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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, September 12, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 12 September 2019

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Drug Deaths, Portfolio Question Time, Police and Fire Reform (Scotland) Act 2012 (Post-legislative Scrutiny Reports), Decision Time


General Question Time

Dumfries and Stranraer Railway Lines (Upgrades)

To ask the Scottish Government, in light of its commitment in the programme for government to decarbonise the rail network, when the Dumfries and Stranraer lines will be upgraded to reduce emissions and improve journey times. (S5O-03523)

Last week, the Government committed to put plans in place to decarbonise Scotland’s railway by 2035. Transport Scotland will set out details and actions in spring 2020.

Drawing on the successful approach that was adopted on the line north of Inverness, we also committed to identifying opportunities across the rural rail network in the south-west to exploit the value of those lines for the benefit of local communities and the wider economy. That work will include the prospect of line speed improvements and a review of service patterns. I expect that investigation to report by autumn 2020.

Constituents and businesses regularly contact me with their concerns and frustrations about journey frequency and times on both those arterial routes, which they feel act as a barrier to attracting people and investment to Dumfries and Galloway. Will the cabinet secretary provide me with assurances that the Government is committed to improving the Stranraer and Dumfries lines, both to improve passenger satisfaction and to reduce emissions on the diesel lines, particularly given the climate emergency that the Scottish Government rightfully declared?

As discussed at the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee yesterday, the Government has set out its ambition to decarbonise the rail network in that area. Part of that will involve further electrification, but we will also consider alternative propulsion methods, including battery and hydrogen fuel cell. We are in advanced discussions with a range of parties to consider the prospect of bringing such types of train system into the Scottish network, which we will take forward over the coming months.

I can give Emma Harper the assurances that she is looking for. The work that we have commissioned to consider how improvements can be made—which should report by autumn next year—will specifically address the very concerns that she has raised on behalf of her constituents.

In November of last year, I raised with the First Minister the closure of the Ayr to Stranraer line, asking whether better contingency plans would be put in place to avoid disruption in the future. I was pleased that the First Minister gave an undertaking to ensure that there would be no disruption in the future.

Given that there is on-going work at the Ayr Station hotel and that electrification is now being mooted, will the cabinet secretary confirm that those contingency measures are in place?

Yes. As mentioned at the time, Network Rail, through Transport Scotland, put a considerable amount of effort into addressing the issues around the Ayr Station hotel that were having an impact on the line. I know that the council is also seeking to have action taken forward in relation to the condition of the hotel.

I assure Finlay Carson that there is on-going work to consider how we can continue to help protect the line should anything unforeseen develop in the future. As he would expect, that approach is always considered on the rail network. As I mentioned to Emma Harper, a key part of what we are considering is not just electrification but alternative propulsion systems for trains, including hydrogen cell and battery systems, whose use would allow us to remove diesel trains from the network. All those issues are being considered and will be part of the work that we will continue to take forward as part of our decarbonisation of the rail network.

Battery or hydrogen trains are better than diesel trains from an environmental point of view. However, does the cabinet secretary accept that the Nith valley line from Glasgow to Dumfries and through to Carlisle is an increasingly important line as a diversion from the west coast main line, and that only investment in that track and electrification would allow trains that use the west coast main line to be diverted on to the Nith valley line and run at the speeds at which they run on the west coast main line? Without that investment, we will simply have the scenes that we had during the beast from the east, when the Pendolino trains from the west coast crawled along the Nith line because of the lack of investment in the track.

As I mentioned, the work that is being undertaken by Network Rail to look at the improvements that could be made on the line will form part of our thinking about the further investment that we can make in that route. That includes the potential for electrification and the types of train that could be used on the route as an alternative to diesel trains.

We will look at all those matters, but I will not jump to a conclusion as to what will come from the report. I am sure that Colin Smyth will welcome the fact that we are looking at what further investment can be made in the route in order to improve journey times and reliability.

Question 2 was not lodged.

Rural Banking Cuts (Support for Highlands and Islands Businesses)

To ask the Scottish Government what it is doing to support Highlands and Islands businesses experiencing losses due to cuts in rural banking services. (S5O-03525)

I recognise the on-going need for businesses in the Highlands and Islands to have access to banking services, particularly to withdraw and deposit cash.

The United Kingdom Government has legislative and regulatory responsibility for banking and financial services. Despite representations from the Scottish Government, and from MPs and MSPs across the political spectrum, the UK Government has made it clear that it will not intervene in branch closure decisions.

However, I continue to engage with the banks and other stakeholders, pressing regulators, banking providers and the UK Government to ensure that local banking services—in particular, access to cash—remain accessible.

Businesses that deal in cash are especially vulnerable, because there appears to be an increase in the number of break-ins to such businesses. That is costing them financially, but it also impacts on business confidence. What is the Scottish Government doing to protect and support businesses that are vulnerable to break-ins?

Rhoda Grant raises a good point. Practical advice on how to develop business crime reduction and prevention strategies is provided by the Scottish Business Resilience Centre, which has received grant funding from the Scottish Government. There is also work going on with banks, particularly through the banking and economy sub-group of the Financial Services Advisory Board, to ensure that, between the Government and the banks, we give businesses the security that they need when it comes to dealing with cash.

