The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-12437, in the name of Humza Yousaf, on the Islands (Scotland) Bill at stage 3. Before I invite Humza Yousaf to open the debate, I call the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Connectivity to signify Crown consent to the bill.
For the purposes of rule 9.11 of the standing orders, I advise the Parliament that Her Majesty, having been informed of the purport of the Islands (Scotland) Bill, has consented to place her prerogative and interests, in so far as they are affected by the bill, at the disposal of the Parliament for the purposes of the bill.
I am delighted to open this afternoon’s historic stage 3 debate on the passing of the Islands (Scotland) Bill. The final passage of the bill represents an important milestone for Scotland’s island communities, and it is a unique occasion not just in this Parliament but in any Parliament, in that we are marking the passage of one of the world’s first and only place-based laws. I say “one of the first” because David Stewart would not forgive me if I did not mention Japan’s Remote Islands Development Act of 1953.
That is entirely fitting for our islands, which contribute so much to our culture, our language, our landscape and our heritage; which have inspired poets, writers, songwriters, composers and artists; which attract visitors from near and far; and which have contributed hugely to our past and our present and which, through the Islands (Scotland) Bill and other measures, will now have the opportunity to contribute further to their own and our collective futures.
I have been the Minister for Transport and the Islands for the best part of two years, and I have to say that travelling around the islands and meeting island communities is one of the best parts, if not the best part, of my portfolio.
Today’s debate marks the culmination of a five-year journey that will result in the passing into law of a series of measures that are designed to improve outcomes for Scotland’s island communities. There are many people whom I would like to thank for their work over those five years. The Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Constitution, who is sitting on my right, has been heavily involved in the endeavour, as was his predecessor.
It is important for me to recognise everyone who has helped to shape our journey. Back in 2013, the three island councils—Orkney Islands Council, Shetland Islands Council and Western Isles Council—seized the opportunity to push for greater recognition for Scotland’s island communities with their bold our islands, our future campaign, which started us on that journey. It would be remiss of me not to put on record my thanks to the three leaders of the island councils at that time: Angus Campbell, Steven Heddle and Gary Robinson, whom I still call the three wise men. I think that Angus Campbell and Steven Heddle might be in the gallery. I thank them for the constructive manner in which they pursued their proposal. The bill is the culmination of their hard work and efforts, as well as of the efforts of their successors, who have also engaged constructively at the tail end of the process.
Since then, the Government has worked constructively with those three councils. More recently, it has worked constructively with North Ayrshire Council, Highland Council and Argyll and Bute Council to take forward our commitment to deliver an islands bill. I have very much valued their advice, input and guidance, and I look forward to that relationship continuing as we move into the bill’s implementation stage.
I thank the members of the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee and other members, particularly those who represent islands in whole or in part. The biggest thanks are reserved for island communities and those who have engaged with the process and given their thoughts on the bill.
There is a range of provisions in the bill. I will not go through them all, but it is important to mention one or two. The bill will place a duty on the Scottish ministers and the wider public sector to island proof, which means that they must take into account the needs and circumstances of island communities in the decision-making process. That will help to bring an awareness of the needs of island communities into the decision-making process in Parliament and more widely.
The national islands plan has been looked at extraordinarily carefully. We have already debated it during the consideration of amendments at stage 3. A few high-level objectives are already in the bill, but there is much more room for consultation, discussion and engagement with island communities to see what else can inform the national islands plan.
Any plan will require support to deliver its key objectives and, over the past 11 years, the Government has worked very hard to ensure that we deliver for our island communities. Since 2007, we have invested £1 billion in our ferry services. We have introduced the road equivalent tariff, which has led to a boom in the islands in the Clyde and Hebrides, and we will introduce the RET to the northern isles in the first half of this year. In the most recent budget, we have also given support to internal ferries for Orkney and Shetland. We have maintained the air discount scheme, and increased the maximum level of discount available to 50 per cent. We have established rural and island housing funds, which are worth £30 million. We have committed £600 million to the R100—reaching 100 per cent—programme, which is the biggest public investment that has ever been made in a United Kingdom broadband project. By the end of 2021, Scotland will be the only part of the UK where every home and business will be able to access superfast broadband.
One of the objectives of the national islands plan will be to improve and promote community empowerment. We can start that now: I am delighted to announce an award of £114,000 through the Scottish land fund for North Yell Development Council on Shetland to enable it to purchase two separate areas of land in Cullivoe. The Scottish Government fully supports the role of community ownership in bringing new employment, business start-up and tourism opportunities to the islands.
I am delighted that we have very good engagement with our island communities. The islands ministerial group was set up by my colleague the finance secretary. That engagement is hugely important and, more recently, it has centred around a potential islands deal. The Scottish Government is committed to growth deals that will cover 100 per cent of Scotland, and my colleagues are in continued dialogue with islands and local authorities on that issue.
Today’s debate marks the conclusion of the parliamentary process, but it signals the start of the vital work that has to take place following royal assent. I give an assurance to all members that communities will be an inherent part of that work. I hope that communities will feel that the national islands plan is their plan and one that will unlock the potential of island communities across Scotland.
On my appointment as Minister for Transport and the Islands, the First Minister assured me that the job came with great views. It certainly does, but it also comes with great people. Over the past two years, I have been tremendously fortunate to have travelled to—I think—34 islands across Scotland, where I have met island communities and heard their expectations for the bill.
