30 speeches by……and 1 more speakers
The next item is a statement by the Cabinet Secretary for Economy and Infrastructure on consultations on concessionary bus travel. I call on the Cabinet Secretary to make his statement—Ken Skates.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. On 22 August, I wrote to Members about the outcome of the consultation exercise that ended on 31 May about the future of local bus services in Wales. As I explained in my letter, the consultation was part of the ongoing dialogue between the Welsh Government, local authorities, bus operators and, most importantly, passenger groups about how we can better design and deliver local bus services for the people of Wales. This consultation ended on 31 May, and the summary outcome report that I shared with Members in August has now been shared with stakeholders and has been published on the Welsh Government website. Not only am I grateful for the support from Members in this Chamber during the debate on 28 February, I am also grateful to the 81 organisations and individuals who responded to the consultation. Whilst I am pleased that the headline results appear to overwhelmingly support my outline proposals for improving local bus services in the longer term, I am conscious that some bus operators continue to have reservations about the potential for the introduction of bus franchising in Wales. I have asked my officials to continue to work with local authorities and with bus operators in Wales to shape detailed proposals that I hope to consult on early next year. I’m keen to address these concerns and enable us to better meet our shared and mutual objectives, which I set out in the consultation document. The forthcoming workshops that are planned for this autumn, following the bus summit that took place in January, will provide an excellent opportunity to develop our thinking on these very important issues. To recap, our long-term aims for our local services are to increase the number of people of all ages using buses for their daily commute to work, for education, for access to health services and for leisure purposes; the availability of good-quality and accessible local bus services for passengers as part of an integrated Welsh public transport system comprising a mix of demand-responsive or scheduled local transport, together with longer distance express bus services that complement passenger rail services; the establishment of national and regional integrated ticketing products to better enable seamless multimodal transportation; to enable bus operators to contribute to the development and the delivery of the south-east Wales and north-east Wales metro public transport systems; a fair deal for passengers, staff, bus operators and the public sector; a financially viable, sustainable and transparent approach to the imposition of public service obligations, with an appropriate level of compensation to operators and stable public funding arrangements generally that provide value for money and complement the best characteristics of the commercial bus sector; and, finally, to contribute to safeguarding the well-being of future generations by tackling poor air-quality zones, whilst also supporting a sustainable and thriving economy. I consider that these objectives are consistent with the aims we are seeking to achieve as part of our national strategy published last month, ‘Prosperity for All’. Whilst the policy consultation document published on 8 March about the future planning and delivery of local bus services in Wales contained information about the mandatory concessionary fares scheme and its operation in Wales, no specific questions were asked at that time about the scheme and it future operation. Some respondents did, however, take the opportunity to tell us what their thoughts were about the scheme. One suggestion put forward by a major bus operator was that the Welsh Government should take direct control of concessionary travel administration and reimbursement. Additionally, 88 per cent of respondents expressing a preference agreed that the Welsh Government should have the power to set up regional and national ticketing schemes. These responses suggest that people want the Welsh Government to take a more active role in the planning and delivery of local bus services, and so, on that basis, I am today launching a public consultation about the management arrangements for administering mandatory concessionary fares. We need to explore whether responsibility for this scheme should remain with our local authorities or whether this all-Wales scheme should be administered centrally by the Welsh Government. But I am keen that we use this opportunity to ask some fundamental questions about what the scheme provides to pass holders in the future. An increasingly ageing and active population requires that careful consideration is given about how we maintain this important scheme into the future. Based on current forecasts, we can reasonably expect the number of people aged 60 and over eligible for free bus travel to increase to about 880,000 by 2021, rising to more than a million by 2030. So, we have challenges that need to be addressed to ensure that our commitment is sustainable for the future. But let me be absolutely clear: this Government’s commitment to maintaining free bus travel for older people, disabled people and some injured service veterans is unshakeable. The Welsh Government meets most of the cost of the all-Wales scheme—currently about £60 million annually—with about £10 million being met by local authorities. Additionally, the Welsh Government funds the cost of retaining and analysing concessionary pass data, which is held by a third party on behalf of all 22 local authorities. Information gathered on pass usage suggests that around two thirds of passes issued each year are being used, with the rest retained just in case they are required. There are currently more than 750,000 passes in circulation. During 2015-16, about 35,000 passes were issued to people meeting the eligibility criteria for the first time, with a further 25,000 or so passes being issued as replacements. About 10 per cent of passes in circulation have been issued to disabled people and disabled people with companions to improve access to our local bus network to help people live independently. But to ensure we are able to continue to support people to