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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 19 February 2019

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Brexit (Response to European Union Exit Vote in Westminster), Scottish Rate Resolution, Social Security Committee Announcement, Decision Time, St Rollox Railway Works


Topical Question Time

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

I apologise for the delay—we had a technical problem of some sort, as I am sure you will appreciate. The good news is that we had some time in hand this afternoon. However, we now have no time in hand. We might have a discussion with the business managers later if we run out of time.

School Menus (Processed Meats)

1. Monica Lennon (Central Scotland) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reports that school menus in around three quarters of council areas include processed meats containing nitrites. (S5T-01494)

The Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (John Swinney)

In 2018, we consulted on proposals put forward by a scientific technical working group to make school food and drink healthier. The group recognised that red meat can provide vital nutrients such as iron and that its inclusion in school meals can contribute to meeting the nutrient standards. The group recognised, however, that such provision had to be made within a maximum level of red and processed meat served in schools, consistent with international guidelines. The consultation closed in August 2018 and we are carefully analysing the responses to it prior to finalising the revised regulations.

Monica Lennon

I accept that the Scottish Government is committed to limiting the amount of processed meat that is eaten by pupils at school. However, does the cabinet secretary accept the scientific evidence of a link between nitrites in processed meat and bowel cancer? If so, does he agree that school meals should be nitrite free?

John Swinney

There is very clear scientific evidence that suggests the level of red meat consumption that is appropriate and consistent with a balanced diet. That is the advice that the Scottish Government is following.

Monica Lennon is correct to highlight the Government’s approach on school nutrition. Back in 2008, we introduced regulations on that, which were regarded as world leading and which were updated in 2013. We are doing a similar exercise in response to the commitments that we gave in our manifesto in 2016 and to updated scientific advice that emerged in 2017. The Government takes such advice very seriously, and that work is under way.

Monica Lennon

I welcome the work that is under way. The link between nitrites in processed meat and bowel cancer is a hugely important public health issue. Given the Scottish Government’s commitment to becoming a good food nation, will it back the experts, ignore the industry spin that has taken place and see that Scotland becomes a world leader by ensuring that meat in our schools is nitrite free?

John Swinney

The argument that Monica Lennon makes is fundamentally about the quality of our food and produce. It is beyond dispute that Scottish red meat is perfectly compatible with a balanced diet, provided that individuals who wish to consume it do so within the limit of what is appropriate. That is the foundation of the advice that the Scottish Government has accepted from the short-term working group that we commissioned to undertake that activity, and it is the basis on which we have consulted on the regulations. We have had more than 1,350 responses to the consultation exercise and are currently considering the feedback from it. I anticipate that the report on the views that were offered in the consultation will be finalised by the end of March 2019, and we will proceed to introduce formal regulations at that stage.

Willie Coffey (Kilmarnock and Irvine Valley) (SNP)

What is the Scottish Government doing to ensure that more children have access to school meals that are healthy, nutritious and made from local Scottish produce? As the cabinet secretary knows, for some years such meals have been provided in East Ayrshire, where at least two schools now have the eat safe award.

John Swinney

All food and drink that is provided in local authority schools must meet the standards that are set out in the Nutritional Requirements for Food and Drink in Schools (Scotland) Regulations 2008. On the basis of our commitment, we are updating the standards to ensure that they will be based on scientific evidence and that the highest-quality produce will be consumed in our schools.

In addition to those commitments, in the food for life programme the Scottish Government has committed £1.2 million over the financial years 2018-19 to 2020-21 to assist 32 local authorities in achieving the award of catering marks in their primary schools and nurseries. That is part of our commitment to ensuring that we have high-quality produce of the type that Mr Coffey says is already being provided in schools in East Ayrshire.

Brian Whittle (South Scotland) (Con)

Given the concerns in education about young people and obesity, diabetes and other health-related issues, does the cabinet secretary accept that eating good, solid, locally procured food has a positive impact on children’s health, on attainment and on our carbon footprint and that it supports the rural economy? With that in mind, and given that only 16 per cent of the central Scotland Excel procurement contract is currently procured from Scotland, does he agree that there is something positive that we could do right now that could impact on the health of our children?

