Passenger Transport

– in the Scottish Parliament at 9:15 am on 31 January 2008.

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Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None 9:15, 31 January 2008

Good morning. The first item of business is a debate on motion S3M-1246, in the name of Des McNulty, on accessible passenger transport and the national concessionary fares scheme.

Photo of Des McNulty Des McNulty Labour

Yesterday, Mr Brownlee and Mr McLetchie met the Scottish National Party high command—another day, another dirty deal from the right-wing alliance. Recently, Tory concerns over the bus service operators grant were deemed so important that they were raised at First Minister's question time, but the Tory trumpet was laid aside as soon as the walls of Jericho looked like being breached. Even being generous, one could hardly describe the Conservative amendment as being forward looking, but perhaps—just perhaps—other parties have priorities that mean that disabled people and fare-paying passengers can be neglected for the moment.

The Government claims to be at the forefront of reducing carbon emissions, which in transport can best be achieved through modal shift—encouraging people out of their cars and on to public transport. Buses are the most widely used form of passenger transport. They are vital for those who do not have ready access to a private car, and they are the most flexible alternative to car use for those who do. Over the past 10 years, more than £400 million has been invested in new vehicles that are in service in Scotland—more than 4,000 cleaner, more accessible buses for Scotland's passengers. In 2006-07, bus operators increased commercial bus service mileage by 8.8 per cent over the previous year, travelling an additional 16 million miles.

Continuation of that investment and service growth is vital if progress is to be made in addressing climate change. Why, when the United Kingdom Government is providing support to maintain services and hold down fares south of the border, is the SNP Government tilting the playing field against bus users and bus operators by capping the bus service operators grant north of the border? Why are the Tories and the Greens supporting the Government?

There should be incentives for those who provide more accessible services or who invest in more environmentally friendly vehicles. However, newer, Euro-standard engines, which emit fewer pollutants, use more fuel, and wheelchair-accessible buses are typically heavier and also use more fuel. If the Scottish Government withholds money to offset fuel duty, national operators will have a perverse incentive to put into service in other parts of the UK vehicles that are newer or more accessible or which have lower emissions, resulting in poorer-quality services, unhappy passengers and an ageing fleet in Scotland.

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

Will the member tell me the average fuel consumption of a Euro 4 bus and a Euro 1 bus, to justify his claim that they use more fuel?

Photo of Des McNulty Des McNulty Labour

I refer the minister to the technical experts and the operators, who are clear that that is the case.

The Government has produced allocations for the bus service operators grant that it knows are inadequate. It anticipates legitimate audited claims totalling £5 million in excess of budget in 2007-08 and 2008-09. However, it is the refusal to match the UK Government's support for the bus industry that makes it more likely that fares will be jacked up, frequency of services reduced and routes cut in Scotland than in other parts of the UK. Further, rural Scotland will suffer most.

It is not just the bus service operators grant allocation that is inadequate. The provision to fund the concessionary fares scheme is well below current funding levels, despite evidence of increasing passenger uptake. I have no problem with the Government seeking to drive a hard bargain with bus operators, but all the evidence suggests that those allocations will precipitate a funding crisis for the concessionary fares scheme, if not this year then next. If the Scottish Government is unwilling to make adequate financial provision for the scheme, it must take responsibility, not pass the costs on to fare-paying passengers.

It is arguable that the concessionary travel scheme for elderly and disabled people that was pioneered by the Labour-Liberal Democrat Administration is, along with the smoking ban, the greatest achievement of devolved government. It is being copied elsewhere in Britain.

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

Would the member care to identify any difference between the concessionary fares scheme that is operating now and the one that his party introduced?

Photo of Des McNulty Des McNulty Labour

The point is to change it and to improve it.

Photo of Des McNulty Des McNulty Labour

No. We want to see it improved.

The success of the scheme has raised the hopes not only of SNP backbenchers but of members on this side of the chamber that the scheme could be extended to cover those who are on the lower rate of disability living allowance. They are currently excluded, even though people in that category were previously eligible for free travel under regional schemes in some parts of the country.

Mr Salmond's customary smirk turned into a scowl yesterday when he was questioned about the abolition of the Mobility and Access Committee for Scotland. Perhaps he knew that members of that body would be among those arguing most strongly in favour of the change that is proposed in the motion. They are joined by organisations such as Enable Scotland and Capability Scotland, which were mentioned in a motion on concessionary travel in the name of Angela Constance, which many members from all sides of the chamber signed. My colleague Charlie Gordon lodged a similar motion, once again attracting substantial cross-party support. Why, then, will the minister not accept the views of those behind him as well as those in front of him—I am thinking of the disability organisations to which the First Minister said yesterday he would be responsive—and extend the scheme to all those who qualify for disability living allowance. While the minister is considering that reasonable request, he may wish to reflect on the terms of a motion that he lodged in 2006, which called for community transport to be brought within the concessionary travel scheme, allowing older and disabled people in rural areas where there are few alternatives the vital opportunity to get around.

I am sure that there are other opportunities for improving the scheme at little or no extra cost. In view of the subsidies that are already paid by the Government in support of rail services, what would be the marginal cost of allowing older and disabled people off-peak access to local train services, filling empty seats, as happens in greater Manchester? The chance to build on one of the solid achievements of devolution, while contributing significantly to social inclusion and climate control, should be grasped. Regrettably, the dance between the SNP, the Tories and the Greens over who can claim what when their deal over the budget is clinched means that disabled people must wait and bus passengers must suffer.

I hope that Parliament will support the motion. Labour will support the Liberal Democrat amendment. Members should give careful consideration not just to my views but to the arguments of passengers, operators, disability groups, representatives of rural areas and other MSPs. If the minister cares to re-read the speech that he gave in 2006 on community transport, he may even agree with himself.

I move,

That the Parliament notes the importance of accessible passenger transport to achieving the Scottish Government's climate change objectives and in tackling the significant inequalities in Scottish society; expresses concern over capped allocations for reimbursement for concessionary travel and the Bus Service Operators Grant over the next three years and the implications for fare-paying passengers; urges ministers to reconsider their decision not to increase the Bus Service Operators Grant in line with the support given by the UK Government to bus service providers in England and Wales; calls on ministers to urgently review the national concessionary travel scheme to extend eligibility to disabled people in receipt of the lower rate of disability allowance and to older and disabled people using community transport in rural areas, enabling these extensions to be introduced by the parliamentary summer recess, and invites ministers to consult users, passenger service operators and the Parliament on other desirable changes to the scheme.

Photo of Alison McInnes Alison McInnes Liberal Democrat 9:23, 31 January 2008

I welcome the opportunity to debate these important and interlinked issues. Greater accessibility for all will best be delivered by co-operation among and joint initiatives involving the voluntary sector, commercial bus operators, local authorities and the Government. That was the approach of the previous Administration, and it resulted in more investment in new routes, cleaner engines and more accessible buses. It brought greater access, freer movement, less isolation and modal shift. Investment from local authorities and the Government in bus infrastructure, such as bus priority measures, real-time information and park and ride, has demonstrably led to improved provision. We have heard from Des McNulty about the investment of £450 million in new vehicles and the 8.8 per cent increase in the mileage covered by buses.

