Free bus travel for under 19s passed by MSPs in Budget

Holyrood backs the first Budget drawn up by new finance secretary Kate Forbes by 63 votes to 55.

Free bus travel for under 19s passed by MSPs in Budget Getty Images
Finance secretary: Kate Forbes hails 'ambitious plans'.

The Scottish Budget, which plans to fund free bus travel for those 18 aged and under, has been passed at Holyrood.

MSPs backed the first Budget drawn up by new finance secretary Kate Forbes by 63 votes to 55, including a £15m commitment to work to implement free bus travel for youngsters from 2021 onwards.

The pledge was part of an £158m deal agreed between Forbes and the Scottish Greens to get the government’s tax and spending plans through parliament.

As a minority government, the SNP need the support of opposition MSPs to pass legislation at Holyrood, in recent years relying on the the pro-independence Greens.

The Scottish Greens estimate widening free bus travel to all under-19s will cost around £80m a year, meaning more money would need to be invested in the policy in next year’s budget.

The original draft Budget unveiled by Forbes, who stepped in at the last minute following the shock resignation of her predecessor Derek Mackay, promised a raft of new measures and billions of pounds of environmentally friendly investments to reduce carbon emissions.

The Scottish Government has a target of becoming net-zero by 2045 – five years earlier than the UK target.

The subsequent deal with Green MSPs added an extra £45m in spending on green projects, including an additional £25m for tackling fuel poverty, £15m of fresh investment in active travel and £5m for rail services.

An extra £95m will be put into local government funding while policing gets an additional £13m in revenue spending and a £5m boost to capital funds, with an overall uplift to the police budget of £60m.

Forbes did not deviate from the five-band Scottish income tax system set up by Mackay, with starter (19p), basic (20p) and intermediate (21p) salary thresholds rising with inflation and the higher (41p) and top (46p) thresholds frozen.

The Scottish Conservatives are critical of this policy because it further widens the income tax gap between what higher and top earners pay in Scotland to what they would pay in England.

New Chancellor Rishi Sunak is set to reveal the UK Budget next week.

Forbes said: “I’m pleased that parliament has supported this Budget which will deliver certainty for our vital public services and local government.

“It supports our ambitious plans to accelerate Scotland’s transition to a net-zero economy and provides a record £15bn investment for health and social care.”

The finance secretary added: “I now hope the UK Government will deliver on its promises in their overdue budget next week.”

Green environment spokesman Mark Ruskell said: “This is a historic budget, thanks to the Scottish Greens.

“Next year over 700,000 young people across Scotland and their families will benefit from free bus travel for under 19s.

“Greens have also provided extra funds for councils which has enabled councils to take proposed cuts off the table, increased the walking and cycling budget to £100m for the first time, won new funds for new rail projects to reach the next stage and a commitment to provide warm homes through energy efficiency measures.

“It seems incredible that other opposition parties could not back a bold transformational move such as this, especially Scottish Labour, who have put tribalism over principle once again.”

But Labour’s finance spokeswoman Rhoda Grant hit back: “We asked that young people 25 and under travel free on buses.

“This policy would have helped young people become more independent while also making family travel more affordable.

“Instead the Greens settled for talks about introducing free bus travel for young people eighteen and under.  This short-changes young people because on past performance it is unlikely to happen. 

“We wanted fair funding for local government, but they are now facing a £205m real terms cut.” 

Scottish Tory shadow finance secretary Donald Cameron said: “This is yet another ‘pay more, get less’ budget from the SNP.

“It’s a budget that underfunds our vital public services, especially local councils.

“And despite the drugs deaths crisis, it completely neglects the wellbeing of vulnerable addicts who need rehabilitation beds to turn their lives around.”

He added: “This bad budget is being made possible by the Greens, who never in the history of this parliament have asked for so much and yet received so little in return for their support.”