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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 12 September 2017

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, Common Agricultural Policy, Barclay Review of Non-domestic Rates, Policing, Motion without Notice, Decision Time, Serve Scotland


Topical Question Time

Smyllum Park Orphanage

1. Clare Haughey (Rutherglen) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what support it will give to families of children who died at the Smyllum Park orphanage in Lanark. (S5T-00654)

The Minister for Childcare and Early Years (Mark McDonald)

The information that has been disclosed about the unmarked grave at St Mary’s cemetery in Lanark where it has been reported the children from Smyllum Park orphanage were buried is of deep concern to many individuals and, particularly, to the families of those who are affected.

It is a matter of great public concern and I will set out the steps that are being taken to address the issues. The Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service and Police Scotland have issued a joint statement this morning. The Crown Office has stated that, as matters stand and based on the information that is currently available, there is no evidence that a crime has been committed or that any deaths require to be investigated. That position will be kept under review. Any allegations of criminality will be thoroughly and sensitively investigated. Similarly, it will be for the Scottish child abuse inquiry to consider the new information alongside the evidence that it already has and the witness sessions that it has arranged to help it to deliver the terms of its remit. Any action for the Scottish Government could only follow from proper consideration through those channels first.

Families that have been affected by the reports are encouraged to seek support through a range of services that are supported by the Scottish Government. Services are currently available from a range of bereavement services such as Cruse Bereavement Care Scotland, the Compassionate Friends and Petal Support. Any survivors who have been affected by the reports can also find support at future pathways, which is the Scottish Government-funded support service that is available to all survivors of abuse suffered while in care in Scotland.

Clare Haughey

I appreciate the minister’s answer and I hope that families will take some comfort in the steps that are now being taken to establish the circumstances around the burials. It is also reassuring to note the support services that are available to anyone affected.

Can the minister confirm that the Burial and Cremation (Scotland) Act 2016, which was passed by the Parliament last year, extends legislation over recording burials to include private sites and that that consistency will prevent a situation like the one that has been discovered at Smyllum Park from happening in future?

Mark McDonald

Clare Haughey highlights an important point. In relation to the unmarked graves that were reported at St Mary’s cemetery, the legislation that applied at the time was the Burial Grounds (Scotland) Act 1855, but that applied only to local authority burial grounds. Private burial authorities tended to follow the legislation voluntarily and there was no legal requirement for them to do so or to maintain a register of burials.

The Burial and Cremation (Scotland) Act 2016, which Clare Haughey referred to, introduces a legal requirement for every burial authority, including private burial authorities, to prepare and maintain a register of burials for each burial ground that it operates. Although section 10 of the act has not yet come into force, because it requires regulations to be made that will specify the information that must be recorded in the register, the burial regulations working group has been set up and will be involved in creating draft regulations for consultation before the regulations are laid in Parliament. In the meantime, local authorities continue to be subject to the same requirements and duties to register burials.

Clare Haughey

Finally, what continuing oversight does the Scottish Government have over recording burials in the light of the 2016 act and when does the Government intend to bring forward its plans for an inspector of burials and further provisions to improve burial ground management regulations?

Mark McDonald

The 2016 act gives ministers the power to appoint an inspector of burials, as Clare Haughey identifies. We currently have an inspector of cremation and an inspector of funeral directors. We will bring forward plans for the inspector of burials in due course. The inspector will also have the power to make recommendations and to report burial authorities that are not complying with the legislation to the Scottish ministers.

Queensferry Crossing (Congestion)

2. Alex Cole-Hamilton (Edinburgh Western) (LD)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to reduce congestion on the approaches to the Queensferry crossing. (S5T-00651)

The Minister for Transport and the Islands (Humza Yousaf)

The first days of operation of the Queensferry crossing have resulted in increased traffic congestion, including outside of peak hours—most noticeably last Sunday. While that is typical of initial traffic patterns around newly opened major bridges, the following steps are being taken to reduce congestion.

Fixed message signs have been deployed on the slip roads on to the Queensferry crossing at either end to remind drivers to use the full length of the slip to merge into the main traffic stream. An additional variable message sign has also been positioned on the Queensferry junction northbound slip advising the same. That is being reinforced by Traffic Scotland and social media.

