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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 31 January 2018

Agenda: Urgent Question, Portfolio Question Time, Budget (Scotland) (No 2) Bill: Stage 1, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Bus Services, Correction


Contents


Bus Services

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani)

The final item of business today is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-09970, in the name of Ross Greer, on bus services. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament is concerned by reported rises in bus fares by First Bus, particularly in Glasgow and the West Scotland region; understands that fares for under-16s have risen by 40% and that single adult fares have increased by a further 15%; further understands that unaccompanied child fares have been withdrawn entirely following a move in 2017 to no longer offer return fares; considers that changes to fare structures that favour smartphone app-based ticketing will impact on those less likely to own a smartphone; expresses concern that fare rises will, it believes, also have a considerable negative impact on families, young people and low-earners; notes that several bus routes in Glasgow and the West Scotland region have been withdrawn or reduced, including the 4A service, with, it considers, little to no consultation with local residents, and further notes the view that that bus services should be affordable, environmentally sustainable and accessible to all members of society.

17:21  

Ross Greer (West Scotland) (Green)

After this afternoon’s debate, I am glad to provide members with an opportunity to vent their frustrations about something other than our colleagues in other parties. I am grateful to Labour and Scottish National Party members for supporting my motion and enabling it to reach the chamber. This debate might not quite generate the high political theatrics of the budget debate, but bus services is one of the biggest issues for hundreds of thousands of people in every corner of this country, and it is exactly the kind of issue that our constituents expect us to get to grips with.

Just yesterday, YouGov reported that its United Kingdom wide poll on the policies that people regard as most progressive found that reducing bus fares is the policy that people think would most help people on lower incomes, as opposed to wealthy people. It is not hard to see why. More than half of low-income households do not have access to a car, and many that do also rely on public transport in some way. People who have mobility issues as a result of an impairment or old age rely on buses to go about their daily lives, as do children and young people who travel to school, college, university and work.

For people who are looking for work, a reliable and affordable bus route to their local jobcentre—which might be far less local after the last round of closures—is often the only thing between them and benefit sanctions that force them into crisis.

More than 400 million local bus journeys are made every year. That is more than three-quarters of all public transport journeys. Those journeys are people going to work, school, college and university, they are people visiting friends and family, and they are people going to the shops, going to the pub and just living their lives.

Transport is central to all our lives—it is a vital public service. However, despite accounting for the overwhelming majority of public transport journeys, bus services are treated as anything but a public service across most of Scotland. Instead, they are run in the interests of private companies and their profit margins. As a result, we have seen bus services being run for profit over people. When times get tough, routes get cut, fares rise and pollution-reducing initiatives are delayed.

I acknowledge that congestion is the single biggest issue for public transport and bus services in Scotland. The Confederation of Public Transport, whose chair is in Parliament today, has made that point clearly. However, fare increases will not make the situation better; indeed, they will make it worse.

It does not have to be that way. Lothian Buses, here in Edinburgh, is a first-class example of a publicly run bus company that is run very much in the public interest. Lothian Buses is very much in the minority, though. In Glasgow and West Scotland, McGill’s bus service has hiked fares for students by 50 per cent by cutting its student day ticket. For a young person in Renfrew, that means paying about £20 more every month just to get to college or university for a couple of days each week.

This is not the first time in recent years that students have seen their fares go up with McGill’s. A young woman who has been hit by the changes got in touch with me. She lives in a small town just outside Glasgow, where there is no public transport option other than McGill’s. She has seen the price of a student day ticket increase substantially in the few years since she started studying, and she is struggling to stay on her course because of the constant financial pressure.

More than 5,000 people have signed a petition calling on McGill’s to reinstate the student ticket. The petition was launched by local member of the Scottish Youth Parliament Josh Kennedy, who has done a fantastic job to raise the profile of the issue and to win much support across all political parties. Josh and I will meet McGill’s next week to discuss the impact that the hike is having on local students. I hope that the company will begin to engage constructively with us in working towards an agreed solution.

McGill’s is not the only bus company involved, of course. In fact, the motion was lodged before its most recent fare hikes became an issue. I have raised the issue as a result of the damaging changes that were announced by First Bus some weeks ago in and around Glasgow and West Scotland. Those changes, including a 15 per cent increase for adults and 40 per cent increase for under-16s, have come at a time when many people have not had a proper pay rise for a decade and many benefits have been frozen.

I am thankful that the decision to increase fares for unemployed people has been reversed for now, due to public outcry and the cross-party work of Glasgow’s elected representatives. It is hard to state what a disaster the increases could have been in combination with recent jobcentre closures and the nightmare of a welfare system that is built around draconian sanctions.

The companies say that many fare rises are justified by restructuring that favours smartphone-based ticketing. What impact would the increases have on people who cannot afford a smartphone? As I have said, low-income households are far more likely to rely on bus services. Where is the justice in people having to pay more for essential public transport because they cannot afford a smartphone? The issue also concerns generational justice, because less than half of people aged between 55 and 64 own a smartphone.

