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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Meeting of the Parliament 21 December 2016

Agenda: Oath, Portfolio Question Time, Premature Babies (Maternity and Paternity Leave), Illegal Puppy Trade, Protecting Scotland’s Livestock, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time


Portfolio Question Time

Marine Environment (Protection)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its work to protect the marine environment. (S5O-00489)

The Scottish Government has made considerable progress in its work to protect the marine environment. The national marine plan was adopted in March 2015 and provides a framework for consistent decision making that takes account of the marine environment. Work is now progressing to implement marine planning at regional scale. Marine protected areas provide additional protection to important locations in our seas, and the network now covers around 20 per cent of our marine area. Work to complete the network and deliver necessary and appropriate management measures will continue over the next couple of years.

Coastal communities have always relied on the sea for their livelihoods. What is being done to ensure that efforts to protect the marine environment take into account the needs of our coastal communities, and that we eliminate illegal activity that affects the fishing industry?

All the work to improve protection of the marine environment has been underpinned by stakeholder engagement and robust management. Stakeholder engagement has been undertaken at all levels—from national and regional stakeholder workshops, to meetings with marine industries, environmental non-governmental organisations and community groups, and consultation events in towns and villages around the coast. The decisions that the Scottish Government has made to protect the marine environment were based on scientific evidence and took proper account of the wide range of views that were received in response to public consultations.

The current work to devolve management of the Crown Estate, to roll out regional marine planning and to complete the MPA network will ensure that communities continue to have every opportunity to have their say.

Enforcement resources are deployed in Scottish waters using a risk-based intelligence-led system to ensure that illegal activity is deterred or detected.

Given that Marine Scotland sees prevention of electrofishing as a priority, does the cabinet secretary agree that it is very concerning that there has been only one conviction in the past three years for illegal electrofishing in Galloway and West Dumfries? Does she agree that to ensure that the razor clam beds are protected we should now have an all-out ban on that illegal activity?

Electrofishing for razor clams is currently illegal, and the Government has in its consultation sought views on whether it should be made legal. That consultation closed on 30 September and our response will be published soon. We consulted on the issue because some recent scientific evidence suggests that electrofishing could be a low-impact method of harvesting razor clams. The subject turns out to be not quite as straightforward as we had assumed. The prohibition is in European Union law, so if steps are to be taken to approve electrofishing, a considerable amount of work will have to be done on management arrangements. I am happy to deal directly with the member on that specific issue, if he so wishes.

Regional marine planning is essential, but so far—as the cabinet secretary knows—there are just two regional planning partnerships in operation as pilots. How is the Government working with local authorities to get more planning partnerships up and running and to ensure that they have the resource and expertise that are necessary to take that important initiative forward?

I have signed a number of letters today in respect of the Clyde marine plan. Two plans are being progressed—for the Clyde and for Shetland. It is important that we have deliberately chosen two quite different areas so that we can explore issues around how they are to be managed.

It is also important to take things steadily—not all plans will happen in a short space of time. The roll-out of regional plans will take a number of years. I hope that Claudia Beamish will have patience with that, because we have to ensure that what we are doing works in the longer term. There are no immediate plans for a third or fourth regional plan, but that is because the first and the second have to be worked out carefully before we move on to more.

Question 2 has not been lodged.

Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002

To ask the Scottish Government what plans it has to amend the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002, in light of the review by Lord Bonomy. (S5O-00491)

I am aware that Colin Smyth takes a keen interest in animal welfare issues. We are considering the Rt Hon Lord Bonomy’s findings carefully and will respond early next year. Any proposals for legislative change will be subject to the proper consultation processes.

Earlier this month, the Dumfries & Galloway Standard reported on an horrific case in which a Dumfries resident, Daniel Sauberlich, looked out of his back door and saw a fox in a neighbouring field. The fox began running towards him, but before it reached him a pack of dogs grabbed the fox, shook it around and left it for dead. It is clear that hunting and killing foxes with packs of dogs still takes place in Scotland.

