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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, February 8, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 08 February 2018

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, East Neuk First Responders, Islands (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Point of Order, Islands (Scotland) Bill: Financial Resolution, Decision Time


Contents


General Question Time


ScotRail (Meetings)

To ask the Scottish Government when it will next meet ScotRail. (S5O-01774)

Ministers and Transport Scotland officials regularly meet representatives of ScotRail to discuss a wide range of issues relating to rail services.

When he does next meet ScotRail, will the minister discuss the East Kilbride to Glasgow train line, with particular reference to a passenger count that I have been assured was being done? I do not have the results of that yet, but I am concerned about reports that the number of passengers has decreased on the East Kilbride to Glasgow line. Could it be placed on the record at that meeting with ScotRail that the absolutely convincing argument that commuters have come to me with is that the decrease has happened because travelling on that line is a nightmare, due to the shortage of carriages and overcrowding, and because people are being forced to leave trains before their required stops?

Linda Fabiani has rightly raised the East Kilbride line on many occasions. I am familiar with that line because, as she knows, I have travelled on it frequently as it is the service that gets me home.

I will ensure that members across the chamber are given the findings of the independent review on performance that is taking place. That review concludes soon.

I know that Linda Fabiani has met ScotRail representatives, and its managing director, Alex Hynes, is very aware of the issues on the East Kilbride line. I will ask about where we are with the passenger counts and feed that back to the member in writing, if she does not mind.

Conversations are going on at the moment about the possible retention of class 156 trains. If that deal can be struck and we can hold on to them for longer, that will help with some of the overcrowding. The longer-term plan is, of course, to get the Hitachi class 385 trains in, which will allow the cascading of rolling stock across the network.

I assure the member, and those members who have raised the Fife circle line, that we know that it and the East Kilbride line are the two lines that need urgent attention. Linda Fabiani is right to continue to raise the issue with me and I will make sure that she is kept up to date.

Linda Fabiani is right to raise the issue. Recent figures show that passenger numbers have fallen at East Kilbride and Hairmyres, but not at all stations on the line. That stands to reason, because the service at East Kilbride is so poor.

The minister referred to an independent review and said, rather vaguely, that that will publish its results soon. What does he mean by “soon”? Can he be more specific?

When will we get an actual answer on when the line will be fully dualled and electrified?

The public performance monitoring figures and moving annual average figures for the East Kilbride line are generally above the national average. However, that is not to dismiss the concerns that Graham Simpson and Linda Fabiani have raised, particularly those about overcrowding. That problem is well recognised in the figures that we see, and I understand why the member raises his points.

On the question about when the independent review will be ready, I say, with the greatest respect, that it is an independent review. I would not want to be seen to interfere by asking for it to be accelerated. I have to give Nick Donovan, a well-respected railway expert, the time to complete his review, but he understands that there is some urgency. When the findings come to me, it will be for ScotRail to decide how they are appropriately shared with members across the chamber.

On the point about electrification and dualling of lines, I have said to the member previously that it is for local authorities and regional transport partnerships to go through the Scottish transport appraisal guidance process, to go through the guide to railway investment projects process, and to present the Government with a fully robust business case. With control period 6 coming up, there are opportunities for further rail enhancements. It is for the local authority, the regional transport partnership, the promoters and others to take the initiative.

I gently say to the member that when it comes to funding new railway stations and new railway projects, we are not helped by the fact that the United Kingdom Government is slashing our railway budget for control period 6 by at least £400 million.

Will the minister provide an update as to when the newer rolling stock will be fully instated on the two Inverclyde lines?

The member will be aware that we are investing heavily in class 385 trains for the Inverclyde routes. There will be about 234 carriages in the 70 trains, which will gradually be introduced across the network. Having seen the new 385s in the Newton Aycliffe plant, I can say that they are fantastic rolling stock. In order to make allowances and allocations, drivers need to go through training. When we have a sufficient number of new 385s, they can be introduced and we can phase out and replace the older class 314 trains that run on the Inverclyde routes at the moment, and we can also free up more class 380 trains.

As has been publicly documented, we are having issues with Hitachi with regard to delivering those trains to the schedule that has been agreed, but we will continue to push Hitachi on the matter. I will get the most up-to-date progress report from my officials and feed it back to Stuart McMillan as best I can. I promise that we are working hard to get those trains and new rolling stock, which will revolutionise our rail network right across Scotland.


