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Neil Gray: Housing Ukrainians on a cruise ship was 'incredibly difficult'

Neil Gray: Housing Ukrainians on a cruise ship was 'incredibly difficult'

When Russia invaded Ukraine at the beginning of this year the Scottish Government’s response was swift and decisive. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon condemned the “flagrant violation of international law”, pledged an initial £4m in humanitarian aid, set up a super-sponsor scheme for fleeing Ukrainians, and gave newly appointed international development minister Neil Gray special responsibility for dealing with the influx of refugees.

Just a few months on, however, and the super-sponsor scheme – which sees the government temporarily ‘host’ all new arrivals to speed up the legal process for getting them here – had to be paused, with demand outstripping supply to such a degree that two cruise ships had to be enlisted to ensure each displaced person could be accommodated.

Opposition parties were quick to paint the situation as a failure of government, with Scottish Labour branding the pause “deeply disappointing” and the Tories claiming it showed “shoddy planning and lack of foresight” on the SNP’s part. Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Alex Cole-Hamilton, meanwhile, warned that housing refugees on ships was a Covid-19 emergency waiting to happen.

When we meet in parliament at the beginning of October the super-sponsor scheme is still on pause, but Gray notes that close to 21,000 people have already been given sanctuary in Scotland, with another 13,000 likely to be welcomed here as and when the scheme is up and running again. Crucially, while he admits that the cruise-liner plan made the government easy prey for opposition politicians, he says it has ultimately proved to be a success.

“It was an incredibly difficult decision to make,” he says. “Temporary accommodation was becoming stretched and we had to look [at alternatives], as all European countries are having to do. I’m going to Ireland to have a discussion with the Irish government about how they are responding [but] other European countries have been contracting cruise ships as a way of managing the situation.

“This is huge in its scale. I could see that when I went to Poland and saw camp beds in former shopping centres, which was really hard for me to see. Looking to provide the best possible temporary accommodation while matching people to longer-term accommodation has been the driving priority.

“Contracting cruise ships wasn’t without its initial controversy, but I took opposition politicians on board and they said they were disappointed to find nothing to criticise. Credit to everyone involved, it has been incredibly successful and incredibly popular, and it’s been made to work and work well. Obviously it’s not where we wanted to be but we are dealing with a humanitarian emergency situation. Everyone is doing the best they can.”

To be part of that huge shift in the political norm in Scotland, taking out big, big names like Douglas Alexander and Jim Murphy, was a massive, massive moment

The cruise ship announcement may have proved controversial, but so too was Gray’s appointment in the first place, not because it was him being handed the role but because the role had been created at all. Scotland has a long history of offering safe haven to those fleeing unliveable situations overseas, but the government has not previously created a specific ministerial brief for overseeing the seeking of asylum from another nation.

Speaking to Holyrood earlier this year, University of Glasgow migration studies specialist Dr Teresa Piacentini said the focus all UK nations have given to Ukraine but not to other war-torn countries like Afghanistan or Syria raised questions about “who is a deserving refugee”. Similarly, Abdul Bostani, director of Glasgow Afghan United, called for “an equal response to all refugees, no matter where they have come from”.

For Gray, given the scale of the disruption caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine it is only right that special focus should be given to the people who have had to flee for their lives; appointing a minister to have specific responsibility for co-ordinating the Scottish Government’s response means that special focus can be appropriately directed.

“[It’s due to] the number of people – we’re talking about the largest displacement of people since the Second World War in the European continent,” he says. “We did everything in our power for Syrians and Afghans before and we’ve got an incredible record on supporting people, but Ukraine was a slightly different case because it was pretty evident that this was going to be an emergency from a humanitarian perspective that would see a mass displacement across Europe. Our response needed to be able to match that.

“Our initial offering was to match the intake from the Syrian resettlement scheme, which was 3,000 people over two years. We’ve surpassed that seven times over – we’re approaching 21,000 and have 20 per cent of the total arrivals in the UK in Scotland.”

While the Ukraine brief is a natural extension of Gray’s existing ministerial responsibility for culture, Europe and international development, the representative for Airdrie and Shotts admits to being taken aback when he was initially asked to take on a government position at the start of this year. Though he had represented the same area at Westminster from 2015, he was still a newbie in Holyrood, having stood down from the UK parliament in 2020 to contest the Holyrood seat being vacated by his political mentor Alex Neil last May.

He won that election with a comfortable majority, seeing off competition from former Labour leader Richard Leonard, and was settling into his role as convener of the Social Justice and Social Security Committee when the call from the First Minister came. Though he had been an MSP for less than a year, Nicola Sturgeon wanted him to take over ministerial duties from Jenny Gilruth, who was shifted to transport after incumbent Graeme Dey stepped back due to ill health.

“It was bittersweet for me,” Gray recalls. “The only reason there was a vacancy was because Graeme Dey had stood down – he was an outstanding minister and I was sad about that because I get on incredibly well with Graeme. He’s contributed a huge amount [but] he made that decision and that created a vacancy.

“It was a surprise to me. I was chairing the Social Justice and Social Security Committee and was pretty knee-deep in the work of the committee. I wasn’t really expecting to get that call and there were others about who I thought were incredibly able and could do a really good job in government. I was incredibly honoured and privileged to get that call.”