John Swinney

Good progress is being made in the dialogue with Scotland Excel on improving the levels of Scottish produce that are served in our schools. That is an implicit part of the agenda that we take forward. The regulations that I consulted on with the information from the short-life working group covered a range of issues to ensure that school nutrition is of a higher quality and contributes to better health and wellbeing for individual young people. That work is part and parcel of the approach that the Government takes to ensure that we have the highest quality of nutrition in our schools.

Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

Fresh, unprocessed school meals can be cooked only by councils that keep their school kitchens open and invest in their catering staff. What is the cabinet secretary’s view on the decision by Tory-led Perth and Kinross Council to abolish its catering service, close down its kitchens and move to frozen, cook-chill and processed food in its schools?

John Swinney

It is a proposal with which I am familiar locally and it causes me a great deal of concern, because I think that it undermines the quality of produce that can be delivered in individual schools. It also affects employment and sustainability in a number of localities. I hope that the local authority will reflect carefully on all these questions as it comes to conclusions on the matter because, from what I have seen, I do not have sufficient confidence in the arrangements that have been set out to justify the changes that have been made.

Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route

2. Maureen Watt (Aberdeen South and North Kincardine) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what economic benefits could be realised following the full opening of the AWPR. (S5T-01506)

The Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity (Michael Matheson)

During construction, the AWPR contract has already generated benefits for local employment and local businesses. Since the major part of the road opened in December 2018, there has been overwhelmingly positive feedback from the north-east, which has demonstrated the transformational impact that infrastructure can bring about in people’s daily lives, the quality of their environment and the economy as a whole. We have been seeing story after story, especially on social media, from people and businesses who are using the road and seeing substantial improvements to their journey times and reduced congestion across the city.

After more than 65 years of waiting, the project is now fully open to traffic. This morning, social media has been overwhelmingly positive, with comments about shortened commutes as well as about Anderson Drive being so quiet today now that the last part of the road is open.

The project is anticipated to provide substantial benefits across the north-east, providing a boost to the economy and increasing business and tourism opportunities while improving safety and reducing congestion. It is anticipated that the project will generate up to 14,000 jobs over 30 years as a result of opening up significant development opportunities. It will cut journey times across Aberdeen by up to half at peak periods and reduce traffic volumes on Anderson Drive and connecting roads. That should reduce transport costs for businesses and provide an unprecedented opportunity for the local authority to provide greater priority for public transport, speeding up journeys and improving reliability within the city area.

Maureen Watt

I thank the cabinet secretary for that answer. As he said, Aberdeen’s western bypass was first mooted some 65 years ago. Generations of Tory, Labour and Lib Dem Governments did absolutely nothing but, as of 2007, the SNP got on with the job of delivering the new bypass, which has become fully open today. How will the Scottish Government ensure that the full benefits of this transformational infrastructure project—not just the economic ones—can be realised over the long term?

Michael Matheson

The member makes a very good point. There was a lot of talk about the Aberdeen western peripheral route, but it is the SNP and this Government that are delivering it, demonstrating our commitment to the north-east of Scotland. In addition, the significant investment that we are making in rail in the north-east and the investment that we plan for the dualling of the A96 demonstrate our commitment to the north-east of Scotland by helping to support the economy and create employment in the area.

After one year, Transport Scotland will undertake an evaluation of the project in line with the Scottish trunk road infrastructure project evaluation guidance, which will allow us to evaluate how the AWPR has performed against the criteria that were set at the initial stages of the development of the project, with further evaluations at year three and year five, in order to assess the development and the impact that it is having on the local area. The main areas that will be included in that evaluation are the scheme’s objectives of operations, environment, safety, economy, integration, accessibility and social inclusion. Transport Scotland will continue to monitor how use of the AWPR is affecting the rest of the road network in the north-east of Scotland. It is clear that the road is starting to transform the north-east of Scotland today and it will continue to do so in the future.

Maureen Watt

Can the cabinet secretary tell us what it is about the nature of a fixed-term contract that the contractors just do not get? Will he do his utmost to ensure that taxpayers are not held to ransom by the contractors for mistakes that the contractors have made along the way and for delays that they have caused to the full opening of the route?

