Concessionary Travel Scheme

– in the Scottish Parliament at 9:15 am on 10th December 2009.

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Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None 9:15 am, 10th December 2009

Good morning. The first item of business is a debate on motion S3M-5378, in the name of Charlie Gordon, on concessionary travel.

Photo of Charlie Gordon Charlie Gordon Labour

I welcome this opportunity to open the first parliamentary debate for five years devoted to concessionary travel.

On 1 April 2006, the national concessionary travel scheme for older and disabled people, the product of the Transport (Scotland) Act 2005 and secondary legislation prepared by transport ministers, came into operation. Although the scheme replaced 16 local schemes, it is still possible to enhance it at a local level. For example, in the Strathclyde partnership for transport area—a topical subject this morning—it is possible to get discounted fares on rail services and the Glasgow subway, and around Scotland there are other examples of what one might call a local non-bus dimension to concessionary travel. The national scheme also includes two free ferry journeys a year for island residents. However, it is principally and overwhelmingly a free bus travel scheme.

I have been gleaning a number of facts and figures from parliamentary questions. Given that the Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change, Stewart Stevenson, has described himself in the chamber as a "geek", I will not seek to give figures that are accurate to the nth degree, because I am sure that, punctilious as he is, the minister will if necessary correct me at the margins. At the moment, 1.1 million people hold national entitlement cards, the document that is key to concessionary travel and, in particular, free bus travel; 164,000 cards are held by people with disabilities and there are 104,000 companion cards in circulation to enable people with certain disabilities to be escorted.

The scheme is built around an agreement negotiated by Transport Scotland on behalf of the Scottish Government with the Confederation of Passenger Transport UK, which represents bus operators. It is a seven-year deal that, from its vesting day, takes us up to 2013. The principle for bus operators is that they should be no better and no worse off by participating in the scheme. However, thereby hangs a rather complicated tale and, as a former convener of a local concessionary travel scheme in Strathclyde, I know that the financing and financial administration of such schemes can be extremely complex.

At the moment, the system reimburses to CPT members what is, in my view, a rather generous 73.6 per cent of the average fare in Scotland. It is fair to say that there is some tension between Transport Scotland and CPT on the matter but, in my experience, tension can be a creative thing. The operators are interested in being paid average costs, whereas Transport Scotland has rightly proposed the establishment of a scheme in which increased patronage could be borne at marginal cost to operators. Other tensions have emerged; CPT has demanded that a cost escalator be built into future years, while the Scottish Government has understandably sought a cap, so that it knows the amount of finite resources it can plan to make available for future concessionary travel schemes.

One of the greatest complexities in the financial administration of concessionary travel is the generation factor—not, I stress, the generation game, although it can sometimes turn into a bit of an elaborate game. By that, I mean the difficult-to-capture information about the people travelling under the concessionary travel scheme who would not have done so if the scheme had not been in place. That kind of information bedevils a budget that is essentially a projection rather than a precise amount. Who will travel next year? How many journeys will they make? Will there in some years be a lack of financial provision for concessionary travel or will there, as has been more usual and as the minister has made clear on the record, be surpluses at the end of the year?

At the moment, the number of journeys per year is running north of 158 million and, when the scheme began in 2006, each journey was costing the taxpayer 78p. The cost is now substantially more than £1 per journey. Of course, one of the drivers of that increase has been the increase in commercial bus fares. The scheme's current real-term annual costs are in excess of £180 million and, according to a parliamentary answer, since it started operators have claimed £510 million and have been paid back £506 million. In other words, Transport Scotland has repudiated £4 million of gross claims.

It seems to me that as we try to move away from the average cost approach to the marginal cost approach, even more provision will be required, and I am heartened by the way in which the roll-out of smart card technology, which captures precise data about all bus journeys, is gathering momentum.

Even before the scheme started, people were saying that some of its aspects should be enhanced. In January 2006, the then MSP for Banff and Buchan took up the cudgels on behalf of the local community transport organisation, one of the best in the country, arguing that in rural areas community transport organisations account for a significant part of bus usage and should therefore be considered as part of the bus network and as operators for the purpose of the scheme. At that time, quite a number of MSPs signed a motion to that effect in the name of Stewart Stevenson.

In 2007, a number of members became concerned by approaches they were receiving from constituents who were, in the main, on the lower level of disability living allowance. They had received free bus travel in 2006; however, when on vesting day they had tried to claim their national entitlement card with their local concessionary travel card, which had been recognised as a valid document for free bus travel, they were told that they were not eligible for it. Essentially, from 2007 onwards, thousands of people who had been able to travel free in local authority schemes in Strathclyde, the Lothians, the Highlands and Fife were stripped of that benefit.

What went wrong? With a view to standardising eligibility and validation processes, the then Scottish Government undertook a public consultation exercise between October and December 2005. Following that, the national scheme eligibility criteria and validation processes were standardised with the agreement of transport authorities, operators, and the Mobility and Access Committee for Scotland. Subsequently, the arrangements were approved by secondary legislation. To ensure a smooth transition, people who were on the lower DLA rate in local schemes were simply ported across to free bus travel on vesting day in April 2006.

In the meantime, Transport Scotland expected that the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities would be involved in ensuring that all cardholders would be reassessed on the expiry of their existing card. I am not at all clear why it was felt to be necessary to reassess people who had been through rigorous United Kingdom Government agency checks, but we are where we are.

So it could be said that there was a bit of a cock-up. There was considerable pressure in Parliament and on the minister to reflect the views of affected constituents, and he founded on a review of concessionary travel that would commence in 2008. However, just before that review started, the Halcrow Group reported to Transport Scotland that 42 per cent or more of car owners with entitlement cards were now using the car less, so we were starting to see benefits in terms of modal split. Halcrow concluded that the schemes in Scotland were contributing positively to reducing social exclusion and encouraging active lifestyles and modal shift from private car to public transport and, in particular, the bus.

Then came the review, and it was rather a closed review that mainly involved the civil service and Transport Scotland, and only accepted written submissions from other stakeholders. Yes, we welcomed and still welcome the recommendation to include disabled war veterans in the scheme, but we are particularly disappointed that people who are on the lower rate of DLA are still excluded. The review includes a back-of-a-fag-packet calculation that claims that it would cost £18 million for people who are in that category to be included once additional companion cards are factored in. Those calculations do not bear much scrutiny, as members will have seen from the e-mail that we received from Leonard Cheshire Disability. I have received a number of quotes from Leonard Cheshire and other voluntary organisations that reflect the views of those vulnerable people, and it is fair to say that in many parts of Scotland, the cry is still for people who are on the lower rate of DLA to be given free bus travel. I will have the opportunity to highlight those points when I sum up.

We should not be looking backwards at the cock-up, nor should we be constructing conspiracy theories. Across the parties in the Parliament, we should be doing the right thing by some very vulnerable people.

I move,

That the Parliament welcomes the recommendation of the Review of the Scotland Wide Free Bus Travel Scheme for Older and Disabled People to include seriously injured armed forces veterans to the scheme but notes with disappointment and concern the review's recommendation to disenfranchise disabled people who receive the lower rate of Disability Living Allowance (DLA) from the scheme; further notes that the review paints a worst-case scenario of the costs of including disabled people who receive the lower rate of DLA and that these costs are open to scrutiny and debate and that the review also played down the positive social impact that the scheme has on people's lives; acknowledges that denying disabled people on the lower rate of DLA access to the scheme will damage the main aims and ethos of the scheme, namely to allow disabled people improved access to services, facilities and social networks by free scheduled bus services and so promote social inclusion and improve health by promoting a more active lifestyle for disabled people; notes that previous local schemes operated in West Lothian and Strathclyde provided people on the lower rate of DLA access to concessionary travel schemes and that they supported the national scheme mirroring their eligibility criteria instead of the stringent criteria that are now adopted; welcomes disability organisations Leonard Cheshire Disability, Learning Disability Alliance Scotland (LDAS), Inclusion Scotland and many more in challenging the review's negative recommendation, and considers that disabled people's views, that the national concessionary travel scheme should include people who receive the lower rate of DLA instead of backing the unfair recommendation on eligibility from the review, should be listened to.

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party 9:28 am, 10th December 2009

For the avoidance of doubt, I report to Parliament my interest in the scheme by displaying my old person's bus pass, which I have used on ministerial business some 200 times so far, thus saving the public purse some money. [ Interruption. ] It is a bit incestuous, as Mr Johnstone has just pointed out, since my budget is paying 73.6 per cent of the cost, but I can at least claim to have saved 26.4 per cent that would otherwise have been paid.

I start by congratulating Charlie Gordon on a well-informed and well-researched contribution to today's debate. I welcome the opportunity to lock horns with him on a subject of significant interest for the first time since his appointment. I also encourage him to greater efforts. Had he added a mere 30 further words to his lengthy motion, he would have filled the entire page of the Business Bulletin instead of leaving me just a little space.

Photo of Charlie Gordon Charlie Gordon Labour

Is the minister aware that I took a leaf out of the book of his colleague, Angela Constance?

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

Indeed, but I think that Leonard Cheshire probably also had something to do with the drafting of the motion.

This is a serious matter, and it is good that we are having this discussion. Charlie Gordon quite properly delineated much of the history of how we got here. At the time, I commended the previous Administration on the introduction of the national scheme, and I continue to support it as a minister. One of the good things that we have been able to do in the review that we have just completed is to say unambiguously that we will continue to support the scheme in the form in which it has been introduced. The scheme has clearly delivered an enormous number of benefits to people across Scotland. It is a national scheme with absolute certainty of provision. That helps the bus companies with planning because, right across Scotland, they know the rate that they will be getting. In that respect, the scheme is much better than the one south of the border, which is off-peak only, has different rates of reward across England, and is difficult to administer.

We note that in yesterday's pre-budget report, the Chancellor said that the English scheme will be amended by aligning eligibility with the forthcoming changes in the state pension age. So, in future in England, people who are aged 60 will not be entitled to enter the scheme. For the avoidance of doubt, that is on page 110 of the pre-budget report. So the gap between the excellent scheme that we have in Scotland, which we are committed to sustaining and maintaining, and what is going on south of the border will widen.

Photo of Karen Gillon Karen Gillon Labour

Will the minister reflect on yesterday's debate, during which members of his party were trumpeting on about other parties and the Parliament doing things better? Instead of looking at what others are doing, will he look at how we are failing to support people who are on low-component disability living allowance?

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

The member makes a perfectly reasonable point, but I point out that I congratulated her party and, indeed, the Liberal Democrats when they introduced the scheme, which we continue to promote and which we have extended to cover disabled ex-servicemen. The scheme has always been better than the one south of the border and our focus should be on establishing how we can sustain and maintain that scheme. I am happy that we have been able to do that.

Our scheme enables older and disabled people to continue to travel for free throughout Scotland, at any time, on any scheduled bus route, for any number of journeys. In these difficult economic times, in particular, the scheme delivers huge benefit to many families and pensioners. It also maintains social cohesion. Charlie Gordon talked about the 158 million journeys that were made. By the way, I will not pick at the numbers; Mr Gordon basically got them right. He made only one mistake and I cannot resist the temptation to correct it. Reimbursement is made on the standard fare, not the average fare. There is something quite important in that, however, because the bus companies have, not unreasonably, tended to raise standard fares at a slightly greater rate than other fares, which has ensured that they protect the revenue from the concessionary bus scheme. That is part of the on-going discussion that we are having with the CPT about reimbursement rates.