Buses are often the best and most cost-effective public transport solution in many parts of Scotland. Flexible and responsive, they reach the parts that other heavy infrastructure does not. Community transport and demand-responsive transport weave a web, joining it all up and providing cost-effective solutions in remote and rural areas and areas that are ill-served by commercial services. For a truly integrated public transport system, we need to support community transport and DRT. The Government's proposed changes to DRT support have unsettled those who work in the sector. The 2006 review of DRT services, which the previous Executive commissioned, recommended that the rules for the BSOG should be amended to include more DRT operations and that there should be increased support for community transport. Moves by Tavish Scott to respond to those recommendations and to build capacity at a regional level have been undone by the decision to remove responsibility from regional partnerships and end the ring fencing that secured that valuable service.

Photo of Alison McInnes Alison McInnes Liberal Democrat

No. I am sorry, but I have lots to say this morning.

DRT is the flexible friend of the traditional bus; it helps to tackle dispersed demand in a cost-effective way. The day-to-day service is influenced by the demands of the users, which ensures that long, tortuous routes do not need to be developed to pick up everyone who might want to travel and that people are more encouraged to use the bus. It is a bespoke service—the Savile Row of bus services.

Using new technology, such as the global positioning system, routing software and call centres, provides opportunities to increase the benefits of community transport and local authority transport in a more coherent way. We should do more of that.

The SNP professes to be in favour of public transport, but the draft budget tells a different story and reveals a distinct lack of support for it. We see cuts in the bus service operators grant and concessionary fares and the ending of schemes such as the DRT grant, the rural public transport grant, the bus route development grant, the public transport fund and the integrated transport fund. Over the next three years, the Government is cutting funding for bus services by 9.2 per cent in real terms. There is not one mention of support for local bus services in its spending priorities for local government in the budget document.

The SNP is uncomfortable this morning, because the reality is that it has raided the budget for support for buses and concessionary fares to pay for big promises elsewhere; it is short-changing passengers and undermining investment.

As Mr McNulty said, the concessionary fares scheme has been a great success. With Lib Dem transport ministers in the previous Executive, we led the United Kingdom with a free travel scheme for elderly and disabled passengers that benefits more than a million Scots. That groundbreaking initiative was rolled out to include discounted fares for young people, which benefits a further 200,000 Scots. The scheme has been due to have a review, and it is time to embark on it.

The full benefits of concessionary fares are not felt in rural areas and areas that are less well served by traditional bus services because community transport services are not currently eligible to take part in the scheme. I would like that to be resolved sooner rather than later.

Changing the eligibility of lower mobility claimants is also something to be aspired to, and that, too, must be resolved.

Photo of Alison McInnes Alison McInnes Liberal Democrat

No, I will not. I have lots to say.

I recognise that such changes will require extra provision in the budget. The agreement with bus operators for the first three years is that they should be no better off, and no worse off, as a result of the scheme. An extension of eligibility will mean that further funding will have to be made available to ensure that that remains the case.

We know that the Government's decisions mean that the budget is under pressure, and I have already heard talk of how the Government is planning to restrict demand. Sadly, it is possible that we will see less eligibility, not more.

During the Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee's investigations into the Government's budget, I revealed that bus operators in England and Wales are now benefiting from compensation for the higher fuel duty bills that they face, but that there are no plans to introduce a similar proposal in Scotland.

The BSOG helps bus operators to assist passengers by keeping fares down and retaining marginally viable routes. The grant is mileage based and is therefore especially important for rural areas.

Bus operators have planned and budgeted for a fair deal on fuel duty compensation in line with the rest of the United Kingdom. Some of the improvements that bus operators have invested in, such as Euro-standard engines and wheelchair-accessible buses, use more fuel, thus increasing costs.

Operators and passengers are entitled to feel let down by this Government. The situation will be particularly damaging for small rural service operators, which are already at full stretch financially. If bus operators are not adequately compensated for the fuel duty that they pay, their only options are to cut services or raise fares. The result will be greater pressure on local authorities to pick up services that are no longer commercial.

The bus industry cannot be expected to continue to deliver patronage growth and modal shift and contribute to a reduction in emissions if the Government increases the tax on fuel and squeezes the concessionary travel reimbursement. Sadly, the evidence points to a Government that is willing to pass on to others responsibility and costs for the provision of a sustainable public transport network. The losers will be bus passengers and the environment.

I move amendment S3M-1246.2, to insert at end:

"recognises the valuable contribution that Demand Responsive Transport (DRT) can make to social inclusion and accessibility, particularly in rural areas and for disabled and elderly passengers; notes with concern that the Scottish Government's budget has caused uncertainty over the future of DRT provision; considers that expansion of DRT is an essential aspect of improving accessibility in Scotland, and therefore calls on ministers to end the uncertainty and develop DRT services in Scotland."

Photo of Patrick Harvie Patrick Harvie Green 9:29, 31 January 2008

I welcome this Labour debate on transport, even if it seemed that Mr McNulty had not read the Green amendment before he accused us of supporting the Government on the level of the BSOG.

The debate gives us an opportunity to examine some comments that have been made by Labour and Liberal Democrat MSPs on transport. For example, during the budget debate last week, Iain Gray said:

"we suggest that the Government invest a little less in Scotland's tarmac and a little more in Scotland's talent".

In the same debate, Des McNulty said that he hoped that the Greens were listening as he complained that

"This Government is putting more money into roads and diverting money away from rail and other public transport."—[Official Report, 23 January; c 5304, 5359.]

Alison McInnes has been quoted in the press making many of the same criticisms.

That is interesting and even exciting. If we got an answer to the question of which road projects Labour and the Liberal Democrats now want to be scrapped—I have a list to choose from—we would be really on to something. If we got agreement on that, we could set the cat among the pigeons. However, I suspect that we will not reach an agreement. I suspect that Labour and the Liberal Democrats, Scotland's finest purveyors of climate-wrecking road projects since 1999, are being the tiniest bit disingenuous in those attacks. I want to see less road building, and I have to say that the Greens are the only party that is doing anything about that.

Photo of Des McNulty Des McNulty Labour

I notice that Brian Adam has moved away from Patrick Harvie, but, in crafting his amendment, did the SNP come to Patrick Harvie, or did he go to the SNP? How much of it is his words and how much of it is the SNP's words?

Photo of Patrick Harvie Patrick Harvie Green

Brian Adam's movements are no concern of mine, and the words in the amendment are my own.

It is clear that real changes are needed in the SNP's spending plans on transport. Even if there is not a majority for scrapping the more ludicrous road projects, I hope that there will be a majority for improving the public transport offer.