live independently for longer and well into the future, we have a responsibility to ensure that our scheme remains financially sustainable to meet the needs of a growing, ageing population. In addition to older and disabled people, the scheme also provides free bus travel to injured service veterans, and we remain committed to ensuring that our public services continue to meet the needs of our injured service veterans, to whom we owe a great debt of gratitude. On this basis, we are seeking views on how best access to free bus travel in Wales can be maintained into the future. In undertaking this consultation, I am also convinced that we should consider other groups that could benefit from lower cost bus travel as part of the transport contribution to our ‘Prosperity for All’ strategy. In February, I extended our younger persons discounted bus travel scheme for a further year, and today I am also pleased to begin a consultation about how our scheme for younger people can be developed and delivered in the future to encourage more young people to use buses to meet their daily travel needs. The consultation will encourage and consider views from interested individuals, from groups and from organisations across Wales, and will look at how best to facilitate bus use amongst young people. The younger persons discounted fare scheme consultation will last until 4 January 2018. Since April 2017, young people have made over 0.5 million trips using mytravelpass, the Welsh Government scheme providing young people with discounted bus travel in Wales. This illustrates the importance of this scheme to those users, but I wish to encourage even more young people to use buses by developing a new discounted bus travel scheme for younger people. I also hope that many young people whose only experience of bus travel is the daily trip to and from school will take advantage of an improved scheme to try the bus for other reasons and, having done so, they will see that today’s buses provide a really attractive offer. This scheme is currently based on a voluntary agreement between local bus companies and the Welsh Government, supported by local authorities. We need to give consideration to whether this scheme could be better delivered as part of a scheme delivered on the same terms as the older persons scheme—a mandatory scheme, rather than a voluntary one. We should also consider the needs of the many people who are volunteering in our communities. We should actively consider whether there are opportunities to expand the current schemes to better meet the needs of people in our society. I believe that free bus travel makes a valuable contribution to improving the health and well-being of older people in Wales, enabling more people to remain active for longer, and so promotes independent living. The consultation on the mandatory scheme will be open until 12 January and, based on the results, which I will, again, publish, we will consider how best we can maintain our free bus travel scheme into the future in a climate of an ageing population and increasing pressures on the resources available to us. I do think that today provides an excellent opportunity to consider both these schemes and how best we can deliver them into the future
Thank you very much. Russell George.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. Can I thank you, Cabinet Secretary, for the statement today, in which you say that you are committed, of course, to the principles that have underpinned the free bus travel scheme? This has been a flagship policy, of course, by the Welsh Government, and your predecessor Mrs Hart was particularly wedded to the principle of universal eligibility. Therefore, isn’t it a case of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’? I would be interested in the rationale for a proposed change, as you’ve listed today. I would be interested in hearing from the Cabinet Secretary what his department has done to improve the way in which the current scheme is run, and what cost savings can be made in terms of administrating the scheme. Has the department done any work to ensure that it is certain that everyone who has a pass is eligible for one? What is being done to learn from the best practice as well from the blue badge scheme, which undertakes an assessment of eligibility? As I understand it, 2019 will see a move towards electronic ticketing machines and that new passes will be issued then as well. Has the Cabinet Secretary considered whether this will be an opportunity to tighten up the scheme and use new technology to help with the administration, reduce the cost of admin and use potential fingerprint technology to prevent abuse of the scheme? With regard to the concessionary arrangements for younger people and the successor scheme to mytravelpass, I very much welcome the fact that the Welsh Government are following in my party’s footsteps in consulting on a new scheme to support younger people in using public transport. Our proposals have received overwhelming support. Young people tend to have the lowest wages and highest car insurance premiums, and travel costs are a significant barrier to accessing jobs, training and social opportunities. So, I therefore want younger people to benefit from the same travel concessions offered to Wales’s over-60s. It is clear that if younger people are introduced to public transport early, they stick with it and continue to use public transport in later life. So, can you provide any commitment today, Cabinet Secretary, that any future scheme that is extended to 16 to 24-year-olds in Wales will have the same level of fairness, if you like, with those that are over 60? It is also essential that this scheme is properly funded in order to be a success. I know the Government is very keen to talk about fully costed proposals. So, on that basis, can I ask: what funding will be attached to your proposed scheme, as it’s not clear from the draft budget? And finally, Deputy Presiding Officer, the mytravelpass scheme has been characterised as having a disappointing take-up. I notice from your consultation document published today that 15,000 younger people have applied for the mytravelpass scheme. Are you happy with that take-up, can I ask, Cabinet Secretary, and how will you ensure that any successor scheme is marketed properly in a way that encourages high levels of take-up amongst younger people?
