Happy New Year and I hope you were able to have an enjoyable and safe festive period. The Scottish Parliament returned this week after the Christmas recess, although we were recalled twice during recess for Covid-19 updates from the First Minister.
The week started off in the Kirkwall office with the usual series of Monday morning meetings, first with parliamentarian colleagues and then my office team to discuss the week ahead before spending the rest of the morning dealing with casework. Later in the afternoon I had a meeting with colleagues from the Scottish Parliament's Non-Government Bills Unit who are supporting my proposals for a Members Bill on Assisted Dying for Terminally Ill Adults. My public consultation closed just prior to Christmas and received an unprecedented level of response. This was not surprising and I believe shows that this is an issue that matters to people across the country. It will take some time to validate and process the responses, before a report is published and I decide whether or not to amend my proposals ahead of a bill being introduced to parliament, hopefully later this year. Meantime, I’m very grateful to everyone who took the time to submit their views.
Tuesday morning started with the commute down to Edinburgh which for the next few weeks will go via Sumburgh – in both directions! Despite the small detour I was able to get to parliament on time to attend the weekly meeting of the Parliamentary Bureau. I then had time to finish my column for this week's Orcadian, which you can read here. It felt appropriate to offer some thoughts on the priorities for the year ahead, not least in the context of the growing energy and cost of living crisis. Since pressing ‘send’, revelations about boozy parties in Downing St during lockdown have come to dominate the political landscape and may have been worthy of note! Following a meeting with my Scottish Lib Dem MSP colleagues, I tuned in for the First Minister's weekly Covid-19 update to parliament, which you can watch here and read here.
In my last Holyrood Highlights, I was reporting the rapid rise in Omicron cases across the country which resulted in new restrictions coming into force immediately after Christmas. Five weeks on, while serious pressure remains on emergency services, the First Minister indicated some early signs of optimism in her statement as she announced a "phased" lifting of those restrictions. From Monday, the 500-attendance limit for outdoor events will be lifted and the First Minister is due to announce next Tuesday the lifting of other restrictions, such as limits on indoor events, table service and social distancing in hospitality, hopefully from 24 January.
After the First Minister's Covid update, I spent time dealing with casework ahead of my first stint in the chair for the year during a debate on addressing the impact of labour shortages on Scotland's economy. While there were a number of interesting and well-argued contributions, in the main SNP MSPs seemed to believe labour shortages were ALL the fault of Brexit, while Conservatives MSPs appeared to think they were NOTHING to do with Brexit. You can watch the debate here and read it here.
On Wednesday morning I had a meeting with my office team followed by a catch-up with colleagues from Dignity in Dying, Humanist Society and Friends at the End who are supporting my Members Bill. The rest of the morning was spent dealing with casework, emails and making calls before meeting with my Presiding Office colleagues ahead of the afternoon's chamber business. First up was Portfolio Questions on Covid-19 Recovery and Parliamentary Business followed by Net-Zero, Transport and Energy where I had an opportunity to question the Transport Minister again over ferry replacement funding. I highlighted the disparity in funding arrangements between Orkney and the Western Isles where the Scottish Government also cover the cost of ferry replacement, leaving OIC to pick up a significant tab for our own ageing ferry fleet. While I welcomed the Minister's confirmation that discussions are ongoing between the Finance Secretary and OIC, there has been no lack of discussions over the years and what we need to see is agreement reached, procurement started and vessels delivered. You can watch the exchange here, listen to it on Radio Orkney here, read the transcript here and more of my comments here.
Following this exchange, I was back in the chair for a debate on Mental Health and Wellbeing in Primary Care Services, which you can watch here and read the transcript here. After some time back in my office catching up on emails, I was in the chamber again in the evening to chair an excellent debate on the Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service. I have been a regular blood donor in the past, but fell out of the habit for a variety of reasons. This week’s debate and the SNBTS campaign to encourage more people to donate acted as a timely prompt to get my sleeves rolled up and back donating. You can watch this debate here and read it here.
While donating blood itself is easy, pretty painless and desperately needed, it’s not something that can readily be done by those living in our island communities. Despite a hugely successful trial back in 2009, attempts to set up more regular donation sessions in Orkney have been frustrated. In correspondence with SNBTS in 2017, I was told that the limitations in moving blood safely back to the Scottish mainland were, for the time being at least, insurmountable. That was very disappointing news for many constituents keen to sign up as regular donors. Five years on, however, I believe the time is right to look again at the feasibility of mobile units coming to the islands and I have written to SNBTS to explore the options. You can read my comments here and find out more about how to donate blood here.
On Thursday morning I caught up on emails and casework before a meeting with my Presiding Officer colleagues ahead of the afternoon's chamber business. I was on the Order Paper to ask a General Question on recent discussions between the Scottish Government and NHS Orkney, but unfortunately my question wasn’t reached before it was time to move on to First Minister's Questions. This week saw opposition leader Douglas Ross question the First Minister over support for businesses affected by Covid with Labour's Anas Sarwar focusing on constraints on NHS services dating back to before the pandemic. Of course, however, events at FMQs were overshadowed by the ongoing scandalous revelations about Downing Street parties held during lockdown in 2020. Despite what appeared to be a pretty abject ‘non-apology’ from the Prime Minister the day before, calls for Mr Johnson’s resignation have been growing, including amongst his own colleagues in the Scottish Parliament, led by Mr Ross. This in turn led UK Cabinet Minister, Jacob Rees-Mogg to make the ludicrous and highly patronising assertion that the leader of the Scottish Conservatives is a ‘lightweight’. With yet more stories emerging of Downing St parties, the latest involving ‘suitcases of booze’, the Prime Minister’s position looks increasingly untenable and he must now go or be forced out. You can watch FMQs here and read its transcript here. After FMQs I was back in the chair for a members debate on Championing the Right to Holistic Family Support, which you can also watch here and read here.
Later in the afternoon, there was a session of Portfolio Questions on Rural Affairs and Islands, which you can watch here and read here, and a Ministerial Statement on reducing Scotland’s car travel by 20% by 2030, which you can also watch here and read here. The final debate of the week was on the national mission to tackle Scotland's drugs crisis. While marking a year since Angela Constance was appointed the Minister for Drugs Policy, it was somewhat overshadowed by the recent resignation of Professor Catriona Matheson as head of Scotland's drugs death taskforce, who claimed she was not prepared to do a "rushed job" on the final report. While I wish David Strang, the former Chief Inspector of Prisons in Scotland who has been appointed to replace Professor Matheson, well it is past time ministers got this public health disaster under control. You can watch this debate here and read its transcript here.
On Friday morning I made the journey home to Orkney (again via Sumburgh) and spent the day catching up on casework, emails and calls to constituents. In between times, I held a couple of meetings with constituents.