A Holyrood committee has supported the general principles of the Coronavirus (Recovery and Reform) (Scotland) Bill – but only on the casting vote of its convener.

MSPs on the COVID-19 Recovery Committee were split 3-3 on whether to support the Scottish Government measure, which has been criticised for conferring excessive powers on ministers, until convener Siobhian Brown used her casting vote in favour of the proposals. 

Much of the bill makes permanent some of the temporary reforms introduced in response to the lockdown restrictions imposed during the pandemic, and is non-contentious where these have been found to be worthwhile reforms. There are also provisions to keep in force for a further period extensions to time limits in criminal cases, to address backlogs in the justice system. These have been considered by other committees at Holyrood.

The COVID-19 Recovery Committee, as lead committee, was concerned principally with the parts of the bill dealing with public health protection and public service reform. Although the regulation making powers in the part 1 of the bill will bring Scotland into line with comparative public health legislation in England & Wales, opposition members Murdo Fraser and Brian White (Conservative) and Alex Rowley (Labour) considered that the Scottish Government had not made a sufficient case for why the powers should be made permanent, arguing that they could be brought forward quickly under primary legislation if required in future.

All members considered that the bill could be strengthened by providing a non-exhaustive list of factors for ministers to consider when determining whether a threat to public health is "serious and imminent", and have asked the Government to set out relevant factors by amendment at stage 2. They also want stronger parliamentary oversight where emergency regulations are subject to the "made affirmative" procedure – coming into force ahead of parliamentary approval – as well as more detail as to when this procedure can be used.

Proposed "Henry VIII" powers allowing ministers to alter previous enactments by order also proved contentions, with the committee failing to reach a view on the right approach. It "invites the Scottish Government to give further consideration to this issue".

On public service reform, the MSPs welcome the provisions for remote delivery of public services, while calling for continued in-person provision for those who need it.

Its narrow support for the bill as a whole was on the basis that ministers are willing to consider further the issues it raised.

Read the report here.