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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, May 18, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 18 May 2017

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Snaring, Partnership Action for Continuing Employment, Decision Time


General Question Time

Proposed South of Scotland Enterprise Agency

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on what progress it is making with the establishment of a south of Scotland enterprise agency. (S5O-00999)

The second phase of the enterprise and skills review has been exploring options for the new south of Scotland vehicle. Those will be set out in the phase 2 report, which I expect to be published shortly after the general election.

Can the cabinet secretary cast any more light on what representation the south of Scotland is likely to have on the implementation board?

We are delighted to be setting up the new vehicle. Many people have talked about setting up such a vehicle, but we are the first Government to do it. We are determined that the south of Scotland should have its interests represented on the implementation board. As with the south of Scotland vehicle, the nature of the implementation board will be announced very shortly, following the completion of phase 2 of the review and the general election.

Is the cabinet secretary aware that I am supporting efforts to create a national tourist route in the south of Scotland similar to the north coast 500? Early estimates suggest that the project might require between £10,000 and £15,000. Does he believe that the new south of Scotland enterprise vehicle will be a key potential source of funding for such a project?

I welcome the initiative that Emma Harper has taken. She is right to emphasise the success of the north coast 500. I look forward to seeing the work of the new agency on that interesting initiative. The vehicle, once established, will of course have a role in helping to develop the visitor economy in the south, working with other organisations to ensure that communities and businesses benefit. As the member will know, decisions about project funding will be for the new vehicle, but I am sure that it will be grateful for interesting ideas such as the one that Emma Harper has put forward.

I cannot help but notice the prominence of the word “vehicle” in the cabinet secretary’s response to those questions. Can he reassure us that the south of Scotland “vehicle” will be a separately constituted organisation with its own administration and bureaucracy and the ability to work independently of other bodies and organisations?

Daniel Johnson should not read too much into the word “vehicle”, which is fairly well understood. We are talking about a separate agency, as he describes, and we have said that in previous statements. Of course, there are different ways to get to that endgame. It will take some time to establish such an agency through primary legislation. An interesting series of options is available to the Government for how we get to that stage and how we ensure that the south of Scotland’s interests are represented in the meantime. I have asked my officials to set up meetings with each of the Opposition parties so that I can discuss that. There are a range of options and I am perfectly willing to listen to suggestions. However, it is important to point out that the vehicle, or agency, is being established by the Scottish Government and is long overdue.

I notice that the member who is going to ask question 2 is coming into the chamber at the moment.

Members: Oh!

Just so that members understand, the Parliamentary Bureau gave permission to the Public Petitions Committee to overrun, as it was taking evidence from survivors of transvaginal mesh, and I believe that the member, as the convener of the Health and Sport Committee, was at that meeting.

We now come to question 2, if the member is ready.

I do not have my question.


I could probably do both. [Laughter.]

The member is now ready, so we come to question 2.

Scottish Futures Trust (Payment of Subcontractors)

Thanks very much for your indulgence, Presiding Officer.

To ask the Scottish Government how it ensures that the subcontractors who work on Scottish Futures Trust projects are paid on time by the main contractor. (S5O-01000)

That is a matter for the relevant public body to monitor. The standard contract forms that are used for non-profit-distributing and hub projects include provisions about the payment of subcontractors by the main contractor, who is required to keep records of such payments for inspection by the public body from time to time.

I will try not to keel over as I ask my question. I have a subcontractor in my region who has been working on a big college project but who has had major problems in getting paid by the main contractor. It appears that that is common across a number of projects. Will the cabinet secretary agree to meet me about the issue?

I am happy to look at the individual circumstances that the member has raised and respond accordingly. It is not my belief that that is commonplace, because there is monitoring in place, but I am happy to look at the specifics and return to the member.

I ask the cabinet secretary whether there are things that prevent the Scottish Government from taking the action that it wishes to take to encourage fair work practices?

The Scottish Government has gone further than other Administrations with regard to fair work, but it could go further if it had full legislative authority in that area. That is all the more reason for us to press the United Kingdom Government for the full devolution of employment law, so that we can go even further on that agenda. I could cite a number of examples where we have made good progress, such as the fair work convention.

What action is the Scottish Government taking to ensure that businesses pay their smaller suppliers faster? A recent report by the Federation of Small Businesses in Scotland showed that adopting the payment practices of Norway would see 2,075 fewer firms closing annually in Scotland.

The Scottish Government has a good strong track record in paying those that it procures services from. It publishes those statistics and is taking forward project bank accounts that ensure that subcontractors are paid. I encourage their use and will roll out further guidance on that.

Question 3 has not been lodged.

Brexit Negotiations (Fishing Industry)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it has sought assurances from the UK Government that Scotland’s fishing industry will not be used as a “bargaining chip” in the Brexit negotiations. (S5O-01002)

Despite numerous and continuing attempts by the Scottish Government to secure such assurances, the United Kingdom Government has given no guarantee that it will not bargain away access to Scottish waters in its Brexit negotiations. That lack of assurance raises a very real concern that the UK Government is, once again, ready to treat the Scottish fishing industry as “expendable”. However, I can give our fishing industry an assurance that, in every possible scenario for Scotland’s future, this Government will always stand up for and champion Scotland’s fishing interests.

