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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, January 17, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 17 January 2019

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Hospital Television Charges, Credit Unions, Poverty and Inequality Commission (Chair), Decision Time


General Question Time

Budget (Town Centre Support)

To ask the Scottish Government how the proposals in the draft budget could support town centres in the Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn constituency. (S5O-02779)

I announced a wide package of measures in the budget to support town centres. That package includes: maintaining a competitive business rates package that caps the increase in rate poundage below inflation and ensures that 90 per cent of properties in Scotland pay a lower poundage than other parts of the United Kingdom; supporting small businesses through the small business bonus scheme that lifts small businesses out of rates altogether; and a new £50 million town centre fund to drive local economic activity and support town centres to become more diverse and thriving places.

Town centres in my constituency suffer from the pull of Glasgow city centre as well as poor amenities and significant deprivation factors. That is why I was pleased to see the return of the town centre regeneration fund in the Scottish Government’s draft budget. That fund previously secured £1.8 million for the renovation of the stunning Maryhill Burgh Halls in my constituency, which drove regeneration in that area.

Does the minister agree that it is important for applicants to the new town centre fund to demonstrate a strategic but community-led approach to regeneration initiatives? I am pleased to say that we are strongly developing that approach in two of the town centres in my constituency, Possilpark and Springburn.

I will make two points. I agree that Maryhill Burgh Halls are a great example of how town centre investment can have hugely positive impacts. I am familiar with the project and absolutely agree with that kind of community involvement and support.

I want to deliver the town centre fund in partnership with local authorities. I will engage with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities on how we distribute and allocate the investment. We want the fund to be transformational and to deliver it in partnership with local government, which of course means in partnership with local communities too.

Cold Weather Payments

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to statistics stating that eligible pensioners in Motherwell and Airdrie received double the number of cold weather payments as those in Bellshill and Coatbridge in 2017-18. (S5O-02780)

The Department for Work and Pensions was responsible for the administration of the cold weather payment scheme in 2017-18.

In developing the new cold spell heating assistance benefit, we are engaging with households that have claimed the existing benefit and a wide range of expert opinion. We will seek the views of experience panel members who have applied for and benefited from cold weather payments as part of our research plan for 2019-20. We will continue to listen to views and consider ways in which we can better meet the needs of vulnerable households across Scotland.

Next week, it is likely that the trigger point for payments will be met at the Salsburgh weather station. However, it is less assured that it will be met at the Bishopton station. As a result, pensioners who are on pension credit in Airdrie are likely to receive a payment, while those who live on an adjacent street that falls into the Coatbridge postcode area are less assured of that money.

Will the cabinet secretary give a commitment today that cold spell heating assistance benefit will be fully delivered by Social Security Scotland by next winter, and that people in Coatbridge, Bellshill and other areas will no longer be worse off than their close neighbours in Motherwell and Airdrie?

I recognise that many members have expressed concerns in the past about the number of weather stations that cover Scotland that are used to determine the trigger for cold weather payments; there are currently 18. Many members have asked questions about that and I have had correspondence with many members about it.

As I said in my original answer, those issues will be taken account of in the on-going work with experience panels. I will update Parliament in due course on the wave 2 benefits, including those relating to cold weather payments.

East Coast Railway Line

To ask the Scottish Government when it will fulfil the commitment made by the then cabinet secretary for infrastructure in January 2016 to double-track key pinch points on the east coast railway line between Aberdeen and the central belt. (S5O-02781)

The report commissioned by the Aberdeen to central belt reference group considered that dualling the section between Usan and Montrose did not provide journey time improvements and may not represent value for money.

Although we acknowledge that some parties feel that there has been a lack of progress on the project, there is no question that everyone wants an appropriate and affordable solution to the capacity constraints.

The consensus of the reference group was that further work is required to identify the maximum possible benefits achievable for the £200 million that is being invested. The group is committed to achieving that as quickly as possible.

The cabinet secretary will recall that the commitment made three years ago was that the money was an initial £200 million, would include double-tracking of key pinch points and was intended to secure economic benefits for the north-east. Given that the options study presented by Transport Scotland to the city region deal committee before Christmas failed on all those requirements, what will he do to ensure that an improved investment plan is put in place, so that the £200 million is spent on ensuring that we have the right, modern rail infrastructure, specifically between Aberdeen and Dundee, which is the commitment that his Government made three years ago?

I recognise the value of ensuring that we make the right investments in the transport infrastructure in the north-east of Scotland, particularly in rail infrastructure. The £200 million of investment that we intend to make on that line remains in place. It is critical that we ensure that the investment maximises the improvements that we seek to achieve on that line, particularly in relation to speeding up journey times. That is why the Arup report has set out a range of different issues that need to be considered to ensure that we maximise the benefits that will come from the investment. I expect those decisions to be taken in line with the Aberdeen city deal, which goes up to 2026.

I assure the member that the members of the reference group are committed to working together to ensure that the investment is utilised in a way that maximises the benefit for commuters who use that line in the future.

