Clean transport for public health

Alison Johnstone chamber pic

Published in Edinburgh Evening News on 1 September 2015

Last week, I met experts in heart research at the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh. They talked to me about their concerns over Scotland’s high air pollution levels and the deadly impact poor air quality can have on our health.

Air pollution in the UK is illegally high – and I don’t mean figuratively speaking. Recently, the UK Government was successfully sued for letting pollution levels hike beyond limits set in European Union law.

Pollution levels in Scotland too continue to break both international and national safety standards. In Edinburgh, the council has five designated air quality management areas, where air is so dirty we need to keep a close watch to make sure it’s safe for people to breathe.

British Heart Foundation research found that the tiny particles from polluting engines get sucked directly into our lungs and our bloodstreams. For people whose hearts are already in a weakened condition, this can trigger a fatal heart attack.

According to estimates, 7.1 per cent of men and 5.3 per cent of women are living with heart disease in Scotland. That means thousands of people have to worry about whether it’s safe for them to step outside the house on a day when pollution levels are high.

There are a number of clear steps that we could take to solve this problem. Emissions from diesel engines are particularly dangerous for heart disease patients, and the British Heart Foundation recommends fitting diesel engines with filters. That seems like a pretty sensible idea to me.

We should also continue to improve the way in which pollution levels are monitored and reported. Information on when and where air quality is dangerous helps people manage their illness and avoid risks.

Research into the causes and cures of heart disease save thousands of lives every year, and using new technology and tests can also help with healthcare costs. Developing research activity is crucial for treating heart disease, and we should make sure our universities and research institutes are properly funded to do their work.
All these policies would go a long way in protecting people from the deadly effects of dirty air. But there is only one way to really address the root of the problem. Eighty per cent of air pollution is caused by vehicles on the roads, so let’s provide the cleanest public transport and attractive alternative options to car travel.

The Scottish Greens have continuously called for more funds to be put towards walking and cycling, as supporting these modes of transport would cut emissions and improve health.

Investing in buses, walking and cycling is also a transport justice issue. When 40 per cent of households in Edinburgh don’t have access to a car we need to make sure we’re providing them with the support and options they need.

Despite all this, the Scottish Government continues to treat investment in cleaner transport as “nice to have”, not a crucial change we must make. People’s lives are being limited by the state of our environment and we need to talk about it in honest terms. It’s not just pollution, it’s a public health crisis.

Linlithgow Natural Grid: Congratulating innovative new heating project

community energy project

We’ve recently heard some great news from Linlithgow. The Natural Grid, a community owned sustainable energy alternative, has won £25,000 from the Local Energy Challenge Fund for its project called ‘Heat from the Street’.

The project is an innovative initiative that aims to warm up buildings by capturing heat from the town’s waste water system. This will be done with the help of pumps that are powered by solar energy.

It’s a brilliant example of what communities can do by taking control over their energy production, and I hope to see similar projects set up by communities around Scotland. I have lodged a motion in the Scottish Parliament to congratulate the Linlithgow Natural Grid on their achievement, and to get MSPs talking about the huge potential of community energy.

Watch this space. With initiatives like Linlithgow’s, our cities, towns and villages can move away from a reliance on gas and electricity grids and lead the way to a low-carbon future for Scotland.

We’ve a long way to go before women feel as welcome in sport as they should.

Can you imagine taking your daughter to play a game of football on a Saturday afternoon only to be told that there’s no room for girls on the pitch?Football

Shockingly, this is what probably would have happened until as recently as 1972. Yes – would you believe it – women’s football was banned in the UK until that year. Back then, the game was seen as men’s remit, and the sports authorities forbid women from playing on football grounds.

Times have moved on. Women’s teams are blossoming around the country, and there are brilliant young women playing for Scotland on international fields. For this, we owe a huge thanks to football pioneers like the phenomenal Edna Neillis, who sadly passed away last July.

We’re also seeing some positive developments in management and coaching. Hibs Chief Leann Dempster, businesswoman Ann Budge and women’s national team coach Anna Signeul are all changing the face of Scottish football. Recently, Scotland got its first woman manager for men’s side when Shelley Kerr was appointed to lead Stirling University Football FC.

Despite all this, we’ve got a very long way to go before women feel as welcome in the sports world as they should. A BBC survey found that 80% of women athletes felt underpaid in comparison to men, and 85% thought that there wasn’t enough media coverage of their sport.

