Keep Scotland frack-free

Posted: October 21, 2014 in Blog
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John Finnie with Friends of the Earth's Mr Frackhead.

John with Friends of the Earth’s Mr Frackhead.

If you haven’t heard of fracking yet, you will. Fracking – short for ‘hydraulic fracturing’ – is a process in which water and other chemicals are injected into shale rock or coal seams at very high pressure, causing the rock to fracture and, the frackers hope, release gas that can be burned as a fuel.

How exactly the rock will break, and where the chemicals released will go, is highly unpredictable. Fracking has been linked to localised earthquakes and dangerous pollution of the soil, water and air.

Even without using fracking, all drilling for shale gas and coalbed methane, particularly in densely-populated areas such as the central belt, raises grave concerns for public health. Most drilling involves introducing hazardous chemicals into the ground, and all drilling runs the risk of releasing dangerous chemicals that occur naturally in coal and shale.

Not only are these risks serious, they’re also unnecessary. Scotland already has access to far more oil and gas than we can safely burn if we hope to limit climate change – we don’t need to risk the health of our children in the search for more fossil fuels of ever-lower quality at ever-higher risk.

Scotland also has genuinely huge potential for renewable energy. With only 1% of the population of the European Union, we have 10% of the EU’s wave energy potential, and 25% of its tidal energy and offshore wind energy potential. If we direct our efforts into developing those resources instead, we can be a clean energy giant for generations to come.

We’re at a critical point for this national decision, so it’s been really encouraging that dozens of people have contacted me to express their opposition to unconventional gas.

The right to exploit oil and gas in the whole of the UK is controlled by the Westminster government. It’s them (through the Department for Energy and Climate Change) that issue licenses to drill. And it’s the Westminster parliament that is currently considering a new law that will allow fracking and other fossil fuel extraction under homes without the consent or even knowledge of the householder.

But there are things we can do in Scotland to fight back.

In the new Scottish Planning Policy, the Scottish Government have required that all applications for shale gas and coal bed methane extraction include a risk assessment, and that that should lead to buffer zones being included in the application. They’ve also required that should permission be granted for one type of drilling and the developer later wants to use hydraulic fracking at the site, they will need to apply for new planning permission.

This is a much more cautious attitude than the UK government, but the Scottish Government can and should do more. I have called on them to place a ban on unconventional fossil fuel extraction, supporting this motion by my colleague in the Independent/Green group at Holyrood, Alison Johnstone:

Motion S4M-09927: Alison Johnstone, Lothian, Scottish Green Party, Date Lodged: 02/05/2014
Energy and Climate Change

That the Parliament notes the significant public opposition to new methods of fossil fuel extraction such as fracking and coal-bed methane; notes that energy companies already hold far more fossil fuel reserves than it is safe to burn; agrees with the UK Energy and Climate Change Committee and many others, such as the chairman of Cuadrilla and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, that developing unconventional gas in the UK will likely have no effect on the cost of energy for households; opposes the UK Government’s extensive tax breaks for the industry and what it sees as a bribe to local authorities to approve development; supports communities in Falkirk, Stirling, Dumfries and Galloway and across the central belt who are campaigning against unconventional gas, and calls on the Scottish Government to implement a ban on unconventional fossil fuel extraction in Scotland in order to protect communities, safeguard local environments and focus investment on renewable energy, given the importance of meeting all targets under the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009, the third of which is due to be reported to the Parliament imminently.

Supported by: John Finnie
Current Status: Taken in the Chamber on 07/05/2014

This motion was the subject of a debate in the Scottish Parliament on 7 May this year – you can read the Official Report of that debate here.

If you have time, I’d urge you to write to your MP to ask them to oppose the proposals in the Infrastructure Bill that will allow developers to drill under homes and other without getting permission from, or even notifying, the householder, and allow them to leave chemicals under your property.

But if this law does pass at Westminster, it is likely that there will need to be what is called a Legislative Consent Motion in the Scottish Parliament. This is a vote to allow Westminster legislation on a subject that is normally devolved to Holyrood – in this case property law and access rights – to take effect in Scotland. These votes are usually just formalities, but I will oppose any motion that would remove your right to object to fracking or drilling under your home or other property.

If you haven’t already, you can write to your MSPs asking them to make the same pledge through the Friends of the Earth Scotland site.