The issue is not just about fare rises: many routes have been cut, too. The motion highlights the 4A route, which ran from Eaglesham in West Scotland to Knightswood in Glasgow. First Bus changed the route in 2016, which left entire communities without a service that was vital to many people. A bus service that is run truly in the public interest would not leave communities stranded through its pursuit of maximisation of profits.

Over the past decade, one fifth of bus routes in Scotland have been cut, with Glasgow and the west having been hit particularly hard. Route cuts have hit residents in areas including Auchinairn, Duntocher, Bishopbriggs, Linwood and Paisley. Time and again, communities outside central Glasgow and other cities have been left cut off or have faced increased journey times as buses have become more infrequent and more expensive.

Passengers are not the only people who lose out when profit is the overriding motivation. In Aberdeen, First Bus drivers have resorted to industrial action over an assault on their pay and conditions. They have described as “Victorian” changes that put them on the road for up to 10 hours a day and which mean that they are no longer paid for their breaks. The drivers certainly have the Greens’ solidarity.

In East Lothian, First Bus decided to cut all its routes. Luckily, the public sector stepped in and took over and the routes are now run by East Coast Buses, which is a subsidiary of publicly owned Lothian Buses. That is another example in which the public sector has picked up the pieces when the private sector has failed.

Members will have received from McGill’s a briefing that reads more like a stream of consciousness than a policy paper. It accuses us of “demonising profit”: for once, I do not totally disagree with the company. Private profit should have no place in an essential service such as public transport. The only priorities should be to provide an affordable, accessible and environmentally sustainable service for our communities. Right now, we have a patchwork of private and public bus provision across Scotland, along with plenty of public subsidies for private firms. That has created a lottery for communities; some cities have benefited far more—for example, from flat fares for all journeys—and some rural areas are better connected than others that have been left nearly isolated.

We need to ensure that public options are available across Scotland, so that everyone can enjoy high-quality services. The private sector free-for-all experiment with public transport has failed for decades. It is time for reregulation and a public transport system that is run truly and entirely for the public good.

17:28  

Tom Arthur (Renfrewshire South) (SNP)

I congratulate Ross Greer on securing the debate. He has put a lot of effort into bringing this important issue to the chamber. He has stated that a buses debate may not typify “high political theatrics”, but if he has been door-knocking in an election campaign in rural areas like Howwood, Lochwinnoch and Uplawmoor, he will find that it is a very pressing issue.

My constituents in such places have lost bus routes over the past 10 to 15 years. I have met the bus companies and been struck by the tension between private interest and public responsibility. This debate is analogous with the debate about bank branch closures: the banks are private enterprises but they provide a public good, so how do we get that balance correct? What is the correct approach? Proposals in the forthcoming transport bill, including giving more flexibility and options to local authorities, are the correct way to go.

It is important to consider the broader context in which those decisions are taken by First Bus and others. We know that congestion is worsening, that car ownership has risen substantially in recent years and that costs have increased; bus operators have said that their costs have gone up by 15 per cent over the past five years. In addition, the number of bus journeys has decreased by almost 15 million in the past four years. The reasons behind that are complicated, and the bus operators say that 75 per cent of the factors behind that drop in patronage are outwith their control. We have a duty to maximise the appeal of public transport in all its forms.

Ross Greer effectively highlighted the context in which proposed fare rises have been enacted and the groups in society that are most likely to have been affected. He said that there is generational inequality. That is a key point. It was, allegedly, Margaret Thatcher—although it might have been someone else—who said that anyone over 30 who rides on a bus has failed in life. I am over 30 and I proudly still use the bus. It is young people and elderly and retired people, in particular, who use buses.

It is a difficult circle to square. In engaging with bus companies locally, I have found that there is demand in village communities, but that that demand is limited, and the bus companies simply say that they cannot justify providing a service on commercial grounds. As Ross Greer said, bus companies have a public duty, as do banks, but as well as having a corporate responsibility, they have a commercial responsibility to their employees. I say that as the member for Renfrewshire South—a constituency that includes the McGill’s depots in Barrhead and Johnstone.

In my view, a balance must be struck. We must have equity and fairness in fares, and cognisance must be taken of the ability to pay of the key groups who use bus services. Equally, regard must be had to the sustainability of bus companies. I look forward to the introduction of the proposed transport bill as a means of giving local authorities the flexibility to create bus services that are truly sustainable and which benefit all our constituents.

17:32  

Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

I thank Ross Greer for bringing this important debate to the chamber and giving me the chance to share my views on the subject.

The motion raises the important issue of bus fare rises, especially those that affect under-16s, who are less able to absorb such rises. In anyone’s eyes, a fare rise of 40 or 50 per cent, which Ross Greer mentioned in his speech and in the motion, is excessive and unacceptable.

