We can’t trust energy workers’ futures to Big Oil

An abridged version of this article appeared in the Press & Journal on Saturday 6 August 2016.

The port at Nigg, where work on the Beatrice Offshore Windfarm is creating 100 green jobs. Photo: Sea Cromarty Sparkle by Rhonda Surman. CC-BY-2.0.
The port at Nigg, where work on the Beatrice Offshore Windfarm is creating 100 green jobs.
Photo: Sea Cromarty Sparkle by Rhonda Surman. CC-BY-2.0.
I want to start this column by offering my support and solidarity to the 400 workers at the multination oil services company Wood Group, who are continuing with the first offshore strike in almost three decades.

These workers already do a tough and sometimes risky job, have already been moved to a three-week working pattern meaning longer periods offshore away from their families, and are now being asked to accept pay cuts.

While workers’ pay is cut, the Chief Executive of the Wood Group has been given a 28% pay rise, taking his salary to £600,000 a year, and the company is handing out a generous 10% dividend to its shareholders.

This attitude exemplifies an economy that treats workers in the same way as it treats the oil and gas they drill – as a commodity to be exploited until it is no longer profitable; never mind the harm caused or the damage left behind when corporations move on to juicier profits elsewhere.

So it’s small wonder that the disregard shown for these workers’ immediate future is matched by the disinterest most oil and gas firms show in securing them a long-term working future. When the oil is done, Big Oil reasons, they will simply up sticks and never look back on the unemployment they’d leave behind.

It’s a story all too familiar to the former steel towns of the Central Belt, and it could well be played out again in the North if we go on without a plan for what comes next.

The good news is that what comes next could be an energy revolution to outshine the fossil fuel age; creating more than enough jobs to secure the future of our world-class skilled workforce and renewing the economy not only of Aberdeen, but also of town and country right across the North and the Islands.

Scotland has a quarter of the European Union’s entire offshore wind and marine energy potential, and perhaps the greatest offshore engineering tradition in the world.

As well as Aberdeen’s undisputed position as a global centre for offshore engineering, we have innovative and expert workforces in communities across the country, such as at Nigg, Orkney, Shetland and Campbeltown. Not to mention the huge injection of skills, facilities and money that could be brought to bear if Faslane was converted for socially useful, peaceful work.

By applying our unique skills to our vast renewable resources, we could put Scotland at the forefront of a global industry. We should be not only Europe’s biggest producer of clean energy, but also the place the world comes for renewable technology, engineering and services.

Workers in the oil and gas industry know that it cannot last forever, and that it may not even last until the end of their careers. They know that they may be the last generation of Scottish oil and gas workers, and wonder what the future holds for their children and their communities. Meanwhile, multinational oil firms attempt to exploit this vulnerability, gouging workers who they believe have no alternative.

Cover of the Green MSPs' report Jobs in Scotland's New Economy.
The Green MSPs’ report Jobs in Scotland’s Green Economy (PDF) shows how we could create more than 200,000 green jobs in the next 20 years.
Energy workers deserve so much better than that. They deserve a secure future for themselves and their families. They deserve to be valued for their skills, not squeezed to prop up bonuses and dividends when the declining oil age fail to satisfy corporate greed. They have the ability to build a new energy industry that will underpin Scottish prosperity for generations to come and help save the world into the bargain, and they deserve the chance to fulfil that potential.

The first glimmers of that industry are plain to see. Renewables now supply more than half of Scotland’s electricity demand, and just this week Vattenfall announced a £300m investment to build the 11-turbine, 92.4MW European Offshore Wind Development Centre in Aberdeen Bay.

But without a concerted, ambitious plan to transition from the fossil era to the clean energy age we could easily fall short of our potential. Currently-planned projects aren’t yet enough to hit the Scottish Government target of meeting 100% of our electricity needs from renewables by 2020, and the Commons Scottish Affairs Committee warned this week that uncertainty over the UK Government’s commitment to renewables could threaten future growth.

And a piecemeal, wait-and-see strategy does nothing to guarantee the futures of present oil and gas workers: they need to know where and when their future jobs are coming, and they need a guarantee of extra training or financial help if they need them.

So I encourage the Scottish Government to work with unions, employers, universities and colleges, industry bodies and all willing political parties – certainly the Greens are ready to help – to create a comprehensive and genuinely ambitious industrial strategy that maps a detailed route from the fossil-fuel economy of the 20th century to the renewable boom of the 21st century and beyond.

There’s no question that clean energy is our future; the choice we have to make now is whether we lead the world into that bright future, or merely follow it.

