Once again, the Orkney Sports Awards on Friday evening more than lived up to expectations as we celebrated Orkney’s many sporting successes over the last year. It was encouraging to see so many sports represented and appropriate that the contribution made by the ‘unsung heroes’ who volunteer to coach, officiate and support our athletes was also recognised.
Many congratulations to swimmer, Mia McAllister on being crowned Orkney Sportsperson of the Year after a phenomenal 12 months that saw her win Island Games silver. Special mention to Taylah Spence and Maggie Tait who made up a high-quality, all-female shortlist for the top prize. Weightlifter, Ross Sinclair was a popular winner of the Young Sportsperson of the Year, while last year’s winner, Sarah MacPhail was an inspirational guest speaker, talking about her journey from primary school netball in Orkney to representing Scotland at the Netball World Cup. You can read a round-up of the evening here.
I spent Monday in the constituency office catching up on emails and casework following a busy couple of weeks where various urgent local issues have crossed my desk, including the threatened closure of Peedie Breeks nursery. Having spoken to Education officials at the Council over the weekend, I was able to update parents who have been in touch to share their concerns. It was also a good opportunity for me to prepare for the parliamentary week ahead.
Tuesday say me on my usual flight to Edinburgh to attend Justice Committee, where we continued our evidence sessions on Stage 1 of the Children (Scotland) Bill. You can watch the full committee session here and read it here. You can also find out more about the bill, which aims to ensure children have their views heard in cases of parental or relationship breakdown, here.
After the weekly meeting with Lib Dem MSP colleagues, the rest of the afternoon was spent answering emails and dealing with casework. The Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation released their figures that morning showing that no areas of Orkney are among the top 20% of deprived areas in Scotland. While this may not be surprising, it shouldn’t disguise the fact there are still people in Orkney who experience unacceptable levels of poverty and require support. SIMD figures, while helpful, should not be the sole measurement for deciding on how government allocates funding, as they fail to identify areas of poverty and need in rural and island communities. I amended a parliamentary motion to make MSP colleagues aware of this risk and remind Ministers that funding decisions must be based on need, not postcode. You can read my full comments here, my amendment here and read the full SIMD publication here.
On Wednesday morning my Shetland colleague, Beatrice Wishart and I met HIAL management to discuss our ongoing concerns about HIAL’s plan to centralise air traffic control services. It was also a chance to cover a range of other issues, including the roll out by Loganair of its ATR fleet, to replace the current Saab aircraft, and efforts to reduce emissions across the HIAL network.
Afterwards, I took the opportunity to sign the Holocaust Educational Trust’s Book of Commitment, in support of Holocaust Memorial Day. The trust continues to do an incredible job of ensuring that we never forget the victims and survivors of the Holocaust and ensure that this atrocious chapter in history is never repeated. Sadly, of course, there have been all many reminders over recent decades of man’s inhumanity to man. You can read more about Holocaust Memorial Day here and the Holocaust Educational Trust here.
As well as the Book of Commitment, there was also a lantern display to commemorate the 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. The lanterns had been created by St Ninian’s, Craiglockhart, Taobh na Pairce and Leith Walk primary schools and the display was a fitting way to reflect upon and remember this poignant anniversary. You can read more about the 75th anniversary here and my full comments on Holocaust Memorial Day here.
Parliamentary business began in the afternoon with a debate on Recognising Scotland in Europe. The debate was brought forward by the government following the SPCB’s decision to lower the European flag outside parliament on Friday, reflecting the fact that the UK is formally leaving the EU. As someone who campaigned hard for Remain and who joined my party precisely because of the long-standing commitment of Liberals to closer ties with Europe, it was with a heavy heart that I voted to take down the flag. While we must continue to allow for political debate over our differences about Brexit, it’s important that we protect the political neutrality of parliament as an institution. We have flown the flag since 2004 because of our membership of the EU. Taking it down doesn’t make us anti-European any more than leaving it up makes us pro-European. Flying the European flag has been a statement of legal fact. Unfortunately, SNP and Green MSPs voted to ‘direct’ the SPCB to overturn its earlier decision. This sets a dangerous precedent and may turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory for Nicola Sturgeon. You can watch my contribution to the debate here, the full debate here and read it here.
The rest of the afternoon was dominated by a Scottish Government debate on Scotland’s Future. Willie Rennie argued that the SNP had chosen to waste more parliamentary time debating flag policy and their platform for independence when the public wants to see Ministers focus on addressing the challenges in health, education, transport and justice. You can watch Willie’s contribution to the debate here, the full debate here and read it here.
Away from the debate, I lodged parliamentary questions to find out if the government plans to consult with local groups in Orkney with a view to supporting additional sailings on our ferry routes, in line with their recent decision on some west coast routes, in an attempt to help extend our tourist season. You can read my comments here and more about the government’s actions on the west coast here. I also did a brief interview with BBC Radio Orkney on the publication of the SIMD figures the day before.
