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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee 28 September 2021[Draft]

Agenda: Decision on Taking Business in Private, Subordinate Legislation, Committee Priorities


Contents


Subordinate Legislation


National Bus Travel Concession Scheme for Young Persons (Scotland) Amendment Order 2021 [Draft]

Agenda item 2 is consideration of a draft Scottish statutory instrument. I refer members to paper 1. We are joined remotely by the Minister for Transport and officials to discuss the draft order.

I welcome the minister, Graeme Dey. I also welcome: Tom Davy, the head of bus strategy and concessions policy at Transport Scotland; Debbie Walker, an operations and business manager at Transport Scotland; and Dorothy Cohen, a solicitor in the Scottish Government. This is the first time that the minister has appeared before the committee. We look forward to working with him in this parliamentary session.

The draft order is laid under the affirmative procedure, which means that the Parliament must approve it before it comes into force. Following the minister’s evidence, the committee will be invited under the next agenda item to consider the motion to recommend approval of the order. I remind everyone that Scottish Government officials can speak under this item but not in the debate that follows.

I invite the minister to make a short opening statement. Over to you, minister. [Interruption.] It looks as though we do not have the minister online right now, so we will suspend briefly.

09:33 Meeting suspended.  

09:39 On resuming—  

Welcome back to the meeting. Good morning, minister. Apologies for the brief technical interruption. As you know, this agenda item is consideration of the draft National Bus Travel Concession Scheme for Young Persons (Scotland) Amendment Order 2021. It is laid under the affirmative procedure, which means that the Parliament must approve it before it comes into force. I understand that you have an opening statement to make.

Thank you, convener. Good morning, colleagues on the committee. I appreciate the opportunity to make a few opening comments on the draft order.

The Parliament approved the initial order to establish a national bus travel concession scheme for young persons earlier this year and the order came into force on 1 April. The draft amendment order will raise the upper age limit for travel under the scheme from age 18 to age 21. It will also amend the reimbursement terms for bus operators carrying concessionary passengers under the scheme, establishing a rate of 43.6 per cent of the adult single fare for journeys that are made by under-16s and 81.2 per cent for journeys that are made by 16 to 21-year-olds.

Free bus travel for people under the age of 22 will strengthen our response to the climate emergency and will support our green recovery by embedding sustainable travel habits in young people. If the Parliament approves the amendment order, it will come into force on 12 November, and we are working with our delivery partners to allow young people who are aged 21 and under to travel under the new young persons scheme from 31 January 2022.

I commend the order to the committee and I am happy to answer any questions that the members might have.

Thank you for the opening statement. The first question is from Mark Ruskell.

Good morning. How do we build towards a successful launch on 31 January? Up until now, the message has been not to use public transport during the pandemic. Through the introduction of the amended concessionary travel scheme, there will be a relaunch of bus travel in Scotland. How are you preparing for that and for getting the message out there that, on 31 January, buses will be open for business, with young people able to travel for free and to enjoy the opportunities that that will bring?

Mark Ruskell makes a fair point. There is a communications plan to build up awareness of the scheme’s launch. Today is the first stage in that process. I might bring in Debbie Walker, because she is in charge of the implementation of the scheme and she can provide more detail on exactly what is happening.

We have a marketing team and a marketing agency that are building the graphics, design and package that will be put in place. We are working with the 26th United Nations climate change conference of the parties—COP26—to do a soft introduction to the scheme, with a big kick-off in January. Does that help?

That is useful. It would be good to see a bit more detail come through on that project when it is ready.

What do you see as an indicator of success for the policy? What would you expect to see in the first year if the policy is a success, as I am sure that it will be? On a related point, will the scheme increase the number of families who use bus travel? Although the focus is on under-21s, will the scheme drive more people on to the bus, including fare-paying passengers?

That is the ambition. We are all in the business of trying to increase the uptake of bus travel by all age groups. This particular age group is the one that relies most heavily on public transport. We are trying to embed bus travel as a preferred—[Inaudible.].

Sorry, can you hear me?

Yes, we can.

Sorry, I cut out there.

I was saying that, in part, the scheme is about embedding bus travel as a preferred means of transport for that age group. It is difficult to make projections with regard to success, because of the fact that, as you are right to point out, we are coming through the pandemic.

In the first instance, we will not see the levels of usage that we will ultimately see—there will be a soft period in which we will see some uptake, and we will have to build on that. We have estimates—guesstimates, to be frank—for levels of usage, but we are confident that the policy will be a major success.

