Cabinet (Meetings)

First Minister's Question Time – in the Scottish Parliament at 12:00 pm on 15th April 2010.

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Photo of Tavish Scott Tavish Scott Liberal Democrat 12:00 pm, 15th April 2010

To ask the First Minister what issues will be discussed at the next meeting of the Cabinet. (S3F-2322)

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond First Minister of Scotland, Leader, Scottish National Party

The next meeting of the Cabinet will discuss issues of importance to the people of Scotland.

Photo of Tavish Scott Tavish Scott Liberal Democrat

Today in Parliament an event will highlight the Cancer Research UK relay for life, an inspirational demonstration by many Scots of their commitment to cancer relief. The Shetland representative cannot attend the event, because his Loganair flight has been cancelled as plumes of volcanic ash drift across northern Europe. What steps is the Government taking to reinforce the advice that passengers should not travel to Scotland's airports and should instead contact their airlines? What steps is the Government taking to assess the impact on transport and to help forms of transport other than air to take up the burden?

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond First Minister of Scotland, Leader, Scottish National Party

I gave a statement to Parliament in an answer a few minutes ago. We are considering particular contingencies for emergency flights. Tavish Scott will be aware that an emergency patient could not be transferred from the northern isles today. Contingencies have been made to ensure proper treatment. There is a possibility—it has been used already at least in the case of one patient—of flying by helicopter under 5,000ft, using visible means only. That option will be deployed on a case-by-case basis, for dealing with emergency cases.

Regarding transport across these islands, contingencies are being worked on with regard to how long the aircraft and airport ban is likely to stay in place. We have substantial additional capacity for north-south travel on the railways, but the longer the situation pertains, the more difficult it will be to sustain transport, not just from the islands but across these islands in terms of the volumes that presently apply. As far as Tavish Scott's representative is concerned, John Swinney will be glad to give a briefing after the second Cabinet sub-committee meeting this afternoon.

Photo of Tavish Scott Tavish Scott Liberal Democrat

I am grateful for that. I will pursue a couple of those points. Air transport is clearly the service that has been hardest hit, but there will be implications for other transport modes today and over the coming days. Has the Government contacted Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd? What steps are being taken to extend airport opening hours and to allow flights to catch up and aircraft to be repositioned once airspace is clear? Has the UK Border Agency been asked to take special steps should flights from overseas arrive in quick succession, once airports reopen? Are there any indications of disruption to mail delivery across Scotland, without Royal Mail flights? Edinburgh airport has a large mail operation. Have Network Rail and ScotRail been contacted to ensure that weekend engineering works are kept to a minimum so that people can use the trains with confidence? The challenge for Government is surely to clear the in-tray and to do all that it can to assist people at this time.

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond First Minister of Scotland, Leader, Scottish National Party

That is exactly what we have been doing today. All the issues that Tavish Scott has mentioned are being dealt with in the Cabinet sub-committee and by our officials on an on-going basis.

Picking up on one such issue, I point out that there is capacity for 20,000 additional places a day on existing north-south rail services. In comparison, roughly 57,000 people fly from Scottish airports but, of course, not all of them are going from north to south. We are looking at that additional capacity in the railways as well as examining additional capacity from extra bus services.

I will seek to update Tavish Scott on the detail of the measures that are being taken. I am very sympathetic and sensitive to the particular issues with regard to island transport in the northern isles, the Western Isles and other islands in Scotland and the fact that essential, not discretionary, services are jeopardised when airports are closed.

That said, I am sure that, like everyone else, Tavish Scott understands that safety must be paramount in evaluating when airports can be reopened. Aircraft cannot fly unless there is absolute satisfaction about the safety of the mode of transport. We hope that by this afternoon we will have a better evaluation of the likely timescales that we are working to. However, Mr Scott must accept that the issue is extremely difficult at the moment.

Lastly, I reiterate that according to the information that we have to date, which appears pretty solid, the present atmospheric conditions make it unlikely that ash will descend below 5,000ft and there is no immediate danger to ambient air quality in Scotland. The situation is being kept under strict hourly monitoring and, again, if circumstances change, I will ensure that Tavish Scott is updated.

Photo of Willie Coffey Willie Coffey Scottish National Party

Will the First Minister join me in expressing condolences to the family of the workman who died this week while working on Stewarton viaduct in my constituency? He will recall that consideration is being given to the proposal for the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Office to have powers over all fatal accidents in Scotland, including those related to rail services. Will he ask the Cabinet Secretary for Justice to raise the issue with the UK Government and request that this fatality and others related to rail services are brought within the scope of fatal accident inquiry legislation?

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond First Minister of Scotland, Leader, Scottish National Party

I—and I am sure the whole chamber—join the member in expressing those condolences. I will arrange for the Cabinet Secretary for Justice to address with Willie Coffey the detail of his specific points. There is an argument to be made here, and we would obviously want the facility of fatal accident inquiries, which provide flexibility in the examination of fatalities, to be as widely available as possible. As I said, I will get the cabinet secretary to consult the member on the detail of his proposal.

Photo of Wendy Alexander Wendy Alexander Labour

The First Minister will be aware that earlier this week BASF Ciba in my constituency announced 232 planned redundancies. I welcome the Minister for Enterprise, Energy and Tourism's recent visit to the site and am sure that the Government will want to ensure that all possible assistance is offered to those affected by the redundancies. However, the First Minister might also be aware that Scottish Enterprise is currently undertaking a study into the site's economic future. Will he ensure that that study is published when it is completed later this summer?

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond First Minister of Scotland, Leader, Scottish National Party

As the member knows, the Minister for Enterprise, Energy and Tourism visited the site on Monday. Everything is being done to maintain employment both on the site and in the company, and I will consult the minister on the nature of the study in question and seek to accede to the member's request.

As the member knows, I was able last week to make a very positive jobs announcement in Renfrewshire and I am very aware of the challenges that that community and other such communities in Scotland are facing. However, everything will be done, including mobilising the partnership action for continuing employment team that has been successful in other areas and other issues, to find continuing employment for the people affected by this announcement. As I said, I will discuss with the Minister for Enterprise, Energy and Tourism whether we can accede to the member's specific request for the report to be published.