Holyrood Highlights - 25.03.22

This week started in the Kirkwall office with the usual series of calls with parliamentary colleagues and my office to discuss the week ahead. My first meeting of the day was with Robert Leslie from THAW to discuss growing concerns about the impact of energy cost increases on rates of fuel poverty locally, as well as the need for clarity around the future funding of THAW, which provides invaluable advice and support to vulnerable households in Orkney. You can find out more about THAW here.

Later in the afternoon, I had a catch-up meeting with colleagues from Dignity in Dying, Friends at the End and the Humanist Society to discuss the ongoing work around my proposed Members Bill on Assisted Dying for Terminally Ill Adults. The rest of the day was spent dealing with casework and making calls to constituents before attending an early evening briefing with NFU Scotland on the risk of security of food supply issues as a result of rising costs and the effects of sanctions.  A working group has been established by Scottish Ministers to look urgently at targeted measures to help ease the pressure, but the risk is that higher costs lead to cuts in production and shortages on shelves. You can find out more about this here.

On Tuesday morning, I flew down to Edinburgh in time for meetings with the Presiding Officer teamParliamentary Bureau and then with my Scottish Lib Dem MSP colleagues. Business this week began on a sombre note following the tragic passing of David Hill, a Conservative researcher in Holyrood. David died while playing for the parliament's cross party rugby team in Dublin at the weekend. He was a familiar, friendly and popular presence around Holyrood, and Jamie Greene, the MSP David served as head of office, offered a very moving personal tribute at the start of business. You can watch this here.  The events in Dublin also brought back vivid memories for me of my younger brother, Dugald’s serious injury playing rugby 25 years ago, something I touched on in my Orcadian column, which you can read here. 

While finishing off my Orcadian column, I tuned into Topical Questions, which focused on the fallout from the mass sacking of 800 staff by P&O Ferries. This appalling action prompted Alistair Carmichael MP, Beatrice Wishart MSP and I to write to the UK Chamber of Shipping calling on them to stand on the side of seafarers, their rights and livelihoods. You can read more here. 

After Topicals there was a Ministerial Statement on Complex Care, Out-of-area Placements and Delayed Discharge, which you can watch here and read here, and then I was in the Chair for a Stage 1 debate on the long-awaited Good Food Nation Bill, which you can watch here and read the transcript here. I had time back in my office to catch up briefly on emails and casework before Chairing the evening Members Debate on Scottish Tourism Month, which you can watch here and read here.  After banging the gavel, I headed out on the campaign trail in Edinburgh ahead of May’s Council elections to support Sanne Dijkstra-Downie the Scottish Liberal Democrat candidate in the Forth Ward.

On Wednesday morning I met with the Justice Secretary, Keith Brown, to discuss the government's proposed reforms on the not proven verdict. It is recognised that the three verdict system in Scotland - guilty, not guilty and not proven - can be confusing, not just for the public but also for juries, and problematic in cases of rape and sexual assault. Concerns have been raised that ‘not proven’ which has the same effect as ‘not guilty’ can often leave victims and defendants dissatisfied as it appears not to draw a line under a case. The implications of removing the ‘not proven’ verdict, however, are not straightforward, and potentially could require changes to the size of juries and the majority required for a conviction. This will be tricky territory for the government going forward, but the status quo is certainly not satisfactory

Later in the morning, I joined the Presiding Officer, First Minister and party leaders in a one-minute silence for National Day of Reflection to remember all those who have died during the course of the pandemic.  Two years on since the first lockdown, it is important we pause to reflect on the sacrifice so many have made and to thank again our health and care workers, and all those in our community who stepped up in dealing with the challenges posed by this pandemic.

After various internal meetings with my Presiding Officer colleagues, I had a bite of lunch and caught up on emails and casework while tuning into portfolio questions on Covid Recovery and Net Zero, Energy & Transport which you can watch here and read here.  Ahead of a debate on Scotland's Ferries led by the Conservatives, there was a Ministerial Statement on Ferguson Marine Update which you can watch here and read here.  It followed publication of a damning Audit Scotland report into the two ferries being built at the government-owned yard that are four years late, two and a half times over budget and still far from completed.  Audit Scotland, needless to say, uncovered a "multitude of failings" by Scottish Ministers, but also made clear that not all information had been made available.  While the calamities on the west coast routes have grabbed the headlines, the situation in Orkney is scarcely less precarious.  As Audit Scotland has identified, we need a proper, strategic plan for a phased procurement of new vessels with delivery on time and to budget.  During the debate that followed the statement, much of which I chaired, the Scottish Government come in for sustained criticism from across the Chamber.  After votes, I was back out on the campaign trail in Edinburgh, this time in East Craigs. 

