John appeals for Minister’s help to keep two historic Orkney sites open

Maeshowe Cairn, Orkney
Maeshowe Cairn by Holly Hayes. CC BY-NC 2.0.
John Finnie has asked the Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs, Fiona Hislop, for her help to keep two of Orkney’s most important historic visitor attractions open to visitors.

Historic Environment Scotland have announced that the Neolithic burial cairn of Maeshowe and the neighbouring Tormiston Mill will be closed to visitors from Monday 26 September. The closure is a response to concerns about the safety of traffic movements around the two attractions and is described as temporary, but Historic Environment Scotland have not said when it might end.

During Culture, Tourism and External Affairs Questions in the Scottish Parliament, John asked Ms Hislop why the closure had been announced without consultation, and urged her to find a solution that will keep the two sites open.

The Cabinet Secretary replied that she had expressed her concern to the Chair of Historic Environment Scotland, but that she would not interfere in operational matters.

John said:

“Local people have identified four solutions that could solve the traffic problem and keep Maeshowe and Tormiston Mill open – an according to the Minister today, a fifth option is also being considered – but none of these options are being implemented and instead local people and visitors are to be denied access to this important site.

“Maeshowe is one of Orkney’s most visited historic sites. The summer crowds may have gone but the Winter Solstice in December is a big day at Maeshowe, and if we can’t be sure whether the site will be open that would be a real blow for the Islands’ winter tourism business.

“Orkney can’t afford to have Maeshowe and Tormiston Mill shuttered indefinitely while various committees drag their feet.

“I’m appealing again to Fiona Hislop and to Historic Environment Scotland: please get together with the local community and put in place whatever traffic solutions are needed right now, and keep our historic sites open.”

In a letter to John Finnie, the Acting Chief Executive of Historic Environment Scotland, Dr David Mitchell, said that the Board of the agency had considered solutions to the traffic issue but “wish to discuss the project further… after our new Chief Executive arrives later in the month.”

John’s Speech in the Domestic Abuse Law Debate

On Thursday (15th September 2016) the Scottish Parliament debated the Scottish Government’s proposal for a Domestic Abuse law. You can read John’s speech from the debate below.

John Finnie (Highlands and Islands) (Green):

“The Scottish Green Party welcomes the proposed bill. Tackling domestic abuse is, rightly, a priority for the criminal justice system, for society and for those who are affected by such abuse—the victims, who are overwhelmingly female, and their children. If we get the legislation right, we will go some way towards addressing gender-based violence and a little way towards addressing gender-based inequality.

It is not my gender that is suffering that inequality. For too long in our male-dominated society, the issue was not discussed, and I welcome the fact that we are now having discussions out in the open, particularly about the complex area of psychological abuse and coercive control.

Societal action is required, too. Action can bring many challenges and confrontations with certain groups in society, and it can also bring geographic challenges. I would say nothing that would identify an individual case, but I dealt with a victim of appalling psychological abuse and coercive control whose male partner was regarded as a highly respected member of their rural community and, very alarmingly, was someone to whom victims might turn. There are particular challenges for rural communities that we need to be conscious of.

It is important that we move the discussion forward on an informed basis, and it is important to say that the behaviour that we are discussing is not restricted to one socioeconomic group but is present across society.

I am grateful for the various briefings that we have received, such as the one from Scottish Women’s Aid. A number of members have talked about the pivotal role that that organisation has played in progressing the agenda and the informed background that it can bring to our discussion.

Mention has been made of the Abusive Behaviour and Sexual Harm (Scotland) Act 2016, which my colleague Margaret Mitchell and I, among others, were responsible for scrutinising in the previous parliamentary session. During that scrutiny, we took evidence in private from a woman who lived in a state of fear and alarm—essentially, a state of psychological siege—in her own home. It was an appalling situation. That woman was extremely grateful to the police for their diligent investigations, their support and their thorough work. Her partner continually breached bail. He was banned from her home but often, when she returned home from being out, he would be in the vicinity. The system failed her and her children.

If we are going to get this right, we need good law. The Law Society has talked about the need for certainty in law—Gordon Lindhurst made an extremely helpful contribution in that regard—and Margaret Mitchell talked about the complexity that exists. We are seeking to deal with a much more complex set of circumstances.

The perpetrators of such behaviour are highly manipulative, which is why there is no role for mediation, although there can be a role for advocacy for the victims. Scottish Women’s Aid talks about understanding the dynamics and the impact, and about the important role of training for decision makers throughout the system.