Our 73.6 per cent reimbursement rate is substantially more generous than the rate in England and Wales. It still incorporates an allowance for the start-up costs of the scheme, which is why we have commissioned consultants to examine whether the rate properly meets the test that companies should be no better off and no worse off. Charlie Gordon discussed the marginal cost of carrying extra passengers and pointed out that the present scheme, in essence, takes into account the full cost. There is a proper debate to be had on that. The CPT says that its members have put on extra capacity and used the opportunity to invest in new buses. There is merit in that, but we have to consider getting the balance right. In establishing the right reimbursement rate for the future, we need to reflect the fact that the start-up costs are out of the way. We will have discussions on that.

Three years on, with the review completed, we can see how successful the scheme has been, but we can also see the nature of the challenge that we face. The previous Government and the present one should be proud of the scheme, which delivers much for the people of Scotland.

Reference was made to ferry and rail discounts that are provided locally. It is still open for local authorities to provide support to holders of the card, or otherwise, as they see fit. Before the national scheme, six of the 16 schemes throughout Scotland provided support to people who were on the lower rate of disability living allowance. We do not know what the future of DLA will be, as it is one of the benefits that are being considered for reform or abolition. I hope that whatever follows provides appropriate support for people with disabilities, as that is important.

The current scheme comes in two parts: a care component and a mobility component. The mobility component, which is paid by Westminster, is important. Some people have suggested that we might more readily be able to structure support for people who are on the lower level of DLA by transferring the funding for the mobility component to Scotland. That could allow us to fund different ways of supporting people who are on DLA. However, the Government is not yet engaged on that matter, although the issue has been raised.

Our population continues to be an ageing one. I hope that many of those older people remain, as I do, relatively fit and in possession of a bus pass, and therefore able to travel to meet friends and family. Charlie Gordon possibly stretched the use of parliamentary terms when he used the word "geek". Thankfully, the Presiding Officer did not rule that that is unparliamentary language—I wear the badge of geekdom with pride and will continue to do so. Charlie Gordon gave a bit of a hostage to fortune by suggesting that there might have been a cock-up in the establishment of the scheme. I would be more gentle and say that some long-term effects of the scheme have emerged over time. He made the good point that 42 per cent of car owners use the scheme to reduce their driving. I include myself in that, albeit that I probably do too much driving, even now.

When we debated community transport and demand-responsive transport in March 2006, my motion welcomed the formation of Transport Scotland as a way to promote new ideas. That continues to be the case. We have considered the options for including community transport in the existing scheme. One or two providers that run scheduled services can qualify. However, the issue is complex. If we made such services free, I am sure that they would be well used, but that would require a significant increase in capability and capacity in the community transport world.

If Mr Gordon in his closing remarks indicates that, at this stage, he is not asking for additional money to be spent, I will consider my position in relation to the amendment in my name. However, for the moment, I will move it.

I move amendment S3M-5378.2, to insert at end:

", and considers that if the Labour Party wishes this to be the case, it should bring forward a costed proposal to the Budget to show where the resources will be taken from to pay for this."

Photo of Alison McInnes Alison McInnes Liberal Democrat 9:40 am, 10th December 2009

We all agree that the national concessionary travel scheme, which was introduced by the previous Executive, has been a resounding success. We also agree that the objectives of promoting social inclusion by allowing older and disabled people—especially those who are on low incomes—improved access to services, facilities and social networks through free use of scheduled bus services, and of improving health by promoting a more active lifestyle for the elderly and disabled are, largely, being met. However, they are not totally being met, as the scheme is not completely fair and equitable.

I will pre-empt interventions by saying that it could not have been easy to set up such an ambitious scheme from scratch, so I do not criticise the previous Executive for the omissions. After all, the Executive had the foresight to say that the scheme would have to be reviewed after three years to see what needed to be amended. However, that review, under the direction of the current Government, was ultimately a wasted opportunity. Although ministers had an opportunity to build on the groundbreaking travel schemes that the previous Administration introduced, little progress has been made. The only change that is recommended by the review is to extend free bus travel to seriously injured veterans. Although I support that and know that it will be welcome news to our war heroes, it just does not go far enough.

There are two areas in which a change in the scheme would redress some of the unfairness in the current system. First, I support Charlie Gordon's call for those on the lower level of disability living allowance to be eligible. Secondly, as set out in my amendment, proper consideration must be given to bringing rural community transport into the scheme. Addressing those two issues would make an immense difference to people who are trying to lead independent lives.

Extending the national concessionary travel scheme eligibility to include recipients of the lower rate of DLA has been advocated by several charities that represent people with disabilities. For example, Leonard Cheshire Disability has called for the scheme to be extended through its action for access campaign and the report "Mind the Gap: The Next Step". Although the inclusion of people on lower level DLA would undoubtedly increase the cost of the scheme, it would bring significant benefits by increasing social inclusion and promoting a more active and independent lifestyle for people with disabilities.

As WRVS points out in its briefing, research shows that, by keeping older and disabled people independent, active and connected in their communities, community transport makes people's lives better and improves their health, which is well in keeping with the aims of the national concessionary travel scheme. By helping to keep such people out of expensive acute and residential care, the public purse saves far more money than community transport costs to run. Community transport meets social need like no other transport service can. It is a cost-effective way of supporting some of society's most vulnerable people, and we must maintain it.

The Government must consider in an holistic way the costs and benefits of the two proposed changes. The cost of extending the scheme to all current community transport services has been estimated as no more than 3 per cent of the total budget for the scheme. The Scottish Liberal Democrats have long supported community and demand-responsive transport initiatives, as they provide a vital lifeline for communities who are served poorly or not at all by traditional bus services. In remote or rural locales, such schemes might be the only available viable public transport option. It is therefore crucial that the providers are supported in their operation and not discouraged.

It is worth noting that March 2008 marked the end of specific Scottish Government funding for community transport. The demise of the rural transport fund and demand-responsive transport grants as discrete funding pots has increased the pressure on those organisations. As local authority funding becomes tighter, lifeline services could well be put at risk, which would be a retrograde step. Recent research that was commissioned by WRVS shows that one in three older people cannot always get to where they want to go. That is certainly true in rural areas and it is why I am so keen for community transport to be brought into the equation.

My region contains the two great cities of Aberdeen and Dundee but, for the most part, it is a rural region taking in Aberdeenshire and Angus and with a widely dispersed population. For example, Aberdeenshire is, geographically, one of the larger councils in Scotland. It has a population of slightly more than a quarter of a million, yet it has only six major towns with a population of more than 10,000 and not one of them reaches the 20,000 mark. The area has another 68 settlements and villages and, beyond that, about 68,500 people live outwith the towns and villages.

The majority of people have to travel to access health services, to study, work, or meet their social and leisure needs. Good commercial bus services are provided on the main routes into and out of Aberdeen, but there are much poorer links across country. Many rural residents rely on a range of community transport and demand-responsive transport services. I am sure that my colleague Jamie Stone could tell a similar story.

My point is that elderly and disabled rural residents get a poor deal. They might well have a concessionary card—at least those on full DLA—but they will not be able to get the benefit of it as mainstream bus services can be few and far between, if not completely non-existent. Elderly residents with relatives in a nursing home, or disabled people getting to work, rely utterly on those transport services.

The north-east has built up a strong tradition of social enterprises providing employment for disabled people. That kind of independent living must surely be encouraged. Why should not those on lower level disability living allowance be able to access free bus travel and take up those employment opportunities?

The minister will be familiar with those issues, representing as he does the Banff and Buchan constituency. I know that as a local MSP he has long supported community transport. Indeed, anyone who has experienced at first hand the rise and rise of Buchan dial-a-bus could not fail to be a convert to community transport. Buchan dial-a-bus, operating out of Maud, is a local transport charity providing a fully accessible transport service for people who have problems accessing public transport due to age, infirmity or rural exclusion. Last year it provided over 1,000 individuals with transport to hospitals.

When we debated the topic last year, the minister, Stewart Stevenson, responded directly to me in the chamber:

"The member may recall that I secured a members' business debate on that subject in the previous session of Parliament, so she will know of my interest in it. I take the opportunity to assure her that we will include the matter in our consideration of the scheme."—[Official Report, 12 June 2008; c 9624.]

I am therefore disappointed that the minister has not been able to propose changes to the scheme in support of that interest and I call on him to consider the matter further. As he said to a previous transport minister on 15 March 2006:

"The minister can correct that oversight. It would take merely a bit of time, a bit of money and a willingness to respond flexibly."—[Official Report, 15 March 2006; c 24035.]

He continued:

"A nationwide bus scheme means little if the disabled or older rural dweller cannot gain any benefit from it."—[Official Report, 15 March 2006; c 24036.]

I move amendment S3M-5378.1, to insert at end:

"; recognises that rural areas suffer disproportionately from bus fare increases or reduced bus services, and calls on the Scottish Government to consider extending eligibility for the national concessionary travel scheme to include older and disabled people using community transport in rural areas."

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative 9:47 am, 10th December 2009

When engaged in the political process, I meet a lot of people who believe that politicians just argue with one another all the time and that we do it for the sport because we enjoy it. Unfortunately, the truth is that, although the media tend to report the arguments, they tend not to report the things on which we all agree. The things that I am most proud of being involved with in my time in this Parliament are the things on which we agreed. Free personal care for the elderly is an example, and the national concessionary travel scheme is another; I am proud of those and I am keen to protect them.

The problem with those two schemes—and many others on which we agreed—is that, once they have been put in place, the problems begin to appear. If one has made long-term funding commitments, funding problems begin to arise over time. That is why I welcome the opportunity to debate the subject that Charlie Gordon has given us today by lodging his motion—or perhaps I should say Angela Constance's motion. There is nothing in the motion with which I can disagree and, as we have heard from previous speakers, several aspects of it are entirely worthy.

The review threw up the decision that it was appropriate to extend the service to disabled ex-servicemen, which is an extremely valuable proposal. We have heard discussed at great length this morning the fact that lower-rate disability living allowance recipients have been excluded from the scheme. I see no reason why they should not be covered other than that there is a cost implication that we must take into account. Other problems are associated with the scheme. As has already been pointed out, the introduction of the scheme brought about the removal of many localised schemes and took away opportunities for people to take advantage of other concessionary schemes, including concessionary rail travel. We know that many local authorities had the opportunity to put forward or continue with such schemes, which has thrown up numerous problems. The issue in Fife is one that my colleague Ted Brocklebank will address in some detail in his speech later in the debate.

It is implicit that any proposal to extend the range of the scheme at this time must address cost. The Conservatives intend to support the Government amendment as an addendum to the motion. However, we are in the same position as the minister and will consider not voting for the amendment if we get a proper explanation of where the money to deliver the proposed changes will come from.

As we go through the debate, I expect to hear many people call for the scheme to be extended into other areas.

Photo of Helen Eadie Helen Eadie Labour

I hope that the member will agree that the key point here is that we should look to the Government to say precisely where the money will come from. It is the Opposition's job to say what the issues are; it is the Government's job to find the resources.

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative

The member has missed the point entirely.

I spent part of yesterday afternoon listening to Alistair Darling's pre-budget statement. I heard a chancellor talking about what he would like to spend, yet being reluctant to talk about what will require to be cut. Government finances are in a worse state now than at any time in the past. It is not appropriate for a Labour member to demand additional resources from the Government without first accepting that resources are under pressure because of what has been done by a Labour Government south of the border. However, more significant than hearing a chancellor refuse to be accountable for what will have to be cut is hearing a Labour Opposition member in the Scottish Parliament take the same irresponsible attitude, as it threatens the scheme of which we are all so proud and which we wish to protect.

I would like to hear an explanation from Labour and the Liberal Democrats of where the money should come from. There are two basic choices. First, should it come from the broader budget—should money be taken away from other priorities to support expansion of the scheme? Alternatively, should we look to reprioritise within the scheme to achieve our objectives?

