This week began in the Kirkwall office with the usual series of meetings first with parliamentarian colleagues and then my office team to discuss the week ahead. The rest of the day was taken up dealing with casework, including a number of calls with constituents. I also held a brief meeting with Michael Dickson, interim Chief Executive of NHS Orkney, to discuss a couple of local issues, including around the booster vaccine rollout.
On Tuesday morning I was on the first flight down to Edinburgh, where I had a brief catch up with my Presiding Officer colleagues followed by a meeting of the Parliamentary Bureau. After a short meeting with my Scottish Lib Dem MSPs colleagues, I tuned in for the First Minister's weekly Covid-19 update to parliament. After much speculation that the Scottish Government would expand the 'vaccine passports' scheme, the First Minister announced a u-turn. As well as no expansion of the scheme, the First Minister also confirmed that from 6 December it will be possible to access venues or events covered by the Covid certification scheme by showing either proof of vaccination or a recent negative lateral flow test result. This decision is welcome and I am sure will come as a relief to many local businesses. You can watch the First Minister's Covid-19 update here and read it here.
After the Covid-19 Update, there was an Urgent Question by Labour MSP Paul Sweeney to ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reports that local authorities across the UK, including Scotland, will be obliged to accommodate the increasing number of unaccompanied children refugees crossing the English Channel. This week has witnessed the devastating loss of life in the English Channel. It is clear that the UK Government must do more to provide safe routes of passage and to work more collaboratively with the French authorities to avoid more tragic loss of life. You can watch the Urgent Question here and read the transcript here.
The rest of the afternoon saw a series of Ministerial Statements starting with a statement on International Development COVID-19 Support — partner countries and humanitarian responses. I was pleased to hear confirmation of a further £1.5 million this financial year to specifically target initiatives responding to Covid-19 in Malawi, Rwanda and Zambia. However, I asked the Minister to commit to ensuring that those who deliver projects in partner countries are given early sight of the future funding objectives and access to proper application processes with independent assessment and scoring of bids. This is the only way of ensuring that funds are allocated in a transparent fashion and used as effectively as possible. Following the statement, I and my fellow Conveners and Vice Convenors of the Malawi Cross Party Group wrote to the Minister seeking further assurance on this. You can watch the Statement here and read the transcript here.
After the International Development statement, I moved seamlessly into the Chair in time for two further statements, first on Closing the poverty related attainment gap and then on the Scottish Government Response to the Report of the Citizen's Assembly of Scotland. You can watch these statements here and here and read the transcript here.
I spent Wednesday morning dealing with casework before a pre-brief with officials ahead of the Conveners Group meeting later that day. I then had an interview with the Belarusian sports website, Tribuna regarding the political situation in Belarus under President Alexander Lukashenko. This has grabbed media attention over recent weeks with the migration crisis caused by Lukashenko routeing refugees from the Middle East through Belarus and into Poland (see more here) Having recently been approached by human rights organisation, Libereco, I agreed to lend public support to Aliaksandr ‘Sasha’ Ivulin, a footballer and vlogger in Belarus who is being held in prison for the ‘crime’ of hanging a flag from his window. His original 30-day sentence has now been extended indefinitely. This treatment is utterly abhorrent but all too typical of Lukashenko’s authoritarian regime. You can find out more about Libereco and the campaign here and here.
After Tribuna, I headed down to the Garden Lobby for another interview, this time with ITV Borders on my proposals for a Members Bill on Assisted Dying for Terminally Ill Adults. I was joined by Conservative MSP, Liz Smith, who is opposed to a change in the law. It was an interesting discussion and Liz is always very measured in her approach to issues. I believe international precedent shows that laws can be changed safely, but we need to find a proposal that is right for Scotland, providing dignity, compassion and choice but also with effective safeguards. Whatever your views, please participate in the consultation which closes in four weeks' time here. You can watch the interview on ITV Border here.
Over lunch, I chaired the monthly meeting of the Conveners Group where we had an exchange with the Minister for Parliamentary Business on a range of topics. It was then off to the Chamber to ask a Portfolio Question of the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care on the rollout in Orkney of Covid-19 booster vaccinations. Over recent weeks Orkney has experienced Scotland's highest rate of Covid cases, while the booster programme has not kept pace with the rollout elsewhere in the country. Thankfully, case numbers are now declining and booster jabs are picking up pace. I was pleased to receive assurance from the Cabinet Secretary that all health boards will get the support they require for any future booster programme rollouts. You can watch this portfolio questions session here and read the transcript here.
Back in the office I spent more time dealing with casework whilst watching the stage one debate on Transvaginal Mesh Removal (Cost Reimbursement) (Scotland) Bill, the later stages of which I chaired ahead of Decision Time. There was cross-party support for the Bill, whose general principles were passed unanimously after an emotional debate. The Bill seeks to establish a compensation scheme for women who had removal surgery in the private sector. The past three parliamentary sessions has seen a concerted effort by campaigners, including many women who have suffered terribly as a result of mesh implants. Thankfully justice appears finally to be within sight, though it will come too late for some. You can watch this debate here and read its transcript here.
