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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 23 December 2020 [Draft]

Agenda: Covid-19 (Loneliness and Social Isolation), Covid-19 (Vaccine and Testing Programmes), First Minister’s Question Time, Portfolio Question Time, Brexit, Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Bill: Stage 3, Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Bill, Environmental Standards Scotland (Appointments), Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time


Contents


Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Bill

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Lewis Macdonald)

The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-23768, in the name of Graeme Dey, on the Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Bill.

15:25  

The Minister for Parliamentary Business and Veterans (Graeme Dey)

The events of the past few days have underlined the uncertainty that is involved in responding to the virus and the merits of contingency planning. In that time, discussion on the election has quickly moved from debating whether vaccines will reduce the number of people applying to vote by post to talk of postponing the election entirely. I think that such talk is extremely premature at best, not least because the content of the bill renders us well placed to respond to any further problems that are raised by the pandemic.

On the development of the bill, I particularly recognise the work of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee in scrutinising it and that of the many electoral professionals who shared their expertise throughout the process. I also thank MSPs from all parties for their helpful contributions in the development and passage of the bill. Patrick Harvie was right: the bill is a creature of the Parliament; it is not purely a Government production. Just as important, I note the work of the bill team, for whom this was the third significant piece of proposed legislation in little over a year.

Before discussing the bill’s provisions, I will mention a vital feature of our discussions: keeping voters fully informed. As we know, the Electoral Commission will launch its main public awareness campaign for the election in March 2021. The campaign will run across television, digital and radio—it will not simply involve the booklet, albeit that that will be delivered to every household in Scotland. The booklet will contain much more than references to postal and proxy voting; it will be the standard booklet that goes out from the commission for an election.

I know that some members would rather that the booklet was being sent at an earlier point. As I said earlier, I agree with Anas Sarwar on that. I entirely agree that communication on the election before March is essential. However, as I have indicated, the commission’s booklet covers a range of matters. It will help to direct people for physical voting, which will be an important part of the election, and its going out will coincide with the issuing of polling cards. The Electoral Commission considers that March remains the best time for its booklet to be deployed, and it is not budging on that.

I can reassure members, however, that a range of other actions are also being taken. Electoral registration officers are already taking steps to raise awareness locally, and they are exploring having a national television advert. The chief medical officer will write to all those on the shielding list in January on their options for voting. That will be done in consultation with the Electoral Commission and will reach 169,000 people.

As I noted earlier, the Government will fund a letter to be sent by electoral registration officers to all households in early February, advising voters on registration, the postal vote process and the deadline for applications.

Returning officers also have a part to play in encouraging participation in their local areas. They employ a variety of methods, disseminating information through social media, radio and print advertising, as well as via networks such as community councils. Government funding is in place to underpin all that work.

Turning to the provisions of the bill, I am pleased that members from all parties agree that the Parliament must be able to resume at any point before the election in order to legislate for a postponement, if that is necessary. Modifying the dissolution period is a sensible and pragmatic step, which will enable Parliament to sit and legislate for a new polling date. I remind members that that change means that we will all retain our status as MSPs until the day before the election. I again thank Scottish Parliament officials for their work on new guidance to cover conduct issues.

The bill includes a further contingency measure in the event that the Parliament cannot itself legislate for a postponement, despite the delay to dissolution under the bill. That power is based on, and is an expansion of, the existing power of the Presiding Officer to seek to postpone the election by one month. For the 2021 poll, we have replaced that power with a power to delay for up to six months.

Section 3 brings forward the deadline for application for a postal vote to 6 April, which is a change that electoral professionals specifically requested. Indeed, it is an essential change in the bill from their perspective, given that electoral registration officers might have to process an increase in postal voting from the current 18 per cent of the electorate to 40 per cent or possibly 50 per cent.

It is clear that, as well as giving electoral professionals additional time to process the increase in postal votes, they must be properly resourced, so I am pleased that the amendment that sought to provide clearer information on the resourcing that is provided to electoral professionals, which I discussed with Anas Sarwar, has been agreed today.

Section 5 provides a power for an all-postal vote. As I said during the stage 1 debate, the Government does not want, nor expect, to hold an all-postal election, but we are putting in place a contingency measure in case the public health situation significantly deteriorates. It is also agreed that the election would have to be postponed to be made all postal. I listened carefully to the concerns that were raised about the breadth of that power. As a result, I lodged amendments at stage 2 to make the use of the power subject to the affirmative procedure, and to require ministers to lay a statement of reasons, which further increases transparency and accountability to Parliament were that power ever to be used.

