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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament 15 January 2020

Agenda: Independent Prison Monitors, Portfolio Question Time, Secondary Education, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time, World Wetlands Day 2020


Portfolio Question Time

Rural Economy

The next item of business is portfolio question time, and the first questions are on the rural economy. I give my usual mantra: if there are short questions and snappy answers, everyone will be able to ask their question and we can all go home happy.

Women in Agriculture

To ask the Scottish Government what it is doing to encourage women into agriculture. (S5O-03985)

I was delighted to see the publication of the final report of the women in agriculture task force in November last year. The task force’s recommendations will deliver the change that we need to ensure equal opportunities and to encourage more women into agriculture. That is not only the right thing to do but critical to building the resilience of agricultural businesses that are facing a post-Brexit future.

Implementation work has already begun. We are piloting unconscious bias training for agricultural organisations, and we are offering training to women in agriculture to develop their skills and leadership abilities.

We definitely need to look at changing culture and practice. How will the report contribute to changing culture, practice and the law to ensure that the significant contribution that is made by women in farming and food production is properly supported, developed and acknowledged?

The need to change culture and practice is one of the core conclusions that was made in the report. Key recommendations in the report to try to achieve that change include developing and applying an equality charter for Scottish agriculture, which will urge industry organisations and businesses to make their training and structures more accessible to women; undertaking more early planning for succession; and calling on equipment manufacturers to make equipment that will improve women’s safety. The Scottish Government remains committed to supporting the implementation of the report’s recommendations in their entirety.

We need to encourage more young women into agriculture, yet they face significant barriers, as we have discussed, such as access to reliable childcare and grant support. Will the Scottish Government reverse the absurd decision that it made in 2018 to cease funding for the new entrants scheme and provide more financial support for young female farmers, so that Scottish agriculture can have a more sustainable and positive future?

The previous scheme was one of the only such schemes to exist across the whole of the United Kingdom. I absolutely recognise the importance of the issue, which was raised through the task force’s work. When the Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy made his statement on the task force and its recommendations, he said that any future recommendations on the new entrants scheme will be considered as part of the food and farming production future policy group’s work.

We also have the land matching service, which was launched last year. We hope that the service will operate well and become a success, and we will continue to monitor it.

Forestry (Renfrewshire South)

To ask the Scottish Government how it supports forestry in the Renfrewshire South constituency. (S5O-03986)

There are more than 2,000 hectares of woodland in Renfrewshire South, which represents just over 12 per cent of the constituency’s area. Through our agency, Scottish Forestry, we provide grants for tree planting and the sustainable management of woodlands across Scotland. In Renfrewshire South, we have provided more than £2.7 million of support for 22 forestry projects in the past five years, including 17 new woodlands totalling 334 hectares.

I thank the cabinet secretary for that detailed answer. What role does the Scottish Government believe that the forestry sector can play in achieving the outcomes in the national performance framework?

The forestry sector plays a key and, indeed, unique role in supporting our national outcomes relating to both climate change and economic growth. The sector supports about 25,000 jobs and contributes more than £1,000 million a year to the economy. It also helps to support the population of our rural areas and to fight climate change by removing the equivalent of almost 10 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year from the atmosphere.

However, the contribution does not end there. As set out in “Scotland’s Forestry Strategy”, which we published in 2019, forestry also contributes to national performance outcomes on health, wellbeing, communities, education, biodiversity and industry. The most recent figures show that our support for the sector allowed Scotland to create 84 per cent of all the new woodland in the United Kingdom, deliver 66 per cent of the UK’s softwood timber harvest and meet our biodiversity commitments for planting native species.

Ensuring that the necessary infrastructure is in place is key to supporting forestry. Given the impact of rising levels of timber transport on small rural routes, will the cabinet secretary seek to expand funding for the timber transport fund? Will he consider increasing the Government intervention level to more than 50 per cent, given the budget pressures on local councils, which currently have to find the other 50 per cent to match investment?

Mr Smyth raises an important point. If he is not already aware of this, I am delighted to inform him that I have already done what he asked. For the past three years, I have done what he asked. We have substantially increased the funding for the timber transport fund, because we saw that it was necessary to help the sector, to improve our economic and environmental performance, to unjam bottlenecks and to work with local authorities, which welcome the work that we have done on timber transport.

