The week began in the Kirkwall office where I had my weekly calls with parliamentary colleagues and my office to look at the week ahead. Later in the morning I had a meeting with Greg Whitton and Nikki Linklater from CloudNet Solutions to discuss the R100 voucher scheme and rollout of superfast broadband. It was helpful to hear about the work CloudNet has been doing in developing a network for residents in Papa Westray and the scope the company has to help ensure more extensive broadband coverage in Orkney.
On the topic of R100 and the rollout of superfast broadband, I will be hosting a follow-up online session further to the Digital Forum in February. This will include presentations and a Q&A with Duncan Nisbett from Scottish Government’s R100 team and Robert Thorburn from Openreach on Monday 9 May. Anyone interested in attending this session on Zoom should get in touch and I can share dial-in details.
Over lunchtime, I spent time dealing with casework and making a number of calls to constituents. I then met with colleagues in the parliament’s Non-Government Bills Unit to discuss the ongoing work surrounding my proposed Members Bill on Assisted Dying for Terminally Ill Adults. Afterwards, I had a meeting with constituents to discuss HIAL's air traffic management scheme project. This was helpful and timely, ahead of the petition calling for a halt to air traffic centralisation coming before parliament's Public Petitions Committee, which I will be attending next week.
On Tuesday morning I made the commute down to Edinburgh. After delays and a detour via Shetland, I missed the weekly Bureau meeting, but got to parliament in time for a pre-meeting with Presiding Officer colleagues before taking the Chair for the start of the week's proceedings. First up, as ever, was Time for Reflection, this week delivered in Scots by writer and broadcaster, Billy Kay, which you can watch here. It was then on to Topical Questions, where the ferries fiasco rumbled on. The focus was on lost documentation related to the Ferguson Marine ferry contract, which was criticised by the Auditor General in evidence to MSPs last week.
A second Topical Question related to reports of a planned boycott by solicitors taking on summary cases brought under section 1 of the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act. This is due to ongoing concerns regarding levels of legal aid available. You can watch Topical Questions here and read it here. I remained in the Chair for the start of the afternoon's debate which focused on reducing the cost of the school day for low-income families, which you can watch here and read here.
After catching up on emails and casework, I was back in the Chair for end of the debate and remained in the Chamber for Decision Time and then to take part in a Members debate marking MS Awareness Week 2022. With the highest incidence rates of MS in the world, most people in Orkney will know someone affected by MS. It’s little surprise then that we have seen such remarkable support within the local community over the years, most recently with the Young Farmers' bale art competition and the Christmas Tractor Run. I used my speech to pay tribute to these efforts and our greatly valued MS Therapy Centre and MS nurse, Moira Flett, who goes above and beyond in supporting the local MS community in Orkney. We are also fortunate to have the incredible support of the MS Society Orkney, led by George Hannah, which provides all year-round providing care and support. It has been wonderful to see the support shown locally this week, including excellent coverage in The Orcadian. Meantime, you can watch the debate here, read it here and my further comments here.
Later in evening, I attended a meeting of the Cross Party Group of End of Life Choices where we heard from a range of different speakers, including Edinburgh University academic, Dr David Obree on some of the moral questions raised by the issue of assisted dying. Copies of the slides used in the various presentations are available upon request. Before heading home, I dropped by a reception hosted by the Children and Young Person’s Commissioner, Bruce Adamson and was interested to hear about his recent visit to Orkney.
On Wednesday morning I caught up on casework and had a meeting with my Presiding Officer colleagues before Chairing a meeting of the parliament's Conveners Group at midday. In the afternoon there were Portfolio Questions for Covid Recovery & Parliamentary Business and Net Zero, Energy & Transport, which you can watch here and read here. I was in the Chair for the start of the afternoon's debate on the UK Shared Prosperity Fund, which you can watch here and read here. After catching up on emails, I was then back in the Chair for the evening Members debate on Honouring Emergency Workers, which again you can watch here and read here.
On Thursday morning I had a largely clear diary which allowed me to spend some time dealing with casework and making a number of calls. At midday it was time for First Minister's Questions where Douglas Ross returned to the question of the missing documentation relating to the Ferguson Marine ferry contract. This is an issue unlikely to go away any time soon with ferry disruption continuing to plague the West Coast routes. Anas Sarwar quizzed Nicola Sturgeon over the government's handling of the discharge of untested patients into care homes at the beginning of the pandemic. It follows a High Court ruling this week that found similar actions by the UK Government were “unlawful”. While the First Minister argued the situation in Scotland was ‘different’, it is difficult to see how this was materially so. You can watch FMQs here and read it here.
