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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, March 9, 2023

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Care-experienced and Adopted Children, Portfolio Question Time, Misogyny (Criminal Law Reform), Motion without Notice, Decision Time


Portfolio Question Time

Net Zero, Energy and Transport

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Annabelle Ewing)

The next item of business is portfolio questions on net zero, energy and transport. Members who wish to ask a supplementary question should press their request-to-speak buttons during the relevant question, or type RTS in the chat function.

Emissions (Nuclear Power Stations)

To ask the Scottish Government what assessment it has made of the potential impact of the retirement of Hunterston B and Torness on Scotland’s CO2 emissions. (S6O-01980)

The Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero, Energy and Transport (Michael Matheson)

Modelling that has been undertaken as part of the analysis underpinning the climate change plan, the energy strategy and the just transition plan does not show any significant impact of the closure of the Hunterston B or Torness nuclear power stations on Scotland’s CO2 emissions. Under that modelling, the reduction in electricity generation from nuclear power plants in Scotland has been, and will be, compensated for by the vast expansion of low cost renewables and flexible technologies such as storage, not by fossil fuel plants.

Martin Whitfield

The cabinet secretary will be aware that Sweden, which, like Scotland, has deployed both wind and hydropower, has now reversed its nuclear phase-out policy and is planning to build new nuclear power stations as part of its robust low-carbon energy mix. Sweden’s power is 40 times cleaner and its electricity sector has the lowest carbon emissions of any European Union country.

I press the cabinet secretary to use his influence on whoever should lead the next Administration to drop the opposition to nuclear power and build on our current base-load. I remind the chamber that 30 per cent of Scotland’s power was generated by nuclear energy in 2021, rather than 97 per cent from renewables, as has been claimed in the past. Should Scotland not follow the Swedish model for cleaner, reliable and cheaper energy? Alternatively, if the cabinet secretary is not minded to influence the next First Minister and their Government, how are we going to do that?

Michael Matheson

Our position on traditional fission nuclear power has not changed since we set out the energy strategy, which is out for consultation at the moment. We have set out very clearly how we will meet our energy needs between now and 2045. We will do that by ramping up our renewable energy alongside the use of new technologies, such as carbon capture and other sources of storage, which are all starting to develop and progress in Scotland. That will provide us with the capacity that we will require for our energy needs going forward.

I cannot comment on the position that Sweden has taken on these matters, but perhaps the member wants to look at what is happening here and now in Scotland. For example, at the moment, more than 60 per cent of our electricity comes from renewable sources. There are times when that number is significantly higher. We want to build on that good progress and make sure that we get the economic benefits that go along with it.

Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

This week, Lord Deben of the Climate Change Committee said that he welcomed the United Kingdom Government’s recent commitment to nuclear and its role in helping us to achieve net zero. However, as we have just heard, the Scottish Government sets its face against that technology and refuses to acknowledge its part in decarbonising Scotland’s future. What gives the cabinet secretary such confidence that he and his threadbare energy strategy are right, and that the Climate Change Committee is wrong?

Michael Matheson

A considerable amount of research and evidence underpins our energy strategy, which I am sure that the member will recognise. The research demonstrates that, in Scotland, we are blessed with having significant natural resources, particularly renewable resources, which will meet our energy needs going forward. However, the member and his colleagues are great advocates of the suggestion that we should deliver nuclear in future through small modular reactors, which they think will be a lifesaving change that will provide us with base-load in future. The reality is that SMRs do not even have technological approval, and are many years away from getting it. The possibility that they could generate any electricity in this decade is highly unlikely. The Tories have wedded themselves to a technology that has not even been approved for use as yet and is not likely to deliver any energy this decade. That is why we need to move on with the technologies that are on the market and will meet our climate change needs and deliver the base-load capacity that we require in future.

Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

Nuclear power is costly and leaves a long and toxic legacy for future generations. Given that nuclear generation costs twice the price of offshore wind, does the cabinet secretary agree that it not only makes environmental sense to focus our investment on truly renewable energy options but makes economic sense?

Michael Matheson

Members should recognise that traditional nuclear generation causes serious waste and environmental concerns. The associated costs must be built into the price that consumers pay back over many decades and, in some cases, over hundreds of years. That is why nuclear power is very poor value for consumers.

Figures from the contracts for difference scheme show that electricity generated by the Hinkley Point C nuclear reactor costs £92.50 per megawatt hour, whereas electricity generated by the latest offshore wind sites is priced at a significantly lower £39.65 per megawatt hour.

