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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 21 May 2019

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Portfolio Question Time, Menopause, Business Motion, Decision Time, International Museum Day 2019


Topical Question Time

Air Pollution (Childhood Cancers)

To ask the Scottish Government what it is doing to tackle air pollution, in light of reports that this is responsible for the rise in childhood cancers. (S5T-01659)

The Scottish Government takes the health impacts of poor air quality very seriously and, of course, any cancer diagnosis is devastating for a child and their family. The cleaner air for Scotland strategy sets out actions to further reduce air pollution across Scotland. An independent review of the strategy is under way and will identify priorities for additional action. We provide £2.5 million in annual funding to local authorities to support air quality improvements. We are also working to deliver low-emission zones in Scotland’s four biggest cities by 2020, with the first already introduced in Glasgow.

The problem is that many of the bus companies will struggle to get their fleets to meet the requirements of the low-emission zones. I have raised the issue of the pollution from diesel buses many times in the chamber over the past few months. National Express, for example, which is the main bus operator in Dundee, still has 90 buses—a large proportion of its fleet—that fail to meet the Euro 6 emissions standards. Those buses are belching out fumes. All over Scotland, bus operators, in their wisdom, are putting the oldest, most polluting buses on school routes. Those buses are carrying children, who are the most vulnerable to air pollution, to and from school.

I know that the Scottish National Party has been reluctant to regulate the bus industry in any way, but the reports today about an increase in childhood cancers must make the cabinet secretary very worried. Can she please give me a commitment today that, in light of those reports, she will write immediately to the bus companies and ask them to put clean Euro 6 buses on every school route in Scotland?

I thank the member for her question, although she will be aware that, in the main, that matter falls to my colleague the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity, who happens to be sitting beside me. We are disappointed with the low take-up by the bus companies of the grants that have been made available to them. Some bus companies have taken up the grants and it is disappointing that more have not done so. However, we continue to engage directly with the bus companies to encourage them to take up available funding and make rapid progress on reducing emissions. It feels a little odd to say that I will write to my colleague the transport secretary, given that he is sitting right next to me, but I undertake to raise with him directly the issue that has been raised by Jenny Marra.

On the question about mandating bus companies to do one thing or another, at this stage we are trying to get the bus companies on board right across the piece in respect of air pollution.

I appreciate that this is an issue that cuts across many portfolios, but, given that climate change crosses all Government portfolios, that should not be a hindrance to any action. The First Minister has declared a climate emergency in Scotland, so this should become a priority.

The scheme that the cabinet secretary referred to had very low take-up and that is because the Scottish Government was funding only up to 45 per cent of the retrofit cost. Many of our bus companies across Scotland have buses that are so old—Euro 3—that they cannot be retrofitted. The bus companies tell me that they cannot afford to do anything about those buses, but those are the buses that are on the school routes. I repeat my request for whichever minister or cabinet secretary on the front bench today can take this action to please write to all our bus companies in Scotland. Let us get those polluting buses out of the school routes and off the streets outside our schools.

Presiding Officer, if I can come to my next question, private car ownership—

Ms Marra, I am sorry, but you have had too long and I will have to go to the next question. You have had a good go, so no further questions. If the member had not taken the whole of the time for her second question to make a speech, I would have taken a further question.

I can be brief.

I am sorry, but I cannot allow members to go on too long. It is unfair. Three members wish to come in on the back of the first question.

What consideration has the Scottish Government given to air quality monitors across our school estate? What work is on-going to look towards monitoring the problems that have been outlined by Jenny Marra?

Those are matters for local government to take forward. The Scottish Environment Protection Agency already provides air quality monitoring units that can be put in place where local authorities consider them to be appropriate. The matter is one for local authorities to consider. There are not significant problems at all schools, but I know that there are significant problems at some schools in places such as Edinburgh and Glasgow. I would have anticipated that local authorities would be trying to ensure that they understand the situation around those schools.

The introduction of low-emission zones will begin to have an impact on the issue that Miles Briggs raises, just as it will have an impact on the issue that Jenny Marra raised, because it will force the hand of a number of bus companies in respect of what they are doing.

What engagement has the Scottish Government had with the United Kingdom Government regarding the use of tax powers that rest with the UK Government that would support industries and businesses to invest in more sustainable transport options that would contribute to the reduction of emissions, particularly in built-up areas?