I appreciate that First Bus is a private company, but the private sector has a responsibility to ensure that consumers are given a fair deal. Affordable local bus services are essential, not just in allowing non-drivers to get around in the way that Ross Greer mentioned, but in helping us to meet our important CO2 emission reduction targets and to create a better environment in general. However, if people are to be encouraged out of their cars, they need viable alternatives. That means affordable, reliable services that go from where people are to where they want to be.

I am in no way here to justify decisions that have been made by private operators—indeed, I have written many letters to the operators of services in North Ayrshire, and I share the frustration of constituents when services are reduced or removed completely—but it is important that we look at the environment that those companies are operating in to see what we can do to address some of the problems in the sector.

KPMG found that 75 per cent of the relevant factors were outside the control of bus operators. Those factors included changing shopping habits, growing car ownership and greater congestion. Over the past decade, congestion has caused an increase of 10 per cent in average journey times, while growing car ownership has shifted people from buses into cars. We have a fundamental problem with bus patronage in Scotland, which has reduced by 16 per cent in the past decade. It is no great surprise that if a bus route is cut in someone’s area, they will simply switch to the car, because there is no other choice. It is an unfortunate vicious cycle: the routes are cut because of falling passenger numbers, but passenger numbers are reducing because of routes being cut. The question is how we break that cycle.

I know that bus companies’ operating costs have risen by around 15 per cent in the past five years, but that cannot and should not necessarily translate into fare increases.

The question that I pose to the industry concerns what it is doing to mitigate such rises. A shift to more environmentally friendly and cheaper-to-run vehicles is one way forward. Lothian Buses is an example of a company that has invested in a greener fleet and that work is to be commended, but even that company has seen satisfaction levels reduce to a 4-year low.

Progress has been made on vehicle types, but it is often the rural and small-town services that continue to run older rolling stock. In that context I will mention concerns about low-emission zones. If the zones create an environment in which cities place restrictions on certain types of vehicles, it is important that bus services do not compound the problem outside cities by moving stock into the surrounding areas that are outside the limits of those zones. That is something else that we should consider.

There is a fundamental and, perhaps, ideological debate to be had about whether bus services should be nationalised, further regulated, subsidised or, indeed, publicly funded. We probably do not have time for that in the short time that we have today, but we should have it. I welcome the proposals that I think will be in the transport bill to look at giving local authorities more freedom to operate models that work best for their communities. We will certainly look at that very carefully and sympathetically.

We have also been calling for a long time for improvements to community bus services. I will work with members from across the chamber on any sensible proposals that seek to improve bus services and I look forward to being part of the on-going debate on the issue.

17:36  

Johann Lamont (Glasgow) (Lab)

I congratulate Ross Greer on both his motion and his speech about an issue that is recognised across the chamber as being very important. When First Glasgow announced its fare increases at the beginning of the new year—the 10 per cent rise for unemployed people, the 40 per cent increase for young people at school and a number of other changes—I was very struck by the reaction of people across the communities that I represent. Those increases caused a great fuss, but beyond that emerged a picture of how much buses matter to people.

As a consequence of raising the question of bus fares, it was not just people’s anger about those fare changes that was flagged up to me, but the fact that very many unemployed people were not even aware of the discount for job seekers. The minister can correct me if I am wrong, but the way in which the concessionary travel scheme operates offers a perverse incentive for bus operators to keep the single bus fare high. That is something that would be worth looking at.

The Educational Institute of Scotland contacted me to highlight its concerns about what it has called text poverty, because it was having a campaign around child poverty. Text poverty is the inability of the very people who would benefit from it most to benefit from a reduction in fares that is available for people who use their phone. That is utterly ironic and unacceptable. I can understand why bus operators might want to move to such systems, which are seen as being more efficient, but they cannot use the price structure of fares in a way that most disadvantages the poorest. That must surely be unacceptable.

I ask the minister to confirm in his summing up what meetings he has had with First Glasgow to raise concerns about its unacceptable decisions. On the point that was made by the previous speaker, Jamie Greene, about whether public money should be used on bus services, I say that the public money is already there, but the problem is that there is very little or no accountability for that money, so it is entirely reasonable that the question should be pursued.

As I have already said, buses matter. The vast majority of public transport journeys are by bus and the sector is dominated by four large companies, with simple consequences. We have seen a massive reduction in the number of journeys and routes, and a rise in fares. When we say that people do not use the buses, it is a question of the chicken and the egg. We want stability.

I will highlight one other issue that particularly relates to young people. They are predominantly flexible workers now and, too often, the public transport system operates on the basis that people work between 9 and 5 o’clock. In many of our communities, people are utterly disadvantaged because they cannot access the transport that they need to get to their work.

The question is not just about highlighting concerns but about recognising that there are solutions. This debate has been in the public domain for a long time. I congratulate Unite on its haud the bus campaign. In declaring an interest as a member of the Co-operative Party, I highlight its people’s bus campaign, which does not just provide an analysis of the problem, but offers solutions. The party wants to talk about community transport in particular, and how we can support not-for-profit providers and recognise that the business is currently stacked against such organisations. It has a very particular view on how that can be progressed. I ask the minister whether he would be willing to meet me, my fellow Co-operative Party members and our group in the Scottish Parliament to discuss further with him how our proposals can offer real solutions to the very real problems that have been experienced by far too many people across our communities.