A real-terms cut in the BSOG, which is indicated by the SNP's current plans, would feed through to higher fares and reduced services for passengers throughout the spending review period. If members in the Parliament are remotely serious about the familiar aspiration of modal shift, we cannot tolerate that.

Throughout my lifetime, there has been a long-term trend towards ever more expensive public transport, while the cost of owning and running a car has stayed pretty much the same in real terms and is much more affordable. It should be clear that if we want the transport sector to pull its weight in the transformation that climate change demands, we must reverse that trend. If the sector does not pull its weight in moving towards the 80 per cent cut and we get, for example, only a 50 per cent cut from it, we will need a 90 per cent cut from the rest of the economy. That option is unacceptable.

We need to do more than express concern about the level of the BSOG; we need to make a clear call for a substantial increase, and my amendment does that, although only for 2008-09. We must also take a longer-term look at the grant. It is still basically fuel-related, so we are potentially subsidising less efficient vehicles. I hope that we will take a more thorough look at potential restructuring, so that we pay to move passengers rather than to burn fuel.

As for concessionary travel, there is a strong case for reviews not only by Government but by Parliament, with the objectives of maximising public benefit, making public transport more accessible, getting the best value for public money and ensuring that our systems for delivering the scheme do not replicate all that is worst about many information technology systems in Government. There are privacy issues, as the scheme mirrors aspects of the UK's identity register scheme. Such measures are not necessary for the provision of bus passes.

I hope that the Government and all political parties are willing to take those ideas on board.

I move amendment S3M-1246.1, to leave out from "expresses concern" to end and insert:

"recognises that it is vital that accessible and affordable public transport is available to help the Scottish Government to meet its climate change objectives and to ensure the continuation of vital urban and rural services; calls on the Scottish Government to provide a substantial increase in the budget for the Bus Service Operators Grant in 2008-09 and to consider keeping fares more affordable for the longer term; notes the Scottish Government's intention to review the national concessionary travel scheme, and calls on ministers during that review to ensure that they maximise the benefits for the public throughout Scotland while guaranteeing the best return on a scheme which represents a significant investment of public money."

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative 9:33, 31 January 2008

It is my pleasure to speak in the debate, essentially to support the Greens' amendment and to move a small amendment to it.

The process that we now go through in this Parliament is different from the one that existed in recent years. I am delighted that I have the full and undivided attention of the Labour Party, because I will address Labour members in the first instance. I remind them that something happened last May and that they are no longer in government. That means that, regardless of what they may think, they are no longer in a position to force—belligerently—their views on the Parliament.

Now, with a minority Government, when we debate subjects such as this, each of us in the Parliament must seek to take possession of the issues in proportion to our efforts and the work that we have done previously—whether the motion is lodged by the Labour Party, the minority Government, the Liberals or even the Greens. That means that Des McNulty this morning is in the unique position of having managed to isolate himself on a subject on which most of us agree with him.

Today, we are trying to build a composite amendment—a term that Labour members should understand well, as the Scottish Trades Union Congress and Labour Party conferences usually work on that basis—that will deliver a majority vote in the Parliament. That is why I, as a Conservative, find myself in the unusual position of supporting a Green party amendment. That amendment makes two key recommendations that the Conservative party supports.

Annabel Goldie raised the issue of the bus service operators grant at First Minister's question time before Christmas, and we continue to work to overcome the problems with the grant. We continue to be strong on that issue.

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative

I have only four minutes.

The second issue is the need for a Government review of the provision of concessionary fares. We would support such a review because we believe in the concessionary fares system and want it to work as it was intended to work. Need I point out that it was the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats, in government, who introduced the present scheme? That scheme, which levelled up in some areas and down in other areas, has left me with a full mailbag and queues at some of my constituency surgeries of people who used to be entitled to concessionary travel but who are no longer entitled to it under the national scheme.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

The member is in his last minute, I am afraid.

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative

My constituents, who were previously entitled to concessionary travel but are no longer entitled to it—those who are on the lower rate of disability living allowance—want the issue to be addressed. I hope that the Government will review the scheme.

Our amendment will, if it is agreed to, improve the Green amendment. If it is not agreed to, we will support the amendment in the name of Patrick Harvie because we believe that that will produce an appropriate response by Parliament on this important issue. I have considerable sympathy for the Liberal amendment and will consider the possibility of finding a way to support it at decision time.

I move amendment S3M-1246.1.1, to insert at end:

"and notes that Labour and Liberal Democrat ministers in the previous administration chose not to grant eligibility to disabled people in receipt of the lower rate of disability allowance and to older and disabled people using community transport in rural areas when they created the National Concessionary Fares Scheme."

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party 9:38, 31 January 2008

I personally use sustainable mass transport—the bus—whenever I can. I have made 55 journeys in that way since May, and I am among the 87 per cent of users who have expressed satisfaction with the level of service.

Buses support economic growth and accessibility and reduce emissions, contributing to a wealthier, fairer and greener Scotland. We have around 1.1 million national entitlement card holders, which represents a major success, and we have maintained the agreement with the Confederation of Passenger Transport to conduct a major review of the scheme in its third year of operation—the review will start later this year. We will consider the eligibility criteria that were established by the Labour/Liberal Administration in the light of some current difficulties, to which members have already referred. I can announce today that, with the collaboration of Epilepsy Scotland, we are able to make a change in some of the administrative arrangements, which will shortly give epilepsy sufferers who cannot be issued with a driving licence faster and easier access to the concessionary card.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

I welcome the minister's administrative changes for those who suffer from epilepsy. Will he tell the chamber how long it will be before he commences a review on extending the other eligibility criteria?

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

I have already said that the review will start this year.

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

It has been three years since you introduced the scheme about which you are complaining.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

Minister, I did not introduce any scheme. Please do not address members directly.

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

Buses are part of an array of sustainable transport solutions that we will need in the future, and we will help local transport authorities and operators to ease congestion, free up bus lanes for their proper purpose and deliver the transport planning tools that are required. Those include bus priority measures, park-and-ride facilities, traffic management policies, traffic regulation conditions, punctuality improvement partnerships, quality partnerships and affordable parking. The Scottish Government, the bus industry and local authorities are working together through the action plan for buses.

I am pleased to advise the chamber that we are also working with the industry to create a more environmentally focused bus service operators grant, which is moving away from a mere fuel subsidy. We are also considering tying payments to actions that reduce emissions, improve access, increase passenger numbers and improve quality on our network. We are working to improve accessibility on the rail network, too, with a major shift to electric traction on the railways and the long-term aim of complete electrification by about 2030. We are driving forward our climate change objectives for 2050 and improving access to public transport.