In respect of getting it right for every child, many members have talked about the children who are involved in domestic abuse cases, and the cabinet secretary talked about recognising the impact on children. It is vital that children’s needs are met. I know that there have been preliminary discussions about the Nordic model of noting statements from child victims in an agreed manner, which means that there might be no need for them to be at court, and certainly no need for them to be cross-examined. There is potential in that model, and I hope that it can be followed up. Indeed, with new personnel in place, it might be possible that the only things challenged in court will be the facts under dispute.

Members have talked about domestic abuse courts. The Green Party will support Claire Baker’s amendment, which mentions their role. Along with Ross-shire Women’s Aid, I have been involved for a while in discussions with the sheriff principal about such courts. Kate Forbes suggested some sort of roving role for domestic abuse courts. The public may think that that is about new buildings, but it is about case management and the opportunity to bring professionals together. That is important, because it would build up judicial expertise. Furthermore, a sufficient cohort of cases would make that a very practical approach.

Members have talked about the vital issue of funding. I acknowledge the £20 million that the Scottish Government put in, but if we are really committed to dealing with the issue, we cannot have all the various groups lobbying us because they have no certainty about their future. It is important to consider that that might mean a different source of funding or a different way of looking at funding.

Legal support is an important issue. In the case that I alluded to, because of the geography and a number of other reasons, the appropriate legal support was hard to get. We need to look at that.

Although it is unpalatable to some, we must look at the statutory defence and the legal burden on the accused. The Law Society reminds us of the presumption of innocence and the obligation on the prosecution to prove the guilt of the accused, and proposes an amendment to the statutory defence. According to my information, a number of proposed amendments have come in. Ross-shire Women’s Aid, for instance, suggests that the statutory defence is open to manipulation by perpetrators and that there will be frailties around it in connection with women with disabilities where the abuser is a carer. Furthermore, it does not fully cover behaviour that is directed at children, pets or property. There is also a clear view that the penalties are not sufficient. Once again, there is talk of non-harassment orders. The link between the criminal and the civil is very important.

This is about gender violence and inequality. As a member of the Justice Committee, I look forward to thoroughly scrutinising the bill to ensure that we get good law in place.”

 

The motion debated was as below:
Motion S5M-01434: Michael Matheson, Falkirk West, Scottish National Party, Date Lodged: 13/09/2016
Domestic Abuse Law
That the Parliament welcomes the announcement by the First Minister when delivering the 2016-17 Programme for Government that the Scottish Government will introduce legislation to create a specific criminal offence of domestic abuse; recognises that, in Scotland, there are approximately 60,000 incidents of domestic abuse reported each year, with the 2014-15 figures showing that 79% of such incidents having a male perpetrator and a female victim; recognises that, while physical abuse can be prosecuted under existing laws, it is challenging to prosecute psychological abuse and coercive and controlling behaviour under these; agrees that a new offence will both help the criminal justice system to deal more effectively with domestic abusers and, alongside access to appropriate advocacy services, allow better access to justice for victims, and notes that the Scottish Government is continuing to consider the exact terms of such an offence in the light of feedback to the recent consultation on a draft offence with the aim of ensuring that it appropriately and effectively criminalises the type of pernicious coercive and controlling behaviour that can constitute domestic abuse and that such an offence will have a significant impact on how society views domestic abuse by ensuring that there is clarity that psychological, as well as physical abuse, of a partner or ex-partner is a criminal offence.

John condemns Czech Deputy PM’s anti-Roma ‘parasite’ comments

John Finnie with Gypsy Traveller activist Roseanna McPhee
John Finnie with Gypsy Traveller activist Kathy McGuigan

In two separate incidents over the last week, the Czech Republic’s Deputy Prime Minister, Andrej Babiš, has appeared to deny or even condone the imprisonment of Czech Roma people in a concentration camp by occupying Nazi forces, and – on a visit to the camp itself – described Romani people as “parasites”.

John Finnie has written to Mr Babiš, condemning his comments and demanding both an apology and policy changes to alleviate the severe discrimination suffered by Romani people in the Czech Republic.

There are at least 3,000 Gypsy/Travellers in Scotland. There is a distinctive Highland Traveller tradition, while Romani people have been part of the Scottish community, especially in the Lowlands, for more than 500 years. Gypsy/Travellers in Scotland are subject to far more prejudice than any other ethnic group – the 2010 Scottish Social Attitudes Survey found that a 37% of people would be upset if a close family member married a Gypsy/Traveller, and 46% said a Gypsy/Traveller is unsuitable for employment as a primary school teacher.

