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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 21 November 2018

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Business Motion, Scottish Crown Estate Bill: Stage 3, Scottish Crown Estate Bill, Crime (Overseas Production Orders) Bill, Offensive Weapons Bill, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Pancreatic Cancer Awareness


Portfolio Question Time

Hate Crime

To ask the Scottish Government what it is doing to tackle hate crime. (S5O-02570)

Hate crime has hugely damaging effects on victims, their families and communities, and we must all play our part in challenging it. We are doing a number of things as part of our ambitious programme of work to tackle hate crime and build community cohesion. That includes the recent launch, on 14 November, of our consultation “One Scotland: Hate Has No Home Here”, which will inform the content of modernised hate crime legislation that is fit the for 21st century.

In addition, on 26 September, our campaign to tackle hate crime was launched in partnership with Police Scotland. The campaign aims to encourage witnesses to report hate crime and sends a clear message that hatred and prejudice will not be tolerated in Scotland.

Our consultation is open to all individuals, communities and organisations, and it will inform future legislation to address identified needs and afford sufficient protection for those who need it. I hope that everyone with an interest will participate in the consultation process.

I welcome the work that the Scottish Government is undertaking. The day after this Parliament rose for the summer recess, my constituent Blair Wilson, who is from Neilston, was subject to homophobic abuse and a physical assault. Had we been subject to such an experience, many of us would have run, hidden or cowered, but Blair did not. He took out his phone. He took a selfie, and that image of his bloodied but smiling and defiant face sent a clear message that resonated not just across Scotland but around the world. Will the cabinet secretary join me in paying tribute to Blair? Does he agree that it is because of the dignity, compassion and values of people like Blair and countless others that, together, we will consign hate crime to history?

I could not have articulated that point better than Tom Arthur. I add my own admiration for Blair Wilson and how he conducted himself in the aftermath of that terrible hate crime. A number of other people came out with their support for and admiration of Blair.

I have been the victim of hate crime and know how difficult it is to deal with. I know how much of a personal and emotional effect it can have. Nobody would have faulted Blair if he had chosen to deal with the situation in a personal way. However, as Tom Arthur says, instead he defiantly chose to tell his story and put out there some of the terrible hatred that gay people have to deal with and the homophobic abuse that he went through. So, yes, I join Tom Arthur in putting on record my admiration for Blair and for the countless others who stand defiantly in the face of hatred. There is simply no home for hatred in Scotland.

Lord Bracadale’s expert review recommended that statutory aggravators rather than stand-alone offences should continue to be the core method of prosecuting hate crimes in Scotland. Why does the Scottish Government appear to be departing from that recommendation?

We are not. We are going to consult on Lord Bracadale’s recommendations. We still think that statutory aggravators are the right way to go.

I do not know from where the member’s question stems. If it is about misogyny, we will consult and take views on that. The views that come back to us may well suggest that the issue of misogyny, which is deeply ingrained in our society and our institutions, may be looked at outwith the hate crime framework. I will wait to see the consultation responses, and I will shortly meet Engender and other organisations that are vocal on the issue.

We are definitely consulting on the statutory aggravator that Lord Bracadale thought was the best approach to tackling hate crime. However, I will wait for the consultation responses on misogyny to come back before we undertake detailed consideration and define the best approach to tackling that issue.

Police Scotland (Number of Police Officers)

To ask the Scottish Government how many police officers there are. (S5O-02571)

As of 30 September 2018, there were 17,147 full-time equivalent police officers in Scotland, which is an increase of 913 since 2007.

If he digs deeper into those figures and looks at the number of divisional officers, the cabinet secretary will see that it has been cut by nearly 350 since the regional forces were merged. The most recent Scottish crime and justice survey has revealed that the number of Scots who are aware of a local police patrol has dropped by more than 10 per cent since 2012. Given those findings, if the cabinet secretary does not think that there has been a loss of front-line capacity, does he at least accept that that is the public’s perception?

I applaud Jamie Greene’s brass neck in asking that question and having the audacity to come to the chamber and lecture the Scottish National Party on police numbers when we have increased their number since coming into power and have protected police budgets.

There has been a 5 per cent increase in the number of police officers since 2007; the record of Jamie Greene’s party in England and Wales is a reduction of 20,000 officers. His party was in control for the majority of that 13 per cent reduction. If we applied that reduction to Scotland, there would be only 14,000 officers and not 17,147 officers. The member will have to forgive my choosing not to take any lectures from him on police officer numbers.