Buses matter a great deal. The issue is not just about fares; it is also about sustaining communities and allowing people to get to work or study and to enjoy their leisure time.

17:40  

John Finnie (Highlands and Islands) (Green)

I join with colleagues in congratulating Ross Greer on bringing this motion to the chamber.

So far, there has been some very interesting discussion on who uses buses. Many who do so have no alternative: that is the mode of transport that they require to take. We might also consider who uses cars. Clearly, if someone has a car they will have the alternative of using a bus, but that is often seen as being inconvenient. I therefore go along with what Tom Arthur said about our needing to maximise the appeal of using buses.

Lest that is seen as criticism of car ownership, I draw a very clear distinction on the position in rural communities, in which a car is often a necessity in the absence of the availability of public transport. Community transport plays an important role in some places, but at the moment it faces legislative challenges regarding its introduction, which I know that the minister is aware of. I have written to him about it, and his colleagues at Westminster are dealing with it on the Transport Committee. However, it is clear that the car lobby has always received a more positive response than the public transport lobby has.

We heard from Ross Greer about the negative impact on families, young people and low earners and about the positive implications that reduced bus fares could have.

Public transport is delivered by the private sector, so there is an inevitable conflict with the making of profit. Others have alluded to the loss of services in East Lothian—I know that there are similar issues in Midlothian at the moment—and it is right to say that a publicly owned response addressed that void. Services are operated purely on a commercial basis. Indeed, local authorities can offer subsidy for operation of a “socially necessary” service that cannot be provided commercially, but only once it has established that it cannot be so provided.

A lot of statistics have been quoted—and some are more current than the ones that I was going to use—but it is important to illustrate points with information. The following is from a Scottish Parliament information centre briefing. In the decade up to 2014-15, the number of local bus journeys fell by 46 million to 414 million. During that period, bus fares increased by 13.5 per cent above inflation and, as we have heard, that was often in the context of a reduced number of routes. In 2014-15, local authority subsidy for socially necessary bus services was £57 million and Scottish Government subsidy for concessionary fares was £189 million.

Much has been said about First Bus. Although it is not in my remit, I am aware of the problems that have been caused, which are notwithstanding the significant amount of public money that goes into it.

Members have alluded to issues of congestion and bus gates. People in Inverness, in my region, are frustrated about the efficiency of the service, but they all want to drive their motor vehicles into the town centre and be positively encouraged to do so by Highland Council. Therefore we have to make sure that it is practical to have buses running.

Reference has been made to the situation in Aberdeen. I, too, lend my support to the workers involved with First Bus there. There has been little or no consultation with local residents. I know that party colleagues have been liaising with Unite about that. We are having to deal with a situation in which there is cherry picking of routes that are profitable.

I want the proposed transport bill to be an opportunity to promote models such as the Lothian Buses model and to make better use of services. Fairly recently, I spoke about the time when prescriptions used to come to people in rural communities on the bus.

The Minister for Transport and the Islands (Humza Yousaf)

You are showing your age.

John Finnie

I certainly am showing my age. We have to maximise vehicle use. If a vehicle is going somewhere, it should be carrying parcels and it should have bike trailers and the like.

Socially necessary services must be delivered by public transport. Some members might be familiar with the statement that true equality will not be reached when every citizen has a motor car; it will be reached when every millionaire uses public transport. We are way short of that, but here’s hoping.

17:44  

Bob Doris (Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn) (SNP)

Like others, I congratulate Ross Greer on securing the debate. When I saw his motion come through, I was preparing to lodge a motion of a similar nature. However, the issue concerned is something on which we do not compete with motions: we sign up to the motion and get cross-party support for it and—I hope—consensus on how we can influence the forthcoming transport bill to improve matters. That is why I am speaking in the debate.

With regard to the bus price increases that have impacted on my constituents in Maryhill and Springburn, I put on the record—if there is any need to, of course—that they are unacceptable and unjustifiable. They will have a direct impact on the quality of life of individuals and families across the area that I represent, and they will impact on children and jobseekers, despite some of the mitigation around that. What a complete lack of awareness First Glasgow showed when it implemented the price change when my local jobcentre was closing. The price change will impact on the working poor and not just the unemployed, on the most vulnerable and, as we have heard, on the information technology excluded and some older citizens. All that has come from a so-called service without there having been any meaningful consultation whatsoever, any meaningful equality impact assessment or any attempt to mitigate the impact. I state for the record that it should not be legal to do that and that we have look at that.

I am going to give members some algebra now, because I am going to mention lots of bus services in my area that have been reduced or cancelled in recent years. We have heard about the 4A, which used to go into Kelvindale, but it was pulled from there. Then the M4 came along, which I had to fight for, as a use-it-or-lose-it service. It was a pretty poor service, but it was better than nothing. However, we lost it and Strathclyde partnership for transport went on to subsidise a service that is even more inferior. What is the future for it? Who knows?