Recent timetable changes mean that Montrose is now a major interchange station, but the facilities for passengers are totally inadequate, particularly for those who are travelling alone at night. When did the cabinet secretary last raise the issue of an upgrade to Montrose station with Transport Scotland and when does he expect such an upgrade to take place?

We look at investing in our rail infrastructure across Scotland on an on-going basis. In the next rail control period, we will invest almost £5 billion in infrastructure right across Scotland. We will look at prioritising different rail stations where there is a need for investment, which might include the station at Montrose.

The member will be aware of the significant investment that we are currently making in the north-east of Scotland. We are investing some £330 million in the Aberdeen to Inverness line, providing a new station and upgrading existing facilities. We will continue to ensure that we invest in rail services across the north-east of Scotland and the rest of the country.

NHS Forth Valley (Performance)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to NHS Forth Valley being escalated to stage 3 on the national health service board performance escalation framework. (S5O-02782)

Following a sustained period of low performance against the national four-hour accident and emergency target, the board was escalated to stage 3 on the escalation framework in December 2018. Stage 3 indicates that there is significant variation from where performance should be and that tailored support is required.

We are now formally supporting NHS Forth Valley in a structured way, including supporting the development of formal recovery plans and clear milestones. We are working with the local team, including the chief executive and senior management team at Forth Valley, to return the board to a sustainable position of performance against the four-hour target.

I pay tribute to the hard-working clinicians, doctors, nurses and auxiliary staff, who daily do all that they can to support patients in Forth Valley. Having that escalation is a damning indictment of health chiefs. What is the cabinet secretary doing as a matter of urgency to rectify the situation?

I, too, pay tribute to the hard-working staff in Forth Valley and across our health service.

I do not accept that escalation to stage 3 is a damning indictment of anyone, and I do not think that that language helps the hardworking staff to whom he and I have just paid tribute. It does indicate that there is a need for structured and formal intervention and support from the Scottish Government to a board. That is entirely the right thing to do and, I am sure, what members and citizens across Scotland would expect me to do, in order to address situations where there is persistent underperformance in particular areas. In the area of Forth Valley, it is our A and E target—a vital target—that we need to meet, and with that support, I am sure that Forth Valley Health Board will return to the sustainable position that we need them to be in.

Question 5 has not been lodged.

Construction Industry Training Board and National Construction College

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the future of the Construction Industry Training Board and the national construction college campus in Scotland. (S5O-02784)

The Construction Industry Training Board recently announced, as a result of a review of operations across the UK, that part of its role will be transferred to Shared Services Connected Ltd.

As part of the announcement, the Construction Industry Training Board has placed on the market the national construction college at Inchinnan, but it has confirmed that it does not intend to close the training facility.

The responsibility for the changes lies with the UK Government, of course, but the Scottish Government will provide support to employees who potentially face redundancy.

This is a very concerning time for CITB staff in Renfrewshire, where the campus is based. I welcomed Jamie Hepburn’s meeting yesterday with the GMB trade union. Although oversight of CITB is reserved, training policy is devolved. Will the Scottish Government therefore assess the impact that the changes could have on training standards in the Scottish construction sector? Will he make representations to CITB and SSCL to keep those jobs in Renfrewshire, including the 29 administration staff who face the prospect of being paid off in October? Is he also prepared to explore other avenues in order to retain in Scotland the jobs and the knowledge of those workers?

We are, of course, concerned about the impact that the change will have on employees who may not transfer as part of the process, and who may indeed face redundancy. As the member mentioned, my colleague, Jamie Hepburn, met the GMB yesterday to discuss a number of issues that arise out of the changes. We are convinced that our system for training in the construction sector remains robust. However, we will learn any lessons that have to be learned, and check whether there is any detrimental impact—which we are keen to avoid—from the changes to the CITB. Indeed, we are monitoring very closely many of the issues that the member mentioned, and we will keep him informed.

Scottish Crime Campus (Parking)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it plans to address parking issues around the Scottish crime campus in Gartcosh. (S5O-02785)

The Scottish crime campus management board represents the partners that are located at the campus and continues to work with campus staff and other stakeholders to identify and implement a solution to the present parking issues. Scottish Government officials attend meetings of the management board and, through that forum, are engaging with interested parties to explore possible future options.

Is the cabinet secretary aware that the issue of inadequate parking at the campus dates back to 2014 and has resulted in cars being parked on verges, which has damaged the drainage system and caused flooding? Can he confirm the action taken to address that flooding, and, more generally, can he—or the Scottish Government, if he cannot—confirm whether all these issues will be included in the review of the suitability of Gartcosh as a possible site for the new Monklands hospital?

I will absolutely ensure that the issues that Margaret Mitchell raised are part of that consideration. I have no doubt that they will be, but I will confirm that. I am aware, from my many visits to Gartcosh, that one can see the cars parked on the verges. There is clearly an issue there. Depending on what happens with the site adjacent to Gartcosh, it might be possible to look at short, medium and, indeed, long-term options to deal with those parking issues. I am happy to discuss that with Margaret Mitchell in more detail. Some of that will depend on NHS Lanarkshire’s decision on where the new Monklands hospital will be.

