Holyrood Highlights - 04.03.22

This week's Holyrood Highlights must begin with a reflection on the way in which our community has come together to stand in solidarity with Ukraine Concerns understandably intensified over last weekend with the expected arrival into Flotta of the Sovcomflot tanker, NS Champion.  With the Russian state-owned vessel en-route to Orkney, Alistair Carmichael wrote to the Prime Minister calling on a ban of such vessels entering UK ports which would be in-line with the ban already implemented on Russian airlines.  I raised the growing concerns within the Orkney community with the First Minister and held talks with the Transport Secretary on Saturday, while a vigil was taking place in front of St Magnus Cathedral.  I also kept in contact with OIC and Orkney Harbours.   


It took time, but the absolutely the right decision was announced by the UK Transport Secretary on Monday evening.  As I said in the Chamber on Tuesday, it represented a victory for people in Orkney who have been steadfast in their determination to stand shoulder to shoulder with the people of Ukraine.  Through their defiance, major oil companies have had to act. As a result, money that would’ve flowed into supporting Putin’s bloodthirsty regime has been stopped.  I have rarely felt prouder of our community which unquestionably played such a pivotal role in securing this outcome.

Of course, there is much more we can do and unsurprisingly the Orkney community continues to step up with numerous fundraising activities underway, including at the Blue Door and through The Orcadian and McAdie & Reeve's 'Gaan the Distance' appeal which you can find out more about here.  I've offered my support to this effort and to the wider appeal by the Disasters Emergency Committee here in response to the horrendous humanitarian crisis unfolding in Ukraine and neighbouring countries.  Meantime, I've also written to the OIC to see what further coordination might be possible to ensure local efforts can be joined-up with national appeals.

The efforts to prevent NS Champion entering Scapa Flow naturally took up a lot of attention on Monday, but I was also able to meet with colleagues from the OIC's Education Department and KGS to discuss local mental health services for young people.  With the return of greater normality, it is important to recognise the effect the pandemic has had on the self-confidence and mental wellbeing of young people.  It was useful to be able to discuss ways in which this can be addressed with that return to normality, but also identifying ways of providing things for our young people to look forward to. 

Monday also saw me hold a meeting with the British Energy Gas Trust (BGET) to discuss the impact of the cost-of-living crisis to islanders and concerns over future funding for Tackling Household Affordable Warmth, a key local organisation supporting and advising those in fuel poverty in Orkney.  At a time when fuel bills are climbing ever higher, there is a need for the UK and Scottish Government’s to agree a way forward that will allow THAW, and similar organisations funded by BGET, to continuing to carry out their vital work.  Since the meeting, Alistair Carmichael has written to the relevant UK Minister reinforcing this point and need for urgent action.  You can find out more about the work of THAW here. 

Later in the afternoon I made calls to constituents, spent time dealing with casework before Alistair and I held meetings first with Repsol Sinopec and then OIC Leader, James Stockan to discuss NS Champion, thankfully by that stage on the back of announcement from the UK Government.  

Having been in Edinburgh over the weekend, I was in parliament first thing on Tuesday without the need to catch a flight.  The extra time gave me a chance to catch up with casework and prepare for a Topical Question I had secured on the ban of Russian vessels entering UK ports later in the afternoon.  Before that I attended a meeting of the Parliamentary Bureau followed by a meeting with my Scottish Lib Dem MSPs to discuss the week ahead.  

At Topical Questions, I was able to put on record my admiration for the response of the Orkney community in standing shoulder to shoulder with the people of Ukraine and in defiance of Russian vessels entering Scapa Flow or other UK ports.  This was greeted with applause from across the Chamber.  Thankfully my questions were different to what they might have been 24 hours earlier but it was helpful to get assurances from the Transport Secretary that the ban will have legal force and that the Scottish and UK Governments will be closely co-operating in sharing intelligence to ensure these measures target all vessels and activity linked to the Russian state.  You can watch this exchange here, read the transcript here and more of my comments here.

There was then a Ministerial Statement on Scotland’s Climate Assembly which held its eighth and final meeting in February.  The Assembly has provided 81 recommendations for Scotland’s journey to become a net zero nation which my party are keen to ensure are met.  Amongst other things, they rightly highlight the urgent need to de-carbonise transport and provide more alternatives to flying. I suggested, once again, that this could not be squared with the Scottish Government's support for a third runway at Heathrow.  You can watch this exchange here and read the statement here.

I was then in the Chair for a Scottish Government Debate on their approach to the mental health and wellbeing of our Veterans.  It was an excellent and very consensual debate, which you can watch here and read here.  After a quick trip back to my office to catch up on emails and casework, I was back in the Chair for a Members Debate on Eating Disorders Awareness Week 2022, which you can watch here and find out more here. 

On Wednesday morning I spent time dealing with casework before heading off to chair a Conveners Group session with the First Minister.  It was the first of these meetings since the May’s election, though traditionally they take place twice a year.  They provide an opportunity for the Conveners of each of the parliament's committees to question the First Minister on issues relating to the work of their committees.  You can watch here 

After a quick bite of lunch and an interview with ITV Borders on the Conveners Group session, I was back to Chairing duties, this time for a Constitution, Europe, External Affairs and Culture Committee debate on the Internal Market Inquiry, which you can watch here and read here.  There was then a quick debate on Local Government Finance (Scotland) Order 2022, followed by a debate on the implications of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund in Scotland, which you can watch here and here.  As these were on I took time to hold a (virtual) meeting with Loganair CEO, Jonathan Hinkles, for an update on the airline’s plans for timetables and services going forward.

