Election 2021

The Scottish Parliament is in recess ahead of the election on 6 May.

Because of Covid-19, there are some changes to how the Parliament prepares for the election.

Find out more in our Election 2021 pages

Skip to main content

Language: English / Gàidhlig


Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 24 April 2018

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, Negotiations on the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, National Plan for Gaelic, Point of Order, Decision Time, Show Some Heart (Jayden Orr Campaign)


Topical Question Time

Ferry Services

1. John Finnie (Highlands and Islands) (Green)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reports that widespread disruption to CalMac Ferries services is anticipated until the end of May. (S5T-01043)

The Minister for Transport and the Islands (Humza Yousaf)

CalMac is, of course, trying its best to mitigate the impact on the network over the period to the end of May. It is redeploying vessels within the fleet to ensure that lifeline connections are maintained to the communities that it serves on the Clyde and Hebrides network.

The MV Clansman was expected out of dry dock on 11 March. However, damage to the propulsion system and rudder has led to a delay, with essential repairs being required.

Safety must, of course, be my and CalMac’s top priority in delivery of services. However, I fully understand the frustration of the communities on the Clyde and Hebrides network, which rely on their ferry services. The frequency of services on some routes may, during the period of disruption, be reduced from normal, and services have been amended. CalMac has secured an extension from the Maritime and Coastguard Agency for the MV Hebrides’s passenger certificate, thereby avoiding there being two major vessels out of the fleet at the same time, and the MV Loch Bhrusda will commence service on the Mallaig to Armadale route later today. I will continue to monitor the situation closely: I have spoken today to the chair and interim director of CalMac.

John Finnie

I obtained figures from CalMac this week showing that 3,852 cancellations in the past five years were the result of mechanical failures. The average age of the ferries on the Clyde and Hebrides routes is 23 years, and older vessels need longer periods of repair in dry dock. Lack of co-ordination between Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd, which owns and maintains the vessels, and CalMac is clearly a factor. Given the huge scale of the disruption, does the minister believe that the document that I have here—the “Vessel Replacement and Deployment Plan”, which was developed by CMAL and CalMac in 2016 and published in January—is fit for purpose?

Humza Yousaf

Yes. The point of the vessels plan is to give us a road map for the coming years, in order to address the issue of the ageing fleet that John Finnie has rightly mentioned. We have seen a huge growth in island tourism, including a 37 per cent growth in vehicle numbers over the past five years, which has been helped by the introduction of the road equivalent tariff scheme. I will happily sit down with John Finnie and hear any helpful suggestions on our vessel deployment plan.

This Government is investing in vessels, the latest of which are being built on the Clyde, as John Finnie knows. We have brought commercial ship building back to the Clyde. The sooner the vessels are completed—to time and on schedule—the better. As a short-term solution to some of the issues that are being faced on the Clyde and Hebrides network, I have asked CalMac to look at what additional sailings can be put on in order to mitigate some of the disruption that we have seen.

John Finnie

I thank the minister for those comments, but he will understand that frustrations remain, nonetheless. The Scottish Government’s “Scottish Ferry Services: Ferries Plan (2013-2022)” recommended replacement of the majority of the CalMac fleet. However, CMAL is entirely responsible for design and procurement. Does the minister see possible roles for the public sector operator and the trade unions earlier in the procurement process, and what overall assessment has the Government made of the disruption to our island communities?

Humza Yousaf

I am certainly not averse to the suggestion that those groups should be involved in the procurement process at an earlier stage. It is a good idea and I will reflect on how we can do that. To go back to my central point, I say that we are investing in vessels: we have invested in about eight in our time in Government since 2007, and two are currently being built by Ferguson Marine. We have also committed that the next vessel will serve the Islay route. Helpfully, I have on my left Michael Russell, the MSP who represents that island.

We are continuing, and will continue, to invest, but John Finnie’s point is not lost on me—there is frustration on the issue. A breakdown on the network can have quite catastrophic results. However, our and CalMac’s immediate priority has to be to ensure that lifeline services continue. CalMac is very aware of particular pinch points, and it wants to ensure that additional sailings or capacity are put on wherever possible, when it comes to things such as the whisky festival on Islay or the world war one commemorations that are taking place. I will reflect on the points that John Finnie has made.

