Scotland's Road Network

– in the Scottish Parliament at 9:30 am on 7th February 2002.

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Photo of George Reid George Reid Scottish National Party 9:30 am, 7th February 2002

The first item of business is a Scottish National Party debate on motion S1M-2703, in the name of Kenny MacAskill, on Scotland's road network, and two amendments to the motion.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party

I start by quoting briefly from Shakespeare:

"Now is the winter of our discontent"— not, I should add,

"Made glorious summer by this sun of York" but made a shambles by Ms Boyack.

From the Borders to the Highlands and from the A1 to the A9 we have a winter of discontent for the traveller and for our economy. There has been a catalogue of complaints and anecdotal evidence, from individuals, elected representatives—including many on the Executive's benches—motoring organisations and even entire councils.

We were put on standby when, as a result of a manhole cover collapsing on the M8, the economy of the whole of the west of Scotland ground to a halt. Such an absurdity has not been heard of since a kingdom was lost for the want of a horseshoe nail. That was even before the winter snows and ice, which are a difficult period for all in Scotland, when individuals require to take care, for their own safety and so as not to jeopardise the safety of others by their actions. During that period, those charged with the care and maintenance of roads must ensure that all adequate and appropriate steps are taken to keep roads clear and traffic moving.

That has not happened. We have had complaints about ice on the A1 and lack of gritting and we have had the first closure of the snow gates on the A9 at Blair Atholl for many a year, despite the fact that this has not been the most inclement of winters. There have been complaints that the M90 at Kinross is more reminiscent of an ice rink than the main highway from Lothian to Tayside and the north. The Kessock bridge—the artery from Inverness to the Black Isle and beyond—was shut down. I could go on and on. The tragedy for the economy and the traveller is that they cannot get on, never mind go on.

As I indicated, many of the complaints emanate from elected representatives in the chamber. Righteous indignation, they will claim; sanctimonious twaddle, say I. We do not need their pious press releases, for they were well warned about the effect of the privatisation of trunk road maintenance.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party

Not at the moment.

Elected representatives have had the opportunity in previous debates to register their vote against the folly of splitting up and hiving off trunk road maintenance, selling off the work force and selling out the public. Action not rhetoric was needed then and action not rhetoric is needed now. When the privatisation of trunk road maintenance was debated just over a year ago, members were strident in their rhetoric, but reticent when registering their vote.

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat

Is it the policy of the SNP to tear up the contract and return to the status quo?

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party

If Mr Lyon would listen to my speech, he will hear my suggestions. We should never have got into this situation in the first place. The Executive sold out the work force and the local economy by signing a contract and signing away good care and maintenance of our roads.

Let us take the former convener of the Transport and the Environment Committee, the illustrious Mr Andy Kerr, who said:

"We are on the edge of making one of the Parliament's worst decisions in its short life. It is a personal and political embarrassment that we find ourselves arguing over such issues in the Parliament. Allowing the management and maintenance contracts to go ahead as planned would be one of the worst decisions we could possibly make ... the private sector will make our roads worse".—[Official Report, 25 January 2001; Vol 10, c 579-580.]

He was absolutely right. The pity is that while he was given licence to moan he did not have the guts to vote. Instead, for his cowardice, he was promoted onwards and upwards to become Minister for Finance and Public Services.

Now that he is in a position of power, what will Mr Kerr do about the situation? Mr Lyon should perhaps take note. Mr Kerr has an opportunity, as the problem is not simply trunk roads but all roads. As was forewarned, privatisation has not only created a worse service on the trunk roads but has undermined the ability of local authorities to deal with non-trunk roads. A previously integrated service has been rent asunder.

That manifests itself in two ways, the first of which is the loss in economies of scale. Councils' grant-aided expenditure allocations were insufficient and had, in any case, been cut year on year. Now, without compensation or allowance, councils are expected to cover the same distance at lower cost. It just cannot be done. Our largest council, Highland Council, has had cuts of 13 per cent in its roads maintenance allocation and 5 per cent in its winter maintenance allocation. The City of Edinburgh Council has less now than it did four years ago to maintain the same, if not a greater, number of roads and pavements. There has been a cut in real terms. That is not offset by the removal of trunk roads from the council's domain, as trunk roads were previously funded from another budget. The budget has been slashed and economies of scale have been cut without compensation. Councils are short of cash and have now been short-changed.

Secondly, there is the lack of an integrated network. Previously, local authorities collaborated for the public good. Now, in many instances, there is not only disunity but disharmony between councils and the private contractors. Moreover, there are total absurdities. One example is the area where the A1 meets the Edinburgh bypass. Until last year, East Lothian Council dealt not only with the A1 trunk road but with the non-trunk sections in both its own and the City of Edinburgh Council's jurisdiction. All was well and the roads were clear. Even in inclement weather, Mr Home Robertson saw no need to complain.

Now what do we have? Well, Amey Highways Ltd has the contract for the trunk road, so it grits up the A1 to the junction at Old Craighall and stops. East Lothian Council then grits the next 1.5km, up to the City of Edinburgh Council boundary, and stops. The City of Edinburgh Council then grits the last 1km, to the Asda roundabout, and stops. Where, oh where, are the cost savings in that? It is organisational lunacy. No wonder Mr Home Robertson was complaining bitterly about Amey and the A1. Three organisations separately maintain three stretches that were once maintained by one.

That is but one example of the absurdities created by the fragmentation of the network. There are many more. Pavements, adjacent footpaths and trunk roads were once maintained collectively, but now a second machine from a separate organisation is required, as the contractor maintains only the road, leaving the council to return to maintain the footpath. Does the Executive not realise that roads do not exist in isolation?

The people of Scotland do not want excuses from the minister, never mind BEAR Scotland Ltd or Amey Highways Ltd; they want action. They want their roads gritted and their pavements cleared, just like they used to be before privatisation and cuts. That is not too much to ask; the public sector delivered it before. As my party predicted, and back benchers—including the Executive's current Minister for Finance and Public Services—echoed, the Executive's privatisation has spelt disaster. The Executive got us into this snow-hole; it should now get us out of it.

At the very minimum, the Executive should ensure forthwith that BEAR Scotland Ltd and Amey Highways Ltd shape up or ship out. Taxpayers' money is paying for their profits, while the companies provide a poorer service than the public sector did before. There are contracts that they must adhere to—the Executive must ensure that they adhere to them. There may be the performance audit group report, but surely the Executive department with responsibility for transport can ensure that action is taken. Just when will the PAG report be available? Will it address service and an integrated network or will it be yet another whitewash—of the accountants, for the accountants, by the accountants? Is it really worth the millions that will be spent on it, when we have an army of civil servants? Would not the money be better spent on roads?

We want the matter assessed from the point of view of road engineers and road users, not faceless financiers who count the pennies and look at the bottom line, not the road ahead. Will the Executive ensure that BEAR Scotland Ltd and Amey Highways Ltd subcontract to the councils to ensure best service, best practice and an integrated network? Let the road engineers run the road network, not the private financiers.

There have been bad days this winter but the weather has been by no means the worst or the most inclement that we have ever faced, yet, as a result of the privatisation forced through by Labour and its Lib Dem colleagues in the one-party coalition, we have a winter of discontent—and it is still not finished. The Executive would do well to recall that a winter of discontent was the prelude to the ultimate demise of a former Labour Administration that was propped up by the Liberals.

The Executive may have sold out the public sector, but it still has a responsibility to the general public. New Labour and agricultural Labour—for the Liberal Democrats are but country cousins—must ensure that action is taken against BEAR, in particular for the benefit of our travellers and economy.

There are no excuses. When it comes to rail, the Executive blames the situation on the Tory privatisation. There is merit in that, although the Executive's handling leaves a lot to be desired. When it comes to road maintenance, the privatisation is Labour's and the Liberals'. They know the price of everything and the value of nothing. Labour members have no one to blame but themselves and their lapdog partners. They claim that they make the difference and claim all the success of the coalition—although that is not much to boast about—but they cannot run from this. The Lib-Lab privatisation is causing havoc and will cost lives.

The buck stops with the Executive. The Scottish public will not grin and bear it. The Executive must get it sorted out or get out and hand over to an Administration that recognises the benefits of public service, not private profit, and which realises that public service is precisely that—it is worthy and meritorious in its own right and it is about doing things collectively for the common good, not privately for individual profit.

I move,

That the Parliament notes with concern recent dangers and problems affecting travellers and the economy and caused by a deteriorating winter roads maintenance service; believes that the privatisation of trunk road maintenance is a false economy, resulting in loss of efficiencies of scale, knock-on increased costs to local authorities for clearing non-trunk roads and an overall cost in the form of reduced standards of service; further notes that BEAR Scotland Ltd and Amey Highways Ltd have failed to deliver a quality of service necessary for the safety of road users and the movement of goods, and condemns the Scottish Executive for its actions in ignoring warnings regarding privatisation and in failing to address the current problems.

