This week started in the Kirkwall office with the usual series of calls with parliamentary colleagues and my office to discuss the week ahead. As it is Scottish Apprenticeship Week, later in the morning I dropped in at Highland Park Distillery to meet Ryan, a young apprentice electrician, and his colleagues from RS Merrimans. It was great hearing about his experience and the benefits of work-based learning alongside college studies. The team at Skills Development Scotland also confirmed that interest in apprenticeships locally, amongst school leavers and businesses, is on the increase. You can find out more about Scottish Apprenticeships Week here and more of my comments here.
Back in the office, I spent the rest of the afternoon dealing with casework and making calls to constituents. I also took part in a podcast with students from the University of Glasgow to discuss current affairs and my experiences as an MSP. You can listen to the Untribal Politics podcast here.
On Tuesday morning I travelled down to Edinburgh and once back at my desk I was able to finish my column for this week's Orcadian which focused on the unfolding horror in Ukraine. So far, unfortunately, the UK Government response to this humanitarian crisis has fallen short, been piecemeal and confusing. While some progress has been made in the last 48 hours, the need to provide safe routes for Ukrainians fleeing Putin's barbaric attacks will only intensify. Meantime, the response from the Orkney community continues to be overwhelming, with local fundraising and other initiatives springing up on a daily basis, including The Orcadian and McAdie & Reeve's Gaan The Distance for Ukraine appeal. You can find out more about this here and read my column here.
I then met with my Presiding Officer colleagues ahead of meetings first of the Parliamentary Bureau and then with my Scottish Lib Dem MSP colleagues to discuss the week ahead. Alongside the government's phased lifting of Covid-19 restrictions, with all remaining legal measures expected to end on 21 March, parliament has also been undertaking a phased re-introduction of our services. Some members of the public have returned to the public gallery in the chamber and drop-in stalls hosted by charities and other organisations are also back in the garden lobby. A return to full capacity in the chamber in the coming weeks will test my chairing skills, but it is fantastic to see the parliament opening up to the public again, given the importance of accessibility and openness.
After a bite of lunch, I caught up on casework before heading over to the chamber to chair part of the debate marking International Women's Day. Each year, 8th March provides an opportunity to recognise and celebrate the incredible achievements of women here and around the world. However, it's important to remember that women continue to face inequalities, barriers and challenges every day of the year and we have much to do to bring about gender equality. It was perhaps timely, therefore, that Baroness Helena Kennedy QC published her highly anticipated report on Misogyny and Criminal Justice in Scotland. The independent report sought to examine whether there are gaps in the law that could be addressed by a specific criminal offence to tackle such behaviour. Dame Helena's report has recommended the creation of a Misogyny and Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act which would make misogyny an aggravation as well as creating three new offences on stirring up hatred, public misogynistic harassment and issuing threats of, or invoking, rape or sexual assault or disfigurement of women and girls either online or offline. You can watch the International Women's Debate here, read the transcript here and Helena Kennedy's report here.
After an hour in the chair, I headed back to the office to catch-up on emails before returning later to chair a Members debate marking Scottish Apprenticeships Week where I was able to give Ryan and RS Merrimans a namecheck before banging the gavel. You can watch this debate here and read it here.
Wednesday morning was spent dealing with casework and catching-up on emails ahead of what turned out to be a long afternoon's business. First up were portfolio questions on Health & Social Care then Social Justice, Housing & Local Government, which you can watch here and read here. The afternoon's debates were led by the Scottish Labour and focused on two proposed changes in the law. The first was on 'Milly's Law' which seeks to reset the balance between families and public bodies, allowing families to be at the centre of responses to public health scandals. This comes in the wake of the fatal water contamination at the University Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Glasgow. The second debate, which I chaired, focused on 'Anne's Law' which seeks to allow family members of care home residents to be recognised as care givers, in an effort to end the heartache of residents being separated from loved ones over prolonged periods. I know this has been a real issue locally in Orkney at various stages of the pandemic. Unfortunately, SNP and Green MSPs voted to delay further action, although there was consensus that a change in the law is needed. You can watch these debates here and here and read the transcript here.
