Meeting date: Wednesday, March 20, 2019
Meeting of the Parliament 20 March 2019
Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Student Support, Free Bus Travel (Under-25s), Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Inflammatory Bowel Disease
- Portfolio Question Time
- Student Support
- Free Bus Travel (Under-25s)
- Business Motions
- Parliamentary Bureau Motions
- Decision Time
- Inflammatory Bowel Disease
Free Bus Travel (Under-25s)
The next item of business is the debate on motion S5M-16408, in the name of Colin Smyth, on free bus travel for under-25s. I call Colin Smyth to speak to and move the motion.15:52
The starting point for Labour in this debate is the basic principle that public transport is a public service that, like all public services, should be accessible to all. That might seem obvious, but, under the fragmented and deregulated privatised bus network that we have today, public transport has become detached from public service. Instead of our buses being an essential service, they have become just another commodity from which private companies make a profit. We have devalued the critical role that our bus network plays for our economy, our communities and our environment.
Across Scotland, there are 388 million bus journeys a year, as people use our buses to access work and education, to socialise and to attend medical appointments. For those people, buses are a lifeline. However, although bus travel remains the single most popular form of public transport and accounts for three quarters of all journeys, the number of journeys has been in decline. Since the SNP Government came to power, the number of bus journeys has fallen by 20 per cent while bus fares have risen by 17 per cent in real terms.
Does Colin Smyth accept that bus usage has been in decline since before 1960, so it is not just linked to the SNP?
Bus usage has certainly been in decline for a long time, but it has continued to decline under deregulation and it is significantly in decline under this Government, which has no plan in place to halt the decline. There are many reasons for the decline—changing shopping habits, different work patterns and growing congestion—but decisions that have been made by this Government have contributed, too. The bus service operator grant has been reduced by 28 per cent under the SNP; there has been an overall 11 per cent fall in support for buses over the past five years alone; and the eye-watering cuts to council budgets again this year are inevitably leading to more cuts in bus routes across Scotland. There has also been a failure to make the necessary structural changes, with the Government opposing not one but two Labour members’ proposals to re-regulate our buses. In short, we have had a decade of decline on our buses under the SNP Government and little meaningful action to halt it.
It is those who can least afford it who are being disproportionately affected: young people, older people, the unemployed, students and others on low incomes. They are most likely to use our buses, so they are hit hardest by fare hikes and the axing of services, which removes the only viable travel option for many of our most vulnerable citizens. That is especially the case in rural communities such as the one that I represent.
With fares rising and the number of routes falling, it is little wonder that so many people feel unable to depend on public transport as their main mode of travel. Car usage continues to grow, and that is not sustainable. Transport accounts for more than a third of all greenhouse gas emissions, with cars contributing 40 per cent of that. In 2016, greenhouse gas emissions from Scotland’s transport sector were at the same level as they were in 1990, and the air pollution that the sector causes costs 2,500 lives a year in Scotland.
We need to reduce the number of vehicles on our roads, and having better buses is key to achieving that. That will require a bold rethink about how we manage our bus network in Scotland. The timid Transport (Scotland) Bill that is before Parliament at the moment fails to achieve that. We must wake up to the fact that the current unregulated market is simply not working. We need to properly protect the lifeline services that are currently being axed and stop bus companies simply cherry picking the most profitable routes. That means fully lifting the ban on local councils setting up and running local bus companies to meet their communities’ needs.
It is no coincidence that Lothian Buses, Scotland’s only municipal bus company, has seen its passenger numbers grow while patronage elsewhere plummets or that it has a 95 per cent customer satisfaction rating and some of the lowest fares in Scotland. That is the result of a model that prioritises the passenger over profits—a model that encourages social responsibility and that, crucially, delivers millions of pounds a year back into the public purse. In 2017, Lothian Buses made almost £7 million in profits, and that money, which elsewhere in Scotland would be siphoned off to shareholders, was instead reinvested in services. Every local authority in Scotland should have the power to develop such a model for its community. If the Government does not amend its transport bill to deliver that, Labour will.
Will Colin Smyth take an intervention?
I will take a quick intervention if I have time, Presiding Officer.
You have time.
Does Colin Smyth accept that not every local authority area would be able to have a similar model to that of Lothian Buses because of their population?
There is no reason why local authorities cannot come together to produce bus services that cut across them with an arm’s-length body, which is the Lothian model. The problem is that this Government has prevented the rest of Scotland from following that model. Reintroducing that ownership is an essential first step in rebuilding our bus services, but the scale of the challenge calls for even bolder action and proper investment in our bus services.
A success story of this Parliament’s 20-year existence has been the free bus pass for older adults and disabled people, which was introduced by Labour in 2006. Free bus travel for the over-60s has helped to tackle isolation, create opportunity and fight pensioner poverty. It is widely used and highly valued by those who use it. A poll that was conducted by Age Scotland found that 96 per cent of respondents believed that the bus pass was essential or very important to their wellbeing. It not only provides social and personal benefits but is highly cost effective, with every £1 that is spent on the scheme generating almost £3 in broader social and economic benefit. That is why Labour supports the extension of the bus pass to the companions of disabled children under five and to modern apprentices, as is already proposed.
We want to go further, however. We want to open up opportunities for Scotland’s young people, which is why we are asking Parliament to agree to the principle that free bus travel should be extended to young people. Transport costs are a huge burden on young people and their families.
Will the member take an intervention?
I will take a quick intervention.
I am afraid that you cannot take an intervention, Mr Smyth. I am sorry, Mr Kerr—the member is going into his last minute.
With many of them earning below the adult minimum wage, never mind the living wage, young people can find themselves spending half their income on travel. The cost of travel has become a barrier to opportunity, but the Parliament has a chance today to break down that barrier. The ability to pay should not determine young people’s access to education, to jobs and to social and leisure activities, but the reality is that it does. Free bus travel would help to put a stop to that injustice. It would provide young people with the same benefits that it delivers for older adults and disabled people. Beyond that, it would tackle the wider decline of bus usage in Scotland by encouraging lifelong habits, so that the next generation would choose public transport as their primary mode of travel.
