We need a democracy that encourages collaboration and includes everyone.

This week I spoke in a debate in Parliament on Missing Voters.

I began by pointing out that political parties tend to focus on the number of votes that they might get, and we pay too little attention to the number of votes that could be cast but which are not cast, even by people who are registered.

Read on for the full text of my speech.




Of course, there are recognised barriers to voting, including literacy problems, lack of access to information technology, ill health, homelessness and work and family commitments.

However, given the importance of people voting in any democracy that is worthy of the name, we have to push that lack of engagement up the agenda and acknowledge that although we here enjoy a fairly advanced level of democracy, there is much that can be done to progress it. For example, we have to ask how democratic we actually are when large numbers of our population are not taking part in the operation of our democracy. What are we doing—or failing to do—to get the missing millions back? The changes to voter registration on which the motion focuses are clearly having a negative impact on the number of voters who are registered in Scotland, and that negative impact must be addressed.

Some of us in the chamber might well have experienced—or know someone who has experienced—a problem with the new system. I know people who, after completing the verification process, have received a letter demanding that they do so and telling them that they are not yet registered. Some of those people were concerned individuals who wanted to know that they were registered and therefore insisted on written confirmation that they were on the register, which, although understandable, resulted in time-consuming and expensive work.

I want to use the short time that remains to cover some broader issues relating to non-participation in our democratic process. Perhaps in his closing speech the minister might tell us more about why some companies are given access to the register for marketing purposes—I know that that is a concern for many people—how much money is raised through such practices and where that money goes. It might be helpful if some of that money were to be ring fenced to increase voter turnout or to improve registration, because we have to start to bring down the numbers who are not registered and the numbers who are registered but who simply choose not to vote. Why do people feel that voting is a waste of time? Is it because they become disillusioned when they have taken part in umpteen consultations and their views have been rejected out of hand?

The turnout in the 2011 elections to the Scottish Parliament was just over 50 per cent, so almost 2 million Scots who could have voted chose not to. That is right: they chose not to. We take the freedom to vote for granted, but it has been very hard won by many people. How might Scotland change if those non-voters were to exercise their democratic right—if we could do more to convince them that voting is worth while? We need to look at sharing power downwards and outwards. The size of areas and the population numbers that are considered local in Scotland would be regarded as regional and would be a level above local government in most other European nations.

Perhaps our winner-takes-all political culture is an unappealing turn-off for many people. It is a system that values conflict. We have roaring and cheering in this very chamber, and an adversarial Punch and Judy show. In no other walk of life would that be even considered.

The German constitution forbids national Government interference in regional government matters; Angela Merkel could not suggest a council tax freeze, for example. Regardless of what we think about the impact of that freeze, it means that power is taken away from local people.

We have an unelected House of Lords and an outdated and divisive electoral system that forces politicians to ignore huge parts of the population. We need a democracy that encourages a culture in which we collaborate with people and include everyone. To a great extent, the referendum demonstrated that the millions who do not vote in local, national and UK elections are interested and are more than engaged when they believe that they have the power to change things.

It is important that we as a Parliament take all the action that we can take to ensure that individual registration is properly resourced and administered, and that no one loses their right to vote. Let us do all that we can. This is not a party-political issue. We have to encourage everyone in Scotland to participate in our democratic process.


Reacting to news that plans to turn the Royal High School in Edinburgh into a luxury hotel have been rejected, Alison Johnstone, Scottish Green MSP for Lothian, who spoke at today’s planning hearing, said:Royal_High_School_Calton_Hill_Edinburgh

“I’m so pleased that members of the planning committee were not seduced by arguments about economic benefit, instead recognising that much of our visitor economy is based on the carefully cherished landscape of our city: an inheritance which this development would have squandered.

“A perfectly feasible alternative is waiting in the wings in the shape of a new music school which much more respects the building and setting. and is more likely to widen public access. Let’s get to that quickly.”


Bold land reform is needed for Scotland

This week I took part in the Stage One debate on the Government’s Land Reform Bill. I would have liked to have seen the Government’s response to the stage 1 report before the debate. The Bill as it stands needs serious improvements.

Read on for the full text of my speech.



