Meeting date: Thursday, February 21, 2019
Meeting of the Parliament 21 February 2019
Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Delivering Sustainable and Renewable Transportation, Budget (Scotland) (No 3) Bill: Stage 3, Decision Time, Correction
- General Question Time
- First Minister’s Question Time
- Delivering Sustainable and Renewable Transportation
- Budget (Scotland) (No 3) Bill: Stage 3
- Decision Time
First Minister’s Question Time
Before I turn to the first question, I advise members that I have been in touch with all the party leaders to ask for shorter questions and answers this week. That will give more space for back benchers to make contributions and I hope that it will also make for snappier and more effective contributions. I live in hope that my exhortation will be adhered to. On that note, I call Jackson Carlaw. [Laughter.]
Workplace Parking Levy
Well, after that lengthy introduction, Presiding Officer—[Laughter.]
Thousands of Scots every day commute across central Scotland into Edinburgh and Glasgow. Can the First Minister explain to them why a car park tax imposed on them by a local authority whose politicians they do not elect and in whose region they do not live is a good example of local decision making?
Of course, this would be a discretionary power for councils and a power that, under a Tory Government, councils in England already have; it is the kind of localism that Tories have been demanding in this chamber for some time. However, I noted that Jackson Carlaw launched a campaign in Edinburgh this morning and that he mentioned Edinburgh in his question. I thought that that was really interesting, because just a few months ago a motion that was passed at the transport committee of City of Edinburgh Council said:
“To note the merits in principle of pursuing the power for Edinburgh to ... introduce a Workplace Parking Levy.”
That motion was tabled by Councillor Nick Cook, Conservative; seconded by Councillor Scott Douglas, Conservative; and voted for by Councillor Graeme Bruce, Conservative.
Would Jackson Carlaw care to explain that—how can I put this delicately—inconsistency?
The First Minister wants to talk about City of Edinburgh Council. Tory councillors noted the need for an economic assessment. The entire country has noted that the First Minister wants to impose a £500 car park tax on them with no assessment whatsoever. Do I support a back-of-the-fag-packet policy that threatens low-paid workers with a regressive tax? No, I do not. Does the First Minister not understand what that means to ordinary people across Scotland? It is equivalent to many people’s monthly rent.
I assume from the First Minister’s answer that she is now the cheerleader in chief for people being punished for going to work and having no say, far less a vote, over that decision. However, the Scottish National Party’s position on the car park tax is more confused than that. On Wednesday, SNP minister Kate Forbes said:
“A key principle, born of Adam Smith, is that taxes should be proportionate to the ability to pay.”—[Official Report, 19 February 2019; c 28.]
Can the First Minister explain how that entirely admirable principle, which so rightly inspired Kate Forbes, is even remotely met if a call centre worker earning less than £20,000 a year has to pay the same car park tax as a company director earning five times as much?
As Jackson Carlaw well knows, the SNP Government would not impose anything on anybody. This is a discretionary power that councils in England already have, and councils can propose the levy on employers, not on employees. This is what the Tories used to believe:
“We believe that decisions should be taken as locally as possible and that powers should lie with politicians elected as locally as possible.”
I am not sure when they changed their minds.
I have been wondering whether there is a reason—other than naked hypocrisy—for the Tories’ position on the levy, and it might be something to do with this. At the end of last year, the Tories on Angus Council introduced car parking charges at 33 public car parks in Carnoustie, Arbroath, Forfar, Kirriemuir, Brechin and Montrose. Last year, the Tories on East Dunbartonshire Council increased car parking charges and scrapped free parking, and the Tories on Argyll and Bute Council imposed an 800 per cent increase in car parking charges in Arrochar. There we have it: the Tories do not want to give powers to councils, because the Tories clearly do not trust Tory councils.
So it is the Henry McLeish defence: “It wisnae me; it was a councillor what done it.” However, the First Minister is responsible, because she and her SNP MSPs will vote for the car park tax this afternoon. Every Scottish Conservative council group leader has now said emphatically that they will not support a car park tax in their area, and every Scottish Conservative MSP will oppose the car park tax in their constituency or region.