Edinburgh Tram Inquiry Report

To ask the Scottish Government when the Edinburgh tram inquiry will publish its report. (S5O-01775)

The Edinburgh tram inquiry was set up to operate independently of Scottish ministers, who have no control over the inquiry’s timetable. Ministers are however aware that progress is being made with evidence taking at the oral hearings, and that the latest public hearing date that the inquiry has published is 22 February 2018. Details of the order of events, documents and transcripts of the oral hearings are published on the inquiry website.

Following conclusion of the hearings, Lord Hardie will review the written and oral evidence and other information that has been obtained by the inquiry, in order to produce a final report and recommendations. Before publication of the report, any witnesses who are subject to criticism in it must be notified of that criticism and given a reasonable opportunity to comment. Experience in other inquiries has shown that undertaking that necessary step can delay publication of the final report.

When the inquiry was established in 2014 by the then First Minister Alex Salmond, the Scottish Government promised the public that it would be carried out quickly, efficiently and cost effectively. Years later, the costs continue to rocket and have passed the £8 million mark, with no indication of when the inquiry will conclude.

Although I accept that the subject is complex, does the minister understand the level of frustration among Lothian residents at the cost to the taxpayer that is being incurred? Should ministers not apologise for making promises on the costs and duration of the inquiry that they have been simply unable to keep?

Of course I understand the public’s frustration, but I remind the member that we did not support the trams in the first place, and his party voted for them.

I gently say to the member that his hypocrisy knows no bounds. One week he—in his words—drags Scottish Government ministers to the chamber for so-called Government interference, and now he states that I do not interfere enough and demands that I interfere in an independent inquiry on the trams. That is an unacceptable position, and I suggest to the Tory member that he develop a consistent argument. It is an independent inquiry in which I will not interfere, and I would have some real issues if the member was urging me to do so. If he wants to write to me with some suggestions of how he thinks that I can speed up an independent inquiry, I will of course be all ears.


Short-term Letting of Domestic Flats

To ask the Scottish Government what action it will take to regulate the commercial short-term letting of domestic flats. (S5O-01776)

Our vision for housing is that all people in Scotland should be able to live in high-quality, sustainable homes that they can afford and that meet their needs. Our commitment to deliver 50,000 affordable homes over the course of this session of Parliament supports that.

Scottish ministers understand the pressure in some parts of the country to have new controls over short-term letting of residential properties. We need to strike the right balance between enabling tourists to find places to stay, which is important for supporting local economies and jobs, and residents being able to afford to live—and enjoy living—in their neighbourhood. Different parts of Scotland face different pressures and we want to support local authorities to take the right action to balance the competing demands in their area.

We will consider the recommendation in the report from the Scottish expert advisory panel on the collaborative economy and will consult on any proposed changes to regulation to ensure that they meet the five better regulation principles.

I look forward to meeting Mr Wightman later today to discuss the issue in more detail.

As the minister says, the collaborative economy report has been published; it is now time for action. Will the minister confirm that, as the First Minister acknowledged at First Minister’s question time on 18 January, there is a distinction between a person renting out a room or their property while it remains their main residence—that is the collaborative economy—and the commercial short-term let economy, in which domestic dwellings are being bought by investors and converted? Does the minister agree that the Scottish expert advisory panel on the collaborative economy looked only at the first of those and that the second has had little attention from the Scottish Government, even though it is in the public interest to give councils the powers and flexibility that they need to regulate that growing sector?

I could not be more clear on this than I have been. As the First Minister said on 18 January, we will look at what the expert advisory panel has said about short-term letting.

As Mr Wightman is well aware, the situation in certain places is different from the situation here in Edinburgh. His colleague Mr Finnie, for example, would tell him that regulation in the Highlands and Islands would have to be somewhat different from regulation in Edinburgh.

As Mr Wightman has mentioned previously, we already have legislation to allow local authorities to take action on antisocial behaviour in short-term lets. That includes the Antisocial Behaviour Notices (Houses Used for Holiday Purposes) (Scotland) Order 2011, which, unfortunately, has been little used by local authorities. I would expect them to use that legislation as needs be.

We will look at the issue carefully, and we will publish our response to the expert advisory panel in the spring. As I say, I am willing to have further discussions on the issue with Mr Wightman later today.


Broadband Connectivity

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on providing faster broadband connectivity in the Stirling constituency. (S5O-01777)

In addition to the coverage provided by commercial suppliers, the digital Scotland superfast broadband programme has provided fibre broadband access to 12,998 premises in the Stirling constituency. Fibre broadband access is now available to 91 per cent of premises in the wider Stirling council area, with the vast majority capable of accessing superfast speeds.

