Holyrood Highlights - 24.06.22

The week started with a drive out west to make a visit to Dounby School where I met members of the team who had taken part in the Euro Quiz final in the Scottish Parliament the previous week.  It was clear that the team and staff supporting them had enjoyed themselves enormously, and they were brimming with ideas about how to help prepare future Orkney teams taking part.  They even put me through my paces on the names of country capitals!  You can watch the Euro Quiz final and the Dounby team in action here.

Once back in Kirkwall, I spent most of the afternoon catching up on casework and making calls to constituents.  Later in the afternoon I had a virtual meeting with colleagues from the Non-Government Bills Unit who are supporting my proposed Members Bill on Assisted Dying for Terminally Ill Adults.  This was a very constructive meeting and I'm looking forward to publishing the report on my consultation after the summer recess and thereafter lodging a formal bill early in 2023.

On Tuesday morning I made the commute down to Edinburgh and once in parliament attended the usual series of meetings with my Presiding Officer colleagues, the Parliamentary Bureau and then with my Scottish Lib Dem colleagues.  As ever, the first item of chamber business was Topical Questions which this week focused on the devastating impact of the current Avian flu outbreak and the government's opposition to gene-edited crops.  The Cabinet Secretary confirmed it is the biggest outbreak of Avian flu in the UK's history and that so far 24 bird species have been affected in Scotland.  The full extent of the impact on wild seabird populations remains unclear but I know it has been all too visible on beaches around Orkney, especially within our important gannet colonies.  NatureScot has suspended all ringing activities for the rest of the breeding season in an effort to minimise any transmission to other unaffected colonies.  RSPB Scotland are warning anyone who finds a dead bird not to touch it but report it to DEFRA.  You can watch Topical Questions here and read it here.

The first debate of the afternoon was on World Refugee Day which unsurprisingly focused on the horrors of those fleeing the war in Ukraine, as well as Afghanistan last year.  It is important to recognise, however, that there are estimated to be over 100 million refugees currently internally displaced or seeking safety and asylum around the world with war, conflict and climate change driving the highest human displacement since WWII.  The huge response to the Homes for Ukraine scheme launched earlier this year was a powerful demonstration of the compassion many in the UK have for refugees.  I'm delighted the first Ukrainian refugees have arrived in Orkney and are settling in well, with support from the local community.  At the same time, however, we see the UK Government pressing ahead with its deplorable scheme to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, while also failing to move Ukrainian, Afghan and Syrian refuges out of temporary hotel accommodation.  You can watch this debate here, read it here and more about World Refugee Day here.

I was then in the Chair for an Urgent Question on reports from the Scottish Police Authority that 386 cases of potential drug driving cannot be prosecuted because of major delays in forensic testing.  This points to a serious failure by the Scottish Government to properly fund forensic services after the new legislation came into force in 2019 enabling police officers to conduct roadside mouth swab tests.  Police officers should have both the tools but also the confidence that their efforts are helping make our roads safer.  While additional resource from the government to outsource 30% of cases to commercial providers makes sense in the circumstances, this is in the context of proposed budget cuts to police and justice services over the next few years which will only stretch resources even thinner.  You can watch the Urgent Question here and read it here

I remained in the Chair for a Stage 3 debate on the Non-Domestic Rates Bill, which was passed by MSPs without amendment and will ensure any potential effect of the pandemic (from 2 April 2020 onwards) cannot be considered when calculating a property’s ‘net annual value’ and/or ‘rateable value’, in the current valuation roll.  You can watch the debate here, read it here and more about the Bill here.

After a quick break from Chairing to take part in Decision Time votes, I was back for a Members Business debate on MND Scotland Report's 'No Time to Lose' which focuses on addressing the housing needs of people with MND.  In particular, there was a recognition of the need to speed up the processing of requests for adaptations, given the life expectancy of those with an MND diagnosis.  You can watch the debate here, read it here and more about MND Scotland's report here.

Thankfully, chamber business all ran on time which allowed me to head across to Dynamic Earth where I was hosting a reception to mark one year since I announced my intention to bring forward proposals for a change in the law to allow assisted dying for adults with a terminal illness and mental capacity.  With the support of Dignity in Dying, I was delighted to be able to welcome a large number of supportive MSPs from across all parties, as well as organisations backing reform including Friends at the End, the Humanist Society and the Scottish Youth Parliament.

12 months on since I first announced my intention to bring forward a bill, it seemed right to take stock of the progress made so far and to look ahead to what comes next.  In that time, the public consultation on my proposals has received a record response for any Members Bill in the lifetime of the Scottish Parliament.  The scale of this response reflects the strong, consistent public interest and, I believe, support for a change in the law.  Indeed, the political mood appears finally to be catching up with the wider public has been for years in support of a change in the law that is long overdue, keenly anticipated and so desperately needed.  We must, of course, get the details right alongside increasing investment in access to good quality specialist palliative care, for those who need and want it.  However, in the interests of choice, dignity, safety and compassion, I believe this is the next great liberal reform we must grasp this opportunity.

