National Concessionary Travel Scheme (Extension)

– in the Scottish Parliament on 30th May 2013.

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Photo of Elaine Smith Elaine Smith Labour

The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S4M-06035, in the name of Alison McInnes, on the still waiting campaign. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes the Age Scotland campaign, Still Waiting, which calls for the national concessionary travel scheme to be extended; recognises that many older or disabled people, particularly in rural areas such as Aberdeenshire, rely on community transport services to attend medical appointments, go shopping or engage in leisure pursuits; understands that up to 70% of people over 60 in these areas either do not have or cannot use a free travel pass, and notes calls for the scheme to be extended to include all demand-responsive community transport services.

Photo of Alison McInnes Alison McInnes Liberal Democrat

I am very pleased to have secured a debate on Age Scotland’s still waiting campaign and I thank other members for supporting my motion.

Age Scotland believes that the current bus pass scheme should be extended to include community transport routes, with the fares charged by community operators fully reimbursed. I back its campaign for a better bus pass scheme. This is not the first debate that we have had on extending the national concessionary travel scheme to community transport schemes, but we are still waiting for the Government to listen, understand the problem and take action.

The issue is fundamentally one of fairness. The national concessionary travel scheme that was introduced by the Labour-Liberal Democrat Executive has largely been a success. The scheme’s objectives were twofold: to allow older and disabled people, especially those on low incomes, improved access to services, facilities and social networks by free scheduled bus services to promote social inclusion; and to improve health by promoting a more active lifestyle for the elderly and disabled.

By and large, the majority of our elderly and disabled citizens have indeed reaped the benefits of the scheme. They can get out and about and travel without worrying about the cost. For those who are on fixed incomes such as pensions, that is a real advantage. But here is the rub: for a significant minority, their bus pass is invalid on the services that they rely on. They cannot travel for free; they have to keep counting the pennies, which limits their opportunities to remain involved in their community and means that they struggle to get out to the shops, their general practitioners or social clubs.

Too many elderly and disabled people are at a financial disadvantage—they have a bus pass that is worthless. In remote rural areas, people cannot use their bus pass because there are no scheduled buses for them to travel on. Throughout Scotland, people with mobility problems find that they have a bus pass that is valid only on buses that do not meet their accessibility needs.

Setting up such an ambitious scheme from scratch could not have been easy. I do not criticise the previous Executive for the anomalies that have since become apparent. After all, it had the foresight to say that the scheme would need to be reviewed after three years to see what needed to be amended. Sadly, the review that was carried out by the Scottish National Party a few years ago did not take the opportunity to make the national scheme more inclusive and address the problems that I have mentioned. However, we can make the scheme fairer. I urge the Scottish Government to commit to doing so.

It is worth considering some facts from Age Scotland’s research. While 87 per cent of people in Scotland aged 60 or over have a national concessionary travel card, in large urban areas that figure rises to 91 per cent of older people, compared with just over three quarters in rural areas. The majority of older people have an NCT card, but a significant proportion of them do not use it, particularly those who live in rural Scotland. Almost half—47 per cent—of those who live in remote rural areas and 43 per cent in accessible rural areas do not use their card, compared with about a third throughout Scotland and a fifth in large urban areas. In remote rural areas, more than two thirds—70 per cent—of those who are aged 60 or over either do not have a card or do not use it. That is a lot of people being short-changed by the current system.

It is clear that the full benefits of concessionary fares are not felt in rural areas and areas that are less well served by traditional bus services. That problem is likely to grow. As commercial bus operators continue to withdraw from routes on the grounds of cost, it will become more of an issue in our cities, too. Those elderly and disabled people who rely on the lifeline that is community transport have to pay their own fares. Who can say that that is fair?

Meanwhile, there are many people still in work who benefit from free bus travel. I am sure that we can all recall how the previous transport minister liked to wave his pass around in the chamber. Is that fair?

Age Scotland has costed its proposals and identified how to fund them. It asks us here in the Parliament to take a mature and consensual approach to tackling this issue.