That is perhaps another aspect of the issue that Jenny Marra raised. Further to the UK Committee on Climate Change’s advice, I have written to the UK Government to ask it to act immediately in a number of reserved areas, given that the CCC made it clear that that will be critical to Scotland achieving its net zero emissions target. As far as transport is concerned, the relevant issues include redesigning vehicle and tax incentives to support industry and business investment in zero emission and sustainable transport choices and committing to adhering to future European Union emission standards, regardless of our position in relation to the EU. So far, the response from the UK Government has not addressed the points that I raised in my letter.

Those examples give a flavour of the reality of how we are having to handle things from a devolved and a reserved perspective.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that the Scottish Government’s long-term failure to properly invest in safe walking and cycling is contributing to the public health crisis?

The Government has put record levels of money into active travel, the budget for which it has doubled. There will always be competing destinations for money, but we keep that under review. I do not in any way accept the categorisation of our work in the area as a long-term failure.

ScotRail (Compensation for Delays and Cancellations)

To ask the Scottish Government whether the new ScotRail timetable will alleviate delays and cancellations, in light of the 73 per cent increase in compensation payments being made by the operator in 2018-19. (S5T-01658)

ScotRail’s new timetable delivers important benefits from the Scottish Government’s continued significant investment in rail network improvements. The introduction of more brand-new electric trains, alongside more high-speed trains, means that a new total of 625,000 seats are available for passengers each weekday. Alongside the benefits of shorter journey times on some routes and higher-quality new trains, that represents an increase of 115,000 seats per day, which is a 23 per cent increase since the start of the franchise.

Unlike the United Kingdom Government in England, we have set Network Rail the same tough performance requirement to meet a public performance measure of 92.5 per cent, which means that ScotRail and Network Rail must work together to deliver improvements for passengers.

Performance is now improving. Yesterday—the first working day of the new timetable—ScotRail delivered a PPM of 92.4 per cent, which was ahead of the average across Great Britain of 90.9 per cent. However, I want the performance of ScotRail and Network Rail to continue to improve, and I will continue to press them to ensure that improvements are delivered.

Performance should improve with less compensation being paid.

The consumer watchdog Which? has described the ScotRail compensation system as “fragmented and confusing”, pointing out that passengers must produce up to 24 pieces of information to claim. How does the cabinet secretary square that with his statement that compensation from ScotRail “is straightforward to claim”, which he made in a written parliamentary answer to me on 14 May?

It is straightforward for customers to use the app that ScotRail has provided, because it holds certain information for repeat claims. However, where lessons can be learned on how the system can be improved, I would expect ScotRail to give consideration to that, particularly when it comes to the issues that Which? has highlighted.

We have had three improvement or remedial plans for ScotRail in three years under two transport secretaries, with 249 action points and 20 improvement measures; now we have a remedial plan with nine initiatives.

If ScotRail’s performance last year was the worst in 10 years, with passenger compensation rising to over £1 million, does the transport secretary expect compensation levels to fall dramatically this year as a result of those plans? If the levels do not fall, will he see that as further evidence of unacceptable performance?

I would prefer it if passengers did not have to claim compensation, but while they have to do so it is important that there is a robust and fair process in place for them to make such claims.

Clearly, if performance improves, that should reduce the need for compensation claims. However, as I have pointed out repeatedly in the chamber and at the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee just last week, when we discussed this very issue, we need to ensure that all parts of the rail network are playing their part in tackling the issues that cause delays and the cancellation of services.

For example, the most up-to-date figures that I have for the past year, which take us up to 31 March this year, show that 62 per cent of all delays were a result of Network Rail infrastructure challenges. That is not to say that ScotRail does not have its part to play, but it highlights that Network Rail also has a significant part to play in addressing the issue. That is why we need both parts of the rail network to play their part in making sure that we run the services efficiently. That will reduce the need for passengers to claim compensation in the first place.

Four members wish to ask a supplementary question on this issue.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that if Mr Rumbles is so concerned about solving the delays, it is high time that he joined us in calling for the devolution of Network Rail so that the Scottish Government has the levers to start addressing all the issues that impact on the performance that Mr Rumbles is concerned about?

It is not for me to speak on behalf of Mike Rumbles—thankfully—but it is important to recognise that both parts of our rail network have an important part to play in delivering passenger services.

It is only right that ScotRail is held fully accountable when it fails in its delivery of the right type of services for passengers; equally, Network Rail needs to be held to account for its failure to deliver the level of service that is expected, which then has an adverse impact on passenger services. That is why we need to ensure that we have full accountability for both parts of our railway here in Scotland.