The fund has been a terrific success story in Scotland, and I am grateful to all the groups throughout Scotland that work hard to identify which candidates qualify for support from it. Local authorities are reasonably happy with their arrangements, whereby they receive substantial support to supplement their efforts. However, we will keep that under review.

Budget (Rural Economy)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions the Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy has had with the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Economy and Fair Work, regarding how much will be allocated to farmers in the next budget. (S5O-03987)

The Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Economy and Fair Work and I work together closely. We have discussed our concerns that the United Kingdom Government has not provided any meaningful, long-term statement about replacing European Union common agricultural policy funding.

Over the past three years, I have repeatedly pressed the UK Government—notably Michael Gove—to honour the pledge that it made during the Brexit referendum to at least match EU funding post-Brexit. After three years of my persistent questioning, it belatedly confirmed funding for direct payments for 2020. However, serious gaps in its assurances remain, such as the impact of exchange rates. Crucially, there is no certainty for funding for farmers, foresters, land managers, LEADER projects or wider rural businesses beyond 2020.

With respect to the cabinet secretary, I say that the UK Government agreed to match the current annual budget available to farmers for every year until 2024, starting with £472 million in financial support to farmers in Scotland over the next two years. By failing to publish a new common agricultural policy and arrangements for financial distribution in the agriculture sector post-Brexit, the Scottish National Party Government has left Scottish farmers in the dark. Can the cabinet secretary confirm that work on that is under way? When will it be published?

I am not sure whether Mr Balfour has read the letter from Rishi Sunak, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, to the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Economy and Fair Work. I have it in front of me. It does not say what Mr Balfour says that it says. It does not contain the categoric assurances that he said it provides. It goes some way to doing that. After three years of my questioning Michael Gove face to face in umpteen meetings of the ministerial group—probably questioning him more frequently and persistently on that issue than anyone else—I am pleased that, at long last, there is a belated reply. It remains a mystery why it took three years.

However, there is still no assurance on the specific funding that will be received beyond this year and there is no certainty about the exchange rate issue. Further, there is residual doubt about whether the assurances apply beyond farmers. The reference to assurances is to “farmers”. Foresters are not necessarily farmers—in fact, most of them are not farmers. LEADER is not farming. Why does the Government not specifically mention all those who receive the rural funding?

I respectfully suggest that, if the member wishes to make categoric statements of a sweeping nature, he gets his facts right first.

I welcome the news that the less favoured area support scheme loan payments have begun. Will the cabinet secretary update Parliament on the value of the funding of those payments that have been provided to farmers and crofters this winter already, and will he say whether there is still time for people to apply for a loan payment?

I am speaking from memory, but I think that the money thus far provided by way of LFASS loan funding is just more than £38 million, and that, in the first tranche, 7,595 farmers and crofters have received loans, to the tune of 95 per cent of entitlement. I believe that the payments have been made slightly earlier than they were last year—on average around 10 days earlier—and that that support has been welcomed by farmers and crofters throughout the country, particularly in the light of the huge remaining uncertainties about Brexit, the import of cheap meats from other countries and the possibilities of tariffs on sheep meat, 88 per cent of the exports of which go to the EU.

That is welcome funding to a vital part of our community, namely hill farmers and farmers on challenging land, and I was delighted, as cabinet secretary, to take that decision to get that money out as soon as possible. That funding is extremely important and I am grateful to Iain Carmichael and his team of officials, who have so efficiently delivered it.

Finally, I recommend that anyone who has already received an offer of an LFASS loan—more than 10,000 have—should return it, if they have not already done so, so that we can get on with paying the remaining balance of payments.

I appreciate the questions and the answers, but I would like to get as many questions in as possible, so let us move along.

Forestry (Fire Hazard)

To ask the Scottish Government what assessment it has made of the potential impact on the forestry sector of increased fire hazard due to long-term environmental changes. (S5O-03988)

The Scottish Government’s resilience division is working with the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service to include an updated assessment of wildfire risk in the second iteration of the Scottish risk assessment. Wildfires include grassland, moorland and forest fires, and the new assessment will be available to responders in spring 2020.

