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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, May 26, 2022

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 26 May 2022 [Draft]

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Falkland Islands, Portfolio Question Time, Drug Deaths, Social Security Benefits, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Correction


General Question Time

Good morning. The first item of business is general question time. In order to get in as many questions as possible, I would be grateful for short and succinct questions and responses.

Women’s Safety (Public Transport)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the consultation with women and women’s organisations regarding their safety while using the public transport system. (S6O-01142)

Women and girls deserve to travel in safety on Scotland’s public transport system. That is why, earlier this year, I committed to undertake a consultation on women’s safety across our public transport network. That will include working with national and local organisations that represent the interests of a cross-section of women in society, as well as with groups that represent female staff who work on the public transport network.

Options to take forward the work will be further informed by discussions with women’s groups and organisations, trade union partners and wider stakeholders. That includes discussions with Engender, which I will be meeting in a couple of weeks, and the British Transport Police, which I met recently.

Once the scope of the work and the options as to how best to consult women on this sensitive issue are agreed, I will provide an update on how we will take forward our programme of engagement and the timescales around that.

Last year, there were 46 sexual assaults against women on Scotland’s railways, which was the highest number in a decade, and 301 women were unacceptably threatened, harassed or commonly assaulted. However, that is just the tip of the iceberg; the figure is likely to be much higher because the gender of the victim was not known in more than 2,500 incidents. Those figures are sickening. Every day, women are fearful that they will be victimised in a train carriage or on a station platform. What urgent action will the Scottish Government take now to ensure that women can travel safely on public transport?

More generally in relation to women’s safety on public transport, as the member alluded, there are data gaps. We know that that is because women are far more likely not to report sexual harassment when it happens and that, if they do report it, it is likely to be after the event. To that end, I have instructed my officials to take forward a programme of analysis, which will allow for better data collection in Scotland while recognising that the pandemic has impacted women’s experiences of public transport.

Given that it is a sensitive topic, it is vital that the scope of the work is right. This morning, I spoke to the Scottish Rail Holdings Ltd board about it. I am keen to work with the board, and I recognise that the work will also have potential benefits for staff safety, which the member alluded to. I also look forward to addressing the Women in Rail conference next month and hearing from women who work on our railways about their experiences.

Following my meeting with Engender, I would be more than happy to meet the member to discuss any suggestions that she might have to ensure that the consultation is conducted as appropriately as possible, so that we have the data to improve women’s experiences across the public transport network.

ScotRail (Proposed Cuts)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reported concerns by the Scottish division of the train drivers union, the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen, regarding proposals to make further cuts to ScotRail services. (S6O-01143)

ScotRail’s temporary timetable has been implemented as a result of the on-going impact of ASLEF drivers choosing, as is their right, not to make themselves available for overtime or rest-day working.

The timetable is temporary and is delivering about two thirds of the planned May services. The difficult decision to implement it was made to give people certainty when they travel, and ScotRail has looked at how best to provide as much of that as it can during this challenging period for passengers.

Clearly, we all want a return to a much fuller timetable, which is why I am pleased to see ASLEF and ScotRail back around the negotiating table this week.

Another day, another inadequate answer from the minister on this issue, which is affecting our communities across every part of Scotland. The cuts are having enormous consequences in the lives of everyday Scots who depend on rail services to get to work, attend appointments and access childcare.

In a letter from ASLEF to the First Minister, Kevin Lindsay has called on the Government to get back round the negotiating table, and I appreciate that the minister has said that that will happen. Will the minister confirm that the Government will negotiate in good faith on the key issue of driver recruitment? ASLEF has said that 130 drivers need to be recruited in order to staff our railways safely? Will the minister and the First Minister get around the table in good faith to ensure that we end the negative cuts that are having such an impact on people across Scotland?

I remind the member that this is an industrial dispute. There are, of course, a number of other industrial disputes between railway unions and other administrations. For example, in London, where Labour is in power, there is a dispute in relation to challenges on the network. Regarding the member’s question as to whether I will be in the room, it would not be appropriate for the minister to be in the negotiating room. It is for ScotRail, as the employer, to be in the room with the trade unions to reach a negotiated settlement. ScotRail will, of course, continue to negotiate in good faith.

