As previously mentioned in the chamber, we will undertake a consultation with key stakeholders about ways to ensure that the sustainability of the concessionary travel scheme is maintained for our older and disabled people. People are, of course, living longer, staying healthy for longer and staying in work later in life. We want to ensure that our successful concessionary bus travel scheme continues to benefit those who have the greatest reliance on free bus travel.
We want to extend concessionary travel to young modern apprentices and, later on, to young recipients of job grants, so we need to look at the longer-term sustainability of the scheme. We must not prejudge the outcome of the consultation, and we will, of course, listen to the range of views that are put forward across Scotland.
Let me be unequivocally clear that anyone with a bus pass will keep it, will be unaffected, and will remain eligible for the benefits of the scheme.
The national concessionary travel scheme, which was guided through Parliament by my colleague Tavish Scott, has been a great success. It promotes social inclusion, helps older people to lead more active lives, encourages people to leave their cars at home, and is good for the environment. That is a win-win situation. The scheme gives freedom and, for some, a lifeline.
People will not be impressed by the Scottish National Party’s attempts to sweep changes under the carpet until after the council elections in May, as noted in an article in the Sunday papers. What is preventing the Scottish Government from coming clean now so that people know exactly where it stands on this?
On a consensual note, let me first agree with Mike Rumbles on the scheme’s benefits. I remind him that the Government has funded the scheme for almost a decade, and we are very proud to do so, despite the various pressures on our budget. I agree with him on the benefits that he has highlighted.
He should not believe everything that he reads in every Sunday newspaper.
It would be very illiberal and undemocratic if we did not go out to consultation, listen to people and take their views. We will go through a methodical process. Pre-engagement with stakeholders is important to form our views on any consultation. We will then let the public have their say on the scheme.
Mike Rumbles will understand that our aims to extend the scheme to modern apprentices and young people on job grants are very noble. We have to look at the scheme’s long-term sustainability, but we will do that very much bearing in mind what the public have to say and the scheme’s benefits, which Mike Rumbles articulated very well.
We know that the Scottish Government’s starting point is free bus travel for everyone over 60 and that its desired end point is entitlement for young apprentices, which has just been mentioned. The question is whether there are any options on the table other than raising the age of eligibility. Is means testing on or off the table? Will there be a universal benefit? Will there be a fee for the national entitlement card? It would be helpful if the minister could rule that out right now. Do people not deserve to know what the SNP has in store for them?
Of course people will know. Mike Rumbles talked about sweeping things under the carpet. We have talked about a consultation on the long-term sustainability of the scheme. The First Minister talked about that when she made her speech on the programme for government, and Derek Mackay mentioned it in his speech on the draft budget. The director of finance at Transport Scotland, Mike Baxter, mentioned it in front of a parliamentary committee. The consultation is not a surprise that we have somehow sprung on the Parliament; we have mentioned and discussed it.
We are going through a methodical process, and the first part of that process is having a conversation with stakeholders about some of the things that Mike Rumbles has talked about. Transport Scotland and I will do that. We will talk about the options and what we can look at, examine and explore in relation to the scheme’s long-term sustainability. We will then have a wide and very public consultation. We will hear views and, of course, come to a view. I am sure that Parliament, including Opposition members, will have its say. The process will be very public and transparent.
As I said, I think that most people around the country understand that extending the scheme to modern apprentices and young people on job grants is a very noble thing to do, but we have to consider its long-term sustainability, and we will do that in consultation.
In the draft budget document, the Scottish Government says that it will look to
“constrain payments under the concessionary travel scheme for older and disabled people”.
Does the minister seriously plan to reduce concessions for disabled passengers, many of whom rely on buses as their only means of transport? Will he rule that out?
Yes, I will rule that out. Let me give some absolute certainties. Those who have a bus pass will keep that bus pass; they will still be eligible for the scheme. There will be no change to the scheme for those with a disability. The other guarantee is that we will fulfil our manifesto commitment to extend the scheme to modern apprentices and, in time, young people who are on a back-to-work jobs grant.
Of course, for a number of years, the Conservatives have been pushing us to make changes to the concessionary travel scheme. We are certainly not going to make the changes that they have mentioned in the past. However, they will welcome the fact that we are looking to extend the scheme. As a consequence of that extension, we are consulting transparently on how we increase the scheme’s sustainability.
At last year’s election, the SNP manifesto made no mention of cutting the free bus pass, yet now it is proposing to cut nearly £10 million from the concessionary travel scheme budget and will consult on restricting eligibility.
The free bus pass, which was introduced by the previous Labour-Lib Dem Government, is a lifeline to many older people. They deserve to know what changes the SNP plans before May’s council elections. Will the minister confirm whether the Government is, in principle, committed to maintaining the current eligibility criteria? Will he ensure that all pensioners, forums and seniors groups are fully consulted in writing about the future of the bus pass? He says that he does not have a firm view and that the consultation is genuine. If a majority respond in favour of keeping the criteria the same, will he respect those views?
Speaking about the concessionary travel scheme, Elaine Murray, Labour’s former transport spokesperson, said:
“we will be looking at the most effective way to provide support, including whether to raise the age to 65.”
Indeed, all political parties in the chamber, including the Labour Party, have discussed the topic.
The point that the member raises well is about consultation. We are in the pre-engagement phase. He makes a good point about the consultation. We should not just rely on online methods. It is important that we look at how we engage with various seniors groups and forums, including in face to face meetings . I will take away that point and reflect with my officials on how we will do that.
The member mentioned principles. Our principles are that those who have a free bus pass will remain eligible for the scheme and keep that pass; there will be no change for those with a disability; and we will extend the scheme to modern apprentices and to young people on a jobs grant. Within those parameters, we will at look at the sustainability of the scheme.
The member asks us to be open about the matter. That is the entire point of the consultation, which will be public and transparent.
I make it clear that the Scottish Green Party does not see any need to consult on the proposal. The scheme is a good one. The Government is happy to fund a massive cut to air passenger duty. If the Government goes ahead with this, I suggest that it thinks about transferring some of that funding. The fact that we are looking at cuts of that scale while cutting £9.5 million from a concessionary travel scheme to people who really depend on buses tells me a lot about this Government’s priority. It is investing in unsustainable, polluting transport methods and hitting hardest those in the lowest budgets. Will the minister not scrap the consultation now?
The attitude is that, somehow, the cut in APD or air departure tax—ADT—as we are going to be calling it, will affect only a certain class of people. It is completely unacceptable that, somehow, people from across Scotland do not go on holiday. That is a crass argument.
I thought that the Green Party would have welcomed the fact that we want to extend the scheme to modern apprentices and to young people on a jobs grant. We will do that. The consultation will be public and open, and I will welcome political parties’ involvement in it. It will go ahead, as we have said in the programme for government and the draft budget process. As I say, we will welcome the views from across not only the chamber but—perhaps more important—Scotland.