Meeting date: Thursday, December 1, 2016
Meeting of the Parliament 01 December 2016
Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Small Business Saturday, Minimum Age of Criminal Responsibility, Ending Violence Against Women and Girls, Business Motion, Decision Time
- General Question Time
- First Minister’s Question Time
- Small Business Saturday
- Minimum Age of Criminal Responsibility
- Ending Violence Against Women and Girls
- Business Motion
- Decision Time
General Question Time
To ask the Scottish Government when the Minister for Transport and the Islands last met ScotRail and what issues were discussed. (S5O-00416)
I spoke with the director of ScotRail this morning and our discussion centred on ScotRail’s recent performance. I also received an update on the morning peak and initiatives that are being progressed with the performance improvement plan.
Regulated rail fares are due to rise in the new year, with passengers expected to pay more for services that the transport minister himself believes are sometimes not of an acceptable standard. When he next meets ScotRail, will he enter into discussions regarding Labour’s proposals to stop the new year fare hike going ahead and to freeze fares for passengers in 2017?
I would reflect what the First Minister said in answer to Kezia Dugdale’s proposal last week: we will give every proposal consideration.
Fare increases are at their lowest since we got the relevant powers in 2005. However, Mr Sarwar is correct to say that the performance is not at a standard that I find acceptable, so any proposal that is put forward by him, his party or other parties will be given appropriate consideration.
The improvement plan that was published earlier this week contains some 250 measures. The plan is welcome, but some of those measures will not be delivered for two years. I am sure that the minister will appreciate that passengers do not wish to wait that long to see real improvements in the service. What deadlines has he given ScotRail for improvements, and what sanctions will apply if the deadlines are not met?
Of the 249 points in the plan, around six have a long-term deadline. That does not mean that work will not start on them immediately—work will start on them immediately. All that it means is that there is a continual process of monitoring and continual work on, for example, signal cable renewal and points renewal. I assure the member that the vast majority of the 249 measures that are in the performance plan are being worked on right now.
On sanctions, I am looking for immediate improvement. That is why, in the past eight-week period, performance on the performance and punctuality measure has improved from 89.5 per cent to 89.8 per cent. I want it to continue to improve further. I do not think that that performance will dip—I do not think that it will get to the break point of 84.3—but if it does, as the First Minister has said, every option is on the table and will remain on the table, within the specifications of the contract.
As I understand it, the United Kingdom Government introduced rail franchising in the 1990s with legislation that precluded any UK public sector organisation bidding to operate a railway service. Can the minister outline what work is under way to ensure that a public sector operator could bid for a future rail contract?
The member makes the fair point that previous UK Governments did nothing to allow a public sector operator to bid. It was this Government that brought forward the changes in legislation that removed the prohibition on public sector operators bidding.
I had a productive meeting with other political parties on the precise point that Mr Mason makes. Representatives of all the parties in the chamber came to that meeting with a constructive tone and, indeed, with some constructive suggestions. Rail unions were also represented at that meeting, as were regional transport partnerships, and the voice of the passenger was heard as well. The meeting was constructive. We agreed to enter into a formal engagement process early next year; we also agreed that Transport Scotland officials should come up with some options in relation to governance structures, broad principles and a few other points.
The issue was in our manifesto and we will deliver our commitment. I am pleased that we have paved the legislative way for a public sector operator to put forward a public sector bid.
To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on what steps it is taking to improve the performance of ScotRail. (S5O-00417)
As Mr Kelly will no doubt be aware from last week’s statement to Parliament, I have instructed the production of a performance improvement plan. Details of the 249 actions in the plan have now been published on ScotRail’s website. I continue to closely monitor the effectiveness of the plan in improving the performance and punctuality measure figures so that they are on a trend towards our challenging and ambitious but achievable contract targets.
Today’s discussions about a potential public sector bid are driven by concerns about performance. One of the barriers to an early public sector option for ScotRail is the existing contract with Abellio. What steps has the minister taken to assess how an early termination of the Abellio contract could be achieved at minimum cost to the public purse if performance does not improve?
First, the reason why a public sector operator will be able to bid when a franchise opportunity comes up is not because the issue is driven by the current situation, but because we had it in our manifesto, we stood on that manifesto and we won the election. That is why the discussions are taking place.
Secondly, and to try to be helpful to James Kelly, I note that passengers would not thank us for starting the discussion by saying that, if our railways are failing, we should rip up the Abellio contract right here and right now. Instead, we should be asking how we can work with Abellio to improve performance for passengers right here and right now. That is why we have a 249-point improvement plan. In the meantime, let us do the constructive work that we are doing.
Neil Bibby, who is sitting beside James Kelly, was at the meeting that I mentioned and made some constructive suggestions around some of Labour’s ambitions for a public sector operator. Let us work towards that while realising that it will take time for a public sector operator to make a bid. We have to have the right vehicle, to be sure that the right statutes and guidelines are in place, and to ensure that the right expertise is also on board. We are doing that work now because, as James Kelly knows, there is the potential to invoke a break clause in 2020. That work will continue in earnest.