Land is limited. It is also emotional and personal. Our homes are on land, we live off the land and nations are defined by their land. We all need land, but access to and ownership of it are unequal. The land inequity in Scotland today is vast and totally out of step with the situation for many of our European neighbours. Patterns of land ownership in our neighbouring nations are typically 1,000 times less concentrated than in Scotland. Not only do relatively few people own most of Scotland but around a quarter of all estates over 1,000 acres have been held by the same families for more than 400 years.

That is the history that we live with today and which the Parliament is slowly beginning to overcome. As we have heard, land reform is a broad topic that covers rural and urban areas as well as the marine environment. The issue is inextricably linked to local democracy, fiscal policy, land prices and human rights. Scottish Greens have always seen radical land reform as a vital element of the journey towards a more sustainable, equal and prosperous Scotland. I hope that the bill is the start of the Scottish Parliament taking a renewed and sustained interest in the issue, whether that is through greater devolution, empowering local authorities through tax reform or community empowerment.

The provisions on transparency are important. The question of who owns and benefits from land is a key one, and I believe that the electorate are entitled to full transparency about who really owns Scotland. There is no simple way to deliver complete transparency but, unfortunately, the Government’s proposal is unworkable. Section 35 limits those who can make requests for information and section 36 contains no measures to compel any company in, for example, Grand Cayman to reveal anything at all about who is in control of it. The proposal is unenforceable and will continue to allow Scottish landowners to be involved in complex schemes of tax avoidance and evasion and secrecy. The best option on the table by far is to allow only EU-registered companies to own land. We welcome the committee’s recommendations on that point.

Fiscal reform is also a core part of land reform. I fully support bringing shootings and deer forests back on to the valuation roll. Of course no one likes to pay tax, especially if it is a tax from which they have had an exemption, but there is more than enough evidence that that should happen. As the land reform expert Andy Wightman puts it,

“Why should caravan sites, pubs and local shops subsidise those who occupy shootings and deer forests?”

He says that

“the hair salon, village shop, pub and garage are subject to rating”,


“deer forests and shootings pay nothing.”

As the land reform review group made clear:

“there is no clear public interest case in maintaining the current universal exemption of agriculture, forestry and other land based businesses from non-domestic rates.”

The conclusions of a House of Commons Scottish Affairs Committee report this year raised similar concerns that the exemptions are not having the desired impact, that they should be open to the same level of scrutiny as other Government spending and that they could in fact be pushing up land prices and undermining the Scottish Government’s commitment to increase the amount of land in community ownership.

Bold land reform is needed for Scotland, and it could help to deliver more affordable homes. Current rates exemptions for vacant and derelict land and for empty industrial buildings incentivise people to keep land in urban areas vacant. All of that land could be used for homes for people. There is almost 11,000 hectares of vacant or derelict urban land in Scotland and a massive demand for affordable homes. We heard earlier today that 54,000 households in Scotland are homeless.

What about the appalling situation in which Andrew Stoddart and his family found themselves? It brought tenant farming rights up the agenda again, and rightly so. Poor housing issues jumped out during the RACCE Committee’s evidence gathering, and I learned that homes under agricultural tenancies are exempt from the minimum standard. Clearly, there are improvements to be made in that area, and I support the calls for a tenant’s right to buy in specific circumstances.

I will flag up a couple of things that Scottish Greens think should be included in the bill. There are numerous examples of common land that is not on the register passing quietly into public ownership. We should create a new protective order for land without an identifiable owner, which should require the keeper to conduct a public consultation, to help to ascertain the true legal status of the land well before any title is registered. Finally, we have left on the statute book a piece of legislation called the Division of Commonties Act 1695. It was one of the legal tools that were used to privatise vast tracts of common land. The 1695 act should be repealed to protect the few patches of common land that remain and to signal our break from the land grabs of the past.

We will support the bill today, but there is much to be done before stage 2.


We need to make being a GP in Scotland a really attractive career

This week I took part in a parliamentary debate on the NHS and Redesigning Primary Care.

I stressed the importance of everyone in Scotland having the means and services to enable them to enjoy optimal health, and a properly resourced health service there when we need it. We know only too well the impact of inequality on health.

Read on for the full text of my speech.




