Holyrood Highlights - 25.02.22

After a week of recess, I was back in Kirkwall office on Monday, where the day started with meetings with my parliamentarian colleagues and then my office team to discuss the week ahead.  Later in the morning, I had a brief (virtual) catch ups, first with the Scottish Association of Police Superintendents followed by one with colleagues in the Non-Government Bills Unit who are supporting my proposals for a Members Bill on Assisted Dying for Terminally Ill Adults.  The rest of the afternoon was spent dealing with casework and calls to various constituents.

On Tuesday morning, I was back on the flight to Edinburgh, thankfully now without the de-tour via Sumburgh.  The trip still allowed me to finish off my column for this week's Orcadian, which you can read here, although it was rather overtaken by the horrendous situation then developing in Ukraine.  Once in parliament, I tuned into a Public Policy Exchange conference on Improving Palliative and End of Life Services where I had the opportunity to present my proposals for a Members Bill on Assisted Dying before taking part in a panel discussion.  The event also heard from Hospice UK, Macmillan Cancer Support, Marie Curie and others.  You can find out more about Public Policy Exchange here.

After a quick meeting with my Scottish Lib Dem MSP colleagues, I then listened into the First Minister's weekly Covid-19 update, which you can watch here and read here.  Following the phased lifting of Omicron restrictions over the past few weeks, the First Minister confirmed that all remaining legal Covid-19 restrictions will end on 21 March.  This is expected to include the lifting of the requirement to wear face coverings in some indoor settings and on public transport.   The First Minister also announced that from Monday (28 February) the Covid certification scheme will come to an end, although the app which supports the scheme will remain operational for any businesses that wish to continue using it on a voluntary basis.  The evidence to support this measure was never clear and I am pleased to see it being dropped at last.

The First Minister also confirmed that lateral flow and PCR tests will remain free of charge in Scotland and in place for now alongside the rules on self-isolation.  Meantime, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation has recommended that all 5 to 11 year olds should be eligible for the vaccine.  In addition, care home residents, those over 75, and everyone over 12 who is immune-suppressed will be offered an additional booster six months after their last jag.  These are expected to take place from next month and I expect NHS Orkney to make more information available shortly here.  Finally, the First Minister also announced the Scottish Government's revised strategic framework for tackling Covid-19 as we reach an endemic stage.  You can read this here. 

Following the First Minister's statement, I was in the Chair for a debate led by the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee debate on the use of the made affirmative procedure during the pandemic.  This has allowed the government to introduce regulations at short notice, with parliamentary scrutiny taking place after introduction.  While understandable in the context of the pandemic, there were understandable concerns expressed across the Chamber about the extent to which this mechanism had been used.  You can watch and read the debate here and here. 

After the debate, I headed back to the office to briefly catch up on emails and record a clip for Radio Orkney on the Digital Forum, taking place today (Friday) before returning to the Chamber to chair a Members debate on Redundancies at OVO Energy, which you can watch and read here and here.

Wednesday morning saw me take part in another virtual Q&A session on my Member’s Bill on Assisted Dying, this time hosted by the Morningside Justice and Peace group.  I then had time to catch up on casework and emails before chairing a meeting of the Scottish Parliament's Conveners Group.  This is a forum where Committee Conveners meet to take a strategic view on the operation of committees and to facilitate liaison between the parliament's respective bodies.  You can find out more here.

After a meeting with my Presiding Officer colleagues to discuss the afternoon's business ahead, I had a bite of lunch while tuning into Portfolio Questions on Justice followed by Finance and the Economy.  You can watch these sessions here and read their transcript here.  I spent the rest of the afternoon dealing with casework while tuning into the first of the afternoon's debates on preventing the collapse of NHS dentistry services in Scotland.  It comes as the British Dental Association warn more than a third of dentists are considering leaving the service in the next 12 month and accused the government of being “asleep at the wheel”.  It followed earlier warnings from the BDA that I raised with the Health Secretary back in November, suggesting that proposed changes to the funding model due in April will devastate a service still facing enormous pressure while trying to restore access for patients.  I have been in regular contact with dental practitioners in Orkney about the local situation, which I had an opportunity to raise again during General Questions the following day (see below).  You can watch the debate here, read it here and read the latest statement from the British Dental Association here

I was then in the Chair for the second debate of the afternoon, this time on scrapping the Workplace Parking Tax, due to come into force next month.  From 4 March, Councils will be allowed to tax parking spaces provided by employers as part of a bid to force more people out of their cars.  Businesses will then have to decide whether to pay the bill themselves or pass the cost onto staff.  While it is important every effort is made to encourage more people to find environmentally friendly ways to travel, concerns have been raised about the impact on those with little or no access to public transport alternatives, notably in rural areas.  You can find out more about it here, watch the debate here and read it here.  After a brief stint catching up on emails in my office I attended a strategic planning meeting of the Parliamentary Bureau in the evening. 