Our policy is a win-win. It gives young people a break and invests in their future, and it will help to halt the dismantling of Scotland’s bus routes before our network disappears for good in more of our communities. I ask members to send a clear message to Scotland’s young people: this Parliament is on your side.
That the Parliament is concerned by the reduction in number of journeys, fleet size and staff employed in Scotland’s bus sector; believes that significant action must be taken to reverse this trend; considers that the principles of the Concessionary Travel Scheme for Older and Disabled People have been a success; welcomes proposals to extend the scheme to modern apprenticeships and companions of disabled children under the age of five, and further believes that these principles should be used to deliver a scheme that extends free bus travel to people under the age of 25.16:01
I welcome this debate on bus travel, which accounts for some three quarters of all public transport journeys in Scotland. Buses serve the whole of Scotland, including the most vulnerable people, and today’s debate focuses on our young people. I want to align what we are doing to support and improve bus services before signalling our intent to conduct further work in this area.
Just last week, bus passenger satisfaction figures were strong again, with 91 per cent of passengers satisfied with their bus service compared with just 88 per cent in England. However, bus passenger numbers continue to decline across the United Kingdom, as they have done since 1960. The causes are varied, and we are working with partners to address that where we can.
Among a host of measures that the Government is taking to improve transport are those contained in the Transport (Scotland) Bill. The bill outlines a range of options for local transport authorities to adopt in improving bus services by statutory partnership, franchising or even running services themselves in certain circumstances.
Is the cabinet secretary aware that, between 2007 and 2017, the drop in bus services in Wales was the biggest drop in all the nations of the United Kingdom? Of course, there is a Labour Administration in Wales.
I am aware of that. However, as I am sure all members will recognise, bus patronage has been in decline for decades now, and the reasons for that are complex. The suggestion that there is one simple solution that could address that decline is misguided.
Can the minister also confirm that passenger numbers actually rose, from 460 million a year in 2004 to 487 million a year in 2007, when Labour left office? I think that the concessionary travel scheme that was introduced by the last Labour Government resulted in the increasing numbers.
Interventions have to be short. Cabinet secretary, I cannot give you time back, because we have no spare time now.
I recognise the point that the member is making. I also welcome the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee’s support for the general principles of the Transport (Scotland) Bill in its stage 1 report.
Alongside the legislative measures, the Government continues to provide more than £250 million of support for bus services and concessionary travel as part of our £1 billion of annual public transport funding. The bus service operators grant, which supports bus services across Scotland, has provided some £682 million of investment, supporting 5.2 billion passenger journeys since 2006-07.
Last year, we made the decision to keep the age of eligibility for older people at 60. We also listened to views on other issues and committed to extending the scheme to cover companion cards for eligible disabled children under five. We are working towards the pledge to extend concessionary travel to modern apprentices.
In addition to what we are doing with free bus travel, we have the Young Scot national concessionary travel scheme for all young people aged 16 to 18 and full-time volunteers up to the age of 25, which provides a third off the price of bus and rail travel and 50 per cent off the cost of rail season tickets in Scotland. Eligible cardholders who live in the Scottish islands also receive ferry vouchers for two free return journeys to the mainland. From January 2007 to 2017-18, the scheme provided £16 million of concessionary travel discounts, contributing to 27 million journeys.
The importance of improving young people’s experience of public transport was recently highlighted in the Scottish Youth Parliament’s “All Aboard” report, and it is a challenge that all partners in transport need to rise to. Of key relevance to today’s debate is the report’s ask to review the existing young people’s concessionary discount on public transport to include all young people under 26. At the third annual meeting of cabinet members with children and young people, earlier this month, we discussed that very issue and agreed to take forward such a review. In addition, we will conduct an appraisal that considers the costs and benefits of extending free bus travel to young people under the age of 26. That said, it is important that, as we take that forward, we recognise that the policy needs to be financially sustainable.
It has been suggested that such a scheme might cost in the region of £13.5 million. The reality is that, annually, it is more likely to cost between £200 million and £230 million. As a Government, we will continue to take forward a range of measures to improve transport for the public in Scotland, and the Transport (Scotland) Bill will help us to achieve that by supporting bus services at a local level.
I move amendment S5M-16408.3, to leave out from “, and further believes” to end and insert:
“applauds the work of the Scottish Youth Parliament in its ‘All Aboard’ campaign, which recommends reviewing an extension of discounts on public transport that are available to 16- to 18-year-olds to everyone under the age of 26, and believes that an appraisal, which considers the costs and benefits of extending free bus travel to people under the age of 26, should be taken forward alongside that review.”16:06
I thank Labour members for bringing forward today’s debate. There is much to agree with in the main body of their motion.
The bus industry currently faces several complex challenges. As we know, journey numbers have fallen by more than 100 million over the past decade; fare revenue continues to fall as a percentage of total operator revenue, despite the fact that fares have increased in price; and passenger satisfaction is an on-going concern. A recent survey, which I looked at this morning, showed that·64 per cent of passengers were dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with the frequency of their local services and 58 per cent felt that their local bus services were poor value for money.
There is no disagreement from Conservative members that funded concessionary bus travel has several welcome social and economic benefits for those who use the service. In advance of today’s debate, I read the submissions from the likes of the Confederation of Passenger Transport, Transform Scotland, the Poverty Alliance and Friends of the Earth Scotland, and they deserve merit. They point to factors such as the cost effectiveness and reliability of services, as well as the stigma around bus usage, as being key barriers to access and improving passenger uptake.
This is a welcome debate, which kicks off a sensible debate about eligibility. We should have a frank and honest debate about who is eligible, why they are eligible and how we will fund any additional free travel. That is the crux of our amendment today. We chose to agree with most of what Labour is saying, but committing to adding new user groups without a wider discussion about the cost-effectiveness of the overall scheme—although socially admirable—is not sensible policy making. Any changes to concessionary eligibility must be undertaken in consultation with groups that represent current or potential users and with the bus industry. There are more than 200 operators in Scotland and we must consult them before making such sweeping changes.
We do not oppose changes to the scheme—indeed, in previous manifestos, we have had our own ideas about extending the scheme to areas such as community transport—but due and proper analysis must be made of the long-term cost and feasibility of such extensions or changes.