I was then in the Chair for a my third Members debate of the week, this time on Global Intergenerational Week 2022, which you can watch here and here. After a quick bite of lunch, I returned to Chair Portfolio Questions on Rural Affairs & Islands, which again you can watch here and read here. There was then a Ministerial Statement on Scotland's Census where the Cabinet Secretary for Constitution, External Affairs and Culture announced the deadline would be extended until the end of May due to a quarter of Scottish households yet to respond. This is hugely embarrassing for the Scottish Government and trying to put it right will be costly. Completing the census is both a civic and legal responsibility and I would urge anyone who hasn’t yet done so to complete the form without delay. You can find out more about the Census here, read the statement here and watch it here.
Once back in the office, I had a quick catch-up meeting with colleagues supporting my Members Bill on Assisted Dying for Terminally Ill Adults before an online meeting with the Minister for Transport, Jenny Gilruth, and some of her officials. This was the first opportunity I've had to meet the Minister since her appointment earlier this year, albeit I have written to her on a variety of issues relating to key transport issues affecting Orkney.
The meeting provided a useful opportunity to press the Minister on the ongoing delay to introducing RET on Pentland Firth routes, as well as the exclusion of Orkney's lifeline internal ferry and air services from the government's Islands Connectivity Plan and Scottish Transport Policy Review (STPR2). On the latter point, the Minister did appear to accept that a national ferries or connectivity plan that did not mention Orkney’s lifeline ferry and air services, however these were funded, was rather difficult to justify.
On RET, I reiterated once again the huge disparity in fares on west coast routes compared to the Pentland Firth. However, much like her predecessor, the Minister referenced complications to subsidy control rules arising from Brexit and the impact of the pandemic, and talked of the ongoing fares review. However, this is an issue that needs to be resolved before a wider assessment of fares across the network can be completed.
In the evening, I attended a virtual roundtable on Men’s Violence Against Women, which was attended by a large cross section of MSPs from every party. After debates earlier in the session to mark the wider campaign to end men’s violence against women and girls it was a good opportunity to discuss practical steps each of us can take in our own constituencies and communities, showing leadership and reinforcing the message that this is a problem which boys and men need to resolve. You can find out more about the White Ribbon and Zero Tolerance campaigns here and here.
On Friday morning I travelled home to Orkney where I had a busy day of various meetings and calls, starting off with a catch up with Loganair Chief Operations Officer, Maurice Boyle. After another week of flight disruption, I sought further reassurances that steps are being taken to address a problem that has badly shaken confidence in the airline amongst islanders. I am due to meet Mr Boyle and Loganair CEO, Jonathan Hinkles next week to assess progress.
I then met with Sarah Sankey from RSPB for an update on the Orkney Native Wildlife project and efforts to eradicate stoats in the county. This was followed by a discussion meeting with Stewart Harris, CEO of Sportsscotland, regarding the need to create 'wow' moments in our schools and communities to help rebuild the morale and confidence of young people who have lost out on so many opportunities during the pandemic. This was a very positive and constructive discussion about potential options, which I will look to take forward with the local Active Schools team and OIC. I'm also due to meet the CEO of Creative Scotland in a few weeks' time to explore similar opportunities within the arts.
Later in the afternoon I then held a joint meeting with Scottish Ambulance Service and NHS Orkney to discuss the provision of community first responders in the isles. Concerns have been raised with me by some of the first responders in Eday about inconsistencies in the way responders are treated in different islands. SAS and NHS Orkney both acknowledged this and have agreed to work closely over the coming weeks to identify potential options. I welcome this commitment and hope that real progress can be made ahead of our follow up meeting next month as first responders play a crucial role in helping keep their communities safe.
To finish up the day, I then met with the Scottish Ballet team and MS Society Orkney chair, George Hannah, to discuss the work underway with local dance practitioners, musicians and others to look at how those affected by MS in Orkney might be supported to take part in dance and movement sessions that can help both physical and mental health. You can find out more about the Elevate programme here.
Over the weekend, I am looking forward to taking part in the formal opening celebration of St Peter’s Kirk at Eastside in South Ronaldsay. This wonderful church has been refurbished thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Friends of St Peter’s Kirk, Historic Churches Scotland and the generosity of the local community. Please feel free to come along on Saturday afternoon for music, reminiscences and the unveiling of a plaque. You can find out more here.
On what promises to be a busy Saturday, I will then head off into Kirkwall for the Orkney Rugby 7s. After a championship winning season for the Men’s 1st XV and success across of the teams within the club, it promises to be a day of celebration. Again, please come along to the Picky and show your support. You can find out more here.