John has written to Police Scotland following concerns regarding the reorganisation of police support staff in the former Northern Constabulary area.

The concerns specifically surround the number and role of support staff in Stornoway but John is keen to ensure it’s not replicated elsewhere in Scotland.

John said:

“I have been reliably informed that, following the move to a national service, Police Scotland decided the compliment of front desk support staff at Stornoway should be reduced from five to three.

“I am also told that the two unsuccessful applicants for the three posts ‘have nothing to do’ and will be retained on the books until March next year.

“Most worrying is the suggestion that when any of the three post holders is absent neither of the two is permitted to cover their work and a police officer is removed from the street to undertake their duties.

“As a Member of the Parliament’s Police Committee, I was assured that there was no routine practice of filling support staff posts with operational police officers.

“In March 2013 the opening hours at Stornoway changed from 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to 8am to 8pm 7 days a week, changing again in February 2014 7am to midnight, 7 days a week so something doesn’t add up and Police Scotland acknowledges their handling of counter closures and reduced office opening hours could have been better.

“I have written the chief constable to have this matter cleared up. Perhaps it’s a local misunderstanding connected with the twice changed opening hours of the Stornoway station. I sincerely hope this practice isn’t replicated across Scotland.”


The timing of a recruitment drive for a new team of security officers at Dounreay is being questioned by John.

He’s raised concerns after it was reported the new staff will free up existing armed officers from the Civil Nuclear Constabulary allowing them to focus on ‘more robust work’, including the protection of nuclear waste being transported by train through the Highlands to Sellafiled in Cumbria.

John, who has long campaigned against nuclear power, has already called for the trains to be halted.

Speaking on the new development he said:

“I would assume they have carried out an assessment of the risks before making these changes and have decided on this.

“There is arguably a greater need than ever to secure nuclear waste and remove the risk of anything going wrong as much as possible.

“I would question why this is happening now. One of the real concerns is transportation and I would like to have a clearer picture of what is happening with that.”

The Wounded Goat

Posted: April 8, 2014 in Uncategorized

Last week John met with a delegation from the Government of Yemen, including Hooria Mashhour, Minister of Human Rights, former Deputy of the Women National Committee and Mohamed al-Mikhlafi, Minister of Legal Affairs,  Founder and Former Chair of al-Marsad ( Human Rights Observatory) Organization. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the role of the Scottish Parliament’s Cross Party Group on Human Rights. Below is an essay, reproduced with permission, by the Yemeni Minister of Human Rights, Hooria Mashhour, on drone strikes affecting her country.

The Wounded Goat

By Hooria Mashhour (Minister of Human Rights, Yemen)


The word ‘Altais’ has several meanings in  Arabic. It is a star in the constellation Draco, but  it also means male goat. It is quite common in the Arab world to come across animal names attributed to humans, especially the ones that represent power, endurance, intelligence, and beauty for example Assad (Lion), Namer (Tiger), Fahd (Panther),  and Gahzal (Gazelle).

Recently, I met Naif Altaisi. When I asked  his age  he said he didn’t know, but his brother estimates that it is around 25 years old. He looks like many other young men in Yemen. His clothes are old and his hair is messy. He has just got out of a long and expensive  stay in hospital; one that is far from over. He was there because of a US drone strike that hit a wedding convoy in Rad’a in the South of Yemen last December.

His poor family had to take him out of hospital because of mounting  debts that have crippled them.  Somehow they need to find the money to send Naif to a different country  for further treatment because the hospitals in Yemen can no longer help him with the piece of shrapnel that is lodged in his eye socket. According to his medical report his doctors fear that his other eye may be affected. However, their biggest fear is that the shrapnel will cause an infection in his brain that will eventually kill him.

To add to his misery,  Naif’s left leg is still in the cast that has dried around the rods coming out of it. As a result he won’t be able to do his job as a sheepherder – his only source of income.

Naif didn’t know who I am or what I do when I went to visit him along with a big group of members from the National Dialogue Conference, including the head of the transitional justice team, and many more influential people some of whom were doctors. He didn’t recognize me mainly because he doesn’t own a phone or watch the news or follow politicians and politics. He has always lived a simple life alongside his family. His youngest child was born just a couple of days before my visit.  Naif managed a small herd of goats that barely covered the basic needs of living for his big family. His children are all far too young to take over the work from their father.

Naif gave me a stare that was full of blame because I represent the government, and the government has failed to provide him with medical care. And when I said that the country was struggling with the fight against terrorism and all should stand firmly in its face to avoid horrendous acts like the one that hit the Ministry of Defense he replied: “If I know any terrorists I will instantly report them. I am an illiterate villager and I have no affiliation whatsoever with terrorists, my only crime is that I went to the city to attend my relative’s wedding ceremony”. When I asked about his demands from the government he said: “I want medical treatment and for drone strikes to stop because they have killed many and left many wounded like me”.

