Long wait for Ministers’ answer on shipping rules to protect Scapa Flow

John Finnie speaking at the University of the Highlands and IslandsJohn Finnie is pressing the Environment Minister for answers on the long-overdue review of ballast water management rules designed to protect Scapa Flow from ecological damage.

Neither Aileen McLeod nor her predecessor as Minister for Environment and Climate Change, Paul Wheelhouse, have made any announcement on the review since Mr Wheelhouse told the Scottish Parliament it was underway almost a year and a half ago.

John said:

“The environment of Scapa Flow and Orkney’s shipping industry are both of huge importance, not only to the Islands but to Scotland as a whole. They can’t be treated as an afterthought or put on the back burner.

“I’m perplexed as to how the Scottish Government review of the ballast water management policy could have taken almost a year and a half, with no updates or explanations along the way.

“Meanwhile, Orcadians are left wondering whether the Minister will ever get round to it.

“I hope the Minister will respond with a clear answer on when the review will be published, so that the many people that rely on a healthy ecosystem and a well-run port at Scapa Flow can stop wondering what’s going on.”

The dumping of ships’ ballast water in sensitive habitats like Scapa Flow is strictly controlled because it can release industrial pollutants from ships, and invasive plant and animal species from their previous destinations, into the local ecosystem.

Under the EU Habitats Directive, the Scottish Government is required to oversee these rules, as Mr Wheelhouse confirmed when he told Holyrood that his officials had begun a review of new ballast water rules proposed by Orkney Islands Council.

In a written answer on 16 July 2014, Mr Wheelhouse said:

“Orkney Islands Council approved a revised Ballast Water Management Policy for Scapa Flow on 10 December 2013. Scottish Natural Heritage, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency and stakeholders have expressed concerns about the proposals and the need to ensure compliance with European legal requirements. In view of these concerns and Scottish Ministers’ statutory responsibilities, my officials have been reviewing the council’s appropriate assessment to determine whether we are satisfied that the proposals are compliant and, if not, whether or not there is a need to use statutory powers available to ministers in the regulations implementing the EU Habitats Directive.”

In the seventeen months since, no Scottish Government minister has said anything further about the review. Now John has lodged a formal Parliamentary Question to press Ms Campbell to update MSPs and commit to a publication date:

Question S4W-29897: John Finnie, Highlands and Islands, Independent, Date Lodged: 10/02/2016
To ask the Scottish Government, further to the answer to question S4W-21880 by Paul Wheelhouse on 16 July 2014, what the conclusions are of its review and whether it plans to publish them.

According to the Standing Orders of the Scottish Parliament, Ms McLeod is expected to reply by Thursday 9 March 2016.

Ship to Ship Oil Transfer Petition Hits 3K

John has today (8th February) submitted a more than 3200 signatures strong petition (figure includes signatures to online change.org petition and paper copies) and formal objection calling upon the Maritime Coastguard Agency to refuse the oil transfer licence made by Cromarty Firth Port Authority (CFPA).

This follows weeks of campaigning by John and the coastal communities to block risky ship to ship transfers of oil across the Moray Firth on the basis that they are unsafe and unnecessary.

Ahead of the submission of his letter of objection and the petition John said:

“The idea of transferring oil across the Moray Firth – a spectacular marine area of international significance – is outrageous. I’m not in the least bit surprised at the strength of feeling across the world against this proposal, and I urge the Maritime and Coastguard Agency take note of the significant public opposition when making a decision.

“I am encouraged by the way in which the immediately affected community have mobilised against CFPA’s proposal and I am proud to have campaigned with them on such a critical issue. In particular I would like to note the actions of Cromarty and District Community Council who have exerted a great deal of time and energy in thoroughly opposing these plans.

“The sheer number of mistakes and omissions throughout CFPA’s application is remarkable and I am astonished and dismayed that in spite of these slip ups, the SNP Government is in support of these risky plans.