Can I thank Russell George for his questions? Details concerning some of those questions are contained in the documents, but I do appreciate that the Member won’t have had an opportunity as yet to be able to delve deeply into those consultation documents, so I hope I’ll be able to answer each of your queries here today. First of all, I’d like to deal with the last point that the Member raised, which I think is a very fair point, that the take-up of the mytravelpass was not as high as I would’ve wished, and I think not as high as anyone in this Chamber would’ve wished. For that reason, the Confederation of Passenger Transport have agreed to embark on a new marketing exercise to drive up the number of people that are applying for and securing the mytravelpass. Indeed, I think the numbers have now risen from 15,000 to well over 17,000. I’d wish to see those numbers increase still further. I’m going to return to the question of concessionary fares for young people in a moment, if I may, but I’ll move first of all to the benefits that are offered to older people. The system is not broken, but, as I outlined, we will see a significant increase in the number of people aged 60 or over as we approach the latter part of the next decade, and therefore we need to future-proof this important scheme today. Any changes that would be implemented would have to take account of the existing arrangements for people with passes. We would not, under any circumstances, be withdrawing them from those existing pass holders, but we do need to consult on the sustainability of the existing model. But, as I say, currently, it’s not broken, but we need to future-proof it. We need to future-proof it in light, of course, of the fact that there is still no end to austerity and there are pressures on budgets right across Government and on the basis of the increase in the state pension age that the UK Government is pursuing and also consultations that are taking place elsewhere in the UK on this very same issue. The Member asks a very important question about how we’ve learnt lessons, how we’ve improved monitoring, how we can improve delivery, and I think that’s very, very significant, because better checks on the use of the passes have led to, as the Member is aware, prosecutions taking place. That, in turn, is believed to have contributed to a reduction in the overall number of passenger journeys that took place annually from something in the region of 108 million not long ago to about 101 million last year. Clearly, better checks on use and reimbursements for concessionary fare schemes are leading to less abuse of the scheme, but we are constantly monitoring and carrying out spot checks to ensure that there is no abuse in the system. The Member also asks about changes that could be made to ensure that better monitoring is carried out in terms of the administration of the passes in the first place. This is a responsibility for local authorities, but, of course, one of the questions that I’m posing within this consultation is whether the Welsh Government should become a concessionary authority. That would require legislative change, but what it would enable us to do is potentially make savings but also monitor better who is getting the passes and who is using the passes, at what time of day and so forth. It would also enable us to deploy new technology consistently across Wales in the way that the travel pass is used. The Member identifies a number of new and emerging technologies that could see the way that we pay for or go about using free travel passes change considerably in the years to come, and if Transport for Wales were to be able to develop an integrated, multimodal ticketing system for transport in Wales, with Welsh Government operating as a concessionary authority, then I am confident that we could exploit all emerging technologies for the purpose of enhancing passenger experiences. I’m going to come on to the question about youth concessionary travel now—specifically about youth concessionary travel. I should just mention, though, that, as an alternative to Welsh Government becoming a concessionary authority, one proposal that should be considered as part of this consultation is the establishment of regional transport authorities that could, on a regional basis, manage this scheme. In terms of youth concessionary fares, I do welcome the Welsh Conservatives’ engagement in this debate. I think it’s very helpful and it certainly assisted in driving it up the news agenda, but I would advise the Welsh Conservatives to crunch the numbers more accurately in the future. The reason I say this is that £25 million has been earmarked for the scheme, a scheme that they propose would offer free bus travel and a third off rail for 350,000 people. I’m just going to quickly crunch the numbers on behalf of the Welsh Conservatives. At the moment, there are about 16,000 to 17,000 pass holders. They’ll take approximately 1.5 million journeys on buses by March next year, and, therefore, something in the region of 100 passenger journeys per pass holder. On that basis—and I think it would be entirely reasonable to expect far more young people to use a free pass than a discounted pass—we would expect the 350,000 young people to take something in the region of 35 million journeys annually. And, therefore, with an adult ticket price—let’s say we guess it, which is exactly what I think the Conservatives may have done—at £2, that would amount to something in the region of £70 million for reimbursement of bus journeys, and that’s before you reach the cost of reimbursing a third of the rail travel costs. So, I do look forward to receiving full details of how the Welsh Conservatives propose to provide that level of offer for just £25 million, but, as I say, I do welcome their engagement in this very, very significant debate. I also do agree with Russell George when he says that we do need to incentivise behavioural change in order to decarbonise the environment, in order to deal with congestion on our roads, and to ensure that we have a more physically active population. I do think that youth concessionary fare schemes have a crucial role in that regard.
