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Chamber and committees

Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee

Meeting date: Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Agenda: Decision on Taking Business in Private, Seat Belts on School Transport (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Ofcom, Petition, Subordinate Legislation


Contents


Seat Belts on School Transport (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

The Convener

Item 2 is consideration of the Seat Belts on School Transport (Scotland) Bill at stage 1. I welcome to the meeting Gillian Martin, who is the member in charge of the bill; and, from the Scottish Government, Brendan Rooney, road safety policy officer, and Annie Cairns, legal adviser.

We will go straight to questions, the first of which will be from the deputy convener, Gail Ross.

Gail Ross (Caithness, Sutherland and Ross) (SNP)

Good morning, panel. My first question is for Gillian Martin. Why do you think that we need this bill, and why do you think that legislation will be more effective than non-statutory measures in improving school bus safety?

Gillian Martin (Aberdeenshire East) (SNP)

As the committee will know, 18 local authorities have already taken these measures voluntarily in the contracts for their dedicated school transport and are ensuring that that transport has seat belts. I am convinced that those authorities have done the right thing, and I would like all local authorities to take the same measures.

I am a parent of children who go to school in Aberdeenshire, where the council is one of those that have taken the voluntary approach. Most of the parents to whom I have spoken on this matter assume that the same thing is happening across Scotland; of course, that is not the case. Indeed, half the local authorities do not have those measures in place. I want all parents to have the same peace of mind that I have when I send my children to school in knowing that seat belts are available on dedicated school transport.

In short, I am taking this forward as a member’s bill because I feel that all local authorities should be doing this to give parents across Scotland peace of mind. I want to ensure that the provision and the peace of mind that I enjoy as a parent in Aberdeenshire are available across the whole of Scotland.

Can you summarise the consultation that was carried out? How did you address any concerns that were raised?

Gillian Martin

A working group has been in place since 2014, when it was first mooted that powers to put in place such measures might be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. Last year, a public consultation was carried out from March to June. There has been broad support from all quarters for the measures in the bill, but I will pick up on one particular issue that came out of the working group, which included representatives from local authorities, the bus industry and parent groups. The issue was that bus companies may have to adapt their fleet, retrofit or perhaps provide newer models of buses. We therefore made adjustments to the thrust of the bill around the lead-in time for councils to have in place a requirement on seat belts in their contracts with bus companies. You will notice that the implementation date for primary school buses is earlier than that for secondary schools. One thing that came out of the consultation was that more of the buses that are used for secondary schools currently do not have seat belts on them, so more of a lead-in time is required to allow companies that bid for the contracts to comply.

You will be asked further questions on that point about dates.

As a follow-up, what has the feedback been from bus companies and local authorities? Do they feel that their concerns have been addressed?

Gillian Martin

Yes, very much so. In fact, the Confederation of Passenger Transport, which appeared before the committee a couple of weeks ago, has been hugely helpful and supportive and is fully behind the bill. It has been a great source of advice to me and to the working group in general.

Some of the respondents to the consultation questioned the safety benefits of the measure, given the low level of incidents and injuries. Are you confident that your proposals are appropriate and proportionate?

Gillian Martin

Yes, I am, and I will tell you why. You are correct that there has been a low level of injuries involving children on buses—I think that, in the past five years, there have been around 42. However, we should bear in mind that half of the local authorities already have seat belts in place. It is possible that the fact that half of dedicated school buses have seat belts has kept the figure quite low. Seat belts are proven to reduce injuries when there is a collision of any type.

It is a relatively low amount of injuries, but a bill should not necessarily be reactive; I would like it to be proactive. I think that 42 injuries is 42 too many, and I would not like to be introducing a bill because we have had a terrible accident on a school bus that had no seat belts, which meant that the injuries were more severe. The bill is a preventative measure. To go back to my earlier answer, it will give peace of mind to many parents as they put their children on school buses. It is an appropriate measure and one that we should take.

At least one council is considering putting in place an upper age limit for buses and coaches, having already put one in place for minibuses. Did you consider that in the course of progressing the bill?

Gillian Martin

We did not want to dictate to local authorities what they should do, other than that they should have seat belts on school buses. There needs to be flexibility in how they do that. I know that the council that you mentioned—I think that it is North Ayrshire Council—has stipulated that it wants only buses that are under a certain age to be used. I applaud that measure, but it might not be suitable for other local authorities. Similarly, other local authorities might have looked at measures such as bus monitors or having closed-circuit television on buses. Councils should be allowed the flexibility to decide what measures they want to put in place in their contracts that may improve safety on buses. We do not want to dictate what those should be. As a member for the Highlands and Islands, you will appreciate that some areas are very different from others and that local authorities should have the flexibility to decide how they want to make the journey to school safer.

Thank you.

Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

The bill is about fitting seat belts in buses, but there is nothing in the bill that enforces the wearing of the seat belts. What measures need to be in place to make sure that young people wear their seat belts?

