So the dust is beginning to settle after last week’s General Election. Boris Johnson has the majority he craved and the UK’s departure from the EU will happen on 31 January 2020. Early hopes that, free from having to rely on the European Research Group hardliners in his own party, the Prime Minister might opt for a ‘softer’ version Brexit were quickly shattered as he moved to rule out any possibility of an extension of the transition beyond 31 December 2020. Given the amount of work required if agreement on a future trading relationship with the EU is to be reached, this move has inevitably increased significantly the likelihood of a ‘no deal’ Brexit.
In Scotland, despite claiming throughout the election that a vote for the SNP was about stopping Brexit and ‘locking Boris Johnson out of Downing Street’, to the extent that ‘remain’ supporters could safely ‘lend’ her party their support, Nicola Sturgeon was quick to claim the result as an ‘unarguable mandate’ for another independence referendum. There’s no doubt it was a very good night for the SNP, but the party still achieved 45% of the vote.
Amidst the ongoing constitutional wrangling, perhaps the only consensus that exists across the political spectrum right now is that the country deserves a break over Christmas!
Before that, however, parliamentary business resumed as normal for the final week before the Christmas break, with plenty for MSPs to focus on that had nothing to do with the constitution.
On Monday, I had a meeting with NHS Orkney Chief Executive, Gerry O’Brien. As ever, this was a useful opportunity to catch up on a range of issues, from ambulance provision to mental health services, as well as getting an update on various health cases I have been pursuing on behalf of constituents.
Afterwards, I had some time in the office to answer emails and deal with casework. I also had a meeting with some constituents and a phone call regarding an ongoing casework issue.
I flew to Edinburgh on Tuesday morning for the last Justice Committee meeting of the year. This week, we took further evidence as part of our Stage one scrutiny of the Children (Scotland) Bill. This week focused on ways in which the views of children and young people can be heard and taken into account in cases of marital or relationship breakdown. You can read more about the Bill here, watch the full committee session here and read it here.
In the afternoon, after the weekly meeting with Lib Dem MSP colleagues, I met with the Scottish Parliament Chief Executive, David McGill, and other officials for a briefing ahead of my attendance at the Finance Committee the following day to answer questions about the Corporate Body’s budget for 2020/21.
I was also in the chamber for the First Minister’s statement on the outcome of the General Election. This was a rowdy affair, perhaps inevitably. My colleague, Willie Rennie highlighted that the SNP rarely mentioned another independence referendum during their campaign, with some candidates going out of their way to say the election had nothing to do with independence, but are now claiming to have a mandate to pursue one. You can watch the statement here, read it here and watch Willie’s contribution here.
Later, I met with representatives from Dignity in Dying Scotland to get an update on the cross-party campaign to deliver changes in the law allowing choice and assistance for individuals at the end of life. It is unlikely a new bill will be introduced before the end of the current parliament in 2021, but foundations are being laid to ensure legislation can be considered again after the next Scottish Parliament elections. You can read more about the group here and about Dignity in Dying Scotland here.
I then had to dash to a meeting with the Minister for Mental Health, Claire Haughey, to discuss funding issues around the delivery of services to those in Orkney with addiction and wider mental health issues. At this time of year, demand for such services often increases quite significantly so it is imperative that vulnerable individuals are not left waiting or without support, however that is delivered.
Back in my office, I spoke on the phone with James Wylie, Executive Director of Education at Orkney Islands Council, about attainment challenge funding for schools in the islands.
On Wednesday morning, I had some time at my desk first thing to prepare for my appearance before the Finance Committee, which I attended in my role as a member of the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body. With no other issue on the Committee’s agenda, it turned into something of a marathon session lasting over an hour! You can watch me respond to questions about the SPCB’s budget here and read it here.
Afterwards, I had a meeting with Mark Dames and Henry Parker from BT and EE to discuss rural mobile coverage in Orkney and the implication of the recently announced Shared Rural Network. You can read more about the scheme here.