Thank you. I did allow you to do an exceptionally long answer there—
I have several people, and people are adding to the list as we go, so, I’m going to have to ask you to be a little bit more concise with your answers. Dai Lloyd.
Diolch yn fawr, Dirprwy Lywydd. Can I thank the Cabinet Secretary for his statement on the consultation on a mandatory concessionary fares scheme in Wales? Obviously, Plaid Cymru fully supports the concessionary fares policy, introduced by my former colleague and then Deputy First Minister of Wales and Minister for the Economy and Transport at the time, Ieuan Wyn Jones. Now, for these vulnerable groups—the elderly, the disabled and some injured service veterans—this concessionary travel scheme is vital in terms of tackling isolation and increasing social interaction, tackling loneliness and isolation, which is the topic of a review of the health committee that I chair at present. Certainly, any attempts to diminish or reduce the provision in this area will be opposed in the strongest possible terms by Plaid Cymru. Therefore, I hear what you say, but will you categorically state this afternoon that there will be no reduction in the current provision available for all people who currently qualify for the scheme? Further to that, will you also categorically rule out raising the threshold as to when older people qualify for the scheme in future? I would also support any moves to further extend the young persons’ discounted bus travel scheme. I’m aware of the time constraints, so I won’t go into that, but there are clear benefits, as already stated, that this scheme for young people’s travel brings. Could you clarify, finally, as to whether the Welsh Government is considering Transport for Wales as the national body that will administer the all-Wales bus scheme instead of the local authorities? Diolch yn fawr.
The answer is: yes, that’s a possibility. With regard to the question that the Member asked concerning young people, I can say that the consultation not only asks question of whether we should extend the current system in terms of the level of discount offered, but also in terms of the age of those who might be eligible. It also includes questions about the eligibility for, perhaps, carers and apprentices. Also, it looks at the potential to extend the scheme to those who are in receipt currently, who are unemployed and in receipt of the Jobcentre Plus travel card scheme. Now, I’m keen to ensure that older people in Wales, right now, can rest assured knowing that there will be no reduction in the current provision. The consultation that we are commencing concerns future arrangements in light of those pressures that I indicated to Russell George. We have to make sure that this scheme is sustainable for the future—that it is affordable for the future—and that the local bus services are sustainable themselves for the future. That’s why I’m particularly keen to gather opinion and gather evidence, through these two consultations, ahead of producing a number of proposals next spring for how we can modernise and strengthen local public transport right across our communities.
