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 call to save Inverness police control room

John Finnie has called for the scrapping of the planned merger of police control rooms in Inverness, Aberdeen and Dundee, following the publication of the HM Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland (HMICS) report into the failings of call handling that were exposed by the deaths of Lamara Bell and John Yuill on the M9.

In response to a statement in Parliament by Justice Secretary Michael Matheson MSP, John also sought a guarantee that the call handlers’ union UNISON would be fully involved in any decision on the control rooms.

John said:

“This comprehensive report clearly lays out past and present challenges around the handling of calls. We welcome the recognition of the need for improvements and an assurance that ‘staffing levels… are now stabilised’. However, Police Scotland must go further and ensure there is adequate resilience in their system of call-handling.

“It was the Scottish Greens’ view that HMICS’ Interim Report evidenced the compelling need to retain the Aberdeen, Dundee and Inverness centres and this final report simply reinforces that view. The Cabinet Secretary stated ‘independent experts will be brought in to provide strong assurances before any decision is considered’ to those three centres. I advised the Cabinet Secretary this sounded like a decision made.

“I sought an assurance from the Cabinet Secretary that UNISON, who represent the majority of control room staff, would be at the forefront of meaningful consultation with nothing pre-determined. Whilst the Cabinet Secretary said he welcomed the role UNISON could play, it was well short of the unequivocal ‘yes’ I had hoped for.”

John is the Scottish Green Party’s justice spokesperson and a former Northern Constabulary officer. He serves on the Scottish Parliament’s Justice and Policing committees.

John’s question to the Cabinet Secretary for Justice, and the minister’s reply, are below. You can see this exchange within the transcript of the full statement and questions in the Scottish Parliament’s Official Report.

John Finnie (Highlands and Islands) (Ind):

I thank Mr Penman for his report and the cabinet secretary for early sight of it.

I want to pick up on Mr Macdonald’s point because my attention was also drawn to the fact that

“independent experts will be brought in to provide strong assurances”.

Language is very important and to me, as well as to many others, that reads as though decisions have been made and experts will be brought in to confirm a predetermined decision.

I read the report as being further evidence for the interim report, which suggested to me that there is a compelling need to retain Aberdeen, Inverness and Dundee call centres. Will the cabinet secretary ensure that Unison is at the forefront of meaningful consultations about this, and that nothing is predetermined?

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice (Michael Matheson):

As the member will be aware, the report does not recommend that the final model should not be pursued or that that model cannot deliver the type of service that Police Scotland intends to achieve. The intended model, which is the end point that Police Scotland wants to get to with its call centre arrangements, is still its direction of travel.

The independent expertise will put in place additional safeguards before any further steps can be taken in moving to the closure of any other control rooms at present. There will be an independent process of scrutiny to provide assurance that all the necessary steps have been taken before that change can take place.

The member asked about Unison. I welcome the statement that Unison issued today, which welcomed the report. I am disappointed that others have not welcomed the report. Unison welcomed the report and the progress that has been made in improving the situation in the call centres. I have made it clear that I expect good engagement to take place with all stakeholders as the process moves forward, including important stakeholders such as Unison, which represents many of the staff in the Police Scotland control rooms.

I assure the member that Police Scotland has been left in no doubt about the need to ensure that there is good, effective engagement with the staff side in addressing those issues.

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.

NHS DSC NHS DSC 2

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/

Victory in sight for Knocknagael Farm campaign

Knocknagael Bull Stud, Inverness. Crown Copyright.
Knocknagael Bull Stud, Inverness. Crown Copyright.

There’s great news for John and his fellow local campaigners, as government officials recommend that Knocknagael Farm in the south of Inverness should be kept in agricultural use.

The Scottish Government reporters’ ‘Examination Report’on the proposed Inner Moray Firth Local Development Plan was issued on Friday 20 March. In it, the reporters call on Highland Council not to go ahead with their proposed allocation of the Knocknagael site, currently part of the Crofting Commission’s bull stud, for housing developments.

John initiated the campaign to retain food production on the site, ideally as a community farm or as allotments, over two years ago. He began a Save Knocknagael Farm Fields Facebook group to rally support, and has regularly questioned Ministers at Holyrood over their plans for the site. In December last year, he chaired the inaugural meeting of the Knocknagael Allotments Project, jointly organised by Holm Community Council and Lochardil & Drummond Community Council.

John said today:

“This recommendation is a great victory for local people who have been campaigning for years to save Knocknagael for agricultural use. Government reporters generally aren’t swayed by public opinion, so this result is a testament to the campaigners’ hard work and expertise in making a watertight case that the reporters could not ignore.

“The reporters’ recommendation hinged on local campaigners demonstrating that the Knocknagael Farm was ‘prime agricultural land’, and that to concrete over it would run in the face of existing policy not to build over such land unless there is no alternative. The campaign was also able to show that there is a good supply of alternative sites to build the high-quality housing Inverness undoubtedly needs.

“Hopefully now the Scottish Government will be able to look beyond its short-sighted proposal to sell of Knocknagael to developers, and instead enter into a discussion with local people about how best to use this fantastic food-producing land. There is an active community ready and willing to practice what the Government preaches on land reform, healthy food and tackling climate change – this land could give them that chance.”

You can read the full Examination Report on the website of the Scottish Government’s Directorate for Planning and Environmental Appeals. The recommendations on Knocknagael are on pages 197-199.

The final stage of the process is for Highland Council to produce a final version of the Local Plan, which is expected to incorporate the reporters’ recommendations, and then vote to formally adopt it at a meeting of the Council

John urges Government to save Knocknagael fields for community food

Knocknagael Allotments Project open meeting - 8pm Monday 1st December - Lochadil House HotelJohn Finnie has called on the Scottish Government to demonstrate its commitment to sustainable land use by saving agricultural land it owns near Inverness.

Part of the government-owned Knocknagael Stud Farm on the south side of the city is earmarked to be sold off to developers, but community groups are calling for the land to be used for community food production, including new allotments.

John welcomed Nicola Sturgeon’s assurance of radical action on land reform, and called on the Scottish Government to live up to its promise to ‘lead by example’. He said:

“Going back to my time as the local councillor, there was uncertainty about the future of Knocknagael Stud Farm, so I was among those who welcomed its retention and recent substantial upgrade.

“Unfortunately the Government’s accountants thought the best way to pay for that upgrade was by selling off two of the Farm’s fields to a developer. In their first attempt at disposal, the Scottish Government failed to follow its own guidelines on best planning practice and rightly withdraw their application.

“Future generations would rightly question why a government which purports to understand the challenges of climate change and the need to ensure effective land use and local food production would show such scant regard to good agricultural land it owns.

“So, radical land reform, welcome as it is, is only part of the story. The Government says it plans to ‘lead by example’ so let see them do that.

“This coming Monday I will chair a meeting of a community group, brought together by Lochardil and Drummond and Holm Community Councils, who would like to use the land for allotments. I plan to ensure the Scottish Government’s ‘community empowerment’ and ‘sustainable land use’ credentials are tested, and that this land isn’t sold off but kept for community food production.”

Knocknagael Bull Stud Farm is part of the bull hire scheme that has been funded and operated by the Government since 1897, enabling crofters to access high quality bulls and supply quality calves to the beef industry throughout Scotland. For details of the plan to upgrade the Stud Farm see the Scottish Government press release.

The Save Knocknagael Farm Fields Facebook page includes details of Monday’s open meeting, and Parliamentary Questions that John has asked the Scottish Government.