Highland Council Causing a Stink with Toilet Closures

Highlands and Islands Green MSP John Finnie has accused The Highland Council of ignoring its own impact assessment by pressing ahead with the proposed closure of public toilets.

The Highland Council Equality Impact Assessment [1], conducted in January this year identifies public health issues for older people, people with disabilities and notably those who are pregnant.

John Finnie said:

“The Highland Council’s Equality Impact Assessment acknowledges that closing public toilets on such a wide scale will have negative impacts for older people, people with disabilities and pregnant women. Despite this the council leadership are determined to press ahead in their usual, incoherent manner, ignoring procedures, policies and good practice. Given the clear implications for public health, and potential for increased instances of public nuisance, it is astonishing that the council has not discussed this matter with NHS Highland and Police Scotland.

“Recent experience shows that closing these essential amenities results in laybys and other public spaces being impacted by human waste, not an attractive prospect. And while it may be possible in some circumstances for communities to take control of facilities, this is not always possible. Community ownership is certainly less practical when the council reduce comfort scheme funding so that communities are forced to subsidise former council owned toilets from their own limited resources.”

John Finnie Congratulates Roots and Shoots on Award

John Finnie MSP has congratulated Badenoch and Strathspey based Roots and Shoots on being awarded the Highland Council’s Play Improvement Group’s annual Highland Play Award.

Roots and Shoots is a not for profit social enterprise launched in May 2016 with the aim of increasing outdoor play opportunities for all in Badenoch and Strathspey and the Cairngorms.

John said:

“I would like to congratulate Roots and Shoots on winning the Highland Play Award.

“Encouraging children and families to play outdoors is of vital importance to childhood development and this award recognises the organisations that have done the most to promote play in their region.

“I very much welcome the work Highland Council’s Play Improvement Group does to promote self-directed free play with daily access to the outdoors

“Roots and Shoots is a fine example of a not for profit social enterprise which works for the benefit of its local community by aiming to increase outdoor play opportunities for all in Badenoch, Strathspey, and the Cairngorms.

“Their aim of supporting disadvantaged families in Badenoch and Strathspey to play outdoor is admirable and I wish them great success in their work in the future.”

Public may have been misled about Inverness Disease Surveillance Centre replacement

Scotland's Rural College logo

John Finnie has asked the Scottish Government for answers after learning that the planned replacement for the Inverness Disease Surveillance Centre will not be the like-for-like replacement implied by the Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) announcement on the project.

The SRUC plans to relocate the veterinary disease surveillance service, which it operates on behalf of the Scottish Government, from its present site in Drummondhill to the new University of the Highlands and Islands campus at Beechwood in the east of the city.

John said:

“Whilst it is entirely correct to state that there will be a new post mortem facility at Beechwood, crucially, the new site will not be a laboratory facility in any shape or form. These plans are far from a like-for-like replacement; rather, it’s a substantial downgrading.

“The present site at Drummondhill has already been put up for sale, and will no doubt deliver considerable receipts – something I think this whole episode has been about.

“I’m reliably informed SRUC management have consistently told staff that they could not enter a staff consultation ‘until the minister had signed off on the changes’, yet this is precisely what appears to be what happened. This indicates continuing disrespect for the staff and for good workplace practices so I am keen to understand the level of Ministerial involvement.

“Ironically, whilst most of the other SAC Consulting Veterinary Services labs require major refurbishment, the Inverness lab is probably the most fit for purpose centre of them all.

“I also understand that ‘commercial serology’ work has already been moved to other centres which require to make overtime payments to staff to have it completed, so we are rapidly coming to the point where all laboratory work will be removed from Inverness; some, I’m told, without Ministerial sign-off.

“When previously involved in trying to retain this important facility, I was keen to stress that disease surveillance, particularly about emerging diseases, was about threats posed not only animal but also public health. Despite that, SRUC started this all off without any reference to the Director of Public Health.

“I have posed a series of questions to the Scottish Government on this matter and I am sure that the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Connectivity, Fergus Ewing, will be as keen as me to ensure valuable jobs are retained in the Highlands and that there’s no threat to the overall efficiency of disease surveillance across Scotland.

“It is perhaps time that the SRUC started acting like a public body rather than some tawdry commercial concern that has no regard for its staff or the public they are charged with serving.”