Can I, first of all, welcome the statement? Can I highlight two things? The importance of dialogue regarding bus services—too often, bus services are being run by bus companies without enough dialogue with users and others. The second thing: the importance of bus-rail interchanges. I don’t think you can overestimate the popularity of concessionary travel. Support for it is overwhelming in my constituency. Allowing elderly and disabled people to get out, meet with others, or, as happens during the summer in Swansea, get down the Mumbles, has a huge effect on people’s health. In fact, this would probably be better off being counted as health expenditure because it is dealing with a horrible thing that affects very many elderly and disabled people: loneliness. And anything that attacks that really is a major health benefit. I’ve got two questions for you. You talk about administrating on an all-Wales basis. Why not? An awful lot of concessionary journeys actually go across boundaries: into Swansea and Cardiff in the south, and I would guess, though I don’t know north Wales very well, into a number of the resorts on the north Wales coast. Also, on the 16 to 19s, I think they would benefit greatly from the mytravelpass scheme, not just for education, and in schools and colleges, but also for leisure activities and, again, to get out and meet friends. I think that loneliness is not a scourge only of the elderly. You can be lonely stuck at home as a 17-year-old in front of your computer, where your only social interaction is via pixels. What is the drawback of running the mytravelpass scheme on exactly the same mandatory basis as the concessionary scheme?
Can I thank Mike Hedges for his questions? I’d agree that this initiative has been one of the greatest achievements of Welsh Government, and I’m in no doubt that it’s contributed to the better delivery of public services, because it’s eased pressure on many public services, including the NHS and the care system. The Member is absolutely right, as other Members were right, to highlight the value of this particular scheme in challenging loneliness and isolation, and this is something that doesn’t just affect—Mike Hedges is right—older people, and that’s why I’m very keen to seek views on how we can extend the scheme for young people. It’s a tragic fact—and I know a number of Members were present at the presentation when we learnt of this from the Mersey Dee Alliance—that in that part of Wales, and it reflects the rest of Wales as well, I’m afraid, 20 per cent of young people cannot access a job interview because they cannot afford public transport to get to the interview. That is appalling. That must change. We’re determined to change that and to make public travel a liberating experience that enables people to get into jobs closer to home, or if they do have to travel further from home, in a comfortable and reliable environments. So, I would welcome the engagement of all Members in this Chamber in both consultations, particularly on the question of how we can enhance the offer to young people and so many people who do such good for our country—volunteers, for example. Okay, I take on board that, by and large, you’re more likely to see people from higher socioeconomic groups than lower socioeconomic group volunteering, but it’s my view that if you are volunteering, we should give you something back. We should respect and recognise what you are giving to society, and so I very much welcome Members’ views on that particular question. As far as simply changing from a voluntary to a statutory scheme is concerned, that’s one of the questions—whether we should do that—but I do hope that Members take the opportunity whilst answering that question to look at the potential of extending and changing and improving the wider scheme, because, at the moment, whilst a third off an adult passenger ticket is attractive for many young people, for others it simply is not enough, and we need to do more to liberate young people from unemployment, from loneliness and from isolation, and to make sure that we see the sort of modal shift that I think the future generations legislation requires us to deliver. In terms of national administration, I would wholeheartedly agree with the Member that this is something that we should seriously look at. That’s why there is a specific section in the consultation concerning this very issue, but, as I say, it would require a legislative change, whereas the potential of establishing regional transport authorities is one that would not require legislative change. I’m happy to change the law if that is the view of the majority of people who will be participating in this consultation, because, essentially, what we need to do is make sure that the system is right for passengers.
Cabinet Secretary, I welcome the opportunity to ensure that we can deliver the important concessionary bus fare scheme, but I don’t welcome the suggestion from Plaid Cymru that we should keep the current system in aspic. I’m a discretionary bus pass holder, but it seems to me perfectly possible for 60-year-olds in work to not need a concessionary bus pass, whereas it seems completely wrong that children who are eligible for free school meals have to pay to get the bus to go to school. So, I’m very pleased about your commitment to drive up the numbers who are commuting to work and school, but in a place like Cardiff, it’s really, really difficult to get on the bus just when everybody’s wanting to get to school and work at the same time. I just wondered whether you’d consider limiting concessionary bus passes to, say, after 09:30 in areas where there’s more demand than there is provision. In light of your mention of the well-being of future generations Act and air pollution, which we need to tackle, I wondered if you would consider incentives to make it more attractive for people to use the bus when they’re commuting, for example, making all-day parking in city centres a lot more punitive so that people choose to do the right thing and, equally, looking at it in relation to—. Free hospital parking for those who have a car, but no free bus passes for those who need to travel to hospital seems to be a little bit out of kilter. I feel we need to rethink that, as we’re rewarding people for doing something that we’re trying to persuade people, for environmental health reasons, to not do. So, I welcome the consultation and look forward to seeing the outcome.