Let us all get together to ensure that, right here and right now, we get the best performance from the company and the best experience for passengers and commuters across Scotland.
The ScotRail franchise contains the toughest quality regime for the United Kingdom in driving up standards for passengers. When standards fail to meet the prescribed level of service, what specific penalties can be levied against the franchise holder?
The member might be aware that we have the toughest auditing regime on these islands. The service quality incentive regime—SQUIRE—looks at a range of measures, from the cleanliness of toilets at stations right the way through to rolling stock issues. If ScotRail Abellio does not live up to those high auditing standards, it has to make a financial contribution, and the previous contribution was of the order of £500,000. The important point is that we ensure that that is invested back in the railways. Members from across the chamber have previously suggested where improvements could be made and I am open to those suggestions.
I recently received a number of complaints from constituents about overcrowding on the Waverley line. On Saturday 19 November, a football match and a rugby match coincided in Edinburgh, creating higher than normal demand. What action is the Scottish Government taking in the short term to ensure that sufficient capacity is provided to meet demand for transport to events?
When a major event takes place, ScotRail has a special team that comes together to manage it. That includes considering the capacity on trains and moving passengers safely from the station to the venue.
Overcrowding tells a story of growth in passenger numbers. Since 2007, our railways have become 33 per cent more popular. On top of that, we have increased the amount of rolling stock, including the number of carriages, on our network. From 2007 through to our ambitious plans in 2019, 50 per cent more capacity will be added to the network. In 2007, 140 carriages were added, and between now and 2019, we will add another 200 carriages.
The member can be assured that we are doing what we can to increase capacity. We will always look for opportunities to increase capacity and add more rolling stock. I am more than happy for the ScotRail team that does the planning and co-ordination for major events to give the member a briefing if she would find that helpful.
Public Transport Priorities
To ask the Scottish Government what its priorities are for public transport. (S5O-00418)
We are investing over £1 billion annually in public transport and other sustainable transport options to encourage people out of their cars. A £5 billion investment programme in Scotland’s railways is committed over the five-year period to 2019, including 70 new high-spec electric trains for delivery from 2017 and 75 new sleeper vehicles for delivery from 2018.
Can the minister tell us how many of the action points that are set out in the infrastructure section of the performance improvement plan are new announcements and how many relate to undertakings that had already been given by the Scottish Government and its partners in the rail industry to improve public transport? Can he confirm that the actions that were scheduled to be delivered by the end of November have been delivered?
I advise the member that £8 million of infrastructure investment has been accelerated. That is £8 million-worth of improvements that were going to take place later that have been brought forward as part of the improvement plan. During the last discussion that I had with ScotRail, I was told that work was well under way, so some of the improvement plan actions that have been committed to have been taken. Other actions are still to be taken, but I will be monitoring that.
The document on the ScotRail website is a live working document. Where there is an action point, there are a number of sub-actions below it that have to be taken. I will monitor that closely, as all of us, no doubt, will. I want to see an improvement in performance here and now, and we are on the right trajectory to achieve that.
My question is on the promotion of cycling. The minister may be aware of the community-led campaign in Forres to extend a cycle route alongside the A96 to Brodie. There appears to be a long-standing deadlock between Transport Scotland and the community campaigners. Is the minister willing to speak to Transport Scotland, to find a way past that deadlock so that we can improve cycling links along the A96 to Brodie?
I am aware of that impasse—or deadlock, as the member describes it; he has written to me on the subject. I will look to intervene personally in the matter and will speak to Transport Scotland and then update the member.
Our commitment to active travel speaks for itself, given our record investment in it, which is beyond what any other Government has committed to cycling and walking. We will continue to make that investment, as it is important for the environment and for making Scotland healthier.
I give a commitment to have a look at the specific issue regarding the A96 between Forres and Brodie, which the member has written to me about, and I will get back to him in good time.
Economic Development and Skills Funding (National Board)
To ask the Scottish Government when it will publish details of the proposed single national board to oversee economic development and skills funding. (S5O-00419)
Phase 2 of the enterprise and skills review will include work to take forward the detailed consideration and planning of the new single strategic Scotland-wide statutory board, which is intended to co-ordinate the activities of Scottish Enterprise, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Skills Development Scotland and the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council. That work will also look at taking forward our commitment to establish a new vehicle to meet the unique enterprise and skills needs of the south of Scotland. The work began on 1 November 2016 and is intended to take around six months, until spring 2017.