Unfortunately, due to procedural pre-emptions, we are unable to support the Scottish Government’s amendment but, for the record, there is nothing in it that we disagree with. If I compare the two amendments, I think that the Conservatives’ choice of words better reflects how the Parliament ought to proceed on the subject, but I apologise to the Scottish Youth Parliament; I hold its work on this subject in high regard and I welcome its calls for a review.
In the short time that I have today, the overarching message that I want to get across is about how inexplicable it seems to commit to adding further users to the eligibility criteria when, 10 months into the financial year, the. current concessionary travel scheme is already running out of money. Reaching the £200 million cap on this year’s annual subsidy settlement to bus operators before the end of the financial year means that operators are already looking to cut services, cut routes, change timetables or increase fares—that is under the current scheme and before we add a single free journey for a single new passenger. If the current model is not working, why would we choose to add to the burden without a clear pathway for how Government will compensate operators adequately for the service?
A headline-grabbing conference speech from Labour announcing universal free travel is no doubt an easy and popular thing to do, but easy and popular are not choices that Governments often face. I do not think that the proposal addresses the serious underlying issues that the industry faces, and the Confederation of Passenger Transport agrees. We need to have a sensible debate about how to make best use of public funds to improve bus patronage, and I welcome that. Labour has suggested one road to take; I, respectively, suggest that we look at all avenues.
I move amendment S5M-16408.2, to leave out from “, and further believes” to end and insert:
“; agrees that concessionary and subsidised bus travel, where appropriately targeted, provides a number of social, financial and employability benefits to users, but considers that any alterations to the eligibility criteria should take into account the financial implications of such change and be considered subject to adequate consultation with both users of the scheme and the bus industry.”16:10
I declare my concessionary bus pass. The Scottish Government has a transport budget of £1,155.6 million and a larger sum for capital, and over the past seven years that budget has increased by about 20 per cent. The budget for bus services, by contrast, has increased by only about 5 per cent and the bulk of that has been for concessionary fares. I align myself with many of the comments made by my colleague Colin Smyth—certainly those about how the market has distorted things. At decision time, the Greens will support the Labour Party motion.
That investment is in reimbursements, rather than direct investment in services. Colin Smyth also talked about the Lothian model. What is not to like about something that delivers such high levels of satisfaction, works collaboratively across local authorities and delivers profit and a good service? That is the model that we would like to see replicated. I accept that in the scheme of things, unfortunately, that model is an anomaly, but a municipal model with scope to include community transport is very important.
The Scottish Green Party advocates fair, free access to public transport, including ferries, and believe that this is all about relative priorities. The cabinet secretary mentioned a figure of £200 million to £230 million and if that figure is correct, it roughly doubles the existing sum for concessionary travel of £213 million, which we agreed in the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee just the other week. Everything is about priorities. I do not hear about the same level of consultation on investment in road building—with which the Scottish Government has a blind obsession, supported by the other parties. Politics is always about priorities, and if the priority is not serving the public, in the widest sense, then what is it?
Buses are predominantly used by people who earn £10,000 to £15,000 a year and 58 per cent of bus users are women. We also know that 30 per cent of households in Scotland do not have access to a motor vehicle, so we must prioritise bus travel. The road haulage and motor car lobby has had its say for far too long.
Is John Finnie proposing that the Government should take money from the roads budget and plough it into this system?
No, that is not correct; we require a much more comprehensive discussion than that. However, there is not the same level of debate about road building where there is, of course, the difference between capital and revenue, and the revenue costs of maintaining the capital build. I do not see why this sum, which is small in the scheme of things, requires such an amount of questioning about why we would do it—we know the benefits and the Government knows the benefits. When we were considering the statutory instrument for the concessionary payout, one of the supporting papers said:
“In response to surveys, card holders tell us that the scheme provides them with social and health benefits, including by enabling them more easily to access services”.
Although the Green amendment was not accepted, it would have sought a further extension of the scheme to include people with addiction issues who are in receipt of treatment. We know that many of those people have chaotic lifestyles. Something that would help them would be the stability of not having to worry about their transport needs.
We have debated buses a lot. In March last year, I led a Green debate in which we sought to place on the Scottish Government a statutory target on passenger numbers, which have been in decline. We need to deliver cheaper fares, more routes and reliable services. We know that those deliver success and increased bus use, as we have seen in Edinburgh.
Because we are short of time, I will leave it there.16:14
It is helpful to have this short debate on the importance of bus travel. No doubt we shall return to the issue soon, when we debate the stage 1 report on the Government’s Transport (Scotland) Bill two weeks from now, when we shall have time to explore the issue in greater detail.
There is agreement that we must take action to arrest the further decline in bus use that has taken place over the past few years—we are agreed that stopping that would help to meet a range of environmental, health and social inclusion objectives. How should we address that decline? The Scottish Government has come up with some ideas, but the Liberal Democrats’ view is that those fall somewhat short of what is required.
Another way to address the matter would be for the Government to subsidise bus usage more widely. I am pleased that the present Government has continued the policy of free bus passes for the over-60s and for disabled people, which my Liberal Democrat colleague Tavish Scott introduced when he was Minister for Transport in Scotland’s coalition Administration—I am amazed that the Labour Party has forgotten who the relevant minister was at the time. The policy is not a cheap option—it will cost the Scottish taxpayer some £213 million in the forthcoming year—but it is generally accepted as being a great success, in that it benefits not only individuals but society at large by reducing congestion and helping the environment. At decision time, I trust that we will approve the motion, in Graeme Dey’s name, on the order to renew the concessionary bus travel scheme for older and disabled people for the coming year.
I turn to the detail of the motion and the amendments for the debate. I was expecting the Labour Party to lodge a motion promoting its new policy of having free bus passes for the whole population, so I was somewhat surprised to read the motion and find that it was not there. I also expected to find a fully costed proposal for the party’s new policy; I cannot tell you how disappointed I was not to find that, either. The motion concentrates solely on extending the present scheme to people under 25 years of age and what is also disappointing—there has been a lot of disappointment today—is to see that there is no mention of how much taxpayers’ money that would cost and how Labour proposes to pay for it. Far be it from me to suggest that that is a somewhat cavalier approach to budgeting—
Will the member take an intervention?
