Holyrood Highlights - 17.09.21

Monday began with the usual series of calls with my parliamentary colleagues and my staff team to discuss the week ahead. I spent the rest of the afternoon responding to casework and making calls to constituents, though all from Edinburgh having stayed south for the weekend.

Without the need to catch a flight on Tuesday morning, I was able to make an early start in the office, ahead of a meeting of the parliamentary bureau and a fortnightly meeting of the Presiding Officer team. The latter focused largely on discussing the fall-out from the announcement last week that, in line with Westminster, the Welsh Assembly and Stormont, Holyrood is to be designated a ‘protected site’. This will offer police additional powers in managing protests in future, but there is no question of the public’s right to protest being curtailed. Holyrood has a good and proud track record of facilitating protest and that must continue. The matter was subject to an Urgent Question later in the afternoon, which you can watch here.

Before that, however, the First Minister provided the latest Covid-19 update, confirming that from Monday, Scotland is to begin offering vaccinations to children aged between 12 and 15. In addition, the booster programme will begin to run alongside the flu vaccination programme. This follows an assessment by the Chief Medical Officers of each of the four UK nations who concluded that the additional benefits were sufficient to justify vaccination of children over the age of 12. The First Minister stressed that it is important that young people consent and make informed choices that they feel comfortable with. Parents and carers should soon receive a letter from the National Clinical Director, Professor Jason Leitch and the vaccination programme in Orkney is set to begin shortly. You catch watch the First Minister's statement here and read the transcript here.

I was in the chair for the afternoon debate on social care in Scotland where the Scottish Government laid out its proposals to create a National Care Service. This would be accountable to Scottish Ministers, work in tandem with the NHS and local service delivery would operate through new government-funded community health and social care boards, replacing integration joint boards that were introduced five years ago. I share the concerns expressed by COSLA, amongst others, that the proposals are an "attack on localism” that could “spell the end for anything other than central control in Scotland”. Scotland's social care sector certainly needs reform as we look to recovery from the pandemic and meet the needs of an ageing population. Unfortunately, all too often the ‘go to’ response for Ministers is to centralise. Rarely, if ever, is that the answer to the needs of local communities, particularly those in rural and island areas. You can watch the debate here, read the transcript here and read my comments here.

On Wednesday morning after catching up with casework, I took part in a podcast hosted by Friends at the End CEO, Dr. Sorcha Hume to discuss my forthcoming consultation on proposals for a members bill on assisted dying. The recording coincided with welcome news that the British Medical Association (BMA) voted to drop its opposition to assisted dying and adopt a neutral stance on the issue. In the medical profession, as in society more generally, views are divided but there is also overwhelming public support for a change in the law to allow for more choice and compassion for those who are dying. We need to get that change right and I look forward to working with BMA Scotland and others to ensure that happens, starting with a consultation I will be launching next week. You can find a link to the podcast here and my comments on the BMA vote here.

After lunch, and pre-briefing meetings with the Presiding Officer team, I was back in the chair for Chamber proceedings, starting with Portfolio Questions on Justice and Veterans and the Finance and Economy. This was followed by a Ministerial statement on Cervical Screening. The Minister found herself having to apologise again to the Chamber after it was announced that a further 170 women were wrongly excluded from screening, bringing the total to about 600 with 200,000 records set to be reviewed. Ms Todd also said that clinical teams have completed a review of the cancer registry to find out if there were other cases where an exclusion may have contributed to a diagnosis of cervical cancer. It was a sobering half hour with many harrowing stories. You can watch the statement here and read the transcript here.

Later on Wednesday afternoon, the Scottish Parliament held two debates led by the Conservatives on a return to normal GP practices and the future of North Sea Oil and Gas. During the latter, I spoke, making clear that decisions on granting additional licenses for oil and gas extraction had to be seen in the context of everything we now understand about the climate emergency and about the need to drive down our reliance on fossil fuels. However, this needs to be part of a managed and just transition, which is the least we owe to the skilled workforce and communities most directly affected. You can watch the full debates here, here and read the transcript here. A delayed decision time, meant that members business on a Just Transition for Torry got underway later than expected. I was back in to wield the gavel and close business shortly before 7pm.

Thursday morning was spent catching up on casework and making various calls. After pre-planning meetings with the Presiding Officer team, I headed to the Chamber for First Minister’s Questions where I had the opportunity to question Nicola Sturgeon on the lack of capacity in young people's mental health services in Orkney. It follows concerns raised with me by constituents over a letter issued by NHS Orkney warning of expected delays in CAMHS appointments and people not being seen over the coming months. The First Minister assured me that the Scottish Government would assist in providing interim support while efforts are made to recruit more CAMHS staff on a permanent basis. It was an issue I picked up again earlier today with NHS Orkney’s interim Chief Executive, Michael Dickson. You can watch First Minister's Questions here, read the transcript here and my further comments here.

After lunch, I was back in the chair for Portfolio Questions on Education and Skills followed by a debate on supporting a fairer and more equal society. It was robust debate, but the stand out contribution, no doubt at all, came from newly-elected Labour MSP, Pam Duncan-Glancy. Pam is the first MSP to be a permanent wheelchair user, and the depth and breadth of her grasp of issues around equality, welfare and rights are phenomenal. She is certainly going to be a force to reckon with in this parliament. You watch here and can read Pam’s contribution and the debate as a whole here.

I then had to rush down to the Garden Lobby to record a short video to be used to promote the launch next week of the public consultation on my members' bill on assisted dying. I will make available information on how to engage and contribute towards this public consultation shortly.  The rest of the afternoon was spent in my office catching up on casework and calls, before I joined many of my MSP colleagues, journalists and guests at the Holyrood magazine's annual Garden Party and Political Awards. It was a highly enjoyable evening and one not without its successes. My former researcher, Lily Humphreys was a deserving winner of the Staffer of the Year Award, while I brought home the big one, fighting off strong competition to win the much-coveted Most Flushable Motion Award for a parliamentary motion telling the heart-warming story of an albino seal that was made to feel welcome by a seal colony in Shapinsay

I flew back to Orkney very early on Friday morning where I held a meeting with Clinton Findlay and Ian Rogers, Chair of the Scottish Decorators Federation to discuss around apprenticeships. I was then interviewed at Orkney College by fellow Sandayman, Tom Rendall as part of an oral history project being undertaken under the auspices of the North Isles Landscape Partnership. It was fascinating to spend an hour talking about life growing up in Sanday and the changes that have happened over the years, as well as what might happen into the future. After donning my wellies, I joined up with Scottish Sea Farms staff at Weyland Bay to bag the bruck to mark the Great British Beach Clean. You can find out more about the Great British Clean project here.

Over the weekend, I hope to participate in Orkney's Open Doors weekend for local attractions and businesses, more details of which you can find here.  At the same time, I will be taking part virtually in the Liberal Democrat federal conference, where I will be summating a debate on a motion relating to assisted dying.

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