Photo of Lewis Macdonald Lewis Macdonald Labour 9:41 am, 7th February 2002

I am glad that Kenny MacAskill has found time in his schedule of tireless campaigning to come and join us in Parliament and spend time doing what the taxpayers pay him for. It is a pity that, having begun with Shakespeare, he decided to play it for laughs and showed his complete ignorance of developments in trunk roads maintenance over the past 12 months.

It is also a pity that he did not take a little more time to produce a clear and coherent motion for debate. However, with a little work, I have been able to disentangle the mesh of accusations and allegations and work out that Mr MacAskill is putting five basic propositions before us. Perhaps the most serious is his accusation, ventilated only at the end of his speech, that BEAR and Amey are somehow putting in jeopardy the safety of road users and causing danger to travellers. That is not an accusation that should be made lightly. Of course our roads can be dangerous places, and of course there are extra risks in travelling in severe winter weather—those are facts. However, Mr MacAskill's claim that those dangers have increased as a result of the award of the trunk road maintenance contracts is one that he ought to be able to measure against the evidence.

Let us be clear that the terms of those contracts are in all essential respects identical to those that went before. There is an overriding obligation on the trunk road operating companies—and on councils, which maintain local roads—to ensure the safety of travellers. We expect the operating companies to work with local councils and the police to ensure road safety and we will act vigorously on any evidence of failure to do that or to meet contractual standards.

Photo of Margaret Ewing Margaret Ewing Scottish National Party

Does the minister recall an occasion, when the councils were responsible for road maintenance, on which sandbags were used to fill gullies as a temporary remedy for specific problems? That practice continues in Moray constituency.

Photo of Lewis Macdonald Lewis Macdonald Labour

I recall many things that have happened during the years that I have lived in the north-east of Scotland. I assure Mrs Ewing that every fault that is identified and that is brought to us is acted on, including the case of the sandbags to which she referred.

Kenny MacAskill referred to Glasgow and accused BEAR and Amey of failing to ensure the movement of goods and of jeopardising the economy. It is fair to say that, even by his usual standards of doom and gloom, that represents a new depth of self-deluding despair. The trunk road contracts indeed oblige the operating companies to do all in their power to keep roads clear and open, but not at the expense of the safety of travellers or their own staff. We have yet to hear any substantial evidence of the alleged economic disruption, but I make it clear that, in any case, safety comes first.

The fact is that, in the final year of the old contracts, trunk roads were closed for more than four hours because of weather conditions on 12 occasions. In the first 10 months of the new contracts, that has happened on four occasions. It may happen again before winter is over, but the evidence hardly suggests an economic crisis caused by the closure of roads.

Mr MacAskill's third accusation is that the award of the contracts has increased the costs to councils of clearing local roads, lowered standards and sacrificed economies of scale. I do not dispute the claim that some councils have found it harder than others to adjust to the consequences of disaggregating local road and trunk road responsibilities. A council such as Highland Council, where the proportion of trunk roads in the road network is double the national average, faces greater challenges and difficulties than city and suburban authorities.

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

The minister's local council, Aberdeen City Council, wrote to me expressing concern

"about the obvious lack of resources that have been attributed to the trunk road by Bear Scotland. In actual fact, this Council had to divert gritters to assist with the snow clearing operations on the trunk roads throughout the city."

Does the minister accept that BEAR Scotland failed his own constituents?

Photo of Lewis Macdonald Lewis Macdonald Labour

No, I do not. Councils may have concerns and complaints, but those—such as Aberdeen City Council and Highland Council—that see a future for themselves in road maintenance, and that recognise the importance of that task, are increasingly considering how they can work with the operating companies. I am greatly encouraged that Highland councillors decided last week to work more closely with BEAR and to share their resources and expertise.

At the beginning of last week, I met chairs of transport from all Scotland's councils. I am keen to continue talking to councils to assess what they need to do to carry out their duties on local roads. We will continue actively to promote effective partnership working between councils and operating companies to maximise the rational use of resources, to secure the benefits of economies of scale and to ensure transparency and accountability in the use of public money.

Photo of Lewis Macdonald Lewis Macdonald Labour

Not at the moment. I am aware that I do not have much time left.

I do not want to waste too much time on Mr MacAskill's claim that ministers ignored warnings about privatisation. A one-time enterprise spokesperson such as Mr MacAskill ought to know a privatisation when he sees one, but clearly, in this case, he does not. There was an open tendering process, with both private and public sector bidders. Private companies were involved in previous successful bids, along with local councils, and I fully expect there to be private and public sector bids again at the end of the contracts. Ministers did not, and could not, wilfully choose whichever bids they wanted. They followed European Union procurement rules, as they had to do, and awarded the contracts to the bidders who offered the best value for money.

I come now to Mr MacAskill's claim that ministers are failing to address the current problems. Nothing could be further from the truth. BEAR and Amey are obliged to adopt quality management regimes. They are contracted to deliver the same level of service as was expected under the previous contracts. Their delivery is monitored day in, day out by the performance audit group, which is independent of both the contractors and the Executive, but which reports to us on the operating companies' performance.

Photo of Lewis Macdonald Lewis Macdonald Labour

No, I will not. I am in my last few moments.

The performance audit group audits the companies' records and procedures, deploys its own field engineers to check performance on the ground and investigates any incident that gives cause for concern. Where an operator fails to comply with the contract, the performance audit group reports to us. We issue default notices, where that is necessary, to secure compliance, and we withhold payments if a default notice does not achieve its objective.

Photo of Lewis Macdonald Lewis Macdonald Labour

No. I am aware that I am in my final moments.

We have imposed those penalties a number of times, and we will do so again whenever the terms of the contract are not met. The contracts are monitored as never before. That is a benefit, not a disadvantage. Many of the problems in the early months of the contract have been resolved and should not arise again. We will ensure that the same is true of any deficiencies in winter maintenance—they will be identified, assessed and put right, and they will be put right at the expense of the operating companies if they are at fault. We will be absolutely vigilant and will insist on effective delivery. Not only will we address problems, but we will resolve them and will work with the operating companies and with local councils to make the contracts work. I was struck by the fact that Kenny MacAskill did not say what his party would do, given the choice.

We will make the contracts work and we will deliver them in the best interests of road users and taxpayers alike.

I move amendment S1M-2703.1, to leave out from "with concern" to end and insert:

"the actions taken by the Scottish Executive to ensure that the trunk road maintenance contracts deliver the prescribed level of service; calls upon the Executive to continue monitoring the performance of the operating companies to ensure compliance with their contractual obligations, and further invites the Executive to enter into dialogue with local authorities to assess the effects of the contracts on local roads maintenance."

Photo of David Mundell David Mundell Conservative 9:49 am, 7th February 2002

If Kenny MacAskill wants to quote Shakespeare, he should take some advice from the late Sir John Gielgud, who said, "Less is more." Yet again, an SNP-inspired debate has contained much ranting about how bad everything is, but nothing about what the SNP would do about the situation. The SNP seeks to seize on legitimate public concern about the operation of trunk road maintenance and turn it into the old-style Labour argument that everything public is good and everything private is bad. Even John Prescott does not subscribe to that.

Those of us who have the misfortune to live in local authority areas in which the SNP has a degree of control, such as Dumfries and Galloway, know that, when given the choice, SNP councillors vote to reduce winter maintenance and oppose measures that would result in more investment in the local road network. We should be clear: roads are no more a priority for the SNP than are the myriad issues that it brings to the chamber that are of the political flavour of the moment.

There are many legitimate complaints about how the trunk road maintenance contracts are bedding in, particularly about BEAR and Amey's customer service arrangements. I have raised with the Deputy Minister for Enterprise, Transport and Lifelong Learning a number of serious concerns about Amey's lack of responsiveness on the A7 and its failure to respond to police requests to carry out gritting after a series of accidents on the A701.

As Conservative members have warned in previous debates, disaggregation has adverse effects. I draw members' attention to one example from my experience of the A7 concerning the removal of snow from Langholm High Street pavements, which took place a full two days after the rest of the town had been cleared. On the A7, Scottish Borders Council is Amey's subcontractor, but the town is the responsibility of Dumfries and Galloway Council.

Such issues have cost implications and must be sorted out, not only in Langholm, but throughout Scotland. That is why, as the Conservatives have requested previously and as our amendment states, the Scottish Executive should

"review and report to the Parliament on the implications of disaggregation of trunk and local services for local authorities".

That is particularly significant in rural Scotland, although I believe that the worst fears about job losses have been mitigated by council organisations becoming the contractors' agents.

