Parliament asked to back emergency Coronavirus Bill
New powers outlined for justice, public services and the economy
New powers and measures to help protect the public, maintain essential public services and support the economy during the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak have been published.
The Coronavirus (Scotland) Bill was formally introduced before the Scottish Parliament yesterday (Tuesday) and will be scrutinised and debated by MSPs today (Wednesday).
The Bill focuses on three headline areas, making:
- adjustments to the justice system, including criminal procedures to ensure essential justice business continues
- a range of provisions designed to ensure businesses, consumers and public services continue to operate effectively
- adjustments to the law on evictions to protect those renting their homes in the private and social sector
The justice system measures include a power to allow for judge-only trials for the most serious cases, a power to design a programme of release for certain prisoners if needed - similar to the position in England and Wales - and other adjustments to criminal procedure, family law and civil justice to allow many hearings to take place remotely.
Across the public sector, there are changes to the deadlines involved in planning and local authority licensing to reflect the fact that much of that business has been suspended and construction slowed due to the impact of COVID-19. Public bodies will also be allowed to simplify the ways in which they report their activities, including publishing information online for a temporary period.
To protect private and social sector tenants from eviction, the minimum notice period for tenants is being increased to up to six months giving people peace of mind that their accommodation is secure.
Constitution Secretary Michael Russell yesterday said:
“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.
“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.
“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.”
The majority of the emergency measures in the Bill will automatically expire six months after they come into force. The Scottish Parliament may extend these measures for two further periods of six months, giving the measures in the Bill a maximum duration of 18 months.
The Scottish Government will provide a report to Parliament every two months about the use of these emergency powers.
The Bill itself does not release prisoners. If the Scottish Government decides this power is needed then the detail of a scheme, including which classes of prisoner might be released, will be subject to secondary legislation and Parliamentary approval.
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