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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 18 December 2018

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, European Union Exit Preparations, Conduct of Reviews and Inquiries, Damages (Investment Returns and Periodical Repayments) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Decision Time, Fife Alcohol Support Service


Topical Question Time

National Health Service Boards (Annual Review Process)

To ask the Scottish Government for what reason ministers will no longer hold a public session or Q and A as part of the annual review of NHS boards. (S5T-01396)

There is no change to the core purpose of annual reviews, which is to hold NHS boards to account. This year, all 14 territorial boards will receive a ministerial review, as will the majority of national boards.

Ministers continue to have separate meetings with front-line staff through the area clinical forum and area partnership forum, and to meet with patients and carers. The meeting with the relevant board chair and chief executive allows for a focused, free and frank discussion on local performance between the minister and the senior members of the board who are directly accountable.

I am clear that health boards should be accountable to the communities that they serve. All boards have been required to hold public sessions to ensure that local people continue to have the opportunity to question their NHS boards on matters of importance, and those will have a ministerial presence. I have also asked the joint Scottish Government and Convention of Scottish Local Authorities integration review to consider how we can have whole-system reviews—jointly with COSLA, where appropriate—in the years ahead.

The issue is really quite simple, so I am disappointed that the cabinet secretary has attempted—again—to spin her way out of it. The decision to stop members of the public putting questions to ministers as part of the annual review of NHS boards is one that the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport has taken. It is a significant change in direction, and stands in stark contrast to those of her predecessors, one of whom said:

“I want the public to be full partners in the delivery of NHS services and that’s why it is vitally important that they get the opportunity to participate in annual reviews. The NHS Board chairs and I look forward to answering questions members of the public have about their local health services and hearing their views.”

That quote was from former Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing and current First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon. If it was good enough for previous health secretaries, including Nicola Sturgeon, to participate fully in public sessions, will Jeane Freeman explain to the public why she has changed the guidelines and why that requirement should not apply to her?

Ms Lennon is absolutely right that our current First Minister, when she was health secretary, introduced the public question and answer sessions. Prior to that, the Labour and Lib Dem Administrations did not have them.

I repeat that all boards have been required to hold public sessions to ensure that local people continue to have the opportunity to question their NHS boards on matters of importance and to share their views, and that those sessions will have a ministerial presence. I do not know how Ms Lennon has managed to manipulate that into accusing me of spin. Let me assure members that I am spinning nothing; I am simply answering the question in the straightforward manner that I did the first time round.

I could quote extensively—for example, from NHS Fife chair Tricia Marwick, who is quite clear that a new format has been instigated this year by the Scottish Government.

The cabinet secretary was previously a board member of the Scottish Police Authority. Because of the scrutiny that has been carried out in Parliament, we have found out that the SPA is a world leader in secrecy. None of us wants to see the same bad practices that we saw in police governance creeping into the NHS. Our health and social care services face huge challenges, and people need to have full confidence in the NHS, their health boards and the Government. The changes that have been brought in by Jeane Freeman will undermine public scrutiny and will represent a backward step.

Will the cabinet secretary just admit that her decision to avoid public questions is the height of arrogance? Will she commit to making an immediate U-turn?

I am not sure which part of what I have said—that there will be public sessions at which members of the community can ask questions, and that there will be a ministerial presence—leads to Ms Lennon’s accusation that I am avoiding public scrutiny. I genuinely do not understand that.

I am also deeply disappointed—

Why did the cabinet secretary change the guidelines then?

Perhaps if Ms Lennon can just hold off for a second and listen, she will hear me say that I am deeply disappointed that, in the absence of constructive, positive or even radical ideas about our health service from Labour members, we have to resort to personal attacks. I will not reciprocate on that.

We are talking not about the SPA but about our health service. There will be public sessions, which will have a ministerial presence. There will be questions and ministers will be there to answer those, along with health boards who are the subject of annual reviews in order to hold them to account.

I do not know what more to say on that. I am sure that Ms Lennon will continue to want to misrepresent and manipulate those words, but they are on the record and I hope that they are clear to the rest of the Parliament.

For the avoidance of doubt, and since this was not raised in the chamber when members had an opportunity to do so last week, will the cabinet secretary confirm that the reviews are about board performance, and that the requirement to hold public sessions at least once a year remains?

Ms Adamson is absolutely correct—the reviews are about board performance. Ms Lennon asked about changes. I have said to boards that they must hold a public session at least once a year—in other words, they might need to hold such sessions more than once a year. That increases accountability. Ministers will be at those public sessions.

Earlier, I made the point that board annual reviews have changed over the years to reflect changing circumstances. I have not removed the opportunity for the public to question the board or to have a minister there to be part of the questioning process. The boards will need to hold such public sessions, at which there will be a ministerial presence.