The problem with greater reliance on nuclear energy is that it pushes up prices for customers and makes electricity more expensive. If you look at what is being invested here in the UK, that is exactly what it will do. Not only will it create environmental and waste legacy problems, which consumers will have to pay for; advocates of it are actually advocating higher prices for consumers going forward, because it is a much more expensive form of electricity to produce.

Transport (Community Engagement)

To ask the Scottish Government how it engages with local communities to ensure that their transport needs are met. (S6O-01981)

The Minister for Transport (Jenny Gilruth)

The Scottish Government engages with communities on a variety of transport matters. I co-chair the national transport strategy delivery board with Councillor Gail Macgregor of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, which also co-produced our route map for a reduction in car kilometres.

The second strategic transport projects review received 14,000 ideas from stakeholders across the country and those were refined into the final 45 recommendations.

In December, the draft long-term plan for vessels and ports was published and shared with stakeholders. That plan will go to public consultation in the coming months.

Jamie Halcro Johnston

The minister will be aware of the announcement that the already restricted service at the Corran Narrows crossing will have further restrictions placed upon it. That service is being covered by a 47-year-old reserve vessel because of delays to the refit of a 23-year-old vessel. Even before those latest issues, that route was at breaking point. As well as the impact on local residents and visitors, any new restrictions would mean significant additional costs for the many businesses operating locally. That is a crisis.

Will the minister say what discussions she has had with Highland Council about those latest restrictions and what support the Scottish Government has been able to offer? Given the wider issues facing local ferry services in my region, will the minister also say when she was first made aware that the reopening of Uig harbour would be delayed, whether she was required to sign off on that decision and, if so, when she did?

Jenny Gilruth

The member knows that I have engaged with Highland Council on that matter, as I have with him. I have also undertaken to visit and meet with local elected members to see the ferry for myself. We have, of course, engaged with Highland Council throughout. Later this week, my officials will provide me with further advice about the on-going discussions.

The member asked about Uig. I was informed of that development on Wednesday of this week. I was not required to sign off on that as minister because some of the delays relate to weather impacts. The member is well-versed on the situation at Uig. I believe that the mitigation that we were able to provide for the local community was a better solution than that which was originally planned. I am committed to working with the member and with Highland Council to find suitable mitigations for the wider challenges that he cited today, which are caused by the age of the vessel

Alasdair Allan (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP)

Transport agencies such as Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd and companies such as Loganair have a key role in ensuring that the voices of local communities are heard. Does the minister agree that both organisations must listen more attentively to island communities than they have in recent days, when many lifeline air services have been cancelled for weeks on end?

Jenny Gilruth

I broadly agree. As we heard here earlier this week Government ministers are focusing on addressing the underlying issue, which is the HIAL pay dispute. I know how concerning the suspension of services is for the communities that are impacted and I recognise the importance of those routes.

I met staff from Loganair this morning and asked them to restore services earlier than 1 May, should a settlement to the HIAL situation be reached. This week, ministers approved a new proposal from HIAL and it is now for the HIAL board to negotiate a settlement with unions as timeously as possible.

Beatrice Wishart (Shetland Islands) (LD)

The minister will be aware that I wrote to her earlier this week about Loganair’s announcement that it intends to reduce services between Inverness and island airports. For people in Shetland, the ability to get to the mainland is further reduced, because one of Serco NorthLink’s vessels is currently on its annual refit in dry dock. What assessment has the minister made of the reduction of services and of islanders’ transport needs in that situation?

Jenny Gilruth

I have been assured that islanders’ needs will be met by the current provision, but I am yet to have sight of Ms Wishart’s correspondence, so I am more than happy to speak to her directly on that matter, because I recognise the very real impact for the community that she serves.

Question 3 was not lodged.

M8 (Repair Works)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the continued repair works to the M8 motorway in Glasgow, including on their financial implications. (S6O-01983)

The Minister for Transport (Jenny Gilruth)

The M8 Woodside viaducts are a vital element of the motorway that serves Glasgow and Scotland. Their repairs are extremely complex and are being delivered on an operational motorway that is used by approximately 150,000 vehicles daily. Works to install props at 23 separate locations are programmed for completion in late 2024, when lane restrictions on the M8 can be removed. Temporary works are well under way, and the final design, cost and programme for the permanent repairs will be informed by a trial repair that is being undertaken this summer. Officials and the contractor are exploring options to reduce timescales.

Paul Sweeney

It is well over a year since the works on the Woodside viaducts began, but there has been absolutely no consultation with Glaswegians and, by the time of completion, the cost looks set to surpass the £100 million mark—the biggest infrastructure spend in Glasgow this year. Those temporary repair works might be necessary in the short term but, given our commitment to reducing climate emissions and promoting active and public transport options, will the minister commit today to ensuring that, before any new permanent works are commissioned, the Government will undertake a full public consultation exercise that examines the viability of that viaduct and looks at alternative options and international examples of how it might be replaced in the longer term?

