SNP accused of ‘undermining democracy’ by trying to make Covid powers permanent

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Visitors at Edinburgh Castle stand in marked circles to maintain social distancing during the Covid pandemic - Jane Barlow
Visitors at Edinburgh Castle stand in marked circles to maintain social distancing during the Covid pandemic - Jane Barlow

An attempt by SNP ministers to make emergency Covid-19 powers permanent has been branded a “chilling” bid to undermine democracy, despite the initial plans being watered down.

The legislation, which would allow Scottish ministers to wield so-called “Henry VIII powers” in the event of a future emergency, passed its first stage at Holyrood on Thursday after it was backed by the SNP and Greens.

All opposition parties are strongly opposed to the move, which would mean some emergency coronavirus measures, such as the ability to impose lockdown restrictions, allow court hearings to take place remotely and restrict access to schools, remain in place indefinitely.

John Swinney, the deputy first minister, said the Government would bring amendments, following a major backlash to the proposals, designed to address opponents' concerns.

John Swinney, Scotland's deputy first minister, said the Government would bring amendments to the proposed legislation after backlash - Ken Jack
John Swinney, Scotland's deputy first minister, said the Government would bring amendments to the proposed legislation after backlash - Ken Jack

Among the concessions are that there would be a parliamentary vote before ministers were handed so-called “Henry VIII powers”, which allow them to amend or repeal provisions of acts of Parliament without a Holyrood vote.

However, opposition parties said these did not go nearly far enough, as they would still allow ministers to wield extraordinary power without scrutiny.

They claimed that had the new regime been in place during the first Covid lockdown, draconian steps initially proposed by SNP ministers, such as halting jury trials or temporarily repealing the Freedom of Information Act, could have been enacted.

'Undermining civil liberties'

Alex Cole-Hamilton, the leader of the Scottish Lib Dems, said the Bill would "represent a permanent transfer from Parliament to the executive, undermining democracy and civil liberties in the process - that is chilling".

However, it is likely to become law following the SNP deal with the Scottish Greens, despite the legislation being opposed by 90 per cent of 4,000 respondents to a consultation by Holyrood’s Covid recovery committee.

The SNP has said the law would merely bring the Scottish Parliament into line with Westminster.

But academics have said that a power to “modify or amend” any act of Parliament in an emergency would be a provision that would be unique to Scotland and is not found in equivalent English emergency legislation.

Murdo Fraser, the Scottish Tory MSP, said: "Too much of this Bill is simply not necessary at this stage.

"To make permanent what were emergency and extraordinary powers passes control from Parliament to the Government.

"It represents a power-grab on the part of SNP ministers and that is not something we can support."

'Serious and long-term consequences'

Scottish Labour is also opposed, with Jackie Baillie, the party’s deputy leader, saying it would "have serious and long-term consequences for this country and for our democracy".

However, Mr Swinney insisted his compromise showed his willingness to listen to Parliament.

He said: “This Bill aims to update our statute book, based on lessons learned during the pandemic, to support Scotland’s recovery. I am pleased Parliament has voted to support its general principles.

“To ensure that necessary parliamentary oversight is in place, the Government will bring forward amendments to introduce a ‘gateway vote’ mechanism which would mean that key aspects of the public health protection and educational continuity powers would only have effect if a parliamentary vote, on a formal Government declaration, is held and approved.”

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