I will if I might have the time back, Presiding Officer, but I see that I will not, so I am afraid that I cannot take the intervention.
As I was saying, the Labour Party’s approach to budgeting seems somewhat cavalier, and I am sure that the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Economy and Fair Work will not be slow to take the same view. For that reason, the Liberal Democrats will support the Scottish Government amendment, which takes a more reasonable approach to the issue of extending the free bus pass scheme to others. We believe that before we commit the Scottish Government to such an extension, undertaking a cost benefit analysis would be only prudent—I can see the leader of the Scottish Labour Party blushing, but there we are. The Labour Party’s motion would have been a far more reasonable one to debate if it had taken the trouble to identify exactly how much taxpayers’ money would be needed to fund such an extension of the scheme. As its commitment is completely unfunded, it cannot reasonably have expected it to be supported.
For that reason, Liberal Democrats support the Government’s amendment to the motion that is before us today.16:18
The bus market in Scotland is broken. The deregulated model that was introduced over 30 years ago has failed passengers and the public, and it has failed on its own terms. Instead of a competitive market, there is a patchwork of monopolies serving a diminishing network.
As Colin Smyth said, despite the Scottish Government having the power to replace that broken market with a fairer, more robust system, it has presided over a decade of decline in bus services. Passenger numbers have plummeted, the total number of bus journeys is down by 100 million, 64 million vehicle kilometres have been stripped out of the bus network, fleet sizes and industry staff numbers are down and routes have been cut, while fares keep rising. In my region, passengers are being asked to pay more each year despite facing further disruption and service cuts.
Bus companies in West Scotland have made sweeping timetable changes, cut lifeline routes and scrapped services altogether. Enough is enough. It is time for new thinking and new ideas about how bus services should be run, owned and controlled and how a modal shift can be achieved in society towards cleaner, greener public transport. That is why I welcome this debate and the wider debate about free bus travel that Richard Leonard has initiated. I hope that the Parliament will agree to support in principle the idea that concessionary travel should be extended to those who are under the age of 25.
As I said earlier, when Labour left office in Scotland, before the SNP’s decade of decline, passenger numbers were rising. Why was that? It was because we had just introduced the free bus pass. I acknowledge that we did that with the support of the Liberal Democrats, and I say to Mike Rumbles that I do not see why we cannot work together to deliver the policy that we are proposing today as well. The free bus pass has come to represent not just a lifeline for many of our older and disabled people but a substantial investment in public transport, too.
Extending concessionary travel to include the under-25s would open up new opportunities and possibilities for our young people—opportunities for young people on low wages to get to work, to get from A to B and to study without having to pay exorbitant bus fares. Surely that is not too much to ask for our young people. However, we want to go further. It is not just about having a bus pass; people need to know that there are services to use it on, and we want to make bus travel more affordable for all.
The decline of bus services need not be inevitable. It can be reversed. If the bus companies cannot or will not deliver services that meet the needs of the community, it is time to give our communities the power to deliver bus services themselves. A people’s bus service that is run for passengers and not for profit—that is what Scottish Labour, the Co-operative Party, trade unions and passengers all want to make a reality.
The Scottish Government’s Transport (Scotland) Bill should be amended to provide a realistic route to common ownership of bus services. It should make municipal ownership of buses, which we see in the Lothians, possible elsewhere in Scotland and it should allow councils to work with community-owned operators, too. Crucially, it should call time on the deregulated market, shifting power from the owners of the big bus companies to the communities in my region that depend on public transport.
Faced with a broken market and a diminishing bus network, we can be in no doubt that something has to change. My Labour colleagues and I will continue to argue for democratic control of bus services and I hope that, when the time comes, there will be a majority in the Parliament for strengthening the Transport (Scotland) Bill. Today, I hope that Parliament will agree that, as part of a transformative agenda for public transport, bus travel should be free for the under-25s. On that basis, I hope that Parliament will support the Labour motion in the name of Colin Smyth.16:22
Today, we have a debate on a Labour motion that asks for more spending but has no mention of where the money is to come from. What is new? However, let us look first at the transport side of the debate. Are young people under 25 the most in need of help? Is the fall in bus patronage primarily linked to fares? It seems that there are other reasons for the fall in bus use. For example, some young people who can afford it are using taxis and private hire cars, apparently because they feel safer or because it is more convenient. Improved train services are another issue. In the Carmyle area of my constituency, the train service has greatly improved and there has been a subsequent decline in the use of bus services.
I appreciate the briefings that we have received for the debate from a number of organisations, including the Confederation of Passenger Transport. It points out that falling bus patronage is caused by worsening congestion, the low cost of car ownership, changing work patterns and the rise of online shopping. Transform Scotland highlights a KPMG report that gives three main reasons for the fall: car ownership, online services and bus journey times.
Having a car is obviously expensive, and it seems surprising that anyone should argue that it is cheap. There is the one-off cost of purchase—I am thinking of replacing my car, and that might cost me, say, £12,000—and then there are the annual costs of insurance, road tax, services and MOTs. However, for people who have a car already, the marginal or extra cost of taking the family out for a day is pretty low. It is definitely lower than the cost of travelling by train and probably lower than the cost of travelling by bus.
One challenge that we have is whether and how to increase the marginal cost of car use, and parking costs at work and elsewhere are certainly a factor that comes into play in that regard.
Transform Scotland also makes the point that public ownership is no guarantee of increased bus usage. Bus patronage has been declining since at least 1960.
The Poverty Alliance and Oxfam put affordability at the top of their list when they held an event in February on transport and poverty. That makes me wonder whether age is the best measure of need. It is true that we use age as that measure for the over-60s, which means that relatively well-off people such as me do not need to pay for the bus and it is up to us whether we give the savings away.
Is the member aware that the turnaround in services in East Lothian came about specifically because Lothian Buses targeted young people and had a positive return from doing so?
Anyone we target by giving them a free bus pass is more likely to use the bus. There is an argument that families with children, not young people, are the hardest hit by bus fares and train fares.
On the positive side, I agree that more people using buses is a good thing, even if the buses are subsidised, and that protects services. I disagree slightly with the Confederation of Passenger Transport, which says that the concession scheme is not a subsidy but just a payment for a service.
