SNP ministers have been accused of “an unwarranted and unacceptable power grab” after bringing forward plans that would allow some emergency pandemic powers to be made permanent and bypass parliamentary scrutiny.
The Coronavirus (Recovery and Reform) (Scotland) Bill includes pernament changes in 30 specific areas which were overhauled by temporary laws in response to the pandemic.
But the Scottish Conservatives have warned that “the power to close schools and to release prisoners early” being made permanent would be an “unnecessary overreach” by ministers.
The draft legislation allows SNP ministers to be given permanent powers to bring in restrictions in response to any future pandemic.
The legislation states the Scottish Government “may by regulations make provision for the purpose of preventing, protecting against, controlling or providing a public health response to the incidence or spread of infection or contamination in Scotland”.
Ministers would also be able to introduce a temporary extension to legal time-limits for criminal trials and proceedings and some to be held remotely to try and ease the backlog in cases.
The legislation would allow pre-eviction protocols including placing more responsibility on landlords to ensure rules are follows to continue and allowing remote registration of deaths and still-births without the need to attend a registration office in person.
The bill also allows adjusting the minimum debt level that an individual must owe before a creditor can make them bankrupt from £10,000 to £5,000, an increase from £3,000 pre-pandemic.
The law would also hand licensing boards the power to hold remote hearings.
Deputy First Minister and Covid Recovery Secretary, John Swinney, said: “Scottish ministers have already removed many of the temporary measures that supported our response to the pandemic, which are no longer needed.
“However, we believe those pragmatic reforms that have delivered demonstrable benefit to the people of Scotland should continue.
“Whilst it has been incredibly disruptive, the urgency of the pandemic has driven the pace of digital adoption, and in some cases more efficient ways of working, and better service to the public.”
He added: “I am grateful to everyone who took the time to respond to our consultation, which has been considered very carefully in the drafting of this Bill, to embed these beneficial reforms in Scotland’s public services, along with the temporary extension of some justice measures to assist the courts with clearing the backlog of cases arising from the pandemic.
“Our priorities are to continue to lead Scotland safely through and out of the Covid pandemic, to address inequalities made worse by Covid, make progress towards a wellbeing economy and accelerate inclusive, person-centred public services, and this Bill supports those aims.”
But the Scottish Conservatives have issued a warning about the extension of powers.
The party’s Covid recovery spokesperson, Murdo Fraser, said: “Whilst there may be measures in this bill that are sensible long-term reforms, too much of it amounts to an unwarranted and unacceptable power grab by the SNP.
“The powers it would hand the Scottish Government permanently were only ever meant to be temporary for the duration of the pandemic.
“The most worrying of the proposals is the power to close schools and to release prisoners early – and the proposed Bill lets them do this without prior Parliamentary approval.
“This bill is an alarming and unnecessary overreach by the SNP, so the Scottish Conservatives will oppose measures which put too much power in the hands of ministers.”
Scottish Labour has insisted there is no justification fo parts of the legislation bypassing Parliament.
Labour’s health and Covid recovery spokesperson, Jackie Baillie, said: “This is a shameless power grab from the SNP.
“These emergency powers were a necessary response to an unprecedented crisis – not a free pass for Ministers to hoard new powers.
“This bill would give ministers permanent powers to shut down schools and confine people to their homes at the drop of a hat.”
She added: “There is simply no excuse for bypassing Parliament, when Holyrood has shown time and time again that it can respond with the urgency needed.
“The SNP must listen to the public and stop this gross overreach.”