Will the cabinet secretary give an assurance that, in any future consultation, the Government will consider not only the very welcome recommendations from Lord Bonomy’s review in relation to such issues as extended time limits for prosecution, but further amendments to legislation that would remove the flushing-to-gun exemption and reduce to two the number of dogs in all exemptions?

I am aware of that specific incident. The Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002 makes it an offence to deliberately hunt a wild mammal with a dog, but there is still some need for vermin control, so there must be ways for that to happen. Lord Bonomy has given us a detailed outline of the measures that he considers may need to be taken into account. I have indicated that we will respond formally to him in January. If the situation requires primary legislation, there will obviously be further consultation. In any case, we will come back to discuss any response that we make to his review. I confidently expect that Colin Smyth will want to be part of that process.

Air Pollution

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to tackle air pollution. (S5O-00492)

The cleaner air for Scotland strategy sets out a series of actions for Government, Transport Scotland, local authorities and others to further reduce air pollution across Scotland. Financial and other support is provided to local authorities to assist them with monitoring and implementing local actions to improve air quality. The recent budget identified an additional £1 million to support that priority work.

As the cabinet secretary will be aware, we have made quite a lot of progress in cutting carbon emissions from electricity generation but very little progress in cutting carbon emissions from cars and from transport more generally. What infrastructure is required to make a step change? For instance, do we need more charging points, or incentives for people to clean up their vehicles?

Quite a lot of activity goes on at local authority level in particular, because it is primarily councils that deal with local air-quality management issues. I am sure that Rhoda Grant will have noticed that the Minister for Transport and the Islands is sitting next to me; he may want to contribute specific thoughts to the discussion. We work closely with Transport Scotland, and there are on-going discussions about the possible introduction of a low-emissions zone, or zones. Again, that would be done—as such things always must be done—in partnership with local government. I hope that we will be able to fulfil the manifesto commitment to have that in place by—when is it?

It is 2018.

Right. We hope to have it in place by 2018. Such action is best taken at the more local level ideally, because different kinds of management will be required to make the policy work, rather than trying to implement it across the whole of Scotland.

Can the cabinet secretary give details of how air pollution in Scotland compares with air pollution in the rest of the United Kingdom and Europe?

Air quality in Scotland compares relatively well with air quality in the rest of the UK and Europe. We comply with European Union requirements on fine particulate matter—other than in respect of some issues around Hope Street in Glasgow. That can be compared to the situation in Paris and other French cities, for example, where emergency measures have been introduced as a result of such levels. The situation is often replicated in cities, especially in central and southern Europe. The monitor in Glasgow is intended only to measure the worst-case scenario and is not representative of normal public exposure. In general and in particular, we seem to be doing relatively well in comparison with the rest of Europe.

Climate Change Targets

To ask the Scottish Government how its proposed new climate change targets will take account of the Paris agreement’s goal of pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. (S5O-00493)

The Scottish Government’s forthcoming climate change bill will reflect the increased global ambition of the Paris agreement by setting new statutory greenhouse gas emission reduction targets, which will include a more testing 2020 target. The Scottish Government’s approach to climate change targets is based on the best available evidence, and we have commissioned independent advice from the United Kingdom Committee on Climate Change on the appropriate levels, forms and mechanisms for targets in the bill. The committee has issued a call for evidence in relation to its advice, which will remain open until 1 February 2017.

Even before the Paris agreement raised the level of global ambition on limiting the temperature increase, it was clear that the bulk of the world’s fossil fuels are unburnable. We have far greater existing reserves of fossil fuels than we can afford to burn, even if we were to restrain warming to 2°C.

Given the increased ambition, the proportion of burnable fossil fuels will reduce even further. Is there not a strong case for the climate change legislation to not only set the right emissions reduction targets but place clear limits on the extraction of fossil fuels? Extraction will have to come to an end if we are to have the remotest chance of achieving the 1.5°C goal.

As I indicated, we are awaiting advice from the Committee on Climate Change for the climate change bill, which has not yet been introduced in Parliament and is still the subject of considerable discussion. I hear what Patrick Harvie says and I will ensure that his views are reflected in any discussions that we have.

