HIAL in headlines for all wrong reasons

This article first appeared in The Shetland Times.

Highlands and Islands Airports Limited (HIAL), the Scottish Government owned company charged with running our vital island airports has been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons recently.

Its plan to centralise air traffic control operations, for instance, is ill thought out and will likely mean the loss of skilled jobs in our island communities.

I accept that HIAL wants to modernise its operation, but any proposals to do this must not compromise safety and should not remove skilled jobs from island communities. I’ve met with the air traffic controllers trade union, Prospect, who have told me that the proposals, in their current form, are unworkable.

All this fuels the serious concerns about HIAL’s poor consultation with its workforce, local communities, and elected representatives and as such people are understandably anxious.

It is important when major changes like this are proposed, that engagement is prioritised. In this instance, it looks as though HIAL had made up its mind, with any consultation an afterthought.

Speaking of poor communication, HIAL’s proposal to charge for car parking at Sumburgh airport was debated in the Scottish Parliament last week.

I regret being unable to attend the debate, as I was Chairing the Parliament’s Police Committee at the same time, however I was happy to sign the debate motion and share the concerns of my Parliamentary colleagues.

It may seem peculiar to some that a Green MSP wouldn’t support a move which on the face of it would encourage people to ditch the car. But, as with other island airports affected by car-parking charges, public transport is generally poor meaning that in many cases there is no other option but to drive to the airport.

HIAL and the local authorities need to get their heads together and develop a proper public transport strategy that gives folk other options when travelling to and from airports. In the meantime, this ill-considered proposal should be taken off the table.

As a MSP for the Highlands and Islands I have the privilege of representing a number of remote, island and rural communities who rely on HIAL to facilitate their lifeline air travel throughout and beyond the area.

On its website HIAL state’s that its, “…airports are vital to the social and economic welfare of the areas they serve.” This is undoubtedly true, but I’d seriously question whether the current leadership at the organisation is adequately delivering for these areas.

HIAL must ensure that the communities it serves are at the heart of its decision making. That means proper consultation, before decisions are made. If HIAL can’t even get that right, then The Scottish Ministers need to look seriously at putting in place a new leadership team who can.

Finnie Questions Minister on Air Traffic Proposals

John Finnie MSP, Scottish Greens Transport and Islands Spokesperson, this week questioned the Scottish Government on Highlands and Islands Airports Limited’s (HIAL) proposals to centralise air traffic management.

HIAL, which is owned by Scottish Ministers, has proposed a number of controversial changes in its Air Traffic Management 2030 Strategy, which would have significant impacts, particularly for island airports.

Mr Finnie questioned the Minister for Transport and Islands on the topic at the Scottish Parliament’s Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee, highlighting concerns raised by trade union Prospect and Comhairle nan Eilean Siar.

Following the committee meeting John Finnie said:

“There are a number of serious concerns about the impact HIAL’s proposals could have on island communities. One major impact is the likelihood of losing highly skilled jobs throughout our islands, an issue rightly vexing Prospect, the air traffic controllers’ trade union.

“I completely understand HIAL’s need to upgrade its infrastructure, however any centralised system will require a reliable and secure communication system between the mainland and the islands.  No such system exists at the moment.

“HIAL’s community engagement has been abysmal. Not only in relation to this proposal, but also recently in relation to proposed parking charges at island airports. I was therefore pleased that the Minister committed to ensuring that proper public consultation will take place. HIAL cannot simply march ahead with such wide ranging proposals without considering the impact it will have on the communities it is supposed to support.”

Finnie Seeks STV Assurances

John Finnie, Green MSP for the Highlands and Islands, has written to the Chief Executive of STV seeking assurances over the future of broadcasting in the north, following a major cuts announcement.

STV currently holds two distinct ITV regional licenses, for both Northern Scotland and Central Scotland.

Reports yesterday suggested that STV’s reorganisation would include the closure of STV2 and the amalgamation of news output in the central belt.