Photo of Alison McInnes Alison McInnes Liberal Democrat

Does Alex Johnstone accept that I said in my speech that the Government ought to look at this in an holistic way, for example by looking at the health benefits, and consider making contributions from several different pots to enable the scheme to be extended?

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative

Indeed, I fully accept that. However, since the election in 2007, I have listened to many Liberal Democrat spokesmen in the Parliament make what appear to be on-the-hoof spending commitments. It will come as no surprise because we have said it before that the Conservatives are counting those commitments. The Liberal Democrats in the Scottish Parliament are now approaching a figure of £10 billion in implicit spending commitments.

We must have responsible realism in the debate. That is why I agree with everything in the Liberal Democrat amendment. I believe that there are problems with rural transport. What is the point of having a concessionary travel scheme if there are no buses? That problem exists all over Scotland, but especially in the north-east, as Alison McInnes pointed out.

We must know where the money is coming from.

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative

I am just about to finish.

We have always said that money does not grow on trees, and that has never been more true than today. We must prioritise. If we are to maintain and protect the scheme, we must know where the money is coming from and, if it does not come from within the scheme, we need to know which budget area will lose out as a result.

Photo of John Park John Park Labour 9:54 am, 10th December 2009

I welcome the opportunity to speak in this morning's debate and support fully the sentiment and details of the motion.

Like many MSPs, I have received a significant amount of correspondence from groups expressing their concern about the exclusion from the concessionary travel scheme of disabled people who receive the lower level of disability living allowance. Charlie Gordon outlined some of the background to that and made a coherent and compelling case for the issue to be addressed. For me, this is about social inclusion. Reinstating the key benefit of concessionary travel to people on the lower rate of DLA would help a range of people who already have to overcome a great number of barriers in their day-to-day lives.

Enable Scotland has highlighted some of the key issues that disabled people face, the importance of accessible and affordable transport and the difference that that could make to their lives. Many people with learning disabilities do not drive a car and would find it almost impossible to do so. That, combined with the fact that many of them are likely to rely on welfare or the benefits system, means that a concessionary bus pass would make a huge difference to their ability to go about their lives in a normal way, perhaps to get into employment and to undertake the activities that many of us both inside and outside the Parliament take for granted.

However, the motion is not just about doing the right thing; it is about helping disabled people to achieve their full potential. The motion raises awareness of that important issue, but this Parliament is not just about raising awareness; it is about effecting change. That is why I am pleased that Charlie Gordon is looking to make specific changes through his proposed regulation of bus services (Scotland) bill, which focuses on this issue, which I think is very worth while.

Of course, Charlie Gordon's proposals go a lot further than just reinstating this benefit. As I have said before, bus regulation affects all parts of Scotland. Given that I have the privilege to represent such a diverse region as Mid Scotland and Fife, I am often struck by the similarities in the public transport issues that people face in urban Dunfermline, for example, and in rural parts of Fife and Perthshire. I hope that Charlie Gordon is successful in taking his proposed bill through Parliament.

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

Does John Park welcome, as I do, the work that Glasgow City Council is undertaking to develop a statutory bus partnership, which delivers almost all the benefits that might come from reregulation? At the very least, by doing that, we can see whether that statement turns out to be true.

Photo of John Park John Park Labour

I think that there will be an awful lot of support for what Charlie Gordon is trying to achieve through his bill. There is support not just in the Scottish Parliament but among passenger groups and the Scottish Trades Union Council. The union Unite, whose representatives are in the gallery this morning, supports the proposal, because it knows that it will make a difference to people who work in the industry. Although initiatives at local government level are welcome, we need to have a national debate about the services that we have to provide in Scotland and about how public money is spent most effectively in order to make a difference for the people who use those services.

Given the past enthusiasm, particularly among members of the Government, for bus regulation, I am sure that Charlie Gordon can look forward to receiving support for his bill from a number of SNP members.

Last week, I attended a meeting of the Kirkcaldy and district trades council—it was the first time in a few years that I had been to a trades council meeting—at which I was reminded of the key issues that we face in the current economic climate. The meeting was well attended and the debate was wide ranging. What struck me is that people understood the reality: it is about making the right choices.

Alex Johnstone said that we have to say where we would find the money. The Conservatives went into budget negotiations in the past two years with the Scottish Government. I am not sure to what extent Mr Johnstone is privy to this, but the Conservatives made no alternative recommendations about where the money would come from for the acceleration of the small business bonus scheme and the town centre regeneration fund in this year's budget. That was done through discussion and negotiation with the Scottish Government at the time. That is an important point to put on the record.

I am proud of the role that Fife played in developing the first concessionary travel scheme in the UK. The then convener of Fife Regional Council, Bert Gough, a Labour councillor who sadly died in 1998, must take all the credit for driving that policy through at the time. He pioneered the policy in very difficult times throughout Fife. The kingdom was witnessing the decline of the long-standing mining industry and there were a considerable number of job losses in the defence sector, but he recognised the importance of ensuring that many of our people, particularly our older people, had the opportunity to move around Fife and the contribution that that made to their health and wellbeing.

In recent years, Fife has expanded its concessionary travel scheme to cover rail travel, too. The current scheme entitles card holders to discounted journeys for a fare of 50p. Around 90,000 Fifers are entitled to that rail concession scheme, under which it is estimated that just under 0.5 million journeys will have been undertaken in the past year.

However, there is a worrying development regarding the concessionary rail travel scheme. According to the council, the current cost of the scheme is around £700,000. That is easy to quantify when we are looking at budget constraints, but it is much more difficult to measure the positive impact that the scheme has had on the health and wellbeing of the thousands of people who use it.

Fifers are realistic. I recently received an e-mail from a constituent who is concerned about the council's plans to perhaps remove the scheme. The constituent said of the scheme:

"I realise that money is tight. There are many ways of maintaining it for ALL pensioners, like increasing the fare from 50p to £1."

I think that that would still leave a worthwhile saving on the standard fare for pensioners. We need to have a wider debate on what spending money on individuals now means for their wider health and wellbeing and for future accessibility. The key issue is that a proposal has been made that is creating concern in Fife, but £1 spent on a concessionary scheme now will have a far greater impact and will save money further down the line, although that is very difficult to quantify.

The Labour group in Fife Council has made the good suggestion, which echoes the views of constituents, that we increase the fare from 50p to £1, which would be worth while. It is important to highlight that in the debate.

A petition is being taken forward by local people in Fife and by the Scottish Pensioners Forum—Margaret Murdoch, who is here this morning, is taking the petition forward. I have signed the petition and I urge other Fife members to support it, too.

If a scheme such as this is going to make a difference, we have to ensure that it is supported now in these difficult times. I look forward to working closely with Charlie Gordon as his bill progresses.

Photo of Shirley-Anne Somerville Shirley-Anne Somerville Scottish National Party 10:02 am, 10th December 2009

I understand that Ian McKee and Chris Harvie, who will be speaking later, and the minister have already collected their bus passes and that Charlie Gordon might not have collected his yet but might be eligible soon. My direct interest in the debate is slightly less than that of some of the members who are speaking in the debate this morning but, nevertheless, I take it very seriously I am sure that everyone in the chamber has sympathy with the idea of increasing the scope of the concessionary travel scheme, but matters are not that straightforward. I want to touch on two aspects of the approach of Labour and the Liberal Democrats to the travel scheme—an opportunity missed followed by much political opportunism. The opportunity missed was when the order for the scheme was introduced in the Parliament back in early 2006. The then Local Government and Transport Committee examined the proposed scheme. It received written evidence from the Mobility Access Committee for Scotland, which complained about the lack of time for consultation, which followed calls from a number of respondents to include people on lower levels of DLA and those using community transport. That did not spring up as a surprise in 2007, as some members claim; it was there in the initial responses to the consultation.

In his response, the then Minister for Transport—one Tavish Scott—said that it was already too late to change the order or to consult on further extensions. Instead, we saw the Liberal Democrat Minister for Transport and the Labour First Minister sign off on a consultation document that specifically ruled out those on the lower rate of DLA and those using community transport. With that, a golden opportunity was missed. There was an opportunity for Labour and the Liberal Democrats, together in grand coalition, to bring forward a scheme that would have done exactly what they are calling for today and yet they did nothing. Having missed that opportunity while in government, both parties have since embarked on a course of opportunism in opposition.

Photo of Shirley-Anne Somerville Shirley-Anne Somerville Scottish National Party

For more than a year after the scheme was established, not a word came from the parties on the unfairness of the criteria that they introduced, unless I missed something from the member who is about to intervene.

Photo of Karen Gillon Karen Gillon Labour

I fully appreciate and understand that we got it wrong in the previous parliamentary session. No Labour member will say anything different from that. However, the fact is that, 111 days ago, Shirley-Anne Somerville's party lodged exactly the same motion that we have lodged. None of the SNP members who signed that motion has had the courage to come to the chamber and say why they will not support the motion at decision time.

Photo of Shirley-Anne Somerville Shirley-Anne Somerville Scottish National Party

I have heard from no Labour members how they would pay for their motion—I will come on to that in due course.

Within weeks of becoming the Opposition, members saw extending the scheme as a matter of great urgency. Opposition members suddenly found it easy to call for the extra spending.

Photo of Shirley-Anne Somerville Shirley-Anne Somerville Scottish National Party

General demands to spend money are one thing; detailed and costed proposals are another. Opposition members must face up to the reality.

Photo of Alison McInnes Alison McInnes Liberal Democrat

Ms Somerville accuses us of opportunism, but that is not the case. The Liberal Democrats raised the issue as we headed into a review, which Tavish Scott built into the system—

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

Please face your microphone—we cannot hear you.

Photo of Alison McInnes Alison McInnes Liberal Democrat

I beg your pardon, Presiding Officer.

When that review began, we rightly suggested amendments to the scheme.

Photo of Shirley-Anne Somerville Shirley-Anne Somerville Scottish National Party

Many people have proposed amendments to the scheme, but Opposition members have not addressed how to pay for those amendments. I will return to that.

When we last debated the issue, I proposed financing an extension to the scheme by scrapping my personal favourite transport project: the Edinburgh trams. The other political parties did not make such a proposal. In that debate, other members commented on the fact that no relevant budget amendment was lodged by those who called for change. Here we are almost two years later—same debate, identical rhetoric—yet still no budget amendment has been lodged.

If Labour and the Liberal Democrats are serious about increasing the scheme's scope in the manner that the motion envisages, difficult issues must be addressed and questions must be answered. If the figures that the review group produced have problems, Labour and the Liberal Democrats need to produce their own detailed figures for Parliament to scrutinise properly. Do they simply want us to sign another blank cheque?

Even if Labour and the Lib Dems know the cost of the extensions, how would that be paid for? Would they—as the Conservatives suggested—remove the rights of some who currently benefit from the scheme? Would they simply add to the scheme's overall cost and cut another project?

I can provide two alternative courses of action that could be pursued in the meantime. Some people who receive the lower rate of DLA qualify for concessionary travel on other grounds, but it is clear that problems exist with making applications and with proving and assessing eligibility. That needs to improve.

Another way to resolve the financial obstacles that those who receive the lower rate of DLA face is for Labour Party members to take up an issue with their colleagues in London. The simple way to resolve the financial problems that recipients of DLA face is to ensure that the DLA rate is appropriate in the first place. Unless I have missed it, Labour members have made no calls to tackle the problem at source, at Westminster. Instead, they once again ask the Scottish Government to top up inadequate benefit levels that their Westminster colleagues pay.

I am all for aiding access to public transport, but I am not for aiding the Labour Party or the Liberal Democrats to score political points. That is why I will support the Government's amendment if Labour and the Liberal Democrats make no further suggestions about how they would pay for amending the scheme.