In addition, the programme for government makes it clear that the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service will develop a wildfire strategy, to ensure that we can respond to the increased risk of wildfires, including forest fires.

The number of reported wildfires in Scotland quadrupled in the past year, albeit that we are not at Australia’s level. Is it appropriate to consider the wider effects on communities of wildfires and, perhaps, in particular, how muirburn is one of the smallish contributors to that?

Absolutely. We know that, as our climate changes, we are seeing more extreme weather events. I am sure that everyone in the chamber has watched in horror the events unfolding in Australia and understands the massive impact that they have had on Australia’s landscape and wildlife, as well as the sheer human cost of what is happening there and the human effort that is needed to tackle it. Stewart Stevenson is right to point that out and to mention the impact that the issue has had in Scotland. In April last year, we saw wildfires in Moray and, in May, we saw them in Sutherland, where they burned for five days.

We must do everything that we can to prepare for such challenges. That is why, along with partner agencies, the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service is developing its wildfire strategy, so that we can fight wildfires, try to prevent their happening in the first place and minimise the damage if they occur.

FAME Diesel (Impact on Farmers)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to address the problems farmers encounter with the inclusion of FAME in red diesel. (S5O-03989)

The serious financial and safety issues that Scottish farmers have faced with that fuel in recent months are simply unacceptable. My officials are in close communication with the Department for Transport, NFU Scotland and Petroineos as work to fully understand and mitigate the issues progresses.

With fuel legislation reserved to the United Kingdom Government, Scottish ministers—Michael Matheson has the lead role in this particular area—have written to the UK Secretary of State for Transport, pressing for urgent action on dealing with stockpiles of affected fuel as well as longer-term solutions that will allow continued carbon reduction. As the UK Government has not yet responded, ministers are writing again this week, stressing the urgency of the matter.

I thank the cabinet secretary for that helpful answer. As he rightly points out, there have been some stockpiles of contaminated fuel, which is a major concern, as we may experience a period of very cold weather. I will pick him up on his reply to my question. Is the Government looking at compensating farmers who stockpiled that fuel and did not know that it was contaminated?

I appreciate that Liz Smith understands that this is a very serious issue, especially with cold weather coming along. The fuel is necessary for vehicles that transport feed to animals—especially to sheep on the hills. If farmers cannot use their vehicles, they cannot feed their animals, therefore risks to animal welfare are forseeable. It is important to state that, because it illustrates the plight that farmers face. Although Liz Smith will be aware of that, I wanted to point that out.

Any question of financial compensation for those who are affected or who are dealing with affected fuel that is already in tanks is a commercial matter for the sellers and distributors of the fuel to address. The UK Government is responsible for the matter, as it is a reserved function. Mr Matheson, who, as I said earlier, is the lead Scottish minister in the matter, has been in contact with the DFT to try to find a solution, as have his officials. With respect, there is a real need to reach a solution and that is what farmers want now, rather than an argument about compensation.

There is no question that it is a complex issue, but the UK DFT can play a role—for example, by co-ordinating accelerated testing to identify the root cause of the filter locking issue. I will not go on, Presiding Officer—I always try to be as brief as I possibly can be. That said, I very much hope that the UK Government accepts its responsibilities.

The last thing I will say, to stress how important the issue is, is that I specifically raised it with George Eustace on Monday in a bilateral meeting after the meeting of the inter-ministerial group for environment, food and rural affairs. I hope that the UK Government will take heed of Liz Smith’s question as well as my answer and will very swiftly try to find a solution, otherwise the consequences for animal welfare could be very serious.

Meat Products (US Regulatory Standards)

To ask the Scottish Government what the impact could be on meat products imported to Scotland as part of a future United Kingdom trade deal of the reported plans by the US Department of Agriculture to introduce a system of self-regulation and policing for US slaughterhouses. (S5O-03990)

The member must ask the question as it is written in the Business Bulletin. I think a few words—references to the US Department of Agriculture and the US—slipped in that are not in my printed version.

Slipping in words is more for ministers, is it not, Presiding Officer?

