Meeting date: Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Meeting of the Parliament 20 February 2018
Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Scottish Rate Resolution 2018-19, Decision Time, Tackling Fuel Poverty (Quick Credit Voucher Scheme)
- Time for Reflection
- Topical Question Time
- Scottish Rate Resolution 2018-19
- Decision Time
- Tackling Fuel Poverty (Quick Credit Voucher Scheme)
Topical Question Time
ScotRail (Financial Penalties)
To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reports that ScotRail has had to pay a record amount in financial penalties in the past nine months. (S5T-00944)
The sole purpose of the service quality incentive regime—SQUIRE—which is one of the toughest, if not the toughest, in the United Kingdom, is to drive up standards for passengers and deliver new and improved facilities by reinvesting any penalties that are imposed in qualitative improvements throughout the network. That approach ensures that the onus to improve substandard assets and facilities at stations or on trains rests squarely on the shoulders of the franchisee, as penalties are deducted from the subsidy that it receives and reinvested in driving up quality through customer-facing improvements.
ScotRail’s performance is above the Great Britain average but, as is already well documented and as I think I said to the member yesterday, it is not as high as ministers demand or as passengers expect. I fully expect the forthcoming independent Donovan review to be the building block on which ScotRail makes a marked turnaround in the overall customer experience.
Scotland’s rail passengers deserve better than the transport minister simply repeating the words that he expects improvements. Frankly, he increasingly sounds like a railway station tannoy announcer repeating the same old message about delays, but in this case without the apology, it seems. The problem is that no one is listening to the transport minister, least of all Abellio. It is nearly four years since the Government awarded Abellio the ScotRail franchise and promised to improve Scotland’s railways, but these record fines reveal a rail service that is getting worse, not better, on the transport minister’s watch. When will Scotland’s hard-pressed rail passengers have a railway system where rail fares are not rising above the rate of inflation and wage growth, where new trains are not being delivered late, where passengers are not standing on platforms wondering whether their train will actually stop and where 76 per cent—yes, 76 per cent—of key performance benchmarks are not being missed?
I will ignore the personal remarks that the member made at the beginning of his question and go straight into some of the substance. Despite his apocalyptic version of events, his comments simply do not hold true. Yes, there must be improvement—I have always acknowledged that and driven improvement, and I will come to some of the positive effects of that—but under my and indeed the Government’s watch, there have been record levels of satisfaction, at 90 per cent. That makes Abellio technically the best performing large operator in the entire United Kingdom. There has been record investment in the railway, with new routes that had not been open in 50 years, such as the Borders railway. Throughout 2017, we saw improved performance, although admittedly that dipped in the autumn and winter period.
Clearly, there are areas of improvement. Through SQUIRE, which is a robust regime, we are seeing changes. There have been improvements in station shelters, train information screens and train graffiti although, clearly, there has to be improvement on other measures. To get to the substance of the point, because of the interventions of Transport Scotland, me and others, Abellio is now recruiting far more staff, which in turn should help to improve the overall customer experience. I am happy to share with the member more detail on that recruitment, but I can tell him now that Abellio is filling 20 station positions, 13 station dispatch positions, 18 gate-line posts and 38 catering posts, with 14 catering staff on the Dumfries route alone. All those things will, I hope, help to provide a better overall customer experience.
To encourage the member, I say that, instead of sniping from the sidelines, if he came with helpful suggestions, I would be more than happy to listen to them.
Let me give the transport minister one helpful suggestion and tell him exactly where I stand on Scotland’s and Britain’s railways. The minister does not seem to accept that we have a problem and that the railway system is, frankly, broken. When will he stop praising and trying to prop up a privatised railway system that has come to the end of the track? Does he support not just preparing public sector bids for franchises but bringing our railways back under public ownership, so that people and performance, not profits, are the priority? Will he give a straight answer to that straight question?
Here is a straight answer: it was Labour that denied the Scottish Government the powers to introduce a public sector bid, so I will take no lectures from Colin Smyth on a publicly owned railway.
Of course, Colin Smyth forgets that 54 per cent of the delays on the rail network are the result of the nationalised part of the railway—they are due to Network Rail, which is a reclassified body under the Department for Transport. Colin Smyth cannot tell us how much it would cost to bring the railway back into national hands. Abellio is putting in tens of millions of pounds of investment. What budget would that come from? Would it be the health budget or the education budget?
On customer experience, is the minister aware that, despite ScotRail’s promise to provide five carriages to transport rugby supporters from the Borders and Midlothian to the international game on Sunday 11 February, which I then publicised to constituents, a train breakdown meant that there were only two carriages, so the train was packed from Tweedbank and Galashiels and stop skipped, leaving folk standing on the platforms in Newtongrange and Gorebridge. The promise from ScotRail for the Calcutta cup match this Saturday is yet again to provide five carriages. Given ScotRail’s track record, will the minister take a particular interest in whether that promise is fulfilled?