Consideration is also being given to raising the speed limit from 40 mph to 50 mph as soon as the central reserve barrier installation has been completed and it is safe to do so.

Alex Cole-Hamilton

I am very proud to have the Queensferry crossing in my constituency and I congratulate those who built it.

While I share the minister’s delight at the improving picture witnessed this morning and yesterday, my constituents should not have to endure another weekend such as the one that we have just had, with many waiting hours in traffic and some even losing income.

Over the weekend, representatives of Transport Scotland said in the media that that spike had been anticipated. Are any other spikes expected? What efforts are being made to encourage commuters to use public transport and cycle routes to reduce congestion across the board?

Humza Yousaf

I thank Alex Cole-Hamilton for the constructive approach that he has taken with me. Over the weekend, he contacted me on behalf of his constituents to reiterate that they were feeling frustration. I accept that drivers who crossed the Queensferry crossing will have been frustrated, particularly on Sunday, but I would like to put that in context. Events that took place on Sunday, including pedal for Scotland and the antiques fair at Ingliston, may have added to the frustration, but tourist traffic is still going across the bridge, looping back and going round a number of times. That is understandable, and we want people to enjoy the Queensferry crossing.

On anticipation, I have said to my Transport Scotland officials that we know that some groups have put off going to the Queensferry crossing for the first couple of weeks and will go later on, because they think that things will quieten down. We are confident that we are seeing an improving picture with the variable message signs that we have put in place and the other measures that we have taken. The reports from the Monday am and pm peaks and the Tuesday am peak this week have shown fewer delays and much-reduced delay times. I will continue to monitor what happens. If Alex Cole-Hamilton wants briefings from Transport Scotland throughout this week, including in anticipation of what will happen this weekend, I will be more than happy to ensure that those are provided.

Alex Cole-Hamilton

Over the weekend, I suggested that the Forth road bridge might be used as a release valve during the first phase to avoid the kind of congestion that we saw over the weekend. The RAC supported that request. Would it be possible to allow buses and taxis to use the Forth road bridge now, reopen the Echline roundabout for local access and defer some of the repairs and road works on the Forth road bridge until the better weather in the spring, so that we can have the Forth road bridge as a back-up option in case we encounter further spikes and congestion such as the congestion that we have seen in the early days of the Queensferry crossing?

Humza Yousaf

As I said, we are seeing an improving picture. It is important that we see how this week and, indeed, the weekend progress. There may well be a spike in tourist traffic. If the picture is improving and the delays are reducing because of the actions that we and Transport Scotland have taken, we will continue to monitor what other things can be done—for example, in relation to a speed limit.

There are difficulties in Alex Cole-Hamilton’s suggestion on the Forth road bridge. We committed to ensuring that the Queensferry crossing and the Forth road bridge as a public transport corridor would be open and operational at the earliest opportunity. Deferring that is not an option that I would like to take, although I understand why Alex Cole-Hamilton made his suggestion.

The works at the north end of the FRB are likely to take around six weeks, but we hope that the contractor—the Forth crossing bridge constructors consortium—can complete them closer to within a four-week period. The weather will, of course, influence whether they can be completed in that time, but although a lot of work has been done, a lot of work has to be done on alignment and to tie in the north end—that is vital. The aim of that work for all concerned is to achieve the full operating status of both the Queensferry crossing and the FRB as soon as possible.

Let us see how the week progresses. I will keep Alex Cole-Hamilton updated at any point when he thinks that his constituents in particular are feeling frustrated by the length of delays. We are, of course, looking at what other options can be explored.

Liz Smith (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

Obviously, the Queensferry crossing is a very important and iconic bridge, which we all take great pride in, but there are serious issues. Since 2006-07, a great deal of effort has gone on in the Scottish Government on the evidence on the traffic flows for the two bridges. Is the minister entirely satisfied that the evidence on which the Scottish Government has based its decisions is accurate? Does the Scottish Government have any plans to review that evidence so that we can address the problems that we have had over the past week?

Humza Yousaf

Traffic modelling takes place with any infrastructure project that we look to commit to. There was, of course, an expectation of increased tourist traffic and increased interest, particularly in the bridge’s first week and first fortnight. I suspect that, particularly at weekends, we will continue to see many groups such as motorcycle groups and vintage vehicle groups—which we have already seen—wanting to enjoy the experience of the Queensferry crossing. We are looking to see what more we can do to alleviate some of that pressure, and that approach is working. We have seen congestion reduced during the Monday am and pm peaks and this morning’s peak, so the actions that we are taking are working.