One of the ideas was that we could divert the number 15 service from Summerston in my constituency to go through Kelvindale, but that could not be done because the 15 no longer existed. It had been replaced by a number 8 service that now—if the minister is still following this—no longer goes down part of Sandbank Street in my constituency, which means that vulnerable old people can no longer get a bus to the local health centre.

There used to be a competitor to First Glasgow in the Kelvindale area, which was Stagecoach. It could not make a profit, so its G2 service was pulled. However, it had another service, which was the G1 service that served Firhill, Possilpark and Hamiltonhill. That could not make money either, but there was yet another service—if the minister is still following this—which was the M4 service, which went twice an hour through Hamiltonhill. That is a vital service, but it is now reduced to once an hour.

I spoke to First Glasgow and SPT and pointed out to them that there was yet another service—the 128—that ran a similar route to the one that the M4 used to run.

Jamie Greene

Will the member take an intervention?

Bob Doris

No, thanks—not on this occasion.

I suggested that they could vary the 128 route to serve all the communities, because the 128 was a subsidised route. However, I was told by both SPT and First Glasgow that that is not how things work. If there was ever justification for some kind of integrated public bus service—perhaps a franchise—that was it. The current service is not efficient by any stretch of the imagination. We can run an improved service at a cheaper cost and with lower fares if we look to franchising and how to go about that. When we franchise, we can put in some form of price controls as well. So, we have got there in the end. I note that there is capping of rail price increases, so it can be done.

Just to recap, if members are following this, whether it is the 4A, the M4, the G1, the G2, the 15, the 8, the 128 or even the 90 and others that I have not mentioned, there is a much better way of doing things.

I thank Ross Greer for bringing the matter to public attention. I thank the minister for the engagement that I have had with him on the transport bill that will come before the Parliament shortly. I hope that we can get consensus that there is a better way to run a bus service, not just for my constituents in Maryhill and Springburn but for people across Glasgow and Scotland, and preferably with much more public control.

17:49  

Colin Smyth (South Scotland) (Lab)

I thank Ross Greer for lodging his motion, which is on an issue that has greatly concerned members in Glasgow and West Scotland, including my colleague Johann Lamont and others. They have campaigned vociferously on behalf of their constituents against First Bus’s unacceptable fare hikes, which impact disproportionately on young people.

The matter raises fundamental issues about how we manage bus services, not only in Glasgow and West Scotland but right across the country, and that is the issue on which I will focus my brief comments. As we know, buses are disproportionately used by young people, older adults, the unemployed, students and often other people on low incomes. Spiralling bus fares therefore hit those who can least afford it, and the savage cuts to services in recent years have often removed the only viable travel option for many.

First Bus’s unacceptable fare increases reflect a wider trend of rises by bus companies right across Scotland. Adjusting for inflation, bus fares have increased by an average of 12 per cent in the 10 years from 2006 to 2016. The latest set of fare rises are not a one-off; they are a result of a system that is failing and that will continue to fail until we intervene.

The challenges that we face with bus services go beyond price hikes. There are growing problems with the regularity and availability of buses, and private bus companies often remove services with little warning and no consultation. Services across Scotland have been steadily diminished over recent years, with the number of vehicle kilometres covered by local bus services decreasing by 17 per cent from 2007 to 2016. With fares rising and services contracting, it is no surprise that bus use is plummeting. Provisional figures from Transport Scotland show that, between 2007 and 2016, the total number of journeys taken by bus each year declined by 19 per cent in Scotland and by 27 per cent in the south-west and Strathclyde.

The problems have been compounded by funding cuts, with total government support for buses going down by 12 per cent between 2009 and 2016, while bus service operating grants were cut by 22 per cent in the same period. Today’s budget deal will put further pressure on local council budgets and, because local councils provide much of the funding for contracted bus routes, that will inevitably lead to the loss of further routes. As well as the devastating impact that those trends have on communities, failing to deliver sustainable public transport is also bad for our environment.

We need a bold rethink of how we manage bus services in Scotland. The Government and the bus companies are failing the travelling public. People are being priced off the bus, and connectivity, particularly in our small towns and rural areas, is being undermined. Staff in the bus companies are also being failed. As research by Transport for Quality of Life reported, we have seen

“a ‘race to the bottom’, with companies striving for commercial advantage through obtaining the lowest staff pay and worst working conditions.”

The case for reregulation and alternative modes of bus ownership has never been stronger. Scotland has fallen behind much of the rest of the UK and the Government needs to wake up to the fact that the unregulated market simply is not working. The Government has a consultation on improving the framework for delivery of our bus services, but the minister has already ruled out consideration of wholesale reregulation.

