Good morning. The first item of business is a debate on motion S4M-02639, in the name of Elaine Murray, on transport. I advise members that the debate is tight for time and that, therefore, speeches in the open debate must be limited to five minutes. I call Elaine Murray to speak to and move the motion. Ms Murray, you have 14 minutes.
Scottish Labour selected the topic of bus services for a debate on 26 January. We bring it back for discussion today because, in the intervening 12 weeks, the situation has worsened considerably and events have shown the concerns that we expressed during the debate in January to be well founded. Indeed, recent developments in the Lothians have exceeded our worst fears of three months ago. Opposition debates are our opportunity to raise with ministers the issues that our communities raise with us. That is not being negative; it is representing the people whom we were elected to represent. Throughout Scotland, bus service users are experiencing inflation-busting fare rises, and many are witnessing services being cut or withdrawn altogether.
During the debate in January, the Minister for Housing and Transport told the chamber that he was reducing the bus service operators grant to £50 million but that he was adding £3 million for bus infrastructure, which, in this financial year only, would be used to make transitional payments to the operators that were most affected. He said that the reduction in the BSOG would justify bus fare increases—if there were any—of 1 per cent. What has the reality been? Here are a few examples. First bus fares in Aberdeen have gone up by 13.5 per cent; Stagecoach fares in the same city have gone up by nearly 8 per cent; Stagecoach fares in Dundee have gone up by 6.5 per cent this week; there has been a 7.5 per cent increase in the cost of a single adult fare in Edinburgh on Lothian Buses; and First in Glasgow has raised the cost of its shortest journeys by 27 per cent. Two weeks ago, we also had the announcement of the potential loss of up to 200 jobs at First Scotland East, as a number of services in East Lothian and all of that operator’s services in Midlothian are to be lost. Its depot in Dalkeith is also threatened with closure, and the one in Musselburgh will be reduced significantly.
The cut of 17 per cent in the BSOG was not the whole story. The Confederation of Passenger Transport Scotland points out that, this year, the BSOG is some 20 per cent less than the level that was agreed with the Scottish Government in 2010 and that it received only four months’ notice of the impending cut. Furthermore, the change in the mechanism, from a fuel consumption component to a distance-only subsidy, has also reduced the BSOG that is available to some city operators by as much as 40 per cent. Although I understand the aim behind the mechanism change—to encourage fuel efficiency—the combined effect on urban services has been disastrous and, according to the operators, has been compounded by a shortfall of £7 million in the funding of the concessionary travel scheme last year.
I listened to Alex Neil speaking about the concessionary travel scheme on “Sunday Politics Scotland” this week. As usual, he was a little economical with the truth. I am extremely flattered that Mr Neil felt obliged to misquote me on national television, but I will put him right on the matter. I have never suggested that pensioners should be robbed to subsidise bus companies. In the debate in January, I drew attention to the evidence that Robert Black gave to the Finance Committee on working people over the age of 60 being eligible for free bus travel. He said:
“if you take the census data and look at the 60-pluses who are still working, you can do a fairly crude but nevertheless reasonably okay calculation that the cost of providing free transport to people who are over 60 and still in employment is £34 million”.—[Official Report, Finance Committee, 25 January 2012; c 587.]
I merely suggested that the Minister for Housing and Transport should give consideration to the evidence that had been presented to the Finance Committee.
Mr Baker answered the cabinet secretary’s question; indeed, Mr Rennie answered it, too, but the cabinet secretary was too busy shouting over them to listen to what they said.
I am not surprised to hear the ministerial team talking spin on concessionary fares. Mr Brown issued a press release that said that
“£187m funding has been set aside for concessionary travel for the coming year, up around 4% from last year.”
However, according to the Government’s budget documents, the estimated concessionary travel budget in 2010-11 was £192 million and was capped at £185 million last year. That is the underfunding by £7 million that CPT Scotland said had contributed to the recent fare rises.
No—I will get on.
The budget has returned to £192 million this year, where it will remain for the rest of the spending review period, according to the spending review documents. In cash terms, the budget will rise by 3.7 per cent between 2011-12 and 2012-13. However, if the Treasury deflator is applied to the £192 million, it is worth only £187 million at last year’s prices. The real-terms increase is more like 1 per cent and it will decrease over the spending review period. In real terms, this year’s concessionary fares budget is worth almost £10 million less than the budget of two years ago.
“the cuts introduced by the Scottish Government have a big impact on our business”.
CPT Scotland says that the combination of higher fuel prices—which now play no part in the BSOG mechanism—with the BSOG cut and the underfunding of the concessionary travel scheme forces operators
“to meet these additional costs by increasing fares ... or reducing service levels”.
A former chair of CPT Scotland and the managing director of McGill’s Bus Service, Ralph Roberts—who is, incidentally, a Scottish National Party candidate in Inverclyde—said in a letter to The Herald on the 4th of this month that the Scottish Government was being “pig-headed and obstinate” on the matter. He said:
“What has really caused a ... problem is that the method of payment changed at the same time” as the cut of which operators had only four months’ notice was made,
“and this has hit town and city operators ... worse.”
Does the member agree with Ellis Thorpe, the Labour candidate for Inverurie and district, who said in The Press and Journal on 4 April:
“Arguably the problem isn’t ‘cuts in public grants,’ but the long-term dependence on taxpayer handouts. Isn’t a re-examination of subsidised public transport by economists and politicians long overdue in the interests of taxpayers”?
I do not even know whether that quote is about the BSOG. If it is about the BSOG, I disagree with it, so that is fine.
Paul Thomas, the managing director of First Scotland East, courteously phoned me to advise me of the sad announcement of potential job losses in Midlothian and East Lothian. He told me that those services had been struggling for some time but that the cuts were the final straw. He told me that he had 40 years’ experience in the bus industry and that this was the first time ever that he might have to make drivers redundant. His career has spanned the Transport Act 1985 and the years of rule by a Tory Westminster Government that had no interest in public transport unless it was privately owned and made a profit, but it is under the SNP Government—under the watch of Mr Brown, Mr Neil and Mr Salmond—that Mr Thomas is, for the first time, contemplating sacking bus drivers.
After learning of the problems that FirstGroup faces, I contacted Stagecoach in my area to obtain a local perspective. Edward Hodgson, the managing director of Stagecoach west Scotland, advised me by e-mail that
“Those in rural areas such as Stagecoach West Scotland, are not as badly affected as more urban operators, but as a result of these changes and the forthcoming increase in duty we have been forced to increase fares by a greater amount than would otherwise be the case. Even for an operator such as ourselves, the changes to BSOG will directly affect marginal urban bus services and we are planning to reduce or withdraw a number of such routes in the near future.”
“this is a time for government to be identifying ways in which to help operators grow their services, not cutting BSOG or underfunding the concessions scheme”.
The member mentions other parties. Tim O’Toole, the chief executive of FirstGroup, has said that
“underlying weakness ... led to this performance”.
He identified that the price increases that FirstGroup previously imposed had not had the effect that was wanted.
If the member thinks—as she seems to say—that the BSOG is virtually the sole reason for service cuts, does she think that the 27 per cent cut by the Labour Party in Wales might have had a far greater impact than the impact here?
If the minister bothered to read our motion, he would see that we identify any number of factors, of which the BSOG is one. I am giving him the evidence on the matter.
What is the Scottish Government saying? It is, of course, blaming Westminster, but Transform Scotland makes the succinct comment in its briefing for the debate that
“That is complete rubbish. The overall transport budget is due to increase not fall, between 2011-12 and 2012-13”.
However often Scottish ministers blame membership of the United Kingdom for every decision that they make, they cannot shirk responsibility for how they spend their devolved budget of more than £30 billion and for the decisions that they make about their priorities.
The First Minister claims that
“safeguarding bus routes is a priority for this Government”.
Who does he think he is kidding? He is certainly not deceiving the bus users campaigning throughout the country to preserve the services on which they rely. How does he answer the petitioners in Dalkeith and Danderhall who are campaigning against the withdrawal of their service? How does he answer the worried commuters in Pencaitland, who face not being able to travel to work by public transport? What about the concerned residents of Stewartfield in East Kilbride, who may lose their number 31 bus service, which is the only regular service in that area? What does he say to the residents of Clackmannan villages who are raising a petition against the loss of their service? What about the bus passengers in Coatbridge who are campaigning to retain their number 17 service from Townhead? What does he say to the employees of First Scotland East facing redundancy, who are represented by Unite the Union and some of the drivers who are in the public gallery?
We reiterate our call for regulation. We do so in the full knowledge that other parties, other than possibly the Greens, will oppose that. However, regulation is the other side of the coin: it is the guarantee that value is obtained in return for public subsidy. It is used in service provision in other modes of public transport, such as rail and ferry. The voluntary approach to quality bus contracts has resulted in only one being formed—last year in Renfrewshire, as George Adam informed us in the previous debate on buses.
Local authorities must be empowered to develop integrated public transport systems in their areas. I was interested to hear the minister for Housing and Transport argue on Radio Scotland’s “Call Kaye” programme on Tuesday that he did not have the power to reverse deregulation. He said:
“unfortunately, this is not one of the powers the Scottish Government has”.
I replayed the minister’s statement several times on the iPlayer, and that is what he said. If he does not have those powers, it is slightly strange that that option seemed to be discussed in the context of East Lothian.
I admit that some of the provisions of the Transport Act 1985 are reserved, but there are actions that we can take under our current powers. The member’s bill that Charlie Gordon proposed in the previous session of Parliament fell not because it would not have been competent but because other parties would not support it. If members of other parties now regret not having supported Charlie Gordon’s bill to regulate bus services, they need not be too dismayed: unlike buses in many parts of Scotland, there will be another bill along shortly, courtesy of my colleague Patricia Ferguson.
Bus passenger numbers have been falling over the past three years due to the recession but, even so, 438 million journeys were made by bus last year, which is more than were made by any other form of public transport in Scotland. If people are to be enticed out of private cars, bus services need to be affordable, reliable and integrated with other forms of public transport. We are going in the wrong direction and we believe that the measures proposed in our motion would allow the fortunes of the industry to be reversed.
Mr Hume’s amendment leaves out regulation, as I suspected that it would; Mr Harvie’s says a plague on both your houses; and Mr Brown’s says that he is doing a brilliant job. He is a bit like a schoolboy who failed his maths exam but says that it does not matter because he got a good mark for his English essay. We will not accept any of the amendments.
That the Parliament notes the concerns expressed by bus service operators, passengers and the trade unions that represent bus workers regarding the impact of the Scottish Government’s changes to the Bus Service Operators Grant; notes that the Scottish Government’s decision to cut the grant by 17% in 2012-13 and to revise the formula has, along with the underfunding of the concessionary travel scheme and high fuel costs, resulted in fare increases and service reductions across the country; recognises that this has also contributed to the decision by First Scotland East to reduce dramatically its services in Lothian and Midlothian, with the potential loss of around 200 jobs; believes that the Scottish Government has failed to listen to the concerns of operators, bus service workers and passengers; urges ministers to take action to address the immediate problems of the industry, including urgently revisiting the 17% cut in the Bus Service Operators Grant, and instead begin proper negotiations with operators to ensure that the scheme is sustained at a level that does not threaten services, jobs and high fare increases, and believes that new legislation is required to enable the regulation of bus services in Scotland to ensure sustainable and reliable bus services throughout the country.
As Elaine Murray said, the previous debate that we had on buses was held in Parliament on 26 January 2012. At that time, we had a fairly wide-ranging discussion and there was, I think, some degree of agreement about the importance of bus as a mode of transport and the need to continue to consider future policy in relation to bus transport.
For my part, I set out the Government strategy and how it would involve a range of key stakeholders in determining bus policy. On 3 April, we had our first meeting of the bus stakeholder group, which was very constructive and productive.
I note that the motion that Elaine Murray moved in January contained no mention of any other influence on bus fares—or cuts, as Elaine Murray describes them. We have seen some change since then; today’s motion at least mentions fuel. It is interesting to note the impact of fuel alone: for example, over the past five years, the price of diesel has increased by 57 per cent. There was no mention of fuel in the motion in January; at least there is some acknowledgement now.
There was also no mention of some of the other factors that are at play. I have already mentioned the view of FirstGroup—it acknowledges that there were difficult trading conditions, not least in East Lothian and Midlothian—and some of that company’s previous actions on pricing policy.
I can only assume that the change and the bringing back of the debate to the chamber have more to do with political events than anything else.
The Labour motion is full of promises, but it is worth taking the time to work out what those would cost, in the absence—as the cabinet secretary mentioned—of any commitment from Labour on how such costs would be met.
We have to deliver bus services in the real world, which means using fixed budgets. Elaine Murray glibly tried to skim over the fact that we have to work within a fixed budget from Westminster that has been reduced by £1.3 billion. We have not heard from members on any side of the chamber—excepting, perhaps, the Liberal Democrats, who have asked to cut the concessionary travel scheme for those over 60—about the cuts that would facilitate any spending increase.
