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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 24 January 2017

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, Draft Scottish Energy Strategy, Forestry, ScotRail Performance Improvement Plan (Update), Decision Time, World Cancer Day


Topical Question Time

Concessionary Travel Scheme (Eligibility Age)

1. Mike Rumbles (North East Scotland) (LD)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it plans to increase the eligibility age for the concessionary travel scheme. (S5T-00336)

The Minister for Transport and the Islands (Humza Yousaf)

As previously mentioned in the chamber, we will undertake a consultation with key stakeholders about ways to ensure that the sustainability of the concessionary travel scheme is maintained for our older and disabled people. People are, of course, living longer, staying healthy for longer and staying in work later in life. We want to ensure that our successful concessionary bus travel scheme continues to benefit those who have the greatest reliance on free bus travel.

We want to extend concessionary travel to young modern apprentices and, later on, to young recipients of job grants, so we need to look at the longer-term sustainability of the scheme. We must not prejudge the outcome of the consultation, and we will, of course, listen to the range of views that are put forward across Scotland.

Let me be unequivocally clear that anyone with a bus pass will keep it, will be unaffected, and will remain eligible for the benefits of the scheme.

Mike Rumbles

The national concessionary travel scheme, which was guided through Parliament by my colleague Tavish Scott, has been a great success. It promotes social inclusion, helps older people to lead more active lives, encourages people to leave their cars at home, and is good for the environment. That is a win-win situation. The scheme gives freedom and, for some, a lifeline.

People will not be impressed by the Scottish National Party’s attempts to sweep changes under the carpet until after the council elections in May, as noted in an article in the Sunday papers. What is preventing the Scottish Government from coming clean now so that people know exactly where it stands on this?

Humza Yousaf

On a consensual note, let me first agree with Mike Rumbles on the scheme’s benefits. I remind him that the Government has funded the scheme for almost a decade, and we are very proud to do so, despite the various pressures on our budget. I agree with him on the benefits that he has highlighted. He should not believe everything that he reads in every Sunday newspaper.

It would be very illiberal and undemocratic if we did not go out to consultation, listen to people and take their views. We will go through a methodical process. Pre-engagement with stakeholders is important to form our views on any consultation. We will then let the public have their say on the scheme.

Mike Rumbles will understand that our aims to extend the scheme to modern apprentices and young people on job grants are very noble. We have to look at the scheme’s long-term sustainability, but we will do that very much bearing in mind what the public have to say and the scheme’s benefits, which Mike Rumbles articulated very well.

Mike Rumbles

We know that the Scottish Government’s starting point is free bus travel for everyone over 60 and that its desired end point is entitlement for young apprentices, which has just been mentioned. The question is whether there are any options on the table other than raising the age of eligibility. Is means testing on or off the table? Will there be a universal benefit? Will there be a fee for the national entitlement card? It would be helpful if the minister could rule that out right now. Do people not deserve to know what the SNP has in store for them?

Humza Yousaf

Of course people will know. Mike Rumbles talked about sweeping things under the carpet. We have talked about a consultation on the long-term sustainability of the scheme. The First Minister talked about that when she made her speech on the programme for government, and Derek Mackay mentioned it in his speech on the draft budget. The director of finance at Transport Scotland, Mike Baxter, mentioned it in front of a parliamentary committee. The consultation is not a surprise that we have somehow sprung on the Parliament; we have mentioned and discussed it.

We are going through a methodical process, and the first part of that process is having a conversation with stakeholders about some of the things that Mike Rumbles has talked about. Transport Scotland and I will do that. We will talk about the options and what we can look at, examine and explore in relation to the scheme’s long-term sustainability. We will then have a wide and very public consultation. We will hear views and, of course, come to a view. I am sure that Parliament, including Opposition members, will have its say. The process will be very public and transparent.

As I said, I think that most people around the country understand that extending the scheme to modern apprentices and young people on job grants is a very noble thing to do, but we have to consider its long-term sustainability, and we will do that in consultation.

Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

In the draft budget document, the Scottish Government says that it will look to

“constrain payments under the concessionary travel scheme for older and disabled people”.

Does the minister seriously plan to reduce concessions for disabled passengers, many of whom rely on buses as their only means of transport? Will he rule that out?

Humza Yousaf

Yes, I will rule that out. Let me give some absolute certainties. Those who have a bus pass will keep that bus pass; they will still be eligible for the scheme. There will be no change to the scheme for those with a disability. The other guarantee is that we will fulfil our manifesto commitment to extend the scheme to modern apprentices and, in time, young people who are on a back-to-work jobs grant.