I was heartened when the Scottish Government announced that it was implementing the Scottish Conservatives’ idea of a south of Scotland enterprise agency. However, given the news that the HIE regional board is to go, I can only presume that south of Scotland enterprise will also be overseen by a national board. There is a real opportunity to create a local organisation to support economic development in the Borders and elsewhere in the south of Scotland, but I fear that the opportunity is being missed by the Scottish Government with its centralising agenda. What is the point of setting up a dedicated agency for the south of Scotland and then running that agency from the central belt?
I am not sure whether that question implies that the Tories have withdrawn their support for the idea of a separate south of Scotland agency. It may well have been a Tory idea but, like many Tory ideas, it was never brought into force because the Tories never got round to doing it. It has taken an SNP Government to deliver it. It is to the credit of the SNP Government that, once again, we have taken action to help in the south of Scotland, whereas the Tories, in all the long years that they had the opportunity to do so, did not do it.
It is also important to understand that one of the workstreams in phase 2 of the review will look at the governance arrangements for the strategic board and how it relates to the individual agencies that will remain, all of which will be guaranteed a legal status. That work is on-going and will involve the people who are most closely involved in those agencies, with representation from south of Scotland interests. I am confident that the very high-calibre people who are involved in that work will ensure that we get the right governance arrangements for this new development that has been delivered by the SNP—the establishment of a south of Scotland agency.
Can the cabinet secretary provide reassurance to my constituents and me about the future of Highlands and Islands Enterprise, which is absolutely critical to the Highlands?
I am happy to repeat the assurances that I and other colleagues have given about HIE and the retention of its Inverness headquarters, control over staffing, its non-departmental public body status and its chief executive. Crucially, the same people in HIE who provide services to businesses and individuals now will be doing so at the end of the review. The review made a specific recommendation to maintain HIE in that way, to offer just the assurance that Kate Forbes requested.
As far as the allegations of centralisation are concerned, there is a real problem with that given that we are establishing an agency in the south of Scotland—that does not sound much like centralisation to me. We are making sure that we have the right services for the right parts of Scotland. I give the assurance that HIE will remain as an agency—that will be enshrined in law.
Given the widespread opposition to the proposed wrong-headed centralisation, will the Scottish Government listen to the people of the Highlands and Islands and change its mind about scrapping the HIE board, and keep management and decision making in the area?
As I have just said, the management, the decision making and the services that are provided by HIE staff to individuals and companies in that area will remain.
As we go forward to discuss and agree the governance arrangements between the new overarching board and HIE, people who are involved in HIE at board level will be involved in—indeed, I hope that they will lead—the discussions. They will have an interest in making sure that HIE’s particular interests are reflected in the governance structure that is agreed. That might take many different forms. The crucial point is that the people who are involved in HIE now will be involved in that process.
In addition, HIE will be able to access much more easily—it cannot currently do this to the extent that we would like—the services of Scottish Development International, Scottish Enterprise and the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council. That alignment of all the various agencies in Scotland will enable us not just to build on what HIE has achieved over the past 50 years, but to improve it even further to the benefit of people in that area.
Laurencekirk A90 Grade-separated Junction
To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on when construction will start on the A90 grade-separated junction at Laurencekirk. (S5O-00420)
As I advised the member on 11 August in an answer to a written parliamentary question, work has already started on the A90 grade-separated junction at Laurencekirk in terms of consultants being appointed, but delivery of the scheme itself can commence only when the scheme is approved under the statutory procedures. Thereafter, a timetable for construction can be determined.
In a letter to the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee, the minister said that, despite a decade of waiting, he is to take the next three years for an assessment process and another year to draft the road orders. He does not plan to start work on construction for a further three years after that, if there are no objections and, in any case, he does not plan to do so before 2021.
What are local people to make of that? The process is being kicked into the period after the current Government will be long gone. If the minister is serious about saving lives at the Laurencekirk junction—[Interruption.] I say to the Minister for Parliamentary Business that it is not a laughing matter. If the transport minister is serious about saving lives at the junction, why will he not instruct Transport Scotland to get a move on?
I remind the member that, when his party was in government, it did hee-haw—frankly—for those on the A90. It put forward temporary measures, whereas we are putting forward a permanent solution—a grade-separated junction—which is being backed by £24 million-worth of investment.
The statutory process is important because it involves the public in the consultation on the preferred option. If Mike Rumbles does not want the public to be involved, that is highly illiberal and highly undemocratic.
Given that the Scottish Government promised a £200 million investment in rail improvements between Aberdeen and the central belt at the same time as it made the Laurencekirk announcement, can the minister provide a start date for that crucial project to improve journey times for train passengers?
As Ross Thomson will know, discussions are already taking place. I am more than happy to write to him to inform him about how they are progressing. I met the regional transport partnership yesterday to have that discussion. Work is under way. Of course, the member will understand that part of our additional investment is to ensure that we do a £5 million transport appraisal of the region. I look forward to working with the councils, the RTPs and local members.
I will write to Ross Thomson to give him a specific update on how the discussions are progressing.