Rhoda Grant MSP
Speech in the Scottish Parliament debate
Islands (Scotland) Bill
8 February 2018
We on the Labour benches are happy to support the Islands (Scotland) Bill. It has the potential to make a step change in how islands are governed by empowering them to make decisions that affect their own future.
However, the bill as it stands is far too timid and will achieve nothing unless it is strengthened.
As David Stewart said, the bill is a tribute to the work of the three islands councils and their vision in the our islands, our future campaign.
I hope that we can strengthen the bill to realise their dream.
We need high-level objectives in the bill, but I was disappointed to hear that the minister appears not to be keen on that.
At the moment, the bill is simply warm words.
It needs to be clear about why we are legislating.
Colin Smyth said that the bill needs to have ambition in order for it to meet its aspirations.
There are high expectations of what the bill can and will do, but those are not in the bill in its current form.
I believe that we need to have high-level expectations in the bill in relation to issues such as depopulation, which Donald Cameron spoke about.
Last week, Community Land Scotland put forward a submission on the Planning (Scotland) Bill that addressed the issue of repopulation.
Lewis Macdonald illustrated that issue in much more detail in his speech than I will be able to in this one when he talked about Taransay, St Kilda and Scarp and giving life to the policy of repopulation in places that were depopulated in the past.
Angus MacDonald illustrated that point well from a personal point of view when he talked about the “scunnered factor” in illustrating why people leave.
They do so because they have had enough: they fight against the elements for so long, but eventually they cannot fight any more and they leave.
That point has been recognised by the EU, and I think that that is why so many of us have concerns about Brexit.
The EU recognises subsidiarity—David Stewart talked about that in some detail—and the need for local decision making.
It also recognises that certain areas have permanent handicaps, which is true of our island communities.
John Scott: Does the member acknowledge that, regrettably, the desertification that she describes as taking place in the islands is also a feature of our remote and rural communities, and that it is a much wider problem, which needs to be addressed?
Indeed I do.
I come from an area where that has happened, and I recognise that it happens in remote and rural areas.
However, it is worse in the islands because people have to cross the sea to get to services.
We can find answers to some of those questions through the bill, and those answers could then be rolled out throughout rural areas as good practice, to everyone’s benefit.
It is not about pitting people against people; it is about trying to find better ways to support communities and repopulate areas, which is incredibly important.
Some more work is needed on island impact assessments, or island proofing, because I do not think that all the organisations that affect islands and islanders’ wellbeing are covered.
We must look at the list of bodies that will need to island proof their policies, and the Government must issue clear guidelines on how they are to carry out the impact assessments—Mike Rumbles made that point in his speech.
There must be a mechanism for a right of appeal, otherwise island proofing will just become a tick-box exercise, which will not help anyone.
We also need retrospective assessments, and there must be a mechanism in the bill for that, too.
John Finnie said that not all legislation should be revisited, and of course he is right.
However, we all know of pieces of legislation that have serious impacts on island communities.
We need to look back and, where there is a united expectation that things are going to be dealt with and enough people are asking for it, there needs to be a mechanism to allow that to happen.
So much of the bill hangs on the national islands plan.
Very little detail appears in the bill and we are promised that all the detail will be contained in the islands plan.
The bill should state the overarching principles, while the islands plan should say how they will be followed. It is important that there is an islands plan, but we must also recognise that all islands are different, and the plan must cover those differences as well as what binds islands together.
One example of how we can island proof—and indeed of how the islands plan needs to work—is to recognise how the islands differ.
John Finnie talked about local contractors.
When we were on Orkney, we noticed that the local hospital had put in a wood-burning stove.
They have no wood in Orkney, but they have loads of cheap electricity, so that seemed absolutely crazy and a really bad policy.
John Mason talked about how the committee went out and about to a lot of the islands.
My colleague Colin Smyth said to me that I had all the fun on the committee and now he has the heavy lifting to do, but I see those islands all the time.
It is a real privilege to represent all but two of Scotland’s inhabited islands.
I have a distinct knowledge of what they need if we are to make a real difference, and it is ambition.
The three islands councils had the ambition to come forward with the our islands, our future campaign, which brought the legislation to this stage.
We need to meet that ambition and those expectations and strengthen the bill at stage 2.