The minister will be aware that, in Theresa May’s plans for Brexit, the Tories say:

“Given the heavy reliance on UK water of the EU fishing industry and the importance of EU waters to the UK, it is in both our interests to reach a mutually beneficial deal that works for the UK and the EU’s fishing communities”.

Does the minister agree that the UK Government’s plans to allow European Union boats access to Scotland’s waters as of right is regrettable and would be detrimental to Scotland’s fishing interests?

I can hear the Conservatives chuntering away. They do not like to hear the truth when they are confronted with it. For months leading up to the referendum, those in favour of Brexit talked about taking back control. The current UK fisheries minister promised hundreds of thousands of tonnes of extra fish for the UK fleet, yet, now that the negotiations have started, we see the true colours of the UK Government. Once again, fisheries appear to be the first thing on the list of expendables.

Scottish waters are some of the most valuable in Europe, and the Scottish fleet is one of the most successful, so protecting the interests of our fleet in international negotiations, whether on exiting the EU or on setting fishing quotas, is vital to our fishermen and the coastal communities that rely on the fishing industry. It is only this Government, led by the Scottish National Party, that will continue to stand up for Scottish interests, as has been proved time and again.

Given that the latest correspondence from Westminster—namely the private letter from Andrea Leadsom to Bertie Armstrong that has been leaked by the First Minister—is quite specific in saying that we are leaving the common fisheries policy and taking control of our waters to 200 miles, is the minister, like me, very much clearer on the way forward for fishing post-Brexit? It is certainly not expendable.

I will take no lectures from a Tory party that has sold our fishermen down the river not for years but for decades. Let us remind the Conservatives about what was said by David Mundell before the EU referendum vote:

“I think the fishermen are wrong in the sense there is no way we would just go back to Scotland or Britain controlling British waters ... I would say the idea we would go back to a position where we were entirely in control of our own fishing is not one that is realistic.”

The fishing communities of Scotland will not want Tory poodles representing them at Westminster, who will simply roll over when the UK Government sells fishermen out. That is why they should elect SNP members of Parliament, so that Scotland’s voice is heard in Westminster.

Edinburgh to Glasgow Improvement Programme

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on progress with the Edinburgh to Glasgow improvement programme. (S5O-01003)

This week, I received a letter from Network Rail chief executive Mark Carne, which I have placed in the Scottish Parliament information centre. In his letter, Mark Carne advises:

“Regrettably, it is now clear that a safety critical component is susceptible to failure and must be replaced. This will impact the energisation start date. We are working extremely closely and collaboratively within the Scotrail Alliance to assess how the impact of this challenge can be minimised for passengers and we will keep your officials informed.”

I have arranged to speak to Mark Carne to ascertain the full detail of the component failure, which is safety critical. I will, of course, ensure that members are appropriately kept up to date. Any further delay to EGIP—once again due to Network Rail—would be extremely disappointing. We remain focused on the main objective, which is the Edinburgh to Glasgow via Falkirk High route being served by longer electric trains by December 2017.

The potential further delay again highlights the need for further devolution of governance of Network Rail’s projects, which are ordinarily managed outwith the ScotRail alliance, so that Network Rail is properly accountable to this Parliament and this Government, which of course funds its works in Scotland.

Is the minister aware that the planned closure of Kerse Road bridge, to enable the electrification of the railway line in the Stirling area, is causing understandable concern, because of the potential impact on individuals and businesses? Will he say what mitigation measures are being considered in an effort to minimise disruption? Will he provide me with full details on the benefit that electrification of the rail line will bring to the Stirling area?

I am sure that the minister is aware that I am standing right behind him, so I hope that I will get a nice reply.

I am very aware of that.

As the member said, the work on the Kerse Road bridge is being delivered as part of the electrification of the Stirling-Dunblane-Alloa line, which will enable a step change in capacity, comfort and ambience for passengers who travel on the new electric trains on that key route.

The Kerse bridge is owned by Stirling Council and requires significant work to achieve the necessary electrification clearances. The member is right, of course, in that any closure will cause disruption to the local community—I recognise that. However, Network Rail is working closely with Stirling Council, public utilities and other stakeholders to keep the length of the closure to an absolute minimum.

It is worth reminding the member that as well as the potential benefit to the local community of having many workers on site, the SDA project itself involves the electrification of 100km of track from Dunblane to Stirling, which means journey time improvements of up to 10 minutes on the Stirling line services, as well as greater capacity and comfort, as I said, which is a step change in our railways that I think that passengers on that line will welcome.

Fishing Industry (West Coast)

To ask the Scottish Government how it is supporting the fish catching industry on the west coast. (S5O-01004)

The Scottish Government is firmly committed to the fish catching industry on the west coast. This year, quota for deepwater Rockall haddock increased by 45 per cent. Prawn vessels up and down the west coast have benefited from the end of the days-at-sea regime. Through the European maritime and fisheries fund programme, the European Union and the Government have supported diverse projects to develop the industry, including investment of £600,000 for the provision of harbour facilities and net mending along the west coast at Crinan, Gairloch, Ullapool, Lochinver and the Western Isles.