We are therefore left with the possible alternative option of franchising. If implemented properly, that could result in significant improvements in services, but it must include giving local councils the ability to run bus services and features such as standardised fares. In developing proposals, I hope that the Government will consider the possibility of a national bargaining agreement for workers’ terms and conditions across the sector to stop the race to the bottom that we have seen. As Johann Lamont said, we need to explore the Co-operative Party’s people’s bus proposals, which would mean supporting co-operative and social enterprise bus operators and other not-for-profit operators in running bus services that are affordable and responsive to local people’s needs.

The debate has been a good opportunity to expose First Bus’s unfair price rises in Glasgow and the west of Scotland, but I hope that it is also the start of a debate on how we radically reform our bus services in Scotland so that passengers, not profit, become the priority.

17:53  

Maurice Corry (West Scotland) (Con)

I thank Ross Greer for bringing this pertinent and interesting debate to the chamber. I believe that his motion raises a number of important issues that affect a large number of people in Glasgow and in my West Scotland region, so it is good to have the chance to talk about them this evening. People have varying views on the issue.

It is vital that bus firms remember that they are providing an essential public service and it is important that they consider the public as well as commercial issues in making their decisions. Every decision that they make affects the daily lives of tens of thousands of people. By putting up fares by inflation-busting amounts, bus firms put a large demand on many people with tight budgets. In particular, the 30 per cent of Scottish households who do not have access to a car, or the closer to 50 per cent of such households in Scotland’s most-deprived communities, feel the effect of those decisions most of all.

The evidence points towards people being forced off buses because of fare increases. Figures show that the number of bus journeys fell from 436 million in 2011-12 to 409 million in 2015-16, with provisional estimates showing a further fall to 393 million last year. Over the same period, fares have risen by nearly 60 per cent. Undoubtedly, there must be a connection between the two.

Those figures are backed up, as my colleague Jamie Greene said, by an independent analysis by the auditors KPMG that showed that reduced bus service routes and increased bus journey times arising from congestion accounted for a fall of 5.9 million trips, with the increases in bus fares being pinpointed as putting people off making at least 4 million trips.

However, First Bus is able to put up its fares by 40 per cent not due to a lack of Government intervention into the marketplace, but due to a lack of competition in the market. In many areas of Scotland, individual bus firms have massive shares of the market, meaning that there is no pressure on them to provide good-quality vehicles, to ensure that they are punctual for a regular service, or to keep fares as low as is reasonable.

I take slight issue with Ross Greer on that point, because private companies are obviously in business to make a profit and to keep the buses running and they must reinvest in their buses and equipment. I was talking to a bus operator in my local area the other day. His is a private family business that runs a very good service, including the hospital service from Helensburgh through Alexandria and Dumbarton to the Royal Alexandra hospital, and he has recently invested again in new, environmentally friendly buses, which will please Mr Greer’s party no end. Those costs are not inconsiderable, so they have to balance, but the operator has a good liaison with the councils involved, both West Dunbartonshire Council and Argyll and Bute Council.

Ross Greer

I absolutely agree with Maurice Corry that moving towards environmentally sustainable fleets is important. Does he acknowledge that the issue with private companies is that it is simply up to them whether they make that investment, as they are working in the interests of their own companies? The issue is that there is no regulation. A public service that was run in the public interest would be compelled to improve services. With private companies, it is at the whim of the owner of each company.

Maurice Corry

I understand Ross Greer’s point, but I return to the fact that it is a partnership. In such a partnership, the local authority wants professionals who run buses to run bus services for them. My previous interest in the matter was as a councillor on Argyll and Bute Council, and I had discussions all the time with officers about the fact that, if we have private operators, we need to ensure that we work in partnership with them, because they bring the equipment, skills and knowledge. I have seen bus routes that we had to cancel and then re-let, and maybe more subsidies had to go in, so we have to play each one as it comes. I do not believe in total state control, and there are certainly people out there who want to invest. If we work together properly with them, the private operators will deliver, especially those who are conscious of the fact that they are serving their communities.

I am sure that we all want an increase in the number of journeys that are being made using public transport, particularly buses, because it is more environmentally friendly—the new buses in my area are an example of that—and because it will help to fight the congestion issues in many of our towns and cities. However, to achieve that goal we need more companies in the market, not more big government; I made that point to Ross Greer.

We need more buses. The figures and statistics from the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency show that 100,000 fewer young people took driving tests last year, and that is because the cost of running a motorcar is greater nowadays and is getting progressively more expensive. There will be more need for those people to use buses. It is good to hear that, but we obviously understand that there is a shift in the market.

Finally, I want to touch briefly on the point in Ross Greer’s motion about smartphone technology. We all support business finding new and innovative ways of making life easier for customers, but it strikes me that what is being proposed for smartphones is a little bit unfair. As Ross Greer quite rightly pointed out, it will mainly disadvantage poor people and the elderly, who we also know are the people most likely to use the bus. I hope that First Bus will reconsider its decision on that.