Gillian Martin

I want to mention a couple of things around that. The bill is in keeping with the powers that are devolved to the Scottish Parliament. You are absolutely correct that, in a contract between a local authority and a bus company, there will be a stipulation that a bus that is to be used for dedicated school transport should have seat belts fitted. The powers around road safety in general and the wearing of seat belts in particular are still reserved to Westminster. There is a European Union directive concerning the wearing of seat belts on buses by three to 14-year-olds, but that has not yet been implemented by the United Kingdom Government. The Scottish Government has been discussing it with the UK Government—I know that the committee has had sight of Humza Yousaf’s recent correspondence with the UK Government about the situation—but there do not seem to be any imminent plans to implement that directive.

As it stands, the bill cannot be about the wearing of seat belts. However, the Scottish Government will provide guidance to local authorities on how they can ensure, as far as is possible, that young people wear their seat belts on the buses that local authorities run. There are two precedents. The devolved Assembly in Wales has already put in place the requirement for seat belts in school buses, and we can look at the guidance that was provided to local authorities in Wales. Also, there are the 18 local authorities in Scotland that have already voluntarily insisted on having seat belts on their school buses, and the guidance that they have given to their schools and pupils—there are some educational programmes around that.

We can look at best practice from Wales and from the local authorities that already have seat belts, and the Scottish Government will provide guidance to local authorities on a range of measures that they could choose to put in place to ensure the wearing of seat belts. However, guidance is what it will be—it will not be statutory. It cannot be in the bill because we do not have the power to do that in the Scottish Parliament.

Rhoda Grant

I have two questions that follow on from that. When someone sends their children to school, the school takes over the parental responsibility for the children. The committee wrote to the minister about where that kicked in, and the response came back that that would have to be tried in court, for example if a parent wanted to sue a council that had not insisted that their child wore a seat belt and the child was injured in an accident. It seems inadequate to me that parents would have to take the matter to court. Could the bill have a direction to councils that they would need to take steps to ensure that young people wear seat belts through the Scottish Government’s powers to direct councils, rather than under the road safety legislation?

Gillian Martin

There is an absolute duty of care for local authorities to ensure the safety of children when they are in their schools, and when they are on the route to school. There is a duty of care covering an awful lot of safety aspects of a child’s experience at school—not just the wearing of seat belts. That duty of care comes through the Education (Scotland) Act 1980 and through the Schools (Safety and Supervision of Pupils) (Scotland) Regulations 1990. We think that there is already enough in those regulations for them to extend to the wearing of seat belts.

Remember that there is a stipulation in the contract that buses should have seat belts. There are two things. There is guidance on the wearing of the seat belts and an educational programme to be undertaken in schools that are not already doing it. There are also duty-of-care expectations on local authorities to address issues where a child might do anything unsafe while they are at school, and the same expectations would apply to this.

10:15  

It is not appropriate to be so heavy handed as to have a ministerial intervention because there are procedures already in place. Councils have committees of elected representatives who scrutinise what goes on in our schools. We feel that that is enough. I come back to the fact that the 18 local authorities that already have the scheme have not had any situations where there needed to be any kind of intervention.

I assume that there has been no intervention because accidents involving school buses are relatively rare—that does not mean that there is 100 per cent compliance by pupils on those buses.

Gillian Martin

It comes down to the reserved and devolved powers. There is no law that says that three to 14-year-olds have to wear the seat belts. However, in the local authorities that have already voluntarily stipulated that the buses must have seat belts, we have found that there is absolute buy-in from school pupils, parents, teachers and schools.

I point to the example of Aberdeenshire Council—I know it the best because it looks after my children—where the programme has been very successful, with buy-in from many different parties. Children learn the behaviour in primary school and when they get on to a school bus they put a belt on automatically. That early education and getting into the habit of doing it means that they continue to do so when they go to secondary school.

There has been very good compliance across the 18 local authorities that have already introduced the measure—there have been no problems at all.

Have studies been completed to see what the compliance is, or is that evidence anecdotal?

Gillian Martin

Local authorities and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities have been involved in the working group. I know that some local authorities have also made submissions to the committee. All the evidence coming from the working group has led us to the conclusion that there has been very strong buy-in in the councils that have taken it up voluntarily.

That leads us on neatly to questions from Fulton MacGregor.

Fulton MacGregor (Coatbridge and Chryston) (SNP)

Thank you for attending the committee today, Ms Martin. You have talked quite a lot about the local authorities that have already taken up these measures on a voluntary basis, but can you expand on that? Are you able to say more about how it is working in those authorities, particularly in Aberdeenshire Council and North Lanarkshire Council in my constituency, in comparison with those councils that are not doing it?

Gillian Martin

I cannot talk about every local authority and what it is doing, but—if you forgive me—I can talk about what was done in Aberdeenshire to get schoolchildren to wear the seat belts when the council made the decision to introduce them. There was a programme of education: the local authority gave guidance to the schools and the schools had a programme to educate school pupils about what was expected of them when they were on school transport.

I can pick up on two schools that I know well for family reasons. Two of the academies in Aberdeenshire involved the house captains, year heads and senior pupils in taking on the responsibility for helping to implement the programme among the younger children, who might forget that they had to wear the seat belt. There was a sense of peer management as well as teacher involvement. That was very effective because it allowed the house captains to exercise a bit of responsibility and to keep an eye on the younger children and remind them to put their seat belts on. Other local authorities have taken other measures, but that approach worked very well in Aberdeenshire.