John told the Czech Minister that it was his duty, on behalf of Gypsy/Travellers in the Highlands and Islands, to challenge the racist propaganda – such as Mr Babiš’s comments – that generates these hateful attitudes.

You can read John’s letter to Andrej Babiš below – click to view as a PDF.

Dear Mr Babiš, Like very many people around the world, I was appalled by your recent comments regarding Roma people in the Czech Republic. Your claim that the camp at Lety was not a concentration camp but merely a “work camp” not only desecrates the memory of the 300 Roma who died there and the 500 who were transported from Lety to Auschwitz, but propagates the corrosive, racist slur that Romani people are lazy, unproductive or criminal and warrant fascistic treatment. By prefacing these comments with the words “there were times when all Roma worked,” you not only reinforce that slander, but suggest your approval of the atrocity committed against Romani people at Lety. At best, these comments deny of the extent of the Holocaust; many will wonder whether in fact they represent sympathy with the Holocaust. On your recent visit to Lety, ostensibly to apologise for the above comments, you described members of the Roma community as “parasites”. I am sure you are aware that the use of dehumanising language such as this, casting Romani people as vermin, is an indispensable component of the xenophobic propaganda that underpins both the Nazi Holocaust and the present-day persecution of Roma. The horrific prejudice and discrimination faced by Romani people, and the related ill-treatment of other Gypsy/Traveller people, causes great hardship, misery and injustice, not just in the Czech Republic but across Europe, including here in Scotland. Racist and degrading comments such as yours are the building blocks of this hatred. On behalf of my Gypsy/Traveller constituents, and in solidarity with that community across Europe and beyond, I request that you make a full and unqualified apology for your racist remarks, desist from making any such remarks in the future, and adopt policies that dismantle the structural discrimination suffered by Czech Romani people. Yours sincerely, John Finnie MSP

John welcomes police commitment on dangerously slow driving

John Finnie three-quarterJohn Finnie has urged police to take seriously the issue of dangerously slow driving on roads like the A82, and says he welcomes Police Scotland’s positive response.

John wrote to Police Scotland leadership to raise the issue of slow driving, which is especially prevalent on scenic roads during the tourist season.

In reply, the Local Area Commander for road policing in the North, Chief Inspector Louis Blakelock, recognised the problem, saying:

“You correctly raise the point that inappropriate speed, like driving too slow, does as you suggest lead to frustration and irresponsible driver behaviour.

“Driving slowly, causing tailbacks and frustration is a behaviour that falls within the provisions of Section 3 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 (Careless Driving) and this type of behaviour is one that is routinely addressed by Police Officers patrolling the A82 and other roads.

“I wish to reassure you that Police Officers tasked with patrolling the A82 will be made aware of your concerns and they will continue to challenge inappropriate speed in the circumstances you describe as part of their core duties on the A82 and other trunk roads”

John said:

“While excessive speed remains one of the biggest threats to safety on our roads, driving too slowly on trunk roads is also a significant problem.

“During tourist season especially, queues can readily form on our trunk roads behind vehicles travelling 30mph whose occupants are effectively sight-seeing.

“This of course causes great frustration and can lead to increased danger from behaviours such as irresponsible overtaking.

“I’m pleased with Ch Insp Blakelock’s positive response to the issue, and I hope the increase in dedicated Road Policing Officers will help keep vital roads like the A82 flowing smoothly and safely.”

Islands Bill could kickstart a revolution in local democracy

John Finnie speaking at the University of the Highlands and IslandsIslands Minister Humza Yousaf has announced that the government will be publishing their Islands Bill within the next 12 months, the culmination of years of work by island communities and the island councils to make the case for more local democracy and a better deal from national government.

John Finnie has given a warm welcome to the news, saying:

“It’s great news that we’ll be able to move forward quickly with the Islands Bill. I’m looking forward to making it a genuinely radical and transformative event for Scotland’s islands, to fulfil the vision of the Our Islands Our Future campaign, whose hard work and ambition has brought us to this point.

“Power in Scotland is incredibly centralised, so the priority for Greens is to bring powers from Edinburgh back to island communities. For example, giving island councils control over the sea bed (currently in the hands of the Crown Estate) and flexible powers to decide their own taxes and raise more of their own funds would allow them to unlock the huge marine energy potential and the jobs and revenues that come with it.

“I’ll also want to make sure that the Bill recognises the similarity between island communities and many of our more remote mainland communities, especially on the western peninsulas of the Highlands and Argyll and Bute. It’s likely that many of the Bill’s provisions would also benefit these communities, and I’ll be arguing to have them included.

