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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 03 December 2019

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Scottish Prison Service (Auditor General’s Report), Glenrothes (Living Wage Town Campaign), Veterans and the Armed Forces Community, Decision Time, Point of Order, Purple Light-up Campaign


Topical Question Time

Falkirk Gas Outage

1. Angus MacDonald (Falkirk East) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what assistance it is providing to the multi-agency approach to the major gas outage affecting more than 8,000 households in Falkirk district. (S5T-01907)

The Scottish Government provides a team in each of the Scottish regional resilience partnerships to help to plan and co-ordinate response arrangements to disruptive events. Since Sunday, those resilience officials have been liaising closely with responders including Police Scotland, Falkirk Council, other emergency services and SGN to support what has been an effective multi-agency response. That work will continue until all residents are reconnected.

The Scottish Government resilience team has been actively involved in co-ordinating response activity within the Scottish Government. Resilience officials have been deployed to the Police Scotland-led multi-agency co-ordination centre in Stirling and the Government’s co-ordination facility, SGoRR—the Scottish Government resilience room—has been activated.

The fault has now been repaired and gas is being restored to the network. The process to safely reconnect customers requires engineers to visit all affected properties. That is now well under way, with an estimated 5,000 customers already back on mains supply. SGN engineers, with support from engineers from across the country, are working hard to bring all customers back on supply as quickly as possible.

Progress has moved at pace since I lodged the question yesterday, with swift progress being made on reconnecting the thousands of households affected, which has been heartening. I was pleased to receive a report at midday that more than 5,000 households have now been reconnected. Yesterday afternoon, the cabinet secretary and I visited the control centre to see the resilience room in operation. Every one of the multi-agency partners has to be praised for the swift action that they have taken over the past 50-plus hours: Police Scotland, the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, the national health service, the ambulance service and Falkirk Council’s social services and housing departments—not forgetting the community effort—all deserve praise for the way in which the multi-agency approach has been handled.

There are, however, questions to be asked once every household has been reconnected to their gas supply. SGN has advised me that it is conducting an investigation, but there may be merit in exploring the cause further. Although I have received assurances that the gas governor that failed had been regularly maintained, it may be that a review of maintenance procedures in our nationwide gas network is overdue. Will the cabinet secretary consider requesting a review of the pipeline infrastructure around Scotland with a view to ensuring that such a large gas outage is not repeated?

As Angus MacDonald said, yesterday he and I visited the co-ordination centre in my constituency to meet the staff and officials who have been engaged since Sunday afternoon in the process of rectifying the fault and getting customers back on supply as quickly as possible. I offer my thanks and praise for the significant amount of work that has been undertaken over a very short time by organisations including Falkirk Council, the police, voluntary organisations and a range of other partners to support the effort to assist those customers who were left without gas on Monday night and last night. I also took the opportunity to visit St Francis Xavier’s church hall, where the local parishioners had come together to provide soup and sandwiches and hot drinks for people who required support during a period when they had no access to gas appliances.

As Angus MacDonald said, the fault that SGN has identified was with one of its gas governors. At this stage, SGN has advised us that it is not clear how that fault came about and there is a need for further work to be undertaken to identify exactly its root cause. We expect that, once SGN has completed that process, any lessons that need to be learned from the incident will be brought forward in the form of further works that may be required to improve the resilience of the other gas governors, not just in the Falkirk area but across the whole network. SGN needs to undertake the investigation work to identify how the fault occurred in the first place and then to identify whether further measures are needed to prevent a similar type of incident being repeated at another location across the network.

I am sure that the cabinet secretary will join me in welcoming the confirmation from SGN that compensation of £30 per household will be paid for each complete 24-hour period for which residents have had no gas. In recognition of the severe weather that occurred in the first 24 hours of the incident and the additional electricity that residents have had to use to heat their homes, SGN will provide an additional payment of £30 as a gesture of goodwill. I am sure that that will be welcomed by the majority of my constituents who were affected.

Mr MacDonald is correct that there is a compensation payment for those customers who have had a 24-hour period without gas. That payment should be provided by the gas supplier within a relatively short period. I encourage any of his or my constituents who have been affected by the outage to contact their gas supplier to seek that compensation at an early stage.

I have had discussions with Falkirk Council about people who are on prepayment electricity meters who might find themselves in financial difficulty as a result of the need to use a greater amount of electricity. The council is looking at what arrangements can be put in place to assist those with financial difficulties through the Scottish welfare fund. Any constituents who find themselves in that situation should contact Falkirk Council’s Scottish welfare fund officials, who will provide them with advice and assistance around what they can do to meet any financial challenges that they face as a result of having to make greater use of electricity on a prepaid meter.