I should add that Scotland is a member of the under 2 MOU—memorandum of understanding—coalition, which covers more than a billion people around the world in states and regions. As a signatory to the MOU, we recognise that global ambition must be increased to meet the Paris agreement goals.

For additional advice, I will quote the First Minister, who said at the Arctic Circle Assembly:

“it is essential that the world meets the overall target we set ourselves in Paris, of limiting global temperature increases to well below 2 degrees Celsius, and making serious efforts to keep them below 1.5 degrees.”

I hope that Patrick Harvie is happy with that statement of intent.

The Paris agreement will require complex and detailed planning to meet the 2020 and 2050 targets. How important is the TIMES accounting model as a tool in achieving the future climate change targets?

For those who are not familiar with the TIMES model, I say that it is a relatively recent innovation that the Scottish Government is using that has made working out the proposals that need to be in the climate change plan rather more straightforward this time around than it was the last time that we had to do that. The model allows us to feed in scenarios and get a clear indication of what the result would be. That will be a vital tool as we move forward with the climate change plan, which still has to be laid before Parliament, and when we come to setting much tougher targets for ourselves in the proposed climate change bill. The TIMES model will give us clarity on what will be achieved when we take certain actions.

I declare that I am the parliamentary liaison officer to the cabinet secretary.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that Scotland is a world leader on tackling climate change, given our ambitious targets and our success in meeting our 2020 targets six years early? Does she agree that it is important that we continue to show the international community that significant emissions reductions are deliverable?

When one leaves Scotland to have a conversation about climate change, it is interesting to find the extent to which people recognise and are cognisant of the advances that have been made here. Even the environmental non-governmental organisations that delight in tweaking our tails in Scotland will nevertheless go out of Scotland and boast quite widely of the successes that have been achieved. Therefore, I agree with that.

It is worth saying that we are recognised outside Scotland for the work that we have done. It is important that we do not always simply look inside and that we consider that validation is coming from elsewhere. At the climate change talks in Morocco, I met Patricia Espinosa, the head of the United Nations climate body, and she called Scotland meeting its 2020 targets six years early a “great achievement”. The Climate Group is extremely interested in what we have done and the great advances that we have made, and it hopes to use our example to encourage other states and regions to achieve the same. It is right that we understand that we have international validation for what we do and that it is recognised as world leading.

Air Quality (Glasgow)

To ask the Scottish Government what steps it is taking to monitor and improve air quality in Glasgow. (S5O-00494)

Under the Environment Act 1995 and associated regulations, all Scottish local authorities are required to regularly review air quality in their areas against objectives for several pollutants that are of particular concern for human health. Glasgow City Council has produced an air quality action plan that contains a comprehensive range of measures to improve air quality in Glasgow. The Scottish Government is working closely with the council as it implements the measures that are contained in the plan and the Government is providing practical and financial assistance to monitor air quality and support delivery of measures.

Data from the World Health Organization puts Glasgow among 11 urban areas in the United Kingdom and Ireland that regularly exceed safe levels of air pollution. Given that that is bad not only for people’s health but for the wider environment, what action will the Scottish Government take to encourage more people to choose greener ways to travel?

The Government is making considerable progress on persuading people that the use of public transport is in many cases a smarter option than private car use. If people want to use private cars, there is the growing option of electric vehicles, with a widening range of charging points, and there is the potentially exciting innovation that may come from hydrogen. All those things are there and we encourage everybody to take them up if possible.

The member will have heard the comments that I made earlier about Glasgow, which also pertain to her question. To pick up on one important thing that she said, we need to understand and accept the massive health impact that poor air quality has. It is an extraordinary human health issue, and we need to take air quality much more seriously in that regard, as well as considering the environmental impacts.

Air Passenger Duty (Effect on Emissions)

To ask the Scottish Government how it will compensate for the reported 60,000 tonnes of additional emissions that could be caused by it introducing a 50 per cent reduction in air passenger duty. (S5O-00495)

Our plan to cut air departure tax by 50 per cent by the end of the session and then abolish it when public finances permit is a key to improving Scotland’s international connectivity. That is particularly important in light of the economic uncertainty that has been caused by the outcome of the European Union referendum.

