Holyrood Highlights - 29/10/21

This week the Scottish Parliament returned after the October recess. Over the past fortnight, I have enjoyed having a bit of time back in Orkney, which has allowed me, amongst other things, to get round some of the smaller isles hosting surgeries and catching up with local residents. I managed to get out to Stronsay, Eday, Hoy & Walls as well as North Ronaldsay, where I had the opportunity to see first-hand the Royal Mail drone. Early days still for this project but is another exciting example of pioneering low-carbon innovation taking place in Orkney.

During recess, I also had the pleasure of welcoming Sir Ed Davey, Leader of the Liberal Democrats, to Orkney. Ed has been a regular visitor over the years and had the chance this time round to visit a number of local businesses and organisations, including EMEC and Orkney Fisherman's Society as well as take part in an event organised by NFUS Orkney and hosted by Steven Sandison at Millburn Farm in Harray, showcasing local sustainable food production in advance of COP26.

Last week, I also had an extremely useful meeting with Iain Macleod, Area Commander for Scottish Fire and Rescue, and colleagues at Kirkwall Fire Station where we discussed local recruitment to retained fire stations, roll out of new equipment and training, and efforts to co-locate facilities in the isles with other emergency services. This is an issue I picked up with Scottish Ambulance Service, during a visit to their offices in Inverness earlier today (Friday).

Once again, the recess provided an excellent opportunity to get out and about, meeting constituents and attending events that it is difficult to do while parliament is sitting. It’s the bread and butter of what being an elected representative is all about, as exemplified by the late Sir David Amess, who was brutally murdered recently, while holding an advice surgery in his Southend constituency. You can read my thoughts on this horrific attack and how we might respond in my Orcadian column here.

In advance of Parliament's return, the annual Festival of Politics took place (virtually) last weekend with a host of events involving academics, writers, policymakers, businesspeople and politicians considering aspects of the climate emergency in the run up to COP26. I had the opportunity to Chair a panel event with Orkney's own Dr Sandy Kerr from ICIT and Camille Dressler from Scottish Islands Federation to discuss the islands approach to tackling the climate emergency. It was a lively and wide-ranging discussion, which set out very clearly the leading role that islands can play and are playing in addressing the crisis as well as the impact climate change is already having on island communities.  You can watch this event here.

Having been south at the weekend to support my son, Tom at the British Junior Powerlifting Championships near Newcastle, I was in Edinburgh on Monday for the usual online meetings with my parliamentary colleagues and office team to discuss the week ahead. Much of the rest of the day was spent dealing with casework, but I also had a series of calls with constituents including one to discuss concerns from local dentists about future provision, not just in Orkney but across Scotland. It follows figures released this week that dental treatments have dropped by 75% in Scotland over the past year with about 3.5 million fewer dental treatments. More worryingly, proposals for ‘restarting’ dentistry issued by the Chief Dental Officer have been met with horror by those in the profession who have warned the plans could decimate the sector. I will be questioning the Health Secretary on this issue in the chamber next week.

Tuesday morning was spent on casework before a meeting with my Presiding Officer colleagues and then the Parliamentary Bureau, which agreed the business for the week. Another meeting, this time with my Scottish Liberal Democrat colleagues, was followed by a statement from the Presiding Officer marking the murder of Sir David Amess. Party leaders responded in what was a very sombre occasion. You can watch the proceedings here and read the speeches here.

Thereafter, the First Minister provided her weekly Covid-19 update. She confirmed that while the Cabinet has agreed not to implement new restrictions for now, there is concern over a recent rise in case numbers at a time of enormous pressure on the NHS. She pleaded for everyone to keep up all necessary precautions. You can watch the First Minister's update here and read the statement here.

I was then in the Chair to cover two Ministerial Statements, first on Scotland’s Retail Sector, which has been particularly badly affected by the effects of the pandemic, and then on Development and Deployment of Carbon Capture, Utilisation, and Storage in Scotland, following the bitterly disappointing decision by the UK Government not to award the Acorn Project at St Fergus, Aberdeenshire funding to support the development of the ‘Scottish cluster’. While this may follow in a future phase, the decision to prioritise Humber/Merseyside at this stage took many in the sector by surprise. You can read more about the decision here and read proceedings on both statements here and here.

Later on Tuesday afternoon there was a debate on the government's approach to Mental Health and substance abuse. You can watch this debate here and read the transcript here. To conclude business on Tuesday, after votes, I chaired a Member's Debate on UK Malnutrition Awareness Week 2021 and Malnutrition in Older People. You can watch it here, read the transcript here and find out more about UK Malnutrition Awareness Week here. It was then a quick dash back upstairs, to join a meeting of the Cross-Party Group on Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency, where the focus was on the renewable energy potential of our islands. Needless to say, Orkney featured prominently, including an excellent presentation from Adele Lidderdale from OIC on Orkney as the Energy Islands.

On Wednesday morning I had an interview with the Holyrood magazine, covering a wide range of topics, including my proposals for a members bill on Assisted Dying for Terminally Ill Adults.  A public consultation on the proposals is currently underway and you can contribute your views here. Last week also saw the House of Lords debate and pass at Second Reading, a similar bill brought forward by Baroness Meacher. There was considerable interest in the debate, with a large number of contributors both for and against. Perhaps most notably, however, were the number who had previously been opposed to a change in the law now voicing their support, including Lord (Michael) Forsyth, Lord (Frank) Field and Baroness (Ruth) Davidson, who gave her maiden speech. You can find out more here.