Peebles High School (Assistance During Closure)

To ask the Scottish Government what assistance it can give to Scottish Borders Council and the staff and pupils of Peebles high school should it remain closed beyond Christmas, including pupils preparing for their exams. (S5T-01903)

My thoughts are with pupils, staff and parents at Peebles high school, following the fire at the school. I pay tribute to the resilience of everyone who has been involved in dealing with this challenging situation. I also pay tribute to our emergency services for their prompt action in addressing this very serious incident. The Scottish Government remains in close contact with Scottish Borders Council and stands ready to provide any support necessary to minimise disruption to pupils’ learning.

The council has stated that all pre-Christmas prelim exams have been postponed until the new year, to ensure that pupils have an opportunity to fully prepare for those important examinations.

I thank the cabinet secretary for his answer. My thoughts, too, are with the pupils, staff and headteachers at the school, and my gratitude is with the fire and rescue service.

I note the council’s announcement today that it will accommodate 1,300 displaced pupils in Peebles and Galashiels. However, if that does not work out, is it feasible for pupils to be decanted outwith the Borders, such as to Penicuik? I am already exploring that possibility, having written to the chief executives of Scottish Borders Council and Midlothian Council, as Penicuik and Beeslack high schools are both well under capacity. Penicuik is only 13 miles from Peebles and 18 miles from Galashiels.

Of course, there would be financial implications for both councils, so will the cabinet secretary describe what support the Scottish Government could provide to Borders council in the near future, as well as further into the future, should such alternative arrangements with Midlothian be required?

Statutory responsibility for the delivery of education at local level rests with the local authority, which must therefore address the continuous provision of education for young people.

A variety of school accommodation in the area surrounding Peebles—Christine Grahame cited a couple of examples in the Penicuik area—could be utilised if the local authority judged that to be the appropriate course of action. What helps us in this situation is that Midlothian Council and Scottish Borders Council are part of the south east improvement collaborative. The collaboratives were established to encourage co-operation among local authorities in the provision and enhancement of education. Another participant in the south east improvement collaborative is Fife Council, which has had to wrestle with identical issues in relation to Woodmill high school in Dunfermline.

I am sure that there can be discussion across local authority borders to address the issue that Christine Grahame has raised, which is a matter for the local authority to resolve.

In relation to the role of the Scottish Government, I reiterate what I said in my earlier answer. The Government will be very happy to assist Scottish Borders Council in any way that we can to try to minimise any disruption to young people’s learning.

That is very helpful.

I ask the cabinet secretary to focus on the issue of pupils sitting prelim exams, who will be finding the situation extremely stressful. Can the Scottish Government and its officials give any assistance to those pupils in particular, who must be concerned about the effect that the situation might have on their results?

We need to have that issue uppermost in our minds. We do not want such a terrible incident to disrupt the education of young people in any way. Obviously, the school and the local authority can make representations to the Scottish Qualifications Authority about the implications for young people who will be involved in the examination diet in the spring, and the school’s internal prelim exams can be adjusted. The school has done that by delaying the prelims until January to ensure that young people have the opportunity to avoid being affected in any way by the events.

There is a deeper question that affects all pupils and staff at Peebles high school and the community there. There will have been a tremendous shock—if not a trauma—to young people, and that impact has to be addressed in how we engage with, support and assist young people in coming to terms with the damage that has been done to their school.

It is very important to be cognisant of those issues in working to support the young people and staff of Peebles high school.

My thoughts, too, are with the families and children who are affected, the staff and the rescue service that did so much work to put out a huge fire.

Last year, a Scottish Fire and Rescue Service risk analysis of 470 schools in Scotland reported that one in seven of the schools had a high fire risk. Obviously, we have seen a couple of incidents recently. What, if any, actions were taken as a result of that analysis?

There is quite a lot of concern among constituents across the Borders that having to rebuild Peebles high school will have an impact on other planned builds. Can the cabinet secretary reassure our constituents that the school will be rebuilt without any impact on the planned new builds at Eyemouth and Earlston?

All those issues are fundamentally the responsibility of Scottish Borders Council. The local authority carries the statutory responsibility to be assured of the quality of the school estate and to ensure that the estate complies with all relevant guidelines. It is important that the local authority satisfies itself on that obligation.

On the possible rebuilding of Peebles high school, we do not yet know what the situation will be. I suspect that, given the extent of the damage, there will be a significant challenge to address. The Government will, of course, be very happy to engage in discussions with Scottish Borders Council on how we might assist in taking that work forward. Such discussions are constantly under way. Michelle Ballantyne will be familiar with the fact that the Government has opened another programme for investment in the learning estate. The second phase of that programme will be available for consideration in 2020. We will, of course, be happy to have discussions with Scottish Borders Council as it becomes clear what the route forward is for the delivery of education at Peebles high school.