And finally, because planning permission applications go to the local authority in the first instance, councils are also vital decision-makers in the fight to stop fracking. Along with over 48,000 others, I’ve signed the petition to every Scottish council, asking them to refuse planning permission for fracking. If you have the time, maybe you could add your name too?

Dear friends,

I’m delighted to be able to tell you that this morning, I have become a member of the Scottish Green Party.

I left the Scottish National Party in October 2012 because I could not support the party’s new policy of seeking membership of the NATO nuclear alliance for an independent Scotland. And of course the Scottish Greens have an impeccable track record as campaigners for peace.

But since then, I have worked alongside Patrick Harvie and Alison Johnstone, as well as independent colleagues Jean Urquhart, the much-missed Margo MacDonald, and now John Wilson, as part of the Independent/Green group in the Scottish Parliament.

I have seen the Greens’ co-convenor Maggie Chapman in action when I was supporting her campaign for a seat in the European Parliament earlier this year.

And of course I have campaigned alongside brilliant and committed grassroots Green activists, as well as those of the SNP, SSP, and no party affiliation, in the referendum.

The more I have seen of the Greens, the more I realised I have been a Green all my life – I just didn’t know it yet.

I saw that my values are Green values: social and environmental justice, democracy and integrity, internationalism and peace.

I bear no ill will towards the SNP, where I still have many great friends.

But the great discovery of the past two years has been that the passions that brought me into political activism – self-determination and peace – no longer only have a single party to champion them.

And on a whole host of issues, from NATO to corporate taxation, from climate change to local democracy, I have found that it is the Greens that share my beliefs most closely.

So I’m hugely excited to be joining them as a member this morning, especially as part of a surge that has seen 5,000 other Scots do the same over the last few weeks.

However, I think it would be wrong of me to sit as a Green MSP without you having voted for one.

So I will continue as an independent MSP until the end of this session of parliament next year.

As I have done up to now, I will vote in accordance with the manifesto I stood on in 2011, and with my own conscience and judgement on issues not covered by the manifesto.

I’ll be putting my name forward to be selected as a Green candidate for the Highlands and Islands for 2016. I make no assumptions about that: it’s for the local members to decide who their candidate will be, and for you to decide whether to re-elect me. But I really do hope to carry on serving the region after 2016.

I want to thank the Scottish Greens for my welcome to the party today, which has been warm, generous, and enthusiastic.

And if you feel you share the values I talked about, I want to invite you to join the Greens with me.

Thank you for the continued pleasure and honour of serving as your MSP.

Best wishes,

John

John has welcomed Chief Constable Stephen House’s announcement that officers will no longer carry guns on routine, non-firearms incidents.

John, a former policeman, was the first MSP to challenge Police Scotland over the ‘standing firearms authority’ issued last April which saw armed attending on routine duties such as the Highland Cross charity race.

John has twice questioned Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill on how the decision to routinely arm officers was taken – during a Topical Questions session in May, and after Mr MacAskill’s statement on the issue in August. John also and raised the issue at the Parliament’s Police Committee (Official Report PDF) which took evidence from the Scottish Police Authority (SPA) and HM Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland (HMICS).

In June, the Chief Constable dismissed criticism as “mischievous,” and described the change as not being “the big issue people say it is” [5].

But Police Scotland have just announced that “the Chief Constable has directed that firearms officers attached to Armed Response Vehicles will now only be deployed to firearms incidents or where there is a threat to life.”

John said:

“I welcome the fact that Police Scotland has responded to legitimate public concerns about armed officers walking about our towns and villages, and changed their firearms policy.

“It is a great relief that armed police officers will no longer be seen on our streets dealing with routine police business as this was having a negative impact on community relations.

“The Scottish Police Authority and the HMICS are still inquiring into police firearms deployment [7], and I urge everyone who is concerned about this to contribute to the SPA consultation.

“We still need to understand how this significant change, thankfully reversed, happened in the first place.

“In the meantime, credit to Police Scotland for getting their guns off our streets.”

Speaking in the debate yesterday following the First Minister’s statement on the independence referendum, John warned that the Westminster parties are keen to return to ‘business as usual’, with promises of new powers already being hastily rolled back, and Labour returning to right-wing policies rather than the progressive solidarity they alluded to during the campaign.

He also raised the question of the Treasury’s apparently illegal leaking of market-sensitive information about the Royal Bank of Scotland as part of the UK Government’s anti-independence campaign. Alex Salmond intervened to announce that he will be passing all the information he has on the incident to the appropriate legal authorities.

