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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, March 12, 2020

Agenda: Business Motion, General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Scottish Apprenticeship Week , Portfolio Question Time, Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections and Powers) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Covid-19 (Update), Business Motion, Decision Time


Portfolio Question Time

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

Good afternoon, colleagues. Before we begin portfolio question time, I advise the chamber that I have accepted a request under rule 13.2.2 for an urgent ministerial statement to be made this afternoon on the novel coronavirus Covid-19. The statement will be made at around 4.45, so decision time will be moved to 5.15. I should add that the statement will be signed in British Sign Language for our audience.

Covid-19 (Impact on Public Transport)

To ask the Scottish Government what meetings it has held with stakeholders regarding the potential impact on public transport of the coronavirus Covid-19. (S5O-04252)

The Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity (Michael Matheson)

We have well-established links and protocols for these situations and have been sharing guidance and advice from colleagues at Health Protection Scotland with our key stakeholders. Transport Scotland officials are in regular contact with transport operators such as ScotRail, bus operators and CalMac Ferries and with Traffic Scotland. They are also in regular contact with Scottish ports and airports to ensure that they receive consistent guidance and marketing material with the Health Protection Scotland message.

Michelle Ballantyne

The cabinet secretary will be aware that people who live in isolated communities often rely on public transport. Has he had any conversations regarding the provision of replacement drivers to ensure the continuation of those crucial services if we have a shortage of train and bus drivers?

Michael Matheson

The approach that we are taking is based on the clinical and scientific advice that is being provided through the chief medical officer and Health Protection Scotland clinicians. That information is updated regularly for our transport operators.

We have asked operators to consider the contingency planning arrangements that they have in place for dealing with any major incidents, and they are undertaking reviews to ensure that they have appropriate measures in place. We will continue to provide them with the necessary information on the actions that they should be taking as we go forward in what is a very dynamic situation with Covid-19 coronavirus.

I assure the member that we continue to engage with transport operators and that we will provide them with the most up-to-date information as we go forward, to ensure that they are putting in place the appropriate contingency plans that they might require.

Stuart McMillan (Greenock and Inverclyde) (SNP)

The cabinet secretary said that the Government is in touch with the port operators. He will be aware that cruise liners are a growing aspect of marine tourism in Scotland. Can he update us on what information has been issued to the port operators to ensure that when cruise ships come in and tourists come off them, all safety measures can be taken?

Michael Matheson

The Government recognises the importance of the tourism sector—particularly the growing market in cruise liner operators using Scottish ports.

We have an established protocol for when any vessel, including a cruise ship, docks at a port in Scotland. The existing arrangements allow the territorial health board for the area and the local authority, which is responsible for delivering port health matters, to take forward measures effectively, as they see appropriate, for a vessel entering dock or looking to disembark at a Scottish port.

The Scottish port sector has a well-rehearsed procedure for dealing with such issues and health-related matters. I assure the member that information and guidance are provided, via our health boards and local authorities, on how port health matters should be taken forward in relation to coronavirus, so that any incidents can be managed.

Colin Smyth (South Scotland) (Lab)

One of the target areas on which our rail franchise holders often fail to deliver relates to station and train cleanliness. Will the cabinet secretary work with the rail operators so that there is a greater focus on those targets, and on appropriate cleaning in particular, especially on our trains, to ensure that they are delivering what will become, in the weeks ahead, an increasingly important obligation to keep our public transport running?

Michael Matheson

The member will be aware of the specific measures that ScotRail has taken in the past year to improve the cleanliness of trains within the franchise agreement.

We are providing ScotRail with the most up-to-date clinical guidance from Health Protection Scotland, which is managing that information for the Scottish Government, and we expect all operators in the transport sector to act on the guidance that is being provided.

We are having to look at contingency arrangements, given the nature of the incident that we are dealing with. The situation will have an impact on our transport system, which is why we have asked all operators to consider what contingency arrangements they can put in place, and to make sure that they have appropriate continuity plans so that they can try to manage the situation as best they can.

