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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Scottish National Investment Bank, Budget Process (Written Agreement), Standing Orders (Budget Process), Point of Order, Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) (Amendment) Bill, Decision Time, Dog Attacks


Topical Question Time

ScotRail (Performance Fines)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with ScotRail, in light of the company reportedly receiving record fines for its performance in the last financial year. (S5T-01066)

The Minister for Transport and the Islands (Humza Yousaf)

I spoke to Alex Hynes over the weekend and reiterated that it is simply not good enough. Officials at Transport Scotland discuss performance with ScotRail on an almost daily basis and challenge it on areas that are not performing to an acceptable level. That has resulted in ScotRail providing action plans for several areas of concern and initiating two internal reviews: one on recruitment and resourcing, and one on managing proactive and reactive maintenance and repairs. That approach ensures that the onus to improve substandard assets, facilities, stations and trains rests squarely on the shoulders of the franchisee, as penalties are deducted from the subsidy that it receives and reinvested in driving up quality through other customer-facing improvements.

Despite the volume of penalties that ScotRail has accrued through the service quality incentive regime—SQUIRE—it is worth noting that there have been recent improvements in performance, particularly on train punctuality and the recommendations in the Donovan review.

Mike Rumbles

The minister is aware that ScotRail missed the performance targets in 22 out of 34 areas, including trains arriving on time, trains skipping stops, poor train seating and cleanliness. In the first three months of this year, ScotRail accumulated £1.6 million in financial penalties. Members have discussed the issue at length in Parliament and in committee in the context of the Scottish Government’s rail improvement plan. What has happened to the Government’s rail improvement plan, which the minister told us would drive up performance levels?

Humza Yousaf

I think that Mr Rumbles is confusing a couple of areas. I will provide some clarity in a genuine attempt to be helpful.

Mr Rumbles mentioned the public performance measure and the skipping of stops. Those issues were considered as part of the internal Donovan review, which made 20 recommendations. ScotRail decided to accept every one of those recommendations and, as a result, PPM is on a positive trajectory. For example, last week most of the performance during the morning and evening peaks was in the mid to high 90s—in fact, the best day of 2018 was recorded last week. ScotRail continues to be the best large operator.

We are also seeing the fruits of the recommendation on skipping stops. For example, on Friday not a single train skipped a stop. We are seeing improvements in some areas, but we are not seeing improvements in the areas that SQUIRE measures, so some action plans have been requested. We request action plans when the trajectory has been downward in two consecutive SQUIRE periods. I will keep the member updated on progress. There is still a way to go, but it would be wrong to suggest that there have been no performance improvements when it is clear that there have been some.

Mike Rumbles

No one is suggesting that there have been no improvements, but ScotRail has failed in 22 out of 34 areas. I will give an example—trains arriving on time, the figure for which is 57 per cent, which is lower than anywhere else.

On 30 March, ScotRail announced that it had commissioned an independent rail expert to produce its own improvement plan. Twenty actions were set out that were aimed at improving infrastructure and rolling stock performance, and a commitment was made to suspend stop skipping except as a last resort. Therefore, what confidence can members of the Scottish Parliament and the people we represent have that yet another improvement plan will be successful?

Humza Yousaf

I think that members can have confidence because of what I said in my previous answer. The review took place. Nick Donovan is an expert who is well respected in the rail industry. He conducted a forensic examination of performance and made 20 recommendations. Within weeks, we are already seeing the fruits of that work, which is positive in relation to PPM improvements.

I sound a note of caution on right-time arrivals. To-the-minute train arrival data is not used for a reason. I will give an example. This morning, my train’s arrival at Edinburgh Waverley was delayed by a few minutes. When I asked the conductor why that was, he said that it was because he had had to help a disabled passenger and it took him a bit longer to help with some of the access issues. That is one of the reasons why PPM is used rather than right-time arrivals.

To give members confidence, there are action plans in place and the Donovan review’s 20 recommendations will see a drive to improve performance. However, I am not taking away from what the member said, because it is disappointing and, frankly, not acceptable that the SQUIRE measurements and criteria are not being adhered to. I know that the member has Alex Hynes in front of his parliamentary committee tomorrow and I have no doubt that he will, rightly, ask the questions that the Government is also asking ScotRail.

Recognising that many factors affect ScotRail’s performance, can the minister advise us of what adverse effects derive from Network Rail?