I am delighted that ASLEF and ScotRail met on Tuesday, and they will meet again later today to reach a settlement. It is important to remember that the shortages are causing real challenges for passengers across the network. The timetable has been introduced because of an industrial dispute, whereby drivers are choosing, as is their right, not to work on their rest days. I respect that, but it means that ScotRail has to run a limited service. [Interruption.] We want to reach a resolution in a timely fashion. I am absolutely committed to working with our trade unions, which I have spent a lot of time with since my appointment, back in January, to ensure that public ownership is a success for our railways and that we re-establish the previous timetable to allow passengers to travel more freely.

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. Is it appropriate for the member to ask a question and then heckle the minister when she is trying to answer the question that he has asked?

Thank you, Mr Gibson. I remind Mr Gibson that I am chairing the meeting.

I reiterate my call for succinct questions and responses. At the pace that we are going at, we will not be able to get in all members who have a question.

Clearly, it is a long time since Labour was in power, and its members take quite a simplistic view on some of these issues.

Can the minister assure us that the Government will be acting as peacemaker and will maintain a good relationship with both management and unions?

Absolutely. The revised timetable in Scotland is temporary, as I have said, and the arrangements will be kept under review—ScotRail will review them next week. It is meeting ASLEF this afternoon, and I am hopeful of a positive resolution.

The Government supports fair work, the principle and practice of trade unions and the right of people to join a trade union. We remain absolutely committed to partnership working, and we have a strong desire to resolve the dispute through negotiation and compromise. That stands in stark comparison with the approach of the United Kingdom Government, with its recent threats to introduce new anti-strike legislation.

Throughout the week, the minister seems to have forgotten that the buck stops with her. She refers to talks today between ScotRail and ASLEF. What has she instructed ScotRail to do, exactly?

I assure Mr Simpson that I have not forgotten that the buck stops with me.

In relation to the action that I have taken, I have been meeting ScotRail representatives regularly for updates on how the timetable has been working, and to ensure that we have appropriate carriage allocation across the country. Right now, we are running a limited service—at about 70 per cent of the usual service. We need to ensure that we have appropriate carriage allocation. I raised that with ScotRail last Friday and again yesterday, and I will be speaking with ScotRail again today about carriage allocation more generally.

The other action that I have taken is to ask ScotRail to consider reintroducing a number of services. More information on that will be forthcoming from ScotRail later today, I hope, or on Friday. [Interruption.] No, I cannot tell the member, who is heckling me from a sedentary position. I am not here today to inform the member of additional services that ScotRail will be running, because ScotRail is the train operator; I am the Minister for Transport. Mr Simpson needs to recognise the difference between the two—I do not drive the trains.

I have been meeting repeatedly with ScotRail to improve the service that is delivered—

Briefly, minister.

I remind the member that we are in this situation because of an industrial dispute between ASLEF and ScotRail, the employer. I invite him to reflect on his Government’s reputation in relation to how the Conservatives deal with trade unions.

Rail Services (Driver Shortages)

To ask the Scottish Government what impact driver shortages will have on the availability of rail services for passengers in Mid Scotland and Fife. (S6O-01144)

ScotRail’s current timetable, as a result of driver shortages, is temporary and is delivering about two thirds of the previously planned May services that should have resulted from the new timetable this month.

ScotRail has advised that core services in the Mid Scotland and Fife area have been retained to ensure a reliable and regular service, but the last evening trains will be earlier on some routes. ScotRail has advised that trains will be lengthened when needed to reflect capacity and service reduction.

ScotRail will review the temporary timetable next week. In the interim, talks between ASLEF, which is the train drivers union, and ScotRail will take place later today.

The last train that constituents of mine can take to get home to Stirling, Fife or Perth now leaves Edinburgh at 8 o’clock. Not only does that wreak havoc with potential social plans, but it causes real problems for shift workers in the national health service who cannot now take the train to get back from their place of work. My constituents do not want to hear buck passing or excuses; they want the issue to be sorted as soon as possible.