I couldn’t bear the looks and screams, not only from him, but also from the tens of people who have suffered from similar misfortunes. A day after I met him I was at the 25th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva therefore I used this platform to echo the cries of Yemenis in demanding a stop to unmanned armed drones because the Yemeni people have made it overwhelmingly clear that this is what they want. I believe it is my duty as Human Rights Minister and the duty of our government to offer justice, compensation, and apologies to those poor simple Yemeni villagers.

The Yemeni parliament has expressed its objection to drones as did the European Union Parliament just last month. Pakistan currently has a draft resolution under negotiation in the Human Rights Council and I am confident that it will be met with acceptance from the member and observer countries. I hope – and predict – that this will create  an increase in support for this matter in the American Congress, Human Rights organizations in the free world, and from many different countries.

We are committed to fighting terrorism. But we need not – rather, we must not – in the process destroy the lives of innocent Yemenis just trying to get on with their daily lives; people like Naif Altaisi.


Thirsting for Justice

Posted: April 7, 2014 in Uncategorized

Academics have long discussed whether, in times of man-made climate change, with industrial irrigation and power generation schemes and trans-boundary rivers dammed, future wars would be fought over water rather than oil. Certainly water is the basic commodity by which we all survive and withholding it from any community could be a death sentence.

On the 4th of this month, Parliament debated a motion, in the name of my friend and colleague Claudia Beamish, Labour Member for the South of Scotland, titled ‘Thirsting for Justice’, about water and sanitation in Palestine.

In November 2012, during the ceasefire after the ‘Pillar of Defence’ assault by the Israeli forces, Claudia and I were part of a European parliamentary delegation to Gaza. The fact-finding visit was organised by the Council for European Palestinian Relations who work hard to highlight and resolve issues in Palestine.

A few things stand out from that visit, the resilience of a charming, well-educated population and their stoicism in the face of horrendous oppression by their callous neighbour, Israel.

The choice of water justice for Palestine as subject for this debate was, as Claudia said, ‘a symbol and proxy for all the other injustices that make Palestinians’ lives pretty impossible’.  The debate was also timely, as Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament, had a short time previous raised water issues in the Israeli Parliament.

With one notable exception I shall come to later, the debate enjoyed great cross-party support.  MSPs quoted from the UN and Amnesty and cited the simple facts of water and sanitation succinctly laid out in the motion; ‘Parliament understands that the average daily consumption of water of Palestinian people to cover domestic and public service needs is around 70 litres per person; believes that this is well below the 100 litre limit recommended by the World Health Organization; understands that Israeli policies and practices limit access to water for people in Palestine to less than they are entitled to under international law; believes that only 31% of West Bank residents have access to the sewage network and that there is only one waste water treatment plant operating in the area; considers that there are significant barriers to access to water for agricultural use; condemns what it sees as Israel’s refusal to grant the necessary permits or military security clearance for the construction and operation of sanitation and waste water treatment facilities; understands that the situation is far worse in the Gaza Strip where, it believes, over 30 kilometres of waterworks and 11 wells operated by the water authorities were damaged or destroyed by the Israeli military during its mission, Operation Cast Lead; understands that the Report of the United Nations Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict, which is known as the Goldstone report, deemed that the Israeli actions were ‘deliberate and systematic’; applauds the Thirsting for Justice Campaign, which, it understands, works directly with communities in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and notes the campaign’s aim to encourage European citizens, including those in the south of Scotland, to demand that governments put pressure on Israel to comply with international law and for human rights to be respected in Palestine.’

Of course there is little new in this issue.  Amnesty International’s 2009 report ‘Troubled Waters: Palestinians denied fair access to water’ made clear how Israel restricts the import of equipment that relates to water supplies. That Report stating many families in the occupied Palestinian territories ‘have to spend as much as a quarter … of their income on water’ and we know that is for water of questionable quality and from dubious sources. Meantime the 450,000 Israeli settlers who live in the West Bank, in violation of international law, use as much water as or more water than the Palestinian population of 2.3 million.

During the debate, I commend the Friends of the Earth report ‘Environmental Nakba: Environmental injustice and violations of the Israeli occupation of Palestine’ which talks, first of all, about the world’s apparent indifference to the plight of the Palestinian people, particularly those in Gaza, then goes on to say, ‘Even more ignored has been the wholesale grabbing of fertile land and water resources and the environmental pollution and destruction due to industrial and nuclear waste dumping.’

Sadly, for a brief 4 minutes of a very consensual debate we heard the utterings of the Israeli media machine. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the words came from a Tory, John Lamont.  Mr Lamont, a past guest of the Israeli regime, told an angry chamber that ‘In the occupied Palestinian territories there are complex issues with water resources that are in part due to the challenging natural environment, but are also due to mismanagement of water resources.’

