Scotland politics

Yousaf slams 'crass' claims of funding row with rail boss

Humza Yousaf
Image caption Humza Yousaf insisted funding is "absolutely in place" for the planned discount scheme

Transport Minister Humza Yousaf has said it is "crass" to suggest ScotRail boss Phil Verster left his job due to a row over a discount scheme.

Mr Verster took a new job two days after telling MSPs that funding had not yet been agreed for a planned "free week" for rail passengers.

Lib Dem Mike Rumbles said there was "obviously a disagreement" over funds.

But Mr Yousaf said it was "absolutely unfair" and "crass" to suggest Mr Verster had left over the issue.

He denied there had been a disagreement over who would pay for the £3m passenger discount scheme, insisting funding was "absolutely in place".

The transport minister also announced further details about the scheme, which will offer free travel to regular passengers at some point in the summer.

Mr Verster appeared before the rural economy committee earlier in the month, shortly before it emerged he was moving to a new job managing a rail project linking Oxford and Cambridge.

At that stage, Mr Verster told MSPs he "couldn't vouch for whether the scheme goes ahead or not", saying he would "prefer not to commit to a position yet".

Image caption ScotRail boss Phil Verster had told MSPs he could not vouch for the scheme going ahead

He said talks were ongoing about how to fund the scheme, with the Scottish government suggesting the use of £1.8m from the Service Quality Incentive Regime (Squire) railway improvement fund, which he said was controlled by Abellio ScotRail alliance and built up through fines and penalties imposed for delays and other infractions.

Mr Yousaf was also meant to appear that morning, but was unable to do so due to ill health - although he was at Holyrood to take part in a vote later that same day.

In the rearranged session, he told MSPs that Mr Verster had been "speaking from memory" and probably did not have "a photographic memory of the contract in his head".

'Absolutely unfair'

Mr Rumbles said Mr Verster had been "quite clear" about the funding position.

The Lib Dem MSP said: "He said the contractual position is that the decision about where to invest the Squire fund rests with Abellio ScotRail, not with the Scottish government. And this £1,8m he said he had 'not agreed to', and then 48 hours later he resigns.

"And now you're coming to the committee to say 'we have the funding already in place'. This is a serious point."

Mr Yousaf replied: "The insinuation is an absolutely incorrect one. It's absolutely unfair to make a suggestion that after Phil Verster's coming to committee, that somehow he resigned because of that. That's the insinuation you were making - an absolutely incorrect one, an absolutely false one to have made, and frankly a crass one.

"When it comes to spending Squire money, generally ScotRail will come with propositions but it will be a discussion with Transport Scotland and Scottish ministers, and they will come to an agreement on where to spend that money."

Image caption Mike Rumbles said there was "obviously a disagreement" between Mr Yousaf and Mr Verster

Mr Rumbles said there was "obviously a disagreement", given the opposing positions Mr Verster and Mr Yousaf had set out to members.

Mr Yousaf said: "There's not a disagreement. If you read Phil's remarks he said he was working from memory. I don't imagine Phil has a photographic memory of the contract in his head - he was working from memory."

Mr Rumbles said: "So he was obviously wrong when he said it was his decision and not yours?"

The minister said he would be happy to write to the committee with details of the contractual position.

Image copyright PA
Image caption The government announced a £3m scheme to compensate regular passengers following disruption to rail services

During the session, Mr Yousaf announced further details of the "free week" scheme, which is intended to thank passenger for their patience after a series of disruptions to services.

The plans are that:

  • Annual season ticket holders will get a free week of travel at some point in the summer, plus two off-peak return trips anywhere in Scotland
  • Monthly season ticket holders will get a free week, plus one off-peak return trip anywhere in Scotland
  • Weekly season ticket holders will get one one-day return ticket anywhere in Scotland

The government said a "further offer for leisure passengers" was "in the pipeline for later in the year".

Details of how the process will work and how people can claim their free week will be announced in due course.

Cathy Craig, commercial director of the ScotRail Alliance, said: "We are pleased to be contributing £1.8m of Squire funds for this significant benefit for passengers.

"This is a sincere token of our appreciation for their patience and understanding as we progress one of the biggest infrastructure improvements for Scotland's Railway since Victorian times.

"We are now putting the finishing touches to the process that will enable our customers to claim their free rail travel quickly and easily."

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