It really is essential that we do all that we can to ensure that everyone in Scotland has access to a GP when they need one, yet, as we have heard, that is becoming more of a challenge than ever before. This year, here in Lothian, practices in Ratho and Bangholm have struggled to provide primary care to patients. At the time, a constituent who lives in Ratho village wrote to me and told of the

“extraordinary position that we find ourselves in living in Ratho Village”,


“We will have no doctor in the surgery for the next week. We have only had a doctor for two days a week for the six weeks beforehand.”

My constituent advised that he had been offered an alternative surgery in Leith, which involves a journey of about 10 miles one way. In terms of cost and travel time, not to mention time off work or school, it is difficult to imagine a less convenient option.

Like many people, my constituent wants to understand the events and circumstances that led to that, and he asks that the local health board provides an explanation of the systems and planning that have led to the situation. He asks:

“Why has this happened?”

He used the word “extraordinary”, and the lack of access to a GP is indeed unexpected, unusual and extremely worrying. There are many reasons why it has happened, but I am pleased to say that there are solutions.

We have moved from a position where there was intense competition for GP positions and several applicants for each post to one where, as reported in MSP meetings with NHS Lothian, interview dates have been cancelled due to a lack of interest in and candidates for an advertised post.

As GP vacancies increase, the burden on existing staff increases, adding to workloads that the BMA describes as being “already unsustainable.” The BMA tells us, too, that morale among GPs is at an all-time low, that more GPs than ever before are leaving mid-career and that senior GPs are retiring early. I know one such GP, who told me recently that the bureaucracy that he was dealing with meant that he simply could not do the job that he had been doing before and the job that he wanted and needed to do. Unfortunately, he felt that he could not carry on. He worked in a practice in an area with many social challenges, and the loss of his skill, passion and experience will have a negative impact. I am pleased that the burden that is QOF is being removed.

We have heard, too, that there are practices with restrictions on their lists. For example, potential patients may be able to register only on certain days of the week. Lack of access to primary care often results in patients seeking assistance at hospitals, sometimes heading straight to accident and emergency departments. In some cases, because patients have been unable to access primary care, an initially non-serious illness becomes acute and requires attention in hospital.

I welcome the Government’s commitment to address the issue and the on-going work to agree a new GP contract from 2017, because it is clear that action is required. It is really important that we listen to and work with the profession to ensure that we get the change right. The Royal College of General Practitioners, the BMA and the Royal College of Emergency Medicine have been working hard on engaging with Government and parliamentarians.

Martin McKechnie, the vice president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, asks us to invest in GP training and retention in order to ensure that fewer patients head to accident and emergency departments for care. He credits the Government with increasing consultant numbers and asks that even more is done so that every hospital in Scotland can provide a 365-days-a-year service. He highlights the loss of graduate emergency registrars, a lot of them to Australia, and the RCGP tells us that many qualified GPs are leaving to practise abroad, and that insufficient numbers are undertaking GP specialty training. The RCGP has told us that GPs want to look after their patients and not the books. They want a more appropriate replacement for the QOF to evolve—one that works for patients and GPs. Further, the BMA asks us to recruit, train and value doctors and wants all parties in this chamber to work with it to support Scottish general practice.

We need to make being a GP in Scotland a really attractive career that attracts people in the way that it did before and to which GPs who take a break will return. I hope that the current work on agreeing the new contract will take those factors and more into account.

GP practices have worked on a small-business model since the 1960s. That might be the preference of many practices, but more and more GPs do not want to be partners and do not want to work full time; they might prefer to be employed by the practice or by the NHS. New models and changing contracts could make being a GP a more attractive career to a greater number of people.

Working with and listening to health professionals in this country will give us the possibility of developing and delivering a healthcare model that will better support those working in the NHS, helping them to keep our growing and ageing population well. Sir Lewis Ritchie’s out-of-hours model makes a lot of sense and fully involves a range of allied health professionals in primary care in a transformative way that will have positive impacts on in-hours care.

It is important that, foremost in all debates on health, we focus on the need for a preventative approach. In that regard, the BMA’s suggestion of providing a portion of fruit or vegetables to all primary school children in Scotland every day is well worth looking at, as is the living wage.