The unionist parties have been calling for unity – that is, for opposition to their shared neoliberal agenda to end. John pointed out that the gap between much of the Yes movement and the No parties is not just one of constitutional policy, but of deeply-held values: “I am keen that we find common ground — that is important — but I am afraid that the UK unionist parties still view the corporations as being ahead of the citizens. There is no place for that in my outlook on politics.”

Many Yes campaigners will feel disheartened that we did not get everything we wanted, that we don’t have all the levers of power here in Scotland, but if we stay engaged we can still be a formidable force for social and environmental justice, because, as John said: “Democracy is never a lost cause.”

You can watch John’s speech at BBC Democracy Live – skip to 59 minutes 45 seconds.

The full transcript of John’s speech follows. You can read the full debate in the Scottish Parliament’s Official Report.

John Finnie: I noted that Alex Rowley said that, “change we will have”, and many speeches have referred to the term “vow”. If the prize of voting no was devo max, the UK parliamentary motion suggests that that is not the prize that we are now being offered.

Many people know that Conservative Party MPs are pushing for the Barnett formula to be scrapped. The confusion among the No camp about its position was highlighted again by Rod Campbell, who talked about the Campbell commission. Perhaps confused is the Lib Dems’ default position on matters fiscal.

I wonder what history will make of the 11th hour offers that were made. I wonder what it will make of the Treasury briefing. Indeed, more important, as the First Minister mentioned, I wonder what the legal authorities will make of the Treasury briefing. We need to follow that with great interest.

Johann Lamont referred to Labour’s devolution commission report on the Sewel convention and the position of the Scottish Parliament. That is to be welcomed. She also mentioned concerns on the workplace. I wonder whether those concerns are necessarily shared by partners in the No campaign, because it had a combined position.

First Minister Alex Salmond: I should have pointed out that it is my intention to put all the information that I have on the Treasury briefing in the hands of the correct legal authorities so that the investigation that the UK cabinet secretary does not want to make can proceed through the appropriate legal authorities. Then we will see what happens.

John Finnie: I thank the First Minister for that intervention. I am reassured by it and will pay great attention to how the matter progresses.

The referendum was not about electing a reforming Labour UK Government. Indeed, I do not think that that is what we are likely to see anyway—I do not know whether there is any commitment to reviewing health and safety in the workplace or the position on employment tribunal fees and arrangements, which reward poor employers.

The Labour leader talked about different ways to get the answer that we both want and not going back to business as usual but, of course, it is business as usual. I do not want a private NHS and, although the Labour Party south of the border has been complaining about that, we have heard very little about it north of the border. I certainly do not want a House of Lords. That is a way of rewarding the donors to the unionist parties and has no place in a liberal democracy.

Neil Findlay (Lab, Lothian): I hear a lot of critique of the no side from Mr Finnie. Where was the critique from the left of the yes camp of some of their regressive stuff that was in the white paper and the Government’s policy? Mr Finnie was silent.

John Finnie: Mr Findlay knows that I have spoken out on corporation tax, for instance, if that is what he is alluding to.

We know that more of the same means more illegal wars. Trigger-happy folk, including peace envoy Mr Blair, are mouthing off. We know that business as usual means Trident, with £1.43 billion being spent on the early design and the cost of replacement being perhaps £130 billion. It means austerity, which I raised during Mr Findlay’s speech, with 60 per cent of the cuts still to come and the Labour Party signed up to 97 per cent of them—and Labour will do more through its attack on the under-25s.

If we are talking about what we all want, let me say that I do not want the same language. I do not want talk of “British jobs for British workers”, for instance.

I am keen that we find common ground — that is important — but I am afraid that the UK unionist parties still view the corporations as being ahead of the citizens. There is no place for that in my outlook on politics.

Politics is about priorities, and priorities have to be funded. The question is what will be improved by the no vote. Will the no vote address the challenge of zero-hours contracts, which concern Mr Findlay? Will it improve the situation in relation to work capability assessments?

The UK will cut the Scottish Government’s funding, which will have implications for the priorities that are decided on in this Parliament.