Around 3.5 million community transport journeys are made each year, and the average price of a single community transport journey is approximately £3.20. Reimbursing that at a full 100 per cent reimbursement rate would cost around £11.2 million. It is entirely sensible and fair to suggest that that additional cost should be funded by adjusting the eligibility criteria for the existing scheme in line with changes to the state pension age. I emphasise that I do not suggest that we change the criteria retrospectively. The change would not affect anyone who has a bus pass at the moment.

When money is tight, we must make it work hard for us and ensure that it is spent wisely. There is a chance to refine the scheme to make it fairer. Who could really object to such a change? It is a virtuous proposal—equal dibs for all our elderly and disabled citizens, wherever they live. Our elderly and disabled would be able to afford to use community transport services more often, which would lead to a more secure future for our community transport providers, which in turn would be able to provide more services. The result? More active, less isolated people and reduced demand on health services.

Research has identified that loneliness and social isolation carry a higher risk than lifelong smoking. Isolation is linked to depression, and a lack of social interaction with the onset of degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s. We know that nearly a fifth of older people do not speak to friends or family on a daily basis. We also know that by keeping older and disabled people independent, active and connected in their communities, community transport makes people’s lives better and improves their health. That is well in keeping with the aims of the national concessionary travel scheme.

Community transport meets social needs like no other transport service can. It is a cost-effective way of supporting some of society’s most vulnerable people, which we must maintain. Extending the bus pass to community transport will help to make it more sustainable. More important, it is the fair thing to do.

Age Scotland’s case study booklet illustrates that very well. Let us hear from some of the people in it. Margaret from Dumfries says:

“I have a bus pass but it’s of virtually no use to me. I’ve spent most of 2012 sitting at home waiting to die.”

Another Margaret, from Carradale, says:

“A lot of the discussion these days is about keeping older people ‘interested in things’. We are interested in things—we just can’t get to them!”

Helen from West Lothian says:

“I don’t want to be a prisoner in my own home as I get older but the current bus system doesn’t allow me to do many of the things I want to do.”

Tina from Kingussie says:

“Just being on the bus was a social occasion. I miss that side of things. There should be link ups, I can’t be the only person around here who can’t drive.”

Surely we owe it to the Margarets, to Helen and Tina, and to all the others out there to try to make the situation fairer.

Photo of Jim Eadie Jim Eadie Scottish National Party

I congratulate Alison McInnes on securing the debate. It highlights the important contribution of the national concessionary travel scheme, as well as the contribution that is made by community transport services in urban and rural communities across the country. I am proud that the Scottish Government has safeguarded and funded the scheme and community transport services during its time in office. It is clear that that investment makes a real difference to the lives of thousands of older or disabled people, allowing them to live active, healthy and independent lives.

Community transport services, as we have heard, are a vital lifeline service for many people. Whether people use them to attend a medical appointment, to go shopping, or to travel to a lunch club or other social activity, community transport services make an invaluable contribution to many people’s lives. Empowering people to participate in the life of their community, tackling social isolation and loneliness—as Alison McInnes said—and contributing to good mental health are all benefits of the concessionary travel scheme and of community transport. We should therefore all unite in celebrating them.

I pay tribute to Lothian Community Transport Services, which operates in three local authority areas—Edinburgh, Midlothian and West Lothian. In Edinburgh, it operates a fleet of eight accessible minibuses that are available for hire—with a driver or on a self-drive basis—to other voluntary and community organisations. It provides that lifeline service to about 130 different groups.

The motion in the name of Alison McInnes talks about the merits of extending the scheme to include all demand-responsive community transport services, but it does not refer to how that would be paid for. Age Scotland has recognised that cost implications would arise from extending the scheme and it has made a specific suggestion about how those costs would be met. The Infrastructure and Capital Investment Committee, of which I am a member, received a range of written and oral evidence on the subject as part of its current inquiry into community transport.

John MacDonald of the Community Transport Association highlighted one of the obstacles that would have to be overcome. In evidence to the committee, he stated:

“Concessionary fares in community transport and section 19 services could only ever work where there is a fare-paying passenger. There has to be an individual on the bus, paying a fare. However, on many services, individuals do not pay fares.”