Kate Forbes (Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch) (SNP)

The Mallaig to Armadale crossing has been hit particularly hard by the domino effect of CalMac moving vessels around the network. That is a reminder of the difficult season of summer 2016, and it is costing local businesses and residents. I am sure that the minister will agree that that is concerning. Will he raise that issue with CalMac and urge it to find an immediate solution for Skye and Lochaber residents?

Humza Yousaf

I entirely agree that there is frustration. I have met the various stakeholders in Mallaig and Armadale to discuss the matter on a number of occasions, including meeting the local MSP and the local MP.

In 2017, we were in a much better situation than we were in 2016, but it seems that we have, unfortunately, gone somewhat backwards. That is not an acceptable situation, at all. However, I hope that Kate Forbes is reassured by the news that I gave in my opening remarks that MV Loch Bhrusda will commence its service on the Mallaig to Armadale route today. That will help, of course, but we have to look at the longer-term solution for Mallaig and Armadale. Consideration of what vessels we will build in the future will undoubtedly be part of that.

Donald Cameron (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

The minister will be well aware of the current disruption on the Oban to Coll and Tiree service, the Mallaig to Lochboisdale route and the Ardrossan to Campbeltown summer service. Will the minister explain why the Government has let the situation get completely out of hand, not least because islands and communities are now being pitted against one another in a competition for ferries?

Humza Yousaf

I do not agree with the premise of Donald Cameron’s question. Mike Russell has raised with me the services that he mentioned on a number of occasions. We are working closely with constituency MSPs and MPs, and I was recently on Islay and Jura to take part in a transport summit on some of these issues as well as issues that affect a number of our other islands on the Clyde and Hebrides network.

Donald Cameron has a very simplistic and immature response to a serious and complex issue. As I have already explained, there has been a huge growth—37 per cent—in vehicle traffic on our ferries over the past five years, which is great, as more people are travelling to our islands. We have to invest in ferries; we have built eight, and another two are being built at Ferguson’s. We cannot magic them up overnight, but we can look out to the open market to see where we can charter additional tonnage. We should do that, and we are doing it. Equally, it comes at a cost, and the vessels have to fit into the ports and harbours. We can also, of course, consider additional sailings, and we and CalMac are actively doing that.

On the idea that one island is being pitted against another, I counsel Donald Cameron to avoid using such language in the future, as that is not happening. We are trying to ensure that lifeline services can be preserved in the face of disruption, and I hope that we can find solutions to that.

David Stewart (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

The minister will be well aware of my high regard for CalMac, but the CalMac community board recently expressed concern about disruption that has been caused by ferry failures in the fleet. Does the minister share my assessment that the age of the vessels is a key concern? We heard about that from John Finnie. Eight vessels are more than 30 years old, and half are more than 25 years old. Will the minister discuss with CalMac and CMAL the fleet’s resilience and the related issue of maintenance and dry docking?

Humza Yousaf

I thank David Stewart for the tone of his question, which was in stark contrast to the one that we heard from Donald Cameron. David Stewart understands the complexities of the issue.

The ageing fleet is an issue for us. We have invested in vessels more than even previous Administrations did, and we will continue to invest in them. David Stewart is absolutely right. The point that he made about dry docking demonstrated again his understanding of the issue, which I appreciate. As the age of a vessel increases, it may well have to spend longer being maintained in dry dock, and CalMac has to factor that in to minimise disruption. CalMac is having a conversation about that.

As well as investing in additional tonnage, vessels and sailings, we are actively looking at how we can spend money to refit, refurbish or even re-engineer vessels to sweat out the assets for even longer. All those things are part of the mix of solutions, but none comes without a price tag, of course, and many are not overnight solutions.

Doctors (Early Retirement Rate)

2. Anas Sarwar (Glasgow) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reports that the number of doctors who are seeking early retirement has doubled in the last eight years. (S5T-01044)

The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport (Shona Robison)

Under this Government, national health service staffing and doctor numbers have increased to record high levels. In fact, in the past eight years, the number of doctors who work in our NHS has increased by more than 1,800, which is an increase of over 17 per cent.

