Salmond backs under-fire transport minister

ALEX Salmond today backed his under-fire transport minister and insisted he had "full confidence" in Stewart Stevenson.

Mr Salmond said the "extraordinary weather" in Scotland had brought about a national emergency.

However, Labour repeated demands for the transport minister to go in the wake of the Government`s handling of the situation.

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Mr Stevenson yesterday apologised to Holyrood for "failing to communicate the position better and earlier" to hundreds of motorists who spent Monday night stranded in their cars in bitterly cold conditions.

Today Mr Salmond also apologised, but gave his support to Mr Stevenson.

Labour Holyrood leader Iain Gray claimed that people across the country had "lost confidence in this transport minister".

He demanded: "Does the First Minister really still have confidence in him?"

Mr Salmond told him: "I have full confidence in Stewart Stevenson as transport minister."

However, Mr Gray claimed that standing by an "incompetent" minister was a "sign of weakness".

"If I was First Minister and the transport minister proved as incompetent as this I would sack him," he said.

"What on earth do you have to do to get the sack in Alex Salmond`s apology for a Government?"

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Mr Gray, Tory leader Annabel Goldie and Lib Dem leader Tavish Scott all used First Minister`s Questions to press Mr Salmond on his Government`s handling of the severe weather conditions.

The Labour leader accused Mr Stevenson of "losing the plot and leaving hundreds of Scots stranded in their cars overnight".

Following the transport minister`s apology yesterday, Mr Gray demanded: "Will the First Minister now apologise to Scotland for his Government`s incompetent response to Monday`s severe weather?"

Mr Salmond said: "I believe the Scottish Government should have done much better in terms of the information flow last Monday to people, our citizens, who were caught in the extraordinary conditions.

"The transport minister apologised for that. I follow his apology. We should have done much better in the information flow to help our fellow citizens who were in a position of extremity, and improvements in that will be made by this Government."

Mr Gray argued: "This is not just a problem about information flow - it is about the minister`s incompetent response."

He asked Mr Salmond: "Why was nothing done to stop more traffic joining motorways already blocked?

"Why were motorways not closed sooner to get them clear? Why at 4.30pm was the minister saying roads were clearing when they were not?

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"Why was there no emergency meeting until 9pm when some people had already been stuck for 12 hours?

"Why did it take until 11.15pm at night to announce a helpline number, do it on television and then get the number wrong anyway.

"And above all why is Mr Stevenson still the transport minister."

The First Minister told Mr Gray to get his facts right, stating that Monday evening`s meeting of the cabinet contingency committee was the second that took place that day.

"If Iain Gray is going to complain about people getting their facts wrong then he should at least pay some attention to his own questions," Mr Salmond said.

"He asked about the closure of motorways. Even Iain Gray should know that these are police operational matters. These are the matters for Transport Scotland and our police authorities, and incidentally under the most trying circumstances they have done an extraordinary job."

He insisted Monday`s weather had been an "extraordinary event" and said while thousands of people had been "affected very seriously indeed" there were also thousands of people who "did their absolute best to help their fellow citizens".

He urged rival politicians: "Among this political argy bargy, let`s try and unite in thanking those that helped their fellow citizens."

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Tory leader Annabel Goldie continued the theme by branding Mr Stevenson incompetent and criticising the Government's handling of the situation.

She highlighted advice on the Scottish Government website setting out how to cope in winter weather - including "being more aware of the weather forecast".

And she complained that a review on last year's winter problems could not be found.

Mr Salmond told her that actions included better preparation for salt and grit stocks and repeated Met office warnings over the past few days.

Ms Goldie said: "It is absolutely unbelievable that initiatives mooted by the Scottish Government because of the atrocious conditions of last winter cannot even be delivered on by the Scottish Government to deal with the challenges of this winter.

"Yesterday the Scottish Government spent the day pretending there had been no severe weather warnings issued on Sunday.

"Last night we caught them red-handed. They also spent yesterday claiming, as the First Minister said, that the actual fresh snow fall was twice or three-times the prediction.

"The Met office warned of up to 10cm of fresh snow across the central belt. My office has spoken to them over night and they have confirmed that the actual fresh snow fall on Monday was between five and 10cm across the central belt.

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The SNP leader hit back, continuing to trade statistics published by the Met office across the chamber.

Mr Salmond said snow fell in large amounts on higher ground - not across the central belt. And he said there was 12cm of snow in Livingston and 20cm in Lanarkshire.

He added: "Unfortunately for us and unfortunately for Scotland, key aspects of our motorway network don't just occur in Glasgow and Edinburgh but go through West Lothian and Lanarkshire.

"These were exceptional, extraordinary conditions which the Met office itself at 10.30 last Monday said were greater than was forecast."