09:45  

I have three very quick questions. First, given that the reimbursements to bus operators for the under-22s and over-60s schemes are significantly less than 100 per cent, what does your modelling show with regard to the impact on adult fares—that is, the fares for those between 23 and 59 years of age? Is there any risk that adult bus fares will have to increase to compensate for lost revenue?

Graeme Dey

Do you want to give me your other questions, Mr Kerr, or do you just want me to answer that one first?

Please answer that one first, minister.

That is fine. We do not believe that to be a risk, because we are working very closely with the bus operators on this scheme. The levels of reimbursement have been shaped very much on the basis of that dialogue, and we have committed to returning to the numbers if anything emerges to suggest that the levels are not appropriate. We therefore do not expect the type of issue that you have flagged up.

I am very grateful for that clear answer.

Secondly, correct me if I am wrong, but I believe that the funding for the over-60s scheme was cut in 2017. Given that people seem to be working longer, particularly as we recover from the pandemic, do you intend to reverse that cut? Is there a risk of some people feeling that you cut support for the over-60s scheme in order to pay for the under-22s scheme?

You will appreciate that 2017 was some time before I came into post, and all I can tell you is that the over-60s scheme is working effectively and efficiently. We have a very good working relationship with the bus operators, and I see all of these schemes sitting alongside each other but independently funding the various aspects of what is being delivered.

Again, I see no issue here. This scheme will enhance what we currently have and will certainly have no detrimental impact on anyone else. Apart from anything else, the greater the uptake of bus usage, the more sustainable some of the more endangered services will be.

Finally, what assurances do the bus companies have that the Government’s on-going subsidy costs of £55 million to support the scheme will be sufficient, are baked in and cannot be reduced in future years? Do you know off the top of your head which budget this is going to come out of?

It is important to recognise the various aspects of this relationship, which involves the bus operators, the Scottish Government and the teams who work with the operators for us. The scheme is and will remain fully funded; it will develop as the numbers come to the fore and we get a clearer idea of how many of each age group are using buses. I can tell you that putting all this together has been very much a team effort.

Good morning to the minister and his officials.

The policy is very welcome, but what is the Government’s response to the everyone aboard campaign, which is led by the Poverty Alliance and supported by 120 organisations and seeks to expand this scheme to everyone under 25 and people in receipt of benefits? Is that the direction of travel that the Government wants to go in? At what point will the scheme be reviewed after it comes into force next January?

We have a substantially good working relationship with the Poverty Alliance on a number of transport-related issues. As for extending the scheme, Ms Lennon will know that the priority in the scheme is under-22s, but I point out that we are planning a fair fares review that will look at the whole raft of bus and other transport-related fares and the range of discounts and concessionary schemes. It would be wrong of me to prejudge that review. We are aware of many asks in relation to public transport fares, and we know that everyone would like the scheme to be expanded in a variety of ways, but the way to do this is to have a proper review that looks at the matter holistically and produces findings that we can reflect on.

As well as the ability to access buses for free, we need to make sure that everyone, including young people, has access to bus services in the first place. On Friday, I joined some of the thousands of youth climate strikers in Glasgow, who are marching ahead of COP26 and who all want sustainable travel. One issue that was raised with me was reductions in bus services. Having the free bus pass is great, but if there is no bus to get on, it is not much use to anyone. With regard to that holistic approach, what is the Government doing to make sure that communities, including students, have proper bus services? My area has lost the X1 bus and, on Friday, students from the University of the West of Scotland also told me that the special bus that was put on when the campus moved stops running at 5 o’clock, and that is not much good to students in Lanarkshire. Can the minister and his team take that away and look at it as well, please?

Ms Lennon knows that she and I have met to discuss, among other topics, the X1 bus, even though responsibility for the X1 bus does not sit with the Government. She also knows that I am passionate about developing access to bus services, because that will be pivotal as we respond to climate change. As she knows, the specifics of individual services sit with local authorities or regional transport partnerships, but I point her to the commitment that we have shown during the pandemic, with the additional support that we have given to bus operators, to ensure that there are as many services as possible. It varies from area to area, but north of 90 per cent of services are currently running normally, and she should take that as an indication of our view of the importance of buses. If Ms Lennon has specific issues relating to the area that she represents, I direct her to talk to the relevant local authority or regional transport partnership.

Thank you.

