Holyrood Highlights - 13.05.22


The week began in the Kirkwall office where I had my weekly calls with parliamentary colleagues and my office team to look at the week ahead.  Later in the morning I had a virtual meeting with Naomi Bremner and Anne Byers to discuss proposals for developing the internal air services in order to build resilience and attract/retain population in the smaller isles.  I plan to use the ideas as the basis of a portfolio question in the chamber next week.  The rest of the morning was spent catching-up on casework and making a calls to constituents.

In the afternoon I hosted a follow-up online session of the Orkney Digital Forum for constituents who missed out on February's event due to technical difficulties.  I was pleased to also welcome representatives from a number of the island Development Trusts to hear the latest update from Openreach on the rollout of superfast broadband and question what is planned and by when.  I will be hosting the next Digital Forum in the autumn, by which point work to lay new subsea cables to many of the isles should have been completed.  If you are interested in receiving the presentation slides from Openreach and R100 or a copy of the session recording, please get in touch. 

Monday also marked the beginning of Mental Health Awareness Week with this year's focus on loneliness.  Unfortunately, the pandemic has exacerbated problems for those struggling with poor mental health and loneliness which, in turn, has placed even greater strain on services that were already stretched before Covid.  Despite these challenges, Mental Health Awareness Week provides an important reminder that poor mental health can affect anyone at any time and nobody should have to face it alone.  There is a range of excellent local organisations in Orkney who are ready to help.  You can find out more here.

On Tuesday morning I made the commute down to Edinburgh where I had meetings with my Presiding Officer colleagues, the Parliamentary Bureau and lastly with my Lib Dem colleagues.  Over a bite of lunch, I tuned into Topical Questions which focused on the Grangemouth Refinery, Scottish Power warnings that 10 million UK homes could potentially be in fuel poverty this winter and on the need for greater local support for new mothers who require a specialist mental health bed with their baby.  You can watch this here and read the transcript here.

The afternoon's debate was led by the Constitution, Europe, External Affairs and Culture Committee on their inquiry into the Scottish Government’s international work, which you can read here.  As Co-Convener of the Malawi Cross Party Group, I was pleased to hear a number of mentions of the good work by the Scotland Malawi Partnership and the unique partnership we have with the Warm Heart of Africa, including here in Orkney.  You can find out more about SMP’s work here

Less positively, there was little clarity from the Scottish Government about their plans for a replacement to the Erasmus exchange scheme, from which young people in Orkney have benefited greatly over the years by opening up opportunities to study and travel abroad.  A needless casualty of Brexit, it had been hoped SNP Ministers would deliver on their manifesto promise to introduce a new scheme, something the Welsh government has already successfully managed to do.  However, in response to parliamentary questions from me recently, Ministers appeared to have shelved plans indefinitely.  You can read more here

After being fuelled by a Food Tasting session ahead of a dinner with the Consular Corps later this month, I was in the Chair for a two-hour stint which covered the end of the committee debate, followed by Decision Time and then onto a Members' Business on Women in Business.  You can watch these debates here, here and read them here.

On Wednesday morning I caught up on casework and made a number of calls to constituents before a meeting with Warmworks CEO, Ross Armstrong.  This was an extremely helpful discussion around efforts to tackle Orkney’s extremely high levels of fuel poverty.  I plan to follow up the issue of how capacity to raise awareness and deliver locally might be expanded through existing national schemes.  After catching up emails, I was back in the Chair for portfolio questions on Justice & Veterans and Finance & Economy, which you can watch here and read here.

The afternoon's business was led by the Scottish Conservatives with two debates, first on ferry procurement and then on tackling violent crime, which you can watch here, here and read here.  The ferries fiasco at Ferguson’s shipyard rumbles on, with the news emerging ahead of the debate that the MV Caledonian Isles will be out of action for at least two weeks.  This was not the end of the breaking news, however, as the Minister for Transport, Jenny Gilruth, revealed in her opening remarks that the alleged 'missing document' into who approved the key decision to give contract to the Ferguson shipyard had been ‘found’.  The newly discovered email reveals then Transport Minister, Derek Mackay, was ‘content’ for the contract to go ahead but it also showed that Deputy FM John Swinney had also signed off the contract award, asking officials to make sure there were no "banana skins".  Of course, we now know that these banana skins have amounted to a bill two and half times over budget and two ferries nearly five years late.  We may now know WHO signed off the infamous contract, but we still don’t know, as Audit Scotland were quick to point out, WHY it was awarded despite the warnings from officials, including the risk of legal challenge.  And so it continues…

The second debate was a little less fractious, but after a bruising set of defeats in local elections last week, the Tories were keen to return to their theme of ‘soft justice’.  As I pointed out in my brief speech, it was not so long ago that their spokespeople in Holyrood and Justice Ministers in Westminster were less concerned about how hard or soft justice was, but whether or not it was effective.  Scotland already locks up a higher percentage of our population than any other country in Europe, bar Turkey and Russia.  While incarceration is the only option for dealing with certain individuals, all the evidence shows that there are more effective ways of reducing reoffending and criminal behaviour that are a lot less costly.  However, these measures must be properly resourced if they are build confidence within the court system and amongst the wider public.  Nevertheless, the Tories were right to point out that Scotland's justice system faces many challenges, from a rise in violent crime, appalling rates of domestic abuse and sexual violence, and falling police numbers to record court backlogs, solicitors leaving legal aid practice in droves, and a prison estate that is bursting at the seams and in desperate need of modernisation.

At the end of the day, I was back in the Chair for a Members debate on LGBTQ+ People's Experiences of Alcohol Services, which you can watch here and read here, followed by a brief appearance at the Cross Party Group meeting on Adverse Childhood Experiences before attending a virtual East United Committee meeting.

On Thursday morning I caught up on casework and emails before travelling down to Birmingham to accompany my son, Tom, who is competing at the British Junior Powerlfting competition.  Unfortunately, while I have been able to keep on top of emails, casework and calls, my trip to Birmingham prevented me attending events hosted by the Hope Cohousing project, which is taking forward exciting plans for delivering more accessible and sustainable housing provision in the islands.  A lack of affordable housing is a real challenge for many island and rural communities which is why we must find innovative solutions, particularly in the context of an ageing population.  I've been hugely impressed by Hope Cohousing and those involved deserve enormous credit for their ‘can do’ attitude as well as their creativity.  You can find out more here.

I will also miss the much anticipated send off of McAdie & Reeve's lorry loaded with supplies as part of the Gaan The Distance for Ukraine appeal with The Orcadian.  This appeal has demonstrated the very best of our community's generosity, with donations pouring in from every corner of the isles.  While we may be a relatively small community, the benefit of this generosity will be felt where it is needed most.  I want to commend staff at The Orcadian and McAdvie & Reeve on their efforts and thank everyone who made a donation.


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