A teenage Gray representing Orkney at the International Island Games in Rhodes

Gray’s political awakening came at an early age when his father – a Torry loon who moved to Orkney after being medically retired from the army – campaigned to keep the local primary school on Burray open. Despite the overtly political nature of that campaign, Gray says party politics was never discussed at home and he was never made aware of how his dad or special-needs-teacher mum voted.

The household was nevertheless political, and it was for that reason that Gray wanted to focus on politics when he made the move to the mainland to study at the University of Stirling. Though he was not initially accepted onto the politics course, the keen runner was able to make the change from sport, psychology and media studies to politics and journalism. Despite that, and despite having now had seats in both the Holyrood and Westminster chambers, Gray says he expected journalism rather than politics to shape his post-university career.

“When I was leaving Kirkwall High School I was really lucky that I was given the opportunity to work at BBC Radio Orkney, initially doing weekend sports reports,” he says. “[Producer] John Fergusson, the brother of Alex Fergusson, the former presiding officer, encouraged me. I did weekend sports reports, then school holidays and then I was contracted as cover. Eventually, when I went to university, I worked for two to three months at a time.

“I got rounded experience in broadcast journalism, which I was really lucky to have, then at the end of university I had a cross-over moment because I’d started doing research shifts at Good Morning Scotland. I thought that’s where my career was going to go, covering politics.”

A lecturer encouraged him to apply for an internship with the SNP, though, and he was appointed to the by then head of media Liz Lloyd, who went on to become Sturgeon’s chief of staff and now serves as an adviser to the First Minister. From there Gray got a job working with Alex Neil, managing his constituency office and running his 2011 election campaign. With Neil’s encouragement Gray, who was both devasted and motivated by the result of the 2014 independence referendum, stood for Westminster in 2015 and, to the shock of him and his wife Karlie, won.      

Gray with his wife Karlie and children (from left to right) Freya, Finlay, Emmie & Isla

“Alex encouraged me to stand for Westminster – I owe a lot to Alex for the encouragement he gave me and the experience he gave me,” Gray says. “We had the huge disappointment of losing the referendum and were really in a difficult way in terms of all the work we had put in and the work done campaigning around the country. He said ‘you’ll have to put your shoulder to the wheel now’ and encouraged me to put my hat in the ring locally.”

Not expecting to win at his first attempt, Gray says he sold the fact of his standing to his wife – the childhood sweetheart he’d met at Kirkwall High School and who now has her own career as a teacher – as “an experience builder”. When polling suggested Airdrie and Shotts was among the seats the SNP was likely to win he still did not believe it would happen.

“It was hard for all of us at the time because there was a big bounce in SNP support but it was hard to predict how sustainable that was going to be,” he says. “We bore the scars of the referendum and there was an expectation that things would fall back, but we were campaigning hard and could pick up where the wind was blowing.”

The results when they came were “incredible”, he says, with the SNP taking 56 of the 59 seats contested. “That wave – you forget how big a moment that was in Scottish politics and to be part of that huge shift in the political norm in Scotland, taking out big, big names like Douglas Alexander and Jim Murphy, was a massive, massive moment. To be part of that felt like we were part of history.”

When he entered Westminster, Gray had two small children, Isla and Finlay, but the family has since grown with the birth of identical twin girls Emmie and Freya in 2019. Though he was re-elected for a second term at the 2019 general election, Gray says he felt he could no longer justify the time away from home and so he made the decision to stand down and contest the seat being vacated by the retiring Neil.

Leaving Westminster was a wrench, he says, not least because it triggered a costly by-election in his local area, but also because it put his brother-in-law Adam Robinson – Karlie’s brother and Gray’s office manager – out of a job. Nevertheless, it was, he maintains, the right decision for him to make.

“I had an indication that it would be a possibility that Alex was going to retire but he hadn’t made his mind up,” Gray says. “My office staff knew I would be thinking about it – they knew I would want to be in Holyrood – but I couldn’t commit myself until Alex had taken his own decision. I owed him far too much and gave him far more respect than to do something that would seem like I was angling towards Holyrood, and I would have supported him had he chosen to stand again.

“When he took that decision I had to have some pretty quick conversations. Everyone knew I would have to resign my Westminster seat to contest Holyrood because party rules are that you have to stand down. I could employ my brother-in-law as my office manager for Westminster but the rules at Holyrood are different and I wouldn’t be able to do that. I knew that the office dynamic would have to change as well. They were very supportive and understood that for me I owed it to my family to be closer to home and that I also wanted to try to make a difference locally and nationally, and to offer something to the Scottish parliament.”

Gray ultimately won the election and everyone came out the other end unscathed, with Robinson moving back to Orkney and taking up a job with Livingston MP Hannah Bardell, Gray’s children getting to spend more time with their dad, and Gray himself continuing to represent the people of Airdrie and Shotts while also being able to serve at a national level. 

Having been awarded the One to Watch gong at Holyrood’s recent Garden Party and Political Awards, there are already whisperings in some quarters that he could be a future leader of the SNP. After just 18 months he has been catapulted to the heart of the Holyrood administration; who knows where he will go next. 

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