I started the week off in the Kirkwall office with the usual series of Monday morning meetings, first with parliamentarian colleagues and then my office team to discuss the week ahead. I spent the rest of the morning dealing with casework and making a number of calls to constituents.
An issue a number of constituents have been in touch with me about recently has been the difficulties faced in applying for the Young Persons' Free Bus Travel scheme card. In addition to various technical issues, parents have found that they need to acquire new or replacement national entitlement cards for children as young as 5, often leading to the need to acquire proof of age identification such as passports. This does seem disproportionate, particularly if the idea is to make bus travel as accessible as possible to young people. I have written to the Transport Secretary to raise these concerns, as well as to repeat calls for the scheme to be extended to cover ferry travel, so that young islanders obtain a similar benefit. Meantime, I would encourage anyone who has experienced difficulties applying to the scheme to please get in touch.
Later in the afternoon I held a meeting with NHS Education for Scotland, the education and training body for NHS Scotland to discuss my proposals for a Members Bill on Assisted Dying for Terminally Ill Adults. You can find out more about the work of NES here. In the evening, I met with the OIC Sport & Leisure team organising tonight's 2021 Orkney Sports Award, to discuss arrangement for the event, which I am delighted to be co-hosting again this year with Robbie Fraser. There are strong shortlists in every category, as well as two Service to Sport awards and three more Hall of Fame inductees. It promises to be a fantastic evening, and such a relief that we will be able to hold the event in person. Proceedings are being livestreamed, starting at 19.30, so you can watch the awards being handed out here.
On Tuesday morning I flew down to Edinburgh, again via Sumburgh, arriving just in time for the weekly Parliamentary Bureau meeting. After a brief catch up with my Scottish Lib Dem MSP colleagues, I then tuned in for the First Minister's weekly Covid-19 update to parliament, which you can watch here and here.
This week the First Minister announced a further relaxation of restrictions. From Monday (31 January), employers can begin a phased re-introduction of workers back into the office taking a 'hybrid' approach. From today (28 January) the requirement for 2 metre physical distancing in indoor settings where people have a specific exemption from the need to wear a face covering, such as those leading religious services or carrying out some receptionist duties, will revert to 1 metre. Additionally, from today, face coverings will no longer be required for any adult taking part in organised activities when they are directly interacting with children under the age of 5. However, at this stage, there is no indication when face-coverings will no longer be required in schools.
Relaxation of the rules for international travel are also due to come into force across the UK from Friday 11 February where those who are fully vaccinated will no longer need to take a Covid-19 day 2 test after arriving back in Scotland (or indeed the UK). A Passenger Locator Form (PLF) will need to be completed, though, in the 48 hours before travelling back to Scotland. Non vaccinated travellers will still be required to take pre-departure tests and a PCR test on or before day two, but the requirement for isolation will end and they will no longer have to take a day eight test. And in parliament, the new guidance is set to allow up to 100 MSPs to sit in the Chamber, which could make chairing proceedings more interesting!
After the First Minister's statement, parliament accepted a motion on two new Ministerial appointments following the resignation on health grounds of the Transport Minister, Graeme Dey. His position will be taken up by Jenny Gilruth, while I was delighted to see Orkney's Neil Gray, the MSP for Airdrie & Shotts, appointed to replace Jenny as Minister for Culture, Europe and International Development. As well as congratulating both on their appointments, I have written to Jenny outlining the number of long-standing issues relating to the provision of lifeline services in the isles and hope to meet her soon to discuss these in more detail. Neil has also kindly agreed to attend a future meeting of the Cross Party Group on Malawi, that I co-convene.
I was in the chair later for the closing exchanges of the Stage 3 debate on the Transvaginal Mesh Removal (Cost Reimbursement) (Scotland) Bill, which was passed unanimously. The Bill will compensate women who had to pay for mesh implant removal surgery in an unprecedented move. Hundreds of women were left with painful, life-changing side effects when they received the implant surgery that was eventually stopped in 2018. It was a deeply significant landmark for the parliament, and I pay tribute to the campaigners for their courage over the years. Jackson Carlaw and former MSPs, Alex Neil and Neil Findlay also deserve great credit for their tireless, cross-party efforts in parliament to get justice on behalf of the women concerned. You can watch this debate here, read the transcript here and more about what the passed Bill means here.
Later in the afternoon I caught up with emails and casework before attending a meeting of the Cross-Party Group on End of Life Choices. I provided an update on my Members Bill before hearing presentations from Professor Ben Colburn and Tom Shakespeare focused on some of the issues relating to those within the disability community.
On Wednesday morning I caught up on emails and casework before meeting with my office team to discuss the rest of the week ahead. Later in the morning I met with my MSP colleague Dr Sandesh Gulhane to continue discussions about my Members Bill proposals. I then chaired a meeting of the Conveners Group. This is a forum for Committee Conveners to meet and take a strategic view on the operation of committees and to facilitate liaison between the Committees, the Parliamentary Bureau and the Scottish Parliament Corporate Body. After some lunch I tuned into proceedings in the chamber, starting off with portfolio questions for Justice & Veterans and Finance and Economy, which you can watch here and read here. There was then a Ministerial Statement on supporting the transition to zero emission vehicles, again which you can watch here and read here. While I did not have a chance to ask a question, I did need to raise a point of order when the Transport Secretary suggested that my Shetland colleague, Beatrice Wishart represented Orkney. The very cheek!