Celebrating Fields in Trust

151208 FIT Scotland Committee Rory Lawson with HG

I was delighted earlier this week to welcome guests to the Parliament to celebrate the 90th anniversary of Fields in Trust. Thanks to Fields in Trust there are now 2443 protected sites across the UK. I was joined by the Fields in Trust Scotland Committee, and ex-Scotland rugby international Rory Lawson.

Green spaces have never been under such pressure from development. The aims of FiT are close to my heart – to ensure that everyone regardless of their age, ability or mobility has access to free, local outdoor space for sport, play and recreation.


Alison today described as lacking in urgency answers given by Scottish ministers to questions raised about overcrowding on Scotrail services that has left commuters unable to board trains at Musselburgh.

Alison asked ministers what action they will take and what discussions they have had with Scotrail franchise holder Abellio.

Replies received from Transport Minister Derek Mackay state that until a longer platform is completed at North Berwick next year, colour-coded timetables will be published to highlight busy and quieter services.

Scotrail has previously said it won’t run longer trains on the North Berwick route until new Hitachi trains come into service at the end of 2017.

Alison said:

“There’s growing frustration as trains are so full they don’t stop at Musselburgh, leaving people on the platform, disrupting their entire day. 1 in 4 people in East Lothian don’t have access to a car and need reliable public transport to get on with their lives. I don’t see how colour-coding timetables will help as local people already know when the busiest services are. Most people still need to get to and from work at peak morning times and many employees simply don’t have the option to travel outwith these times.

“Commuters using Musselburgh station will take no comfort from the minister’s answer that passengers should have a chance of a seat within ten minutes of boarding as the service to Waverley doesn’t last ten minutes. In other words, people can expect to stand even if they do manage to get on a train. It’s simply unacceptable.

“It’s also surprising to hear that Scotrail have begun doing passenger counts. Were they not doing this before? The response I have received from the minister suggests a lack of urgency in dealing with this situation. I will continue to keep up the pressure so that local rail passengers get a decent standard of service.”

AJ DM rail PQs


Solution to air pollution is better transport

Last Wednesday, I spoke in a Member’s Debate on Air Pollution, highlighting how improving our Government’s transport policies are key to tackling poor air quality.

Read my full speech below.


I thank Sarah Boyack for bringing this important debate to the chamber this evening. I, too, thank Friends of the Earth, Sustrans, Transform Scotland and the British Heart Foundation for their very useful briefing.

Sadly, our much-heralded Scottish fresh air is not always as fresh as we might think or wish—sometimes noticeably so, particularly in national air pollution hotspots such as St John’s Road and Queensferry Road in Edinburgh. However, even at levels below current Scottish pollution standards, our health is still being damaged. While we debate the shortage of general practitioners, the impact of bedblocking and the need for our local authorities to have sufficient funding to implement health and social care integration, we need to start looking at how decisions taken in other policy areas, such as planning and transport, are impacting on our health. As a result, I will focus in my speech on the impact of the Government’s transport policies on air pollution and where change is needed.

In 2014, Transform Scotland published “Warning Signs 2014: Is Scotland moving towards sustainable transport?”, which sets out just how is Scotland moving about. According to the report, 65 per cent of journeys are made in cars, most of which have one passenger; 23 per cent by walking; 9 per cent by bus; 2 per cent by rail; and 1 per cent by bike. However, it was not always like that. In 1985, more trips were completed on foot than by car—the figures were 43 per cent and 39 per cent—and it was only in the late 1980s and early 1990s that things began to change and we had the situation that has remained in place ever since.

While our climate change emissions have declined by 34 per cent in recent years, our transport emissions have declined by 1 or 2 per cent, and they make up 25 per cent of all climate change emissions. Transport emissions contribute to climate change and also pollute our air and damage our health.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer has announced that air pollution and, in particular, particulate matter are carcinogenic—or cancer causing—to humans. Professor David Newby of the British Heart Foundation centre of research excellence in the city of Edinburgh has said:

“In the 1950s, when there was a lot of smog, the problem used to be that particles were big and they stuck in the upper airways. Now these nanoparticles go straight past, deep into the lungs, even into the bloodstream. We have a clear link between air pollution levels and heart attacks, and we believe the particles in the air are the cause of this.”

