Holyrood Highlights - 22.04.22

Parliament returned this week after the Easter recess break, during which there’s always the chance for a spot of ‘island hopping’.  So it was that last week I headed first south to Flotta and then north to Westray for surgeries and meetings with local residents.  Days spent in the isles are always good for the soul, although Westray was notably quieter than usual due to a spike in Covid cases that had folks understandably wary about venturing out and about.

Over recess one of the most pressing local issues to arise surrounded recent disruption to Loganair services, notably the plight of one group of mainly NHS passengers attempting to get back to Orkney from Aberdeen the previous weekend.  While no route has escaped disruption lately, their experience was wholly unacceptable and only added to growing frustration locally about a lack of reliability in our lifeline air services.  So it was that at the Broughton end of Pierowall (where 4G signal was strong enough!) I had a video conference with Loganair's senior management where I made clear that not only will an apology and compensation be required, but lessons have to be learned, including improving communications with passengers.  They also agreed to my request to re-establish regular meetings with key users of the service in Orkney, which have been useful in the past in allowing an exchange of information and for problems to be identified early.  I have remained in regular contact with Loganair and will continue to monitor reliability of services over the coming weeks.

Back to this week, and after a day at home on Easter Monday, I flew down to Edinburgh early on Tuesday where I had meetings with my Presiding Officer colleagues and the weekly Parliamentary Bureau.  I then met with my Scottish Lib Dem colleagues to discuss the week ahead, including two Chamber debates we were leading on Wednesday, first on the cost-of-living crisis followed by one on the government’s ferry building fiasco.  The start of proceedings this week saw my good friend, and current Church of Scotland Moderator, Jim Wallace deliver the first in-person Time for Reflection for over two years, which you can watch here.  It was great to see Jim back in the chamber, albeit in a non-political capacity, and a relief too that the public gallery has re-opened again, as part of a wider return to public access at Holyrood.  I've welcomed many local groups and constituents to Holyrood over the years and encourage anyone interested in visiting to please get in touch.

After hearing from my former boss, I returned to the office for a bite to eat and to finish off my column for this week's Orcadian where I discussed my trips to the isles, Loganair and the upcoming local elections.  You can read my column here.  Later, I was back in the chamber for a Ministerial Statement on Transforming Scotland’s Tech Sector, which you can watch here and read here.  While the announcement of new funding to boost this sector is welcome, I questioned the Cabinet Secretary as to how the government’s ambitions squared with delays – particularly in rural and island areas – in delivering the digital infrastructure necessary to support the sector.  Kate Forbes conceded that there was much still to be done, especially around the badly delayed rollout of the so-called R100 programme.  I have sought a further meeting with her on this topic.

I was back in the Chair after the Ministerial Statement for a Local Government Committee Debate on the National Planning Framework 4.  This particular debate grabbed some attention after the Committee Convener and Green MSP, Ariane Burgess failed to turn up to start the debate, leaving the Deputy Convener, Willie Coffey to step in at short notice.  Unfortunately, Mr Coffey began delivering his speech to conclude the debate, leaving me no choice but to suspend proceedings until Ms Burgess arrived.  If you’re curious, you can watch the debate here and read it here.  Back in the office later, I caught up on emails and casework before Chairing the Members' Business debate on Welcoming the Down Syndrome Bill by Jeremy Balfour MSP.  You can watch this debate here and read it here.

On Wednesday morning, I took part in an interview with LBC ahead of the Scottish Liberal Democrat debates in the afternoon.  The rest of the morning was spent catching up on casework and pulling together notes for my speech for later in the day.  After a bite of lunch, I had a meeting with Mark Hazelwood from the Scottish Partnership for Palliative Care to discuss my Members Bill on Assisted Dying for Terminally Ill Adults.  It was then time for portfolio questions, beginning with Justice & Veterans and latterly Finance & Economy where I was able again to press the Minister over the delays to the R100 broadband rollout.  In my question I highlighted how the interim voucher scheme, which was intended to 'plug the gaps' in the worst-off areas, including Orkney, has seen more money being allocated to the 'South' and 'Central' Lots rather than the 'North' Lot, where the need is greatest.  You can watch this exchange here, read it here and more of my comments on this here.

I hopped into the Chair for a Ministerial Statement on Displaced People from Ukraine.  Sadly, despite the enormous outpouring of public support for the 'Homes for Ukraine' scheme, the relocation of Ukrainian refugees to the UK remains painfully slow. This at a time when the UK Government has been busy defending the abhorrent proposals to send those seeking asylum to Rwanda, a move that is immoral, unworkable and almost certainly illegal. Another less than stellar week for the Home Office and the Home Secretary.  You can watch the Ukraine statement here and read it here.