However, in discussing the proposal it is important to recognise that although cost is a factor, it is not the only factor—indeed, it may not be the only barrier to the extension of the scheme. A number of witnesses indicated that concessionary fares are not a priority. It has been suggested that the biggest challenge for community transport is an ageing fleet and that investment should be focused on funding for vehicles. John MacDonald also stated:

“replacing vehicles is a big problem for well-established organisations that have been around ... for 20 or 30 years ... lf one thing should be a priority, it is vehicles.”—[Official Report, Infrastructure and Capital Investment Committee, 17 April 2013; c 1624, 1629.]

John Moore of Lothian Community Transport Services stated:

“Funding fleet renewal is the biggest challenge that faces my organisation ... We have an ageing fleet, which ... is getting more expensive to maintain”.

When it was suggested that

“the national concessionary scheme is not the right vehicle because of the ... costs involved”—[Official Report, Infrastructure and Capital Investment Committee, 1 May 2013; c 1650, 1663.]

witnesses from a range of organisations replied in unison, “Yes.” The organisations were Lothian Community Transport Services, the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service, Badenoch and Strathspey Community Transport Company and South West Community Transport.

The evidence that we have received suggests that there are a number of practical and logistical challenges—including introducing ticket machines to read the bus pass, which could cost more than £5,000 and possibly up to £10,000 in each case—and that there may be more pressing priorities at the moment, such as investment in an ageing fleet of vehicles.

Age Scotland has made a welcome contribution to the debate about the future of the national concessionary travel scheme and community transport, but its report should not be the final word. We should await the conclusions and recommendations of the Infrastructure and Capital Investment Committee; we should seek to build consensus on the way forward; and we should continue to listen to the providers and users of community transport services across Scotland in order to provide that lifeline service to the many older and disabled people who need it.

Photo of Anne McTaggart Anne McTaggart Labour

I am delighted to contribute on the important subject of Age Scotland’s still waiting campaign, which promotes the extension of the existing national concessionary travel scheme.

First, I congratulate Alison McInnes on securing the time in the chamber to highlight the campaign’s work. I commend Age Scotland for the excellent work that it has done to support Scotland’s older people. Members throughout the chamber will recognise the benefits brought by the advice, advocacy and assistance provided by Age Scotland to older people across the country. My experience of working directly with that exceptional charity’s volunteers has made me understand the difference that such support makes to older people in both urban and rural areas of the region that I represent.

It is clear to the volunteers and the staff at Age Scotland that the needs of older people living in different areas are rarely the same. That is particularly true when we talk about the provision of transport and the availability of local bus services. The still waiting campaign aims to challenge the differing levels of available public transport by extending the national concessionary travel scheme to include the community transport provisions that are often far more accessible for the 188,000 disabled people in Scotland who are entitled to concessionary travel.

As Age Scotland’s case studies show, extending the free travel pass scheme to include community transport providers would have profound benefits for some of the most vulnerable people in our communities. It is easy to forget that a bus fare can mean the difference between a person feeling isolated and their being able to identify as part of a wider community. Including demand-responsive transport services, such as those that are provided by the South West Community Transport scheme in Glasgow, which I visited only last month, would help older and disabled people to feel part of their local communities when otherwise they would not.

More than 180 community transport providers in Scotland have provided, in the past year, more than 3.5 million journeys. Therefore, the proposal to extend the scheme seeks not to help a handful of people, but to address the needs of communities.

Our rapidly ageing population means that demand for transport services among older people will increase substantially. That increase will inevitably require politicians to look again at how we provide concessionary travel to the growing population of vulnerable older and disabled people. We should take action now to ensure that tomorrow’s generation of retired and disabled people can enjoy the highest possible level of support and not be restricted from using the most accessible and beneficial transport services available to them in their communities.

Photo of Nanette Milne Nanette Milne Conservative

I welcome the debate. I declare an interest as the deputy convener of the cross-party group in the Scottish Parliament on older people, age and ageing, and as the holder of an NCT card. I extend my thanks to my fellow North East colleague, Alison McInnes, for bringing the matter to the chamber.

