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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, February 1, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 01 February 2018

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, World Cancer Day, Business Motion, Support to Study in Scotland, Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Bill, Point of Order, Decision Time


General Question Time

ScotRail Services (Mid Scotland and Fife)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with ScotRail regarding train punctuality and stop-skipping in the Mid Scotland and Fife region. (S5O-01724)

As I said to Alex Rowley in the chamber last week, I completely understand the frustrations of poor performance for the customer experience, and I recognise that ScotRail has faced a number of issues and challenges across the rail network, particularly in the recent autumn and winter months, and not least in the Mid Scotland and Fife region. I fully expect the performance issues to be addressed immediately. I speak regularly to Alex Hynes and, as I have mentioned in the chamber and as I think Liz Smith is aware, ScotRail has instigated an independent review to look at performance, and stop-skipping will be part of that. My Transport Scotland officials will continue to monitor the situation closely.

At last week’s general question time, I agreed to organise and facilitate a meeting with Fife MSPs, and I believe that Liz Smith has responded positively to that. We are still waiting for diaries to co-ordinate for one or two MSPs, but that meeting will take place. At that meeting, we will be able to hear from ScotRail how it looks to improve its performance and minimise stop-skipping.

I thank the minister for that answer and acknowledge his willingness to discuss the matter. It is very good news that members will be permitted to meet him and Alex Hynes later this month. However, we all await the important answers, not least because of the safety issues, to the questions that were raised on stop-skipping in their regions by Christine Grahame and John Finnie. Can the minister put on the agenda for the forthcoming meeting the alleged congestion on the central Fife lines and the accuracy—or inaccuracy, in some cases—of the notice board information at stations when such problems arise?

Yes, I will be happy to put that on the agenda. To try to reassure Liz Smith, I note that 2018 is a significant year for increasing our capacity on the railways. We are expecting the 385 trains to come from Hitachi, and we know that high-speed trains will be coming. All of that will allow more carriages to be cascaded across the network. The capacity issues in Fife—I know that there are similar issues for the East Kilbride line—are at the top of the agenda when it comes to considering increased capacity. However, I am more than happy for the issues that Liz Smith outlined to be on the agenda for the forthcoming meeting.

The minister seems to have answered my question, so I will give him something else to think about at the forthcoming meeting. As well as the problem of stop-skipping, there is an on-going problem for the East Kilbride line regarding passengers being put off trains at stations before the ones that they are returning to. Can that issue also be placed on the agenda for the forthcoming meeting?

The meeting is specifically on Fife issues, but I will pass on to others the issue that Linda Fabiani has raised. I think that she might have met the new managing director of ScotRail, but if she has not, I will make arrangements for that.

The occurrence of stop-skipping on the East Kilbride line is relatively low, but performance in the autumn and winter has not been what it should have been, and I can see that, for passengers on the East Kilbride line—I am frequently one of them, because I often use that line—that would cause disruption, delay and frustration. Linda Fabiani has rightly been consistent and persistent about rail issues in East Kilbride. I give her the reassurance that I just gave Liz Smith, which is that when the new trains and rolling stock are here, we will be able to cascade them and have increased capacity, specifically on the East Kilbride line.

“Scotland’s Drowning Prevention Strategy”

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the Water Safety Scotland publication Scotland’s Drowning Prevention Strategy. (S5O-01725)

The Scottish Government takes water safety very seriously and whole-heartedly supports the work of Water Safety Scotland and its strategy, which was published yesterday. In implementing the strategy, I hope that we can all work together to promote and ensure the safe enjoyment of Scotland’s diverse landscape. In our ambition to build safer communities, we will continue to work closely with Water Safety Scotland and key partners to explore opportunities to progress initiatives that will help reduce the number of deaths from accidental drowning and raise awareness, particularly among those who are most at risk.

I commend Water Safety Scotland for the development of its positive strategy. I also commend Clare Adamson, who is convener of the excellent cross-party group on accident prevention and safety awareness, for being engaged throughout as that work has progressed.