I move on to the financial side. Is the proposal costed? Why was it not part of Labour’s budget negotiations? The CPT suggests that it would cost £200 million, roughly matching the cost of the present scheme, because there would be roughly the same number of people involved, whereas I believe that Richard Leonard has suggested that the cost would be £13 million.
It is worth exploring a possible expansion of free bus travel, but that has to be based on a proper appraisal. I agree with Jamie Greene—for once—that both the costs and the benefits have to be considered.16:26
I have to say that the Labour Party’s motion shows a lack of ambition and looks a bit like uncosted political opportunism. I believe that any vision should be about our future not about a political future.
I do not believe that this is the day for Parliament to be rushed into making uncosted decisions on extending concessionary bus travel. We should be looking at the real problem, which is all about the decline in the use of buses. If we address that, what we want to achieve—fewer cars on the road, less-congested streets and a reduction in emissions—will naturally follow. That is the responsible thing to do.
The problem with falling bus usage does not boil down to the price of a ticket—we heard that in the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee. It is far more complicated than that. We looked at the Transport (Scotland) Bill in numerous evidence sessions and we heard that the culture has changed. People now expect smart ticketing and up-to-date and up-to-the-minute travel information, and they expect to get from A to B on time with fewer delays and without changes.
For too long, timetabling issues and gaps in services have meant that passengers are heavily inconvenienced and the result is that they question whether they should be travelling on the bus at all. It is no wonder that the latest surveys indicate that passengers do not regard travelling on the bus as good value for money. We have heard that, in the Highlands, the level of satisfaction with value for money has fallen from 59 per cent to 51 per cent. That is a damning statistic.
In recent years, it has also become clear that there has been a huge shift away from travelling on the bus, with the number of journeys falling by 100 million in the past decade. That big statistic tells us one thing: how Scotland chooses to travel is changing, and if we want more people to take the bus, we need to come up with solutions that encourage the whole population to do so. We need a holistic approach that gets the young, the old and everyone in between back on the bus.
We also need to ensure that our bus operators deliver services across all the routes that we want.
Does the member acknowledge that the profile of bus users in Edinburgh is different from the profile elsewhere, and that in Edinburgh the service is publicly run and owned?
I absolutely understand that the profile of those travelling in Edinburgh is different, but the problem is that Edinburgh has a bus operation system that dates back a long time, which we cannot roll out across all of Scotland.
There is a problem across rural Scotland. Bus services are being scrapped and lifeline services that we need are being discontinued, with hugely damaging consequences. That is what we should be addressing. As my constituents know only too well, once a bus route is removed, rural communities become more isolated and opportunities are closed off to them. If there is no bus service, there is no gain from having a concessionary bus pass.
Let me be clear, I want to see high-quality services that are delivered by well-managed bus operators and I want to see more buses being used by more people across Scotland. I do not believe that extending concessions, without knowing what the costs are, is the right approach. Can we say for certain that extending concessionary bus travel to under-25s would reverse the decline of bus travel? No, I do not think that it would. The decline in bus travel is far more complex than that, so let us treat it as such.
In my opinion, it is time to consult passengers and talk to operators and improve bus services for the people across Scotland who use them. That is what we should be discussing, not concessionary travel.16:31
I was delighted with Scottish Labour’s visionary policy proposal at our conference in Dundee for a universal free public service. The proposal comes at a time when the number of bus journeys has fallen and fares have gone up, but—critically—we are starting to realise, in stark terms, the impact of travel on the planet.
Last week, Richard Leonard, our leader, joined young people who were protesting about climate change, and the policy is in direct response to that monumental challenge and to the needs of our communities.
Will the member take an intervention?
I am sorry, but I do not have time.
In Dundee, we have one of the lowest rates of car ownership, but we do not have strong enough public transport arrangements to meet people’s needs. Bus routes and the frequency of services are still decided on the basis of profit. Councillors in Dundee regularly campaign to keep services and bus routes going to their communities. I believe that a modern forward-thinking country does not decide bus routes and services on the basis of profit, and that is why Scottish Labour is offering a modern transport policy for a modern country.
I have raised the issue of polluting buses in the chamber many times. Since I started raising that issue, we have seen some progress in Dundee. We have just had the launch of 14 new hybrid buses—the first hybrid buses for the city. They are cleaner, are of Euro VI standard and have replaced older, polluting vehicles. However, we still have more than 100 buses on our streets that do not meet the emissions standards. We have 57 dirty, Euro III buses belting out filth into the lungs of our citizens. On top of that, we have 47 Euro V buses that also do not meet the European standards.
Those 104 buses will either have to be off our roads by next year or retrofitted with urgency. That is because, by 2020—next year—we are moving to low-emission zones in four cities across the country, including Dundee. I ask the cabinet secretary whether enough money will go to Dundee—and to the other cities—for new or upgraded buses to replace those 104 vehicles. My concern is that routes and services may have to be cut to comply with the low-emission zones. Dundee cannot afford for any bus routes or services to be cut, so I am looking for that assurance today. Is there going to be enough money in the budget to make sure that our buses meet the emissions standards that will allow us to move to low-emission zones next year?16:34
I draw members’ attention to the fact that I am honorary president of the Scottish Association for Public Transport. Indeed, it is the annual general meeting of the SAPT a week on Friday in Perth. Should any colleagues wish to join me, I can tell them that Tom Harris will be an excellent speaker, albeit that he will be speaking about trains, not buses.
Let me say at the outset—as I have said before—that I do not criticise everything that Labour and the Liberal Democrats did in their period in office from 1999 to 2007. The work that Jack McConnell led on smoking was visionary, successful and to be applauded, and I applaud it again. Equally, the bus pass scheme was a great achievement of that period.
I, too, am a bus pass holder. I just looked up the details on my mobile phone and it says that it never expires. That is certainly true under this Government, despite some of the myths that have been peddled at various points. I am also a user of my bus pass, but I am among the 46 per cent of people who use their pass at least once a month, rather than weekly or daily, simply due to my travel pattern. Therefore, I have an interest in supporting the bus pass scheme that we have.