Humza Yousaf

There is a very sensible conversation to be had with the United Kingdom Government about the further devolution of Network Rail. The politics of devolution will undoubtedly rumble on, but there is a space to have a conversation with the UK Government about some areas where there can be greater devolution to this Parliament. The sooner that that can happen, the better for all of us. It will be no surprise to members to hear that I think that Network Rail should be fully devolved and accountable to this Government and this Parliament. However, just one example of its performance is that 54 per cent of delays on the railway are attributable to the infrastructure, which is of course owned by Network Rail. I hope that most members in the chamber can agree that we should have a sensible conversation with the UK Government, particularly when it appoints a new chief executive of Network Rail, about the further devolution of Network Rail to this Parliament.

Colin Smyth (South Scotland) (Lab)

The SQUIRE performance figures show that ScotRail hit 19 targets in 2015-16 for the same quarter for which it hit just 12 in 2017-18. Behind those figures are hard-pressed passengers paying ever-increasing fares for a failure of performance in two thirds of targets, from the state of stations to the cleanliness of the trains that they travel on. Will the transport minister therefore issue a public apology to those passengers? Further, given that Abellio has never met the target for station closed-circuit television and security since it was awarded the ScotRail franchise, when will the transport minister personally intervene to put a stop to the cuts in CCTV staffing being implemented by ScotRail that have led to the current industrial dispute and plummeting performance?

Humza Yousaf

Given that I have just mentioned that last week ScotRail had its best performance day of 2018, that it is the best large operator in the entire UK and that skip-stopping has been reduced to its lowest figures in recent times, it is incredible that the member cannot recognise that and put on the record his thanks to railway workers for the incredible effort and tireless energy they put into building Scotland’s best ever railway. That speaks volumes about how interested he is in making cheap political attacks as opposed to standing up for railway workers who are doing a great job.

To answer Colin Smyth’s question in a bit more detail, I say that I also find it incredible that he never comes to the chamber with any constructive ideas. When it comes to SQUIRE, there are action plans in place. Instead of sniping from the sidelines, he might want to come forward with something constructive and get involved in the effort to build the best railway that Scotland has ever had.

Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

The transport minister wants to have a conversation about the full devolution of Network Rail, but it is not in charge of litter, train cleanliness, seats, food and beverage, help points, ticket machines, toilets, taxi ranks, CCTV or station parking. ScotRail is. Given that ScotRail has failed 75 per cent of those key performance measurements, is the transport minister satisfied with its current performance? If he is not, what is he going to do about it?

Humza Yousaf

I think that I was clear in my answer to Mike Rumbles that no, I am not satisfied. It is not acceptable that there are a number of areas in SQUIRE, which is the toughest audit regime anywhere in the UK when it comes to train and railway performance, where ScotRail is not performing to the levels that I would expect it to. It is sensible to ask what we will do about that. Again, in answer to Mike Rumbles, I pointed out that there are now a number of action plans that I requested for areas of the SQUIRE regime that have fallen below particular levels of the benchmark in two consecutive SQUIRE periods. We therefore have those action plans, but there are also two internal reviews.

When it comes to SQUIRE, about a third of the failings are due to the fact that ScotRail has not recruited enough staff. ScotRail is going through a recruitment process, as the unions—to be fair—have been asking it to do. That process will make a difference, particularly for the staffing of ticket stations, for example. That staffing issue is now being addressed. When Alex Hynes is in front of the parliamentary committee tomorrow, I am sure that the member will take the opportunity to question him further on that.

D F Barnes (Burntisland Fabrications Redundancies)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with D F Barnes since the announcement of redundancies at BiFab on 4 May. (S5T-01069)

The Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Jobs and Fair Work (Keith Brown)

I met representatives of DF Barnes on Wednesday 2 May, at which point I was made aware of the redundancies. I subsequently spoke to Gary Smith of the GMB trade union and Bob MacGregor of Unite the union on Friday 4 May. In addition, Scottish Government officials remain in close contact with the companies concerned, as well as with the relevant trade unions.

Claire Baker

We all welcomed the announcement of the new ownership of BiFab. The news was particularly welcomed in Fife, and I recognise the positive role of the Scottish Government in achieving that. I accept now, as I did then, that securing new contracts is vital to the future of the company and that there will be challenging times ahead, but the workforce and their unions, who fought so strongly for their jobs, as well as the wider Fife economy were all shocked by the announcement of redundancies among core staff on Friday only weeks after hearing such positive news.

