Holyrood Highlights - 21.01.22

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.  I then held a meeting with the Scottish Ambulance Service to discuss arrangements for first/community responders in a number of the smaller islands. These responders perform an important role, working alongside medical professionals and emergency services, in helping keep their communities safe.  Concerns have arisen, though, about disparities in treatment of teams across different islands. 

Later in the morning I had a brief call with OIC Leader, Cllr James Stockan, to discuss ongoing concerns around the Scottish Government’s draft Budget, which has drawn criticism from every local authority leader in the country.  We also reflected on the ScotWind leasing round announcement being made by Crown Estate Scotland earlier on Monday morning.  Despite earlier delays, I believe ScotWind represents a sea-change in realising Scotland's offshore wind potential and underlines the importance of our islands in the delivery of our net-zero ambitions.  In that context, Ministers must ensure funds raised are invested in and by the local communities expected to support the various developments.  This was a point I put to the Cabinet Secretary during a Ministerial Statement in parliament on Tuesday, details of which you will find below.  I spent the rest of the day dealing with casework and making a number of calls to constituents.

On Tuesday morning I made the commute down to Edinburgh, via Shetland, and after a delayed arrival I was straight into a meeting of the Parliamentary Bureau.  Afterwards I met with my Scottish Lib Dem MSP colleagues and then tuned in for the First Minister's weekly Covid-19 update to parliament, which you can watch here and read here.

As indicated last week, the First Minister confirmed that the remaining measures introduced in response to Omicron will be lifted from Monday (24 January).  These include limits on attendance at indoor public events, the requirement for 1 metre physical distancing between different groups in indoor public places, the requirement for table service in hospitality premises serving alcohol on the premises and the closure of nightclubs. The guidance advising adults against nonprofessional indoor contact sports will also be lifted.  While the advice remains for people to work from home wherever possible, the First Minister did confirm that the government will engage with business about a return to a more hybrid approach from the start of February.

The First Minister also confirmed that the Covid certification scheme would not be extended for now.  This will come as a relief to many hospitality businesses, in particular, not least as there remain serious questions about the effectiveness or proportionality of Covid ‘passports’.  These will continue to apply, however, to large indoor and outdoor events and to late night venues.  Welcome as the further lifting of restrictions is, baseline protective measures remain in place, such as the requirement for face coverings in public indoor settings and on public transport.

The First Minister's update was followed by a Ministerial Statement on ScotWind.  I had the opportunity to question the Cabinet Secretary whether he could give assurances whether local communities will have control over the decisions over the way in which funds raised by ScotWind are invested.  In addition, I also asked whether he could give assurances that other stakeholders, such as the fishing community, will be involved in shaping how each development will now be taken forward.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, there was not much in the way of a guarantee from the Cabinet Secretary that some decision-making could be made by local communities, however he did provide an assurance that the voices and views of any stakeholders will be taken into account.  You can watch this statement here and read it here.  On the subject of the fishing industry, there was also an announcement on Tuesday that the UK and Scottish Governments have agreed their Joint Fisheries Strategy.  This is now open to a public consultation which you can find here and closes on 12 April. 

Following the statements, the rest of Tuesday afternoon was taken up with a debate on retrofitting of properties for net-zero.  While the debate was without motion, there was still much to consider following the Scottish Government's publication of their Heat in Buildings Strategy last October.  Indeed, as 50% of Scotland's energy is consumed by domestic heating and with around 80% of Scotland's existing housing stock likely to be still in use by 2050, retrofitting is going to be an essential component to meet our net-zero targets.  I focused my remarks on cost, capacity and communication.  On cost, there’s a need for greater transparency on how funds will be spent.  Given the higher cost of installing greener technologies in off gas grid areas, like Orkney, where fuel poverty rates are already high, funding must be targeted where it is needed most.  On capacity, I asked how Ministers expected to be able to scale up heat pump installations from 3000 to 200,000 per year.  Finally, communication with the public will be critical to increase awareness of what is required, why and where support can be accessed.  You can watch this debate here and read the transcript here.  

To finish a busy Tuesday, I was in the chair for a Member's Business debate on Scottish History in Schools.  You can also watch this debate here and read its transcript here.  