News also broke on Wednesday that Bank of Scotland is set to shut its Stromness branch in August as part of a closure programme including 60 branches across the country.  This is deeply disappointing news and will be a further blow to the local community following the closure of RBS in 2015.  I have secured a meeting with senior Bank of Scotland representatives on Monday morning to relay concerns about the impact this decision will have, the effect on jobs and services to business and personal customers in Stromness.  You can read more here.

Thursday morning saw me dealing with casework, before a meeting with the Minister for Community Safety, Ash Regan.  I was joined by David Fairnie from Lows and Ian Moir of Law Society Scotland, to discuss the real concerns about the future provision of legal aided support in rural and island communities.  The steady decrease in the number of solicitors and firms available to provide legal aided representation has been an issue across the country, but is particularly acute in communities such as Orkney and Shetland, which risk becoming ‘legal aid deserts’.  The Minister heard first-hand about the situation on the ground in Orkney, with both practitioners putting forward practical proposals for helping address the problem.  In response, Ash Regan offered an assurance that ‘nothing is off to table’ in looking at how these issues might be resolved.  You can read my comments here.

I then headed to the chamber for General Questions, where I asked for an update on the resettling of Ukrainian refugees in Scotland under the UK's 'Homes for Ukraine' scheme.  While over 150,000 have signed up to the scheme, only around 12,000 Ukrainian refugees have been given permission to come to the UK so far.  As the barbaric shelling of cities like Mariupol continues, we learn that ten million Ukrainians have already fled their homes.  As well as asking about a timeframe for matching Scottish households to refugees coming to the UK, I asked the Minister, Neil Gray about additional support for local councils to meet the needs of those arriving.  He confirmed that work continues ‘at pace’ to set up the necessary flow of data between the UK and Scottish Governments and that Welcome Hubs have now been established in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Cairnryan.  Obviously, to establish such a resettlement scheme is a huge undertaking but it is clear there needs to be an urgent step up in efforts to create safe routes for refugees to get to the UK.  You can watch this exchange here and read it here.

At FMQs, further tributes to David Hill were paid by all the party leaders, before Douglas Ross went on to focus on the government's handling of new ferries fiasco.  Labour leader, Anas Sarwar, questioned Nicola Sturgeon on her government's response to the cost of living crisis in the aftermath of the UK Chancellor's Spring Statement which has been roundly criticised for failing to meet the scale of the challenge. 

I also had the change to tackle the First Minister on why the government's connectivity plan has excluded lifeline internal ferry services in Orkney and Shetland.  She responded by pointing to ongoing talks with the island authorities, which hardly inspires confidence, but it is hard to see how a plan that ignores the needs of Orkney and Shetland can justifiably be called a national islands plan. I have written to the Transport Minister separately and will be intrigued to see how she seeks to explain, much less justify this position.  You can view proceedings here, read them here and my further comments here.

After FMQs, I was in the Chair for a Members Debate on World Tuberculosis Day 2022, which you can watch here and read here, and then again, after a very brief lunch, for portfolio questions on rural affairs and islands, which you can watch here and read here.  Parliament then had a series of Ministerial Statements, first on A Retail Strategy for Scotland, which you can watch here and read here.  I then had the opportunity to respond to a Ministerial Statement on NHS Scotland Pandemic Pressures where I returned again to the need to re-open self-referrals for over 70s to the breast screening programme.  Having been assured back in January that this would be "accelerated" as quickly as possible, it was disappointing that the Health Secretary could still not confirm any timescale.  You can watch this exchange here and read the statement here.  The final Ministerial Statement was on Tackling Child Poverty Delivery Plan 2022-26, which came ahead of a debate on Tackling Child Poverty, which I chaired.  You can watch the statement and debate here and here and read them here.

After votes, I headed over briefly to a UHI reception on the growing energy research in the Highlands & Islands but had to leave early to chair a virtual meeting of the Orkney-Japan Association, where we reflected on the recent successful visit to Orkney by the new Consul General of Japan. 

Friday has been another busy day, after an early flight back north.  I joined an online cross-party briefing for MSPs by Highlands & Islands Enterprise, before dropping into the Picky Centre to see the inaugural parasports event, organised by the fabulous volunteers at Inclusive Orkney.  It was great to see such a good turnout and the youngsters involved were clearly having a wonderful time as they got a chance to play badminton and rugby before heading off to the pool for swimming and kayaking. You can find out more about what Inclusive Orkney does here.

Before I had a chance to join in and probably injure myself, I headed off for a  catch up meeting at the police station with Chief Inspector, Ali Garrow.  It was then off to Stromness, for a meeting with the new owners of the Stromness Hotel followed by a sit down with the Consul General of France, who is on a visit to Orkney to meet members of the local French community, in the context of the forthcoming presidential elections in which they have a right to vote.  Once back at the office in Kirkwall, I spent time catching up on casework and emails at the end of a very busy week, which finishes tomorrow (Saturday) with a meeting of the Orkney Liberal Democrats Executive.

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