Rail passengers deserve action on overcrowding

Railways back in public ownership: Not for profit; Improved services; Reduced fares.John Finnie has welcomed the announcement of a public bid to run ScotRail, but says passengers also need immediate changes to relieve overcrowding and make compensation easier to get.

John is transport spokesperson for the Scottish Greens, and will ask Transport Minister Humza Yousaf for action today in the Scottish Parliament.

Scotrail operator Abellio has been forced to produce a performance improvement plan by Transport Scotland, and the Mr Yousaf is due to make a statement on the problems with the service at 2.40pm this afternoon.

John is asking for passengers to automatically receive a form to claim a refund when performance is poor, rather than having to search for one. He is also urging immediate capital improvements to station facilities so that passengers have warm, comfortable rooms in which to wait for their connections.

Longer-term, the Greens want to see additional staff hired to ensure services flow smoothly, for staff to be consulted on ways to get punctuality and reliability back up to standard, and for Network Rail in Scotland to be devolved so that responsibility for rail infrastructure rests with the Scottish Government.

John Finnie said:

“Greens have long called for Scotland’s railways to be publicly-run as they are a public service. While we’ve yet to hear directly from the transport minister on this point, it is welcome that he has spoken of the need to prepare a public sector bid.

“In the short-term, passengers deserve action to improve the current dismal situation. Far too often commuters either have to stand all the way or they simply can’t board a train due to overcrowding. Abellio need to understand that poor service is unacceptable, and that offers of compensation should be automatic and easy to complete.

“Occasional delays and technical problems are understandable, and these can be made bearable by providing decent facilities for passengers. Our ageing stations are long overdue modernisation. We also need to ensure appropriate staffing levels and involve the staff themselves in any improvement plans as they know best how the service can be improved.

“Public transport has been overlooked by the Scottish Government for too long. It’s a shame it has taken till now for them to notice. Greens stand ready to offer constructive solutions to make Scotland’s railway the high quality public service it should be.”

Argyll police stations face closure threat

John Finnie 2John Finnie has written to the Chief Constable after it emerged that dozens of police stations – including several in Argyll – are under threat of closure.

A Freedom of Information request by BBC Scotland has revealed that Police Scotland buildings in 58 locations are being reviewed, including Oban, Loghgilphead, Campbelltown, Inverary and Taynuilt.

John is the Justice spokesperson for the Scottish Greens and MSP for the Highlands and Islands. He said:

“Of course all organisations should review processes.

“I don’t doubt some of these buildings will be less than ideal for modern needs, some of the locations on the list are very worrying whilst closure of any of the Argyll stations is unacceptable.

“With five stations in Argyll under threat suggests we could have next to no visible police presence on the West coast at all.

“While many people do use phone and the internet to interact with police, there is still a significant number of people – many elderly and vulnerable – who do not. Accessibility is paramount.

“In the past, Police Scotland have handled counter closures badly, so lessons must be learned.

“While there is much to be said for co-location of public services, such as Police and Fire or Police and Council sharing, we must prevent withdrawal from communities.

“Public confidence is vital. I look forward to the Chief Constable’s reply.”

John’s speech against welfare conditions and sanctions

2016-11-02-john-finnie-debatingJohn spoke about on welfare conditionality yesterday evening, in a Member’s Business debate brought by SNP MSP, and Convenor of the Parliament’s Social Security Committee, Sandra White. Ms White’s motion read:

Motion S5M-01360: Sandra White, Glasgow Kelvin, Scottish National Party, Date Lodged: 09/09/2016
Welfare Conditionality Study

That the Parliament notes with concern the first wave findings of the welfare conditionality study that was carried out by researchers from several leading universities, including the University of Glasgow and was presented to MSPs on 7 September 2016; understands that it found universally-negative experiences of conditionality, which it reported as creating both “widespread anxiety and feelings of disempowerment” among service users and leading some people to turn to crime in order to survive because of the sanctions that they faced; recognises the report’s conclusion that the common thread linking stories of successful transition to work was the availability of individual support rather than the threat of sanctions; notes that the report includes what it considers to be deeply disturbing service users’ accounts of the conditionality; understands that some described the system as “intimidating, dehumanising and disempowering”; congratulates the University of Glasgow and the other researchers on what it considers to be its important work, and looks forward to the next wave of findings being published.

John’s speech is below. You can see it in the full debate transcript here, or watch it on YouTube here.

John Finnie (Highlands and Islands) (Green):

I join others in congratulating Sandra White on bringing the debate to the chamber and in applauding and thanking the researchers for their work. It was my intention to say that we have all heard of or dealt with cases involving the devastating and harrowing impact that sanctions can have, but perhaps Mr Tomkins and his colleagues have not or, if they have heard, they have not listened, which would be more worrying.

