The Scottish Government must take immediate action to climate proof Scotland’s railways, Scottish Greens Transport Spokesperson John Finnie MSP has said.
Speaking following the closure of the West Highland Line between Fort William and Crianlarich due to a landslip the Highlands and Islands MSP called for urgent action to protect Scotland’s rail network.
John Finnie MSP said:
“We know that Scotland’s antiquated rail network is vulnerable to adverse weather, and we know that as the climate emergency grips we will be faced by increasingly severe weather. Action must be taken now to protect and enhance Scotland’s railway.
“Many of my constituents rely on the West Highland Line, and it provides a massive economic boost to communities along its route, but frustrations are building at regular closures caused by the weather. I commend those who work tirelessly to keep the railway open, but it’s clear that we urgently need a climate plan to protect this and other lines.
“The recent fatal derailment near Stonehaven has shown us what tragic consequences can arise. The Scottish Government needs to urgently develop and implement a climate plan for Scotland’s railway, that ensures the current network is protected and all future improvements are climate proofed.”
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.”
John 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.
“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 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.
“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 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.
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.
“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.”
John has welcomed an assurance from First Minister Nicola Sturgeon on the future of Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), and called for the creation of a new agency to replicate HIE’s success in the South of Scotland.
HIE, which replaced the Highlands and Islands Development Board in 1991, differs from Scottish Enterprise in that it is charged with supporting community development, not just the commercial economy.
Fears for the future of HIE were raised this week by Highland economist Tony Mackay. After meeting with Scottish Government ministers, he wrote: “One of the ministers told me that the Government is considering merging Highlands and Islands Enterprise and Scottish Enterprise.”
Questioning Ms Sturgeon, John said:
“First Minister, you’ll be aware that Highlands and Islands Enterprise, like the Highlands and Islands Development Board before it, provides a valuable role in the Highlands and Islands. That’s because of its dual remit of not only economic but also community benefit.
“You’ll be aware of press speculation regarding its future. Can you give an assurance that these two important functions will continue to be discharged by HIE in the Highlands and Islands?”
The First Minister replied:
“Yes. HIE has done a fantastic job over the last fifty years. I can give the assurance to the Member that we will make sure it is in a position to continue to carry out those functions and provide the excellent services it does to the Highlands of Scotland.”
Speaking afterwards, John said:
“I am pleased that the First Minister has quashed talk of merging HIE with Scottish Enterprise. The Highlands and Islands faces unique challenges and opportunities, and needs its own development agency. More than that, it needs one with the big-picture outlook that is built in to HIE: supporting development of and for the whole community, not commerce alone.
“The First Minister recognises the hugely valuable role that HIE has played in the north of Scotland over the past 50 years, so I hope she will see the strong case for bringing that success to the south of Scotland too.
“The south of Scotland is, like the Highlands and Islands, a large, predominantly rural region – but it is also very different and faces very different issues. A new, dedicated agency for the region on the HIE model would enable local responses to the south’s own challenges while putting its communities at the heart of its economic development.”
As well as representing the Highlands and Islands region, John is the Scottish Greens’ national spokesperson on Rural and Island Communities.
John Finnie has written to the Chief Executive of the Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, asking the council to use its powers to defend the Western Isles’ trees.
The islands’ natural condition is to be covered by forest, but deforestation by humans has led to the present environment, described by Scottish Natural Heritage as “generally treeless”.
Mr Finnie has asked the council to grant Tree Preservation Orders (TPOs) to the Western Isles’ remaining trees, to defend the those that still exist and provide a stable base for expanding woodland on the islands.
“Woodland is good for people, for wild plant and animal species, and for the rural economy. The Western Isles are one of the most deforested parts of Scotland, so it makes sense to use already existing powers to defend the remaining trees.
“Native woodland in the Western Isles is even more seriously threatened. The 2004 Native Woodlands Habitat Action Plan estimated that there was just 200 hectares of semi-natural woodland left on the islands, and set a target of ensuring no net loss in area or reduction in quality of these ecologically and historically precious areas.
“The rules for TPOs specify that the Order must protect either ‘amenity’ or trees of ‘cultural or historical significance’. Any further loss of trees on the islands would clearly be a blow to local people’s wellbeing – or ‘amenity’ – and there can be no doubt that our remaining native woodland is of both cultural and historical significance.”
John’s letter to the Comhairle nan Eilean Siar Chief Executive, Malcolm Burr, reads:
Thank you for your email of 24 August regarding Tree Preservation Orders (TPO).
I disagree that it is self-evident that a TPO protecting all of the Western Isles’ non-commercial trees would fail the tests set by statute.
From having been a substantially wooded archipelago when they were settled by humans after the last ice age, the Western Isles have become, in the words of Scottish Natural Heritage “generally treeless”.
Given the known positive social impact of trees, I would argue that the Isles’ treelessness is of sufficient concern that protecting what few trees remain is very much “expedient in the interest of amenity”.
The situation of native woodlands in particular is even more grave. In 2004, the Native Woodlands Habitat Action Plan estimated the area of semi-natural woodland in the Western Isles at just 200ha, and set a target of “ensur[ing] no net loss in area or reduction in quality of native woodlands. In this context, the remaining native woodland would seem to be of “cultural or historical significance”, and warrant protection via TPOs.
I am certain that the Planning Service is reactive and does take into account the amenity and historic value of trees when considering planning applications, but removal of trees in and of itself does not require planning permission. Without TPOs, the Council has no locus to intervene.
Given the precarious situation of woodland in the Western Isles, and the great importance of woodland to environmental and public health, I would be grateful if you would reconsider my proposal to make a Tree Preservation Order, or a number of contiguous Tree Preservation Orders, to defend the Western Isles’ non-commercial trees.
“Moray Council need to stop wasting time with this obviously absurd plan and get back to finding a realistic solution that keeps schools at the heart of communities across Moray.
“The megaschool would have more pupils than there are undergraduates at the University of Aberdeen. On school days, it would be a town the same size as Forres. Children as young as four would have a commute of up to an hour each way.
“Not only would this be unworkable, it would tear schools and school children out of their communities. We need more community connection with our schools, not less.”
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.
“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.”