Governments—of whatever political composition—would be unwise to ignore the elderly lobby, given that we are all living longer. Indeed, the average life expectancy for Scottish males born today is around 78.4 years, which is only a few years shy of Japan, which tops the international table at 82.7 years. In comparison, in 1900 male Scots were likely to live to 45, and the projection is that, by 2035, men in Scotland will live to nearly 81 years of age.

For those reasons, the role of charities such as Age Scotland is increasingly more relevant, and the various campaigns that they have conducted over the years have highlighted the needs and demands of our ageing population.

The motion focuses on the still waiting campaign, which seeks to end isolation of the elderly by extending the national concessionary travel scheme to include all demand-responsive community transport. Doing that would mean that the older people who depend on community transport rather than commercial transport, especially in rural areas such as Aberdeenshire, would not have to pay any fares for their bus services.

The key benefit of including community transport in the NCT scheme relates directly to the aim of helping older and disabled people to remain in their own homes for as long as possible but, at the same time, providing the means to allow individuals to get out and about to do their shopping, attend medical appointments and socialise with friends.

We have heard of the research results that show that loneliness and social isolation can be more dangerous than a lifetime of smoking, with isolation leading to depression. A lack of interpersonal interaction is also a factor in the onset of degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Community transport might have a role in delaying the onset of such conditions by enabling older and disabled people to continue to play a full role in their communities. Age Scotland is of the view

“that the resulting improvements in health and social care outcomes of investment in community transport are wholly commensurate with the preventative spending agenda, and would deliver substantial savings to the state.”

The motion draws attention to the astonishing statistic that more than two thirds of those aged 60 and over in remote rural areas do not have, or cannot use, a free travel pass. Various reasons have been suggested for that, but the most obvious is that commercial bus operators are withdrawing from routes on the grounds of cost, which means that more and more elderly people are cut off from others. Community transport services, which are often run by local charities, are crucial in filling that void. However, as they cannot register with the traffic commissioner, they are ineligible for reimbursements under the NCT scheme.

Age Scotland estimates that to extend the NCT scheme as proposed would cost in the region of £11.2 million, and it suggests that that cost

“should be met by adjusting the eligibility criteria for the existing scheme.”

Clearly, what Governments fund is a matter of political choice, but I hope that the minister will give serious consideration to the still waiting campaign, which, if successful, could bring significant benefit to many older and disabled people in Scotland.

I commend Age Scotland’s work on behalf of Scotland’s older population and I look forward to welcoming representatives from the charity at the Scottish Conservative Party conference in Stirling next week.

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

I enjoyed that wee trailer for the member’s conference.

I, too, congratulate Alison McInnes on securing the debate and congratulate members on its tone. I endorse everything that members have said about the benefits of the concessionary bus pass: social, health, wellbeing, psychological—you name it. The scheme benefits people who would otherwise be stuck in their home and see nobody all day long, because they can get out and meet people on the buses. Indeed, sadly, sometimes people keep warm on the buses during the winter when they cannot afford to heat their homes.

We all recognise the merits of extending the national concessionary travel scheme to all community transport, but I think that we also recognise the financial constraints on the Scottish Government’s purse, which we know are set to get worse over the coming years. They will tighten because the Chancellor of the Exchequer in London has announced the cutting of hundreds of millions of pounds from domestic services in England, and those domestic portfolios affect ours because of the Barnett consequentials. We might therefore see less for transport, local government and so on. We know that local government is one of the backers and supporters of community demand transport.

I am very sympathetic to the case that the motion presents, and I have said so to the minister. Indeed, I recently visited Tweed wheels in my constituency and Teviot wheels in another part of the Borders, which do excellent work in providing transport to those who are disenfranchised from using their concessionary pass because, as other members have said, there is no regular, scheduled bus service or route to where they live. In some places, services are being withdrawn because of lack of demand.