The bill is not for Government, for Parliament or for the agencies that will play a key role. It is about people and it is for people—those who have contributed to our islands’ heritage, those who contribute to the islands’ wellbeing now and those who are yet to come. The bill gives them and us all a strong platform on which to build a bright future for Scotland’s islands.
That the Parliament agrees that the Islands (Scotland) Bill be passed.
I am pleased to open the debate on behalf of the Conservatives. As in any stage of any bill, it is important to thank my fellow committee members, the clerks, the bill team and every consultee and stakeholder we have worked with to get to this point. In particular, thanks need to go to Orkney Islands Council, Shetland Islands Council and Western Isles Council, which started the work to get us to this point in 2013 with their our islands, our future initiative.
I hope that, after today, they are pleased with the bill and that it gives them the autonomy and the powers that they hoped for.
I have reiterated at each stage of the bill that the enthusiasm and drive from the island communities has been fantastic and a driving force behind the desire of the members of the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee and everyone else involved in the bill to get it right. On our visits, it was clear that there is an inspiring community spirit on the islands, and a willingness to work together and support each other that is, sadly, often lacking in some of our mainland communities. The bill is a positive step for the islands and the Conservative group supports the bill, as we believe that it can make a difference to our island communities.
A recommendation that was made at stage 1 that I felt strongly about concerned the concept of retrospective island impact assessment. As the term “island proofing” was used from early in the progress of the bill, it was clear that expectations would be raised that the bill could significantly improve outcomes where islands had been heavily impacted by legislation that was designed for and focused on the mainland. Retrospective impact assessments would enable islands that have been significantly impacted by previous legislation to have that reviewed by the Scottish ministers with the intention of mitigation. Although it was not my amendment that enabled that aspect to be added to the bill, I am pleased that Liam McArthur’s amendment was agreed to.
Looking prospectively, rather than retrospectively, can Mr Chapman tell me whether the Scottish Conservatives still support the position that was expressed in a letter to Angus Campbell in his then capacity as leader of Western Isles Council, which was that David Cameron supported the empowering of the islands to enable their renewable resources to be realised, to the enormous benefit of their communities, by granting of the necessary contract for difference arrangements to allow the island connections to take place?
We on these benches absolutely recognise the potential that exists in the islands for the production of wind power.
Stage 3 has seen an improvement in the devolution of powers to local authorities. Island communities can sometimes feel disconnected from the mainland, but having that autonomy can make a big difference. I am pleased to see amendments passed today that allow that. The main point of the bill is to empower island communities, and that can now start through the islands’ own councils and authorities. We will monitor that post-legislatively to ensure that island authorities are achieving the results that the amendments intend.
Another area that I expressed concern about at stages 1 and 2 is marine licensing. There was cross-party concern at stage 1 that existing legislation—the Zetland County Council Act 1974—would be overruled by the marine development and plans section of the bill, and that the dual licensing powers would not work on the ground. At stage 2, I attempted to safeguard those powers. However, at this stage, with amendment 14 from the minister, I am assured that the Zetland County Council Act 1974 is protected from unintended repeal and that the bill also retains provisions to enable continuity of existing development and enforcement.
I have had discussions with some of the councils that currently require marine licensing powers and I am assured that they are comfortable with their current powers and their ability to increase future licensing powers. I look forward to monitoring the progress that the island authorities make in marine development and any future marine licensing schemes.
It is clear that the approach to the bill, which has been fairly consensual since stage 1, is even more so now at stage 3. This afternoon, we have agreed amendments by members from across the chamber that strengthen the bill and ensure that it can empower every aspect of the islands and their communities.
It was a pleasure and a privilege to visit so many of our beautiful islands during the consultation process and to hear islanders’ views on what the bill means to them and their hopes for it. Over the next year and beyond, I hope to hear that those aspirations have come to fruition. The Conservative group will continue to monitor all the pressing matters that we have discussed throughout the process, to ensure that snags and difficulties in the bill’s implementation are dealt with as soon as possible.
During this afternoon’s proceedings, there has been a tone of hope and expectation from members of all parties on what the bill will achieve for our island communities. Much of the change that we want to see can be achieved if islanders’ needs are considered right at the start of the process for all legislation, but it must be recognised that much of the disadvantage that our island communities face can be addressed only if the necessary money is allocated to make things happen.
Labour shares the ambitions and aspirations of Scotland’s proud island communities, who want to grow their populations, protect their islands’ stunning natural beauty and environment, improve the physical and digital infrastructure, and tackle the scandal of fuel poverty. If that potential is to be fulfilled, we need greater empowerment for those communities and we need more locally driven decision making. The Islands (Scotland) Bill is a positive step in that direction. Does it deliver everything that we want? No, of course it does not. Could it have been more radical?
The Tories’ talk about cash triggered my attempt to intervene earlier, and now Colin’s point about population has done the same thing. He makes a fair point: repopulating our islands is a key feature of the strategy that is required to secure economic sustainability for our islands.
The member went on to talk about empowerment and devolution for island communities, but is not it the case that if we are to be able to deliver our population strategy for our country, we require immigration to be devolved to Scotland, so that we can repopulate the country and our island communities? I know that the island council leaders agree with me on that point. Does the Labour Party?
Yes, I agree—although the issue is slightly outwith the remit of the bill.
The bill is a step forward. It could have been more radical and given islands more powers. However, there is much in it that we support. For example, the national islands plan has the potential to be transformative in developing local solutions to local challenges, by putting the voices and priorities of island communities at the heart of policy making.
