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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Meeting of the Parliament 06 September 2016

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, Programme for Government 2016-17, Programme for Government 2016-17, Junior Minister, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Stand Up to Bullying Campaign


Topical Question Time

The next item of business is topical question time. In order to get through as many as possible, I would prefer short and succinct questions.

Edinburgh to Glasgow Improvement Programme

1. Neil Bibby (West Scotland) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the cost of the Edinburgh to Glasgow improvement programme. (S5T-00043)

As I indicated in my letter to the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee on 5 July, the Office of Rail and Road published a report, also on 5 July, that identified risks around Network Rail’s increased cost estimates in many cases across the United Kingdom, including EGIP.

I remain deeply frustrated by Network Rail’s inability to deliver EGIP within its estimated budget, and I have written to Mark Carne, who is the chief executive of Network Rail, to make it clear that the Scottish Government simply does not accept and is not prepared to accept the long-term cost implications. To that end, I have instructed Transport Scotland to undertake an intensive review of the entire programme. That review is expected to conclude later this month.

Reports that the project is now behind schedule and over budget due to some fundamental errors are extremely concerning to passengers and taxpayers alike. Further to what the minister has just said, can he confirm that overhead wires were indeed installed at wrong heights; that bridges were built too low to meet basic safety standards; that an extra £32 million was spent on the project last year alone; and that the total bill is set to rise even further? Can he tell us exactly how that was allowed to happen and when EGIP will finally be completed?

I will try to strike a note of consensus. I agree with the member. It is utterly unacceptable, and the point of the review is to put Network Rail through the mill and ensure that we account for every single penny that it insists has to be spent in addition to its original estimates. We expect the Parliament and its committees also to hold Network Rail to account. To that end, I made it very clear when I spoke to Mark Carne that I expect Network Rail officials to appear in front of the Parliament’s committees.

It would be unsurprising to the member if I said that our press sometimes has a tendency to overegg and sensationalise some aspects of transport policy. Network Rail disputes that the overhead wires that the member mentioned were the cause of the increases. The cost increases are principally due to the poor performance and productivity of the contractor, Network Rail’s ineffective management of that contractor, and compliance issues that have not just affected projects in Scotland but have had a devastating effect on projects that have had to be cancelled south of the border.

I agree with the member. It is utterly unacceptable. Let us see what the review says at the end of the month, let us pull Network Rail in front of the Parliament, and let us get answers from it.

Obviously, that is not the only issue that affected passengers this summer. Passengers have had to endure a summer of disruption on Scotland’s railways. We have seen the Queen Street tunnel closure, major delays on the Borders railway and other routes, 12 days of industrial action over staff safety concerns, and now EGIP is delayed and over budget. Passengers have been very patient, but that patience has been stretched to the limit.

If the Government is willing to take the credit for rail infrastructure projects, it has to take responsibility, as well. Can the travelling public therefore now expect an apology from the Government for the level of disruption and the delays that they have experienced over the past few months, which seem set to continue?

It may be a new parliamentary session, but it is the same old Scottish Labour Party. To be accused of a summer of chaos by Scottish Labour is quite ironic.

Let us take a few of the projects that the member cited. He mentioned the Queen Street tunnel. Of course, the tunnel was opened ahead of schedule and under budget. He mentioned the Borders railway, whose first anniversary it is today. Passenger numbers on the line have exceeded forecasts. We should be celebrating that, although, yes, there are still improvements to be made.

We have instructed a review of the Network Rail issues. The review will report back on the causes of the issues, the estimates for the budget and the timescale. I will certainly ask questions of Network Rail and I expect every member to do the same. I gently make the point to the member, who is the shadow transport secretary, that the overestimates were made the matter of public record on 5 July but I have not had a single piece of correspondence from him for two months until today, which is conveniently the Parliament’s first day back.

I understand that the Queen Street tunnel project is a distinct project but that it also overlaps with EGIP. Will the minister confirm that the project went smoothly, the closure was acceptable and some of the work, such as the lengthening of the platforms, has already happened in preparation for EGIP?

I am pleased to say that the Queen Street tunnel closure and the improvements that have been made to it have been successful. That does not take away from the fact that we are still disappointed about the potential delays and the cost overestimates associated with EGIP. We have instructed a review, which is on-going, and then we will put Network Rail under scrutiny for that.