I also visited Age Scotland in Galashiels to support its campaign, but it too is aware of the financial implications. The subsidy for the concessionary bus pass is 60p in every £1 fare, but community demand transport would require a 100 per cent subsidy, which is a different matter entirely—the rub, as others have said, is the cost. As I understand it, Nanette Milne’s estimate of £11 million is based on current usage of community demand transport. However, if that transport were to be made free at the point of need, demand would go up. There is no doubt at the moment that people are self-denying and not using the service because is too expensive. Age Scotland admitted to me that it will need to get more robust figures.

However, I have sympathy with the proposal to raise the age for the concessionary pass so that, as we go along, it falls in line with the increased age for the state pension across the United Kingdom. I agree with Alison McInnes that that should not be done retrospectively and that there should certainly be no means testing for it. There are always winners and losers from means testing, and the losers would be those just above the level that a means test would set, because they would lose their pass. I therefore do not agree with means testing. It is interesting to note that not everyone who has a bus pass uses it, which happens for a variety of reasons.

In conclusion, I congratulate Age Scotland, as well as Tweed wheels, which does a grand job in taking people to doctors’ surgeries, GP clinics and so on. However, what we require—from either Age Scotland or the minister, if he can tell us—is an indication of the cost. We need to know that, as well as the savings that could be made if the age of eligibility for the concessionary bus pass were raised.

Photo of Iain Gray Iain Gray Labour

I wanted to speak in the debate because of two personal connections with the issue. One is old—it goes back more than 10 years—and the other is current, but both have some relevance to the Age Scotland campaign and this debate.

I it was who, as the Minister for Enterprise, Transport and Lifelong Learning, introduced the national concessionary scheme all those years ago. However, it was not the scheme that we know today because, over time, the bus pass has evolved. For instance, in the early days, there was a charge for using the bus pass at peak times. The equalisation of ages was another change: when the scheme was set up, men and women had different retirement ages. Further, when the bus pass was first put in place, one of the greatest complaints about it was that it could be used only locally and that people could not cross boundaries with it, so some work had to be done before the scheme became truly national. I remember one meeting at which members of pensioners organisations complained bitterly that the bus pass could not be used on tour buses. Over time, the scheme has strengthened, although never enough to enable it to be extended to tour buses.

We have come to realise that the greatest weakness of the scheme is that there is no point having a bus pass if there is no service on which it can be used. That is exactly the gap that is often covered by community transport, which provides a day-to-day link in a way that tour buses, for example, do not. It seems clear to me that, as Alison McInnes said, that aspect is unfinished business in terms of the evolution of the scheme, and that the scheme should be extended to cover community transport services.

I also agree with Alison McInnes and Christine Grahame that it is entirely legitimate to debate age eligibility for the bus pass and the possibility of perhaps reducing that because of changes over time, but, at the same time, to discuss the extension of eligibility in terms of making the bus pass usable where the service is provided by community transport.

The second connection that I have with the issue is that I currently have out for consultation a proposal for a member’s bill to change the regulatory framework for buses in Scotland. That is designed exactly to try to find ways of facilitating more and more accessible bus services, primarily through a new franchise power for local authorities but also through ways of allowing greater use of local authorities’ own fleets and encouraging more community transport to fill the gaps. I believe that my bill could well provide a legislative vehicle that could be used to extend the concessionary scheme to community transport. I encourage Age Scotland and any supporters of the still waiting campaign to make submissions to my consultation that make exactly that case.

I say to Jim Eadie—gently, because this has been a very consensual debate—that the argument for the extension to community transport is made by those elderly and disabled passengers who currently have to pay for community transport, rather than by the community transport organisations themselves. I am sure that, if we said to commercial operators, “We’re going to put £190 million into the bus industry. Would you like us to do that through a concessionary travel scheme?” they would say, “No, that’s not our priority. Here are some other ways in which we would much rather you pursued that.” Of course, they would be wrong. We pursue that route because of the benefits that our older and disabled citizens get, and those people should get those same benefits when they use community transport, too.

Photo of Alison Johnstone Alison Johnstone Green

I, too, congratulate Alison McInnes on securing the debate. I am pleased to support the still waiting campaign in calling for the inclusion of all demand-responsive community transport services in the national concessionary travel scheme.