The Scottish Government is committed to building on the success of the DSSB programme by extending superfast broadband access to 100 per cent of premises—all homes and businesses—in Scotland by the end of 2021. We will invest £600 million through the first phase of the reaching 100 per cent—R100—programme to achieve that goal. Procurement is under way and deployment will begin in 2019. This is the biggest public investment ever made in a United Kingdom broadband project and it underpins the first universal superfast programme in the UK.

I thank the cabinet secretary for his helpful reply, but will he tell me what the percentage uplift in premises connected to faster broadband in the Stirling area has been as a result of investment from digital Scotland superfast broadband compared with what it would have been without that investment?

While the cabinet secretary may not be in a position to make any specific commitments today regarding faster broadband speeds for rural communities such as Kinlochard, Stronachlachar, Brig o’ Turk and Strathfillan in the Stirling area, can he assure me that all of those communities will be connected to faster broadband at the earliest possible date?

Yes. As a result of the superfast broadband programme and commercial coverage, more than 91 per cent of all premises in the Stirling area can now access fibre broadband and more than 88 per cent can access speeds of 24 megabits per second and above.

Mr Crawford has campaigned tirelessly on this issue over the past years. To answer his question, I can tell him that it is estimated that just 59 per cent of premises would have had access to fibre broadband otherwise. In other words, the Scottish Government’s digital Scotland superfast broadband programme has meant an increase of 32 per cent in Mr Crawford’s constituency—nearly one third more people in his constituency now have access to superfast broadband as a direct result of this Government’s investment.

Question 5 has been withdrawn.


Victim Rights (Court Procedures)

To ask the Scottish Government, further to the First Minister’s meeting with the family of Shaun Woodburn, who was killed on new year’s day 2017, what plans it has to enhance the rights of victims during court procedures. (S5O-01779)

The First Minister and I met Shaun Woodburn’s family on 10 January. We were both struck by the dignity with which they have conducted themselves in such difficult circumstances. I understand that the family are with us in the chamber today and I take the opportunity to offer again my condolences for their tragic loss.

This Government has already taken a number of steps to enhance the rights of victims. The Victims and Witnesses (Scotland) Act 2014 improved the support and information made available to victims. That includes providing victims and bereaved relatives with new rights to access information and reasons for decisions made about their case. It also created a duty on justice organisations to set clear standards of service, so that victims know what to expect and whom to contact if the service that they receive does not meet their expectations. In addition, we published the “Victims’ Code for Scotland”, which clearly and simply sets out the rights of victims in one place.

It is important that we continue to listen to the experience of victims and their families and consider further improvements that can be made. Indeed, we are currently working with our justice partners and victims organisations to explore a single-point-of-contact model for victim support. That will help to ensure that those who experience serious crimes receive a consistent and individually tailored level of support for as long as they feel is necessary.

Shaun’s killer received a sentence of just four years. The family, who have shared their story with the Daily Record today, believe that the sentence should have been longer—of course, they do. They also accept that that is why an independent judge determines these matters—not the media, not victims’ families and not even politicians—but what they cannot understand is why no one will explain why that decision was made, what the process was, what was considered and what was not considered.

When I raised this with Lord Carloway, he drew my attention to section 6 of the 2014 act, which gives victims the right to request the final decision of a court in a trial and any reasons for it. Given that right, which was delivered by the cabinet secretary’s Government, why has the sentencing report not been shared with the family and what steps will the Government take to improve the transparency of court proceedings?

Sentencing in any given case, including decisions relating to the publication of sentencing statements, is a matter for the court. A judge will often give reasons for imposing a particular sentence in court at the time of sentencing or, where the disposal is under challenge, in a subsequent report to the appeal court. The sentencing of convicted persons is usually announced orally in court and, in certain cases, a sentencing statement may also be published thereafter.

The decision on whether to publish a sentencing statement is at the discretion of the independent judge in the performance of their judicial function; the Scottish Government cannot interfere with that. However, we as a Government support transparency in sentencing, so that everyone involved in a case can understand the reasons why a sentence has been given.

As I mentioned previously, in the meeting with Mr Woodburn’s family on 10 January, the victims’ code provides relatives with the opportunity to request of the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service that the reasons for sentencing decisions be published and made available to the family.

Of course, I will ensure that the issues that the member has raised are highlighted to the Lord President to see whether any further progress can be made on improving how the system is operating.