On the split between divisional, regional and national policing, local communities benefit from having officers in the national structure when it comes to national capabilities for tackling human trafficking and dealing with child protection. That capability is felt at a local level.

We will continue to do what we are doing, which has led to a reduction in the crime rate over the past decade; we will continue to reward our officers with a 6.5 per cent pay increase; we will continue to make sure that they are well resourced; and we will continue to make sure that we have a capable police service.

The next time that Jamie Greene comes to the chamber to question and lecture me on police numbers, he may want to look at what his party is doing south of the border.

The cabinet secretary clearly shares my astonishment at the sheer cheek of the Tories, who blindly support a United Kingdom Government that has cut police officer numbers in England and Wales by a whopping 21,330 yet criticise this Government for increasing—yes, increasing—the number of police officers by 913. Does the cabinet secretary agree that, if the Tories really cared about policing, they would demand that the UK Government return to Police Scotland the £125 million in VAT payments that it owes us?

Yes, I associate myself with that request. Receiving the backdated VAT for the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service would be a nice complement to that.

It is not just me who thinks that the Tories are completely decimating policing south of the border. In its report, the Home Affairs Select Committee said that the Home Office, which is run by Jamie Greene’s party, shows a

“complete failure of leadership on policing”.

That report was, of course, signed by two Scottish Tory MPs.

We will continue to do the good work that we are doing on policing, which has led to record low levels of crime in Scotland, and I will continue to let Jamie Greene carp from the sidelines.

I urge members to keep their questions and answers short, please.

Police Scotland (Recruitment Vetting Procedures)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with Police Scotland regarding the reform of vetting procedures for recruitment to the police service. (S5O-02572)

Vetting procedures are an operational matter for Police Scotland within the overall legal framework provided by the Parliament. Scottish Government officials regularly meet Police Scotland to discuss a range of issues and, on occasion, the meetings cover the operation of vetting procedures for recruitment to Police Scotland.

Jamie Duff is a 23-year-old constituent of mine. On two occasions, he has applied to join Police Scotland as a police officer and a special constable. He has been rejected both times at the vetting phase for third-party association. Jamie’s father has a criminal record. Jamie became estranged from his father aged one. Such a restriction does not apply in other parts of the United Kingdom. Does the cabinet secretary agree that people such as Jamie should not be impeded in their life choices because of the sins of their parents?

Alex Cole-Hamilton will, I hope, forgive me if I do not go into the details of specific cases. I do not have the details of the case to which he refers, but I am more than happy for him to share those details with me and to have a conversation with Police Scotland. In the same vein, I am sure that the member will completely understand that, as a Government minister, I would not look to interfere in the vetting process in individual cases—it simply would not be right for a Government minister to have the power to decide who was or was not recruited to the police.

On third-party vetting, as Alex Cole-Hamilton says, checks are undertaken not only on the applicant but on third parties who are linked to the applicant, including family members and associates. When there is information that those third parties have convictions or are engaged in criminal activity, the police consider carefully whether the relationship is likely to compromise the applicant or the operations of Police Scotland—or, indeed, its reputation. Police Scotland will always work within a legal framework and, if the risk is considered too great, an applicant can be refused clearance during vetting.

I will make a final general and hypothetical point—it is not at all related to the case that Mr Cole-Hamilton has raised. From my conversations with stakeholders in the criminal justice system and others, I understand that there is a concern about serious organised crime groups attempting to infiltrate the police. Therefore, there is an understanding of why these important vetting procedures have to be in place.

The issue of vetting goes to the heart of the integrity of our police officers, which is why the issues relating to the inappropriate categorisation of complaints and the process of justice that were raised by Kate Frame at the Justice Committee last week are so serious. Does the cabinet secretary know whether charges have been brought against any of the officers who were implicated in those cases?

I am not sure that that question is directly related to vetting, but I can say that I had a good conversation with Kate Frame, the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner, after her appearance at the Justice Committee. I do not know the specifics of how those cases have progressed, but I advise the member that the Justice Committee has undertaken detailed consideration of the issue of complaints, which he has been involved in. I await the Justice Committee’s report and recommendations, and I also await the interim findings of the review of the issue that Dame Elish Angiolini is carrying out. Of course, the Government has an open mind about how we can improve the complaints procedure.

