19 November 2009

S3M-4738 Deafblind Scotland

Scottish Parliament

Thursday 19 November 2009

[THE PRESIDING OFFICER opened the meeting at 09:15]
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Deafblind Scotland

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Trish Godman): The final item of business is a members' business debate on motion S3M-4738, in the name of Margaret Mitchell, on Deafblind Scotland. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament welcomes the work of Deafblind Scotland, based in Lenzie, which seeks to enable Scots who are both deaf and blind to receive the support and recognition that they require to be equal citizens; notes with concern the difficulties faced by deafblind people in freely accessing public transport due to the varying restrictions placed by local authorities on concessionary travel for guide communicators who provide professional communication and guiding support, and believes that cooperation among all relevant bodies will ensure that deafblind citizens can enjoy full access to public transport.

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The Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change (Stewart Stevenson):

I echo members' thanks to Margaret Mitchell for giving us the opportunity to talk about this important subject. I also thank her for explaining why red matters. She is wearing a red jacket and I see that many of our visitors in the public gallery are doing the same. I now know that red is the colour that is most easily seen by people with some residual eyesight. The next time that I am engaged in a deafblind event, I might at least wear a red tie, although Charlie Gordon should not believe that that would have any political implication.

Margaret Mitchell and Jim Tolson referred to the dramas in committee room 5 this afternoon. I was aware of the event, but I am afraid that ministerial duties did not permit me to go. However, from the accounts of those who visited the event in Parliament today, I know that it was an excellent opportunity to ensure that we are aware of the issues that affect deafblind people. At the outset, I concede that, without the debate, the issue would not have come into my in-tray in any significant way. Thus far, it probably has not.

There has been some question about numbers. I say to Ms Scanlon that the minister is a polymath, but not yet an omnimath. Therefore, I do not have the exact number of deafblind people. Margaret Mitchell said that there are just under 3,000 registered deafblind people, but she reasonably pointed out that, as it is merely recommended that local authorities should look for people in the category, there can be little doubt that the figure is an understatement. I undertake to consider further whether we can do something on the number of people who are affected, to ensure that we have an accurate, helpful and factual basis.

Cathie Craigie properly said that elastic is not part of the budgetary process. She is of course correct but, at the end of the day in politics, we make choices and we can never spend money on everything that we wish to; we have to choose.

Nigel Don made the reasonable point that, when the weather is poor, travel can be difficult for those of us with no impairments, which illustrates the difficulties for some people in every day of their travelling life. I absolutely accept that. He also made a point about £15 tickets. I point out that, when he reaches 60, he can buy a card that will get him a third off other tickets and another £2 off that £15 ticket, which will take it to £13. Interestingly enough, that is a wholly commercial offering by the rail companies—no public money is involved in the provision of those tickets. This year, the offer is extending for about three months or perhaps slightly longer. There is certainly scope for the rail companies to consider how to bring more people to the railways without involving public money.

Mary Scanlon referred to there being four schemes. My notes suggest that there are 15 schemes that support blind people on the rail network—there were previously 16—although they are variable schemes with different ranges of offerings. For example, there is a scheme in Highland, which will interest Ms Scanlon, and one in the Lothians. Strathclyde partnership for transport, which covers a significant number of local authority areas, also has a scheme.

I am somewhat aware of the mental health issues for the deafblind. Members will have heard me talk before of a period—45 years ago, I hasten to add—when I worked in a psychiatric hospital. One of our patients was a deafblind patient, but they had a range of more severe problems. I am aware of the issues in that respect.

As Angela Constance made clear, many of the rail schemes provide benefits beyond the council boundary in question. Charlie Gordon made an important point when he said that some parts of Scotland have few bus services.

Why should local authorities, rather than central Government, provide such support? The answer is partly because local travel varies in different local authority areas. Members have heard me say before that there are no trains in my constituency, so a train benefit may be of some, although not much, use to people there. It is perhaps often more important for people on the islands to have supported ferry travel. Some people on the islands commute by aircraft—they go by air from the outer isles in Orkney to Kirkwall for the shopping once a week. That points to why local delivery and local decision making can make a great deal of sense.

Charlie Gordon suggested that I convene a meeting of stakeholders. I will certainly consider that suggestion further, because I want to be seen to be taking the subject seriously. I make the general point that Deafblind Scotland recently raised the whole issue that we are discussing with the Scottish rail accessibility forum, and my officials from Transport Scotland are engaging with local authorities on consistency of approach when they consider the provision of discounted rail travel for companions for blind passengers. Some work is going on and I will certainly keep on top of it. If we can see that it will make a real difference, I will certainly consider picking up Charlie Gordon's suggestion.

Our Scotland-wide free bus travel scheme is pretty widely recognised as delivering a huge benefit, although, I have to say, at significant cost to the public purse, which presents its own challenges.

Probably three years ago—it was before the last election—I had the pleasure and privilege of being invited by the Grampian Society for the Blind to attend a blind driving day, at which I was blindfolded and invited to drive a car round a racetrack. Of course, to do that I had to have someone sitting beside me, giving precisely the sort of support that we are talking about but in relation to the very temporary handicap that was inflicted on me. That experience enabled me to see how difficult it was. Even with that assistance—with a trained person helping me—it was a very substantially challenging undertaking. So I ask members please to be aware that I have some limited insight from personal experience of the difficulties that are experienced by people who are deafblind.

The debate has given me, and the Government generally, considerable food for thought. Given that Mary Scanlon said that she would talk to health ministers directly, I will not pick up the point that the Presiding Officer allowed her to make in that regard.

I am grateful for this useful opportunity to debate an important subject.

Meeting closed at 17:43.