What about the First Minister? She is a constituency MSP in Glasgow, so what is her view? If, as a result of powers that are voted for by SNP MSPs, the SNP leadership of Glasgow City Council proposes to charge hundreds of pounds each year for workplace parking, will she support the council? Yes or no.
It is up to local councils to do the assessment and to make the case. Presumably, that is what the Tories mean by
“decisions ... taken as locally as possible”,
and by power lying
“with politicians elected as locally as possible.”
Let us get to the heart of the Tory position. As I understand it, the Tory position is that, if the SNP Government devolves a tax to councils, and councils decide to use that power, that becomes an SNP Government tax. Therefore, given that the Tory Government devolved income tax powers to the Scottish Government, I ask Jackson Carlaw whether the Scottish Government’s use of those powers is a Tory tax. That sounds ridiculous, but that is the logic of the Tory position. In the budget debate this afternoon, I look forward to us all calling the Scottish Government’s income tax decisions a Tory tax. That is Jackson Carlaw’s logic.
Bluntly, it sounds as though the First Minister does not know whether she is in favour of her own policy being imposed on her own constituents by her own SNP council.
We will oppose the budget deal when it comes before Parliament this afternoon. Frankly, so should SNP members, because it breaks their manifesto promises on the council tax and the basic rate of income tax. As we learned earlier this week, it risks precious tax revenue, which pays for our schools and hospitals, being lost to Scotland as people take their money elsewhere. Worst of all, the car park tax says to people across the country who are trying to do the right thing, who are trying to juggle school drop-offs with work, who are trying to keep Scotland going and who, in many cases, are working unsociable hours when there is no public transport provision, that they are to be punished.
All week, SNP ministers have been desperately distancing themselves from the car park tax, and now even the First Minister will not say whether she backs it. It is a simple question: if they do not back it, why should we or anybody else?
I back councils having the power to decide, because we do not just preach localism and empowering councils—we practise that principle. Councils could use the discretionary power to help with tackling pollution, cutting emissions and—yes—investing in public transport. I repeat that that is exactly the localism that Tories have demanded and exactly the power that the United Kingdom Tory Government already allows councils in England to have.
Is it not the case—I have a wealth of evidence on this, some of which I have gone through today—that the Tories do not in principle oppose giving councils the power and that they oppose it only when the Scottish National Party proposes it? To coin a phrase, that is hypocrisy on stilts. I hope that Jackson Carlaw had more success when he sold second-hand cars than he is having in peddling his current line.
At least I had a real job.
I call Richard Leonard. Order, please.
Local Government Funding
Yesterday, school pupils across Argyll and Bute took to the streets to protest against cuts to local youth services. They understand the impact that £230 million of cuts to Scotland’s councils will have. Does the First Minister? (S5F-03062)
As we saw last week, I always applaud young people taking an interest in the decisions that affect their lives, which applies to young people in Argyll and Bute as it does to young people who campaign for greater action on climate change. However, Richard Leonard is wrong to talk about cuts to the local government budget.
The budget that we will propose this afternoon increases the resources that councils have to spend. We will ensure that councils have more resources in revenue terms, in capital terms and overall. In addition, as we have just debated, we will give councils more flexibility to raise revenue. That is a good thing. It is incumbent on Richard Leonard, given that he did not propose a single change to the budget, to say why he will vote against the budget this afternoon.
The First Minister talks about providing more resources for Scotland’s councils, so let us examine what that will look like on the ground. Later today, Scottish National Party-run Dundee City Council will propose a budget that will cut children’s education in the city by cutting education resource workers, cutting pupil support workers, cutting primary school and early years assistants and even cutting 26 teaching posts from primary schools. All of that comes when school rolls in the city are rising. Will the First Minister explain why she stands up in the chamber to claim that education is her top priority but then sets a budget that will mean cuts to the number of teachers and cuts to education out in the real world?