What plans does the cabinet secretary have to recruit more armed forces veterans to either full-time posts in Police Scotland or special constable posts?

I will raise the issue with Police Scotland. However, as I said in response to Alex Cole-Hamilton’s question, that is an operational matter for Police Scotland.

Just yesterday, I had a good conversation with the chief constable about how we want to increase the diversity of the police force and ensure that there is a mix of people that reflects wider society. If Maurice Corry wants to write directly to the chief constable about that important issue, he can do that. Equally, if he wants me to raise the issue in my next conversation with the chief constable, I shall be happy to do that.

Forensic Examination Facilities (Orkney)

To ask the Scottish Government what progress is being made in establishing forensic examination facilities in Orkney for victims of rape or sexual assault. (S5O-02573)

NHS Orkney is in the process of establishing a trauma-informed, person-centred forensic medical examination and healthcare service for adult victims of rape and sexual assault. The local pathways of care have been developed in collaboration with multiagency partners including Orkney Rape Crisis.

The Scottish Government has committed £2.25 million in the current financial year to help embed the published Healthcare Improvement Scotland standards and to ensure a consistency in approach to the delivery of these services across the country.

I echo the cabinet secretary’s support for the work that has been done by Orkney Rape Crisis and NHS Orkney. I also pay tribute to his predecessor, Michael Matheson, who was incredibly supportive of these efforts. I understand from NHS Orkney that there are now two doctors who are trained under the service and that there were 20 expressions of interests as the result of a recent advert. Unfortunately, the training that is required by people who want to take up the posts requires travel off-island, which involves a cost in terms of travel and accommodation.

Will the cabinet secretary encourage colleagues in NHS Education Scotland to help support the delivery of training in Orkney so that we can maximise the resource and the capability domestically in Orkney?

I know that Liam McArthur has had an interest in this issue for a while. I thank him for his recognition of the work that my predecessor did, and I put on record my recognition of the excellent work that is being done by the task force that is led by the chief medical officer, Dr Catherine Calderwood, and the good work that is being done by other partners and stakeholders.

I promise to reflect on the issues that Mr McArthur raises and come back to him with some updates. It might be possible to deliver the training on Orkney, but, equally, it might not. In the latter case, we should perhaps consider the travel costs that are involved and perhaps come to some sort of agreement on that. I have an open mind in that regard. If Mr McArthur allows me the time, I will reflect on what he has said and see whether I can come up with a solution that satisfies everybody.

Can I ask about services for children who have suffered abuse? I understand that moves are being made to protect adults, but children will still need to go off island. Will the cabinet secretary look at that to make sure that children should not have to travel in such circumstances?

I will. Let me also put on record the member’s efforts on this—I know that she wrote to and had a conversation with my predecessor on this hugely important issue.

Where travel can be avoided, it absolutely should be. However, because of the specialist training, equipment and sensitivities around children, we know that that might not always be able to be the case. However, where it can be the case, we should absolutely look at that.

I promise to write to Rhoda Grant to update her on where we are in relation to children who have been victims of rape. However, I think that all of us around the chamber understand the sensitivities involved in this. We are working on a better solution for our children, whether they are on islands or on our mainland.

Secure Units

To ask the Scottish Government what information sheriffs are given regarding the availability of secure unit places when disposing of a case involving a young offender. (S5O-02574)

It is a matter for the judge acting independently to decide what information is required when disposing of a case. In remand cases, the local authority should request that the young person be remanded to their care. It is the local authority’s responsibility to approach each secure unit to establish whether secure care is available as an option.

If the young person is likely to receive a custodial sentence at a solemn proceeding, it is the Scottish ministers’ responsibility to identify, in advance of court, an appropriate placement.

Last week, I raised the case of William Lindsay, who took his own life while on remand in Polmont prison. I want to be clear about what the cabinet secretary is saying: does he agree that the availability of secure places should not be a consideration for the sheriff who is trying to make a decision about the appropriate disposal? Can the cabinet secretary answer the question about the reduction in secure places, which must surely be a cause for concern?

I fully understand that an investigation is on-going in relation to deaths in Polmont prison. However, while that investigation is taking place, surely the cabinet secretary should satisfy himself that there are adequate alternatives to prison in cases where that is appropriate?

Pauline McNeill raises very important points. I put on record, once again, my sympathy for the family of William Lindsay.

I know that Pauline McNeill has written to me to request a meeting and I am of course happy to meet with her and to keep other members updated.

