Orcadian Column, 15 February 2024

13 Feb 2024

Each Thursday morning, the Presiding Officer, DPOs and officials meet to prepare for First Minister’s Questions. It generally concludes with an informal sweepstake on what issues the opposition leaders will raise. Unlike the Prime Minister’s bet with Piers Morgan over Rwanda flights, it’s not callous or likely to leave anyone £1,000 out of pocket.

All bets were off last week though after our meeting was interrupted by news that the Health Secretary, Michael Matheson had resigned. The decision pre-empted publication of a report by parliament’s Corporate Body into Mr Matheson’s attempt to claim £11,000 of data roaming charges racked up while streaming football matches on his work iPad during a family holiday.

Rumours had been swirling around Holyrood all week, and while the SPCB’s report has yet to be published, Mr Matheson’s resignation suggests punches will not be pulled. Indeed, having already admitted to misleading the press and public, Mr Matheson’s position has long felt untenable. Humza Yousaf has been steadfast in his support, but by not going immediately, Mr Matheson has ensured that his prospects of an early return to Cabinet are vanishingly slim.

The former Health Secretary’s case has not been helped, of course, by the crisis facing our NHS and while this certainly predates Mr Matheson taking up the role, there’s been little sign of improvement on his watch. The unenviable task of turning this around now falls to an Orcadian, Neil Gray, whose move from the Economy brief is widely seen as a promotion. Neil is a good friend and a capable Minister, who commands respect across the chamber, not just for his exploits in the Ba’. He will have his work cut out, though, overseeing a department overloaded with spinning plates and a potentially career-ending incident round every corner.

Having also lost a drugs minister earlier in the week, the First Minister was forced into a wider reshuffle last Thursday. So, as parliament debated the painful choices set out in the Scottish Government’s budget, Humza Yousaf was holed up in St Andrews House reshaping and further expanding his ministerial team. This included the promotion of Perthshire farmer, Jim Fairlie as agriculture minister; a move that delayed Jim’s arrival at the NFUS annual dinner in Glasgow where he still looked rather shell-shocked as he wandered into the Radisson midway through the evening on Thursday.

The SNP/Green government has endured a difficult relationship with the farming community of late, not helped by the Finance Secretary raiding £50m from agriculture over the past two years to plug gaps elsewhere in her budget. Some long-overdue clarity around the shape of future funding to the sector was provided at the AGM the following morning. Nevertheless, trust in government within the farming community is thin on the ground right now and Jim Fairlie, like his counterpart at Health, has an uphill task ahead of him.

The other SNP backbencher elevated to ministerial office last week was Glasgow MSP, Kaukab Stewart. As it happens, Kaukab was due to be joining me this week, alongside Labour and Tory colleagues, Colin Smyth and Miles Briggs on a cross-party delegation visit to California, looking at how the state is implementing its law on assisted dying for terminally ill adults. Fortunately, despite her promotion, Kaukab was given the all-clear to travel for what has been a fascinating visit.

California changed its law back in 2016; reconfirming this again in 2022. The model, based around terminal illness and mental capacity, closely mirrors the approach I propose taking in the bill I will introduce to the Scottish Parliament in the coming weeks. During our four days in San Francisco and Los Angeles, we met legislators, medics and patient groups to understand better their experience of how the law is working in practice and the lessons that can be learned.

While I have long been convinced of the need for change, my fellow MSPs are undecided. For all of us, though, the trip has provided invaluable insights and food for thought. The only downside of the visit, in fact, was seeing San Francisco 49ers lose to Kansas City Chiefs in the last minute of Sunday’s Super Bowl final. On the upside, I had the Chiefs in the sweepstake!

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