John’s Speech on Recognising the Palestinian State

That the Parliament believes that the recognition of the state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel based on 1967 borders could be a stimulus to securing a negotiated two-state solution in the Middle East and notes the opinion of many Israelis and Palestinians living in Glasgow, the rest of Scotland and beyond that resolution through peaceful means is the only option.

 

I, too, congratulate Sandra White on bringing this timely debate to the chamber.

I have confidence in humanity’s ability to do things right. It sometimes takes us a considerable time to do so, but we can get there. We have repeatedly heard the statistic that 135 out of 193 UN member states have already done the right thing, and I commend them for that. Although recognising the Palestinian state will perhaps have little practical effect immediately, it is significant for the issues that are important to people, such as equality, the regard that they are held in and the solidarity that is shown to them.

The Scottish Parliament does not have responsibility for foreign affairs, so many people might wonder why we are discussing this matter. However, it is highly appropriate that we do so. The Parliament has always been outward looking. At topical question time today, my colleague Alison Johnstone raised the plight of migrants drowning in the Mediterranean Sea. I venture that that is very much a metaphor for the plight of the Palestinian people. I welcomed the Scottish Government’s response, which we heard from the cabinet secretary. It was compassionate and constructive, and it sought to work collaboratively with people. I contrast that with what many would characterise as the UK Government’s position, which is that drowning acts as a deterrent.

There is a similarity with what we have heard before from the Scottish Government in relation to the attacks on Gaza, when there was a call for the international community to act together to condemn the collective punishment and the disregard for international law and to offer to treat the injured and offer asylum. It is by acting together that we will secure what we have to secure for the Palestinian state.

The blockade has been mentioned. I have to say that, if someone is homeless, hungry or dispossessed, fine words will count for zero. We need to see action on the ground. Sadly, the UK could be characterised as standing by—the worst sort of gallows bystanders.

I am unequivocally opposed to violence. Coexistence is not a complicated political concept, but it requires good will. The EU was founded on the principle of equality of human rights. We must ask ourselves why some states that we would think would be outward looking and compassionate have taken the position that they have. Clearly there are vested interests, which are often financial and are very pernicious.

The UN resolutions have been alluded to. They are an important signal, but what is more important for the people of Gaza—which I have had the privilege to visit, as have many colleagues—is the practical support that is given on the ground by the people wearing a UN badge. During my visit, I had the opportunity to see at first hand a resilient population, but a population of a systematically brutalised piece of land. It is a just settlement, not illegal settlements, that we need to move things on.

Peaceful coexistence might appear a dream, but it is the right approach to take. The power of reason over the force of arms will always win through. I will not repeat—not least because he would appreciate the characterisation—the Prime Minister of Israel’s present position, but he is certainly not the architect of peace; he is the architect of further division.

What will history say about those who recognised the Palestinian state? It will say that a stance was taken on points of principle, recognising international law and humanitarian norms. That is the only principled stance, as part of the two-state solution.

John’s Speech Prisoners (Control of Release) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

I, too, thank the many people who gave the evidence that formed the basis of the Justice Committee’s report. I will quote straight away from one of them, Professor Fergus McNeill of the University of Glasgow, who said:

“To put it crudely, simply ‘storing the risky’ for a little bit longer doesn’t in fact serve to reduce it—the key issue for public safety is the condition in and conditions under which people are detained and then released, not how long they serve. How long they serve is principally a matter of ‘just deserts’ or proportionality of punishment to the offence.”

Professor McNeill also encouraged us to raise the level of debate. For that reason, I welcome the change to the initial restriction of the bill to sex offenders and prisoners serving more than 10 years. That restriction might have been popular, but it was certainly not evidenced by the reoffending rates that we heard about.

Although some people still want to talk tough, I would sooner talk just and effective. The debate has been wide-ranging and has stretched beyond the stage 1 report. As other members have done, rather than be critical of the approach that the Scottish Government has taken, I say that it is commendable that the Government has listened and responded accordingly.