Thank You

I’d like to thank: the voters of Highlands and Islands for choosing to, once again, be represented in the Scottish Parliament by the Scottish Green Party; colleagues in Highlands and Islands Green Party for all their hard work during the campaign; my fellow lead candidate Isla O’Reilly for her outstanding contribution – she will yet grace the Scottish Parliament; James and centrally based colleagues of the Scottish Green Party and my wife Bernadette for her constant support.

John’s campaign against MSPs’ £3.2m bankrolling of fossil fuels, Big Tobacco and the arms trade

“MSPs’ pensions should not be fattened further at the expense of our planet or its residents’ health and well-being, and I am ashamed that the overwhelming majority of my colleagues seem relaxed to benefit personally from socially and environmentally destructive companies.”

— John Finnie MSP

John Finnie speaking from within the Edinburgh University building occupied by students in protest at fossil fuel investments
John Finnie speaking from within the Edinburgh University building occupied by students in protest at fossil fuel investments
In an exclusive in yesterday’s Sunday Herald, investigative journalist Rob Edwards of The Ferret revealed that the Scottish Parliamentary Pension Scheme, which invests the pension contributions of MSPs, holds assets of £3.2 million in dirty energy, tobacco and armaments.

Edwards was reporting on new analysis of the parliamentarians’ portfolio by Friends of the Earth Scotland, who found holdings in companies like the cigarette giant British American Tobacco, and the weapons systems firm Ultra Electronics which makes components for the US’s Predator and Reaper drones.

You can read the full story on the Herald website or on the Ferret site.

John has been campaigning for months to get the MSPs’ pension funds out of fossil fuels, tobacco and the arms trade, and invested instead in socially useful activities like developing clean energy.

You can read the story of John’s campaign so far, and see what you can do to help stop MSPs cash bankrolling climate change and war, on the Ethical Investment Campaign page.

John’s ethical investment campaign – the story so far

“There can hardly be a more nakedly selfish act than profiting off of the human suffering of climate change.”

— John Finnie MSP

John has been campaigning to get pension schemes and other investments – including the Scottish Parliament’s own pension fund – to divest from harmful industries like fossil fuels, tobacco and the arms trade, and invest instead in socially useful activities like developing clean energy.

We’ve created a new page on the website so you can keep track of the campaign as it develops. To see read the story so far, and see what you can do to help stop MSPs cash bankrolling climate change, visit the Ethical Investment Campaign page now.

The Highlands and Islands need rent controls

This post first appeared on the website of the Living Rent Campaign.

John Finnie backs Living Rent Campaign, holding placard reading "It's time for rent controls".The Highlands and Islands is an expensive place to live. You probably know that our big distances mean higher transport costs, and our wilder weather means bigger fuel bills. You could probably guess that our workers’ wages are well below those in the central belt. But it might come as more of a surprise to learn that rents in the Highlands and Islands are well above the Scottish average, and rising faster than anywhere but Glasgow.

According to a study by estate agents Your Move (PDF), the average rent in the private rented sector in the Highlands and Islands run at £563 per month, £14 higher than the national figure. In the last year, our rents have risen by 4.3%, only a fraction behind the 4.6% increase in the Glasgow and Clyde area.

There is a tendency to think of housing pressures as the preserve of overcrowded urban centres or their hastily-built suburban schemes. In fact, the housing crisis here in the Highlands and Islands is as acute as anywhere in the central belt.

Our rents are soaring, driven by buy-to-let and holiday-home speculators for whom houses are first and foremost investments, not homes. The result is greater poverty, greater depopulation, and more desperate tenants forced to accept poor-quality homes or unscrupulous landlords.

We must reverse that trend, so that everyone can expect somewhere safe, secure and affordable to live.

The housing crisis is a complex problem that will have complex solutions, but I believe that a system of rent controls is an essential component of our response.

Rent controls were effectively abolished in the UK by the Thatcher government’s 1988 Housing Acts, but rent controls live on in other countries, including in several cities in the United States. The policy is making a strong comeback, with Berlin the most recent major city to extend its rent controls. A UK opinion poll last December found that 60% support rent controls, and less than 1 in 14 people oppose them (opposition among the Scottish subset of the poll was a virtually negligible 1 in 33).

Here in Scotland, we await the report – due imminently – on the Scottish Government’s second consultation on a “New Tenancy for the Private Sector,” which asked respondents for their view on bringing back rent controls. In the meantime the Scottish Parliament has received a petition, organised by the grassroots Living Rent Campaign and signed by 8,000 people, calling for the reintroduction of rent controls.

