Scottish Parliament has found consensus in the face of crisis


IT usually takes around nine months for a bill to pass through the Scottish Parliament and become law.

There are of course shortcuts to remedy mistakes such as the 2001 one-day bill which re-imposed tolls on the Erskine Bridge after the then Labour/ Liberal Democrat administration forgot to renew them.

Sometimes complex things also have to move much faster in order to defend Scotland’s interests, as with the 2018 EU Continuity Bill, passed in three weeks after the UK failed to protect us in its own EU Exit Bill.

But even by those standards, what has happened at Holyrood in the past two months has been both remarkable and unique. In that time we have been able to take two detailed, wide-ranging bills from nowhere – with no pre-existing drafts and no lengthy preliminary policy debates – to completion and, hopefully by the end of this coming week, Royal Assent.

Such urgency is justified by the fact that in this crisis we must make sure our existing laws and rules do not get in the way of the real priority, which is saving lives.

The bulk of the credit must go to the civil servants in the bill team. At one stage there were more than 50 officials and lawyers working long into the night and on weekends from their own homes.

The parliament staff deserve thanks as well for making a tight timetable happen, including a ground-breaking, fully online second amending stage, complete with votes.

Of course, MSPs were the actual legislators and we saw great work being done across the parties.

Some members, having an idea for change or seeing a way to improve what the Scottish Government was proposing, immediately talked to key stakeholders and Government ministers.

They recognised that these emergency bills were an essential means of taking urgent action outwith normal politics and that therefore, if possible, we should find consensus, not court controversy.

It is, however, sadly true that sometimes things just cannot be done as quickly as we would all want, particularly given the frustrating limits of devolution.

I don’t doubt Andy Wightman’s sincere intentions with his amendments on various tenancy issues. But Housing Minister Kevin Stewart, who knows his stuff on housing too, was right to point out that law which unintentionally results in the private rented sector contracting during an emergency when it is impossible to expand other parts of the housing offer, means that there will be inevitable damage to the very people we want to protect.

And if those who really know about providing public housing – the housing assocations – are saying that what is being put forward would be “catastrophic”, they need to be listened to.

There are grounds for fundamental reform in the housing sector. Among those who have campaigned for them for years has been Stewart. He is delivering and will go on doing so, hopefully alongside the Greens and others.

But I did succeed in getting a negotiated agreement with Greens co-leader Patrick Harvie on excluding companies in tax havens from public support and Alison Johnstone was able to work with Shirley-Anne Somerville to help young carers – an issue about which both are passionate.

Other MSPs behaved in a similarly mature and positive way. We got progress on marriage and civil partnership during the lockdown by working with the Conservatives’ Adam Tomkins, and Labour’s Monica Lennon did exactly he right thing about a carers’ fund. By dint of hard work and constructive engagement with Health Minister Jeane Freeman, she found a solution. Both know that helping carers at this time is more important than political difference.

The one MSP who will never learn about compromise, alas, is Labour’s Neil Findlay. It is, for example, blindingly obvious that you cannot – as he wanted to – impose a new nationwide system of collective bargaining in a complex sector by means of a three-paragraph amendment to an emergency bill.

He could have come to Freeman, or to me as the minister in charge of the bill, and asked how we could work together to further an issue on which we agree. We might, with goodwill, have found a way to take a step forward together.

But he didn’t. He lodged his amendment, didn’t contact either of us, and when he lost it at stage two just lodged it again, denouncing all who opposed it as hypocrites who cared nothing for care workers or trade unions.

That is not progressive politics, but Trumpian egoism. It helps nobody and wastes a vital opportunity to make a difference in a time of crisis.

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