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Labour 10:08 am, 10th December 2009

I was a bit disappointed by Shirley-Anne Somerville's speech. The SNP cannot continue to have party-political rants against Westminster yet accuse other parties of making political points. That does not wash in here or with constituents. I have listened carefully to the speeches and I thought that we were building consensus this morning. In the first part of the debate, Charlie Gordon and the minister appeared to do that.

There is no doubt that the concessionary travel scheme is popular—we all know that from our constituents. I see Alex Johnstone nodding—I hope that he will agree with some of my other points.

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Labour

I hope not.

We all know of elderly constituents who have been able to keep in touch with their families and friends because of the scheme. We know of people who have taken up educational opportunities by using the scheme to access colleges. We know of people with disabilities who have had the opportunity through the scheme to be involved in their communities in a different way. We all know of people—the minister is an example—who have switched back to buses, although that is not always from the ministerial Mondeo or whatever the current mode of ministerial transport is. That must be good.

However, as I represent a rural area, I, like Alison McInnes and others, recognise that if a bus service is unavailable, there is no point in having the free pass. That is why it is important that we consider the opportunity for community transport to be part of the solution. If the minister wants somewhere to pilot such an initiative, I recommend the Coalfield Community Transport area, which covers my constituency. The yellow buses, which are well known throughout the area, have proved invaluable in ensuring that people in some of the more disadvantaged rural communities can access transport in a way that makes sense for them.

I return to the substance of the debate. Whatever happened—whether it was an unintended consequence or whether the previous Executive took its eye off the ball, for which I would be happy to take my share of the responsibility—the reality is that a number of people who had entitlement lost out. That is not fair or reasonable and it is incumbent on the Parliament to try to put that right. We have the opportunity to do that by building a consensus today to find a way forward.

I will consider some of the evidence that is around. We have all seen the briefing from Leonard Cheshire Disability, which has examined the position and made suggestions. The organisation suggests that the assumptions on which the costings were based were not entirely accurate and that those figures could be reconsidered. It also makes a serious point, about which my constituents are concerned and on which I have written to ministers, about fraudulent claims that are being made. In my constituency, some people were issued with tickets for journeys that were twice as long as the journeys that they took. I know that work has been done to resolve those issues and the minister must take some credit for that, but the perception is still that more could be done in the system to ensure fairness and to spend the money wisely.

Labour members present a motion that we know a significant number of SNP back benchers support. I did not have the chance to sign Angela Constance's motion—I would have done so had it been lodged for long enough.

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

Our interpretation is that the motion does not call on the Government to spend money, so I intend to recommend to my colleagues that we support it.

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Labour

I can at least thank the minister for considering that and I hope that the whole Parliament will support the motion. If the will of Parliament is to support the principle of extending eligibility, the Government has the resources to look into the costings, do the sums and produce a scheme that ensures that eligibility is extended. Like everyone else, I hope that that can be done within existing resources but, if a wrong must be righted, we must find a way of doing that. Parliament has the opportunity today to do the right thing. I urge everyone to follow the minister's example and to support the motion in the clear understanding that we want to restore eligibility to those who have lost out and to ensure that transport schemes are available for people to use.

Photo of Ian McKee Ian McKee Scottish National Party 10:14 am, 10th December 2009

I have had my cover blown by Shirley-Anne Somerville, so I suppose that I must join the minister in declaring an interest as the holder of a concessionary bus pass—

Members:

No!

Photo of Ian McKee Ian McKee Scottish National Party

I know. It is unbelievable, but there it is.

I have used the facility to travel many hundreds of miles throughout Scotland by bus and I have never failed to be impressed by the large number of very elderly citizens who accompanied me. The scheme is undoubtedly a huge success and allows many people free access to parts of their country that otherwise would be forever denied to them. They can visit relatives, go shopping and keep up social ties, which boosts morale and helps to ward off physical and mental illness.

I regret that the Labour motion plumbs depths of hypocrisy that are astonishing even for Labour. Labour says that it welcomes the recommendation that seriously injured armed forces veterans be included in the scheme. Good for Labour. However, the party failed to include injured veterans in the scheme when it had the opportunity to do so. It must be said that the dubious wars on which Labour has embarked have caused a huge increase in the number of seriously injured war veterans since the scheme was introduced, so I agree with Labour that action is more urgently needed now. The extension of the scheme is welcome.

The motion also calls on the Parliament to note

"with disappointment and concern the review's recommendation to disenfranchise disabled people who receive the lower rate of Disability Living Allowance (DLA) from the scheme".

Shirley-Anne Somerville has pointed out that the previous Administration rejected precisely the proposition that the scheme should include people in receipt of lower-rate DLA when it responded to the public consultation in 2006, and Cathy Jamieson has acknowledged responsibility for that. The grounds that the Administration put forward at the time were, first, that receipt of lower-rate DLA was not an automatic qualification for eligibility in the majority of local schemes and, secondly, that people in receipt of lower-rate DLA do not necessarily receive a mobility component.

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Labour

I am surprised by the member's criticism of the Labour motion. Does he disagree with his colleague Angela Constance, who some months ago lodged a motion that used exactly the same words?

Photo of Ian McKee Ian McKee Scottish National Party

Cathy Jamieson has misunderstood what I was saying, perhaps because I did not put it clearly enough. I was not disagreeing with the motion but pointing out the hypocrisy of a party lodging a motion when it is in opposition on a subject about which it did nothing when it was in government.

What has changed to alter Labour's perception? Nothing at all, except that the public finances are more strained than they have been in the history of the Parliament and that the party behind the motion is in opposition. However, the Labour group in committee has suggested no amendments to the draft budget to allocate more money for the purpose of extending the scheme.

Is that because it knows that it would then have to identify corresponding savings from elsewhere? That is why the motion reeks of hypocrisy.

Let us consider how the concessionary fares scheme operates in a country where Labour still holds the reins of power: England. With all due respect to Karen Gillon, it is perfectly reasonable to consider the issue, because the Labour Party in Scotland still considers itself to be a branch of the wider UK movement and Labour is in power in England.

Photo of Karen Gillon Karen Gillon Labour

Has Ian McKee forgotten yesterday's debate, when his party wanted to focus on what the Parliament can do and what it can do more of? Stop moaning about everybody else and get on with using the powers that we have!

Photo of Ian McKee Ian McKee Scottish National Party

It is always a pleasure to receive a measured intervention from Karen Gillon.

I merely point out that it is not unfair to judge the people who suggest a wonderful scheme for Scotland by their actions where they are not in opposition but in government. Is England a Nirvana that Labour asks us to emulate? It is not. There, people who are entitled to concessionary travel are guaranteed only off-peak travel, whereas no such restriction applies in Scotland. Schemes are centred on local authority areas, so in practice it is impossible for a person to travel easily outside their local area, whereas in Scotland it is possible to travel freely from one end of the country to the other.

What about the extension of the concession to people who receive the lower rate of DLA? It is difficult to get confirmation of the position south of the border, because of the large number of local authorities, but by no means do all local authorities in England embrace the policy. Members might say that that is because some authorities are run by the less socially conscious Tories or Liberal Democrats, but I checked with the Labour-run Lambeth Council, Manchester City Council and Greenwich Council and I found that none of those councils automatically offers the free travel concession to people who are in receipt of the lower rate of DLA. The scheme in Scotland is by far the most comprehensive, which is accounted for by the fact that we spend more than twice as much per head on concessionary travel as our English counterparts do. Where Labour has had unrestricted power to run concessionary schemes, it has produced second-rate products.

Members will have received the communication from Leonard Cheshire Disability that cogently makes the case for extension. From time to time, other organisations make similar arguments on behalf of the people whom they represent. Of course they make valid points, which in an ideal world would immediately be acted on. However, there are competing claims on a limited pot of money. Mr Gordon wants to reinstate the Glasgow airport rail link, for example. It might be nearly Christmas, but it is no good writing a Christmas list for Santa and hoping that everything on it will be delivered without having to be paid for. In troubled financial times, ensuring the financial viability of the current scheme is a more urgent priority than extending the scheme. I presume that that was why Labour refused to extend the scheme in 2006, but times are even more troubled now, in part because Labour has made such a mess of running the UK economy.

A party that takes no action when it has the power to do so but urges that action be taken when it is out of power, without suggesting how the costs can be met, does so for only one reason: to pretend a concern that it perhaps does not possess. I will support the motion if the Opposition identifies the funding that would pay for its suggestion.

Photo of Ted Brocklebank Ted Brocklebank Conservative 10:21 am, 10th December 2009

Scottish Conservatives have always supported the concept of concessionary fares and remain committed to it. However, as Alison McInnes said, in vast swathes of rural Scotland the national scheme is fairly meaningless because there are so few buses for people to use in the first place. There are also serious issues to do with the long-term affordability of concessionary fares. That important point was made clear in the Government's review.

As an MSP for Mid Scotland and Fife, I point out that there is also the separate case for concessionary rail travel schemes such as the one that Fife Council operates. As members know, the national concessionary travel scheme relates only to buses. Although local authorities such as Fife Council are free to offer discounts to elderly or disabled rail users, they are under no duty to do so. In my view, which is possibility partisan, the introduction of the concessionary rail scheme by Fife Council is perhaps the only memorable policy that the then Labour-led Administration introduced.

No one doubts the value of the national concessionary travel scheme, whereby people aged 60 and over and people who have certain disabilities can travel free on local buses and long-distance coaches anywhere in Scotland, at any time of day; nor do people doubt the value of the additional scheme, whereby young people are entitled to a third off bus fares. However, it cannot be denied that the cost of the schemes has been extremely high. According to the Scottish Government's draft budget for 2010-11—I am sure that the minister will correct me if I get the figures wrong—the cost of concessionary travel is predicted to rise to nearly £192 million per annum, which represents an increase of some £30 million on the previous Administration's costings.

As we heard, the Government undertook a comprehensive review of the scheme in July 2008. Its recommendations were published in March and included extending the scheme to include service personnel and veterans under the age of 60. In May, the minister announced that the concessionary scheme would be extended to include injured forces veterans. In principle, that is an admirable approach, but the review was right to point out that issues to do with the scheme's financial sustainability would have to be kept under review.

It is fair to say that the minister made it clear that existing benefits for the elderly would continue:

"Older and disabled people will continue to be able to travel for free throughout Scotland—at any time, on any bus routes, for any number of journeys."

There were no ifs and no buts. Concessionary fares for the elderly were—and I hope are—sacrosanct.

I say to Helen Eadie and Cathy Jamieson that it is a bit rich of Labour to lambast the SNP for reviewing concessionary fares, given that Labour's woeful handling of the national economy means that budgets at national and council level must be savagely cut back. We should demand from Labour detailed costings and an indication of what it thinks should be cut from the budget if concessionary travel is to be retained at the present level or extended.

However, the SNP is equally guilty of massaging the figures and should explain how the apparent positive effects of the Barnett consequentials that the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced yesterday might allow it more financial wriggle room than it or the local councils previously anticipated.

That brings me, as an MSP for Mid Scotland and Fife, back to the concessionary rail fares that Fife Council operates. Those fares are available only on off-peak rail journeys and have been extremely popular, particularly among the elderly who wish to travel between Fife stations and the capital, as well as to Perth and Dundee. They have also benefited the rail companies by directing those passengers away from busy times and filling seats that might otherwise have lain empty.

As John Park spelled out to us, Fife Council contributes £700,000 per annum to that highly popular scheme. Conservatives, and I include our Fife Council colleagues, are nothing if not realistic when it comes to financial prudence—would that we could say the same about recent Fife Council administrations. In office, Fife's last Labour administration behaved with all the financial probity of inebriated mariners on shore leave, while its current councillors have clearly learned little from their time in opposition and continue to shriek, "Spend, spend!" Even normally sensible Labour MSPs such as John Park issue press releases like confetti to demand assurances that the full concessionary scheme will remain in place. In an unedifying game of tit for tat, the SNP's deputy leader on Fife Council, Douglas Chapman, has publicly accused John Park of

"grubbing around in the dirt."