We must assuage legitimate public concerns and proceed with the report that the Auditor General recommended. Audit Scotland's most recent report on the matter concluded that the Scottish Executive development department is well placed to monitor the performance of BEAR and Amey and recommended that the department issue a report that details the first year's performance.

In a debate about Scotland's road network, it would be wrong to highlight only the problems on our trunk roads. Anyone who uses Scotland's network of non-trunk roads knows that they are in a dire state. They are used by heavy lorry traffic that was never envisaged and they have potholes, surface erosion and verges that are the equivalent of ditches. There is no sign of significant improvement.

Photo of Andrew Wilson Andrew Wilson Scottish National Party

Does David Mundell accept that the local problems to which he referred might be the result of the 18 years of underinvestment in which his party indulged during its term in office?

Photo of David Mundell David Mundell Conservative

As ever, that intervention was about the past and did not propose a positive solution, which is what I am about to do.

Members who raise with ministers concerns about local roads are told that the matter is for the local authorities, which are being given record sums to deal with the issue. Ordinary members of the public who challenge their local authorities are told that the Scottish Executive does not provide enough money. The public should be given an objective view. Vital work should be identified on non-trunk roads so that repairs can be carried out before some of the roads deteriorate to such an extent that they are beyond use.

The Conservatives propose setting up a national roads inspectorate in Scotland, which would carry out an on-going audit of the state of Scotland's non-trunk roads. The inspectorate's work would form an objective basis for discussion between central and local government about the resources that are required to bring the roads up to an acceptable standard. The inspectorate would act as a warning mechanism to identify roads that are in such a poor state that they are on the verge of deterioration and are almost beyond repair.

The public are sick and tired of being battered from pillar to post by the Scottish Executive and local authorities on roads issues. Everyone recognises that there is a problem; instead of talking up the poor state of our roads for political ends, as the SNP does, we should do something about the problem. On that basis, we offer the constructive proposal of a roads inspectorate.

Photo of David Mundell David Mundell Conservative

I must move the amendment, which unfortunately brings me to the end of my speech.

I move amendment S1M-2703.2, to leave out from first "notes" to end and insert:

"supports the principle of competitive tendering in relation to public works contracts, such as the contract for trunk roads management and maintenance, in view of the paramount importance of securing best value for the taxpayer at both local and national levels; notes concerns raised in respect of the operation of the trunk road maintenance contracts by BEAR Scotland Ltd and Amey Highways Ltd; calls upon the Scottish Executive to produce a report on the performance of each company, as recommended by the Auditor General for Scotland; further notes concern about the level of non-trunk road maintenance being carried out by local authorities, and further calls upon the Scottish Executive to (a) review and report to the Parliament on the implications of disaggregation of trunk and local services for local authorities and (b) set up a system for (i) monitoring and reporting the level of maintenance required on non-trunk roads and (ii) measuring the actual level of maintenance achieved on such roads."

Photo of Nora Radcliffe Nora Radcliffe Liberal Democrat 9:55 am, 7th February 2002

There is no doubt that during the recent spells of wintry weather Scotland's road network was dangerous and that individuals and businesses were, at least, inconvenienced. That has happened in the past and will no doubt happen in future, but Kenny MacAskill's conclusions are premature. A number of questions arise, the answers to which we should pursue by all means, but we should wait until we have the answers before we draw conclusions.

The fundamental question is whether the contract for trunk-roads maintenance is adequate and, if so, whether it has been delivered to the required specification.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party

Nora Radcliffe's colleague Jamie Stone said in a previous debate on the matter:

"this process is tragic for rural areas ... It means rural job losses" and

"Worse than that, the process will be irreversible, because it will be impossible for councils to return to roads maintenance once it goes to the private sector."

He went on to say that the

"two amendments that are before us this morning are an obituary for council-run maintenance".—[Official Report, 25 January 2001; Vol 10, c 569.]

Does Nora Radcliffe agree with Mr Stone?

Photo of Nora Radcliffe Nora Radcliffe Liberal Democrat

I agree that he was right to have those apprehensions, but the reality has not been as it might have been. We must start from the present position and move forward; it is not constructive continually to hark back to the past.

More questions arise. Are robust monitoring and evaluation mechanisms in place for the trunk roads maintenance contract? Can sensible comparisons that are based on good evidence be made with former standards of service? How do the local authorities' standards of good service compare to their previous performance? Have local authorities put the same resources into winter maintenance, pro rata, as they did previously? Is communication and co-ordination between BEAR and Amey and the local authorities, the police, emergency services and weather forecasters up to the job?

Photo of Bruce Crawford Bruce Crawford Scottish National Party

Is the minister—sorry, the member, although perhaps she should be a minister—aware that the Clyde Solway Consortium, which was formerly the south-west unit, has taken its case to Europe and that that case has progressed to the second stage? Has the minister told Nora Radcliffe what the basis of the Clyde Solway Consortium's case is? Has she asked the minister what contingency plans exist for the event that the Clyde Solway Consortium wins its case against the Executive?

Photo of Nora Radcliffe Nora Radcliffe Liberal Democrat

The simple answer is no.

There were difficulties in my area when irresponsible drivers ignored "road closed" signs. Did that hamper the road-clearing effort? Do we take weather conditions into account and make fair comparisons? There have been two fairly severe storms—the worst that we have had for some time—one of which was during a holiday period. It is easy to look at the halcyon days of yore, but we should be honest; I can remember times when lorries could not get up North Anderson Drive in the middle of Aberdeen and in the middle of the day because the road had not been gritted.

As have other members, I have had a stream of complaints about road conditions. I have written to BEAR, the police, the Scottish Executive and the two local authorities that cover my constituency to ask the questions that I listed. The replies that I received from the police and the local authorities lead me to believe that, given the conditions, effective service provision has not diminished hugely. Deep snow and high winds make it physically impossible to keep roads clear. Even in this age of high technology, we do not always get the better of the elements. There were difficulties in keeping the notorious Glens of Foudland open, but they were relatively minor and can be put down to inexperience. I am satisfied that there was not a major problem and that the experience that was gained—and local advice—will deal with the difficulties.

Photo of Margaret Ewing Margaret Ewing Scottish National Party

Is the member aware that the equipment that BEAR was instructed to use was not sufficient for the Glens of Foudland and that drivers were told to keep the ploughs high because lifting too much snow would make matters worse?

Photo of Nora Radcliffe Nora Radcliffe Liberal Democrat

That was the result of inexperience. As I say, the experience that has been gained and local advice means that that will not be repeated. Both my constituency's local authorities now seem to have good lines of communication with BEAR, although it obviously takes time to build a good working relationship. They are working to ensure effective co-operation.

On the non-trunk roads, given the severity of the storms and the fact that it was the holiday period, the local authorities did a reasonable job in most cases. I do not think that their effort was less than I have seen in previous years. The staff worked to their physical limits to get roads cleared and gritted. Many of them sacrificed their holidays and having Christmas and new year with their families to do that. We should not forget to acknowledge their efforts and unselfishness. From the tenor of the amendments to the SNP motion it seems that most members feel, as I do, that sweeping condemnation is not the appropriate response to recent events; the appropriate response is to take a close look at the contract specifications and how they are being met.

It is too early to judge the effectiveness of the contract and its delivery. On paper, it seems that we have the tools to do that, but I await with interest the monitoring reports, after receipt of which we can make sensible decisions on what, if anything, needs to be done.

Photo of George Reid George Reid Scottish National Party

We move now to open debate. Speeches will be of four minutes plus time for interventions.

Photo of Margaret Ewing Margaret Ewing Scottish National Party 10:01 am, 7th February 2002

What I have heard so far from members on the unionist benches is very much an apology for what has happened over the past months. I say to them that it is indeed easy to blame BEAR and Amey, but the issue comes back to the responsibility of the Executive for the nature of the contract that was issued. This is not about the responsibility of the contractors; it is about the nature of the contract. The contractors are asked to work on behalf of the Scottish Executive and that is where the buck has to stop.

Photo of Margaret Ewing Margaret Ewing Scottish National Party

I am in my first minute; I will give way to Lewis Macdonald later. I will refer to him, so no doubt he will use that opportunity to intervene.

I will pick up on three specific points. The first is the accountability of the contractors for their local responsibilities. Last year, during the October recess, I phoned the BEAR depot in Keith about making a courtesy visit. Keith is not in my constituency but serves my constituency and connecting roads. I was faced with horrendous complications when I asked to pop in to say, "Hello, I am your local MSP, if you would like to raise any problems or issues." I was refused access to the depot. After various phone calls, I eventually managed to procure a meeting down at Leith Walk, which was attended by endless civil servants and representatives of the Executive. It was a very expensive meeting at which to say hello to providers of the service.

