Which current bill before the Scottish Parliament has generated the most heat in public debate? Nothing to do with the pandemic emergency, or even the independence debate, but hate crime.
The bill based on Lord Bracadale’s report, supposedly largely a consolidating measure, finds itself at the centre of a storm into which virtually every commentator seems to have felt obliged to pitch their criticisms, alongside interests ranging from bishops to secularists to the police.
Some of the comments have been remarkable (is there really a serious argument that possession of the Bible could become an offence?), but the Society and the Faculty of Advocates have each presented substantial and considered responses to the committee scrutinising the bill, making some weighty points about lack of clarity of the proposed offences, not least where the bill happens to depart from Lord Bracadale’s proposals.
Faculty goes so far as to conclude that ministers should “reconsider” the bill – which, given that its main purpose is to restate existing law, should not be lightly dismissed. If the bill does proceed, it can be expected to take up much parliamentary time before it is passed. The same may be true of the well intended incorporation of the United Nations Children’s Rights Convention, a bill still to be introduced. Are these the best use of the now limited time remaining before next May’s election?
Perhaps our MSPs’ time would be better spent attempting to mitigate the many hardships that seem destined to result from the coronavirus lockdown and its after-effects on the economy. Some debt advisers, for example, regularly voice warnings that debtor support is in a poorer state now than 10 or 15 years ago. That should be cause for serious concern.
And what about those worried for their own homes? Into the mix here we have the Holyrood Local Government Committee’s decision to drop the Fair Rents (Scotland) Bill from its programme, claiming excessive workload. Taken in private session after this member’s bill had been referred to the committee for scrutiny, it goes against the principles of accountability that are supposed to govern the way the Parliament conducts itself.
Whether the bill, which has wider relevance than COVID-19 related problems, is the best way to address the serious issue of private rented sector costs is something that should be debated openly in the chamber, not annulled by the private decision of a handful of MSPs.
There are many worthy topics for legislation, but at times of national emergency such as this, our Parliament would improve its public standing if it cleared its decks in order to prioritise devoting as much time as possible to alleviating the effects of lockdown and recession on our people.