A plague on both their houses, say I. It is vital that elderly people be allowed the independence and quality of life that concessionary travel provides, particularly as the elderly are among the most vulnerable of Fifers when it comes to finding ways within their budgets to pay extra for home care services and community alarms, for example. However, the elderly are also among the most responsible members in society, and I believe that most would accept that, as Gordon Brown's recession has landed the UK economy in its worst crisis in living memory, they, too, might have to contribute a little more.

Any variable pricing scheme would disproportionately penalise residents in north-east Fife—a not unusual situation, partly brought about by west Fife politicians who seem to forget that the county extends beyond Levenmouth—but, to help reduce the scheme's overall cost, the flat-rate return journey between Fife stations and Dundee, Perth and Edinburgh could be tripled to £3. Most concessionaires who have approached me would find that 200 per cent increase a reasonable sum, especially if they were still expected to make their journeys outwith peak times. I commend a review along those lines to SNP-Liberal Democrat-led Fife Council.

As Alex Johnstone indicated, we will support the Labour motion, which, as the minister pointed out, does not commit us to spending any more money.

Photo of Karen Gillon Karen Gillon Labour 10:28 am, 10th December 2009

I will pick up on a couple of points from Ian McKee's speech. I do not think that some SNP members understand the concept of devolution. It allows devolved Administrations to do what they think best with the resources that are available to them. I am not responsible for the UK Government's decisions on England and Wales, where it has responsibility. We have responsibility for decisions on travel in Scotland so, rather than worry about what is happening south of the border, let us worry about what we have responsibility for.

Ian McKee also talked about Labour making up a Christmas wish list and sending it to Santa. The SNP members are the masters of making up Christmas wish lists and sending them to Santa; they call them manifestos. They promised class sizes of 18, local income tax, £2,000 for first-time home buyers and to scrap the student debt. Will I go on? That is what I call a Christmas wish list for sending to Santa.

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

Did I hear that the Labour Party is now supporting local income tax and joining the campaign for a fair tax system?

Photo of Karen Gillon Karen Gillon Labour

Unlike the SNP, I did not go to the electorate in 2007 on a false prospectus; I went saying what we could deliver within the Parliament's powers and within the budgets that we had. The SNP did not and the people of Scotland will find it out.

I had to deal with those two points that Ian McKee made, but the concessionary fares scheme is an important subject. On the Parliament's mace, four words are inscribed, which I point out to visitors whenever they arrive. They are: justice, compassion, wisdom and integrity. This debate is about those four principles, which we should be governed by in this Parliament.

The first principle is justice. The concessionary fares scheme is clearly an issue of social and economic justice. My constituency is a rural constituency with pockets of real and long-term deprivation that was caused by the run-down of the steel and coal industries. Mr Johnstone's Government was responsible for that, and the minister's party was responsible for ushering that Government into power in 1979.

Photo of Duncan McNeil Duncan McNeil Labour

They want to do it again.

Photo of Karen Gillon Karen Gillon Labour

Indeed, as Duncan McNeil says, the SNP wants to do the same again.

Many people in my constituency rely on public transport, especially the bus, to get about. Members should not be under any illusions: the bus is not a cheap mode of transport. Many people think that it is, but it is not.

The free bus pass has revitalised the lives of many older people and people with disabilities, as well as many of the communities in my constituency. Cathy Jamieson gave several examples of how people have used the pass. People in some of the more rural communities in my constituency use the bus to access services in Lanark, Carluke or Biggar—the larger settlements where those services are contained. However, like Cathy Jamieson's constituents, they have complained that they are sometimes given tickets for longer journeys. I have raised that issue with the minister and welcome the steps that have been taken to address the problem. However, my constituents know when they are being ripped off and they want it to stop. They want the pass to continue and to be used fairly and properly. For them, it is an issue of justice.

The concessionary fares scheme is also about compassion, because the people who are most affected by low-rate DLA—the people who lose out—are people with learning disabilities. They are most easily sidelined and are often the most voiceless people in our communities. They are marginalised and isolated.

I will tell members about an organisation in my constituency: the Clydesdale Befriending Group For Adults With Learning Disabilities, which supports adults with learning disabilities to gain confidence and new skills. I have watched over the past few years as people's lives have been transformed by being able to take up voluntary opportunities, take up employment opportunities, and petition the Parliament because of the work that the befriending group does. However, it is based in Lanark in a rural constituency, and people need to get to it to access its services. They have been able to use their bus passes but, by and large, they are not able to do that any more, so they may again be isolated and lose out on the opportunities that are available to them.

The third word on the mace is wisdom. I commend Angela Constance for her wisdom in lodging her motion on 21 August, 101 days ago. I also commend the other SNP members who signed it: Bill Wilson, Stuart McMillan, Bill Kidd, Anne McLaughlin, Gil Paterson, Christina McKelvie and Aileen Campbell. Like Cathy Jamieson, I would have signed that motion, but none of the eight members whose names I have just read out has had the courtesy to come to the chamber and say why they have now changed their position or still support it.

Photo of Karen Gillon Karen Gillon Labour

The minister did not sign the motion, so I would not want him to speak for anybody else.

Members who know me know that, when we were in government, if my party had done something with which I disagreed and I had had the courage to sign a motion, I would have come to the chamber, said what I thought and voted against my party if I believed that it was the right thing to do.

We have to make wise decisions. Yes, we made a mistake or took our eye off the ball—I have whips sitting behind me—but we have the opportunity to get it right and make a wise decision.

That brings us to the final word on the mace, which is integrity. I think that integrity is the underlying principle of this debate. We know that we got the policy wrong, but we know that we can do something to put it right—that is just, compassionate and wise. At decision time tonight, let us act with the integrity that Donald Dewar expected us to act with. Let us vote for the motion, do the right thing by people in Scotland and by the people who put us here, and stop playing party politics with people's lives.

Photo of Christopher Harvie Christopher Harvie Scottish National Party 10:35 am, 10th December 2009

I have to declare what has become the obligatory declaration of interest for people in my phase of life, which is that I am the recipient of a concessionary travel pass. I am also the president of the Scottish Association for Public Transport and a member of the Waverley Route Trust, which has to an extent benefited from my concessionary pass—I will go into that in a moment.

Let us get the facts in perspective. We spend £180 million in Scotland on concessionary fares every year. Our total household spend on transport comes to about £12 billion a year, of which more than 85 per cent is spent on motoring. We have perhaps another 20 years of motoring ahead of us before peak oil comes in—although, if we fumble things badly at the Copenhagen climate change meeting, we might find something a lot worse than peak oil.

The concessionary pass has been a boon and blessing to this elderly man because it enables me to save about £12 a day coming to Holyrood by free travel from Melrose to Edinburgh, although the circulation just got back into my feet at about 10 o'clock, after my suffering in a freezing X95 bus from Galashiels. To some extent, I have kept the system in being by payments to the Scottish public transport bodies, particularly in order to see the last of the X95 bus and have it replaced as soon as possible by the Waverley railway, a cause for which I think Charlie Gordon has only qualified sympathy. In the Borders, we are also digesting the impact of a drastic cut in off-peak services.

I see some problematic areas in the concession system. The first is technical, in that there is a problem with the registration and claiming of fares, to which Karen Gillon alluded. Fares can be registered in many different ways, varying from just a blanket concession ticket being issued by FirstBus, to the full registration of fares by Stagecoach, Munro or Perryman. That means that there is no transparency when it comes to assessing income from fares and disbursements from the scheme. There seems to be a problem with certain bus services of various forms of dubious accounting being carried through. I talked about that to a very senior police officer, who said that his force was concerned about developments in that area.

What we have in Scotland, in fact, is a paradox in the collection of fares. We have a very high-technology ticket checking system, which one sees particularly in our railway stations, where one is apt to be sort of grabbed by one of the machines. I once asked why so many people in dayglo outfits were at the checkouts and was told "They're there to keep an eye on the machines," which I find slightly chilling.

On the continent, something like 80 per cent of passengers now travel by season ticket. They are not even inspected; that is, they do not even have to show the season tickets when they enter a bus but are inspected by crash-squads of inspectors, who are quite robust people. Someone without a ticket can end up 50 euros poorer by the end of that process. There is a natural inclination to use such methods to regulate the system.

That brings me to a social equality point that I feel quite acutely. If an old-age pensioner from Galashiels were making the trip to Edinburgh and back once a day for five days a week without our system of concessions, the cost would consume half their weekly pension—it would take more than £50 from their weekly £97. I therefore have a certain doubt about my own role in the scheme as a relatively well-off professional who benefits from it. I will come back to that point at the end.

I believe that Scottish bus services could be managed much more competently. We have had five different changes of timetables in the Borders in the past year, which often only get through to the consumer of the services a fortnight later. In fact, we see old timetables in some areas that might be anything up to one and a half years old.

Photo of Karen Gillon Karen Gillon Labour

The member makes a very good point. Does he share the concerns about the changes at the bus station in Edinburgh whereby certain bus services have been removed from the bus station, which is disfranchising and sometime causes real difficulties for older people from my constituency and from the Borders?

Photo of Christopher Harvie Christopher Harvie Scottish National Party

I totally agree with the member about that. It is bad enough to be in the wilds of Waterloo Place, but we can see that something is going on at St Andrew Square bus station, which they are not telling us about, behind what used to be very good public facilities and stances that have simply disappeared. I used to think that the old St Andrew Square bus station was possibly the most squalid public transport utility in the whole of western Europe, but then we got the splendid new one. However, we now have something of a reversion to the older one.

One of the great advantages of the concession system to all passengers is the speed of going through the system—getting on the bus and showing a card. Why is that not also available to people such as schoolchildren and apprentices? When travelling by bus, we can often find that we are held up for anything up to four minutes on a quarter of an hour journey by people simply having to find change for their fare to put into the machine on the bus. That procedure does not fit well in a modern transportation system. A stationary bus is just an automatic cash loser. With a bit of ingenuity and smart management, we could wipe the car school run off the map and drastically speed up our transport.

Charges should be retained in the transport system and used to improve facilities that are important to the elderly and disabled. There should certainly be completely free transport for people on the state pension and several levels above that. However, people of my age and earnings should be prepared to pay a flat rate of about a third or a half of what the cost of the full use of public transport would be averaged out at—so perhaps about £250 a year could be paid. That would enable much more efficient management of the services.

I was very impressed, when I was travelling in northern England, by the Northern Rail franchise, which has a community officer who deals with integrating the railway system with the structures of the community that it services.

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

You should be finishing now, Mr Harvie.

Photo of Christopher Harvie Christopher Harvie Scottish National Party

Some money going from the better-off transport users into the system would produce a transport system that is far more attractive to the mass of the community.

Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat 10:43 am, 10th December 2009

I declare an interest, not as somebody who is of an age to hold a concessionary card but as someone who is married to somebody who is disabled and avails herself of that excellent service. I note that Rhoda Grant and I are the only two Highland members in the chamber, so I hope that I speak about the issue on behalf of members in other parties, including Rhoda Grant, who may well be going to address us anyway.

Before I address the motion and the amendment in my colleague Alison McInnes's name, I will sweep up one or two related issues that are important when we consider this kind of transport in the round. First, I cannot let the debate go by without reminding members yet again of the most unfortunate decision by Royal Mail to eliminate some of the post buses in my and John Farquhar Munro's constituencies. We must take a holistic view of how needy people get moved about by public transport, and we must be imaginative about how that is done. The post bus service is an imaginative move, and I regret what has been done in that respect.

