Concessionary Travel (Budget)

– in the Scottish Parliament at on 29 September 2022.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Foysol Choudhury Foysol Choudhury Labour

2. To ask the Scottish Government what assessment it has made of the impact of its announced £37.6 million reduction in the budget for concessionary travel. (S6O-01397)

Photo of Jenny Gilruth Jenny Gilruth Scottish National Party

As part of our routine management of the funding for bus services, the Scottish Government continually monitors forecasted spend against budget. As a result of the demand-led nature of the concessionary travel schemes, we have reduced our forecast for the rest of this financial year, due to patronage being lower than expected.

The change in the forecast will have no impact on access to the schemes for older and disabled persons or young persons. If patronage were to rise above the forecasted levels, so would our expenditure on the schemes.

Photo of Foysol Choudhury Foysol Choudhury Labour

In its justification for the cuts to concessionary travel, the Scottish Government cited

“Forecast reduction in patronage numbers and fare levels.”

Given Scotland’s commitments to net zero, would it not make more sense to address the reduction in numbers instead of using that to justify cuts? Is that not another false economy from the Scottish Government?

Photo of Jenny Gilruth Jenny Gilruth Scottish National Party

It is worth pointing out that there has been a reduction in patronage because of Covid impacts. A return to normal has been slower than expected, and t hat has been reflected in reforecasting.

Similarly, travel levels under the older and disabled persons scheme remain about 30 per cent lower than 2019 levels, and we know that bus patronage has been slower than other modes of public transport to return to pre-pandemic levels.

However, I recognise what Foysol Choudhury has said. We provide support to the sector more generally. Earlier in the year, I extended the network support grant plus scheme, which existed during Covid, into next month. Next week, I will reconvene the bus task force directly with the sector. Over the summer recess, I met smaller and larger operators to talk about some of the very real challenges that they face.

On the member’s point about pulling people back to public transport, he might be aware that, only two weeks ago, we launched the marketing campaign for the young person’s bus scheme, which has been really successful; we are now over the halfway mark, which is hugely important. We will continue to encourage people to return to public transport, because that is vital for our recovery from the pandemic and, as the member mentioned, for our net zero ambitions and aspirations.

Photo of Paul McLennan Paul McLennan Scottish National Party

More than 2.3 million people in Scotland—everyone under 22, everyone over 60, and disabled people and carers—can now benefit from free bus travel for work, education and leisure opportunities. That policy has been taken forward against a backdrop of the Scottish budget being cut by 5.2 per cent.

Does the minister agree that, if Labour would rather that the Scottish Government did not have to make tough decisions, it is time that it joined the Scottish National Party and the Scottish Green Party in calling for the Parliament to have the full range of levers to realise its aspirations, rather than remain at the mercy of a United Kingdom Government?

Photo of Jenny Gilruth Jenny Gilruth Scottish National Party

I agree with the sentiment of Paul McLennan’s question. We know of some of the challenges that the Government has faced, particularly over the past week, and we will look at potential future support. That will be informed by the Scottish Government’s emergency budget review. However, it is important that any additional support that we are able to give continues to adapt and evolve so that it remains fit for purpose. That is why I was keen to reconvene the bus task force—I want to speak to the sector directly to ensure that funding and support is fit for purpose as we go forward. However, we must recognise the limitations in the Government’s powers when it comes to revenue, and I hope that that will be reflected in the sentiments from members of other parties—from whom, I am sure, we are about to hear.

Photo of Mr Mark Ruskell Mr Mark Ruskell Green

Free bus travel for under-22s was launched during the Covid crisis, so the fact that there have been 22 million journeys since then is pretty remarkable. I know from discussions with bus companies that those journeys have really helped to build back services after the pandemic.

However, there is still reluctance among over-60s to come back to public transport after Covid, which can affect the viability of some services. How can the message be sent out that bus travel in Scotland is both safe and free for millions of people who are eligible at both ends of the concessionary scheme?

Photo of Jenny Gilruth Jenny Gilruth Scottish National Party

The member is right to point out the reticence among certain groups in society to return to public transport, which I alluded to in my response to Mr Choudhury.

The Scottish Government continues to invest £300 million annually to give free bus travel to more than 2 million people in this country, including children and young people under 22, disabled people and everyone over 60.

In line with our long-term goal to encourage a modal shift and get people out of their cars and back into sustainable modes of transport such as buses, we will, as I mentioned in response to previous questions, continue to engage with operators, delivery partners and other key stakeholders to promote public transport as an attractive way to travel, as more people begin to return to the workplace and travel more often for leisure purposes.

Photo of Graham Simpson Graham Simpson Conservative

The concessionary travel budget is not the only source of funding that bus operators are set to lose. The network support grant plus scheme is due to end in 10 days’ time. If that happens, routes will go, fares will rise and the frequency of services will drop.

England’s bus recovery grant has been extended to April, so will the minister commit to doing the same here?

Photo of Jenny Gilruth Jenny Gilruth Scottish National Party

The member raised the matter with me prior to the summer recess, and he knows that I extended the NSG plus scheme at the time.

It is really important, though, that Government support adapts to the current context. We have heard from other members today about some of the financial challenges that the Government faces. We budgeted £93.5 million from April this year to support the bus network as we recover from the pandemic, and an additional £20.5 million of funding has been given to extend the recovery until October, as the member mentioned. That is in addition to about £210 million that we provided during the pandemic to ensure that operators were well positioned and at the forefront of our green recovery.

The member talked about the challenges faced by the sector. It is worth mentioning a number of other challenges that do not come under my responsibilities as a minister in this Parliament. As a result of Brexit, there are labour challenges, which I have discussed with the sector. There are also challenges in relation to fuel costs. Again, this Parliament can take limited actions in that regard.

Many of those matters are reserved to the United Kingdom Government. The member might be interested to know that I have invited the UK Government to take part in the reconvened bus task force next week. I very much hope that it will take part, noting the reserved competence, as neither the member nor I have responsibility for those matters.