Of course, for a number of years, the Conservatives have been pushing us to make changes to the concessionary travel scheme. We are certainly not going to make the changes that they have mentioned in the past. However, they will welcome the fact that we are looking to extend the scheme. As a consequence of that extension, we are consulting transparently on how we increase the scheme’s sustainability.

Neil Bibby (West Scotland) (Lab)

At last year’s election, the SNP manifesto made no mention of cutting the free bus pass, yet now it is proposing to cut nearly £10 million from the concessionary travel scheme budget and will consult on restricting eligibility.

The free bus pass, which was introduced by the previous Labour-Lib Dem Government, is a lifeline to many older people. They deserve to know what changes the SNP plans before May’s council elections. Will the minister confirm whether the Government is, in principle, committed to maintaining the current eligibility criteria? Will he ensure that all pensioners, forums and seniors groups are fully consulted in writing about the future of the bus pass? He says that he does not have a firm view and that the consultation is genuine. If a majority respond in favour of keeping the criteria the same, will he respect those views?

Humza Yousaf

Speaking about the concessionary travel scheme, Elaine Murray, Labour’s former transport spokesperson, said:

“we will be looking at the most effective way to provide support, including whether to raise the age to 65.”

Indeed, all political parties in the chamber, including the Labour Party, have discussed the topic.

The point that the member raises well is about consultation. We are in the pre-engagement phase. He makes a good point about the consultation. We should not just rely on online methods. It is important that we look at how we engage with various seniors groups and forums, including in face to face meetings . I will take away that point and reflect with my officials on how we will do that.

The member mentioned principles. Our principles are that those who have a free bus pass will remain eligible for the scheme and keep that pass; there will be no change for those with a disability; and we will extend the scheme to modern apprentices and to young people on a jobs grant. Within those parameters, we will at look at the sustainability of the scheme.

The member asks us to be open about the matter. That is the entire point of the consultation, which will be public and transparent.

Alison Johnstone (Lothian) (Green)

I make it clear that the Scottish Green Party does not see any need to consult on the proposal. The scheme is a good one. The Government is happy to fund a massive cut to air passenger duty. If the Government goes ahead with this, I suggest that it thinks about transferring some of that funding. The fact that we are looking at cuts of that scale while cutting £9.5 million from a concessionary travel scheme to people who really depend on buses tells me a lot about this Government’s priority. It is investing in unsustainable, polluting transport methods and hitting hardest those in the lowest budgets. Will the minister not scrap the consultation now?

Humza Yousaf

The attitude is that, somehow, the cut in APD or air departure tax—ADT—as we are going to be calling it, will affect only a certain class of people. It is completely unacceptable that, somehow, people from across Scotland do not go on holiday. That is a crass argument.

I thought that the Green Party would have welcomed the fact that we want to extend the scheme to modern apprentices and to young people on a jobs grant. We will do that. The consultation will be public and open, and I will welcome political parties’ involvement in it. It will go ahead, as we have said in the programme for government and the draft budget process. As I say, we will welcome the views from across not only the chamber but—perhaps more important—Scotland.

Rape Victims (Support)

2. Claire Baker (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to help victims of rape. (S5T-00340)

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice (Michael Matheson)

This Government is determined to ensure that a tough approach is taken to those who commit sexual crimes as well as helping to ensure access to appropriate and sensitive help and support for the victims of such crimes.

In March 2015, the First Minister announced an additional £20 million of funding over three years to help to tackle all forms of violence against women and girls, including putting in place better support for victims. From this budget, we awarded an additional £1.85 million to Rape Crisis Scotland to enhance existing specialist support services offered to victims of sexual offences and to establish two new services in Orkney and Shetland. Later this year, new statutory jury directions will be introduced to assist our courts in considering rape and other sexual offence cases.

We have also dedicated resources to NHS Scotland to accelerate the pace of work in implementing minimum standards for forensic examinations for victims of sexual crimes. We are aware of the challenges in implementing the standards uniformly across Scotland and understand the particular difficulties that rural and island locations have experienced in developing and maintaining the expertise required to deliver the services to victims. This is an area that we are committed to improving, and we will continue to support actions to bring to justice the perpetrators of sexual offences and to improve the support available to victims.

Claire Baker

Although I do not doubt the Scottish Government’s commitment to supporting victims of rape, research last year from Glasgow Caledonian University showed the weaknesses in some police responses and “A Woman’s Story” from Edinburgh Rape Crisis Centre has shown that much more needs to be done.