On Thursday morning, I met with the British Red Cross to discuss the future of their guest house in Kirkwall.  Concerns have been raised locally with me about a potential closure of the guest house which provides accommodation for those from the isles who may be receiving hospital treatment, or indeed their relatives. I received assurances that there will be no immediate closure and that discussions with Orkney Islands Council, NHS Orkney and local stakeholders on a sustainable, long-term solution will continue. For many of those travelling in from the smaller isles who often face long, tiring journeys to attend hospital appointments the guest house has often been a godsend.  As discussions over the future of the facility take place, it will be important that the communities most directly affected are closely involved.  I have offered whatever support I can to help these discussions reach a successful conclusion.  You can read my further comments here.

I then had a brief meeting with the Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero, Energy and Transport, Michael Matheson to discuss the government policy and legislative priorities for the year ahead. These informal catch up sessions with Ministers are a useful means of raising issues as well as getting a better sense of likely policy developments.

After more internal meetings to discuss the day's business, I headed along to the Chamber for General Questions where, as mentioned earlier, I was able to raise concerns of dentists in Orkney who face real difficulties in recruiting and retaining key staff, notably dental nurses.  It is clear from my discussions that, at a time when dental services are under enormous pressure to restore access after the pandemic, they are being asked to operate with a funding model that is not fit for purpose.  The situation is not helped by the significant difference in terms and conditions on offer to those working in dental practices compared to their counterparts in the public dental service.  I urged the Public Health Minister, Maree Todd to look at how these could be brought more into line with each other, including offering the same pension provision.  The Minister agreed to look into the issue and I will be writing to her with more detail in the coming days.  You can watch General Questions here and read it here

It was then time for First Minister's Questions which began with an opportunity for each party leader to provide a statement following the shocking developments in Ukraine.  The invasion by Russian troops has been appalling to witness over recent days, since President’s Putin’s chilling TV address on Monday evening.  Not surprisingly, the strong, unified and very clear message across the parliamentary chamber was one of outright condemnation of the actions of the Russian President and absolute determination to stand in solidarity with the people of Ukraine.  While steps have been taken by the US, EU and UK to expand and deepen sanctions against Russia and key Russian interests, the need to go much further is very evident.  The risk in an approach of ‘ratchetting up’ is that the most effective action is taken too late to avert even greater disaster and loss of life.  

FMQs then turned to domestic matters, with both the Conservative and Labour leaders questioning the First Minister over a damming report from Audit Scotland into the state of the NHS in Scotland.  The spending watchdog warned Scotland's NHS continues to face major staff recruitment and retention challenges as it emerges from the Covid pandemic.  While pandemic has of course caused enormous challenges to the NHS, it is also clear many of these issues are long-standing and pre-date the pandemic.  My colleague, Alex Cole Hamilton then pressed the First Minister over the Scottish Government's policy on green job creation as it has emerged the new owners of the BiFab site have had to recruit workers from abroad.  You can watch FMQs here and read it here.

After grabbing a bite of lunch post-FMQs, I was back in the office briefly to deal with casework before returning to the chamber to chair Portfolio Questions on Education and Skills, which you can watch here and read here.  I remained in the Chair for a Ministerial Statement on Building Industrial Clusters around Scotland’s Ports, which you can watch here and read here.  The rest of the afternoon was, quite rightly, spent debating the situation in Ukraine.  You can watch this here and read it here.

On Friday morning, I flew back to Orkney where Alistair and I hosted the first in-person Digital Forum since the pandemic.  While we experienced some unfortunate technical difficulties with the connection for those joining virtually, there was a good turn-out at the St Magnus Centre and plenty of discussion about what needs to be done to ensure the promise of superfast broadband to 100% of premises is actually realised here in Orkney.  If you would like a copy of the slides from the presentations given, please let me know.  I am also in the process of setting up a further Zoom meeting to allow those who were unable to participate a chance to hear from and question representatives of Scottish Government and Openreach.  I will circulate details of this meeting once a date has been arranged, but again please let me know if you would like to be kept informed.

The rest of the afternoon was spent catching up on casework before one final virtual meeting, this time with Orkney Harbours to get an update on developments, including the proposed deep water facilities, ‘green’ ports and the National Planning Framework consultation.

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