Given the existing problems, which I have been dealing with for a number of years on behalf of constituents, I think that it is legitimate to ask the cabinet secretary whether he recognises that major building works associated with a new hospital would worsen the situation for crime campus staff and local residents. Does he recognise that?

I have mentioned that there is a review under way, which is expected to report in February, and I am sure that all of that has been taken into consideration. I do not doubt that for a minute. Clearly, the member has put that on the record and I know that the health secretary has heard what she has to say.

Teachers (Stress)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to a recent Educational Institute of Scotland survey, which found that 75 per cent of teachers experience stress due to their workload. (S5O-02786)

We take the wellbeing of all of Scotland’s teachers very seriously, and we continue to seek to address undue workload wherever we can to free teachers to teach. We have sought to tackle bureaucracy and reduce workload through a range of measures, including the chief inspector of education’s definitive guidance on curriculum for excellence, the publication of benchmarks in each curriculum area, the rationalisation of a significant volume of educational guidance and the launch of an online tackling bureaucracy toolkit. We have also taken steps to increase the number of teachers in our schools.

The trouble is that teachers know that those measures have been taken, but they do not feel that they have addressed the pressures that they face. Indeed, Larry Flanagan, the general secretary of the EIS, said:

“The survey results confirm the deep-set impact of workload pressures on teachers and lecturers, largely arising out of the changes to the curriculum, and paint a worrying picture of a profession under the cosh.”

The survey also highlighted that half of teachers would be reluctant to recommend teaching as a career.

Does the cabinet secretary understand that teachers’ anger—their willingness to contemplate strike action—is about not just pay but workload? What new, concrete proposals does he have to reduce teacher workload and stress?

I will address a number of the points that Iain Gray raised. He quoted Larry Flanagan talking about changes to the curriculum. Over a number of years, the Government has been intent on involving the professional associations in much of the curriculum development work that we undertake. For example, the EIS is a member of the Scottish education council so that it can influence our thinking on many such questions.

As I indicated in my first response, we have taken a number of steps to reduce the workload of teachers. I remain absolutely engaged on the issue. It is essential that there is sustained activity at school, local authority and national level to take particular initiatives to reduce the level of administrative bureaucracy in individual schools. That will enable teachers to be free to teach, which is exactly what we want them to do.

Commuter Compensation (Helensburgh Central Station)

To ask the Scottish Government what compensation it can offer to commuters who use Helensburgh Central railway station, in light of reports of frequent delays and cancellations. (S5O-02787)

The ScotRail franchise ensures that passengers can be compensated for disruption to their journeys through a delay repay compensation scheme, in which the amount of compensation is calculated according to the amount of delay to the passenger’s journey over 30 minutes.

I have previously made it clear in the chamber that performance across the country, not least on the Helensburgh route, is below the challenging but achievable punctuality standards that we expect and demand from the rail industry.

ScotRail has recently announced a compensation promotion, although it is limited to the routes that were worst affected by the cancellations due to staff shortages that affected passengers during December.

There has been a steady improvement in performance on the Helensburgh line over the past couple of weeks. Whereas the public performance measure on the line was 80.7 per cent in period 10, the PPM to date in the period that commenced on 6 January is 89.2 per cent.

I met a constituent in my area—this is just one of many examples—who missed a job interview, and was not offered another one, as a result of cancelled and delayed trains. Under the standard scheme, he was offered only £1 in compensation. Will the cabinet secretary provide an assurance that, in the future, such commuters will receive fair compensation?

I very much regret the inconvenience that Mr Corry’s constituent was put at as a result of the delay in that service. Under the franchise agreement, ScotRail must implement a delay repay compensation scheme, and it is doing so. On the specific case that Mr Corry raised, I will ask ScotRail to contact him to explore the matter further.


To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to support the development of Scotland’s ports. (S5O-02788)

The Scottish Government is committed to supporting Scotland’s ports and harbours, while recognising that ports in Scotland operate in a commercial environment and are substantially self-funding. In certain circumstances, and in compliance with restrictions on state aid, the Scottish Government can provide grant funding to approved schemes.

In addition, ports will be a focus for the Scottish ministers as we take forward the Scottish maritime strategy that is being developed this year.

The cabinet secretary may be aware that the Stornoway Port Authority is seeking to invest in a new deep-water port, in order to allow Stornoway to capitalise on the leisure cruise industry. What support can the Government offer to ports, such as Stornoway, that are looking to expand and attract new business?

I am conscious that a number of ports across Scotland are engaged in providing greater access to those people who are on leisure cruises. It is important that we try to maximise the benefits that can come from that. We are engaged with a number of different parties in those ports in order to look at what further assistance can be provided. In relation to the port in Stornoway, we will give consideration to that and work in partnership with the local authority and the port authority.