We have had endless lists of demands for further spending in my portfolios of housing and transport, and in many other areas.
I want to correct the minister. Willie Rennie stated on “Sunday Politics Scotland”, and my amendment states, that consequentials of some £7 million this year and £9 million next year are coming to Scotland, so those can be used. The minister does not recognise that we have shown a way forward, which Labour has failed to do.
I have lost track of the number of times that the Liberal Democrats have spent the consequentials that have been allocated.
It is important to acknowledge that substantial cut in our budget. A good starting point is to work out the cost of the commitments in the Labour Party motion. For example, we calculate that it would take approximately £85 million immediately to reverse changes to the BSOG subsidy and £50 million to reverse the fare increases that have been mentioned.
It is sometimes genuinely difficult to work out what the Labour Party means by reregulation, to go back to Charlie Gordon’s member’s bill, so we have to take a stab in the dark. It could cost up to £1 billion to fund the changes that he mentioned. I am less certain of the Labour Party’s current position.
The suggestions from Strathclyde partnership for transport, among others, are fairly reasonable. We cannot implement them all, because some—as Elaine Murray acknowledged—relate to reserved powers, and some of the decisions rest with parties other than the Government, but we are looking seriously at progressing a number of them. We have listened to those suggestions, which were discussed by the bus stakeholder group, and the cabinet secretary has made clear that we will give them a warm welcome.
Those suggestions involve changing some of the regulatory aspects of the current regime to ensure that as far as possible we have bus services of the required standard in the required places at the required prices. They do not involve a £1 billion project for renationalisation or reregulation. The Labour Party had eight years—10 years, in fact—in which it could have reregulated, but for whatever reason it chose not to do so. We need therefore to ask whether Labour’s commitment is genuine.
If that is Labour’s position—which is sometimes hard to work out—how can it be that the 17 per cent cut that Elaine Murray mentioned is causing all those things to happen while a 27 per cent cut to bus services by the Labour Party in Wales is apparently not causing such chaos? There is a fundamental inconsistency in that.
I have different information. I read a publication this week that stated:
“Labour meanwhile blames the SNP for bus cuts and pretends that it would end deregulation if it governed. ‘Ministers don’t seem to understand that people rely on buses,’ wailed Johann Lamont, Labour’s Scottish leader. Let’s hope nobody points to Wales, where people who rely on buses have suffered”
—they are not about to suffer, but have already suffered—
“huge fare rises after Labour ministers there announced bigger bus-subsidy cuts than the cuts in Scotland or England.”
Those are the facts of the situation.
We also have to ask whether that £85 million—
I will let the member in once I have made some progress.
I have mentioned the £85 million and the £1 billion. Labour has not identified one penny of the money to fund what it is calling for. Even if it had done so, we must also ask whether that would be the best use of public money. As members know, the bus industry is dominated by five operators, representing 95 per cent of the bus market. FirstGroup and Stagecoach are large multinational companies that are based in Scotland and of which we are rightly proud. However, they are extremely successful companies that make substantial profits. It is important that we obtain value for money for the public—it is taxpayers’ money that we are using—and I suggest that providing further subsidies to successful operators is not the best use of public money.
The source is this week’s edition of Private Eye. I will give the member a copy if she likes. [Laughter.] Obviously, those on the Labour benches are avid readers of Private Eye.
Franchising is another of Labour’s long-term solutions. Everyone knows how expensive the franchising process is. Once again, I have to ask whether that would be the best use of taxpayers’ money. The cost of Labour’s solutions makes them unaffordable. Renationalisation would cost around £1 billion.
The minister is two thirds of the way through his speech and has so far shown no empathy whatsoever for the people who are affected by the service cuts. What does he have to say to the people in Whitecraig who study at Jewel and Esk College and who, from June, will no longer be able to get to college?
I might have done that if I had not been intervened on so much, so I am happy to get to that point.
Some of the coverage in the papers has been disappointing. For example, an invitation from CPT to hold a bus summit in 2011 was presented as my summoning the organisation to attend a meeting to discuss bus policy.
There have been reasonable and moderate changes to the calculation of the bus service operators grant. To come back to the point that Kezia Dugdale mentioned, there have been substantial effects, particularly in East Lothian and Midlothian. To that end, I have been happy to meet with Unite, representatives of which are in the gallery today. I met them inadvertently this morning, but I also met them yesterday and on previous occasions, and we have had constructive and positive discussions. It is up to Unite to say what it believes, but I believe that it is a commonly accepted fact—First itself has said so—that the issues that we are dealing with are to do with the way in which those services were run over a number of years, not the fact that, in the past two weeks, a new BSOG regime has been brought in. I am not saying that First is happy about the changes to the grant, but it acknowledges the other factors that impact on the situation, not least the United Kingdom Government’s proposed further increase in fuel costs later this year. An increase of 57 per cent in diesel costs will be hard for any company to cope with.
I have discussed the issue twice with Paul McLennan, the leader of East Lothian Council, who contacted me as soon as the announcement was made. I met him during the bus stakeholder group meeting and have spoken to him since then. East Lothian Council has also had a summit with the bus companies. To come back to Kezia Dugdale’s point, an assurance has been given that not one community in that area will go without a bus route. I have not heard the same representation being made by Midlothian Council, but I have said to Unite that I am happy to work with Midlothian Council and East Lothian Council on the issue. It would be productive if they worked together.
I have heard from local MSPs, such as Christine Grahame and Colin Beattie, and I have seen Iain Gray’s motion, although he has not yet spoken to me directly about the issue. We are keen to do what we can. I have said that the officials in Transport Scotland will provide every assistance to the councils in their efforts to ensure that they can backfill those services, by whichever means.
I have never said that we could not regulate in Scotland. If Elaine Murray goes back and listens to “Call Kaye” again, she will realise that I was speaking in an entirely different context. It is possible to regulate. As we see in Lothian, it is possible for a successful bus company to run at arm’s length from the council. There are possibilities and we will work constructively in that regard. That is what we have to do in Government in the real world. We cannot just make promises worth £1 billion-plus, which nobody has any faith will be delivered—I do not think that even Labour believes that they can be delivered, especially not in the context of a fixed budget.
We will continue to work with people on the issues around jobs and the routes that are affected, and will do everything possible to help the councils and others in relation to their commitments. I have said to Unite that we will meet its representatives any time. If they want to pick up the phone, we will speak to them.
There are very challenging conditions, and we recognise in our amendment that fuel is one of the biggest factors. We call again for the introduction of a fuel duty regulator and for common sense on fuel costs. That will have a much bigger beneficial impact on the bus industry.
I am happy to listen to what other members have to say.
I move amendment S4M-02639.3, to leave out from first “concerns” to end and insert:
“total funding of nearly £250 million per year provided to Scotland’s buses as part of total Scottish Government support for public transport of £1.181 billion; welcomes the Scottish Government’s continuing commitment to the national concessionary travel scheme and Bus Service Operators Grant; welcomes the inclusion in these schemes of demand-responsive transport services available to the general public, such as dial-a-bus; welcomes the Scottish Government’s additional funding of up to £40 million for Glasgow Fastlink, £6 million for low-carbon buses and up to £10 million for Halbeath Park and Ride; welcomes the Scottish Government’s commitment to innovative solutions such as hard-shoulder running on the M77 and the new £3 million Bus Investment Fund; welcomes its ongoing financial support for passenger-focussed organisations such as Bus Users UK, the Community Transport Association and Traveline Scotland; notes the role of local government in supporting local bus services, previously through the Bus Route Development Grant, which is now incorporated in the general funding of local government; recognises that the per capita subsidy for bus services in Scotland is significantly higher than in England; welcomes the constructive dialogue initiated in the Bus Stakeholder Group and in the Lothians over the future of bus services; notes that First Bus states that fuel prices and economic conditions over a number of years are contributing to its increased costs; notes that the price of diesel has increased by 57% over the last five years and the price of petrol by 55%; further notes that fuel duty in the UK is the highest in the EU, and therefore calls on the UK Government to ease the pressure on all forms of transport by introducing a fuel duty regulator to stabilise fuel costs for all forms of transport and to scrap plans to increase fuel duty in August.”
Earlier in the year, when bus operators were still coming to terms with the proposed 17 per cent cut to the bus service operators grant, they were informed of a fundamental change to the funding mechanism for the grant. The landscape is very different now. A new financial year means that fare increases are already starting to bite. The frequency of services has been reduced, services have been withdrawn altogether, and the reality of substantial job losses is a worrying prospect for the 18,000 people who are employed in the bus industry.
A number of problems with the way in which the Government is managing the support for Scotland’s bus network have led to the chaos that is being witnessed in communities across the country. In my amendment, I highlight the underfunding of the concessionary travel scheme, which I will come to later. First, I will focus on the bus service operators grant.
I do not think that the bus operators would agree with that. First and Stagecoach have highlighted that the change to grant funding has had the major implication in relation to the reduction of their services. That is in the press, and I can quote what was said. The decision was not only a result of budgetary pressure; the situation is entirely of the SNP’s own making. It cannot blame others. Transform Scotland has said that to do so would be “complete rubbish”. Alex Neil can have words with it after the debate.
I have hardly started.
Apparently, environmental reasons are the rationale behind the move. That is what we have been told. In January, the minister stated that the change would
“incentivise greater fuel efficiency and emission reductions”.—[Official Report, 26 January 2012; c 5717.]
I noticed that, on Sunday, the cabinet secretary highlighted that the reform of the system would encourage bus operators to be more fuel efficient. No one believes that. From the beginning of April, bus operators will receive 14.4p a kilometre instead of 41.2p per litre. Does the cabinet secretary really believe that bus operators require the Scottish Government to reform a mechanism for funding distribution to ensure that they are more fuel efficient when, as he pointed out on Sunday, fuel costs have risen steadily for operators over the past few years? We are talking about commercial operators that exist to make profits, and they will do so only if they do not waste money. It simply makes no business sense to waste a litre of fuel that costs more than £1.40 purely to receive 41.2p in subsidy. That is the point. The Government claims that there will be environmental benefits from its changes, but the opposite will be true.
Can I take it from what the member is saying that he thinks that we should reinstate something that rewards fuel consumption rather than distance travelled? He might say that what we say makes no business sense. I disagree. It certainly makes environmental sense not to reward fuel consumption, but to reward distance travelled.
I completely disagree with the minister on that point, which I will cover.
An above-inflation hike in fares and the reduced frequency and withdrawals of services in urban areas are driving people to private vehicle use on already congested roads. Far from incentivising fuel efficiency, the Government will see that more fuel is consumed.
The other assertion concerning the mechanism change is that it will help to protect rural services. That is a laudable objective, but plenty of rural operators stand to be just as inconvenienced as their urban counterparts. I recently spoke with the owner of a rural bus operator that is based in Lanarkshire, who told me that their company would lose out significantly and that the changes were disastrous. The changes were compounded by the lack of consultation and the incredibly short lead-up time, which gave operators little wriggle room to adapt to the new environment.
It is widely understood that operators in urban areas are the big losers. The formula change discriminates against the smaller, vital routes that operate in congested areas of towns and cities. Such services may consume disproportionate amounts of fuel and therefore may be unattractive under the new mechanism, but they often serve deprived communities and help to drive social inclusion.
In reply to a question, the minister stated in January that
“The reduction in the bus service operators grant would justify an increase in fares, if any, of about 1 per cent.”—[Official Report, 26 January 2012; c 5715.]
How wrong could he have been? At the time, it appeared that he was being somewhat cute, and recent events have certainly confirmed that. The Government asserts that 75 per cent of the 176 operators in Scotland that receive the BSOG subsidy will not be worse off. What it does not mention is that the remaining 25 per cent of operators carry in excess of 80 per cent of Scotland’s bus passengers, all of whom will be affected.
The reality for passengers is that some of the operators that run their services have just experienced a cut of 40 per cent in their grant. Fares have risen by 13.5 per cent in Aberdeen, 9.5 per cent in Edinburgh, 10 per cent in the Borders and 27 per cent in Glasgow. The people who depend on bus services are the most vulnerable people in our communities and the people for whom car ownership is a distant prospect. The Government is doing them a disservice.
I had hoped that Labour members would support the amendment in my name. I am disappointed that they will not do so, given that the amendment is the only one that identifies funding to back up its position.
I move amendment S4M-02639.1, to leave out from “has, along with the underfunding” to end and insert:
“was arrived at without any formal consultation with bus operators or users, with bus operators given inadequate time to adjust their businesses to the formula change and has, along with the underfunding of the concessionary travel scheme and high fuel costs, resulted in fare increases and service reductions across the country; recognises that this has also contributed to the decision by First Scotland East to reduce dramatically its services in Lothian and Midlothian, with the potential loss of around 200 jobs; believes that the Scottish Government has failed to listen to the concerns of operators, bus service workers and passengers, and urges ministers to take action to address the immediate problems of the industry, undertake proper consultation with operators and users and use extra money available to Scotland, following the UK Budget, to prioritise and safeguard bus services and guard against high fare increases.”