When I asked for the winter maintenance plan I was told that MSPs and MPs were likely to take advantage at policy level if they had access to it. The police and local authorities were to be given a copy, but not MSPs or MPs. Finally, as a result of continuous pressure from myself, one copy has been placed in the Scottish Parliament information centre. Hallelujah: 129 of us can now read that document.

Photo of Lewis Macdonald Lewis Macdonald Labour

Does Margaret Ewing accept that, as a result of that, the winter maintenance plans for all four units are publicly available, available to elected members and available to all those working with the operating companies on the winter roads contracts?

Photo of Margaret Ewing Margaret Ewing Scottish National Party

At the same time, MSPs do not have the right to meet with those people. I could quote letter after letter. The response that I am about to quote was in relation to disabled access in connection with potholes in Forres High Street:

"I am obliged not to reply directly to you on any matter regarding trunk road maintenance".

That diminishes the role of elected representatives.

It used to be easy to phone the director of roads in the local council or deal with Scottish Office ministers and receive a response and a reaction. Elected members now have to go through a tortuous process. The Parliament may talk about freedom of information and Lewis Macdonald said that he was going to be "extremely vigilant", but I say to him that an iron curtain has come down on the rights of elected members and the people who they represent. I challenge him to say at the end of the debate that he will make public all performance audits, so that we can read them and make comparisons.

On maintenance and safety, in a constituency such as Moray—whose population base contributes well above the average to the Chancellor of the Exchequer—we have joke roads. The A95, which is our main link to the south, has bridges on it that were probably built by General Wade. The A96 should be dualled all the way to Aberdeen. Everywhere, potholes give visitors such a bumpy ride that the roads could rival the ride on a big dipper. Sandbags are thrown in the potholes as a solution.

Lighting repairs on the main roads in Moray were previously dealt with on a three-day turnaround by Moray Council, but now take more than six weeks. I could take Lewis Macdonald to a standard lamp in Lhanbryde that has had exposed wires since April of last year. As of Monday this week, it had still not been repaired. That endangers people's safety, be they drivers or pedestrians.

On Christmas day, one of my constituents drove from Elgin to Inverness. She witnessed 10 accidents, although fortunately none of them were serious. During the whole journey, she saw only one clearance vehicle moving in the opposite direction, the quality of the machinery was inadequate in the Glens of Foudland. I am told that the road clearance vehicles that are used by BEAR are being asked to undertake journeys of 100 miles before they turn around. Previously, in places like the Glens of Foudland or Drumochter pass, they cleared for 7 to 8 miles then immediately turned around in order to keep those key areas open. I believe that the responsibility lies clearly with Labour and their Liberal allies in the Executive, who have brought in a contract that has diminished the improvements to our trunk roads and failed the people of my community and the north of Scotland.

Photo of Tom McCabe Tom McCabe Labour 10:07 am, 7th February 2002

It is sad that not one word in today's motion on Scotland's roads acknowledges the excellent work that has been done to improve Scotland's road infrastructure, or the significant levels of investment in infrastructure and public transport, even though those will have a significant impact on our ability to compete, our ability to move freely and timeously and our ability to create sustainable enterprise. If the SNP had a genuine interest in facing up to the task of providing Scotland with world-class physical infrastructure, this petty and backward-looking motion would not have been lodged.

The SNP's interest seems to be in talking down the good work that has been done and in taking the same short-sighted and opportunistic approach that it has taken in most debates in the Parliament. It is crucial that we do not pretend that all was rosy before the maintenance of the road network was undertaken by private contractors.

Photo of Tom McCabe Tom McCabe Labour

I will not take an intervention at the moment.

No one would have liked more than I would to see our local authorities win the work. However, the critical point that the SNP ignores is that the work was awarded on the basis of open tenders. SNP members talk as if they could ignore the open tender requirements. They have no such ability and their comments during the debate mislead the workers in Scotland's local authorities and Scotland's road users.

As a former council leader, I am well aware of how previous contracts were operated. Mistakes were made, as they will be made under this contract. Our priority should be proper contract monitoring and proper objective assessment of the work that is done and of any lessons that can be learned. That is what will provide Scotland's road users with the best possible service and it is what could allow our local authorities to reassess their approach and perhaps be more competitive in the future. Scotland's road users can see for themselves where improvements have been made and where things could have been done better. They will not be duped by rhetoric from the SNP.

Photo of Andrew Wilson Andrew Wilson Scottish National Party

Although we understand the necessity for Mr McCabe to engage in a bit of political knockabout, we are trying to be constructive in analysing a serious contract strategy. I point out to Mr McCabe— [Interruption.] —if the empty vessels can contain themselves, that his party colleague, Kate MacLean, said:

"It is about the fact that there has not been a level playing field. If the differences in prices had occurred under a fair tendering process, I would have accepted that."—[Official Report, 25 January 2001; Vol 10, c 589.]

The SNP would have accepted that as well. If Mr McCabe's own party does not agree that the process has been fair, how on earth can we?

Photo of Tom McCabe Tom McCabe Labour

If an attempt to be constructive is to desist from using William Shakespeare's prose, I suppose that the SNP has attempted to be constructive. However, if that is as good as it gets, I will just carry on.

The fact is that an additional £70 million has been invested in our roads as a result of the contract. Why cannot the SNP acknowledge that? Why cannot it acknowledge the major improvements that are being made throughout Scotland? All over Scotland, local transport strategies have been prepared and are making a difference. Projects such as the Garrion bridge improvement scheme in South Lanarkshire, costing £6.6 million, are complete. That is not a promise or an announcement; that is a completed project. Economic viability in the Clyde valley has been transformed and the quality of life for thousands of people has improved. That demonstrates the positive approach of South Lanarkshire Council and the commitment of the Executive to ensuring that finance is available for investment in our roads infrastructure.

We have a rapidly expanding budget for investment in our motorway and trunk road network. Over the next three years, the budget will be £680 million, which represents an increase of almost 40 per cent by 2004. We also have the innovative partnership between councils in Glasgow, South Lanarkshire and Renfrewshire on the project to extend the M74. That is a £250 million project towards which the Executive is providing £214 million. The extension will create an economic corridor that will regenerate one of the most important areas in the west of Scotland and will significantly ease pressure on the Kingston bridge. It will make a significant contribution to establishing a physical infrastructure that will allow our economy to compete with the best economies anywhere in the world. Additionally, Glasgow airport will receive a significant boost as journey times become far more predictable. That is what the coalition regards as a physical infrastructure that will improve opportunity, quality of life and economic competitiveness.

Why cannot the SNP take the opportunity in a roads debate to expand its thinking on those important issues? The answer is simple: the SNP has no thinking on those important issues. It has no clue about the way in which we will revolutionise the transport infrastructure in Scotland. I am thankful that it also has no chance of ever holding the reins of power.

Photo of David Davidson David Davidson Conservative 10:13 am, 7th February 2002

Once again, we have heard the forever-transferable rant from Mr MacAskill—all he does is change its title. We have heard about no constructive model from the SNP, yet it is the SNP's debate. SNP members never offer any solutions, alternatives or costings; they simply say, "You guys don't do it well." The Conservatives are supposed not to have done the job well for 18 years, but I recall that in the days when Mr McCabe led a council, he got the money from the then Scottish Office—the problem was what he did with it.

We heard some interesting—to an extent—comments from the SNP. We heard that only nationalised systems work. We have heard that before. There was no mention of open competitive tendering, never mind value for money, in the SNP's key speech. I presume that Mr Wilson will get round to mentioning that. The SNP would introduce central control for everything and would allow no local decision making. I do not doubt that we will hear later that, if the SNP achieved independence for Scotland, it would ban snow.

However, I agree with Margaret Ewing that we need roads infrastructure upgrades, especially for the A96 and the potential Aberdeen bypass, which would at least provide manageable routes for business. That brings us to the Executive's denial of the resources that are required.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

Bearing in mind the fact that the Conservatives had 18 years in which to deal with the A96 and the A95, I hope that Mr Davidson will remind us exactly what improvements to those roads they carried out during that period.

Photo of David Davidson David Davidson Conservative

During that time, the local authority was given money to carry out some side works on that road, and there was an investment programme for the main road. The Kintore bypass was built, out towards Inverurie. Perhaps Fergus Ewing used to fly into Inverness in those days and did not use the road. I do not know.

We are not discussing the principles behind the contract—whether it is privatised or in the public sector—but performance and co-ordination and the links between the local authorities and the contractors which, in some cases, are the same. All the roads that are being treated should connect carefully and sensibly.

