John Comments on Stephen House’s Resignation

Commenting on Sir Stephen House’s decision to step down early as chief constable of Police Scotland, John Independent MSP for the Highlands & Islands and justice spokesperson for the Scottish Greens, said:

“It was clear from start of Police Scotland that Sir Stephen House had the necessary drive and authority to transform the various elements of policing across Scotland into a single public service. Sadly, despite assurances that best practice from all the former constituent forces would be adopted, it very swiftly became the case that it was the House way or no way in Police Scotland.

“Rather than responding to wise counsel, both within and outwith the police service, Sir Stephen placed armed officers in our communities and inflicted industrial levels of stop and search across the country. It is inappropriate to pre-empt outcome of the ongoing inquiry into tragic loss of life following the M9 road incident, however, it has long been apparent that the Chief Constable does not enjoy the public support that his post demands and regrettably this has fed down to negative perceptions of police officers and support staff who are doing a great deal of good work across our communities.

“His early departure is one call that Sir Stephen has got right.”

The Highlands and Islands need rent controls

This post first appeared on the website of the Living Rent Campaign.

John Finnie backs Living Rent Campaign, holding placard reading "It's time for rent controls".The Highlands and Islands is an expensive place to live. You probably know that our big distances mean higher transport costs, and our wilder weather means bigger fuel bills. You could probably guess that our workers’ wages are well below those in the central belt. But it might come as more of a surprise to learn that rents in the Highlands and Islands are well above the Scottish average, and rising faster than anywhere but Glasgow.

According to a study by estate agents Your Move (PDF), the average rent in the private rented sector in the Highlands and Islands run at £563 per month, £14 higher than the national figure. In the last year, our rents have risen by 4.3%, only a fraction behind the 4.6% increase in the Glasgow and Clyde area.

There is a tendency to think of housing pressures as the preserve of overcrowded urban centres or their hastily-built suburban schemes. In fact, the housing crisis here in the Highlands and Islands is as acute as anywhere in the central belt.

Our rents are soaring, 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.

We must reverse that trend, so that everyone can expect somewhere safe, secure and affordable to live.

The housing crisis is a complex problem that will have complex solutions, but I believe that a system of rent controls is an essential component of our response.

Rent controls were effectively abolished in the UK by the Thatcher government’s 1988 Housing Acts, but rent controls live on in other countries, including in several cities in the United States. The policy is making a strong comeback, with Berlin the most recent major city to extend its rent controls. A UK opinion poll last December found that 60% support rent controls, and less than 1 in 14 people oppose them (opposition among the Scottish subset of the poll was a virtually negligible 1 in 33).

Here in Scotland, we await the report – due imminently – on the Scottish Government’s second consultation on a “New Tenancy for the Private Sector,” which asked respondents for their view on bringing back rent controls. In the meantime the Scottish Parliament has received a petition, organised by the grassroots Living Rent Campaign and signed by 8,000 people, calling for the reintroduction of rent controls.

The Living Rent Campaign’s proposals not only take on the raw cost of renting, but also the poor quality of much of our housing. This is a particular problem in the Highlands and Islands, where almost half (48%) of private tenants live in fuel poverty, 26% of private rented homes are “lacking modern facilities”, and 13% are “below tolerable standard” – more than twice the Scottish average.

Using a points system similar to that in place in the Netherlands, maximum rents would be lowered for properties that fail housing quality standards, have poor energy efficiency or are awaiting repairs, giving landlords a much-needed financial incentive to make improvements.

Rent controls are by no means enough on their own to solve the housing crisis – and no-one is saying they are. We need to build many, many more council houses; we need secure, indefinite tenancies that allow tenants to put down roots; we need to ban discrimination against prospective tenants on the grounds of their welfare or immigration status; and we need much tougher minimum energy efficiency standards to wipe out fuel poverty – all of which has been proposed by the Scottish Greens, and found at least some support in other parties.

What rent controls will do is make an immediate impact in the lives and expectations of many thousands of tenants. They will reduce the burden on families in hardship, encourage young people back to depopulated communities, and restore sanity to the housing market. Most of all, they will begin the process of reclaiming our houses as homes for people, not for money.

I’m very proud to be one of the first MSPs to put my name to the Living Rent Campaign’s pledge to back rent controls. Please write to your MSPs, your MPs, MEPs and Councillors, and the candidates for the next Scottish Parliament election, asking them to do the same.

MSPs back John’s call to ban UK spying on Holyrood

John Finnie - Amnesty InternationalMSPs from across the Scottish Parliament are supporting John Finnie’s has call for David Cameron to include Holyrood in the ban on spying on parliamentarians.

Since 1966, security agencies have been banned from tapping the phones or reading the emails of MPs, under a convention called the “Wilson Doctrine” after the then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson.