Our approach will be taken forward in the context of the Scottish Government’s overall approach to reducing emissions. The Committee on Climate Change’s most recent report on Scotland’s progress towards meeting the targets advised that any increase in emissions from reducing the tax is likely to be “manageable”. We will also consult on how a 50 per cent reduction could be delivered as part of the strategic environmental assessment process.

When considering the overall plans, the cabinet secretary must understand that air travel is responsible for 13 per cent of Scotland’s transport emissions. It is the biggest emitter of carbon dioxide per passenger kilometre of any form of transport, and it is the only sector in which emissions have risen significantly over the past 20 years. Can she not see that her Government’s plans to abolish APD will drive a coach and horses—or perhaps fly a jumbo jet—through her Government’s credibility on climate change?

The short answer is that I suggest that Iain Gray takes up the issue directly with the Committee on Climate Change, which is where we get our advice. It has advised us that any increase is “manageable” across all Government emissions, and we have made the choice because we believe that it will have significant economic benefits.

The cabinet secretary mentioned the United Kingdom Committee on Climate Change. What is her view on its statement that, because of the industry’s international nature, future policy approaches to aviation emissions should be at the global or EU level?

Many of the key levers are at those levels, so we support the committee’s call for international policy approaches to aviation emissions. We recognise the importance of such emissions and we are showing global leadership by including them in our domestic targets.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that there would be fewer environmental concerns if we reduced APD on only long-haul flights? If we did that, we would not see the prospect of modal shift from surface travel to short-haul flights.

As I advised Iain Gray in my response to him, I advise Murdo Fraser—as I have done on a number of occasions in respect of climate change—that we take advice from the Committee on Climate Change, which has given us a general answer about emissions. How those emissions are composed in connection with a reduction in APD is a matter on which we will make a decision in discussion with others. I hear what Murdo Fraser has to say but, if he thinks that I will stand here and endorse Conservative Party policy without further consultation, he is very wrong.

Fibre Broadband

To ask the Scottish Government what is being done to provide access to fibre broadband in areas where there is an insufficiency of hardware to meet demand. (S5O-00499)

The Scottish Government and our partners are investing more than £400 million in the digital Scotland superfast broadband programme to extend fibre broadband access to at least 95 per cent of homes and businesses across Scotland by the end of 2017. The digital Scotland programme has given access to fibre broadband to around 679,000 homes and businesses, over 90 per cent of which are capable of receiving superfast speeds.

The programme is delivering new fibre infrastructure in areas that the market would not otherwise have reached. Where demand exceeds capacity in an area connected by the digital Scotland superfast broadband programme, extra equipment can be added to the existing fibre cabinets, or a new larger capacity cabinet can be built, to ensure that everyone can connect to fibre.

The village of Kirkliston is a beautiful and welcoming community just 8 miles from the chamber. Its citizens pay the City of Edinburgh Council’s council tax rates and Edinburgh property prices, but they are often overlooked when it comes to things such as affordable public transport links and even—until two weeks ago—Christmas lights. On five occasions in the past four years, residents have been told to ready themselves for the arrival of fibre optic broadband, only to be thwarted for a range of reasons to do with hardware and cabling connections to the nearest exchange. This summer, to a frisson of excitement, some streets started receiving faster broadband, but—again because of hardware issues—that stalled, with many homes making do with near dial-up speeds of 2Mbps, which is 90 per cent lower than the city average.

Can the cabinet secretary advise my constituents in Kirkliston when they can expect to be fully connected, and how he plans to work with digital Scotland to better manage expectations for fibre optic roll-out?

I am pleased to note that, at the end of quarter 1 in 2016-17, around 3,300 premises in Mr Cole-Hamilton’s Edinburgh Western constituency had been connected to the fibre network, with at least 3,200 able to receive superfast speeds.

Mr Cole-Hamilton’s constituency is indeed in the City of Edinburgh Council local authority area, where, by the end of the same quarter, approximately 12,500 premises had been connected to the fibre network by the digital Scotland programme, providing 92.7 per cent coverage, with at least 91.7 per cent able to receive superfast speeds.

