Jean calls for sanctions on Israel

Palestine flags at sunset

Since Israeli forces started bombarding Gaza two weeks ago, over 500 Palestinians have been killed. Most of the dead are civilians and more than a fifth of them are children. Last Thursday, Israel also launched a ground invasion of Gaza.

Jean has lodged a motion to allow the Scottish Parliament to express its condemnation of this attack, and to call for disinvestment and sanctions to put pressure on Israel to end its violence against Palestinians and its illegal occupation of Palestine:

Motion S4M-10638: Jean Urquhart, Highlands and Islands, Independent, Date Lodged: 22/07/2014
Gaza Under Attack
That the Parliament condemns Israel’s assault on Gaza; believes that, in this and similar operations, Israel has shown little regard for civilian casualties; understands that, as of 21 July 2014, over 500 Palestinians have been killed; notes the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimate that over one-in-five of those killed are children; urges Scotland’s public bodies to disinvest from companies operating in Israel or occupied Palestine, and calls on the UK Government to pursue sanctions against Israel.

The motion has already been signed by John Finnie (Independent, Highlands and Islands), Patrick Harvie (Green, Glasgow), Alison Johnstone (Green, Lothians), Christine Grahame (SNP, Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale), Cara Hilton (Labour, Dunfermline), Malcolm Chisholm (Labour, Edinburgh Northern and Leith) and Jim Hume (Liberal Democrat, South of Scotland). You can see an up-to-date list of supporters on the Scottish Parliament’s website.

Jean said:

“Over the last two weeks, Israeli forces have killed over 500 Palestinians in Gaza. Most of those killed are civilians; over one in five are children.

“When we see the horrifying reports and pictures, it is easy to feel powerless. But we’re not powerless, and we’re not blameless. Without the ‘staunch support’ offered by Western leaders like David Cameron, the brutal occupation of Palestine could not happen. We all have a responsibility to stop our governments supporting oppression in our name.

“I’m so proud that the Scottish Government has said our country welcomes Palestinian refugees and those in need of medical treatment. But without control of our own foreign policy, we need to demand that the UK Government act to end this assault and the occupation that gave birth to it.

“If this was any other conflict, there would have been sanctions years ago. I’m asking the UK Government to pursue sanctions against Israel now, to show that we will no longer support the violent occupation. The first priority, as demanded by Amnesty International, should be a total embargo on weapons.

“I’m also asking Scottish public bodies like local councils, universities and the NHS to look at their investments and withdraw money from companies that operate in Israel and occupied Palestine. Individual Scots can do our bit by boycotting Israeli goods, just as we did to help defeat apartheid in South Africa.

“Please write to your MSPs and ask them to support the Scottish Parliament motion calling for sanctions on Israel. It will be noticed, and it will help secure justice for Palestine.”

There will be a demonstration in support of the people of Gaza in Inverness High Street this Saturday, 26 July, from 12 noon until 1pm, and every Saturday while the attack continues.

Jean pulls out of Danny Alexander’s ‘publicity stunt’ A9 summit

Picture of HGV tanker. Caption: The average speed of HGVs above 75 tonnes is currently in excess of 50mph.
Source: A9 Safety Group.

Jean, along with fellow Highlands and Islands independent MSP John Finnie, has withdrawn from Danny Alexander’s “Highland Infrastructure Forum” discussion group on the future of the A9 after their participation was used in the media to claim they are supporters of the Treasury minister’s campaign against average speed cameras. Both Jean and John are firmly in favour of the cameras, which will save lives on the notoriously dangerous road.

Jean and John explained their decision in this letter to the Highland papers:

“We agreed to take part in the ‘Highland Infrastructure Forum’ after Danny Alexander presented it to us as an effort to gather ‘a wide range of opinion’. But the first time the group appeared in the media, its members – including us – were described as ‘leaders of a campaign battling to block the A9 average-speed cameras’.

“The one-hour-long first meeting of the group includes a 20-minute press conference. That shows what the priority of the ‘Forum’ really is.

