Holyrood Highlights - 22.05.22

The week began in Edinburgh after staying down to accompany my son, Tom, who was competing at the British Junior Powerlifting championships in Solihull.  Despite being the youngest competitor in his class, Tom did brilliantly, achieving PBs in all three categories (squat, bench press and deadlift).  Thankfully, there wasn’t a dad’s competition!

I spent Monday catching-up on casework and making calls to constituents.  Later in the afternoon I had an online meeting with Iain Munro, CEO of Creative Scotland, to continue my discussions around creating 'wow' moments for young people to make up for lost opportunities during the pandemic.  I also kept an eye on goings-on at School Place as decisions were taken on who would take up the key roles at OIC following the recent elections.  I congratulate all those who were successful, in particular James Stockan and Heather Woodbridge who were appointed unopposed as Leader and Deputy Leader, and Graham Bevan on succeeding Harvey Johnston as Convener.  I very much look forward to working with the new team in the years ahead.  Full details of who got what can be found here.

On Tuesday morning, I was in parliament bright and early having been spared the usual commute down from Orkney.  This allowed me to spend time putting the final touches to my speech for later in the afternoon and my column for this week's Orcadian, which focuses on the ferries fiasco at Fergusons and which you can read here.  I then had the usual meetings with my Presiding Officer colleagues, the Parliamentary Bureau and lastly with my Lib Dem MSP colleagues.  Over a bite of lunch, I tuned into Topical Questions which focused on the recent worrying spike in deaths of newborn babies, the £1 million compensation awarded to a former Police Scotland officer following an employment tribunal and a return to the delays in delivery of ferries under construction at Ferguson Marine.  You can watch Topical Questions here and read it here.

Tuesday afternoon was spent in the chamber, taking part in a Scottish Government debate on supporting Scotland’s islands on their journey to become carbon neutral.  The government announced its intention to support Hoy, Islay, Great Cumbrae, Raasay, Barra and Yell to become carbon neutral by 2040.  While a welcome initiative, particularly in relation to Hoy’s inclusion, this cannot be the sum of the government's ambition and must be a process that supports all islands.  Given the self-congratulatory tone of the government’s motion, I also made the point that it was the innovation, hard work and ambition of islanders and island communities that had put them at the forefront of efforts to reduce emissions. Orkney was singled out for praise by members across the Chamber.  However, any ambition to create carbon neutral islands can’t ignore the urgent need to deliver low-emission ferries or tackle the appalling levels of fuel poverty in the isles.  Sadly, SNP and Green MSPs failed to back my amendment calling for Orkney and Shetland's internal ferries to be included in the government's Connectivity Plan, and the prioritisation of targeted support to help retrofit island homes.  You can watch the debate here, read it here and more my comments here.

Sticking to an islands theme, I was in the Chair for a Members Business debate led by my Shetland colleague, Beatrice Wishart, on protecting Marine Life during removal of unexploded ordnance.  It is estimated that there are 500,000 unexploded weapons from WWI and WW littering the seabed, including areas designated for offshore wind farms.  The 'high order' counter charges to remove them has a significant impact on marine mammals and has been found to cause mass-strandings in the past.  The unexploded ordnances also pose a threat to human life, particularly for fishing vessels.  Last month I was pleased to meet with the Stop Sea Blasts campaign in parliament who were showcasing the new technologies designed to minimise the impact on marine life during efforts to remove ordnances.  You can find out more here, watch the debate here and read it here.

Once out of the Chair, I headed along to the British Veterinary Association Dinner being held in the Scottish Parliament.  This has long been a highlight in the parliamentary calendar, bringing together a very wide range of those with an interest in animal welfare, and it was good to be able to meet again in person after a two year break.  I am proud to be an honorary member of the BVA, which provides excellent briefings that inform decision making within parliament on legislation and policy matters.  You can find out more about the priorities of the BVA in Scotland here.

On Wednesday morning, I attended the Public Petitions Committee which was taking evidence from HIAL Managing Director, Inglis Lyon as part of the Committee's ongoing consideration of a petition calling for plans to centralise air traffic control services in the Highlands & Islands to be cancelled.  HIAL have recently announced a u-turn on their proposals, though concerns remain over plans for centralising radar surveillance services.  I suggested to Mr Lyon that the concerns of staff still don’t appear to be given sufficient weight and also repeated my call for this process to be properly audited given the cost to the taxpayer.  You can watch the Committee here.

Once back in my office, I had an online meeting with Solar Energy Scotland to receive an update on their work.  I was interested to learn that Scotland’s planning system currently restricts development of solar panels on commercial properties more tightly than the rest of the UK.  Given the urgent to decarbonise, this seems counterproductive.  SES also outlined the benefits of solar in supporting other renewable energy technologies in ways that could reduce running costs and therefore fuel poverty.  You can find out more about Solar Energy Scotland here.  I was then interviewed about my proposals for a Members Bill on Assisted Dying for Terminally Ill Adults for an Sunday Herald article this weekend.  