Can I thank Jenny Rathbone for her contributions and her questions? I think she makes very many interesting points, and I’m looking forward to seeing those reflected in the response from the Member. I do think that it’s essential that we need to protect those who have the existing passes, but I also think it’s essential that we futureproof this particular provision in light of the challenges that I’ve now identified on a number of occasions. I think it’s also essential that we look at making bus services a greater enabling vehicle for those who currently face difficulties in connecting with goods, services, and, for leisure purposes, who struggle to connect with their friends and family. In doing that, we need to ensure that we are identifying those groups who are currently marginalised. The Member identified one particular group, the children of those who simply cannot afford to pay for public transport. Certainly, that’s something that we would wish to take an opinion on. But I also think we need to look at other areas of service provision that are currently not covered by the scheme, for example, other modes of transport, particularly in rural areas where you don’t have buses. So, for example, do we need to look at extending the scheme to include taxi services? I’m also particularly keen to ensure that we examine the role of the administration and the cost of administrating the passes. At the moment, although you may be eligible for a pass, you may not be using the pass, and so the question will be: should there be a contribution to administering the pass? It costs us about £3 per pass at the moment. It’s a question that I think is right to ask. I also think it’s right to ask whether there should be limits on usage in terms of time. At the moment, we know that about a quarter of journeys are taken in peak travel time, and, therefore, three quarters—the vast majority—of journeys are undertaken outside of those peak periods. The scheme has essentially maintained bus services outside of peak travel times. That’s been an important factor in ensuring that many bus companies have stayed afloat in what has been the very challenging environment in which they are operating. Local authorities, I think, if they wished, could examine the charging structure for car parks, and it’s my view that if we are to get modal shift and get people out of their cars and onto more public transport, we need to make sure that we’ve got sufficient interchanges. This is a question that Mike Hedges raised. I do think that the metro and the transport hubs that we can create through metro will deliver those opportunities for people to park their cars, get out of their cars and get onto local buses or onto rail solutions, and I think that has to be right for the environment. That’s good for individuals, who will become more physically active, and it’s also more productive for society because we’re going to have more contact with one another. We can’t live in a society where our contact is all virtual. It’s absolutely essential for our well-being that we connect with one another more regularly in person rather than just virtually.
I thank the Cabinet Secretary for his statement. Of course, we in UKIP fully support the Welsh Government’s free transport policy. Indeed, this was one of only two Labour policies that seem to have stuck in the minds of the Welsh electorate in the many years that I’ve spent campaigning, the other being, of course, free prescriptions—a policy, incidentally, that UKIP does not support, because we believe it leads to huge abuse and waste. On the issues of bus passes, can I express a word of caution? Bus passes, free or not, are only of use if public transport is universally available. I urge the Cabinet Secretary to use the consultation process on bus transport to look at innovative ways of helping those in receipt of free bus passes to access public transport as and when necessary. Perhaps we should look at small transport units that could respond to pick-up requests from users’ homes. As has been pointed out in previous debates, all too often we see large, 50-plus-capacity buses running with just one or two passengers. And I note Jenny Rathbone’s excellent suggestion here that those with bus passes who can should use their passes outside peak times. You’ve obviously touched on that yourself. But, given that this Assembly is committed to an anti-polluting policy, surely large buses with large diesel engines, running almost empty, is completely contrary to meeting any reduction targets. Surely small, localised transport units, even capable of running on electricity, which pick up and transport as and when required, would be far superior and more cost-effective than the modes of transport now deployed. I urge the Cabinet Secretary to explore these alternatives.