Island impact assessments and the new statutory duty to have regard for island communities are also welcome. All too often, island communities are put at a disadvantage as a result of a one-size-fits-all approach to policy being taken by many of our very centralised public bodies. The impact assessment process will allow us to identify and mitigate unintended consequences for island communities of the policies, strategies and services of public bodies, as well as the laws that we make in Parliament.
The changes to marine licensing and planning are also a positive step that recognises the importance of our marine environment to island economies and communities. The new marine licensing powers, in particular, present an opportunity to empower local communities, and the exemption that was agreed to today, which will allow island authorities to carry out delegated marine planning functions without a delegate partner, addresses a long-standing problem for some islands authorities.
The provisions on improved flexibility in electoral wards and the protection of the Na h-Eileanan an Iar constituency boundary also improve representation for our island communities.
Labour thinks that the bill could have gone further. We would have liked the bill to have devolved more powers to our island communities, thereby really empowering them and putting local experience and expertise at the heart of decision making—and reversing the centralising drift that we have seen in Scotland in recent years. More and more powers have rightly come to the Scottish Parliament from the United Kingdom Parliament, but little has been done to devolve power from this Parliament to our local councils, including those of our island communities.
As a result of amendments that have been agreed at stage 2 and today, the bill is much stronger than it was at stage 1. I am especially pleased by the success of the amendments that I lodged to create a mechanism whereby island communities may request more powers, and to ensure that the Government must make regulations on a review mechanism for assessing the impact of policies on island communities.
Scottish Labour put forward positive proposals that have strengthened the bill, as have the welcome Government amendments that adopted some of Labour’s stage 2 proposals, and as have amendments from members of other parties that received cross-party support. When it comes to the vote later today, Labour will support the bill. I hope that it receives unanimous support.
The priority will then shift to ensuring that the bill’s aims are realised. Many of its key provisions will rely on future work—most significantly, the development of the national islands plan. We must aim to ensure that the plan and any guidance, regulations and schemes reflect not only the letter but the spirit of the bill that I hope we will pass later today. I look forward to working with the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee and with colleagues from across the chamber to ensure that the bill’s aims are met in its delivery.
I record my thanks to the people who have made the bill possible—Scotland’s island communities. The work of many of those communities through the our islands, our future campaign made it clear that there is a real need to support and empower our islands better. Our 93 islands might represent only 2 per cent of the population of Scotland, but their value to our nation is truly immeasurable. Today, by passing Scotland’s first-ever islands bill, as I hope we will, Parliament will take a small but important step forward in recognising and respecting the value of those islands.
I, too, thank the various people who have contributed to our getting to this point, including our valued staff and the witnesses who engaged. The bill has been an example of excellent cross-party working. We have heard from members about the early ministerial engagement on proposals, which is a good template for how we should do business.
I think that the bill will turn out to be a historic piece of legislation. It is certainly the direction of travel that the Scottish Green Party wants; indeed, we want more of it. The principle of subsidiarity has been referred to, and that is what we want. However, it is not about powers for powers’ sake; we want the additional powers to be used wisely—as they will be. Of course, ultimately, we would like powers to be extended to giving greater tax-raising powers to local authorities so that they could raise revenue for a greater proportion of their budget.
The bill is welcome, and has created a lot of expectations. Time alone will tell whether those expectations will be realised. The bill will also have raised expectations among rural communities that are not associated with any of the three exclusively islands authorities or the islands of the three mainland authorities with islands. I am talking about places such as north-west Sutherland and Ardnamurchan, which were often referred to in evidence to the committee, and where many of the problems that we have discussed—and, I hope, have gone some way towards addressing—also apply.
It is clear that no two islands and no two communities are the same. The bill gave us a great opportunity to get out and about—especially the southerners who do not get up to the far north frequently. As happens anywhere when there is a group of people in a room, we heard a range of views. I hope that we have embraced the wide range of views that were expressed.
There are opportunities coming up to consider the issues further. The committee is going to look at crofting legislation. Issues such as new entrants to crofting will be important to the desire to sustain communities. “Sustain” is a much-abused word, but I mean it in its real sense of retaining populations and having vibrant rural communities. The University of the Highlands and Islands has shown the way with its collegiate system of delivering education in order to retain the population, but as has been touched on, immigration will be an important consideration for our islands. In the previous session of Parliament, I represented the then independent and Green group on a ministerial group on the issue, which was chaired by Humza Yousaf. There was cross-party consensus—including the Conservatives—on the need to reintroduce the post-study work visa system. However, the then Home Secretary—a Mrs May—couped the legs out from that. We need to look at making our islands truly sustainable.
A lot of expectations have been built around the retrospection aspect, on which we have discussed a number of amendments today. As others have said, the discussion on the amendments showed that a proportionate approach has been adopted. In life, we do not always get what we want, and that applies to amendments to bills, too. However, nothing in that should take away from the need for any organisation to continually evaluate any policy or process. If, as we know, some policies have already had a disproportionate impact on island communities, that should be addressed.
Nothing summed up the situation better than the example of waste management that my colleague Tavish Scott brought to the debate, and the pragmatic way that that has been addressed. There will always be challenges; I hope that the bill will go some way towards addressing them.