I add, for the record, that the follow-up letter on annual reviews, which sets out clearly to boards my expectation of their performance in the year to follow, will, of course—as before—be public.

What we have just heard is probably more an example of a Twitter spat being brought to the chamber than anything else.

It is right and proper that, in a parliamentary democracy, ministers and NHS boards undergo public scrutiny. The public have a right to raise concerns, whether on the increasing parking problems or the worsening performance on waiting times. Will the cabinet secretary consider how the Scottish Government can improve accountability rather than restrict it?

I am grateful to Mr Briggs for that question. I agree with him—it is only right that there is public scrutiny in a number of additional ways. We are looking at two ways in which we can improve what we do with regard to public scrutiny. First, as I said earlier in my first answer, I have asked the review of integration that is being jointly led by the Scottish Government and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities to look at how we can ensure that we have a review of the whole system. I have talked previously in the chamber to Mr Briggs’s colleague Liz Smith and others about a whole-system approach to health and social care. At the moment, it is the performance of health boards that is subject to annual review. We need to widen that, and I must do that in partnership with COSLA, where that is appropriate.

Secondly—again, this is an area that we have touched on previously in the chamber—we are looking at the question of how our health boards undertake public engagement and genuine community engagement throughout a 12-month period, regardless of whether they have major changes on which they want to consult. That work is under way with health boards and inside Government, and I hope that we will be able to make some proposals, which we can discuss with the Health and Sport Committee and announce in the chamber so that members are aware of the changes that we want to make to encourage our health boards to have a more consistent approach to genuine public engagement with the communities that they serve.

Rail Transport (Festive Period Performance)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to ensure that rail transport performs well during the festive period. (S5T-01412)

The member will be aware that ScotRail’s ability to provide a reliable service for several parts of the Scottish rail network has been unacceptable for passengers and the Scottish Government over the past few weeks. Instead of celebrating the provision of 65,000 additional weekday seats and more than 100 additional services per day following the recent introduction of the new timetable, I am extremely disappointed to again be speaking about unacceptable levels of cancellations.

I have made my position clear to Alex Hynes, who is the managing director of the ScotRail Alliance, and to Dominic Booth, who is the managing director of Abellio UK: ScotRail must take all action that is necessary to ensure that services return to schedule as soon as possible and that passengers begin to see the benefits of the new timetable.

ScotRail has sought to reassure me that there is a plan of action to address the number of cancellations. First, ScotRail has already recruited 85 drivers and 54 conductors to deliver the new services. Secondly, an intensive training programme is under way to recover the delays that were caused by the late delivery of trains and the industrial action by the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers. That training programme, which will continue throughout the Christmas holiday period, will allow a steady service improvement, as each staff member completes their training on the new trains and routes. Thirdly, additional expert operational planning resource has been added to ScotRail’s team to optimise the use of available resources and thus minimise cancellations.

I have made it clear to ScotRail that restorative action rests entirely with it and I expect it to take whatever action is required to ensure that services return to normal as quickly as possible and run smoothly over the Christmas and new year period, delivering the benefits of more seats and services on a consistently reliable basis.

I thank Michael Matheson for that full reply and for acknowledging that there have been problems recently. However, I want to point out some of the issues, which many members will have experienced or received letters from constituents about. Last Friday, travel chaos ensued across the ScotRail network, and that continued until Monday, with more than 70 trains being cancelled. Many of our constituents experienced terrible service last week, including on the Waverley line to Tweedbank. Trains were delayed or cancelled and the situation escalated—so much so that the trains did not stop at Stow. Hard-working ScotRail staff bore the brunt of the passengers’ anger. This is unacceptable. Last weekend was the first proper weekend of the Christmas rush and ScotRail failed to step up to the mark. Has it already fallen at the first hurdle?

I fully recognise that the experience for some of the travelling public over the past week or so has not been acceptable, and the Government has been very clear that the service has not been at the level that we expect. As an MSP who represents a constituency that has four train stations, I understand the concerns that constituents have about the quality of service that has been experienced to date.

I have outlined a range of reasons why there has been an impact on service provision, but I expect ScotRail to take appropriate action to address those issues as a matter of urgency. The three elements of work that I said ScotRail has taken forward are actions that are intended to address those very issues. Alongside that, we can see the additional progress that has been made with the Donovan review. The Office of Rail and Road will publish its findings on the progress with implementing the review’s recommendations tomorrow, and it will also set out the progress that ScotRail is making in addressing the range of infrastructure issues that also have to be addressed in order to improve reliability on our rail network across the country.