Yet again, I will give Richard Leonard the facts. The proposed budget, which Parliament will vote on this afternoon, increases local government day-to-day spending for local revenue services, including education, by £287.5 million. There is an increase in capital spending of £207.6 million and greater flexibility to raise revenue.
Those are the facts—[Interruption.]
Order, please. Let us listen to the First Minister.
I give Richard Leonard a final opportunity. The final vote on the budget will take place at 5 o’clock today, so he still has a few hours. If he wants us to spend more on local government, which line in the budget should we take that money from? Should it come from health or social care? I am waiting—Richard Leonard has the opportunity to respond, so let us hear his proposal.
Here is a fact: it is not just in Dundee where cuts to council funding are hitting children’s education. In SNP-run Clackmannanshire Council, the Scottish Government cuts were so deep that council officers proposed closing Coalsnaughton and Fishcross primary schools, and only a campaign led by parents stopped them. However, children in Clackmannanshire still face cuts. School transport is being axed, class sizes are being increased, and two and a half hours is being cut from the school week.
Nicola Sturgeon came into office promising to cut class sizes but, 12 years on, too many children will be in bigger classes because of her budget, and they will spend less time being taught in those classes because of her budget. If education is the First Minister’s defining mission, and if young people are her sacred responsibility, why is she imposing £230 million-worth of cuts on Scotland’s councils?
To put it bluntly, we are not. If we wound the clock back to about this time last year, Richard Leonard would be standing up, again claiming that education budgets across the country were going to be cut. Here is what happened in this financial year. Local authorities set education budgets this year that were 3.8 per cent higher than the budgets that they set the year before. That is a 2.3 per cent real-terms increase in their planned spend on education. Those are the facts, and no matter how hard Richard Leonard tries, he cannot negate those facts.
I give Richard Leonard one last chance. If he wants us to spend more on local government, he has an opportunity before 5 o’clock today to come forward and say where that will come from. The only proposal that came from Labour benches was ruled out by Richard Leonard. He has got no credibility in asking for more money if he will not say where that money will come from.
There are a number of constituency questions, the first of which is from David Torrance.
Elis Laundry Factory
Yesterday, Elis announced the closure of its laundry factory in Kirkcaldy by the beginning of April, with an anticipated loss of 86 jobs. Will the First Minister please advise what the Scottish Government can do to support the employees who are facing redundancy?
I was very concerned to hear that Elis has announced the closure of its laundry factory in Kirkcaldy, with the potential loss of many jobs. I understand that the proposal is that the site will close at the end of March and the business will transfer to Inchinnan. Partnership action on continuing employment has already engaged with Elis and has worked with the employees affected over recent weeks. I can assure David Torrance that the partnership will continue to provide the support that employees need to help them at this very difficult time.
Ambulance Cover (Perthshire)
A constituent in Highland Perthshire has asked me to raise concerns about ambulance cover in the area. On 20 January, after a 999 call for an ambulance in a life-threatening situation, it took one hour and 46 minutes for a rapid response unit to attend and two hours and 14 minutes for an ambulance to follow up. Fortunately, the patient in question has recovered, but does the First Minister consider that those timescales are acceptable? What steps will be taken to improve the level of ambulance cover in rural Perthshire?
I am grateful to Murdo Fraser for raising that matter, and I ask him to pass my good wishes back to his constituent, please.
I am sure that members across the chamber would want to acknowledge that our Ambulance Service does an excellent job. I do not know all of the details of that particular case, but from what Murdo Fraser has narrated, that kind of response time does not appear to me to be acceptable. However, I will ask the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport to look into the circumstances, discuss them with the Scottish Ambulance Service, and write to Murdo Fraser when she has more information.
Healthcare Environmental Services
After the clinical waste company Healthcare Environmental Services ceased its services to the national health service, health boards continued to pay the company, and it has been reported that boards still owe HES £450,000. Meanwhile, HES workers still have not been paid their final wages after they were let go at Christmas. Does the First Minister agree that any outstanding payments from NHS boards to HES should be used to create a special fund for HES staff, who cannot afford to be out of pocket any longer?