When I visited the centre recently with MP colleagues from Labour and the Scottish National Party, Professor Newby told us of the links between air pollution and heart attacks and the high likelihood that those who have suffered such attacks will have sat in heavy traffic in the hours that led up to that episode.

The European Environment Agency showed in its report on air quality in Europe that more than 90 per cent of people in European cities breathe air that is dangerous to their health. We know that children, the elderly and the sick are disproportionately affected by air pollution. That is not being addressed by the Government’s transport policies in Scotland or by our local authorities. If it were being addressed, we would not have 32 local air quality management areas in which air pollution levels are dangerously high. I welcome the fact that we have a cleaner air for Scotland strategy, but does it have the teeth to make a difference?

The Government claims that it will promote a modal shift away from cars through walking and cycling among other policies, but more has been spent on trunk roads and motorways and less has been spent on maintenance than ever before. If the minister wants to boost the local economy and prevent damage to cars and cyclists, shovel-ready potholes can be found across Lothian and across the country. Transform Scotland is right in calling on local and national Government to focus on a fix-it-first policy.

I would like the Government to invest in affordable bus and rail services, low-emission zones, and greener buses and taxis; to incentivise shared car use; to get freight off our roads where possible; to increase workplace parking levies; to protect and enhance our green spaces; to introduce presumed liability; and to invest more than 2 per cent of the £2 billion transport budget in walking and cycling. Green Party policy, in line with the views of the Association of Directors of Public Health, the Institute of Highway Engineers and the British Heart Foundation, is that 10 per cent of the budget is required to deliver the shift that we need to see for clean air for all.

The Government has five years to deliver its vision of 10 per cent of all journeys by bike. If the minister is serious about that, he will need to start pedalling a lot faster.

Read about my work

My latest newsletter will be popping through letterboxes in the coming weeks.

I hope you enjoy reading about some of the work I’ve been doing in the past year as MSP, aiming to support communities in creating a healthy, fair and greener Lothian.

If you haven’t received a copy, click on the link below to download one.


Lothian News Autumn 2015


Alison today questioned comments by John Donnelly, chief executive of Marketing Edinburgh, in which he supported plans to turn the Royal High School into a luxury hotel and the controversial redevelopment of the St James Centre.Royal_High_School_Calton_Hill_Edinburgh

Both projects have been criticised by heritage experts amid concerns that they could result in the city losing its World Heritage status.

Mr Donnelly told a business website: “If Edinburgh wants to be a premium city, it has to behave like one.” And of alternative plans for the Royal High, he said: “A music school will not add to Edinburgh’s attraction from an international point of view.”

Alison said:

“These patronising comments show how out of touch Marketing Edinburgh’s boss is. Internationally-recognised built heritage and culture are what makes our capital city so special, and we ignore that at our peril.

“The proposals for the Royal High are out of character and aimed at catering for luxury jet-setters when instead we could be encouraging more meaningful ideas to preserve our wonderful skyline and enhance enjoyment and opportunities for people who live here, as well as those passing through. Edinburgh is clearly a tourism magnet but we must not trample over the unique selling points that bring visitors here in the first place.”


Marketing chief hails scheme for Royal High hotel (Edinburgh Evening News)

John Donnelly interview (Daily Business)

No to Trident, yes to job security


Yesterday, I spoke in a Scottish Government debate on Trident with my colleague John Wilson and Patrick Harvie.  An often-cited concern of those speaking for the renewal of Trident is that thousands of jobs would come under threat if the weapons system is discontinued.

In my speech, I argued that scrapping Trident shouldn’t be seen as a threat to workers, but an opportunity to make the best use of the skills and experience of our workforce. Scotland desperately needs more engineers working in sectors such as renewables, oil and gas decommissioning and energy efficient housing. We need a funded, well-planned transition for the jobs currently tied to the weapon system to be transferred to sustainable, ethical industries.

Read my full speech below.


Welfare over warfare? Welfare of course—and the Green and independent group will vote for the Government motion and the Labour amendment, but we will oppose the Conservative amendment. Even if Trident was entirely free, we should continue to demand its end and removal because it is an abomination.

