Antisocial Behaviour on Buses

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at on 14 December 2023.

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Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

I also thank Graham Simpson for bringing the debate to the chamber, and I thank everyone who has taken part for their very thoughtful contributions. I appreciate members’ support for the very popular and much-used policy of free bus travel for under-22s. I will be very clear at the outset that the vast majority of young people use their free bus pass travel responsibly.

I will start by outlining the very important benefits that the young persons free bus travel scheme is delivering. This morning, I visited Wester Hailes high school to celebrate more than 100 million bus journeys having been made through the scheme since its launch. I had the pleasure of hearing directly from young people about how free bus travel is opening doors for them, helping their families to save money and embedding sustainable travel choices for the next generation. Those young pupils told me that they could go to more sports training sessions and improve performance, get part-time jobs and visit family members, including their grandparents, more often.

Today sees the publication of the evaluation of the scheme, which shows that it is reducing travel costs, encouraging a shift towards public transport from private car use, and improving access to social, leisure, education and employment opportunities. That is encouraging and important progress during the cost of living crisis and the global climate emergency. I am sure that members will all join me in encouraging young people across Scotland who have not yet applied to do so now, and to join the more than 700,000 under-22s who are already benefiting.

Although it is important to remember that the vast majority of young people are using the scheme appropriately, it is not my intention to minimise the concerns that are being raised today, which deserve attention and collective action. Antisocial behaviour is unacceptable in all contexts. I am grateful to members for sharing how their constituents have been impacted, and I note the number of Edinburgh and Lothian MSPs who have spoken today. Everyone has the right to travel safely, and I recognise some of the issues that members have spoken about, which involve unacceptable behaviour by a minority in our society. I think that it was appropriate that Fulton MacGregor tried to address the issues that underlie antisocial behaviour; his was a considered contribution.

The Scottish Government is committed to tackling all antisocial behaviour. We want everyone to be and to feel safe in their community, but no single approach will tackle every incident. That is why we support a range of options, which includes a strong focus on positive diversionary and early intervention activities, as appropriate, alongside use of formal warnings, fixed-penalty notices and antisocial behaviour orders.

However, we must remember that the police, local authorities and other local agencies are responsible for tackling antisocial behaviour at the local level, through working with communities, including young people and their carers. Partnership working among the agencies can be very successful in tackling incidents involving buses.

An example of that is the effective work to tackle antisocial behaviour in Kilmarnock bus station through on-going collaboration between the local council and the health and social care partnership. East Ayrshire Council’s youth action team continues to engage with young people, and a multi-agency resilience group meets fortnightly to monitor intelligence and community concerns regarding the bus station and the town centre. I am reassured that that approach continues to support safety in the local community.

Although the young persons free bus travel scheme changes how travel is paid for, it does not affect operators’ conditions of carriage, which all passengers must follow. I encourage anyone who witnesses antisocial behaviour to notify bus operators or their local council’s antisocial behaviour team and, of course, to report all criminal behaviour to Police Scotland.

We all agree that there is no easy solution that will reduce the number of incidents of the type that we have heard about today. Members have raised the possibility of removing national entitlement cards from young people who are implicated in antisocial behaviour. However, free bus travel is just one of several services that are provided through the card.

There is also a real issue in respect of how and when entitlement would be removed, and I do not believe that it would be appropriate for our bus drivers to do that. I assure members that I have asked officials to look at what temporary digital blocking measures could be used, but I understand that that would require police time and co-operation on identification of offending individuals, increased administrative time and expertise, and technological fixes that are not yet apparent.

Nonetheless, I undertake to advise members what might be possible, but I also—to emphasise Ben Macpherson’s point—want to be clear that it would not be age specific, because antisocial behaviour occurs in the population generally.

In addition, the legislation underpinning the current national concession travel scheme does not provide a clear mechanism for consideration of removal of travel cards for antisocial behaviour. It states that Scottish ministers may withdraw or suspend a travel card

“if an eligible person of any age knowingly allows their travel card to be used by another person” or

“in such other circumstances as they may determine” as Graham Simpson said.

It is required that each case be considered on its own merits, but given the nature of the scheme and the original purpose of the powers, which did not include dealing with antisocial behaviour, there will be limits to what can be done. Again, police time and co-operation would be required, and there might be complex interactions with other agencies and frameworks that are specifically tasked with dealing with antisocial conduct. I will continue to look at what might be possible and appropriate in providing a deterrent or sanction, including looking into some of the suggestions that have been made by colleagues.