First, I understand the sentiment behind Monica Lennon’s question. I think that we would all share a sense of anger when any employees are treated less than ideally, which is certainly the case here.
My understanding is that any payments that were made to the company were for services that were delivered before the company went into administration, and therefore health boards were contractually and legally obliged to make those payments. [The First Minister has corrected this contribution. See end of report.] I am sure that Monica Lennon can understand that position. However, we will continue to do everything that we can to help the employees concerned, and I am sure that the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport would be happy to talk to Monica Lennon about the further actions that the Scottish Government is able to take.
Tarbolton Landfill Site
I wish to draw the First Minister’s attention to Tarbolton landfill site. It has been 250 days since the company that was running that site went into liquidation. Since then, pumps have been switched off and there has been no flaring. There is increasing evidence of contaminants leaching into the ground, the air and the water.
At a recent stakeholders meeting, it was unclear where the responsibility lies for health and safety. Can the First Minister tell me where the lines of responsibility lie in relation to keeping that site safe?
I am not able to give that information to Brian Whittle right now. I undertake to raise the issue with the environment secretary and to come back to Brian Whittle as quickly as possible about our understanding of the lines of accountability and the action that the Scottish Government can take to try to reach a resolution of what certainly seems to be a deeply unsatisfactory situation.
I can understand that people in the local area will be very concerned about any prospect of contamination and it is absolutely necessary that all relevant agencies and organisations respond as quickly as possible.
Maternity Services (Caithness)
A woman in Caithness has bravely shared her experience of giving birth under the current maternity services provision there. She was pregnant with twins when she went into labour at 30 weeks. She went to Caithness general hospital and was told after examination that she would be transferred by road to Inverness—over 100 miles away and a two-and-a-half-hour drive.
Halfway into that journey, her transport had to stop at a community hospital in Golspie, where the first twin was born breach. The air ambulance was then tasked but because it would take two hours to arrive, the first twin was sent by road to Inverness.
The helicopter could not land. Another air ambulance was tasked but would have taken too long to arrive. Therefore, a second ambulance resumed the journey to Inverness, where the second twin was born.
Thankfully, after a prolonged stay in hospital, all are now doing well. However, it begs the question: why was the air ambulance or the emergency retrieval team not tasked initially with airlifting the mum from Caithness? Will the First Minister investigate this and will she make sure that the air ambulance service treats such situations as a priority?
Yes, I will investigate that specific question and I ask Rhoda Grant to convey my good wishes to the family in her constituency.
As Rhoda Grant knows, mothers about to give birth are transferred from Caithness only when that is considered to be in line with patient safety. Why the air ambulance was not immediately tasked in this case is not something that I have information on now, but I will ask the health secretary to look into that this afternoon and come back to Rhoda Grant with an explanation of why that happened and any further consideration that we think is required in the light of that, to ensure that, where possible, the right method of transferring mothers is tasked at the earliest possible opportunity.
Fatal Accident Inquiries
New information suggests that John Yuill could have survived if the police had responded to an emergency call in time, but we know that both he and Lamara Bell died when they were left at the side of the M9 motorway for three days. The accident happened four years ago, but there is still no fatal accident inquiry—and their families are not alone: our research has found that families across Scotland wait for up to eight years for a fatal accident inquiry into the death of their loved ones.
Can the First Minister tell these families why on earth it is taking so long for them to get the answers that they deserve?
I thank Willie Rennie for raising the issue. I take the opportunity to once again express my deepest sympathies to the families of John Yuill and Lamara Bell. What happened in that case was unacceptable. There has been a great deal of investigation and lessons have been learned that will be applied.
On the specific issue of fatal accident inquiries, I absolutely understand the frustration that families will often feel about the length of time that it takes for them to begin. However—I hope that Willie Rennie understands this point; I am sure that he will—the decision to hold a fatal accident inquiry and the timescale for initiating the inquiry are matters entirely for the Lord Advocate. In this capacity, the Lord Advocate operates independently of Government, so it would be wrong for me to seek to second-guess that decision-making process.