I thank the cabinet secretary for taking the time to tackle the issue. It is an absolute priority over the Christmas period. However, I reiterate that we have had the lowest performance in two decades, overcrowded trains, overworked staff, cancelled services, angry passengers and rising compensation payments. The cabinet secretary knows that this is deplorable. When will he wake up and realise that the Scottish Government needs to reinstate the performance targets and hold ScotRail to account?

I am a bit confused by the member’s question. One minute she praises me for taking action to get the matter addressed, and the next minute she is asking when I will wake up to the matter. I assure her that I am very much awake to it.

I have outlined the variety of reasons why there has been an impact on performance. The late arrival of trains had an impact on staff training, and the industrial action also had an impact on the training programme in preparation for the introduction of the new timetable. All of that has spiralled to create the difficulties that we have at present. Notwithstanding that, I understand that the travelling public expect more, and ScotRail has committed to take forward the three actions that I set out in my initial response in order to address the issue and make sure that we get the level of performance that we expect for the travelling public in Scotland.

I point out to the member, however, that some 60 per cent of delays and cancellations on the Scottish network are due to infrastructure problems, which are the responsibility of the United Kingdom Government. As I have called for time and again in the chamber, there is a need to align the rolling stock provision with infrastructure service delivery to make sure that it is much more passenger focused, and the most effective way to do that is to devolve it to the Scottish Parliament to allow us to put in place a model that delivers a much more passenger-focused train service.

Last month, Scottish National Party and Tory MSPs united to vote down Labour’s proposal to end this failing franchise and, rather than taking enforcement action against ScotRail for plummeting performance, the transport secretary issued a waiver, allowing it to deliver the worst punctuality since the franchise began. Had that licence to fail not been granted, the company would have been in breach of its franchise and the Government could have issued a remedial plan notice against ScotRail. Is it not time that the transport secretary stopped bailing out ScotRail and started standing up for Scotland’s hard-pressed rail passengers by demanding a proper remedial plan from ScotRail showing how and—crucially—when it will hit the performance targets that it is paid to hit? I am not talking about the two inadequate improvement plans, which do not go far enough.

Will the transport secretary join Labour in calling for a fares freeze until passengers start to get the decent service that they deserve?

As I said, the ORR will publish its update on the Donovan recommendations tomorrow. In that report, the ORR will clearly set out the progress of ScotRail and Network Rail in addressing infrastructure and rolling stock issues, as recommended, to improve services for passengers. I await the findings in that report.

There are early signs of improvements, particularly in the Strathclyde electric area, where there is greater resilience and an overall improvement in performance—although not today, because of an infrastructure failure in points outside Glasgow Central station. Since the new timetable’s introduction last week, there have been improvements in performance in that regard, too.

As the member recognised, the standards that were set in the franchise agreement remain in place. The waiver was in recognition of issues outwith ScotRail’s control that have had an impact on performance, such as Network Rail’s performance, which is at such a level that the ORR is investigating Network Rail for its failure to deliver properly, and weather incidents. The franchise agreement requirements remain in place and in force.

I assure the member that a Government that invests more than £400 million in new and upgraded rolling stock in Scotland and intends over the next five years to invest some £5 billion in our railways in Scotland is a Government that is about investing in our rail infrastructure in Scotland in a way that continues to drive up performance. Performance to date has not been to the level that we expect, and ScotRail is taking forward actions that it thinks can address the problems.

Five more members want to ask a question.

This morning, passengers arrived at Dyce station in my constituency to be notified that the 7.26 to Aberdeen had been cancelled, the 7.59 to Aberdeen was delayed and the 8.31 to Aberdeen had been cancelled. Those are important services for commuters in my constituency. Moreover, trains often run with too few carriages, which causes discomfort and inconvenience for passengers.

My constituents welcome the improvements to the infrastructure between Aberdeen and Inverness. Those improvements will bring the infrastructure into the 21st century; my constituents are asking when the train service will get there.

I do not know the reasons for the issues with the services that the member mentioned, but I suspect that they related to crew. As I said, because of the late arrival of the new trains, ScotRail has faced challenges with training staff and conductors.

The member will know that a key issue that we are trying to address is the need to increase capacity on the rail infrastructure. By the end of 2019 there will be a 23 per cent increase in seating capacity, but that depends on the delivery of the new high-speed trains, alongside the new Hitachi trains, which will allow the rest of the fleet to be cascaded to other routes, including routes in the north and north-east of Scotland. When that programme is complete, there will be a significant uplift in seating capacity in Scotland and in the range of available services. The actions that are being taken to address crew issues should improve the delivery of services as the new fleets become available.

Every weekday morning in recent weeks, hundreds of my constituents have been stranded at Dalmeny and South Gyle stations, due to chronic underprovision of rolling stock on services bound for the centre of our nation’s capital. Ally McKean messaged me this morning from the platform and said:

“Not one soul got the 3 carriage 7.57 train at Dalmeny. People are missing meetings and shifts. This must be costing the economy millions.”