After spending an hour or so dealing with casework, over lunchtime I chaired a meeting of the Conveners Group before parliament resumed with Portfolio Questions, this time on Covid Recovery and Net Zero, Energy & Transport. You can watch these sessions here and read the transcript here. There then followed a statement by the Education Secretary on Next Steps to OECD Education. It followed Ministers announcing in August that the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) is to be replaced with a new body, after an independent review and the OECD criticising the Scottish Government's approach to pupil assessment. The Cabinet Secretary announced the Scottish Government will establish a “a short-life sub-group of the Curriculum and Assessment Board” to explore whether sample-based surveys should be reintroduced for the next academic year. It was a fairly embarrassing climb down after years of stubborn defence by SNP Ministers of their decision to drop surveys and replace them with a national testing regime which has delivered less meaningful education data. You can watch the statement here and read it here.

I spent the rest of the afternoon in the Chamber, first taking part in a debate on COP26 Action and Ambition. Once again, I highlighted Orkney's leading role in innovation to reduce emissions, but called for support from UK and Scottish Governments in terms of funding and regulatory environment to enable this to succeed. I also drew attention to the fact that despite the parliament passing ambitious legislation, the Scottish Government has failed to meet its targets for three years in a row. Indeed, the debate coincided with confirmation from the Minister, Patrick Harvie that progress on the renewable heat target was going backwards! In transport too, the situation is no less serious, with emissions largely static at 1990 levels. In that context, my amendment called on the Scottish Government to scrap its contract for a third runway at Heathrow, the UK's biggest polluter of emissions. While this split the coalition partners at decision time, SNP members voted it down. Hardly a good look on the eve of COP26. You can watch the debate here and read the transcript here.

After the COP26 debate, and votes, it was time for a Member's Debate on my specialist subject of ferries. I talked of my ‘love-hate’ relationship with MV Orcadia growing up in Sanday during the 1970s and 80s. I noted that while Orkney's internal ferry service has come a long way since then, it remains a critical lifeline for island communities and needs to adapt to meet the changing needs of islanders and their communities. We’re still no further forward in the procurement of replacement vessels that are now desperately needed, with the current fleet costly to run; increasingly unreliable; and a disaster for the environment. We can’t continue with the ‘mend and make do’ approach to running lifeline ferry services. Scottish Ministers cannot wait until crisis point before taking action is taken in Orkney, they must come forward with a proper, strategic plan; phased procurement of vessels; and delivery on time and to budget. You can watch the full debate here, read the transcript here and my further comments here.

With the debate heavily subscribed, I was a little late in getting to a reception to mark the launch of Poppy Scotland's 2021 Appeal. It was wonderful to hear about the work that has been done over the last year, despite the restriction, to continue raising funds to support the excellent work done by Poppy Scotland and the Legion all year round. You can find out more about this work here.

On Thursday morning I took part in an interview with BBC Alba's Eorpa programme on my proposals for a Member's Bill on Assisted Dying. I will share details on when this interview will be broadcast in a future edition of Holyrood Highlights. Afterwards I met with my parliament officials for a pre-briefing ahead of hosting a lunch with the Minister President (‘Speaker’) of the Parliament of Lower Saxony, with whom the Scottish Parliament is developing stronger and closer ties. 

Before that, I attended First Minister's Questions where the focus was on rail strikes, now called off, and the ongoing industrial action by cleansing workers in Glasgow. You can watch FMQs here and read the transcript here.  While I went off to host the lunch with our guests from Lower Saxony, parliament debated the need for an Offshore Training Passport, which you can also watch here and read here.

I was back in the chamber for Rural Affairs and Islands Portfolio Questions, where I called on the Cabinet Secretary to ring-fence funding allocated to the so-called 'Islands Bond' to support investment in improving, for example, digital and transport links. This would benefit island communities as a whole, making them more resilient and better able to support those wishing to live, work and study in our islands. Giving individuals £50,000 to move to an island was an election gimmick that will only sow division and offers no long term benefit. You can watch the exchange here, read the transcript here and more of my comments here.

After Questions, I took over in the Chair for a Ministerial Statement on NHS Endowment Funds, which you can read here, and a debate on Covid Recovery, which you can watch here and read the transcript of here. Later in the evening I attended the inaugural meeting of the Cross-Party Group on Malawi, where I was delighted to be re-elected as one of the Co-Conveners before heading up the road to Inverness en-route to Orkney.

On Friday morning, I had the opportunity to meet with senior representatives of the Scottish Ambulance Service in the Highlands and Islands, to discuss a various issues raised over recent weeks during my visits to the smaller isles in Orkney. I flagged the need for more consistency in support for community/first responders across the isles; reiterated my support for efforts across the different emergency services to co-locate facilities in the isles, where appropriate; and once again raised the need to increase overall land ambulance capacity on the Orkney mainland. I then continued up the road to Gills Bay to catch the ferry, while also making calls to various constituents and virtually tuning in to the inaugural meeting of the Cross-Party Group on MS, of which I am a member again in this session. 

Once back home, I spent the rest of afternoon dealing with casework.  At the weekend, I’m hopeful of making it along to watch Orkney Dragons take on Shetland at the Picky on Saturday afternoon. I suspect waterproofs may be in order!

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