However, it emerged last week that GCHQ, the UK’s main communications surveillance agency, recently dropped the Scottish Parliament from its interpretation of the ban, freeing it to spy on MSPs calls and emails. The new GCHQ policy also excludes the Welsh and Northern Irish Assemblies, and the European Parliament. MI5 and MI6 don’t appear ever to have recognised devolved legislatures’ right to the protection of the Wilson Doctrine.

The change in policy was revealed by lawyers acting for the Green Party parliamentarians Caroline Lucas and Jenny Jones in their case against GCHQ at the Investigatory Powers Tribunal. The pair are challenging the legality of GCHQ’s Tempora programme, which applies blanket surveillance to all electronic communications data in the UK.

John has lodged a Scottish Parliament motion asking the Prime Minister to ensure intelligence agencies respect the ban, and to extend it to include the devolved and European parliaments. It says:

Motion S4M-13854: The Wilson Doctrine

That the Parliament requests that the Prime Minister instructs all intelligence-gathering agencies, including GCHQ, MI5 and MI6, to adhere to the spirit of the Wilson Doctrine by prohibiting phone-tapping and electronic surveillance of parliamentarians, including members of the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the European Parliament

Seventeen other MSPs have already added their names to the motion, including Scottish Greens co-convenor Patrick Harvie, SNP chief whip Bill Kidd and Labour leadership candidate Ken Macintosh.

John said:

“The Wilson Doctrine is an important safeguard of the freedom and independence of parliament from state power. It helps defend us all against the risk of security agencies blurring the line between protecting the interests of the nation, and protecting the interests of the government.

“David Cameron has promised respect for devolution; that means he has to recognise the right of MSPs, Welsh AMs and Northern Irish MLAs to the same protection as MPs. If he respects democracy in general, he must make sure that protection is a strong as the day it was created in 1966.

“From surveillance cameras on every corner to GCHQ’s massive trawling of emails, phone calls and texts, the people of the UK are some of the most spied on in the world. The present government is determined to go further, with David Cameron proposing a draconian ban on the encryption that keeps our data secure on the internet.

“I applaud Caroline Lucas for taking on the Big Brother culture, and for her success in bringing GCHQ in front of a court to defend its mass surveillance. Her tenacity has already brought to light this Holyrood-shaped hole in our tattered safeguards against abuse of power. I’m sure we’ll learn a lot more as the case goes on.”

John is the convenor of the Cross-Party Group on Human Rights, and a member of the Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee. He has written to its Convenor, Christine Grahame, to ask that the Home Secretary is called to the Committee to face questioning about the surveillance of MSPs.

Policing the polis: Holding Scotland’s new service to account

This article was written in March 2015, and first appeared in the most recent edition, issue 41, of Democratic Left Scotland’s magazine, Perspectives. Copies are now available at Word Power, West Nicolson Street, Edinburgh. 

John Finnie - Amnesty InternationalEver since being asked to write an article, a couple of months ago, on Scotland’s now two year old police service, its already rancorous birth has been compounded by almost weekly controversies.

Since the new service started there has been a wholesale change in policing methods: armed officers have appeared on our streets attending routine non firearms incidents; and a significant number of Scotland’s children have been stopped by the police, asked to ‘consent’ to being searched, then having their mobile phone numbers requested.

I’m a member of the Scottish Parliament’s Police Committee and during evidence taking have been assured by senior officers that those unpopular, and in one instance legally questionable, practices had stopped only to subsequently learn that’s not the case. Whilst this information was not given on oath, as senior public servants it was reasonable to assume that we would not subjected to false, misleading or inaccurate statements.

So what is going on? Who is really in charge? And was the First Minister wise to recently give the chief constable a vote of confidence when many think she should be giving him his P45?

I will examine the background to Scotland’s police service, what checks and balances exist, whether the advent of the single police service heralded the police being the controversial political issue they have become, whether those controversies have another genesis, and what the future might hold.

The difficult birth of Police Scotland

Until fairly recent times it was widely accepted that the principal of policing by consent applied to the various constabularies discharging their duties in Scotland.

In April 2013, Scotland’s eight regional forces and ‘central services’, such as the Scottish Police College, were merged into a single entity, Police Scotland, since which time the police’s commitment to that concept has been seriously questioned by local and national politicians and the Scottish Human Rights Commission.

I fought for and secured improving amendments to the legislation and, as Chair of the Parliament’s Cross party Group on Human Rights, was delighted my proposed revised oath to be sworn by all new recruits; “I, do solemnly, sincerely and truly declare and affirm that I will faithfully discharge the duties of the office of constable with fairness, integrity, diligence and impartiality, and that I will uphold fundamental human rights and accord equal respect to all people, according to law,” was unanimously agreed by Parliament. The previous oath made no mention of “upholding human rights”.