As it stands, we have accountability in relation to ScotRail because of the franchising scheme but we do not have accountability in relation to Network Rail. It is important that the Parliament has the powers to exercise that type of decision making to ensure that Scotland’s railways are run in the interests of the people of Scotland, in an effective way.

Unfortunately for the cabinet secretary, the delays at the weekend were caused by driver shortages—they were nothing to do with Network Rail. ScotRail came to the Parliament recently and reassured us that

“We have drivers to cover train services, we have spares ... We started to plan for every timetable change at the start of the franchise.”—[Official Report, Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee, 27 March 2019; c 17-18.]

Famous last words, cabinet secretary.

Does the cabinet secretary not think that poor workforce planning is much to blame for the delays that we saw over the weekend? How confident is he that driver shortages will not affect more services and more passengers in future?

The member might want to reflect on the scale of the call-offs that took place over the course of the weekend and the reasons for them. I am sure that ScotRail will be happy to give him the details.

Where there are crew shortages, or when a crew calls off at the last minute, it can be difficult for cover to be provided. If we look at what has happened over the past two days, it can be difficult to provide cover on particular routes if the right staff are not available to take on that particular service because they are committed to another service, for example.

However, over the past two days no trains have been cancelled as a result of crew training and it has been exactly the same today. The remedial plan, with which I am sure that the member is familiar, sets out in detail the actions that ScotRail will take to address those very issues.

Mr Greene can look back at the Official Report to see that when I was asked about this in committee, I made the point that I was surprised that ScotRail had not taken those issues into account at the time of planning its actions. Do I see that as a failure on the part of ScotRail? Yes. Does ScotRail need to put it right? Yes. That is exactly what the remedial plan is there to do and we expect ScotRail to do that. What have we seen as a result of the actions that have been taken through the remedial plan? We have seen improvements in service. I am sure that even Mr Greene will welcome that and recognise that ScotRail is taking the actions set out in the plan to address those matters.

By September this year, the cabinet secretary will have to make a decision on whether to extend the ScotRail franchise beyond 2022, yet the remedial plan that he talks about does not need to be implemented until spring next year, after he has made that decision. Is it not the truth that, no matter how bad Scotland’s rail services are and no matter how appallingly passengers are treated, this Government—this cabinet secretary—is so obsessed with propping up the failing franchise that it has no intention whatsoever of ending it? Is that not the truth?

In short, no it is not. As ever with Colin Smyth, facts get lost in the course of discussion. To be clear, we have taken out the remedial plan against ScotRail on the basis of its failure to meet certain parts of the contract. That is robust action and we are starting to see the benefits.

We will not take the approach that the Labour Party wants to take of creating a single UK rail network and taking away the existing powers over rail that we have in the Parliament in order to centralise it at UK level, so that it fits with Network Rail over the whole of the UK.

We want to see rail services in Scotland performing as well as they can. That is why we are making record levels of investment into rail and providing new rolling stock. We will continue to do that, while at the same time calling for the Parliament to be responsible for all parts of our rail infrastructure, so that we can make sure that it is designed and delivered in a way that reflects the needs and aspirations of the people of Scotland for investment in our public services. We will do that rather than take away powers from the Parliament over our rail network in Scotland.

How many of the new class 385 sets and refurbished high-speed trains that were due to be delivered in December 2018 have not yet been delivered to ScotRail?

As it stands, ScotRail has accepted 61 of the 70 class 385 sets ordered. The number is sufficient to allow ScotRail to deliver significant capacity improvements across the electrified routes in the central belt and will also allow it to redeploy the diesel trains to increase train lengths in other parts of the network. For HSTs, only four of 26 refurbished units have been accepted from Angel Trains and Wabtec Rail Scotland, alongside 14 unrefurbished classic trains, which are now operating on the seven cities routes.

I will continue to press Angel Trains and Wabtec on the issue. I met them last week to press the need for continued progress on the matter. As I have highlighted to the Parliament many times in recent weeks, there is no doubt in my mind that the delay from Hitachi in delivering the class 385s and making sure that the refurbished HSTs are delivered on time had a significant impact on ScotRail’s ability to deliver on the timetable change in December 2018. We will continue to press Wabtec, Hitachi and Angel Trains to address those matters as quickly as possible.