John was a leading voice in the campaign to save the Inverness Disease Surveillance Centre, highlighting its importance to farmers and veterinarians across the Highlands and Islands, and pressing the Scottish Government to consider the implications for public health of losing a full-service post-mortem and microbiology laboratory.

John’s Written Parliamentary Questions are below, and can also be seen on the Scottish Parliament website. They are due for answer on or before Tuesday 21 June 2016.

  • S5W-00538 – To ask the Scottish Government what action it takes to ensure that its non-departmental public bodies follow best practice in respect of industrial relations.
  • S5W-00539 – To ask the Scottish Government what differences there are between the facilities at the Inverness Disease Surveillance Centre at Drummondhill and those at the new Scotland’s Rural College site at Beechwood.
  • S5W-00540 – To ask the Scottish Government whether ministers have signed off on all changes to the provision of disease surveillance at Scotland’s Rural College in Inverness.
  • S5W-00541 – To ask the Scottish Government whether commercial serology work has been moved from Scotland’s Rural College in Inverness and, if so, what the (a) staffing, (b) cost and (c) efficiency implications were.
  • S5W-00542 – To ask the Scottish Government what liaison regarding the proposed changes to Scotland’s Rural College in Inverness there has been between ministers and the postholders responsible for animal and human disease surveillance.
  • S5W-00543 – To ask the Scottish Government what impact assessment it has made regarding the proposed changes to Scotland’s Rural College in Inverness and whether it will publish this.
  • S5W-00544 – To ask the Scottish Government who will receive the receipts from the sale of the Scotland’s Rural College facility at Drummondhill.

John’s Speech on New Psychoactive Substances

Yesterday (29th September 2015) John spoke in the Scottish Government’s debate on New Psychoactive Substances. John spoke highlighting his role as the Co-Convenor of the Scottish Parliament’s Cross Party Drugs and as a member of the Scottish Government convened New Psychoactive Substances Cross Party Working Group, which includes the Scottish Government, Police, health experts, legal experts and politicians.

Prior to the debate John, on behalf of the Green/Independent Group, attempted to amend the Scottish Government’s debate motion. Unfortunately John’s amendment was not selected. However you can read John’s amendment and the Scottish Government’s motion below:

*S4M-14403 Paul Wheelhouse: Progress on Implementing Recommendations of the Expert Review Group in New Psychoactive Substances—That the Parliament welcomes the progress being made to respond to the New Psychoactive Substances (NPS) Expert Review Group report recommendations, published on 26 February 2015, including work to bring NPS under legal control; notes that the UK Government published the Psychoactive Substances Bill on 29 May 2015, which the Scottish Government supports, and further notes that this work includes engagement with the sector on information sharing and a common definition, including on the development of forensic capacity, and production of guidance that will be a vital tool for trading standards staff on the frontline, given the serious impact that these substances are having in communities, sometimes with fatal consequences, and the challenges faced by drug treatment and health services and enforcement agencies.

Supported by: Michael Matheson*

*S4M-14403.3 John Finnie: Progress on Implementing Recommendations of the Expert Review Group in New Psychoactive Substances—As an amendment to motion S4M-14403 in the name of Paul Wheelhouse (Progress on Implementing Recommendations of the Expert Review Group in New Psychoactive Substances), insert at end ―, and recognises that, while there can be a role for enforcement, harm reduction is best achieved by education, which allows for informed choices‖.


John Finnie (Highlands and Islands) (Ind):

I have very much enjoyed the debate and I thank the minister for bringing it to the chamber and for opening it. I wonder what the purpose of the debate is. Is it to highlight to the public a problem that they are aware of? Is it to talk up a problem? Is it to address concerns that are widely held? Is it to contribute to harm reduction?

The motion talks about progress, which of course we all welcome, as it is important. Like a number of colleagues, I am pleased to be part of the ministerial cross-party group that is looking at NPS. No harm ever comes from discussing things and I think that we have had a lot of informed discussion thus far.

The motion talks about: “engagement with the sector on information sharing”.

I am grateful to the minister for taking my intervention on education, which is key to this. I do not want to give the impression that my view that there is an overemphasis on enforcement is the result of anything other than my understanding of how we will best get over the message that people need to make informed decisions. For instance, the motion talks about the “serious impact” of the substances. Is it a serious impact? Serious compared with what? There are other comparators, and alcohol is the most obvious one. We have heard about tragic events in A and E, but those events were relatively rare, whereas we know that the use of alcohol and the mayhem that that creates in the streets of our towns and villages, in dwelling houses and in A and E have been an on-going problem.