The road safety issues that have been raised are very serious. During the recent bad spell, getting access to schools in parts of rural Scotland was difficult, emergency services were caught on the hop and were unable to get through and the continuation of business—especially in areas that have no rail support—was a great challenge. I cannot understand why, if the BBC and ITV could warn us about the snow that was to come—all the long-range forecasts predicted it almost to the hour—the contractors, councils and those in tendered operations were caught out. David Mundell's proposal for an independent roads inspectorate would take that situation on board and investigate not only what the contractors did, but what the Executive's role was. I presume that the Executive received the same weather forecasts as everyone else. Did it issue any warnings? Did it put anything out through the contract system? I suspect that it did not.

I got caught one night when Aberdeen was covered in ice, following a big snowfall. The main trunk road through the city—Anderson Drive—was impassable. The only gritter that eventually got out to it managed to crash and damaged about three cars on its way through the system. The taxi drivers in Aberdeen went on strike because it was unsafe to go out in a car. That has nothing to do with BEAR Scotland or Amey; it is to do with Aberdeen City Council's operation. In Aberdeenshire—where I live—many communities were cut off for some time. Even the emergency services that attend to the hydropower stations could not get through. The minister must consider not only who delivers the services, but the range of the services. The solution that my colleague attempts to offer—which is more than we have got from the SNP—is a possible way forward.

It we are to keep Scotland on the move safely, it is vital that early investment is made in the infrastructure that Tom McCabe talked about. There must be proper investment in road maintenance. Roads that are merely tracks with tar laid on them are now being used by heavy goods vehicles. That should not be happening. We need targeted routes that are properly maintained to move goods around safely.

Once again, I am bitterly disappointed by the SNP's waste of parliamentary time. It has initiated a debate but offers no answers or constructive comments on anything. I look forward to hearing a more constructive response from the minister, regarding the way in which he will implement our proposal.

Photo of Linda Fabiani Linda Fabiani Scottish National Party 10:18 am, 7th February 2002

I am interested to know why it is the responsibility of the SNP to fix every major disaster that is caused by the Executive.

We debated the roads issue just over a year ago, on Burns day, when the then Minister for Transport told us that Labour had decided to go along Labour's new way by privatising roads maintenance. Although I was appalled at the attitude that was shown by the ministers that day, I was heartened by some of the constructive criticism that was offered by Labour back benchers, but that changed pretty rapidly. I was worried about whether the level of service given to our roads would be the same once Labour had sacked the public service workers. I had to ask repeatedly—eventually I had to resort to asking parliamentary questions—to see the performance assessment criteria before bits of the contract were placed in the Scottish Parliament information centre. Margaret Ewing asked for that information too. It is ridiculous that the elected representatives of Scotland could not see the criteria for safety provisions on our roads. That is an absolute disgrace.

I was not the only member who expressed concern in that debate. A Labour member who was not a minister at the time said:

"Allowing the management and maintenance contracts to go ahead as planned would be one of the worst decisions that we could possibly make. A flawed process has led to a flawed result".

He went on to say that the process

"does not, in any way, offer value for money and it does not provide best value. The process is a shambles."—[Official Report, 25 January 2001; Vol 10, c 579-80.]

Andy Kerr cannot come on down, as he is not in the chamber today. However, those were the words of the member who is now Minister for Finance and Public Services. He condemned his party's Executive and became a local hero—at least in his own lunch time—in the constituency of East Kilbride, where I live.

In the East Kilbride News, Mr Kerr said:

"We are on the edge of making one of the Parliament's worst decisions ... It is a personal and political embarrassment."

There are questions to be answered. Is Mr Kerr now bringing his fellow Cabinet member round to that sensible point of view? If not, is Wendy Alexander now the very lonely minister with no support from anyone in the chamber, as Sarah Boyack was quoted as saying? I am sorry, but I see that it is poor Lewis Macdonald now—what a shame.

What is Andy Kerr doing to ensure that roads in his constituency are being serviced to the same level as before the maintenance contracts were privatised? Not a lot is being done. The trunk roads that run through East Kilbride constituency are a disgrace. Residents of East Kilbride have been agitating for the service to return to the level that they used to know. In particular—I think that the minister will back me up on this—local people have long highlighted their safety concerns about damaged roundabouts. As members will know, we have many roundabouts in East Kilbride. Damaged roundabouts have been left for months with temporary barriers and rusting ironwork.

Photo of Tom McCabe Tom McCabe Labour

For how long have local people been expressing concern about those roundabouts? The member said that they had been doing so for a long time.

Photo of Linda Fabiani Linda Fabiani Scottish National Party

I have in my hand many newspaper cuttings and photographs, which go back over the years. I take that back, as I meant to say months rather than years. When Mr McCabe was in charge of South Lanarkshire Council, we had a wonderful service on roads and roundabouts in East Kilbride. Now we have a terrible service. I am aware that I am running out of time, so I will move on.

Lewis Macdonald was quick to have a go at the SNP's motion. Let us look at the Executive's amendment, which is specious. We are asked to note

"the actions taken by the Scottish Executive to ensure that the ... contracts deliver the prescribed level of service."

It seems to me that every Executive action is reactive. If the Executive had carried out the process properly in the first place and had properly assessed what was going on, we would not be in this position.

The amendment wants Parliament to call

"upon the Executive to continue monitoring the performance of the operating companies."

If Parliament did not call on the Executive to do that, would the Executive not bother its shirt? Would it just let the situation go on? That part of the amendment means nothing.

The Executive amendment also calls on Parliament to invite

"the Executive to enter into dialogue with local authorities".

Does that mean that the Executive has not been doing that? Can the outcome of that dialogue—the proper monitoring and results—be placed in SPICe? That would allow us to see those results. I ask members to support the SNP motion.

Photo of George Reid George Reid Scottish National Party

I want to keep speeches tightly to four minutes from now on.

Photo of John Farquhar Munro John Farquhar Munro Liberal Democrat 10:23 am, 7th February 2002

Like many members, I am delighted that we have been given the opportunity to debate winter road maintenance and highlight the dismal performance of the private contractors that were given that responsibility by the Executive.

As we heard, we have not had a particularly bad winter. Conditions have not been extreme and we have not had extended periods of hard frost or heavy snowfalls. However, there has been an unprecedented level of dissatisfaction and complaints from the travelling public, particularly from the business community, which has recently experienced dangerous and unreasonable conditions on long sections of trunk roads throughout the Highlands.

The response from the Executive to written and oral questions on the matter has been that the contractors are complying with the terms of the contract. That might seem strange to many people. However, if that is the case, the contractual obligations must be closely monitored to ensure that the service that is provided is appropriate and sufficient to ensure that we return to the degree of excellence in winter road maintenance that was provided previously by the local authorities.

I speak with experience on that subject. Over many years as a private contractor, I operated snowploughs and gritters in the west Highlands. More recently, I was convener of the roads and transport department of the Highland Council. I was well aware of the high levels of service that were provided and of the travelling public's confidence and satisfaction.

It has been suggested of late that seeing a BEAR snowplough operating on Highlands trunk roads is about as unusual as meeting up with the abominable snowman.

Photo of Maureen Macmillan Maureen Macmillan Labour

The last time that I travelled up the A9 I saw three snowploughs.

Photo of John Farquhar Munro John Farquhar Munro Liberal Democrat

If the member saw three snowploughs, they must have belonged to the local authority. I doubt whether they were BEAR snowploughs. I travel the A9 as much as anybody here and I have yet to see a BEAR snowplough operating on that section of our trunk roads.

The Executive told us that a strict audit will be undertaken and reported on in due course, but that will be too late as we need action now. If the contract is found to be inappropriate for the service that we expect, let us have the courage to admit that error and amend the contract accordingly.

I note that Wendy Alexander's amendment asks the Executive to undertake to monitor contractual obligations and ensure that they are met, and to engage in dialogue with local authorities. That is a welcome step. The Executive should do that

"to assess the effects of the contracts on local roads maintenance."

That is a step forward and I hope that the current monitoring will ensure that we have an efficient, effective and appropriate road maintenance programme in the years ahead. I am pleased to support the Executive's amendment.

Photo of Maureen Macmillan Maureen Macmillan Labour 10:27 am, 7th February 2002

As a former teacher of English, I was pleased to hear Kenny MacAskill quote Shakespeare at the start of his speech, considering that his motion is not grammatical. I cannot understand why somebody cannot have a grammatical motion and yet think—

Photo of Maureen Macmillan Maureen Macmillan Labour

Mr MacAskill should go back to school. I would not have accepted the first clause of his motion from a first-year English class. As I always said to my classes, woolly syntax reflects woolly thinking and a failure to research the issue. How true that is of the SNP.

The SNP's motion, apart from being ungrammatical, is misleading and disingenuous. The SNP surely knows that, under European Commission procurement rules, contracts as large as the road maintenance contracts must be put out to tender. The contracts were tendered in the mid-1990s. Some contracts were won at that time by the local authorities, but others were not. The Highland Council happened to win the contract for its area.