“Within the application there is no thought given to what might happen if ships were to collide, the impact of ballast water and the oil spill modelling goes no-where near the worst case scenario. It doesn’t even mention whether these plans are to be instead of or in addition to existing oil transfers in the area. How could the MCA make a competent assessment of this application when they only have half the detail?

“This application is now in the hands of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and I hope they make the right decision. There is far too much at stake for us to simply sit back, cross our fingers and hope for the best.”

You can see a copy of John’s letter here:

STS Letter Page 1STS Letter Page 2









Today is the last day to object to the application: You can see the details of how to do so here: http://www.cfpa.co.uk/News/Oil-Transfer-Licence-Application.aspx

Why have the SNP U-turned on ship-to-ship oil transfers?

#SaveOurDolphins – sign John’s petition against risky ship-to-ship oil transfers

SaveOurDolphins_800x450John Finnie has criticised the SNP Government’s apparent support for the proposal to carry out risky ship-to-ship oil transfers in the Moray Firth, which contrasts with their vocal opposition to similar plans in the Firth of Forth nine years ago.

In his first speech as Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Environment, Richard Lochhead said:

“Many members of the public and members across the Parliament consider that even a scintilla of environmental risk is unacceptable…

“I believe that the Parliament – and, indeed, Scotland – desires to be able to prevent ship-to-ship oil transfers and proposals that could pose a threat to our precious marine and coastal environments in the Firth of Forth or elsewhere. That is what I intend to achieve.”

Yet, as the consultation about the proposed plans by Cromarty Firth Port Authority to transfer oil between ships at the mouth of the Cromarty Firth draws to a close, the response from Richard Lochhead and the SNP government has been bewildering.

Unlike with the Firth of Forth plan, Mr Lochhead has refused to comment on the Cromarty application, leaving it to an anonymous Scottish Government spokesperson to say that “ship-to-ship transfer of oil an internationally recognised practice that is important to the shipping industry.” Meanwhile, the leader of the SNP Group on Moray Council, Cllr Maxine Smith, said that the application had the support of the SNP Government and that she had “no concerns” about it.

John said:

“For the Government to have made such a drastic U-turn on this matter is of deep concern for all those with an interest in protecting the marine and wildlife of the Moray Firth. Now, in contrast to his vocal opposition to ship to ship transfer in the Forth, Richard Lochhead’s silence is deafening.

“There is clear and serious concern from local communities around the Moray Firth who have mobilised in opposition to the plan, about the environmental risks associated with this proposal.

“With oil being pumped at the rate of two tonnes per second, and it taking a maximum of forty seconds to shut down any spillage once it has been noticed; the extent of any leakage would be disastrous.

“The number of risks that the Cromarty Firth Port Authority have simply opted not to take into account in their application is extensive; heightened emissions from the large tankers, the risk of collision between ships, the impact of such a plan on tourism and the local economy; the list goes on.

“It really wasn’t that long ago that Richard Lochhead said that “even a scintilla of environmental risk is unacceptable” and I wholeheartedly agree. So why is his government – who claim to offer the highest standard of marine protection – now supporting this perilous proposal?

“This operation is unsafe, unnecessary and undesirable. In my view, and the view of the affected communities, it simply must not go ahead.”

John calls on Scottish Government to come clean on oil transfers



John has reiterated his call for the Scottish Government to give a clear statement on its position in the Cromarty Firth Port Authority’s live application to carry out ship to ship oil transfers in the open seas of the Moray Firth.

Earlier last week, John launched a campaign to block risky plans to carry out ship-to-ship transfers of oil in the Cromarty Firth with the campaign petition, Stop Ship to Ship Transfers Of Oil Across The Mouth Of The Cromarty Firth, attracting worldwide support.

In addition to the petition John had written to key decision-makers, including lobbying Councillors across the Moray Firth area.

Responding to John’s request to support the growing opposition to ship to ship transfer on the open seas, Councillor Maxine Smith, Leader of the SNP Group on the Highland Council, who represents the Cromarty Firth Ward, advised Mr Finnie that the application had the support of the SNP Scottish Government and that she had “no concerns at this time” regarding the application

Commenting on Councillor Smith’s email, John said:

“This is an astonishing position for the SNP, the Party of Government, to adopt in relation to a highly sensitive live application. I would urge the Scottish Government make clear its position on what role it has played the application by the Cromarty Firth Port Authority.