Jenny Gilruth

I have been out to visit and learn a bit more about the really complicated works that are on-going on the M8. I remind Paul Sweeney that the decision to restrict traffic lanes at that time was taken for safety reasons, because reducing the live traffic loading on the structure was a key aspect of that management.

In response to Paul Sweeney’s suggestion around alternatives, demolishing the structure was ruled out, due to some of the impacts that that would have had on local businesses. The member spoke about a lack of consultation. That has not been my experience of the works thus far but, if the member would like to share more detail on that with me, I would be more than happy to take it up with Transport Scotland.

The project costs remain under continuous review. The overall repair estimate is not yet available, because the design is not yet complete. That will be informed by the repair trial in the summer of 2023.

John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)

I fully agree that we should be reducing car miles, and we need a just transition in due course, but the M8 is essential to my constituents and many others, not just in the west of Scotland but beyond. It is important for business, tourism and residents. Can the minister assure us that she is fully committed to the M8?

Jenny Gilruth

I agree with the sentiment of the member’s question. Keeping the M8 in Glasgow operational is vital to ensure that communities, such as those in Mr Mason’s constituency, can continue to operate. Particularly in the current financial climate, that is quite important.

The Government remains absolutely committed to working with the council, and I met Glasgow City Council earlier today to discuss bringing about those more positive environmental changes for the city. More broadly, in line with our policy to reduce vehicle kilometres travelled by 20 per cent by 2030, the council has funding awards of more than £43 million to deliver a wide range of active travel projects. Those include the connecting Woodside project, which has seen a 300 per cent increase in cycling, and the Yorkhill and Kelvingrove cycling village. The Glasgow bus partnership has been awarded £3.6 million from our bus partnership fund to implement and investigate bus priority in the city region. I know that the local authority is really keen to take some of that work forward at pace.

Local Bus Services

To ask the Scottish Government how it is supporting local authorities to invest in local bus services. (S6O-01984)

The Minister for Transport (Jenny Gilruth)

New Transport (Scotland) Act 2019 powers, which were brought in in June last year, provide local authorities with the powers to run their own bus services. Further legislation on partnerships and franchising is expected by the end of this year to provide further delivery options for local bus services.

In 2022-23, the Scottish Government allocated £410 million to support bus services and concessionary travel across Scotland. The bus partnership and the community bus funds are designed to complement those new powers and support councils’ investment.

Alex Rowley

I have no doubt that the Government recognises the importance of bus services, having made the welcome move to give under-22s free bus travel. However, I am struggling to find a national strategy to get more people on to buses. Specifically, I suggest that the cost is a barrier for low-income families. Bus fares are capped at £2 a journey in England and, in Greater Manchester, the mayor has achieved significant investment that means that fares are capped and bus usage has increased by 10 per cent over the past few months. What is the plan for Scotland? What is the Government going to do to make bus travel more affordable for low-income families?

Jenny Gilruth

In response to the member’s point more broadly, I note that we have discussed the issue in previous portfolio question times, and I am sympathetic to the member’s point, particularly in relation to affordability. That is why I reconvened the bus task force last year, and we are working with the sector to improve affordability, because we know that bus is the most affordable form of public transport.

When we compare Scotland with other parts of the United Kingdom, it is important to remember that Scotland’s provision of support to the bus sector differs markedly from that in other parts of the UK. For example, we have the most generous concessionary travel scheme in the UK. We invest more than £300 million annually to provide free bus travel to more than 2 million people in Scotland—that does not exist in any other part of the UK in the same way.

We also provided more than £223 million of emergency funding to support the bus sector throughout the pandemic, and, more broadly, we have been able to provide additionality with our funding for bus partnership work.

The member’s point about affordability is fair, which is why I am keen to take it forward with the bus task force and with the bus operators that deliver services on the ground.

We have a supplementary question from Kaukab Stewart, who is joining us online.

Kaukab Stewart (Glasgow Kelvin) (SNP)

I met the chief executive of Strathclyde Partnership for Transport last week in my constituency of Glasgow Kelvin. One of the primary concerns is the chronic shortage of bus drivers, which is affecting bus operators the length and breadth of the country. Will the minister outline what support the Government is providing regarding recruitment and retention of bus drivers to alleviate some of the pressures that are being experienced by bus services?