Lunch was taken as I joined my Presiding Officer colleagues for a pre-brief ahead of the afternoon business.  First up was Portfolio Questions, starting with Covid Recovery & Parliamentary Business and followed by Net Zero, Energy & Transport, which you can watch here and read here.  I was then in the Chair for the first of two debates led by Scottish Labour on supporting carers during the cost-of-living crisis.  The debate was a powerful reminder of the invaluable contribution unpaid carers and those working in the care sector play in our communities every day and the need for this to be recognised and rewarded.  You can watch this debate here and read it here.

Once out of the Chair, I headed back to the office to catch-up on emails and casework while the chamber moved on to the second Labour debate, this time on protecting attainment funding in education.  This was also timely in light of news this week that the Scottish Government has abandoned its goal to eliminate the poverty-related attainment gap by 2026.  While struggling even to reduce the gap before the pandemic, Covid has certainly exacerbated the situation.  However, it always felt like a headline-grabbing announcement with no real detail about how it was going to be achieved in an area of policy that the First Minister previously declared was her ‘number one priority’.  You can also watch this debate here and read it here.  Later in the evening, I had a strategy meeting with Bureau colleagues, looking at forthcoming business and gender balance on Committees.

On Thursday morning I was pleased to meet constituents, Douglas Patterson and Jim Foubister, alongside Highlands & Islands MSP colleague, Rhoda Grant to discuss the urgent challenges facing farming in Orkney, including the impact of large numbers of resident greylag geese.  After, I spent time dealing with casework before heading along to the chamber for General Questions and First Minister's Questions, which you can watch here, here and read here.

In my Orcadian column, I reflected on the ill-advised tweet by SNP MP, Pete Wishart complaining that FMQs was all about “ferries, ferries, ferries, ferries.... and more ferries."  Presumably he was happy, therefore, that this week it was 'trains, trains, trains… and more trains' in light of the announcement that the newly nationalised Scotrail was cutting a third of services across Scotland.  Having had two years to prepare for taking Scotrail into public ownership, the SNP-Green coalition has managed to hit the ground cutting, with the largest reduction in public transport for a generation.  The drastically reduced timetable will have a dramatic impact on train use.  While ferries don’t feature prominently in the daily lives of Mr Wishart’s Perth & Kinross constituents, I rather suspect rail services do!  Meantime, the disruption to lifeline ferry services deepens as another CalMac ferry, MV Hebrides, was withdrawn from service after it struck a pier this week leaving islanders in Uist and Arran with no dedicated link to the mainland.

After FMQs, I was in the Chair for a Members Business debate on celebrating the 200th anniversary of the Union Canal, which you can watch here and read here.  I quickly grabbed some lunch before heading back to the chamber to take part in Portfolio Questions on Rural Affairs & Islands, which you can watch here and read here.  I had an opportunity to ask about government support for attracting and retaining population in Scotland’s islands.  Prompted by recent discussions with constituents, I called on the Cabinet Secretary to consider using Islands Bond funding to support measures that would benefit whole island communities rather than simply individuals.  I suggested the introduction of a third aircraft on Orkney’s internal routes would have a far greater impact on attracting and retaining people in each of the outer north isles.  Unfortunately, Ministers seem determined to press ahead with Bonds that risk being divisive and will do little to create resilience.  You can read more of my comments here.

Out of the chamber briefly I met with the Stroke Association who had a stall in parliament and caught-up on emails before heading back to Chair the closing stages of a debate on Long Covid.  Originally scheduled for three weeks ago, the debate was pulled at the eleventh hour which only added frustration to the 150,000 Scots living with the debilitating condition.  The need for specialist clinics and support services to tackle this condition will only become more pressing the longer they're absent.  Sadly there was nothing new in what Ministers had to say, making it all the more incomprehensible that the earlier debate had been pulled at the last minute.  You can watch this debate here and read it here.

On Thursday evening, it was back to my old stomping ground at Peffermill, home to Edinburgh University football club (as well as scene of Orkney Hockey’s latest triumph in the Scottish Cup last weekend, for which I was delighted to lodge a parliament motion, which you can read here).  However, on this occasion it was a football match between the Scottish Parliament and Royal Observatory in aid of the DEC Scotland Ukraine appeal.  After a few late call offs by MSP colleagues, I was delighted to be joined by sons, Calum and Tom, earning their first ‘caps’ for the Holyrood squad, which also boasted fellow Burrayman, Neil Grey MSP in midfield.  In perfect conditions it was a good, competitive match with the parliamentarians coming out on top, thanks in no small part to a hat trick from Tom.  I may need to persuade one of MSP colleagues to take him on as a ‘researcher’ ahead of the next game, and Calum too!  Meantime, you can donate to the DEC appeal here.

On Friday I stayed in Edinburgh ahead of the Grand Slam Celebration Dinner in aid of Hearts and Balls.  This promises to be a once in a lifetime event with players from Scotland’s two Grand Slam winning teams in 1984 and 1990 coming together for the first time for a dinner to raise money for a charity supporting rugby players who have suffered life changing injuries.  There will be a strong Orkney contingent and many memories shared over the course of the evening.  You can find out more about the dinner and Hearts & Balls here.

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