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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 25 September 2018

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Mental Health Strategy: 2018 Annual Report, UK Trade Arrangements: Scotland’s Role, Business Motion, Decision Time, Eye Health Week 2018


Topical Question Time

ScotRail Reliability

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking in response to figures for the first quarter of 2018-19 that show ScotRail’s reliability is at its worst for over two decades. (S5T-01231)

I am aware that ScotRail is not performing as well as would be expected and demanded by the Scottish Government and customers. However, it is impossible to compare ScotRail’s reliability today with that of 20 years ago, given the significant increase over the past two decades in passenger numbers, the additional seats that are now provided and the introduction of new stations and routes.

The Scottish Government continues to work closely with both partners of the ScotRail Alliance to ensure that the 20 recommendations in the performance improvement plan are delivered. Alongside that, Network Rail has increased resource levels to improve infrastructure reliability and resilience, with a focus on the Glasgow area, to meet the needs of the busiest rail network outwith London.

It should be noted that ScotRail’s punctuality performance rate of 88.9 per cent, as reported in the Office of Rail and Road quarterly release, remains better than the Great Britain average of 86.9 per cent.

We should not lose sight of the transformational process that is under way on our railways, with the combination of record investment in infrastructure enhancements and new and fully refurbished rolling stock delivering faster and additional services. Passenger numbers continue to grow in response to that investment.

I thank the cabinet secretary for that long answer, and I agree with him that ScotRail has made many improvements to services. However, delays and cancellations mean that passengers cannot get to work, school, health appointments and the many other duties that people must carry out during the day. I think that passengers are realistic about delays when they occur—they are often due to challenging weather conditions—but satisfaction in how ScotRail handles delays decreased by 13 per cent in the past year. Will the cabinet secretary therefore say what pressure the Government is putting on ScotRail specifically to improve communications with passengers when delays occur, whether or not the delays are avoidable?

The member raises an important issue in recognising some of the challenges that the network can face. It might be of interest to him that the public performance measure failures that were attributed to Network Rail increased by 51 per cent in the first quarter compared with the previous quarter, which demonstrates that infrastructure challenges can have a direct impact on rail service providers such as ScotRail.

That is all the more reason for ScotRail to work in partnership much more effectively to address issues. Some of the investment in infrastructure in the Glasgow area through Network Rail, which is being co-ordinated through the ScotRail Alliance, is to provide the greater resilience and reliability that is necessary.

It is also important to ensure that, when delays and cancellations occur, information is communicated effectively to the travelling public and support services are there to assist individuals when necessary. I have met the head of ScotRail Alliance and the new chief executive of Network Rail to impress on them specifically the need to ensure that there is greater focus on reliability and how they communicate with the public who make use of their services, with a clear understanding of the implications for travellers. The member can be assured that those issues have been raised with ScotRail Alliance and Network Rail, who I expect to continue to make significant progress as they take forward the improvement plan that they set out earlier this year.

I would like examples of how ScotRail will communicate with people who are delayed, but perhaps the cabinet secretary can provide those in a letter.

The most recent performance figures for train services to Aviemore are 20 percentage points worse than the figures for services to the best performing stations in Scotland. Given that trains are vital to the Highland economy, will the cabinet secretary say whether the Scottish Government is consulting ScotRail on its plans and action to improve the performance of services to the Highlands?

The member will be aware that we have made significant investment in improving the Highland line in recent years. Further investment in rail infrastructure is part of our plans in the strategic transport projects review. He will also be aware of the investment that we have just put into improving the line between Inverness and Aberdeen in order to increase the speed of trains. We are also investing in the high-speed train service and seven cities connections, which will improve reliability, comfort and speed of services.

There is significant investment in rail. We have invested some £8 billion in our rail network over the past 10 years or so and we will continue to have an ambitious programme of investment.

On the member’s first point, I am happy to give the member more details on how ScotRail intends to improve communication. If the member knows of specific instances in which constituents in his region feel as though they have not had proper communication, he should take those up specifically with ScotRail. If he is dissatisfied with ScotRail’s response, he should raise that with me, and I am more than happy to get ScotRail to look at the matter in greater detail.

Five members wish to ask supplementary questions. We will see how many we get through, but I ask for succinct questions and answers please.

Last week, we learned that ScotRail’s performance has plummeted over the past quarter, with reliability at a record low and punctuality the worst since 2005. This week, ScotRail’s own figures show that its performance has deteriorated so badly that it has breached its franchise agreement. This is a failing franchise, operating within a failed franchising model. The Scottish Government has the power to end the franchise early and bring Scotland’s trains into public ownership by 2022. Will the cabinet secretary use the franchise breach to bring Scotland’s trains under public control, so that we have a railway system that puts passengers and not profits first?

