The Advocate-General for Scotland (Lord Stewart of Dirleton) (Con)
My Lords, last month, 25 March marked two years since the Coronavirus Act gained Royal Assent. This Act gave us the necessary powers to tackle the direct health impacts of the Covid-19 virus, support individuals, businesses and the economy, and maintain our critical public services during the pandemic. When the Act was introduced, this House and the other place agreed for the temporary provisions within it to have a two-year lifespan. The Government have always been clear that these provisions would remain in place only as long as they are necessary and proportionate to respond to the pandemic. Thanks to the progress made in the fight against the virus, the Government have been able to repeal the vast majority of the temporary non-devolved provisions in this Act. There are now only five temporary non-devolved provisions remaining in force, which are extended by the regulations before us today.
Four of these provisions, at Sections 30, 53, 54 and 55 of the Act, relate to the justice system. They have allowed the system to continue to function throughout the pandemic, enabling the courts to deal promptly and safely with proceedings, and to avoid unnecessary social contact and travel while upholding the principle of open justice. They are now proving vital in our efforts to support court recovery. These temporary measures are so important to court recovery that we intend to replace them with permanent legislation, but we cannot afford any gap in provision while we wait for that legislation to complete its passage through Parliament, albeit some of it is comparatively well-advanced.
Section 30 removes the obligations for coroners to hold inquests with a jury where Covid-19 is the suspected cause of death. An equivalent measure is included in the Judicial Review and Courts Bill, which is expected to receive Royal Assent later this spring. The replacement measure has effect for two years and can be extended by regulations made by the Secretary of State. Neither Section 30 nor the new Judicial Review and Courts Bill prevents coroners from holding jury inquests in cases where they consider it appropriate. I think it is important to emphasise this element of discretion vesting in the coroner.
Sections 53, 54 and 55 enable participation in court and tribunal hearings to take place remotely by video or audio links. They also allow audio or video footage to be transmitted to remote observers and create new offences to prohibit the unauthorised recording or transmission of any live links sent from court. Essentially, it is an updating of the power inherent in the court already to regulate the behaviour of those observing its proceedings.
They are due to be replaced this summer with new provisions in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, subject to parliamentary approval. In the meantime, it is vital that these measures remain in place so that our courts and tribunals can continue to hold virtual hearings in an open and transparent manner. These measures continue to be crucial in helping our courts and tribunals to work more quickly through the backlog of cases that has built up during the pandemic.
Currently, around 10,000 hearings each week take place using some form of remote technology. On 14 February, the Lord Chief Justice issued guidance on the circumstances and types of proceedings where it might continue to be appropriate for advocates to attend Crown Court hearings remotely under these provisions. This includes bail applications, ground rules hearings, custody time limit extensions, uncontested Proceeds of Crime Act hearings and those hearings which involve legal argument only. Conducting these types of hearings via audio and video links means that court-rooms can be reserved for hearings which require participants to attend in person, including trials and sentencing hearings.
Without Section 30, the backlogs in our coroners’ courts would be significantly larger, further increasing the demand on local authority-funded coroner services. Hundreds, possibly thousands of individuals, would have to serve on Covid-19 inquest juries and coroner services would have been overwhelmed by the logistics. If the courts are unable to continue to use these provisions, even for a few months, I submit that it will have a significant impact on our court recovery programme. It will mean that defendants are waiting longer than necessary for trial, more complainers are waiting longer than necessary for justice and the bereaved are waiting longer than necessary for inquests. Therefore, we cannot, I submit, allow these powers to lapse. A maximum six-month extension will enable a smooth transition and avoid any disruption to service before replacement primary legislation comes into force. The provisions we are discussing today will be repealed once this new primary legislation is in force.
I turn to address a provision at Section 43 which relates to statutory sick pay in Northern Ireland. Section 43 is extended by this statutory instrument for a period of six months. This enables statutory sick pay to be paid from day one in Northern Ireland for absences relating to Covid-19. While statutory sick pay is ordinarily a transferred matter in Northern Ireland, Section 43 confers on the Secretary of State the power to make regulations in respect of this provision. In this provision, the UK Government are facilitating the extension of Section 43 on the formal request of the Department for Communities in Northern Ireland.
I take the opportunity today on behalf of the Government to note an addendum in the 12th two-monthly report of the Act, which was published on 24 March. This addendum addresses omission of status updates for two temporary provisions in previous reports. These are Sections 42 and 43 that relate to statutory sick pay and extend to Northern Ireland only. On behalf of the Government, I apologise for this omission and welcome the opportunity to correct it. The addendum provides information about the status of these provisions over the course of the pandemic. I have made inquiry of the Bill team about the way in which this addendum is promulgated and I am told that it together with an accompanying apology is placed in prominent view in the report.
I reassure the Committee and the House in general on behalf of the Government that the reporting omission has not impacted the policy relating to these provisions. The addendum provides information about the status of these provisions over the course of the pandemic.
On behalf of the Government, I thank all front-line workers and those working in our courts, tribunals and coroner services for the sterling work they have done to keep the system running.