I will quote another contribution that the committee received:

“Recalibration of sentencing—so that when a sentence is announced or laid down in court it relates to a real time, rather than its being something that has been chopped and changed around—would be very helpful indeed for everybody involved, from the perpetrator who has been convicted, to the victim. A huge amount of clarity is required, but we have the potential to join things together and to come up with something coherent, which we do not have at the moment.”—[Official Report, Justice Committee, 24 February 2015; c 37.]

That was said not by a Conservative politician but by Pete White of Positive Prisons? Positive Futures. It is important that we have clarity. The policy memorandum talks about reducing offending and improving public safety. Surely everyone can go along with that. It also talks about the minimum period of compulsory supervision in the community.

We must understand again what the purpose of prison is. It is not only to punish, but to improve public safety—on more than one occasion, we heard the cabinet secretary talk about dangerous prisoners. However, crucially, the purpose of prison is also long-term re-integration—or, I suggest, integration because many of the people who find themselves to be the subject of custodial sentences have never really been integrated into society in the first place.

It will be years before the effects of the bill kick in and there is an opportunity to see reintegration. That will be the gauge of the proposals’ effectiveness and will determine how they are judged, but it will be some time in the future.

We must look outwith the prison walls, too. I commend the outward-looking approach of Colin McConnell, the SPS chief executive, and his staff. They have welcomed the proposed guaranteed minimum release period. As has been said on more than one occasion, it is important that we continually assess the risks and put in place measures to address those risks, which includes the two-day early release. The Scottish Prison Service also has outreach workers who can facilitate the integration that we all want to see happening.

Integration will partly be about the effectiveness of management programmes in the prisons. There are challenges around that. We have heard from the Scottish Prison Service that the programmes are resource intensive and require specialist delivery skills. We have also heard that the SPS delivers them at the most appropriate time in a prisoner’s sentence, taking into account their willingness and readiness to engage and, crucially, the availability of programmes, which has been a concern for us all.

It is important to say that prisoners are not a uniform group. Therefore, individual assessment must be made of individuals’ needs.

The purposeful activity review that was undertaken by the Scottish Prison Service has been mentioned. The Scottish Government’s response talked about developing learning and employability skills in order to build life skills and resilience and to motivate personal engagement with the prison and community-based services. That was welcomed by Positive Prison? Positive Futures.

The Parole Board for Scotland’s role has been mentioned. I absolutely agree with the cabinet secretary: I trust its judgment. We know that it welcomes the proposed post-release period.

The cabinet secretary sought views on the minimum period. The figure of six months has been mentioned. My suggestion is that the issue is not about the quantity or the length of the period; rather, it is about its quality. It will also be important to have in place robust mechanisms to support people when they have been released.

The Scottish Human Rights Commission has been mentioned. I hope that the Government will respond positively to its comments.

Early release has been frequently talked about. That is the beyond the gift of this chamber. Housing is a challenge, but so, too, are benefits. Therefore, having the Department for Work and Pensions on board for anything that is done would be helpful.

I want to see a move to end short sentences and I want robust community disposals. Social Work Scotland has talked about a review of sentencing guidelines. I also want to see the Scottish Government do more than simply note the suggestion of extending MAPPA. If we want to enhance public safety, that would, ideally, take in violent offenders and not just sexual offenders.

An issue that is frequently mentioned is co-ordination across the criminal justice system. It is key. The Scottish Government’s initial approach was challenging, but I welcome the reforms that are being suggested. However, rather than talk tough, let us talk just and effective.

John’s Speech on Police Accountability

John Finnie (Highlands and Islands) (Ind): I thank Hugh Henry for securing the debate. It is not my intention to speak at great length about Renfrewshire, but I understand that the people of Renfrewshire would welcome discussion. No harm has ever come from discussion, whether by the people of Renfrewshire or by those of the Highlands and Islands, whom I am charged with representing and who are interested in this issue. I repeat that I am grateful to the member for securing the debate.

The motion refers to “reported controversies”. I played a part in the matter of armed policing. That issue was legitimately raised by me, because of public concerns. Those concerns could have been addressed had there been consultation—indeed, had there been a community impact assessment.

That gets to the heart of the issue. Words such as “community” and “engagement” are what policing should be about. Policing is something that is done for the people, not to the people. I genuinely hope that lessons will be learned. We could have a lengthy discussion about policing by consent or operational independence, and I think that we could learn something.