I am at times quite confused by Labour’s position on this issue. Labour often says that we should get rid of rail franchises, which we cannot do, because it is a reserved area. We sought to ensure that there was a level playing field for the public sector and the private sector in bidding for franchises—something that was repeatedly refused by the previous Labour Government. We have now agreed with the present United Kingdom Government that that can be taken forward.

I am also confused about the fact that the Welsh Government has just awarded a contract to two private sector companies to deliver the railways in Wales. That is despite the rhetoric that we hear from Labour spokespersons on the issue and all the hot air that we have had from the Labour conference over the past couple of days.

I will tell the member what we will do. We will focus on continuing to make significant investment in Scotland’s railways: in modern rolling stock—rolling stock that is starting to be rolled out with the new class 385 trains that are coming into play, which will provide more seats—and in the electrification programme, which is at a very advanced stage and which will provide faster services. We will continue to deliver improvements to our railways and leave the kid-on politics to the Labour Party.

Will the cabinet secretary clarify how many trains arrived on time in the first quarter of 2018-19? What effect has recent bad weather had on punctuality? Can he confirm whether Network Rail’s functions are devolved to Scotland?

In relation to the member’s final point, there is no doubt that this Government should have responsibility for the rail network here in Scotland—something that is opposed by the Tory and Labour parties. The reason why that is absolutely necessary is that it would help us to align infrastructure investment in our railways with the services that we require in the Scottish rail network.

I find it quite surprising that the unionist parties in this Parliament oppose that approach. However, we will continue to work with Network Rail to try to get the best service that we can for the Scottish network. I will give the member some examples. As I mentioned earlier, the PPM—

Cabinet secretary, there are three more questions. Will you give those examples in response to those questions?

I am trying to respond to the specific point that the member has raised.

You can give the examples as a response to the further three questions.

The cabinet secretary will be aware that one of the major factors contributing to low performance, particularly in the Highlands, is the preponderance of single track. He will know that there have recently been a number of breakdowns and that a single breakdown can bring the whole Highland main line to a halt. Will he commit to significant investment, beyond the modest investment that is already in place for control period 6—particularly when compared with the £3 billion expenditure on the road that runs beside the Highland main line—to address that issue?

I discussed that very matter with the member just last week. He will be aware of current investment in the Highland main line. The STPR will allow us to look at what further investment should be made, including how we can improve resilience on the existing line. Full details will be set out once we have completed the review work, but a key part of it will be about improving journey times and resilience on the Highland main line.

The old adage says, “Fix the roof while the sun is shining,” but the problem is that, since March, the PPM has got worse at more than 60 stations in Scotland. Knowing that autumn to winter is traditionally a difficult period for train punctuality and reliability results, how confident is the cabinet secretary that the bad results over the summer will not be followed by even worse ones over the winter?

Within the ScotRail Alliance, Network Rail is looking at what additional infrastructure investment can be made to improve resilience. For example, it is putting some £5 million of additional infrastructure investment into the Glasgow area to improve the infrastructure there and its reliability. That includes looking at additional measures that can be taken to address situations at particular points in the year. An example of that is cutting back vegetation that might have an impact on the use of the lines at certain times of the year—in the autumn, in particular—to minimise the risks and the difficulties that can come about as a result. That is part of a wider package of around £34 million that is being spent in an effort to improve and enhance resilience in such areas.

I have discussed with the ScotRail Alliance the measures that it is putting in place this autumn and winter in addition to those that were put in place last year. As well as carrying out additional work, it has brought in some additional machinery to help to provide greater resilience on the network, so that issues can be dealt with as and when they arise.

There is no doubt that challenges will continue to be faced on our rail network during the course of autumn and winter, but I have been assured that lessons have been learned from last year and previous years, and that additional investments have been made that will help to address the issues that will be faced in autumn and winter. I hope that that will produce better results. Time will tell, but the ScotRail Alliance has made it clear to me that it is determined to do everything that it can to reduce the number of challenges that have been faced in the past.

I apologise to Stuart McMillan, because there is no time for another question on that subject.

On a point of order, Presiding Officer, in relation to the questions that have just been asked. It is understandable that you sought brevity in the minister’s answers, but I do not know how you could anticipate which questions would be asked subsequently. The minister was not able to give a full answer because you anticipated that he would be able to follow up in answers to subsequent questions. How could you anticipate that questions that were yet to be asked would enable the minister to follow up in the way that you suggested?

Mr Crawford has been in Parliament long enough to know the answer to that, which is that we must have brief questions from members. In the case to which he refers, Mr Lyle asked, I think, three questions. The minister answered the first one on Network Rail, but he was not able to get through his answer on the PPM. He had plenty of opportunity to give that information; he answered four other questions on the issue, which I think is a lot.

We are now running out of time, so we will move on to question 2.