On Saturday just past I was delighted to be part of the conference that was held to celebrate 20 years of campaigning by the Campaign Against Arms Trade. The work of the campaign is crucial if so many other campaigns are to succeed, because aggression is less likely if people cannot get their hands on the means to deliver it.

I am pleased to join the majority of colleagues across the chamber in calling for a shift in UK Government priorities away from funding weapons of indiscriminate mass civilian slaughter to investing in people. I am pleased to have the privilege, on behalf of the Green and independent group, of supporting my colleague John Wilson’s motion calling for an end to the UK’s membership of NATO, the first-strike nuclear alliance, and declaring the UK and its waters a nuclear weapons-free zone.

We can, by putting in place a properly funded jobs transition, and by moving to a clean low-carbon energy system and investing in new energies, provide more jobs than the entire arms industry. If we are serious about the security that we all want, it is imperative that we do so.

We must remember that security is not just about military matters. Real security will come from global action on a scale that has not yet been witnessed to address climate change and to cut our emissions urgently. We need to redesign our approach to defence from scratch. We need to develop our ability to promote diplomacy and peace, to lead in conflict resolution and to address threats to security such as pressures on food, water, land and energy. It really is time for the UK to get its priorities right and for us here in Scotland to set a good example.

We are focusing on the question of Trident today, but the debate provides an opportunity to analyse our spending priorities more broadly. UK-made weapons have been used in Israel’s attacks on Gaza, the UK has supplied all sides in Libya’s civil wars, we have armed Russia and the Ukraine, and our weapons have caused tens of thousands of deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sometimes it feels as if increasing GDP is valued more than life itself.

Trident is all about the UK’s obsession with punching above its weight. It is absolutely useless in helping us to tackle cyber crime, climate change and terrorism, as Neil Findlay pointed out. How secure do our citizens feel when they are juggling two or three zero-hours contracts, when the insecure roof over their heads eats up almost all their income, and when they have to visit yet another new local food bank because of an inhuman benefits sanction? Tell the parents of the one in four children who are living in poverty in the UK that investing in nuclear weapons increases their security.

As we debate more powers for Scotland, it is time to challenge the way that we do business and the business that we do. Why are Government agencies and public funds used to support firms that make weapons for war? Most people in the UK would be appalled if they learned that we have the sixth-highest military spend in the world while one in four children in the UK is growing up in poverty. Priorities?

Lockheed Martin benefited to the tune of £2.5 million from the Scottish Government’s regional selective assistance programme. That was not because it was required to protect jobs or because the firm was struggling. Lockheed Martin is the largest arms company in the world and 80 per cent of its work is for the US Department of Defense. It is moving to Glasgow to allow it to work more closely with the city’s university. Through a freedom of information request from the National Union of Students Scotland, we have learned that Scottish universities, including Edinburgh, Glasgow and Strathclyde, have invested millions in arms companies. I congratulate and thank those students and others who are campaigning for the divestment of public pension funds from that trade.

Here in this very city, we have Selex-ES producing radar, drones, targeting and weapons control systems. It took part in the recent defence and security equipment international fair in London, attracting buyers from a range of countries that have poor human rights records. Not much of a fair, is it?

The use of such language normalises such activity but those people who work in such industries can have a productive and positive future in other industries, and it is up to us to make that happen. Our talented engineers have skills that will be needed in the industries of the future. The oil industry has told us that 5,500 wells and 10,000km of pipeline need to be decommissioned during the next 35 years. Whether they be in Government or Opposition, all politicians should promote a positive manufacturing strategy for Scotland that is based on promoting industries such as renewable energy, not companies that sell equipment to human rights abusers. Engineering UK estimates that the UK will need 87,000 engineers per year; last year, just over 50,000 were trained.

Scotland desperately needs more engineers. We need to invest in the industries of the future. Let us put their skills to positive and productive use. Let us reject bloated military budgets and prioritise skilled jobs and apprenticeships in a sustainable and ethical economy. “Jane’s” online itself tells us that the world-wide defence market is worth $1 trillion annually; the energy and environmental market is worth at least eight times that.

In closing, I remind members of the words of President Eisenhower that were recently brought to my attention by my colleague, Patrick Harvie. In his famous chance for peace speech, Eisenhower said:

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed”.