Good morning, minister. The local authorities will be responsible for the roll-out of the scheme and, because I am still a councillor, you will probably not be surprised to hear me ask this question. What additional support will be needed or given to ensure that the local authorities have the scheme ready to go when it comes into place in January 2022?

Graeme Dey

If Ms Dunbar is content, I will bring Debbie Walker in to give her some specifics around that, because she is dealing directly with the local authorities.

We are working with our delivery partners, which are the Improvement Service and NECPO—the national entitlement card programme office—and they manage the application process and work with the local authorities to deliver that. The Improvement Service has established an online portal—getyournec.scot—which the majority of the 32 local authorities have signed up to. We hope that that will take away the brunt of the application process, because people will be doing it online. We are also working with our delivery partners in the local authorities to make sure that they are aware of what needs to happen, that they have application processes in place and that they are ready for the launch date. We are getting feedback from local authorities and working through that with them. As yet, nobody has raised serious concerns, because we have the online application process, which we anticipate that the majority of people will use, so just a small percentage of the population will need to go in and do face-to-face applications. Therefore, we have procedures in place and we are working with the local authorities to make sure that the process is as painless as possible for them.

I have a quick supplementary question. Are we ensuring that we get the message out there for young people to apply now, so that we do not get a huge number of applications at the beginning of January?

At the moment, we are not pushing that message out there. Our marketing for that will launch in January, and we are looking at a more controlled manner of getting the message out. We do not want people to apply for cards now, because the application process that we will be promoting has not been fully tested. Because we want to ensure that the system is as tested and as streamlined as possible and that everything is ready to go, we are not pushing the message that people should apply now for their cards. We would prefer it if people waited until January, when we will have everything in place and ready for the launch.

Following on from Jackie Dunbar’s question about local authorities, minister, I wonder whether you can clarify something. It says in our papers that, if the reimbursement is too low, bus companies might need support from a local authority. How do you plan to support what are already cash-strapped local authorities if they suddenly find themselves having to fund bus companies because their reimbursement is too low?

First, I do not recognise that concern. As I have explained, there has been a lot of engagement around the rate of reimbursement, and it will be monitored very closely to ensure that we do not get into that situation. That said, we are working very closely with the local authorities on a variety of issues, and we will ensure that they are not put in that position. After all, the scheme is being funded through mechanisms that have been agreed with the bus operators.

I asked the question because, according to your documents, the local authorities will have to pick up the pieces if things get to that stage. However, I have heard your answer.

Finally, given that the bus companies will be carrying more passengers for, I presume, less revenue, what incentive will they have to add new routes, particularly in rural or outlying areas?

Mr Kerr is conflating two different issues. The scheme is designed to persuade more young people to use bus services, but alongside that lie the provisions in the Transport (Scotland) Act 2019 that empower local authorities and regional transport partnerships to work with bus providers on developing the provision of routes. There might be a degree of crossover, but they are separate things.

Hmm. I have no further questions, convener.

The policy will save young people cash and support behavioural change in order to tackle climate change and might provide sustainability for bus companies that otherwise might not have it. I know that, at the start of the pandemic, the Government moved rapidly to keep the companies afloat, but the issue of the finances involved needs a bit more detail. Given that the reimbursement rate will be a symptom of any success that we have in the first two policy elements that I highlighted, when are you expecting to review the scheme and assess its delivery against targets, and when will the committee get any report in that respect?

Graeme Dey

Tom Davy will deal with the specifics of that question.

We are committed to monitoring and evaluating the scheme, and we are in the process of commissioning evaluators to undertake a baseline study of what is happening before the scheme becomes operational at the end of January. We will return to the study in a year’s time to find out whether the scheme is working as expected and whether anything is happening that we were not expecting, and we will, I think, come back to it again in three and five years’ time. In short, there will be the main evaluation, and then the first evaluation point will be one year into operation.

Which will be 31 January 2023.

Tom Davy

I am not promising that it will happen on that exact date, because fieldwork, surveys and so on will have to be carried out and then the report produced. That will tell us how we are doing.

The minister said that the provision of bus services is a separate and distinct issue, but clearly there is an interrelationship between success in getting young people to use bus services and the availability of services. In a constituency such as mine, it is easy to travel by bus east to west but difficult to do so north to south. I go back to the point that Monica Lennon made about the sustainability of services and the fact that many people want to travel in the early evening. Is there an opportunity during the year—not waiting for the year to be over—to get in better alignment with local government and its provisions? The sweet spot is getting more young people on buses while also getting sustainability and improved services in rural and semi-rural areas, in the evening in particular.