I feel frustrated for the brilliant sportswomen who still, in 2015, have to argue for their right to be treated as equal professionals. And I feel disappointed for the women who through hard work, commitment and passion achieve amazing victories, only to find that the media aren’t interested and the public don’t know about it.

But our main concern with sexism in sport should be the way in which it’s impacting on our children’s futures. It’s not rocket science – exercise is good for you, and we need our children to get excited by sport to grow into healthy, capable young people. If we’re not able to give our women athletes, coaches and managers the recognition they deserve, who will our girls and young women look up to for inspiration?

I cannot stress this enough – encouraging exercise should be a priority if we care about the welfare of our girls and young women. Research has shown that there is a worrying drop in participation in sport among 12 year old girls. This tells me that at a certain age, girls start to recognise that society still doesn’t think their place is on football pitches, in hockey halls and on tennis courts.

Too many teenage girls continue to think that what matters is staying slim, and that this can be achieved simply by going on a low-fat diet. It’s the 21st century now. We have to break this old-fashioned, destructive pattern.

We need to think of new ways to tackle the problem head-on. The Scottish Government’s ‘Fit for Life’ programme did consult girls on how we could better support them to get involved with sport, but I still don’t think we’re really listening to what our girls would like to do in P.E. class. We should mix things up by offering lots of different options for exercise; from cycling to hockey, and from dance to football.  We should also take a proper look at whether girls are more likely to take part in gender-based groups. Putting boys and girls in the same classes might not be such a bad idea.

And what about those role models? The time has come to recognise that sexism won’t disappear if we look away and hope for the best. In New Zealand, a policy decision means that women’s netball receives equal TV coverage with male-dominated sports. The netball players are now national sport superstars.

Scotland intends to bid to host the women’s rugby World Cup in 2021. If we get the chance to bring the event to our country, I’d like us to focus on two things. First, let’s make the games matter not just during the matches, but in the daily lives of our girls and boys by getting them excited and involved. Second, let’s make sure that we broadcast and celebrate the victories of our women rugby players as we would if the players were men. Let’s not leave our girls on the bench anymore.

Let local democracy flourish.

Depending on who you speak to, Edinburgh’s population either doubles or triples at this time of year. There’s no doubt our city bursts at the seams in summer. It’s part of what makes living here so special.


Given our tourism magnet status, you’d think we’d be firmly in control of making the most of our circumstances.

Sadly, we have the most concentrated local democracy in the whole of the EU. In Scotland only 1 in 2,071 members of the electorate stands in local elections, and turnout is around 20 or 30 per cent. In other European countries it’s almost the norm to want to be a councillor, and turnouts are often around 60 or 70 per cent.

Iceland, with a population of just 300,000, has 79 local authorities which raise 92 per cent of their own revenue and turnouts at local elections are above 80 per cent. Isn’t that something to aspire to? An engaged electorate and an accountable council?

In Scotland only 10 per cent of local government revenue is from local taxation (the council tax). The EU average is over 40 per cent.

The loss of our local democracy has been compounded by the council tax freeze, pledged in 2011 by both the SNP and Labour, despite it being a local government responsibility. Had Angela Merkel attempted this kind of interference in Germany she would have been in violation of her country’s constitution!

Council tax is regressive, and the freeze makes it even more so, as in cash terms it is the better off who benefit the most.

The freeze is clearly having an impact on local services, with closures and cuts getting increasingly harsh. The cross-party commission on local tax reform, which my colleague Andy Wightman sits on, will report in the very near future. A new deal on local government finance is essential. It simply won’t be credible for any party to go into the 2016 election offering to kick this can further down the road.

Trusting local authorities to raise funds would open up all sorts of options for cities such as Edinburgh. A few years back the idea of a visitor levy was blocked by the Scottish Government. A fee of just one or two pounds a night, a proposal backed by the city council, would have generated up to £10 million a year and could have gone a long way to supporting our festivals and venues.

Such charges happen around the world. The idea that £1 would put anyone off is simply daft. In Rome, the rate of levy depends on the quality of accommodation.

Whether it would be a good idea or not is beside the point. In other European countries such decisions are for the local authority. In Scotland we have a central government denying us the kind of autonomy others take for granted.

As we continue to debate Scotland’s constitutional future and the UK’s future in Europe, we must not lose sight of the crisis on our doorstep. Let local democracy flourish.