I assure the member that we will continue to keep the Parliament and the public as up to date as possible, should there be any changes to the existing arrangements, to ensure that we can continue to provide as resilient a transport system as possible in what is a very challenging situation.

Gail Ross (Caithness, Sutherland and Ross) (SNP)

On Monday, in response to a question on testing for the coronavirus at airports, the United Kingdom Government’s Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Matt Hancock, stated:

“the evidence from other countries that have tried temperature testing at airports shows that it is not effective and can actually be counterproductive to the effort because it leads to lots of false positives.”—[Official Report, 9 March 2020; Vol 673, c 36.]

Does the Scottish Government’s scientific advice concur with that view, and is the cabinet secretary content with the approach that is being taken by Scotland’s airports?

Michael Matheson

The information that has been provided by the Scottish Government to our airports is consistent with the messaging and information that have been provided to all airports in the UK. Health Protection Scotland has approved the advice that has been issued to Scottish airports. We continue to update that advice, in line with the best scientific advice that we are provided with.

Transport Scotland officials are in regular contact with our airports and are ensuring that that information is appropriately displayed and provided in Scottish airports. Scottish airports are continuing to take forward appropriate measures to deal with anyone whom they might have concerns about, and to provide those people with medical support and advice at the airport.

I assure the member that we are using the most up-to-date scientific advice for our airports. However, given that the situation is fluid and fast moving, the advice is continually reviewed and will be updated as appropriate.

Transport Connectivity (Highlands and Islands)

To ask the Scottish Government what steps it is taking to improve travel connectivity to and within the Highlands and Islands. (S5O-04253)

The Minister for Energy, Connectivity and the Islands (Paul Wheelhouse)

The Scottish Government continues to invest in strategic transport connections to and within the Highlands and Islands. That investment supports communities and business across the region and includes more than £370 million for enhancing key rail routes, commitments to improve bus connections and investing more than £2 billion in lifeline ferry services since 2007.

We are also making good progress on our major road improvement commitments, including the A9, A96 and A82 strategic road connections, and we continue to support air services to Highland and Island airports.

Looking forward, the next strategic transport projects review is considering future investment priorities for the strategic transport network.

Jamie Halcro Johnston

In the budget statement, we heard much about proposals to investigate a free bus travel scheme for under-19s, if possible. Can the minister advise whether he has considered at any stage the impact of the policy on rural and island communities, where bus links are often in short supply? What consideration has been given to including inter-island ferries—which are often used by people in our island communities, even for short journeys—in such a scheme, to allow young people on our islands to be able to travel?

Paul Wheelhouse

The member raises two important areas. First, ensuring that we think about the needs of rural and island is at the heart of my colleague Michael Matheson’s consideration of the development of the national transport strategy and the strategic transport projects review. I appreciate the point that the member has made. I know that bus services in particular directions or on particular routes are often lacking in rural areas. That limits choices for customers in relation to travel to work and travel for leisure. That is in the Government’s mind as we look at how we can support rural authorities.

Secondly, we can look more closely at the internal ferries issue and work more closely with island authorities on trying to integrate transport modes, as we will be doing with the supported ferry networks, to ensure that we are making maximum use of bus and rail connections with our ferries. Similarly, we can work with the island authorities to see how we can make the most of bus connections with internal ferries to support a more integrated transport model overall. I am certainly willing to discuss the issue with Jamie Halcro Johnston.

Queensferry Crossing

To ask the Scottish Government what assessment it has made of the impact of the recent two-day closure of the Queensferry crossing. (S5O-04254)

No assessment has been made of the closure, as its duration was for a short period.

Jeremy Balfour

The two-day closure of the Queensferry crossing had a massive economic impact on Lothian, Fife and the rest of Scotland. Despite warnings, the cabinet secretary previously said that the risk of ice forming was extremely rare, yet now we hear that sensors will be installed on that major transport link in the coming months. Is that acceptable?