“I hope the Islands Bill can be the start of a much wider debate about where power lies in Scotland, and how it can be brought closer to the people. Island communities have taken the initiative to demand decentralisation of power, but they are certainly not the only communities that need it.

“As local democracy campaigner Andy Wightman (now Green MSP forthe Lothians) described in his eye-opening report Renewing Local Democracy, Scotland is one of the most centralised countries in Europe. The average population of a local council area in the European Union is less than 6,000 people; in Scotland it’s 166,000. The average European local authority gets more than 40% of its income from its own locally-controlled taxes; in Scotland it’s a quarter of that.

“The Islands Bill is a precious opportunity to make our island communities the pioneers of a powerful, decentralised, participatory local democracy, showing the way for change across Scotland.”

If you want to dive into the detail of the Scottish Government’s proposals so far, you can read their original consultation document, all the public responses, and the analysis of responses on the consultation website.

John calls for public ownership of ScotRail as fares rise again

Railways back in public ownership: Not for profit; Improved services; Reduced fares. After the announcement of another increase in ScotRail fares, John Finnie has urged the Scottish Government to move quickly to bring rail services back into public ownership.

As the Scottish Greens’ spokesperson on transport, John wrote to Transport Secretary Fergus Ewing MSP, pledging the support of all 6 Green MSPs for early legislation that would pave the way for an end to the disastrous privatisation of our national railway.

John said:

“Unfortunately most of us come to expect, and begrudgingly accept, an annual rise in peak ticket prices. Last year’s rise was one percent and with this 1.9 percent rise announcement, it highlights the need for action to be taken to make commuting in Scotland more affordable.

“We can expect these fare increases to undermine our goals of increasing social inclusion, encouraging traffic off the roads and onto the railway, and softening the impact of the UK’s pro-austerity and anti-EU politics on the budgets of ordinary Scots.

“With a privatised ScotRail, ticket prices are driven by the profit motive, not the public interest. ScotRail passengers, and those priced off the rails altogether, are suffering as a result.

“Despite the price increases, the corporate urge to cut corners has put train guards’ jobs under threat. I hope at least that ScotRail will listen to the RMT union and keep the guards on the trains; anything else would be putting profit ahead of safety.

“Privatised railways are an enormous failed experiment. I’ll be writing to the transport minister to offer my support to the government for putting Scotland’s railway back in public hands.”

You can read John’s letter to the Transport Minister below

:Fergus Letter Page 1Fergus Letter Page 2

Oil rig grounding shows urgent need for an emergency tug in the Western Isles

The Anglian Prince docked at Ullapool in 2008. The tug served the Minch and beyond from its base in Stornoway until it was axed in 2012. Photo: Anglian Prince by Mike Dunn. CC BY-SA 2.0.
The Anglian Prince docked at Ullapool in 2008. The tug served the Minch and beyond from its base in Stornoway until it was axed in 2012.

Photo: Anglian Prince by Mike Dunn. CC BY-SA 2.0.

John has written to the UK’s new Transport Secretary to repeat his call for the return of an emergency tug to the Western Isles, a need highlighted by the grounding of the Transocean Winner oil rig on Lewis.

The tug Anglian Prince was based at Stornoway until it was axed as part of Westminster cuts in 2012, leaving the Orkney-based Herakles as the only Emergency Towing Vessel covering Scotland’s northern waters.

John said:

“I am grateful that there were no personnel on board the Transocean Winner when it ran aground, and that therefore no-one was hurt. I also want to send my thanks to the Stornoway Coastguard and other responders, who have handled this disaster in tough weather conditions and while also responding to multiple other distress calls.

“However, we cannot yet know what the environmental damage may be, and there can be no guarantee that the next incident will pass without injuries or worse.

“This incident, along with the many others in recent years, demonstrates the urgent need for an emergency tug based in the Western Isles.

“The major inquiry held after the 1993 Braer disaster recommended as a priority that northwestern Scotland be provided with a strong emergency tug, and our seas have only got busier in the intervening three decades.

“Despite this, Westminster cuts abolished the Western Isles tug in 2012, leaving only the Orkney-based Herakles, which could take many hours to reach a vessel in distress in the Minch.

“We are a maritime nation and as such it is government’s responsibility to ensure that our seas and our coast are adequately protected. I’m repeating my call to the UK Government: reinstate the Western Isles tug, before Scotland has to pay the price.

“In the longer term, it’s clear that Scotland itself has to take responsibility for safety in Scottish waters. Our seas are being poorly served by a Westminster government for whom the far north of Scotland might as well be the far end of the world.”

Click here to read John’s letter to the Secretary of State for Transport, Chris Grayling MP (PDF).