Antisocial Behaviour on Buses

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

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Photo of Graham Simpson Graham Simpson Conservative

I thank all the members who signed the motion and look forward to hearing all the contributions.

We are having this debate on the day that the Government has issued its evaluation report into the first year of free bus travel for under-22s. Unfortunately, the end of that year was nearly a year ago, so the report is somewhat out of date. However, we should be clear that the scheme has been a success. As we heard earlier, more than 100 million journeys have been taken using it.

Parliament was and is united over the scheme. It is a good thing to encourage young people to use public transport. It is a good thing to help them get to school, college, university and work. If nothing else, it gets them into the habit of using a bus. We hope that they continue to do so once they have to pay. The Conservatives’ view is that, when they have to pay, fares should be cheaper, with a cap on how much people pay, and that payment should be simpler.

Although the free bus travel scheme for under-22s has been a success overall, there have been issues with a minority—I emphasise that it is a minority—of the young people who use it. You would expect that. Not everyone knows how to behave, and today’s report recognises that. In focus group discussions, there was evidence that 90 per cent of respondents who experienced antisocial behaviour experienced excessive loud shouting and/or swearing, and that 67 per cent of respondents who experienced antisocial behaviour experienced people under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

We know that bus operators have reported issues that include physical and verbal assaults on drivers, physical and verbal assaults and threatening behaviour towards other passengers, broken windows, emergency doors being opened and damaged and vandalised buses. Damage and vandalism result in increased costs to operators, with vehicles being taken off the road for repairs. Passengers and potential passengers may be deterred from travelling by bus and, at a time when driver recruitment remains a key industry challenge, it could contribute to people leaving the industry or not joining it at all.

In addition to incidents on board buses, there is a perception that the scheme may have also contributed to increased antisocial behaviour in and around bus stations or in other locations such as shopping centres. The Scottish Government’s “Behaviour in Scottish schools: research report 2023” states:

“The ability of young people to travel for free on buses had, in some cases, led to young people travelling to other areas of the city to take part in fights or meeting up on buses and engaging in anti-social behaviour. LA representatives also raised safeguarding concerns that young people may be travelling far from their homes to meet with people without their parents’ knowledge.”

I am aware of a recent briefing for elected members in Edinburgh in which they heard of teenagers from Motherwell, Glasgow, Inverness and Fife who had been travelling to the capital to carry out antisocial behaviour using their under-22 free bus passes. Business owners, retail staff, shoppers and residents in Bruntsfield and Morningside have experienced vandalism, theft, intimidation and physical and verbal abuse. In the capital, during operation Crackle, between 3 and 5 November, Lothian Buses suffered £1,700 worth of broken windows, in just three days. Earlier this year, in Livingston, councillors claimed that the under-22 free bus pass scheme had fuelled a rise in disorder, with young people travelling to the town centre from Edinburgh and Fife intent on causing trouble. They say that it has been a particular problem on Friday afternoons, when schools have finished early.

There have also been reported issues elsewhere. The boss of the Overgate shopping centre in Dundee said that youths travelling in from outside had caused mayhem. The shopping centre suffered £80,000 of damage in 18 months. I have seen a shocking video of an horrific attack on a bus passenger in Prestwick, in which he was dragged off the bus and kicked and punched to the ground.

The issue has also been raised by other members in the chamber. In October last year, Willie Coffey raised an attack on a 14-year-old boy in Kilmarnock. The then Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Veterans, Keith Brown, said at the time:

“The Scottish Government is, of course, open to considering all options for tackling antisocial behaviour. For example, I will raise the issue with those who are responsible for the bus pass scheme, to gather views on whether the option of withdrawing bus passes, which has been mentioned elsewhere, might present a solution.”—[

Official Report

, 26 October 2022; c 19-20.]

Of course, nothing has happened, and that can have serious consequences for communities.

We have seen bus companies, quite understandably, removing services altogether. In Edinburgh, all services were removed for a night in 2021, which had the desired effect for a while—but only for a while. The Government’s argument—we will hear from the minister at the end—is that it is too difficult to remove the free travel element from the national entitlement card.

However, under the National Bus Travel Concession Scheme for Young Persons (Scotland) Order 2021, ministers can

“withdraw or suspend a travel card” if a holder allows someone else to use it or

“in such other circumstances as they may determine.”

I would have thought that committing antisocial behaviour while on a bus or after having used a bus could fall into that category. Abuse it and you should lose it.

The minister should not rule out taking action. That does not have to mean a permanent ban. She could consider suspension—members should remember that that is in the order—or perhaps a curfew. Other members may well touch on those ideas.

Some bus companies and drivers have simply given up on recording data. Lothian Buses keeps figures, which show that there has been a significant increase in antisocial behaviour since the introduction of the scheme. It is at record levels throughout the country. Operators have reported staff being assaulted, drivers being spat on, physical assaults and racial harassment. Bus companies, their staff and passengers should not have to tolerate that. If the culprits hold a free travel card, they are abusing a privilege that is paid for by the taxpayer, and that should not continue.