Members raised concerns in similar terms about the power in section 8 for ministers to provide for polling to occur over more than one day—potentially over a period of up to nine days. I recognised the concerns that were raised about polling over multiple days and sought at stage 2 to make any use of the power subject to the convener of the Electoral Management Board’s recommendation that polling should take place over additional days. That power was also made subject to the affirmative procedure at stage 2 and I agreed with Adam Tomkins that it should be exercised only for a reason that relates to coronavirus. I am pleased that an amendment to that effect has been agreed today.

The bill reflects our collective duty to ensure that the people of Scotland are able to exercise their democratic rights. I am confident that it provides us with the flexibility to ensure safe delivery of the 2021 Scottish parliamentary election.

I move

That the Parliament agrees that the Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Bill be passed.

15:32  

Miles Briggs (Lothian) (Con)

I am pleased to take part in the stage 3 debate. I thank all those organisations that have provided useful briefings for today’s debate and earlier stages of the bill’s consideration. I also commend all those who have worked on, and contributed to, the bill, including members of the Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee and the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee, during what has been a truncated parliamentary process.

As it is the season of good will, I take the opportunity also to thank the minister, who has constructively engaged with all parties on the bill. We got everything on our Christmas wish list for the bill and I welcome the fact that that positive engagement has paid off.

I am pleased that we have largely been able to achieve significant cross-party consensus on the bill as it has advanced its way through the Parliament. As the minister stated, this debate is just a few days after the news that a new variant of Covid-19 has emerged—there is already talk today of a second variant in South Africa. That news has understandably raised further questions about May’s election and emphasised the critical need for the bill and its provisions and contingencies, so that we can protect our democracy and ensure that we can hold a safe election.

From the outset, local authorities and returning officers have expressed concerns at the pressures that an election, and an expected increase in postal votes applications, will present to them. We continue to deal with the fast-evolving public health crisis and it is important—indeed, it is common sense—that the Parliament has the powers and options that are available in the bill in relation to an expected election in May of next year.

We welcome the major change that the appropriate opportunity to scrutinise and approve a number of key decisions in relation to any changes to an upcoming election, should the Covid situation deteriorate any further, will be given to the Parliament as a whole, rather than the decision being down solely to Scottish National Party ministers.

When dealing with the subject, it is right that the Parliament, rather than solely ministers, is involved in decision making and it is appropriate that the bill now ensures that any changes to postal votes and polling over additional days is now subject to the affirmative procedure of the Parliament.

We look forward to ministers working with local authorities and election teams to make the public aware that the deadline for postal vote applications for the election will be brought forward to 6 April, in anticipation of the extra volume of applications. Ministers also need to ensure that our councils and election units have all the support and resources that are required to process the expected increase in the number of those applications.

I welcome the information that the minister outlined about the public information campaign, particularly about television advertising and the additional communications that people will receive and hopefully engage with early on.

We all know the incredible pressures that local authorities in all areas are under, as we speak. In the weeks and months ahead, they are likely to be under even more pressure as we enter higher protection levels. I take the opportunity to pay tribute to all those who are working over the Christmas period, especially those in local government, for the work that they will be doing on behalf of us all.

All members in the chamber hope that the election in May will go ahead on the scheduled date, that we can ensure that we run a safe election and count, and that the next Parliament can safely sit as soon as possible afterwards. The fact that, during the pandemic, several major national elections have taken place internationally, and several council by-elections have taken place across the country, should reassure us that elections can take place during a public health emergency. Given the situation that we are now seeing in relation to the virus, I hope that, as a Parliament, we will have a discussion early in the new year about whether a delay is needed, and work to provide clarity to allow local authorities to plan for any delay as soon as possible.

I welcome the debate. The Scottish Conservatives will support the bill at decision time.

15:36  

Anas Sarwar (Glasgow) (Lab)

I, too, thank everyone who was involved in pulling the bill together, and I am grateful for all the cross-party engagement that took place throughout its progress. I should give a special thank you to my colleagues Alex Rowley and Neil Findlay, who did most of the leg work on the bill. As with the UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Continuity) (Scotland) Bill yesterday, I just came in at the latter stages for some of the glory at the end—the hard work was done by others, and I thank them for that.

The key point of the bill is to make sure that people feel confident to go out and vote in May, that it is safe for them to do so, and that it is safe for those who are conducting the election. I hope that we can deliver on those aims.