The Scottish Government will support bus transport with around £260 million this year to help with the cost of fares, to encourage bus route development, to enable older and disabled people to gain access to bus services and to enable transport authorities to support essential services that are not commercially viable. We are providing local government with record levels of funding to enable each local authority to deliver bus provision to meet local needs and priorities, including DRT, which is something that Alison McInnes advocated when she was the chair of the north east of Scotland transport partnership. The focus is on local decisions to meet local needs.

Buses are an important part of the transport solutions that we need to deliver on our climate change agenda. They are accessible to passengers and will continue to be supported by the Scottish Government.

R

Complete rail electrification by 2030: Just what England, Wales and Northern Ireland need, too. No chance with Gordon.

Submitted by Robert Battersby

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

That concludes the opening speeches and we now come to the open debate. Speeches should be kept to four minutes. Members will have picked up that the time for debate is pretty tight.

Photo of Shirley-Anne Somerville Shirley-Anne Somerville Scottish National Party 9:42, 31 January 2008

Improving access to safe, reliable public transport is vital to cutting social exclusion, especially among the disabled and the older generations. The SNP Government recognises the valuable contribution that has been made by the national concessionary travel scheme in widening travel opportunities, increasing independence and reducing isolation. The Government is all about improving the well-being of Scotland's population, and I must admit that the initiative is one of the more welcome things that we have inherited from the previous Executive.

I also welcome Labour's recognition of the significant inequalities that exist in Scottish society, which worsened under the previous Administration's watch. There is merit in the motion's proposal to review the decision to exclude people on the lower rate of disability living allowance from the national concessionary travel scheme. However, let us bear in mind the fact that the decision to exclude that group was made by the previous Administration. Always striving to fix the mistakes of the past, the SNP Government will review the scheme as the minister has suggested, and I am sure that the matter will be given due consideration at that time.

I wonder when Labour decided that the issue needed urgent attention. It was obviously not when Labour was in government, when it could have made the change at any time. It was not during the analysis of the budget by the Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee, as no amendment was forthcoming. The matter was not tabled at the Finance Committee, nor was it mentioned in the stage 1 debate. However, I suppose that it is a case of better late than never.

In the spirit of consensus, I note that there is a case for the provision of additional support for bus operators. I am pleased that the minister has announced that there will be changes and that the Government is seeking to review the scheme. Nevertheless, it is worth re-emphasising that the most severe financial pressure that affects operators around the country is the high level of duty that they have to pay on fuel, which is set by the Labour Government at Westminster. Just as with the proposed changes to the concessionary travel scheme, Labour members are demanding urgent action now from the Scottish Government on the issue, even though no attempt was made to amend the budget in that respect either. That is further proof that the Labour Party is all talk and very little action.

Putting the issue of timing aside, I presume that the members on the Opposition benches are aware of the fact that increasing the bus service operators grant and extending the entitlement to concessionary fares to potentially 11,500 more people will have a financial cost at a time when we face the toughest financial settlement since devolution.

Even at this late stage, there is still time for Labour to let us know how it would fund those proposals. I have a suggestion. We could save £500 million by scrapping the scheme to build a single tram line on Edinburgh's number 22 bus route. I look forward to hearing members from all parties who voted for the scheme, especially those who were elected from outwith Edinburgh, explain to their constituents why it is better to spend £500 million on such a folly of a project rather using that money to improve public transport in their area. I also look forward to hearing the same members explain to the disability groups that were mentioned earlier why that decision was made.

There are many other significant barriers to accessing public transport for Scotland's older and disabled population. That is why the SNP is investing heavily across the country to improve our neglected and struggling transport infrastructure. That is why the transport budget represents the biggest spending portfolio outside local government. That is also why Scotland's transport network will flourish under the SNP Government, which is investing wisely for our future.

Photo of James Kelly James Kelly Labour 9:46, 31 January 2008

I welcome the opportunity to take part in the debate and to highlight the benefits of bus travel to the economy. However, as I was walking down to the Parliament this morning, a passing bus went through a large puddle and splashed me with water, so my enthusiasm for buses dimmed somewhat at that moment.

Transport is a major issue in my constituency of Rutherglen, partly because we have a larger than average number of pensioners and also because some people do not have cars—in fact, a third of Scots do not have cars. Bus and other transport links are very important in allowing people to access major centres such as Glasgow and East Kilbride and services such as hospitals. From many parts of my constituency, it takes more than two bus journeys to get to hospital.

I support many of the positive comments that have been made about the concessionary scheme. When I spoke at a meeting of the Rutherglen Workers Educational Association recently, its members told me that one of the biggest benefits that they have received since devolution is the concessionary travel scheme. Politics is about making a difference. The scheme makes a difference because it allows older people to get to places in Scotland that they might not have visited for quite some time, such as Oban.

I also support the extension of the concessionary travel scheme to those who are on the lower rate of the disability living allowance. That issue was raised by a number of my constituents.

There is a concern about the bus service operators grant. In the current budget, it flatlines at £57.5 million per year. That means that, over the next three years, there will be no cash increase and a real-terms cut. The effect of that will be to put Scotland at a £7.5 million disadvantage to England and Wales. If we continue at that level, the gap will grow to £26.5 million over the next three years. That point was raised at First Minister's questions on 20 December but, as ever, we did not get a straight answer from the First Minister.

The present level of funding could also have an adverse effect on bus fares and an impact on bus routes. Fares could increase and a number of bus routes could be withdrawn. In my constituency, routes have been withdrawn in recent times, but we have conducted campaigns and managed to get some of them reinstated, most notably those to Cathkin and Springhall. The withdrawal of bus routes has a knock-on effect, particularly for pensioners. It also has an environmental impact, given that the increase in the number of bus journeys in recent years has helped us to meet climate change targets as well as boosting the economy. The issue is also one of social justice, as fare rises and cuts in bus routes and services hit pensioners and the less well off hardest.

This is an important issue and, as with many such issues, the devil is in the detail of the SNP's budget. Examining the budget closely shows the flatlining of the bus service operators grant, which means a cut in real terms. I welcome what has been said about the review of the concessionary travel scheme and strongly support additional funding and the extension of the scheme to those who are on the lower rate of disability living allowance.

Photo of Ian McKee Ian McKee Scottish National Party 9:50, 31 January 2008

First, I will declare an interest. As a person who has reached the age of 60, I am the proud possessor of a concessionary bus pass and I use it to the full. Indeed, twice in recent months, I have used it on what some might regard as an impossible journey, from the Edinburgh suburb in which I live to Kilchoan at the very end of the Ardnamurchan peninsula. As members can imagine, the journey is lengthy, but it is well worth the effort. For the first time in years, I was able to view the beauty of Loch Lomond, the grandeur of Rannoch Moor and the majestic peaks of Glen Coe without having to keep my eyes on the road and concentrate on driving.