I thank David Rowlands for his contributions and for his questions. I am pleased that UKIP support the free bus passes for older people. I regret that they do not support free prescriptions for all. Removing free prescriptions, I believe, would constitute a tax on illness, but far be it for me to answer on behalf of the Cabinet Secretary for health. In terms of the last point that was made by the Member, he may recall that back in January I launched a five-point business plan, and that was in response to the failure of a number of bus companies in Wales, including probably the most prominent, GHA coaches. Part of the five-point plan saw Business Wales assist local bus operators in identifying more sustainable business models, and part of that work, in turn, has identified the need to be more intelligent in the deployment of vehicles. It’s not just David Rowlands. Lee Waters has also raised with me on numerous occasions the need for bus operators to deploy smaller vehicles, where it is known that a route will only require a small vehicle. It’s not good for the environment, it’s not good for the sustainability of bus companies, to be operating vehicles that are expensive and will never reach capacity in terms of passengers on them. I wish to see that work continue by Business Wales, and I wish to see more local bus companies assisted by expert advisers. I think, in terms of the availability of services, the Member raises a very interesting point, that in the future we are going to see quite radical change in the way that the public are mobile. With the arrival of Uber and other operators, we will probably see an increasing number of operators offering a form of public transport that traditionally would have been delivered by small bus companies, but which could be delivered by connected vehicles, and so it’s entirely possible that we’ll see taxis operating more as small buses. That, then, presents a challenge to the existing bus operators, but it’s something that I’m keen for my officials to work through and to explore the future potential of. I do think that we need to look at how we can ensure that there are services available to all people who may be in receipt of these passes, and for that reason, I’ve incorporated into the consultation a question about whether we extend the companion pass to two people. It currently applies to just one person helping disabled people, but I think that we need to ask the question of whether there are two companions needed.
Thank you. I have a number of speakers left, so I’m going to just ask for a very short introduction to your one question, and then, that way, we will get all four of you in. Eluned Morgan.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. I want to focus on the issue of bus travel in rural areas. One thing that angers me more than anything as I travel around mid and west Wales is seeing public buses, travelling around, costing thousands upon thousands to the public purse, and time and time again I see virtually no passengers on board. The issue of ensuring that older people, particularly, can travel around our rural areas, is extremely important, but, my concern is that we are providing solutions that are appropriate for our urban areas in rural Wales, where a system that would be more flexible and would respond to individual requirements would be more relevant. It is odd: I agree with David Rowlands—on this issue alone, just so that we’re clear on that. But, I do think that we also have to look to the future and consider electric vehicles. I think there is a revolution about to strike, and this is an issue where we have to take it seriously. Of course we need buses to take students to college or school, for example, but this issue of having a flexible system where, for example, it won’t be too long until we see driverless electric vehicles—. In rural Wales, as in all other areas, these vehicles will need to read the roads. They can’t read the roads unless there is white paint on the side of every road. There are roads in some remote areas where that simply doesn’t exist. I think the Welsh Government will have to think seriously about how that can happen in rural Wales, so that we do move towards a system where we do use driverless electric vehicles in our rural areas. That’s what I’d like to hear from you today.
Are you coming to the question, please?
I was wondering whether you would be willing to consider that. Thank you.
Can I thank Eluned Morgan for her question? I think she raises a really, really exciting area of study at the moment, and it’s one of the areas of work that the automotive technology park in Ebbw Vale will be examining, because I think there are experts now—indeed, there’s Paul Davies, within Industry Wales, who’s identified the need to ensure that connected autonomous vehicles are not just produced for urban use, but that there is also rural use applied to their manufacturing as well. For that reason, I’m keen to make sure that Wales is at the forefront of developing a rural autonomous programme, because it could be something that we could sell, roll out, protect intellectual rights for, and roll out right across the UK and, indeed, much of the western world and more rural parts of less developed parts of the world. So, I do think, as we horizon-scan the potential of electric vehicles, we also bear in mind that connected vehicles and autonomous vehicles will lead, potentially, to fewer people owning their own vehicles, but hiring, renting autonomous self-driving vehicles. That in turn could lead to fewer cars being parked up on driveways and on roadsides and more cars actually being used more of the time on our roads. It presents huge opportunities, big challenges, but it’s something that my department, my officials are currently looking at, very much through the lens of not just how we can solve problems and take advantage of opportunities for urban areas, but how we can model bespoke solutions to more rural areas as well.