Graeme Dey

At stage 2, Anas Sarwar raised issues around the practicalities of polling stations. I hope that he finds it useful that I have reached agreement with the electoral professionals to provide all members with a briefing and update on the progress around awareness raising regarding the postal vote, social distancing measures and how they are addressing the challenges that Anas Sarwar raised at stage 2.

Anas Sarwar

I thank the minister for his intervention. I was going to raise the issues of polling places. I gave the minister the example of the First Minister’s constituency, in which, although there is one polling box per 800 people to allow social distancing, there are polling places that have more than 2,000 electors, which will be a challenge on any single day. It depends on how many people take up the postal votes. There is a concern that if there are far fewer postal vote applications than predicted, there might be added footfall on the day, so I welcome the minister’s reassurance.

Another issue is the number of polling days. I welcome where we have got to in the bill, in that the power to determine that is now subject to the affirmative procedure. However, I caveat that by saying that we may have a situation in which the Electoral Management Board for Scotland does not recommend either having or not having multiple polling days, but, as a public health measure, the Parliament decides that we need more than one day. I hope that the matter could be addressed through consultation with the Electoral Management Board for Scotland if that situation did arise. There is a wider debate to be had about the number of polling days that we have, outwith our Covid response, but that is for another time.

On the public information campaign, I know that the minister shares my frustration about how late the booklets will go out. I accept that it is not only the booklets that will be part of the campaign, which needs to have television, radio, mail and social media elements. I urge him and all members, collectively, to say to the Electoral Commission that the campaign must start as early as possible and be as well-resourced and simple as possible if we are to get the message out to people.

Apart from that, we are in a good place with the bill. Obviously, as the Covid response continues and we see where we are come January, February and March, that might mean different considerations for us. Just as we have had good cross-party discussions during the bill process, I hope that that will continue as we get closer to the election.

I thank the minister for his interventions and positive engagement throughout the process. I also thank him for his commitment to there being no impediment to EROs getting the resources that they need, as there should be no price on ensuring that we have a free and fair democracy.

15:41  

Patrick Harvie (Glasgow) (Green)

Once again, I note my appreciation of the cross-party dialogue that there has been in the production of the bill. I will not go quite as far as Miles Briggs did—perhaps my Christmas wish list is a bit more imaginative than being confined to the measures in the bill—but if he is happy, I am happy for him.

The committee benefited from a great deal of expert evidence, as did the MSPs who discussed the bill with the Government before the bill’s introduction. The one exception to that is the written submission in which the main complaint was that general elections in Scotland should not be called “general elections”, because the United Kingdom also has general elections. I will spare the blushes of the member who submitted that. I am glad that we have reached a bill that, on balance, has broad support.

There is still a huge lack of clarity on what the uptake of postal voting is likely to be and what we need to plan for. That was never going to be a specified target in the bill—it does not work that way—but we need to be conscious that the demand for and uptake of postal voting will be determined not only by its availability or by the objective safety of voting, but by the perceived safety of voting. If more people feel anxious about voting in person, the uptake of postal voting may go beyond the current expectations.

In many ways, there is even less clarity now than there was when we debated the bill at stages 1 and 2, which was a very short time ago. During the stage 1 debate, we all recognised that the situation had been pretty dodgy a few months before, but we felt that, now that the vaccine was coming, we were turning a corner and there was a light at the end of tunnel. Now, in the final days of December, we are again all deeply worried about the virus taking another turn for the worse. We simply do not know where we will be and what the condition will be by the end of April or the beginning of May. I regret that it is necessary to maintain the provision for an option to postpone the election. It is clear that, at this stage, that would not be welcomed by anyone, but the option must be in the bill.

I have a wider concern about participation in elections, which could never have been addressed by the bill, but which needs airing. Elections depend on lively, engaged democratic participation by not just voters, but political parties and, in the current circumstance, no one would welcome door-to-door canvassing, as they would not feel that that was safe. In the next few months, will we get to the point at which that could return? I simply do not know. Again, that is not something to be addressed in the bill.

There have been discussions about innovation and whether the coronavirus should be seen as an opportunity to innovate for the longer term. As I have said before, I am open to the idea of multiple polling days, just as I am open to the growth of postal voting. Not so long ago, people expected to need an excuse to have a postal vote; now, it is an expected right for everyone without having to justify themselves.