The effect of removing people’s only means of support has a mental and physical health impact on them and their families but, unfortunately, the situation is even worse when we consider what jobseekers are being asked to do and how likely that is to improve their chances of finding employment. Around 65 per cent of participants leave the work programme without having gained and stayed in a job for at least six months. The figure is considerably higher for participants with health conditions or disabilities, around 85 per cent of whom have not entered and stayed in employment for at least three months. For those who are considered furthest from employment, the figure is as high as 94 per cent.

The report gives clear reasons why that might be the case. Claimants are asked to apply for jobs regardless of whether they are appropriate. The study’s interim findings show that people are being forced to apply for jobs that they tell Jobcentre Plus and employment programme providers they cannot do because of disability, ill-health or childcare responsibilities, yet those organisations insist on claimants applying. The report of interim findings cites the ridiculous case of a Scottish universal credit claimant who was asked to apply, under the threat of sanction, for a job as a driving instructor, despite the fact that he had said that he did not have a driving licence.

Much of the support offered is of a generic nature when, as others have said, it should be person centred. It has been limited to things such as help with writing CVs and job search skills. Individualised packages of support are needed. Sick and disabled jobseekers who were interviewed in the study reported being offered only that very general kind of support.

The DWP’s own survey of work programme participants found that over 70 per cent of those on the programme with a health condition were not offered health-related support to help them find work. Providers have openly admitted that there is not sufficient funding in the work programme to pay for on-going specialist support to help participants with disabilities and health conditions. The Centre for Social and Economic Inclusion reported that work programme providers spend as little as £545 to provide up to two years of support for employment and support allowance participants.

One of the few positive messages to come out of the report is that on the great work done by Jobcentre Plus disability advisers. Perhaps inevitably, in the topsy-turvy world of the DWP where nothing seems to make sense, those advisers are now being withdrawn from jobcentres and mainstream jobcentre staff will be expected to provide specialist disability support. The structure of the contracts, which prioritises job outcomes, means that those who are relatively close to the labour market are offered the most support and that more disadvantaged jobseekers are provided with very little practical help.

If the purpose of sanctions is to help benefit recipients into work by enforcing, under the threat of sanction, participation in employment programmes and other schemes of support, and if that support is unlikely — in some cases very unlikely — to help them find employment, the whole basis of the sanctions regime is brought into very serious and fundamental question.

We can now use the powers in the Scotland Act 2012 to chart a different course. Sandra White spoke about dignity and respect, and those principles should underpin our approach.

Although sanctions are not devolved, powers over the employment programmes — some of which are currently compulsory — have now been devolved and new programmes will operate from spring next year. Those will involve a more supportive approach in which people are encouraged to take up offers of employment support not because they are bullied into doing so, but because there are genuine opportunities to find work.

I was very proud to stand for election earlier this year on the only party manifesto that pledged to use the new powers over employment services to reduce significantly the numbers of benefit sanctions that are applied in Scotland. My colleague Alison Johnstone, who has worked with others on that issue, called on the Scottish Government to use the powers in that way and released a plan that explains how it could be done.

Last month, I was pleased to hear the Minister for Employability and Training commit to operating those new programmes on an entirely voluntary basis, and I commend that approach. It will require significant investment in schemes of support that go far beyond the current DWP schemes.

Finally, I turn to the costs of complying with benefit conditionality, which can be considerable. That is an issue in particular for benefit recipients in rural areas, where the cost of transport from recipients’ homes to the nearest jobcentre to attend appointments or to the nearest library in order to use computers to apply for jobs can eat significantly into the scant amount that those people are paid in benefits.

Dignity and humanity will be the hallmark of the way in which we use the newly devolved powers, but we can apply that approach to the entire system only when we have the ability to use all the powers, which will come with independence.

John uncovers £18.5m government handout to arms industry

John Finnie three-quarterJohn Finnie has asked the Scottish Government to stop bankrolling the arms industry, after discovering that two of its agencies have handed out £18.5m in support for the trade.

In response to a Parliamentary Question from John, Economy Secretary Keith Brown MSP revealed that over the last ten years Scottish Enterprise has given the arms insustry £15.1m, and Highlands and Islands Enterprise has given £3.4m, to support development, manufacture or marketing.

John said:

“It is rank hypocrisy for SNP MPs to, as they have, condemn the sale of arms from the UK while at the same time the SNP Government is handing out millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money to support that very industry. The scale of funding will shock many people, and I think the public will rightly be angry that public funds are being used to encourage such an abhorrent trade.

“By supporting the making and selling of guns and bombs our enterprise agencies are squandering vital funds. They must rethink their approach and invest instead in meaningful, lasting employment.

“Scottish Government ministers must lead by example. Instead of praising bomb-makers they should face up to modern-day security challenges: conflict over resources, climate change, cyber security and terrorism. They should stop funding outdated and immoral businesses and focus efforts on peace and human security.”