Local community transport providers play an important role in our communities, keeping people who might otherwise be very isolated connected to their friends and the services that they need. Most important, they enable many people to maintain their independence. However, as Alison McInnes’s motion recognises, the concessionary scheme is not benefiting as many people as it could or should.

The flexibility of the community transport model means that it fills the gap in rural areas, where the public transport system cannot reach every person who needs a lift into town, to the doctor’s surgery or into the village to attend a social event. It is timely that Age Scotland, Leonard Cheshire Disability and others are working harder than ever to raise awareness of the need for greater support of and investment in a sometimes overlooked service.

The Community Transport Association’s state of the sector report highlights the growth in demand as a result of our changing demographic. The number of people aged over 75 is projected to rise by 23 per cent by 2020 and by 84 per cent by 2033. We know that commercial bus operators are withdrawing from routes on grounds of cost, isolating even more older and disabled people. We have also heard, in earlier debates on the subject, that the number of Scottish Ambulance Service lifts to non-emergency appointments has been reduced. Leonard Cheshire Disability notes that 43 per cent of respondents to its disability review had to miss a hospital appointment, and 18 per cent were forced to turn down a job, due to a lack of accessible transport.

Access to community transport is essential because it gives us the opportunity to tackle problems before they become a crisis. Therefore, investment in community transport is commonsense preventative spend. Substantial savings will be delivered through improved health and wellbeing, and many people’s quality of life will be increased. We all know elderly and less mobile friends and family members who do not want to depend on us to get out and about and who may decline offers of lifts, and many families do not have access to private transport. Many community transport initiatives are delivered by volunteers, and the state of the sector report demonstrated that volunteer time of some 278,000 hours annually is worth almost £107 million a year, if valued at the minimum wage rate.

Community transport is invaluable to those who use it. If someone is over 60 and able to reach a bus stop, they can use their concessionary pass. If, however, they are physically unable to reach a bus stop or live too far away from one, they cannot take advantage of that potentially life-changing entitlement. Local people, communities and high streets will all benefit from an extension of the concessionary scheme.

It is important that we do all that we can to make it possible for everyone in Scotland to live a fulfilling and engaged life. The still waiting campaign is actively seeking to engage in discussions about how the increased cost of providing the service will be met. It is not acceptable that, in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, people are excluded from opportunities due to a lack of affordable and accessible transport. We can and should address that. Jim Eadie spoke of challenges, but I believe that, in this day and age, community transport vehicles are able to read passes.

All older people in Scotland are entitled to concessionary travel, and I look forward to the day when all those who want to use their concessionary bus pass can do so.

Photo of Elaine Murray Elaine Murray Labour

I, too, congratulate Alison McInnes on securing the debate. I also congratulate Age Scotland on pursuing its campaign on behalf of the users of community transport services.

Many years ago, I raised the issue of the use of concessionary bus passes on community transport vehicles with the transport minister in the Labour-Liberal Scottish Executive. I have supported the idea since, and support for community transport was part of the Labour debate in the chamber on 26 January 2012. I raised the matter because it had been raised with me by the Annandale transport initiative after the nationwide concessionary fares scheme was announced in 2004 by Tavish Scott, if I remember correctly. ATI was one of the first organisations to take advantage of the Government’s rural community transport grants scheme, securing about £90,000 for a new bus in August 1999. Since then, with a number of vehicles, it has provided an invaluable service to many of my constituents across Annandale and Eskdale.

The issue of support for community transport has also been raised by organisations such as the WRVS. The same issue has been the subject of previous members’ business debates that were initiated by—to mention just two—Karen Gillon and Jim Hume.

It has always been clear to me that pensioner residents in rural parts of my constituency are disadvantaged by having poor or non-existent bus services because, although they may be eligible for a bus pass, they have no opportunity to use it. However, it took the still waiting campaign to make me realise that the problem does not affect only rural pensioners. At its launch, the campaign highlighted the predicament of a lady living in Leith who, because of her disability, is unable to access the—normally very good—services provided by Lothian Buses because she cannot get to the bus stop. She is therefore reliant on community transport provision.