Depending on the circumstances of a case—I am not talking about any particular case—a death investigation can be complex and technical and often involves a number of different agencies. The Crown Office is committed to prompt investigations. However, it accepts that the time that has been taken to complete an investigation has been too long in some cases.
Finally, the Government has made additional funding available to the Crown Office, some of which the Crown Office is using to support the Scottish fatalities investigation unit to try to reduce the time that is required to complete death investigations.
I hope that that is a helpful answer and that Willie Rennie is assured that the Crown Office and the Government take the issue seriously.
I understand that. However, how can any lessons be learned when it takes years to get the answers?
It may be that the issue of the failure to maintain experienced call handlers in the Bilston Glen police service centre is one of the lessons that should be learned from the M9 crash. However, mistakes are about to be made again at Bilston Glen, as well as at centres in Motherwell and Govan. Police staff who work night and back shifts are about to lose thousands of pounds per year due to changes in their shift allowances. I am told that morale is at rock bottom.
We cannot afford to drive experienced call handlers out of police service. Will the First Minister therefore step in to prevent those damaging changes?
That change is, of course, still under discussion. The majority of police staff will see an increase. Nevertheless, those are important issues that the Government must properly consider.
I have answered the points about fatal accident inquiries as fully as I can and I will not repeat what I have already said. It is in the interests of everyone that investigations and inquiries take place as quickly as possible. However, it is also important that the right processes are followed.
The average number of days that are taken to complete fatal accident inquiries is reducing. However, that is of no comfort to any family who is still waiting for one to start. We take those issues seriously and continue to work with the Crown Office to address them—and that is the case with regard to the other changes that Willie Rennie mentioned.
The First Minister might be aware that the Conservative Party’s spokesperson for social security stated this morning that there is no such thing as the bedroom tax.
Given that the Scottish Government provides an average of £650 in bedroom tax relief for more than 70,000 families in Scotland, is the First Minister concerned, as I am, that the Tories would take away that support for families, because they believe that the tax does not even exist?
I have not seen the details of the comment, but I am aware that Michelle Ballantyne, the Tories’ spokesperson for social security and welfare, said at a committee this morning that the bedroom tax does not exist.
That will come as news to the many people who are subject to the bedroom tax—or who would be subject to the bedroom tax but for the mitigation action that the Scottish Government has taken to ensure that nobody in Scotland has to pay it.
Perhaps Michelle Ballantyne will want to explain her comments later this afternoon. I would hope that Jackson Carlaw would want to take a very close look at her comments. However, if the Tories do not even understand the basics about what people across the country are experiencing as a result of their welfare policies, it does not augur very well for our chances of persuading them to change them.
It is an appalling comment, if indeed it was made, and I hope that Michelle Ballantyne will retract it at the earliest opportunity.
Discrimination is about more than just hate crime; it impacts people’s life chances and outcomes. Today, with the support of the Scottish Parliament information centre, I published a report that shows that Scotland’s diverse minority communities are chronically underrepresented in the civil service and public sector bodies.
Only 1.8 per cent of civil servants are from a diverse background; only 10 of the people who are in the most senior posts are from a diverse background; and in two thirds of local authorities people who are from a diverse background make up less than 1 per cent of employees.
Will the First Minister commit to a full and regular audit of Scotland’s public sector? Will she support the implementation of the Rooney rule, which means that at least one person with an ethnic minority background is shortlisted when a vacancy arises? Will she agree to expand the welcome Gender Representation on Public Boards (Scotland) Act 2018 to ensure that our public sector bodies reflect Scottish society?
I want to say a couple of things in response to that. First, I absolutely agree with the sentiments behind Anas Sarwar’s question. I will ask the permanent secretary to consider all the specifics that he has asked me about and I will be happy to write to him, or I will ask the permanent secretary to write to him, on how we will take forward those specific points.