As the minister will be aware, there are currently no bank ATMs between Ullapool and Thurso. Will the Scottish Government confirm whether it is in discussions with banks—as I am—to try to rectify that?

I have been in discussions about that. I have had meetings with, for example, Link and the Payment Systems Regulator to look at how we can ensure that there is access to cash. Edward Mountain will be aware that there is a strategy in place just now to look at preserving an ATM when there are no other ATMs within a certain parameter. However, far more work needs to be done and it is important to work across parties to put pressure on the regulator and the UK Government.

Scottish Housing Quality Standard (Review of Guidance)

To ask the Scottish Government when the guidance on the Scottish housing quality standard will be reviewed. (S5O-03526)

Everyone deserves to live in a warm, safe and affordable home, and, for the social sector, the Scottish housing quality standard is crucial to delivering that. I made a commitment to John Mason in May this year that any review of the guidance on the standards would consider the recommendation for five-yearly electrical safety inspections. I am happy to reiterate that commitment today.

A range of activity is currently under way that will improve or has already improved the Scottish quality housing quality standard on safety, fire safety and energy efficiency standards, which are now being adopted by the social housing sector.

I thank the minister for the tone of his answer. Can he be more specific about the timing of a review of any guidance? When might a five-yearly inspection be brought into the social rented housing sector?

Standards for different tenures have evolved separately over time, as Mr Mason is well aware. A review looking at improving consistency between tenures concluded with recommendations from the common housing quality standard forum. We have already started making identified changes to the repairing standard, and we are currently reviewing the tolerable standard, which applies to all housing in Scotland. The few changes that were recommended for the Scottish housing quality standard included the requirement for five-yearly electrical safety checks, which are already best practice in the sector.

Any further changes to the Scottish housing quality standard will be undertaken in close liaison with partners in the social rented sector, as Mr Mason will understand. That process will determine the timing of changes to the standard, but he can be assured that I will continue to keep in contact with him about how we will move forward.

When this month will the minister respond to the recommendations of the tenement maintenance working group? Will it be in the form of a statement to Parliament or some other way?

I cannot confirm how the response will be relayed to Mr Simpson, but we will respond, as we said that we would. I will be happy to talk to Mr Simpson about how we will move forward on that front after today’s question time.

Burntisland Fabrications Ltd

To ask the Scottish Government what action was taken during the summer recess to secure contracts and future employment at BiFab. (S5O-03527)

The Scottish Government continues to work collaboratively with BiFab’s majority shareholder, DF Barnes, in pursuit of a strong future pipeline of works for the company, with the aim of securing and delivering future contracts and increasing employment opportunities. Claire Baker was in attendance at a very helpful briefing that I had with members who have an interest in BiFab.

This Saturday in Kirkcaldy, there will be a fighting for our future march and rally with the BiFab workforce, the local community, trade unions and supporters. The workforce and the people of Fife are showing commitment and determination to bring jobs to Levenmouth. It is important that all who have a stake in the future of BiFab work together. What preparations are in place for the next offshore wind supply chain summit, and when will it be?

Those points are very helpful. I appreciate the efforts of all politicians to help the Government to pursue work in that regard. We propose to take the range of actions that I discussed at the last summit and to challenge the United Kingdom Government about the contract for difference process. There have been welcome investment decisions, but it is crucial that we secure some contracts that will lead to the positive benefits of expansion and growth for BiFab. A range of actions are under way, and I am happy to provide a further briefing. I am working very hard to secure contracts here and now.

It is important to make the point that we must not confuse a campaign for work with poor industrial relations, because industrial relations are really strong with the workforce, trade unions and management as they try to secure work for the BiFab yards.

Further to the cabinet secretary’s discussions with the UK Government, will he provide an update on when it will act to address the failings of its contract for difference process, in which we regrettably see no conditionality that would support indigenous supply chain companies such as BiFab?

Annabelle Ewing is absolutely correct in saying that a change in the CFD process would be materially significant to the outcomes and prospects for the UK and Scottish supply chain, which would be really important to BiFab. The UK Government could make that decision, but it has not done so; it is reviewing the CFD process. I do not have much more to offer at this time. We are trying to make progress with the UK Government in that regard, but it seems somewhat distracted on many other matters. It is a matter of priority for this Government and could make a difference, which is why we will pursue a process that would allow conditionality. It would ensure that work can and will come to Scotland if the UK Government made that decision about the contract for difference process.

I was pleased to hear about the partnership with Lews Castle College that BiFab announced recently, which will bring new engineering training opportunities and work placements at Arnish. Prior to the DF Barnes takeover, a complaint that I often heard from Arnish workers was that no training or apprenticeships were being offered, which is an especially important issue given the workforce’s older age profile. Does the cabinet secretary agree that ensuring access for young people to such training opportunities is vital if we are to keep the yard sustainable and maximise local benefit?