I thank the minister for her kind words. The strategy says that, each year, 50 accidental drownings happen in Scotland, with a further 29 deaths as a result of suicide. A key commitment in the strategy is that to create a sub-group that will look at reducing water-related suicide. How will that commitment fit in with the Scottish Government’s mental health strategy and its suicide prevention action plan?

I very much welcome the news of the establishment of a sub-group. We afford great priority to reducing water-related suicide, and we note that that commitment is placed high up in the strategy.

We are producing a draft suicide prevention action plan for Scotland. As part of that work, we will engage with Water Safety Scotland on any proposals to reduce the number of suicides by drowning. I am heartened to see the emphasis on that area in the excellent document, “Scotland’s Drowning Prevention Strategy 2018-2026”, which was published yesterday.

Water Safety Scotland’s strategy makes the point that four in 10 accidental water deaths occur, I am sad to say, during recreational activities. I am lucky enough to represent a region that has a number of excellent sites for water-based sports, particularly Loch Lomond and the Clyde. What support will the Scottish Government offer to local clubs or groups that offer recreational or sporting activities in Scotland’s waters in order to improve safety? I am sure that the minister will agree with me that such activities are an excellent way for people to keep fit, relax and enjoy the great outdoors that this country has to offer.

Water safety covers a broad range of policy areas, including sport, which the member mentioned, education, tourism and community safety. Scottish Government officials will bring together policy leads from across the Government of relevance to the key action points that are identified in the strategy to ensure that those can be progressed effectively. I recently met the Minister for Public Health and Sport to discuss how we can collectively take forward this important work.

Schools for the Future (Funding)

3. Colin Smyth (South Scotland) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on what plans it has to provide further funding for the schools for the future programme. (S5O-01726)

In November 2017, I announced the Scottish Government’s intention to build on the success of the schools for the future programme and our plan to publish, as part of the programme for government, a new education investment plan. The plan will set out proposals to improve the condition of existing schools within the lifetime of this session of Parliament and our longer-term ambitions to build more two-to-18 campuses and to establish an estate that is world-leading in energy efficiency. The detailed development of the plan is under way, and I expect to make an announcement on it later this year.

When I asked the same question in September last year, the Deputy First Minister said that he would announce funding details later that year. Will he explain why there has not been the announcement that he promised? Does he accept that a failure to make additional funding available soon would put at risk innovative projects such as phase 2 of the Dumfries learning town project—a project that he knows is not just about new school buildings, but about transforming education in the town and delivering what the Government says are key objectives around the attainment gap and developing the young workforce? Will he agree to meet representatives of Dumfries and Galloway Council and me to discuss phase 2 of the project and how we can ensure that it is delivered as promised to the people of Dumfries?

I am certainly very familiar with the Dumfries learning town project—I had the pleasure of discussing its details with members of Dumfries and Galloway Council and other representatives when I visited Dumfries high school some weeks ago. It was a very positive discussion, and I acknowledged the significance of the project.

It is very important that we recognise the strength of the school building programme that has been undertaken. Since the Government came to office, 751 school building projects have been completed. We now have a situation in which 86 per cent of schools are reported as being in good or satisfactory condition. The figure was 61 per cent when the Government came to office, so there has been a massive transformation in the school estate since then.

As I indicated in my original answer to Mr Smyth, the Government will introduce proposals for the development of the programme, and I will report those to Parliament in due course.

Riverbrae special school in Linwood and the new Barrhead high school, both of which are in my Renfrewshire South constituency, have opened in recent months. Can the cabinet secretary update Parliament on how much money the Scottish Government has invested in the school estate in Renfrewshire and East Renfrewshire since 2007?