Our strategy for inshore fisheries, which are so important to the west coast, will help to develop a more sustainable, profitable and well-managed sector. In particular, we are looking to develop better data for fisheries management, through a £1.5 million programme to support research into the development of an integrated system for the collection, collation, analysis and interrogation of data.

The minister will be aware of changes to the minimum landing size for lobsters on the west coast, which has resulted in differences between the west and east coasts. Despite the phased implementation, there are concerns for Skye fishermen about competitive disadvantage. Will the minister agree to meet the fishermen, whom I met recently, to discuss the matter further?

The cabinet secretary and I recognise and understand some of the concerns that the member has raised. Of course, she will know that the changes in minimum landing size were the result of an extensive consultation process during 2016, after which new management measures for Scotland’s crab and lobster fisheries were announced in January. I know that the member also recognises that conservation of our stock is at the heart of the process. As she says, the new measures will include an increase from 87mm to 90mm that will be phased in over two years, which I hope will help to give an element of comfort. I should say that those measures are supported by the vast majority of fishermen, although I do not want to play down the concerns that they have raised with her.

The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Connectivity, Fergus Ewing, is meeting the Scottish Creel Fishermen’s Federation on 25 May. The delegation from the federation includes a Skye-based fishermen’s leader, which will provide a timely opportunity to discuss the matter. I will ensure that the member is fully informed of that conversation.

The Scottish National Party talks about supporting the fish catching sector. Does the fishing expert believe that withholding 12 per cent of the mackerel quota is supporting the pelagic sector? If this Government had any regard for Scotland’s processing and catching sector, it would work in collaboration with the industry towards increasing landings. Instead, all we see are bully-boy tactics. Does the minister accept that, despite total devolution of inshore fisheries, the Scottish Government has continually neglected the static-gear industry, at substantial economic cost to Scotland?

When it comes to our fishing communities, the brass neck of the Tory Party knows no bounds. We will continue to stand with fishing communities right across Scotland. Let me say this to the member: as a result of yesterday’s vote, the majority of this Parliament decided that, whatever happens in the Brexit process, on exiting the EU, we must have full powers over fisheries. He and his party have a choice. Will they stand with Scotland’s fishing communities and with the majority vote of this Parliament that demanded control over those powers or will they roll over when the United Kingdom Government once again sells Scotland’s fishermen down the river?

Infrastructure Investment (North-east Scotland)

To ask the Scottish Government what infrastructure investment it has made in the north-east since 2007, and what future investment it has planned to make the area better connected. (S5O-01005)

Since 2007, the Scottish Government has invested in major projects within the north-east, including the Aberdeen western peripheral route Balmedie to Tipperty road scheme, the emergency care centre in Aberdeen and significant investment in school buildings, including the completion of 16 new schools across the region.

Our recent infrastructure investment plan progress update highlighted that major infrastructure projects within the north-east region totalling more than £1.3 billion are currently in construction or estimated to be in construction during this year alone.

Looking forward, we have infrastructure investment planned for the Aberdeen to Inverness rail improvements, the A96 dualling programme between Inverness and Aberdeen and the A90-A96 Haudagain junction improvement.

We also have the digital Scotland superfast broadband programme to extend fibre broadband access to at least 95 per cent of premises in Scotland by the end of 2017 and 100 per cent superfast broadband coverage by 2021. Finally, we will also invest £125 million in the Aberdeen city region deal and a further £254 million in north-east infrastructure over the same five to 10-year period.

I very much welcome the investment of more than £1 billion in the north-east. In particular, upgrading the A96 will be a huge boost. However, is the cabinet secretary aware of environmental concern about one of the proposed routes east of Inverurie? How does he intend to respond to the concerns in relation to Bennachie?

I am very well aware of the concerns that Stewart Stevenson mentions—not least because of representations received from Gillian Martin and from others. I have made it clear to Transport Scotland that I want to be able to demonstrate the utmost regard for the environment, particularly the popular local site that he has mentioned at Bennachie. That should be taken into account, as is consistent with the process that he will know that we have to go through. As with all road schemes, meaningful engagement with communities forms a key part of our work as we develop our plans. We expect the next stage of our design and assessment process to start later this summer, so he should be reassured that the concerns expressed by the save Bennachie campaign and others in the area will be carefully considered and taken into account.

At the end of his first answer, the cabinet secretary mentioned an additional £254 million of investment in infrastructure in north-east Scotland. Will he tell us today whether that will or will not include dualling of the east coast railway line at Montrose, which is something on which he commented at the time of the original announcement?

The member will be aware that the £254 million that I mentioned does indeed relate to improvements on that line. It was part of the Aberdeen city deal and we went much further than the United Kingdom Government and extended that. It is designed to improve the journey times between Aberdeen and the central belt, and that will be done. The exact nature of the development and whether it means dualling, particularly at the stress point that is well known to the member, is being considered by Transport Scotland. I will be happy to provide a written update to the member if he would like that.