Bus Driver Shortages (Support for Bus Companies)

– in the Scottish Parliament on 24th November 2022.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Marie McNair Marie McNair Scottish National Party

4. To ask the Scottish Government what support it is providing to bus companies that are currently facing driver shortages. (S6O-01592)

Photo of Jenny Gilruth Jenny Gilruth Scottish National Party

There is currently a shortage of drivers for buses across the United Kingdom, which impacts on Scotland’s economy and communities. To help to address that and other challenges, I have convened a bus task force, in partnership with the industry and local authority stakeholders. At our first meeting on 29 September, we agreed a range of workstreams, including the establishment of a sub-group to focus on how we can address driver shortages.

I look forward to chairing the next meeting of the task force next month.

Photo of Marie McNair Marie McNair Scottish National Party

The driver shortage is having an impact on bus companies’ ability to provide a full service and reliable timetables in parts of my constituency. I have been advised by one bus company that the shortage is, in part, due to recruitment issues that are related to Brexit and Covid-19. Is the minister aware that those two issues are having an impact? Can she offer any guidance on what is available to companies to help them to mitigate the issue?

Photo of Jenny Gilruth Jenny Gilruth Scottish National Party

I am, of course, aware that those two concurrent issues are having a real impact on delivery of services. Obviously, the pandemic is having an on-going impact, and we are working hard to recover from it. However, it is notable that bus patronage is down to around 60 per cent of what it was prior to the pandemic, which is having a detrimental impact on our net zero aspirations in relation to climate change.

Brexit is also a factor that is having an impact in terms of driver shortages. Of course, I have made representations to the UK Government on that matter, in relation to the shortage occupation list. At the present time, the powers over a number of factors remain reserved. I am keen for the UK Government to take part in that wider task force. I asked the previous relevant UK minister to join the group in September and have asked the new minister to join the group when it meets in December. I very much hope that that minister will be able to do so.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I have requests to ask supplementary questions from three members. I am inclined to take all three of them, if I can have brief supplementary questions and answers.

Photo of Willie Rennie Willie Rennie Liberal Democrat

This month, there have been 85 cancellations of Stagecoach services in North East Fife alone, and I am sure that there have been even more since I did the tally. There is no doubt that Brexit is a factor, but the Scottish Government has a huge responsibility, because we have been leading up to that point for some time. I am puzzled as to why it is only now that the task force has been established. What accelerated measures will the minister introduce to make sure that we can get drivers back on the buses, so that we can ride those services?

Photo of Jenny Gilruth Jenny Gilruth Scottish National Party

The task force has not just been established—I met larger and smaller operators from the sector over the summer. From the outset, it is important to say that they have very different needs.

The second point to make is that we have provided significant funding to the sector throughout the pandemic—for example, we have provided up to £210 million of emergency funding to support the bus sector throughout the pandemic. At the start of the summer, I chose to extend the network support grant plus, which ran from June until October. That additional funding has been important.

I have committed to working with the sector to look at what additional funding the Scottish Government might be able to provide, but I will reflect to Mr Rennie some of the challenges that we in the Scottish Government face at the moment. We have a largely fixed budget, which has implications for other economic pressures across various portfolio areas for which I do not have responsibility.

However, the situation is deeply concerning. Again, I reflect to Mr Rennie that one of the real challenges is Brexit. Although, of course, Scotland did not vote for Brexit, we are having to try to manage some of its challenges within the confines of devolution. There is probably a divergence of views between Mr Rennie and me on that subject, but it is important to recognise that.

I am happy to continue to work with the sector on the issue, through the task force. Specifically, it has been tasked with looking at driver shortages; I look forward to hearing the reports from that work when I meet the task force in two weeks.

Photo of Neil Bibby Neil Bibby Labour

Due to driver shortages, bus services across Scotland have been cancelled at short notice. Has the Government compiled or received information on the number of cancellations in recent months, in order to understand the scale of the problem across the country? If not, will the minister commit to doing so and to publishing that information, so that we know how driver shortages are affecting different areas and companies across the country?

Photo of Jenny Gilruth Jenny Gilruth Scottish National Party

Obviously, we run a deregulated bus market so, as I understand it, we do not gather that data at national level because we have a number of commercial bus operators. However, I will ask my officials in Transport Scotland whether it is possible to gather that data, as Mr Bibby has asked, and to publish it. It is a reasonable request, but there are challenges in doing that because some of the decisions are being made on a commercial basis by private operators that might not want to share the information with the Government. However, I will ask the question.

Photo of Mr Mark Ruskell Mr Mark Ruskell Green

Next week, I will host an online summit with my constituents to discuss the future of bus services, and I would be happy to share the results of that with the minister.

Does the minister believe that the regulator currently has enough powers to hold the bus companies to account over minimum standards of services?

Photo of Jenny Gilruth Jenny Gilruth Scottish National Party

I understand people’s frustration about the current situation, which we have heard about from a number of members today. As I mentioned, I am pressing Westminster colleagues to look at what more could be done at UK level—in particular, on the shortage occupation list—in relation to driver shortages.

Under the Transport (Scotland) Act 2019, bus services need to be registered with the office of the traffic commissioner for Scotland. If the commissioner considers that an operator is failing to run a service in line with its registration, she can take action against it, including by imposing fines or terms and conditions on its public service vehicle licence, or by rejecting future service applications. I would be more than happy to hear from the member about his constituents’ views on the matter, following the meeting that he will convene next week.