While I’m very conscious that I’m lucky in having had no direct personal experience of a family member or close friend suffering a protracted, painful or undignified death, I know that, sadly, that for too many people in Scotland each year that is the reality.  Hearing from those with direct experience is fundamental to understanding why we need greater choice at the end of life.  In that context, I was grateful to my colleague, Elena Whitman MSP and Joanne Easton who delivered powerful testimony to their late mother and father respectively.  Unfortunately, due to rail strikes and technical issues, we were unable to hear from award-winning author, Andrew O'Hagan, who planned to read an extract from his book Mayflies which was inspired by the experiences of his terminally ill friend.  We were, however, able to hear from award-winning actor and patron of Dignity in Dying, Sir Patrick Stewart, urging MSPs to support my Bill.  Overall, the reception was a great success and I look forward to bringing forward my proposals to Parliament after the summer recess to begin full scrutiny.  You can watch the speeches on Dignity in Dying's YouTube channel here and watch Patrick Stewart's exclusive video here

On Wednesday morning I attended a Marie Curie breakfast seminar on dying, death and bereavement where we heard from Maree Todd MSP, Minister for Public Health as well as panel discussions involving academics, practitioners and policy analysts. With an ageing population, there will be growing need to find better ways of meeting the needs of dying people and those living longer with chronic conditions and comorbidities.  You can find out more about Marie Curie’s excellent research in this area here.

Once back in Parliament, I spent time dealing with casework and catching up on emails.  At midday I chaired the final meeting of the Conveners Group before summer recess and was then straight into the Chair for portfolio questions on Justice & Veterans and Finance & Economy, which you can watch here and read here.

I remained in the Chamber for a Ministerial Statement on Deaths in Custody, which you can read here and watch here.  The statement updated MSPs on the government's work to implement the recommendations from the independent review of the response to deaths in prison custody following the deaths of four prisoners in just four days in 2019.  The key recommendation from the review is that an independent investigation should be undertaken into each death in prison custody and more closely involve families in these processes.  Given the decade long waits to Fatal Accident Inquiries, I have previously revealed I asked the Cabinet Secretary whether he will set a maximum threshold for how long families will wait for these reviews to get underway.  I have followed up these exchanges in writing to get more detail, including confirmation that families affected will be supported through access to legal aid.

I headed back to the office briefly to catch up on emails while there was a Ministerial Statement on Retained EU Law, which you can watch here and read here.  I was then in the Chair for a two-hour stint which covered the afternoon's debates led by the Scottish Labour Party on cost-of-living support and delivering the immediate removal of non-residential social care costs, which you can watch here, here and read here.  After a brief break to take part in Decision Time votes, I was back in the Chair for a Members Business debate on a proposed ‘Flamingoland’ development at Loch Lomond, which you can watch here and read here

On Thursday morning I spent some time dealing with casework and emails before travelling up to Dundee with Tamsin to attend the graduation of my eldest son, Calum.  It was a wonderful occasion and such a relief to see these graduation ceremonies taking place again at universities and colleges across the country.  It has been a difficult time for students with fewer opportunities to socialise, travel and get the full university/college ‘experience’ so to see everyone celebrating outside the Caird Hall in the centre of Dundee on a sunny afternoon was very emotional indeed.

In between the graduation and an evening meal, I managed to do a bit of ‘email inbox management’.  I was pleased to see the Food Security and Supply Taskforce publish their recommendations which I have called on Scottish Ministers to deliver urgently.  Established in March to investigate and respond to any potential disruption resulting from Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, the taskforce of representatives from the food and drink sector have found food security and supply to be secure for now.  However, they have recommended the establishment of a new food security unit within the Scottish Government to better monitor risks, increase resilience and respond more rapidly to future issues.  Additionally, they have made a number of recommendations on improved cash flow and access to support will be critical in the months ahead.  I previously have called on Ministers to act urgently in response to exceptional rise in feed, fuel and fertiliser costs which NFU Scotland have also warned again today is already having serious long-term implications for production in the farming sector.  Increased input costs are also having a serious impact on the fishing industry with many boats being forced to tie-up.  Given the scale of these challenges, alongside the threat of recent global events and the climate emergency, I fully support the recommendations and Scottish Ministers should move at pace to deliver them, as well as increase cooperation on a four-nation basis.  You can read the report here, NFU Scotland's release here and more of my comments here.

On Friday, I drove up to Orkney from Edinburgh, though managed to make a number of calls along the way, including my regular catch up with NHS Orkney Interim CEO, Michael Dickson, where the provision of primary care services in some of the smaller isles dominated the discussion.  I was pleased to hear that plans are being put in place for visits to the isles by NHS Orkney and Scottish Ambulance Service, who are responsible for the community responder network, to discuss with the local communities how best these services can be delivered in future.  Into the weekend, I headed over to Stromness to watch some of the Highland Amateur Cup tie against Wick Thistle, which Stromness won fairly comfortably 5-2.  It was then a dash back to Burray to catch the tail end of the regatta (though my participation in the ‘wet sponge’ event was cancelled due to faulty equipment!).  Listening to live music, sitting out in the sun in front of the Sands was a fine way to end the day.

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