Holyrood Highlights 07.02.20

Unfortunately, due to heavy cold, I have spent much of this week in bed, with precious few ‘highlights’, Holyrood or otherwise! Nevertheless, I thought it might be helpful to offer some thoughts on the events of the week, even where I didn’t manage to witness them first hand.

Having returned from a weekend in Dublin, I was in Edinburgh on Monday and spent the day catching up on emails and dealing with casework. I also took time to write my fortnightly column for the Orcadian, which you can read here.

On Tuesday, I attended the Justice Committee as usual, despite already feeling decidedly unwell. We were considering Stage 2 amendments to the Scottish Biometrics Commissioner Bill and as I had a number of amendments lodged in my name, I was determined to make sure the Committee had a chance to debate and vote on them. In the event, I secured support for the creation of an ethics advisory group to support the work of the Commissioner in overseeing the use of biometrics, such a live facial recognition technology. You can read more about the Bill here and the list of amendments here. You can also watch the full committee session here and read it here.

I then had my regular weekly meeting with Lib Dem MSP colleagues, before returning to the office briefly to check up on emails. I was disappointed to learn that the government’s review of their action plan to tackle unfair delivery charges has been delayed. I have previously lodged parliamentary questions and written to the Business Minister on this issue, following reports that last year people in Scotland paid over £40million in surcharges compared to those in the rest of the UK. The government’s action plan was initially published in 2018, with a review of progress due at the end of 2019. This was postponed until after the election, but has now been delayed until April. You can read more about this issue here and my full comments here.

Unfortunately, as I was beginning to feel much worse, I had to head back to my flat mid-afternoon. Regrettably, this meant that I missed, amongst other things, a parliamentary reception hosted by Sported focusing on the power of sport to help young people turn their lives around. You can learn more about the work of Sported here.

I also had to miss a briefing by the Scottish Police Federation on the funding challenges faced by Scotland’s police force. This is an issue that has been prominent recently, following revelations about the dilapidated state of some police stations, car fleet and equipment and comments from the Justice Secretary suggesting this was ‘hyperbole”. You can read more about this issue here and the Scottish Police Federation here.

On Wednesday, I stayed at my flat and tried to keep on top of emails while also taking time to rest and recover. I was due to meet with Kenny Stewart, who is the new lead on Scottish Policy at the Equality and Human Rights Commission but had to reschedule on this occasion. You can read more about the commission here.

In the afternoon, I did manage to speak on the phone with Andrew Fuller and Milne Weir from the Scottish Ambulance Service, who I had been due to meet to discuss my concerns regarding land ambulance cover in Orkney. I raised this issue in parliament before Christmas and the Minister for Public Health, Joe Fitzpatrick, then wrote to me to confirm that there were 168 occasions last year when emergency calls in Orkney were left waiting due to the ambulance being on another call. Mr Fuller and Mr Weir acknowledged the seriousness of the situation and outlined the immediate steps SAS plan to take to address the problem. While I welcomed those moves, I pointed out that this could only be seen as the first step in bringing staffing levels in Orkney more in line with those in Shetland. Mr Weir accepted this point and agreed to write to me formally setting out SAS’s proposals. You can read more about this issue here.

On Thursday, I had to re-schedule meetings I was due to have with Michael Clancy, Director of Law Reform at the Law Society of Scotland, and Jamie Maxton, Head of External Relations at SSE Renewables.

In truth, though, the day was already set to be dominated by the dramatic news that Finance Secretary, Derek Mackay had been forced to resign following newspaper allegations of inappropriate social media contact between the Minister and a 16-year old boy. Shortly before First Minister’s Questions, Nicola Sturgeon gave a brief statement about Mr Mackay’s resignation, confirming that he had also been suspended from the party and the SNP parliamentary group in Holyrood, pending a fuller investigation of the facts. This did not prevent calls for Mr Mackay, who had been due to present the Scottish Government’s Budget to parliament that afternoon, to step down as an MSP. You can read the full story here.

At FMQs, Jackson Carlow drew comparisons between the behaviour of Mr MacKay and NSPCC’s definition of ‘grooming’ before asking what support would be made available to the 16-year old and his family. Richard Leonard also condemned Mr Mackay’s actions but went on to raise failings in the provision of mental health support revealed in a damning report on NHS Tayside. You can watch the full session here and read it here.

In my absence, the Justice Sub-Committee on Policing then met to sign off our report on the use of facial recognition technology by Police Scotland. I had fed in my comments in advance.

Shortly before the government presented its budget to parliament, Ministers confirmed that Calmac has dropped its legal challenge to the appointment of Serco as the preferred bidder for the Northern Isles ferry contract. It was also confirmed that the European Commission has determined that the public subsidy offered in support of the Northern Isle Ferry service is compliant with state aid rules. This is obviously welcome news, lifting the uncertainty that has surrounded the future of our lifeline ferry services for almost two years and opening the door for the long overdue introduction of RET on Orkney’s ferry routes. You can read more about this announcement here and my comments here.

The afternoon was then taken up with Scottish Government’s budget, presented to parliament by Finance Minister Kate Forbes, following Mr Mackay’s sudden resignation. Ms Forbes became the first woman to deliver the budget at Holyrood, an achievement that was all the more impressive given the late notice and difficult circumstances. You can watch the full budget statement here and read it here.

As with any budget, there are certainly aspects of this budget worthy of support. The government has not made life any easier for itself, however, by the amount of money wasted on various high profile projects recently, including the tendering of two Calmac ferries from Fergusons yard, which are set to be delayed by four years and come in at £200m, twice the original budget. Meanwhile, although additional funding has been provided to local Councils, this does not even cover the cost of the additional duties the Scottish Government has placed on them, throwing up the prospect of yet further cuts in local services that are already under severe pressure. Increased funding for internal ferry services in Orkney and Shetland was also included, but at first glance seems to fall well short of what is needed to honour the commitment made by Derek Mackay two years ago to ‘fair funding’.

My colleague, Willie Rennie put these questions to Kate Forbes during her statement, which you can see here.

I flew back to Orkney last night, which meant that I missed the NFU Scotland annual dinner. From previous experience, this is an event you should really only take on when you are in the rudest of health, but it was very disappointing not to be able to join what looked like being a strong Orkney contingent at the dinner in Glasgow.

Friday has been spent catching up on casework and emails ahead of the parliamentary recess next week.

As ever, please do not hesitate to get in touch with me about Holyrood Highlights, or indeed any issue that I can help you with, on [email protected]

Next Week

I will be holding a surgery in North Ronaldsay on Monday and also helping out with some dyke-building. Friday sees me holding surgeries at Heilsa Fjold in Sanday, as well as meeting the local Wellbeing officer on the island. I have a meeting of the Orkney Japan Association on Wednesday evening and during the day will attend a local tourism stakeholder event, hosted by VisitScotland. The rest of the week, I will have various meetings with constituents on casework issues.

As ever, my full diary is here while “This Week in the Scottish Parliament”, a weekly update from the Scottish Parliament, can be found here. You can also view motions that I have submitted to parliament this week here and questions that I have tabled here.

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