We know that community transport is also essential for many pensioners when they attend hospital or visit patients in hospital. Community transport operators provide an essential service for many parts of the health service.

As Jim Eadie said, the issue of concessionary bus pass use on community transport vehicles has been raised in the evidence given to the Infrastructure and Capital Investment Committee. Under a permit issued under section 22 of the Transport Act 1985, community bus operators are permitted to run public services on which passengers can use their free bus pass, which is of course very welcome. However, many buses that are used by individuals or groups, such as for trips to the shops or for medical appointments, have only a section 19 licence, under which the operator is currently not eligible to participate in the concessionary bus pass scheme. The Age Scotland campaign seeks to address the needs of users of those services.

Having listened to the evidence to the committee, I appreciate that the issue might not be as simple as it initially sounds. The reimbursement to operators for passengers who use their free entitlement is set at around 60 per cent of the adult fare. Therefore, if all the passengers on a trip were eligible to use their bus pass, the income for the community transport operator would be only 60 per cent of the fare that it had previously charged. To avoid that loss of income, Age Scotland proposes that community transport operators should be able to reclaim the cost at 100 per cent of the charge.

One problem is that the concessionary transport scheme is—and always was—intended to assist users rather than subsidise operators. Arguably, if more people started using community transport because they could use their bus pass, the commercial operators might complain that the community transport operators were being subsidised. I am not sure whether that would be permissible. However, it should not be impossible to get around that obstacle, and I think that the issue needs to be looked at.

Perhaps we need to consider a more innovative solution that I hope will take into account the fact that the contribution that community transport can make to the wellbeing of older people is surely a form of preventative spend.

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

I thank Alison McInnes for having succeeded in raising the issue in a members’ business debate.

As a Government, we have invested around £8.3 billion in transport since 2007. I mention that because it is the largest transport investment programme that Scotland has ever seen. That has happened in difficult economic times and despite substantial cuts to our budget, including a cut of around 26 per cent to our capital budget. Despite that, our current investment in transport directly supports around 12,000 jobs across Scotland.

The successful Scotland-wide concessionary bus travel scheme provides free local and long-distance bus travel throughout Scotland for older and disabled people at any time of day, on any route and for any number of journeys. In January this year, we reached an agreement with the bus industry that will safeguard the concessionary travel scheme for the next two years. The two-year agreement provides fair reimbursement for bus operators and secures the financial sustainability of the scheme—something that we were urged to secure by parties in the Parliament and by the Public Audit Committee.

This has been a generally consensual debate, but there was something of a gibe at the start from Alison McInnes, who said that

“we are still waiting for the Scottish Government” to take action. I point out that no action was taken on the issue by the previous Labour-Liberal Democrat Executive, which she specifically exonerated from any criticism despite the fact that—as we have just heard from Elaine Murray—representations were made during that period for such a change, which was not made.

It is also worth pointing out that no party in the Parliament has made a budget proposal for such a change. I mention that because we know that parties are serious about a proposal when they say how they will pay for it. Given the speeches that we have heard from members today, this is obviously a very live issue.

The Scottish Government’s concessionary travel scheme is very successful but it is not the first such scheme. When I was leader of Clackmannanshire Council, we introduced Scotland’s first ever concessionary bus travel scheme that was fully free—as opposed to one that was free just during off-peak periods. I think that it is great that the previous Administration and the current Administration have extended that scheme to cover the entire country.

Jim Eadie raised some important points, and I am interested in the extent to which the Infrastructure and Capital Investment Committee will examine those in its consideration of the issue.

There are real issues, some of which we have heard about today, not least the fact that many community transport journeys are made in cars.

As I have said, we will look at the provisions in the proposed member’s bill that Iain Gray mentioned, and I repeat that we will look at the cost. If the issue is to be addressed in the bill or to be supported otherwise, we must consider the question of cost.

Last year, I enabled community transport organisations that run services under section 22 registrations, which are open to the public, to be part of the concessionary travel scheme. I acknowledge that it is not an option for all providers.

I recognise that such demand-responsive registered services are not the answer for everyone, but I can see that community transport has an important part to play in filling the gaps. The Government supports—as previous Administrations have—the Community Transport Association.

