This week is set to be dominated by matters budgetary. After initial skirmishes prior to Christmas, parliament finally gets to debate and vote on the general principles of the Scottish Government’s budget i.e. Stage 1.
It almost goes without saying that the implications of this process for Orkney are highly significant, as indeed they are for communities the length and breadth of the country. For the first time since devolution, we will see a government bring forward tax proposals that allow for a different approach to be taken north of the border compared to other parts of the UK.
We will also have a clearer sense as to how the First Minister and her colleagues plan to address the serious and urgent challenges faced by our public services, almost without exception. Education, for example, faces pressures from the earliest years through to our college sector, where over 140,000 places have been lost since 2007. This has affected older learners and women disproportionately, while also hobbling efforts to promote genuinely lifelong learning.
In health, meanwhile, the situation is scarcely any better, and arguably even more acute. While Orkney appears fortunate in having escaped the GP crisis blighting large parts of Scotland, there are real capacity issues in other areas from social and primary care through to specialist treatment and, of course, mental health provision. More money is not the sole answer, of course, but making progress without it seems inconceivable.
Without detracting from the importance of either of these broad areas, I suspect eyes in Orkney and Shetland will be focused on what is proposed in relation to transport, specifically whether fair funding is allocated to our internal ferry services.
In the last fortnight, the Rural Affairs and Economy Committee has produced two separate reports, both of which call on the Scottish Government to use the current budget to deliver on its promises to the Northern Isles over fair ferry funding. These have been very welcome interventions from a Committee whose members clearly recognise the lifeline nature of these services to our island communities.
This message has been reinforced time and again over months of evidence-gathering by the Committee as it scrutinised the government’s Islands Bill. The urgency of the Committee’s demands for a resolution no doubt has been influenced by the decision of all three unions representing Orkney Ferries employees to back industrial action. In that sense, the reports could not be more timely.
They have also helped increase the pressure on Ministers to deliver. This is a point that my Shetland colleague, Tavish Scott and I have been reinforcing during our conversations in recent weeks with the Finance Secretary, Derek Mackay. The growing sense that Orkney and Shetland’s compelling case is now better understood across the parliament as a whole can only increase the chances of seeing a positive outcome finally delivered.
There is some way to go yet and the budget that will be voted on this week contains no commitment to fair ferry funding. However, hopefully this can be addressed during Stage 2 and 3 consideration of the budget next month.
Meantime, another bill will reach a conclusion later this week when parliament votes on Stage 3 of the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Bill. Currently legislation is in place to deal with domestic abuse of a physical nature. However, the Justice Committee heard powerful evidence during our scrutiny of this bill about how coercive and controlling behaviour, predominantly by men towards a female partner, can be every bit has damaging to the victim as physical violence. Indeed, the effects often can be even more long-lasting.
The Committee also heard how an abusive relationship can impact any children involved, even where they don’t actually witness or hear the abuse taking place. In response, we succeeded in amending the bill to strengthen the protections available for children caught up in such circumstances.
While the debate over the budget is likely to expose political divisions, the Domestic Abuse bill will see MSPs from across the chamber come together in unison. A healthy parliament needs to be able to do both.