I know that the committee had someone from the Scottish Youth Parliament talking about how seat belts are uncool and that we must ensure that there is consultation with young people as we go forward. I believe that that is key.

I was recently at a primary school in Penicuik, launching the bill, and it was apparent that the kids had complete buy-in. They were looking after each other, making sure that they each put their seat belts on. When I was talking to them about the importance of wearing a seat belt, they were trotting out all the health and safety information that I could ever need. They could be sitting before the committee telling you why it is important to wear a seat belt. That education and peer mentoring works very well. It works better than some other measures, which are more about having adults on the bus ensuring that kids wear their seat belts.

Fulton MacGregor

You have already covered a lot of ground about what local authorities can do and some of the ideas that have been expressed. You have already spoken about bus monitors. Could you expand a wee bit on how that might work in different local authority areas, and on the idea of a parent-pupil charter, which links in to what you have just been saying? I appreciate that you have touched on these subjects already.

Gillian Martin

Thank you for reminding me about the parent-pupil charter, which is something that Aberdeenshire Council has also done. A lot of schools have a parent-pupil charter on a lot of behavioural issues in general. Having one on the wearing of seat belts is a way to promote it. That also gets parent buy-in.

On monitors, I guess that it comes down to the fact that the member’s bill is about having seat belts on school buses. We do not want to dictate to local authorities how they monitor or implement the wearing of seat belts. As you appreciate, the areas of Scotland are very different. Pupils in the Highlands and Islands, for example, might have an extremely long school bus journey. Having a monitor on from half past 5 or 6 o’clock in the morning or whatever means a very long journey for them to get to the furthest away point to start picking up all the children on the way to the school. That might not be appropriate for them. Other local authorities, on the other hand, might think that having a bus monitor is appropriate for their situation.

I do not think that it is a good idea to dictate across the board what local authorities should do. They should make decisions based on their situation, I imagine in consultation with pupils, parents and teachers, who will have their own ideas on how things can best be done.

That might be the perfect lead on to Peter Chapman’s question.

Peter Chapman (North East Scotland) (Con)

It is great to have seat belts fitted, but the issue is getting kids to wear them. We have heard evidence from witnesses that shows—unlike your evidence, Ms Martin—that, although seat belts may be fitted, they are not regularly worn. Who might be liable if a pupil under the age of 14 chose not to wear a seat belt and they were subsequently injured in an accident?

Gillian Martin

I might defer to Anne Cairns on some of the legal points. It is not against the law not to wear seat belts on buses. It is not a legal obligation to do so—such laws do not exist as regards three to 14-year-olds wearing them.

There are certain stipulations, however. For example, a three to 14-year-old cannot be at the same level as the bus driver and not wear a seat belt. They must sit behind the driver. You will also have heard evidence from the Confederation of Passenger Transport about its feelings on the wearing of seat belts and how that is managed by bus drivers. However, there will not be any liability on the bus driver.

Anne Cairns may be able to explain the legal detail around that.

The Convener

Before you come in, Anne, could I ask you to clarify something? There is a difference between the requirement for an under-14-year-old and the requirement for an over-14-year-old. Perhaps you could highlight that in your answer.

Anne Cairns (Scottish Government)

Sure. Over-14-year-olds should wear seat belts if they are fitted. It depends on the vehicle but, generally speaking, in a large bus or coach where seat belts are fitted, an over-14-year-old should wear theirs. There is no requirement for three to 14-year-olds in large buses and coaches to wear seat belts.

To answer the question about liability, broadly speaking, as Ms Martin touched on earlier, the Education (Scotland) Act 1980 provides that, when organising school transport, local authorities must have regard for the safety of children. Ms Martin also mentioned the Schools (Safety and Supervision of Pupils) (Scotland) Regulations 1990. They have a broader application than just to school transport, but, generally speaking, they require that local authorities have regard for the safety of children.

Beyond that, all schools, including independent, grant-aided and local authority schools, are subject to a common-law duty of care. Whether a school or a local authority would be liable would depend very much on the individual circumstances of the case and the accident—for example, on whether dangerous driving was involved. I can point members to the broad legal framework, but the specifics would depend on the individual circumstances.

Peter Chapman

We know that there is concern about kids who are aged under 12 having to use adult seat belts. We are told that, sometimes, that is not appropriate. How are we going to square that circle? We might have no idea what kinds of seat belts will be fitted on buses, yet we will have kids aged from five upwards travelling on them. The buses might have in place seat belts that are not appropriate for a child of that age.

Gillian Martin

I am sure that the committee will have heard the CPT’s answers on that. The issue is about primary school-age children, and most primary schools use minibuses. If minibuses have been contracted in by a local authority that is used to transporting primary-age kids, they will have adjustments on seat belts that are appropriate for the ages of the children who will wear them. Brendan Rooney might have some other information on that.