“Of course we were aware of the risk that Alexander’s group would simply be a publicity stunt for his own campaign, but real discussion is important enough that we gave it the benefit of the doubt. Unfortunately, a publicity stunt is exactly what it turned out to be.

“The A9 is one of the most notorious roads in the country. On average, one in three cars on the A9 is speeding, making collisions more likely and more deadly. Average speed cameras will save lives.

“The only people who have anything to fear from average speed cameras are those intent on breaking the law and risking lives.

“We are both 100% behind this measure to make the A9 safer. We’ll discuss this issue with anyone, but we won’t be used to whitewash an MP’s publicity campaign. We won’t be taking part in Danny Alexander’s project.”

The websites of the Strathspey and Badenoch Herald and the Ross-shire Journal both originally said:

“Leaders of a campaign battling to block the A9 average-speed cameras scheme will meet in Inverness on Friday.

“MP Danny Alexander’s Highland Infrastructure Forum, which includes representatives of Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd, the Scottish Council for Development and Industry, the Federation for Small Businesses, the Scottish Tourism Alliance, and Highlands and Islands MSPs Jean Urquhart, John Finnie and Mary Scanlon, will take place at the Palace Hotel.”

After the MSPs contacted them to point out the mistake, both papers immediately corrected the story by removing Jean and John’s names from the articles.

£2.5m to help rural communities build their own broadband

Jean has welcomed today’s announcement of an extra £2.5m to help rural communities build their own broadband networks.

The Scottish Government is already investing £410m in the Digital Scotland Superfast Broadband programme, but this extra money, announced by Nicola Sturgeon this morning in Thurso, will go to help communities that are too remote to benefit from standard broadband schemes.

The funding will be managed by Community Broadband Scotland, which works across the country but is run by Highlands and Islands Enterprise.

Jean said:

“The internet has revolutionised our world, bringing it closer together than ever. So a fast, reliable internet connection is even more important in remote rural areas than in the cities. But it can be hard to get that connection to communities far from the nearest telephone exchange.

“This investment means more communities in the Highlands and Islands will be able to build local broadband networks using technology like satellite broadband to overcome the distance.

“From Eigg’s community energy company to the worker ownership of Loch Fyne Oysters, we in the north have shown time and time again that local people can manage big projects. I’m delighted that the Government have recognised that by giving our communities the opportunity to build their own solutions to the challenge of rural broadband.”

Stop Torture – Jean backs new Amnesty campaign

stop_torture

Jean has called on a Nigerian governor to investigate allegations of torture, as part of Amnesty International’s Stop Torture campaign, which launched last week.

Jean has written to Emmanuel Uduaghan, the governor of Nigeria’s Delta State, urging him to take action in the case of Moses Akatugba. In 2005, aged just 16, Moses was arrested by the Nigerian Army and charged with stealing mobile phones. He says he was shot in the hand, beaten, and had finger- and toenails pulled out with pliers. Convicted on the ‘confession’ extracted under this duress, he is now sentenced to death.

Jean said:

“Torture is never, ever acceptable. That’s a truth publicly accepted by most countries and yet around the world those same countries continue to let it happen. I’ve been a long-time Amnesty supporter and am proud to back the Stop Torture campaign.

“As part of Amnesty’s campaign, I have written to the Governor of Delta State to request that he commute the death sentence passed against Moses Akatugba. Mr Akatugba was arrested by the military aged just 16 and condemned to death on the strength of ‘confessions’ he says were extracted by torture. I have asked the Governor to launch an independent investigation into the allegations of torture.”

Siobhan Reardon, Amnesty Scotland’s Programme Director, said:

“Thirty years ago 151 countries signed up to the UN Convention Against Torture, but since then we have seen a steady decline in almost every one of those countries and today torture is flourishing. Governments hold up the convention in one hand whilst sanctioning horrendous acts of brutality against their own people, with the other.