The cabinet secretary alluded to yesterday’s report that rape victims in Orkney and Shetland face arduous journeys to Aberdeen for forensic examinations as there are no facilities on the islands. When I raised the issue of medical examinations last year, the First Minister responded by saying that

“Victims should be offered an examination by someone of ... their choice at an appropriate location”—[Official Report, 2 June 2016; c 17.]

but yesterday’s report highlighted that that is still not taking place. What support will the Scottish Government provide for Shetland and Orkney to urgently address the lack of provision, and when can we expect rape victims across Scotland to be offered the choice of a female doctor in forensic examinations?

Michael Matheson

The member has raised a number of important points about how we provide appropriate and sensitive support to victims of crimes such as rape. In that respect, we have taken forward a range of actions, including the right to choose the gender of the person who conducts the medical examination, as part of the provisions in the Victims and Witnesses (Scotland) Act 2014 that we took through the Parliament.

There have been challenges in implementing in the national health service the minimum standards for forensic medical examinations for women who have been subject to sexual violence. Those challenges have been driven by a number of factors, and one of the principal factors that are posing real difficulty is the number of clinicians who have the necessary training and expertise to conduct these examinations. As the member will appreciate, there are very strict legal criteria for the way in which these examinations are undertaken, and there have been challenges in recruiting additional clinicians to undertake NHS Education for Scotland’s training programme for medical examiners. We are now undertaking further work, part of which will be taken forward by NES within the NHS in a survey of female doctors who might be interested in undertaking this form of examination. That work will be taken forward over the coming weeks with a view to recruiting more clinicians to conduct these examinations.

The other challenge, particularly for our island communities and some of our rural communities, is the limited number of incidents in which sexual violence might take place. The issue is ensuring that the staff who have received this training have the skills required to conduct these examinations on a regular basis, and as I have said, that has proven to be a challenge in some of our rural and island communities.

To ensure that we get greater consistency of approach in the application of the minimum standards, I have provided additional resource to NHS National Services Scotland for a dedicated co-ordinator’s post over the next two years. That person will be responsible for looking at the actions that all boards have taken to meet these standards, to identify gaps and to set out what action needs to be taken to address them.

Claire Baker

I appreciate the challenges that the cabinet secretary has outlined, but some timescales or targets for the resolution of the problems would be appreciated by victims.

Last week, we had the conclusion of the civil rape case that was brought by Denise Clair. Given the outcome and the evidence that was presented, many people will ask why the case was not taken forward as a criminal matter. The fact that only 12 per cent of reported rapes and attempted rapes make it to court means that victims are often left without justice. It is recognised that rape is a complex crime to prosecute, but Parliament passed the Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2009, which explicitly states that agreement cannot be given freely if the person is under the influence of alcohol. An increasing number of calls have been made for the Crown Office to revisit its original decision and for an inquiry to be held into why the case never proceeded to trial.

Will the Scottish Government support the undertaking of an appropriate inquiry into the Crown Office’s decision not to prosecute? Will it review the application of the 2009 act so that victims of rape can be confident that they will receive the utmost care—and, ultimately, justice—from the point of reporting this heinous crime to the verdict?

Michael Matheson

The member made two specific points. As regards the timeframe for the work that is being done to support health boards such as NHS Shetland and NHS Orkney that are experiencing challenges, some of that work is being progressed at the moment. The co-ordinator for working with health boards is already in post and the survey is about to commence; it is going through a pilot process, after which it will be sent out to all health board areas, as well as the different clinical groups that could participate in supporting this area of work.

As part of the domestic abuse and sexual violence strategy, work is also being done with NHS Shetland and the local police, in partnership with Rape Crisis Shetland, to look at what measures can be taken at local level to provide a better response to women who have been subjected to sexual violence.

Some of the work that Claire Baker asked about is being done, but I accept that the standard of service that is presently provided is not uniformly of the level that I and every other member would expect for women who have experienced such crimes. We are determined to do everything that we can to get greater consistency across the country, notwithstanding the challenges that are faced in our rural and island communities.

With regard to the civil case that was considered last week, as the member will recognise, prosecution of such matters is an issue for our independent prosecution services and it would not be appropriate for ministers to engage in those issues. However, the member will also recognise that the criminal proceedings statistics that were published last week demonstrated an increase in the number of sexual offence convictions that have been secured. There has been a consistent increase in the reporting of such crimes.

The member will also recognise that the burden of proof in a criminal case is markedly different from the burden of proof in a civil case. Anything to do with the decision on whether to prosecute a case is a matter for our independent Lord Advocate and the Crown Office.

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

The minister might like to know that four members wanted to ask supplementaries. I am afraid that there is no time today, as we have two statements and a debate to come, and there is no time in hand. The members who unsuccessfully requested a supplementary might want to press their request-to-speak buttons on other occasions later in the week, and I will bear that in mind.