There has been substantial investment in both East Renfrewshire and Renfrewshire by the Government. In East Renfrewshire, we have contributed funding of almost £40 million towards the construction of Eastwood high school, Barrhead high school and Crookfur primary school. In the Renfrewshire Council area, we have contributed almost £16 million to the construction of St James primary school, St Fergus primary school and Riverbrae special school.

As I indicated in my earlier answer, we have made substantial progress across the wider school estate, with 751 school building projects completed since the Government came to office.

Fire Safety (Schools)

To ask the Scottish Government whether all schools should be fitted with fire alarms and smoke detectors. (S5O-01727)

The health and safety of all pupils while at school in Scotland is of paramount importance to us. The Education (Scotland) Act 1980 places a statutory responsibility on all local authorities to manage and maintain the school estate and provide a safe school environment for all school users. In August, I wrote to all local authorities to seek reassurance on fire safety across the school estate.

The cabinet secretary will, of course, be aware of the fire at Cairneyhill primary school in Fife. The incident report confirmed that no smoke detectors were fitted in that school. My inquiries have revealed that more than one in four of Fife’s schools do not have smoke detectors and that not every school has an automatic fire alarm. In some cases, handbells are relied on. There are also emerging concerns about whether headteachers are being adequately and consistently trained in fire safety procedures across Scotland. Fife Council insists that it complies with current regulations. Does the cabinet secretary agree that it is time to update the guidance to schools, because relying on staff roaming the corridors with a handbell, shouting, “Fire! Fire!” does not feel like a 21st century response to fire risk?

If Mr Ruskell wants to write to me with the specific details of that example, I will examine them. I agree that that is unhealthy, but I would like to see the specific details of which school he was referring to and the circumstances in which that is the case, which I will investigate.

In August, I wrote to local authorities to seek reassurance on fire safety across the school estate. From the detailed responses that have been received, we have been given reassurance that local authorities have taken all steps necessary to ensure the fire safety of their schools. It is an absolutely essential duty on local authorities to ensure that they are taking those steps. Fife Council gave the Government that reassurance on 26 January.

I want to ensure that all schools are fully compliant with the guidance and advice of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, which is that all schools should comply with the details of the Scottish “Building Standards technical handbook 2017: non-domestic”, and to ensure that those requirements are followed.

We take the issue very seriously. However, the operational responsibility for those questions rests with local authorities, and I expect them to take those issues seriously. If Mr Ruskell wishes to draw to my attention the case that he mentioned, I will investigate it.

Active Travel (Road Projects)

To ask the Scottish Government how it ensures that major road projects promote active travel. (S5O-01728)

In line with the Scottish Government’s vision to promote active travel in “A Long-Term Vision for Active Travel in Scotland 2030”, the “Cycling Action Plan for Scotland” and the trunk road cycling initiative, suitable provision for all road users, including cyclists, is a significant part of our major trunk road projects. Our plan for major trunk road projects affects communities across Scotland, of course, and they include a significant increase in active travel facilities. That is demonstrated by our programme for government commitment for 35km of new cycle track in the A9 dualling programme to connect the A9 with the wider cycle network.

The trunk road cycling initiative, which the minister mentioned, was introduced in 1996 by Lord James Douglas-Hamilton. It was a great innovation, but it has not been updated since then. In 2015, Spokes wrote to the Scottish Government to suggest an update, which the Scottish Government agreed to. It said that the TRCI would be included in CAPS 3 by the end of 2016. That never happened.

We have projects such as the Maybole bypass in Ayrshire being designed without cycle paths. Can the minister say when the TRCI will be updated? Can he ensure that all new trunk roads include cycle use?

I am very active in the discussions on the A77 Maybole bypass. I met the Maybole bypass committee and it raised those concerns too, so we will of course reflect on them.

In relation to our major trunk road projects, we saw 16km of new and improved pedestrian and cycle routes in the M8, M73 and M74 improvement project; I have mentioned the 35km of new cycle track on the A9; and we have a proposed 17km scheme for active travel as part of the A82 Tarbet to Inverarnan project. I could go on and on.

