Holyrood Highlights - 04.02.22

The week began in the Kirkwall office with the usual Monday morning meetings, first with parliamentarian colleagues and then my office team to discuss the week ahead.  I also had a meeting with various campaign groups involved in supporting my efforts to change the law on assisted dying.  I spent the rest of the morning dealing with casework and making calls to constituents.

At lunchtime, I met with the new Scottish Blood Transfusion Service Director (SNBTS), Professor Marc Turner regarding the possibility of setting up regular blood donation sessions in Orkney.  I wrote to the SNBTS earlier this month asking them to look again at this issue, following a parliamentary debate on the campaign to encourage more people to donate with the number of donations dropping significantly over the pandemic. Professor Turner explained that a review is underway and assured me that this would look, amongst other things, at the feasibility of mobile units travelling to the islands again.  While he was at pains to point out the logistical challenges that remain, I reminded Professor Turner of the strong community support in Orkney and offered to provide whatever assistance I could to help overcome some of the costs and logistical issues.  We have agreed to meet again later in the year once progress has been made with the SNBTS review.  You can read my comments on the meeting here.

A busy afternoon continued with me hosting a virtual roundtable on the Deposit Return Scheme involving local businesses and community groups along with Circularity Scotland, the body responsible for overseeing the rollout of the scheme.  While we now know the broad timetable for introducing DRS in Scotland, the detail of how it will work in practice remains unclear and subject to negotiation.  What is clear, however, is that implementing such a scheme in island areas, like Orkney, presents very specific challenges.  There were plenty of questions asked and issues raised by local stakeholders that attended, giving Circularity Scotland and Zero Waste Scotland plenty food for thought.  DRS has the potential to make a positive impact in reducing waste and litter, but only if the detailed implementation is right and I’m keen to ensure local organisations are kept involved as details firm up over the coming months.  You can read more about the proposals here and my comments on the meeting here.

On Tuesday morning I was blown down to Edinburgh by a combination of Storms Malik and Corrie.  With Sumburgh airport off limits due to cross winds, I did at least get to Edinburgh earlier than planned!  After a brief catch up with my Presiding Officer colleagues, I attended a meeting of the Parliamentary Bureau followed by a meeting with my Scottish Lib Dem MSP colleagues and then the First Minister's weekly Covid-19 update to parliament, which you can watch here and read here.

Following a series of relaxations to restrictions and guidance, the First Minister confirmed that baseline measures will remain for at least three weeks and face coverings will continue to be required in Scottish secondary schools for at least another week when the advisory group is expected to consider this issue again.  NHS Orkney has announced that they will be running local drop-in Covid19 vaccinations clinics starting from Monday (7th) to Friday 09:30-16:30 for the rest of February.  They will be held at the Kirkwall Vaccination Centre for anyone eligible for their 1st, 2nd, 3rd or Booster dose of the Covid-19 vaccine.

On the subject of schools, Scottish Liberal Democrats revealed Scottish Government plans to “chop the bottom off doors” of 2000 "problematic" classrooms where airflow is poor.  While this may seem like a parody, it is sadly one of the proposals contained in a letter from the Education Secretary to the Education, Children and Young People Committee which can be found here.  Two years into a pandemic, chopping up doors is frankly an insult to teachers and pupils who deserve proper solutions to issues of ventilation.  Air filters need to be installed in every classroom which should not only save a few doors but also allow the easing of face covering requirements in schools.  Unsurprisingly, after the revelation from my colleague, Willie Rennie, this story featured again prominently later in the week at a rowdy FMQs. 

After the Covid update, I was in the Chair for a Ministerial Statement on national qualifications in schools in which the Education Secretary confirmed SQA's decision to take a more “generous” approach to exam grades, with this year’s overall results set to represent an “intermediary position” between 2021 and pre-pandemic years.  You can watch the statement here and read it here.  I remained in the Chair for the beginning of a Scottish Government Debate on the UK Elections Bill.  The debate sparked the usual constitutional spat as the regulation of UK elections is a matter for Westminster.  However, the proposed requirement that voters present ID is wholly unjustified given the absence of any real problem with voter fraud in recent UK elections, though the risk is that this measure could further suppress voter turnout.  You can watch this debate here and read its transcript here.  After a brief visit back to my office to catch-up on emails, I was back in the Chair for a lengthy Members Business debate on World Cancer Day which is marked today (Friday).  You can watch the debate here, read the transcript here and my comments (later in the week) here.