I have also supported extensions to the franchise and I would support consideration of where we put polling places. However, taking the opportunity to innovate in a pandemic might, in fact, harm the longer-term objective of having positive innovations that will last. When these immediate circumstances are gone, people will ask why we should maintain them, if the pandemic was the reason for the change in the first place.

We all want the same thing. We want our elections to take place, for them to be safe and secure, for there to be no barriers of cost, for there to be voter trust and confidence in the outcome, and for there to be high levels of participation. Although I do not know how well we will achieve those things in 2021, the bill gives us the opportunity to do our best.

15:45  

Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (LD)

I, too, thank the minister, members, clerks and officials, who have worked so hard to bring us to this point, at breakneck speed.

Like others, I note that when the bill was first proposed, we could all have been forgiven for thinking that the end was in sight for the pandemic and that we were considering only contingencies. However, as we gather here at stage 3, the landscape has changed dramatically. With the very real prospect of serious lockdowns running to uncertain points into the spring, we can perhaps appreciate rather more how important these precautionary steps are.

At stage 1, I, like others, was concerned about the amount of power that was in the hands of ministers—who are, in this case, in a minority Government—to trigger changes to elections in which they have skin in the game. The sentiment that I expressed was against the backdrop of the US election, which exemplified the need for robust systems of scrutiny. If nothing else, it showed that scrutiny is essential to combat false accusations about the conduct of elections and restore public confidence in them.

I am pleased to see the progress that has been made at stage 2 and today, with amendments having been agreed to that place a limit on the exercise of that ministerial power and make changes that—as others have observed—have had cross-party support. There will now be stronger conditions for additional polling days to be called and a limit to the power to switch the election to be postal only. The bill therefore now gives us the best chance to run a safe and secure election, which is its underlying principle. As I said at stage 1, by May, we will have had our five-year session. It is therefore important that we do everything possible to make the election happen.

I again express my sincere thanks to all the members who have worked diligently and at pace to get the bill to this point. As Patrick Harvie rightly said earlier, and as others have acknowledged, this has been—as it needed to be—a genuinely cross-party effort. I confirm that Scottish Liberal Democrats will be happy to support the bill at decision time.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Maureen Watt will be the only speaker in the open debate.

15:48  

Maureen Watt (Aberdeen South and North Kincardine) (SNP)

I am pleased that there has been general consensus around the necessity of this fast-tracked bill. When I spoke in the stage 1 debate a few short weeks ago, we had just heard about the availability of a vaccine against Covid-19 and we hoped that some of the measures proposed in the bill would not be required. However, as the minister said, and as others know, because of the new strains that are emerging and our facing harder tiers of lockdown, we see why the contingencies in the bill are necessary and why it is important to give powers to ministers and the Presiding Officer to act quickly and decisively.

Throughout the drafting and progression of the bill, those most closely involved in ensuring free and fair elections—the Electoral Management Board, the Electoral Commission, the Scottish Parliament and political parties—have been consulted and closely involved, and they all know about the complexities of running elections.

I am pleased that the minister is today ensuring that electoral registration officers will have the resources necessary to cope with an increase in the number of postal ballots, and that those applying for a postal ballot will not need to incur any cost in doing so. Anas Sarwar is trying to make heavy weather of this and he shows little or no confidence in the resourcefulness of electors who want a postal vote or the abilities of the electoral registration officers to deal with applications, which we hope will increase if people prefer to vote in that way in the election.

It is really important that we stress that turning up to vote in person at a polling station will be safe and secure, and that additional measures will be in place to ensure social distancing and the safety of voters. I am pleased that the minister has announced that members will be updated on the measures that are being taken on that.

I sincerely hope that the vote does not have to be postponed or taken over more than one day. As Patrick Harvie said, it is important to review the way in which elections are run, and, over the lifetime of this Parliament, we have already made changes to Scottish Parliament elections. However, the bill is not the way in which to take forward further changes. It is important that we all work for maximum turnout, which might mean increasing the number of postal ballots.

I, too, thank the bill team for its work in drafting the bill so quickly, and the clerks and the Scottish Parliament information centre team who have helped take SPPA Committee members such as myself through the bill and its complexities.

Presiding Officer, I could take up my full four minutes, but I am sure that members have other things to do before they leave the building tonight. I hope that all will support the bill at decision time. Happy Christmas to all. [Applause.]

The Deputy Presiding Officer

That was a popular contribution. We move to closing speeches.