“The communities who will be most affected should the licence be granted and there be any resulting spillages, are very clear that they have grave and pressing concerns.

“We cannot continue to promote Scotland globally for wildlife tourism if we permit activities which not only endanger any potential tourism revenues, but more fundamentally put in danger the health of the wildlife that sustains it. Our coastal communities deserve better.”

In today’s Inverness Courier (26/01/16) a Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “The Scottish Government recognises that ship-to-ship transfer of oil is an internationally recognised practice that is important to the shipping industry and has an excellent safety record in UK waters. However, we remain vigilant to the need for careful consideration in sensitive waters to ensure the highest standards of protection for our marine environment.”

Commenting on the Scottish Government statement John said:

“This bland set of platitudes from the Scottish Government do not address the central concern of the communities that will be affected by this application. Nor does it address the claim of the Leader of the SNP on Highland Council that the Scottish Government supports the application by Cromarty Firth Port Authority to carry out oil transfers in the Cromarty/Moray Firth.

“The highest possible standard of protection for this precious marine environment is simply to block any plans to carry out the oil transfers, anything short of that is putting private profit ahead of protecting our environment.

“Ahead of the Cromarty and District Community Council meeting tomorrow the Scottish Government must make clear where it stands on this application.”

The Cromarty and District Community Council will be held in the West Church Hall on Wednesday, 27 January at 7.30pm.

Please sign and share John’s petition against the plans.


John tells Government: We need real rent controls

John Finnie backs Living Rent Campaign, holding placard reading "It's time for rent controls".John Finnie MSP has called on the Scottish Government to extend proposed rent controls to new private tenancies, not just to renewals of existing ones.

John said real rent controls are “urgent” in the Highlands and Islands, where rents are rising faster than in any other part of Scotland and are now £23 per month higher than the national average.

According to estate agents Your Move, the average monthly rent in the region was £569 in November 2015, second only to Edinburgh and Lothians at £635; the average Scottish rent was £546. Rents in the Highlands and Islands rose by 5.8% in the year to November 2015; the next fastest-growing region was South at 3.1%.

John’s call came as the Government’s Private Housing (Tenancies) Bill, which provides for the reintroduction of rent controls, received its first debate and vote in the Scottish Parliament. MSPs voted overwhelmingly, 88 votes to 13, to endorse the principles of the Bill after it was debated on Thursday 21 January.

John was one of the first MSPs to join the Living Rent Campaign to press for rent controls, scrapped by Margaret Thatcher’s administration in 1988. Campaigners were jubilant when Nicola Sturgeon announced last year that she would reintroduce controls, but current Scottish Government proposal would only limit rent rises during existing tenancies.

John warned that this “giant loophole” would leave landlords free to increase rents as much as they wanted for new tenants, and may even encourage landlords to evict existing tenants in order to sidestep rent controls. He said:

“The cost of renting a home in the Highlands and Islands is racing ahead of the rest of the country, driven by buy-to-let and holiday-home speculators for whom houses are first and foremost investments, not homes.

“The result is greater poverty, greater depopulation, and more desperate tenants forced to accept poor-quality homes or unscrupulous landlords.

“Nowhere is the case for rent controls more urgent.

“But the Government’s first draft would only control increases in rent for existing tenants – landlords could still hike up the rent as much as they want for new tenants.

“Given that the majority of rent increases do happen in between tenancies, this version of rent control would do little to rein in the soaring cost of keeping a roof over your head.

“Even worse, applying it to existing tenants but not new ones would be a big incentive for landlords to kick out their current tenants so they could sidestep the rent control.

“I’m delighted that the Government has brought forward this Bill to improve tenants’ rights, a huge victory for the Living Rent Campaign and the many others who have worked for it. It could be a major step in the direction of reclaiming our houses as homes for people, not just financial investment opportunities.

