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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, September 22, 2016

Meeting of the Parliament 22 September 2016

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Standing Safe Campaign, Business Motion, Local Taxation, Events, General Question Time, Decision Time


Contents


General Question Time

We move to general questions, which were interrupted earlier today. We pick up at question 5.


Railways (Performance)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to improve performance on Scotland’s railways. (S5O-00175)

The Scottish Government has written to the ScotRail alliance to request an improvement plan. Frankly, performance has not been to the level that I—and we—expect it to be. The plan will provide evidence on how the ScotRail alliance intends to return performance to contracted target levels.

Official ScotRail statistics show that in the run-up to 20 August, 24 out of 75 services were late more often than they were on time. Only 38.7 per cent of trains to Paisley Canal, 29 per cent of trains to Dalmuir and 25 per cent of trains to Milngavie arrived on time, and only one in 10 trains to Arbroath, Ardrossan Harbour and High Street Glasgow stations arrived on time.

This Government signed a contract with Abellio that gives the company millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money every week. It is not good enough for the minister just to blame ScotRail and Network Rail. Will he say what percentage of trains arriving on time he thinks is acceptable? What guarantees will he give passengers today that services will be significantly improved? If there are to be improvements, will he say by when?

Let me try to reassure the member, where I can. As I said, I do not think that public performance measures are at the standard that we expect them to be. That is why I have given instructions that an improvement plan come to me and changes be made.

Let me try to give some perspective on what the member said. The public performance measure target that ScotRail Abellio has is 91.3 per cent; performance was just 1.6 per cent behind that, at 89.7 per cent—[Interruption.] I say, just to give some perspective, because I know that the member needs it, that when Labour had the franchise in 2005, performance was at 84 per cent—6 per cent lower than it currently is.

On the Glasgow south line, the PPM is 97 per cent. On the Gourock to Wemyss Bay line, which is the service that the member uses, it is 99 per cent. There are improvements to be made, which is why an improvement plan is being put in place, but we must put the issue in perspective. The railways are not collapsing. There is not chaos, as the member suggests. I know that Neil Bibby is usually a ray of eternal sunshine and positivity, and I ask him to think positively about the issue.

The improvement plan has been requested, and I am sure that improvements will be made and there will be action in that regard. Let us get some perspective. Yes, the PPM target has been missed by 1.6 per cent. I will certainly push ScotRail further. Let us see what the improvement plan has to offer.

I intend to write to the minister about this, but I would like to place on record some of the terrible travelling experiences that I am getting reports of from people travelling on the East Kilbride to Glasgow line. Will the minister ensure that, when I send him a letter detailing some of the experiences that have been relayed to me over the past few weeks, he will quickly have a look at it and raise those issues with ScotRail, along with other issues?

Yes, of course I will. It is important to say that anybody can pick out a week or a month of statistics but, as I said, over the year, although the performance has not been what I expect it to be, in terms of punctuality and performance, a PPM of 89.7 per cent is the right trajectory. However, we need to get to the targets that are set in the contract. The improvement plan is in place and, I hope, that will make a difference for constituents in East Kilbride.

What measures is the Scottish Government taking to expand passenger capacity on Scotland’s railways?

The member raises an important point. Of course, the good-news story on the railways is that their popularity has grown by 27 per cent since 2007. More people want to use our railways, but the other side of that coin is that we have capacity issues in the network. To try to address that, a number of things are in the franchise contract. In April 2015, when the ScotRail franchise was taken on by Abellio, there were 287 trains in the fleet; that will increase to 336 by 2019. There will be 70 new Hitachi trains, with more than 40 per cent extra seating planned by the end of 2018-19. We are taking a host of other measures to improve capacity, because it is a big issue. I am active on social media, and a lot of people tweet me about capacity issues. Improvements are being made, and a new fleet of trains are coming in, which will help with that. I can perhaps provide more detail to the member in written correspondence.