17:59  

Neil Bibby (West Scotland) (Lab)

I join other members in welcoming this evening’s debate on the motion in Ross Greer’s name. I have a few brief remarks to make. I am happy to support Mr Greer’s motion, because it has given us the opportunity to discuss concerns over fare rises by First Glasgow, changes to student day tickets by McGill’s Buses, and wider issues about who runs public transport and who it is run for.

Like other members, I have spoken to many constituents who are concerned about bus fare rises and, in the past few years, I have spoken to constituents in places such as Eaglesham and the west end of Paisley who are concerned about First Glasgow’s bus service cuts. Too often, bus services are cut without any public consultation and that has to change.

The proposal by McGill’s Buses to withdraw student day tickets, in particular, has been met by significant opposition from students in my region. As Ross Greer said, the issue has been raised by members of the Scottish Youth Parliament such as Josh Kennedy, who should be commended for their campaigning efforts. It has been mentioned that more than 5,000 people have signed an online petition that calls for the student day ticket to be reinstated, which shows the strength of feeling among local young people. It is important that they are listened to.

Students are among the most regular bus users. From speaking to a number of students in Renfrewshire and Inverclyde, I know that student tickets that are provided by companies such as McGill’s are very popular but, often, they are also a financial necessary. That perhaps explains the response that we have seen.

As I have said before and will say again, we have a broken bus market and there has been a decade of decline in bus patronage. It is hard to see how increasing fares in general and the significant increase in fares for students will reverse that decline. Across the Parliament, we surely understand that there must be a modal shift towards public transport if we are to tackle climate change, improve social inclusion and alleviate congestion in urban areas, but the figures, as Maurice Corry just mentioned, sadly show that we are going in the wrong direction.

I hope that, in this case, McGill’s Buses will listen to the views of the thousands of students in my region and that they will take seriously the views expressed by members of the Scottish Youth Parliament. I also hope that First Glasgow will listen to the issues that have been raised by other members this evening.

From the briefings that have been provided by, for example, the Confederation of Passenger Transport UK, we know that bus companies have concerns about the conditions in which they operate. Although I do not always agree with the bus companies, I think that they make a valid point about the links between investment in buses and the wider social benefits. However, if we cannot get a rethink from McGill’s Buses on the issue of student day tickets or from First Glasgow on the issues that have been presented to it, that will be further evidence that the status quo is not an option.

I declare an interest as a member of the Co-operative Party and Unite the union and, like them, I believe that public transport is a public service. It should be run in the interests of passengers and not just those of the big bus companies. Only with greater democratic control over bus services can we secure a fairer deal for bus passengers in areas such as Renfrewshire, and I hope that there will be measures in the forthcoming transport bill that will make that aim a reality. I urge the minister to be bold and radical. If he is, he will have the support of many of Scotland’s passengers.

18:03  

The Minister for Transport and the Islands (Humza Yousaf)

I thank Ross Greer for bringing the debate on his motion to the chamber. He is absolutely right—it is incredible that 75 per cent of public transport journeys are made by bus. However, bus services do not get air time that reflects that, so it is important that Ross Greer lodged his motion. The debate and the speeches by members from across the chamber have been excellent, and have provided a lot of food for thought. I will try my best to address as many of the points raised as possible.

I completely understand passengers’ frustration when there are fare increases. I have no doubt that fare increases are unwelcome for any mode of transport, but in some cases, passengers feel that they are not getting a service that justifies the increase. I understand that.

It is important that I use my time to focus on the common areas of action that we can take forward in the proposed transport bill, in particular, and through other initiatives. There is probably no point in spending too much time on the areas on which there are obvious disagreements, such as wholesale reregulation. On ownership, I suggest to members who have not spoken to passenger groups such as Passenger Focus and others that it is worth their while to do so. The feedback that I get from such passenger organisations is that who owns the buses is not so much an issue. Issues for passengers are reliability, affordability and so on. I know that some members will say that there is a link, but it is worth noting that between 1960 and 1974, when the buses were regulated, we saw the steepest decline. There was not just a decade of decline, as was mentioned by one member: we are talking about decades of decline for which every single one of us who has been in power has some responsibility.

John Finnie

I readily accept that passengers want a good service and that ownership is a secondary issue. However, if there are problems, public ownership means that there is a line of accountability that does not exist if there is a profit motive.

Humza Yousaf

I accept that and will come on to talk about democratic accountability for our bus services.

Neil Bibby said that he does not believe that the status quo is working, and I agree with that assessment. That is why I want to talk about measures that we will take forward in the forthcoming transport bill.

Before I do that, I reiterate a point that I think members have articulated well tonight. Congestion is clearly an issue in many of our urban areas and conurbations. Local authorities have some powers to tackle congestion, and I know that some excellent work has been done in some of our cities to do that. One example is the recently announced Glasgow connectivity commission, which is headed by David Begg, who will be known to many members and is someone who I greatly respect. He will be looking at the challenges that face transport, with a particular focus on congestion.