I assure Anas Sarwar and the entire chamber that the Scottish Government, as an employer, is absolutely determined to increase the number of people from ethnic minorities who work in the organisation. They are underrepresented in the Scottish Government at the moment, as will be the case for many organisations and employers. Just as it is important that we redress the imbalance in gender, it is vital that we redress the imbalance that affects people from ethnic minorities. As an employer, the Scottish Government is absolutely committed to doing so and to encouraging other employers to take similar action.
Saltire Prize for Marine Energy
The First Minister will recall that the saltire prize for marine energy was first launched in 2008 by her predecessor, Alex Salmond, amid characteristic fanfare. Mr Salmond went on to relaunch the prize on a regular basis over subsequent years, before it was quietly abandoned, unclaimed, in 2017.
Given the role that tidal energy needs to play in our future energy mix, as well as in meeting our climate change targets, what assurance can the First Minister give that the latest version of the saltire prize is actually winnable and is not simply an exercise in window dressing?
That is a legitimate question for Liam McArthur to have raised. We have recast the prize to make sure that it matches developments in tidal energy. The fact that the saltire prize was not doing that was nothing to do with the situation when the prize was launched; it is simply the case that tidal energy has not developed in the way that people then thought that it would. We are determined to ensure that the recast initiative helps those who are seeking to develop tidal energy.
Over the past couple of weeks, as I have promoted Scotland internationally, I have spoken to a number of people who are active in renewable energy, some of whom warmly welcomed the changes, because they thought that the recast prize better reflected the work that they were doing. I hope that Liam McArthur is reassured by that and that we can all get behind renewable energy generally in Scotland, and tidal energy in particular.
On Saturday, another shooting took place in Glasgow—in Springburn, which is the area where I live—almost a year after the victim’s brother was shot in the same street. It is one of the many shootings that have taken place in Glasgow over the past two years. The issue is one that I have previously raised in the chamber.
What action will be taken to reassure residents that steps are being taken to clamp down on gun crime?
That is primarily an operational matter for Police Scotland. I know from the discussions that I have with Police Scotland that the issue of gun crime and gang-related crime in the city of Glasgow is a real priority for the organisation.
For the Government’s part, we have a duty to support the police, which is why we are increasing Police Scotland’s revenue budget. That will enable Police Scotland to do the job that it is tasked to do. The Cabinet Secretary for Justice and I are regularly briefed by Police Scotland on developments to do with serious and organised crime, and I am sure that the issue that Annie Wells has raised will continue to be a great priority. I think that that is required in order to provide the necessary reassurance to people who live in Glasgow, which is where I live and where my constituency is. Annie Wells has raised an important point.
Canada, United States and France (Visits)
To ask the First Minister whether she will provide an update on her recent visits to Canada, the United States and France. (S5F-03084)
In the face of Brexit, it has never been more important to demonstrate that Scotland is an open, outward-looking country and that we are open for business. I visited the US, Canada and France, which are markets that are worth more than £8 billion to Scotland’s economy, to promote our country as an attractive place to invest, visit, work and live.
During my visits, I opened new hubs in Canada and France, as part of our programme for government commitments to grow our relationships with other countries, and hosted events to promote Scottish food and drink. I met companies including Marriott, Accor, Morgan Stanley, IBM and BNP Paribas, all of which are important stakeholders in some of our key economic sectors. I also spoke at an event at the United Nations that was hosted by the assistant secretary general for human rights to discuss Scotland’s commitment to gender equality and human rights.
Does the First Minister agree that, by promoting trade and investment and launching new innovation and investment hubs in Ottawa and Paris, the Scottish Government is working to show that Scotland is an attractive place to invest, visit, work and live, and that Scotland is building positive international relationships as we are taken out of the European Union against our will, instead of taking the isolationist view of the parochial Tories, who quibble at any attempt by Scotland to raise its profile on the international stage, even as we strive to attract investment and jobs to Scotland?