The motion mentions accountability. I would take exception with Hugh Henry in that I do not recall any suggested alternative structure, although I may stand corrected on that by Labour members. I for one welcome the fact that there are council ward policing plans, which are very useful.

I also like the fact that each local authority has its own committee; the four local authorities in the Highlands and Islands were previously represented by one board. However, as Her Majesty’s inspector of constabulary said last week, the committees need to assert themselves. The Parliament can play a role by encouraging that and by empowering those committees.

We have heard from a number of people, including Mr Henry, about the Scottish Police Authority. The SPA has indeed been absent on the big issues—it has just not been there. The authority has been playing catch-up and it has not made a particularly good job of that.

The report on armed policing has come late, and I understand that it was the subject of dynamic editing, or something of that nature. It would be good to understand the background to that. We need a spirit of openness and transparency from Police Scotland and the SPA.

They were keen to quote the survey results, but I understand that they have not made those results available to the press. Indeed, they have told the press that they do not have those results. The press have gone to the company that produced the information, which has been told that it is not to disclose the information to the press. I understand that that might breach the code of conduct for companies. Hopefully, the matter will pan out in the right way and the fullest information will be disclosed. I pose the question: who is accountable to whom?

I turn to budget pressures. The VAT issue is not a minor one. However, I think of the energy that went into the swift delivery of VAT-free status for the academy schools that the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats put in place, and indeed for ski lifts, which are important in my area, and I suggest that if there had been a will, there would have been a way to address that issue.

There is a reversal of the civilianisation programme, as it would have been called in the early 1970s. That is disappointing. I commend the work of Unison in that regard. The principle of a job requiring police powers, meaning that a constable has to do it, or not requiring police powers, is not just a black-and-white issue. There are issues around the margins, particularly in rural areas, where police officers are involved in firearms inquiries and in the delivery of citations, and there is some benefit there.

I served in the police for 30 years. Like Graeme Pearson, I am very proud of the police service and of my time there. Prior to the advent of Police Scotland, I sought, and was given, assurances that best practice in the constituent forces would be applied. That was not the case. I will not repeat all the difficulties around stop and search, but there is a very clear framework in which police officers work: the common law and statute law.

Unfortunately, the common theme here is the direction and style of the chief constable, where creative mechanisms have been put in place. I hope that that will be addressed.

I certainly wish to lend my clear support to the front-line officers, the police support staff and other officers who support them. The role of the Scottish Parliament is to be a friend to the Police Service of Scotland, but a critical friend. I hope that there has been some constructive criticism—I have certainly heard that today. Once again, I thank Hugh Henry for securing the debate.

Victory in sight for Knocknagael Farm campaign

Knocknagael Bull Stud, Inverness. Crown Copyright.
Knocknagael Bull Stud, Inverness. Crown Copyright.

There’s great news for John and his fellow local campaigners, as government officials recommend that Knocknagael Farm in the south of Inverness should be kept in agricultural use.

The Scottish Government reporters’ ‘Examination Report’on the proposed Inner Moray Firth Local Development Plan was issued on Friday 20 March. In it, the reporters call on Highland Council not to go ahead with their proposed allocation of the Knocknagael site, currently part of the Crofting Commission’s bull stud, for housing developments.

John initiated the campaign to retain food production on the site, ideally as a community farm or as allotments, over two years ago. He began a Save Knocknagael Farm Fields Facebook group to rally support, and has regularly questioned Ministers at Holyrood over their plans for the site. In December last year, he chaired the inaugural meeting of the Knocknagael Allotments Project, jointly organised by Holm Community Council and Lochardil & Drummond Community Council.

John said today:

“This recommendation is a great victory for local people who have been campaigning for years to save Knocknagael for agricultural use. Government reporters generally aren’t swayed by public opinion, so this result is a testament to the campaigners’ hard work and expertise in making a watertight case that the reporters could not ignore.

“The reporters’ recommendation hinged on local campaigners demonstrating that the Knocknagael Farm was ‘prime agricultural land’, and that to concrete over it would run in the face of existing policy not to build over such land unless there is no alternative. The campaign was also able to show that there is a good supply of alternative sites to build the high-quality housing Inverness undoubtedly needs.