Before decision time, there was a last-minute Ministerial Statement on the National Strategy for Economic Transformation, announced by the Scottish Government the day before.  Naturally an announcement of this importance should have been made to parliament first and there was understandable anger amongst MSPs at the Finance Secretary choosing to use a meeting with selected business leaders to publish the document.  The Presiding Officer agreed, and so no statement was allowed and the session went straight to questions from MSPs.  As for the strategy itself, it appears pretty lacklustre, lacking in both ambition and any real detail.  You can watch the statement here and read it here.  I was then in the Chair for a Members Debate on Epilepsy and Employment in Scotland, which you can watch here and read here

On Thursday, I met with Food & Drink Federation Scotland to hear about the efforts of the sector to support our net zero targets.  After various internal meetings with my Presiding Officer colleagues regarding the afternoon's chamber business, I stayed in my office to catch up on emails while tuning into First Ministers Questions where the situation in Ukraine featured prominently and was on the minds of everyone.  Conservative leader, Douglas Ross, did however go on to question Nicola Sturgeon over the government's economic record and the sudden resignation of its Scottish National Investment Bank CEO while Labour leader, Anas Sarwar focused on lengthy waiting times in our health service.  You can watch FMQs here and read it here.  I was back in the Chamber after lunch, to chair Portfolio questions to the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands, which you can watch here and read here.

The afternoon also saw the Equalities Secretary, Shona Robinson make a statement to coincide with the long-anticipated introduction of the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill.  This move has given rise to fierce, often vitriolic exchanges between supporters and opponents, in many instances within the same party.  After various delays to allow for further consultation, however, it is helpful that the actual detail of the proposals has now be set out.  As well as calling for members, whatever their positions, to debate the issues vigorously but with respect, Ms Robison went on to set out both what was in the legislation but also, importantly given the nature of some of the debate, what would not change.  Specifically, in acknowledging concerns raised about the potential impact on single-sex spaces, Ms Robison stressed that the protections and exemptions afforded through the 2010 Equalities Act would still apply.  She also stressed that the threat to women and girls came overwhelmingly from predatory men, not those in the trans community.  While this is likely to remain a very contentious issue, the debate this week showed encouraging signs that it can still be respectful . You can watch and read the statement and exchanges here and here. 

I stayed in the Chamber for the second last-minute Ministerial Statement of the week, this time on the justice system's approach to risk assessment.  This was full of technical jargon but essentially turned out to be an admission by the government of errors in an IT system that helps those in the Scottish justice system assess risk and make decisions around sentencing and release.  As of now, it is known that on 1,317 occasions the system has displayed the wrong risk level. This is obviously profoundly concerning and will give rise to understandable public alarm.  While the Cabinet Secretary sought to offer reassurances, his statement lacked the kind of detail needed and the government has its work cut out in clearing up the mess and rebuilding public confidence.  You can watch this statement here and read more about this issue here.

After the statement, I headed out to the airport to catch a flight north so I could attend an Orkney Renewables Supply Chain Dinner hosted by GAC UK in Kirkwall.  It was impressive to see the breadth of skills and expertise available within the Orkney supply chain already, though this will have to expand significantly if it is to meet the anticipated needs of the offshore wind sector, following the recent announcement of projects under the Scotwind round, about which you can find more details here.

On Friday morning, I visited Hope Community School to mark the 25th anniversary of World Book Day.  Having been a fairly regular visitor over the years, having the chance to read stories and discuss favourite books and characters with the pupils is still a highlight of the job.  Everyone at the school had clearly had fun dressing up as their favourite characters yesterday and were only to delighted to talk about the books they were reading when I turned up today.  That enthusiasm is so important as we know picking up the habit of reading from a young age is fundamental to improving future life prospects.  World Book Day is a fantastic initiative that has been well supported by schools across the isles over the years.  You can find out more here.

Back in the Kirkwall office, I spent the rest of the day catching up on casework before a meeting of the Cross Party Group on MS, where we focused on difficulties faced by those with MS is meeting some of the requirements for certain benefits, for which they should almost certainly be entitled.  Later in the afternoon, I had my latest catch-up meeting with NHS Orkney interim chief executive, Michael Dickson, where the focus, not surprisingly, was on the continuing high number of Covid cases in Orkney.

Later this evening, I'm looking forward to attending a demonstration of Japanese cooking, organised by the Orkney Japan Association. I am delighted that we will be joined by the Japanese Consul General, who is on a visit to Orkney today and will have had a busy schedule taking him from Skaill House and the Heart of Neolithic Orkney to Highland Park and on to tonight’s event at the King St Halls.  The Orkney Japan Association has enjoyed tremendous support from the Consulate over the years and I’m pleased Mr Fujiwara has agreed to take on the role of Honorary Patron of OJA.  The links between Orkney and Japan continue to go from strength to strength, ranging from the cultural and educational to business ties across many different sectors.  You can find out more about OJA here.

Over the weekend, I hope to get along to more Japanese cookery events as well as the Orkney men’s rugby match against Ellon, where funds will again be raised to support the humanitarian effort in Ukraine and neighbouring countries.

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