The transition from 9 bodies to one was tortuously slow. Police are very rank- conscious and the preparatory work for the new service had exactly the same number of ‘work-streams’ as there were assistant chief constables so everyone got a new, albeit temporary, title. Self-interest among those individuals lead to inertia and it was only after the appointment of Police Scotland’s first chief constable, Stephen House, hitherto the chief constable of Strathclyde Police, that things got moving.

Stephen House is a former Metropolitan Police Officer who believes that a ‘performance culture’ is what is required to evidence sound policing practice. So, whilst some things, such as public reassurance, are very hard to quantify, it is easy to count the number of drivers charged with not wearing a seat belt or the number who have dropped litter. Now, as someone who owes their life to wearing a seat belt, I place very great store in educating the public about road traffic safety and, of course, I dislike litter. However, in each of those instances, if the offender is someone who will respond to advice, then much better that, rather than reach for their notebook, officers deploy their most significant power: the power of discretion. That way you have two citizens grateful for not being charged and two future potential witnesses to help the police. But if you give a clear focus on numbers then that’s what front-line officers will concentrate on.

The period running up to the amalgamation was frenzied. On paper at least, the scrutiny process was designed to be enhanced. Each council ward now has its own Policing Plan and each Local Authority its own Police Committee, rather than the joint board system of members for various authorities in all but two of the former forces. Overseeing it all, the Scottish Police Authority, a board of appointees with various backgrounds and officials with a variety of skills.

Arming the police

Until about 20 years ago, the Scottish Police service was always unarmed. Trained officers could be sent to incidents where firearms were needed, invariably the aftermath of an armed robbery, a murder using firearms or whilst on close protection duties for VIPs. About 20 years ago saw the advent of the Armed Response Vehicle: two highly trained uniformed officers in a vehicle on constant patrol. Within the last decade each of the forces had them but only Strathclyde and Lothian & Borders officers have the firearms carried overtly on the officers; Tayside’s ARV crews carried the weapons covertly whilst the other forces had weapons contained within a locked safe in the boot of the vehicle with withdrawal and use requiring the approval of a senior officer.

When a constituent contacted me saying they were concerned armed officers were patrolling on foot in the Inverness area I was initially sceptical but I made some enquiries and found it to be correct.

One of the changes that followed the move to the single service was the significant change I encountered trying to get replies to constituents’ enquiries. I wrote to the chief constable asking if there was a plan to put in place a correspondence protocol and was effectively told ‘we’ll decide what’s important’. For those reasons, rather than send off another letter which could go unanswered for months, I raised the matter through the Herald newspaper.

Police Scotland’s response was dismissive. I was told that only I and one other had ever complained. I sought and secured a meeting with the Assistant Chief Constable responsible for firearms and invited all my Highlands and Islands MSP colleagues to attend.

Now, almost a year and three official reports on we are told the ‘terrorist threat’ means our armed officers will retain their ‘standing authority’ to openly carry their firearms and they will still intervene in non-firearms incidents ‘using their professional judgement’. My request that the guns be returned to the safe in the car boot has been roundly rejected.

Stop and search

When used proportionately, stopping and searching citizens is legitimate crime prevention tool for the police. Indeed, common law powers of search and statutory powers relating to things such as drugs and weapons have always been a feature of effective policing. The laws relating to stop in search did not alter when Police Scotland came into being, nor did the threat level suddenly change what did alter was the police’s approach to stop and search.

One year in, we learned that levels of stop and search in Scotland exceeded those of the Metropolitan Police and New York Police Department.

More reports and explanations, and then the sad spectacle of Assistant Chief Constable Mawson, in the full light of the resulting publicity, explaining to Parliament that the ‘loss’ of “20,086 (search) records …. between May and July last year’ was because, ‘a computer programmer pressed the wrong button”. I’m not sure even he believed it, but within a few days the story changed anyway.

Whether terrorism, organised crime or drugs, the police like to tell us their operations are far from random, rather they are “intelligence led”. Of course, were that the case then we wouldn’t see communities targeted for stop and search operations resulting in four out of five stopped and searched having nothing on them, something the hapless ACC described as ‘a good success story’.

Later, having assured Parliament that searching of under-12s would cease, only for it to continue, the chief constable boasted he can and does ask for explanations from officers, bizarrely adding “that is quite an impressive development as far as human rights are concerned.” The ‘development’ that has seen young people stopped, searched, and had inappropriate details requested is ‘impressive’: an impressive disregard of human rights which will now stop.