As he has outlined, the cabinet secretary has a significant stake in BiFab. However, as he has said, he first found out about the redundancies on 2 May. Does he appreciate the shock that was experienced by the workforce and the trade unions, who were taken by surprise by the announcement on Friday? What can the Scottish Government do to ensure that the unions are fully engaged in decision making?

Keith Brown

I appreciate the shock that was caused. As I have mentioned, I spoke to representatives of both trade unions on Friday, when the redundancies were announced. I appreciate the completely understandable reaction of the trade unions. As for ensuring that the proper communication channels are held open, the Scottish Government has had regular contact with the trade unions right the way through the process and has committed to continuing with that.

The redundancies follow on from the Beatrice Offshore Windfarm Ltd contract, which was at the centre of BiFab’s difficulties. We got involved because of those difficulties. As I have mentioned before to Parliament, there were three times in one week—or certainly in two weeks—when the company was going to go into administration and its gates were going to be closed. We managed to stop that and to reach a point at which the BOWL contract could be delivered.

Claire Baker is absolutely right to say—as I said to Parliament when I spoke about the deal that had been done—that the situation is entirely bound up with winning future work. As well as hearing from the company about the redundancies, we spent much of the meeting on Wednesday talking about how we could best achieve the new contracts—two of them, in particular. That is where the focus of Scottish Government efforts has been. It is also where the focus has been of efforts by the trade unions and by the company. It is simply the case that having work in the future and expanding the workforce will depend on winning the work, and that is where our energies are focused. However, we will, of course, put in place whatever support we can for the employees who are affected by the latest announcement.

Claire Baker

At the announcement of the rescue deal in Methil, the First Minister, the cabinet secretary and representatives of D F Barnes all spoke about employment, growth and continuity. Although I appreciate the cabinet secretary’s comments about the work that is being done to secure new contracts, we face an immediate problem. I believe that there is still an opportunity to bridge the gap at the yard at the moment, keeping what are valued jobs.

Previously in the steel industry, Scottish Enterprise has stepped in to provide training and support for diversifying skills. Is consideration being given to the role of Scottish Enterprise in maintaining employment? Is the Scottish Government exploring any opportunities, particularly in the oil and gas sector, to bring short-term work to the yard and to help to bridge the gap that we are currently facing?

Keith Brown

D F Barnes takes the operational decisions for the company, but we recognise that the Government has a role to play in helping to secure work under the procurement guidelines that apply.

It has been made clear to Scottish Enterprise that it should provide whatever support is possible to the company, potentially including training, which Claire Baker mentions. Scottish Enterprise played a constructive part in the deal that was put together to keep BiFab a going concern, and it will commit to doing whatever it can. That discussion is on-going, and Scottish Enterprise and Skills Development Scotland are being advised to be as helpful as possible, given what has been said.

The company will be seeking work opportunities in various areas as well as in those areas where the Government feels it can be helpful. The company’s background is in oil and gas, and it is actively looking at other contracts.

I mention oil and gas because Claire Baker raised the matter. She is also aware of the two contracts relating to renewables that I referred to. Beyond that, D F Barnes has a number of interests and the ability to do other work. I think that that was mentioned in response to a previous question about fabrication from Lewis Macdonald. The company is exploring all those opportunities, and the Scottish Government will provide whatever support we can to keep employees there for as long as possible or to shorten the time between contracts being finished and new contracts coming on stream.

Jenny Gilruth (Mid Fife and Glenrothes) (SNP)

Does the cabinet secretary agree that, following the challenges that BiFab has faced, there is now a need for a concerted regional effort to bring jobs to and keep skills in Fife and to grow the wider Fife economy, thereby tackling the deep-rooted poverty that is still present in Fife communities?

Keith Brown

There is a big job of work to be done, and my colleague Paul Wheelhouse and I have been actively involved in that on a number of fronts, not all of which we can make public. I understand the need to bring jobs—not just jobs, but good-quality jobs that pay the living wage—to areas such as Fife. We will continue to work on that, and I am happy to have a discussion with Jenny Gilruth, perhaps through Paul Wheelhouse, to update her on the activity that we are undertaking.

I am afraid that there is no more time for questions, as we are short of time. I apologise to Mark Ruskell, Willie Rennie, Jackie Baillie and Dean Lockhart, all of whom wanted to ask questions on that issue.