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Having remained south over the weekend (in part to attend my sister, Samantha’s 50th birthday – it’s ok, she’s not on the circulation list!) on Monday morning I headed to Dunfermline for the latest Parliament Day. This is an initiative aimed at public engagement and raising awareness of the work of MSPs. It was more of a logistical challenge than expected, given the closure of the Forth Road Bridge due to the discovery of a crack in one of the joints.
The Education Committee met to discuss further Stage 2 amendments to the Education Bill. I moved my amendment to remove plans for national standardised testing in primary schools from the Education (Scotland) Bill. Concerns have been raised that such a move could lead to a return to high stakes testing, teaching to the test and league tables. Unfortunately my amendment was rejected. I also spoke against Scottish Government amendments, introduced at the very last minute and on the basis of absolutely no evidence being taken by the Committee,on teaching hours. According to COSLA this will reduce flexibility for Councils and head teachers, including those in Orkney, to respond to the local needs of children, young people and parents. You can see my amendments here, read the official report here or read more of my views here. Once I arrived back from Dunfermline I went back into the Parliament to work on casework.
On Tuesday, the Education Committee reconvened to finalise Stage 2 amendments to the Education Bill. Again you can view the official report here or watch it here. I moved an amendment to remove provision for making a new Chief Education Officer within Councils statutory. I agree that Councils must have access to expert advice in this vital area, but I see no reason why this needs to be put into legislation. It seems to be another example of central government needlessly interfering in the workings of local and locally-elected Councils. Unfortunately the Scottish Government disagreed.
In the afternoon, Parliament debated Stage 3 of the Criminal Justice Bill. You can watch the debate here or read it here. I was disappointed that SNP Ministers rejected my colleague Alison McInnes' amendment to raise the age of criminal responsibility from eight to 12 years. You can read more here. Despite the running votes through the afternoon, I was able to leave the chamber briefly to take part by video conference in a meeting of Orkney Heart Support Group, NHS Orkney and representatives of the Scottish Heart Failure Hub. This was a useful discussion about the need for a heart failure nurse in Orkney and I welcome the involvement of the Hub in trying to identify ways of making this service locally more resilient.
On Tuesday I also wrote to Dr Aileen McLeod, Minister for Crofting reiterating calls for crofting reforms to be tailored to better fit local circumstances. At ‘The Future of Crofting’ conference in Inverness last Friday, the Minister set out her five priorities for crofting. However, a more regional approach was not one of them, despite what she heard in Orkney and Shetland over the summer, following meetings organised by Tavish Scott and myself. The current one-size-fits-all approach no longer works, particularly given the unique needs of island crofters. You can read more here.
Wednesday morning was a full morning with the Scottish Parliament Corporate Body. Prior to that, I made my annual appearance before the Finance Committee to put forward and answer questions about the SPCB budget for next year, including the implications of an election and new powers coming to the parliament. You can watch my ‘performance’ here.
The dominant news of the day, however, was welcome confirmation that the special election court had cleared Alistair Carmichael MP. In a joint statement with Tavish Scott, I said: "We are pleased that Alistair can now devote all his energies to working for the people of Orkney & Shetland and that he, Kate and the boys can enjoy Christmas with this weight off their minds.” You can read Alistair's statement here.
In the afternoon I took part in a "Teaching about the Scottish Parliament – MSP Q&A,". This is part of the outreach work done to help teachers teach about the Parliament. I was then back in my office to catch up on casework before briefly meeting representatives in the Parliament who were attending a debate on the National Strategy for Survivors of Childhood Abuse.You can read more about the debate here or watch here.
On Thursday morning I met with Professor Graham Turner, Beltane Public Engagement Fellow, to discuss the British Sign Language Bill and the lessons from this for MSPs and the parliament for how we work in future. Having read an article in The Orcadian regarding the impact of flight delays on isles patients travelling to and from Aberdeen I wrote to Ben Dempster, Operations Director at Aberdeen Airport, and Maurice Boyle, Director of Operations at Loganair, to renew calls for improvements in the facilities available for isles patients travelling between Orkney and Aberdeen. Improving flight reliability is a priority, but there are steps that can be taken on a number of fronts to improve the experience for those who may have mobility issues or are feeling unwell. You can read more about this here.
First Ministers Questions this week focused heavily on the closure of the Forth Road Bridge. This is causing massive disruption and having a damaging effect on the economy. Concerns have been raised about previous cuts to maintenance budgets and my colleague, Willie Rennie, who represents the Fife region, has called for an inquiry as well as more clarity about the contingency plans while repairs are undertaken. You can read here what Willie has been saying and read the exchanges at FMQs here or watch here.
Later that afternoon, the Agriculture Secretary delivered a statement on CAP payments. He confirmed that only a quarter of farmers will receive payments before the New Year, following delays and the spending of £178m on IT systems. There is still no clarity on who will be paid and when, creating uncertainty and potentially serious cash flow problems for farming and related businesses in Orkney. You can read the statement here and my comments here.
In the evening, I attended a reception in support of Amnesty International and later an event organised by RSPB Scotland. Friday morning saw me fly back home to Orkney. After a brief stop in the office to catch up on casework, I travelled out to Flotta with Alistair for a briefing with management at the terminal. It was a useful update and while these are challenging times, it was reassuring to hear that the situation regarding jobs is now more settled.
Last night I went to the panto to see Palace Players’ production of Aladdin. The excitement is helped dull the pain of being the only member of the McArthur household not to have made it through the audition!
Next week I will be meeting with elected Members at Orkney Islands Council and trying to attend the OACS AGM and Burray Primary School Christmas concert. In the last week of parliamentary business before recess, I will attend the Education Committee, Stage 1 Land Reform debate, draft Budget Debate and Stage 3 debate on the Smoking Prohibition (Children in Motor Vehicles) bill , being proposed by my colleague Jim Hume. I also look forward (finally) to presenting an award to stonemason apprentice, Sophie Turner. For everything else, please check my diary.