Every profession has its own language and when we are told “there are no targets for volume of stop and search” yet are aware that each of Scotland’s Divisional Commanders has 23 key performance indicators to satisfy, you can see how scepticism can arise.

Policing the polis

Councillors on local authority committees have little to scrutinise and were cynically by-passed on the armed police issue whilst the Police Authority, initially distracted by a turf war about who’d be in charge of what, has been absent without trace on both the armed police and stop and search issues, belatedly and ineptly reporting events long since pored over by the press and politicians.

Since I became an independent MSP, the government no longer has a majority on either the Justice or Police Committees and seem to wish to characterise criticism of the police as ‘an opposition campaign’. I fear that misjudges the important scrutiny role expected of parliamentarians and, whilst we must all support the rule of law, that does not mean a blank cheque to an over-bearing policing style.

What do we learn from all of this? Well, it’s not that all the Police Scotland does is bad. The proactive work targeting serial domestic violence offenders has rightly been widely welcomed by Women’s Aid and others. Yet, even with that positive issue, rather than work with the legislative tools they are given, the police became active and vocal supporters of ending the age old Scots law convention of corroboration, the requirement for two separate sources of evidence to convict someone. That issue was eventually kicked into not very long grass by the Scottish Government, and will emerge again at the end of the year in time for proponents of this dangerous change to pontificate that some rights are more important than others.

Those opposed to the creation of the single service will feel vindicated that the series of events I have related show that they were right. I disagree; I believe they show a single-minded chief constable, unchallenged by his fellow chief officers, who isn’t held in check by his Police Authority, and who needs reigned in.

Sir Stephen House is quick to say he understands the need for him to be accountable; however, you do not need to be an expert in body language to read that’s not really his view.

I support local policing, and were I still a local councillor I would have been asking questions about armed officers on my beat. Why it was not picked up at local or national level? In fairness to the police they did tell the Police Authority. It was the last sentence of Paragraph ‘5.9’ of agenda item ‘8’: “Work is therefore well underway and on track in terms of Armed Policing provision for Day 1 when a standing authority for Armed Response Vehicles (ARV), Tactical Firearms Unit (TFU), airport coverage and other policing operations will be implemented.” Now, despite my intimate knowledge of the police service, I would not have read it as ‘routine arming’. Deliberate or not, it is now academic because, as with many other aspects of the controversies, the story has constantly changed with there being several versions of how it happened.

A colleague on the Police Committee recently asked the chief constable ‘if a witness in a police investigation changed their evidence as quickly and as often as that, they would be considered to be unreliable, would they not?’ Sir Stephen House replied ‘we would certainly be interested in why the story was changing. We are trying to explain why the story has changed.’

The story that is Police Scotland needs to change and, whilst that may only happen with the departure of the present chief constable, we must all remain vigilant and demand that our police service ‘uphold fundamental human rights and accord equal respect to all people, according to law’. I’ve not given up hope yet!

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’s Summer Itinerary

Throughout Summer Recess John will be travelling across the Highlands and Islands meeting groups, business and individuals. You can see a snapshot of John’s itinerary below.

July 2015

13th – Applecross Community Company & Lochcarron Community Development Company.

15th – Cantraybridge College, Croy & Nairn Allotments Society.

21st – Moray Council Housing, Elgin, Grow Elgin & Third Sector Interface, Elgin.

22nd – Third Sector Interface, Dingwall & Dingwall Community Windpower.

23rd – Hitrans, Lairg.

28th – Morvern Community Development Trust, Lochaline & GighaPlus Community Broadband, Mull.

29th – Ulva Ferry, Mull.

30th – Ardnamurchan Lighthouse & Kilchoan Hydro Scheme.

August 2015

3rd – ReBoot Recycling & Moray Waste Buster Recycling, Forres.

4th – Caberfeidh Horizons, Kingussie & Badenoch and Strathspey Community Transport, Aviemore.

5th – NHS Orkney, Orkney.

6th – West Mainland Show, Dounby, Orkney.

11th – Ardroy Outdoor Education Centre, Lochgoilhead.

12th – Cowal Elderly Befrienders, HELP & Dunoon & Colintraive and Glendaruel Development Trust.

17th – Kintyre Environmental Group & South Kintyre Young Carers, Campbeltown.

18th – Jura Progressive Centre, Jura.

19th – Grey Matters, ReJig & Islay Energy Trust, Islay.

20th – Marine Science Centre, Dumbeg, Oban.

21st – Achaleven Primary School, Connel, North Argyll Carers & Argyll College UHI.

27th – Sleat Community Trust, Armadale, Isle of Skye.

28th – Friends of ARMS, Young Carers, Portree & John Muir Trust.

 

John Campaigns to Save Highland Veterinary Disease Laboratory

 

John  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.

Commenting 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.

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/