On Sunday morning, the minister’s ministerial colleague Richard Lochhead told the BBC that he expected the issue to be resolved within a couple of months. Is that the Scottish Government’s position? Can we have an assurance that it will take no longer than that to get some degree of normality back to the train services that my constituents depend on?

Mr Fraser is right to ask for a degree of normality. I want nothing more than for us to restore the previous timetable that was in place. Passengers, including his constituents, need certainty. It is appropriate, though, that ScotRail, as the employer, meets ASLEF, the trade union, which will happen today, to reach a resolution that allows for the reinstatement of the previous timetable and that brings greater certainty for passengers and the shift workers whom Mr Fraser is very concerned about.

Childcare Sector Omicron Impacts Fund

To ask the Scottish Government how many early learning and childcare providers, including private providers, received funding from the £9.8 million childcare sector omicron impacts fund that opened for applications in March this year. (S6O-01145)

The Scottish Government has made up to £35 million of dedicated financial support available for childcare services since the start of the pandemic, in recognition of the acute impacts on the sustainability of services. That includes the childcare sector omicron impacts fund, which made up to £9.8 million of support available to the sector in the 2021-22 financial year. More than 4,600 grants have been issued to services in the private, third and childminding sectors. The value of the grants available through that fund ranged between £950 and £4,500.

In order to support the long-term sustainability of the childcare sector, the Scottish Government is working with partners to progress the range of actions set out in the financial sustainability health check, including working with Business Gateway to pilot tailored business support offers for all types of childcare provider.

I hope that the minister will join me in celebrating our ELC workers, who are making a huge difference to our children’s lives, day in and day out. As we emerge from the pandemic, can the minister set out how the Scottish Government is supporting our ELC settings to continue to deliver high-quality care for our children?

I pay tribute, alongside my colleague Rona Mackay, to the role that ELC providers have played across Scotland in ensuring that essential services could continue during the pandemic. They have played a key role in the effort to fight the virus and to support young children and their families over a very difficult time. I say a heartfelt thank you to them.

We continue to engage with partners to identify and better understand what the impacts of Covid-19 have been on young children, families and ELC practitioners, so that we can respond to their needs. In the 2022-23 period, we will invest more than £1 billion through local government to deliver funded ELC, including expanding the provision of 1,140 hours. The Scottish Government is also funding additional graduate-level posts in ELC settings in our most disadvantaged communities across all 32 local authorities, and it is funding the Care Inspectorate to deliver a targeted improvement programme.

ScotRail Services (Cowdenbeath)

To ask the Scottish Government what plans it has to assess the impact of the new ScotRail timetable on passengers in the Cowdenbeath constituency. (S6O-01146)

ScotRail’s May 2022 timetable delivered a regular half-hourly service along the Fife coast, with direct services between Edinburgh and Dundee or Perth and a regular half-hourly service between Edinburgh and Cowdenbeath, via Dunfermline, for passengers in the Cowdenbeath constituency.

However, as a result of ScotRail now operating a temporary timetable due to driver shortages, Cowdenbeath constituency passengers will see a reduction in their services. The services via the Fife coast remain half-hourly but will also have to end earlier. I have asked ScotRail to look at the reintroduction of a number of services, where they are able to do so safely, in advance of a formal review of services next week.

As a regular commuter on Fife rail, the minister will be aware of the concerns that have been raised about the 23 May temporary timetable and the concerns regarding the 15 May non-temporary timetable. Can she confirm that both sets of concerns will now be looked at, further to an urgent review of both timetables by ScotRail, so that rail commuters and businesses in my Cowdenbeath constituency do not bear the brunt?

This morning, I travelled through Kirkcaldy, in my own constituency, and into Ms Ewing’s constituency. I know how challenging the temporary timetable is for passengers, and I want to reassure Ms Ewing’s constituents that the timetable is temporary. We need an urgent resolution for not just passengers but staff and the businesses that have, as the member said, already been impacted.

On the new May timetable, which was introduced a week prior to the temporary timetable, ScotRail listened throughout its consultation process. It added around 150 additional services and made changes including the retention of an all-day direct service between Edinburgh and Perth via Kirkcaldy and additional evening services in Fife.