Although the recently shared figures on early retirement are for NHS staff in general rather than doctors specifically, we know that a number of factors can lead to someone choosing early retirement. For example, we have heard previously that the United Kingdom Government’s reduction of the lifetime allowance for pension tax relief in recent years has led a number of general practitioners to take early retirement.

We have outlined a number of actions through part 1 of our national health and social care workforce plan to increase the number of opportunities for people to train as doctors; we have also created an additional 140 medical training places since 2017. We will build on that when we publish part 3 of the plan for primary care next week, which will reiterate our aim of increasing GP numbers by 800 over the next decade.

Anas Sarwar

Every day, we hear stories of NHS staff who are overworked, undervalued and underresourced. The figures show that, over the past eight years of the Scottish National Party Government, early retirements of NHS staff have doubled, and in the cabinet secretary’s own backyard of crisis-hit NHS Tayside, they have more than trebled. That is shameful. I ask the cabinet secretary to stop the complacent responses and instead give Scotland a credible workforce plan. Can we have a credible workforce plan from a credible health secretary?

Shona Robison

Every day, our NHS delivers a fantastic service to the people of Scotland and patient satisfaction rates are at a record high.

I think that, in there somewhere, Anas Sarwar asked about the workforce plan. As I said to him in my initial answer, we have published parts 1 and 2 of the workforce plan and, next week, we will publish part 3, which focuses on primary care. That will lay out a comprehensive plan of how we will grow all parts of the workforce, including the medical workforce. Again, as I said in my original answer, we have created an additional 140 medical training places just since last year. All that taken together is a good news story.

If the NHS and social care workforce commission that Anas Sarwar established more than a year ago has any good ideas to propose when it eventually reports, we will look forward to having constructive input to the workforce planning debate.

Anas Sarwar

In reality, the problems are a result of years of mismanagement. The cabinet secretary mentioned NHS staff. She is right: we should thank our staff. However, that is not enough. NHS staff member after NHS staff member tells us about the pressure that they face every single day. As Dr Peter Bennie of the British Medical Association put it at the weekend, doctors are

“under pressure like never before”.

That mismanagement was further highlighted this morning at the Health and Sport Committee, where it was revealed that NHS Lothian alone needs £31 million more just to keep services at existing levels. When will the cabinet secretary get her head out of the sand and recognise that we need meaningful action now and not the same old tired excuses? It is time for the cabinet secretary to step up or to step down.

Shona Robison

Every day, our NHS staff deliver a fantastic service. Anas Sarwar failed to mention that the BMA has acknowledged that we have more staff and resources. The BMA also—not unreasonably—pointed out that demand is also increasing. We are providing record funding to Scotland’s NHS and we have recently announced further investment of more than £350 million in Scotland’s front-line health boards, including additional investment in service reform and improvement of £175 million in order to meet the increasing demands of an ageing population.

As I have said, NHS staff numbers are at a historically high level. They have increased by 13,000 under this Government, with more doctors, nursing and midwifery staff delivering care for the people of Scotland. We are expanding those numbers with a further 55 undergraduate medical training places. As I have also said, we have created an additional 140 medical training places since last year, and we are committed to recruiting 800 more GPs over the next 10 years. Taken together, that is a good package of workforce planning measures.

Sandra White (Glasgow Kelvin) (SNP)

Having recently visited Glasgow royal infirmary, I have nothing but praise for the staff there. It is time that we started praising staff more, instead of denigrating the workforce.

Anas Sarwar talked about staff shortages. Does the cabinet secretary share my concern about the potential impact of Brexit on the recruitment and retention of staff in our NHS?

Shona Robison

We are concerned that Brexit is already damaging the recruitment and retention of European Union staff. To mitigate that, we have committed to paying the settled-status fee for any EU citizen who is working in devolved public services in Scotland. That will help us to keep vital workers in the NHS.

Our NHS staff do a fantastic job, wherever they come from. The message is that we want to keep people working here, wherever they are from. They have a huge role to play in our NHS and they are most welcome. We want them to stay and we want others to join us.