Fox hunting legislation in Scotland not fit for purpose

I have lodged a motion in Holyrood to raise awareness of research from the League Against Cruel Sports that highlights fox hunting legislation in Scotland is not fit for purpose. While a focus is on this issue UK-wide, I am urging the Scottish Government to evaluate what legislative changes are required.

I was happy to see the hard work by anti-fox hunting campaigners rewarded this week with the SNP adopting a strong stance towards the cruel blood sport in England and Wales, however it is important that we take this opportunity to get our own house in order north of the border.

You can read the text of my motion, and keep track of which MSPs add their names in support, here.

Spare kids from callous cuts

It’s the school holidays, and for many parents and young people these lazy days of summer will be bookended with ­emotion as the transfer from one school year to the next takes place.

Indeed, for those leaving school it can be a real ­life-changing experience, going from a school ­environment into (hopefully) work, training, college or university.

Recent figures showed that most school leavers are going into such positive destinations but there’s another set of figures that has been overlooked and to which we should pay more attention.

The proportion of school leavers with Additional Support Needs (ASN) ending in a positive destination such as further education or employment has gone up slightly from 82.5 per cent in 2012-13 to 84.4 in 2013-14 but this remains below the rate for those without ASN at 93.4 per cent.

A young person with ASN might be being bullied, have behavioural or learning difficulties, be deaf or blind or be looked after by a local authority.

Across the Lothians 20,000 children have ASN. The main factors tend to be learning disabilities and dyslexia. Across Scotland there are more than 140,000 pupils (21 per cent of the school population) with ASN, and it disproportionately affects children from lower income families and areas of deprivation.

The requirement for additional support varies across a spectrum of needs and circumstances. It tends to be best that support is integrated rather than singling out the pupil. Children and young people usually want to be seen as no different from their classmates. The approach should be to view children as individuals and tailor support to their needs.

The Scottish Government has admitted that not all children with additional requirements have received the support to which they are entitled, and as ministers continue to collect information about this issue, more children are being recorded as having additional support needs. We need to ensure best practice is being shared so we can ensure an inclusive and equal education system.

Local authority budget cuts impact on the learning of our most vulnerable pupils, and I know teachers are worried that there are bigger cuts to come. We cannot ignore the link between deprivation and additional support needs, and we cannot stand by while local authority budget cuts impact upon the most vulnerable young people in our society.

All too often ASN provision is seen as a soft target for cuts and those in the sector tell me they feel their already under-funded vital services are increasingly regarded as a luxury.

The earlier a child’s additional support needs are identified and provided for, the more likely they are to enjoy a healthy development into adulthood.

We have a responsibility in Holyrood to support local authority service delivery and I urge the Scottish Government to speak to councils without delay to identify how we can protect and enhance the provision for those with additional support needs across Scotland.


This article was originally published in the Evening News (7 July)

Games legacy? Still possible. Start with swimming.

In terms of spectator sport, this summer might not have the buzz of last year’s Commonwealth Games but we’re still spoiled for choice. Wimbledon’s underway (come on, Andy!), the Tour de France is getting into gear and next month Beijing will host the World Athletics Championships at the famous Bird’s Nest Stadium.Swim


Spectating is all very well, but what of that much-talked-about legacy the Glasgow Games promised? The event itself was spectacular, there’s no denying, and I’m sure it inspired many young people across Scotland to take up a new sport or devote more time to an existing passion.


Given our reputation for poor health, I’m excited by the idea of Scotland on a journey towards becoming a nation of active participants and not just spectators. But already there are warning lights on the dashboard and we should not ignore them.


A recent study of residents living near where the Games took place in Glasgow shows that levels of taking part in sport and exercise have dropped. There were of course benefits for local people in terms of sheer enjoyment of the spectacle and Games-related work opportunities, but it’s disappointing that the legacy appears to have hit the first hurdle. And it’s ironic to note the finding that access to local sports facilities was disrupted during the Games. I agree with Professor Ade Kearns, principal investigator on the study, who said there is a big job to be done.


The other warning light is the recent decision by Scottish Ministers to end funding for a scheme to improve the standard of swimming among primary school children.

The plug being pulled on Scottish Swimming’s Top Up programme is likely to mean greater numbers of adults who lack confidence in the water. Crucially, swimming is not a compulsory part of the curriculum in Scotland, unlike in England, and the provision of primary school swimming lessons varies extensively between local authorities. We know, for example, that children in the most deprived areas are more likely to be non-swimmers. Overall, between 30 and 40 per cent of children leave primary school unable to swim.