I share Jackie Baillie’s concern about the 900,000 people who are affected by fuel poverty. She will be aware of the survey in the Highlands and Islands that shows that the vast majority of pensioners in the area are in severe fuel poverty, with the highest percentage in Orkney — it is ironic that most of those pensioners live in sight of the flare at the Flotta oil terminal. Energy is a reserved matter, of course.

I take issue with Jackie Baillie on what she said about people choosing between heating and lighting. That choice is already being made, and is reflected in the decisions of food banks to give out cold food because people do not have the wherewithal to heat food.

Jackie Baillie (Lab, Dumbarton): Will the member take an intervention?

John Finnie: I thank the member, but I will not; I have a few points to make and I have taken a couple.

I respect the result, and it is important that we do so. Mostly, I respect the engagement that has taken place, particularly in many areas where, historically, there has not been engagement. I am thinking about the Radical Independence Campaign event in Merkinch, in Inverness, which showed that people turn out when they are given the facts and encouraged to believe that their views matter. I am sure that all sides of the debate respect that.

Most of all, I respect the aspirations to make things better that many people hold. Of course we will work with everyone to deliver improvements. The fiscal commission working group said that we need economic and taxation levers if we are to do that, but that does not mean that we should not keep fighting for social and environmental justice.

Democracy is a great thing. We need to reinforce that message for people who engaged but who feel that, because they did not get the result that they wanted, it is a lost cause. Democracy is never a lost cause. We commend everyone for their participation in this historic event.

Vote Yes

Posted: September 17, 2014 in Uncategorized

Tomorrow is an historic day for everyone living in Scotland, a chance to put citizens’ interests ahead of corporations’, an opportunity to reduce inequality and to deliver social and environmental justice. It only takes an ‘X’ to secure a more just, outward-looking, independent future for our country. Please vote for a positive future. Please vote ‘Yes’.

John’s Indies4Indy Tour Diary

Posted: September 16, 2014 in Uncategorized

The ‘Indies for Indy’ tour finished Saturday 13th September lunch-time with a great wee meeting in the Ormlie Community Centre, Thurso.

At the outset, Jean and I planned to try and do a lunch-time and evening meeting each day.  We sent the meeting dates and locations to Better Together.  We told them that, in our experience, people preferred a debate to listening to one side and we invited them to send speakers along.  Within 11 minutes of sending that invitation, we received a reply from ‘speakers@BetterTogether’ thanking us but advising that ‘since the event has been organised by Yes we won’t attend’.  We were genuinely disappointed but made clear in our posters that ‘Yes, No, Undecided’ were all welcome.’

Both Jean and I had been doing separate meetings before and in between from Jean doing the BBC debate in Shetland to me doing a debate in Kilchoan.

The first night was Kirkhill on September 1st.  BetterTogether had put up two MSPs to speak then withdrew claiming the community run event was a ‘Yes’ event.  I understand they were invited to bring their own chairperson but still declined.  A welcome 11th hour intervention by Gary Coutts meant a somewhat lop-sided debate did go ahead with Jean and I getting 5 minutes each and Gary given 10.  A poll was taken on entry and exit at Kirkhill and the movement in the 90 strong crowd was clearly from No to ‘Yes’, perhaps the very reason why BetterTogether don’t wish to take part in public debates.  Kirkhill was not the only one they withdrew from that week.

The following night we spoke as guests of Professor Alan Riach, Scotland’s only chair of Scottish Literature and Sandy Moffat an artist on ‘Arts and Independence’.  There is no doubt that Scotland’s cultural community is one again at the forefront of our Nation’s quest for constitutional change.

We held our first lunchtime meeting in Dornoch the following lunch-time.  This was the first time we tried the technology of showing two short film clips, ‘The News where you are’ by James Robertson and Dr Philippa Whitford speaking on the NHS.  Despite my late night training course in the Phipps Hall Beauly the previous day, the technical side posed some challenges.

Onwards to a meeting in the very far north that night in Tongue attended by 10% of the population many armed with home-baking.  The return journey on endless miles of single track saw us meet a shaken motorist who had just hit a deer.  Evening and night time travel can be very dangerous at this time of year.

The next afternoon I debated with Dave Stewart MSP in front of retired Members of the UNITE trade union in Inverness and then on to Cromarty where we were joined by the first guest speaker of our tour, the excellent Heather Urquhart of the Scottish Green Party.

Friday saw another debate with Mary Scanlon MSP with a great Q & A with adults with learning disability supported by People First, again in Inverness.