After 14 years of law making in the Scottish Parliament, for me this has been a very unusual bill process. I am the Liberal Democrat lead on the bill, but I recognised at the outset the particular interest and expertise of my two Liberal Democrat colleagues: Liam McArthur, who is the constituency MSP for the Orkney Islands, and Tavish Scott, who is the constituency MSP for the Shetland Islands. They have worked extremely hard on successful amendments to improve the bill for their constituents on Orkney and Shetland, and their constituents have been extremely well represented by them both.
They have taken some of the work from my shoulders.
However, when the bill was first published, I was worried about raising the expectations of our islanders. Although it gives more powers to islands councils and communities, it does not provide any extra funding or resources—to be fair to the Government, I say that it did not say that it would—to the 66 public authorities to which the bill applies and which are listed in the schedule. On our committee visits—I went to Mull and Orkney—we spoke to islanders, and I felt that, when they heard that the bill was about island proofing, there was an expectation that funds would somehow be found to put things right.
Does Mike Rumbles recognise that, although the bill does not come with a new pot of money per se, the bill in its entirety, and in negotiation with leaders and communities, can make sure that our public services are reconfigured to support island communities as they have been asked to do?
I appreciate that. I was reflecting what the islanders said to the committee.
Another major concern was that island proofing could be no more than a tick-box activity by the 66 public authorities that are identified in the schedule. As the bill stood, for instance, any of the 66 authorities might have been able to have someone sit in an office in the central belt and claim that they had conducted a desktop impact assessment. That should not now be possible, because amendments that we have agreed to today mean that “consultation” will mean real consultation.
There have been major improvements made to the bill. When the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee looked at the national islands plan, we asked what was the purpose of the bill. Islanders expected headline activities, so I am pleased—despite what happened earlier—that we have included increasing population levels, environmental wellbeing, improving transport services, improving digital connectivity, reducing fuel poverty and ensuring effective management of the Crown Estate. Those are all important issues that we have got into the bill. That is not to say that other issues are excluded, but MSPs came forward with the issues that they felt were important because they reflected what people had said to us.
The inclusion of island proofing, or community impact assessments, and requests for retrospective island community impact assessments are important and are, along with the inclusion of a scheme for requests by local authorities for devolution of functions, significant changes and real improvements. I am convinced that we have, through the amendments that have been agreed to today, a much-improved bill.
I am not criticising the Government; this shows the benefits of examination by a Parliament in which the Government does not automatically have a majority. A good thing about our process here is that the Government cannot just whip its MSPs to vote bills through. There are genuine attempts to improve bills. When I asked the minister how he was going to approach a particular amendment, he said, “Oh, we’re opposing it. Does that mean you’ll support it?” We did not, because we have always said that we are conscious that we are, at stage 3, making law and we want to make sure that we get it right. I think that we have got it right. The bill has been much improved and I am sure that we can all support it.
It is perhaps no surprise that it was the Scottish National Party that introduced the Islands (Scotland) Bill, because it is the only political party, as far as I am aware, that has previously owned an island, as Eilean Mòr MacCormick was gifted to our then party leader in 1979. It is now on a slightly different footing as it is looked after by a trust that is a registered charity. I look forward to the new arrangements for electing councillors leading to one person living on Eilean Mòr MacCormick, electing himself or herself as councillor and serving as such for that island.
It is worth having a wee look back at the history of how things happened. A hundred years ago, someone living in Tarbert on Harris was part of a council that had its headquarters in Inverness, and someone living in Stornoway on Lewis was part of a council that had its headquarters in Dingwall, because one was in Inverness-shire and the other was in Ross and Cromarty. That was a most idiosyncratic way of looking at things, notwithstanding the intense rivalry between the people of Harris and Lewis.
In more modern times, when postcodes were first introduced after a trial in Norwich in the early 1960s, the postcode for Stornoway was PA. In other words, it was a Paisley postcode, because the second-class mail was sorted there and the aircraft that transported the mail to Stornoway came from the Glasgow aerodrome in Paisley. We now have a postcode that reflects the character and individuality of the area—HS. I have no idea where the HS comes from. [
“Hebrides” has just been whispered in my right ear. See? We learn something every single day.
One thing that the debate has done is that it has written Tavish Scott’s obituary—which I hope will not be required for many years to come. When his obituary is published, at the top of the page will be written, “The man who saved Shetland from obscurity”, because he got through the amendment that has put Shetland in its proper place in the cartographer’s world.
That is not a trivial matter, and it is not just an emotional matter. In the early 70s at the Bank of Scotland, we did a mathematical modelling exercise to work out where our branch network should be—it is amazing how some things come back again—and we looked at how far some people might have to travel to different branches. A company in London did the data preparation, and when we did the first run of the model, the results looked a bit odd because the Lerwick branch should, apparently, have had customers from Elgin and the coast of the Moray Firth. We were able to see that such a gross error had occurred because staff in the London company had not realised that Shetland was not in the Moray Firth, and had mapped it accordingly. Sometimes, there are practical effects of such things.
It has been an interesting debate. My little contribution to the islands is that I had the privilege of being the minister who brought RET to the islands and other places. I gather that RET is not 100 per cent popular, but I have not met people with whom it is unpopular.
We will now move from the purple paper of the bill to the vellum of the act. The parliamentary beehives will be working overtime to provide the beeswax to create the seal on an excellent act. I wish it Godspeed and I wish every success to our island communities.
I have no idea what will be in Stewart Stevenson’s obituary, but I dread to think.