“Hopefully now the Scottish Government will be able to look beyond its short-sighted proposal to sell of Knocknagael to developers, and instead enter into a discussion with local people about how best to use this fantastic food-producing land. There is an active community ready and willing to practice what the Government preaches on land reform, healthy food and tackling climate change – this land could give them that chance.”

You can read the full Examination Report on the website of the Scottish Government’s Directorate for Planning and Environmental Appeals. The recommendations on Knocknagael are on pages 197-199.

The final stage of the process is for Highland Council to produce a final version of the Local Plan, which is expected to incorporate the reporters’ recommendations, and then vote to formally adopt it at a meeting of the Council

John’s Speech on Celebrating Scotland’s Diversity

On behalf of the independent and Green group, I thank members for their contributions to the debate, which has, as many have said, been consensual and constructive. I also thank the Scottish Refugee Council for the briefing that it provided, in which it referred to the “politically and ideologically charged terrain of identity and immigration” that we have been discussing.

My colleague Jean Urquhart opened the debate by talking about the “transnational mobilisation of cultures and peoples”, and the cabinet secretary picked up the same point in his closing speech. It was ever thus. There has always been movement, and the debate has been about the tone of public discussion on immigration and whether that has contributed to the hostility and fear that exist towards sections of our immigrant community.

Jean Urquhart and many other members made a very positive case for immigration. I do not think that that is a bold case. It should be the default position that we welcome people.

I am grateful that the cabinet secretary spoke in the debate. He talked about sending a loud and clear message, and I think that the Scottish Government has, by participating in the debate in the manner in which it has done, sent a very strong message that is welcomed by members in this part of the chamber and, I am sure, on all sides.

The cabinet secretary used the term “mongrel nation”, which has featured in a number of speeches in today’s debate, and he spoke about diversity as a strength. We certainly see diversity as a strength. It would, as one member said—I will come to his contribution in a moment—be a boring world if we were all the same.

The cabinet secretary also spoke about diversity continuing to evolve, which is correct. He name-checked the not my xenophobia campaign that my colleague Jean Urquhart launched yesterday. I thank everyone for their support for the campaign, which is very welcome.

Ken Macintosh represented the Scottish Labour Party at the campaign launch yesterday, and we are grateful to him for that. He spoke today about political leadership, which was displayed yesterday and today. He spoke about the use of language and how important that is, and about his concern that things are perhaps going backwards. He spoke about racist incidents but, significantly, he also brought some facts into the equation. I cannot remember the detail, but he spoke about the amount of tax paid by immigrants relative to benefits claimed, the facts of which are very much contrary to the perception that is held by some and portrayed by others.

I am grateful to Liz Smith and the Scottish Conservative Party. She quoted a very nice phrase about the beauty and strength of diversity, which I think we would all recognise. She also spoke about the importance of education, which has been a recurring theme throughout the debate, and the requirement for us to understand the facts, which mean that we should be welcoming people.

We heard from Bruce Crawford—it was indeed he who said that it would be boring if we were all the same. We certainly sensed his pain when he related an unpleasant incident that he had been witness to in his constituency; that is the shameful face that we do not want to see.

We heard from Hanzala Malik, who spoke about his 40 years working in diversity. I loved his reference to Humza Yousaf as a fellow Glaswegian, because that is the obvious identity that he shares with his colleague. He spoke about real poverty, and finished by mentioning the need to protect, love and support. That is terribly important. People may be uncomfortable using those words, but they are precisely the terms that we should be using.

Rob Gibson spoke about the phrase “peoples of Scotland”, and how it had once featured in an amendment. The amendment was in fact lodged by a young Jean Urquhart, and that is indeed an important phrase. He also quoted Professor Tom Devine, as did other members, and he mentioned Philomena de Lima. I know Philomena, who is an academic at the University of the Highlands and Islands and who has done a lot of research. She has made important points about the “host community”.

I look forward to hearing Christian Allard speaking French on BBC Alba, which will be worth listening to. He talked about the need for regular debate, and there certainly is a need for that.