Christine Grahame’s constituency and part of the country have seen some great improvements in the ScotRail service. Of course we want to go further, and the new trains will allow us to cascade others across the network. I fully accept her point that extra carriages will be helpful, if they are running. I will look into planning for future major events and pass that message on to ScotRail, which I am sure it has heard loud and clear. I know, too, that the member has a direct relationship with the managing director of ScotRail, so she can raise those issues herself.
We repeatedly hear from the transport minister that the status quo in performance is unacceptable and that there must be improvements. He will be aware that the moving annual average performance metric has not been met since August 2017. We now find that the SQUIRE report shows that 14 out of 34 benchmarks were missed for an entire year. What is the minister’s view on those disappointing trends, what assurances has ScotRail given him that it will turn things around and, more important, when does he think that the current franchise holder will meet its contractual obligations in terms of punctuality and performance?
Jamie Greene makes the fair point that performance is not at the level that we expect. However, I take him back to my previous answer. Once we had put in a performance improvement plan and faced the challenges at ScotRail towards the tail end of 2016, we saw a number of periods and months of improvement. In fact, we saw performance taken to record levels, which was acknowledged at the time by Jamie Greene’s predecessor on the transport portfolio. There has been improvement.
Clearly, ScotRail’s autumn and winter resilience planning was not good enough and it has accepted that.
I stress on ScotRail that I expect to see improvement immediately. The Donovan review will help with that. Nick Donovan has decades of experience in railways. I had a preliminary conversation with him just last week and it was very positive to hear about the areas that he is looking into, examining and exploring. I do not doubt that the ScotRail board will mull over any recommendations arising from the Donovan review. If they are accepted, I expect them to make a difference. When the Donovan review is complete, I will be sure to say to ScotRail that there should be some transparency over the review’s findings, so that other members can explore and question them as well.
In direct answer to Jamie Greene’s question, I say that we expect to see performance improve, just as it did in the first half of 2017, and we expect that improvement to be immediate.
Does the minister agree that it is a good use of the SQUIRE fund to improve infrastructure at stations, such as disabled access, to provide a better service for all rail travellers and that, in that way, the performance of ScotRail for all its users can improve?
Yes, I do. Mike Rumbles has been particularly involved with the accessibility issues at Insch station and in trying to find a solution there, and I thank him for the work that he has done thus far. The SQUIRE money is reinvested in the railway for a better experience, not just for passengers but for staff. For example, some of the SQUIRE money has gone towards 250 body cameras and the infrastructure to keep front-line staff safe in a job that can be difficult at some times of the week or day. I agree with Mike Rumbles that accessibility can be part of that. There is also the minor works fund and the UK Government’s access for all fund, which can help to improve accessibility. With all those combined, our stations and transport become more accessible, which is better for everybody.
ScotRail obviously faces challenges with capacity on the Glasgow to Edinburgh via Falkirk line, and it is suggesting that it will reduce the fares on the line via Airdrie and Bathgate, which is marginally slower. Does the minister agree that that is an imaginative and positive step and that, perhaps, it could be used in future so that a lower fare would be offered on a slower route?
John Mason is right to point out that, as things stand this week, the fare on the Airdrie to Bathgate line from the lower level at Queen Street will be off-peak all day, so it will be £13. That is significantly cheaper than it would be during the peak time. Any lessons that can be learned from that about encouraging or incentivising passengers to use other available routes, albeit that they may be slower, would be a positive.
John Mason will be under no illusion that the priority is to get Hitachi, the manufacturer, to deliver the 385 trains on the schedule that it has promised. That schedule has not been met, and we continue to push Hitachi to make sure that those trains arrive so that we can cascade additional carriages across the network. In the meantime, if there are any lessons that can be learned from the reduced pricing that has been offered to incentivise people to use other routes, we should learn those lessons.
Burntisland Fabrications (Redundancies)
To ask the Scottish Government what assistance it is providing to Burntisland Fabrications in light of reports that redundancy notices have been issued to staff. (S5T-00927)
The Scottish Government continues to support BiFab, and that support is allowing work to continue on the contracts for the Beatrice offshore wind farm. The loan facility that has been extended by the Scottish ministers means that BiFab will receive payments on commercial terms to alleviate the immediate cash-flow issues that the company has experienced in connection with the Beatrice project. Paul Wheelhouse and I, the enterprise agencies and my officials are working regularly with BiFab and all other interested parties to find a positive solution.
I recognise that this remains a difficult period for the members of BiFab’s workforce and their families. We do not underestimate the anxiety that the lack of certainty about future orders and, as a result, employment has created. It is also a challenging period for BiFab’s contractors and creditors. However, we continue to do all that we can to help to secure the long-term commercial future of the company, including by looking at potential inward investment. I believe that there are opportunities for the Scottish supply chain to play a leading role across a range of energy sector investments, and I believe that BiFab can play a crucial role in that market going forward.