Commenting today Mr Finnie said:

“It is extremely regrettable that STV have decided to make such swingeing cuts, resulting in the loss of a significant number of jobs. It looks like this will result in significantly more centralised output from the broadcaster.

“I have written to STV’s Chief Executive today to remind him of his obligation to serve the distinct perspectives of communities in the north. STV holds separate ITV regional licenses for the north and the central belt and it is vital that it continues to preserve distinct programming for each area. Were it not to commit to this it would call into question its suitability to continue holding the license for Northern Scotland.”

North needs rail links fit for 21st century

This article first appeared in the Strathspey & Badenoch Herald and other Scottish Provincial Press publications.

Last week while down in the central belt as part of my normal working week, I took the opportunity to nip along to Coatbridge and visit the Freightliner Rail Freight Terminal.

A single freight train can carry enough material to build 30 houses, and while it is good to see the likes of Tesco and Diageo utilising rail to carry goods to and from the north, many businesses are missing out on opportunities to switch from road to rail simply because the single track Highland Main Line simply does not have the capacity cope with any significant increase in freight traffic.

Those who regularly travel to the central belt by train will understand the potential for major disruption to journeys as a result of extremely limited capacity. While I am pleased that the Scottish Government has recently announced a modest £10 million investment to improve the Highland Main Line, I fear it will amount to little more than tinkering, rather than the serious improvements that are needed.

Time and time again we see major investment in trunk roads, with billions splashed on projects which continue to prioritise the motor car over all other forms of transport. The Government trumpets its city deal projects, which are all too often just glamorously titled road building schemes.

I cannot imagine a project that would be more transformative for the Highlands than the dualling of the Highland Main Line.

Every tonne transferred by rail rather than road cuts CO2 emissions by 76%. Dualling the Highland Main Line would be of huge benefit to the climate, and by removing a great number of HGVs, could take between 250 and 300 lorries a day off the A9, from the trunk road network it would make our roads safer and reduce the ever increasing repair bills. It ticks all the boxes.

Increasing capacity on the Highland Main Line would also offer exciting opportunities to greatly improve journey times between the central belt and the Highlands. I am confident this would be a move that would be widely welcomed, particularly by businesses who could engage with their counterparts in the central belt much more conveniently.

The tourism sector is of course vital to the economy of the Highlands and Islands, and ensuring that we have rail links fit for the 21st century would greatly improve the appeal, encouraging many more visitors to the north.

Further improvements to the Far North and West Highland lines would enhance this further of course. But as the main rail route to and from the Highlands, we simply can’t afford to continue waiting, we need to dual the Highland Main Line now!

John’s Speech in Member’s Debates on Rape Crisis Centres and Prosecutions

On Tuesday this week, (w/c 30th April) John spoke in a Member’s Debate regarding Rape Crisis Centres and Prosecutions.


You can read and watch John’s speech below.



You are quite right, Presiding Officer, that this is a very important debate, and it is on a very emotional subject. It is some time since my police days, but I can say that there has been an outstanding change and improvement in attitude and response from the service in relation to the issue. I mentioned earlier this afternoon the confidence in Police Scotland about handling many issues to do not just with sexual crime but with domestic violence. The link with the prosecution service—the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service—and the more humane handling of cases are key to that.

Part of the weakness is in our courts. Like others, I was heartened to hear Lord Carloway speak this morning about the opportunities that may exist for recording testimony and cross-examination. My colleague Margaret Mitchell mentioned legislation that has been dealt with in Parliament in recent times. During the passage of the Abusive Behaviour and Sexual Harm (Scotland) Act 2016 and the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018 I was privileged to hear the private testimony of individuals, and I have to say that it was harrowing. The state’s way of helping an individual should not inflict more grief on them.