I will always happily look at whether modelling can be done better—we will work with experts in that regard. That is the sensible thing to do; we are doing it for the Borders railway, for example. Of course, that is a completely different piece of infrastructure but people have asked us to look at the modelling. Indeed, where it is sensible to review the modelling, we most certainly will. However, this is not an issue of modelling; it is about ensuring that we do everything in our power to reduce the congestion on the Queensferry crossing.

Alex Rowley (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

I welcome the transport minister’s comments. I have written to him about my concerns. The congestion did not happen just at the weekend. Last week, the traffic tailed back up the M90 to Halbeath for long periods, which would not be acceptable if it were to continue. Therefore, I welcome the minister’s guarantee and ask that he keeps all members up to date on the progress that is being made on both sides of the crossing. This is, after all, a six-lane bridge, and options will be available. I hope that the congestion is due to people wanting to see this amazing and wonderful new bridge and that we get past this period. However, if we do not, action must be taken and we need an assurance that that will happen.

Humza Yousaf

I am happy to give Alex Rowley that assurance. Members should be kept up to date and for those who have asked questions or who want to be kept up to date, I will endeavour to do that in relation to traffic flows during both peak and out-of-peak times, particularly during the weekend.

If we continue to see the congestion that we saw last Sunday, I will do what I can, within in our powers, to alleviate some of it. I assure Alex Rowley that Transport Scotland, the contractor, the operating company and I are working hand in hand to ensure that anyone who is looking to cross the bridge has a seamless journey and experience and gets to enjoy an iconic feat of engineering that all of us across the chamber are rightly proud of.

Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

In 2010, Alex Cole-Hamilton’s predecessor, Margaret Smith, warned that there would be an

“absolute clamour for both these bridges to be open to general traffic”

once the Queensferry crossing was built and open and that, if both were open to general traffic, it would lead to disastrous levels of traffic growth. Does the minister agree with Margaret Smith’s assessment?

Alongside welcome commitments to grow active travel on the Forth road bridge, will the Scottish Government give support in order to increase traffic on the Forth rail bridge?

Humza Yousaf

The Government is committed to increasing the number of people who use public transport, whether on our buses or railways. I have said that from day 1 in my job as transport minister. Once we do the work on the FRB, public transport—particularly travel by bus—will be a more attractive option.

All members in the chamber have a duty to promote the use of public transport and I will ensure that we review our messaging to ensure that it is as powerful as possible. However, the opportunity is great not just for those who use the Queensferry crossing in a motorcar, but for those who will use public transport to access the Forth road bridge once the work is done in four to six weeks. I am delighted to be making public transport a more attractive option.

On the rail bridge, we will continue to do what we can to increase patronage on the railways.

Daniel Johnson (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)

The new bridge is critical for my Edinburgh Southern constituents, as it is for people across Edinburgh, Fife and the whole of Scotland. The minister mentioned the modelling work that has been undertaken. I understand that a number of the bridge’s traffic management features are not yet operational. Will he please explain the impact on the assessment of the modelling of not having those features operational? He said that the spike was anticipated, but was it in line with the anticipated level of traffic or did it exceed that?

Humza Yousaf

I will try to get Daniel Johnson the specifics on the modelling as best I can in written form. We tried to do the modelling and forecasting to the best of Transport Scotland’s ability. On the Sunday, vintage vehicles, motorcycles and cars displaying large flags in a parade-like fashion choose to go across the bridge—only so much modelling can be done to try to capture that. As I said in answer to Liz Smith’s question, where we can review the modelling to make it even more accurate, we will.

It was anticipated that there would be a surge in traffic in the first few weeks of the opening of the Queensferry crossing. Such a spike is not unique to Scotland, of course; there is a spike in traffic when any new bridge or new infrastructure opens across the world. We are doing everything that we can to manage the situation, and where we can do more, we will. We are starting to see the positive results in that regard; there was a reduction in congestion at the Monday am and pm and Tuesday am peaks, as I said, and we will see how the rest of the week progresses. If we can do more, we will certainly explore all the options.