Enhanced Flu Vaccination

To ask the Scottish Government what arrangements it is making for ordering the enhanced flu vaccination for the forthcoming immunisation programme. (S5T-01233)

In Scotland, as in the rest of the United Kingdom, we are advised on vaccination policy by the independent expert Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation. The JCVI recommends which vaccination programmes should be offered, what the eligibility criteria should be and what kind of vaccine should be used in the programme. In November 2017, following a review of the seasonal flu vaccine, the JCVI advised the use of an adjuvanted trivalent flu vaccine—aTIV—in people over the age of 65. It agreed that the use of that vaccine should be a priority for people aged 75 and over who would derive the greatest benefit from it. The clinical evidence is clear that the vaccine that will be offered to 65 to 74-year-olds this winter will still provide protection to that group against flu.

I will stop there, given the Presiding Officer’s desire for brevity.

The minister asked for extra time so that he could give a detailed answer.

Is it okay for me to continue?

You may.

Our flu vaccination programme gets under way next week, and it is important that people understand that the vaccines that are offered offer them the best possible protection. I encourage anybody who is in one of the groups that I mentioned and who requires a vaccination to go and get one.

Every year, NHS National Services Scotland undertakes seasonal flu vaccine procurement on behalf of NHS Scotland. To ensure that it can acquire the volume of flu vaccines that is required for each season, it begins procurement in early autumn for the next flu season. That meant that the procurement exercise for this year’s flu season had already concluded when the JCVI made its recommendations. Nonetheless, NSS continued to fully explore options to secure vaccine availability for everyone over 65.

The new aTIV vaccine is manufactured by only one supplier, which had to significantly ramp up its production for the whole of the UK very quickly. Unfortunately, it was unable to guarantee NHS Scotland sufficient supply of the vaccine for everyone over 65 in time for the start of this year’s vaccination programme. With what was provided, we have ensured that we have a vaccination programme for the whole of Scotland.

The minister will be aware that, across England and Wales, all individuals aged 65 and over are to be offered and are recommended to accept the enhanced flu vaccination as standard, potentially leading to tens of thousands fewer appointments with general practitioners and hospital stays and hundreds of fewer deaths. Will the minister explain why that life-saving flu vaccination is available only to those aged over 75 in Scotland while it is available to those aged over 65 in the rest of the UK?

Procurement arrangements for the seasonal flu vaccination programme differ across the UK. We procure the seasonal flu vaccine centrally. In England and Wales, it is up to individual GPs to decide what vaccines should be ordered for patients. In the past, that has led to vaccine shortages and concerns about variations in access to the right flu vaccine. We do not face those problems in Scotland.

Although Mr Sarwar is to some extent correct, in that other parts of the UK have recommended that GPs provide that vaccine, clearly it is up to GPs which vaccines they order, and it is not clear whether, given the vaccine supply, GPs across the rest of the UK will be able to buy enough vaccine to be able to do that.

After seeking expert advice, it was clear that the safer approach for us to take would be to roll-out the new vaccine in 2018 and 2019 that guarantees a supply of the flu vaccine for everyone eligible.

The fact is that, in the rest of the UK, the over-65s are being offered and recommended to accept the enhanced flu vaccine, while in Scotland it is being offered to those over 75.

That is just not the case.

That is factually the case. [Interruption.] This is so concerning because the number of flu deaths in Scotland rose from 71 in 2016-17 to more than 330 in 2017-18. As a result, the First Minister rightly ordered an urgent investigation into the matter, to learn lessons for this year. Did that investigation take place? If so, when did it report and what are its recommendations? It would be completely unacceptable for us to try to learn lessons for this year’s immunisation programme from a review that has not been published yet.

First of all, I make it clear that we take our advice on the best way to approach the matter from the experts.

I return to my answer to Mr Sarwar’s first question. Although in other parts of the UK it is recommended that GPs provide that vaccine, it is not centrally procured, so it is not clear that the vaccine will be available to all those aged over 75, never mind those aged over 65. [Interruption.]

Will the minister outline how the childhood flu vaccination programme in Scotland compares with those in other parts of the UK? [Interruption.]

I ask members to stop interrupting and talking across other members, please.

That is an important question from Ms Harper. Although we have been talking about the flu vaccine for the over-65s, we have an additional programme through which we are offering the quadrivalent flu vaccine to healthcare workers, pregnant women and other vulnerable groups.

That vaccine contains an additional type B flu strain, which is more likely to affect the working-age population. The new vaccine will provide those groups with further protection against the flu.

Unlike in England, we have extended the programme to cover all schoolchildren. That will not only protect the children, but offer herd immunity, which means that, by getting vaccinated, they will be helping to protect their grandparents. We are a big step ahead of the rest of the UK on that important aspect.