Ministers claim Scottish Swimming has received more than £5million over four years but this is a drop in the ocean when you consider that the Scottish health budget is over £12billion a year. Spending more on preventative measures to make activity a normal part of daily life will help reduce the pressure on the health service in the long run.


It’s not just a health issue and a life skill but it’s an issue of social justice. We know that financial pressures stop many families from going swimming. And because the provision of free swimming varies across Scotland, those living in poverty are excluded.


In the region I represent – Lothian – a single family swimming session can cost £8.65 in Musselburgh, £10.90 in Midlothian, £12.50 in Edinburgh and £13.70 in West Lothian. Start to add transport costs and kit onto that and you can see how unaffordable an option it becomes for low income households.


Among the recommendations made by Scottish Swimming and Save the Children to the Scottish Parliament’s Health Committee inquiry into community sport back in 2012 was continuation of the Top Up programme – the same one the government has now cut. They also called for investment in opportunities for children from deprived neighbourhoods, and an entitlement to learn to swim for all primary school children. They highlighted that some local authorities provide free transport during the school holidays for young people to get to leisure centres and swimming pools. We should be encouraging this approach right across Scotland.


Swimming has obvious health and safety benefits. It involves cardiovascular activity, which strengthens the heart and lungs, and helps with endurance, flexibility and balance. Drowning is a real risk for children. Scotland and the rest of UK rate among the worst countries in Europe for drowning prevention, according to the European Child Safety Alliance. Scotland only scores 1 out of 5 on water safety, with the ECSA highlighting the fact that we don’t have swimming lessons as a compulsory part of the school curriculum. 19 European countries including Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland have made swimming lessons compulsory. So often we look across the North Sea to our Scandinavian neighbours for inspiration on equality – why not on swimming?


Children who enjoy swimming have the option to pursue it as a competitive sport, with all the positive experiences that can bring, working towards goals, learning to be part of a team and developing confidence. It’s also been shown that swimming is good for children’s mental health, and families that spend time swimming together can develop strong bonds.


Last summer Sport Minister Shona Robison talked of giving every child the opportunity, facilities and support to learn to swim. And last summer Scots swimmers stood out, from Hannah Miley and Ross Murdoch to Michael Jamieson and the brilliant teenager Erraid Davies. For years the Scottish Government knew the Games were coming, and from early on talked about a legacy. It’s still possible to achieve it, and making swimming a compulsory part of the curriculum would show we’re serious.




Women aren’t a minority, but the under-represented majority.

Support for Women 5050 has grown in recent months and I’m sure it will continue to do so.  Political engagement in Scotland bloomed during the referendum and that heightened level of involvement has continued. AJ 5050 bag1


Many women, young and old, become engaged during that campaign, found their voices and contributed on both sides of the debate.  It’s essential that they are encouraged to continue.


There is more discussion now about the need for fair gender representation in politics, but there are still those who are convinced that our representatives are all there on merit.  Globally, almost 90% of parliamentarians are men.  This tells me that action is required to provide a truly level playing field.


After all, I’ve attended meetings packed with women campaigning to keep local nurseries or hospitals open.  With less cash, less access to private transport and more likely to have had their much needed benefits cut, women understand the impact of these decisions.


But there are too few women able to influence the debate in our Council Chambers and in the Scottish Parliament.


It’s time now to make sure that far more women are involved in making and voting for these decisions.


My Party, the Scottish Greens, insists that 50% of winnable seats have women candidates.  So it can be done.  Women aren’t a minority, but the under-represented majority.


Please get involved and support Women5050.  Your support will make a difference.









We must do all we can to enhance, protect and promote employees’ rights.

This week I was pleased to speak in a debate in parliament on employee rights. They can protect us when things go wrong, when companies get into difficulties or in the face of unscrupulous employers, and they have been hard won by labour and trade union campaigners over decades.

Read on for the full text of my speech…


Alison Johnstone chamber pic
Workers’ rights are human rights. Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says:

“Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.”

That article goes on to cover equal pay for equal work, the right to just remuneration and social protection “worthy of human dignity” and the right to join trade unions. Those rights are also embedded in the European charter of fundamental rights and, in part, in the UK Human Rights Act 1998.