However, the most illuminating point of the journey came when I transferred to the bus from Fort William to Kilchoan. At the bus stop, I was joined by half a dozen elderly folk, each with a packed shopping trolley. I wondered how they were going to get it all on the bus. My question was soon answered when the bus arrived. Driver Gordon MacKenzie unloaded each person's shopping trolley into the boot of his bus, allowing them to return the trolley and reclaim their pound coin. Then the bus was driven to every person's home and Gordon carried their purchases along the path right up to the front door. We did not arrive at our final destination exactly on time, but who cares? Especially as Gordon drove me an extra three quarters of a mile to my ultimate destination because it looked like it was going to rain. I was not surprised, but I was delighted all the same, when Gordon won the Highland and Islands Enterprise award last year for his outstanding contribution to the community of Lochaber. I am sure that the chamber will share my pleasure at his recognition.

However, there is a darker side to my story. It is true that the bus service is much appreciated, as is the concession, because otherwise many of the elderly people living on the peninsula would not be able to afford the regular shopping trip to Fort William, which is 50 miles away. However, the service runs only once a day and there is only one route. People of all ages who wish to visit friends in other local communities, shop in the local store, use the post office, go to church, or use the new community hall are forced to use private transport. Today, the price of diesel at the small Kilchoan filling station is 118p per litre. The inhabitants of Kilchoan live in an oil-producing country, but they pay one of the highest prices in the world for the fuel that they need to go about normal, everyday activities.

It is against that background that Des McNulty moved his motion today. I congratulate him on the elegant way in which he promoted an extremely thin case. His and his colleagues' somewhat synthetic indignation must be judged in light of the fact that, as my colleague Shirley-Anne Somerville said, his party lodged no amendments during the budget process and in light of the assurances that we have received from the minister.

What is needed is not so much an extension to the concessionary scheme, or even an increase in the bus service operators grant—beneficial though such action would be—but a reduction in the swingeing fuel taxes, especially in rural areas. In the past two and a half years, small bus operators have seen their fuel costs escalate by 43 per cent, thanks to the greed of successive Labour chancellors, and the same is true for the owners of private transport. The folk on the Opposition benches who support Des McNulty's motion should ask why artificial transport subsidies have assumed such prominence and examine their own consciences in the matter.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour 9:54, 31 January 2008

In the short time that is available to me, I will focus exclusively on concessionary travel. There is no doubt in my mind that Labour's concessionary travel scheme has delivered enormous benefits for pensioners and disabled people throughout Scotland by building on the 16 separate schemes that operated in local areas, all of which had different criteria. Now pensioners and the disabled can travel for free, from Dumbarton to Dunbar and up to Dingwall—the same set of criteria applies regardless of where in Scotland they live. Such has been the success of the scheme that the number of passenger journeys has grown year on year, as the minister helpfully acknowledged.

However, as we have heard, some people have lost out—those who are on the lower rate of disability living allowance, who previously enjoyed concessionary travel in many areas of Scotland, including Strathclyde and Fife. The Tories and the SNP do the Parliament no credit if all they do is seek to lay blame. Adopting that attitude amounts to nothing more than a smokescreen for inaction. There was absolutely no intention to exclude that group of people. When the problem emerged—I will come on to the timing and the cost—after the transitional year to the national scheme, members across the political divide were rightly concerned.

Alex Johnstone professes to want what I want, which is the inclusion in the present scheme of people on the lower rate of disability living allowance, but his amendment does not say that, nor does the Greens' amendment. If you mean what you say—I believe that you do—

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

Please avoid the second person, Ms Baillie.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

If the member means what he says, I am sure that he will want to support Labour's motion. Failure to do so will demonstrate a complete disregard for the genuine concerns of people who have learning disabilities.

For the benefit of Shirley-Anne Somerville and Ian McKee, let me turn to the timing and the cost. In the first year of the new national scheme, anyone with a local concessionary pass was automatically transferred and issued with a national entitlement card without having to be reassessed. Most people would not have realised that the rules had changed. As those cards have come up for renewal, many people are now being told—often wrongly—that they do not qualify for a card under the new national eligibility criteria. That is a particular issue for adults with learning disabilities, and it is causing considerable distress to them and their families, as members will know from their postbags.

We were first alerted to the problem not in April 2007 but after May 2007, so the fixing of it falls to this Government. Enable and Capability Scotland realised that there was a difficulty when people came forward to them in the summer and autumn of 2007. I respectfully say that the issue at stake is not a budget matter—the suggestion that it is is another smokescreen. When the old scheme was rolled forward, it was not acknowledged that a number of the people who had previously qualified for concessionary travel would no longer qualify for it in the future. The minister does not need to wait until 2009 or 2010 to take action; he could do so now.

We seek two solutions from the minister. First, we want him to change the law now to extend eligibility for concessionary travel. That would be the right and proper thing to do. Secondly, he might want to consider improving the procedures and guidance to ensure that people who qualify for the scheme get the right advice and support to enable them to access it.

Photo of Jamie Hepburn Jamie Hepburn Scottish National Party 9:58, 31 January 2008

The Labour motion suggests that ministers should review the national concessionary travel scheme with a view to extending eligibility to people who are in receipt of the lower rate of disability living allowance, and that they should do so as a matter of urgency.

Like Shirley-Anne Somerville, I find it amazing that the issue is a matter of urgency for Labour only now that it is in opposition—despite what Jackie Baillie said. After all, it was when the national scheme was introduced by the Labour Party, when it was in a coalition Government with the Liberal Democrats, that many disabled people lost the entitlement to concessionary fares that they had enjoyed under local authority-run schemes. When those schemes were replaced by the national scheme, people on the low rate of mobility disability living allowance were excluded. That happened under a Labour Government, but it is only now that Labour is in opposition that it considers the issue to be a matter of urgency.

Jackie Baillie suggests that the issue is not a budget matter, but surely it is, given that it seems to be about money. Where were the Labour amendments to the budget that sought to provide additional funds for the concessionary fares budget? It is only now that we are in the middle of the budget process that Labour's concern about additional revenue for this area has emerged. Some people who are less charitable than I am might suggest that that is more an exercise in grandstanding than an expression of genuine concern.

No regard seems to have been paid to the fact that the SNP Government has already moved funds from the underutilised younger persons scheme to fund parts of the concessionary fares scheme that have a high uptake. Is that not to be welcomed? Does the Labour Party prefer baseline figures that bear no relation to need or demand on the ground? Would it prefer moneys to be transferred to end-year flexibility, instead of being utilised to help many of the people for whom its motion expresses concern?

That is to say nothing of the increased funding that the SNP Government will provide in the coming year for the smart card programme to allow the delivery of improved ticketing machinery, which will enable efficiency savings to be made in future as a result of improved validation of bus operator claims. Those areas of investment are welcome and show that the SNP Government wants to improve disabled people's access to public transport. It is right that it demonstrates such concern.

Inclusion Scotland suggests that a

"lack of accessible and affordable transport is a major barrier preventing disabled people living independent lives with access to all the opportunities most non-disabled people take for granted."