Let us look at what the Labour Party proposes. People aged 25 or under make up 19 per cent of our population, or slightly more than 1 million people. There are 1.3 million bus passes, which cost us £200 million. What will it cost to provide bus passes to a similar number of people? It will cost £13 million, if we are to believe Richard Leonard when he was interviewed by Peter MacMahon on “Representing Border”. That requires an interesting piece of arithmetic. How we get the cost down to just over 5 per cent of the current cost, I do not quite know.
The issue will run and run. Work with the Scottish Youth Parliament to ensure that we understand the costs is the basis on which we can proceed. I am in favour of extending the bus pass scheme. When I was a minister, I extended it in a relatively modest way, for disabled ex-servicemen, so in principle I am up for that and very much hope that we find ways of doing it.
However, I say gently to my Labour colleagues that where Labour is in power rather than merely talking about power, performance and behaviour are quite at odds with what I hear from members on the Labour benches. Despite the power to do so existing in Cardiff, we have seen no move there to take public ownership of the buses. We have seen no extension of the concessionary schemes to anything other than local services—and not to a national scheme. We have not seen Labour in government do anything that approximates to what the Labour Party did here before 2007 or what it seeks to do now.
I close with an international comparison. My current intern, Bella, comes from California. She has a wee house on the other side of Edinburgh and travels in daily by bus. She is astonished and delighted by the quality of the bus service that gets her to the Parliament every day. Her view accords with those of the 91 per cent of people who, according to the most recent survey, say that our bus services are very good. That is a number that is going up.16:38
Members might find this hard to believe, but I need to declare an interest: I am old enough to hold an over-60s bus pass.
Never! I don’t believe it!
It is hard to believe, I know.
I welcome the discussion that the motion has generated. It shines a light on the important point that bus services and bus usage in Scotland are in long-term decline.
I am a member of the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee, which frequently discusses public transport. With climate change a major factor in future policy, it is important that we encourage as many people as possible to use bus services.
In all our debates about bus services, a vital issue for me is the importance of buses to our rural communities. For people in our more remote areas, buses provide a lifeline service, taking them to towns and cities, shops and hospitals, and work and schools. For someone who lives in a city, direct access to such things can be taken for granted. I work in Edinburgh during the week and am amazed by the number of buses and routes here. It is fantastic to know that, wherever we are in this city, a bus can take us to wherever we want to be. That is not the case for most of rural Scotland, and it is definitely not the case in my North East Scotland region.
Aberdeenshire Council, in my region, has to subsidise more than half the available routes, most of which are in rural areas. Budget pressures have led to 27 underutilised routes being cut the length and breadth of the region, with services in Laurencekirk, Peterhead and Braemar all affected.
After the warm words that the member had for the Edinburgh service and the service in his area, does he not know that he has just made the case for publicly owned bus services such as the one that Edinburgh has?
Not at all—I do not accept that at all. That makes no difference. The service still has to be paid for.
Aberdeenshire Council’s head of transportation said:
“We realise this may have a detrimental effect on passengers, but the council and communities will continue to have difficult decisions to make on the provision of local services into the future.”
Like all councils across Scotland, Aberdeenshire Council has had to grapple with a budget deficit of more than £20 million this year because of cuts from this SNP Government. It is the same old story: our constituents pay more and get less. The north-east deserves a fair deal.
The Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee recently published our stage 1 report on the Transport (Scotland) Bill, which included a number of recommendations for how the Scottish Government can tackle the decline in bus patronage. The bill, as it stands, does not address that effectively, and the reduction of direct bus support in rural areas was a key argument that was raised in that regard.
The ability to access transport can play a fundamental role in how a person can contribute to and participate in society, and a lack of access to that transport can cause social isolation. To me, at a time of budget cuts, getting a decent bus service in rural areas is more of a priority than giving free bus travel to everyone under 25. The reality is that that would be an option open only to people under 25 who live in towns and cities. It is vital that that is addressed.
It is obvious that more needs to be done to improve bus services and patronage, increase access in rural areas and, where financially possible, increase concessionary and subsidised travel. I support the amendment from my colleague Jamie Greene, which recognises the merit in increased concessionary travel but also recognises that that comes at a cost. It equally recognises the concerning decrease in Scotland’s bus fleet and patronage. That decrease needs to be addressed to help to resolve the problems of gridlocked traffic and high levels of pollution in our towns and cities.16:42
I start by declaring that I, too, have a bus pass, but I do not look that age, do I?
I do not believe it.
I do not believe it either.
I want to state clearly that I believe that there is a great opportunity in respect of public transportation by bus, but we must be in no doubt that it is a mode of transport that faces difficulties and requires solutions. The number of public transport journeys by bus has gone down and continues to decrease. We must consider ways of reversing that trend. I, and my colleagues in the SNP, believe that we must continue to support bus travel and to think of solutions that will take us forward.
However, that cannot be done with continual hindrance by the Labour Party and the Conservatives. We want public sector bus transport to thrive, and we could ensure that it would do so if the Labour Party and the Conservatives would set aside their party-political point scoring and focus on solutions.
As is the case with all of Labour’s proposals, one of the key questions remains unanswered. How will it be funded? Labour is yet to come up with a legitimate solution. It might tell us an amount, but it will not say where it will get that money from. I think that the term is, “Doing its sums on the back of a bus ticket.” If the Labour Party is now so keen to provide free bus travel for people under 25, why was that idea not presented when SNP members were developing our budget plans? Some of us would have welcomed that. I believe that there should be an appraisal, as suggested by the cabinet secretary.
Will the member take an intervention?
This issue must be addressed in an efficient and responsible manner. That is why the SNP Government spends up to £273 million on bus public transport. We have increased spending on it by £18 million over the past two years.
The Labour Party, which has not even presented budget options, has the cheek to tell us that we are doing nothing to solve the problem. It is time that Labour members got on the bus and talked to us.
The debate opens up questions and dialogue. How is public transport to be costed? Who should be entitled to free bus travel? How will it be paid for? All those questions need to be addressed before we can move forward, having ensured that we have the best possible answer to our problem.
We should also encourage the private sector to be more innovative. We cannot propose to spend more money without indicating how we will fund initiatives, so the Labour Party should come and talk to us. I remind all members who are present that the Tories are responsible for deregulation of public transport services. They should be held responsible for their political mistake.
