Islands Bill could kickstart a revolution in local democracy

John Finnie speaking at the University of the Highlands and IslandsIslands Minister Humza Yousaf has announced that the government will be publishing their Islands Bill within the next 12 months, the culmination of years of work by island communities and the island councils to make the case for more local democracy and a better deal from national government.

John Finnie has given a warm welcome to the news, saying:

“It’s great news that we’ll be able to move forward quickly with the Islands Bill. I’m looking forward to making it a genuinely radical and transformative event for Scotland’s islands, to fulfil the vision of the Our Islands Our Future campaign, whose hard work and ambition has brought us to this point.

“Power in Scotland is incredibly centralised, so the priority for Greens is to bring powers from Edinburgh back to island communities. For example, giving island councils control over the sea bed (currently in the hands of the Crown Estate) and flexible powers to decide their own taxes and raise more of their own funds would allow them to unlock the huge marine energy potential and the jobs and revenues that come with it.

“I’ll also want to make sure that the Bill recognises the similarity between island communities and many of our more remote mainland communities, especially on the western peninsulas of the Highlands and Argyll and Bute. It’s likely that many of the Bill’s provisions would also benefit these communities, and I’ll be arguing to have them included.

“I hope the Islands Bill can be the start of a much wider debate about where power lies in Scotland, and how it can be brought closer to the people. Island communities have taken the initiative to demand decentralisation of power, but they are certainly not the only communities that need it.

“As local democracy campaigner Andy Wightman (now Green MSP forthe Lothians) described in his eye-opening report Renewing Local Democracy, Scotland is one of the most centralised countries in Europe. The average population of a local council area in the European Union is less than 6,000 people; in Scotland it’s 166,000. The average European local authority gets more than 40% of its income from its own locally-controlled taxes; in Scotland it’s a quarter of that.

“The Islands Bill is a precious opportunity to make our island communities the pioneers of a powerful, decentralised, participatory local democracy, showing the way for change across Scotland.”

If you want to dive into the detail of the Scottish Government’s proposals so far, you can read their original consultation document, all the public responses, and the analysis of responses on the consultation website.

Orkney and Shetland voters should get the final say on Carmichael

John Finnie has called on Alistair Carmichael to consider his position after a court found that the Lib Dem MP lied to voters during the UK General Election campaign earlier this year.

Although Carmichael was found not guilty of the specific offence under the Representation of the People Act, the court found that he had been guilty of a “blatant lie” for the purposes of improving his chances of re-election.

The MP for Orkney and Shetland lied about a civil service memo which described, second-hand, a discussion between Nicola Sturgeon and the French Ambasssador to the UK. Mr Carmichael ordered his special advisor to leak the memo to the Daily Telegraph, and later claimed that he had no knowledge of the memo or the leak.

John said:

“A lie is a lie. Whatever the result of this case was going to be, Mr Carmichael’s integrity was shot to pieces when he admitted after the election that he had lied, not only to his constituents, but to the whole country.

“I believe Mr Carmichael should seriously consider his position following this hairsplit decision by the court. Perhaps he wants to consider resigning and go into a by-election to allow him to face his constituents with the full facts and the opportunity to regain their support.”

You can read the summary of the court’s damning verdict here, and the full judgement here.

John presses for answers on seizure of Sea Shepherd boat

Sea Shepherd boats seized since Sept 2014John Finnie is investigating the way the Scottish authorities seek and carry out court warrants to confiscate property on behalf of foreign governments, after a boat belonging to the conservation organisation Sea Shepherd was seized by police and handed over to the Danish Navy.

Sea Shepherd, like Greenpeace, use ships and boats to take to investigate and take direct action to prevent the slaughter of whales and dolphins. The rigid inflatable boat Echo that was seized by police on Tuesday 1 September belonged to the Sea Shepherd ship MY Sam Simon, which was refuelling in Lerwick harbour as part of their campaign against the “grind” in the Faeroe Islands, where pilot whales are herded onto a beach to be killed with knives. The grinds kill around 800 pilot whales per year.

In response to a letter from the Faroese chief of police, the Crown Office sought and was granted a warrant to seize the Echo. On Friday 4 September, police told Sea Shepherd’s lawyers that the boat would be held in Scotland for a week, allowing time for an appeal. Sea Shepherd did appeal and the High Court suspended the warrant at 3.43pm on Friday afternoon, but contrary to the police’s assurances, the boat was already on board the Danish Navy warship HMDS Knud Rasmussen on its way to the Faroes, having been handed over less than an hour before.

John raised the issue at last week’s First Minister’s Questions, asking:

What assessment will be made of procedures that were employed in relation to the seizure and non-return of a Sea Shepherd UK boat from Lerwick harbour?

Nicola Sturgeon replied:

Obviously, it would be inappropriate for me to comment in detail on the matter because it is under criminal investigation. The Crown Office received a letter of request from the Faroese authorities and subsequently sought a warrant in the matter, which was then executed, on the basis of allegations of criminal activity. Given the circumstances, it is not appropriate for me to say any more on the issue.

John then pursued the issue with the Lord Advocate, Frank Mulholland QC, who heads the Crown Office, with two letters.

In his first letter, John asked about how exactly another country goes about seeking a seizure of property, in the way Denmark (which controls Faeroe and is responsible for policing and justice on the islands) did over the Echo. Given that once the boat was in the possession of Denmark there seemed to be no way to get it back, he asked what timeframe there is to ensure the opportunity for an appeal. Finally he asked about whether the Crown Office’s response takes account of whether the property was being used to prevent acts which would be illegal in Scotland, as the Faroese whale hunt certainly would.

In a second letter, sent today, John has asked about the Crown Office’s actions when they are aware that the court is considering an appeal to suspend a warrant, and when they learn that a suspension has been granted. In the Lerwick case, police handed the Sea Shepherd boat over to the Danish Navy even though the Crown Office knew that a decision on suspending the warrant to do so was imminent, and once the warrant was granted there doesn’t seem to have been any attempt by the Scottish authorities to return the Echo to its owners.

John is still waiting for a response to his questions to the Lord Advocate. In the meantime, pilot whale grinds continue in the Faroes, and Sea Shepherd’s Captain Alex Cornelissen says “if the Danish government thinks that by confiscating the Echo they will stop Sea Shepherd, they are very sadly mistaken.” If you’d like to support Sea Shepherd’s work in the Faroes, you can donate here.