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Monday was a busy day of meetings. I visited Boots in Kirkwall to hear about the increased role that pharmacists are playing in treating patients with minor ailments and supporting home care in Orkney. I also attended a meeting on the Intra Island Air services to discuss the current islander discount scheme and issues relating to difficulties in making bookings in intra-island routes. I then met with local Befrienders in Orkney to hear about the excellent work they continue to do and the funding challenges they face. Instead of taking the early flight to Edinburgh on Tuesday I was on the afternoon flight on Monday, so a quick trip home and off down to Edinburgh.
The Education & Culture Committee session on Tuesday began at 9am as we started to consider stage two amendments to the Education (Scotland) Bill. You can view all the papers and amendments, including my own, at the link here. During the session, the Minister successfully introduced changes that will create what he called ‘an entitlement’ to Gaelic education. This is a move away from the original plan to introduce a defined process for considering parental requests for Gaelic medium education and could lead to Orkney Islands Council being required to prioritise spending on this at a time when education budgets are already under severe pressure. You can read my comments here. You can also watch the committee here or read the report here.
The afternoon was then spent working on casework and drafting my speech for Wednesday’s debate on the Named Person Legislation. You can read more about that here. The debate in the chamber on Tuesday afternoon was a stage one debate on the Health (Tobacco, Nicotine etc. and Care) (Scotland) Bill. I backed the passing of the bill at stage one, you can read the contribution by my colleague Jim Hume MSP here.
Wednesday morning I finished the draft of my speech for the afternoon and worked on amendments for next week’s Education & Culture Committee notably the government's plans to introduce national standardised testing in primary schools through changes to the Education (Scotland) Bill. These plans have raised serious concerns about an unwelcome return to high stakes testing, teaching to the test and ultimately school league tables. Understandably, staff and teaching unions are expressing anxiety and it is not at all clear that they will make a contribution to closing the attainment gap between children from poorer and more well off backgrounds. I have therefore lodged amendments to prevent such testing being introduced by the bill under the so-called National Improvement Framework. You can see my amendments here.
I was also unhappy with last minute amendments from the Scottish Government to strip local authorities of the power to set school days. Cosla, the national association of Scottish councils, are deeply unhappy about this move to 'micro-manage' what happens in schools. The timing also allows the Committee no time at all to take evidence on what the impact would be of requiring teachers to spend a minimum of 25 hours a week teaching. You can read more here.
In the chamber on Wednesday afternoon I spoke in the Named Person debate put forward by the Conservatives. You can read my contribution here or watch here. The focus of this approach has to be those cases where there are genuine welfare concerns at stake. The key to achieving this is for the government to make sure that the named person approach is properly resourced. However, some of the language used by Tories about what the named person approach is and what it will mean for children, young people and their parents has been highly misleading and flies in the face of the evidence from Highland and Edinburgh Councils where this policy has been working effectively.
Wednesday evening I stayed late to work on casework before I flew to Brussels on Thursday morning for meetings with the European Commission.
However, much of the day was spent keeping tabs on what was happening at Westminster, where after ten and a half hours of debate, MPs voted to sanction an extension of UK involvement in air strikes to Syrian territory. I have subsequently had an opportunity to read and/or listen to more of the contributions made by those arguing both for and against such an extension in our involvement in military action to combat the threat posed by Daesh/ISIL. Some were amongst the finest parliamentary speeches I have heard, and illustrated the extent to which MPs of all parties were wrestling with impossibly difficult choices. For my part, I recognise that this action is mandated by a UN resolution; it is backed by credible efforts to broker a lasting peace through the Vienna talks; and involves moves to address the huge and growing refugee crisis. In all these respects, this is a far cry from the vote in 2003 to invade Iraq on the basis of a 'dodgy dossier' and without proper UN sanction. I also accept that 'inaction' has its consequences and that the UK is already very much a target for terrorist attacks by Daesh, who hate us for what and who we are. Despite all of that, I am not convinced that the extension of UK involvement in air strikes from Iraq into Syria is the right approach. I am very sceptical of the assumptions that have been made about the ability and/or desirability of local rebel forces to provide the necessary ground troops to take advantage of any air strikes and prevent an even more dangerous power vacuum emerging. And there is the almost inevitable propaganda gift for Daesh of civilian casualties, albeit of civilians that Daesh have proved only too willing to rape, torture and murder with brutal disdain. For these reasons, while I entirely respect the judgment reached by my colleagues and those in other parties who voted to support extending air strikes, I am not in favour. That said, while happy to make clear my position, I find as unacceptable the denunciation of those who have arrived at a different position (and their motives) as I did the Prime Minister's outrageous smearing of those opposed to extending air strikes as 'terrorist sympathisers'.
Arriving in Brussels early on Thursday morning, I was immediately struck by the presence of armed police and soldiers at Zaventum airport and then all around the EU district in the centre of the city. While this was a far cry from the effective 'lock down' that had been in place the previous weekend, it was still unnerving and very eerie. My meeting with members of the Cabinet of Agriculture Commissioner, Phil Hogan, focused on plans to 'simplify' CAP rules, difficulties with current 'greening' provisions and the need for a more proportionate penalty regime. We also discussed how the beef sector would be dealt with in trade talks with the US (TTIP). After a lunch at the European Parliament, I then met the Cabinet of Fisheries Commissioner, Karmenu Vella to discuss concerns about how the proposed 'discard ban' will be made to work over the coming years, particularly once cod is included (probably from 2017). We considered how different flexibilities and changes to quota arrangements might be introduced to enable the new system to work in practice. There was also a brief discussion of the deal struck with Faroe over mackerel quotas, which has greatly angered the Scottish pelagic fleet.
There were more meetings in Brussels on Friday, including the head of the Scottish Government office, Ian Campbell. It was helpful to get his perspective on a range of different issues and how these play out at an EU level, as opposed to how they are viewed on the domestic level. I also found time to catch up on emails and casework. While very useful, the Brussels trip did prevent me being in parliament for the annual fisheries debate and also attending a cross-party meeting with the Transport Minister on the issue of Loganair reliability. Along with my Shetland colleague, Tavish Scott, however, I did put forward the idea of a short life working group, involving the airline, Transport Scotland, HIAL and others to look at the medium/long term issues that would arise with replacing the Saab 340 aircraft in due course. This could include changes to runway and other airport infrastructure, route scheduling and support through ADS. You can read more about that here.
Next week I will be in Dunfermline for a Parliament Day, a day aimed at outreach and public engagement with the work we do as MSPs. I will have a meeting with Orkney Heart Support Group and the Scottish Parliament Compare Body. I will also be taking part in a Q&A with teachers as part of the outreach work to aid teachers to teach about the Parliament. I will be speaking in a debate on the National Strategy for Survivors of Childhood Abuse and also attending the Cross Party Group on Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency. For everything else, please check my diary.