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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 24 September 2019

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, Supreme Court Judgment (Response), Common Frameworks, Decision Time, Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis Week 2019


Topical Question Time

Landfill (Biodegradable Waste)

I refer members to my entry in the register of interests.

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to ensure that it meets its new target for banning biodegradable municipal waste going to landfill. (S5T-01792)

There will be a centrally co-ordinated intervention to help remaining local authorities procure solutions for the remaining tonnage of waste. Scottish landfill tax will be used to provide a further incentive to ensure that transitional work proceeds at the necessary pace.

I will also establish a programme board comprising senior leaders and waste management professionals across public and commercial sectors to oversee and drive forward measures to ensure full compliance with the ban by 2025. The board will report to me at regular intervals.

We will continue to prioritise reducing waste and increasing recycling to reduce reliance on energy from waste.

On 5 September, in response to a written question on the subject, the Scottish National Party gave no indication that the target for the ban would not be met. When did the SNP Government know that it would fail to meet its own target on the issue?

With the greatest of respect to Maurice Golden, I say that he needs to understand that the delivery responsibility lies with local authorities. Over the summer, we tried to establish the actual picture among local authorities, and we now have that information. I can advise that 16 local authorities have fully compliant solutions in place for the period before 2021; three have secured post-ban solutions that will come on stream after 2021 but still lack an interim solution; seven have a secure interim solution but no long-term solution; and six have no policy-compliant solution in place and are not currently procuring a solution. That is the picture that we have had to consider and make a decision about. When we saw that picture, it was clear to us that the landfill ban in 2021 could not hold at the current level.

I find that answer extraordinary. Back in 2015, I knew that the target would not be met, and the industry and local authorities knew. For the SNP Government not to know reeks of incompetence or wilful neglect. How can the Parliament trust the SNP to deliver on tackling climate change when it cannot meet the most basic waste target?

I remind Maurice Golden what I said at the start: the delivery responsibility lies with local authorities. I will not embarrass him by reading out the Conservative local authorities that are on the list of councils that have not put in place solutions. We are where we are. We have looked at options for the future. The proposal that I have come up with looks to me to be the most secure and certain, and it is the one that we will be working with over the next few years.

Earlier this month, Clackmannanshire Council joined Stirling Council and Perth and Kinross Council in signing a three-year waste management contract that will see its waste being shipped to Sweden for incineration. Does the Scottish Government think that that is an acceptable way to deal with the waste? What support can the Government give to councils that have signed such contracts only to find that the goalposts have now been moved?

With the greatest of respect, I repeat what I said at the outset: delivery responsibility for the particular ban that we are talking about lies with local authorities. Local authorities make decisions on the basis of understanding that although, unfortunately, in a number of cases, they have not made decisions on that basis. I am happy to talk to any local authority about particular decisions that it has made. We must be incredibly careful to ensure that the 2025 extension is met. That will not be done by incentivising the approach that has led to a failure to succeed until now, and we will look at that closely.

There was never a coherent Scottish Government policy on the issue, so last week’s decision was always inevitable. Sending waste in lorries to English landfill sites was never a responsible solution to meeting the ban. How will the Government use the delay wisely by encouraging the market to seize the opportunities, given that the record of shipping waste abroad means that our processing capacity is well below where it needs to be?

There are some real issues that have to be thought through. As well as the fact that local authorities have not done the job that we expected them to do, there has been difficulty in encouraging Scotland-based solutions. I agree with Willie Rennie that shipping waste furth of Scotland is not the ideal scenario, and it is what we are trying to prevent with the extension of the ban from 2021 to 2025. That is why we are looking carefully at what might be put in place so that we do not incentivise further shipping abroad. I advise Willie Rennie that we are considering what we might do in respect of the landfill tax to ensure that we do not provide an inadvertent incentive to do so.

What support will the Government provide to local authorities to implement infrastructure that will reduce biodegradable household waste to zero?