The Scottish Government is extremely concerned that any proposed free trade deal might undermine our high-quality regulatory standards. I raised the matter with UK ministers this week, when we met, to make it clear just how important it will be for those standards to be maintained in future trade deals. I made it clear that this Government will resist vigorously any attempts to undermine the current standards.

Scotland is known worldwide for the provenance and quality of its products and its excellent standards of animal welfare. Does the cabinet secretary agree that the potential self-policing of US slaughterhouses poses a safety concern and a risk to Scottish products, as it could lead to consumers being provided with cheaper products of substandard quality?

I agree. The issue is of great concern to our beef farmers, producers and slaughterhouses around the country. In Scotland, we produce meat to the highest standards. If we are to import meat from other countries, in the Americas broadly, that do not have the same standards—including standards of provenance, animal hygiene and official veterinary supervision—or the closed-circuit television checking of abattoir processes, consumers will not know what they are getting, and that is of huge concern. Frankly, if cheap imports from countries that do not observe our high standards flood the market, that could well undermine the meat sector in Scotland. Therefore, that is one of the most important Brexit issues that has not yet been resolved, but which must be resolved.

I note that Theresa Villiers gave certain assurances on the issue when she spoke at the Oxford farming conference. Time does not permit me to read them all out or go into it all, but suffice it to say that there are serious misgivings about whether there is a real commitment across the United Kingdom Government to follow through on the fears that, in some dodgy deal with the USA, standards will be dropped and animals that have not been bred, reared and slaughtered in accordance with those standards will be introduced into the UK market.

I am grateful to have had the opportunity to respond to that question, albeit briefly.

I do not know about “briefly”, because I cannot now get in the questions from Maurice Corry and Graham Simpson. Nevertheless, I realise that it is a detailed area. I apologise to the members who wanted to ask supplementary questions but whom I could not call because we were so tight for time.

Borders Railway (Rolling Stock)

To ask the Scottish Government when new rolling stock will be in operation on the Borders railway. (S5O-03993)

Since December 2018, we have added more than 30,000 seats on the Borders railway. Two services have been strengthened with extra carriages, adding around 1,500 seats daily between Tweedbank and South Gyle.

The addition of further carriages has been delayed by the poor performance of Angel Trains and Wabtec in delivering our investment in additional refurbished high-speed train carriages. I continue to press those involved to ensure that there is a strong focus on completing the refurbishment programme, to enable more carriages and more seats, so that Borders passengers can enjoy the full benefits of our investment, and to continue to improve performance.

The cabinet secretary has confirmed the delays with Angel Trains and Wabtec. However, the recent decision to terminate the ScotRail franchise early will definitely create uncertainty, which could affect investment in rolling stock. Currently, the class 158 trains that run on the Borders railway are not sufficient for passengers. It is clear from the latest SQUIRE—service quality incentive regime—figures, which measure the quality of trains, that improvement is needed, because the class 158 trains are failing to meet 10 of the 17 benchmarks, which is unacceptable. Will the early termination of the franchise directly affect investment pledges? Will passengers on the Borders railway actually get the new rolling stock that they need and want?

The answer to the member’s first question is no, because the franchise agreement will remain in place for the coming two years, and the investment that we have committed to making through the franchise remains in place. There will be continued investment in rail infrastructure and rolling stock.

On the second question, as I outlined in my initial answer, the cascading of more carriages to the Borders railway has been disrupted as a result of the poor performance of Angel Trains and Wabtec in carrying out the refurbishment programme for HST carriages. Fairly recently, I visited Wabtec’s site in Kilmarnock and met senior executives, including the vice-president of the company, to again impress on them the need to make further progress. They have given a commitment to do that. We will continue to ensure that they hold to that, and complete the work as quickly as possible.

Mark Ruskell can have a supplementary question on the Borders railway.

Figures that were released this week show that last year the number of rail journeys in Fife fell by 2 per cent—

No. The supplementary is to be on the Borders railway.

My question is about rolling stock.

No. Sit down, please.

Can I reframe it?

No, you cannot. You should have thought of that.

Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route

To ask the Scottish Government what progress has been made in resolving the outstanding issues in relation to the Aberdeen western peripheral route. (S5O-03994)

As I advised the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee in December, following lengthy discussions Transport Scotland agreed a commercial settlement in principle with Aberdeen Roads Ltd. The settlement recognises that ARL faced significant challenges in delivering what was a complex and challenging project, including adverse weather and the collapse of Carillion Construction Ltd. It also recognises the significant risk, cost and uncertainty that are attached to lengthy court proceedings. The terms of the settlement are currently being finalised, but it will include a payment of £65 million to ARL, which is largely offset by the £53 million saving in payments that have been made to date.

I am grateful to the cabinet secretary for confirming the reports that were given to the stock market just before Christmas.

In relation to other outstanding issues, the road safety risks and congestion at Kingswells south roundabout have been highlighted more or less since the day that traffic began to run along that section. I am pleased that Transport Scotland has made a commitment to take action on that and on the contract for signage to be let by Aberdeen City Council. In relation to the south Kingswells roundabout, will the cabinet secretary—

No. Please—

—indicate what the timetable is for those works being done?

I recognise the issue of concern that Lewis Macdonald has raised, which other members have raised before. I cannot give a specific timeframe, at present, but I will endeavour to come back to the member with more detail, if that would be helpful to him and his constituents.

On 5 December 2018, the cabinet secretary said to the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee:

“If there is any additional cost over and above the fixed-price contract, Parliament will be notified.”—[Official Report, 5 December 2018; c 33.]

Why did the cabinet secretary wait until the recess to announce the extra costs? On what date did he agree to the extra costs? Why did he not inform Parliament at that time?

The Parliament was informed through the REC Committee as soon as an agreement had been reached. Galliford Try was required to notify the stock market of the agreement, which is what compressed the timetable. That is why we notified Parliament through the REC Committee as soon as a settlement had been agreed.

Haudagain Roundabout (Link Road Project)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the £30 million link road project at the Haudagain roundabout in Aberdeen. (S5O-03995)

Construction work is well under way on the A92/A96 Haudagain improvement project, and the main works contractor has already made significant progress on critical earthworks and utility diversions. The project is expected to open in spring 2021, subject to unforeseen circumstances, such as exceptional adverse weather.

I was disappointed, but not surprised, to see a North East Scotland member, Liam Kerr, trying to score political points in the local press about police incidents at the Haudagain roundabout. Mr Kerr and his Westminster colleague have this week been called out by local campaigners in Laurencekirk for trying to do likewise in respect of the flyover for which they have spent years campaigning. Does the cabinet secretary agree that instead of obsessing over petty point-scoring—[Interruption.]—the Tories should welcome the investment in north-east roads, including the Aberdeen western peripheral route, that the Scottish National Party Government continues to deliver?

The Scottish Government has already committed more than £800 million of investment in road infrastructure projects in the north-east of Scotland. We have seen that very substantial benefits are already being provided by the AWPR.

We will not stop there. As the member made reference to, the Haudagain junction work is moving on apace. We expect that project to continue to be developed, and we expect to see improvements to traffic flow and to journey times, once it is completed.

The draft orders have been published for the new grade-separated junction at Laurencekirk. They are now out for public consultation, so the local community has an opportunity to express its views on the proposed works at the site. There will be a significant level of investment in that part of the north-east.

That investment sits alongside our plans for dualling the A96 between Aberdeen and Inverness, which is, at £3 billion, a major infrastructure project to improve connectivity from the north-east of Scotland to Inverness.

While the Tories carp from the sidelines, we will get on with doing the day job.

The link road is a good scheme, and I can assure Maureen Watt that the accident statistics that I was asked to comment on were not of my making. The taxpayers will want to know the cost. At the start of the project, the Government said that it would be £14 million—


The cost was £18 million in 2016; in 2019, it was £30 million; and, last week, Transport Scotland said that it was £49.5 million. Will the cabinet secretary say here and now that it will not rise again?

I presume that Liam Kerr is referring to the Haudagain roundabout project. The cost of the Haudagain roundabout project is £49.5 million. That includes all the wider aspects of the project, including purchase of land, public utility diversions, advisory fees, preliminary work, geotechnical work and environmental surveys. That is the overall cost of the project.

