Michael Russell: 'Nothing sinister in Covid-19 regulation changes'

Cabinet Secretary for Government Business and Constitutional Relations Mike Russell.Cabinet Secretary for Government Business and Constitutional Relations Mike Russell.
Cabinet Secretary for Government Business and Constitutional Relations Mike Russell.
The Scottish Government’s decision to change emergency coronavirus legislation without parliamentary scrutiny has been defended as neither “sinister or malicious”.

Cabinet Secretary Michael Russell said that the changes were made quickly as the Scottish public would not have “reacted terribly well” to any further delay in the easing of lockdown.

He also said that he was “unaware” that the latest amendments to Covid-19 legislation removed any reference to it being in place to deal solely with the “emergency period”, and pledged to give MSPs “chapter and verse” on what had happened.

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Mr Russell was giving evidence by video to the new Covid-19 Committee on the statutory instrument the government is putting in place to change the Health Protection (Coronavirus) (Restrictions) (Scotland) Bill, and start phase one of lockdown easing.

However he was asked by Scottish Conservative Adam Tomkins and Scottish Green Ross Greer about the lack of parliamentary scrutiny of the amendments before they were put into action, as they made “significant changes in the way people are able to live their lives”.

Mr Tomkins said: “There is too much of a risk at the moment that the current extraordinary circumstances we’re operating becomes a new normal and we must not let that happen.

He raised the example of the the “omission from the principal regulations of all references to the emergency period” and added: “When the emergency regulations were first made in March it was clear to everyone that they were to deal with a public health emergency and now we find, without a word of parliamentary scrutiny or oversight, that every reference to that emergency period has been taken out of those regulations, so they no longer read as if they pertain to an emergency but they read as if they do govern what is being called the new normal.”

However Mr Russell said that the government and parliament were not working “in normal times”.

He said he would want to look at the amended regulations “very carefully because I’m unaware of what you say though I don’t dispute it. But my reaction is they amend the principal regulations which still refer to the emergency, so they are not by themselves the last word. I am more than happy to confirm they are to do with the emergency.

“I absolutely accept these regulations should not last a moment longer than necessary. I’ve made that commitment. With the best will in the world I do not believe we are doing anything other than is required to be done at this moment and I see nothing sinister in minor changes in the wording because we’re amending the main regulations which are emergency regulations.”

Mr Tomkins said it was “concerning” that Mr Russell did not “seem to be aware of the fact that the principal thing these regulations do is remove from the principal regulations every single reference to the emergency period.”

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The Cabinet Secretary said he would write to the MSP and give “chapter and verse” on the amendments, but added: “I do not believe there is anything malicious, sinister or of odd intent and it’s to do with amending regulations. But I want to be clear myself – and I don’t want to be characterised as unaware – but I want to be clear that we are not doing anything other than amending a set of regulations.”

Scottish Green MSP Ross Greer also raised concerns about the changes to the regulations without Holyrood’s “affirmative procedure”. He said: “I understand why the government has the ability to do that where regulations are being introduced to increase the stringency of lockdown for the sake of public health, but these changes are to ease them, so I don’t understand why this set of changes could not have been brought under the affirmative procedure allowing for scrutiny and a vote of parliament before being brought into effect, what was the urgency that that wasn’t the correct course of action?”

Mr Russell said the government had moved quickly because the public would not have accepted a delay to allow for parliamentary oversight.

“With the greatest of respect it was because people are desperate to move on. There is a three weekly review underway which is well established, and if the First Minister was to say ‘we’d like to do this but we have to go to the committee first so you’ll have to wait a week until we do it’, I’m not sure people would have reacted terribly well to that.

“We’re trying to consult on these as quickly as we can. We’ve been open about that. These are small easements and I can see no harm in that. Equally we will want to make sure that scrutiny is as firm and rigid as possible and that’s what will happen.”

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