I remained in the chair for an urgent question on the SQA's recently published exam guidance, which was branded ‘worse than useless’ and has caused uproar amongst pupils and staff. It only added to mounting pressure on the Education Secretary, Shirley Anne Somerville who then delivered a statement to parliament on the publication of the report by Professor Ken Muir into the reform of SQA and Education Scotland. This had to be brought forward by 24 hours, after a copy of the report was inadvertently leaked by officials in Ms Somerville’s department. As a result, SQA and Education Scotland staff found out about the report's recommendation that their organisations should be replaced by a new body called Qualifications Scotland at the same time as the press. Changing names, however, will not be enough to restore the trust of teachers, pupils and parents. You can watch the urgent question here, watch the statement here and read it here.
There was then a brief debate on a Legislative Consent Motion on the Economic Crime (Transparency and Enforcement) Bill which had been brought forward by Westminster to sanction Russia. You can watch this here and read it here. In the evening, I took part in an online meeting with Scottish Liberal Democrat spokespeople.
Casework dominated most of Thursday morning, though I was required to chair my first General Questions session due to the Presiding Officer being delayed in other meetings. Happily, she returned in time to take over chairing duties for First Minister's Questions where this week Conservative leader, Douglas Ross, quizzed Nicola Sturgeon over Scotland's energy security and oil and gas production in light of the moves to reduce dependence on Russian oil and gas. Labour leader, Anas Sarwar, posed questions over the safety of railways in response to the publication of the report into the fatal derailment outside Stonehaven in 2020. A Ministerial Statement on this followed later in the afternoon. You can watch General Questions here, FMQs here and read them here.
After a bite of lunch, I was back in the Chair for Scottish Parliament Corporate Body Questions and portfolio questions on Constitution, External Affairs and Culture, which you can watch here and here and read here. There was then the Ministerial Statement on the Rail Accident Investigation Branch report, which you can watch here and read here.
For the rest of the afternoon, I was in the chamber to take part in a Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee Debate on tackling the climate emergency in the aftermath of COP26 and the road to COP27. While there wasn't a motion to this debate, there was no shortage of issues for MSPs to address. Ultimately, while some progress was made, there is no avoiding the fact that COP26 fell short. I highlighted the repeated failure of the Scottish Government to meet its emissions reduction targets, and criticisms from the UK Climate Change Committee about a lack of detail and transparency about how Ministers expect to get back on track. I talked about what needs to be done in transport, heat and development of renewables. You can watch this debate here and read the transcript here.
On Friday morning I travelled back up to Orkney where I took part (virtually) in the Energy Action Scotland annual conference on a cross party panel discussing how we can tackle fuel poverty. This has been an ongoing issue throughout my time as an MSP, and with the particular challenges in rural and island areas, it is little surprise, though deeply worrying that we have amongst the highest proportion of households in fuel poverty and extreme fuel poverty anywhere in the country. With the cap on energy prices due to be removed next month, we know that bills are set to rise dramatically with every likelihood that this will be matched again in October. There is a need for immediate action by the UK government to deal with the short term impact on households. However, we also need to see the Scottish Government move far quicker and with greater resources to deliver the improvements in energy efficiency and low carbon heating that are needed. I also reiterated the importance of advice bodies, such as THAW Orkney and the need for these to be properly funded so they can continue to support those households most in need. On this subject, the Liberal Democrats are calling on the UK Government to extend the energy price cap to off-gas households as the cost of oil heating soars. I have written to the Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero, Energy and Transport with my collegue Beatrice Wishart MSP calling on the Scottish Government to support this and implement more support for off-grid communities like Orkney and Shetland. You can watch find out more about EAS and the conference here and read my comments here.
I spent the rest of the afternoon dealing with casework and making calls before attending a meeting with the GMC Scotland to discuss my proposals for a Members Bill on Assisted Dying for Terminally Ill Adults.