Thursday morning was spent dealing with casework again before having a brief meeting with Scottish Ballet ahead of their return visit to Orkney to support workshops with those in the MS Community and others. I also held a catch-up meeting with colleagues at Dignity in Dying, Friends at the End and the Humanist Society who are supporting my proposed Members Bill. Shortly before lunch, I joined my Presiding Officer colleagues, the First Minister and party leaders in the Garden Lobby for a one-minute silence to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women & Girls. It also marked the start of 16 Days of Activism to end violence against women – the global campaign against gender-based violence which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. I am pleased to see Orkney Rape & Sexual Assault Service had arranged for St Magnus Cathedral to be lit up in orange in solidarity. You can find out more here.
It was then time for First Minister Questions where this week Douglas Ross again questioned Nicola Sturgeon over Scotland's justice system and the need to tackle sexual violence against women. Labour’s Anas Sarwar also returned to the same issue as last week, namely the appalling failings at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow, where further evidence has emerged of fatalities caused by the contamination scandal. This week Anas Sarwar highlighted the case of two more children who have died from infections. It is clear that something has gone terribly wrong at the QEUH where a culture of fear and denial has developed. You can read more about this ongoing story here. You can also watch FMQs here and read its transcript here.
After FMQs, I was in the Chair for a lively and lengthy Members debate on Carbon Capture Utilisation and Storage as Part of Scotland's Net Zero Ambitions. The debate had to be extended to allow all members who wished to contribute a chance to speak. While SNP members accused the UK government of ‘betrayal’ by not backing the Scottish CCUS cluster in the North East, while Conservative MSPs responded by saying the so-called Acorn project would still be supported and that the bigger threat to the project was the First Minister’s stance on future oil and gas exploration as well as the coalition deal with the Greens, who oppose CCUS. You can watch this debate here and read the transcript here.
After a quick bite to eat, I was back in my office to take part in the weekly Brian Taylor Podcast hosted by the Herald newspaper. I was on a cross party panel, including Stephen Kerr, Gillian Martin and Paul O'Kane where we discussed issues ranging from the need for drug consumption rooms to tackle Scotland's drugs deaths crisis to the tragic deaths in the English Channel of those trying to make it to the UK from France. On a more light-heated note, we finished with some musing over the futures of the Prime Minister and First Minister, after a week in which speculation has been raised in relation to both. You can watch the podcast here.
I was then back in the Chair for the last hour of the Scottish Government Debate on International Day for Elimination of Violence Against Women. This involved some truly harrowing accounts, including one member who talked about how she was raped as a young woman and the effect this has had on her subsequently, while another member opened up about his mother fleeing domestic abuse at the hands of his father, and this ultimately resulting in her death. It was emotional stuff and a reminder of the role we all have – but particularly men – in being active allies of women and girls, moderating our own behaviour and calling out the inappropriate behaviour of other men. You can watch this debate here and read its transcript here.
After leaving the Chamber, I caught up with a bit more casework, before briefly attending leaving drinks for a staff colleague and then chairing the virtual AGM of Orkney Japan Association. It looks like being a busy year ahead for OJA and if you can find out more, please visit the facebook page here although a website will soon be available too.
On Friday I stayed in Edinburgh to attend the Humanist Society of Scotland conference on Assisted Dying in Scotland. I spoke about my own personal journey on this issue and the political context now as compared with previous attempts to change the law. I was joined by colleagues and experts with a range of different experience and insights for what proved to be a fascinating few hours of discussion. You can find out more about HSS’ involvement and campaigning on this issue here.
I was then due to fly home to Orkney this evening before Storm Arwen saw the cancellation of my flight – as well as my planned attendance at the Bragis' Open Circle - Final Fling evening at the Kristen Linklater Voice Centre. I am, however, hoping to catch the first flight home on Saturday. Over the weekend I am looking forward to visiting the Orkney Rape & Sexual Assault Service and the official launch of Inclusive Orkney.
Coming up next week
On Monday next week I am looking forward to attending an MSP panel discussion for the Scottish Cancer Conference and attending the Women's Aid Orkney AGM. On Tuesday parliament will receive the latest Covid-19 Update from the First Minister and a Ministerial Statements on Independent Review of Deaths in Prison Custody and update on progress for expanding access to Residential Rehabilitation. On Wednesday I have a meeting with the Minister for Zero Carbon Buildings, Active Travel and Tenants’ Rights to discuss efforts to decarbonise homes in Scotland. The Scottish Labour Party are due to have a debate on education. On Thursday the Covid-19 Committee are due to have a debate on preparing for winter. Later on Thursday evening I am looking forward to attending the Scottish Green Energy Awards 2021.