Orcadian 25/10/17

After a fortnight during which MSPs were presumably expected to be in our constituencies picking tatties, no small feat if you represent Glasgow Govan or Edinburgh Central, parliament returned to action this week.  First item of business was a ministerial statement on British Sign Language.  

Having served on the Education Committee in the last parliament that scrutinized the legislation giving formal recognition to BSL as a language, I was delighted to see the government come forward with this first ever National Action Plan on BSL.

During our consideration of the bill, my Committee colleagues and I heard evidence about why BSL is in fact a distinct and living language, with its own culture. We also heard powerful testimony about the barriers BSL users face in accessing education, employment and wider services. The Minister, Mark Macdonald, therefore deserves great credit for working closely with the deaf and deafblind community over the last 18 months in developing a Plan that I am sure will go a long way to removing many of these barriers and making a real, positive difference for BSL users across Scotland.

Following the statement there was then a debate where, once again, I found myself in wholehearted agreement with the Scottish Government, this time on an issue rather more controversial than the promotion of BSL.

The prospect of unconventional oil and gas extraction, or ‘fracking’, taking place across swathes of central Scotland has given rise to mounting levels of public anxiety about the potential environmental, social, health and economic impacts this activity could have. Many communities who are already living with the consequences of the opencast coal mining industry are particularly anxious. Tuesday’s debate gave MSPs an opportunity to debate these issues further, as well as reflect on the recent government announcement that the existing moratorium on fracking in Scotland should be extended indefinitely.

There continues to be heated discussion about what the scientific evidence actually tells us, notably in relation to the environmental and economic impacts of fracking. However, the UK Committee on Climate Change and others have been clear that if fracking is to take place, other sectors would have to deliver much greater cuts in emissions to compensate.

Meantime, Heriot Watt’s chief scientist, Professor John Underhill has questioned what he sees as ‘overhyped’ claims by the fracking industry about likely extraction opportunities in Scotland given our geology. Independent analysts, KPMG appear to agree, painting a far less optimistic picture with regard to potential jobs and revenue.

As I said in my speech, I just cannot see why would we want to open up another front on carbon fuels at a time when we need to be decarbonising our energy system. Inevitably, this would divert attention and investment away from the renewable energy, storage and energy efficiency technologies we will need going forward and where focus and funding should be targeted.

Ultimately, the government and parliament agreed, supporting my amendment alongside proposals to build the fracking ban into the National Planning Framework. This would have the effect of requiring any future government wishing to move away from the ban to secure agreement from parliament first.

In the end, the only dissenting voices came from Tory MSPs who bizarrely seemed intent on swapping a free pass for fracking in return for a ban on onshore wind developments.

Clearly there are issues on which I will continue to hold Scottish Ministers’ feet firmly to the fire. Their recent decision to increase freight costs to and from the Northern Isles would be an obvious example. This will leave isles businesses at a competitive disadvantage and increase costs for all those living in Orkney and Shetland, a point I intend highlighting with Ministers in parliament this week.

However, I firmly believe that while parliament and MSPs of all parties have a duty to hold government to account, this should not mean opposition for the sake of opposition. Where Ministers act in ways I believe are right, as with fracking and BSL this week, I have no difficulty in lending them my support. Now to persuade them to do so on freight charges.

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