To reiterate what I said, it is the responsibility of the local authority to find out whether secure accommodation is available.

On the issues around the availability of secure units, Pauline McNeill is absolutely right that there have been issues over the past few years around the lack of capacity in secure units. The Deputy First Minister and I are looking at those issues extremely closely. Some of those issues have been because of cross-border cases—a lot of the cases that come to us are cross-border cases—and there are some sensitivities around ensuring that there is a certain level of occupancy within secure units, so that they can maintain and sustain themselves. However, that should not be at the cost of not having a space available, should it be required. Those are the issues that the Deputy First Minister and I are looking at, and I should be able to say more about what we are looking to do in relation to them in the coming days.

On individual circumstances, I say once again that there will be mandatory fatal accident inquiries into the cases of both William Lindsay and Katie Allan at Polmont. However, as the First Minister said at First Minister’s question time last week, we will not wait for those FAIs to make changes and to effect change in a positive manner where we can. I will make sure that Pauline McNeill is kept up to date on that.

Hate Crime

To ask the Scottish Government whether it expects to legislate on hate crime during the current parliamentary session, following the end of the consultation process in 2019. (S5O-02575)

Our intention is to legislate on hate crime during the current parliamentary session. However, before doing so, it is essential that we have heard the voices of communities so that we are sure that the legislation we introduce is relevant, appropriate and fit for the 21st century.

Balancing new legislation with rights to free speech and civil liberties is also essential and we need to look carefully at the outcomes of our consultation—which is open to all individuals, communities and organisations—so that our legislation addresses identified needs and affords sufficient protection for those who need it. I hope that everyone with an interest will participate in the consultation process.

I certainly agree that we should encourage everyone to participate in the consultation and I recognise the importance of that process. However, it is pretty much a decade since the arguments were first made for a comprehensive approach to hate crime instead of the piecemeal approach that we had seen before then, so the commitment to legislation during this parliamentary session is welcome.

I have a question about one of Lord Bracadale’s review recommendations. He concluded that specific measures in relation to anti-immigrant sentiment would not be needed because that was already covered under racial grounds. Does the Scottish Government yet have a view on that? We have clearly seen an uptick in anti-immigrant and other far right sentiment, and it seems that a case can be made for some specific measures so that those matters can be dealt with as a distinct strand of hate crime.

I am not the only one in this chamber who is the child of an immigrant. Many of us have seen that rise in anti-immigrant sentiment right across Europe, so Patrick Harvie’s point is an important one to make.

In terms of the specifics of whether there should be a statutory aggravator, for example, for anti-immigrant prejudice, there is a section in the consultation that allows for an open, general question on what other issues we need to consider.

I will keep an open mind on the issue that Patrick Harvie raises. I have not taken a view one way or the other. The issue has been raised with me previously. As I say, there is a section in the consultation that allows for additional points to be raised. I encourage the member and others who have an interest in this particular question to respond positively to the consultation.

That concludes questions on justice and the law officers.

Shawhead Flyover

To ask the Scottish Government what steps are being taken to clear the land near the Shawhead flyover of building materials, barriers and fences from the M8, M73 and M74 motorway improvements. (S5O-02580)

The area on the south side of the A8 at Shawhead junction is a compound for storing construction material for the M8, M73 and M74 motorway improvements project. Scottish Roads Partnership, the contractor for the project, has advised that the materials are likely to be stored at that location until finishing and snagging works are completed, which is expected to be in the coming months.

I will be interested to know which coming months, because it is getting to be a bit of an eyesore. I welcome the work that was done, but there is still a lot of clean-up to be done. When will the site be cleared and finally restored to the state that it was in prior to the works, as the current situation is totally unacceptable?

The finishing works, as the contractor has stated, will be completed in the coming months, over the winter period, and the site will be cleared and restored to its original condition.

The junction at Shawhead and Kirkshaws has seen a number of accidents since the update was completed. Most recently, there was a very serious accident at the weekend that police have confirmed resulted in no blame being attached to either driver.

The police and the local community have continually raised concerns about the junction. I have visited the site with Transport Scotland and I have had constructive discussions but the changes that have been made as a result have not improved safety. Will the cabinet secretary agree to take up the situation directly with Transport Scotland to get this dangerous junction sorted as quickly as possible?