Bob Doris

My constituents would never forgive me if I did not make this point. One of the things that Glasgow City Council is doing to deal with congestion is having fewer bus stops, which means that there are fewer places to get off. That is having an impact on the quality of the service for a lot of my constituents. There are contradictions in some of the public policies that happen at local level.

Humza Yousaf

I am pleased that Bob Doris will receive the forgiveness of his constituents, and he is right to raise the point. He should raise it with Glasgow City Council. The connectivity commission’s purpose is to look at local policies that might affect transport in a connected and integrated way.

I go back to Neil Bibby’s point about the status quo not working and him asking us to “be bold and radical”. The measures that we are consulting on, and have consulted on, for inclusion in the forthcoming transport bill are bold and radical, and represent a shift from the status quo. I look forward to members scrutinising the proposals in great detail and coming back to us with their suggestions and potential amendments.

We are looking at proposals including enhanced partnership working, which is something in which SPT’s Strathclyde bus alliance, Glasgow City Council and others are interested. The bill will also introduce measures including local franchising, which has been mentioned by some members. That is because local authorities have asked us for those powers. We also hope to remove the legal dubiety that exists around whether we can have council-owned bus companies in order to give local authorities the option to do that.

Johann Lamont made a good point about fares and the public often not knowing what the fares structure is. She also mentioned the reverse incentive around single fares. That is why we have consulted on open data, which would effectively force bus operators to be more open and transparent about their fares structures.

Johann Lamont

This is a point that has been raised with me, so the minister could clarify it for me. Concessionary fares are calculated as a percentage of the single bus fare. That creates an incentive for the company to maintain the price of a single fare at a higher level. If that is true, it is within the minister’s gift right now to change it. What are his comments on that?

Humza Yousaf

We are in active discussion with the CPT about concessionary fares reimbursement. Other people have raised that point with me; I am more than happy to keep Johan Lamont updated on that. We consulted on concessionary travel recently—the member might have contributed to it, in which case she will know that we have to get agreement with the bus companies, and there has to be some give and take. Certainly, the issue of the single fare has been raised with me.

Jamie Greene

Will the minister take an intervention?

Humza Yousaf

If Mr Greene does not mind, I would like to make some progress first, because I want to talk about measures in the forthcoming transport bill and other measures that we are taking forward. It is almost as if Jamie Greene rose on cue, because he mentioned one earlier that I think is worth mentioning again—our emissions reduction agenda and the introduction of low emission zones. For me, buses are very much part of the solution, not part of the problem. If we can reduce the number of privately owned cars going into our city centres, which is where the first four low emission zones will be, we will be onto a winner.

Jamie Greene

How would the minister respond to suggestions—albeit that they are perhaps based on anecdotal evidence—that if there were substantive changes to the pricing structure for concessionary travel and the subsidy that is given to bus companies, the bus companies would react simply by reducing and cutting services?

Humza Yousaf

There should be no justification for that, because concessionary travel reimbursement is based on the premise that the bus company will be no worse off and no better off. That is the basis on which we negotiate with the CPT.

That brings me to the point about local democratic engagement. Some members have said that they feel that bus services have been cut without there having been adequate engagement with the local community. I accept that some people in some communities feel that there has not been adequate consultation. We expect bus operators to engage but, of course, through our proposals in the transport bill, I should be able to ensure absolutely that passengers are at the very heart of bus service delivery and that some democratic accountability is at the heart of things.

I also say that one size does not fit all. All of us would recognise that there are some unacceptable practices by bus operators, but it is worth saying that there are some good practices by bus operators, too. One example that has not been mentioned is West Coast Motors, which is a private company that has bought a pull-out from First Scotland East that has been rebranded as Borders Buses. That is an example of a company working well in the commercial market. As I said, one size does not fit all. Through the forthcoming transport bill, which I hope members will support, I aim to give local authorities all the tools in relation to whatever size of service fits their local area.

Johann Lamont

Will the member take an intervention?

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I am afraid that the minister is just closing.

Humza Yousaf

Johann Lamont asked whether I would meet her and the Co-operative Party. Of course I will. She also asked when I met First Bus Glasgow. I do not remember the exact date, but it was about two weeks ago. In fact, I think that I tweeted about that meeting, but I am happy to provide her with the exact information. In that meeting, I mentioned fare rises. The First Bus representatives told me that the jobseekers fare rise had been reversed and robustly said that they understood my concerns around that. Further, last week I met Jackson Cullinane to talk about Unite’s haud the bus campaign. Of course, I am more than happy to meet members to discuss issues regarding the bus sector.

On that note, I will close. I look forward to members’ contributions to the proposed transport bill, and I hope that we can build a bus service that is fit not only for the people and communities of Scotland now, but that we can future proof so that there are adequate services for communities into the future.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

By way of explanation, I say to members that the standing orders of the Parliament dictate how long a members’ business debate should last. There is an option to extend the debate by a maximum of half an hour, and we were getting near to the point at which I would have had to extend business for the sake of 30 seconds or so.

Meeting closed at 18:13.