Terminology is very important. The public interest is absolutely fundamental. I attended the recent briefing by the Lord Advocate and the Solicitor General, who made compelling arguments. There is an obligation on us to act collectively and in the public interest. Of course, key to that is the role of the complainer. That is the correct term—the person is the complainer. The term “survivor” is appropriate, but in the legal context the term is “complainer”. The wellbeing of the complainer is key, because we want good-quality evidence, which we would not get were we to compel people. However, there is a very fine balance to be struck, as a couple of members have said.

As I understand it, victims of sexual abuse and rape are already treated uniquely by being given a say that is not necessarily given to victims of assault or housebreaking. It is important that there is already recognition of the significance of the issue.

The question of disengagement and the humane response to it was touched on in the briefing that I attended. Disengagement can happen for a number of reasons. Kezia Dugdale mentioned a report, but there is a lot of other information on the issue. All the requests are reasonable, but a crucial one that I think everyone would go along with is for more research, in order that we can understand what is involved.

If I have one disappointment, it is that although this is a well-attended members’ business debate, it would have been good if there had been a minister here who has responsibility for dishing out money, because the support mechanisms that are put in place are key. It might be that there are other pressing engagements.

Today, I met Rape Crisis Scotland. Having met Ms Brindley, and having met the Solicitor General and the Lord Advocate last week, I do not think that they are poles apart. However, I say as gently as possible that the situation is a bit of a public relations disaster. We all want to increase the number of successful sexual crime prosecutions. The key to that is the quality of the evidence; there are opportunities that will come with Lord Carloway’s proposals.

I am sure that the Lord Advocate will reflect on the points that have been made. I ask that there be further engagement with Rape Crisis Scotland, because I imagine that members are as one on where we should be going.

John’s Speech from the National Plan for Gaelic debate.


’S e latha math a th’ ann. ’S toil leam a bhith ag èisteachd ri Gàidhlig anns a’ Phàrlamaid againn.

Tha mi às na Cluainean, baile beag snog ri taobh Loch Lòchaidh ’s faisg air a’ Ghearasdan. Cha robh Gàidhlig aig mo phàrantan ’s cha robh Gàidhlig san sgoil agam. A-nis tha sgoil ùr Ghàidhlig anns a’ Ghearasdan. Tha an nighean agam, Ruth, agus an dithis nighean aice, Daisy ’s Aimee, fileanta.

Tha mi a’ smaoineachadh gum feum a h-uile duine sabaid airson na Gàidhlig.

Mar as àbhaist, feumaidh mi ràdh nach eil ach beagan Gàidhlig agam, ’s feumaidh mi Beurla a bhruidhinn an-diugh.

Following is the simultaneous interpretation:

It is a good day. I like hearing Gaelic in our Parliament. I am from Clunes, a small village beside Loch Lochy, near Fort William. My parents did not have Gaelic and there was no Gaelic at my school; now there is a new Gaelic school in Fort William. My daughter Ruth and her daughters Aimee and Daisy are fluent in Gaelic. Everyone should fight for Gaelic.

As usual, I must say that I have only a little Gaelic and must speak in English today.

The member continued in English.

It is important that we give a hearing to one of Scotland’s national languages. I want to talk briefly of my other two grandchildren who are residents of Catalonia. Having travelled South America with their parents, carrying rucksacks, they have settled in Catalonia and are at the first and second stages in a Catalan school. They speak English and they already understood Spanish; now they speak Catalan and Spanish, or Castilian, as they would call it. That is a broadening experience.

Liz Smith touched on bilingualism. As a councillor in Highland Council, I encountered much ill-informed discussion about Gaelic, so I decided to promote the benefits of bilingualism. Quite frankly, it does not matter what the other language is, but in Scotland there is the option for it to be Gaelic.

I will cite information from the bilingualism matters website:

“Research has shown that bilingualism is beneficial for children’s development and the future. Children exposed to different languages become more aware of different cultures, other people and other points of view. But they also tend to be better than monolinguals at ‘multitasking’ and focusing attention. They are often more precocious readers, and generally find it easier to learn other languages. Bilingualism gives children much more than two languages!”

