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After spending Monday catching up on casework and holding meetings with a number of individual constituents, I headed off to Edinburgh on Tuesday morning. Unfortunately, once again, my flight was delayed, an all too common occurrence over recent months. The disruption caused by these ‘technical faults’ and the lengthy delays that result, is serious and widespread. Unsurprisingly, support for my petition on the need for improved reliability of our air services continues to grow, and it was an issue I picked up with the Transport Minister later in the day.
Before that, and despite arriving late, I was able to take part in an Education Committee roundtable discussion on the Scottish Government’s plans to reform Higher Education governance. The bill has attracted fierce criticism from universities, which see the moves as placing too much control in the hands of Ministers, thereby undermining the independence of universities, vital to attracting students, staff and funding. Unions and student groups are more supportive of the plans. You can read what happened here and get more detail on the bill here. The Committee also agreed to seek further answers from the Culture Secretary on her decision to award £150,000 to T in the Park, following last week’s less than satisfactory oral evidence session.
The was barely time to grab a sandwich, before I was into the Chamber for a government debate on empowering island communities. The debate followed the launch of a government consultation on an Islands Bill earlier in the week, which I hope many people in Orkney will respond to over the coming weeks. While welcoming the consultation and the debate, I used my contribution to draw attention to the government’s track record of largely removing powers from the islands over recent years. I have made clear that ‘island proofing’ legislation must be more than a ‘tick box exercise’.
On the issue of air services, I welcomed confirmation from the Minister that ADS support is to increase from 40% to 50%, but emphasised the need for the government to reverse its decision to exclude isles businesses from the scheme. I also highlighted the need to prioritise improvements in reliability of the lifeline air services. On ferries, again the announcement that fares are to be frozen for next year is welcome, but Orkney’s continued exclusion from the RET scheme is unjustified. You can read my contribution to the debate here.
Back in my office after votes, I had a brief meeting with the Principal of Aberdeen University, Sir Ian Diamond. As well as discussing his concerns about the Higher Education governance bill, Sir Ian was keen to hear if I thought Orkney students felt the university is properly meeting their needs. I am not aware of any concerns but would welcome feedback from constituents attending or thinking of attending Aberdeen University. Please get in touch.
Wednesday morning was spent in a Scottish Parliament Corporate Body meeting, before joining a cross-party panel of MSPs for a Q&A with a group of Modern Studies teachers. The discussion ranged from the Syrian refugee crisis to concerns about workload pressures on teachers. I was then back in the Chamber for Education Questions, where I pressed the Minister on the impact that the agreement on teacher numbers is having on local authorities across Scotland. I am aware of concerns that it does not allow any flexibility to match demand for teachers to supply. You can read the exchange here and my comments here.
The rest of the afternoon was spent catching up on casework and making calls, including a number relating to further delays in flights in and out of Orkney.
Thursday began in a similar vein, before I headed to the Chamber for General Questions. I had an opportunity to ask the Transport Minister to consider with Network Rail what opportunities there are for investing in the rail infrastructure north of Inverness. I believe such investment could improve the passenger experience, but also help transfer more freight off the A9. You can read the exchange here and my comments here.
Straight afterwards, First Minister’s Questions was again dominated by the issue of former SNP Shadow Business Spokesperson, Michelle Thomson and the on-going Police Scotland investigation into her property dealings and a separate Law Society inquiry into delays in highlighting this case. Ms Sturgeon helpfully backed calls for the Law Society to publish all details as soon as possible. My colleague, Tavish Scott also raised concerns about significant planned job losses at Sullom Voe oil terminal in Shetland.
After lunch, I had a brief meeting with BBC Scotland’s head of public affairs about a range of issues, including charter renewal and the Education Committee’s on-going inquiry. It was then back to the Chamber to hear the opening speeches in the Stage 1 debate on the Smoking Prohibition (Children in Motor Vehicles) Bill. The bill, which is being piloted through parliament by my colleague, Jim Hume, would introduce fines for those caught smoking in a car with a child or young person under the age of 18 on board. It received unanimous support and will now go forward for amendment. More on the Bill can be found here.
The rest of the afternoon was spent doing casework, making calls and participating in internal meetings. I returned to Orkney this morning, and held a meeting with KGS pupils who have undertaken a study into the issue of seal shootings by the fish farm sector in Orkney. I have agreed to write to the Minister about a number of questions they raised. This evening, I am delighted to be chairing an event at the Orkney Youth Café to mark Mental Health Awareness Week. This is an issue that desperately needs to be taken more seriously.
With the Scottish Parliament in recess for the next two weeks, I have an opportunity to spend more time in the constituency. As well as visiting Graemsay next Tuesday (13th October) I will be organising visits by senior air ambulance representatives to Stronsay (19th October) and Westray (20th October). I have a conference call with the Principal of UHI, a meeting with HIE’s head of renewables and trip to Inverness to meet HITRANS and SSE. On a more cultural bent, I will also be attending Scottish Opera’s performance of Cosi Fan Tutti in the Orkney Theatre. Everything else can be found in my diary.