“But if this this giant loophole isn’t closed as the Bill moves forward, it could turn into a huge missed opportunity.”

John also called on the Government to make rent controls reflect the quality of housing, incentivising landlords to make repairs and improve energy efficiency, and to include a hardship clause in eviction rules so that eviction orders could be delayed for tenants who are dealing with circumstances such as pregnancy, illness, bereavement or recent unemployment. He said:

“We need to tackle the poor quality of much of our housing as well as the raw cost. According to Government figures, almost half of tenants across the Highlands and Islands live in fuel poverty, a quarter of private rented homes are “lacking modern facilities”, and 13% are “below tolerable standard” – more than twice the Scottish average.

“As is done in the Netherlands, maximum rents should be lowered for homes that fail housing quality standards, have poor energy efficiency or are awaiting repairs, giving landlords a much-needed financial incentive to make improvements.

“The present version of the Bill gives a tribunal no discretion at all in issuing eviction orders in some situations, such as when there are rent arrears. Tenancies aren’t like any other business deal – people’s homes are at stake – so we need more flexibility and compassion for difficult situations. The Bill should include a ‘hardship clause’, allowing the tribunal to postpone an eviction to allow tenants facing difficulties time to arrange a repayment schedule, or to find a new home.”

John Congratulates Scalloway Hotel on Becoming Living Wage Employer


John  has lodged a motion in Holyrood (12th January) congratulating the Scalloway Hotel in Shetland on becoming the first Living Wage hotel in Scotland.

Welcoming the news of the official accreditation for the Scalloway Hotel by the Living Wage Foundation as an important step towards a more ethical hospitality industry, which is not typically known for paying well, John also wrote to the hotel’s owners to offer them his personal congratulations and thanks.

The Living Wage is an hourly rate set independently and updated on a yearly basis to reflect the basic cost of living in the UK. This currently stands at £8.25 – a significant increase upon the measly minimum wage of £6.70. A study conducted into the impact Living Wage has shown the benefits are considerable for employers and employees alike. Over 80% of Living Wage employers and 75% of employees reporting an increase in work quality as a result of the change.


Living Wage

Commenting John said:

“I am delighted that the owners of the Scalloway Hotel are leading the way in the hotel industry by becoming a Living Wage Employer. Making sure that employees can afford to live comfortably without fear that they will not be able to afford food, bills, rent and other essentials is a critical part of the fight end the scourge of poverty in Scotland.

“I am immensely proud to have become a Living Wage employer in October of last year and I know the many benefits that come from doing so. Paying decent wages is a smart decision for all employers; it improves the quality of work produced, improves staff recruitment and retention, not to mention the peace of mind that comes with knowing employees are being paid fairly.

“I’m thrilled that Scalloway Hotel have chosen to set such a wonderful example to employers across the country – in particular those in the hospitality industry – and I very much hope that others are quick to follow suit.”

John’s motion reads as follows

Motion S4M-15309: John Finnie, Highlands and Islands, Independent, Date Lodged: 12/01/2016

Congratulating Scalloway Hotel on Becoming an Accredited Living Wage Employer

That the Parliament congratulates the Scalloway Hotel in Shetland on becoming an accredited living wage employer; understands that the hotel has become the first living wage hotel in Scotland; notes that living wage accreditation is incumbent on the employer paying a minimum of £8.25 per hour to their employees, higher than the UK Government’s so-called living wage of £7.20; believes that this move by the Scalloway Hotel is a positive step for the hospitality industry, and hopes that many more will follow its example.

John’s Speech Caledonian Sleeper Debate

On Wednesday (14th January 2016) John spoke during the Member’s Business Debate on the dispute between RMT members and the operator of the Caledonian Sleeper. You can read the motion debate and John’s speech below.