Michael Matheson

Jeremy Balfour is somewhat misinformed about the risk of ice forming on the Queensferry crossing. As he would be aware if he had been able to attend the technical briefing that was provided by the bridge engineers, it was identified at the design stage that there was an extremely low risk of ice forming on the bridge, and it was decided that that should be managed on an operational basis, as it is at the present time. However, the incident that occurred last year led to significant investigations into appropriate measures to manage the issue, and the outcome has been progressed and taken forward since October. Jeremy Balfour will be aware of the work that is being undertaken on that.

Although I recognise and very much regret the disruption that was caused by the closure of the bridge, such an incident is not common in cable-stayed bridges. In the United Kingdom overall, there have been incidents down south when bridges have been closed as a result of ice forming, but it is not a common occurrence in our climate. However, we will continue to consider what further measures can be taken to address the risk, and whether there are means by which it can be mitigated.

Since the Queensferry crossing opened, there have been 55 occasions on which the Forth road bridge would have been restricted for high-sided vehicles, yet the Queensferry crossing has had no restrictions in place. I am sure that Jeremy Balfour, as a fair-minded individual, recognises that the Queensferry crossing is delivering a much more resilient crossing than the Forth bridge did during its time. We should welcome that, notwithstanding the unfortunate incident that occurred a few months ago. It is important to remember the context and recognise that the Queensferry crossing is proving to be a more resilient bridge and is ensuring that we continue to have the important link between Edinburgh and Fife.

Rail Halts

To ask the Scottish Government whether it plans to further develop rail halts in areas where there is an identified need. (S5O-04255)

The Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity (Michael Matheson)

Recent Scottish Government investment has delivered a new station at Robroyston, which is acting as an enabler for social and economic growth. Construction is under way for a new station at Kintore, which is on schedule to be completed in May this year. We are also committed to delivering new stations at Reston and East Linton, and the Levenmouth project will deliver new, fully accessible stations in Leven and Cameron Bridge.

Looking ahead, the second strategic transport projects review is currently under way to identify our strategic transport investment priorities, including any new railway stations, for the next 20 years.

Rona Mackay

The Westerhill area of Bishopbriggs, in my constituency, is earmarked for development under the Glasgow city deal programme. A rail halt to service the many surrounding industries and housing developments would be an enormous benefit to the area. Will the cabinet secretary confirm whether part of the £5 million in the budget to expand future rail options could be considered to fund a feasibility study in Westerhill?

Michael Matheson

Future rail interventions, such as a new station at Westerhill, require a positive transport appraisal to be undertaken to take account of the potential impact on the wider rail network. Responsibility for appraisals and progressing any proposals lies with the relevant sponsoring promoter, which could be a developer, one of the regional transport partners or the local authority. Therefore, if there is a view in the community in Rona Mackay’s constituency that a rail halt would be worth considering, it could be taken forward through existing arrangements. I encourage Rona Mackay to engage with that and seek to discuss whether a proposal could be brought forward.

Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

I am delighted that Transport Scotland approved last week the “Case for Change” report for the Newburgh rail halt. Can the minister confirm that the £5 million for rail development already mentioned will include an open application process to allow projects to continue through their development pipeline over the coming year?

Michael Matheson

We have set out £5 million for looking at improving Scotland’s railways and the potential for new stations. We will set out in detail in the coming weeks exactly how that scheme will operate and be taken forward.

Question 5 has been withdrawn.

Decommissioning (Port of Dundee)

To ask the Scottish Government what measures it is taking to ensure that the port of Dundee is properly equipped to handle decommissioning work. (S5O-04257)

The Minister for Energy, Connectivity and the Islands (Paul Wheelhouse)

The Scottish Government supports Dundee’s ambitions as a location for decommissioning, and Dundee is well placed to compete for that work. The Scottish Government has provided support to projects in Dundee through the decommissioning challenge fund, including an investment of over £500,000 in a permanently fixed heavy-lift crane to facilitate the transfer of material to the quayside, generating cost and time efficiencies. The DCF’s fourth round launched in July 2019, and a number of applications were received from Dundee-based organisations. The results from that round will be announced shortly.