Photo of Maureen Macmillan Maureen Macmillan Labour

No, thank you.

The tendering process was also driven by EC rules that are not within the Executive's power to change. John Farquhar Munro indulged in special pleading, as he is the former convener of transport in the Highland Council. However, I am sure that he will confirm that in the previous bidding process the Highland Council formed a partnership with a private consortium to put in an area bid. If the council had won, there would have been a private company gritting the roads in the Highlands. I am sure that any complaints about that private company would have been referred to the Highland Council, in the same way as complaints against BEAR are referred to the Executive. It is a well-known process. Complaints go to the people who are responsible, whether that is the Executive or the Highland Council.

The Highland Council and the private consortium were unsuccessful. In the Highland area, there is general acceptance that the council's bid was inflated by the need to part fund the local roads budget from it. The same personnel who worked on the local roads worked on the trunk roads. It was difficult to separate out the work force, the depots and the equipment.

There was consternation when the contract was lost. We did not expect it to be lost. We assumed that the Highland Council, with its knowledge of the area, would put in a bid that would easily outstrip any bid from a private company.

Photo of Bruce Crawford Bruce Crawford Scottish National Party

The Highland Council lost out because it knew the proper quantities of materials to do the job. It did not use the fantasy figures that were made up in such a flawed process.

Photo of Maureen Macmillan Maureen Macmillan Labour

That is not true. If the Highland Council inflated its bid because of what was not in the specification, that was up to the Highland Council. It should have bid on the specification as it stood.

There was consternation as to whether BEAR would cope with the Highland winter and what would happen to the local work force. I believe that the worst fears for the work force have not been realised. The trade unions locally will endorse that view.

There was concern in the Highlands that the specification would not be adequate, in particular with regard to gritting and salting. I have pursued that matter with the Executive. The Highland Council would have had to work to the same specification as BEAR does now. The bottom line is that the specification sets out that the roads must be cleared of snow.

Unlike John Farquhar Munro, I remember plenty of times in the past when the roads in the Highlands were not kept clear of snow. The SNP, none of whose members has ever lived in the Highlands, does not have a true idea of the situation in the Highlands pre-BEAR. Even some Highland councillors admit that there is no substantial difference between trunk road maintenance then and now. The Executive is keeping as close an eye on BEAR as the Highland Council ever kept on its roads department. I agree that there have been problems, but they are being overcome.

Fortunately, at last, the Highland Council and BEAR have realised that it is better to be co-operative than oppositional. They are examining ways of working together so that anomalies, such as local roads not being gritted until BEAR grits the trunk roads, are in the past. It is important that that happens quickly because real safety issues are involved.

Photo of Maureen Macmillan Maureen Macmillan Labour

The worst safety issue is untreated footpaths, which are extremely dangerous for older people, pregnant women, children and disabled people.

I am concerned that, because the Highland Council is not working in co-operation with BEAR, it is unable to treat footpaths. I look forward to footpaths in the Highlands being made safe again, through co-operation and not through the destructive attitudes of the SNP.

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party 10:32 am, 7th February 2002

I have a wee message for Maureen Macmillan. I know a lot about the Highlands. My father comes from the Black Isle and my wife is from a rural part of the Highlands, where she was halfway through secondary school before her family got electricity.

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

I should point out to Andrew Wilson that that is the single most dangerous act that he has committed in the Parliament. He will now have to answer to my wife—something that I fear and he should dread.

Maureen Macmillan should not lecture SNP members about ignorance of the Highlands.

I congratulate General Motors on its achievements. Not only do ministers' Vauxhalls transport them from A to B, they successfully insulate the occupants from the everyday reality of other people's roads experience. Next time I am looking for a car, I must buy a Vauxhall.

Let me relate to the experience of the people. What honest and acceptable answer could I give to mourners at a funeral I attended on 26 December, when they witnessed a continual stream of people arriving throughout the service? BEAR's snow-clearing operation in Aberdeenshire meant that some mourners were unable to attend.

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

It happens to be true. If Lewis Macdonald had been there, he would have seen it to be so.

I represent what is almost the only mainland constituency that has no railways. We also have no dual carriageway connection to the core of Scotland's road network. In the north east, the issue of roads, their maintenance and their winter care is vital. Tom McCabe spoke graphically of the Executive's investment in roads, but his speech was all about the central belt.

To be fair, the minister visited Maud in my constituency recently and saw what the dial-a-bus scheme is succeeding in doing there. However, the minister would also have seen the state of the roads. Because of the state of the roads, I am regularly visited by businesses at my constituency surgeries. Most recently, I was visited by a haulier who suggested quite convincingly that it costs his company £50,000 a year to be based in Peterhead rather than in Aberdeen, where he could relocate.

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

David Davidson is too late.

The haulier's problems arise from the state of the roads throughout the year and from the state into which they have been put by BEAR's inefficiencies and ineffectiveness. If even my backside can tell, as I drive up to my constituency, that there are potholes in the road, BEAR, too, should be able to do so.

The minister said that he was in his "last few moments". If his prescience is to prove misplaced, it will only be because he insists on effective delivery—David Mundell referred to that. The minister should ditch the dogma and promote the public sector. Let us get effective maintenance of our roads in winter.

Photo of Bristow Muldoon Bristow Muldoon Labour 10:36 am, 7th February 2002

As Tom McCabe said, the debate is disappointing, narrow, negative and carping. When I saw that the SNP had initiated a debate on Scotland's road network, I hoped that it would give members an opportunity to examine the SNP's vision for our transport infrastructure. The SNP often accuses the Executive of lacking vision for the infrastructure that is required to develop Scotland's economy.

Today, the SNP has betrayed its own lack of ambition and vision by its narrow and carping approach to the debate.

The SNP motion scaremongers irresponsibly about safety. The motion states that the contracts put at risk

"the safety of road users" but Kenny MacAskill's speech included only innuendos about safety and did not provide evidence to substantiate his comments.

Photo of Bristow Muldoon Bristow Muldoon Labour

If Kenny MacAskill wants to intervene, he should stand up and not try to do so from a sedentary position.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party

Did the member listen to John Farquhar Munro, who is the member for Ross, Skye and Inverness West and the former convener of roads for the Highland Council? Mr Munro made it clear that although the weather has not been the worst that there has been, we have experienced one of the worst winters—possibly the worst—for getting the roads cleared. Does the member agree with Mr Munro that there is a crisis in the Highlands and Islands, in particular?

Photo of Bristow Muldoon Bristow Muldoon Labour

I noted an equal lack of evidence from Mr Munro and Mr MacAskill.

Mr MacAskill also claimed that the movement of goods in Scotland was not being facilitated by the contracts. That, too, is completely unsupported by evidence and is contradicted by the evidence that the minister gave about the number of road closures to date.

It is essential that we monitor performance and that we check that the contracts are working. I ask the Executive in its response to the debate to make it clear that it will make available to the Parliament a detailed report setting out how the contracts have worked in their first year.

The SNP's contribution to the debate was narrow in its focus because the SNP cannot make up its mind on transport policy and roads. I have looked back through a number of the SNP's recent election manifestos. Looking through the SNP's 1997 election manifesto, I realised why Alex Salmond returned to London: it is so that he can be the songwriter for Bob the Builder, as the manifesto says "Yes We Can". Sadly, it looks as if Bob the Builder has become the SNP's economic guru. In the 1997 manifesto, the SNP's fantasy fiscal surplus with the UK grows from £1.9 billion in 1997 to £5.4 billion in 2000.

That is an easy way for the SNP to avoid saying how it would raise money to fund its spending plans. Its 1997 manifesto said that overall car and lorry usage needed to be reduced. In 1999, the position was the same and the SNP manifesto still sought to encourage a move away from car use. However, by 2001, the SNP's manifesto said:

"Our early priorities for investment ... are:

  • M74 ...
  • Aberdeen City by-pass
  • A8000 link ...
  • A75
  • M8 ...
  • Upgrading of the A9".

Those are only the early priorities. The real reason why we are not having a broader debate about the SNP's transport plans is that it does not have any. The SNP has a series of uncosted wish lists that it does not want to lay before Parliament for scrutiny. The real reason for the debate is that the SNP is running scared from exposing its policies to detailed scrutiny. That is why the people of Scotland will never trust the SNP.

Photo of George Reid George Reid Scottish National Party

My regrets to Ken Macintosh, who sat through the debate but who was beaten by the clock. [MEMBERS: "Aw!"] It happens that, when members squeeze an extra 30 or 40 seconds into their speech, they jeopardise another member's chance to contribute. Closing speeches will have to be tightly on time. George Lyon has four minutes.

