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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 06 March 2018

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Atrial Fibrillation, Topical Question Time, Climate Change (Emissions Reduction), Higher Education (Widening Access), Local Government Finance (Scotland) Order 2018 [Draft], Land and Buildings Transaction Tax (Relief from Additional Amount) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Land and Buildings Transaction Tax (Relief from Additional Amount) (Scotland) Bill: Financial Resolution, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time, LEADER Programme


Topical Question Time

Severe Weather

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its response to the recent severe weather. (S5T-00962)

Last week’s severe weather, which included the first ever red warning for snow, posed significant challenges across Scotland. The Scottish Government’s dedicated resilience operation, which monitors weather and flood alerts all year round, was activated in advance of the severe weather and continued to meet regularly to ensure that ministers were kept fully updated on any developing issues.

The operation also worked closely with Scotland’s network of resilience partnerships, which brings together emergency services, local authorities, health boards, power companies and others, to ensure that we understood any challenges that were happening on the ground and could offer support and guidance where necessary. That process enabled strong and decisive management of a challenging situation and ensured that practical public safety guidance was issued in advance of each change in the warning level.

The Scottish Government resilience room facility remains active while we monitor the national recovery and any potential impacts of flooding that follow the thaw of the snow.

I commend all the emergency services and other workers who battled with the severe conditions to keep Scotland going over the past week, and I thank everyone who banded together to help out in their local communities.

It is clear that the severe weather disrupted the Scottish economy, with estimates of loss due to the closure of high streets and the inability to transport goods ranging in the hundreds of millions of pounds. We saw, for the second time this year, people in cars stuck on motorways and trains not running.

Will the cabinet secretary be assessing whether improvements to infrastructure to mitigate the effects of extreme winter weather can be undertaken to enable even better responses in the future? What can be learned from other countries that are more familiar with severe weather?

First, I associate the Government with the comments that Mr Lindhurst made about the role of the emergency services and the countless volunteers the length and breadth of the country who have made an extraordinary contribution to supporting individuals during this period of severe weather, but also to bringing about the rapid recovery from that.

On the question of economic disruption, Mr Lindhurst will have seen the varying analyses of economic impact. The Fraser of Allander institute, for example, said yesterday that it did not believe that the economic impact would be as severe as others predicted because, in essence, the resources that individuals did not spend last Wednesday, when they could not get to the shops, they are likely to spend this Wednesday, when they can. I acknowledge that there will be economic disruption; the challenge for the Government is to work with all our partners to minimise it as far as possible.

That brings me to the latter part of Mr Lindhurst’s question. After every severe weather incident, the Government undertakes a review of how it was handled to identify lessons that can be learned. One of the key lessons that was applied in this instance was the giving of very early, timely and specific warnings to avoid travel, which reduced significantly the volume of traffic on our transport network and, as a consequence, resulted in many fewer motorists and other travellers being stranded in our transport networks than would have been had we not given such clear warnings.

Of course we look at what is done in other countries. Part of the debate that we have to have is about the level of resourcing and resilience that we ordinarily should have in place to manage such circumstances. Obviously a lot more could be spent to provide for these events, but we have to be mindful of the fact that we do not face them every single year. There is a balance to be struck. It was clear to me over the course of the past week that we have a resilience capacity that can be moved around the country to assist those parts that are facing more difficult challenges. That is an important part of the collaborative arrangements that the Government has put in place.

The impact on our roads becomes ever clearer as the snow thaws and recedes. We learned recently of the 20 per cent cut that the Scottish National Party has made to pothole funding since 2010, the effects of which have been seen all too clearly in Edinburgh. Given the additional, potentially significant damage to our roads as a result of the recent severe weather, can the Government give a commitment to provide more support for our roads networks and to local authorities for coping with the additional repair burden that has come with this exception to the weather that we are used to?

The Government has increased the resources that we put in place for road maintenance by £45 million in the budget. Obviously, local authorities have to take their own decisions about the level at which they invest in roads. The Conservative council in Perth and Kinross, for example, did not invest as much in road repairs this year as the SNP group proposed in the budget process, which is a matter of great regret to me. That investment decision varies around the country.

As a Government, we have activated the Bellwin formula, which has made available to local authorities the opportunity to put forward claims of extraordinary expenditure that are associated with handling these incidents. Any applications that are made through the Bellwin formula will be considered in due course by the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Constitution, and local authorities will be advised.

Four members wish to ask a question. If we are fairly sharp with questions and answers, everyone will get in.