I will make passing mention of something that has not been mentioned in the debate so far, which is the reports of a hunger strike inside Dungavel. That is certainly alarming to me, and I hope that members will follow the Scottish Trades Union Congress and demand access to the centre to visit the detainees. That is of concern.

It is evident from what we have heard that the Parliament thinks that we should celebrate diversity. There has been wide recognition that negative attitudes are expressed. I wonder whether it is a chicken-and-egg situation and whether the media coverage has been driven by the politicians or the politicians are responding to the media coverage. We know that those who demonise immigrants choose their words carefully and are wary of falling foul of the legislation that they would like to abolish.

We have all agreed that there has been a positive contribution. I believe that there is such a thing as society, and I think that Scotland is much the better because of its rich mix of peoples and cultures. The same cannot be said of some of the lurid headlines. I will not do them credit by repeating them, but it is important that we do not become complacent. The evidence on the way that communities treat the Gypsy Traveller community shows that there is no opportunity for us to be lax in how we react to the issue.

On the Government’s amendment, the EU process pretty much determines who five of the six Scottish members of the European Parliament will be. Scotland had the opportunity to elect a highly talented immigrant woman from Africa as the sixth representative: the Scottish Green Party’s Maggie Chapman. Instead, Scotland chose an ignorant individual, who has been mentioned. In the meantime at least, Scotland will have to live with the embarrassment of being represented in Brussels by a party that I am not alone in considering to be racist. The strapline for Maggie Chapman’s campaign was:

“For a just and welcoming Scotland”.

The contrast could not be starker.

I thank the Labour Party for its amendment. As I sit on the Justice Committee, which is dealing with the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Scotland) Bill, I am aware of the levels of exploitation and of that fact that it applies equally to people who have not been trafficked. A recurring theme in the evidence to the committee has been the pre-eminence of immigration matters in the decision-making process. Again, I wonder whether that is being driven by the political agenda.

As has frequently been mentioned, language is terribly important. For example, many people who have been trafficked and involved in the production of drugs are referred to as “the accused”, when they are witnesses. The reporting of things is terribly important, which is why I raised with the UK Border Agency the way in which it portrayed its raids. I asked why, when it made high-profile raids but the people who were arrested were subsequently found to be innocent of the charges, it did not change its website. The UKBA told me that, because it did not release individuals’ names, there was no detriment and that it did not envisage a situation in which an update would be required. Of course, the detriment comes from the negative associations and stereotypes, which I think are very unfortunate.

I will finish by talking about the Highlands, which are a much richer place culturally than they were when I was young. As many members have said, our health and care services would collapse without immigrants. The concept of citizenship has been touched on, and rights and responsibilities go with that. Scotland’s demographics show that we need immigration. The people and music of the Highlands are the way I like them—we have a very rich mix. To the Spanish people who I am told are invading Inverness, I say one thing: fàilte a h-uile duine—you are all very welcome. Scotland’s landscape is beautiful. I looked up the term “belonging” and found the lovely quote that it is being “part of the landscape, like a tree.” I like trees and forests. Let us reject negative attitudes and celebrate our diversity. Let us be that just and welcoming Scotland.

John’s Speech on A9 Speed Cameras

 

On March 17th John took part in a Member’s Debate on the A9 Speed Cameras.

John Finnie:

I, too, commend Mike MacKenzie for bringing this important issue to the chamber. I have enjoyed the speeches thus far.

One of the purposes of Government is to provide a safe transport system for its citizens, so I certainly commend the efforts of the Scottish Government with regard to the A9. Those efforts are undertaken with other agencies including local authorities, Transport Scotland and others. Why does it do that? It is a good thing to do, but it is also a very cost-effective thing to do.

A lot of people have talked about supporting dualling. I add my support to dualling—but dualling of the rail line, which would be far more cost-effective than the obscene sum of money that has been spent on the A9.

I looked for references on the Scottish Government’s website. There is an excellent document on there, which I commend, called “Scotland’s Road Safety Framework to 2020”. I will not quote the statistics in it—many members have quoted statistics, Dave Stewart among then. I commend Mr Stewart’s work on young drivers and the challenge there, to which members have referred.