Like others, I very much enjoyed Dr Richard Simpson’s speech, which was very informed. He talked about human nature and what it causes us to do. He talked about new approaches and about the role of social media. Importantly, he said that people will continue to use. That is the reality.

At the risk of offending my former colleague in another sphere, Mr Pearson, we could argue that drug enforcement has not led to a positive outcome in terms of cost benefit analysis. If the idea was that all that effort would reduce the availability of drugs, that has not been the case. Of course, this is outwith the realm—in some respects—of the enforcement that has taken place.

Graeme Pearson:

I cannot let that remark go unchallenged. My colleague should consider that, in other realms of drug abuse, the so-called tenner bag that is recognised across Scotland had at one time a purity level of more than 40 per cent and now is lucky if it can achieve 10 per cent purity levels, because the supply of drugs into the country has been choked.

It is not simply a matter of enforcement; it is the proper use of all the tactics that are available to us that gives the opportunity for communities to respond better than might otherwise be the case. I am grateful to my colleague for allowing me the time to say that.

John Finnie:

Mr Pearson makes an important point, which is that enforcement has a role as part of the whole. I would like the emphasis to be on education.

The Scottish Drugs Forum welcomed the Home Office review and said:

“One of the key issues limiting a Scottish response to NPS is the unknown prevalence of such substances, with much of the data coming from anecdotal information.”

That largely remains the case. As we heard from the expert from A and E, a considerable amount of guesswork goes on.

I will quote something else that the SDF said about the review. Its director, David Liddell, said:

“It is crucial that the review does not solely focus on supply, but also looks at why people are using these new substances and the impact they have on individuals.”

It is important that we do that.

We know that the review considered the internet and of course the internet is there. It can be beneficial, although many people talk it down, but it provides many of the challenges that we have.

The Queen’s speech talked about the new bill creating an offence in regard to

“any substance intended for human consumption that is capable of producing a psychoactive effect.”

We have had a lot of discussion about that, because that may sound definitive, but it is far from clear.

I commend one aspect of the bill, which is its inclusion of provisions for civil sanctions such as prohibition notices and premises notices, two breaches of which will be a criminal offence. Their aim is to enable the police and local authorities to adopt a graded response to supply. It is important that a proportionate response is taken.

In the minister’s letter of June this year, he said that NPS

“are therefore potentially every bit as dangerous as illicit drugs”—

no one would argue with that—

“and have been implicated in a small, but growing number of deaths.”

We heard from Mr Pearson about polydrug use. We should look at the statistics, because I do not want people to blow things completely out of proportion. Alcohol is present in the vast majority of drug-related deaths.

The minister talked about Crew 2000, which has been on the go since 1992 and was formed in response to the rapid expansion of recreational drug use.

Kevin Stewart talked about language, which is important. I understand the frustration at the use of the term “legal highs”. We have in the chamber discussed a similarly sensitive matter: female genital mutilation. The connection is that, to a lot of people, including the victims, the term “female genital mutilation” means nothing. It is right that we should not infer that “legal” means “safe”—I do not infer that anyway; it is legal to climb mountains, but it is not always safe to do so. However, it is important that we communicate with people at the level that they understand. The minister talked about peers, and I say with the greatest respect to my colleagues that people will listen not to us but to the Scottish Youth Parliament and the fine folk at the Scottish Drugs Forum and Crew 2000.

Crew 2000 says that it is underresourced and underfunded, as we have heard from Sarah Boyack and others. It also says:

“Better education is essential so citizens are well informed and can assess risk. The information provided by Government has been minimal, leaving those who take NPS to guess for themselves.”

I have seen that phrase elsewhere. If we are going to say, “Don’t do it,” maybe we need to say why people should not do it.

Crew 2000 says:

“The least harmful substances, such as nitrous oxide, should be exempt.”

I did not know what nitrous oxide was; apparently, it is laughing gas. Proportionality is needed. If the bill is passed, we need to look at what its aftereffects will be.

Crew 2000 recommends something that I have not seen recommended elsewhere, which is

“a UK wide NPS amnesty”.

That would reduce the possibility of redistribution.