The Living Rent Campaign’s proposals not only take on the raw cost of renting, but also the poor quality of much of our housing. This is a particular problem in the Highlands and Islands, where almost half (48%) of private tenants live in fuel poverty, 26% of private rented homes are “lacking modern facilities”, and 13% are “below tolerable standard” – more than twice the Scottish average.

Using a points system similar to that in place in the Netherlands, maximum rents would be lowered for properties that fail housing quality standards, have poor energy efficiency or are awaiting repairs, giving landlords a much-needed financial incentive to make improvements.

Rent controls are by no means enough on their own to solve the housing crisis – and no-one is saying they are. We need to build many, many more council houses; we need secure, indefinite tenancies that allow tenants to put down roots; we need to ban discrimination against prospective tenants on the grounds of their welfare or immigration status; and we need much tougher minimum energy efficiency standards to wipe out fuel poverty – all of which has been proposed by the Scottish Greens, and found at least some support in other parties.

What rent controls will do is make an immediate impact in the lives and expectations of many thousands of tenants. They will reduce the burden on families in hardship, encourage young people back to depopulated communities, and restore sanity to the housing market. Most of all, they will begin the process of reclaiming our houses as homes for people, not for money.

I’m very proud to be one of the first MSPs to put my name to the Living Rent Campaign’s pledge to back rent controls. Please write to your MSPs, your MPs, MEPs and Councillors, and the candidates for the next Scottish Parliament election, asking them to do the same.

Policing the polis: Holding Scotland’s new service to account

This article was written in March 2015, and first appeared in the most recent edition, issue 41, of Democratic Left Scotland’s magazine, Perspectives. Copies are now available at Word Power, West Nicolson Street, Edinburgh. 

John Finnie - Amnesty InternationalEver since being asked to write an article, a couple of months ago, on Scotland’s now two year old police service, its already rancorous birth has been compounded by almost weekly controversies.

Since the new service started there has been a wholesale change in policing methods: armed officers have appeared on our streets attending routine non firearms incidents; and a significant number of Scotland’s children have been stopped by the police, asked to ‘consent’ to being searched, then having their mobile phone numbers requested.

I’m a member of the Scottish Parliament’s Police Committee and during evidence taking have been assured by senior officers that those unpopular, and in one instance legally questionable, practices had stopped only to subsequently learn that’s not the case. Whilst this information was not given on oath, as senior public servants it was reasonable to assume that we would not subjected to false, misleading or inaccurate statements.

So what is going on? Who is really in charge? And was the First Minister wise to recently give the chief constable a vote of confidence when many think she should be giving him his P45?

I will examine the background to Scotland’s police service, what checks and balances exist, whether the advent of the single police service heralded the police being the controversial political issue they have become, whether those controversies have another genesis, and what the future might hold.

The difficult birth of Police Scotland

Until fairly recent times it was widely accepted that the principal of policing by consent applied to the various constabularies discharging their duties in Scotland.

In April 2013, Scotland’s eight regional forces and ‘central services’, such as the Scottish Police College, were merged into a single entity, Police Scotland, since which time the police’s commitment to that concept has been seriously questioned by local and national politicians and the Scottish Human Rights Commission.

I fought for and secured improving amendments to the legislation and, as Chair of the Parliament’s Cross party Group on Human Rights, was delighted my proposed revised oath to be sworn by all new recruits; “I, do solemnly, sincerely and truly declare and affirm that I will faithfully discharge the duties of the office of constable with fairness, integrity, diligence and impartiality, and that I will uphold fundamental human rights and accord equal respect to all people, according to law,” was unanimously agreed by Parliament. The previous oath made no mention of “upholding human rights”.

The transition from 9 bodies to one was tortuously slow. Police are very rank- conscious and the preparatory work for the new service had exactly the same number of ‘work-streams’ as there were assistant chief constables so everyone got a new, albeit temporary, title. Self-interest among those individuals lead to inertia and it was only after the appointment of Police Scotland’s first chief constable, Stephen House, hitherto the chief constable of Strathclyde Police, that things got moving.

Stephen House is a former Metropolitan Police Officer who believes that a ‘performance culture’ is what is required to evidence sound policing practice. So, whilst some things, such as public reassurance, are very hard to quantify, it is easy to count the number of drivers charged with not wearing a seat belt or the number who have dropped litter. Now, as someone who owes their life to wearing a seat belt, I place very great store in educating the public about road traffic safety and, of course, I dislike litter. However, in each of those instances, if the offender is someone who will respond to advice, then much better that, rather than reach for their notebook, officers deploy their most significant power: the power of discretion. That way you have two citizens grateful for not being charged and two future potential witnesses to help the police. But if you give a clear focus on numbers then that’s what front-line officers will concentrate on.