I am sure that everybody in the chamber will reflect on not just today’s debate, including the beeswax and maps, but the process that we have gone through as a Parliament to get to stage 3 of the bill. I thank the transport minister—probably not something that I do very often, coming from the Conservative side of the chamber—for introducing the bill and engaging with members from different parties on our amendments. It has been a constructive process. We have not always agreed on wording or concepts, but some excellent amendments have been agreed to this afternoon.
The process was much more than an academic exercise. It was about getting out into the heart of the islands. The minister went to a number of islands and many members and committee members met various communities. As John Finnie said, if we put a bunch of people into one room, they will all have different views, and even in island communities, there are different views about how things should be done. A point was raised earlier about the fact that some people do not want local authorities to have more power because they see their local authorities as being as far away and as detached from them as central Government in Edinburgh. There are lots of things to think about.
It is not easy to produce a bill that will do everything for all people. However, if we look at where we have got to from stage 1, a number of things that the committee recommended are in the final version of the bill—local empowerment and the devolution of powers; the national islands plan and who should be consulted on that; measuring the plans and their outcomes and reviewing the act; putting islands at the heart of consultation; and the retrospective element of impact assessments. We have made progress in several areas.
The national islands plan will be the proof of that pudding. Although there are some issues with the bill, they are not quite enough. I am pleased that the islands plan will go through an iterative process and come to Parliament in due course, but I hope that it is more than just words on paper. We talked a lot about the concept of island proofing and the committee decided that the bill does not really do that. The creation of island impact assessments is not the same as mitigating the findings of those impact assessments. Impact assessments cannot just be bits of paper or box-ticking exercises; they must be genuine analyses of policy, strategy, legislation, and of decisions that are made at parliamentary and local authority level. They cannot just become a piece of paper that says that we have thought about the islands, we have ticked that box and we will move on.
The Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Constitution is not here, but the bill is not about asking for more money; it is about doing things in a different way. Despite our best efforts, island communities will not change overnight. People who live there will still pay more for petrol than people who live on the mainland. They will still struggle to get hospital appointments because of the logistics of getting to mainland hospitals. They will still struggle to fill professional teaching and general practitioner posts—all those things that we talk about so much in this chamber. The bill will not magically make our roads better, make our beaches cleaner or create housing, nor will it create parity in access to our public services.
However, in the spirit of positivity, the bill has made a start. It has forced MSPs, policy makers and Government to have a public discussion about what our islands want and need. I hope that that discussion will turn into action. At the heart of every decision that we make, we should be thinking about its effect on our island communities. The fact that we are thinking that is progress, and I welcome the bill.
As a Highlands and Islands member, I strongly support any and every political initiative to support, grow and develop our island communities. I welcome today’s debate and thank the minister, my MSP colleagues and the councils, particularly those of Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles, for their tireless work on this endeavour. I also welcome representatives of those councils to the public gallery.
There is nothing new in the argument at home and abroad about strengthening our island communities. The minister will expect me to mention the 2016 Japanese act on remote islands and, if we go back in time, we have the Montgomery committee that reported in April 1984 and recommended consolidating, developing and extending the powers of island councils.
Other members have mentioned the key element of the Treaty of the European Union—the principle of subsidiarity—which means taking decisions in a localised and decentralised way. The European Union has always had strong and consistent policies to give special attention to the specific characteristics of territories with serious and permanent handicaps, including islands. That is why the development of structural funds was so important for our island communities.
The handicaps are well known to our islanders: limited and costly modes of transport; restricted and declining economic activity; and the fragility of markets and loss of young people. However, some things have not changed. A conference that was organised by Shetland Islands Council and the Committee of the Regions looked at the 2011 Euroislands study. That analysed island communities across the EU, and many issues were debated and discussed, looking at common characteristics across the 28 nations. It found that, by and large, islands have below-average connectivity, their gross domestic product is below the European average, economic convergence is slower, the number of job and career opportunities is low, and services there are of variable quality and high cost.
However, there has to be a counterweight to that, and the 2012 geographic specificities and development potentials in Europe survey concluded that islands have close-knit communities, high-value natural capital and the potential for renewable energies. It also noted that islands experienced higher vulnerability to climate change through heightening sea levels and an increased likelihood of storms.
All of that comes together to mean that policies and laws affect island communities in a way that they do not affect anywhere else. Although islands have some similarities with rural regions in general, the specificity and peripherality of islands mark them as different. Because of that, it is important that we are not “territorially blind”, to use the words of the EU’s global Europe 2050 vision.
Much of the bill is to be celebrated. It has good intentions, it is very high level, and it leaves much of the detail to be set out in regulations. However, it is hard to determine what the work will look like in practice. As Western Isles Council has argued in a letter to me, the acid test will be strong and effective island proofing. That will be the mark of success of the bill, as well as of the future of our island communities.
How and when will an island communities impact assessment be required? Real devolution means additional powers to island communities. Will that happen with the bill? New powers need new financial muscle. Real devolution means resource-based control—transferring control of the sea bed from the Crown Estate to island authorities and perhaps onward to the community land and harbour trusts. New powers also need strategic decision making in the planning, designing and commissioning of mainland-island ferry services, and the recognition of island status in the Scottish constitutional set-up.
I agree with what the member says, but does he recognise that the Islands (Scotland) Bill is part of a suite of measures, taking into account the Crown Estate measures and the community empowerment legislation that have been taken forward, as well as the national islands plan that will be developed as a result of the bill?