I am aware that Mr MacGregor has been pursuing this matter on behalf of his constituents for some time. Scottish Roads Partnership—the contractor for the project—undertook further works at the Shawhead-Kirkshaws road junction at the end of October. I am disappointed to hear of the concerns that the member still has about the junction.

We are awaiting further details on the accident in order to investigate it fully. However, I understand that the accident to which Fulton MacGregor referred happened on the approach to the north road junction, not at the Hagmill-Kirkshaws road junction. The contractors have confirmed that the junction is operating as designed and it has no plans to carry out further work at the junction in the short term, although that will continue to be monitored.

Scottish Roads Partnership has confirmed that the junction has been completed in accordance with the relevant standards. Transport Scotland is organising an independent review to be undertaken at the junction to understand whether further work can be done. I will ensure that the member is invited to attend the site when the review takes place, and I will write to him to give him the outcomes of the review when it is completed.

ScotRail Alliance (Meetings)

In the interest of transparency, I advise the chamber that I am the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers parliamentary group convener.

To ask the Scottish Government when the transport secretary last met the ScotRail Alliance and what was discussed. (S5O-02581)

I last met the managing director of the ScotRail Alliance and some of his team on 6 November 2018, when we discussed a number of topics including ScotRail’s performance and the impending December 2018 timetable change.

Did the cabinet secretary discuss the Government’s fair work agenda? That does not seem very fair to the RMT, whose members are once again being affected by what Mick Cash has called

“the filthy and disgusting practice of dumping human excrement on Scotland’s railways”

—a practice that the Scottish Government promised had ended in 2017.

Will the cabinet secretary tell us what options have been identified for installation of controlled-emissions toilets prior to the full refurbishment of the new ScotRail rolling stock and its introduction into service on 9 December, or what temporary measures are being identified to mitigate the serious health risks for workers that are associated with effluent discharge?

Elaine Smith has raised an important issue, about which a number of members rightly have concerns, as has the RMT on behalf of its members. I did not discuss the matter at the meeting the other week with the ScotRail Alliance, because I had discussed it previously when the alliance indicated that Wabtec would not be able to deliver the new high-speed trains fully refurbished on the timetable that had been agreed.

At that point, I raised concerns about the lack of retention tanks to be held on unrefurbished trains. The ScotRail Alliance agreed to consider whether interim measures could be put in place while the trains that are being used have not been through the full refurbishment programme. It is continuing to look at whether an interim arrangement can be put in place, and I have asked it to look at all possible options to minimise the risk of discharge on to the lines.

I fully understand and recognise that the practice is unacceptable. It has come about as a result of Wabtec’s inability to deliver on the programme, and I am committed to making sure that ScotRail considers every possible option to identify an interim arrangement that can minimise the potential risk.

Three members wish to ask supplementaries. The first is from Jamie Greene.

The cabinet secretary may be aware that more than 100 services were cancelled last week due to staff shortages. Can the cabinet secretary explain why that was the case, whether the cancellations are acceptable to him and whether passengers can expect any more disruptions due to staff shortages?

The cancellations are not acceptable to me and there are a variety of reasons why there were staff shortages last week. The ScotRail Alliance has no doubt about where its performance is at present; it is not acceptable and there is a need for action to be taken to ensure that there are improvements to address the issues around service quality and standards. In my discussions with the ScotRail Alliance managing director, the alliance accepts that and recognises the need for further progress to be made.

The ScotRail Alliance is very clear about taking forward the recommendations of the Donovan review, which it believes will deliver significant improvements to the way in which it delivers services. That has independent oversight through the Office of Rail and Road process. We need to ensure that the alliance delivers the services that the public expect. We will continue to call upon it to do so and to make sure that it takes the necessary actions to improve service performance overall.

Has the South Scotland rail task force, which is led by ScotRail, had any discussions on, or put in place, contingency plans to allow for the continuity of rail services south of Ayr should further work be required at the Station hotel to ensure that my South Scotland constituents who live between Stranraer and Ayr are not isolated or again cut off from the central belt?

I recognise the inconvenience that is caused to the member’s constituents when there are challenges relating to Ayr station as a result of problems with the state of decay of the Station hotel. As the member will be aware, Transport Scotland set up the Ayr station task force to consider what action can be taken to restore full rail services south of Ayr. Interim services have been put in place in recent weeks. South Ayrshire Council and its contractors are currently working to develop a system to encapsulate the Ayr Station hotel roof. That takes account of the commitment that has been made, and it should allow us to get into a position where full services can be restored. That work is on-going, and we expect South Ayrshire Council to continue to make progress with it. We will continue to offer the council support and assistance to carry out that work as quickly as possible.