Michael Matheson

I have been clear about the need to make sure that we protect the taxpayer’s interest. I must confess that I have been concerned at times by the narrative from the Opposition parties that appears to accept that if a contractor states that it has a claim, that claim automatically has merit and must be paid by the taxpayer. I assure members that we will act in the taxpayer’s interest and protect the taxpayer from any errors or mistakes, or any additional costs that have been incurred by the contractors as a result of contractors’ own mistakes. Let us not forget that Aberdeen Roads Ltd spent two years preparing to submit a tender for the project. It went into the project with its eyes wide open and we will hold it to the contract, in the taxpayer’s interest.

Peter Chapman (North East Scotland) (Con)

I declare an interest as a farmer. I very much welcome the complete opening of the road. It is long overdue and will be a huge asset to the north-east economy. However, there is still a huge question mark as to whether farm tractors are allowed on the road. I have received clarification that the Balmedie to Tipperty section is open to tractors, but there is confusion about the rest of the road. Given that tractors can travel on the A90 all the way from Aberdeen to Perth with no issues and given that the AWPR is also a dual carriageway, not a motorway, why can tractors not travel on the AWPR?

Michael Matheson

The decision was made several years ago to classify the AWPR as a special road, which provided clarity around the arrangements for agricultural vehicles being on it. That decision was made in around 2014, so if the member thinks that there is a lack of clarity, he is wrong. There is clear guidance on the special status of the road, which does not allow it to be used by agricultural vehicles for very good reasons that were set out when the matter was considered.

I welcome the acceptance by the Tories—although I do not know whether they congratulate us grudgingly or are just late in doing so—of the completion of the road, which will benefit the people of the north-east of Scotland, including the farmers there.

Lewis Macdonald (North East Scotland) (Lab)

Like other members, I am very glad that the road is finally complete. Michael Matheson is not to blame for the 12 years of delay under the SNP Government. [Interruption.]

I am glad that the cabinet secretary focuses on the issue of cost as well as the other aspects of this important project. The information that is currently available on the Scottish Government website states that the annual unitary charge to be paid to the contractors will average £48 million a year, that the total unitary charge will come to £1.45 billion over the next 30 years and that the contractors will receive their last unitary charge payment in 2048. Can the cabinet secretary tell us whether any or all of that information will now require to be updated?

Michael Matheson

Let me first answer Lewis Macdonald’s substantive point: there are no plans at present for any changes to be made. The way in which the contract was formed means that the contractors will be paid only once the road is accessible to vehicles. That continues to be the case. I have been clear with the contractors that they entered into a contract to which they gave due consideration with all their expert advisers at the time, and that they entered into it willingly. I am determined to hold them to that contract, and that is exactly what we have been doing.

To those who have called on me to get on with it and just get the road open, I say that I have been making sure that we act in the taxpayer’s interest instead of allowing contractors to hold us over a barrel with a gun to our head, to extract more of the taxpayer’s money for a road for which they are already getting paid. We will continue to take that approach when we discuss these matters with them.

I think that the member is being a bit unfair in suggesting that there was some sort of 12-year delay. He knows very well the delays that were caused by the legal challenges to the contract: the case ended up in the Supreme Court, resulting in years of delay to the road being built. We have been clear all the way along that we are determined to deliver for the people of the north-east, which is exactly what we have done with the AWPR.

Mike Rumbles (North East Scotland) (LD)

Is the public purse exposed to all of the £250 million cost overrun?

Michael Matheson

That is exactly the type of attitude that does not act in the interest of the taxpayer. In effect, because the contractors may have a claim, Mr Rumbles automatically presumes that it has some merit. In major infrastructure projects, it is not unusual for contractors to make some sort of claim that they have run into additional costs as a result of delivering the project. There is a process to be gone through, and that is exactly what will happen in this case.

To date, the contractors have been unable to substantiate their claim. As I have said before, in this chamber and in committee, any additional claim from the contractors must be evidence based and capable of substantiation. To date, they have failed to achieve that. We will continue to defend the public taxpayer’s interest in the matter, rather than caving in as we would if we listened to people like Mr Rumbles.

The Presiding Officer

I apologise to Gillian Martin and Liam Kerr, but that concludes topical questions.