Brendan Rooney (Scottish Government)

The working group has been looking at such issues since 2014, so we have had a lot of dialogue on them with councils who have implemented such measures. There are 18 councils that have done so.

For smaller children, measures such as booster seats and adjustable straps are used. There is a range of mechanisms on the market that will fit smaller children. In practice, a local authority will tell a bus operator what provision it needs, as it signs the contract. If the provision is for smaller children, it will say that the measures need to be appropriate for them, just as it would for children with additional support needs who might be in wheelchairs or have mobility issues and need specialist provision. That already happens in practice. Councils tell companies what they need on buses, so it is not a case of arbitrarily putting the same seat belt on every bus. The bill does not say what particular belt should go in, but flexibility exists and has been used to good effect by councils who already do that.

You are saying that, in many cases, if booster seats are required, they are already on the bus.

Brendan Rooney

They are. Booster seats are one option. Also available are adjustable straps that go up and down, which can be adjusted to the height of the child. Councils are well used to putting in place provision for children of different sizes and with different needs.

Gillian Martin

It comes down to what I have talked about a couple of times previously—flexibility and not dictating to local authorities the stipulations that should be put in place. We say that dedicated school transport should have seat belts on it; that is the narrowness of the bill.

During the consultation period and in the working group, we were conscious of the fact that local councils were coming in. COSLA is involved and wants to be able to give councils the flexibility to make their own stipulations around matters such as the types of seat belt, whether transport has CCTV or monitors and how they implement the rules. Some councils might want to stipulate in their contracts for minibuses the types of measure that they want operators to take. There is nothing preventing their doing so. The bill is solely about having seat belts on dedicated school transport—that is the narrowness of it.

Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP)

I suspect that Anne Cairns might have to answer this question. Do the current construction and use regulations specify the type of seat belt that is required? I ask that because most buses on which I find myself travelling are fitted with lap belts rather than diagonal ones. I wonder what the legal position might be on what is required. For younger children, the difficulty is mainly with the diagonal belt rather than with the lap belt.

10:30  

Gillian Martin

One of the first questions was about some of the things that came out in the consultation and through the working group. It was decided early on that we would not—we could not—stipulate what types of seat belt should be available, for many reasons. You have alluded to one reason for that. Anne, would you like to give some detail on that?

Can you keep the technicalities as brief as possible?

I would be happy to.

We understand the point about the lap belt and the three-point linkage.

Anne Cairns

If you would like specific details, we can write to you in relation to that particular question.

The answer to the question is in the construction and use regulations for road vehicles. The regulations are technical and detailed, and they set out a table of various vehicles including cars and all the different buses and coaches. There are specific rules within the regulations about the kinds of seat belt that can be fitted.

If you are happy to send us information on the technicalities in a letter, that would be helpful.

The type of belt that should be fitted is also still a reserved issue.

Thank you, Gillian. It would be useful if the committee could have a note on that as soon as possible, because we will draft our report shortly.

Ms Martin, have you discussed how the Scottish Government intends to promote seat belt use among pupils prior to the enactment of your bill?

Gillian Martin

There are two parts to that. First, there is how I am personally going to promote the wearing of seat belts, as I am the member in charge of the bill. Secondly, there is what the Scottish Government will do prior to implementation.

In introducing my member’s bill, I am trying to get as much press and buy-in as possible. You must remember that the idea has been in the ether since about 2014, so there has already been quite a lot of publicity around it. If my bill is successful, we will have until 2018 to get people used to the idea that the legislation will be in place.

We do not want too much publicity about the bill too early, because people would be fed up with it by the time that it came to implementation. There will be guidance from the Scottish Government, and the working group will be in existence throughout the entire process as well.

Richard Lyle

You have partly answered my next question. The committee has been told that pupils need a greater awareness of the safety benefits of wearing a seat belt and should be involved in the development of education programmes and guidance. Do you consider that to be important?

Gillian Martin

I think that it is highly important. One of the reasons why I wanted to introduce the bill was to increase awareness among young people of the importance of wearing a seat belt. If young people are not involved in the process of education about that, the buy-in will not happen. I have alluded to the children in Penicuik and Aberdeenshire. For them, it is almost second nature to wear a seat belt when they go on a school bus, because those schools and local authorities have involved young people in the whole process.

Richard Lyle

In my local area, North Lanarkshire, most buses that are used for secondary schools are double-decker buses, and some of them are quite old. Some councils have found that removing double-decker buses has improved behaviour on buses. Will you stipulate in the bill the types of bus that are to be used for dedicated school transport? You have said that you do not want to tell councils what to do, but will you put in a condition to remove double-decker buses?

Gillian Martin

No, we will not. As you have just said, we want to give local authorities the flexibility to decide what school transport is right for them. We are simply stipulating that all buses that are dedicated school transport should have seat belts on them, whether they are double-deckers or otherwise.

Thank you.

Mike Rumbles (North East Scotland) (LD)

My question might be better directed at Brendan Rooney, from the Scottish Government. We keep hearing that 18 councils are making seat belt provision a requirement in their contracts, on a voluntary basis, but a witness from Strathclyde Partnership for Transport told us last month that far more councils are doing that. To date, how many of the 32 councils do it on a voluntary basis, through their contracts?

