This week started in the Kirkwall office with the usual series of calls with parliamentary colleagues and my office to discuss the week ahead. I then had a largely free diary for the rest of the day which gave me a good opportunity to focus solely on casework and my inbox. I did, though, have a catch-up with Luke Fraser from ASPIREOrkney, to get an update on the work being done to shape Orkney’s recovery from the pandemic. Find out more here.
On Tuesday morning, I travelled down to Edinburgh in time for meetings with the Presiding Office team, followed by the Parliamentary Bureau and then with my Scottish Lib Dem MSP colleagues. The first item of business, as ever, was Topical Questions, which focused on reports of potential international food shortages and the impact this will have on rising food prices. There was also a question on what action the Scottish Government it is taking to ensure that Ferguson Marine is competitive, in light of the reported decision to award the contract to build two new CalMac ferries to a Turkish ship builder. You can watch Topical Questions here and read it here.
The First Minister then provided the first Covid-19 update to parliament in three weeks. Her previous update had raised expectations that all remaining restrictions would be removed. However, the large spikes in Covid cases across the country, including here in Orkney, persuaded the Scottish Government to maintain the legal requirement to wear face coverings on public transport and in certain indoor settings for at least two more weeks. From Monday, however, the legal requirement for businesses and service providers to collect customer details for contact tracing will end as planned while from today (Friday) all remaining Covid-related travel restrictions, such as passenger locator forms and tests, are being lifted on a UK-wide basis. The First Minister also outlined the government's intention to phase out mass testing by the end of April. You can watch the First Minister's statement here and read it here.
There was then a Ministerial Statement on developing a catching policy to deliver sustainable fisheries management where the Cabinet Secretary published two consultations on future catching policy and remote electronic monitoring. These can be completed here and here ahead of the deadline on 7 June 2022. Both consultations will feed into the Scottish Government's Future Fisheries Management Strategy to 2030. You can read the statement here, watch it here and find out more about the strategy here.
I was then in the chair for an Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee Debate on ending conversion practices. The Scottish Government has committed to introduce legislation by the end of 2023 to enforce a ban on conversion practices, which aim to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. This is a very welcome move and mirrors a similar discussion taking place south of the border. The Minister announced the establishment of an expert advisory group to inform and develop policy already underway. You can watch the debate here and read the transcript here.
After the debate I headed back to the office to catch up on emails and casework while parliament held a debate on the government's revised Covid Strategic Framework, which you can watch here, read the transcript here and read the framework here. I was then back in the chair for an early evening members debate on Marie Curie’s Great Daffodil Appeal 2022. I've been proud to support the appeal over the years for Marie Curie nurses and volunteers who do phenomenal work on behalf of those with a terminal illness and their families. You can watch the debate here and read it here.
On Wednesday morning I had various meetings, including with the new Public Affairs Manager at Openreach, Grace O’Keefe, which was a good opportunity to follow up on a number of concerns emerging from the government's delayed rollout of superfast broadband in the islands. Later, I met Jamie Maxton, SSE Head of External Relations in Scotland, who updated me on SSE’s concerns relating to the National Planning Framework as well as their involvement in the recent allocation of offshore wind projects.
After a meeting with my Presiding Officer colleagues, I was in the chair for the start of the afternoon's business which began with portfolio questions on Justice & Veterans then Finance & Economy, which you can watch here and read here. The First Minister then gave an update on the resettlement of refugees from Ukraine. After a somewhat delayed and piecemeal response from the UK Government, they has at last been some movement in extending and streamlining the scheme for Ukrainians looking to come to the UK. Ukrainian passport holders with family in the UK will be able to apply for visas that grant leave for 3 years and the right to live, work and study in the UK & access public funds. In addition, the UK Government has launched its 'Homes for Ukraine' scheme which will allow individuals, charities, community groups and businesses across the UK to offer a room or home rent-free to Ukrainians escaping the war, regardless of whether they have ties to the UK, for at least 6 months and the UK Government will provide hosts £350 per month. More than 130,000 have registered interest in the scheme which officially opens today. The Scottish Government has committed to be a 'super-sponsor' and hopes to immediately resettle 3,000 refugees and has made an uncapped commitment to support at least 10% of the total number who seek sanctuary in the UK.