On Wednesday morning, I attended the Citizen Participation and Public Petitions Committee which was re-considering the petition calling for a halt to HIAL's proposals to centralise air traffic control services.  I pointed out in my contribution that while the immediate threat of job losses has been lifted, recent announcements by HIAL have given rise to more questions than answers.  I spoke of the deep anxiety of the petitioners and local staff that HIAL may simply dust down their remote tower proposals five years down the line.  Even the CAA has called into question some of the assumptions being made by HIAL about what might be feasible.  Meanwhile, HIAL has managed to spend millions of pounds of public money on a project that was doomed from the outset, including the purchase of a building in Inverness for £3.6m that is now surplus to requirements.  The Committee unanimously agreed to keep this petition open and to investigate further how ATMS has gone so badly wrong.  You can watch the exchange at the Committee here and read more of my comments here.

Having spent Wednesday afternoon in Dundee visiting my son, I was back in parliament early on Thursday dealing with casework and making calls.  After a meeting with my Presiding Officer colleagues to prepare for the business for the day, I was in the Chamber for General Questions where I raised concerns about the Budget settlement for Orkney Islands Council.  Last week, OIC Leader, Cllr Stockan stepped down from his position in COSLA in protest at what he claimed was the “poorest” settlement for any local authority in the country.  I asked the Minister for Public Finance, Tom Arthur, whether he believed this reflects a government committed to island-proofing and supporting our island communities.  While the Minister tried to point the finger at everyone else, the SNP/Green Government cannot escape responsibility for a decision that will almost certainly lead to cuts in local services, particularly in an area where delivery of services is invariably more costly.  You can watch this exchange here and read more of my comments here.  

I stayed in the chamber for First Minister's Questions where, as I mentioned earlier, the issue of classroom ventilation and the proposal to chop the bottom of classroom doors was brought up by Tory leader, Douglas Ross.  In a rowdy exchange, the First Minister tried to describe the suggestion of doors being chopped under the guise of "structural" changes in the face of obvious health and safety concerns.  Labour's Anas Sarwar then raised the growing cost of living crisis and questioned the First Minister over proposals to implement a "windfall" tax on oil giants and to increase the Winter Fuel Payment, which are also being proposed by Liberal Democrats.  In response, Nicola Sturgeon avoided committing her party to a windfall tax, but did state that "every single penny" of consequentials to Scotland from the new support measures announced by the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, will be passed on to helping people deal with the cost-of-living crisis.  You can watch FMQs here and read the transcript here.

After FMQs and a bite of lunch, I dropped past a British Red Cross reception being held in parliament before heading to Chair the Rural Affairs and Islands Portfolio Questions, which you can watch here and read the transcript here.  I remained in place for the beginning of a Scottish Labour Party Debate on cost-of-living crisis, which you can watch here and read its transcript here, which was then followed by another Labour Party debate, this time on ScotRail, and again you can watch and read it here and here.  While tuning into these proceedings, I spent the rest of the afternoon catching up on emails and casework

On Friday morning I made the journey home to Orkney, sadly with a detour via Sumburgh despite the hail showers.  Back in the Kirkwall office I spent time dealing with casework and making calls to constituents.  Later in the afternoon, I held a number of meetings, starting off with the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission to discuss up-coming legal services regulation reform then my monthly catch up with NHS Orkney interim chief executive, Michael Dickson.  Later on, I met with OVO/SSE to discuss proposed restructuring within the company by, and the implications for staff in Orkney as well as the delivery of ‘metering’ services, not just the roll out of smart meters but dealing with faults and meter replacements.

On Saturday, with great sadness I will be attending the funeral at St Magnus Cathedral of my friend, Caroline Wickham-Jones, who passed away very suddenly a fortnight ago after a brief illness.  She was a force of nature, with a deep knowledge of and infectious passion for archaeology. I miss her enormously and still can’t believe she’s no longer with us. Much of the rest of the weekend will be spent watching rugby, and joining Orkney Rugby Club members and friends on Sunday as part of a DoddieAid walk (and cycle) to raise money for and awareness of MND. You can find out more here and here

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