A 2013 UN Report stated ‘90 per cent of water in the underlying coastal aquifer beneath the Gaza Strip is unfit for human consumption as a result of pollution caused by raw sewage and rising seawater infiltration,’. It highlighted Israel ‘extracts a disproportionate share of the water from the coastal aquifer’ and prevents access to ‘water from the Wadi Gaza, a natural stream that originates in the Hebron Mountains’. Gaza’s water situation is further exasperated by the on-going blockade and military action which undermines any chance of rebuilding and the Report states, ‘Israel has destroyed at least 306 wells in the Access Restricted Areas of Gaza since 2005. In this context, the Special Rapporteur strongly condemns the targeting of water and sanitation facilities during Israeli military operations, which cannot be justified as a military necessity, and cannot be explained as a consequence of accidents.’

Mr Lamont, who declined to accept any interventions from myself or others, could not have been clearer, or indeed more ignorant, when he said ‘I suggest that the real issue is Palestinian mismanagement.’

I highlight that depressing Tory view to show that, notwithstanding the wealth of impartial reporting and analysis, the Israeli propaganda machine is highly effective and generally enjoys an easy ride from the Western media.

When Claudia and I returned from Gaza we made a commitment to regularly do something practical for Palestine. At this time we are in active dialogue with the Minister for External Affairs and International Development, Humza Yousaf, trade unions, Scottish Water and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East about support for possible partnership water projects and would hope to be able to report some positive news shortly.

Dialogue not guns will resolve the situation in the Palestine but it will all count for nothing if the citizens have to live with insufficient water and no sewage system. It’s time for the West to act.  Israel must be made to respect international law and humanitarian norms and ensure clean water and adequate sewage for the region. Until then Palestine will continue to thirst for justice.

John is calling on Police Scotland to review the use of protective screens on police vehicles after constituents complained they look like ‘riot vans’.

He has written to Chief Constable Sir Stephen House, asking him to reconsider the use of the screens as they give a misleading impression on the level of crime in the region.

John said:

 “The Highlands and Islands is the safest place in Scotland but the increase in the use of these vehicles creates negative perceptions amongst locals and visitors as to the level and the types of crimes prevalent in the region.

 “A single police force for Scotland brings with it huge benefits when it comes to the deployment of resources and it’s right that officers in the north have access to protection when necessary but I am keen to ensure that Police Scotland steer clear of a one size fits all policy.

 “The Strathclyde way is not the only way and we must ensure that local discretion in all areas of policing is allowed to continue.”

The Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee has began its scrutiny of the Court Reform (Scotland) Bill. Among the witness giving evidence were Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS) and the Law Society of Scotland.

 CAS believes any new system “should follow design principals with accessibility for users as the primary consideration.”

Speaking after the meeting, John, who is a Member of the Justice Committee said:

 “I welcome the comments of Citizens Advice Scotland who have first-hand knowledge of the challenges faced by people seeking legal redress.

 “Like them, I do not think a court of law should be the first port of call when a dispute arises. I support robust mediations systems and would like to see a greater emphasis on Alternative Dispute Resolution.

 “As ever, I am keen that the remote and rural aspects of any legislation are given their due regard.  Just as I don’t believe a police service is delivered by police stations, likewise real justice has to be about more than the number of courts we have.  I therefore support peripatetic Sheriffs, dispensing civil justice in our communities, from village halls or council offices rather than having the citizen travel for a valuable service.  This will require a significant change of attitude from the legal establishment; however, with a will, it can be achieved.”

 John also added his support to the Law Society of Scotland’s call to retain Honorary Sheriffs, echoing Sheriff Lindsay Wood who at Tuesday’s Justice Committee meeting said ‘leave them be’.

 Commenting on Honorary Sheriffs he said:

 “We are advised that the proposal to abolish Honorary Sheriffs has no financial implications and it’s not clear to me how this could be the case.

 “For instance, one week in four a Sheriff from Paisley covers Campbeltown Sheriff Court.  That does not mean that there is no work for a Sheriff to deal with in the intervening three weeks, however, in that instance, as elsewhere, that work is done by Honorary Sheriffs.

 “There’s some way to go with the scrutiny of this legislation and, as ever, I will be vigilant to ensure that this legislation enhances access to civil justice in the Highlands and Islands.”

John has sought and obtained assurances from NHS Highland that it will look at alternative ways of paying expenses for women who have to stay in Oban two weeks before giving birth.

 John  contacted Chief Executive, Dr Elaine Meade, after it was revealed expectant mothers from Mull are facing bills of up to £600 in the final days of their pregnancies.

 Speaking on the issue John said:

 “I raised this with the Chief Executive as the current system of retrospective reimbursement is putting expectant families from island communities at a considerable financial disadvantage.

 “£600 is a huge financial outlay at any time but even more so in the run up to the arrival of a new baby and I welcome any change that can be made to the system that will alleviate this financial pressure.

 “Whilst it is understandable that expectant mothers are asked to stay in Oban for medical reasons in the last couple of weeks of their pregnancy, we must ensure that they are not out of pocket for any length of time as a result.”