I thank John Finnie for suggesting in his unselected amendment the extension of free bus travel to people who are currently recovering from substance addiction. In fairness to Jamie Greene—he will fall off his chair when I say this—I would also like to acknowledge his amendment, because we need to carefully review the financial implications that come with the motion.
It is easy to propose irresponsibly that we spend more money, but the people who are making the proposal are not explaining how we will acquire the funds that would be needed to implement their recommendation. Would they increase taxes or reduce spending, when the Government is faced with delivering more for the people of Scotland while facing continued austerity from the UK Tory Government and its cuts agenda?
On a consensual note, I recognise, of course, that we have to encourage people, especially college and university students and young people, to use public transportation by bus. That is being done through the 2019-20 budget. I agree with the cabinet secretary’s amendment. Public transport is the future, and we have to find solutions together. I welcome Michael Matheson’s plan to review extension of discounts on public transport. With responsible solutions, we will move forward.16:46
I am pleased to contribute to the debate and to close for the Scottish Conservatives. In our view, the fundamentals of the motion are supportable. As many members have stated, bus patronage is reducing, which could lead to fewer routes, fewer employees, fewer assets and reduced investment in newer and cleaner technologies, which will in turn reduce use further. We can agree with the motion that there should be
“action ... to reverse this trend”,
but we have to be clear about what that action will be, and about the drivers of the current decline.
John Mason was persuasive in arguing that the drivers of decline are much more than simply fares. They include worsening congestion and increased journey times, the relatively low cost of car ownership, changing work patterns and the increase in online shopping. If we start from that point, we cannot support an unamended motion. Although providing free bus travel for under-25s might have merit as a policy—indeed, any extension to concessionary travel could provide
“a number of social, financial and employability benefits”,
as Jamie Greene’s amendment rightly craves—there is a fundamental lack of evidence on the impact of that policy on bus use.
If we start from the premise that it is not fares that drive the decline in use, we see that, as the Confederation of Passenger Transport has succinctly put it, a further concessionary travel scheme would not address the underlying issues behind patronage decline and could, in fact, have the unintended consequence of contracting the bus network.
In any event, as Mike Rumbles made clear, it is not helpful to the debate or to working towards a better future if proposals to add a whole new user group are introduced without first considering how much that scheme would cost. No one in Labour was prepared to take my intervention and to tell me how much that party thinks it would cost, so I am grateful to Stewart Stevenson for the reminder that Richard Leonard thinks that it will cost £13.5 million. The Confederation of Passenger Transport has projected that providing free travel to people under the age of 25 would cost about the same as the current concessionary travel scheme, which, all in, is creeping towards half a billion pounds a year.
Even if a cost can be isolated, there simply has to be more consideration of where that money would come from. I presume that the cost of the policy will not be cannibalised from a health or education budget—John Finnie seemed to suggest that we could reduce investment in the roads that the buses use—so it will need to be new money.
Does Liam Kerr acknowledge that the policy would be part of a radical suite of changes that would mean that the whole budget would be reconfigured? What does he think would be an acceptable way to pay for the policy?
Everything needs to be paid for. The problem is that members come to the chamber and propose such policies without doing the groundwork on how much they will cost.
There would need to be completely new money. I know that Richard Leonard said at his conference that he would like to tax people more, but what would he really do? Would he hypothecate extra money from that tax and put it towards bus travel instead of funding the health service or the education service, for example? Clearly, he would not. Perhaps Labour would cut investment in bus services to cross-subsidise a concessionary scheme. However, Transform Scotland has pointed out that schemes are already underfunded.
It is interesting that Colin Smyth said that every £1 that is spent on concessionary bus travel generates £3 in benefits. More recent research, which I can share with him later if he wishes, suggests that investment in local bus infrastructure can deliver up to £8 per £1 in wider economic benefits. Therefore, we cannot yet be certain that concessionary travel is the right way to go.
I have limited time, so I will conclude my remarks.
We are concerned about the reduction in passenger numbers. Scotland needs a competitive structure for bus services that offers affordable fares and high-quality services, but proposals to extend concessionary travel should be implemented only in accordance with a long-term sustainable financial framework, following adequate consultation of users and the bus industry. For that reason, we can support the Labour motion at decision time only if an amendment is accepted.16:51
This debate is very important, and I recognise that it has been largely consensual. There has been consensus across the chamber on the support for bus services and consensus—with the exception of the Labour Party, of course, which takes a different view—on the motion’s failure to cost the proposal.
I acknowledge Mike Rumbles’s very sensible points and, to be fair, the Conservatives’ position on trying to ensure that we have properly costed proposals before the Parliament. I very much welcome Mr Rumbles’s support and recognise the important point that he made on the need to get the fullest understanding of the costs and benefits of any such change in the concessionary travel scheme before making that change.
I will try to address points that other colleagues have made, the most important one of which is to do with the costing information, which we have discussed. The cabinet secretary alluded to that earlier. Labour has not yet—although it might possibly do this—provided a credible basis for the costing of £13.5 million, which Mr Leonard has previously used. As the cabinet secretary said, it has been estimated that the cost of extending free bus travel to all 16 to 25-year-olds in Scotland would be around £200 million to £230 million a year, depending on the change in the band. What assumptions have Colin Smyth and Mr Leonard made about the reimbursement rate in the calculation and about the uptake level? What is the modelling in the calculation of £13.5 million? The Scottish Government and external stakeholders think that £200 million to £230 million are the ballpark figures, so Colin Smyth and Mr Leonard are way adrift in their estimate.
Transport Scotland will conduct an appraisal
“which considers the costs and benefits of extending free bus travel to people under the age of 26”.
The cabinet secretary has committed to that in his amendment, which I support. I say to Mr Rumbles and Conservative members that that appraisal will include consultation with stakeholders. If, as I hope, the Government’s amendment is passed and the Conservative amendment falls, members can have confidence that consultation will be part of the review.
Jenny Marra made some fair points about Dundee and the use of hydrogen buses. Hydrogen buses have been partly funded by the green bus fund. Obviously, we are very supportive of that.