We should remember that patronage is still not back to where it was prior to the pandemic, with many people not yet feeling safe to return to public transport and others choosing to work from home. I expect ScotRail to continue to review the May timetable, once it is reinstated, as it did throughout the pandemic.

What is most important for Ms Ewing’s constituents—and the constituents of members across the chamber, of course—is that we get a resolution between the unions and ScotRail as timeously as possible. I am committed to working with ScotRail to deliver that.

Economic Development (North-east Scotland)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the social impact of economic development in the north-east. (S6O-01147)

The Scottish Government is committed to driving forward economic development activity in the north-east. The national strategy for economic transformation contains bold and ambitious actions to deliver economic prosperity for all of Scotland’s people and places.

The strategy sets out an aim that, by 2032, Scotland’s economy will significantly outperform its performance in the past decade, in terms of economic performance and the tackling of structural economic inequalities. It aims to put people at the heart of an economy that offers opportunities for all to succeed and where everybody—in every community and region of the country—will share in our economic prosperity.

Trickle-down economics and other economic development models from the previous century do not deliver wellbeing for communities across my region. There is a clear need to better understand the interconnections across different sectors and move away from siloed strategy and policy development.

Can the minister outline how the just transition fund for the north-east and Moray will capitalise, build and sustain community engagement and deliver meaningful social and economic benefits? Can she also outline what more we can do to improve cross-sectoral working—by connecting transport, tourism, planning, culture and so on—to ensure that no community is left behind?

Our 10-year, £500-million just transition fund will accelerate the transition to net zero in the north-east and Moray, create new and exciting opportunities across the region and ensure that no one is left behind. The Minister for Just Transition, Employment and Fair Work has recently completed extensive engagement with more than 200 stakeholders in the north-east and Moray, and he has been clear that the fund must be co-designed.

Our commitment to both sectoral and regional just transition plans will reflect interdependencies and interactions with and between plans, which will ensure the future of industries, beyond carbon-intensive sectors, and that they are brought along on our transition.

In addition, £1 million of the £20 million that will be made available this year will be subject to participatory budgeting to empower communities to have a direct say in how money will be spent in support of a just transition in their local area.

Transmission Network Use of System Charges (Increase)

To ask the Scottish Government what its analysis is of the latest transmission charging forecasts from National Grid ESO, in the light of transmission network use of system charges reportedly increasing in Scotland by between 39 and 73 per cent while charges are decreasing in the majority of zones in England. (S6O-01148)

The transmission network use of system charges remain a key barrier to net zero in Scotland. Ofgem’s analysis suggests that by 2040, Scottish renewables and low-carbon generators will be the only ones to pay a wider TNUOS charge, with all others—including gas generators based elsewhere in Great Britain—being paid credits.

In a net zero world, it is counterproductive in the extreme to care more about where generation is situated than about what type of generation it is. A new approach is needed rather than simple modifications to the existing methodology.

The disparity in approach would mean a 1GW offshore wind project in north-east Scotland paying £36 million a year in charges, compared with a project connecting in southern Wales receiving a £7.9 million subsidy. That difference is equivalent to nearly £10 for every megawatt hour that is generated, putting Scottish projects at significant disadvantage when bidding for contracts for difference.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that National Grid ESO and Ofgem need to recognise the barrier that the charges present to renewable power development in Scotland and that they need to introduce reforms that can support investment across Scotland? Will he advise what discussions have been held with National Grid ESO and Ofgem so that we can accelerate progress to net zero, keep down overall system costs and ensure fair competition when bidding for contracts for difference?

The transmission charging regime must reward developers that are committed to investing in renewable generation. We have repeatedly made that call to the UK Government, because the existing TNUOS scheme discriminates against Scotland-based projects. We have raised the matter with not just the United Kingdom Government but National Grid ESO, with which I discussed the issue just last month. I also discussed the issue again yesterday with the chief executive of Ofgem and called for action in that area.

It is a serious issue that could compromise renewable energy projects in Scotland. It is unacceptable that Scottish projects continue to be discriminated against in this way.