The period running up to the amalgamation was frenzied. On paper at least, the scrutiny process was designed to be enhanced. Each council ward now has its own Policing Plan and each Local Authority its own Police Committee, rather than the joint board system of members for various authorities in all but two of the former forces. Overseeing it all, the Scottish Police Authority, a board of appointees with various backgrounds and officials with a variety of skills.

Arming the police

Until about 20 years ago, the Scottish Police service was always unarmed. Trained officers could be sent to incidents where firearms were needed, invariably the aftermath of an armed robbery, a murder using firearms or whilst on close protection duties for VIPs. About 20 years ago saw the advent of the Armed Response Vehicle: two highly trained uniformed officers in a vehicle on constant patrol. Within the last decade each of the forces had them but only Strathclyde and Lothian & Borders officers have the firearms carried overtly on the officers; Tayside’s ARV crews carried the weapons covertly whilst the other forces had weapons contained within a locked safe in the boot of the vehicle with withdrawal and use requiring the approval of a senior officer.

When a constituent contacted me saying they were concerned armed officers were patrolling on foot in the Inverness area I was initially sceptical but I made some enquiries and found it to be correct.

One of the changes that followed the move to the single service was the significant change I encountered trying to get replies to constituents’ enquiries. I wrote to the chief constable asking if there was a plan to put in place a correspondence protocol and was effectively told ‘we’ll decide what’s important’. For those reasons, rather than send off another letter which could go unanswered for months, I raised the matter through the Herald newspaper.

Police Scotland’s response was dismissive. I was told that only I and one other had ever complained. I sought and secured a meeting with the Assistant Chief Constable responsible for firearms and invited all my Highlands and Islands MSP colleagues to attend.

Now, almost a year and three official reports on we are told the ‘terrorist threat’ means our armed officers will retain their ‘standing authority’ to openly carry their firearms and they will still intervene in non-firearms incidents ‘using their professional judgement’. My request that the guns be returned to the safe in the car boot has been roundly rejected.

Stop and search

When used proportionately, stopping and searching citizens is legitimate crime prevention tool for the police. Indeed, common law powers of search and statutory powers relating to things such as drugs and weapons have always been a feature of effective policing. The laws relating to stop in search did not alter when Police Scotland came into being, nor did the threat level suddenly change what did alter was the police’s approach to stop and search.

One year in, we learned that levels of stop and search in Scotland exceeded those of the Metropolitan Police and New York Police Department.

More reports and explanations, and then the sad spectacle of Assistant Chief Constable Mawson, in the full light of the resulting publicity, explaining to Parliament that the ‘loss’ of “20,086 (search) records …. between May and July last year’ was because, ‘a computer programmer pressed the wrong button”. I’m not sure even he believed it, but within a few days the story changed anyway.

Whether terrorism, organised crime or drugs, the police like to tell us their operations are far from random, rather they are “intelligence led”. Of course, were that the case then we wouldn’t see communities targeted for stop and search operations resulting in four out of five stopped and searched having nothing on them, something the hapless ACC described as ‘a good success story’.

Later, having assured Parliament that searching of under-12s would cease, only for it to continue, the chief constable boasted he can and does ask for explanations from officers, bizarrely adding “that is quite an impressive development as far as human rights are concerned.” The ‘development’ that has seen young people stopped, searched, and had inappropriate details requested is ‘impressive’: an impressive disregard of human rights which will now stop.

Every profession has its own language and when we are told “there are no targets for volume of stop and search” yet are aware that each of Scotland’s Divisional Commanders has 23 key performance indicators to satisfy, you can see how scepticism can arise.

Policing the polis

Councillors on local authority committees have little to scrutinise and were cynically by-passed on the armed police issue whilst the Police Authority, initially distracted by a turf war about who’d be in charge of what, has been absent without trace on both the armed police and stop and search issues, belatedly and ineptly reporting events long since pored over by the press and politicians.

Since I became an independent MSP, the government no longer has a majority on either the Justice or Police Committees and seem to wish to characterise criticism of the police as ‘an opposition campaign’. I fear that misjudges the important scrutiny role expected of parliamentarians and, whilst we must all support the rule of law, that does not mean a blank cheque to an over-bearing policing style.