The consequences of a ban are not as straightforward as we might imagine. People who return to opiates from non-opiate NPS will have a reduced tolerance and therefore an increased overdose risk. Mental health problems may be exacerbated when people choose to self-medicate. Again, we will drive people who wish to continue using drugs back to dealing with people who are, after all, criminals.

I commend Sarah Boyack’s comments on the use of local initiatives, which are important.

We must deal with facts. We must deal with the internet and we must work collaboratively to reduce harm and bring about informed decision making.”

You can read a full transcript of the debate here: http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/parliamentarybusiness/report.aspx?r=10118&i=93397


Update on Inverness Disease Surveillance Centre

This week I have written to both the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, Richard Lochhead MSP, and the Cabinet Secretary for Health, Wellbeing & Sport, Shona Robison MSP, to highlight Dr Hugo Van Woerden’s letter to the SRUC regarding the proposed closure of the Inverness Disease Surveillance Centre (DSC).

Dr Van Woerden’s letter, which you can read below, expressed it no uncertain terms the concerns on public health regarding the proposed closure of the Inverness DSC. SRUC’s consultation disappointingly focussed solely on the impact of its proposals upon farmers and veterinary surgeons. The Inverness DSC played a vital role in gathering and analysing samples of animal faecal matter to give NHS Highland’s Outbreak Committee a better chance of containing and management of outbreaks of diseases such as E.coli.


Without the Inverness DSC we will see this vital link broken as the local knowledge of the Inverness staff is lost whilst the collection and analysing of samples will take much longer due to increased journey times from one of the alternative DSCs.

We saw last month when the author of the Kinnaird Report, the report being used to justify these proposals, John Kinnaird described the proposals to close Inverness DSC as “utter lunacy”, it’s clear that the concerns highlighted by NHS Highland have pushed these proposals from utter lunacy to outright dangerous.

John Campaigns to Save Highland Veterinary Disease Laboratory

Scotland's Rural College logoJohn has launched a campaign to retain a vital veterinary disease surveillance service for the Highlands. Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) is currently consulting on closing the Inverness Disease Surveillance Centre, operated by its SAC Consulting division.

Such a closure would leave Highlands & Islands farmers with only the disease surveillance centre (DSC) in Thurso as cover, which is not equipped to handle post-mortems on large carcasses. This would mean animals would have to be transported to other DSCs, some of which do not have microbiology laboratories, meaning further delays in detecting infectious diseases.

John said:

“It is clear that the removal of this vital service from the Highlands will ultimately cause far more damage than any short term profits that may be accrued through its closure. Without this service a very high proportion of Scotland’s holdings will be serviced by only one centre, a centre which is not equipped to carry out post-mortem on large carcases, such as cattle or horses. This means additional delays to the possible detection of infectious diseases which may be spreading across the Highlands.

“The removal of this service will also impact upon rural vets who often rely on the expertise and skill of those based at the Inverness DSC to fulfil their role as practitioners much more effectively. This loss of expertise will impact far more widely on the Highlands than is being currently stated. We will also see greater difficulties and delays in both animal welfare legal and wildlife crime legal cases.”

Yesterday John met with SAC Consulting’s Managing Director, Mike Wijnberg, and its Head of Veterinary Services, Brian Hosie, at the Inverness Disease Surveillance Centre. He cast doubt on whether the plan to close the Centre had been properly considered, but was assured that retaining the service remained an option, confirming the opportunity for campaigners to win a positive outcome.”

After the meeting, John said:

“This appears to be a rushed decision that would benefit from a second look from the new Managing Director. Mr Wijnberg took up post within days of the announcement, and although he assures me that the consultation process was genuine, there appear to be significant gaps in the information he has available.

“SAC were unable to answer questions on staff engagement and, given the close links between disease surveillance service and public health, I was dismayed to hear they hadn’t contacted the Director of Public Health at NHS Highland about the proposals.”

“The assumption that the lab-based service can be replaced by veterinary practices will undertake post-mortems in the field seems speculative at best.”

“Some world-leading work takes place on this site, and this expertise is likely to be lost in the event of closure.

“Mr Wijnberg assures me that ‘the status quo remains an option’ and I intend holding him to that. I will be writing to the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, and I would encourage the public to respond to the consultation and join the Facebook campaign.”

John has established a Facebook group for anyone who would like to take part in the campaign to save the Centre at https://www.facebook.com/groups/SaveInvernessDSC/