Jenny Gilruth

When I met SPT two weeks ago, it raised similar challenges with me. As the member will be aware, there is a current shortage of drivers for buses, which is being exacerbated by Brexit, which is preventing people from coming to Scotland from the European Union to work freely. We have repeatedly sought a formal role in determining what occupations are in the shortage occupation list for devolved nations. Unfortunately, that has not yet materialised from the UK Government, so bus drivers are not included in the shortage occupation list. I understand that the UK Government will be reviewing that, and we have asked for full involvement in the process.

As I mentioned in my response to Mr Rowley, we are also working with operators and partners across the public sector to promote the bus sector as a place to work, while recognising that many of the levers remain reserved to the UK Government for the current time.

Neil Bibby (West Scotland) (Lab)

Bus services are on the brink of collapse across Scotland. McGill’s is planning 13 per cent cuts to services in Renfrewshire and Inverclyde alone. The Government needs to intervene to protect services and cap fares now, but there can be no more blank cheques for private operators. There need to be conditions attached to provide the commercial information necessary to take local buses back under public control. We cannot go on like this and we cannot afford to wait for action.

Labour believes that the Government should provide franchising powers and guidance and devolve resources to local transport authorities to make that happen urgently. What will the minister do now to bring local buses under local control?

Jenny Gilruth

I understand the sentiment of the member’s question. Currently, there is a challenge to Government in relation to the way in which we fund the bus sector and how that can be sustainable in the future, given that most operators in Scotland are privately owned. I think that there is a need for greater conditionality, although there is a level of conditionality attached to network support grant funding in relation to the capping of fares at a certain level.

The Transport (Scotland) Act 2019 gives operators a number of powers, including for bus franchising. There will be secondary legislation coming forward on that later this year. I think that there are great opportunities to work with our operators to that end, and I continue to work with our operators directly through the bus task force.

Deafblind People (Free Rail Travel for Companions)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on what plans it has to introduce free rail travel for companions of deafblind people. (S6O-01985)

The Minister for Transport (Jenny Gilruth)

I confirmed to Parliament last December that the current fares arrangements for companions accompanying visually impaired national entitlement card +1 cardholders on rail journeys would be reviewed as part of the Scottish Government’s on-going fair fares review, which is being undertaken to ensure that we have a sustainable and integrated approach to public transport fares that supports the long-term viability of our public transport system. That review will be published later this year, with the launch of a public consultation on a draft vision for public transport, which will give people the opportunity to shape the future of public transport in Scotland.

Rona Mackay

Deafblind Scotland’s headquarters are in my constituency, and free rail travel for companions is the most concerning issue that it raised with me. The cost for blind or partially sighted people to travel by train is prohibitive because their essential companion has to pay. I understand that it is free on some routes, but at present there is no national standard fare structure for communicators. Does the minister agree that ending geographical inequalities would benefit users and rail staff?

Jenny Gilruth

Yes, I accept the premise of Ms Mackay’s question. As alluded to in my original answer, I responded to a members’ business debate on this topic last year, which I think was led by Graham Simpson. I accept the points that the member makes. The varying levels of discounted rail travel that councils provide in the existing scheme can lead to a level of confusion for passengers and staff alike. That is why I have asked my officials in Transport Scotland to consider the details of all that as part of our fair fares review, which we will on report later this year.

Free Bus Travel (Young People)

7. Sarah Boyack (Lothian) (Lab)

I apologise for being slightly late to the start of the session.

To ask the Scottish Government whether it has plans to extend free bus travel to everyone under the age of 26. (S6O-01986)

The Minister for Transport (Jenny Gilruth)

The Scottish Government’s concessionary bus travel schemes are the most generous in the United Kingdom, with more than 2 million people across Scotland now eligible for free bus travel. The “Under 26 Concessionary Fares Review”, which was published in September 2022, considered options to extend concessionary travel for those aged under 26. It recognised that extending concessionary travel in this way would have obvious implications for affordability. The Scottish Government has no plans currently to extend the concessionary travel scheme further to people under 26.

Sarah Boyack

Many students are now facing the cost of living crisis but do not qualify for the under-22 bus pass. I have met some of them who are struggling to cope financially, as getting to college or university, and part-time work too, can mean that they are paying in the region of £40 to £50 a week as a minimum just for bus travel.

Will the minister commit to considering the issue further? Will she talk to the National Union of Students Scotland to understand the barriers that many students face? It is not just about paying out now; it is about an investment in the future and in getting young people to commit to being on public transport for the future. That can only be good for our bus services and our climate.

Jenny Gilruth

I am sympathetic to the point that the member raises. I think that she has asked me a number of written parliamentary questions on it in addition. More broadly, I am more than happy to meet NUS on the matter.