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat 10:41 am, 7th February 2002

Given the controversy surrounding the reward last year of the trunk roads maintenance contracts to BEAR and Amey at the expense of the local authorities, it was entirely predictable that the performance of those companies would be put under intense political and media scrutiny to find out whether they could cope with everything that a Scottish winter would throw at them. As my colleague John Farquhar Munro pointed out, the winter has been relatively easy; it has not been the worst winter of recent times.

Come every snowfall and big freeze, BEAR and Amey were sure to be under scrutiny. Of course, Mr MacAskill has been hurtling round Scotland in hot pursuit of every snowfall and big freeze, ready with his usual media soundbite of, "Ah told yese so!" That is why he never turns up for work in the Parliament. He is too busy chasing the storms.

There is no doubt that there have been genuine problems, which members have rightly mentioned in the debate. There have been reports of roads not being gritted properly. There are claims that, even when the roads have been gritted, there was no salt or insufficient salt in the grit. When it has snowed heavily, motorists have claimed that there has been neither sight nor sound of a gritter from either of the two companies. There has also been a climate of mistrust and little co-operation between local authorities and BEAR and Amey, yet all have a vital role in ensuring that our roads are kept open.

A number of problems in my constituency have been brought to my attention. Last Monday, for instance, a major snowfall occurred in north Argyll, bringing the place to a standstill. In the town centre of Oban, the roads and pavements were treacherous. Indeed, the whole town came to a standstill for a couple of hours. There were also major problems on the trunk roads. I still await explanations from Argyll and Bute Council and BEAR of why it took so long to get the traffic moving again.

The A83 suffered its annual landslide before the new year. BEAR was responsible for dealing with that serious incident and it did so reasonably efficiently, although it was criticised because it would not work 24 hours a day to ensure that the road was opened up as speedily as possible. I ask the minister to assure me—and the people of Argyll and Bute—that proper remedial work will be carried out on the hillside above Rest and be thankful to try to stabilise the hill to prevent such landslides occurring regularly. For the past three years in a row, every time that we have had a huge dump of rain, we have had a major landslide on that road and Argyll and Bute has been cut off for up to two days at a time.

There is no doubt that genuine problems have occurred this winter. Those problems must be resolved for the future.

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat

I ask the Executive, in its assessment of the performance of BEAR and Amey, to consider not only whether the contract specifications have been met, but whether the contract delivers a proper level of service to all our constituencies. That is a crucial issue. It is not good enough to say that the companies are meeting the contract. We must assess whether the contract meets the expectations of our taxpayers and local motorists. The contracts may need adjusted. I welcome the minister's commitment to examining all aspects of the contracts and the companies' performance.

We should not kid ourselves that the trunk roads never used to be snowed up or partially blocked. I will give two instances. On 6 March 1998, it took six hours to drive the A90 from Aberdeen to Fife. Articulated lorries were stuck at the side of the road because of the huge snowfall and the amount of ice. In January last year, the exact same happened.

All members should send a strong message about the need for BEAR and Amey to get round the table with the local authorities, put their differences to one side and start co-operating closely. Both groups have a role to play in ensuring that our roads are kept open.

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat

The SNP has come to the debate with a litany of woe and disaster. The motion states that there have been "a loss of efficiencies", "increased costs", a "false economy" and "reduced standards of service", but is Kenny MacAskill proposing to tear up the contracts from hell and throw the companies out? No.

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat

All that Kenny MacAskill proposes to do is ask them to do a wee bittie better. In other words, the SNP is still fully signed up to the contracts as they stand.

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative 10:46 am, 7th February 2002

On 25 January this year, I was lucky enough to have been invited by my friend Dave Petrie, who has joined us in the gallery today, to speak to the Conservative party ladies of Oban.

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative

Oh come on, I have only four minutes.

I set off from Edinburgh by car on Friday morning with the intention of reaching Oban. I drove north to Stirling and it began to snow. I drove into Callander and it began to snow a lot more. By the time that I got to Lochearnhead, I could not get any further. I abandoned the trip and headed through Crieff to Perth to try to get home that day.

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative

Indeed, I might as well have been on a tractor, because a journey of 170 miles—the total for the day—took more than six hours. During that time, I saw some of the worst weather that I have seen in years.

I also saw snowploughs. Workers from Tayside Contracts were on the road, clearing the trunk roads on behalf of BEAR that day, but they were unable to cope. I now discover that the reason why they could not cope was that what was falling was not snow at all; it appears that it was simply manna from heaven for the SNP.

What we heard from Kenny MacAskill today was political dogma. He was exploiting the unfortunate circumstances that have occurred on two occasions so far this winter to prove a political point. That point is, to put it in plain English: public good, private bad. It is very simple. It used to be Labour party policy, but not any more; Labour members have seen common sense. Kenny MacAskill's speech was a cynical exploitation of the situation to prove a point.

A number of points have been made in the debate. I first take up the suggestion, which David Mundell made, of a national roads inspectorate. The minister touched on the fact that a monitoring system is in place, but I suggest that that system needs to be beefed up substantially.

Photo of Andrew Wilson Andrew Wilson Scottish National Party

Given that a monitoring system is in place, what would the Conservatives do differently? What does "beefed up" mean?

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative

The monitoring system needs to cover non-trunk roads as well as trunk roads, because we know all too well that the problems have not been exclusive to trunk roads.

I will progress quickly. I was interested in Nora Radcliffe's speech. She used the expression "halcyon days of yore". I was tempted to intervene at that stage and ask whether those halcyon days of yore fell during the 18 glorious years of Conservative Government.

Photo of Nora Radcliffe Nora Radcliffe Liberal Democrat

Alex Johnstone might remember that I followed up that comment by saying that we had to be honest.

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative

I will develop and back strongly the point that Margaret Ewing made.

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative

Margaret Ewing pointed out that communication with BEAR and Amey has been difficult for members of the Scottish Parliament and other representatives. I believe that the Executive simply does not wish us to communicate directly with those companies and has attempted to put a wedge between us to prevent such communication. I believe that much of the bad publicity that Amey and BEAR have had has been due to that lack of communication. Better communication could go a long way towards improving public relations with those companies.

David Davidson pointed out that we also need to think about the maintenance of our roads in conditions other than snowy ones. It is extremely important that the Executive should consider ways of making what would, to many, be relatively minor improvements to roads, as that could make a significant difference to road safety.

I refer specifically to the A96, which I believe one or two other members have mentioned, and to the benefit that could be accrued through the simple provision of deceleration lanes and other systems on that road.

The Executive must get a grip of the road contracts and ensure that they are enforced. It needs to apply a great deal more pressure on the companies to ensure that they co-operate in line with the contracts that they have signed.

Perhaps next time we could hear some real policy from the SNP.

Photo of Lewis Macdonald Lewis Macdonald Labour 10:50 am, 7th February 2002

We are 10 months into the first year of the five-year contracts. Arguments about the awarding of those contracts lie in the past; the task now is to make them work. There are two key ways of doing that: first, through ensuring—by monitoring performance and acting to secure compliance—that the operating companies deliver on their contractual obligations; secondly, through promoting dialogue and partnership among all those with responsibilities for our road networks, including central Government, local government, contractors, subcontractors and the police.

Local authorities are responsible for the maintenance of 94 per cent of Scotland's roads. There is a challenge for councils to deliver on that responsibility and no doubt some hard decisions will have to be made in setting priorities and allocating budgets. My meetings last week with local authority chairs of transport from throughout Scotland confirmed that authorities were up to meeting that challenge. I met council representatives from the north of Scotland in Perth and I agreed that my officials would work with them on issues that they have raised regarding BEAR Scotland and the maintenance of trunk and local roads. Councillor Jimmy Doig, leader of the administration in Perth and Kinross and host of that meeting, welcomed that and offered to write to other councils

"recommending that we work in conjunction with the contractors to improve the situation as it stands".

It is fair to say that Councillor Doig is not a fan of the operating companies, but he recognises that his priority is to obtain the best possible service for the people of his area. Other councils have taken a similarly pragmatic view. In the south of Scotland, Scottish Borders Council and Dumfries and Galloway Council are doing good business as subcontractors to Amey. In the north of Scotland, Tayside Contracts, Highland Council and Aberdeen City Council have taken on work as subcontractors to BEAR.

Photo of Bruce Crawford Bruce Crawford Scottish National Party

On the south of Scotland road contract area, the south-west unit is pursuing a court case in Europe against the Executive. The case has now proceeded to the second stage, which means that there is a case to answer. Will the minister tell us what that case is and what contingency plans have been put in place if the Executive loses it?

