In relation to the delegation of powers involved in the bill, the rationale is to recognise the necessity of us taking sufficient comprehensive action should we face the challenge of an intensification of the coronavirus pandemic or another comparable incident of similar style and scale.
“There are existing provisions in legislation in the Public Health Scotland Act 2007 which gives us limited localised powers to deal with what I would describe as a local outbreak of concern but where it comes to dealing with a situation of the magnitude we have been dealing with around about covid the statute book is ill-equipped for such measures.
“What we are trying to do is complete the statute book to ensure that it has the adequate powers available and there is a scheme of delegation in place that is appropriate to deal with both the necessity of parliamentary scrutiny but also the necessity of urgent action should that be required.”
One of the made affirmative powers - the early release of prisoners - is only in relation to Covid, while the other four are permanent.
Conservative MSP Graham Simpson said he was confused by the government’s position.
“I am struggling to understand the logic of your position. Obviously, we don’t want to be in the position where we’re releasing people early. However, your position seems to be if it is Covid related then we should consider it, if it’s not Covid related then we should not consider it.
“Your whole rationale for this entire bill is that we need these powers because we don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, it could be anything, it could be the stuff you’ve listed in this document, it could be something else. And yet when it comes to releasing prisoners early you want to restrict that power to just Covid. There appears to be no logic to that.”
“It would be more illogical to remove this entirely from the Bill,” Simpson added.
The Tory said he would try to amend the legislation in due course.