If Mr Cole-Hamilton had given me notice about Kirkliston, I would have looked at that area specifically. I am happy to do so if he wishes to write to me. However, I am proud of the fact that, because of our £400 million programme, we are proceeding towards 95 per cent coverage by the end of next year, and 679,000 homes have already been connected. Had we not had that programme, coverage would have been not 95 per cent but 66 per cent. I put those facts into the equation.

Will the cabinet secretary consider amending procurement regulations to ensure that there is a presumption in favour of installing broadband connectivity when any new buildings are constructed, whether they are fully funded or part funded by public money?

We have been working to enable the roll-out of digital technology as swiftly as possible, particularly in relation to permitted development rights for mobile masts. Many local authorities—not least those in my own part of Scotland—lobbied us for that. Mr McMillan makes a sensible point and I am happy to look into it as a positive contribution to the debate.

Mr Cole-Hamilton made a pertinent point. Many people who live in urban areas in towns—such as Kilwinning in my region—or even in cities are frustrated that, although fibre is being delivered to local cabinets, they still cannot access high-speed internet. Can the cabinet secretary confirm that none of the residential or commercial premises that are unable to access high-speed broadband has been counted in the current success statistics? Will he guarantee that every one of them will have access by the end of the parliamentary session?

The member should know, because he has heard this before—as have many other members—that a quarterly audit process is carried out to audit and analyse performance under the contract. The figure of 679,000, which I mentioned to him at committee this morning, is not yet audited, but once it has been, we will be able to see that we are well advanced on our way towards meeting our targets. Further, although the Conservatives do not like to hear this, Audit Scotland has already said in its independent report that we are well on track to achieve performance under our contract. If the member is not interested in that, I can tell him that Ofcom, the independent United Kingdom regulator, has said that Scotland is making faster progress than the rest of the UK. I will not be satisfied until we have achieved the universal coverage that is in our manifesto. Surely, at this time of the year, we could expect a little bit more from what is supposed to be the main Opposition than unremitting negativity.

The cabinet secretary will be aware that people who live in rural areas are often some distance from fibre. What other future-proofed and high-speed technologies will be used in those areas?

That was a more sensible question than the previous one, if I may say so. Rhoda Grant is quite right to say, as she did at committee this morning, that we need to examine different approaches to different solutions for different parts of Scotland. Community broadband is working in 77 projects, for example, and a special project is being developed by BT to provide better coverage in the Western Isles. There is a variety of technologies, and we are open to working with any member who wants to contribute in a positive fashion.

Common Agricultural Policy (Payments)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the information technology system for common agricultural policy payments. (S5O-00500)

During my statement to members on 13 September, I committed to reporting back to Parliament in January 2017 on the progress that has been made.

In 2017, the Scottish Government will need to deliver the balance of payments for the loan scheme as well as the remaining balance for the coupled beef and sheep schemes and the vital less favoured areas support scheme. I understand that no timeline has been provided for the delivery of those payments. Can the cabinet secretary clarify when the payments of the balance will begin and when they will be completed?

Claudia Beamish refers to the national loan scheme that we have introduced, and my understanding is that nearly 13,000 farmers have chosen to avail themselves of that scheme, which injected £260 million into the rural economy around the first fortnight of November. That is a good thing, and I think that most farmers—at least those outside the chamber—have welcomed it. [Laughter.]

On the specific point that Claudia Beamish makes, just last week I met the chief executive of the IT contractors CGI. Obviously, we are pressing for timeous delivery of all payments by the deadline of June next year. We expect to have repaid the financial transaction element that finances the loan repayments by the end of this financial year or thereabouts.

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

The cabinet secretary will be aware that there have been significant issues relating to transferring entitlements, with many farmers unable to receive payment for many months. By what date will the IT system be able to process entitlement transfers?

Obviously, there are a great many different cases, and they are all triggered at different times because farms are not sold on 1 January; they are sold or transferred throughout the year. There is no cohort of transactions called “transfer of entitlements” that fall to be dealt with on any particular date. It would be ludicrous to suggest that there was. However, in the spirit of Christmas, I am happy to write to the member to confirm that we shall be tackling all payments as swiftly as we can.