Photo of Lewis Macdonald Lewis Macdonald Labour

As I have made very clear, my priority is to ensure that the contracts work. That is our job. Local authorities have to make choices in deciding how to meet local priorities and it is for them to determine those priorities. Those councils that choose to remain involved in trunk road maintenance on a subcontracting basis, including Dumfries and Galloway, Aberdeen City and Highland, are the ones that are most likely still to be in the frame when the current contracts come to an end in four or five years' time. That also applies to companies such as Tayside Contracts.

Highland Council has decided to work with BEAR in a different way, sharing depots and supplies. That partnership has the potential to address some of the particular and well-recognised problems of looking after a network that covers many hundreds of miles of roads. In North Lanarkshire, the position is different again: Amey maintains trunk and local roads there, as they do in several other areas south of the border.

Those are different models of how to move forward, but they are all about making the contracts work. We recognise the case for close co-operation between councils and contractors. We do not agree with the Conservative proposition that the Executive should set up a system for monitoring the work of local councils on local roads, as we believe that that is a job for the councils. We will, however, continue to work with them and with the Society of Chief Officers of Transport. We will monitor performance and act to secure effective maintenance for the trunk roads, for which we are directly responsible.

We will ensure that problems that have been raised today, such as that at Rest and be thankful, are speedily addressed, and we will continue to ensure that local elected representatives are able to meet representatives of BEAR and Amey. Many MSPs have already done so.

We will ensure that the findings of the performance audit group are published in a report following the first year of the new contracts and we will not hesitate to highlight failings that are not effectively addressed by either of the operating companies. BEAR and Amey should not expect an easy ride from the monitoring process. They know that we will be vigilant and will act, that we will publish the report and ensure that public scrutiny continues, that we will issue default notices wherever a fault occurs and that we will withhold moneys—as we have done already to a substantial degree—where faults are not remedied. That is how we will ensure that standards are met. Partnership working will also help in reaching that objective. On that basis, we will continue to seek the best possible value for money and the best possible service for those who depend on our road system.

Photo of Andrew Wilson Andrew Wilson Scottish National Party 10:55 am, 7th February 2002

At the risk of flogging the dead horse of the bard of Avon, I am tempted to open with a Shakespearean reference to please Maureen Macmillan:

"Stands Scotland where it did?"

Unfortunately, as Alex Johnstone would confirm, yes it has been, for hours on end, due to the chaos in the transport infrastructure.

Photo of Andrew Wilson Andrew Wilson Scottish National Party

At 18 seconds into my speech, I would be over the moon: wire in.

Photo of Maureen Macmillan Maureen Macmillan Labour

Could the member perhaps repeat his last sentence, but this time make it grammatical?

Photo of Andrew Wilson Andrew Wilson Scottish National Party

The arrogance on the Labour benches has broken new bounds. If an English teacher from the Highlands is criticising William Shakespeare for being ungrammatical, we have little hope for humility. That was a direct quote from "Hamlet". If Maureen Macmillan does not recognise it, I suggest that some more reading would be appropriate.

Photo of Andrew Wilson Andrew Wilson Scottish National Party

Take your seat.

I believe that the Parliament has a serious job to do. We cannot allow ourselves to slip into complacency—as we are at risk of doing—in the face of the severe problems in Scottish society, be they in the health service, in the economy, which is in dire straits, or in transport.

It is the job of the SNP, as a constructive Opposition, to banish that complacency and to bring to the debate the problems across Scottish society that have been cited. If Labour members are unwilling to listen to the people of Scotland, as appears to be the case, that is one thing, but if Lewis Macdonald is unwilling to listen even to his own party's members, that is another. I am thinking of those Labour members who have chosen not to show up today, including, as ever, almost the entire front bench. The total isolation of Ms Alexander inside the Cabinet is emphasised by the failure of any of her colleagues to show up for debates such as this one.

If Labour ministers are unwilling to listen to those on their own side, they should at least listen to the people of Scotland. The total discontent with the transport system is palpable, whether that concerns the railways, the roads or any other aspect of our failure to get Scotland moving. The problem is serious and the Parliament exists to deal with such problems. It must be seen to act. If we do not act, we will all be culpable.

We are now in the 21st century and are richer today than at any point in our history, yet our transport system is in total crisis. People are in a position to ask why that is, but the Executive is not in a position to deal with the problem, because the Cabinet is fundamentally and totally split when it comes to personalities and to transport policy.

The Minister for Finance and Public Services, in the shape of Andy Kerr, cannot show up for the debate because his position is untenable—he has spent the past year criticising the contract negotiations. He is now in a position of influence over those contracts, but he cannot adopt a credible position, because he is on record as having repeatedly criticised the contracts.

Photo of Andrew Wilson Andrew Wilson Scottish National Party

If Mr Macdonald has something constructive to add to the debate, I will be delighted to give way to him.

Photo of Lewis Macdonald Lewis Macdonald Labour

In the spirit of debate, I ask Mr Wilson, who said that the Parliament should act, what he thinks we should do.

Photo of Andrew Wilson Andrew Wilson Scottish National Party

The minister has had the entire debate to hear about that. The most important thing that we should do— [Interruption.] If some members could try to bring a degree of decorum to their misbehaviour, that would be appropriate.

The first thing that the Executive should do is accept that there is a problem. Ministers have spent the past two years with their heads in the sand on a whole range of issues. They must accept that there is a problem. If they do, we can deal with it.

Let us take transport in general. The Executive has been roundly and rightly criticised for abandoning a 10-year transport plan. Ms Alexander, who guises as the transport minister in the Cabinet, did not publish a transport plan, but revealed in a lobby briefing to Labour's house journalist, Catherine MacLeod, that she would today unveil the first step of plans towards a Scotland-wide integrated transport policy. That has not happened, of course. Incidentally, a year ago that journalist published an article based on another of Ms Alexander's briefing, claiming that Scotland was entering an economic golden age, despite the fact that in the same week Scotland entered recession.

Ms Alexander would do well to speak to Ms Boyack. What has the Executive been doing for three years given that we have no integrated transport policy and that Ms Alexander, in a private briefing to someone at Westminster, announced that we would now have a first step towards one? The sad fact is that we do not have a Cabinet voice on transport at present. Until we do and until there is a serious acknowledgement of the problems in transport, we will have nothing but mediocrity in our solutions.

Photo of Andrew Wilson Andrew Wilson Scottish National Party

No thank you.

We have nothing but mediocrity in performance, focus and leadership. That is not a function of personality; it is a function of faction fighting inside the Cabinet, and the country is not well served by it.

Photo of Andrew Wilson Andrew Wilson Scottish National Party

I give way to the woman who is the subject of it all.

Photo of Wendy Alexander Wendy Alexander Labour

We await with interest the transport plan of the SNP. When will Andrew Wilson publish it?

Photo of Andrew Wilson Andrew Wilson Scottish National Party

We brought our proposals to the electorate in a manifesto. We will also bring forward the next lot of proposals. The Executive has been in power for three years with the backing of an entire civil service machine and we have yet to see a 10-year transport plan. If the Executive opens up the transport divisions of the civil service to the SNP and gives us access to its civil servants, we will give it a plan within three weeks.

We cannot hope to deal with the problems until the Executive accepts that those problems exist. Our job in opposition is to assert that fact. We have brought our solutions to the debate and to the electorate. We have plans to tackle underinvestment through a number of imaginative measures.

George Lyon said that we have to rip up the contracts. Contracts are contracts; a course in contract law might be appropriate for him. We have suggested that the Executive hold the organisations to their contracts and ensure that relationships with local authorities are improved. That is important. In due course we can replace the contracts with something that Andy Kerr might be able to accept as right-headed, rather than wrong-headed.

The most interesting part of Ms Alexander's lobby briefing to Catherine MacLeod, which has yet to see the light of day in Parliament, reveals that the minister believes that transport investment should increase faster in Scotland than in the rest of the United Kingdom. I might agree with that, but the question for the Executive is how it delivers it, given that the Barnett formula settlement is producing a relative contraction in our transport spending compared to that in the rest of the United Kingdom.

We cannot have solutions until the Executive opens its eyes and mind to the problem and to its ability to do something about it. Until we equip the Executive with proper investment functions, it cannot hope to deal with the crisis of underinvestment in local roads or the trunk road network.

On the simple day-to-day management of maintenance, which is essentially what we are debating today, why cannot we have a sensible solution? The question is not one of dogma; we are utterly pragmatic about the issue.

If Kate Maclean, a former council leader and respected Labour back bencher, cannot say that the contracts were awarded fairly and on a level playing field, how can the Labour party hope that an Opposition party would go further than its own side?

The simple fact is that transport infrastructure is in crisis and the contract is not working. We need a solution and we need the Executive to unite behind the transport minister, rather than faction fighting with the future of Scotland's transport infrastructure. We need an Executive that is united, not split. We need vision from the Parliament, rather than the utterly derisory approach to serious problems. If the Executive accepts that there is a problem, we can find a solution.