I intend to touch on that, and I agree with what the minister says.
Real devolution means public sector job relocation, as Jack McConnell did when he moved Scottish Natural Heritage’s headquarters from Edinburgh to Inverness. How about moving the CalMac Ferries HQ to the Western Isles, the Scottish Crown Estate HQ to Orkney, or the Scottish Land Commission HQ to Shetland? What about single public authority status for the health board, the local authority and Highlands and Islands Enterprise under one umbrella in each island authority?
I celebrate the fact that the bill has been brought forward, acknowledging the different and varying needs of island communities. A journey of 1,000 miles begins with a first step. This bill is a first step, and it is to be welcomed.
I finish with the words of Sorley MacLean, who said:
“my tale is of the ethos of our island ebbed”.
Our islands have been ebbing for too long. Now is the time to change that tale.
I am delighted that we have got to stage 3 with this bill, which has to have been one of the most enjoyable bills—as well as being very important and useful, of course—that I have been involved in. To be able to visit a number of Scotland’s fabulous islands with the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee, and count it as work, was absolutely great. When we visited Mull, I took the chance to pop over to Ulva, so I think that there is something symbolic about the fact that the community buy-out of that island has moved ahead so far, even as the Islands (Scotland) Bill has made its way through Parliament.
Islands are a key part of Scotland’s history and geography, so I believe that we all, as a nation, have a responsibility for them, for their communities, and for their general wellbeing. Despite representing a city constituency, I know that many of my constituents have connections with islands, such as families coming from there or relatives who still live there, so I do not see the bill as some kind of minority interest. Rather, it is of national interest, and it makes it clear that Scotland’s islands must be in the mainstream of our thinking, particularly here in the Scottish Parliament.
The committee spent a lot of time considering topics such as what should be included in the bill and what should be in the islands plan. Within that, we considered the question of what should be in the bill about the islands plan and its contents. There was clearly a temptation to put more in the bill. There has been movement on that point, and we have reached a reasonable position. Then again, the question of island communities impact assessments has been the subject of much discussion and debate.
The term “island proofing” has been used, as well. My concern has been that that term might suggest that we could make life on the islands exactly the same as life on Scotland’s mainland, although it is clear that that can never be the case. When a person lives on a piece of land that is surrounded by water and they cannot get on or off it for 24 hours each day, there is something different. It is true that Ardnamurchan and other parts of the mainland can be extremely remote and that residents in those places face challenges that are similar to those that people who live on the islands face, but I remain convinced that islands are uniquely different and that it is not only justified but necessary to have legislation specifically for them. We hope to pass such legislation today.
I do not believe that we can island proof in the sense we can waterproof something, but island impact assessments can make various public authorities, including us in Parliament, think more carefully and consider more often what the impact of our actions and decisions might be on islands.
When the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee visited various islands, the subject of ferries was always high on the agenda. Just this morning, we had CalMac at the committee to discuss capacity, RET and a host of related matters. The committee is therefore well aware that ferries are central to island life, but we can expect such topics to appear in the national islands plan rather than in the bill.
I am particularly pleased that an amendment to include uninhabited islands in the bill was agreed to at stage 2. The fact that no one lives permanently on a particular island does not mean that that will continue to be the case. Even if no human being at all lives on an island, it can still be vital for birds and other wildlife. In that regard, I am particularly grateful to RSPB for its commitment and assistance in framing amendments relating to natural heritage and environmental wellbeing, for example.
Now that we have got the ball rolling more seriously for Scotland’s islands, I am planning to spend my summer holiday visiting some of England’s islands. Maybe I will report back on how they are doing. However, for now, I commend the bill to Parliament and very much hope that it will be passed at decision time.
I thank the councils and communities that worked to shape the bill, which needed to empower rather than protect. Protection assumes that the Scottish Government knows best, but that is seldom is the case. The people on the ground know best, and they need to be empowered to make decisions that affect their future. That was the vision of the three island councils when they brought forward the our islands, our future initiative. We have strengthened the bill, but much work still needs to be done on the islands plan if it is going to meet expectations.
Colin Smyth said that the bill could have gone further. That is true, of course, but his amendment 27 and a similar amendment that Liam McArthur lodged allow Scottish Government powers to be devolved to island authorities, which would allow islands to make decisions that suit their needs. We have too often seen islands being handed down policies and targets that run contrary to their needs.
David Stewart said that powers need to come with resources. That is very much the case. If those powers are to be devolved, the resources to make things happen also need to be devolved. That will allow those policies to make a genuine difference to our island communities.
Amendments to do with retrospection, which are very important to the legislation, have been agreed to. I do not think that every law should be reviewed to see how it works with regard to islands, but there are policies and legislation in place that damage our island communities.
We have recently seen Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd, which is a company that is wholly owned by the Scottish Government, looking to centralise its air traffic control. That could move those jobs out of islands and, indeed, out of the Highlands and Islands altogether, and that would be a retrograde step. I hope that the amendments to do with retrospection will make Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd look again at what it is doing.
As Colin Smyth said, other Government bodies and arm’s-length authorities should look at their centralising policies, which have damaged islands by removing jobs from communities that very much need them. We need to strengthen and build those communities. The amendment on depopulation is crucial, because the real barometer of the act’s success will be whether the populations of our islands grow and become much more sustainable.