The cabinet secretary will be aware that performance of rail services is at an all-time low. Indeed, less than 50 per cent of services arrived at Balloch and Helensburgh on time. Trains have been cancelled and commuters are squeezed in like sardines. Is the cabinet secretary aware that passenger numbers are dropping because of that unreliability? When does he expect performance to improve, and why did he weaken performance targets at a time when he should have been on the side of commuters?

The member’s final point is incorrect. Actually, the conditions in the franchise continue to be applied in the way in which they would have been, even with the temporary waiver that has been provided.

On the member’s points about performance on the line to Balloch, any cancellations of services are unacceptable. Those can occur for a variety of reasons, but the member will recognise that infrastructure challenges have presented ScotRail with significant difficulty. In excess of 60 per cent of the delays and difficulties on the rail network are caused by Network Rail rather than by ScotRail. That situation causes significant challenges for rail operators in addressing those matters.

Alex Hynes is in charge of both.

The member may not like to hear the truth, but that is the truth.

Something that will not be lost on the member is the significant investment that we are making in rolling stock to ensure that we have additional capacity and new and refurbished trains on routes. The Government will continue to take forward that work through the timetable changes that will come into place this December, which will allow us to further extend services where they are not available at present. Performance is not as good as it should be, but the member can be assured that we are committed to doing everything that we can to improve services, notwithstanding the fact that Network Rail is the biggest factor that causes problems, delays and cancellations on the network.

Rail Service Reliability (Tweedbank)

To ask the Scottish Government what assurances it can give rail commuters in Tweedbank regarding service reliability this winter, in light of more than 50 per cent of trains not arriving on time in the last month. (S5O-02582)

Officials at Transport Scotland monitor and challenge rail performance through regular meetings, which have recently included winter preparedness. Significant preparatory work has already commenced, with further actions continuing to manage the challenges of the upcoming winter conditions. That includes work on infrastructure, train fleet, stations and depots, as well as staff briefings to ensure that the ScotRail Alliance delivers a robust and resilient service to customers.

Performance on Scotland’s railways is measured by the public performance measure—the PPM—which is the standard measure for train service performance throughout Great Britain. The PPM at Tweedbank in the most recent period, which was up to 10 November, was 86.4 per cent.

In September, you reduced ScotRail’s public performance measure target to 87.18 per cent and, in October, you granted a ministerial waiver to Abellio. Given that the Scottish Government will not enforce compliance breaches until June next year, what accountability is there through which my constituents in Tweedbank can ensure that ScotRail’s PPM does not fall by another percentage point?

I remind members to speak through the chair.

I am sure that Michelle Ballantyne will welcome the fact that the PPM for Tweedbank is above the United Kingdom average, and that she will acknowledge that level of performance. That said, we want the level to be higher, where that can be delivered. The work that is being taken forward under the Donovan review, to which I have already referred, is about ensuring that that improvement takes place.

The member will be aware of the significant financial investment that the Scottish Government is making in new rolling stock to ensure that we have increased capacity—more seats on trains—and more modern trains, which will allow us to cascade other services to other parts of the country.

The member can be assured that we will do everything we can to drive up improvements in the ScotRail Alliance. Alongside that, we expect Network Rail to step up and to start addressing the difficulties that it is causing as a result of the infrastructure failures that have had a dramatic impact on service quality for many customers throughout Scotland.

ScotRail Performance (Impact on Pupils)

To ask the Scottish Government what impact ScotRail performance is having on pupils who require to use train services to reach school. (S5O-02583)

The ScotRail Alliance is making significant investment to deliver the recommendations that were identified by the Donovan independent review, which will support infrastructure, fleet and operational reliability across the rail network to ensure delivery of a resilient network.

The Scottish Government has no data that details any particular impact of train cancellations or delays specifically on children travelling to school. However, all rail passengers will benefit from the expected improvements to performance when the actions from the Donovan review, which are being progressed, are fully implemented.

I draw the cabinet secretary’s attention to the fact that I have been approached by the parents of children who have had their education disrupted because of constant delays and cancellations by ScotRail in the Newton area. Those parents include Virginia Bell, who is the mother of 13-year-old Natasha Humphreys. Does the cabinet secretary agree that it is totally unacceptable for pupils as young as first-year age to be left on cold and dark ScotRail platforms because of cancellations and delays, rather than being in the warmth of school classrooms?