John’s speech on Brexit, justice and security

2014-11-11-jf-human-rights-debateJohn spoke in today’s debate on Scotland’s economy on behalf of the Scottish Greens. The debate discussed this motion by Michael Matheson, the Cabinet Secretary for Justice:

Motion S5M-02203: Michael Matheson, Falkirk West, Scottish National Party, Date Lodged: 31/10/2016
UK Referendum on EU Membership: Impacts on Justice and Security in Scotland

That the Parliament acknowledges the result of the UK referendum on EU membership in Scotland; recognises the continuing importance of EU membership to Scotland; acknowledges the benefits to the justice system of EU-wide cooperation and the extent to which the current Scottish justice system is shaped and informed by EU law, as well as the benefits to Scotland’s mixed legal system, which includes civilian elements; notes that any repeal of the EU justice and law enforcement measures will have an impact on the effectiveness of law enforcement and an increase in costs in law enforcement procedures due to the lack of harmonised systems and standards already established; acknowledges the pivotal role played by EUROPOL in facilitating and supporting the international cooperation necessary to combat cross-border crime and terrorism; resolves to promote Scotland’s willingness to continue to collaborate with European partners, and calls on the UK Government to ensure that Scotland has a role in the decision-making, as well as full involvement in all negotiations between the UK Government and the EU, to protect Scotland’s independent justice system.

John’s speech is below. You can see it in the full debate transcript here, or watch it on YouTube here.

John Finnie (Highlands and Islands) (Green):

I think it is very important that we debate the subject. As we heard from Jenny Marra, justice is a top priority for our citizens, and an obligation is placed on any state, however it is configured, to see to the security of its citizens and provide justice for them. Key to that is collaborative working, and that is what the European project was about. It was not about setting aside the unique nature of Scots law; it was the mix that was important.

In my view, the clear motivation for the European Union referendum was disengagement from that sort of approach. That has led to alienation and, in some respects, disrespect for the United Kingdom and, by default, Scotland, and I think that it has put security at risk. It has been gesture politics and we continue to hear gesture politics.

We have been there before — I think that only the cabinet secretary has briefly alluded to this — when it came to the Lisbon treaty, which was agreed in 2009. A final decision on United Kingdom participation in 133 justice and police co-operation measures required to be taken no later than 31 May 2014. A convoluted process was involved in that, but nonetheless there was a five-year window following the Lisbon treaty and there was ample opportunity for the UK Government to engage with the devolved Administrations on whether to exercise the block opt-out. After the Lisbon agreement, the arrangements were that it was possible to come in on an individual basis but, for the measures that were agreed before it, a block opt-out had to be exercised.

The important point there was that, despite letters from the Scottish ministers as far on as in April and August 2012, there was very little action. It was clear that the Scottish Government’s position was that some elements that were part of the pre-2009 agreement were defunct and had limited impact. However — it is a big however — there were other significant measures, which have continually been alluded to, including the investigation of cross-border crimes, measures to bring serious organised criminals to justice and the European arrest warrant, Scotland’s experience of which has been entirely positive.

What is at risk if we do not have that approach? I will miss out the names, but examples were given to those of us who were on the Justice Committee at that time. The Deputy Presiding Officer, Christine Grahame, and my colleague Margaret Mitchell will be familiar with this. We heard about a murder case in which the individual was arrested within a day of the extradition request being issued and was swiftly returned to Scotland. Importantly, the warrant allowed the seizure of clothing and other property before it could be destroyed, which would have affected the evidential value, and it led to a successful prosecution.

Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (Lib Dem):

I join John Finnie in supporting the European arrest warrant, but he said that it had been wholly successful. Even as somebody who supports the warrant, I note that some legitimate concerns have been raised about the proportionality test for those extraditions. Further work will need to be done in that area, without detracting from the support that is rightly given to the warrant itself.

John Finnie:

The member makes an interesting point but, if it is a numbers game, it has to be seen that it is 5 million people versus the entire population of the remainder of the EU, so it does look disproportionate. The important thing is the speed and efficiency with which action was undertaken.

Another example that we were given involved a violent attack and a murder in 2012. The individual was arrested through the European arrest warrant system within five hours of the issue of the arrest warrant, but also — importantly — by direct contact between the Scottish and Polish authorities under the European judicial network. We need to consider not simply the police operations, which are very important for all the reasons that we have heard, but the value of co-operation at the judicial and prosecutorial level.

There was support from the Scottish ministers, the police, the prosecutors, legal professionals, academics and the House of Lords European Union Select Committee inquiry, which took the view that the benefits of opting out of defunct or ineffective pre-Lisbon measures did not justify the risk of losing those measures that are essential in tackling cross-border crime.