Yes, we need more people in the whole of Scotland, but the need is much more urgent in our island communities. People want to come back to the islands. They will do so—and others will relocate there for a better quality of life—but there must be jobs and opportunities to allow them to come back. David Stewart said that fragile communities lead to the loss of young people, and we have seen that throughout our island communities for many years. We need to stop that trend, then reverse it in order to make our islands grow and the bill has the potential to do that if the national islands plan is right.
As Jamie Greene said, the plan will be the proof of the pudding. Many of the powers in the bill will be implemented through the plan, so how that is done will be crucial. There should be clear outcomes and targets and measurable indicators to track performance, so that we can see whether the plan is working. The REC Committee must be able to scrutinise the plan and look at the annual reports and the like, with input from stakeholders, in order to ensure that the plan is working. The plan will make a difference to our island communities if it works right.
The bill has shown how the parliamentary process can improve legislation. The original bill was timid and, although we know that it could have gone further, the finished article is much stronger. That is a tribute to my colleague Colin Smyth, who put a lot of work into the bill, and to the communities and councils who worked alongside us to strengthen the bill, especially the three island councils that started the process in the first place with our islands, our future. I hope that, through the bill, they will have a greater say in that future.
The Scottish Conservatives have always welcomed the Islands (Scotland) Bill and we are pleased to support it at stage 3. From a personal perspective, as a Highlands and Islands MSP, I am under no illusion as to how important the legislation is to the communities that I represent. I hope that their expectations will be fulfilled.
One of the most important amendments was one of the last; it was introduced by Jamie Greene and supported by the minister and was on having a report on the act. The four-year report will be fundamental in assessing how well the act performs and whether it empowers communities, which is the issue that we have spoken so much about. I was very pleased to see the consensus around that amendment.
It is perhaps sad that the Islands (Scotland) Bill has always been an enabling bill first and foremost, when it could have done more. However, to be fair to the Government, it has always been clear that it would be an enabling bill. We accept the bill as such, and it has been strengthened considerably at stages 2 and 3, as many members have mentioned. If the bill had not been amended, it would have fallen short of our islands’ expectations.
I spoke during the stage 1 debate on the bill, but then felt slightly removed from the process because I am not on the REC Committee. It gives me great pleasure to return to the bill now in its final version, which is much improved. I join Jamie Greene in commending the minister, Humza Yousaf, for his engagement with us from the start. I recall a meeting with him, alongside other members of my party, before the bill was introduced. He has engaged with us throughout the bill process. I am glad, too, that other Opposition members have helped to strengthen the bill, unlock its potential and deliver what campaigners have called for, which is an islands bill that might truly empower island communities. The phrase “tick-box exercise” is overused, but the essential point remains that the bill must achieve tangible, meaningful change.
Will the member confirm that one substantial way of empowering the island communities would be for his party to campaign with all other parties to unleash the potential of the islands’ renewable energy and support the connection to the islands to enable that? Earlier, Mr Chapman said that he recognised the potential, but he stopped short of committing the Scottish Conservatives to continuing to support those projects. I would be most grateful if Mr Cameron could now confirm that the Tories still do support that connection, as did David Cameron.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. We do not want to get confused by Mr Camerons being mentioned.
We fully support renewable energy on the islands. I point the cabinet secretary to our manifesto for the general election last year, in which we made an explicit commitment to remote island wind. That has now been honoured and is allowing projects across the Western Isles into the auction in 2019. We have put our money where our mouth is, cabinet secretary.
To continue my speech, it is the islands that must take credit for campaigning tirelessly for an islands bill, especially the local authorities, which I would like to mention by name: the Western Isles, Orkney Islands, Shetland Islands, Argyll and Bute, Highland and North Ayrshire councils. As others have said, five years ago Scotland’s three island councils—if I can call them that—started the our islands, our future campaign, and they were soon joined by other councils with islands and, indeed, smaller communities. Together they have lobbied and lobbied until it was accepted that change was needed.
I first came across the our islands, our future campaign when I was a candidate in Orkney and Shetland in the 2015 election, three years ago. Even then, there was a huge amount of excitement around the campaign, and one of the great pleasures has been to witness it building momentum, because for too long this Parliament has felt too remote to islanders and with this bill they can no longer be ignored. Their voices will now be heard and that is vital. It refreshing to see the Government for once looking to enable devolution of power away from the centre, rather than the other way around.
I have said before that one of the great aspects of being a Highlands and Islands MSP is the ability to visit the islands across the area. Last Friday, I was on Bute on a wonderful day, and it was interesting talking to people there. Simply being on an island does not necessarily mean that people are treated exceptionally and I hope that this bill will change that. As others have said in debates before, we have to be careful about how we characterise islanders or island communities. Others have mentioned that people who live in remote areas of the mainland, which are very like islands but not technically islands, deserve to be kept in mind as well.
The bill must be the start, not the end, of empowering island communities. As Rhoda Grant and Jamie Greene both said, the national islands plan will be critical in that regard. People on the islands are watching carefully. They want the practical devolution of power. They feel remote and ignored, or dealt with inflexibly, and if this is truly to be an enabling bill it must be the catalyst for further change.
I think that the minister realises, because he spoke of a suite of measures, that the bill also has to be set in the wider context of islands with issues relating to transport, the tourist industry, infrastructure and devolution of the Crown estate, to mention just a few. The bill must not be empty words, but effect real change to the benefit of all on our islands.