What action is the Scottish Government taking to help to find further investment for the yard to ensure that the highly skilled workforce at BiFab remains at the forefront of wind farm construction and a key player in the United Kingdom renewables sector?
In my first response, I mentioned the work that is being done by ministers, officials and the enterprise agencies. Collectively, we are doing all that we can within the scope of our powers to support the management and workforce at BiFab, which is, of course, a private company. We are doing so in an effort to secure the long-term commercial future of fabrication at all three yards where BiFab is present.
This is, unquestionably, a challenging time for the company, but we continue to provide support through the Scottish manufacturing advisory service—SMAS—by speaking to the offshore renewable and oil and gas sectors regularly about potential tender opportunities and, crucially, by liaising with potential inward investors.
In the event of redundancies at the BiFab sites in Burntisland, Methil and Arnish, what support can the Scottish Government offer to the employees affected?
I hope that it is obvious from my previous answers that, along with the agencies and others, we want to avoid any redundancies, and we are working with BiFab senior management, Scottish Enterprise and trade union representatives to do everything that we can to avoid such a situation.
However, it is also true that we stand ready to provide support through our partnership action for continuing employment—PACE—team by providing skills development and employability support. In that way, PACE aims to minimise the time that individuals who might be affected by redundancy are out of work.
In December, the First Minister told the chamber that the Scottish National Party Government had saved BiFab and kept the workers in a job. Why is it the case that, today, 260 jobs—which equates to 20 per cent of the workforce—are under threat? Was the cabinet secretary aware of that in December, when the First Minister made her claim?
That is an unbelievable question. The member was obviously not listening to the First Minister when she made her statement. It was made clear at the time and it has been made clear ever since that, in November, we were able to safeguard the seeing through of the contract. If we had not done that, three times in the week in question BiFab would have gone to the wall and nobody would be working there. That is what the Scottish Government did then, and we have continued to show the same commitment ever since. That is what underpins the work that we are doing at the moment. One would have thought that, even from a Tory, there might have been some grudging respect and admiration for the work that was undertaken by the First Minister.
The cabinet secretary will be aware that all the members of the workforce at Arnish have already been paid off, with only two of them being retained for care and maintenance. He will also be aware that the specialist equipment at Arnish is publicly owned. Will he make sure that BiFab is meeting its obligation to protect that equipment and that there is adequate staffing cover in the yard to do that?
That is a very fair point. I will, of course, ensure that that is the case. We have had discussions with the management at BiFab and with the trade unions, who are very active in Arnish on that issue.
The reduction in staff would have happened regardless of the package that was put in place in November as the contract was wound down. We are trying to make sure that Arnish can remain a place of employment and to see how we can bring more money in to improve the infrastructure even further.
Rhoda Grant makes a point about the public investment that has been made in Arnish already. We want to capitalise on that, and I will take forward her point about protecting the equipment that is there in the meantime.
What upskilling programmes are available to keep workers on the payroll and to keep the gates open over the next difficult few months?
Also, what will the implications for BiFab be if the inward investment that the cabinet secretary mentioned cannot be secured?
Again, that is a very good point. Our efforts are going first towards getting the inward investment that Mark Ruskell talks about, which is absolutely crucial. Secondly, we are seeing whether we can get some of the available contract opportunities won by BiFab, within, of course, the rules by which we are bound.
In the event that those efforts do not succeed—I am not trying to avoid looking at that possibility—Mark Ruskell is quite right to say that we should be examining, as we are, what opportunities there are for upskilling and further training of the workforce and what other work might be able to be done at the yard to improve the infrastructure there. The member can be reassured that we are examining that possibility and looking at what the options would be.
However, I underline that we are doing everything that we can to avoid that situation coming about.
This is a dark time for the workforce. What is the long-term strategy for ensuring that companies such as BiFab thrive on the back of the opportunities of the renewable energy sector, particularly the offshore renewables that are coming down the track? Those companies should be thriving and not just surviving, so what is the Government’s long-term strategy?
It is worth pointing out to Willie Rennie that BiFab is a private company that enters into contracts and that we have tried, not least because of its employees, to help it to ensure that it can continue to do that.
Renewable energy is a thriving sector in Scotland. In 2015, it supported 58,500 jobs in Scotland, which is around 14 per cent of the sector’s total United Kingdom employment; and it generated £10.5 billion in turnover, which is—again—14 per cent of the sector’s total UK turnover.
There is substantial work in the sector in both Scottish waters and throughout the UK and, indeed, in western Europe. It is the case—and this is the point that underlies Willie Rennie’s question—that we want to see more of that work coming to Scotland, so we will continue to provide support to the sector as a whole. As for individual companies such as BiFab, we will provide them with support through the different measures that I have mentioned already of trying to get them new investment and new contracts.
Thank you. Apologies go to Dean Lockhart and Claire Baker, but there is not enough time to take any more questions today. That concludes topical questions.