The issue is a serious one for those farmers who are involved in transfers of entitlements. As the member knows, there are complexities, but we all want to ensure that these matters are processed as quickly as possible.

I draw members’ intention to my registered agricultural holding of a massive 3 acres.

What measures are being taken to address the costs of the common agricultural policy futures system and to ensure that CAP payments are put on a better footing in future?

I say in reply to the smallholder that we have been working to bear down on the costs of the CAP futures system. From November, we expect to see savings of more than 10 per cent on the cost of the contractor, with the supplier taking the risk on delivery of the savings. In addition, as a result of the negotiations with the contractor that I have overseen, there will be a new penalty and service credit regime in place that will incentivise timely delivery and impose financial penalties where those timetables are not met. I hope that that commercial discipline will help us deliver efficaciously our obligations in respect of the CAP futures system.

Monifieth (Access to Rail Services)

To ask the Scottish Government how it will improve access to rail for residents of Monifieth. (S5O-00501)

Since the introduction of additional ScotRail services between Monifieth and Dundee in 2013, the number of passengers using Monifieth station has more than doubled. I am pleased to confirm that plans are currently being developed by ScotRail to further enhance the service by the end of 2018. That will improve rail connections for the residents of Monifieth and, indeed, the wider region. The Scottish Government is committed to enhancing rail services and connectivity, and the success at Monifieth is being replicated across Scotland.

The minister is right to point out that there was an increase of 88 per cent immediately after the introduction of additional services in 2013, and there has been a 42 per cent increase since then. However, all told, there is still a maximum of only seven trains a day serving Monifieth. Might there be any scope to further meet the clearly evidenced demand for rail access in the town ahead of the very welcome introduction of the hourly coastal service in mid to late 2018?

The member is right to point out that Monifieth is in our plans as part of our investment in the revolution in rail. He is also right to point out the increase in the number of passengers using Monifieth station, and I reiterate that plans are being developed for towards the end of 2018. However, I will certainly take his comments back to ScotRail and flag them for consideration of whether anything can be done before then. I caveat that by saying that it can be extremely difficult. As he knows, additional carriages or additional services at one station or on one particular service usually mean the diminution of services at other stations, unless we can find more rolling stock, which ScotRail is actively looking to do. I will take that back to ScotRail and I will update the member.

Bus Services

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on whether Scotland has good bus services. (S5O-00502)

Yes, but there is clearly room for improvement. The most important opinion on the quality of bus services comes from the passenger. The most recent bus passenger survey reflects an increase over the past three years in passenger satisfaction. The survey and the work of Bus Users Scotland help us to understand how services are perceived by customers and, importantly, they identify areas for improvement, which we are committed to.

If the minister believes that we have good bus services, I do not know what planet he is living on. Bus services in many areas of Scotland are diabolical and, in many areas, services do not exist, so how on earth did we end up with a £9 million underspend in last year’s budget?

All I can say is that the decline in the number of bus passengers has been happening since the 1960s. In fact, the steepest decline was between the 1960s and 1985, when buses were regulated. I point out to the member that the worst decline has been in Glasgow and the west of Scotland, where local authorities have been in charge of bus services for many years.

The member is right to say that the situation is not where we want it to be. He will have noticed in the budget statement last week by the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Constitution, Derek Mackay, that, because of that, the bus service operators grant of £50 million has been increased by an additional few million pounds. Discussions are taking place with the bus operators about how we can improve services. I would not call it diabolical.

I know that the member has some issues and that we have some differences. In the spirit of Christmas and reaching out to people, I say to him that the Government has committed to a transport bill, and there will be a bus element in it. There are clearly differences between us about the approach, but if he and his party come with considered proposals, I want them to be part of the solution. We can work together to improve bus services and to reverse the decline in bus patronage.

As the minister has flagged to Graeme Dey, in the north-east of Scotland good and reliable rail services are as valuable and important as good bus services. Does the minister agree that it is very disappointing that, according to the “Annual efficiency and finance assessment of Network Rail 2015-16”, there has been

“slower-than-expected progress on the Aberdeen to Inverness journey time improvement project”?