I very much welcome the debate and I congratulate the Labour Party on bringing to the Parliament another motion on this important issue. I live in and represent a city in which about half the residents do not have access to a car. Bus services are fundamentally important as a means of getting about, for me and for many other Glaswegians.
The context of the debate is the period just before a local government election, so temperatures are a wee bit higher than they might normally be and the debate is a wee bit more contentious than it should be. I commend Kezia Dugdale for making the point, in her intervention during the minister’s speech, that the debate should be about the people who rely on bus services and about the impact of changes in service levels and prices—and other factors—on the people whom we represent and serve.
What is wrong with the current situation? Members have talked about prices. The 27 per cent increase in the short hop fare in Glasgow was mentioned; the even bigger increase in child fares means that if a family wants to get from one side of Glasgow to another it is often cheaper to go by taxi than by bus. Is not that astonishing? Should not that shock us into action, given that many of the people who do not have access to a car are the least well-off in our society?
There is a host of things that we could do in relation to the reliability of services and the provision of information—even before we start debating regulation—to improve the quality of the bus service that people can access. Another issue is the lack of a voice for bus passengers. Passenger Focus, for example, has no remit in representing bus passengers in the way that it does train passengers.
Why do we have such a poor quality of provision? A fundamental part of the problem is the free market approach. Jim Hume rightly said that the bus companies exist to make a profit and not to run a quality, affordable service—that is not their objective. I know that there are individuals working in the companies who are personally committed to public transport as a public service, but the companies’ free market approach will not deliver that.
We can look back at the process of deregulation and recall the remark that was attributed to Margaret Thatcher—it might be apocryphal; I am not sure—that is, that any man who finds himself still using the bus by the age of 30 can consider himself to be a failure. Whether or not Margaret Thatcher said that, it is very much part of the ethos of deregulation and what has happened since then that buses are perceived as the option of last resort, at the bottom of the list of priorities.
Lack of regulation is an issue, as is the lack of finance and subsidy, which means that it is more expensive to go by bus than by train and sometimes even by taxi. There has been a failure to prioritise bus services and there has been a lack of consistency. However, we need to be honest about the political dynamic that is in play, too. I do not expect the Labour Party or the SNP to agree that when parties are in opposition, it is easy to call for regulation and that when parties are in government, it is easy to say no, or to admit to doing that. Both parties have swapped their positions over the years.
I think that part of the reason for that is that passengers do not have a strong political voice. Who here thinks that the motoring lobby is not a strong political voice in the UK and in Scotland? Bus passengers do not have that strength of voice and I believe that, if we are to change the political dynamic, it is important for them to act together to bring their collective voice into the debate. That is the idea behind the better buses website that I recently set up. Now that we are allowed to do such things, I can show it to members in the chamber using my tablet.
The website is called betterbuses.org, if the member would like to visit it.
The idea behind the site is that it should be a place where people can offer a first-person perspective on their bus services and say for themselves what their priorities are. Rather than presenting a proposal from another politician, I wanted to give people a space in which they could set their own priorities. For some people, price will be the issue; for others, it will be reliability, cleanliness or safety. Different issues will affect different people, and I wanted to provide a place where those perspectives could come together. I encourage members to take a look at the site, and I encourage anyone who is listening to the debate who uses the bus in Glasgow or elsewhere to send in their comments.
I will read out a few of the comments that have come through to the site already. One user said:
“I’ve given up on buses since First Glasgow started shamelessly exploiting their monopoly on routes ... with extortionate fares. Now, rather than walk the 110 yards from my front door to the bus stop ... I’ll walk 3 miles to get the train”.
Not all the comments are about prices. Another user said:
“Would it really be asking a lot for First to give some explanation, and maybe even say sorry, when they turf everyone out of the bus and tell us to wait for the next one? Instead of just shouting ‘Youse have all tae get aff.’”
A stream of people have cited cleanliness as the biggest issue that impacts on how they feel about using the bus. Many others have commented on the difficulty of getting access to a ticket and the lack of integrated bus and train tickets. Another comment was that if buses cannot give change, vending machines should be available at the stops or elsewhere in the streets. Many people have mentioned the option of having an Oyster card-style system in Glasgow or across Scotland, which should be a priority of the Scottish Government and should not have been shelved for the duration of its present period in office. Many other comments have been posted on the website, which I may have time to come to in my closing speech.
The principal issue is that, as politicians, we should not be grandstanding on the issue; we should be listening to the people who use the services, who are being affected by the radical cuts in those services and the increases in fares.
I move amendment S4M-02639.4, to leave out from second “notes” to end and insert:
“believes that successive Scottish administrations have failed both to provide the level of financial support necessary to maintain high quality and affordable bus transport in all communities and to adequately regulate the industry to ensure value for taxpayers’ money; recognises that bus fares in many parts of Scotland are now less affordable than train fares and even taxis in some circumstances; considers that fuel prices are likely to continue to rise and that this will create a greater need for high quality and affordable public transport as an alternative to private car use; notes the lack of any statutory body protecting the interests of bus passengers; believes that bus users’ voices are not being adequately heard in the debate on bus transport; encourages bus passengers to publish their views through the http://betterbuses.org website; calls on the Scottish Government to reverse the cut in the Bus Service Operators Grant, ensure that overall public spending on bus services is adequate to protect services, jobs and fares and extend the remit of Passenger Focus in Scotland to bus users, and believes that new legislation is required to enable the regulation of bus services in Scotland to ensure sustainable and reliable bus services throughout the country.”
As I have not been burdened with the responsibility of proposing an amendment, I can comment on what is contained in the motion and the other parties’ amendments.
There is a broad principle at stake. Along with one or two other members, I remember what it was like when we were in the old Parliament building up the road. I had the unfortunate experience of being in that office on the first floor that was only half a floor above street level. First Minister’s question time used to be on a Thursday afternoon, so every Thursday lunch time I had to sit through the protests that built up outside as people sought to influence the First Minister as he went past to go to question time. Almost invariably, the system was in place whereby someone would shout, “What do we want?”, and everyone would shout, “Mair money.” Then the cheerleader would say, “When do we want it?”, and the crowd would shout, “Now.” In those days, of course, there was more money to be had and the Government of the day could spread its largesse widely and thickly.
The problem that we have today is that money is not so easy to come by. It ill behoves the Labour Party—which, in my view, is the party that is responsible for the economic crisis that we must all address—to come to Parliament with a series of proposals to deal with the problems of the bus industry that would cost a fortune. It wants more money to reverse the decisions on the BSOG and to reregulate at a cost of £1 billion-plus, which would also have an on-going cost that has not been addressed at all so far.
I am afraid that I will not, because I have further points to make.
I am aware that buses have become an issue for the local elections and I understand that that is why the Labour Party is so keen to bring the issue forward. I took the trouble to speak yesterday afternoon to Conservative candidates who are campaigning on the ground in Scotland’s major cities. It was brought home to me more clearly—if that was necessary—that a genuine problem is building up in our cities. It is a crisis that has been building up consistently for the past six months and it is more important to us today than it was when Labour first brought it to the chamber on 26 January.
The problem is that we have market failure in the bus service system. I am a fan of markets and will continue to defend the market approach whenever it can be used effectively. I believe that the deregulated market approach to bus services has a great deal to commend it—that was the case for the past, and it remains so for today and for the future. I do not regard markets as being about profit and loss; I see them as being about supply and demand. The market failure in the bus service system in Scotland at the moment is interfering with the relationship between supply and demand.
The cause of the problem is that the bus system’s biggest customer by some margin—and which is growing as a proportion—is the Government itself. Government decisions are having an increasingly disproportionate effect on how services are run.
I will consider the changes that have happened and how they are affecting us. Various changes have been made to the BSOG, which have had different effects. First, the overall cut in the grant has an effect across the whole bus industry. The causes of that are financial constraints, and the Government can of course blame London for that if it wishes. However, the reduction must be managed so that the pressure is spread more evenly. The decision to pursue a mileage-related payment rather than a fuel-related payment has positive elements, because it will encourage fuel efficiency and investment in fuel-efficient buses in the future. However, it also skews the balance of payments towards rural rather than city bus companies and city services are suffering as a result.
At the same time, the concessionary fares scheme is being increasingly underfunded. The result is that bus companies are doing two things. First, they are using fare payers to cross-subsidise the concessionary fares scheme; that will increase over time, which will force up prices. Secondly, decisions have to be made about which bus services might be cut, but the number of people travelling on the buses is influenced by the number who use the concessionary fares scheme. The consequence is that more buses might run during the day, which is when the concessionary travellers naturally wish to use them, but fewer buses will be available at key times of the day when people want to get to their work, college or whatever. That distortion is caused by the Government’s market decisions.
I want the Government to accept the constraints within which it operates and to realise that it has contributed massively to a short-term crisis. The reduction in total funding is part of that, but the Government must realise that what it is in control of and how it targets the available funding to support bus services are also critical factors. The Government must review how it invests that resource and consider whether it is appropriate to provide concessionary fares to people from the age of 60, many of whom are in work, and at the same time to use reductions in support to critical, economically important bus services in our major cities as a way of funding that.
I thank the Labour Party for bringing forward the motion for debate, because it is always useful to debate the provision of bus services—although I do not consider that the content of the motion bears much relation to reality.
The provision of good, reliable bus services is an issue that all members are concerned about. It is an issue of importance to many of the people whom members represent—many people who are without access to a private vehicle rely absolutely on bus services. When there are changes, alterations or cuts to bus services in any of our constituencies, that is rightly an issue of concern for us all. The human aspect that has been referred to is one that we would do well to remember.
Much has been said, today and previously, about the funding and the support that are provided for the bus industry in Scotland. Let us consider the facts and the reality of the situation for a little minute. We have a Government that is committed to supporting the bus industry, despite what members have heard today. In the motion, we have an extraordinary claim from the Labour Party that the concessionary fares scheme is underfunded. That is an interesting proposition when we consider the fact that the budget for the scheme this financial year is increased from the same budget line the previous financial year. It seems a little disingenuous of Ms Murray to claim that the scheme is underfunded.
With due respect, Ms Murray, it is you who says it; you make the claim in your motion. We will always hear special pleading from industries and representative bodies; I understand that—that is their job. However, you—I beg your pardon, Presiding Officer, not you—the Labour Party is in Parliament and it has a duty to make its case responsibly. To be frank, Ms Murray, it is clear that you do not even know your own motion, because you—I beg your pardon, Presiding Officer, not you—the Labour Party makes the claim that the scheme is underfunded.
I refer Mr Hepburn to his Government’s budget documents, which show that the budget the previous year was £192 million and fell to £185 million. That is a reduction of £7 million.
I refer you to the budget documents. It is exactly the other way round: the budget is going up to £192 million from £185 million. We will leave the matter at me referring you, Ms Murray, to your motion. You need to read it again. I have dealt enough with that subject.
Suffice it to say that it is interesting to hear Elaine Murray singularly fail to reply to my colleague Christine Grahame’s well-made point about the reason for quoting the Auditor General. It is all well and good for Ms Murray to say that she is quoting someone else, as she just tried valiantly to do again, but she is the one who is raising the issue in Parliament.
It is interesting to hear the blame for cuts to bus services being laid entirely at the door of the Scottish Government. Let us take the case of First in the Lothians. We are, understandably, concerned about the cuts to those services, the effect on the people who use them and the potential for job losses. First has confirmed that the decision
“comes after years of poor trading and rising fuel prices”.
That reflects the situation in many other areas of Scotland. I understand that Transport Scotland is discussing the matter with First and trying to assist it to implement a solution to the situation in which the company finds itself in the Lothians.
Previously, the Labour Party has failed even to refer to fuel costs. At least there is a slight improvement, in that the motion takes some cognisance of the matter. I remind Elaine Murray of that, because she does not seem to know what is in her motion. It refers to fuel costs, but she barely mentioned them in her speech.
It is clear that fuel costs are the main driver in the problem. No one could fail to notice the increased cost of fuel. The SNP at Westminster has proposed a solution—the fuel duty regulator—but other parties have failed to support that measure. It is time for this Parliament to have control over that policy area so that we can assist bus companies.
I commend the Government amendment.
Dundee community spirit action group, which is based in the Pentland area of the city, has been campaigning in the wake of cuts to local bus routes and service frequency. The community was previously well served by two regular services into Dundee city centre, both of which have been withdrawn and replaced with a service that starts at 9.45 am—which is not much use for people going to work in the morning—and stops at 5.30 pm. No service connects the community with the city centre in the evening or at all on Sunday and, on weekdays, the service runs only every two hours.
