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‘Henry VIII powers’ in Covid Bill would be subject to MSPs’ approval – Swinney

The Bill would make some emergency coronavirus powers permanent, such as the ability to impose lockdowns (PA)
The Bill would make some emergency coronavirus powers permanent, such as the ability to impose lockdowns (PA)

Controversial “Henry VIII” powers in the Scottish Government’s coronavirus legislation will be subject to parliamentary approval, Deputy First Minister John Swinney has said.

He said the Government will amend its Coronavirus (Recovery and Reform) (Scotland) Bill, acknowledging concerns from MSPs around the original draft of the law.

The Bill would make some emergency coronavirus powers permanent, such as the ability to impose lockdown restrictions, allow court hearings to take place remotely and restrict access to schools.

Opposition MSPs have spoken against the Bill at committee stage, labelling it a “power-grab”.

During a stage one debate in the Scottish Parliament on Thursday, Mr Swinney said a number of amendments would be brought forward at stage two.

He discussed the proposal for powers to modify primary legislation through health protection regulations, saying these are “the so-called Henry VIII powers”.

He said: “I remain of the view that this power is appropriate and is already subject to significant safeguards.

“However, having considered the views of members, we will bring forward amendments at stage two to add the further restriction that that power will only be available where ministers make regulations under the draft affirmative procedure.

“This would mean that parliamentary approval must be in place before any modification to primary legislation takes place.

“I accept that the Bill provisions as introduced did not strike the right balance between having the legislative framework we need and the necessary level of parliamentary oversight.”

He said the Government will bring forward mechanisms for a parliamentary “gateway vote”, meaning key aspects of the Bill would only have effect after a vote by MSPs.

Mr Swinney said: “I hope the amendments I have announced this afternoon, together with the further points that were made in the stage one report, in relation to the Henry VIII powers and the introduction of a gateway provision demonstrate the willingness of the Government to listen to Parliament.”

Scottish budget debate
Murdo Fraser said too much of the Bill is unnecessary (Fraser Bremner)

Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser said although there are some provisions in the Bill that are “very sensible”, his party cannot support it.

“Too much of this Bill is simply not necessary at this stage,” he said.

“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.”

Mr Fraser also took issue with the fact that changes announced by the Deputy First Minister would not allow for the legislation to be amended.

Coronavirus – Tue Oct 5, 2021
Jackie Baillie said her party would consider the amendments (Fraser Bremner)

Labour deputy leader Jackie Baillie also said her party will not support the Bill, saying it “does react to past challenges whilst failing to learn lessons from the pandemic”.

She added: “The SNP are pushing through a Bill that, as it stands, would have serious and long-term consequences for this country and for our democracy.”

She said she will look at the detail of the amendment proposed at stage two by Mr Swinney and make a decision at a later date.

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Alex Cole-Hamilton said his party will not support the Bill, claiming it would “represent a permanent transfer from Parliament to the executive, undermining democracy and civil liberties in the process – that is chilling”.