“Torture has been used against people in the name of national security. It has been used to silence dissidents and political rivals. It has even been used against schoolchildren. In some countries, torture is routine, while in others cases of abuse are isolated and exceptional. However, just one case of torture or ill-treatment is not only prohibited by international law, it is completely unacceptable.

“Amnesty International has been at the forefront of the campaign to eradicate torture for fifty years and although achieving the Convention Against Torture in 1984 was an important milestone, we need a global campaign to end torture more than ever.

“Today is the Stop Torture Global Day of Action and we are asking everyone in Scotland to speak out on behalf of all those who have been tortured – and are being tortured right now. Torture is never justifiable and should never be used by any government for any reason.”

Amnesty International launched its global Stop Torture campaign ahead of the UN International Day in Support of Victims of Torture on 26 June. The human rights organisation says torture is flourishing, despite a 30-year global ban.

In the last five years, Amnesty has recorded torture and other forms of ill-treatment in at least 141 countries from every region of the world but the secretive nature of torture means the true number is likely to be even higher.

Amnesty’s 30-page briefing, Torture in 2014: 30 Years of Broken Promises details a shocking variety of torture techniques with at least 27 different kinds of torture and other cruel treatment recorded during 2013-14.

These include beatings with fists, rifle butts, wooden clubs and other objects; needles being forced underneath a victim’s fingernails; prisoner having their joints drilled; boiling water being poured onto the body; the administering of electric shocks; the stubbing out of cigarettes on the body; water torture/partial suffocation; and the use of stress positions and sustained sleep deprivation.

Torture or other ill-treatment reported in 141 countries in past five years, and in at least 79 already in 2014, with 27 different types of torture during 2013-14

Since 1984, 155 countries have ratified the United Nations Convention Against Torture – a milestone convention that Amnesty campaigned hard for in the 1970s and 1980s – yet Amnesty is now accusing governments around the world of betraying their commitments to stamp out torture.

While measures such as the criminalisation of torture in national legislation, the independent monitoring of detention centres and the video recording of interrogations have led to a decrease in the use of torture in some countries, Amnesty is calling for the wide implementation of rigorous protective mechanisms such as proper medical examinations, prompt access to lawyers, independent and effective investigations of torture allegations, and the prosecution of suspects and proper redress for victims.

“Wellies before slippers” CAP plans welcomed

Pedigree cow "Cavans Bourbon" on Orkney, bred and photographed by Robert Scarth

Pedigree cow “Cavans Bourbon” on Orkney, bred and photographed by Robert Scarth.

Jean has welcomed government proposals on implementing the new Common Agricultural Policy in Scotland.

She praised ministers’ efforts to put “wellies before slippers” by targeting support towards active farmers and away from wealthy owners of unfarmed land, and extend extra assistance to new entrants to farming and to island beef farmers.

The plans were announced to MSPs in a statement by Rural Affairs minister Richard Lochhead on Wednesday.

Jean said:

“Richard Lochhead has shown a real ‘wellies before slippers’ attitude, putting working farmers first and tackling the exploitation of subsidies by wealthy absentee landlords.

“The decision to cap payments at £400,000 puts an end to million-pound payouts to the very wealthiest landowners, making more available for smaller farms with bigger needs.

“The ‘Scottish Clause’, which cuts off direct payments for land with no farming activity on it, means we will no longer subsidise the ‘slipper farmers’ who claim grants for simply owning vacant land. And shooting estates which do not genuinely farm the land will no longer be able to claim funds intended for farmers. These welcome moves support working farmers and create jobs by incentivising bringing unused land back into production.

“I welcome particularly the extra help available to new entrants, the future of farming. They can now look forward to finally getting equal treatment from 2019, and in the meantime will get additional funds from the national reserve, and start-up grants of up to €70,000.

“The centralisation of slaughterhouses and associated transport costs mean that island beef farmers have been squeezed hard. I’m delighted that Mr Lochhead has not only won the fight with Whitehall to keep production-linked support across Scottish beef farming, but added a €65 per calf to-up for the islands.