At a meeting with National Express, which runs the services, residents were told that they should walk either half a mile down to Blackness Road to catch the company’s most profitable bus service in the city or half a mile down to the Lochee Road to catch a bus into town. Many elderly people who live in the community cannot manage a walk of such a length, especially with the hills that it involves, which means that going out at night is not an option for them and journeys to church on Sunday are, I am told, impossible.
The community spirit action group in Pentland is not asking for a bus every five minutes; it understands the financial imperative behind running services. The group’s spokesperson, Len Jamieson, said to me:
“We accept that we can’t have all the buses running full all of the time, but profitable routes should subsidise non-profitable routes.”
The minister might want to heed such sound advice and sensible observations. The Pentland residents are not asking the earth; they simply want buses that connect them with the heart of the city and which run all day and all weekend to allow them to get their shopping, go to church, visit their friends and get to the doctor. That is not too much to ask.
In Dundee, bus companies are now pulling school buses because they are not profitable. When did anyone ever expect school buses to be profitable? Recently, the school bus from the west end of Dundee to St John’s high school was taken off because it no longer made a profit, which means that pupils have to take a much longer and more circuitous journey to school that is simply a waste of time. I know that, because I have made the journey with the pupils. Longer bus journeys—
I do not have much time, Mr McDonald—I do not have to look up to know who is speaking.
Longer bus journeys and less access to buses can affect school rolls and damage communities as parents are forced to make other decisions about their children’s schooling if they find it too difficult to get them to and from school. I should also point out that this is happening within the school’s catchment area. When I asked the SNP convener of education in Dundee whether there could be a subsidy for this school bus, I was told no. Because the SNP refuses to regulate the buses, teenagers cannot get to a school in their catchment area and elderly people cannot get to the shops, to the doctor or to church.
Our council tax is being used to add to the bus companies’ profits.
I have a lot that you don’t, Mr McDonald. Thank you for throwing me. [Laughter.]
The term “regulation” has been used a lot this morning in a rather euphemistic way. What does the member actually mean by it?
Len Jamieson from Dundee community spirit action group put it very well when he said that if we are going to let bus operators run public services, we have to strike a deal with them to ensure that they run less profitable services. I am sure that the member will let me talk about that in my last minute.
The SNP council in Dundee has given £300,000 to National Express, which makes £180 million in profits each year, but last year it cut 99 teachers from Dundee schools. We might call that a subsidy but if we allow commercial companies to run our public services we should strike a deal with them to ensure that they run all the services that are required. I say to Mr Hepburn that that is what I mean by regulation and it is what the SNP refuses to do because the bus tycoon Brian Souter will not like it.
I support the Labour motion.
I welcome the debate, which gives me an opportunity to speak on behalf of my constituents in Penicuik, Gorebridge, Newtongrange and Fountainhall, for example, for whom the issue is concerning, particularly with the announcements by First. The minister is aware of those concerns and has addressed some of my constituents directly about them.
However, we simply cannot walk away from the fact that we are in this position because banking regulation failed under the Westminster Government. We have a ruinous deficit that is costing the UK hundreds of billions per annum in borrowing and we are not even cutting the deficit. Gordon Brown’s fingers were all over that. The situation is costing our domestic budget £1.3 billion.
Against that fact, we are asked to ignore it all and instead look at Labour’s manifesto for the local government elections. I have no problem with creating new jobs and training opportunities, spending more on schools, greater support for childcare, proper support for carers or further subsidy for bus services, but there are no price tags on any of those things. I would vote for all of them, but I would want to know, first, the cost, and secondly where the money will come from under a fixed budget.
I will let the member in in a moment.
Am I right in presuming that Labour still supports the council tax freeze, or is that a presumption too far? Am I right in supposing that it still supports the concessionary fares scheme, which we have extended to veterans and dial-a-bus, and that the member’s question about the savings that could be made, with reference to the Auditor General, was just a question and the answer does not matter? If Labour would not touch those things, it has to tell us where the money would come from. It did not do that during the budget debate; there was not a single amendment at stages 2 or 3 of the budget process that dealt with the buses.
We could certainly afford better bus services. I will tell the member something, to get right to the nitty-gritty of the matter. The real issue for the bus companies is the price of fuel. The irony is that the Labour motion hardly addresses that. I quote:
“The irony is that the main driver of increased costs for public transport lies in fuel costs compounded by fewer passengers on account of job losses and therefore loss of commuter passengers due to this UK recession.”
Those are not my words but the words of the transport correspondent at The Herald.
The success story in Scotland is Lothian Buses, which made a profit of £13 million in 2010 and increased its passenger numbers by 1.9 per cent to 109 million. How did it do that? The answer is careful cost control and a favourable fuel hedge position. The problem is that, as Lothian Buses says, higher fuel prices will
“significantly impact on this year’s trading results”.
That is the nitty-gritty of the issue, but Labour will not face up to it, because it is a UK issue.
The Government has put forward money that we could use. We have called for a fuel duty regulator to stabilise fuel costs for all forms of transport and we have called for the scrapping of plans to increase fuel duty in August. That would be a start, but those proposals fall on the deaf ears of those in the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties who have just learned that the rich avoid paying tax. What do they talk about at their cocktail parties—pasties?
We can add to that the costs of Trident, which run into billions, and an illegal war in Afghanistan, which is and always was unwinnable. Money that would support Scotland’s communities and services, including interlinking public transport, is being squandered. There is no oil fund here. We have false promises, no costings from the Labour Party, and no budget proposals. Labour’s position is pie in the sky. Is it the saviour of our bus services? I do not think so.
I am realistic. I look forward to realistic and practical discussions with the minister on behalf of my constituents who travel to work, hospital or the social work centre in Dalkeith, and on behalf of the people who work on the buses, so that we can resolve the issue. However, I will not tell them porkies just to get through the local government elections.
I agree with Patrick Harvie that we are talking about people. I appreciate that local elections are coming up very soon and perhaps we are all going to be party political—although in discussing an issue such as this we should not be party political, and I assure members that I will not be. Patrick Harvie is right to say that we are talking about the effect and impact on people and our responsibility as MSPs to ensure that we represent the communities that we were elected to represent as well as we possibly can.
We have all heard Labour’s political scaremongering before. Every time that a transport issue is raised, Labour members get out there and criticise the Scottish Government. Funnily enough, Labour MSPs are saying that the bus companies are making huge profits. If that is the case, why is Labour asking us to give the bus companies more money? Why does Labour not ask the bus companies to do what they should be obliged to do?
No; I am sorry, but we are very short of time.
Instead of politically motivated scaremongering, let us talk about what is going on on the ground. I will talk about Glasgow because it is the city that I know best and I represent part of it. We have been working to protect bus services within the community and my colleague Bob Doris has been working to ensure the continued existence of his local community transport group, which is the North Area Transport Association—members will know it well—so that it can continue to work for those who are in most need in the community. Why is NATA at risk? Because the Labour-run community planning partnership decided to cut its funding by 100 per cent. That is the reality of Labour on the ground. Thankfully, the group is continuing but for how long and in what guise is anyone’s guess.
Unfortunately, my constituency of Cathcart has seen a similar situation that had a much less happy ending. The Castlemilk community transport group, which had been running for 16 years and received no public funding, just payment for services, is closing down this week because a number of local organisations were persistently slow in paying their bills. Three quarters of the payments owing were from the Labour-run Glasgow City Council family; they should be ashamed of themselves. The knock-on effects of Castlemilk community transport group ceasing to exist are clear, because other local groups are no longer able to take advantage of the subsidised travel that was offered to them. There will be a huge knock-on effect in Castlemilk.
Just this week, one local group, which was doing magnificent work for women and children who are victims of abuse, came into my office to see whether I could help to find alternatives to take those women and children on their annual trip to Largs. They look forward to that trip every year, but it looks as though it will be nigh-on impossible without that subsidy. I will take no lessons from Labour on the importance of bus services to the community and how to protect them.
One Friday a few months ago, I received a number of phone calls and e-mails relating to the proposed termination of a bus service in the Hillpark and Mansewood areas of my constituency. If any members know those areas, they will know that they are hilly, fairly remote, and fairly heavily populated by elderly people. I immediately organised a public meeting for the following Thursday, which was attended by representatives from First as well as by more than 150 residents and local politicians from other parties. The massive negative impact of losing that service came across loud and clear. One resident said that without the bus service, she would become a prisoner in her own home. Another talked about simple things that are taken for granted, such as collecting messages, going to church or visiting friends, being made nigh-on impossible for some if the bus service was withdrawn.
As I touched on earlier, there was a feeling that First, which is part of a multimillion pound, multinational, profit-making organisation, has a social responsibility to provide a bus service, particularly to those areas of the city that are not well served by other bus routes, and to those residents who have, for a long time, paid into that huge company’s coffers. At that meeting, I agreed to talk to First and Strathclyde Passenger Transport to see whether we could work towards a solution; to be fair, the SPT staff and officers were incredibly helpful during that process. After meeting them, I was much more confident that the area would continue to be served. Two weeks ago, it was confirmed that the bus service was saved.
The purpose of my telling that story is that instead of putting up posters saying “Missing Buses”, which people cannot see for all the missing buses driving past, we worked on the ground with other local politicians, community organisations and transport organisations and we got a positive result. No one is pretending that money is rife and that there are any easy solutions, but if politicians do what they are paid to do and get out and help their communities, their communities will be much better served than they are by the political posturing that we have seen here today.
I support the SNP amendment.
Today is not the first time this year that Scottish Labour has felt compelled to bring the issue of transport to the Parliament. We make no apology for doing so; indeed, we are proud to be able to stand up for our constituents who depend on public transport to go about their daily lives. We do so today to highlight another area where the SNP Government is simply out of touch with the lives of ordinary Scots.
We are not alone in wishing to express our concerns to the minister. On 13 March, the leaders of all the political groups in the City of Edinburgh Council, including the SNP group leader, wrote to the minister about the changes to the bus service operators grant and the effect that they knew that those changes would have on the people of Edinburgh. The leader of Glasgow City Council, Gordon Matheson, did likewise, and the leader of the SNP group on Glasgow City Council has stated publicly that she wishes that she had thought to write, too. All the parties in Edinburgh think that the minister is wrong, the leaders of the Labour and SNP groups in Glasgow think that the minister is wrong, the bus operators think that the minister has got it wrong, and the workers in the Lothians know for a fact that he is wrong, but the minister persists in his wrong-headedness.
No, because my time has been cut.
The minister stated in answer to a parliamentary question that bus operators
“have been told and have accepted that we must move to provide further support for operators in rural areas, where there are pressures from fuel duty costs”.—[Official Report, 23 February 2012; c 6553.]
However, we have heard from Dr Murray and others that rural operators have not been protected. Does the minister really not understand that fuel duty is charged at a flat rate, that city buses use more fuel per kilometre because they have to travel at lower-than-average speeds on lower-mileage routes and that they have to use high-capacity vehicles and operate in heavier urban traffic? All that begs the question: who are the operators that the minister seeks to protect?
The irony is that—I never thought that members would hear me say this—the UK Government, which is also making changes to the BSOG, seems to be handling the issue slightly more sensibly and sensitively. It is devolving payment of the BSOG to local authorities and transport authorities to ensure that the changes to the grant take account of local circumstances. Those bodies are consulting passengers and bus operators before they make any changes to ensure that there is no disproportionate impact on particular services.
In contrast, the SNP Government made a three-year agreement on the BSOG with the Confederation of Passenger Transport but, after a matter of months and without discussion, it broke the agreement. The Government failed to consult bus operators or passengers before deciding to cut funding for urban bus services and made no effort to assess the impact of the changes on services. At the end of the day, what will be the effect of the minister’s decisions? We have already seen them: cuts to routes; fare-price hikes; possible job losses; and a reduction in investment in newer buses and things such as low-floor buses, which are important to disabled people and people with children in buggies.
The minister’s latest decision on the BSOG is only the tip of the iceberg. We need a complete overhaul of the system. There is no democratic accountability in the planning and delivery of bus services. The public do not understand why services are not organised to take account of local communities, or why it is so hard for local politicians to influence decisions. Who can blame the public for that?
In Milton and Springburn in my constituency, 60 per cent of households do not have a car and 20 per cent of people are pensioners. The areas have the highest jobseekers allowance claimant count in the country. However, earlier this year, the number 31 bus service was withdrawn. The service allowed my constituents to take one bus to access the nearest large supermarket, from an area where there are few local shops. The service also allowed people to access the city centre for work and, most important, their local hospital and the nearest accident and emergency department.
Over the years, there have been cuts and reductions in services in the area. I have campaigned long and hard, in and out of government, on many of the issues. At public meetings and in other ways, I have collected the names of thousands of constituents who have been affected, although ultimately often to no avail. My constituents need a bus service that is democratically controlled by people who understand their lives and who care about the decisions that they make. We need to find a better way to organise our bus services, and Scottish Labour is committed to doing that. This time, I hope that SNP members and others will support us.