Every year, local authorities agree with the Scottish Government the sums of money that will go to them. That agreement takes place in a negotiation with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. If this issue is to continue to be a key part of the agreement, I would expect that local authorities would wish to ensure that it is raised in the discussions with COSLA.

As the member knows perfectly well, because I have repeated it endlessly this afternoon, the delivery responsibility lies with local authorities. We do not intend to change that, despite the extension to the deadline on the ban.

Northern Isles Ferry Services (Preferred Bidder)

To ask the Scottish Government for what reason it has named Serco Ltd as its preferred bidder for the northern isles ferry services. (S5T-01794)

Serco Ltd was awarded the status of preferred bidder on the basis of an assessment ratio of 65 per cent price and 35 per cent quality, as was set out in the tender documents and made clear to all bidders when the invitation to tender was issued. Serco was assessed as providing the most economically advantageous tender under the terms of the competition, with a tender that was evaluated under the tender criteria to provide high-quality ferry services and value for money for the taxpayer.

The statutory 10-day standstill period commenced on Friday. During that period, I am constrained in respect of what I can say regarding details of either bidders’ submission.

Last year, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Economy and Fair Work signed a commitment to application of the fair work principles across the Scottish Government and associated bodies. The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers is in the process of taking strike action against Serco, as the operator of the Caledonian sleeper train, for reneging on pledges to address serious concerns about staff safety. Can the minister honestly tell Parliament that Serco is living up to the fair work principles? If not, perhaps he can explain why the fair work convention was considered to be suitable for civil servants but not for people who work in the transport sector under Serco?

We are required to act lawfully under procurement rules. Under those rules, there are no grounds for excluding Serco from the competition on the ferry services.

Mr Finnie referred to the fair work framework. I stress that there is no direct correlation between the contracts to which he refers and the contract for the northern isles ferry services, which have been operated successfully by Serco for the past seven and a half years.

As I mentioned, Serco was assessed as providing the most economically advantageous tender under the terms of the competition, with a tender to provide high-quality ferry services and value for money for the taxpayer. I reassure Mr Finnie—and the trade unions, as I have already—that the fair work framework applies in the tender, and Serco is signed up to it. That means that there will be protection of pension arrangements for staff, and that there will be no compulsory redundancies during the eight-year period of the contract. I hope that Mr Finnie takes some reassurance from that. The fair work framework applies to the contract: we will see that it is applied.

I am very concerned by the Scottish Government’s apparent indifference to the possibility of reputational damage. Caledonian MacBrayne was the trusted provider of the ferry services until 2012. Since then, Serco has been involved in a number of controversies across its staggering portfolio of Government work. Last year, MSPs from all parties, including the Scottish National Party, condemned Serco’s plans to carry out mass evictions of asylum seekers in Glasgow. Does the minister believe that such a company is fit to carry out public services, and is deserving of public money in Scotland?

I am not dismissing the issues that Mr Finnie raises about practices elsewhere. However, as I said in my second answer to him, there is no legal basis for excluding Serco from the competition: Serco has won the competition fairly and squarely. The team that has been awarded preferred bidder status has been running the service for seven and a half years without issues such as Mr Finnie has raised coming to the fore.

More important is that Orkney Islands Council, Ryan Thomson from Highlands and Islands transport partnership and stakeholders across the area have welcomed the decision. I appreciate Mr Finnie’s points, but they are on matters that are completely separate from this particular contract. The preferred bidder has delivered the services successfully for seven and a half years, and the decision has been welcomed by the people who use the services.

There is quite a lot of interest in the matter. We will have supplementary questions, the first of which is from Liam McArthur.

I welcome the end to uncertainty, and I welcome the continuity that will come with confirmation of Serco NorthLink’s selection as the preferred bidder for the lifeline services.

However, it is strange that when I raised the issue with the First Minister last Thursday, she felt unable to advise Parliament of the announcement that was to come the following morning, even though journalists were tipped off later that afternoon.

Does the minister accept that the contract falls far short of meeting the growing, and increasingly urgent, demand for additional freight capacity that has been highlighted by key businesses in Orkney and Shetland in the past year?