A hallmark of the railway line upgrade so far has been the engagement with the public well in advance of each of the potential disruptions or delays. However, many people were astonished to find, with just a few days’ notice, that there would be no train service between Glasgow and Edinburgh after 8.30 in the evenings from Sunday through to Thursday and there would be late starts on Sundays. Was the information to make the public aware of that very considerable change adequate?

The member raises a fair point. The Queen Street tunnel closure went well because of the front-footed nature of the communications, and I thank my predecessor for that. I have had a number of members write, email and get in touch with me about the fact that the disruptions were not communicated in advance. That is something that ScotRail should reflect on; I will certainly have a conversation with it and, indeed, my own officials in Transport Scotland on how communication should be handled better.

“Scotland’s colleges 2016”

2. Tavish Scott (Shetland Islands) (LD)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it will take in response to the findings of the Audit Scotland report, “Scotland’s colleges 2016”. (S5T-00040)

The Audit Scotland report “Scotland’s colleges 2016” is helpful in confirming that Scotland’s college sector is financially stable overall, and that colleges continue to exceed their targets for the amount of student learning to be delivered. More generally, the report highlights what is working well and where improvements can be made. We will work closely with the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council and colleges to consider the findings and recommendations and to ensure that we continue to deliver on the successes that we have had, such as the number of full-time students under 25 increasing by 13 per cent since 2006-07.

The minister will know that Audit Scotland’s report “Scotland’s colleges 2015” said:

“it is unclear what savings”

from college mergers

“have been achieved ... and what the full costs of the merger process are”.

Audit Scotland delivered that indictment last year and delivered it again just last week. Today, more than 2,000 college support staff are demonstrating over pay. Will the Government publish the real costs of college mergers so that staff taking industrial action and Parliament know the truth, as Audit Scotland recommended?

I am sure that Tavish Scott will have read in detail the funding council’s report “Impact and success of the programme of college mergers in Scotland”, which goes into the issues in great detail. It estimates the one-off cost of mergers to be £69.6 million and the savings each year to be £52.2 million. I know from my summer visits to campuses across the country that we are already seeing success and better outcomes for students, decreased duplication and a high-quality learning environment for the students. The funding council report that I have mentioned details the work that Tavish Scott has asked for.

That begs the question why Audit Scotland made the same recommendation twice. The minister might simply want to reflect on that.

Audit Scotland has said that there has been a 41 per cent decrease in the number of college students and a 48 per cent decrease in the number of part-time places at colleges, which has particularly affected women. What steps will the minister and her Government take to recognise the impact of college mergers on part-time students? What is she planning to do to reverse the cull of those college places, which are so essential, particularly for women?

The member will be well aware that we set out in our manifesto our commitment to have 116,000 full-time-equivalent places in the college sector. We have kept that commitment, and the entire basis for our college policy is to ensure that we are providing the adequate and correct courses, which are required for employers in the area. That is what we are seeing: full-time courses that are leading to employment.

That is not to say that short-term courses are not being funded; of course they are. Those that lead to employment are still being funded. For example, 97 per cent of learning hours in 2014-15 were delivered on courses that led to a recognised qualification. That will have a direct impact on the economy in the local area.

The member referred to the place of women in our college sector. That is, of course, extremely important, which is why I am delighted that the figures show that women are in the majority in the college population, at 52 per cent in 2014-15. However, we are not resting there; we are ensuring, through the funding council’s gender action plan, that we take action on specific courses where gender imbalance exists. The member should also bear in mind that the number of women in full-time courses has increased by 16 per cent since 2006-07.

The minister mentioned the funding council. In Audit Scotland’s reports on colleges and universities, questions were asked about whether there has been a lack of clarity in the funding council’s role when it comes to outcome agreements and discussions with individual colleges and universities. What is the Scottish Government doing to respond to that criticism?

As I said in my answer to Tavish Scott, we are working with the funding council and colleges to take on board the recommendations in the reports on Scotland’s colleges, as well as the report on universities that the member mentioned. If there are lessons for the Government to learn, we will learn them in partnership with the funding council, colleges and universities.