My constituency, Midlothian North and Musselburgh, has suffered disproportionately as a result of the decision by First to cut the number of routes that it runs. I deplore that decision, because communities that are already considered deprived areas will now suffer from additional disadvantages due to the lack of a bus service. People will have difficulty reaching hospitals, whether as patients or as employees. Shift workers will no longer have adequate bus cover. Transport to supermarkets and stores will become difficult and, for the less able, impossible.
However, it is not just the loss of services that will affect my constituents—200 people are to lose their jobs in Dalkeith, with more in Musselburgh. That is tragedy enough for the employees and their families, especially those with mortgages and other commitments that they will now struggle to meet. Just as important is the loss of spending power in the community, for example to the local sandwich shops and others that provide for and support the First workers.
The first step to helping commuters is to establish how many of the First routes Lothian Buses in particular is able to pick up, or to accommodate by modifying its existing routes. I hope that information on that will be available shortly to enable us to focus on those routes that may be unattractive to a commercial bus company but which have social imperatives. For example, it is unacceptable that the village of Cousland should have its only bus link to the outside world cut off.
In the last election, the Labour Party floated the idea of reregulation of bus services. In hustings and in local leaflets, it extolled the advantages of that, apparently believing that bus operators could be controlled in that manner. The fact is that, however attractive reregulation may seem at first glance, it is no panacea for our current problems. Indeed, I believe that the cost of reregulation, including buying out the bus companies, would cost nearly £1 billion—hardly a practical proposal at this time of financial stress.
The Labour Party has focused on the idea that bus routes are being withdrawn largely because of the Scottish Government’s decision to reduce the bus service operators grant. That is astonishing and naive. It can be only an element in the commercial decision by First to withdraw its services. The grant is spread across some 300 operators, big and small.
The member states that the withdrawal of services is not the result of the cut in funding, but would he agree with Paul Thomas, the managing director of First Scotland East, when he said in the East Lothian Courier in the middle of February:
“As a result of the cut in funding, First Scotland East Ltd is undertaking a comprehensive review of bus services throughout south-east ... Scotland.”
I said that the cut in funding is an element in the decision; it is certainly not the major element. In the case of First, the support amounts to barely 1.9 per cent of turnover.
First withdrew its services because it was not making enough money. The reasons that it gave are principally fuel prices and competition over some years. I would contend that the reason why it was not making enough money is that it failed to invest and failed to manage its operating costs. Quite simply, it has been running elderly stock for years. It recently brought up aged double-deckers from Wales to replace already-old stock that it had used in my constituency.
Among my constituents, there was a clear preference to use Lothian Buses because its buses were cleaner and more reliable. The result was that passenger loading dropped because the product offered was of lower quality than the market demanded. Coupled with that were much higher running costs due to the higher maintenance costs for old vehicles. More modern buses can be as much as 50 per cent cheaper to run, based on fuel usage.
The SNP policy on introducing a fuel duty regulator, which would provide relief to bus operators, motorists and haulage companies, might have prevented that situation arising. However, the UK Government has consistently refused to listen. I repeat that lack of investment, leading to stock that is out of date and expensive to maintain and operate, leads to a classic result. That should surprise no one. The reduction in the bus service operators grant clearly results from the cuts being experienced elsewhere within the Scottish Government, arising from the Tory-Lib Dem coalition Government’s inappropriate policy to cut spending, to the detriment of the economy and the people of Scotland.
The Scottish Government has not been slow at coming forward to help, but there is a difference in approach that I must highlight. When I spoke to the SNP-led East Lothian Council, I was assured in no uncertain terms that no community in East Lothian would be left cut off from a bus service. I was engaged in ideas about forming a local bus company that might pick up some of the routes or develop new routes—not a short-term solution but a longer-term opportunity that could be brought to fruition with energy and vision. I saw community commitment and leadership.
I contrast that with the minority-run Labour administration in Midlothian. I say “minority-run” because it has rather carelessly lost two of its councillors, one due to the arcane selection—or, should I say, deselection—process of the Labour Party, and one due to an immoral cash grab to acquire a public pension and a public salary simultaneously. No decisive leadership was shown by Midlothian Council, yet council officials claim that they have not ruled out any solution. There is complete confusion and contradiction there.
We are in a position in which we must await details of what Lothian Buses can do to fill the gap that has been left by First. Only then will we know where to focus our efforts. Labour’s motion is not helpful and contributes nothing to a solution. I commend Keith Brown’s amendment.
I welcome the debate, as I always welcome anything that shows Paisley as a countrywide leader. As was mentioned in the previous debate and as Elaine Murray rightly said today, the quality bus partnership in Paisley is the only one in the country, mainly because of the issues that we faced. Given the time, I thought that I might just read from the Official Report of the previous debate, but I have some other comments to add.
The Transport (Scotland) Act 2001 is difficult to work with at a local level to make a difference. Why did Labour not do anything while it was in power? Why, all of a sudden, when they are in opposition, do Labour members feel that they have to raise the issue when they have nothing—
Sorry, Presiding Officer. I was following Mr Gray’s lead. Labour members admitted that there was a problem with the Transport (Scotland) Act 2001 and that they wanted to do something about it, yet they did nothing about it. Now, two weeks before a council election, they come here to complain about the situation while offering very little.
Mr Harvie and Ms Dugdale are right to say that it is about the people who use the bus services—the older people, the disabled people and the mothers with the prams. Part of the idea of the quality bus partnership is that we can ensure that we have a certain stock of buses that they can use. In Paisley, the older buses will be phased out after a time and all the buses will have low floors. We must think about how we can work within the existing constraints. We can talk and debate non-stop but achieve nothing; it is what we deliver that is important, and that is what we are focusing on in Renfrewshire. We have cleaner buses with a lower level of emissions and we are working in partnership with the bus operators on timetabling in various areas.
That brings me to another issue. It is Strathclyde partnership for transport in the Labour-controlled Strathclyde region that operates the subsidy in the local areas. Our area is subsidising Labour-controlled areas, supporting bus services in rural Lanarkshire and in some places in Glasgow as well. I feel that SPT needs a radical overhaul, as it has a £10 million corporate budget that is being spent just on salaries for its chief executives and it is a £50 million organisation. That cannot be the correct way forward.
As the minister asked, what is Labour’s current position? What would Labour do with buses nationally? Is it talking about reregulation at a cost of £1 billion? Is that its position? Would it do anything? I am waiting for a Labour member to respond to those questions.
There are obviously no answers there.
The bus service operators grant is not the issue. A local bus operator whose company is in the quality bus partnership in Paisley told me that the cost of fuel is the main issue and the reason why her company is having difficulty in getting its buses on the roads. She is working in partnership with the council to ensure that we get bus services throughout Paisley.
In the real world, we must ask whether Labour wants to do anything. Does it want to empower local people and local authorities to do anything? What is Labour offering in terms of the national concessionary travel scheme? Does it want to follow the Liberal proposal of cutting 60-year-olds out of the scheme, or does it not agree with that?
We increased funding for the scheme from £180 million to £185 million in 2011-12, and it is up to £192 million in 2012-13. In difficult times and with a finite budget, we are delivering in all ways nationally and locally where there are SNP administrations.
In the main, buses are used by older people, the disabled and those who are on low incomes. This is about people, but we must work within the fixed budget to provide the service that they need now and not in some mythical alternate reality that the Labour Party proposes. That means working in partnership with all partner organisations and bus service providers.
I back the minister in the work that he is doing. Should any other public organisations want the direct telephone number of Renfrewshire Council’s head of roads, I am willing to give them it, so that he can help them with their problems with quality bus partnerships.
Bus services are being cut and fares are rising everywhere, but my constituency of East Lothian and next-door Midlothian are the hardest hit, as First is to pull out from all but a handful of routes there. Our thoughts are particularly with the 200 people who face redundancy at the Dalkeith and Musselburgh depots and with their families. I welcome to the public gallery some of those who are affected.
First’s predecessor, Eastern Scottish, was one of the most profitable parts of the Scottish Bus Group. Its routes in East Lothian and Midlothian were reliable, regular and very busy. I know that because I spent my summer holidays working as a bus conductor on those services. Those routes were sold off for the highest price in the whole Scottish Bus Group when it was privatised, so how can it be that, from June, communities such as Pencaitland, Ormiston, Gifford and Whitecraig could find themselves with no buses at all and no routes that link East Lothian and Midlothian?
First certainly must accept some of the blame. I agree with Mr Beattie—like him, I regularly receive complaints from constituents about the condition of First’s vehicles, breakdowns, timetable changes and of course soaring fares. However, the Scottish Government must take its responsibility, too. The number of bus journeys in Scotland peaked in 2007 and has been in decline ever since. The annual number of bus journeys now is the lowest since the advent of the Parliament. It is no coincidence that that decline parallels the SNP in power, because it has never prioritised or supported the bus industry.
First, the SNP scrapped its policy of regulating services. It then scrapped the £27 million bus route development fund, cut the bus service operators grant and systematically underfunded the concessionary travel scheme. The SNP has no strategy for taking the bus industry forward. Patrick Harvie was right—the Government believes that buses are the transport of last resort.
The allegation that the concessionary travel scheme is underfunded has been made again, but does the Labour Party not realise that funding for it has increased from the past financial year to this financial year?
SNP back benchers are the only people in Scotland who believe that funding point—nobody else does.
I repeat that, for the Government, buses are the transport of last resort, although there are four times as many bus journeys as there are rail journeys in Scotland. The truth is that the Government does not understand buses. Unlike the Prime Minister, the First Minister probably has bought a steak bake from Greggs, but it would be worth asking him when was the last time he bought a bus ticket and took a bus home or whether any of his Cabinet could find their way to a bus stop.
I am astonished that the transport minister seems to know and care far more about buses in west Wales than he does about buses in my constituency of East Lothian. It is no surprise that he is reduced to reading out from Private Eye, because the SNP’s bus policy is a joke.
When services are cut, local authorities are left to pick up the pieces. East Lothian Council is retendering supported services and is getting welcome help from the Government to do that, but it has also promised in the press and in election leaflets to set up a company of its own to run local bus services. The council says that the transport minister supports it, so why did I hear Mr Brown say on Radio Scotland on Tuesday that
“councils aren’t allowed to run buses. The law prevents them from doing that”?
Should we believe SNP council candidates, who tell voters that they will set up a bus company to save the day, or the SNP minister, who says on Radio Scotland that they cannot do that?
If the member thinks for a second about his own experience, he will know, as I do from my experience of using Lothian Buses when I was younger, that the relationship between Lothian Buses and the council is not one whereby the council directly provides bus services. He must surely be aware of that distinction.
I say to the minister that to set up the equivalent of Lothian Buses in East Lothian would require, for example, the purchase of a number of buses that cost about £200,000 each. I await the indication that he is prepared to fund such an initiative, which is being promised. SNP councillors state in the East Lothian Courier this morning that the Scottish Government will give them money for bus services to link our villages to towns and trains, yet Mr Brown has told us repeatedly in the debate that no more money is to be provided.
We do not need election promises that the SNP has no intention of keeping. As Christine Grahame, if she were in the chamber, would put it, we do not need porkies to get councils through the election. We need the immediate restoration of the cut to the bus grant and a rise in support for concessionary journeys, because that would make the axed routes more attractive to new operators. In the long run, we also need better regulation of buses.
It is East Lothian and Midlothian today, but how many other communities will have to see their buses go before this Government wakes up and steps up?
I say to Mr Gray that, as someone who constantly uses the buses and the subway in Glasgow, I know about the people, including my constituents, who use the buses. I am one SNP member, back bencher or not, who certainly knows what the public think.
In fact, in 2010, I held a transport summit in Glasgow in Partick burgh hall, at which the general public, SPT and First and other operators were present. We asked the people in what is now my constituency exactly what they wanted from transport. I know that we are concentrating on buses, but the motion is entitled “Transport”, so I could perhaps widen the debate out a little bit.
People certainly wanted decent buses running at the proper times with a decent bus fare, but they also wanted joined-up thinking. I think that we have sometimes lost the point about the importance of joined-up thinking. If my memory serves me right, this is the third debate that the Labour Party has held in Parliament on transport and buses, in particular, as there was Patricia Ferguson’s members’ business debate and there have been two other debates since then.
I welcome the debates, but I do not welcome the people we represent being used as political footballs because a council election is round the corner. [Interruption.] That may not be happening in Ms McMahon’s constituency but, unfortunately, in Glasgow we have now got to the stage that it is the only game in town, in that it is the only issue that Labour can produce. That is a sorry state of affairs.
I agree with a number of the points that Patricia Ferguson made in her speech. I also thought that Jenny Marra’s speech, which concentrated on the people, was very good. I agree with most of Patrick Harvie’s amendment. We must look at every single issue.