That the Parliament notes that RMT members working on the Caledonian Sleeper service are in dispute with the new operator, Serco, and have voted by nine to one for both strike action and action short of a strike; understands that Serco has failed to address numerous defects with the Caledonian Sleeper rolling stock despite lengthy talks between RMT negotiators and Serco management and that this failure has led to the resounding vote for action by RMT members; acknowledges that RMT’s health and welfare concerns surrounding the Caledonian Sleeper rolling stock include smoke detectors being disconnected, toilets being inoperable, lighting and heating systems not working, air conditioning problems throughout the summer, no hot water in some coaches for hand washing purposes, water boilers not working, which means that staff must carry boiling water through coaches while the train is moving, pungent smells from toilets, an issue with batteries under some coaches also releasing a strong smell, loss of power in coaches during journeys, which means staff have to find alternative accommodation during the night for irate passengers and serious problems with a number of wheel flats, which has led to some services being completely cancelled and passengers being bussed from Scotland to London, and believes that RMT has identified over 200 defects with the Caledonian Sleeper rolling stock and that Serco’s failure to resolve these issues demonstrates that a below acceptable standard of service is being provided to members of the public across Scotland, including those from the Cowdenbeath constituency. 

“I congratulate Alex Rowley on lodging an important motion, and I want to make two declarations. First, I declare my membership of the RMT parliamentary group, which I am very privileged to be part of. Secondly, my office is based in the iconically named Highland Rail House and our immediate neighbour bar one is the Caledonian Sleeper service. Indeed, I relatively frequently meet the managing director of that service, Mr Peter Strachan. I am happy to go on the record as saying that he is a very straight-talking and engaging guy, who certainly resolved a couple of issues that I took to him. I know that there was a conscious decision to base the service in the Highlands, and I absolutely commend its procurement policy.

Peter Strachan has told me that he is a railwayman through and through. He formerly worked for British Rail, and he has said on the internet that he is “Leading the Serco team responsible for transforming the Sleeper service into an outstanding hospitality service that is emblematic of the best of Scotland.” The managing director knows the transformation that I want. I want the entire rail network to be viewed as a public asset that serves the public, and I understand that the majority of the public want that, too.

We know, for instance, that the east coast service has failed twice under private franchise. It was a success when it was run by the state. We might have seen that as a model to be rolled out across the various franchises, but Mr Cameron saw that as an opportunity to make further profit for his friends, of course. There are break clauses in all those contracts, and I hope that they are utilised at some point. In the meantime, I want the service to be a success. Like many, I have no regard for Serco or its working practices, but I certainly want the service to be a success. That will be a challenge because of the rolling stock.

I am grateful for the RMT’s briefing, as I am sure other members are. That briefing highlights the public money that is connected to private rail.

Due to rail works in my native Lochaber in the very near future, the sleeper will go to Oban. That is not just an opportunity to provide a service to the west Highlands; it is perhaps an opportunity to apply a different service. It is a great opportunity for Argyll and the isles. As many have said, the journey is iconic. However, I am trying to envisage that iconic journey “that is emblematic of the best of Scotland” if I cannot go to the toilet, if the air quality is poor—air quality is a very important issue—and if there are staff going about carrying boiling water. What assessment is being done of that? I am trying to envisage the journey if there is a pungent smell from the toilets. The catalogue of faults should be addressed as a matter of urgency.

Serco is certainly to be commended for engaging in talks some months ago, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating. I am delighted that ACAS is involved.

The issues seem to be fundamental, and I would not have thought that anyone would take issue with their resolution. They seem to be fundamental to any public service, let alone one that we put forward as “emblematic”.

There is some substance to the suggestion that the inclusion of indemnity clauses encourages the train operating companies not to engage meaningfully. People may very well be concerned about the role that that plays in industrial relations.

I commend the role of the RMT. Health and safety, the safety of workers at their work and the safety of the public who are served should absolutely be at the front and centre of everything that we do. I hope that Serco will recognise the importance of health and safety in train operations, that it will engage meaningfully in talks, and that the Scottish Government will play its part in the process, as public money is connected with this. I am sure that the minister would want that to be properly disbursed.

I hope that the matters are fully addressed. It is important to say that the concerns have been legitimately raised, and they should be legitimately addressed.”

Or you can watch the debate here: 

John’s speech begins at  12:43.