Jenny Marra MSP : Regulatory Reform (Scotland) Bill
Speech in the Scottish Parliament debate
16 January 2014
It was with a sceptical eye that Labour viewed the bill at stage 1—to my mind, with good reason.
We must always resist the slow creep of centralisation, in particular through framework legislation such as this bill, unless we are absolutely certain that centralisation is the best option.
So, at stage 1, when we examined the central component of this bill—namely the new powers for Scottish ministers over regulations and the bodies that fulfil regulatory functions—we made it clear that we could not vote in favour of the bill unless we were satisfied first, that there was proper scrutiny to complement the Scottish Government’s new functions; secondly, that those new functions did not adversely impact on the ability of local authorities to adapt and adjust to local circumstances; and, thirdly, that the duty called “sustainable economic growth” would not have unintended consequences for regulators that would result in their prioritising one consideration over all other essential functions.
I turn first to our third concern.
Today, Labour voted again with Alison Johnstone’s amendments seeking either to remove any reference to sustainable economic growth from the bill or to change that duty to sustainable development.
As I said in relation to the debates on the issue during stage 1 and stage 2, we did so because of the wealth of evidence that was given to the committee that pointed towards legal difficulties with the Government’s proposed duty—in particular the evidence that was given by Professor Andrea Ross of the University of Dundee, which bears repeating.
“Regardless of how this government interprets sustainable economic growth, there is no guarantee that a future government or the courts will not interpret it to mean a stable economy with no mention of its impact on ecological and social sustainability.”
The provision on sustainable economic growth remains, at best, a legal grey area.
However, the Government has sought to reassure us—on three separate occasions—that there are adequate provisions in the bill to safeguard the other functions, such as the hard-won health and safety laws that this party has campaigned for over the years.
We are debating hypotheticals and discussing future scenarios that we hope do not arise. As we debate this issue for—according to the minister—the third time, I can see that the minister is not going to budge.
Therefore, I can say to the Government only that I hope that its assurances throughout the debate—that the pursuit of sustainable economic growth for regulators will not come at the sacrifice of their other functions—are followed up by close scrutiny of the bill after it is passed today.
The Minister for Energy, Enterprise and Tourism (Fergus Ewing): Will Jenny Marra give way?
Jenny Marra: I am sorry, minister, but on this occasion I will not, as I know that we are tight for time.
On the first and second of the concerns that I outlined earlier, around the need for transparency and accountability, and the need to protect local authority discretion, I am pleased that the minister has listened and has sought to improve the bill on both counts.
After stage 2, I was grateful to receive a letter from Mr Ewing reiterating his commitment to utter transparency when the Government is exercising its new functions that will result from this bill.
I was pleased again when the Government lodged amendments at stage 2 that will ensure publication of any direction for variation in regulation, of guidance on the sustainable economic growth section and of the code of practice.
In that regard, I note today’s amendment from Paul Wheelhouse, which will see the Government report to Parliament on its environmental regulation.
Those are welcome developments that will aid our future assessment of the effectiveness of the law.
Similarly, the amendments that were lodged at stage 2 by Fergus Ewing that will exempt local authorities from the sustainable economic growth duty are also to be welcomed.
We believe that the fact that the duty will not apply to them will allow them to prioritise their regulatory functions according to the varying and changing circumstances that they find themselves in locally. Again, that is to be welcomed.
However, I am disappointed that the Government did not accept Margaret McDougall’s amendments, which had sympathy across the chamber and which, I believe, would have increased that flexibility further in the planning process.
In summary, Labour will vote for the bill despite having enduring concerns around the future operation of the sustainable economic growth provision.
I urge the minister to monitor and to reflect regularly on the duty’s impact on Scotland’s regulatory system, and not to let it erode some of the other very important functions of our regulators.
Jenny Marra: I begin by dealing with the amendments that Murdo Fraser spoke to earlier this afternoon, which sought to remove the Scottish Government’s stage 2 amendment inserting enforcement provisions for the carrier bag charge that the Government is in the process of introducing.
During stage 2 and again today, Mr Fraser argued against that Government amendment on two counts: the first was to do with the substance of the policy; and the second concerned the way in which the Government has sought to introduce the policy at a late stage.
I agree with Mr Fraser that it was a bit of a surprise when the Government amendment came out of the blue at stage 2, and I share his concern about the lack of consultation on the amendment, which was not discussed at all during stage 1.
It is a shame that we were not able to take evidence and give the policy more consideration at that point.
I will recap some of the points that have been raised today.
I put on the record again our continued unease about the section on sustainable economic growth and the insertion of a sustainable economic growth duty in the bill, and our support for Alison Johnstone’s amendments.
I accept the Government’s assurances that it will do its utmost to ensure that regulators are not forced to compromise on their other, equally important, duties.
I again welcome the minister’s drive towards greater transparency in the bill with the amendments that he lodged at stage 2.
However, I remain disappointed that he did not see the value, as COSLA and others did, of accepting the amendments from my colleague Margaret McDougall, which in our opinion would have bolstered the planning process in Scotland.
As I argued earlier, the fact that the bill exempts local authorities from the need to pursue sustainable economic growth is a welcome step, and I think that members know why. COSLA and Unison gave evidence to the committee that made the case for maintaining the status quo in that regard.
We need to ensure that our local authorities are empowered to adapt to local situations, which can vary widely throughout Scotland.
If COSLA and others tell us that it is happening now, we should listen, and I am glad that the minister chose to do so at stage 2. Because of the focus on part 1, an issue that has been a little lost in the debate is that of the powers that the bill gives to SEPA.
The steps to ensure better safety measures for SEPA officers are of course welcome.
The bill widens SEPA’s remit extensively, and I am confident that the organisation will take on its new responsibilities with vigour. I have had the pleasure of meeting
Professor David Sigsworth on a number of occasions and I have seen at first hand the benefit of his experience and expertise.
We believe that the bill gives the Government the opportunity to bring about better regulation for Scotland.
Ministers are giving themselves new powers, and they must realise that with them comes great responsibility to keep those powers under review and ensure that the concerns that have been raised from across the Parliament in today’s debate and throughout the passage of the bill are taken into proper and serious account.