BILL HEANEY’S NOTEBOOK FROM HOLYROOD

Bill Heaney for Scottish ReviewA cold wind was blowing in from the North of Scotland for First Minister Nicola Sturgeon during her weekly question session in Edinburgh on Thursday.

Tory MSP Donald Cameron (Highlands and Islands) asked her: “Yesterday’s UK budget, as others have noted, included an announcement of a significant package in relation to coronavirus and business.

“The Scottish Chambers of Commerce has spoken about the urgent need to invest extra funds in business support in order to boost the economy. Does the First Minister acknowledge the need for rapid assistance to business? Even if there is uncertainty about the precise figures, can she give details of what types of support will be given to business and workers?”

The First Minister replied that she had already given a commitment that every penny of the consequentials (money that would come from Westminster to fight coronavirus)  that is intended for business will go to business.

(She promised there would be no siphoning off cash for other projects such as happened in cash-strapped West Dunbartonshire where £35,000 was sudden found in the SNP budget for a bio-diversity project which Cllr Iain McLaren had been promoting assiduously all year).

Ms Sturgeon said: “We will look at the specific needs of business and we will discuss with the business community what is best.

“Broadly speaking, we would want to replicate here in Scotland the types of support that were announced yesterday in the budget. We might have some differences, depending on the views of businesses and the circumstances that we face here.

“I want to be able to give greater clarity on the matter as quickly as possible, but I cannot give clarity that I have not had from the Treasury. I hope that that clarity comes soon; I have no reason to expect that it will not. When it does, we will pass it on.

“We need more action from the UK Government and the Scottish Government to help individuals as well as businesses. As, I think, I said earlier, we are also looking within our own resources at what additional steps we can take to provide help, particularly for vulnerable people. Those will be among the many matters on which we will keep Parliament updated in the weeks to come.”

The cold wind became suddenly colder when franchise payments to Abellio ScotRail and Serco were discussed.

Tory Peter Chapman (North East Scotland) asked the First Minister for what reason Abellio ScotRail and Serco are to be given a reported £103 million in additional public funding despite not meeting their targets.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon replied: “The Abellio ScotRail and Serco Caledonian sleeper forecasted payments for next year are in line with both current franchise agreements. Those are contracted amounts between the Scottish Government and the franchisees.

“The increase in franchise payments takes account of many factors, not least that we are funding 9 per cent more ScotRail services compared with the start of the franchise, and that the payments include changes to the track access charges through the nationalised Network Rail, which are determined by the independent Office of Rail and Road.

“The Scottish Government is still required to use the flawed franchise system because previous United Kingdom Governments have failed to reform the structure of the railway industry. The conclusions of the Williams review of the railway industry, which were promised in autumn 2019, are still awaited.”

Mr Chapman was neither convinced nor consoled: “I thank the First Minister for her answer, but I note that the £103 million additional funding equates to a 25 per cent increase in subsidies compared with last year.

“That increases subsidies to a substantial £520 million. Fare prices are up, delays are up and cancellations are up. It seems mind-boggling that a company can be rewarded so lucratively for failing to deliver its core service.

“We have the ferries fiasco and the Edinburgh sick kids hospital debacle, which are costing the taxpayer hundreds of millions of pounds. It seems as though, every time that the Scottish National Party Government signs a contract, the taxpayer has to foot the bill. Is the rail contract not just an additional example of another incompetent contract that the Scottish Government seems to be so adept at signing?”

The First Minister kept her cool, but only just – “No, is the short answer. The member’s characterisation of the issue is downright wrong. It fails to take account of some of the factors that I set out in my initial answer, which lie behind the increase in the payment. I will repeat some of them: we are funding nine per cent more ScotRail services compared with the start of the franchise; and, of course, there have been changes to track access charges, which are determined not by us but by the independent ORR.

“Hard facts lie behind the increase in the payment, rather than the reasons mentioned by the member.”

She added: “I say again that I do not think that the current franchise system is ideal—far from it. It is deeply flawed. For a long time, we have argued for the system to be changed. Previously, Labour UK Governments and, more recently, Tory UK Governments have dragged their feet on that.

“Perhaps it would be better to hear the Tories argue for some of the fundamental reforms that we need, to get to the source of the problem, rather than for them to stand up and mischaracterise the situation in this Parliament.”


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