Broadband Speeds (Grangemouth)

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on the reported views of businesses regarding slow broadband speeds in the Grangemouth area. (S5O-00176)

The majority of homes and businesses in Grangemouth are served by commercial broadband services. We will continue to press commercial providers to deliver the best possible service to as many homes and businesses as possible. The Scottish Government’s investment in the digital Scotland superfast broadband programme has seen two new cabinets installed recently to serve areas of Grangemouth that would not have been reached commercially. The Scottish Government is committed to ensuring superfast broadband access for 100 per cent of premises by 2021. We intend to deliver new public investment via new procurements from next year, which will further improve broadband availability and speeds across Scotland.

Does the minister agree that it is incredible that, in 2016, businesses in the industrial hub of Scotland are reporting that they have been told that the best option is radio-based broadband beamed across the Forth all the way from Clackmannanshire?

As the member will know if she listened, I referred in my earlier answer to commercial services. Commercial services have provided broadband in cities throughout Britain and, unless I have missed something, I have not heard the United Kingdom Government stating that it is a public obligation of the taxpayer to supplant the commercial activities of companies. That is not really a proposition that one expects to hear from the Conservative Party. However, despite that fact, I can inform the member that, under the digital Scotland superfast broadband programme, 7,000 homes and businesses are being connected every week, and an investment of £410 million is being made to make up for the fact that the UK’s ambition is far less than that of the Scottish Government.

Just last Friday, I had discussions on that very subject with a senior official from Falkirk Council, who advised me that the council is actively pursuing wireless broadband options for my constituency. What can the Scottish Government do to assist Falkirk Council in its efforts to improve broadband provision in Grangemouth and the wider Falkirk district and to source alternative technology to allow better broadband speeds for local businesses?

We work with Falkirk Council and other bodies to help to extend digital connectivity in the area. A range of technologies will be required to deliver our shared broadband ambitions. Community broadband Scotland is already supporting a number of communities to procure wireless broadband solutions and the Scottish Government is supporting trials of innovative TV white space technology in Orkney, which could support wireless broadband delivery in the future. I will ensure that the good points that my colleague Angus MacDonald raises are followed up with Falkirk Council in the coming days when its plans are discussed in more detail.

Is the cabinet secretary as tired as I am of hearing the Tories complain about the Scottish Government’s approach to digital connectivity, when the Tory Government at Westminster does not have as ambitious a target for roll-out as the target that we have in Scotland?

Tory fatigue is just one of the malaises that we must thole here in the Scottish Parliament.

The Scottish Government has made it clear that we intend to go far further than the UK Government on digital connectivity. The UK’s ambition is lesser and its universal service obligation will deliver speeds of just 10 megabits per second, which is far below the superfast target in Scotland. Although we have a long way to go, what we are doing in Scotland will be far more ambitious than what our counterparts seek to deliver down south.

That ends general questions.

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. Today, in an answer to an inspired parliamentary question from Gil Paterson, the cabinet secretary Michael Matheson announced a review of undercover policing in Scotland since the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (Scotland) Act 2000 came into force.

I have been raising the issues of unethical and illegal undercover policing for the past few years and have called for a full and independent public inquiry—the same as what is happening in England and Wales. What has been announced today is not a public inquiry. The review that has been announced today fails to address the concerns of victims prior to the year 2000, whereas the Pitchford inquiry in England and Wales will look back to 1968. The review fails to provide an avenue for victims to present their evidence or an avenue to hear from witnesses, and it will not look at the activities of undercover officers during events such as the campaign against the poll tax, the miners’ strike and the peak period when thousands of construction workers were blacklisted.

Presiding officer, will you use your good office to ensure that the cabinet secretary comes to Parliament next week to make a statement on the review, so that MSPs can ask questions on behalf of their constituents. Sneaking the announcement out at the tail end of the week in an answer to an inspired PQ, with no opportunity for questions, will simply not do.

I thank Neil Findlay for his point of order. He asked a number of questions about a Government announcement today. Those are clearly questions that need to be put to the Government, and I ask the Government and business managers to take cognisance of them, as they would of any other request. Mr Findlay can make use of his own resources and submit written questions, as he would on any other matter. He can make full utilisation of parliamentary facilities in doing so. His point has been noted; however, it is not a point of order.