Free bus travel for Scotland's elderly and disabled secured by new deal
A deal has been reached to safeguard free bus travel for the over 60s and people with disabilities.
The Scottish government has agreed an extra £10m worth of investment in the bus industry to allow concessionary travel to continue.
But the amount of money the government reimburses the bus operators will be reduced over the next two years.
Scottish Labour says it will mean higher fares and poorer services, but the government rejects those claims.
Welcoming the agreement between Transport Scotland and Scotland's bus industry, Transport Minister Keith Brown said: "Concessionary travel is a key part of the Scottish Government's social wage and makes a real difference to many of our elderly and disabled.
"Today's agreement secures concessionary travel for the future and ensures the bus industry not only receives all of this year's budget in full but a further £10m to support investment in the industry during tough financial times."
"We are continuing to provide £250m annually to the industry, investing not just in concessionary travel but support for services and new green buses."
EU rules state that reimbursement arrangements with operators must leave them no better or worse off as a result of the National Concessionary Travel (NCT) scheme and the government said fresh independent research allowed them to cut the support companies received.
The current reimbursement rate - 67% of the adult single fare - will be reduced to 60% in 2013/14 and 58.1% in 2014/15.
"The changes to the reimbursement arrangements are based on hard evidence and we have worked with the industry to provide them with some much-needed stability going forward," said Mr Brown.
"But the needs of the passenger must come first and we are encouraging operators to continue to work with us to deliver services for passengers at affordable prices."
The government states that "transitional arrangements effectively provide an additional £15m between now and March 2015 to help the sector adjust".
It points out that Transport Scotland also provides £50m a year to operators through the Bus Service Operators Grant to keep fares affordable and support services that might not otherwise be commercially viable.
'Out of pocket'
However, Scottish Labour MSP Richard Baker said: "The SNP's latest round of cuts to concessionary travel means that hard-working Scots who rely on buses will face increasing fares and poorer services over the next two years.
"There is no point celebrating that pensioners have free bus passes when increasingly they will struggle to fund a bus to use them on.
"It is unacceptable that the SNP have taken the independent and small operators to the wire to negotiate a deal which may not even cover the shortfall this year, leaving bus operators out of pocket and putting a further pressure on fares."
The new deal was given a warmer reception by Cathy Leech, chair of the Scottish Pensioners' Forum.
"We welcome the decision by the Scottish government to safeguard the concessionary travel scheme in light of increased prices on some many other day to day items," she said.
"We are delighted that the Scottish government have the vision to see this as an essential provision, especially for those living in rural areas."