As I outlined in my response to Mr Rowley, we provide significant levels of funding and support to our bus operators in Scotland, which are largely privately owned. It is important that the member reflects on that point, given that this is public money.

However, it is also worth saying that every college and university has a discretionary fund that is intended to give assistance to students who experience financial difficulties. I encourage the member to engage directly with colleges and universities, and perhaps Universities Scotland. Ultimately, each institution is responsible for deciding which students should receive payments from that fund, but there might be an opportunity via that route.

I am more than happy to meet the member or NUS on the issue, but I would just highlight the considerable amount of support that the Government already provides to the bus sector. For example, we invest £300 million annually to give free bus travel to more than 2 million people.

Jim Fairlie (Perthshire South and Kinross-shire) (SNP)

It appears that the Labour Party has been out of power for so long that it has forgotten that really good ideas such as the one that Sarah Boyack just raised need to be paid for. Does the minister agree with me that, if the Labour Party wants to see progressive entitlements extended to more people, it has to get behind the position that this Parliament should have all the powers of independence so that it can deliver those good ideas.

Jenny Gilruth

I very much agree with the sentiment of Mr Fairlie’s question. As I have mentioned in responses to other members this afternoon, our concessionary travel schemes are making bus travel more affordable and are helping people to access education, leisure and work. We are enabling children and young people to travel sustainably early in their lives while cutting transport emissions. I would think that every party in Parliament would welcome that.

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

I am very concerned about young people being able to access free bus travel in rural areas. Bus operators such as Moffat & Williamson are making decisions about whether to buy new buses, and they are concerned that electric buses will not be able to service rural communities. If they buy a diesel bus, can they be guaranteed that they will be able to use it for the full lifetime of the bus?

Jenny Gilruth

In speaking about rural operators, Mr Rennie cites Moffat & Williamson, which was one of the operators that I used when I was at school in Fife many moons ago.

This issue was a challenge in relation to some of the funding from our Scottish zero emission bus challenge fund—ScotZEB—at the last funding round. As a result of that, I asked Transport Scotland to adapt the scheme to make it more suitable for smaller rural operators. Last summer, I announced an additional £500,000 for the zero emission bus market transition scheme to help smaller operators such as Moffat & Williamson to access some of our decarbonisation funding. If Moffat & Williamson has not been able to access that, I am more than happy to speak to the member directly and to provide what assistance my officials in Transport Scotland or I as transport minister can.

Energy Strategy and Just Transition Plan (Oil and Gas)

8. Douglas Lumsden (North East Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it would remove its presumption against oil and gas from its Draft Energy Strategy and Just Transition Plan in the event that it received significant feedback in favour of such a move. (S6O-01987)

The Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero, Energy and Transport (Michael Matheson)

The draft energy strategy and just transition plan is open to public consultation until 9 May. We welcome views from as broad a spectrum of respondents as possible. We are not pre-empting those responses at this stage.

The draft strategy clearly sets out that the oil and gas available for extraction from the waters off the coast of Scotland is a declining resource. Irrespective of the climate imperative, as the area is an already established mature basin in gradual decline, planning for a just transition to our net zero energy system and securing alternative employment and economic opportunities for workers is essential. Scotland’s energy transformation is therefore urgent and inevitable.

Douglas Lumsden

David Whitehouse, the chief executive of Offshore Energies UK, has warned that Scotland will be £6 billion a year poorer by 2030 if the devolved Government presses ahead with the draft energy strategy, and that the strategy marks an acceleration away from oil and gas production. That will have a devastating impact not just on the north-east economy but on Scotland as a whole, with less money for the national health service, less money for teachers and less money for the most vulnerable in society. Will the cabinet secretary commit to working with the industry to avoid such catastrophic damage to our economy?

Michael Matheson

I discussed this very issue with David Whitehouse earlier this week. The figure that the member refers to is among the figures that we have set out in our assessment of the mature nature of the North Sea oil basin and the need for a just transition. The figures are not unfamiliar to us.

Although we recognise that the North Sea is a mature basin, that it will be or is in decline, and that we will see jobs being lost, the question is one of ramping up the deployment of renewables in order to support the transition into clean green energy. That is exactly what we have set out in our draft energy strategy.

I can assure the member that, in the course of the consultation period and once we receive all the consultation responses—including, I hope, the member’s own response to the consultation, given his apparent stated interest in the issue—we will take an approach that is informed on the basis of evidence in support of it. I have no doubt that the member will wish to set that out in his own submission to the consultation.

That concludes portfolio questions.