I add my tribute to the dedicated volunteers who make up the backbone of community transport organisations and provide those services—sometimes over many years—to their local communities. I admire the commitment that is made by each and every person who becomes a driver or a passenger escort.

Photo of Alison McInnes Alison McInnes Liberal Democrat

Does the minister acknowledge that there is an inherent unfairness in the system, given that a significant minority of elderly and disabled people have to pay for their bus fare simply because of market failure?

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

In response to Alison McInnes’s intervention and her previous comments, I state that that will be the case unless transport is provided free for everyone, which I do not think that anyone has proposed. I acknowledge that some groups will not have the same access as others.

Alison McInnes indicated support for raising the age of eligibility in line with pension ages, which is the first time that that has been proposed.

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

It has been mentioned, but it has not been proposed. If that is the Liberal Democrats’ position, it is an honest one, because Alison McInnes is saying that some or all of the additional costs of an extension can perhaps be paid for—

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

I will try to make some more progress.

Photo of Alison McInnes Alison McInnes Liberal Democrat

It is not the first time that that has been proposed.

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

Well, it is the first time that I have understood it to be the position of a party. If it is the Liberal Democrats’ position, it is—as I said—more honest, because Alison McInnes is suggesting that she can find the money from another place.

I make clear to every member who has mentioned the issue that the Scottish Government does not intend to change the age of eligibility. We believe that, in the times in which we currently live, it is important that we continue our current provision for people at that age. However, I acknowledge the point that Alison McInnes makes.

We made changes to bus registration legislation from 1 April 2012 to allow demand-responsive transport services that are available to the general public to qualify for concessionary travel and for the bus service operators grant. At the same time, changes were made to the BSOG so that it will be calculated on the basis of distance travelled rather than fuel used. It would appal some people to know that the previous scheme allowed bus service operators grant to be paid in respect of buses that carried no passengers, but the position has now been changed, at least in respect of what is known as “dead running”. I know from discussions with operators that the change has benefited many rural bus operators, including eligible community transport operators.

Age Scotland recognises in its research that transport services are crucial and are appreciated by older people, which is a point that all members in the chamber have highlighted today. Age Scotland also presents some useful information from the CTA on the scope of the sector. Its research provides the following estimates: 100,000 people benefit from CT in Scotland each year; there are currently 70,000 older CT users and 3.5 million CT trips per year; 62 per cent of CT users are aged 60 or older; and 16 per cent of users are disabled. Overall demand may rise—as Christine Grahame noted—to an estimated 83,500 older users by 2022, which does not take into account the potential exponential rise if the service is provided as a free good.

The Government provided local authorities with resources for the provision of community transport services through the local government finance settlement following the concordat between local authorities and the Scottish Government. That is the right approach, because councils will have a better understanding of transport needs in their immediate areas.

Local authorities can also commission bus services that go further in meeting the needs of people throughout Scotland and in more rural, isolated areas. Strathclyde partnership for transport is already co-ordinating a forum for community transport operators, which will help to develop the sector. That is to be welcomed.

We have also worked closely with local government to provide fair and equitable settlements. Between 2007-08 and 2012-13, the resources available to the Scottish Government from departmental expenditure limits and non-domestic rates increased by 6.4 per cent. Over the same period, local government’s budget increased by 8.9 per cent, which is a strong financial settlement and allows local authorities to do things on community transport if they choose to.

We are also maintaining the revenue funding that is available to local government. The total funding from the Scottish Government to local government next year will amount to around £10.3 billion, which is roughly a third of our whole budget. That will provide resources to allow councils to support community transport provision in their areas.

Age Scotland has proposed the extension of concessionary travel arrangements to community transport. Over and above affordability, there are some practical issues around that, although many were not raised in the debate. However, a number of issues were raised, not least by Jim Eadie.

I will listen to the points that are made as the campaign progresses and will study with real interest the findings of the Infrastructure and Capital Investment Committee’s inquiry into community transport when it reports later in the year.

13:15 Meeting suspended.

14:29 On resuming—