The First Minister confirmed that work is ongoing at pace between the Scottish and UK Governments to finalise these arrangements and establish 'Welcome Hubs'. It is expected refugees under this scheme will begin to arrive in the country from this weekend where the Scottish Government, in cooperation with the Scottish Refugee Council, will initially provide accommodation and then seek to establish longer term accommodation with local authorities. I am liaising closely with the OIC and third sector partners to ensure Orkney is well-placed to play its part. I am also in contact with fellow Orcadian, Neil Gray MSP, the Scottish Government Minister appointed with special responsibility for co-ordinating the Scottish response to this effort. I will have an opportunity next Thursday to ask a question in the chamber seeking an update on refugee resettlement. You can find out more about the 'Homes for Ukraine' scheme here. Watch the First Minister's statement here, read it here and find out more about the Scottish Government's work here.
After the First Minister's statement, I had a meeting with Sandesh Gulhane MSP who is chairing a Medical Advisory Group we have established to consider some of the issues raised in the context of my Members Bill proposals on Assisted Dying for Terminally Ill Adults. The group of experienced medical professionals aims to offer advice on how the Bill's proposals might be implemented safely and successfully in practice. We recently held our first meeting and hope to meet on a monthy basis moving forward.
I was back in the chair for the last hour of a Scottish Government Debate on a person-centred, trauma-informed public health approach to substance use in the justice system which you can watch here and read here. Later in the evening after catching up on emails, I headed along to a reception marking the start of Marie Curie's Great Daffodil Appeal, which you can find out more about here.
Most of Thursday morning was spent dealing with casework before I took part in the usual pre-briefing meetings with the Presiding Officer team. I then headed to the Chamber for General Questions where I was able to highlight the need to create 'wow' moments for children and young people in our schools and communities. It follows conversations I've had recently with local teachers where I've been reminded of how much children and young people have missed out over the past two years during the pandemic. Whether it be the loss of in-person teaching, the cancellation of activities and trips or the impact of the exams chaos, Covid has taken a heavy toll, despite the best efforts of teachers, parents and carers. As normality continues to return to our schools, I think we have a duty to give pupils' something to really look forward to as part of the broader 'catch-up' effort required.
In my General Question, I proposed that bodies such as Creative Scotland and Sportscotland should help facilitate visits to schools across Scotland by celebrities from the world of music, theatre, film and sport to create genuine, long-lasting 'wow' moments. The Minister appeared supportive of the idea, and I have now written to Creative Scotland and Sportsscotland to see what might be put in place. I'm also keen to involve the Scottish Youth Parliament in this initiative. Given everything going on at the moment, I think most people, young and old, are in need of some wow moments to lift the spirits. You can watch the General Question here and more of my comments here.
It was then time for First Minister's Questions where Jamie Greene stood in for Conservative leader Douglas Ross who is hoping to recover from a bad throat ahead of his party conference this weekend. Jamie Greene is the Conservatives' justice spokesperson and so questioned Nicola Sturgeon on various justice issues, including the government's policy on early prison release. Labour’s Anas Sarwar focused on the government's response to the growing cost of living crisis while my Lib Dem colleague, Alex Cole-Hamilton raised the government's record on mental health treatment for young people, with 30% now missing the 18-week target in Scotland. You can watch FMQs here and read it here.
After FMQs I was in the chair for a members debate on the Fairtrade Foundation Pledge, which you can watch here and find out more about here. Before grabbing a quick bite of lunch I also visited a drop-in session with the SCVO and TSI network, which again you can find out more about here.
Back at my desk I caught up on emails and casework while tuning into the afternoon's proceedings, starting with portfolio questions on Education & Skills, which you can watch here and read here, then a short debate on the UK Government's Subsidy Control Bill, again you can watch and read here and here. I then headed back to the chamber to chair the final hour of the last debate of the week on delivering on Active Travel Commitments, which you can watch here and read here.
Friday morning so me on the red eye flight back up to Orkney where I had a number of meetings with constituents, as well as a catch-up with NFUS Orkney on issues ranging from goose management to security of food supplies and the cost of fuel, fertiliser and other key inputs.
During the afternoon, I also signed a joint letter with Alistair Carmichael MP and Beatrice Wishart MSP to P&O Ferries following their scandalous decision to sack of 800 crew yesterday. It’s a blatant attack of seafarers' rights and showed utter contempt for crew members who put themselves at risk at sea to ensure the safety of lifeline services. If the current owners cannot manage this company properly then the UK Government needs to consider how a more responsible owner can be brought in. Alistair and I are also in the process of raising with UK Ministers and Ofgem the huge discrepancy in the energy price rises announced for next month in off gas grid areas compared to the rest of the country. This discrepancy cannot be justified, particularly given the higher levels of fuel poverty in many of those rural and island areas that have no access to cheaper gas.