15:51  

Alex Rowley (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

From the outset of our discussions with the Government, I have always been very clear that Labour’s position was that the election must go ahead. The only person who has ever raised the possibility of postponing the election—while seeking to know what other parties were thinking—was Graeme Dey. I am not sure where talk of postponement came from, but we have certainly been clear from day 1 that democracy must go ahead.

However, the election will take place under unique circumstances, and we must seek to take an ambitious approach to ensuring the safety of voters and poll workers, and maximum voter turnout. That has always been our objective, and is why we have said—for example in the point that Anas Sarwar made when he moved his amendment—that there has to be a strong public information campaign that makes it clear that if people have any concerns whatsoever about voting next year, they should apply for a postal vote.

Last week, who would have thought that we would be looking at a virtual close-down for next week? That is what has happened. Looking ahead to May next year, we do not know what position we will be in; that is why we have supported the bringing forward of the legislation. We are absolutely clear that the poll has to take place and has to be safe. Certainly, that is why I have put forward from day 1 the argument that if the election needs to take place over not just one day but two or three, or if measures are needed to ensure the safety of not only voters but the staff who work in election centres, those steps need to be taken.

More than anything, I emphasise that, throughout the discussions, the Government gave a commitment to running a campaign that would support and encourage people, if they felt unsafe, to get a postal vote. That requires the dedication of sufficient resources to meet the possible demand for postal voting. Again, the Government needs to make it clear to the Electoral Commission and to the electoral registration officers that resources will be made available where they are needed.

Graeme Dey

The member has had my assurance on that and, what is more, he has seen that demonstrated. I know that he is a very reasonable man, and I hope that he will accept that committing additional resources in order to fund a letter to 2.5 million households in early February is a clear demonstration of our commitments in that area.

Alex Rowley

That is welcome—it was a demand that I had been putting forward.

Democracy needs to prevail. People need to be able to go and vote, and to be able to do so safely. Let us look forward to the election and to ensuring that democracy in Scotland is not halted and people have their democratic right, regardless of where we are with the virus.

15:55  

Adam Tomkins (Glasgow) (Con)

When I first saw the bill, I had only two concerns about it. I thought that it was, by and large, a sensible and prudent measure. My concerns were simply that the flexibility about the date and timing and the circumstances of the next election to this place should not lie solely or even mainly in the hands of ministers. As was pointed out forcefully in the stage 1 debate, ministers cannot be the umpires of elections, because they are participants in it. I am grateful for the way in which Graeme Dey has listened to, engaged with and acted on those concerns.

The bill provides that the next election to this Parliament could be held under an all-postal ballot. Were that to prove necessary, it would require a delay to the election of several months. It is a big step. The bill as introduced would have allowed ministers to take that step. As amended, the bill places that power squarely in the hands of Parliament.

Likewise, the bill provides that the next election to this Parliament could be held on more than one polling day. Again, as introduced, the bill would have conferred that power on ministers. Again, we have amended the bill so that that, too, will be for Parliament to decide. Moreover, any such decision will be able to be taken only on the recommendation of the convener of the Electoral Management Board for Scotland.

Finally, the bill as amended makes it clear that those powers may be exercised only if it is necessary to do so by reason of the coronavirus pandemic.

As this is the last-but-one speech in the Parliament before the Christmas recess, I wanted to say a few words, reflecting not just on the bill but more broadly on the year that we have had. My colleagues and I on the Tory benches were elected four and a half years ago to be a strong Opposition. To my mind, that means that our job is to be an effective Opposition. In a Parliament of minorities, we are more likely to be effective—whether in government or in opposition—if we act and behave constructively. Just shouting “No” from the rooftops might appeal to the #SNPbad brigade on Twitter, but it is never likely to be effective, and ineffective opposition is not strong at all—indeed, it is pathetic.

This bill is a good example of effective opposition. By working with other Opposition parties, and indeed by working with the Government, we turned a problematic bill into one that we will happily support at decision time tonight.

This has been a difficult year for Oppositions, as it has been for a lot of people. Public emergencies push Governments centre stage. Not only do they occupy more of the limelight but they wield new, extraordinary and sometimes draconian powers. Holding the exercise of those powers to account is our job, and it has not been easy.

I want to close by paying tribute to all those who helped MSPs, not only in my party but across the chamber, to do that job—to the broadcasting and information technology staff who have worked tirelessly to ensure that our committees can function pretty much as effectively online as they can in Holyrood’s meeting rooms, and to you and your team, Presiding Officer, for the efforts that you have all made to enable this: a member addressing the Scottish Parliament not from the chamber but from his kitchen at home.