We must remember that the statistics are about real people who have families and neighbours and who live in communities. In those communities there is a coalition of voices in support of efforts to stop the carnage that was taking place on the A9. As members have said, the road safety cameras are but one mechanism that is being used for that.

The framework that I mentioned has some wonderful phrases in it and some wonderful chapters—for example, “Encouraging a Drive for Life culture”, which is what we need to encourage, and “Reducing the tolerance of Risk on roads”. We know that risk taking is a factor and that, of course, the largest factor is irresponsible driver behaviour.

Mike MacKenzie talked about slowing down and adding to quality of life, which is an important factor, and is good for the planet, too. There are also rights: we must uphold the right of all road users to expect to travel safely, which was not the position in the past.

I have been involved in road building in the past—although not the A9—but I think that I am alone in having dealt with incidents on that road as a police officer. Those incidents ranged from minor to serious incidents. I recall being sent as a dog handler to see whether there had been a pillion passenger on a motorcycle, and being told to ignore the leg that was lying in the road further along. That is the sort of thing that not just police officers but other emergency services workers have to deal with. I am in support of anything that can be done to reduce the carnage.

Indeed, shortly after I was elected, I wrote to the Scottish Government and was told that introducing average-speed cameras was not feasible. If it was not feasible at that time, it is certainly feasible now and I welcome the fact that they have been introduced, because results from elsewhere, for example on the A77, are compelling, and the anecdotal experience that we have heard is positive. It is not about road design; it is about irresponsible driver behaviour and the most common facet of that is speed.

There has been brief mention of irresponsible elected representative behaviour, which I cannot let pass without saying that my MP, Danny Alexander, certainly has not represented me in the way that he has talked about the issue. A lot has changed since I was in the police service.

Something else I found on the Government website this afternoon is called Klang: The Road Home. I do not know whether the minister will tell us about Klang, which I knew nothing about. It was launched on 16 February and is a smartphone app to encourage road safety, to be used by young people.

Mary Scanlon:

It is of no use to you, then.

John Finnie:

I am told that Klang is of no use to me.

Of course, what is for me is another app that the Scottish Government has put in place—the road safety cameras. It is a hands-free app: we just need to stick to the law, as Stewart Stevenson said. We are not there yet—there is still irresponsible driver behaviour, but road safety cameras contribute to making things better and I, for one, welcome them. I thank Mike MacKenzie for bringing the debate to the chamber.

 

The Motion Debated was:

“That the Parliament welcomes the recently published performance data regarding the average speed cameras on the A9, which suggests that, since the cameras were introduced, the number of drivers speeding has reduced from around one in three to one in 20 and that examples of excessive speeding are down by 97%; understands that there is no evidence of drivers taking diversions or using so-called rat runs to avoid the cameras; believes that their introduction has resulted in an increase in journey time reliability to and from Inverness, and considers that both the cameras and the HGV speed limit pilot on the A9, which have been put in place ahead of the dualling of the road, have been a success and have led to more responsible and safer motoring.”

 

Letter to Editors of Highlands and Islands Press on TTIP

Sir –

This week we had yet another warning about the huge danger presented by the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), this time that the treaty may force us to water down the environmental protections that keep us safe and make our food exports so highly valued.

Despite the risks, still very few know about the treaty. That’s partly by design – the European Union and the USA are conducting their negotiations behind closed doors, in consultation with ‘business leaders’ but keeping ordinary people in the dark.

The treaty could let corporations overrule democratic decisions that threaten their profits. Protecting workers’ rights, renationalising our railways, even maintaining a publicly-run NHS, could all become illegal on the say-so of a tribunal of corporate lawyers.

The danger to the NHS has rightly been at the forefront of concerns, with campaigners demanding that the UK Government exempt the NHS from the treaty – which the Coalition is still refusing to do. But even if we win that exemption, so much more that is vital to our democracy and wellbeing is still at stake.

This corporate powergrab is being constructed in secret for a reason. Those involved are amounting on the people’s ignorance and silence. I’m confident that Scotland will disappoint them.

Yours,

John Finnie MSP

Highland Railhouse
Station Square
Inverness