Brendan Rooney

The figures that are before the committee were arrived at through local government, in an exercise in collaboration with the Association of Transport Co-ordinating Officers. A representative of ATCO appeared before you, along with SPT, at the meeting that you are talking about.

Eighteen local authorities are doing it on all contracts and a further six do it on some contracts—for example, for primary school provision, for additional support needs provision or on certain routes. We conducted the exercise in late 2016 and early 2017 and got the returns from local government—you will appreciate that we are at the mercy of the information that we receive from local government. Those are the latest figures.

SPT contracts for a number of local authorities. It is in a transition phase of moving from nought to contracting, so I am not sure whether there is a slightly shifting picture in that regard.

Mike Rumbles

That brings me to the nub of the question. By the time the bill gets through the Parliament—if there are councils that are not doing what we want them to do, the bill should get through the Parliament—will all the councils be doing it anyway?

Brendan Rooney

For a number of years, the powers have been devolved via a section 30 order. The transition has been taking place since 2014, when ministers made a public announcement that measures would be taken forward at some point in the future, and the Government has been working with local government to move forward on that basis. It might well be that councils will be doing it—I suppose that it is a good thing that they are getting ready to meet the new legislative requirement. However, it is not the case that a new approach will come in in 2018; a transition period has been going on for a number of years.

Do you expect councils to have completed the work by the time the bill finishes going through the Parliament?

Brendan Rooney

I cannot say, as it is hypothetical. A number of councils are moving towards that.

Gillian Martin

Brendan Rooney is absolutely right in saying that none of this is coming out of the blue for the bus industry or for local authorities. The possibility of doing what we are doing was mooted in 2014, when the powers were in place, and it has been prudent of some local authorities to start to implement the approach. Will it all be done by the time the bill is passed? It is difficult to say, but I think that it is highly unlikely.

It is partly supposition. One would hope that the bill will be overtaken by events, but it is a catch-all.

Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

It has been fascinating to hear evidence on the issue over the past few weeks. I am not a parent, so I do not send kids off to school on a bus in the morning, but, if I did, I would want people to ensure that they got to school and home again safely. I commend Gillian Martin for what she is trying to achieve.

I have questions to do with enforcement. There are two parts to enforcement. If the bill is passed and the deadline for implementation has been reached, what measures will the Scottish Government take to ensure that councils comply with the legislation? How will the situation be monitored to ensure that contracts comply in the future? What will happen if bus companies do not comply with the terms of the contracts? Will there be any recourse to the Scottish Government in financial or other terms?

The other side of enforcement is about enforcing the wearing of seat belts, which I appreciate is perhaps outside the remit of the bill and the powers of this Parliament. The bill does not contain enforcement provisions of great note. How might it be enforced?

Gillian Martin

On the issue of non-compliance, in the case of a contract between a local authority and a bus company that says that the buses must have seat belts, it will all depend on how the local authority monitors the situation. For example, some authorities will carry out inspections. The point is that, in all such contracts, local authorities will have procedures in place to ensure that their stipulations are being adhered to, and these contracts will be no different. If a bus company were picking up schoolchildren in dedicated school transport that had no seat belts, that would be a breach of contract and the council would be able to take action, as it would with any such breach. Of course, a council itself is scrutinised by its councillors and, if it is found to be deliberately not contracting buses with seat belts, it will be answerable for that to its own committees.

I suppose that those are two layers of dealing with non-compliance. There is, of course, a third layer: if a council is found to be breaking any law—as this would be—that kind of non-compliance issue can be taken to the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman. I can bring in Anne Cairns to give you more detail on that.

I suspect that you may have further questions about the wearing of seat belts. As you have said, that is a reserved matter and we have no power over it, although I would suggest that it comes down to educating children on the importance of wearing seat belts. It is always better to get buy-in and to ensure that people do these things from habit rather than from fear of breaking the law. The voluntary approach has been largely successful; indeed, it has been very successful in Wales. The Welsh have the power to seek legal recourse on issues of non-compliance with regard to councils ensuring that buses have seat belts, but, although that power has been in place for a number of years, it has not been used once. I hope that the situation will be no different in Scotland.

If you want any more legal detail, I can ask Anne Cairns to respond.

Jamie Greene

You mentioned the three layers of recourse, the third of which was the ombudsman. Would the Scottish Government itself have any recourse through, say, being able to withhold funding from any council that was found to be non-compliant or that was not applying the law?

I ask Anne Cairns to give you more detail on that.

Anne Cairns

Are you asking whether the local authority’s funding would be affected?

I am asking whether that might be one way of seeking recourse. There might well be others.

Anne Cairns

I do not think that that sort of thing could be done.

As a follow-up, the deputy convener would like to ask a question about the practicalities of seat belts.

Does the bill contain any proposals on the servicing of seat belts to ensure that they work at all times?

Anything to do with the safety of a bus—or, indeed, transport in general—comes under—[Interruption.] I am trying to remember the abbreviation. Is it DVL or something?