Queensferry Crossing (Vehicle Journeys)

To ask the Scottish Government, in light of the targets set out in the Queensferry crossing public transport strategy, what its response is to reports that, in the last year, over 1 million extra vehicle journeys have been made over the crossing. (S5T-01904)

Like the Forth road bridge, the Queensferry crossing has two running lanes for traffic. As a result of the hard shoulders and wind shielding, it provides a more reliable and resilient crossing. The Scottish Government has invested in the public transport corridor using the Forth road bridge, including park and ride and bus lanes, with journey time savings for buses being realised versus car travel at peak times between Fife and Edinburgh. We are committed to sustainable transport and encouraging greater use of public transport, as highlighted in our draft national transport strategy and this year’s programme for government.

IAM RoadSmart said that those figures are

“indicative of a failure of Scottish Government transport policy to reduce car use”.

Those are its words, not mine.

We are now 10 years on from the publication of the public transport strategy, but only five of the 18 recommendations have been delivered. When can we expect the full review of the strategy to be completed and actions to be delivered? Will commuters be hanging around for another two decades?

The member will recognise that the Government has made progress on a number of areas in the strategy. Those include the provisions that we have made in the city region deal for Edinburgh and Fife, which will see £20 million of additional investment going into transport infrastructure in the west of the city. I also recently announced £70 million to be invested in the reopening of the Levenmouth railway line, which will connect Levenmouth back into the Fife circle and will improve rail connectivity and public transport for a significant number of people who live in Fife. As we have set out in the draft national transport strategy, the Government intends to take forward a range of other measures once the strategy is complete and in place.

I recognise that there is more for us to do, but I assure the member that the Government is committed to introducing a range of measures to reduce car use and improve the provision of public transport.

I would like to focus on the actions that have not been delivered. One action from the strategy that is still outstanding is to give commuters a genuine rail choice through a park-and-ride facility at Rosyth. It has been granted planning permission, it is a strategic priority for Government and it is in the strategic transport projects review, so why has it not yet been funded and built?

As is the case with a range of matters in STPR2, there are competing demands for financial provision to be made. Issues that are not addressed in the STPR1 process will roll over into STPR2 and can be considered within the next STPR planning period. The issue that has been highlighted, which has not been delivered as yet, will be considered as part of STPR2.

Will the cabinet secretary give an update on the measures that are being taken by Transport Scotland to ensure that no motorists are affected by ice falling from the bridge this year?

The member will be aware of an incident in March 2018 in which a combination of unusual weather circumstances resulted in ice forming on some of the cables of the Queensferry crossing. That was unusual for such a structure and formed because of the weather at that particular time. The expert advice that has been provided to Transport Scotland is that a number of measures can be put in place to monitor the situation more closely. That work is currently out to procurement, with a view to having the appropriate measures in place in the near future.

Transport remains Scotland’s most polluting sector, responsible for a third of all greenhouse gas emissions but, last year, car use increased while rail use flatlined and bus passenger numbers continued to plummet. Will the cabinet secretary tell us whether the Scottish Government is working towards an overall target to reduce car usage and, if so, what that target is?

I am sure that the irony is not lost on members that the party that so strongly opposed the workplace parking levy is now demanding that the Government take action on reducing car use on our road network. Neither will the contradiction in Labour’s position on such issues be lost on members, given Mr Smyth’s frequent demands that we build more roads in the south-west of Scotland, which are surely for car use.

I assure Mr Smyth that the Government is progressing a range of measures, including almost £5 billion-worth of investment in rail transport in Scotland in the next control period. Alongside that, we are making the biggest investment in bus prioritisation in the past two decades by committing some £500 million towards that to help to improve bus patronage.

In our draft national transport strategy, we have set out the hierarchy of approaches that we will take in future investment towards achieving our priority, which is to encourage greater use of public transport.

Will the cabinet secretary reiterate some of the major benefits of the Forth road bridge public transport corridor?

One of the benefits that comes from the public transport corridor across the Forth road bridge is that it provides a quicker and much more efficient link between Fife and Edinburgh for buses and taxis. That can be seen from the fact that bus and taxi journey times have been reduced for vehicles crossing from Edinburgh towards Fife and for those crossing in the opposite direction. We need to make greater use of the benefits that come from such reductions. At present, in the region of 500 buses now use the Forth road bridge public transport corridor daily, and we want to build on that to make greater use of public transport across the Forth.

Does the cabinet secretary anticipate that the use of the Queensferry crossing will increase when all the works on it, such as putting lifts up in the pillars, have been completed, and will he say when that will be?

I am surprised that Edward Mountain, as the convener of the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee, is not aware of that, given that we have already set out the snagging works that will be completed and that the contractor expects to complete them by the end of this year, although some of the work is weather related. As I have always said, I will keep the committee up to date on those issues.

Edward Mountain will understand that an evaluation of the performance of any such major infrastructure project is undertaken at year 1, year 3 and year 5. The year 1 evaluation initial work has already started, which will give us an understanding of the progress that has been made, the use of the bridge and how it is performing. That exercise will be repeated at year 3 and year 5, so that we have a good overall view of the bridge’s performance and the benefits that are coming from such a major piece of infrastructure.