The most telling aspect of what we learned at the time, when the Presiding Officer was convener of the Justice Committee, was that the UK ministers did not consult the Scottish ministers or the Scottish justice agencies on the matter. Although 35 of the measures were ultimately opted back into, I would hate to think that we are about to see that model again. If we did see it, that would be bad news for law enforcement, the judicial network, our civil law and our contractual law, and it would be good news for those who seek to circumvent the law — most commonly criminals. The benefits of the European arrest warrant are well understood.

The issue of taking evidence was raised by my colleague Claire Baker, and there have been developments in that field both in this jurisdiction and elsewhere — another opportunity that could be lost.

The briefing from the Law Society of Scotland, for which I am grateful, talks about stability in the law and says:

“The primary objective of judicial security and police cooperation is the safety of the citizen, as a guiding principle there should be no change to the law which would prejudice the safety and security of the individual.”

We simply do not know. At the moment, lots of guessing is taking place. Going back to the Lisbon agreement, the concern was that, if that had not been concluded in time, we needed reassurance in Scotland about the potential gap in legislation. I think that a big gap is potentially opening up.

The Scottish Green Party will support the Labour Party’s amendment, because we think that it is important that there is analysis. It is also important that we consider the issue of transitional arrangements. For any piece of legislation, we know what has happened in the past and we can perhaps agree what is going to happen in the future; all the complexity is in the transition.

The Scottish Green Party will support the Scottish Government’s efforts to ensure the following for people living in Scotland: that their democratic wishes are respected; that they have access to a quality legal system that co-operates with others; and that their security is assured, which is best achieved by conflict resolution. We believe that all those things are being put at risk by Tory recklessness.

British UN vote shows we need independence to scrap Trident

John Finnie three-quarterJohn Finnie has called on all those committed to nuclear disarmament to back an independent Scotland, after the United Kingdom refused to join with 123 United Nations members in their call for a global summit to abolish nuclear weapons.

John urged Jeremy Corbyn supporters in Scotland to back scrapping Trident via independence, calling it the “only realistic prospect” of removing nuclear weapons from Britain.

He said:

“Instead of siding with the overwhelming majority of the world’s nations in voting to set up a conference to negotiate ways of prohibiting and eliminating weapons of mass destruction, the UK voted with the nuclear club states who continue to stand in the way of progress on disarmament.

“Those members of Scottish Labour who want a nuclear-free world must now accept that Jeremy Corbyn’s party no longer offers a British road to disarmament. The only realistic prospect of removing Trident from Scotland and to join with countries like Brazil, Ireland, Mexico, Nigeria and South Africa in saying ‘no’ to nuclear weapons, is for Scotland to become an independent country and vocal member of the international community.

“I urge those Labour members to join the Greens and others in this campaign.”

John calls for review of court rules to protect rape victims

John Finnie three-quarterJohn Finnie has called on the Scottish Government to investigate whether current laws are sufficient to prevent defence lawyers using rape victims’ sexual history against them in court.

Introducing a complainant’s sexual history as evidence was, in theory, banned in most cases by the 2002 Sexual Offences (Procedure and Evidence) Act. But in the first three months of this year, there were 57 applications to use sexual history evidence, of which only 9 were refused. Prosecutors only opposed 6 of the applications.

Despite similar laws being in place in England, the sexual history of the complainant was made a central part of the footballer Ched Evans’ successful appeal against his conviction for rape. This evidence was described by Rape Crisis Scotland as “blatantly prejudicial,” and contributed to the campaign of public shaming, harassment and threats she experienced.

Click here to read John Finnie's letter to the Justice Secretary (PDF).
Click here to read John Finnie’s letter to the Justice Secretary.
John is the Justice Spokesperson for the Scottish Greens. He has written to the Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Michael Matheson MSP, asking him to commission an in-depth review of how the law on sexual history evidence is applied, and whether it is doing enough to protect victims. The laws have not been reviewed in this way since 2006.

He has also lodged a parliamentary question asking what protections are in place to ensure victims are not further harmed by the public exposure of their sexual history.

John said:

“Victims of rape and other sex crimes are too often re-victimised by the ordeal of the investigation and trial. They should not suffer having their sexual history pulled apart in court in an attempt to discredit them – and, in theory, we have laws to prevent that.

“However, women going through the system regularly report being asked intimate questions about their sexual history. A Scottish Government data-gathering exercise found that in the first three months of 2016, there were 57 applications to introduce complainants’ sexual history in court, and judges refused only 9 of them.

“It has been 10 years since the last review of how our laws on sexual history evidence are working. We don’t know how many rape victims are being traumatised by unnecessary questioning, or how many cases are being prejudiced by character assassination – but the experience of charities like Rape Crisis Scotland suggests it’s too many.

“That’s why I’m asking for a detailed evaluation of how this law is operating in practice. If that study shows it doesn’t effectively protecting victims, the urgency of a new, stricter law that does will be undeniable.”