Holyrood Highlights 28.02.20

The big news of the week is that the Scottish Government secured support from the Green Party to get its budget over the line. To the surprise of pretty much no-one, and despite their earlier tough talk, Greens MSPs agreed to support the SNP’s budget ahead of the Stage 1 vote on Thursday.

Having earlier insisted that every penny had been allocated in the draft budget published three weeks ago, Finance Secretary Kate Forbes somehow managed to announce extra funding for local Councils and police, as well as an extension of free bus travel to under-18s. Interestingly, the Scottish Parliament Information Centre has since raised questions about the robustness of some of the minister’s figures. My colleague, Willie Rennie highlighted the fact that this still left Councils and the police well short of what they needed, while he also pointed to a litany of ‘overspends’ on different projects, from the procurement of Calmac vessels at Fergusons shipyard to delivery of the Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route. Willie also questioned the sense in setting aside funds to prepare for a second independence referendum that no-one realistically expects ahead of next May’s Holyrood elections. Meanwhile, the budget agreed with the Greens again failed to honour the government’s commitment to the principle of fair ferry funding for Orkney and Shetland. You can watch Willie’s comments here. You can read about the Green/SNP budget here and the concerns raised by SPICe here.

On Monday morning, I had a meeting with Orkney Islands Councillors to discuss the government’s budget and specifically the issue of funding for ferry services. It was a useful session, allowing a detailed discussion of potential scenarios for the budget, albeit even then the sense was that the Greens would reach a deal with the government. Cllr Stockan and his colleagues also laid out clearly the severe pressures arising both from the shortfall in internal ferry funding as well as government commitments that the Council was required to deliver in timeframes and with budgets that are inadequate. At the end of the meeting, I agreed to set up a further meeting with Cllr Stockan, Willie Rennie and myself in parliament.

Afterwards, I returned to the office to deal with ongoing casework and catch up on emails. Late afternoon, I was delighted to attend a reception at the Army Reserve Centre as a guest of the Orkney Army Royal Engineers Reserve for the unveiling of the first military vehicle permanently based in Orkney since 2005. As well as being the Lord Lieutenant, Elaine Grieve’s first official function in her new role, it was a chance to look round the centre and speak to Platoon Commander, Richard Otley about his plans to increase use of the facility and involvement in the Reserve locally. You can read more about the Orkney Army Royal Engineers Reserve here.

I flew to Edinburgh on Tuesday morning in time for my regular Justice Committee meeting. This week, we heard from the Minister for Community Safety, Ash Denham, as we continued our evidence session on the Children (Scotland) Bill. You can read the Bill here, watch the committee session here and read it here.

I then had my weekly meeting with Lib Dem MSP colleagues, before spending time at my desk going through my inbox. I also had the opportunity to meet MS Society Scotland representatives, who had a stall in parliament this week. We discussed the Society’s work to improve treatment for those with MS and also their campaign for the 20-metre rule not to be applied to Scotland’s new social security system. This unjust and senseless rule under the current PIP system has left thousands of people with MS without access to their mobility cars, thereby increasing the risk of isolation and loss of independence. I was pleased to pledge my support for the campaign, which you can read about here. You can also learn about the wider work carried out by MS Society Scotland here and Orkney MS Society here.

In the evening, I attended a couple of events. First up was a reception hosted by Community Justice Scotland, highlighting their Second Chancers campaign. This is a collection of stories from those with experience of the justice system, showcasing what community can do in turning lives around and reducing reoffending. You can find out more about Community Justice Scotland here and the Second Chancers campaign here.

I then headed upstairs for a Project Scotland event entitled Youth Voices in a Sustainable World. It was interesting to hear the perspectives from various groups of young people about how Scotland can deliver on the Sustainable Development Goals and the community-based projects they’ve been leading. You can find out more about the Goals here and Project Scotland here.

Wednesday morning was spent preparing for a busy day in parliament. I also met with Kenny Stewart and Vonnie Sandlan from the Equality and Human Rights Commission to discuss their ongoing work on a range of justice-related issues, including rights to accessible transport. You can read more about ECHR here.

Early afternoon, I was delighted to meet the Lib Dem’s newly appointed Wellbeing and Pastoral Care Officer, Amanda Curtin, who was visiting parliament to introduce herself to MSPs and staff. We had a valuable team meeting to hear about what Amanda’s role will be and how she can offer support to staff and volunteers to improve mental health and wellbeing.

It was then into a brief meeting with Cllr Stockan and Willie Rennie regarding the issue of ferry funding but also the wider issue of underfunding of OIC compared to other island authorities. Unfortunately, I had to race away from the meeting before the end to get to the chamber for Portfolio Questions on Culture, Tourism and External Affairs. I highlighted the concerns of Orkney’s tourism sector about the high cost of air travel and asked the new Tourism Secretary, Fergus Ewing, to discuss with the Transport Secretary and Loganair ways of using the current roll out of new, larger aircraft on H&I routes to reduce the cost of airfares. You read my full comments here, watch my question here, the full session here and read it here.

