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Thirty years

As a week, this one looks quite full. Three Committee meetings, Environment, Rural and then COVID-19. But at least they are on three separate days. And a fair few video meetings with assorted others. One being a personal one with my former professional colleagues at Bank of Scotland.

Friday last week, the last of my daily diary write-ups, saw a video session with the Scottish Association for Mental Health (SAMH). Colleagues Mairi Gougeon and Gillian Martin were with me there to hear about a project run in the North-east. One of the great advantages is that it allows self-referral.

MSPs meet many people who are experiencing excess stress in their lives and whose mental health is less than perfect. But who are not ill. They are like someone who has a regular sniffle and carries a hanky. Except that it is far from clear what the mental health equivalent of a hankie is. Mostly it's probably just a listening ear.

We can all do that. But how much better when it is attached to a trained mind capable of providing the right response to someone's distress. As MSPs, quite a lot of our time is taken in pointing people to where they can get qualified help.

In mental health matters, I may be a tiny distance ahead of many of my Parliamentary colleagues. I spent a number of months in 1964 working in a traditional Victorian-type asylum as a trainee nurse. It was my summer job when I was seventeen, not the beginning of a career. That may leave me a little, just a little, more sensitive to other's mental distress. But without any of the tools that might assist them.

So for MSPs like me, good relationships with third-sector organisations, such as SAMH, and an understanding of their special skills is of enormous help to us. The use of video-conferencing, initially a response to the need for social distancing, is now well established as a more efficient, more responsive way of bringing us up to speed. I don't see us walking away from this new way of working any time soon.

All three Committees too will be online.

At Environment, we shall be hearing from two panels of experts on the UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Continuity) (Scotland) Bill. That's a long title for a well-focused Bill. And our Committee is just a part of Parliament's Committee scrutiny of its proposals.

We are delegated only to look at the Environmental parts of it, with our focus as a Committee being on proposals to establish an oversight body for our Government's environmental agencies. It will, essentially, replace EU oversight with an independent body which will hold Scotland's activity to prior agreed standards.

Wednesday sees me put on my rural affairs hat for an evidence-taking session on the UK Fisheries Bill. This is one piece of legislation where there appears to have been some proper co-decision-making between the UK and Scottish Governments. The result is a Bill broadly acceptable to our interests as far as catching fish in our waters goes.

When one talks about fishing, most listeners think we talk about our trawlers out on the high seas. But there is much more to the industry than that. Economically the processing sector, back on dry land, is of greater value than the catchers' efforts. And the two are closely tied together.

There is no point in a Scottish boat landing a hard-won hold of fish at Peterhead, or any other port, if there are no buyers waiting for them. And there will be few processors willing to pay the prices of yesteryear if the market for their products is more restricted than in the past.

The catchers are now much more aware that getting control over the right to catch the fish in our waters is not enough. It is vital that we do so, but not sufficient in itself. The inshore catchers of crabs, lobsters, langoustines, scallops and the like were first to realise that.

Much of their product starts on the road to foreign markets within hours of having been caught. In particular are the living animals from Scottish waters that currently command premium prices at the Boulogne-sur-Mer market in France. But that premium depends on arrival by 0800 the day after catching. With the re-imposition of customs barriers post-Brexit, that deadline is all but impossible to meet.

And then there is the substantial paperwork and health inspections of each boat. Even now, sellers do not know what the label which must be stuck onto each batch should say. Chaos and potential impoverishment beckons.

On Wednesday we shall also be looking at broadband communications in rural areas of Scotland. My personal interest is in seeing my upload speed cranked up from its present half a megabit per second that can only deliver a very soft-focus picture to the world when I appear in Committee via video.

With a small telecoms company that failed to be selected as the contractor for the R100 program in the North of Scotland holding up progress in the law courts, we may wish to hear about the Government's interim scheme to subsidise individual connections. I want to be at the front of the queue for delivery for whichever delivers on my requirements soonest.

My Parliamentary week rounds off with two further Committee meetings. The Environment Committee plans to meet the Scottish Parliament Corporate Body (SPCB) on Thursday morning to review the progress we are making with our contribution to the Climate Change agenda.

The SPCB is one of these groups that just get on with it and attracts little attention if they are doing their job well. But their decisions can ensure that the small part of public administration that is the Parliament and its staff, make their contribution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. And set an example for others. We should take our own medicine.

But it looks like I may have to give that a miss. The COVID-19 Committee of which I am also a member has yet to find a fixed point in the weekly schedule of Parliament. And this week it is also Thursday morning. While I have already done three duplex meetings so far - where I attend by video two simultaneous meetings - I don't think this week can be a fourth. That's simply because of the structure of the meetings involved. Both will require too intense an engagement from me to permit parallel attendance.

The COVID-19 Committee will have to consider and will be invited to agree to, nine pieces of legislation. Some relate to special rules for Aberdeen and thus for me, as a North-East MSP, require particular attention. So this meeting has to be my priority.

Politics is about priorities. However, that is mainly an issue for the Government and its Ministers. But for backbenchers such as I, we can't just ride along with what comes our way. We too have to determine what is priority one, priority two and so on. One of my project managers at the Bank, Teresa, captured the dilemma rather neatly when she said that we had only three priorities for projects; top priority, urgent and desperate.

In Government, the voice for something to be priority two tends to be a still, silent one. A cacophony of sound is there to push everything to the front of the queue. That leaves Ministers handing out disappointment when their preference might be for satisfaction for all the supplicants.

One of my life's small disappointments is that neither of my parents survived to share in the excitement of my being, first, in elected office and then later a Government Minister. Were they here today they would be one hundred and sixteen and one hundred and ten respectively.

Today happens to be exactly thirty years to the day when dad departed to join mother.

Let's hope they see some merit in at least some of the things I have done since.

That just leaves the question for the week. What will come up that isn't in the diary but which requires my urgent attention? It's rarely nil.

Nil carborundum illegitimus.


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