It has always been important for First Ministers to represent and promote the country abroad. By coincidence, when I was going to France on Monday, I ran into Jack McConnell at Edinburgh airport, and he reminded me how important it was to do that when he was First Minister. It is even more important now because of Brexit. I make no apology. I will continue to do everything that I can to promote Scotland abroad. Interestingly, the Tories have been criticising that, but I notice that the Secretary of State for Scotland seems to agree with me, rather than with them. In the past couple of years alone, David Mundell has visited Iceland, the USA, Uruguay, Chile, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Japan, Norway, Paraguay, Argentina, Germany, Belgium, Myanmar and Singapore, and I back him to do that. The only question is why nobody noticed that he was gone.
ScotRail Satisfaction Targets (Alterations)
To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to reports that alterations have been made to ScotRail’s satisfaction targets over the last two years. (S5F-03077)
The Government puts the interests of the passenger first, which is why the franchise contract includes requirements to meet passenger satisfaction targets. Only a few rail franchises require that. The Government holds ScotRail to account for matters within the franchisee’s control, but it is only reasonable—and required contractually—that we also take account of impacts that are beyond the franchisee’s control. The targets for overall satisfaction have been adjusted, as required by the contract, for two reasons: first, to take account of a change in survey methodology by Passenger Focus and, secondly, to take account of increased disruption levels from extended route closures due to track renewal works in the Queen Street tunnel and delayed electrification works. The extent and impact of that disruption was not known at the time of the bids for the ScotRail franchise.
ScotRail’s contractual satisfaction target is 88.5 per cent, but the Scottish Government dropped that target to 84 per cent and 85 per cent in the past two years. Surprise, surprise, the operator met the new, lower targets, thus avoiding triggering an event of default. We know that ScotRail is unlikely to meet its public performance measure targets for months, if not years, to come. In December, the First Minister told the Parliament that services were unacceptable and she apologised to passengers for the dismal performance. Is the Government not sending the message that moving the goalposts and lowering the targets is how it will deal with any franchise holder that does not meet its contractual obligations? Given that satisfaction levels are at a 15-year low and that passengers have had repeated apologies from the Government, what is the First Minister’s message to passengers today?
First, as I said, the ScotRail franchise is one of just a few rail franchises that require the holder to meet passenger satisfaction targets. That is a good thing. When it comes to amendments or adjustments, I am not sure whether Jamie Greene is seriously proposing that ScotRail should be held to account for factors that are outside its control—factors that are down, for example, to the failure of Network Rail, the responsibility for which is not devolved to this Parliament. Thirdly and finally, we continue to hold ScotRail to account. The results of the national rail passenger survey led to a formal remedial plan notice being issued by Transport Scotland on 8 February, which required ScotRail to submit a remedial plan. We have robust arrangements in place, and the Scottish Government will do what is required to ensure that ScotRail is held to account against those arrangements.
Can the First Minister give an indication of what proportion of any delays are linked to Network Rail? Does she agree that it is high time that Opposition members joined in the call for the full devolution of Scotland’s railways?
The Opposition does not like this, but Richard Lyle’s question is absolutely on the money. The key performance indicator target for overall satisfaction was adjusted to take account of increased disruption that was caused by the delay to Network Rail’s electrification works. The adjustment also took account of the delay to track renewal works in the Queen Street tunnel. Again, that is the responsibility of Network Rail. Those issues are outwith the control of ScotRail and the Scottish Parliament, because responsibility for Network Rail is not devolved. Overall, more than half of the delays on the network over the past year have been the responsibility of Network Rail. If Opposition members want us to be able to do more about that, they need to get behind our call to devolve responsibility for Network Rail to this Parliament.
It is no good blaming Network Rail. Half of Network Rail’s problems are down to weather, and they do not change.
Is there a question, please?
We have heard that customer satisfaction rates have dropped to a 15-year low and performance indicators are still well below the level at which financial penalties should have been imposed by the Government. Abellio is still providing an unacceptable service. Does the First Minister accept that the public have lost confidence in Abellio as the operator of the £7 billion ScotRail franchise and that the franchise should be ended at the first break point in the contract?
First, ScotRail should be held to account where it fails, and it is held to account. ScotRail is fined for failures in its performance, where appropriate.