It was then time for the Scottish Liberal Democrat debates, starting with one on the cost-of-living crisis.  It’s clear Scotland is facing the biggest fall in living standards in generations with household bills skyrocketing, amidst soaring inflation driving the worst squeeze on incomes since records began.  What is also clear is that the response to date from both Scotland's governments has fallen short of what is needed.  Reckless tax hikes by the UK Government are ultimately compounded by the Scottish Government's cuts to local authority budgets forcing many councils, including Orkney, to raise council tax.  Scottish Liberal Democrats have proposed a VAT cut to 17.5%, a windfall tax on oil and gas companies to double and expand the Winter Fuel Payment and Warm Home Discount, increasing disability benefit in line with inflation and the launch of an emergency insulation programme as part of a rescue package to the crisis.  You can watch the debate here and read it here.  For anyone concerned at this time, please get in touch.  You can also find support from THAW Orkney here, Home Energy Scotland here and Citizens Advice here.

The debate then turned to the ferries fiasco, predominately focusing on the huge delays and vast cost overruns to the two CalMac ferries at Fergusons’ shipyard.  Despite the scandalous mishandling by Scottish Ministers, no-one has yet been held accountable.  The debate also, quite rightly, drew attention to the impact on the wider ferries network.  Just this week more ferries serving Arran have broken down with reports of supply shortages on the island.  Examples like this bring into sharp focus the real-life impact of this continued failure to deliver vessels that, in turn, can deliver reliable lifeline services.  The problems are not confined to the west coast, of course, and I am due to meet the Transport Minister next week where I will stress again the government's responsibility to help with the replacement of Orkney's ageing internal ferry fleet and question why this and our internal air services have been excluded from the government’s national connectivity plan.  You can watch the debate here and read it here

To finish a long afternoon, I was in the Chair for a Members Business debate on Sexism in Football, which you can also watch here and read here before heading to an evening event, hosted by the Presiding Officer to allow members a chance to find out more about the different services provided by the different staff teams in parliament from education and visitor services to training programmes and the lobbying register.

Thursday morning began with emails, calls and casework.  I also had a further brief catch-up with Loganair's senior management regarding developments in dealing with flight disruption issues.  After a meeting with my Presiding Officer colleagues, I headed along to the chamber where I had a General Question on the impact of rising fuel bills for the farming and fishing industries.  While many are feeling the pinch at the pumps and in our pockets, this is particularly the case for our farmers and fishing fleet where input costs have risen exponentially.  I have heard this is leading to boats being tied-up or even leaving the industry entirely while higher fuel, feed and fertiliser costs are threatening serious long-term implications to production and overall viability for many farm businesses.  The Rural Affairs Secretary recognised these fears and confirmed that the recently established Food Security and Supply Task Force will publish its recommendations shortly.  It’s imperative that Ministers then act on those recommendations with genuine urgency.  You can watch this exchange here, read it here and more of my comments here.

It was then time for First Minister’s Questions where, after a two week break and just a fortnight to go until the local elections, it was a predictably lively affair.  Conservative leader Douglas Ross questioned the First Minister over proposals for congestion charging in Edinburgh and Glasgow while Labour leader, Anas Sarwar tackled the First Minister over the costs of government spending failures.  Lib Dem leader, Alex Cole-Hamilton then revealed how the recent Scotwind auction of sites for offshore wind projects had significantly undervalued Scotland’s seabed.  You can watch FMQs here and read it here.

With Holyrood opening up to the public again, it was good to see a range of organisations back in the building to offer drop-in sessions.  I went along to one hosted by my colleague Beatrice Wishart on behalf of the Stop Sea Blasts.  This campaign is seeking to find safer and more marine friendly ways to dispose of the hundreds of thousands of unexploded ordnances in our waters, largely discarded after WWII.  These pose a serious threat to our marine life with many explosions causing mass strandings in recent years.  You can find out more about the campaign here.

After a bite of lunch and catching up on emails, I was back in the Chair for Education & Skills Questions, which you can watch here and read here, then for a Ministerial Statement on Progressing Scotland’s Leadership on Blue Carbon, which again you can watch here and read here.  I then travelled up to a sunny Dundee for an evening spent canvassing with local Lib Dem candidates for the Council elections on 5 May.

On Friday, I held a series of meetings, first with the chair of the Local Dental Committee in Orkney and then with Highlands & Islands Airports Ltd, where we discussed the shelved plans to centralise air traffic services and efforts to recruit staff going forward.  I then met virtually with Laura Fulton from the General Pharmaceutical Council in relation to my Members Bill on Assisted Dying before heading over to the Council for a catch up session with OIC’s Interim CEO, John Mundell, where we covered a wide range of issues from the forthcoming elections to areas where we agreed is being short changed in terms of Scottish Government funding.  In between meetings, I’ve done my best to catch up with casework before heading to an evening meeting with my fellow East United coaches to discuss preparations for the football season ahead.

Over the weekend I will be joining Alistair Carmichael and others for a vigil outside St Magnus Cathedral to protest against the UK Government's proposed plans to send asylum seekers to Rwanda.  This is due to take place between 11am and 12pm on the Kirk Green, more details can be found here.

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