Brendan Rooney

As with cars or, indeed, any vehicle, buses have annual roadworthiness checks, and the UK-wide legal framework in that respect is overseen by the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency. The bill will not affect that, because the powers are reserved, but any vehicle on a road is regulated by those roadworthiness checks. That means that buses in operation will have to be checked annually, and internal features such as seat belts will be looked at as part of what you might call a bus MOT.

Thanks.

The Convener

I believe that the next question is mine. From a lot of the evidence that we have heard, it seems that parents actually believe that children wear seat belts on school buses, and some have been surprised that the bill has had to be introduced. What has surprised me—and, indeed, some parents—is that, although the bill seeks to regulate buses that take children to and from school, it does not do the same for those that take children on trips in the course of the day. Why have those buses been excluded? That seems like a serious omission, and people do not seem to understand it.

10:45  

Gillian Martin

I know that that issue has been raised with the committee. I guess that that shows the power of committees, and I want to thank the committee for highlighting an issue that I should say we have looked at.

Given that the provision of seat belts on buses that are used for school trips featured in the committee’s evidence taking, we are looking into whether we can draft an amendment around that. There are already strict regulations around school trips; health and safety assessments have to be carried out for the trips, which include the issue of seat belts on the buses that are used.

The bill does not cover that, because we wanted it to cover contracts between local authorities and the bus operators that provide buses for transport to and from school. The difference with school trips is that they are organised by individual schools. We are reaching out to the Association of Headteachers and Deputes in Scotland, teachers unions and schools to gauge whether they would like school trips to be included in the bill, because that would affect the workload of individual schools. We are also engaging with Education Scotland on that. The issue might be added into the inspection process so that when the inspectors look at health and safety in schools, they ask whether there are seat belts on the buses used for school trips.

I thank the committee for raising the issue. We are looking into it and we are engaging with a lot of interested parties on it. We will feed back to the committee what we hear from them. We might draft an amendment to cover school trips.

The Convener

Another anomaly is that bus services that are used to transport not only children but fare-paying passengers who are not going to school seem to be exempt, too. I cannot speak for the committee, but it seems to me that that is another serious omission that parents would expect the bill to cover. Will you address that?

Gillian Martin

It relates to the flexibility of local authorities and what they deem the most appropriate transport arrangements for them, given their locality. A lot of urban local authorities will use service buses and will have an arrangement with the companies that run them that schoolchildren can access them to go to school.

For a number of reasons, we do not want to tell local authorities that they cannot use service buses and that they must have dedicated school transport. The first reason is congestion. In urban areas there are a lot of buses already on the roads. Adding dedicated school transport into the mix would increase congestion and have an environmental impact.

There is nothing to stop local authorities going down the dedicated school transport route, but we do not want to tell them that they cannot use service buses, because that arrangement might suit them.

Brendan Rooney

The definition of “dedicated school transport service” in the bill was arrived at after consultation with those who are involved in delivery on the ground. It is about the general national picture and what is workable and straightforward for councils to interpret. There are nuanced arrangements, particularly in more remote areas where there might be an adult or two getting on a school bus. Stakeholders’ strong view was that the definition should be workable and easy to interpret. It was framed to cover vehicles that are used for the sole purpose of taking children to and from school, which is the working definition that a lot of people in councils and the bus industry are used to. Some nuanced arrangements can be tricky, but the bill has been framed to capture the general picture across the country.

Including the other buses would have a large financial implication.

The Convener

Having heard what you have said, I accept the position on shared transport, but as a parent—albeit that my children are now beyond school age—I would find it surprising if children were asked to go on a bus without seat belts as part of a school trip. I ask you to look at that again, as you suggested that you would.

Some local authorities might take that decision.

Jamie Greene

On the technicalities of what has been said, I appreciate that the purpose of the bill is to manage the relationship between local authorities and the bus providers that they contract with—that makes sense—and that school trips during the day normally involve separate individual contracts between a school and a bus operator. The two are very separate contractual arrangements.

The feedback from our evidence sessions was that, when children are picked up from school, the parents’ expectation is that the duty of care is with the school, not with the local authority until they reach the school gates and with the school then taking over. There is a lack of understanding of where the duty of care ends and starts. The feedback was that parents want their kids to leave the house safely and arrive safely, regardless of whether they are commuting to the school or going off on a separate trip. Also, trips tend to be staffed and monitored; parents or teachers are more likely to be on the bus during a trip, and less likely to be there on a commute.

Is there any explanation on the duty of care issue? I am not sure where it starts and stops.

Gillian Martin

You are right about the lack of understanding of where the duty of care lies. The local authority takes that very seriously. We have mentioned that the Schools (Safety and Supervision of Pupils) (Scotland) Regulations 1990 are very stringent and put a duty of care on the local authority that contracts the dedicated school transport to get children to and from school. That adds an extra layer of safety to the provision.

There is a difference between that provision and school trips, which are organised by the schools. As you rightly point out, teachers, and some parents, tend to be on the buses for school trips.

I appreciate what you say about service buses. In consultation with working group partners, it came out that local authorities would find it quite restrictive not to use service buses, particularly in the financial climate. I return to the congestion issue; we do not want to add more buses to urban streets.