I then made my way to the chamber for Portfolio Questions, where I had the opportunity to ask the Minister for Public Health about how land ambulance provision in Orkney. This follows concerns being raised with me by a number of constituents about a single ambulance being available for all but a few hours per week. It is also something I discussed with Gerry O’Brien from NHS Orkney earlier in the week, as it is clearly worrying that patients may be facing undue delays due to a lack of ambulance capacity. I am due to meet with the Scottish Ambulance Service early next month to press the case for these concerns to be addressed. You can watch my question here, the full session here and read it here. You can read my further comments on the issue here.
After a quick lunch, I returned to my desk to deal with emails and make calls, including one to provide feedback on the Scottish Contemporary Art Network (SCAN) campaign, Art in Action that saw me visit the Pier Arts Centre earlier in the summer. You can read more about SCAN here, the Art in Action campaign here and my visit to the Pier Arts Centre to support the campaign here.
In the evening, it was time for Secret Santa to reward Lib Dem colleagues and staff. Mulled wine and mince pies were happily consumed, as a rather odd Christmas music medley played in the background!
The last meeting of the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body (SPCB) for 2019 took place on Thursday morning to wrap up items of business before the end of the year. You can read more about the SPCB here.
Following this, I had the opportunity during General Questions to ask the Islands Minister, Paul Wheelhouse, about the likely costs of Calmac’s legal challenge against the Scottish Government’s decision to award the Northern Isles Ferry Contract to Serco Northlink. It is a remarkable spectacle to see the government’s own ferry operator taking Ministers to court, but it is vital that funds aren’t drawn away from supporting our lifeline ferry services to help fund legal proceedings. You can watch my question here, the full session here and read it here. You can read my further comments on the issue here.
Unsurprisingly, there was much talk of Indyref at First Minister’s Questions. This followed a statement by the First Minister at Bute House earlier that morning confirming her demand for the UK Government to grant a transfer of powers to allow another referendum to be held. You can read about this statement here.
Jackson Carlow pointed to the government’s record on public services while claiming there was no mandate for pursuing Indyref 2, while Richard Leonard asked about renewable energy jobs being ‘outsourced’ overseas, resulting in Scottish workers being laid off in the run up to Christmas. Willie Rennie returned to the theme of the Scottish Government’s track record on services from childcare and education to mental health and policing. He insisted that this, rather than demands for another independence referendum, should be the First Minister’s priority. You can watch Willie’s question here, watch the full session of FMQs here and read it here.
Following FMQs, I managed to get some time to go through emails before the stage 3 debate on the Referendums (Scotland) Bill, which took up the remainder of the afternoon. The Scottish Government has been accused of attempting to sideline the independent Electoral Commission in a bid to ‘rig’ the question of any future referendum question. Needless to say, tempers were again frayed to breaking point at times. Ultimately, I could not support the bill given the concerns that had been raised. You can read the Bill here, watch the debate here and read it here.
I returned to Orkney this morning, where I went straight to a meeting with NFUS Orkney where we discussed ongoing efforts to try to reduce and manage the resident greylag goose population. We also covered internal ferry issues and the distribution of so-called ‘convergence’ funding, which appears to have left Orkney short changed compared to other parts of the country. Back in the office, it was time to try to catch up on casework and get my email inbox into order. I’ll be back in the office on Monday in a further, possibly vain attempt to tie up loose ends!
Parliament is now in recess until Monday 6th January, so this will be the last edition of Holyrood Highlights in 2019. I hope that you have found them useful for keeping up to date with my work both in Edinburgh and Orkney but, as ever, if you have any suggestions for anything else I should cover in my newsletter in 2020 then please do let me know.
Meantime, you can look back on some of my work during this parliamentary session with some of the questions that I have submitted to Ministers here and the motions that I have lodged to parliament here. You can also read my news section on my website here, my Orcadian columns for this parliamentary session here and previous editions of Holyrood Highlights here.
I look forward to spending a bit of time at home with family and friends over the Christmas break. My constituency office on Palace Road will be closed during this time, but I will still be checking emails on and off, so please contact me on [email protected] if you need to reach me urgently.
Finally, thank you very much for the support and feedback many of you have provided during the course of 2019. It is greatly appreciated by both myself and my team in Kirkwall and Edinburgh. I would also like to take the opportunity to wish you a very Merry Christmas and all the best for a happy, healthy and successful 2020.