I agree absolutely with those comments. We want to secure the pipeline of work that will further enhance job numbers and opportunities for training apprenticeships. I welcome that collaboration, which is why we are focused on securing contracts that will lead to further positive benefits for BiFab and to Arnish, in particular, as well as other sites that will benefit from those opportunities.

No-deal Brexit (Impact on Egg Production)

To ask the Scottish Government what assessment it has made of the potential impact on the egg production sector of a no-deal Brexit. (S5O-03528)

Unfortunately, our assessment is that egg production is another of our successful food and drink sectors that will be negatively impacted by a no-deal Brexit. That is particularly true if, as expected, the United Kingdom Government leaves the sector without the protection of tariffs or quantitative restrictions on egg products coming into the UK. That would leave Scottish producers at an unfair disadvantage, with the potential for imported products of much lower quality and welfare standards to flood the market here.

I have many concerns about the issue, as there are a number of major egg producers in my South Scotland region. Does the cabinet secretary share the British Egg Industry Council’s concern that a no-deal Brexit threatens the provenance of Scotland’s production and the quality of the food that we all eat because of the risk of eggs that are produced under much lower welfare standards entering our food chain? What is the Scottish Government doing and what more can it do to protect our producers and our reputation for high-welfare egg production?

I share that concern. The UK Government’s reckless approach of allowing complete trade liberalisation in the egg production sector beggars belief and could wipe out the sector in one fell swoop. That would not only leave our hard-working egg producers unprotected and vulnerable to cheaper imports but could lead to consumers unwittingly eating eggs and egg products that are produced to lower welfare standards than apply here thanks to our membership of the European Union.

The issues were raised with Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs ministers on Monday, but, yet again, they were completely unable to give us any reassurance whatsoever to alleviate those real and practical concerns. The response was completely inadequate and utterly shambolic.

Human Papillomavirus Vaccination Programme (Extension to Teenage Boys and Young Men)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it plans to expand the HPV vaccination programme to include teenage boys and young men. (S5O-03529)

Boys in secondary 1 will be offered the HPV vaccine from this academic year, which is 2019-20. Uptake of the HPV vaccination programme for girls continues to exceed 80 per cent. We know from the evidence and the recommendations of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation that extending the programme to include S1 boys will help to reduce diagnoses of HPV-related cancers and will save lives in the years to come. Since July 2017, the HPV vaccine has also been available in Scotland to men who have sex with men, up to the age of 45, through sexual health and HIV clinics.

I welcome that response. Last week, the Teenage Cancer Trust launched its jabs for lads campaign, which is aimed at securing the vaccination for boys and young men. Will boys who have missed the vaccination because of their age be offered the opportunity to get it?

It is important that everyone who is entitled to the vaccination takes up the offer. Our approach is based on evidence. Vaccination policy in Scotland, as in the rest of the UK, is based on the recommendations of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, which is an independent expert panel that provides evidence and impartial advice on matters relating to vaccination. The JCVI has not recommended a catch-up HPV vaccination programme for boys. Should that change, I would not hesitate to act and extend our programme.

I take the issue seriously, so I was keen to find out whether the reason why we were not being advised on that issue was because we had not asked the question. Therefore, the chief medical officer wrote to the JCVI, seeking its expert view, and the rationale for it, on a catch-up HPV vaccination programme for boys. The committee did not recommend that approach. The argument is that, because the HPV vaccination programme for girls has been highly successful and has achieved a high uptake, it will help to stop the spread of HPV to boys, through what is known as herd immunity. Clearly, there is a group who would not be protected by herd immunity among girls and women, which is men who have sex with men, and that is why we encourage anybody in that category to ensure that they get the vaccination.

Short-term Lets (Regulation of Private Residential Property Use)

To ask the Scottish Government what plans it has to regulate the use of private residential property for short-term lets. (S5O-03530)

The Scottish Government is committed to working with local authorities, communities and business interests to ensure that local authorities have the appropriate regulatory powers to balance the needs and concerns of their communities with wider economic and tourism interests. Our consultation on the regulation of short-term lets closed on 23 July, having attracted more than 1,000 responses. We are considering those responses and we will announce our plans later this year.

I note the consultation over the summer, but the only mention of the issue in the programme for government is the setting up of a working group. Does the minister agree with what Kate Campbell, the Scottish National Party convener of the City of Edinburgh Council’s housing and economy committee, said about short-term lets? She said:

“We are absolutely clear that we need a licensing regime because it would mean that we can set local policies that address the particular challenges we face in Edinburgh”.

Surely, it is right that we regulate the commercial use of residential property.

As I indicated in my initial answer, we received more than 1,000 responses to the consultation, which we will need to analyse very carefully before we decide how to move forward. We will need to take cognisance of different circumstances in different parts of the country.

As well as the analysis that is under way, the Government has commissioned research to explore the positive and negative impacts of short-term lets on communities, with a focus on neighbourhoods and housing. The research involves looking at short-term let hosts, residents, local businesses and community actors across five places in Scotland: Edinburgh, the east neuk of Fife, Fort William, Glasgow and Skye. The report on that research will be published before the end of the year.

We must get our response right. We must listen to all. We should not move forward rashly without taking cognisance of all the responses that we have received.