Orcadian Column, 24 March 2022


Just over 25 years ago, my younger brother, Dugald was injured playing rugby. A tackle that went badly wrong left him paralysed from the shoulders down, overturning his world in an instant. Since then, Dug has rebuilt his life, fiercely defending his independence, overcoming obstacles on a daily basis and retaining his often wicked sense of humour. An inspiration in so many ways.

I vividly recall the moment I heard the news of Dug’s accident. I was living in Brussels at the time and had just returned home after a night out with friends. In the days, weeks and months that followed, I remained in shock, wishing I could turn back time and railing against the profound sense of powerlessness.

On hearing the news last Saturday evening that a young Tory researcher had collapsed and died during a game between the Scottish and Irish parliaments in Dublin, the memories all came flooding back. David Hill, a familiar, friendly and popular presence around Holyrood, apparently collapsed shortly after sustaining a head knock and never recovered. Like Dug, David was a rugby fanatic.

In the aftermath of Dug’s accident, the support he and our family received from the rugby community, notably here in Orkney, was utterly invaluable. I know that will be the case again now, as it will be for the parliamentary community. David’s family in particular, but also his friends and work colleagues will all need help, support and time in coming to terms with the awfulness of what has happened.

Meanwhile, the political cycle continues to turn: this week dominated on the domestic level by the UK Chancellor’s Spring statement on Wednesday. There have been few clues in advance, but the hope is that Rishi Sunak comes forward with measures that are more in line with the scale of the cost of living and energy crisis we face. A cut in VAT, scrapping the planned national insurance rise and a windfall tax on energy company profits would be a start. For the longer term, we also need to see investment in energy efficiency and the shift to renewables accelerated.

Two meetings I held this week underlined the seriousness of the situation at present. A briefing from NFU Scotland on Monday evening pointed to a growing security of food supply issue as a result of rising costs and the effects of sanctions. A working group has been established by Scottish Ministers to look urgently at targeted measures to help ease the pressure, but the risk is that higher costs lead to cuts in production and shortages on shelves.

Earlier the same day, I met Tackling Household Affordable Warmth (THAW) to hear about the increasingly dire situation facing local households in fuel and extreme fuel poverty. Again additional targeted support will be needed, but the energy regulator, Ofgem must also reverse its decision to double standing charges on fuel bills in off gas grid areas. This eclipses what is proposed for the rest of the country and risks simply penalising communities already worst affected by rates of fuel poverty. That cannot be justified and I have called on Ofgem and UK Ministers to think again.

All the while, of course, the situation in Ukraine grows ever more desperate. The incessant shelling of cities such as Mariupol lays bare President Putin’s increasing desperation and willingness to ruthlessly target civilians in the hope of breaking Ukrainian resistance.

This shows no signs of happening, although the number of Ukrainians who have now fled the country is estimated at over 10 million. Disappointingly, the UK government’s response continues to be inadequate, slow and out of step with the wider public mood. Over 140,000, myself included, have signed up to open their homes to Ukrainian refugees. Yet the process seems almost deliberately ponderous and confusing, perhaps exemplified by the paperwork problems that have delayed the arrival in Scotland of 50 Ukrainian orphans currently stranded in Poland. Further evidence, I fear, that Home Secretary, Priti Patel, is woefully ill-suited to the role and circumstances in which she finds herself.

It's always important to count your many blessings, of course. There are some weeks, however, when this just feels a bit more difficult than usual.

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