It never comes as a surprise to me that the Tories want to talk down Scotland and improvements that are being made in Scotland, such as the one to which my colleague Maureen Watt referred.

Bellfield Interchange

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the progress being made to resolve the reported long-standing and escalating traffic flow issues at the Bellfield interchange in Kilmarnock. (S5O-03996)

The difficulties that are faced by traffic using Bellfield have been identified as part of the second strategic transport projects review. STPR2 will identify transport investment priorities for the next 20 years to help deliver the new national transport strategy, and it will form an aspect of how we prioritise funding in those areas. That includes the strategic transport network, which includes the trunk road around Kilmarnock. STPR2 will be concluded in early 2021.

The cabinet secretary will be aware that the Bellfield interchange has been named as one of the top three most dangerous roundabouts in Scotland. Various studies that have been carried out in recent years have failed to come up with a technical solution. Can the cabinet secretary give me some hope that that problem can be examined afresh in order to identify whatever solutions are required to effectively manage traffic flow and reduce the dangers for my constituents who use the Bellfield interchange?

Over recent years, several measures have been undertaken on the junction to address safety issues. The most recent annual road safety review did not highlight that there is a specific problem on the Bellfield interchange. However, it is recognised that there are congestion points at peak times, and the STPR2 process will consider whether further measures need to be undertaken to address the congestion issues that can occur at the Bellfield interchange. I am conscious of some of the plans that the local authority has for further industrial and commercial development in the area. Those plans would have to be taken into account in any measures to address the issues associated with the interchange.

Rail Services (South Scotland)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with the United Kingdom Government regarding the performance of the rail services in the South Scotland region that are regulated by the Department for Transport. (S5O-03997)

The Scottish Government last met with the Department for Transport on 5 November 2019. Part of that discussion included the performance of cross-border rail services. The Scottish Government also maintains a regular dialogue with all cross-border operators.

Lockerbie train station is the worst in Scotland and it is the fifth-worst in the UK, according to a recent survey. All of the services running through the station are regulated by the UK Government, including TransPennine Express, which has cancelled its mid-morning service from Lockerbie, although trains still run through the town. That means that there are no longer any off-peak tickets to be had in the morning. Also, seats on journeys from Lockerbie can no longer be reserved. That service is a lifeline service for the people of Dumfries and Galloway. Does the cabinet secretary agree that the UK Government needs to get its finger out and take action against those operators?

I am aware of the recent TransPennine Express punctuality and cancellation issues. I understand that the performance of that UK Government train operator franchise has been affected by the introduction of new rolling stock and a shortage of train crew to operate that stock.

I regret the fact that TransPennine Express amended its December timetable to reduce services, which has had an impact on rail connectivity into and out of Scotland. Two TransPennine Express services that called at Lockerbie were removed from the service in the December 2019 timetable, which was due to changes because of constraints on capacity. I have been told that TransPennine Express is working with the rail industry to reinstate those two services in the May 2020 timetable change. However, that has not been fully confirmed as yet. I call upon the UK Government transport secretary to look at restoring those services as quickly as possible, and to address ongoing concerns about punctuality and cancellations of the TransPennine Express service.

Reaching 100 per cent Broadband Programme

To ask the Scottish Government when it expects to be able to proceed with the R100 procurement for the north area, in light of the legal challenge from Gigaclear Ltd. (S5O-03998)

Until legal proceedings have concluded, we are suspended from signing a contract for the north lot. Timescales for contract signature will therefore depend on the length and outcome of proceedings, and I will update the Parliament once they have concluded. The timing of the proceedings is, rightly, a matter for the court to determine, taking into account its other business.

In the meantime, we will provide additional support to ensure that everyone can access superfast broadband services by the end of 2021, delivered through a national, demand-led voucher scheme, which will be funded by the Scottish Government. Anyone who will not be able to access superfast broadband by the end of 2021, regardless of whether build through the R100 contracts will ultimately reach them, will be eligible for the voucher scheme.

I thank the minister, because people in the north were promised access to superfast broadband by the end of next year, and community solutions ended, as did the connected communities broadband project in the Western Isles, which left 500 customers in limbo.