Peter Chapman

You mentioned that the proposal is for the bill to come into effect for primary school kids from the beginning of school year 2018 and for secondary school kids from 2021. How did you arrive at those dates? Are you satisfied that they are the most reasonably practical dates to kick this off?

Gillian Martin

The dates were arrived at in consultation between the working group and COSLA, local authorities and bus companies. Richard Lyle alluded to one of the reasons why there is a difference between the two dates. In our assessment of the scale of the task of providing seat belts on buses, possibly by retrofitting, there is more of a task for secondary school buses; for example, more double deckers are used for secondary schools. Primary schools tend to use more minibuses, which already have seat belts.

At the start of the session, I mentioned the time that will be needed for bus companies and local authorities to get up to speed, so that the task is not onerous. That is why there are two implementation dates.

The lead-in period seems fairly long—2021 is four years away. However, if that is the general consensus, I accept it.

Gillian Martin

It is a case of making implementation workable. Nothing says that it cannot be incremental; it will not all happen on those dates—they are just the dates by which the provision has to be made, without putting too much unreasonable pressure on local authorities and bus companies to comply.

That leads neatly to the issue that John Mason will raise.

John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)

If you have looked at any of the previous evidence, you will have seen that I have been asking about the money side. The bill is somewhat unusual: most committees that I have been on previously have argued that not nearly enough money has been proposed for such bills by the Government, or by the member who has introduced the bill, and that there should be more. With this bill, it is the other way round, in a sense, because £8.9 million seems quite a high figure, given that we are told that only 110 buses are operating currently without seat belts and that, from what we have heard, that number appears to be falling. Dividing the £8.9 million by 110 gives a figure of £81,000 per bus. Perhaps you can give us a few comments on the financial side.

Gillian Martin

Your approach does not surprise me, because you are an accountant by trade. I will give you the headlines on the figure, but Brendan Rooney will provide more detail on how it was worked out.

We cannot simply divide £8.9 million by 110 to get a figure for each bus, because the money is expected to be spread over a 14-year period. In addition, since 2014, a lot of local authorities have voluntarily installed seat belts in buses, so the money will go to them as well and not just to the councils that have not done that voluntarily but will do it from now on. The 14-year period covers a two-contract cycle of contracts being negotiated with local authorities and arrangements being made between them and bus companies.

Brendan Rooney

As Ms Martin said, the Government accepts that the figure should cover a period beginning in 2014, when the intention to legislate on the matter was announced. The money therefore covers not just the 110 buses that are currently without seat belts, but the period that predates the legislation. The amount of money involved annually will start at about £200,000 and will rise to about £800,000, over a number of local authorities.

There is an established mechanism by which the Scottish Government and local government work out how a new statutory obligation will fall on local government. That process was used to arrive at the current figure. Independent consultants looked at the issue back in 2013 and priced it up, and the current figure is within the window that was expected from that forecast. However, it is fair to say that there are no individual breakdowns of binary units. The analysis has not been done on a cost-per-bus basis, given that there are different levels of competition in different areas and that there might be more or fewer bus operators; in some areas it might cost more and in other areas it might cost less.

In essence, the figures that have been arrived at were worked out in consultation with local government and were based on forecasts by those who contract delivery.

John Mason

I am not surprised that local government would like more money and I accept that the member and the Government have been very generous to local government on the financing. However, the majority of local authorities—18—have already introduced seat belts and I presume that that was done at minimal cost. I also presume that, just as buses’ emission targets are improving, the standard of seats is improving and seat belts are being put in as standard now, unlike previously. If 18 local authorities have done that for nothing, why should we give them any money and why should we give any money to the other 14 authorities?

John Finnie has previously asked a question on that, so I will bring him in before the witnesses answer John Mason’s question.

John Finnie

My question, which was along the lines of John Mason’s, was about whether we are rewarding failure to act. Further, who is actually getting the money? The local authorities are contracting with bus operators that are likely to be private concerns. I appreciate that the money will be spread over 14 years, but who will be the recipients?

Gillian Martin

I might bring in Brendan Rooney again to talk about the process. John Finnie asked whether we are rewarding failure, but we are doing the opposite of that. That is why we are giving money to the local authorities that have voluntarily introduced seat belts since 2014, which was not done at zero cost to them.

Negotiations will take place between local authorities, COSLA and the Government on who gets what money and why. I cannot comment on that as those negotiations have not happened yet and I will not be involved in them. However, it is important to say that both COSLA and the Scottish Government have agreed that £8.9 million is the right figure and they are satisfied that it is appropriate.

11:00  

May I push you a bit? John Finnie asked who will get the money, and I am not sure that I heard an answer to that question. Perhaps Brendan Rooney can clarify that.

Brendan Rooney

Given the way in which local government is financed, it will be part of the block grant. The money will go to local government because the increased contract costs will fall on local government.

The money will go both to those areas that have complied with the legislation and those that have not complied with it.

Brendan Rooney

Exactly. It will be distributed across all local authorities. A certain amount will go to those that have already complied with the legislation and to those that have not.