05 November 2009

S3M-4986 Level Crossings (Fatal Accident Inquiries)

Scottish Parliament

Thursday 5 November 2009

[THE PRESIDING OFFICER opened the meeting at 09:15]

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Level Crossings (Fatal Accident Inquiries)

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Trish Godman): The final item of business today is a members' business debate on motion S3M-4986, in the name of Willie Coffey, on conduct of inquiries into fatalities at level crossings. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament regrets the continuing loss of life at railway level crossings, most recently at Halkirk in Caithness and, in January 2009, at Gatehead in Kilmarnock and Loudoun; notes the large number of organisations involved in the investigation of rail accidents and incidents in Scotland, the Rail Accident Investigation Branch, the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, the British Transport Police, Scotland's eight police forces and the Office of Rail Regulation, and considers that, following the Review of Fatal Accident Inquiry Legislation being conducted by Lord Cullen, a modernised system of fatal accident inquiries can contribute to greater coordination and scrutiny of any inquiries, including the implementation of any recommendations, by whichever agency, following such tragic incidents.

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The Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change (Stewart Stevenson):

Like others, I thank Willie Coffey for lodging the motion that has given us the opportunity to debate the issue. I should also highlight the substantial quality of the research and engagement that he demonstrated in his speech. No one who is here tonight or who reads the debate afterwards will fail to learn something that was not in the ministerial brief or in their own research. In the way that he has dealt with the issue, Willie Coffey has set an example that others should follow.

Like others, I utterly regret that fatal accidents occur. I echo the statements of other members in expressing the sympathies of myself and my colleagues—and of Parliament generally—for the friends and families of those who lost their lives in the fatal accidents at Halkirk recently and at Gatehead in Kilmarnock and Loudon earlier this year. Of course we note that the emergency services responded to those accidents in the professional manner that one would expect.

Willie Coffey mentioned the welcome report of Lord Cullen, who has a track record of producing substantial reports on matters of concern involving safety. It is certainly of interest that such modest submissions were made to Lord Cullen's deliberations from a range of bodies that might be thought to be substantially engaged in such issues.

I am sure that my colleague Kenny MacAskill will examine carefully the issue of FAIs and that action will be taken. The paucity of information that was available to Willie Coffey when he was researching the subject suggests that there is a case for action.

Jamie Stone talked about the recent accident at Halkirk. There was also an accident there in 2002 but, as it is the subject of court action, I will say no more about it. Other court issues may yet be associated with the accidents that have occurred. Jamie Stone asked the fundamental question why there should be barriers and exemplified the problem in saying that. The £1.2 billion profit is, in a sense, merely the public's money coming back round the system. Network Rail is a not-for-profit company, therefore it is difficult to talk about profit in the context of that company, although the balance sheet and the annual reports show it.

Rob Gibson highlighted the issues in Dingwall and asked about speed cameras. I will seek to follow up that question. He also highlighted the trauma that is experienced not just by the families of those who are killed or injured at crossings, but by the people who are employed on the railway. ASLEF has, I think, suggested that there should be a slowdown, which would result in the slowing down of people's journeys. That is an important issue, as one of the key things that we want to see is the speeding up of rail journeys. Anything that slows down journeys is something that I regret.

Charlie Gordon, who is an old railwayman—perhaps I should say a railwayman of long standing—made the clear point that signs and signals should be adhered to. Of course, no one disputes that. However, as part of my modest personal research, I asked my wife, who has been driving for 35 years, whether she had ever driven across a level crossing. She said that she had not. It is not that she has avoided them; she just happens not to have done that. I wonder whether the unfamiliarity with level crossings that some drivers experience contributes to near misses or accidents. The flashing red light is unfamiliar, whereas the steady red light is something with which people are familiar. A range of issues around the psychology of how level crossings are controlled should be considered further.

Charlie Gordon made the particular point that safety should trump finance. I think that we all agree on that. In the Government, "spads" means special advisers, but signals passed at danger are part of railway folklore. I think that I am correct in saying that, following some focus on the issue, the number of signals passed at danger is on the decline, therefore I do not think that train drivers should really come within our sights as contributors to the difficulty. I do not think that there is a culture of train drivers crossing lights perniciously.

Dave Thompson talked about Bunchrew. It was particularly interesting to hear that it took some time to persuade Network Rail that the fault existed. That leads us neatly to the complex mixture of people who are involved. The procurators fiscal, British Transport Police officers, the Office of Rail Regulation and the rail accident investigation branch all have a memorandum of understanding. However, the number of communications that are required in a quadripartite memorandum of understanding is great, with 18 different communication paths between the four organisations, and the complexity increases every time that someone is added to it. There is a high degree of co-ordination, but there is clearly difficulty involved in that.

I very much welcome the review that is currently being undertaken by the rail accident investigation branch, which has a special set of skills in relation to the safety of automatic open level crossings. We will wait and see what it has to say. It will certainly be time to consider then whether there are opportunities for further reviews.

Perhaps we could consider some of the things that happen in the marine and aviation environments. There is an intense focus on safety in aviation. In my flying career, I had to make an emergency landing in a light aircraft because of an equipment failure. It is interesting that, although that was the first failure in that aircraft type around the world—many tens of thousands of that aircraft type were produced—it nonetheless led to a mandatory change in all 20,000 of those aircraft in every country of the world. That was based on a single incident in an aircraft that had not had an incident in 30 years of operation. We should commend to ourselves that approach to safety.

I thank Willie Coffey for lodging the motion. I will continue to engage with members as matters develop. The issue is not subject to party dispute or debate. Railways are the safest part of our transport network, but they are still capable of improvement. We all agree that safety on our railways is vital.

Meeting closed at 17:46.

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