I welcome Liam McArthur’s positive remarks. I point out that journalists were tipped off not about the decision itself but about the fact that one was coming, as is normal practice. As Mr McArthur has mentioned, whether it would be appropriate to make the decision at that time was still being determined during that day.

However, I acknowledge Liam McArthur’s concerns about freight. A key factor in meeting state-aid rules is that services that are outlined in the public service contract are necessary and proportionate to the community’s needs. Any additional services could have been interpreted as being overprovision of aid and state support, thereby distorting the effect of operation in the market.

However, as Mr McArthur might be aware, the contract has been designed with greater flexibility in order to allow timetabled freight and ferry services to be amended to better reflect changes in demand across the year and from sector to sector. We want to support the key areas of the economies of the Orkney and Shetland islands, including tourism, fishing, food and drink, aquaculture and farming, and to help them to thrive. The new arrangements will support that. I will seek to engage with those key industries, and with Mr McArthur and others, as we move forward.

The new contract provides for a 20 per cent discount on cabin fares and a three-year fares freeze for passengers, vehicles and cabins, which builds on the 30 per cent discount on passenger and vehicle fares that islanders already enjoy, so is not it the case that the SNP Government has listened to islanders and put them at the heart of the contract’s terms?

Maureen Watt is correct, in that, separate from the announcement of Serco Ltd’s preferred bidder status, on Friday I was in a position to announce that, from 1 January 2020, islanders who use services between Aberdeen and Kirkwall and Lerwick will benefit from an additional 20 per cent reduction in cabin fares. Passenger, non-commercial vehicle and cabin fares will also be frozen for three years. That will add to the existing 30 per cent discount for islanders on passenger and vehicle fares.

Unfortunately, at this point in time the Scottish Government cannot introduce fare reductions or freezes on the Scrabster to Stromness route, due to the on-going state-aid complaint and the risk that further complaints will prolong the delay to full roll-out of the road equivalent tariff on that route. However, the Government remains committed to delivery of RET and will continue to explore all available options.

As I said in my responses to Mr McArthur and Mr Finnie, we will also continue to listen to island communities, which play a vital role in Scotland’s wider wellbeing, and we will take measures to ensure that they are able to access the same opportunities for growth as the rest of the country.

I hope that the minister will agree that what is important is that, regardless of who operates the service, islanders should have an affordable and reliable service. The devil will be very much in the detail of the new contract. Has he sought assurances that whoever wins the contract will take action to improve cabin availability during peak times? Will he explain in more detail how the fare reduction and freeze will be funded and implemented? That was not clear from his initial response.

I acknowledge the point that Mr Greene has raised about availability of cabin space, which we are considering as part of the bid. One detail that I can reveal is that Serco has committed to upgrading 10 cabin spaces to premium standard. Although, in theory, that will reduce the number of standard-fare cabins that are available, given the discount that will be in place islanders will now be able to afford the premium cabins because they will be at the same or a lower price than the original standard fare, so they will be getting better-quality provision.

However, I accept that, in the longer term, we will have to deal with the need for accommodation, especially for families, which has been raised by islanders. We are trying to address affordability first. We hope, in the longer term, to tackle supply.

Mr Greene requested that I explain the funding for those measures. That will become clearer in the budget process, but the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Economy and Fair Work and I have had internal discussions and have ensured that resources are in place.

Will the minister confirm that under the new contract, all staff on the northern isles ferry services—including subcontracted staff on freight ships, as well as those on passenger services—will be covered by the RMT’s collective bargaining agreement?

I will write to Colin Smyth with an answer about the specific issues of the RMT’s terms. However, I reiterate that the contract adheres to the fair work framework, so there is protection for pension arrangements and terms and conditions, and there will be no compulsory redundancies throughout the eight-year period of the contract. I hope that those measures will be welcomed by the trade unions. However, I will be glad to sit down with them and others including Colin Smyth to discuss those matters.