Also, given the Aberdeen western peripheral route delays and the fact that Aberdeen airport receives less funding than any other Scottish airport, can we conclude that the Scottish Government pays only lip service to improving connectivity in the north-east?

The Christmas Grinch has most certainly arrived, Presiding Officer. The Government can point to the AWPR, the significant investment in dualling the A9 and the A96, and the promised improvements to the Haudagain roundabout. Laurencekirk junction is being delivered by this Government, when other Governments refused to do it. We have a great record in the north-east and I look forward to continued investment there.

I say to the member—come on, don’t be the Christmas Grinch. It is the time for good festive spirit. Be generous in your considerations. Where there are delays and where improvements can be made, we will work with local partners as we have done with Aberdeen City Council and Aberdeenshire Council. As part of the funding that we are providing to improve rail services and transport services, there will be a £5 million transport appraisal. If the member wants to come forward with considered and costed proposals, they can be part of that appraisal.

In the draft budget document, the Scottish Government states that it will

“constrain payments under the concessionary travel scheme ... as a result of a negotiated settlement with the bus sector”,

yet the bus industry body says that the budget for concessionary travel appears markedly below the current projected costs for the scheme. Can the minister confirm whether a negotiated settlement with the bus industry has been reached?

There was a very positive meeting with the bus industry yesterday. Discussions are still continuing.

I thought that the member might in his question have welcomed the fact that Derek Mackay promised to extend the concessionary travel scheme to modern apprentices and for three months to those aged between 16 and 24 with a job grant. That was missing from his question. I am sure that it was just an accidental omission on his part. The Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy and Connectivity and the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Constitution have said that there will be a consultation on the concessionary travel scheme to ensure that we have long-term sustainability.

Discussions are going well with the bus operators. Once they come to a conclusion, I am sure that the member will be made well aware of that.

Transport Issues (Fife)

To ask the Scottish Government when it last discussed transport issues in Fife with ScotRail. (S5O-00504)

My officials discussed transport issues in Fife with ScotRail on 13 December 2016. The meeting covered ScotRail’s progress with delivering the initiatives as outlined in the performance improvement plan. I also met Shirley-Anne Somerville MSP and Douglas Chapman MP earlier this month to discuss west Fife rail issues.

First, I thank the minister for agreeing to my request for a rail infrastructure consultation event to take place in Fife. I am sure that there will be much interest in that.

This month, I have been continually contacted by constituents travelling between Edinburgh and Fife, who are raising complaints about delays, cancellations and capacity. Those complaints have included ones about people being stranded at stations because of limited stops, often with families and young children, about having only two carriages on trains at rush hour and about peak-hour cancellations. That is not inspiring much festive spirit in Fife.

Fife passengers are being short changed. Can the minister give us any assurances that, as we enter the busy Christmas and new year period, the train service for Fife will be able to meet passenger demand?

As I have said repeatedly both in the chamber and in public outside the chamber, rail performance is not at the level that I want it to be. Trying to be constructive, I note that, at the end of period 9, which was the last railway period to be completed, performance on the Fife route was 90.5 per cent, which is higher than for the franchise as a whole and over 2 per cent higher than the Great Britain average. It is not at the level that I want it to be, and I continue to say that. The member will have noticed the announcement from Phil Verster last month that at peak times ScotRail is looking to reduce skip-stopping. We want ScotRail to go further, so I recognise what she says.

Fife Council and commuters in Fife have mentioned fares to me. I am pleased to say that, with the discounts that we have announced last week, those travelling from Markinch to Edinburgh, for example, will save £78.50 if they are on a monthly or annual season ticket. Of course, if rail fares were frozen, as the member had asked, there would be only a £63 saving. There is a considerable saving from the discounts.

I want to see an improvement in services and performance across the railway. The member articulates the points and the frustrations that passengers feel. I am committed to seeing an improvement—and we are seeing that improvement. I will continue to monitor improvement over time.

That brings us to the end of portfolio questions.