Wednesday began with a meeting with Victim Support Scotland to discuss their work, including here in Orkney.  I look forward to supporting that work, including that done in collaboration with other local organisations.  You can find out more about Victim Support Scotland here.  I then had a brief meeting with the Cabinet Secretary for Net-Zero, Energy and Transport to raise concerns about potential changes in the Warmer Homes Discount Scheme and the potential impact on fuel poverty work being carried out in Orkney.  The rest of the morning was spent dealing with casework before meeting with my Presiding Office colleagues ahead of the afternoon's business. 

In Health and Social Care Questions, I quizzed the Minister over the resumption of self-referrals to the breast cancer screening programme for women aged over 70.  The option to self-refer was paused at the start of the pandemic with only some priority services resuming last August.  I know the continued pause is causing concern amongst many women, especially in Orkney which relies on a mobile screening unit turning up every three years.  I repeated my call for targeted strategies in communities that rely on these mobile screening units as self-referrals are re-started.  In response, the Minister for Public Health confirmed she has asked officials to "accelerate" consideration of restart options and that mobile units will form part of these considerations.  Ultimately, as we move back to pre-pandemic arrangements, more will have to be done in places like Orkney that rely on mobile screening units to ensure all those who need or wish to be screened can be seen without fear of lengthy delays.  You can watch Health and Social Care Questions here, read the transcript here and more of my comments here

After portfolio questions there was a Ministerial Statement on the government's new fire and smoke alarm regulations.  Having been previously delayed due to the pandemic, the Cabinet Secretary confirmed that the new regulations will remain, as planned, to come into force from 1 February.  The Scottish Government has faced criticism in recent weeks for the lack of public awareness of the new regulations, affordability and availability of the new inter-linked fire alarms.  While there is there is no legal requirement to fit such alarms, it is certainly a good idea to have these fitted to provide greater safety, bring your home up to the new ‘tolerable’ standard and avoid any issues arising in future over insurance or potential sale.  You can find out more here and more about support available to those who own their own home who are at high risk of fire or who are elderly or disabled here.  You can also watch the statement here and read it here.

I was then in the Chair for the first of two debates led by the Scottish Conservatives on Wednesday afternoon, firstly on Local Government funding and then on the 2022 Scottish exam diet.  You can watch these debates here and here and read their transcripts here.  After the debate I was able to catch-up on emails and spend the rest of the afternoon dealing with casework.

Thursday morning continued in a similar vein, dealing with casework before a meeting with my Presiding Office colleagues ahead of the afternoon's business.  At midday, it was time for First Minister's Questions where Nicola Sturgeon faced questions from Douglas Ross over the difference in Covid restrictions north and south of the border and from Anas Sarwar on the human rights record of foreign corporations involved in the ScotWind leasing round.  However, much like last week, events in Holyrood have been somewhat overshadowed by the fallout from ‘parties/work events’ that took place in Downing Street during earlier lockdowns and the behaviour of the Prime Minister.  For the record, I believe his position is now completely untenable in light of the admissions he has already made, and the clear evidence that he both broke the law and lied to parliament.  You can watch this week's FMQs here and read the transcript here

Later in the afternoon I chaired Constitution, External Affairs and Culture Questions, which you can watch here, followed by a Ministerial Statement on Publication of the Second Strategic Transport Projects Review, which you can also watch here and read here.  There was also a Ministerial Statement on Prestwick Airport, again which you can watch here and read here.  The week's business concluded with a stage one debate on the Self-Isolation Compensation Bill, which passed unanimously.  While this was taking place, I was back in my office catching up on emails and took part in an interview with Scotland on Sunday on my proposals for a Member's Bill on Assisted Dying for Terminally Ill Adults

On Friday morning I flew home to Orkney where once back in the Kirkwall office I held a meeting with constituents regarding HIAL’s plans to centralise air traffic services.  While the procurement process has been cancelled, understandable fears remain that this is a temporary pause and that HIAL’s remains committed to this centralised model in the medium term.  Certainly they do not appear to be actively considered any of the alternative proposals their own advisers put forward 2-3 years ago.

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