Strong employee rights are vital, but they face a barrage of attacks from the UK Government. We have heard from other MSPs about the Conservative plan for a 40 per cent threshold for strike ballots in health, transport, fire services and schools. As the minister and other colleagues have noted, the UK Tory Government, with 37 per cent of the vote, did not quite make the grade, but it still proposes abolition of the Human Rights Act 1998.

Employee rights are also under attack from the UK Government’s support of the transatlantic trade and investment partnership—the so-called free trade agreement that is really a corporate power grab that endangers workers’ rights. TTIP proposals will give corporations influence over laws and regulatory convergence risks lowering health and safety protections. That is an affront to democracy, and TTIP should be scrapped.

Governments have to be free to make changes that will improve the lives of their citizens. Raising the minimum wage to the living wage is exactly the sort of policy that the Greens will continue to fight for. In the general election campaign, we argued that, by 2020, the minimum wage should be £10 to ensure that nobody in work is faced with poverty. We also support the introduction of wage ratios.

The rise of zero-hours contracts, which have been much discussed in the debate, is another example of where workers’ rights are being eroded. They will work for a few people, but most exploit people who desperately need work. I support calls from the STUC for full employment protections for all workers, regardless of their employment status.

The Scottish Green Party supported the devolution of employment law during the Smith process and was disappointed that progress was not made. That support was not motivated just by the desire to see workers protected; it also makes sense. In its submission to the Smith commission, the STUC said:

“it is easier to imagine coherent policies on economic development, tackling inequality through public service provision, welfare and active labour market intervention if the Scottish Parliament is empowered to tackle discrimination, poor employment practice, insecure employment, low minimum wages and to create healthier workplaces and promote collective bargaining.”

Employment protections are fully devolved to Northern Ireland, so it can be done while maintaining a single labour market. Employment services and fair access to employment tribunals are referred to in the Government motion. Devolution there is warmly welcome.

Since the introduction of tribunal fees, there has been an 81 per cent drop in applications to the employment tribunal. That is a serious access-to-justice issue for workers. Citizens Advice Scotland, in its briefing for today, sets out its advisers’ experience. They found that “fees negatively alter the power balance between workers and employers” and that the decision whether to take a claim to the tribunal is no longer based on merit but is based on personal finances—can the person afford justice or not? With the fees that we have discussed this afternoon, that is no surprise. Often, those who most need to challenge employment practices are being priced out of doing so.

I support the Law Society’s view, which we heard in committee, that any limitations to tribunal devolution should be restricted to those that are objectively necessary.

The Scottish Parliament information centre has produced a comparison of the Smith agreement and the Scotland Bill. It has marked the devolution proposals on employment programmes in red because they did not address any of the Devolution (Further Powers) Committee’s concerns. That has to change and I hope that it will.

I, too, support calls for a weekend allowance for all staff in National Museums Scotland. Like others, I look forward to the establishment of a much-needed Scottish hazards centre that will actively campaign for safer and healthier workplaces and more effective enforcement by the Health and Safety Executive and local authorities.

Graeme Pearson spoke of his concern about the varying practices by trade unions in different parts of these islands. While he questioned the need for two different approaches, if the one approach that we have is regressive and truly woeful, I support having two different approaches.

Alex Johnstone spoke of “socialist failure”. Last night, I was watching the late news—it was on one of the major channels but I cannot remember which one—and I saw a dinner of bankers who were described as “the elite”. Is it not the case that, if the losses that they incurred had not been socialised, failure might have been truly catastrophic?

I suggest that this Parliament do all that it can to enhance, protect and promote employees’ rights.


I’ve lodged a motion in the Scottish Parliament praising the Big Nature Festival at Levenhall Links in Musselburgh.AJ and rangers at Musselburgh

The family-friendly event took place on 23 and 24 May, with an estimated 6,000 people taking part in activities and talks and sampling local food and drink.

My motion welcomes the ongoing efforts of East Lothian Council, Scottish Power, RSPB and the Friends of Musselburgh Links group to progress further restoration of the site.

I really enjoyed my visit to the Big Nature Festival and the conversations I had with many people passionate about wildlife and unique sites such as Levenhall. The festival’s organisers and participants should be proud, and the event undoubtedly brought a welcome boost to the East Lothian economy.

Levenhall links and lagoons are a real haven for birdlife and a valuable green space for the community. I hope the success of the festival is repeated and we see the site fully restored to create a high quality nature reserve for future generations to enjoy.”

You can read my motion here.