Is there an expectation that any bus operator that, thus far, has not seen fit to install seat belts will get public money to install them? If so, why?

Gillian Martin

Schools in some local authority areas might be served by a bus company that has only one or two buses but which has provided the service for a long time, and the company might be required to bid a higher rate in order to comply with the legislation. That may be the case particularly in areas where there is not a lot of competition, availability or choice of bus companies. I hope that that answers your question slightly.

It does—slightly. However, I cannot envisage that there will be any impetus for bus companies to install seat belts if there is the prospect of their getting public money with which to do that.

Gillian Martin

Perhaps Brendan Rooney can help me out. The reason that I cannot answer your question fully is that there will be negotiations involving the local authorities, which will assess the companies that bid for the contracts and the increase in the bids that may be predicted. Local authorities will have those negotiations as part of the settlement.

Brendan Rooney

When a council puts any stipulation in a contract—such as that there must be seat belts or closed-circuit television, or that the vehicles must be of a certain age or standard—that affects the price of the contract. At the moment, public money is going from councils to the bus industry because of changing stipulations in contracts. Because a new statutory obligation is being placed on councils, the Government is using the established mechanism of costing what central Government funding will be required to make up the shortfall.

John Finnie is still looking perplexed. Mike Rumbles has a follow-on question that will perhaps clarify the matter.

Mike Rumbles

I am genuinely puzzled by this. I cannot understand why £9 million of public money will be given to private contractors to upgrade their buses with seat belts when it will be a legal requirement that they do so in order to meet the terms of the contract. When a council puts a contract out to tender, the individual companies have to meet the requirements of the contract. It is up to them to meet those requirements—it cannot possibly be up to the Scottish Government to give local authorities £9 million to give to the individual bidders for the contracts.

Gillian Martin

Perhaps I can help out. Whenever there are changes to any legislation, a business impact assessment is carried out. It is only right and proper that that is done in this case, given that we are putting in place a stipulation that could affect some businesses. We have to take that into account when we undertake our cost analysis.

As Brendan Rooney mentioned, an independent cost analysis was undertaken in 2013, and we did not leave it at that—we undertook another cost analysis last year. Those analyses largely came up with the same figure. COSLA has agreed the cost analysis and the Scottish Government has agreed that it is fair and that, over the 14-year period, it is essential that that money is put aside in case there are increased costs for businesses. That is particularly important for areas where there is not a lot of competition for bus services.

If we had not done the cost analysis, we would be in a situation where there might be local authorities without the funds to be able to comply and to still provide dedicated school transport.

That is why I do not understand—

I do not think that John Finnie or Mike Rumbles have had the answers that they were looking for. Mike, as we are running short of time, could you put your and John’s points and allow them to be answered?

Mike Rumbles

It is a fundamental point. I do not understand, because most local authorities have done it already. The contracts are out, bids have been made and the contracts have been given. Why are we giving millions of pounds of public money to the local authorities for something that has already happened?

Do you want to add to that, John?

John Finnie

I am very keen to see the maximum protection for all bus passengers, but I am also keen for public money to be properly expended.

I am trying to imagine that Richard Lyle and I are an individual bus operator in a rural area. We would say, “We’re not getting seat belts installed because they’re going to pay for them anyway.” That is regardless of whether a bus operator is a single operator and whether there are challenges for school transport. I represent an area where there are significant challenges. I do not get that part of it.

Gillian Martin

Perhaps I did not answer as clearly as I could have done your earlier point about rewarding failure. We do not think that it should just be the local authorities that have not implemented the provision that get the funding to do it. There are local authorities that have done it voluntarily and have had increased costs as a result. The money will be spread across the local authorities that have already implemented the measure to make up for the increased costs that they have had to bear since 2014 as a result of their voluntary action. The money will not just go to the local authorities that have not done it.

I am not sure that anyone has received the answer that we need on that, but we will move to the final question before we get too embroiled in whether Finnie and Lyle Transport is the right way forward.

It is a workers’ co-operative, of course. [Laughter.]

John Mason

My understanding is that, if the local authorities do not have to pay any more for a contract, they will be able to keep the money, which sounds like a good thing. However, my question is about whether there is enough money. What about the cost of publicity, guidance, information packs and so on? Is that included in the costs in the financial memorandum?

Gillian Martin

No, it is not. Those costs will be borne by the Scottish Government. Brendan Rooney will be involved with providing the guidance, so perhaps he can give us some more detail. The guidance costs will be met from the safety budget and Road Safety Scotland—part of Transport Scotland—has a budget available for school safety in general. The seat belts guidance will be part of that.

So it will just be taken from existing budgets and there will not be any extra costs as a result of the legislation.

Brendan Rooney

That is correct. It will be absorbed within road safety campaign education and awareness-raising budgets that are already in place in the Government.

That is fine. Thank you.

The Convener

That concludes this morning’s session and our evidence on the bill at stage 1. I thank the panel for coming. Gillian, thank you for your time—I know that you have pushed the bill very hard. Anne and Brendan, we have seen you before so I thank you for coming back again.

11:08 Meeting suspended.  

11:13 On resuming—