Thomas Cook Group (Support for Staff and Customers)

To ask the Scottish Government what support it will offer to staff and customers of Thomas Cook Group, in light of the company ceasing trading. (S5T-01797)

We are saddened by the collapse of Thomas Cook, which had a long history of providing many jobs across the United Kingdom and overseas, including around 640 in Scotland. We are working closely with the UK Government and the Civil Aviation Authority as the situation progresses. The CAA is leading the biggest peacetime repatriation operation, with more than 150,000 travellers returning from Europe, north Africa, North America and the Caribbean over the next two weeks.

We understand that there were 63 Thomas Cook shops in Scotland, with an estimated 390 employees, as well as around 250 staff who were based at Glasgow airport. Additionally, there are Scottish businesses in the Thomas Cook supply chain that will be affected. This will be a very worrying time for employees and their families. We have already made the offer of support for affected employees in Scotland through our partnership action for continuing employment initiative.

As the cabinet secretary said, there were a number of Thomas Cook shops in Scotland, including in my constituency in Glasgow. Yesterday, I visited the shop in Gordon Street in my constituency. It was closed, there was no notice up, and people outside were wondering what was going to happen. I take on board what the cabinet secretary said about help, but people are looking for practical help just now. What practical help can the Scottish Government give to the former employees, who do not even know whether they will get any redundancy money?

I recognise the concerns that Sandra White has raised on behalf of her constituents. As I outlined in my initial answer, PACE is the primary approach that we use to provide offers of support to staff who are affected by incidents of this nature.

We have also been in contact with one of the special managers from KPMG who have been appointed, and they will provide information to all affected staff on how they should make a claim to the Insolvency Service for any wages or other moneys that may be owed to them. The Insolvency Service will be responsible for pursuing that on behalf of former employees of Thomas Cook. KPMG will include a copy of our PACE “Facing Redundancy?” guide, which contains our PACE helpline number and website details. The guide will be forwarded to all former employees that KPMG has a record of in order to provide them with that information.

That seems helpful with regard to the employees—and the customers as well, I presume. However, the cabinet secretary mentioned in his first answer that other agencies are involved, too, and one of those is Caledonian Travel, which I also visited yesterday. It supplies coach tours for visitors who come over to Scotland. It is not just about Thomas Cook itself; there are other agencies, so there will be a wider effect on the economy, not just in Glasgow but across Scotland. The staff of agencies may lose their jobs, and agencies may fall. Will those people be able to get the same help that the cabinet secretary has recommended for the staff of Thomas Cook? Where can we direct those people to so that they can get help?

I am aware of the concern about the impact that the collapse of Thomas Cook could have on some of its supply chain. The member mentioned Caledonian Travel. Webhelp, which is based in Larbert in my constituency, will also be affected by Thomas Cook going into receivership, as it provided a contact centre for the company’s customers.

I assure the member that our agencies, through Scottish Enterprise, have set up a helpline to provide a point of contact for companies in the supply chain that may be affected by the Thomas Cook situation. It has a team of specialists who can provide financial advice and wider support, including access to PACE arrangements if that is necessary and appropriate. Scottish Enterprise has put the helpline in place to support those companies that may be affected by the decision as a result of the impact that it will have on the wider supply chain.

I thank the cabinet secretary for his considerate response. The BBC reported that a woman from Glasgow was booking a replacement flight to Rhodes and the price rose from £280 to £1,000 the day after. Airline companies says that it is due to an algorithm, which could be the case, but will the cabinet secretary condemn airlines that might be seeking to take advantage of families who are in a tragic situation, trying to replace their plans for holidays and weddings?

Algorithm or not, it is appalling that any airline should be seeking to exploit individuals in such difficult circumstances. I ask all airlines to consider their actions in the coming weeks for who those who have been adversely impacted by the demise of Thomas Cook. It is not an opportunity to make an extra couple of pounds out of people who are in a difficult situation; it is a time to help those individuals to restore their holiday hopes and plans, rather than trying to take more money from them. I call on all airlines to show consideration for those who have been affected by the demise of Thomas Cook and to offer them support and help, rather than trying to take further money off them.