“We heard only yesterday that Scotland is falling short in our ambitious efforts to tackle climate change, so I’m pleased to see mandatory fertiliser planning for grasslands, which can reduce carbon emissions, improve water quality and increase profitability.

“All in all, these policies are a remarkable achievement given the funding cuts imposed by both the EU and UK, and the balancing act of serving the fantastically diverse but often vulnerable Scottish farming community.”

Read Richard Lochhead’s full statement on the plans here.

Jean’s call to save geology in schools

A geology student uses a compass-clinometer on a geology field trip.

A geology student uses a compass-clinometer on a geology field trip.
Photo: www.flickr.com/photos/benbowenphotos.

Calling Scotland “the birthplace of geology” and praising the work of Scotland’s two UNESCO Geoparks in Shetland and the Northwest Highlands, Jean has joined calls to save the Higher qualification in geology, due to be axed by the Scottish Qualifications Authority in 2015.

Jean added her signature to a letter by Willie Rennie MSP to Education Secretary Michael Russell, urging him to delay the scrapping of Higher Geology.

Although an ‘Earth Science’ Higher is planned to eventually replace it, jean raised concerns of a gap in tuition of the subject if Geology is axed now.

Jean said:

“Scotland is the home of geology, the place where James Hutton invented the science and proved the earth is ever-changing. Geology is vital to our future too, from developing our energy economy to dealing with the consequences of climate change.

“In Scotland perhaps more than anywhere, geology is a vital part of so many careers in so many industries. But as the next generation grows up in an age of environmental challenges, they also need to be informed citizens, who understand how our planet functions and are able to take the big decisions to secure our future.

“We should be encouraging many more pupils to choose geology, not taking it out of schools altogether while the new qualification is developed. Axing Higher Geology now is premature at best.”

Jean highlighted Government support for the Geoparks as examples of success in developing the educational and recreational potential of our internationally important geology, saying:

“Our Geoparks honour two of the world’s most scientifically important and visually stunning landscapes, and do brilliant work developing their educational and tourist potential.

“Shetland’s complicated fault lines mean that you can see rock types otherwise found scattered across the North of Scotland, side by side. Geologically, Shetland is the Highlands in miniature and a visit to the Geopark is a whirlwind tour of billions of years of Scotland’s history.

“The North-West Highlands are home to the oldest rocks in Britain. At 3 Billion years old, some are well over half the age of the planet. The Moine Thrust that runs right through the NW Highlands Geopark was instrumental in proving that the continents are moving – a debate that wasn’t settled until the 1960s.

“The Scottish Government’s recent support of £280,000 over two years secured their status as full UNESCO Geoparks, and recognised the importance of geology to Scotland. I hope we can recognise that in our schools too.”

The full letter is below:

Dear Mr Russell

We are writing to you regarding the Scottish Qualification Authority’s (SQA) decision to remove higher geology from the qualifications that are available to Scottish school pupils. The current higher qualification in geology is due to be scrapped in 2015, leaving a huge void in the teaching of geology in Scottish secondary schools. A focus group of school teachers, academics and industry representatives (Earth Science Education Scotland), coordinated by the Royal Scottish Geographical Society (RSGS), have proposed the development of a new higher in earth science which would cover the wide range of topics that modern earth sciences currently spans, and that would typically be offered in Year 6. As outlined below, there is a demonstrated demand for earth science teaching by schools, universities and industry. We urge you to promote the development of a new earth science higher qualification, and to extend the life of higher geology until the new higher course is prepared.

