Holyrood Highlights - 11.02.22

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 spent the rest of the morning dealing with casework and making calls to constituents.

Later in the afternoon, I visited the British Red Cross House to meet Sam Payne, BRC’s Independent Living Manager to discuss changes that may see the facility closing its doors.  I plan to follow up my concerns with the Red Cross team nationally later this month, and will be arguing strongly for this important facility to be retained for use by isles residents travelling to and from hospital appointments.  Once back in the office, I held a couple of meetings with constituents, including with local school counsellors June Anderson and Renate Andrews to discuss the provision of counselling services locally.  It was a timely discussion at the start of Children's Mental Health Week.  My final meeting of the day was with OIC Leader, James Stockan, to discuss concerns over the Budget settlement for Orkney Islands Council and the long-running impasse with Ministers over the replacement of Orkney’s internal ferries

On Tuesday morning I made what I hope to be the final de-tour to Sumbrugh en-route to Edinburgh for the time being.  The time sitting on the tarmac at Sumburgh did though give me time to finish off my column for this week's Orcadian, in which I focused on the growing cost of living crisis. You can it read here.  After a delayed arrival, I got to parliament just in time for weekly 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 several weeks where we have seen restrictions begin to lift, there were no major changes to current guidance announced by the First Minister.  However, the First Minister did confirm that the government will publish its updated strategic framework later this month.  This will set out in greater detail the government's approach to managing Covid more sustainably and less restrictively in the remaining phases of the pandemic, and then as the virus hopefully becomes endemic.

The First Minister also confirmed the advisory sub-group on education was due to meet again to re-consider the requirement for face-coverings in secondary school classrooms.  Subsequently, the First Minister confirmed at FMQs yesterday that secondary school pupils will not need to wear face coverings in classrooms from 28 February, although pupils will still need to wear masks in communal areas and when moving around inside school buildings.  I’m sure this will be welcomed by pupils and staff alike and help return learning in schools to a more normal experience.  However, the Scottish Government still has a responsibility to ensure our classrooms are safe environments and crucially well-ventilated.  The February break should offer an opportunity for the government to install air filters in every classroom and lift the threat to chop the bottom off classroom doors!

Following the statement, I was in the chamber to take part in a debate on the government's vision for the justice system in Scotland.  As my party's justice spokesperson, I proposed an amendment to the motion urging the government to publish a route map with milestones for increasing provision of throughcare support and purposeful activity in prison.  The reduction in both over recent times, increases the likelihood of people reoffending and makes our communities less safe.  You can watch the full debate here, read it here and more about the government's vision for justice here.

At the end of the day, I was in the chair for a Members Debate on the future of the BBC, led by my colleague Alex Cole-Hamilton.  Much of the attention focused on worrying comments from the UK Conservative Culture Minister, Nadine Dorries about the future funding of the BBC, viewed by most as an attempt to distract attention from criticism of the Prime Minister over lockdown parties in Downing.  I was pleased, however, that there was also acknowledgment of the vital role played by the BBC's local radio station services, including BBC Radio Orkney.  You can watch the full debate here and read the transcript here.

On Wednesday morning, in my role as Chair of the Orkney-Japan Association I was delighted to pay a visit to the Japanese Consulate to meet with the recently appointed Consul General, Tadashi Fujiwara.  He expressed his strong support for OJA and efforts to continuing building on the cultural, social and business ties between Orkney and Japan.  Mr Fujiwara also confirmed that he is keen to pay an early visit to Orkney, and I look forward to welcoming to the islands in the near future.  You can find out more about the work of Orkney-Japan Association here.

Once back at Holyrood, I caught up with emails and casework before meeting with my presiding officer colleagues to discuss the afternoon's chamber business, which started with portfolio questions, firstly on Health and Social Care, then Social Justice, Housing and Local Government.  You can watch these sessions here and read the transcript here.  I was then in the chair for a Ministerial Statement on ScotRail which confirmed that ScotRail would be brought back into public ownership.  You can watch this statement here and read it here.  I remained in the chair for a stage 3 debate on the Self-Isolation Compensation Bill, which you can watch here and read the transcript here.  I headed back to the office to briefly catch up on emails before heading back to chair a Members Business debate commemorating the 70th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II's accession to the throne.  You can watch this debate here and read the transcript it here.

On Thursday morning I had a catch-up meeting with the various campaign groups involved in supporting my efforts to change the law on assisted dying.  I then spent time dealing with casework before heading along to the chamber for General Questions where I had the opportunity to question the Minister for Higher Education on the return to full-time face-to-face learning for college and university students.  It follows concerns that have been shared with me by students from Orkney who continue to face largely online learning, including for some science-based courses. Omicron delayed the planned scaling up of in-person learning at the start of January.  However, given recent relaxations in restrictions, I believe Ministers need to revise the guidance in the interests of students and their learning.  Ultimately, if nightclubs can be open it is hard to understand why some lecture halls remain closed.  While the Minister avoided any firm timescale, he hinted that revised guidance may form part of the government's updated strategic framework due at the end of the month.  You can watch the exchange here and read more of my comments here. 

It was then time for First Minister’s Questions where Nicola Sturgeon first provided the update on face-coverings in schools, mentioned above.  Conservative leader, Douglas Ross then questioned the First Minister over the government's record on rail services, following the statement earlier in the week on ScotRail’s renationalisation.  Labour leader, Anas Sarwar returned to quizzing the First Minister over support for a 'windfall tax' on oil companies in response to the growing cost of living crisis.  You can watch FMQs here and read the transcript here.

Before heading back to the office and grabbing a bite of lunch, I visited the Place2Be stand in the Garden Lobby where I heard more about their charity’s work supporting pupils, teachers and staff to achieve mentally healthy schools.  We discussed how Place2Be might be able to support similar efforts in Orkney, which I have followed up locally with stakeholders.  You can find out more of their work here 

After lunch, I was in the chair for portfolio questions on Constitution, External Affairs and Culture, which you can watch here and read here.  It was also Orcadian, Neil Gray’s first question time since being appointed a Minister.  I’m pleased to report that the man from Burray was commendably succinct in his responses!  This was followed by a brief debate on the UK Government's The Professional Qualifications Bill, again which you can watch here and read here

Later in the afternoon I caught up on casework while tuning into the stage 3 debate on the Scottish Budget, which you can watch here and read here. Finance Secretary, Kate Forbes, began the debate by announcing a one-off payment of £150 to households in council tax bands A to D and all of those eligible for council tax reduction.  While a welcome move, the wider Budget unfortunately falls short and will short-change local councils across the country.  At a local level, it has become clear that Orkney is set to be hardest hit.  Ultimately, it is hard to see how this squares with the SNP-Green government's stated commitment to 'island proofing' and supporting island communities.  It was not a budget I could support, though it passed with SNP and Green MSP votes.

The bang of the gavel after decision-time marked the start of the February recess, with parliament returning on Tuesday 22 February.  On Friday I stayed in Edinburgh where I spent time dealing with casework and making a number of calls. 


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