I am sure that I am not the only MSP who is approached about the availability of languages in school, and it is right that Liz Smith recorded Bòrd na Gàidhlig’s concerns about the Education (Scotland) Act 2016, which I am sure the cabinet secretary has heard.

There is a rich opportunity in bilingualism, and a lot of people want to take it up.

In the previous session of the Parliament, I was pleased to be successful in getting an amendment agreed to on the trigger point for Gaelic’s availability in local authority areas. I also did work on Gypsy Traveller sites in a previous session, and it seems to me that there is a common link, when we consider the disparaging comments that are made and the local authorities that do not provide sites and have their heads down. We need to get everyone involved.

Tremendous work is going on—members talked about the statistics, and we can make a lot of that.

The cabinet secretary used the word “attachment”, which I thought was important. I was born and brought up in the Highlands and I have to say that Gaelic was not on my radar at all—it was a language that older people spoke. I did French at school, as did many other people. Now, many people in Scotland, across the Highlands and Islands and beyond, are making a good living and embracing our culture. There are many fine examples of that. I particularly like that Griogair Labhruidh raps in Gaelic—I am sure that the cabinet secretary is familiar with his work, which will be an important part of his record collection. It is about attachment; Gaelic should not be seen as remote.

In that context, I very much align myself with the comments about the fèis movement and BBC Alba. It is great that people understand “cairt-bhuidhe”—yellow card—because they frequently watch BBC Alba. It is not tokenism—we often talk about the quality of journalism, and “Eòrpa” is one of the few programmes that takes a wider perspective and has a positive outlook.

There are challenges with Gaelic-medium education, one of which is that many qualified teachers who are fluent Gaelic speakers do not feel that they have the necessary writing skills to take up posts. There have been a lot of good initiatives in that regard, which I am sure will continue.

Portree Gaelic school has been mentioned. My word, we have some ability in the Highlands—indeed, elsewhere, too—to turn an amazingly exciting and positive story into a negative. Members who follow the Daily Gael on Twitter will know that the opening of the school has not opened a “Portal to hell”; it is a very positive news story and I am sure that there are more such stories to come. I particularly welcome the additional money for the new school in Glasgow.

Mòran taing.

Finnie Raises CalMac Disruption with Scottish Government

John Finnie MSP, Scottish Greens Transport and Islands spokesperson, this afternoon (24/04/2018) raised major disruption to CalMac services with the Minister for Transport and Islands at Topical Questions, following reports that serious disruption is expected on the network until the end of May.

Mr Finnie revealed figures showing that there were 3,852 cancellations on Calmac services in the last five years, caused as a result of mechanical failure.

The average age of Calmac ferries on the Clyde and Hebrides routes is 23 years, with older vessels needing to spend longer in dry dock for repair.

Mr Finnie highlighted a lack of coordination between Caledonian Maritime Assets Limited (CMAL), who own and maintain the vessels, and CalMac and asked the Minister whether he believed given the disruption that the Vessels Replacement and Deployment Plan published earlier this year was fit for purpose.

John Finnie also highlighted that the Scottish Government’s Ferries Plan 2012-2023 recommended the replacement of the majority of Calmac’s fleet, however CMAL are entirely responsible for the procurement process. John asked the Minister if he sees a role for the public sector operator and Trade Unions earlier in the procurement process.

Following Topical Questions, John Finnie said:

“Ferries provide lifeline services to island communities, and support the hugely important tourist trade. The figures I have obtained from CalMac reveal an astonishing number of cancellations caused by mechanical breakdowns. Every reasonable person accepts that any transport systems can experience delays and cancellations, but this number is completely unacceptable.

“The Scottish Government’s own documents acknowledge that there needs to be wide scale replacement of the existing Calmac fleet, and our island communities are crying out for more reliable services. I am pleased that the Minister agreed to consider my suggestion of including CalMac and Trade Unions in discussions early in the procurement process, a move I believe would greatly improve procurement.”