We are aware that SQA and your office believe that the number of pupils studying higher geology is not large enough to support running higher geology because the numbers have declined over the years. We argue this is almost entirely due to the fact that no teachers have been trained in support of the subject since 1985, and that schools have never been encouraged to rank geology as an important subject. The Earth Science Education Scotland (ESES) focus group know of many schools where demand is high and teachers wish to offer higher geology, but the head teachers have not permitted it to run. However, ESES also knows that there is a huge demand and interest in a new earth science qualification that is on par with other science subjects and encompasses the broad range of topics that earth science now spans. A recent survey of more than 130 teachers, carried out by the University of St Andrews, found that 80% would consider offering this new qualification given the opportunity and appropriate support. According to a recent article in the TESS (April 18, 2014), SQA may have begun to recognise this, as Dr Gill Stewart, SQA Director of Qualifications Development, is currently looking to determine the demand for an earth science qualification.

Support for a new higher also comes from industry, with organisations such as Oil & Gas UK recommending the introduction of this qualification, which they believe would help to address the serious and well documented skills shortage. Investment in the UK oil and gas industry is at an all-time high, with up to 24 billion barrels of oil and gas yet to be recovered. This has the potential to provide energy security to the UK for decades to come and jobs for young people in Scotland. As such, the discipline of geology is absolutely vital in aiding the industry to unlock the potential of the resource, while also aiding industry to maintain its position as the largest industrial investor in the UK and a globally recognised centre of engineering and manufacturing excellence.

The level of interest in earth sciences is also demonstrated through the work of the Earth Science Education Unit (ESEU) and initiatives such as GeoBus, partially funded by industry, which provides support to teachers who want to cover geology content but have no resources or background to teach the subject confidently.

The level of interest and demand for more earth sciences in the curriculum can be demonstrated with over 24,000 pupils in 160 different Scottish secondary schools have been involved in earth science workshops with GeoBus since 2012 alone.

We are aware that SQA believes that geology and earth science content is being moved into other science subjects within Curriculum for Excellence. This, however, is not the case. ESES has found that geology content within the new geography curriculum is being diminished and the earth science content in the new curricula for Biology, Physics and Chemistry also shows a distinct lack of breadth and depth. A limited number of themes taught across a range of subjects will result in slight exposure to earth sciences, but the connectivity of topics across the different subject areas will be lost. Importantly, the new science curriculum will not equip students to understand the behaviour of the solid earth, natural resources and exploration, energy challenges, the hydrocarbon industry and geological climate change.

We see an earth science qualification as a unique opportunity to consolidate on the learning achieved within the pure science subjects by studying a more applied science subject that underpins the economy and tackles some of the most difficult questions of our time: present and future energy challenges, new sources of natural resources, and climate change. In this context, we want to develop informed citizens who have at least a basic understanding of how the planet functions and where resources come from. By offering higher earth science in the final year of secondary school, pupils have an opportunity to additionally develop skills training (including outdoor fieldwork), research experience, some independent learning and careers awareness prior to leaving school.

A common response of SQA is that higher geology is not required for entry to a university degree course. This is true, because there are hardly any schools offering the subject in Scotland and so this would unfairly disadvantage pupils. As stated above, getting pupils to take the subject at university isn’t the sole aim of a higher in earth science. It is worth noting, however, that in 2010, 45% of all entrants into earth science degree subjects in England and Wales held an A level or higher in geology. Clearly, offering the qualification at secondary school influences how many pupils will consider it as a degree course at university. In addition, while 33% of the pupils sitting A level geology in 2013 are female, about 50% of the student cohort in earth science courses at university are female; it is a route into science for women.

We call on you as Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning to do everything in your power to delay the removal of higher geology until a new earth science qualification can be established. With the support of teachers, academic institutions and the energy industry, the demand for this new qualification cannot go unnoticed, nor should the future students of geology be held back due to short sightedness on the part of the SQA.

Celebrating the Scottish Spud

Potato Council

I was pleased to have the chance to attend a lunch in Parliament to mark 10 years of the Grow Your Own Potatoes (GYOP) scheme. I’ve visited schools in the Highlands and Islands who have participated in the scheme, and it’s clear that it has encouraged a curiosity and interest in the pupils about where their food comes from. Here’s hoping that more schools- and more adults!- are able to grow their own produce in the future.