Bill Bowman

As the minister will be aware, it was reported in the media recently that the contractor that was cleaning Shell’s Curlew floating production, storage and offloading vessel at the port of Dundee was unable to finish the job. It turns out that parts of the FPSO vessel could not be cleaned without it first being dismantled, but Dundee does not have the necessary facilities, which is disappointing news. Is the minister aware that Dundee does not have such facilities and that therefore Shell had to terminate the decommissioning work in Dundee, with the work now having to be completed elsewhere? Can he give some assurances that that will not happen again?

Paul Wheelhouse

Yes, we are aware of the issue in relation to Dundee. As I explained in my original answer, we are very supportive of Dundee’s ambitions and we have provided funding to successful decommissioning projects at the port of Dundee and in the Tay area more generally. We are committed to ensuring that decommissioning in Scotland is executed in a safe, environmentally sound and cost-effective manner. It is not possible, unfortunately, for the Scottish Government to dictate on business decisions made by companies about how best to utilise their resources.

We are aware of the particular technical reason why the vessel in question is being taken away from Dundee for splitting into compartments and then being cleaned elsewhere. However, the Scottish Government has no say on the day-to-day running of any commercial company such as Port of Dundee Ltd. The port sector in Scotland is market driven and port authorities are responsible for determining what facilities they choose to invest in and what level of infrastructure to install to meet demand from the market. However, I hope that we have shown, in terms of the investment in the cranage at Dundee, that where a good case is made, we have supported it through the DCF. As I said, decisions are yet to be taken on the forthcoming round of the DCF, but I hope that that will not take long.

Safety Improvements (A90)

7. Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what plans it has for more investment in safety improvements for the A90 and whether those will include additional funding to improve the effectiveness of average-speed cameras. (S5O-04258).

The Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity (Michael Matheson)

Transport Scotland is working with road safety partners to investigate a number of locations on the A90 that have been identified through the annual road safety screening process and engagement with local communities and elected members. That builds on programmed road safety plans, which include the grade separation project at Laurencekirk. In addition, throughout 2020-21, this Government will invest £4.65 million in targeted safety camera activity as we strive to deliver Scotland’s road safety vision of a future where no one is killed on the road and the injury rate is much reduced.

Liam Kerr

Perhaps unexpectedly, according to Police Scotland, the number of crashes and resulting deaths have actually increased since the cameras were installed. Anyone familiar with the A90 will know that the main issues are particularly at junctions and crossovers. Other than at Laurencekirk, what new measures, specifically at such junctions, is the Scottish Government proposing to reduce those figures?

Michael Matheson

I provide a note of caution for the member, because the statistics on an issue like this should be looked at over a three-year period and we have not completed that three-year period. Therefore, it would be misguided—and potentially misleading—to jump to that conclusion about the impact of the average-speed cameras. We have only to look at our experience with average-speed cameras on our major trunk road network to see that they have had a significantly positive impact. There is no reason why that should be any different for the A90. Given that, I think that it is appropriate to caution the member against rushing to judgment on those matters.

That said, a range of investigation works are under way, including on the A90, and some actions will potentially be programmed for later this year. In some of the current investigations, consideration is being given to whether the interventions are appropriate; in others, consideration is being given to whether additional assessment is required in order to determine whether more interventions are needed.

This Government has a very strong record of investing in road infrastructure in the north-east of Scotland and of making sure that we continue to drive down the number of deaths and serious accidents that occur on our trunk road network. I assure the member that we will continue to look at what measures are appropriate not only on the A90, but across our trunk road network in order to drive improvement and road safety.

I apologise to Tom Mason, as we do not have enough time to get to question 8 on the Aberdeen western peripheral route. He will have to be content with a written answer to his very good question.