Help the Aged says that a lack of access to public transport for older people can lead to

"isolation, social exclusion and a lower quality of life."

Photo of Jamie Hepburn Jamie Hepburn Scottish National Party

It is clear that much has been achieved. Let us remember that a million Scots—a fifth of our population—qualify for free travel. I congratulate the previous Executive on the role that it played in that achievement.

However, much remains to be done. The minister mentioned that the SNP Government is to review the national concessionary scheme in due course, when proper consideration can be given to including those people who became disqualified when the national scheme was first introduced. I welcome Stewart Stevenson's announcement that additional support will be provided to bus operators. Those measures, combined with the transfer of moneys to deal with the areas of highest demand for concessionary fares and the investment in our rail and roads infrastructure, show that transport is safe in the hands of the SNP Government.

As I have mentioned rail, it would be remiss of me not to mention that this week members received the final case for crossrail from Strathclyde partnership for transport. I look forward to ministers making a positive response to that case, particularly the option that includes the provision of services from Croy to Barrhead. However, that is for another—

Photo of John Park John Park Labour 10:02, 31 January 2008

I am pleased to speak in favour of the motion that was lodged by my Labour colleague Des McNulty. Without doubt, the future of public transport in Scotland is one of the key issues that we face today. It concerns communities, interest groups and individuals.

Since entering Parliament last year, I have had countless pieces of correspondence about public transport developments across Scotland, especially those in my region of Mid Scotland and Fife. A subject of particular interest has been the level of bus services in Fife and Perthshire—there has been huge public interest in how services have developed in those areas. I am often struck by the similarities between the problems that are faced in rural areas and those that are faced in urban areas.

Over the past few months, it has become clear to me that proper engagement by bus operators with passengers and wider communities is vital in building public confidence in services. That is why consistent Government support—particularly financial support—is important to sustaining and developing services in every part of Scotland. As well as being relevant to the communities that it serves and the people who use it, public transport must be affordable.

I am proud that, as has been mentioned, Fife Council led the way in recognising the importance of affordable travel by establishing a concessionary travel scheme, which was pioneered by the late Bert Gough. In a debate last week, I made it clear that I support the Government's aim of making Scotland wealthier and fairer. Although I do not always agree with the SNP's methods in that area, I agree with the sentiment. In the interest of parity, it is important to state that I also support the Government's aim of making Scotland greener. I do not think that anyone would deny that one of the main ways of ensuring that Scotland becomes greener is to maximise the use of our public transport systems.

That is why I am rather confused by the Scottish Government's budget allocation to the bus service operators grant. It is important that we examine the potential impact of that budget line, especially in a week in which the Government launched its proposed climate change bill. It is clear that there will be no real-terms increase for the bus service operators grant. I must ask what that will mean for people throughout Mid Scotland and Fife. In the longer term, fares will probably increase significantly. Services in rural communities in Perthshire, for example, will come under threat. At a time when we need more people to use public transport, especially buses, we should not cut an important element of Government financial intervention. In many areas, those finances go a long way towards sustaining fledgling routes in both rural and urban communities.

There needs to be a wider debate about how services are regulated and about the level of financial support that they receive from Government—the two issues go hand in hand. Regardless of that wider debate, we cannot lose sight of the fact that, over the past 10 years, private bus operators have invested more than £400 million in new vehicles, as has been mentioned. In Fife alone, 150 new buses have entered the network. That is a significant investment that has improved significantly the bus journey experience for thousands of travellers.

I return to the issue of concessionary travel. We need to look to London for inspiration and to see what Ken Livingstone has achieved with his schemes. Today the Parliament should be discussing how the Government can support public transport effectively to make it more attractive and affordable, especially to the young, old and disabled. We should not be discussing, as we are, how the modal shift that all members support will be undermined by lack of investment. Achieving a long-term shift of our citizens on to public transport, especially buses, requires radical policy, not cuts in funding.

We in Scotland cannot operate in a bubble. There are many factors outwith our control that mean that, in the future, public transport will be not just an option but an economic necessity. Clearly, this is the time to increase investment in bus travel. I fully support Des McNulty's motion.

Photo of Patrick Harvie Patrick Harvie Green 10:06, 31 January 2008

I have been entertained, if nothing else, by the range of facial expressions among Labour members during the debate. At one point there was a wave of puzzlement at the fact that I could apparently support SNP transport policy. There is a simple explanation: I do not. I do not support the SNP's or Labour's transport policies. Greens have been and will be consistent on the issue.

Photo of Des McNulty Des McNulty Labour

Is it Green policy to support disabled people?

Photo of Patrick Harvie Patrick Harvie Green

I am not sure what the member's question is. I will deal with issues relating to eligibility for the scheme later in my speech.

Shirley-Anne Somerville was quite wrong to undervalue the tram scheme. Labour members know fine well that on the increasingly few occasions when they have presented the right arguments in the chamber, we have supported them. That is why the Edinburgh tram scheme will go ahead. They also know that, other than on trams, there is very little to choose between Labour's and the SNP's transport policies. Both parties support more road traffic, more road capacity and more aviation. Under either party, public transport will remain a Cinderella service.

Given the factors that I have described and the parliamentary arithmetic, Greens are determined to use whatever influence they have to achieve changes. We will seek to secure whatever improvements we can get to the SNP's budget and spending plans. That is why the SNP knows that, without making meaningful changes to its budget and to the spending commitments in budget lines, it cannot rely on our votes. The changes that we require include but are not limited to those that I propose in my amendment. Unlike other parties, we will not prejudge issues and will spell out the need for change. We will give ministers reasonable time in which to make change. When we see change, we will make our decisions.

It is unfortunate that the parliamentary dynamics sometimes obscure the fact that every political party that is represented in the Parliament has made points that are well worth making. The Liberal Democrats' comments on the tangible benefits of demand-responsive transport and community transport, which can be nothing short of life changing for some people, are welcome. There is certainly scope for building on existing provision of those services during the current spending review period.

For the Conservatives, Alex Johnstone observed that it is unusual for him to find himself supporting a Green amendment. I hope that he will avail himself of that pleasure more frequently in future. His comments on eligibility for disabled people are welcome.

Many of the comments that we have heard from Labour members are also worth supporting. In many respects, all parties share the same objective. I welcome in particular John Park's comments on the longer-term debate that we should be having, regardless of the debate on the budget. It is a week before we decide whether to pass the budget, so it is understandable that a debate on transport should get tied up in that, but there is a serious need for us to consider the long-term future provision of public transport, including buses, and to decide what the regulatory framework for buses should be. No one would argue that a completely free market is appropriate. Competition and the market have achieved some things but have failed in other respects. We should consider the role that regulation will play in the future, not with a view to rolling back time but in order to achieve a better regulatory framework.

Members from all political parties have made comments that are worth supporting. However, on the key point of the budget, to which many members have referred, we need a clear, strong message. The Green amendment gives that message—I hope that other parties will support it.

Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat 10:11, 31 January 2008

I am glad that the chamber has recognised the contribution that the previous Executive made in this area. A million Scots benefited from disabled and elderly access to concessionary travel. When the scheme was rolled out to younger people, a further 200,000 Scots benefited. Like other members, I point out that the scheme was always due to be reviewed.

My colleague Alison McInnes was correct to draw our attention to demand-responsive transport. Last February, responsibility for that was handed over to regional transport partnerships, but now it has been handed back to local authorities, as part of the local government settlement. Let me cut to the chase of the argument, on which we have touched repeatedly during the budget process. On one side, it is argued that ring fencing has been removed from certain parts of the budget. The counter-argument is that funding has been rolled up in the settlement for local authorities. The SNP argues that that is more democratic, because funding has been passed down to a lower level. However, let us pause to consider the budgetary stage that each of our local authorities has reached. We all know that local authorities have difficult decisions to make. My authority, Highland Council, is faced with a very tight budget. The danger is that demand-responsive transport may lose out in that scenario. That is the point that I am making.

I am interested in and not a little incredulous at the Conservative amendment. The point behind Des McNulty's motion is that what is happening on the other side of the border is not the same as what is about to happen on this side of the border. I put it to members that bus users, be they rich or poor, elderly or disabled, are no respecters of borders. A bus is a bus; concessionary transport is concessionary transport. It is too bad that arrangements may be different on different sides of the border. That should be a difficult scenario for the Conservatives to accept, given that they are the Conservative and Unionist Party. Their amendment to Patrick Harvie's amendment is something of a smokescreen in that regard.

I am glad that Patrick Harvie responded to Shirley-Anne Somerville's remarks. There is no doubt that the tram scheme is hugely popular in Edinburgh and will do a great deal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It will also serve people who live far away from Edinburgh and will be a great boon to the disabled. I know from personal experience how difficult it is to access Edinburgh airport from the city centre, so I regret the passing of the Edinburgh airport rail link, which we will come to recognise as a big mistake.

The SNP always starts to dig its elephant traps early. One trap that it has been digging ever since the summer is the claim that the A9 will not be upgraded because we voted for the Edinburgh tram scheme. I have heard the Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change rehearse that argument, but it simply does not wash. The Edinburgh airport rail link, the Edinburgh tram scheme, improvements to the A9 and many other measures were in the budget from the word go. The SNP's argument may seem clever, but the digging is distant. In three and a half years' time, it will not wash.

My colleague Alison McInnes's amendment is entirely correct. I support her amendment and the Labour motion.

Photo of Gavin Brown Gavin Brown Conservative 10:14, 31 January 2008

I am happy to begin by acknowledging the efforts of the previous Executive—both the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats—in implementing the national concessionary travel scheme. Members from all parties agree that the scheme has been a big success.

Before moving on, I want to respond to a number of points that have been made. Labour members have argued that the issues that they raise in their motion are not budget issues. Although I accept Jackie Baillie's point that the issue about lower rate DLA claimants is not a budget matter, the major part of the Labour motion is about the budget. There is a budget line entitled "Concessionary Fares" on page 88 of the spending review document and on page 92, the budget line "Bus Services in Scotland" is concerned with the bus service operators grant. There were no amendments from the Labour Party during the budget process in relation to either of those lines.

Photo of Gavin Brown Gavin Brown Conservative

Perhaps in a minute, but not now. That was despite the fact that Labour wanted to raid the transport budget for over £90 million from three separate lines.

I take issue with Jackie Baillie's comments that the Conservatives and the Greens do not support the idea of reviewing the scheme to include those on the lower rate of the disability living allowance. Patrick Harvie's amendment, which I am not sure that Jackie Baillie and Des McNulty have read, says clearly that it is the

"Government's intention to review the national concessionary travel scheme" and calls on ministers to ensure that they maximise the benefits of public transport during that review.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

I am sure that the Official Report will show that Alex Johnstone said that he wanted to include those on the lower rate of disability allowance in the scheme, not simply that he wanted a review.

Photo of Gavin Brown Gavin Brown Conservative

I am not quite sure what point the member is making, but we feel strongly that the scheme needs to be reviewed to include people on the lower rate of the disability living allowance needs. I do not accept for a second Jackie Baillie's comments that members did not realise when they passed the Transport (Scotland) Act 2005 that people on the lower rate of the disability living allowance would lose out—despite the fact that when any legislation is passed we have to look at various audits, including one that relates to equalities. It stretches credibility to the extreme for Jackie Baillie to suggest that members did not realise that those people would lose out, particularly when passengers in Strathclyde already had that right. Did members not compare the Strathclyde passengers' rights with those that they proposed to give other passengers in the future?

Shirley-Anne Somerville spoke about trams. The critical point about that is that the SNP's Edinburgh airport rail link project depends entirely on there being a tram network. It is utterly disingenuous of Shirley-Anne Somerville or any SNP member to criticise the tram network when their rail network depends on it. They might wish to reflect on that before putting out press releases.

The bus service operators grant needs to be looked at urgently. There is a £57.2 million budget line for it this year but, worryingly, there is also a £57.2 million budget line for it next year and the year after that. That is a large, real-terms cut.

Photo of Des McNulty Des McNulty Labour

So why do the Conservatives support the budget?

Photo of Gavin Brown Gavin Brown Conservative

Mr McNulty might wish to reflect that the tax increases of 2p that we had in October and the 2p that we will have in April are down to the Labour Party Government at Westminster, about which he was coy in his speech. Fuel prices have increased massively; we have had one tax increase of 2p and another is to come. Annabel Goldie and my colleague Alex Johnstone have both led on the issue at First Minister's question time and at other times in the chamber; the bus service operators grant must be increased as soon as possible.

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party 10:18, 31 January 2008

I will follow Ian McKee's example and explain that my 55 journeys were paid for by the national concessionary travel scheme. In fact, I have looked at my travel diary more closely and, when I add all my public transport and walking journeys in excess of 10 minutes, I am pleased to say that 53.9 per cent of my journeys since May fall into that category. The minister does not just talk the talk, he walks the walk as well—and thoroughly enjoys doing so for the benefit of his health as well as the climate.

I will say a couple of words about the current bus service operators grant. The key point is that it has been a direct subsidy for fuel. I am particularly encouraged by the engagement and attitude of the Confederation of Passenger Transport UK and the major bus operators.

Photo of Brian Adam Brian Adam Scottish National Party

Is the minister aware of a scheme that is currently being introduced by Lothian Buses, in conjunction with a Bellshill company called Solution Specialists Limited, to reduce the amount of diesel spillage from buses and allow active monitoring of the use of fuel, thereby increasing efficiency? Will the minister consider using such a scheme as part of the BSOG conditions?