Secondly, as all Highland members will know from having dealt with this at various times, disabled access is an issue on some buses that run on our main routes. Let me pay tribute where it is due, as I believe that Stagecoach has addressed that issue on its buses that run on the A9 and A99 from Caithness to further south, but disabled access was an issue a year ago. A related issue was the availability of toilets on buses, the lack of which was a real problem for disabled people and those not so well who need to travel to hospital in Inverness. However, that has also been addressed, and I thank ministers for their assistance in getting that issue put right.

Another related issue, which Christopher Harvie touched on in response to an intervention, is the facilities that are available at the bus station or bus shelter—unfortunately, there is often no bus shelter at all in the Highlands—and how buses are routed. For example, the village of Lybster in Caithness is shaped like a T, and people used to have to catch the bus at the top of the T whereas most lived at the bottom of the T. It is a long village and, for the disabled, the elderly and even the young, the walk from their house to the bus stop was not easy. Quite a lot of writing backwards and forward was required before the bus company could be persuaded that the bus should come off the A99 and go down the village. Such little bits of detail make a difference to the people who use the service.

On the lack of services that Ted Brocklebank and Alison McInnes mentioned, we certainly need more buses in the vast and very remote area that I represent—the furthest mainland constituency from Edinburgh and one of the least densely populated. I know that it is not possible to wave a magic wand, but we could do with more bus services.

Let me turn to the substantive point of the debate thus far. When my constituents look out the window—or when they are driving or just happen to be standing by the road or the railway—and see the bus or train go past, they see that the bus is never full unless it is a school bus and the train is certainly never full. Somehow, the argument about who will pay for concessionary travel seems rather sterile when people see those vehicles moving with spare capacity. That point has perhaps been lost sight of in the argument about money. Of course a charge will be involved in identifying who is eligible, perhaps by giving them the necessary card or identification, but we should just bear it in mind that—in my constituency anyway and, I think, all over the Highlands—public transport vehicles always have masses of extra space that could easily be used. For that reason, I support the Labour motion to extend the scheme so that those seats, which would otherwise be empty, can be taken by the many people who could use them. Those people include those on the lower rate of DLA. As I said, for personal reasons, I absolutely understand what that issue is all about.

Mention was made of school runs. The more that we can get people out of cars and into public transport, the better. Let me say, for the third and last time, that the space is there so we should avail ourselves of it.

Thinking laterally—as is perhaps my wont in these debates—I want to introduce a completely new issue, which will be familiar to members of the Public Petitions Committee and to those who were good enough to attend my members' business debate on it. Young athletes and competitors from Caithness currently face difficulties with access to the sporting facilities that we do not have in the far north. It strikes me that our public transport vehicles that move up and down from the north of Scotland could offer those young competitors and athletes some form of concessionary transport. I am somewhat surprised that the bus companies, which are aware of the issue, have not thought to offer groups of young competitors the chance to get on board and use up those free seats. That would give my constituents, who have as much right as others elsewhere to leisure and sports facilities, the equality of access that they do not have at present enjoy. We need to be imaginative with what we already have and the way that we use vehicles moving from A to B.

Let me close on a slightly more humorous note. When I faced huge transport difficulties some years ago and was unable to get a bus or train back to my constituency, my constituency office got in touch with Bannerman haulage company in my home town of Tain to ask whether it had a lorry returning home that had a spare seat. When I got in the lorry and found that the driver was a constituent from Invergordon, I talked—as I do, brightly and intelligently—about the events of the week that I had just completed. My driver was very interested. As we coasted down the brae into Inverness, however, he rather deflated me by asking what my job was. I said, "I am your MSP." He said, "What is an MSP?" To cap it all—this is an absolutely true quotation—he then said, "Oh, I am sorry, but I thought by the way you spoke that you sold cars." I conclude.

Photo of Nigel Don Nigel Don Scottish National Party 10:50 am, 10th December 2009

How on earth does one follow that?

I assure members of all parties that they can keep their gloves on for just one more speech, as I want to address an issue to which Charlie Gordon and Ted Brocklebank have alluded: the potential for concessionary fares on our railways. I think that such fares could be provided in a way that would not cost the Government one cent.

As we heard during Margaret Mitchell's members' business debate on 19 November, those in our community who are deafblind, who suffer dual sensory impairment, are people who struggle with life. If members care to consider the prospect of walking around our world with the ability to hear very little, they will appreciate that that would be difficult; walking around our world with the ability to see very little would also be very difficult. If those two things are put together, one's world is very restricted. Obviously, one's mobility—the ability to get from anywhere to anywhere else, regardless of how well one's legs work—is seriously impaired.

We do not even know how many deafblind folk there are in Scotland. The most recent total for registered deafblind folk is 2,863, but it is generally believed that that number should probably be multiplied by two. In addition, of course, there are degrees of impairment, so the number will always be fairly rough anyway.

Not all our trains are the same, but the train that I hope to get back to Aberdeen this evening should have a public address system that will tell me the stations on the way, which I will be able to hear. I am not old enough to have a bus pass, but I am certainly old enough to remember when the announcements on the railways seemed to be in a foreign language. The announcements have improved, but those who cannot hear at all have a problem. My train tonight will also likely have that overhead moving-text message that says where the train is and where it is going, which is enormously valuable. However, we need to put ourselves in the position of those who cannot read such messages. This may seem strange, but such an impairment is not particularly uncommon. If we put those two impairments together, we can appreciate why those unfortunate folk who suffer from significant dual sensory impairment need a companion to move around the country.

I have explained that at some length in order to enable members to understand the problem. Mercifully, we do not suffer from that problem, but several thousands of our compatriots do. Those folk will be eligible for free fares—that is not the issue—but their companion, by and large, will not be eligible. That is the issue. It should be pretty obvious from what I have said that deafblind folk need a companion to travel.

It should be equally clear that, like the rest of us, deafblind folk would choose to travel off peak.

Travelling during peak time is not much fun anyway, and anyone with such problems who had to take a companion with them would, I think, choose to travel off peak. Therefore, it should not be terribly difficult for us to find a way of persuading train companies to use the spaces that, as Jamie Stone pointed out, are usually available during off-peak times to allow such folk to travel for free along with a companion, who ought to be able to travel, I suggest, for not very much.

I argue that the train companies should make such travel free. That would not cost them a huge amount of money at all. I would be reluctant for us to tell them to make it free, but I have written to the managing directors of First ScotRail, East Coast, Virgin Trains and CrossCountry Trains to make precisely that argument. I also put to them the point that they currently accept a £15 marginal fare even from the likes of me, because everyone over 55 can get a return fare to anywhere for £15. I understand that that offer is not supported by the Government in any way. The train companies have already established that that is an acceptable marginal cost for an extra passenger.

The challenge for the train companies—as I said, this is nothing to do with the Government—is to explain why it would not be acceptable for the companions of people who have dual sensory impairment to be charged that marginal fare. I would like such travel to be free, but surely the rail companies could provide it for £15, which is a number that they came up with. I hope that that idea receives cross-party support; we will generate a motion to that effect very soon, I think.

There are a few other issues that need to be considered. The first concerns access to the bus station for people who have to get there by taxi or in a car because they are disabled, which I am aware is an issue in my home city of Aberdeen. Such access has apparently not been thought about. That must have been a simple oversight; sadly, it is a rather obvious one, and I hope that the people concerned will address it quickly. I am sure that those of us who have a local interest will ensure that that point is impressed on the appropriate people.

Secondly, I add my name to the list of those who are aware of the fact that bus companies seem to issue tickets for journeys that are longer than the journey for which the concessionary fare has been charged. I understand that the Government is working on that issue, which has arisen as a result of reasonably recent anecdotal information from the cities of Aberdeen and Dundee.

Photo of Helen Eadie Helen Eadie Labour 10:56 am, 10th December 2009

I, too, declare an interest, not just because I have a bus pass, but because I have two replacement hips. Thankfully, I am able to get around reasonably well, but I have some mobility constraints.

I am especially pleased to welcome to the gallery some friends of many years and some good, hard campaigners, who are among the best campaigners in Fife: Marie McRae, Kate Findlay, Margaret Murdoch and Susan Archibald. Susan Archibald from Kelty is an ambassador for the independent living movement and has said that access to free bus travel will open up the world to our people and give them more opportunities to get involved in events in their communities. She feels that the social exclusion of disabled people is a vital issue, and she supports the campaign spearheaded by Charlie Gordon MSP. I passionately support him in that campaign.

I pay tribute to and compliment on their speeches Jamie Stone, Nigel Don and the minister, who was quite conciliatory. I also pay tribute to Bob Doris, who is the only SNP member who signed Angela Constance's original motion to come to the chamber this morning. You have done well, Bob—congratulations on coming to the chamber.

I am extremely glad to have the opportunity to put on record publicly my enthusiastic support for Charlie Gordon's proposed member's bill on bus services, which will give us the chance to address, among other things, rural community transport issues. Rural community transport will become all the more important should it become obvious that there is no chance of a blanket inclusion for community transport in the national concessionary travel scheme.

Ted Brocklebank should consider signing Charlie Gordon's proposal, given that he cares about rural transport. Hearing his speech made me remember the time when I got into terrible trouble from my colleagues last year, when I did not vote with the whip—I did not vote to go on the Equal Opportunities Committee and said something dreadful about Margaret Mitchell. The situation this morning is worse—Ted Brocklebank has reminded me of the worst of the 19 wasted years of Tory rule. After I said what I said in the chamber last year, Henry McLeish said, "Helen, you got that all wrong. If we had the Tories in power, it would be like putting Robert Mugabe in charge of the United Nations." That is what Ted Brocklebank's speech reminded me of; that is how strongly I feel about it. That is what life would be like under the Tories—no values, no care and none of the things that Karen Gillon mentioned. That is what those of us who can remember back to the miserable years when the Tories were in power think about when we think about those times. God forbid that that should ever happen again.

I had the privilege and honour of serving on Fife Council, which Ted Brocklebank denigrated. I tell you this: Fife Council had all the right values. While I worked for Fife Council and before I did so, it had pioneers—people who had the vision to make it the only local authority in Scotland to have a concessionary travel scheme. At the time, London and Liverpool were the only other parts of the UK that had such a scheme. Pioneers such as Bert Gough and other former members of Fife Council deserve our praise. We remember them with genuine affection.

Today's debate is the result of an unintended consequence. None of us wanted to have to discuss the issue. As others have said, we have a chance to put right a wrong.

The Leonard Cheshire Disability report "Mind the Gap" includes ideas on how to pay for free bus travel for all disabled people, which Ian McKee is not here to hear. Leonard Cheshire Disability said that a number of issues needed to be looked at, including the fact that the assumptions that had been made about some of the figures were wrong. It identified the issues around fraud that were reported in The Herald. The loss of income from the scheme in which that fraud has resulted needs to be looked into. Only last night, a company called Ecebs was in the Parliament—I was extremely sorry to miss the event—and said that the necessary cash could be released from efficiency savings and that there were all sorts of new technology solutions that could be considered. I am certain that if people really have the political will—that is what is required—we can take steps to address the issues. If the minister wants answers on where the money will come from, he should look at what Leonard Cheshire Disability said in its report, which provides a lot of extremely good information. He should not just pick the bits that he wants to pick.

We know that Leonard Cheshire Disability speaks for disabled people right across Scotland when it says that the decision by the SNP Government to deny all disabled people the same access to concessionary travel is wrong, that the figures that were used in the Government's review of the concessionary travel scheme are wrong and that if the Parliament fails to end the situation, disabled people in Scotland will see the SNP as the wrong choice of party to represent their needs in the Parliament. The present situation is wrong, wrong, wrong.