The Scottish Trades Union Congress has collected stories from across the country of workers who have been treated shockingly during the extreme weather by employers who have told them that they have to turn up for work despite the weather warnings. That put them and their customers in danger. The First Minister and the Minister for Transport and the Islands have made welcome statements on the matter. Will the Deputy First Minister outline what the Scottish Government is going to do to defend workers’ rights during extreme weather conditions?

First, although I accept that some people have been treated badly by their employers, a large number of individuals have been well and appropriately treated by employers who have not asked them to undertake journeys that would put them at risk.

Yesterday, the Government met the STUC as part of our on-going dialogue with it. We agreed to collaborate in developing a fair work charter that focuses on the treatment of workers who are affected by severe weather or other emergencies. We will progress that work as part of our continuing relationship with the STUC. Obviously, we will do so in the context of employment law and employment rights not being devolved functions, but we will do as much as we possibly can within our areas of legislative competence to make sure that workers are properly protected from being asked to undertake journeys or to attend work when it is patently unsafe for them to do so.

I ask the cabinet secretary about the statement that the Minister for Transport and the Islands made about deductions from wages. I contacted the two councils that are in my area. Midlothian Council has paid in full all employees who could not get to work, particularly during the time of the red warning. However, Scottish Borders Council is giving only one day of full pay and, otherwise, it is asking those who could not work at any point to take the time off either their flexitime or their leave to make up for their absence. To me, that is docking wages by another name. I ask whether the cabinet secretary or the transport minister will raise the issue with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.

We will be very happy to pursue discussion of this question with local authorities. As I said in my earlier answer to Mr Greer, we think it important—and our dialogue with the STUC reinforces the point—that individuals are treated fairly and appropriately. As Christine Grahame cites, Midlothian Council has taken an appropriate approach in that respect, but we will be happy to raise such questions with COSLA to ensure that there is fairness for individuals who are affected by such circumstances.

The cabinet secretary made reference to the opening of the Bellwin scheme, which is a very welcome decision. However, will he acknowledge that the scheme’s criteria can be overly restrictive? It covers only, for example, actions that deal with saving life and limb, which means that there is a huge threshold for local authorities, which will have to pay first before they will receive any funding from the Government. It also covers only actions that are taken in a very short period of time. Given that there is precedent for doing so, will the Government consider awarding funding to local councils to deal with what will be a substantial clean-up cost right across Scotland and not just to authorities that will qualify for the Bellwin scheme?

The Government will remain open to dialogue with local authorities about that question. However, we have to look at the issue across a wider perspective. Not every winter is as severe as the one that we have experienced. Indeed, in the winter of last year there was much less recourse to some of the snow-clearing and gritting operations than has been required this year. Therefore, last year, local authorities will not have had to spend as much as they will have to spend this year. There is a need for us to look at the question in the round. The Bellwin scheme is available to support local authorities with exceptional costs—which is what it is designed to do—but the Government will remain open to dialogue with individual local authorities and with COSLA on all such questions.

The major incident that resulted from the severe weather involved hundreds of vehicles being stranded overnight on the M80. Will the cabinet secretary comment on Police Scotland’s response to the incident? In particular, will he when police first attended and how long they were there for and will he comment on the strategy that Police Scotland put in place to deal with the incident, given reports that there was a miscommunication between the former Strathclyde and Central legacy forces—now the Greater Glasgow and Lanarkshire divisions—that resulted in neither responding timeously in doing so?

I have not seen the speculation to which Margaret Mitchell refers but, from my involvement in this instance, I can say that the police were on the ground and handling the issue from the minute that difficulties arose. Indeed, on Wednesday evening, I spent a prolonged amount of time—as did Mr Yousaf—talking directly to the police commander who was on the M80, in freezing conditions, explaining to us what was going on. The difficulty that was experienced on the M80 was that a number of vehicles could not obtain traction in climbing up the hill from Castlecary, going in either direction. A significant cause of that was the fact that there were a large number of heavy-goods vehicles in that area, none of which could achieve traction.

Humza Yousaf and I were involved in calls throughout that evening. The operating companies were trying everything possible to grit the roads and create a more solid surface on which vehicles could gain traction, but their efforts were unsuccessful. I can vouch for the fact that that effort was going on. The police were there throughout the whole incident. They were handling a very difficult situation, but the conditions were extremely poor. That is why, on Tuesday, the minister gave clear warnings to reduce travel and intensified those warnings on Wednesday morning, when the red warning came to us. Anyone listening to those warnings should have thought twice about going anywhere near the M80, because it is no surprise to any of us that the hills up and down at Castlecary caused these difficulties during winter.

I assure Margaret Mitchell that the police were absolutely all over the incident and were giving us quality information from the scene. I put on record my thanks to the police officers who were out on that motorway in the freezing cold for giving us such quality information as we handled the issue.