10 December 2009

S3M-5378 Concessionary Travel Scheme [Opening Speech]

Scottish Parliament

Thursday 10 December 2009

[THE PRESIDING OFFICER opened the meeting at 09:15]

Concessionary Travel Scheme

The Presiding Officer (Alex Fergusson): Good morning. The first item of business is a debate on motion S3M-5378, in the name of Charlie Gordon, on concessionary travel.

... ... ...

The Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change (Stewart Stevenson):

For the avoidance of doubt, I report to Parliament my interest in the scheme by displaying my old person's bus pass, which I have used on ministerial business some 200 times so far, thus saving the public purse some money. [Interruption.] It is a bit incestuous, as Mr Johnstone has just pointed out, since my budget is paying 73.6 per cent of the cost, but I can at least claim to have saved 26.4 per cent that would otherwise have been paid.

I start by congratulating Charlie Gordon on a well-informed and well-researched contribution to today's debate. I welcome the opportunity to lock horns with him on a subject of significant interest for the first time since his appointment. I also encourage him to greater efforts. Had he added a mere 30 further words to his lengthy motion, he would have filled the entire page of the Business Bulletin instead of leaving me just a little space.

Charlie Gordon: Is the minister aware that I took a leaf out of the book of his colleague, Angela Constance?

Stewart Stevenson: Indeed, but I think that Leonard Cheshire probably also had something to do with the drafting of the motion.

This is a serious matter, and it is good that we are having this discussion. Charlie Gordon quite properly delineated much of the history of how we got here. At the time, I commended the previous Administration on the introduction of the national scheme, and I continue to support it as a minister. One of the good things that we have been able to do in the review that we have just completed is to say unambiguously that we will continue to support the scheme in the form in which it has been introduced. The scheme has clearly delivered an enormous number of benefits to people across Scotland. It is a national scheme with absolute certainty of provision. That helps the bus companies with planning because, right across Scotland, they know the rate that they will be getting. In that respect, the scheme is much better than the one south of the border, which is off-peak only, has different rates of reward across England, and is difficult to administer.

We note that in yesterday's pre-budget report, the Chancellor said that the English scheme will be amended by aligning eligibility with the forthcoming changes in the state pension age. So, in future in England, people who are aged 60 will not be entitled to enter the scheme. For the avoidance of doubt, that is on page 110 of the pre-budget report. So the gap between the excellent scheme that we have in Scotland, which we are committed to sustaining and maintaining, and what is going on south of the border will widen.

Karen Gillon (Clydesdale) (Lab): Will the minister reflect on yesterday's debate, during which members of his party were trumpeting on about other parties and the Parliament doing things better? Instead of looking at what others are doing, will he look at how we are failing to support people who are on low-component disability living allowance?

Stewart Stevenson: The member makes a perfectly reasonable point, but I point out that I congratulated her party and, indeed, the Liberal Democrats when they introduced the scheme, which we continue to promote and which we have extended to cover disabled ex-servicemen. The scheme has always been better than the one south of the border and our focus should be on establishing how we can sustain and maintain that scheme. I am happy that we have been able to do that.

Our scheme enables older and disabled people to continue to travel for free throughout Scotland, at any time, on any scheduled bus route, for any number of journeys. In these difficult economic times, in particular, the scheme delivers huge benefit to many families and pensioners. It also maintains social cohesion. Charlie Gordon talked about the 158 million journeys that were made. By the way, I will not pick at the numbers; Mr Gordon basically got them right. He made only one mistake and I cannot resist the temptation to correct it. Reimbursement is made on the standard fare, not the average fare. There is something quite important in that, however, because the bus companies have, not unreasonably, tended to raise standard fares at a slightly greater rate than other fares, which has ensured that they protect the revenue from the concessionary bus scheme. That is part of the on-going discussion that we are having with the CPT about reimbursement rates.

Our 73.6 per cent reimbursement rate is substantially more generous than the rate in England and Wales. It still incorporates an allowance for the start-up costs of the scheme, which is why we have commissioned consultants to examine whether the rate properly meets the test that companies should be no better off and no worse off. Charlie Gordon discussed the marginal cost of carrying extra passengers and pointed out that the present scheme, in essence, takes into account the full cost. There is a proper debate to be had on that. The CPT says that its members have put on extra capacity and used the opportunity to invest in new buses. There is merit in that, but we have to consider getting the balance right. In establishing the right reimbursement rate for the future, we need to reflect the fact that the start-up costs are out of the way. We will have discussions on that.

Three years on, with the review completed, we can see how successful the scheme has been, but we can also see the nature of the challenge that we face. The previous Government and the present one should be proud of the scheme, which delivers much for the people of Scotland.

Reference was made to ferry and rail discounts that are provided locally. It is still open for local authorities to provide support to holders of the card, or otherwise, as they see fit. Before the national scheme, six of the 16 schemes throughout Scotland provided support to people who were on the lower rate of disability living allowance. We do not know what the future of DLA will be, as it is one of the benefits that are being considered for reform or abolition. I hope that whatever follows provides appropriate support for people with disabilities, as that is important.

The current scheme comes in two parts: a care component and a mobility component. The mobility component, which is paid by Westminster, is important. Some people have suggested that we might more readily be able to structure support for people who are on the lower level of DLA by transferring the funding for the mobility component to Scotland. That could allow us to fund different ways of supporting people who are on DLA. However, the Government is not yet engaged on that matter, although the issue has been raised.

Our population continues to be an ageing one. I hope that many of those older people remain, as I do, relatively fit and in possession of a bus pass, and therefore able to travel to meet friends and family. Charlie Gordon possibly stretched the use of parliamentary terms when he used the word "geek". Thankfully, the Presiding Officer did not rule that that is unparliamentary language—I wear the badge of geekdom with pride and will continue to do so. Charlie Gordon gave a bit of a hostage to fortune by suggesting that there might have been a cock-up in the establishment of the scheme. I would be more gentle and say that some long-term effects of the scheme have emerged over time. He made the good point that 42 per cent of car owners use the scheme to reduce their driving. I include myself in that, albeit that I probably do too much driving, even now.

When we debated community transport and demand-responsive transport in March 2006, my motion welcomed the formation of Transport Scotland as a way to promote new ideas. That continues to be the case. We have considered the options for including community transport in the existing scheme. One or two providers that run scheduled services can qualify. However, the issue is complex. If we made such services free, I am sure that they would be well used, but that would require a significant increase in capability and capacity in the community transport world.

If Mr Gordon in his closing remarks indicates that, at this stage, he is not asking for additional money to be spent, I will consider my position in relation to the amendment in my name. However, for the moment, I will move it.

I move amendment S3M-5378.2, to insert at end:

", and considers that if the Labour Party wishes this to be the case, it should bring forward a costed proposal to the Budget to show where the resources will be taken from to pay for this."


Stewart Stevenson
does not gather, use or
retain any cookie data.

However Google who publish for us, may do.
fios ZS is a name registered in Scotland for Stewart Stevenson

  © Blogger templates The Professional Template by 2008

Back to TOP