10:00  

Tom Davy

I am not sure whether you want me to say a little bit on that, minister.

I would be interested in the minister’s response.

Tom Davy

Am I audible?

I would be interested in the minister’s response, because he can help make that work happen.

Fiona Hyslop makes a good point. I can see the same pattern in my constituency. A sweet spot might emerge in our work with bus providers, and we could of course consider the type of agreements to which the member has referred through the regional transport partnerships.

In the initial phase of the scheme, we might not see the level of uptake that we will ultimately see as we come through the pandemic. I suspect that, during the initial period, we will not really get the full picture of what will happen. However, I expect the scheme to take off and a year from now we will have a clearer idea of the opportunities that arise from the scheme.

Good morning, minister. We have touched on the impact that the scheme might have on local authorities and regional transport partnerships. Do you envisage any impact on the procurement frameworks for school transport when the scheme is rolled out?

It is a good question, and we are alive to the issue. We recognise that an impact on school transport is possible. As you will appreciate, it is difficult to quantify at this stage, which is why we are in close dialogue with local authorities to monitor the impact as we move into the roll-out of the scheme.

Each local authority will have various different frameworks and tenders—there could be three-year or four-year frameworks—and there will be an impact on private transport providers as well. How can we align those frameworks?

The impact could be negligible in most places, but I recognise that it could be significant in others. I reassure the member that, in the bus space, the interaction between regional transport authorities, providers, local authorities and Transport Scotland is significant. Dialogue about those issues is on-going and we are on top of the matter.

There are no more questions from members at this stage.

Item 3 is the formal consideration of motion S6M-00962. I invite the minister to move the motion and to speak further to it if he wishes.

Motion moved,

That the Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee recommends that the National Bus Travel Concession Scheme for Young Persons (Scotland) Amendment Order 2021 [draft] be approved.—[Graeme Dey]

Do members have any final questions for the minister?

I just want to make the brief point that the policy will be brilliant and transformational for young people. The price of bus travel excludes so many young people, particularly in rural areas. On the wider issue of the quality of services, we have had constructive conversations with a number of bus companies that look forward to the scheme and are considering how to improve services on the back of it.

I was also pleased to hear from the minister about the commitment to a fair fares review. We will need to consider wider public transport at some point. I know that there is interest in ferries—free ferry tickets and so on. It will be important to consider the issues in the round, including any moves to extend the age limit further.

The scheme is welcome, and I hope that the launch at the end of January will be successful and that the message and the publicity can get out there to young people and families that free bus travel has now arrived.

The policy is a very strong one for young people, the climate emergency and the sustainability of buses, but the devil will be in the detail of the reimbursement rate. Liam Kerr and Jackie Dunbar raised that issue. Keeping close alignment with local authorities will be key to the policy’s success.

Collette Stevenson raised a very important point in relation to bus contracts. Some young people can get free bus transport because of the school transport legislation, but some do not. In many families, people do not live together. Sometimes a person who lives with one parent does not have access to free transport. Obviously, that has implications for the policy.

We welcome the broad thrust of the policy, but I encourage consideration of the sustainability of bus companies. What the policy means for individuals and how they live their lives will be an important part of the promotion of the policy and of the detail in working with local authorities on their transport contracts and with their education departments.

I encourage the minister to consider those things as the policy is—I hope—successfully rolled out.

There are no further contributions from members. Minister, would you like to address those issues in summing up?

I will be brief, convener, because I know that quite a lot of time was taken at the start of the meeting because of technical problems.

The policy has enormous potential, and it is a fantastic opportunity. I reiterate that we are alive to the risk of unintended consequences. The policy has been developed closely with partners to ensure that we avoid any negative consequences.

Fiona Hyslop is right, and she has made a number of very good points. Obviously, we will be happy to engage with the committee further on the issue in the review process, assuming that the motion is agreed to today. The alignment point is a very good one. As I have said, we commit to taking all of that away and including it in our thinking.

Motion agreed to,

That the Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee recommends that the National Bus Travel Concession Scheme for Young Persons (Scotland) Amendment Order 2021 [draft] be approved.

The committee will report on the outcome of the instrument in due course. Does the committee agree to delegate authority to me, as convener, to approve a draft of the report for publication?

Members indicated agreement.

I once again thank the minister and his colleagues for joining us, and I suspend the meeting before we take evidence from the next panel of witnesses.

10:07 Meeting suspended.  

10:11 On resuming—