I thank everyone who has contributed to the debate, which has been excellent. I have rarely applauded every contribution in this chamber as I have today. Stewart Stevenson threatened to take us to a dark place when he started talking about Tavish Scott’s obituary, but I am pleased that we managed to get the debate to a more positive place.
I will address a few of the points and common themes that came from everybody’s contributions. I also join the chorus of members who have said that the parliamentary process on this bill has been a great example of how to deal with legislation. Really good and constructive ideas have come from right across the chamber, and I am delighted that many of them have made it into the bill that I hope we will pass in a few moments time. I note the constructive nature of the process and thank all members who have been involved.
This is the culmination of part of the journey that we are on. I say to Colin Smyth and others who made that point that it was this Government, of which I am very proud to be a part, that brought forward the Lerwick declaration, the prospectus for our islands and now the Islands (Scotland) Bill, which no previous Administration has done. We also introduced community empowerment legislation and the Scottish Crown Estate Bill.
As Donald Cameron just reiterated, the bill is part of a suite of measures that will empower our island local authorities. I am unashamed—in fact, I am really proud—to be part of a Government that has delivered that suite of measures and I hope that there will be many more to come, to help empower our island communities.
John Finnie made a really good point about the diversity that exists on our islands. All of us, including me at times, have been guilty of talking about our islands as one homogenous block, but they are not. Anybody who has travelled to our islands will know the differences between them, including between neighbouring islands, whether Yell and Unst, Westray and Papa Westray or North Uist and South Uist. Rivalries and cultural differences exist between islands that neighbour each other. John Finnie was right to make that point about diversity. The bill and the national islands plan must reflect that diversity.
We are delighted with the measures in the bill. Some important measures are being taken forward. The concept of island proofing will undoubtedly be watched closely by members, local authorities and communities. I thought that Mike Rumbles’s point about that was good: island communities have an expectation of what the bill will deliver. What it says on paper is one thing; what it will practically and pragmatically deliver is something that our island communities will be watching with great interest. I am sure that island proofing will be tested very early on, once the bill has been given royal assent.
I turn to other key measures. I thank Tavish Scott, because the Shetland Islands can now be assured that no public authority gets to put them in a box on a map in future. That is a serious and really important issue, but it has sometimes been spoken about—perhaps even in the media—a little bit flippantly. It is about how we perceive our island communities. People might have thought when they put the islands in a box next to Moray or the Aberdeen coast that those communities do not matter and that we could just move them, shift them and do what we want with them. We are sending a very clear message that that cannot and should not be done, because we value our island communities just as much as we value our mainland communities. That is a really important point to have raised.
I say gently to Rhoda Grant that we have delivered for and empowered our island communities. I have talked about the Crown estate measures that we are taking forward and the community empowerment legislation. Her colleague Jackie Baillie, who is sitting behind her, often asks me to centralise and take ownership of the Gourock to Kilcreggan ferry. There are times when local authorities will ask us to take such powers to the centre and, of course, I am happy to have that conversation with them.
Those constructive discussions with Strathclyde partnership for transport are continuing. In principle, I will look at that request very favourably. That of course is an example of centralisation that she is asking me to take forward. I put that point gently, because this has been a very good and constructive debate.
I will end by saying that I have learnt from my travels to 34 islands across Scotland that islands play a huge role in our lives collectively as a nation. People have fought to keep the islands’ heritage very much alive. I am thinking of John MacCormick, Iain Crichton Smith, Sorley MacLean, George Mackay Brown and women such as Naomi Mitchison, Ishbel MacAskill and Màiri Mhòr nan Òran, which for those who do not speak Gaelic translates as Big Mary of the Stories. There is also a rich seam of modern island writers whose works we can draw on, such as Kevin MacNeil, Peter May, Anne Cleeves and Amy Liptrot, and amazing musicians, which many of us will have heard of, such as Capercaillie, Stornoway, Aly Bain and the Blazin’ Fiddles. In fact, almost every year there is a new generation of talent appearing. We have the majesty of Peter Maxwell Davies’s work, inspired by the life that he made on Orkney, and we have the traditional and the modern melded together in music and cultural festivals on Shetland, the Hebrides and, indeed, Millport.
I should perhaps be wary of talking about this 14 days into Ramadan, but we also have the great taste of our islands. There is the Taste of Arran, the distilleries of Islay and Jura, the seafood of Mull and the black pudding of Stornoway. Food and drink on our islands is absolutely flourishing.
Then there is the diversity on our islands. We spoke about the diversity between one neighbouring island and the next, but there is also diversity on each of our islands. Our islands have changed in terms of their demographics. I am delighted that, this month, Stornoway became the place where we have the first ever island mosque, which opened just in time for Ramadan. I do not think that I will be going to Stornoway for Ramadan, because the sunset there will be quite a bit later than it is where I am on the mainland, but I certainly intend to visit sometime in the future.
I am delighted that we have this historic islands bill, which I hope we will vote for unanimously, in a cross-party fashion. I am not ashamed to admit that during its passage, I have learnt a lot about Scotland’s islands—about a fundamental part of Scotland’s soul that hitherto was hidden from me. Having visited many of our islands, I have a much better understanding of what they are and consequently, who we all are, why our islands matter and what they mean to all of us.
“It is the way you lean to me and the way I lean to you, as if we are each other’s prevailing”.
That sense of prevailing is very deep-rooted—it is vital. I am confident that the bill that we pass today will help our islands and their communities not just to prevail but, I hope, to thrive. [