Secondly, it is only down to the actions of this Government—this was opposed for a long time by the unionist parties in the Parliament—that we have the power to ensure a public sector bid for future franchises.
Mike Rumbles cannot seriously be suggesting—although I think that he was—that, when more than half of the delays on the network are the responsibility of Network Rail, we should not blame Network Rail. Let us hold ScotRail to account when its failure is to blame and let us hold Network Rail to account when it is to blame, but let us give ourselves the ability to properly hold Network Rail to account by devolving responsibility for it to this Parliament.
Vulnerable Energy Consumers
To ask the First Minister what steps the Scottish Government plans to take to help vulnerable energy consumers. (S5F-03075)
We are disappointed that the United Kingdom Government continually fails to create an energy market that serves consumers fairly, particularly the most vulnerable. As the member knows, fuel costs, which we do not have power over, are the biggest driver of fuel poverty. Where we have powers, we are taking action, including by introducing the Fuel Poverty (Target, Definition and Strategy) (Scotland) Bill and our energy efficiency route map.
We are pleased that the latest Office of Gas and Electricity Markets findings show that no customers were disconnected in Scotland in 2017 and that fewer Scottish customers are repaying energy debts, but I believe that still more should be done. We have recently written to the chief executive officers of the big six energy companies, urging them to build on that action and inviting them to engage with us on how we can support more people.
Almost a quarter of people already live in fuel poverty. On 1 April, more than 1 million households in Scotland will see their bills increase by, on average, £110 a year after the energy watchdog Ofgem increased the cap for those on the default tariff, otherwise known as the variable tariff. There is a question about whether it can any longer be argued that there is a cap.
The energy companies are supposed to have a priority services register, but there are no standard qualifying criteria for a vulnerable household. I am pleased that the First Minister said—
A question, please.
—that she has written to the big six energy companies. Will she pressure them to ensure that they have a strategy for vulnerable customers that protects their interests and does not force them to take on the highest tariffs?
I agree with Pauline McNeill. I agree with her point about the cap. The cap is controlled by the UK Government, and we do not have control over it. We will continue to engage with the energy companies to persuade and encourage them to do everything that they can to help vulnerable customers. We will take whatever other action we can in our power to help vulnerable customers, because the increases to which Pauline McNeill referred are unacceptable.
Youth Strike 4 Climate
To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to the youth strike 4 climate. (S5F-03073)
The threat of climate change can sometimes seem overwhelming, but we should all be optimistic given both Scotland’s record in almost halving our emissions and the actions of young people last week.
Given the impact that climate change will have on young people, it is essential that we listen to them carefully. I would certainly be happy to meet the students, and I have asked my officials to work with them to facilitate that.
The targets that are proposed in our Climate Change (Emissions Reduction Targets) (Scotland) Bill mean that Scotland will be carbon neutral by 2050. Last week, the Committee on Climate Change informed us that its next advice on targets will be published on 2 May. If it says that we can now responsibly and credibly set a date to achieve net zero emissions of all greenhouse gases, we will do so.
I thank the First Minister for her words of support for the young people who took strike action last week and today. As she has previously acknowledged, we are well beyond the point when words are sufficient to deal with the crisis. The young people I was with in Glasgow last Friday had one key demand: keep oil and gas in the ground. I will ask a question on their behalf: does the First Minister acknowledge the indisputable scientific reality that the overwhelming majority of oil and gas reserves in the North Sea and elsewhere must stay there unburned?
We certainly understand the importance of the transition from fossil fuels to a carbon-neutral economy and we support it in many different ways. At the heart of our proposals is the concept of just transition, to make sure that workers in one industry are not left behind as we make the transition, and I hope that all members in the chamber understand the importance of getting that balance right. There is no bigger priority than tackling climate change. Scotland is already leading the way on that and we will continue to do so.
That concludes First Minister’s question time. I thank the First Minister and most of the contributors for their brevity. Before we move to members’ business, we will have a short suspension while the members change seats and the people in the public gallery move.12:45 Meeting suspended.
12:48 On resuming—