Following the transport summit that I held, I had meetings with the then transport minister, Stewart Stevenson, to try to talk to the bus companies. Members are basically saying that it is about this Government or that Government or previous Governments, and no one has talked about First, which is the bus operator in Glasgow. We must bear it in mind that the Government gives a substantial amount of money to First and other operators.
Patricia Ferguson will be aware, as are other members in Glasgow—I do not apologise for concentrating on my own constituency—that the buses pollute Glasgow city centre. It is sensible to change the way that the money is being invested, because the approach that is being taken is more environmentally friendly. If members get a copy of the summit report, they will see that people in Byres Road, Great Western Road, Woodlands Road and other areas in my constituency, including Maryhill Road—part of which is in my constituency and part of which is in Patricia Ferguson’s constituency—complain consistently about emissions.
I find it strange that SNP members keep referring to the fact that we want to see buses being as economical as possible with their fuel. Does the member not realise that it is already in bus operators’ interests to have fuel efficiency?
I am coming to that point. The changes in the way that the money is spent make bus companies more fuel efficient. Coupled with that is the Scottish green bus fund. I was astonished—as Gordon Matheson and others in Glasgow City Council appeared to be—that First did not apply for a grant from the Scottish green bus fund 2012. That grant could have improved the environment for the people who live in my constituency of Glasgow Kelvin and in Glasgow city centre. It could also have created jobs in Scotland, because these new buses are being built in Falkirk by Alexander Dennis Ltd. I would like the minister to raise with First the issue of why it did not apply for such a grant. We can argue in the chamber about the various issues, but we must ask the bus companies—particularly those in Glasgow—why, given the contribution that this Government and previous Governments have made, they did not apply to the green bus fund.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on a subject of vital importance to the residents of South Scotland. In the immediate aftermath of First Scotland East’s decision to discontinue key services in East Lothian and Midlothian, Paul McLennan, the leader of SNP-led East Lothian Council, met FirstGroup and the minister to discuss possible solutions in order to minimise the decision’s impact on jobs and commuters.
I congratulate the Scottish Government, East Lothian Council and FirstGroup on getting round the table so quickly to seek solutions, which is why I lodged an amendment to Iain Gray’s motion S4M-02567. I hope that Iain Gray and everyone who supported his motion calling for dialogue will join me in commending all those who were involved in those early talks.
The meeting was constructive, and a groundbreaking idea was mooted for a public bus service that would run on non-commercial routes to ensure that people who depend on buses to get to work, to do their shopping and generally for getting about remain connected. Paul McLennan told the East Lothian Courier on 13 April:
“We are working tirelessly to protect and support our communities and I can give reassurances that none of our communities will be without services in June.”
Neil Barker of FirstGroup did not, as Elaine Murray’s motion suggests, state that the changes to the calculations in BSOG were a primary ground for that difficult decision. He said:
“Even without [government] changes this decision would have ended up being taken in the same, or very similar, way ... This part of the business has been trading badly for a prolonged period of time.”
He did, however, cite rising fuel costs as a key contributory factor. As the minister identified, costs have risen by 57 per cent, and although it is tempting for Labour to blame the SNP for everything from rainy days to spiders under the bed, the cost of fuel is regrettably not something over which the Scottish Government has any control while we remain in the UK.
Mr Wheelhouse repeats the suggestion that Labour is saying that the BSOG cuts are the only problem. Nobody is saying that high fuel prices are not a problem for bus companies—indeed, in its statement on cutting its services, First cites the current economic climate and high fuel prices. However, it goes on to cite cuts in external funding, which means cuts in the BSOG. When fuel prices are high, that is surely the last time that we should be cutting other support for our bus services.
It is nice to see that Mr Gray is finally acknowledging that fuel costs have something to do with the cuts in services in East Lothian and Midlothian.
The Labour Party is obviously applying the Bain principle to the SNP’s very sensible fuel duty regulator proposals that would protect car drivers, haulage firms, bus operators and ferries from fluctuations in fuel prices. The Conservatives and their Liberal Democrat friends are just as bad, as they all reject a fuel duty regulator.
I will comment on the bus service operators grant itself. To be clear, past funding mechanisms for buses were not sustainable, and bus operators were essentially subsidised for burning more fuel rather than travelling more miles. As the whole point of a bus service is to provide a public means to get from A to B when there are limited or no alternatives, it is clearly more sensible to subsidise routes where there are limited or no alternatives to taking the bus, and that situation is most common in rural areas.
First and foremost, the changes to the bus service operators grant reflect that need. By subsidising operators based on the distances that they cover as opposed to the volume of diesel that they burn, we will kill two birds with one stone: it will create a significant incentive for operators to lower their emissions in various ways, and it will make running buses on rural routes more attractive.
As an MSP for the rural South Scotland region—I am most familiar with rural East Lothian and the Scottish Borders—I understand the importance of public transport to people in rural areas, and I am certain that the switch in the BSOG funding mechanism to pence per kilometre will not stand in the way of new rural routes being established.
With regard to lowering emissions, I am delighted that the Scottish Government's green bus fund, which recently allocated £1.8 million to bus operators across Scotland, will continue to remain in place and will allow operators to apply for grants of up to £1 million for new, eco-friendly buses. As my colleague Sandra White, said, those buses are mainly manufactured in Scotland, because we lead in hybrid bus technology.
I also hope that the green bus fund will establish itself as another measure that will put operators in a more competitive place from which to offer longer-distance routes. Once again, that is something that will encourage new services and protect existing services in the rural areas of the Lothians and the Scottish Borders that need them the most.
I want to address Elaine Murray’s assertion that the concessionary travel scheme is not properly funded. As Jamie Hepburn has mentioned, the funding for the concessionary travel scheme has increased this year by £7 million to £192 million for 2012-13.
We have heard enough from Dr Murray on this point.
When the concessionary scheme was introduced, it was agreed that it would be reviewed intermittently. Given the enormous difference in the financial climate today compared with that in 2006, that is a sensible thing to do.
In response to Paul Wheelhouse, I think that it is only fair to acknowledge that many of the problems that face transport companies are caused by circumstances that are outwith the control of the Scottish Government. Anyone who provides or relies on public transport has known for some time that there are huge pressures bearing down on companies due to the cost of fuel.
The level of fuel prices at present is determined by a combination of international economic circumstances, oil production issues and many other commercial variables. That situation must be understood. What is not understandable, however, is the Scottish Government choosing to exacerbate the problems that bus operators face when it should be seeking to ameliorate the economic environment that bus operators are enduring, bus passengers are being subjected to and transport company staff are paying the price for with their jobs.
What is even more perplexing is that, reverting to type, the Scottish Government and SNP members choose to decry those who raise concerns rather than genuinely seek to address the concerns that have been highlighted. James Dornan and others have accused us of scaremongering, but I remind the Government that, less than two weeks after it rained down its bombast in the chamber to reject concerns over the curriculum for excellence a few months ago, it had to concede that remediation was needed. As with hospital blankets, we were not scaremongering then and we are not making up the problems now. These are not Labour’s warnings; they are the warnings of the public transport sector, transport workers and bus users.
When we learn that there will be increased fares, a reduction in service levels and less support for socially necessary bus services—for example, those that are used to reach health facilities—we believe that we have a duty to raise concerns in Parliament and a right to call on the minister to address those concerns. That is why my colleagues in South Lanarkshire Council are listening to the people of Hamilton and Uddingston and why councillors such as Davie McLachlan and Maureen Devlin have been out collecting hundreds of names on a petition that I hope will soon be before the Parliament, to ensure that something is done to address the issue.
Unlike the SNP, Labour has been listening to people such as Ralph Roberts, the managing director of McGill’s bus company, who is, as Elaine Murray pointed out, an SNP local council candidate. His comments are worth rehearsing. He claims that the Government is being “pig-headed and obstinate” in pushing through the cuts to the operators and that it is in denial about the impact of the grant changes. He accuses the transport minister of going back on an agreement that was struck with the industry in 2010 over the concessionary travel scheme. He is making those allegations; we are not. We are simply ensuring that members know about them.
I am sure that the member is aware of Henderson Travel, which is a company in his own area. When I met it to announce the latest hybrid bus vehicles that will go to it—those buses have exceeded fuel savings expectations—it said that the BSOG changes had worked very well for it, because many of its routes benefit from them. Does the member acknowledge that more than 200 companies are benefiting from the BSOG changes?
We know that there are winners and losers from the BSOG changes, and we know that Mr Souter is a winner and that Henderson Travel might be a winner. The problem is that there are far too many losers. That is why the minister is not listening to his SNP colleagues in the City of Edinburgh Council, who share Labour’s concerns. They are not trying to wriggle out of their responsibilities in the way that he is.
More important, as Patrick Harvie said, we should listen to ordinary constituents, such as Josie in my constituency. She can no longer get a direct bus from her home in Holytown to Bellshill health centre, which is only 2 miles away; now, she will have to take two buses to get her to Bellshill via Motherwell, and the journey will be 6 miles. It will not cost her any more to do it because of her free bus pass—Labour introduced those passes—but the price of her packed lunch for the days out that she now has is becoming a financial burden that she would rather not have. Her problem is not so much the level of funding that the Government provides, but the absence of effective regulation of the bus industry in Scotland, which allows bus companies to reduce service levels, withdraw routes and generally run buses with little regard for the social needs of local communities. Bus regulation must be reintroduced.
When the SNP meets in a few weeks’ time to change its position on NATO, perhaps it should also change its position on bus reregulation. Mr Souter may not like that, but the people of Scotland will.
Anyone would think that there was an election on. Far be it for me to deviate from the tone that has been so graciously set for us today.
The comments of Jenny Marra, who discussed the difficulties for certain communities in Dundee, struck me as being a little rich. Labour’s Dundee City Council budget would have cut £210,000 from non-committed spending in the supported services budget that was specifically for buses and would have meant that the council could not have added further routes or invested in existing ones. By contrast, the SNP Administration in Dundee gave £50,000 to National Express, which was in addition to the £500,000 that was given from the Scottish Government green bus fund to support the bringing of 10 eco buses to Dundee. This is about delivering for Dundee, not dithering for Dundee.
I know that the minister has been outed by Holyrood magazine and that he will get his dancing shoes on in the not-too-distant future, but the Labour Party is undertaking a bizarre dance on concessionary travel. Dr Murray has stood up and said, “I’m not telling you to take the bus pass away from people over the age of 60 who work; I’m just asking you to think about listening to somebody else who is telling you to do that.”
We know the reason for that: the Labour Party will then be able to say, “We didn’t suggest this. It’s not the Labour Party that is suggesting this, but the Scottish Government is now actively considering taking away your bus pass. Naughty ministers are considering doing that.” It is inconceivable that a member should stand up and say, “You should consider what somebody else has said, but I’m not recommending that you actually do what they are suggesting. I’m just suggesting that you look at it and then disregard it, because we don’t actually support what they are suggesting.”
Dr Murray is sitting next to Mr Baker, with whom she might want to have a conversation. He put out a press release on 28 March that said that the SNP is threatening the future of the concessionary bus pass. It is interesting that Labour put out the press release before we had even agreed to listen to what Dr Murray has told us she does not actually want us to listen to.
There was talk about subsidies for large private organisations, such as companies that are part of FirstGroup, which turns over hundreds of millions of pounds in profit every year. I quoted to Dr Murray the words of Ellis Thorpe, the Labour candidate for Inverurie and district on Aberdeenshire Council, who said:
“Arguably the problem isn’t ‘cuts in public grants,’ but the long-term dependence on taxpayer handouts ... Isn’t a re-examination of subsidised public transport by economists and politicians long overdue in the interests of taxpayers?”
That appeared in The Press and Journal in Aberdeen on 4 April. Dr Murray said that we did not give the context for the quote and that she did not know to what it referred. I can reveal to Dr Murray that the letter was written directly in response to an article in which FirstGroup in Aberdeen had claimed that the bus service operators grant cuts would cause it problems, a point that was directly contradicted by a Labour council candidate. If the Labour Party wants to trade quotes from council candidates that is fine with me, but it should check that it has it own house in order before it starts throwing stones.
Elaine Murray rose—
Let us consider the complaint that fare increases are chiefly the result of the changes that are being made to the bus service operators grant. “The Auld Toon News”, the newsletter of the Old Aberdeen community council, reports in relation to the high fares in Aberdeen compared with fares elsewhere:
“We wrote to Firstbus to ask for their comments. While their cost base in Aberdeen is rather higher than Edinburgh and Glasgow, they consider the key issue is passenger numbers—Aberdeen buses are simply not so well used.”
FirstBus in Aberdeen is telling community councils that the key issue is not the cuts to BSOG but passenger numbers. It ill behoves politicians to hold up the fig leaf of BSOG and suggest that it is somehow the all-singing, all-dancing panacea for the problem of fare increases. The issue is much more complex.
