Following is the latest edition of Holyrood Highlights. Please email [email protected] to have this update sent to you weekly.
On Monday I spent much of the day making calls and working on casework in the Kirkwall office. However, in the afternoon I was rewarded with the opportunity to visit Evie Primary School to talk to children in P6/7 about my role as MSP. I also joined younger pupils for a reading session as part of Save the Children's 'Read On Get On' Campaign, when Dr Seuss and friends got another airing! My thanks go to the staff and pupils at Evie for making it such a fun visit. These visits are one of the highlights of my role as Orkney’s MSP and I’m always happy to help out whenever I can.
During the course of Monday, the Scottish Government confirmed that RET, their cheap ferry fare scheme, is now operational on all routes on the West Coast. Orkney and Shetland are now the only island communities excluded. I do not believe that Ministers should be picking and choosing which islands to support and which to ignore. This is a view I know is shared by many in Orkney, who have shown their support by signing my petition in large numbers. I continue to keep pressure on Ministers to rethink this decision. Meantime, you can read my comments here and more on the Scottish Government’s own calculations about the potential benefits of RET on Orkney routes here.
Tuesday, the first day back to Parliament after October recess, started like too many mornings with a lengthy delay due to ‘technical faults’ with Loganair’s aircraft. This meant I was unable to attend the Education Committee, where we were taking evidence from Education Scotland. The reliability problems facing the airline remain serious and I was particularly shocked to learn of a letter that the pilots’ union, BALPA had written to Loganair’s Chief Executive highlighting concerns about safety. Quite properly, this has been picked up by my colleague, Alistair Carmichael who wrote to the Civil Aviation Authority calling for an immediate review. The CAA has offered reassurances that they have no safety concerns, but it demonstrates the urgency with which the current engineering problems need to be resolved. More on this news can be read here.
On Tuesday afternoon I spent time catching up on casework, but was delighted to be able to welcome news that plans to close the SAC Disease Surveillance Centre in Inverness are to be reconsidered. This was confirmed to me by the Agriculture Secretary, following earlier representations I had made. Orkney relies heavily on livestock farming. The need for good disease surveillance and access to timely veterinary advice and support is therefore crucial. There were concerns that any centralisation could result in reduced or delayed access to the expertise and service available through the Inverness centre. So it is encouraging that these plans are to be put on hold. You can read more here.
Tuesday evening was then spent meeting with the Scottish Liberal Democrat policy committee to continue work on our manifesto for 2016. After a highly successful conference in Dunfermline last weekend, the manifesto process is going well, but please feel free to get in touch with any policy suggestions you might have.
Wednesday morning kicked off with a Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body meeting, followed by debate in the afternoon on the Scottish Government’s proposed reforms to higher education governance. You can read my contributions in the official report by clicking here, or watch the debate by clicking here. The proposed reforms have attracted fierce criticism from universities, concerned for the independence upon which their world class reputation rests. With too much control in the hands of Ministers, universities could be re-classified by the Office of National Statistics, putting at risk their ability to raise funds as well as attract staff and students.
Wednesday evening I managed – almost – to get my hands on the Scottish Cup at the William Hill reception. A good way to round off the day.
Thursday morning I had a meeting in my office with SSE to press for an update regarding Orkney grid constraints and efforts to find a solution that would allow the costs of reinforcements to be spread more manageably across multiple local developers.
Later at First Ministers Questions, following disappointing news that Aquamarine Power has entered administration, I asked Nicola Sturgeon to confirm that the Scottish Government is doing all it can to support staff and help Aquamarine Power towards an early exit from administration. I also called on her to get personally involved in discussions about how to secure the future success of the wave and wider marine energy sector in Orkney and across Scotland. You can watch the exchanges here and read my full comments here.
First Ministers Questions, though, was dominated by the tragic events earlier in the week at Cults Academy in Aberdeen, where a 16-year old boy died from stab wounds. All party leaders expressed their shock and condolences. Attention then turned to student support and Student Awards Agency figures showing that debt levels amongst students from poorer backgrounds were higher than ever. Ms Sturgeon was criticised for the impact that the Scottish Government’s shift from grants to loans has had on poorer students, particularly in light of an earlier promise to ‘dump student debt’. See the SAAS report here. Willie Rennie also pressed the First Minister to publish an estimate of how many refugees Scotland would be able to take, to put pressure on the UK government to be more ambitious.
I spent the most of my afternoon at in the chamber for the stage one debate on the Education (Scotland) Bill. My contribution to the debate can be watched here, and read here. Further reading on the education bill can be found here. I share the concerns of many stakeholders about the lack of prior consultation on a range of measures in the bill, while others lack meaningful detail. The provision to require reporting by local authorities on efforts to close the attainment gap between children for richer and poorer backgrounds, for example, is well meaning but has been described by one expert as “pious thinking masquerading as law-making’. There is therefore much work to do at Stage 2 to make this bill workable.
On Thursday evening, I was delighted to attend a dinner marking the start of the 10th Business in the Parliament event. The theme this year was women entrepreneurship and we heard today (Friday) from two inspirational examples, fashion designer and MD of ERIBE Knitwear, Rosemary Eribe and co-founder of tech sensation, FanDual, Lesley Eccles. It was wholly appropriate, therefore, that my guest this year was textile designer, entrepreneur and founder of Hume Sweet Hume, Lizza Hume from Westray.
I will be flying north later this afternoon and look forward to a weekend of Halloween activities, Rugby World Cup and maybe even a bit of leafleting.
Next week I will be visiting KGS to speak to pupils about my role as their MSP and Stromness Academy to meet staff. In Edinburgh I will attend a Malawi Coffee morning at the First Minister’s residence in Bute House and chair a meeting of the Cross Party Group on Malawi. I also chair a session at an Energy conference, attend the Scottish Fisherman’s Federation Annual dinner and return early to Orkney to take part in a visit by the new Principal of Heriot Watt University, Professor Richard Williams. I have a meeting with OIC’s Chief Executive followed by the Royal British Legion remembrance dinner. Everything else can be found in my diary.