That Friday night we travelled to Glenelg and were joined by Jen Stout.  Jen is from Shetland and spoke on behalf of Women for Indy and Radical Indy.  This event was filmed by a German documentary maker who is following Jen around the country.  What marked this meeting out was the fact that it was perhaps the only one which didn’t have an obvious ‘Yes’ dominated audience, however, that was a great opportunity to change views.

The next day, through torrential rain, to a lunchtime meeting in Gairloch and evening meeting in Achiltibuie.

Sunday was a day off from the tour but still very busy. On Monday (8th September) Jean and I had separate engagements, the previously mentioned debate in Kilchoan for me – 3 and a half hours driving through wonderful scenery.  Dinner was a white pudding supper and a twenty minute debate in a chip shop in Fort-William with the Kurdish owners and a local man who’d just finished working in a bar.  There’s no doubt that wearing a badge is a great way of prompting discussions and people are genuinely interested in talking about the referendum.

Tuesday night in Mallaig with an eager UKIP fan in the audience was another good meeting with an early start to drive to Oban the next morning.  Remarkably for Jean and I were early and took the opportunity to have a coffee outdoors, quite by chance beside the BT office.  I sat incredulous listing to a woman handing out BT papers saying ‘See it’s all about oil.  If the price drops 10% then 10% less people can be treated by the NHS.’  When she finished speaking to the nodding tourist she caught my eye and I took the opportunity to quietly suggest that the public deserve facts and not inaccurate lies.  Raising her voice, she replied ‘That’s typical of the SNP wanting to shout at folk’. Oh dear, time to get back to the coffee and empire biscuit.  Perhaps on reflection it was a bad choice of cake.

I greeted everyone coming into our Oban meeting.  The only one who didn’t reciprocate stated ‘I’m a No voter you said you’d welcome us, so I’m here’.  During the Q & A the gentleman made a brief speech and this prompted some lively and courteous debate, just as we had hoped for throughout.

Our evening meeting was in Lochgilphead and we were disappointed that illness meant our guest speaker, Elaine Morrison of the Green Party, was unable to join us for what was a great evening of debate.

The next day we were at Garve village hall and appreciated the searching questions of the ‘Don’t knows’ that attended.

Our evening meeting was in the Tollbooth in Forres, a magnificent setting, formerly the home of Forres Town Council.  Our guest speaker that night was James MacKessack-Leitch of Highlands and Islands Green Party and the well-attended meeting proved one of the most engaging we held.

As Jean and I had oragnsied a  coffee morning for the Children’s Hospice in the morning which we wanted to be strictly apolitical, we were restricted only having an evening meeting that Friday night in Wick, held in the wonderful Pipe Band Hall.  The following day we spent some time on the YES Wick street stall before our final lunchtime meeting in Thurso.

During the tour we travelled over 1600 miles from the far north coast to Mid Argyll.  That we only managed a portion of the Highlands and Islands constituency perhaps illustrates the challenge Jen and I have representing the region

Jean and I are very grateful to the local folk who helped by putting up posters and arranging the venues and to our excellent speakers each of whom you will certainly hear much more from in the future.

Was it worthwhile? I certainly think so.  Whilst our average attendance was a couple of dozen we spoke to countless others at our many coffee stops.

We’re in the final week. Jean has headed north to Shetland and I will be assisting in Inverness and Moray – there’s still lots of Undecideds out there!

 

John has secured a meeting between the Highland Cycle Campaign and Transport Minister Keith Brown to discuss the problems cyclists face with the Kessock Bridge upgrade.

Questioning Mr Brown in Parliament this week, John asked ‘what methods of consultation the Scottish Government uses to gauge the views of cyclist to major trunk road works’, and highlighted the perceived ‘discouragement of cycling’ and the need for Transport Scotland to improve its complaints handing system.

Speaking after John said:

“I received representations from the Highland’s cycling community about how Transport Scotland had dealt with cyclists and their complaints. I raised those concerns directly with Transport Scotland and I understand why their response to me fails to satisfy my constituents, including pedestrians who were also adversely affected.

“The Scottish Government rightly promotes and encourages active travel and I’m keen to see that nothing frustrates the ability of cyclist to safely use our quality cycle routes and paths.

“I am grateful to the Minister for agreeing to meet with me and Highland Cycle Campaign whom I know will be able to make constructive suggestions to avoid some of the past difficulties.”