As Cathy Jamieson said, we have a chance to right that wrong. Decision time tonight will sort out the political giants from the pygmies—those who, having signed Angela Constance's motion, have the courage to stand by their convictions. The motion before us, Charlie Gordon's motion, is the same, word for word, as that lodged by Angela Constance. I will support Labour's motion. Will Angela Constance and the 15 SNP MSPs who signed her motion do so, too?

Photo of Helen Eadie Helen Eadie Labour

The fact that Angela Constance withdrew her motion only hours after she lodged it suggests that she might have had her wrists slapped by her leadership.

However, if the minister is giving us a cast-iron guarantee that Charlie Gordon's motion will be supported by the SNP, I am delighted. I am so pleased that colleagues such as Bob Doris have joined us and that the minister supports our position.

Photo of Helen Eadie Helen Eadie Labour

I hope that the issue will be sorted out on the minister's watch.

Photo of Bob Doris Bob Doris Scottish National Party 11:03 am, 10th December 2009

The flowers are on their way to Helen Eadie's office as we speak. I'll see you for dinner and a bottle o' wine tonight, eh?

Members:

Oh!

Photo of Bob Doris Bob Doris Scottish National Party

Back to reality. I found Charlie Gordon's speech, the tone of which was measured and appropriate, very informative, and Mr Stevenson's reply constructive and thoughtful.

I feel that it is reasonable, in the context of the debate, to contrast the concessionary scheme in Scotland with what is available south of the border. In that respect, I differ quite strongly with Karen Gillon, who believes that it is wrong to draw that comparison. I disagree with you on that, Karen. Surely it is narrow minded and inward looking not to look at social provision in other countries. Of course we should look at that; we should also adopt progressive and helpful ideas, when appropriate. Of course we should be outward looking—I am an internationalist.

Photo of Karen Gillon Karen Gillon Labour

I am proud to say that I am an international socialist. The only difficulty with your argument is that you look south only when there is something negative to carp about rather than something positive to celebrate. I am more than happy to look for international comparisons. I hope that you will look with me at what is happening in Denmark. That example tells us that we should deliver on our physical education commitment, although our Government continues to fail to do that.

Photo of Bob Doris Bob Doris Scottish National Party

I could do with two hours of PE every week. You know, Karen, it is important that we consider every—

Photo of Bob Doris Bob Doris Scottish National Party

Absolutely.

It is important that we consider what all countries are doing without restriction. I do not have a hang-up about England, although Karen Gillon seems to. She should be more outward looking.

The minister drew a favourable comparison with our neighbours in England not to provide a feather in the Scottish Government's cap, but to show that a job has been well done by the Scottish Parliament. After all, when the national concessionary travel scheme was introduced by the former Scottish Executive in 2004, it was warmly welcomed by the SNP, which was then in opposition. Indeed, such a scheme has been included in SNP manifestos since 1999.

I return to Mr Gordon's constructive tone. I genuinely hope that his approach signals a change in Labour's approach. When the scheme was reviewed in 2008, floods of Labour propaganda appeared. There was scaremongering that the SNP was going to throw wur grannies aff the bus, but the scheme was, in fact, amended to extend provision. Labour's approach was unbecoming of an Opposition, and I hope that it has learned its lesson. It knew that the scheme was not under threat, but it sought to raise unfounded and spurious concerns. However, Labour has stepped up to the plate today—I pay tribute to Mr Gordon for that—and is being a responsible Opposition, particularly if it accepts the Government's amendment.

Photo of Helen Eadie Helen Eadie Labour

Perhaps we will not throw our grannies off the bus, but SNP and Lib Dem representatives are going to throw their grannies off the trains in Fife.

Photo of Bob Doris Bob Doris Scottish National Party

I will speak from my knowledge. I know that Glasgow Labour went to Fife to condemn care charges there, despite the fact that the charges under Labour Glasgow City Council were four times higher.

I agree that extending the scheme to include all our citizens on the lower rate of disability living allowance would be a progressive step that would certainly assist in reducing barriers and promoting social inclusion. A number of policy initiatives that would extend provision to all our citizens would be beneficial and progressive. For example, in order to tackle child poverty, improve people's health and reduce stigma in society, I would like the provision of free school meals to be extended beyond the primary 1 to primary 3 pilot so that every year in our primary schools was covered.

However, that would have to be paid for; it would have to be funded. Similarly, extending the concessionary bus scheme to our citizens who are on the lower rate of disability living allowance must be paid for.

Mr Gordon made suggestions about how to drive a better deal with our bus companies and others, which, I am sure, the minister listened to. However, if Labour members are serious about the motion—they may be; I certainly believe that Charlie Gordon is—I assume that the Labour front-bench team has already had detailed discussions with the Scottish Government to agree a way forward during the budget process. The Government has, of course, published a draft budget, and I assume that Labour members suggested an amendment during the parliamentary committees' budget scrutiny to include the proposal that has been made. Of course they would have done that if they were genuine about the matter. If they did not do so, that raises serious concerns about how genuine some Labour members are about the motion. I listened to Helen Eadie's comments—I hope that our dinner is still on—about Parliament's job being to decide what it wants and the Scottish Government's job being to find money to pay for that. That is, in effect, what she said. I like Helen Eadie, but I say to her as gently as possible that such an approach would mean a car crash of a balanced budget strategy for Parliament.

It is fair to point out that increased DLA levels would help to remove mobility barriers. Perhaps a solution could be UK Government tax breaks on fuel costs for bus companies that decided to sign up to an extended provision scheme so that any additional costs would not be passed on to the Scottish Government and the Scottish taxpayer. There are always solutions, and we must look outward for them.

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

The member will not do so. He is winding up.

Photo of Bob Doris Bob Doris Scottish National Party

If Labour wishes to take the matter seriously, it has the opportunity to do so, but simply demanding cash is not the way forward, given that we have a Scottish budget that is shrinking due to UK Government cuts. Let us see whether we can find a way forward.

Photo of Jim Tolson Jim Tolson Liberal Democrat 11:10 am, 10th December 2009

This has been an excellent debate about an excellent scheme that was introduced by the previous Labour-Lib Dem Administration. Many elderly and disabled Scots have had a new lease of life as a result of that scheme. It has improved social cohesion, resulted in better access to health facilities, and helped people such as the minister who travel to work with their concessionary travel passes. I am sure that the minister makes good use of his pass. However, he has scored an own goal by not backing in his current post the suggestion that he made in the previous parliamentary session to include in the scheme. I hope that he will seriously reconsider his position after the debate and in his subsequent discussions with Mr Swinney. My colleague Alison McInnes highlighted the great need for the scheme to include those who receive the lower rate of DLA and to cover community transport, which is a particular help to residents in rural areas.

Before Alex Johnstone gets back on his hind legs to try to quote Lib Dem costs, he should remember that Alison McInnes asked, quite fairly, that costs should be reviewed holistically. She is not asking the Government to consider budgets over which it does not have control; rather, she is asking it to consider budgets over which it has control.

Last year, the Government was forced to make a U-turn after it revealed a real-terms cut in the national concessionary travel scheme's budget. I would be happy to accept Mr Johnstone's claims about Lib Dem commitments reaching extortionate figures if he or his Conservative colleagues made costed suggestions, as Alison McInnes has done. Merely following the Government at every turn and not making any constructive suggestions of its own gives his party no credibility.

Mr Brocklebank and Mr Park sought to lambast the efforts on concessionary rail fares of the Lib Dem-SNP council in Fife. As Mr Park rightly said, it was previous Fife councillors who led the Scottish march to provide concessionary bus passes, which the previous Labour-Lib Dem Administration introduced nationally. However, he falsely stated that the current Lib Dem-SNP Fife Council is planning to remove the concessionary rail fares scheme in Fife. In fact, an officer-led paper has gone before Fife Council, and it is being considered. What Mr Park said is simply not the case.

Labour has suggested increasing concessionary fares in Fife from 50p to £1. I understand its motives for that, but that would be a blanket approach that would not take into account people's needs or give more help to those who are most in need. I believe that the rail travel review in Fife will result in a much fairer scheme. Mr Park is talking about changes; the Lib Dems in Fife are acting.

The Scottish Liberal Democrat party is the only party that is truly committed to progress on public transport provision in Fife. Let me give examples of that. We were instrumental in bringing the current concessionary scheme to Scotland; we are making positive and—I say to Mr Johnstone—costed suggestions to improve access for disabled Scots; and we are leading the way in Fife to ensure that elderly, disabled and young people have greater access to concessionary travel.

My colleague Jamie Stone made serious points about the loss of post buses. I have been made familiar with how such losses affect rural communities such as Glen Lyon, where my wife's sister and her family live and work. The removal of post buses represents the loss of a vital life-link for people in rural communities.

Nigel Don highlighted an important point about deafblind people and their carers. Like Mr Don, I met people from Deafblind Scotland recently in the Parliament and took part in the members' business debate. I fully agree with him not only that deafblind people should have access to free travel, but that, given their greater need for an assistant because of their dual impairment, the current system whereby a deafblind person must pay part of their helper's fare is unjust and should be reviewed.

I recently contacted the minister on the subject of concerns about abuses of the national concessionary travel scheme. If we are to get value for money, we should look not only at where we can spend money, but where we can save money in the current scheme. I am concerned that there is strong evidence of abuse in some areas, and I am glad that the minister has suggested that he will look seriously at the issue and work with National Express, Stagecoach and other bus operators as well as First ScotRail.

I am pleased to support both the Labour motion and the Lib Dem amendment. I hope that the minister will be able to persuade his boss, Mr Swinney, of the real social improvements that can be gained for the people of Scotland by widening the scope of the concessionary travel scheme.

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative 11:16 am, 10th December 2009

I remember chamber debates for different reasons at different times. I am tempted to suggest that I may for a long time remember this as the day when Bob Doris told us that ye cannae shove yer granny aff the bus—something from the depths of Scottish culture that has now been mentioned in the Scottish Parliament for the first time.

The debate has been a good deal more constructive than it appeared at times it was going to be. With an election not far away, it was inevitable that party politics would creep in. Nevertheless, we have had, in principle at least, broad agreement that the scheme for concessionary travel in Scotland is not perfect and that improvements and adjustments are necessary. There were times during the debate when we heard the beginnings of accusations about who had got it wrong and who needs to get it right in the future. I would like to avoid that, if possible.

As I said in my opening speech, I do not believe that we could have had any hope of getting the scheme right in the first instance. The priorities were to get the scheme in place, to find out what the problems were and then to make changes when knew know what changes would be required. The debate is timely because it has given us the opportunity to examine the list of changes that many of us would like, and to begin to think about how we can prioritise them.

Earlier in the debate, I asked how we might pay for the changes, which has been raised on several occasions by a number of members. John Park produced an argument that I have heard before, when he asked why the Labour Party should say where the changes in expenditure should be, given that the Conservatives did not say where the cuts in the budget should be to allow our great achievements: the small business rates relief scheme—for which I am delighted to claim credit, at least in part—and the town centre regeneration scheme. However, those were negotiated in advance of the passing of a budget and they were new proposals that had to come from other budgets. There was no option. I suggest that there are two options for the concessionary travel scheme, and I would like Labour and the Liberal Democrats to explain which of the options they would choose—although I believe that the Liberal Democrats have done that, and I will come to them in a minute.

I would like Labour members to tell us whether they believe that the money to extend the range of the concessionary fares scheme should come from other budgets—by cutting hospitals, schools or social work—or whether we should look at the concessionary fares scheme in the round and decide which parts of it are lower priorities, and who should lose entitlement in order that we can extend entitlement to others. I believe that Christopher Harvie began to deal with that. He grasped the nettle and suggested that some people who are entitled to concessionary travel, such as he, could pay. In fact, in evidence to the committee—I do not have it in front of me, so I cannot quote it directly—it was suggested that city bankers and businessmen in Edinburgh travel to work using concessionary fares cards and pay nothing to use buses. Some of those people might now be claiming bonuses that could be heavily taxed by the Government.