Yes, that is unacceptable. That is all the more reason why ScotRail should address the issues that were identified in the Donovan review, so that concerns and the problems that have caused delays and cancellations can be addressed. That is why ScotRail has made it clear, through the ScotRail Alliance, that it is doing everything that it can to drive forward the improvements that were set out in the Donovan review.

Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the opening of the Aberdeen western peripheral route. (S5O-02584)

My statement to Parliament on 1 November detailed the issues that Aberdeen Roads Ltd reported with regard to opening the road, including the more extensive technical issues at the Don crossing than the contractor had previously thought there would be. I met ARL on 8 November to offer any additional support that was required to get the remainder of the road open as soon as possible, and to understand the timescales for remedial works at the Don crossing.

Since then, my officials and I have been involved in a series of high-level meetings with ARL, which were designed to remove any obstacle to the road being opened while remedial works at the Don crossing progress. Although the dialogue continues to be constructive, I am acutely aware that it cannot go on forever. I continue to be concerned that entirely separate commercial claims that the contractor has indicated it wishes to pursue, relating to other aspects of the project, appear to be being linked to the process.

I have reminded ARL that it stands at the beginning of a 30-year relationship with the north-east, and that it would be unfortunate for all parties if considerable benefits to the north-east were being withheld and if the taxpayer, generally, was being held to ransom in the service of a misguided commercial strategy.

I thank the cabinet secretary for that detailed answer. Would it be at all possible for specific parts of the route that are complete, and are safe to open, to be opened, rather than waiting to open the complete route, including the Don crossing?

As I said in my statement to Parliament, it is possible for the section that is complete, excluding the Don crossing, to be opened. There is no provision in the contract to allow that to happen, but a contract variation can be put forward in order to allow some sections to open. That is exactly what has been put to the contractor; we await its response. There is no reason why that action cannot be progressed at an early date, and we continue to get daily updates from ARL to ensure that it is taking action to progress the matter.

As I have made very clear, I am not prepared for us to be put in a position in which a contractor seeks to hold taxpayers to ransom. There is a contract variation that could be agreed to; I expect the contractor to give that due consideration and to make progress on it as soon as possible, so that local people can start to get the benefits of the part of the Aberdeen western peripheral route that is ready for use.

In the cabinet secretary’s statement on 1 November, one of the reasons that was given for the delays was the correction of defects on the bridge over the River Don. What has been done since 1 November, and when does the cabinet secretary expect the work to be completed?

As I mentioned, the reasons for the delay are technical issues with the bridge at the River Don that were, at the end of October, identified as being more extensive and complex than was originally expected. The work on the bridge continues, and the contractor’s technical experts are being supported by Transport Scotland’s technical experts in carrying out the remedial work.

As I also said in my statement, the remedial work is weather sensitive, so the weather will have an impact on when some the work can be completed. However, the contractor continues to do everything possible to get the work on the bridge over the River Don completed as quickly as possible. It expects the work to be completed in December, but it cannot specify a date because of the vagaries of things such as the weather, which can have an impact on completing the work.

The cabinet secretary mentioned the case for a contract variation. Will he confirm that any price that is attached to a contract variation must reflect the impact on pricing and programming of that contract variation, rather than wider issues? Is that the basis on which he is holding the current discussions with the contractor?

As Lewis Macdonald will be aware, the way in which a contract of this nature works is that the lenders and contractors are paid only once the road is open for use. Any contract variation must be on that basis, because it is a requirement for protection of taxpayers’ interests.

We have removed any potential obstacle to the contractor opening up the section of the road that could be used by traffic today, and that variation has been put to the contractor for it to share with its lenders. I can see no further obstacle to its making progress in the matter. I am clear that the contractor needs to make progress and to open the road to cars and traffic that want to make use of it. Lewis Macdonald can be assured that I will continue to apply as much pressure as I can to the contractor to ensure that it does that.

I am also concerned about the way in which the contractor wishes to wrap that up in a wider issue about its claim, which is already in the public domain, relating to the overall contract. That is a separate issue. The contract variation should stand on its own, and the contractor and its lenders should consider it on that basis.

I apologise to Gillian Martin and Peter Chapman, who wanted to ask supplementary questions on that issue, and to members who were to ask the other questions that we did not manage to reach.