Jenny Marra also made a fair point about low-emission zones. Some £10 million has been identified for funding as Dundee transitions to the low-emission zone by 2022, £8 million of which is for an abatement scheme to address the retrofitting of buses to improve their emission standard to the Euro VI standard. I hope that that addresses the point that Ms Marra raised.
John Finnie raised a legitimate point about the protection of vulnerable groups who have chaotic lifestyles. I recognise that point. Work is continuing across the Government to look into such issues and how we can support those who are vulnerable. Obviously, we have to bear in mind the need to achieve a balanced budget. I appreciate that John Finnie’s amendment was not accepted. However, as other members have said, we very much sympathise with the needs of vulnerable individuals.
Peter Chapman suggested that there is a sense in the north-east that the area is not getting a fair deal. Notwithstanding the issues about buses, I merely point out that the Aberdeen western peripheral route has opened and the area is getting £300 million of investment in rail, so the Government is very much supporting the communities in the north-east through investment in transport.
I agree with Liam Kerr, John Mason and the other members who made the point that there are multifactoral reasons for the decrease in bus patronage. We need to understand those reasons before we make significant decisions and spending commitments, but we very much support the work that is being undertaken by the Scottish Youth Parliament.
The Transport (Scotland) Bill will address longer-term strategic issues about the provision of bus services, so Colin Smyth is not correct in saying that there is no plan to address the decrease in bus patronage. The bill offers a new and ambitious model for bus services, and it provides local authorities with options to influence and improve bus services in their areas. The cabinet secretary has indicated that he is open to widening the provisions of the bill on those points.
I had better stop there, Presiding Officer. I thank you for your forbearance.
Thank you, minister. I call Colin Smyth to wind up the debate.16:55
Bus travel is rarely debated in the Parliament. It receives a fraction of the support from the Government that our privatised rail operators receive. However, bus travel remains not only the most popular form of public transport but the one on which people on the lowest incomes rely most heavily, which is a point that every SNP, Tory and Lib Dem member ignored today.
The Scottish Government’s most recent transport survey showed that more than half of those who travel by bus earn less than £20,000 a year. The same publication showed that almost a fifth of those in the most deprived areas travelled to work by bus, compared with just 5 per cent of those in the least deprived areas, yet bus usage is on the decline.
Stewart Stevenson was keen to bandy about comparisons with other areas, but he failed to mention that passenger numbers in Scotland have fallen by nearly 8 per cent in the past five years alone, while the fall across the rest of the UK has been 5 per cent. Although the cost of running a car has reduced in real terms, bus fares have risen by 17 per cent over and above inflation.
The combination of fewer bus services and higher fares is a double whammy that hits the poorest hardest. It limits access to healthcare, work, education, social networks, shops, sport, culture—the list of negative impacts is endless. [Interruption.]
I ask members who are coming into the chamber to keep the noise from conversations down, please.
The decline of bus services is compounding inequality, but the approach of the SNP, Tories and Lib Dems is to accept that decline and inequality as inevitable. It does not have to be that way if the Parliament takes the bold decisions that it was established 20 years ago to take.
Free bus travel for older people and the disabled was one of those bold decisions. The policy has improved access to services, promoted social inclusion, supported those who are on low incomes, in particular, and improved health by promoting a shift away from the use of cars. If we removed the free bus pass for older people, we would remove more bus routes and passenger numbers would continue to plummet.
Progress in extending the benefits of free bus travel to others is stalling under this Government. In its budget, the Government pledged, this year, to extend free bus travel to companions of disabled children who are under five, but it has now kicked that pledge into the long grass along with plans to introduce a free bus pass for modern apprentices. Meanwhile, passenger numbers continue to fall. Getting on with the introduction of free bus travel for modern apprentices and the carers of disabled children and expanding the provision of free bus travel to young people would help to tackle the decline.
A robust framework is in place to take the policy forward through the independent charity Young Scot, which already delivers for young people. The charity works in collaboration and partnership with Transport Scotland and councils, and—most important—it is trusted by young people. Expanding the provision of the successful card for free bus travel would fully remove the affordability barriers that young people face and would increase passenger numbers in the short term.
Crucially, encouraging the next generation, from an early age, to use buses as their main mode of transport would help to achieve a long-term modal shift. That would be good for the environment, good for our health and good for the fight against poverty, because we know that young people are more likely to be in low-paid, insecure work and that they spend a disproportionate amount on travel. Low-income families also spend a significant amount of their income on their children’s travel.
Free bus travel for young people would open up more opportunities for children and young people. It would help them to access education, employment and training at pivotal points in their careers, it would remove barriers to social and leisure activities, and it would ensure that transport poverty does not limit the potential of our young people.
It is by no means a panacea—it needs to go hand in hand with increased investment in infrastructure improvements.
Under the logic of the member’s proposal, a 24-year-old earning £25,000, £35,000 or £45,000 would get a free bus pass, whereas a 25-year-old earning £15,000 would not. Where is the logic in that? What is the rationale behind that policy intention?
I suspect that not too many young people fit into the category that Jamie Greene has highlighted. The reality is that young people are more likely to be in lower-paid employment. At the moment, they do not get even the adult minimum wage, never mind the living wage.
As I have said, the policy is by no means a panacea. Other measures need to happen, such as lifting the archaic ban that prevents local councils from running their bus services. We need to put passengers, not profits, first. However, extending free bus travel to young people would go a long way towards helping to rebuild our crumbling bus network and embedding social justice in our transport system.
Public transport is fundamentally a public service. That principle seems to have been lost in our privatised, deregulated system—a system that is, as Neil Bibby has said, broken and one that this Government refuses to change. SNP, Tory and Lib Dem members have been quick to criticise Labour’s plans, saying that it is okay for them but not for young people to have a bus pass. They were quick to criticise, but not a single one of them put forward any vision or proposal of their own. They did not explain how they would stop the decline in bus services; they did not explain how they would halt the rip-off fares; and they did not explain to Scotland’s young people why they should not get the same benefits as older people receive with their free bus passes.
Given the absence of any vision whatever from the other parties, I urge them to back Labour’s proposals. The SNP, Tories and Lib Dems have a very clear choice between a positive plan that gives our young people a break and starts to rebuild our bus network and more decline of bus services. My motion makes it clear whose side Labour is on—we are on the side of Scotland’s young people.