In the evening, I met Tony Higgins and Fraser Wishart of the Professional Footballers Association Scotland to find out more about PFA Scotland’s work on issues such as mental health, gambling and child welfare. You can read more about PFA Scotland here.
Before heading home, I dropped into a packed Garden Lobby for a VisitScotland reception marking the Year of Coasts and Waters 2020. Amongst the events planned for the year ahead is Clan Cancer Support’s fundraising initiative, Light the North, which will see a chain of lighthouses appearing across the North East and Northern Isles. Fittingly, Orcadian musician, Aidan Moodie and two friends, Josie and Chloe kept MSPs and guests entertained with some fantastic music. You can see some of the events that have been planned as part of the Year of Coasts and Waters here, information about the Light the North fundraiser here and read more about VisitScotland here.
A busy Wednesday was capped off with news that Elaine Grieve will succeed Bill Spence as the new Lord Lieutenant for Orkney, which you can read about here. Elaine becomes Orkney’s 21st Lord Lieutenant, and the first woman to take on this honour. I have no doubt she will carry out her duties with energy, enthusiasm and good humour and I wish her every success in the role. I also felt it appropriate to lodge a parliamentary motion congratulating Elaine, which you can read here.
Thursday began with an early meeting of the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body, which you can read more about here. I then had the privilege of joining Cross Party Group colleagues in meeting the first and second Deputy Speakers of the Malawi National Assembly, who were visiting the Scottish Parliament. It was good to hear both Speakers talk about the determination of a majority of MPs in the newly elected Assembly to secure greater independence of the Assembly from the President and government, who continue to hold the purse strings. This makes the Assembly’s scrutiny role almost impossible to fulfil.
It was then time for First Minister’s Questions, where Jackson Carlow chose to focus on the government’s record on education. Meanwhile, Richard Leonard asked about the government’s use of the non-profit distributing model of finance. This was an odd decision for Mr Leonard, who took a bit of a mauling! You can watch the full session here and read it here.
This week, Willie Rennie highlighted the government’s consistent failure to meet its waiting times targets, including for mental health services and accident and emergency. He went on to point out that revised targets in the recovery plan put in place by Ministers were also being missed. You can watch Willie’s question here.
Following FMQs, I rushed off to a meeting of the Justice Sub Committee on Policing, where we considered a first draft of our report on use of facial recognition technology by Police Scotland. When discussing draft reports or our future work programme, the Committee meets in private.
There was also a Ministerial Statement on the UK’s exit from the EU, which once again the government used to argue its case for another referendum on independence. While I understand and share the anger and anxiety felt by many over the prospect of Brexit, I fear that pursuing independence would simply compound the uncertainty, divisions and chaos of Brexit. You can watch the full statement here and read it here.
During the afternoon, I managed to catch up on emails and casework back in my office. Once parliamentary business finished for the day, I dropped by an event to mark the retirement of parliament’s Head of Financial Resources, Derek Croll. Derek has been an outstanding servant of the parliament since 1999, offering quiet authority and assurance on finance issues that can be the downfall of parliaments and politicians! I then caught a train to Inverness ahead of the Highlands and Islands Students’ Association annual conference, which has been taking place this week.
I was part of a cross party panel this morning discussing a range of issues from Brexit and independence to mental health and the climate emergency. You can see the full conference agenda here and read more about the students association here.
Prior to the conference, I also managed to have an early meeting with Jackie Noble, Regional Control Manager at the Scottish Ambulance Service control centre in Inverness. It offered me the chance to meet those involved in handling calls, and to reiterate concerns that have been raised with me about some of the information that is sought from those reporting serious or emergency cases. The request for a postcode or road number are two common frustrations. Jackie and I listened to a couple of recent calls, which happened to reinforce some of the issues that I have been raising, and she has offered to investigate and see what improvements can be made.
Finally, it is impossible to avoid mentioning the fact that today is officially the UK’s last day in the EU. It is obviously a bitterly disappointing moment for those of us who campaigned passionately to retain our place within the EU and still believe that our country’s future is best placed within the heart of Europe. I am proud of the part that Liberal Democrats have played in arguing this case with vigour and consistency, not just in the run up to the referendum in 2016, but over decades. We will continue to make that case and argue for closer ties with our Europe partners.
Meantime, over recent months, I have had constituents contact me about applications under the EU Settlement Scheme. I understand that some people who must apply for settled status may be worried or unsure about the application process. It goes without saying that if you, or someone you know, requires support then please do get in touch with my office here. You can also access the EU Citizens Support Service, which provides free and confidential advice and support for applicants, here.
I have another meeting with the Scottish Ambulance Service where I will be raising concerns about land ambulance cover in Orkney, I will be attending a David Hume Institute seminar on Scotland’s populations. I have meetings with the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Law Society Scotland and SSE. At the end of the week, as parliament rises for the February recess, I will attend the annual NFUS Scotland Dinner in Glasgow.
As ever, my full diary is here while “This Week in the Scottish Parliament”, a weekly update from the Scottish Parliament, can be found here. You can also view motions that I have submitted to parliament this week here and questions that I have tabled here.