I met David Stewart, the managing director of First in Aberdeen, and talked to him about the bizarre idea that increasing fares while passenger numbers are decreasing will increase patronage. I suggested that First in Aberdeen should consider a short-term drop in fares and assess its impact on patronage in the city. That would be a worthwhile experiment for First to undertake. First also needs to look again at whether the routes that it offers meet the needs of the public. To the company’s credit, that is something that it will do.
The Labour Party did nothing to try to amend the budget in relation to the bus service operators grant and it ill behoves its members to shed crocodile tears that they hope will appeal to voters in the local elections in May.
I express my gratitude to the members who reflected on and endorsed my suggestion that the debate should be about people and the impact on them rather than party politics. Given the tone of the debate, it seems that that is easier said than done.
The members who criticised Labour, in particular, for not going far enough on regulation when it was in office at UK or Scotland level are quite right and I agree with them. We must now decide what we do with the opportunities that we have.
To the members who defended the SNP’s position—the Scottish Government’s position—I ask a straightforward question: is anyone in this chamber actually satisfied with the level, quality or price of bus services in Scotland? I certainly do not think that many people in Glasgow are satisfied with their bus services, and I have heard many members from Aberdeen saying that they, too, are not satisfied. If we can agree that we are not satisfied and that Scotland does not have the high-quality and affordable bus service that it deserves, we must agree to take a different approach.
I am a resident of Aberdeen and I absolutely agree with Patrick Harvie about the high fares in the city. Does he support me in calling on First to consider implementing a short-term fare drop and assessing its impact on passenger numbers, given that First said that passenger numbers are the key issue?
I endorse the member’s suggestion, but a short-term fare drop will never be sustainable unless taxpayer funding is there to make it so.
This might chime with Iain Gray’s comments. I was reflecting on the unerring wisdom of “Yes Minister”—pretty much every day we come across something on which “Yes Minister” had it right. There is a scene in which the minister is being driven by his chauffeur, George, who says that he was listening to a chap on the radio who said that the problem with health, education and transport was that ministers and civil servants all went to private hospitals, sent their kids to private schools and went to work in chauffeur-driven cars. The minister scoffs. George observes that it would be a bit different if the minister and Sir Humphrey had to go to work on the number 27. The minister replies that that would be quite impractical. George says that the minister would have to make the bus services a lot more efficient. “Of course we would,” replies the minister. George responds by noting that that was what the chap on the radio said. George’s point was well made.
We should not think of bus services in the way that George Adam seemed to think of them, as things that are of concern only to older people and disabled people. He seemed to have the idea that bus services are about the lowest common denominator and that they are an option of last resort. That is not good enough. We deserve a higher standard of service.
The SNP’s main policy response to the debate has been to emphasise the idea of a fuel duty regulator. The introduction of a fuel duty regulator in the context of a quite reasonable expectation that energy costs and oil costs will continue to rise globally would simply result in ever-declining revenue from fuel duty, which would mean lower public spending, whether on public transport or anything else. A fuel duty regulator is not sustainable in the long term; it would simply give a bit of tax back to anyone who burned fuel. It is not a reasonable response economically or environmentally.
I would like to respond to Alex Johnstone’s speech. He made some important points; principally, he asked where the money would come from to finance bus services or to regulate them. It is a matter of priorities. There is always another £1 billion to throw at the road-building programme, and there is always money available for tax cuts for the wealthy, whether in the form of the SNP’s policy on corporation tax cuts or of the UK Government’s decision to give a tax cut to high earners. The issue is whether we choose to prioritise bus services.
Alex Johnstone talked about market failure. Competition has done some good things—it has had some benefits—but it has failed some people very badly. Patricia Ferguson said that there was a lack of democratic control and accountability when it came to the delivery of bus services.
Alex Johnstone’s other main point was that the Government, or the taxpayer, was becoming the biggest customer in the bus system. That is absolutely unsustainable. It is quite right that we should pay for bus services on a collective basis because they are best provided on a collective basis to meet public interests. That is not the problem—it is a vital aspect of public services; the problem is that we underfund for the standard of service that our constituents deserve and that we do not specify the standard of service that we expect them to receive. We provide neither the necessary funding nor the regulation.
I will close by reading out a few more comments from bus passengers in Glasgow who have sent in their views to my website. The first one will particularly appeal to Alex Johnstone. Its author said:
“The fight for Better Buses means a fight for a socialist alternative.”
We might not all use that language. They went on to say:
“Bring the bus companies back into democratic, public ownership, accountably run under one umbrella organisation.”
Another passenger said:
“Catching a First Bus from Shawlands Cross is like Russian roulette—you never know if it will change drivers at the Larkfield Depot and if it does, whether the replacement driver will turn up.”
Another person said:
“I’ve spent a winter waiting for buses, or so it seems. The timetables ... seem like a work of complete fiction.”
A stream of people said that they had taken their complaints to FirstBus but had been fobbed off.
That is not good enough. We should all agree that the standard of service is inadequate and that services are underfunded and overexpensive, and we should do something about it.
We have heard at length from many members about the ramifications of the Government’s damaging actions, some of which I mentioned earlier. None of those ramifications should have come as any surprise to the Scottish Government because it was forewarned months ago of what would happen by the Confederation of Passenger Transport Scotland. It was not just the industry that issued warnings. Earlier this year, Gavin Booth of Bus Users UK said:
“Bus Users UK is concerned that the 20% cut in the budget for Bus Service Operators Grant to bus operators, and the way that this is awarded, will have serious implications for passengers, with the likelihood of fares increases and threats to the future viability of some bus services.”
How right he was.
In my opening speech I spoke of the impact on urban areas of the change to the bus service operators grant, but the communities of Midlothian and East Lothian provide case studies that show how no part of Scotland, including the largely rural areas, will be left unaffected.
I do not have much time. I have only a tight six minutes.
In February, the managing director of First Scotland east, Paul Thomas, announced a
“comprehensive review of bus services throughout South-East and Central Scotland” as a direct result of the reduced subsidy from the bus service operators grant. The result of the review, which was instigated by the Government’s actions, is the withdrawal of 22 services and amendments to a number of others in Midlothian and East Lothian. Significantly, that will result in villages such as Pencaitland and Elphinstone, which were mentioned earlier, being removed entirely from the bus network in June, which has obvious complications for pupils who travel to and from school by commercial bus services between Pencaitland and Haddington and between Elphinstone and Tranent.
I am sorry, but I do not have time.
I hope that Midlothian Council and East Lothian Council can find satisfactory solutions in spite of their tight budget settlements and promises from the SNP locally that it has got the situation sorted. As Iain Gray stated, the minister is on the record as saying on Radio Scotland that the Government cannot fund bus companies in that way.
The news of job losses and the possible closure of a depot in the First Scotland east division is a real blow for the staff and communities in those areas. Bus passenger patronage fell by 6 per cent in 2010-11, and I fear that the 200 redundancies at First Scotland east as a result of the review may not be the last in the industry, unless the Government rolls back on its decision.
The Government’s recent decisions have only added to the pre-existing uncertainty and unease in the industry due to the consistent underfunding of the concessionary fares scheme by the Administration. Indeed, the concessionary fares scheme in the past financial year exceeded its budget by £8 million, which was cited as a factor by First for its review of its Scotland east operations.
The current situation is untenable and Audit Scotland, the Public Audit Committee and the independent budget review panel all agree that the concessionary fares scheme needs to be looked at again. I am aware of the Government’s independent research paper that will be published later this year, but its remit does not go far enough to investigate ways of truly making the scheme sustainable for the long term. The free bus pass has been a great success and we should be proud of the way in which it allows some of our more vulnerable citizens to live independent lives. That is why we need to protect the scheme in the long term and ensure that those who depend on it so much can still use it in the future.
I ask Mr Hume not to use the word “free” when referring to the bus pass. The scheme is concessionary and the people who use the bus pass, among others, have paid taxes.
I take the member’s point.
The scheme will founder if all the Government ever proposes is to cut the reimbursement rate given to bus operators. It is time to consider a full review to investigate how the scheme can be made affordable for the long term and to consider perhaps how to extend it to more community transport groups.
What is the solution to protect our bus services? Labour failed on Sunday and today to address that question. £1 billion has come into the hands of the Scottish Government since last year and the UK budget added £20 million to the Government’s spending power. That money can free up money elsewhere in the Scottish budget and allow bus services to receive the protection that passengers are crying out for. The Government has the ability and flexibility to protect Scotland’s bus services.
I am just coming to the last minute of my speech—apologies.
The Government needs to explain adequately why it has changed so fundamentally the mechanism for funding Scotland’s bus services. It cannot be for environmental reasons—that does not make sense, as I and others have pointed out—nor can it be for the apparently limited benefit that the change may provide to our remotest communities. As I have said, bus companies in my area are saying that there will not be such a benefit. Passengers and staff members of the bus companies deserve to know the genesis of the Government’s bungled policy decision. To protect jobs and services, the Government must take immediate action to fix the mess that it has created. The money is there—we have shown how—so I urge the minister to utilise it and support our bus services now.
I thank those organisations that provided useful briefings for the debate. Oddly, I did not get a briefing from Private Eye, but I hear from the minister that he uses it for his research. I respectfully suggest that he should also cast his eye over The Economist, a magazine that is universally respected for its economic wisdom, including, of course, in relation to transport.
Today I spoke to West Coast Motors, which is based in Argyll and produces good services for the people of Argyll who use the buses. The people there asked, in essence, for no more regulation, but a better thought-out, better funded concessionary system, because that system is apparently costing them a lot of money.
I emphasise that the Scottish Conservatives are fully committed to regular, efficient and affordable buses in urban and rural districts in Scotland. We recognise that such services are crucial to many of our constituents, who rely on them for commuting, shopping and visiting and seeing their friends and relatives. Bus services are also important for many of the tourists who come to Scotland, including to my region, the Highlands and Islands.
We are very clear that private sector operators play a big part in delivering those services and, because of deregulation, many Scots have a choice between operators on routes. Deregulation has been a success. We are proud of it and the Labour Party is simply out of touch and backward in calling for reregulation.
If reregulation is so important to the Labour Party, why did it not do something about it in the eight years in which it was in power in Holyrood? The reality is that reregulation would simply burden the bus operators with yet more bureaucracy and divert money away from services—something that we would all want to avoid.
The ill-thought-out underfunding of the concessionary scheme is adding to local government costs and to the price of bus fares for people who use the buses. Alex Johnstone has set out our position on the cut in bus service operators grant, and I agree with him. We are aware of the concerns that are being expressed, especially about services in the Lothians, about which we have heard a lot today. MSPs from that region are, understandably, speaking up for their constituents.
At the same time, the Scottish Government is trying to get better value for money from discretionary grants such as BSOG. We, of course, would want that to happen, but the Government should at least assess how services throughout Scotland have been affected by the changes that it has made to the scheme and be ready to be flexible with it as we go forward.
We want there to be continuing, regular and genuine dialogue between ministers, their officials and the bus companies on BSOG and the concessionary fares scheme, about which they are all talking. We also support the Scottish Government’s desire to use BSOG to encourage bus operators to provide the most fuel-efficient vehicles possible and to consider using biofuels if that works.
A number of members mentioned fuel costs. They impact on all forms of public and private transport and remain a big issue throughout Scotland. My constituents in the Inner and Outer Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland are being assisted from this March by the 5p cut in the price of a litre of diesel or petrol that the UK Government introduced. That did not happen in 13 years of Labour Government. The UK Government will monitor the impact of that pilot and determine whether it might be replicated in future.
I liked Patrick Harvie’s speech. He talked about the motor industry. Perhaps we will see high-level talks between the Scottish Green Party and Jeremy Clarkson. I agree whole-heartedly that we should listen to the people who use the buses and, to some extent, take their advice on future services.
Before we move to the fourth closing speech, I ask party whips to note that several members who took part in the debate are not in the chamber for the closing speeches. The Presiding Officers are not happy about that.
There were some very good speeches in this debate, some less so. Patrick Harvie’s speech was referred to several times and, certainly in his opening speech, he made a few points that I would want to examine further. I should also tell him that bus passengers already have a voice—for example, we have Passengers View Scotland and Bus Users UK—but I am more than willing to listen to any other suggestions that he might wish to make to improve the situation. On Mr Harvie’s comment about spending money on roads, however, I have to say that I am not sure how buses will get around the country if we do not spend money on that, and we will continue to do so.
As I have said, buses need to travel on roads and we will continue to invest in them.
One of the best speeches this morning came from Alex Johnstone. I did not agree with many parts of it, but it was certainly very considered and in his six minutes he touched on a lot of important issues. On his basic point that, in spending money, we should at all times consider our priorities, I can reassure him that we do so regularly.