I then remained in the chamber for a justice debate, led by the Conservative Party, on the impact of underfunding on Police Scotland. With officers and staff under more pressure than ever, I reiterated the need for the service to be properly funded, quoting the Chief Constable, Iain Livingstone who recently referred to Police Scotland’s capital and revenue allocation as ‘derisory’. Even with additional resources announced this week, it is clear that this won’t allow the service to take forward its IT strategy, which is crucial in enabling officers and staff to work efficiently and effectively. I also returned to the issue of mental health within the force, quoting alarming figures from independent research carried out on behalf of the Scottish Police Federation. We ask officers and staff to do a difficult, often dangerous job in keeping our communities safe. In return, we should resource them properly. You can watch my contribution here, the full debate here and read it here. You can also find out more about the mental health research here.

In the evening, I took part in a ‘Question Time’ panel debate organised by the Federation of Small Businesses. Around 70 members of the small business community were in attendance to ask questions on a range of topics, including business rates, broadband, transport infrastructure and immigration. You can read about the Federation of Small Businesses here.

On Thursday, I had an early start attending the Public Audit and Post Legislative Scrutiny Committee, which was taking evidence on the 2018/19 audit of the Scottish Police Authority. I was particularly interested to hear, Prof Susan Deacon, who resigned as Chair of the Scottish Police Authority at the end of last year, who was critical of the weaknesses in governance of policing in Scotland and insisted that a fundamental review was now needed. This echoed similar concerns raised by the Auditor General. You can watch the committee session here and read it here. You can also read my further comments here.

I then had some time back at my desk to go through emails and make calls before heading to the Chamber for First Minister’s Questions. This week, Jackson Carlow criticised the Education Secretary’s response to recent exam pass rates and the government’s overall record on education. Meanwhile, Richard Leonard once again raised problems in GP services including a shortage of doctors, surgeries closing and A&E waiting times getting worse. You can watch the full session here and read it here.  

Willie Rennie then grilled the First Minister over the government’s support for expansion of Heathrow Airport following a court ruling that it would be unlawful in the absence of proper climate change assessments. You can read about this announcement here. Willie pointed out that the Scottish Government had carried out no climate assessment before offering support for expansion, and urged Nicola Sturgeon to ‘rip up’ her memo of understanding with the UK government. You can watch Willie’s question here.  

Following FMQs, I remained in the chamber briefly for the opening speeches in a Members Business Debate on Scotland’s War Memorials. Recognition was rightly paid to the excellent work of Memorial Associations in communities across Scotland, including here in Orkney, in protecting and conserving our important war memorials. This dedicated and valued work is crucial in helping to ensure that we remember those who have served our country. You can watch the debate here and read it here.  

After a quick lunch, I stopped by a drop-in session with Vodafone. It was a useful opportunity to find out what plans Vodafone has for supporting the extension of 4G mobile coverage across Orkney, particularly through the Shared Rural Network initiative. You can read more about Vodafone’s work across Scotland here and the Shared Rural Network project here.

Much of the afternoon was then spent in the chamber for the Stage 1 debate and vote on the Scottish Government’s budget. You can watch the full debate here and read it here.

I was also delighted to hear that Orkney’s Margaret Tait has been recognised by Historic Environment Scotland in their Commemorative Plaque Scheme. The plaque will be situated at Margaret’s birthplace on 25 Broad Street and is a fitting tribute to an exceptional career full of many incredible achievements. Hopefully, the honour will help raise awareness of Margaret Tait’s but also inspire others to follow in her footsteps. You can read the full story here and the motion I have lodged in parliament to acknowledge this recognition here.

On a sadder note, Gail Ross, the SNP MSP for Caithness, Sutherland and Ross, announced that she will be stepping down at the election next year, ostensibly to be able to spend more time at home with her young son. Gail has been an extremely hard-working local MSP, happy to work with colleagues from other parties where necessary and even challenge her own government occasionally. On a personal level, she is a good friend and will be sorely missed by many across the parliament. Her decision, though, has re-opened the debate about how to make the role of an MSP more compatible with family life, particularly for younger women.

In the evening, I attended an event to celebrate the 20th anniversary of political monitoring company, Newsdirect. Before being elected as Orkney’s MSP, I worked in an office next door to Newsdirect, so it was nice to be able to join my former neighbours for their celebration. You can read more about the work carried out by Newsdirect here.

This morning, I flew back to Orkney where I have had meetings with constituents and spent some time in the office to making calls and answering emails following a busy week in parliament. One such call was with a postgraduate student at Glasgow Caledonian University who was conducting a survey on climate change and climate justice in Scotland.

This weekend, I hope to be able to get along to the last night of the One Act Play Festival, which seems to have been hugely successful with a full week of performances. I am also due to head to Caithness to help support Orkney’s under-16 and under-18 rugby teams, as they take part in Cup competitions.


Next Week

I will be meeting with representatives from Serco Northlink and attending a Fuel Poverty and Energy Efficiency Briefing on Tuesday. I’m hosting a lunch with a Delegation from the National Assembly of Malawi on Wednesday, will be meeting with the Project Team for Orkney’s Community Wind Farm Project and visiting R.Clouston Ltd as part of Scottish Apprenticeship Week on Friday.

As ever, my full diary is here while “This Week in the Scottish Parliament”, a weekly update from the Scottish Parliament, can be found here. You can also view motions that I have submitted to parliament this week here and questions that I have tabled here.

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