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

The member makes an interesting and key environmental point—he makes my point for me. We want to use the BSOG to reward environmentally friendly changes in behaviour. I am pleased that we have engagement on the subject.

We have thought about concessionary travel; I have announced changes for epileptics. We are also looking at the broader issue of administration and at the application form, to ensure that we are not denying anyone access to the concessionary travel scheme simply by administrative means.

Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat

Does the minister accept that, despite the best intentions of his Government and those of his predecessors, access to public transport for disabled people is patchy? That is a problem in my constituency, for reasons to do with the operators that we do not quite understand. Will he look at that, please?

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

Indeed. Although I welcome the new provision for wheelchairs that I have seen in many buses, there continues to be a problem in rural areas and I recognise that we need to look at that.

The bottom line is that we will start the review this year. We will look at the concessionary travel scheme in a wide range of ways. We are picking up administrative issues as far as we can—

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

I am sorry, but I no longer have time.

The bus route development fund was mentioned. It still exists and is the responsibility of local councils. That leads me to demand-responsive transport and some of the bizarre comments made by the Liberal speaker, Ms McInnes, who opened for her party today. When she was chair of NESTRANS, she wrote to the Government to plead that local authorities be allowed to retain responsibility for demand-responsive transport. Indeed, her council, when she was a member of it, introduced the very successful A2B scheme that operates in rural Aberdeenshire. That illustrates perfectly that local government is the best place to consider and make decisions on provision of the right local demand-responsive services. When I promoted my debate, I did not know that several community services qualified for the BSOG and to carry passengers who have the concessionary travel card. Such community services only have to be registered as publicly accessible services.

I do not disagree emotionally with what the Labour Party says. Broadly speaking, there is unanimity that public transport services are important and that we must support them. I have heard others make the point—more adequately than I might—that much of what the Labour Party criticises it had the opportunity to fix. Indeed, when Jackie Baillie said that she didnae ken, she only begged the question whether she is culpable or incompetent. Sometimes, it is better to be thought a fool than to open one's mouth and show that one is a fool. I am happy to have participated in this debate.

Photo of Karen Gillon Karen Gillon Labour 10:23, 31 January 2008

Well, well, well. At least our coalition was public and transparent. The coalition that is developing in this chamber has all the worst traits of smoke-filled rooms. Our benches have consigned such traits—like compositing at Labour conferences—to the distant past.

A distinctly green thread is being woven into the new nationalist-Tory tartan. That tartan is based on the needs of big business, the wealthy and those who can shout loudest. It fails the poor, the disabled and the disadvantaged. We hear a broken record from the nationalists—if they have to make a hard decision, it is all because of the big, bad boy in number 11 Downing Street or it becomes the responsibility of local government. Government is about making hard decisions and being accountable for them. We on the Labour benches give the Government notice: when local authorities in Scotland have to start making difficult decisions and cuts, we will know where the blame lies. It will lie at the heart of the SNP Government, which has failed to provide the necessary support.

Photo of Karen Gillon Karen Gillon Labour

Sit down, minister; you have had more than enough time.

The SNP Government has failed to provide the necessary support not only for transport, which will mean cuts in demand-led services, but for a range of other services, which will mean that disabled young people will not receive the same respite services as those throughout the rest of the United Kingdom.

What about the fact that the bus service operators grant will be frozen, not increased? What a commitment that is to public transport, Patrick. Someone, somewhere will have to pay. Indeed, the options are clear. Will there have to be cuts in the routes to some of our most vulnerable rural and urban communities? Will fare-paying passengers have to pay more? Will there be a squeeze on the pay, terms and conditions of the very staff who deliver the services that we all require?

Photo of Patrick Harvie Patrick Harvie Green

Like her colleague Mr McNulty, the member has criticised other members for supporting a freeze in the bus service operators grant, despite the fact that the amendments call very explicitly for the grant to be substantially increased. Has she actually read the amendments?

Photo of Karen Gillon Karen Gillon Labour

Yes, I have your amendment, Patrick. However, it does one other very important thing—

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

Excuse me. I ask the member not to use first names or the second person.

Photo of Karen Gillon Karen Gillon Labour

I am sorry. Mr Harvie's amendment seeks to delete from the motion the important issue of disabled access to public transport, which is worthy of serious debate in the chamber and should not be subject to the rigid political dogma of, for example, Jamie Hepburn.

Given that the vast majority of people on the lower rate of the disability living allowance are already budgeted for in the roll-out of the current scheme, arguing about the budget is the Government using smoke and mirrors to hide its failure to close the loophole. No member on the Labour benches—or, I am sure, in the rest of the chamber—opposes a review of the scheme to find out whether any improvements can be made. However, that does not stop the minister acting now—not at some point in the future—to ensure that those on the lower rate of the disability living allowance can continue to access the concessionary fares scheme.

In my constituency, a local group that provides befriending services to adults with learning disabilities has been awarded £250,000 support. To develop the confidence of adults with learning difficulties, befrienders engage with and support them by, for example, taking them out on visits. I have no doubt that the range of these activities will be severely limited if the minister does not act now to close the loophole. I believe that he wants to act in Scotland's best interests, but he cannot keep abdicating his responsibilities. Even if he cannot bring himself to support Des McNulty's amendment, he has the opportunity to act, to close the loophole and make the same changes for these people that he has made for people with epilepsy. I hope that, even at this late stage, the minister will consider the matter further and perhaps come back to the chamber with his thoughts at an early opportunity.

The Green amendment would also delete from our amendment the issue of access to rural community transport. In constituencies such as mine, commercial bus operators do not offer services to large number of communities because it is simply not an option for them. Given that community transport provides a joined-up public transport network, it should form part of the process and part of the concessionary fares scheme. As the Tory amendment states, community transport was not included in the scheme when it was introduced. However, we can learn from the experience and improve and develop the scheme. Indeed, rural community transport could be an invaluable part of the public transport network if it were able to access it. The vast majority of those who use such transport are the elderly, the disabled and those who cannot easily access cars to get to bigger settlements and are therefore stuck in their homes.

I hope that the minister will be able to reflect on those points and make those changes ahead of his review. The people affected, particularly those on lower rate DLA, deserve nothing less from this Parliament.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. I seek clarification on the guidance that you gave to Karen Gillon on the use of names in the chamber. According to the Presiding Officers' previous guidance, which is meant to ensure that those listening to the debate are not confused, it is wrong to use someone's first name initially and, to begin with, members should use an individual's full name. The previous advice does not say that there is anything wrong with using a member's first name once the individual has been identified. We all know that Patrick Harvie's name is Patrick.

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

Indeed it is. However, for the sake of simplicity and so that we do not have to keep track of when someone's full name has been mentioned to see whether subsequent mentions are in order, we will stick with the ruling that one should either use the member's full name—in this case, Patrick Harvie—or call the member Mr Harvie. That is the Presiding Officer's ruling and my ruling. Now let us get on with the next debate.