However, Mr Johnstone’s most telling point was that we are in this situation because of the Labour Party’s legacy in destroying the UK economy. Indeed, when he left office, the previous Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Liam Byrne, left the written message, “There’s no money left.” That is the root of the problem with regard to the money that we can afford to give not just to the bus industry but to everyone else.
I thought that Jim Hume’s speech was bizarre. I am sure that the few remaining Liberal Democrat supporters in Scotland who live in rural areas and are interested in the environment will be interested in hearing his staunch support for the consumption of fuel over environmental benefits and his special pleading on behalf of urban operators at the expense of rural operators. He will be able to explain his position when he gets back to his constituency.
In his own speech, Jamie Hepburn very tellingly pointed out that the Labour Party did not even know the terms of its own motion. That is important because a number of members in the debate were seriously trying to address the issues that we are facing while others were clearly not. It is also true that Richard Baker—he has not yet spoken publicly but I am sure that he will make this point when he winds up—has said that there has been a £7.5 million cut in the concessionary travel scheme. However, I can tell him that the funding has gone up by £7 million from £180 million to £187 million.
Mr Baker will get his chance to come back on that point shortly and I hope that he will apologise for getting it so badly wrong.
On the subject of ignorance, I point out to Iain Gray that the bus route development fund has not been abolished; instead, under the concordat, the money has been given to local authorities as a direct grant, to allow them to support local bus services. Indeed, as a former transport minister, Iain Gray should know the difference between a council running a bus service itself and it doing so at arm’s length. The two things are quite distinct. One is possible; the other is not.
As the current transport minister, Mr Brown must know that to get the exemption under the legislation to run an arm’s-length bus company a council must demonstrate that it has enough vehicles, drivers and everything else that is needed. Given that a coach costs around £200,000, what financial help does the minister intend to provide to East Lothian to allow it to pursue that option?
We have said that we will ensure that Transport Scotland provides as much advice as possible on the issues that the council will have to face. The council has also talked about running the services in conjunction with school transport and other services. It all depends on how it intends to configure the business. In any case, if Iain Gray is so determined that the bus industry should receive more support, why did he support the spending of £770 million on the trams in Edinburgh? Does he think that the bus industry was happy that the trams received three times the amount of support that we can give to it each year?
As I have said, the important speeches in this debate sought to address serious issues in a serious way. Indeed, as Kezia Dugdale suggested, at the root of all of this lie the people who might lose their jobs and communities worried about the future of their services. I suppose that we can address the matter in a number of ways: we can meet the people concerned and support them in what they are trying to do; we can meet their representatives, by which I mean councillors or MSPs—and indeed we have done so; or we can meet the communities and the operators. For example, we have had fairly productive discussions with First since the announcement was made about the future prospects for its staff, which we hope will safeguard as many jobs as possible.
James Dornan made the point that the serious way in which to go about trying to address the issue is to talk to people and see what resolutions we can get. That is what we have to do in government, as I am sure Iain Gray knows. We betray rather than serve those people’s interests if all that we do is to make promises that we have no intention of keeping. Labour does not have the costings or the track record of putting forward proposals during the budget process that would give credibility to the things that it proposes in its motion.
A number of members—Paul Wheelhouse in particular—pointed out the problems that First has had in East Lothian and Midlothian. First has acknowledged those, but that never finds its way into speeches from the Labour benches. As I mentioned, we have had discussions with First and we are also going to speak to Lothian Buses—that came out of the meeting that I had with Unite. We will also try to get Midlothian Council on board, as it will be much more effective if both of the councils that are most concerned talk together.
In a good speech, Sandra White discussed green buses. She asked the pointed question—which I cannot answer as it is for those concerned—of why there were no applications for green buses in Glasgow. When we put in additional money to provide the green buses in Edinburgh, particularly on the number 10 route, we estimated that savings of about a third in fuel consumption would result, but the company tells us that the saving is more than two thirds. That is the way to go in investing in buses. What Lothian Buses has done with its services must be the way to go for the future benefit of both passengers and the environment.
Not enough mention has been made of the fact that the cost of diesel has increased by 57 per cent in the past five years, and the figure for petrol is about 55 per cent. We also have the highest fuel duty in the European Union. People who wonder why the bus companies are looking for more support should look at those facts. What is the UK Government’s response? It is going to hike fuel duty again in August. That is the biggest driving factor for the fare increases. Just before the 2007 election, we had support from the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats for a fuel duty regulator and tough action on fuel. It will be interesting to see whether we get the same support today.
We will continue to make representations to the Westminster Government and encourage it to scrap the increase in fuel duty. No mention was made in the speeches from the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats of the effect of the fuel duty increase, which vastly outstrips the impact of BSOG. The impact of BSOG is 1.9 per cent in relation to the turnover of First, but fuel duty is bound to have a massive impact. It would have been far better for the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats to support us in our call for the Westminster Government to look at that seriously.
I am convinced that we are doing a great deal to support the bus industry, not least by trying to get rid of some of the worst effects of the fuel increases from Westminster. In that regard, I am happy to commend to the Parliament the amendment in my name.
This has been a good and important debate, even if there has been little agreement across the chamber.
It should be evident to all members that there is real concern not just in the Parliament but throughout the country about the withdrawal of bus services and the sharp increases in bus fares. As we have seen again today, the minister’s approach is to pretend that his Government has no role in the matter. He is sticking his fingers in his ears and ignoring those who have understandably expressed their deep anxiety at the developments. That is simply not acceptable. All that we have had today is excuses and complete intransigence. There is no willingness to engage with the issue or offer another way forward or discussion. That is failing bus passengers throughout Scotland.
The Scottish Government should instead recognise the problems that their decision to cut the bus service operators grant has caused—problems that are compounded in our urban and city areas by the change in the formula for the grant. Rather than constantly attempting to pass the buck, the Government should halt the changes and work with bus operators and others in the industry, such as the bus workers who are in the Parliament today, to map out a better and fairer future for our bus services and our bus industry.
As so many members on the Labour benches and others have pointed out, access to affordable bus services is vital to those on lower incomes. Patrick Harvie rightly mentioned the personal impact on those who depend on bus services, who cannot afford cars and who need buses to get about and to get to work.
Far from protecting those who are on lower incomes from the UK Government’s cuts agenda, in this case in particular the Scottish Government has acted to make life more difficult for the less well-off in our society. It is no wonder that the SNP is making common cause with the Conservatives today. If someone is on a low income and their bus fare has gone up by a quarter, as it has on some routes in Glasgow, that is going to hit them hard in the pocket.
In my city of Aberdeen, where we already have high fares, we have seen hikes of 8.5 per cent. We have heard from members about the effect that the grant cut is having on services in other parts of the country. In Glasgow, fares have increased and services have been withdrawn. In Dundee, fare increases were announced this week. Of course, the change in the formula for the bus service operators grant might be helpful for particular operators, such as Stagecoach, but it is more punitive for our urban areas.
In Edinburgh, where there have also been significant fare increases, there has been a cross-party campaign to get the Scottish Government to change its approach to the bus service operators grant. Why is the Scottish Government so dismissive of the concerns when its group leader on City of Edinburgh Council has also asked it to think again?
I find it extraordinary that Mr McDonald refuses to accept that his Government’s actions have contributed to an 8.5 per cent increase in bus fares in Aberdeen. That is hitting the citizens of Aberdeen hard, and his refusal to acknowledge local concerns about the issues is breathtaking. The childish behaviour that we are seeing from Mr McDonald and other SNP members ill serves this debate and those people who have to pay through the nose for their bus services in areas of Aberdeen when they cannot afford to. The behaviour on the benches opposite is disrespectful to them and to Parliament, and is frankly disgraceful.
Why is the Scottish Government as dismissive of these concerns as Mr McDonald seems to be when others from within the SNP have asked it to think again?
The Scottish Government would have us believe that it has nothing to do with this; it is all everyone else’s fault and the bus companies, principally, are to blame. That just does not stand up to any scrutiny at all. Moreover, the horror that the SNP has expressed today at the profits that the bus companies are making has not stopped it taking sizeable donations from Sir Brian Souter.
The fact is that a fuel duty rebate has been in place for bus services since 1965. We have greater fuel subsidy support for operators of other forms of public transport than we do for bus operators. Public transport—including bus services—does require subsidy. Patrick Harvie made good points about that.
The bus service operators grant had already been cut by £6 million from the level originally agreed with operators before it was cut by a further £7 million in the last spending review, bringing the total cut to around 20 per cent, as Elaine Murray said in her excellent opening speech. Yes, there are other financial pressures on bus operators, with rising fuel costs—our motion acknowledges that—which make this the worst possible time to compound the situation with these cuts. Operators are already being disadvantaged by the cap on the costs of the concessionary travel scheme, despite the SNP’s pledge to continue—as we pledged—to fund the scheme in full. That underfunding threatens the future of the scheme.
The minister asked me for figures and I have the Scottish Government’s figures for the concessionary fares budget. In real terms, between 2012 and 2015 there will be a cut of £10 million. I am happy to provide the minister with those figures.
The member made the point that the concessionary fares budget is reducing by £7 million this year. Will he acknowledge that it is going from £180 million last year to £187 million this year? At the same time, will he tell us what exactly the Labour Party’s position is? Is it to support concessionary travel or is it, as Richard Simpson said before the election, to take it away from those who are over the age of 60?
To be clear, we have been committed to funding the scheme and its full continuation. The £7 million that I mentioned is the cut in the bus service operators grant for this year. The figures that I have show a clear real-terms cut of £10 million in the concessionary fares budget. The minister should know his own budget figures.
The SNP’s approach to the concessionary travel scheme mirrors its approach to local government when it says that it is someone else’s job to deliver the commitment but it does not give that someone else the required funding. That is a dishonest approach to government.
The timescale for the changes has created further problems. While there have been cuts to the grant at the UK level as well, at least operators have been given more notice to prepare for the change; only three months notice was given here. It would have been far better to have a moratorium on the cuts, as happened in Wales, because that would have allowed proper negotiations with operators.
A number of factors are involved in the desperate situation in Musselburgh and Dalkeith, where not only are services being withdrawn, but bus workers are contemplating the prospect of around 200 jobs being lost, but the cut in the BSOG is the straw that broke the camel’s back. That is one reason why the Scottish Government’s decision is so damaging—as well as fare increases, it is resulting in the threat of job losses.
That is why we ask the Scottish Government to think again. It simply will not wash for the Government to seek to evade all responsibility for its decision by blaming everyone else. We share the Government’s concern about the 2 per cent cut to the Scottish budget, but the cut in the grant is 20 per cent—10 times as bad—and is completely inconsistent with the Scottish Government’s stated aim of protecting people in Scotland from the coalition’s cuts. The decision will affect those on lower incomes in Scotland disproportionately.
We are not alone in saying that the cut to the bus service operators grant is wrong; nor is it just the operators who join us in saying that. Bus workers and representatives of their trade union, Unite, are here in the public gallery because they care passionately about Scotland’s bus services. They want to continue to provide these vital services and they want passengers to have a fair deal. That is why they call on the Scottish Government to change its decision on the cut to the grant. Pat Rafferty, the Scottish secretary of Unite, said before today’s debate:
“This decision beggars belief in a time where everyone is affected by economic conditions. Bus patronage is down across Scotland, fares are increasing and jobs and services are being cut—without intervention our bus industry is heading into a perfect storm.
We are urgently calling for the Scottish Government to repeal the BSOG cut as a first step to bring some short-term stability to the sector but in the long term we must revisit the issue of bus re-regulation if we are to return affordability and growth to this vital public service.”
It is ludicrous that the SNP refuses to accept the impact of its decision, blames everything on the bus companies, and then refuses to support greater regulation of our bus industry, for which the Labour Party has consistently called. In the previous session of Parliament, the SNP opposed a legislative proposal from Charlie Gordon that would have made it far easier to establish the quality contracts and partnerships that we should now have across Scotland, and which would have ensured greater accountability of the bus industry for the services that it provides, for which we provide the subsidy that we are discussing. The SNP’s position is that it is all the operators’ fault, but it does not want to do anything to provide extra regulation. The approach is that the operators should just get on with it and passengers will have to make do. That is a mess and a poor vision for the future of bus services in our country.
The SNP’s refusal to make any concession on the cut to the grant or to consider revising its approach threatens to make the situation worse. However, it is not too late for ministers to recognise the concerns, change course and intervene now to protect services and avoid further fare increases. The Scottish Government might not accept our argument that the cuts should be reversed, but it should at least move away from intransigence and ultimatums and on to meaningful dialogue with bus operators, trade unions that represent bus workers and passenger groups to try to establish a different way forward.
If the Government continues to ignore the concerns that have been raised and to pretend that there is no problem with the action that it has taken, the situation for bus services and passengers will get worse. Ministers do not have to dig their heels into the ground. They should be big enough to realise that they have made a mistake and to think again for the sake of bus services and passengers across Scotland.