Of course I will look at the specific issue that the member mentions, but clearly this Government, when it comes to active travel, is putting its money where its mouth is. I give a gentle reminder to the member that the doubling of the active travel budget is something that he and his party voted against yesterday.

Does the minister recall that in May last year, I asked whether the proposed improvements to the Edinburgh city bypass Sheriffhall roundabout—known to cyclists as the meat grinder—would make provision for cyclists? I was told that that would be developed in consultation with local interest groups. Who was consulted and what was the outcome?

I had a good meeting and a good conversation with the member about some of the concerns that she and organisations such as Spokes raised. On the back of that conversation and some of those concerns, we are revisiting the matter and having a conversation with stakeholders on our provision for non-motorised users of Sheriffhall, including cyclists, which is currently being developed in further detail. As we progress the detailed design of the scheme in consultation with local interest groups, I will of course keep the member up to date.

Wind Farms (Community Benefit)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it has any plans to ensure that wind farm companies deliver adequate levels of community benefit to provide income streams for local communities. (S5O-01729)

Community benefits from onshore wind projects can make a real difference to communities located near such sites and in many cases can be transformational.

As at 31 January 2018, more than £12 million had been paid out to communities over the preceding 12 months, at an average rate of £5,000 per megawatt, which is in line with our benchmark guidance. Details of known support are published on the community benefit register.

Of course, social housing providers such as Berwickshire Housing Association in the Borders and Fyne Homes in Argyll have developed projects that will invest in new social housing while paying community benefit to communities in line with good practice principles.

We want to ensure that communities continue to benefit from local projects in a manner that is appropriate for the current and future context in which projects are developed, and that is why we have undertaken to review our good practice principles for community benefits during 2018.

I am beginning to hear more and more excuses from wind farm developers who are trying to wriggle out of commitments to community benefits or to reduce their existing community benefits. I am also aware that many wind farm developments do not pay the recommended £5,000 per megawatt threshold that is recommended by the Scottish Government. In effect, that means that some communities are already losing out, potentially on millions of pounds, and others may lose out on millions of pounds in the future.

Will the minister investigate the issue and does he agree that all wind farm developers should ensure that they are delivering community benefits to those communities that host wind farm developments?

I certainly agree that, where developers have made an agreement, they must stick to that agreement. That is very important in terms of maintaining the trust of local communities.

We acknowledge that a number of developers have not yet adopted good practice principles. It is important to recognise that the vast majority are adhering to those principles. Of course, in the context of the review that we are about to undertake, I will happily look into particular examples of where that is not happening in Mr Lochhead’s constituency, because I appreciate that it is a matter of great concern.

We want to make sure that good practice principles are providing a benchmark for the sector. They are based on a voluntary principle, but it is important that they are followed by all developers where possible.

Communities suffering from high deprivation are less likely to receive community benefits. Will the minister consider introducing renewable energy bonds or other measures so that every community can have a better opportunity to benefit from renewables?

Maurice Golden raises an important point. A big thrust of the energy strategy that we published in December is to look at alternatives where they may be appropriate. It may well be a more attractive option for communities that are investing in a wind farm to use a shared revenue model, through which they could get the full economic benefit and the freedom to spend the revenue that comes from that project in the way that they see fit for their community. I am happy to discuss that with Mr Golden if he wishes to contact my office.

In my region and across Scotland there are communities such as Wanlockhead that are shaping their own sustainable low-carbon future, some of which choose not to be benefit dependent. How does the Scottish Government ensure easy access to information and support for community groups that want to take forward empowering energy projects themselves?

I am grateful to Claudia Beamish for raising that important point and I am aware of the interest in Wanlockhead. I direct communities that have an interest in developing a community project to contact local energy Scotland, which can give specific help to those projects through community and renewable energy scheme funding and our energy infrastructure fund. That potentially allows communities to invest in their future and to have less dependency on others in determining their economic outlook.