What do we learn from all of this? Well, it’s not that all the Police Scotland does is bad. The proactive work targeting serial domestic violence offenders has rightly been widely welcomed by Women’s Aid and others. Yet, even with that positive issue, rather than work with the legislative tools they are given, the police became active and vocal supporters of ending the age old Scots law convention of corroboration, the requirement for two separate sources of evidence to convict someone. That issue was eventually kicked into not very long grass by the Scottish Government, and will emerge again at the end of the year in time for proponents of this dangerous change to pontificate that some rights are more important than others.

Those opposed to the creation of the single service will feel vindicated that the series of events I have related show that they were right. I disagree; I believe they show a single-minded chief constable, unchallenged by his fellow chief officers, who isn’t held in check by his Police Authority, and who needs reigned in.

Sir Stephen House is quick to say he understands the need for him to be accountable; however, you do not need to be an expert in body language to read that’s not really his view.

I support local policing, and were I still a local councillor I would have been asking questions about armed officers on my beat. Why it was not picked up at local or national level? In fairness to the police they did tell the Police Authority. It was the last sentence of Paragraph ‘5.9’ of agenda item ‘8’: “Work is therefore well underway and on track in terms of Armed Policing provision for Day 1 when a standing authority for Armed Response Vehicles (ARV), Tactical Firearms Unit (TFU), airport coverage and other policing operations will be implemented.” Now, despite my intimate knowledge of the police service, I would not have read it as ‘routine arming’. Deliberate or not, it is now academic because, as with many other aspects of the controversies, the story has constantly changed with there being several versions of how it happened.

A colleague on the Police Committee recently asked the chief constable ‘if a witness in a police investigation changed their evidence as quickly and as often as that, they would be considered to be unreliable, would they not?’ Sir Stephen House replied ‘we would certainly be interested in why the story was changing. We are trying to explain why the story has changed.’

The story that is Police Scotland needs to change and, whilst that may only happen with the departure of the present chief constable, we must all remain vigilant and demand that our police service ‘uphold fundamental human rights and accord equal respect to all people, according to law’. I’ve not given up hope yet!

Immigration is good for Scotland – so bring back the post-study visa

John Finnie speaking at the University of the Highlands and IslandsThis post first appeared on the Scottish Green Party blog.

Scotland has some of the best universities in the world, and would benefit from international graduates of those universities staying in Scotland and contributing their new skills to our economy.

That seems an uncontroversial statement, and indeed has just been endorsed by 100 leaders from academia and business, but we face a battle to get the UK immigration system to acknowledge it.

Until 2012, we had a ‘Post-Study Work Visa’ that allowed students to live and work in Scotland for two years after graduation. It began in Scotland as ‘Fresh Talent’ in 2005, before becoming a UK-wide scheme as part of the new immigration system in 2008.

But the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition abolished post-study work visas altogether in 2012, as part of their UKIP-appeasing campaign against migrants.

The door to positive change was opened a crack by the Smith Commission, in which all five parties agreed that the Scottish and UK governments should begin discussions on a new post-study work visa for Scotland.

Now the Europe and International Development Minister, Humza Yousaf MSP, has convened a cross-party working group to examine how we can bring this about. I’ve been appointed by the Scottish Greens to represent our party on this new group.

I’m very proud that Greens on both sides of the border have refused to go along with the anti-immigrant rhetoric indulged by the old Westminster parties. When Labour released their infamous “Controls on Immigration” coffee mug, we countered with one that reads “Love immigration – vote Green”.

Greens recognise that people are an asset. We know that migrants make huge contributions to Scotland’s economic, social and cultural life. We’re not fooled by the right-wing parties that seek to blame immigration for the damaging effects of their own policies on everything from housing to low pay.

Nowhere is that more clear than in Scotland’s higher education sector. Our wee country boasts five of the world’s top 200 universities, attracting students from all over the world – our own Co-Convenor, Maggie Chapman, was one of them when she came to Scotland from Zimbabwe to study.

International students make Scotland’s universities the world centres of education that they are, but as soon as they graduate they are forced out of the country. They take their years of top-class education, their skills, and their international experience with them when they go.

The University of California system has invested almost incalculable sums of public money in educating students from across the US. With no California version of the Home Office to throw them out, many of those students stayed in California upon graduation. The results include Silicon Valley.

If we want our brilliant international graduates to help us build our own Silicon Glen, or solve the engineering challenges of clean energy, or create the best health service in the world, then we have to stop letting a paranoid immigration system throw that talent away.

This is just one of many, many ways in which the anti-immigrant obsession of Westminster politics harms both Scotland and the people who would like to make their homes here. But with cross-party effort, it might very well be one we can change.