The minister mentioned a voucher scheme. Can vouchers be used collectively? Everyone knows that it is the most hard-to-reach communities that are left behind, and if people cannot use their vouchers collectively they will not be able to access superfast broadband at all.

Rhoda Grant raises an important point. I am aware of examples of communities looking to use existing United Kingdom Government voucher schemes, which has proved difficult, as she rightly identifies. We need to learn lessons from that. We are in the process of developing the voucher scheme and getting clearance for it. As I said last Thursday in my statement to the Parliament, we propose to use the mechanism for one of the existing UK Government voucher schemes to provide the funding to enable customers to use their vouchers. We can certainly consider how we promote the use of the scheme locally, in communities, to ensure that we aggregate demand and make projects happen more effectively and efficiently. I will look to engage with members on how we can do that.

Road Infrastructure Projects (Environmental Issues)

To ask the Scottish Government how the development and delivery of planned and on-going road infrastructure projects take environmental issues into account. (S5O-03999)

Consideration of environmental issues is crucial to all road projects. In line with relevant legislation, Transport Scotland undertakes significant environmental assessment work and consultation with key stakeholders, including the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, Scottish Natural Heritage and Historic Environment Scotland, during the design process, which culminates in the publication of an environmental impact assessment report. If required, a public local inquiry is held, to consider objections that have been received, before a decision is made on whether to proceed with the project. During the construction phase, obligations are placed on contractors to comply with environmental legislation and commitments, including mitigation, that have been identified during the design process.

Roads can play an important part in environmentally balanced infrastructure, but the Scottish Greens have been demanding that the Scottish National Party Government terminate all new road projects. The car park tax showed us the Greens’ price. Will the cabinet secretary assure members that the SNP will not sell out to the Greens the people who rely on improved road maintenance?

As I have made clear on a number of occasions in recent weeks and months, we remain committed to major road investment projects such as the A9 and A96 projects, alongside road improvements. That is not to say that we do not recognise the significant climate change challenge that we face and the need to take appropriate measures to achieve a zero-carbon economy. That involves looking at the investment that has to be made in low-carbon technologies and encouraging people to use alternative modes of transport and reduce their reliance on cars for journeys, where possible.

At the same time, we must balance that with an approach whereby we get the right type of infrastructure investment that is necessary to support our economy and our communities. That is the approach that the Government will take. We will take seriously our climate change obligations while ensuring that we make the right strategic infrastructure investments to help to support our economy and our communities.

ScotRail Franchise (Potential Buyers)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with potential buyers for the ScotRail franchise. (S5O-04000)

Neither the Scottish Government nor Transport Scotland has had discussions with potential buyers for the ScotRail franchise. We remain committed to working with Abellio ScotRail to deliver continuous improvement and high-performing services until the end of the current contract, which is expected to be in March 2022. Work is under way to examine the post-2022 options that are open to the Scottish ministers. However, that will be subject to the outcomes from the United Kingdom Government’s white paper, which we expected in autumn last year.

Given that the Scottish Government’s track record in taking over private companies such as Ferguson Marine, Burntisland Fabrications—BiFab—and Prestwick airport is less than encouraging, what confidence can we have that a public sector bid for ScotRail would be any more successful?

As things stand, the only legal option that we have for rail services in Scotland is to franchise them. No other option is provided for in the existing legislation. We wish to see a range of options, which is why we are awaiting the outcome of the Williams review to see what approach the UK Government intends to take.

I have already made it clear that I do not think that franchising in its present form is fit for purpose or serves the public well. If we look at the number of franchises in England that are in serious financial difficulty, we see that there are systemic problems with rail franchising. For example, the UK Government has had to transfer a number of services to the operator of last resort because of the failure of franchising in rail services in England.

I would prefer us to find a more effective means of structuring our rail services in Scotland. The most effective way to do that would be to have a single organisation that is responsible for the rolling stock, the provision of passenger services and the infrastructure on which those are dependent. In doing that, we could have a more joined-up approach to our rail services in Scotland, with a focus on ensuring that they deliver the best services for communities and the travelling public.