We need to reach agreement on entitlement. Ultimately, we must decide whether the age limit of 60, which we currently apply universally, is appropriate if the cost of keeping all 60-year-olds within the scheme prevents us from extending it to more deserving groups. I want to promote that discussion. If nothing else comes from the debate today, that will be valuable.

Other suggestions have been made as to how we could pay for the scheme. Jamie Stone talked about the empty seats on many buses, and found some support for the idea that those seats could be used by passengers who would not pay for them. I am sure that it would be possible for arrangements to be entered into that would allow bus companies to allocate empty space on their buses in such a way; however, the idea that we should rely on the charity of bus companies to achieve our aims is a non-starter.

We must find some way of paying the costs that are associated with the concessionary fares scheme. Ultimately, if the bus companies chose to allow some people to travel free of charge, it will not be free—there would still be a cost, which would be moved to other areas of those businesses. Although I am sure that something could be achieved in that area, it is best to keep everything above board and on the balance sheet. In that way, we will know exactly what the costs are.

Helen Eadie probably did the most to address the issue of cost, which she covered well during her speech. However, I believe that the question that I asked the Labour Party has been answered by the Liberal Democrats. Although I do not believe that their proposals have been costed, as Jim Tolson suggested, the argument that Alison McInnes made for an holistic approach to the cost of the scheme is an implicit indication that she believes that the extra funding should come from outside the scheme itself. That is why I ask the Liberal Democrats again: What, in the future, would they cut to pay for that?

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party 11:22 am, 10th December 2009

Alex Johnstone referred to bankers arriving at work in Edinburgh on the bus, having used their concession cards. Thank goodness I left banking to join politics in order to improve my reputation. It has proved to be a wise move under the current circumstances, although I will not get a bonus to pay any tax on.

I am grateful to the Labour Party—to Charlie Gordon, in particular—for raising the issue. It is a timely debate, as Scottish Government officials will shortly meet the Confederation of Passenger Transport UK to discuss concessionary travel and a range of bus-related issues that concern the scheme. Those discussions will cover the rate at which we reimburse—currently 73.6p in the pound—and how we can maintain the scheme with its current access parameters, which are widely valued.

No one who has spoken in the debate has failed to make a point of some interest and engagement. The motion has been drafted badly and is gratuitous in some of its language, but I am not going to be petty about its wording because I whole-heartedly support the point that underlies it. It is on that basis that I will recommend to my colleagues that we support it.

Similarly, I recommend to my colleagues that we support the Liberal Democrat amendment. In both cases, I do so on the basis that I am not, at this stage, being asked to spend any more money: I am being asked to consider things, and that is what I wish to do.

John Park rightly highlighted the achievements of Bert Gough, of Fife Council, on producing the first ever concessionary travel scheme. I welcome the efforts that were made by a previous generation of politicians, albeit that they were of a different political flavour. He followed a similar track to that which was taken by Jimmy McGinley, the SNP leader of West Lothian Council in 1980, when the first Christmas bonuses were introduced. No party has a monopoly on good ideas.

John Park suggested that one way in which Fife Council should consider the officers' proposal that is currently before it in relation to its rail service scheme would be to increase fares from 50p to £1, and Ted Brocklebank suggested that there could be a return fare of £3. That is quite interesting. I will merely note that the SNP and Liberal Democrats made no similar suggestions during this debate, and that the SNP and Liberal Democrats are in power in Fife. It is interesting that the parties that make up the opposition in Fife Council are taking the position that they have taken. We will see how that debate plays out.

Cathy Jamieson pointed to some effective activities in her constituency, such as those that have been undertaken by Coalfield Community Transport, which is one of a wide range of bodies that are engaged in such activities. Alison McInnes mentioned one of the two community bus services in my constituency, so I must make up the deficit by highlighting the achievements of Banffshire Partnership Ltd, which supports people in the north of my constituency to a good degree.

Cathy Jamieson and others referred to fraud in the system, and we acknowledge that there has been some. I think I am correct in saying that there have so far been four references to the procurator fiscal, but I will check that figure after the debate—there may well be more to come. I should say that many people think that fraud is going on because they see a ticket being issued for the whole journey, but in many cases that is simply just a result of the agreement that exists between Transport Scotland and the bus company about how things will be done. As we complete the introduction of the machines that will read cards, we will move to a position of greater certainty, in which fraud will be much more difficult. We will also be able to gather more data about how people travel, which will enable the bus companies and Government to fine-tune the way in which things work.

Ted Brocklebank made the point that Fife extends beyond Levenmouth. I was brought up in Cupar, so I can acknowledge the veracity of that statement. Indeed, at the weekend, I had the happy experience of visiting Crail to attend my best man's ruby wedding anniversary celebrations. I know Fife well from personal experience. Ted Brocklebank also talked about Barnett consequentials. At the moment, we believe that they will amount to about £20 million, which will be welcome, if modest.

Karen Gillon took the opportunity to suggest that we do not look to the south much. I say to her that I will copy good ideas from wherever they come. On road safety, for example, I have rejected some proposals from my officials because I know of work that is being done in England. We have now joined a number of pieces of research that are happening south of the border, which represents efficient partnership working. We now expect that the UK Administration will join an initiative that we have taken in that regard. This is some of the non-glamorous stuff that people do not usually hear about: officials and ministers take every opportunity to work together, and they do so extremely well.

On bus stations, the situation in Edinburgh is quite complex. A number of bus companies have chosen not to use the bus station. I have raised the matter with the City of Edinburgh Council and I will examine the Aberdeen situation, as well.

Nigel Don rightly took us back to a previous debate on deafblind companions, which is certainly a subject that bears further consideration. Without naming it, he referred to the club 55 promotion that ScotRail have been running since, I think, the beginning of September and which ends this week. That scheme is, of course, funded by the rail companies, but it suggests what the marginal rate of carrying a passenger might be.

Another scheme is operated by the Association of Train Operating Companies, under which those of us who are over 60 can purchase a card. I paid £60 for my card, which gets me a third off fares for three years. I point out that that personal expenditure benefits the public purse—when I make my ministerial rail journeys, the public gets the benefit of the £60 that I spent on my own initiative. Again, that shows that there is an inclination on the part of the rail companies to do the right thing.

Grannies are safe on buses, and I think that they are probably safe on trains in Fife. Let us see whether that is the case.

This has been a good debate. The only people who have earned my sympathy during this debate are, of course, the drivers of Bannerman's lorries.

Photo of Charlie Gordon Charlie Gordon Labour 11:31 am, 10th December 2009

This has been a mainly positive debate. The minister repeatedly criticised the length of the Labour motion, but it is a straight lift from Angela Constance, whom I have always found to be a very conscientious adversary.

The minister claimed that I got it wrong on the issue of reimbursement to bus operators vis-à-vis standard fares or average fares. I see that the minister is engaged in a discussion, but if I can have the minister's attention, I will quote a paper from the Scottish Parliament information centre, which says that

"The Scottish Executive agreed to reimburse bus operators at 73.6% of the average adult single fare for each journey."

I might have misinterpreted that, but the minister can read it in the Official Report.

Alex Johnstone said that money does not grow on trees. How many members thought, "I wish I'd said that"? Across the chasm that separates us, I say to Alex Johnstone that we should not leave vulnerable people at the back of the queue because of a recession; we should put them at the front of the queue because of a recession.

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative

Does Charlie Gordon acknowledge that I fully accept that, and that my concern is to ensure that we know where the money is coming from to achieve it?

Photo of Charlie Gordon Charlie Gordon Labour

I was addressing what Alex Johnstone said in his opening remarks, as Mr Hyde, before he became Dr Jekyll in his summing up.

I am thinking of taking Shirley-Anne Somerville off my Christmas card list. That is not because she implied that I—a youthful-looking 58-year-old—was about to get my bus pass, but because although she is a capable MSP, as I know from having served with her on the Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee, she let herself down once again by reading out a hack's brief from her party's resource centre.

I want to draw a veil over the contributions of Dr McKee and Mr Brocklebank. Suffice it to say that they set very low standards for themselves, which they failed to live up to.

I say to Professor Harvie that—watch my lips—Labour supports the Borders rail line.

Jamie Stone made a valid point about spare capacity in existing commercial bus services. I do not think that he was suggesting that the people about whom we are concerned should be carried in those spaces free of charge, although they should, perhaps, be carried at marginal cost. I should also say that I would certainly buy a used car from Jamie Stone.

Nigel Don made an important speech and, rightly, did not apologise for repeating points that were made in the debate that we had in November about the travel needs of deafblind people and their companions. He made an interesting suggestion about how the issue could be resolved at marginal cost to some transport operators.

Apparently, Bob Doris harbours some ambitions. His contribution was no bad for him, as they say in Glesga. I should explain that in Glasgow, "no bad" is high praise indeed. He suggested that I should enter a dialogue with the Scottish Government about what I am proposing today. If that is an offer, we are up for accepting it.

The funding for the concessionary travel scheme is pretty much a projection. We cannot know how many journeys will be made the following year, which is what potentially makes smart cards so valuable. We can capture all the necessary data with great accuracy and we can scope out, for example, the issue of overclaiming. As I pointed out, overclaiming has been happening throughout the history of the scheme, at an average cost of more than £1 million a year.

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party

Does Charlie Gordon recognise that since the scheme was introduced, there has been a real-terms increase in expenditure of 17 per cent? It is against that backdrop that we have been able to maintain the scheme and to extend it slightly.

Photo of Charlie Gordon Charlie Gordon Labour

When we are discussing future financial administration, real terms is the realistic way to look at things.

The issue is not just the significance of smart cards. Leonard Cheshire Disability has pointed out the rather disappointing review when it considered including lower rate DLA people in free bus travel. There was a substantial measure of double counting in calculation of the numbers of those people. I remind members that as recently as two years ago, thousands of those people were in the base budget of the free bus travel scheme. It is a bit like winter maintenance for trunk roads. We do not know what kind of weather we will have the following year so we put in an amount and see what requirements are generated.

Quite a number of vulnerable people are represented by the organisations that have been in touch. Leonard Cheshire has said that access to transport is vital in enabling disabled people to live independently. In the context of evidence for my proposed bus bill, the Highland users group, which works with people with mental health issues, said that it strongly supports the restoration of a concession that people have lost. NUS Scotland said that

"Students on DLA, regardless of their rate of support, need to access ... college campuses ... lectures and classes".

That is why they need this type of assistance. There are many more. The estimable Inclusion Scotland, for example, which represents a host of organisations on a delegate basis, has made, in the context of my proposed bus bill, a powerful case for the measure that Labour is proposing today.

I said at the start of the debate that this was the first Parliament debate on concessionary travel for five years. I look back to June 2008 and I realise that it is 18 months since we had a comprehensive debate about bus travel in Parliament, and on that day, we all voted down the others' motions and amendments, and there was ambiguity about public policy on buses.

However, the debate is not really about concessionary travel, buses or transport generally, but about people. It is about doing things for people. Is not that really why we are here? That is why I will accept the Liberal Democrat amendment, although legislation would be required to implement its proposals. Labour will also accept the Government amendment and will introduce an amendment at stage 2 of the budget bill. I am delighted.

There are vulnerable people who have a lot riding on this morning's debate—some are represented in the public gallery. The outcome of the debate will illustrate how grown up MSPs—from all the parties—and their priorities are. We should not be deflected from people priorities because we are entering hard times. The recession provides all the more reason why we should do the right thing and all vote the same way tonight at decision time.