I was then in the chair for a Finance Committee debate on Budget Scrutiny, which offered the conveners of each parliamentary committee a chance to highlight the issues they had been considering in the context of this year's Budget scrutiny. This was a more ‘neutral’ affair than the following day’s stage one debate on the budget. Back in the office, later I caught up on casework before attending a board meeting of the Hearts and Balls, a rugby-related charity that supports players and their families impacted by catastrophic injury, bereavement or serious illness. High on the agenda were preparations for a dinner in May at the EICC Edinburgh at which Scotland's Grand Slam winning squads from 1984 and 1990 will be present and celebrated. Postponed from last year due to Covid, it promises to be an unmissable occasion and hopefully the 2022 Grand Slam winning Scotland team will be there as well! You can find out more and order tickets here.
Thursday morning passed dealing with casework and making calls to constituents. After a meeting with my presiding officer colleagues, I headed to the chamber for First Minister's Questions. This week the Tory leader, Douglas Ross, focused on maternity services in Moray and the closure of other rural maternity units, while Labour leader, Anas Sarwar and his Lib Dem counterpart Alex Cole-Hamilton both raised concerns highlighted in an Audit Scotland report about the crisis in social care provision and a Royal College of Nursing survey suggesting that 6 out of 10 nurses are thinking of quitting. You can watch FMQs here and read it here.
Unfortunately time ran out before I was able to ask a question about news that HIAL had shelved its plans, at least for now, to centralise air traffic control services. This follows earlier confirmation in a parliamentary answer I received from the Transport Minister that the 'remote towers' procurement had been cancelled. While the agreement reached between HIAL and the trade union, Prospect thankfully lifts the threat of vital jobs in Orkney and elsewhere being removed, it leaves serious questions about why it took so long to get to this stage. On cost, deliverability and island impact, these plans made no sense. While modernisation of air traffic services is undoubtedly essential, claims by HIAL and SNP Ministers that centralisation was the only viable option was never true. As I reiterated in a BBC Radio Orkney interview (here), HIAL must now remove any possibility that these ill-conceived plans might make a reappearance somewhere down the line. Staff and communities have faced years of uncertainty and they deserve nothing less. You can read more of my comments here.
After FMQs I chaired a debate marking Holocaust Memorial Day. The 27th of January each year marks the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi death camp, and serves as an opportunity to pause, reflect and remember these horrors and indeed the horror of genocides witnessed in the eighty years since. Members from all parties delivered many thought-provoking speeches, with Jackson Carlaw's opening speech to the debate offering a particularly poignant tribute to Judith Rosenberg, Scotland’s last survivor of Auschwitz, and Ingrid Wuga, a beneficiary of the Kindertransport just a few weeks before the outbreak of war in 1939, both of whom have passed away in the last year. We must learn from these dark times in our history and continue to fight against anti-Semitism and all hatred. You can watch the full debate here and read its transcript here.
The debate, understandably, was heavily-oversubscribed so I had to quickly grab a sandwich before resuming my position in the chair for portfolio questions on Education and Skills, which you can watch here and read here. It was then time for the stage one debate on the Scottish Budget following the publication of draft proposals last month. Despite the Finance Secretary pulling £120 million like a rabbit out of hat to soften the blow to local government, this remains a Budget that short-changes local councils across the country, including here in Orkney. You can watch the debate here and read the transcript here.
Between tuning into the debate proceedings, I held a useful online meeting with Crown Estate Scotland to discuss the next steps in the ScotWind leasing round and what this means for the local and national supply chain. To finish off Thursday I was in the chair for a Members debate on support for the 70/30 Campaign to Reduce ACEs by 2030. You can watch this debate here, read its transcript here and more about this 70/30 campaign here.
On Friday morning I made the journey home to Orkney, again via Sumburgh. It turns out I was the only passenger travelling from Edinburgh to Kirkwall. Given the controversy surrounding the UK Trade Secretary, Liz Truss’ use of a private jet to travel to Australia recently (here), I posted on social media (here) an assurance that Loganair would not be submitting an invoice for £500,000! Once back in the Kirkwall office I spent the rest of the day holding a number of meetings and calls with constituents, including a catch up with Jay Wragg, NHS Orkney’s Clinical Dental Director following concerns raised previously by dentists locally and nationally about proposed changes to funding arrangements.
And so to tonight, where I will be co-hosting the 2021 Orkney Sports Awards with Robbie Fraser at the Orkney Theatre. It will be a great occasion to celebrate all of Orkney's sporting success and achievement over the past year and that despite the challenges of the pandemic. Remember you can follow proceedings, which start at 19.30, by tuning in to the Orkney Islands Council Sport & Leisure team’s facebook page here.