This has been a year that none of us will ever forget. As it draws to a close, I wish all my friends and colleagues in the Scottish Parliament, in all parties and in none, a merry—little—Christmas and a happy new year.

15:59  

Graeme Dey

The bill on which we will vote in a few minutes’ time is, as Miles Briggs and other members have said, the result of constructive and collaborative working. There is no doubt about that. From its conception, when all the parties of the Parliament gathered to discuss the contingencies that we might need to put in place for the 2021 election, through to the engagement of the Electoral Management Board, the Electoral Commission, the EROs and the Parliament, it has been—to use a worn cliché—a team effort. That was an absolute necessity, because this piece of legislation needed to be one that everyone concerned in the electoral process could sign up to.

I hope that many aspects of the legislation will not require to be deployed, but the developments of the past few days, as well as the reports that we hear this afternoon, have demonstrated the need to have contingency measures at our disposal.

Between substantial additional resources being put into encouraging postal vote uptake and the planning of social distancing measures to facilitate in-person voting on the day, I believe that we can deliver an election in which those who wish to do so can take part safely and securely. Although campaigning might be different and counting will take longer, I am confident that we will have an election of a kind that we still recognise and a result in whose robustness we can be confident.

I will digress a little for a few moments, because it is fitting that—almost—the last act of this Parliament in 2020 is not just a response to a pandemic that has dominated our work and the lives of all of us for much of the year but a piece of primary legislation. As we all know, this has been a year like no other and, whatever else it has done, it has set the Parliament substantial practical challenges that required commitment and innovation to overcome. The Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Bill is not just the second piece of primary legislation to occupy us here this week; all being well, it will be the 21st to be passed since the year began.

I look around the chamber and see Liz Smith, a former colleague on the Parliamentary Bureau; she will recall the discussions in the bureau about the advisability—in a relatively early stage of the pandemic—of the Parliament processing non-coronavirus legislation. However, collectively, we came to the view that the Parliament had to be seen to function and do its day job as well as respond to the many challenges that the pandemic was setting us. The bureau’s decisions have been vindicated and I pay tribute to Liz Smith and Willie Rennie for the constructive role that they played in that.

A total of 19 Scottish Government bills—covering topics as diverse as social security, agriculture, children, female genital mutilation, civil partnerships, animals and wildlife protections and, of course, Covid-19—have completed their parliamentary passage, alongside a member’s bill and a private bill.

We have also seen the introduction of Government bills covering heat networks, hate crime, redress for survivors of historical child abuse in care, incorporation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, University of St Andrews degrees in medicine and dentistry, and domestic protection orders, alongside 10 more members’ bills and three from committees. Cumulatively, that demonstrated how the Parliament has found a way to get on with the day job.

Presiding Officer, with your indulgence, I will recognise, as Adam Tomkins began to do, some of the people whose dedication and hard work have made that possible. Politicians praising themselves is never a good look, but the conveners of our committees, backed by their clerks, have done incredible work to keep the show on the road. Hybrid or virtual sessions are never easy to put together and run, especially when the subject matter involves gathering evidence on legislation, but our committees have found ways and means, as you know, Presiding Officer.

We have also established hybrid plenary sessions and virtual voting and, although we all recognise how, at times, the latter has tested the patience of members, its deployment has nevertheless been an achievement that we would have struggled without. A year ago, who would have imagined us conducting stage 3 proceedings here, with Patrick Harvie and Liam McArthur contributing remotely?

That brings me to the army of people behind the scenes here and in Government. The MSPs could not have functioned within this place without the Parliament staff—the clerks, the information technology team and the official report, security and catering staff—who have all played their part in this institution overcoming the challenges that I noted earlier.

The same goes for the Scottish Government civil servants, who have gone above and beyond in responding to the pandemic and ensuring that the Administration could deliver Covid and non-Covid-related legislation on that scale. As Minister for Parliamentary Business and Veterans, on a daily basis, I have seen at first hand the extent to which those officials have adapted their working practices, often involving extended days and weeks, to keep the show on the road. As with the Parliament staff, theirs has been a fantastic effort, and we should each thank them for that.

There will be no let-up when we return from the festive break. Brexit impacts will need to be faced, the pandemic, as we know, is not relenting, and there is a stockpile of legislation to be completed ahead of the election, but that is for another day.

I wish all members and staff as peaceful and relaxing a festive break as it is possible to have but, before we rise for the recess, I would appreciate it if colleagues could see their way to passing the Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Bill.