Cabinet secretary, this is not just a workforce or infrastructure issue; it is chronic underprovision of rolling stock. Will the cabinet secretary tell the Parliament and my constituents when the rolling stock issue will be resolved and an effective timetable will meet with his approval?

The member is referring to two areas of rolling stock. First, the class 385s have been delayed by Hitachi; something in the region of 56 should have been available to ScotRail for the timetable change, and it is unfortunate that only 31 were provided. That has had a direct impact on ScotRail’s ability to deliver new rolling stock and cascade the rest of the train fleet.

Secondly, Wabtec has failed to deliver on the refurbishment of the high-speed trains. I spoke to the global president of Wabtec in the US last week. It does not expect to complete that refurbishment programme until the end of 2019.

The full Hitachi programme should be delivered for the next timetable change in May. In a discussion that I had with the global head of Hitachi just a fortnight ago, he gave me assurances that Hitachi is doing everything possible to ensure that it can deliver those carriages on time for the next timetable change.

Those two companies have let down ScotRail in delivering rolling stock, and that is having a direct impact on passenger experience. However, I can assure Alex Cole-Hamilton that we are applying every pressure possible to those companies to ensure that they deliver the additional rolling stock as quickly as possible in order to address the problems that we have at present.

The cabinet secretary appears to be commending a plan of action to address the plan of action and its shortcomings. He has described that as “unacceptable” and said that he was disappointed. Here we are again. Has the cabinet secretary made any assessment of the reputational damage that the Scottish Government has incurred by not enforcing the terms of the franchise? He wants to take control of Network Rail, and he enjoys the Scottish Green Party’s support for that. That would be a significant development. Why not end the franchise now and take control of ScotRail, as well?

For the very reasons that I have previously stated, the franchise agreement and its objectives remain in place. The 1 per cent waiver is on the basis of issues that are outwith ScotRail’s control, which have had an impact on the franchise performance. Infrastructure in particular and weather events have had an impact on its performance. That is provided for in the franchise agreement. The enforcement of the rest of the franchise agreement provisions is already in place. I have also stated that there is a provision in the franchise agreement for it to be drawn to an end at an earlier stage if that is appropriate.

As I have said, I want the existing investment that we are making in our rail infrastructure and rolling stock to be successful. Our focus at this time is on ensuring that we do everything possible to deliver the best possible rail services to the travelling public in Scotland.

I refer to my entry in the register of members’ interests.

Has the United Kingdom Government apologised to the Scottish Government for the performance of Network Rail, which it owns?

There is absolutely no doubt that, in the past couple of years, and the past year in particular, the performance of Network Rail has had a significant impact on rail service performance in Scotland—so much so that the ORR has initiated proceedings against Network Rail for its failure to respond effectively to address concerns that service operators, including ScotRail, have raised. In excess of 60 per cent of the delays and cancellations in Scotland have been caused by Network Rail. That tells me that there is something seriously wrong with the existing structural arrangements for our rail service.

The fact that Network Rail is not accountable to the Scottish Parliament, the Scottish Government or the people of Scotland through the Scottish Government is a major weakness in how we can deliver rail services. The sooner that we have direct control over the infrastructure elements of our rail network alongside the passenger provisions in order to deliver a better service for the travelling public in Scotland, the better.

That is the point, of course. Every time that we have this discussion, the cabinet secretary makes the same point that it is all down to Network Rail. Given that he has quoted the 60 per cent figure, will he break that down, please? What was down to the weather, broken trains and track deaths? Unfortunate as those things might be, they cannot be controlled by Network Rail. The fact of the matter is that, even if the Scottish Government had control of Network Rail, it could not prevent the things that I have mentioned. I would be grateful if the cabinet secretary could split those things out so that we can understand exactly how much is down to matters that can be controlled by Network Rail.

I am not sure whether Edward Mountain realises how illogical his question is. A number of those issues are outwith the control of ScotRail, as well, never mind Network Rail. To say that all of those things are the responsibility of Network Rail would be patently untrue.

I have said that sometimes in excess of 60 per cent of the incidents are the responsibility of Network Rail. I am disappointed that the convener of the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee is unwilling to recognise that Network Rail has a significant impact on rail service performance in Scotland. The very reason why the ORR is taking proceedings against Network Rail is its failure to be able to deliver the standards that are expected in the rail network, not just in Scotland but throughout the UK. That is the responsibility of the Department for Transport.

Four more members wished to ask questions, but it is time to move on. I apologise to Mike Rumbles, Neil Findlay and Patrick Harvie in particular.