I notice that, in Bristol, a youngster can travel within the inner zone all day long, as much as they want, on a bus, for a couple of quid. That’s real, affordable, accessible transport. I know that’s an inner-city area, but it’s only £1.50 more to go into the outer ring as well. Now, that’s the ideal situation. So, could I suggest, if you look at Bridgend, for example, as a hub, where people travel into Bridgend from the Valleys and out as far as Cardiff and out as far west as Swansea, that there is an ideal inner and outer ring? It should be affordable, within a couple of quid, for anybody who’s using it, and I love the idea of actually saying to youngsters, ‘You can have it free’, if we can afford to do that, because it’s not only getting them in the habit, but, if you’re working in a part-time, casual job, where, frankly, they’re paying you the minimum wage or below, they’re calling you in when they want, to ask them to pay a fiver to travel there and back is beyond the wit of men to actually make it affordable. So, there’s a perfect idea of a use of a hub, and we need zones that people can identify with in their travel-to-work areas.
Can I thank Huw Irranca-Davies for his questions? A very important point he raises—it’s covered on page 12 of the consultation document, the question of whether a user contribution scheme should be introduced. Now, this is something that we’ve seen in Bristol and in other parts of the UK as well. Merseytravel operate a scheme that I believe charges young people £1.50 for a single ticket, but £2 ‘anywhere, anytime’ during the given day. This is incredibly important as we consider the cost of public travel for young people. So, the questions that are posed within the consultation concern the potential contribution scheme, and we ask whether the cost of any journey—and I would base it potentially not just on a zone, but ‘anytime, anywhere’, so that it could apply equally to rural areas as it does to urban areas. We’ve indicated perhaps 20p, 50p, £1 or £2—or consultees can actually respond with their own suggested amount. But I think it is something that we need to take very seriously and consider very carefully.
You probed earlier on Russell George in respect of the Conservative costings in relation to the free transport for young people offer that we announced last week, and I can assure you that they are fully costed, and I’d be very happy to share those costings with you. In fact, those costings are based on the costings of the existing concessionary fares scheme and directly applying them to young people who would be eligible. I just want to ask two questions, if I may, very briefly. The first is in relation—[Interruption.] The first is in relation to the costs of the existing mytravelpass scheme. It strikes me that, for the number of individuals participating in that scheme, the figures for 2016-17 worked out at not far off £1,000 per individual who was participating. That seems absolutely extraordinary when you consider that you can buy an annual pass with most bus operators for less than £500, and that pays for all your journeys, not just giving you a third off. In addition, you did make a brief reference to rail travel in your statement. Of course, students can take advantage of student railcards at the moment, which are very often—. In fact, they’re currently on offer for £15, which would give them a third off their rail fares. It strikes me that students in particular are very often having to do long journeys, particularly to and from their places of higher education, in order to get back to their families. Will you look seriously at our proposals to extend—effectively, to make all young people in Wales eligible to access a young person’s railcard—within this offer that you are currently reviewing?
Can I thank the Member for his questions? I think, first of all, in analysing the data that you have provided so far on your proposal, I should draw attention to the fact that you’re proposing to offer free travel—not discounted, free travel—to all young people, I think, up to the age of 24, and including—
Sixteen to 24.
Sixteen to 24. At the moment, the scheme—[Interruption.] Costed with a dodgy calculator from a joke shop, I think. The scheme currently provides approximately 1.5 million passenger journeys per year and costs £1 million, but that’s only for a third off. If you were to then calculate 35 million passenger journeys, you’re looking at a whole lot more, which makes it unaffordable within the current budget envelope that’s been applied to it. Nonetheless, as I said to Russell George, I do welcome your contribution to this important debate, and if the figures can—[Interruption.] And if the figures can stack up—
You asked the question; listen to the answer, please.
And, if the figures do stack up, we are more than willing to assess the benefits of them. But, in terms of the wider question about how much we put in and how much we take out, the Member is absolutely right. For the scheme at the moment, it’s cost £1 million. There’s something in the region, at the moment, of about 17,500 pass holders; there have been 1.5 million passenger journeys. Compare that to more than £0.25 billion that we’ve put into bus services in the totality as a Government and with local government for 101 million passenger journeys per year. I’ve been very clear in the past, and I’m going to say it again today, I do not believe the taxpayer is getting out of bus services what we are putting into them, and therefore reform of public transport next year will be crucially important in getting value for money, in getting services that are more accountable to the needs of taxpayers and passengers, and in making sure that we drive up quality right across the board.
Thank you very much, Cabinet Secretary.