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Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, October 26, 2023


Asylum Seekers (Free Bus Travel)

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Annabelle Ewing)

I ask members of the public who are leaving the gallery to cease their conversations until they are outside, because we are about to restart our proceedings. I thank them for their co-operation.

The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S6M-10188, in the name of Paul Sweeney, on free bus travel for people seeking asylum. The debate will be concluded without any question being put. Members who wish to speak in the debate should press their request-to-speak buttons.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes the calls to extend the current provision of concessionary bus travel in Scotland, including in the Glasgow region, to include people seeking asylum; acknowledges the efforts of third sector organisations that are working in the asylum sector in leading the free bus travel campaign, which was launched in December 2021, such as VOICES Network and Maryhill Integration Network; notes that free bus travel for people seeking asylum has been publicly supported by all faith leaders in the Scottish Religious Leaders Forum and also recommended by the Poverty Alliance and Mental Health Foundation; understands that people seeking asylum do not have the right to work and rely on a financial allowance, which amounts to approximately £6 per day; appreciates that asylum and immigration are reserved matters for the UK Government, but considers that there are interventions that can be made within devolved competence to improve the lives of people in Scotland who are in receipt of asylum support; notes the commitment in the Programme for Government 2022-23 to consider how best to provide free bus travel to people seeking asylum, and further notes the calls encouraging the Scottish Government to set out how it plans to deliver on this commitment as soon as possible.


Paul Sweeney (Glasgow) (Lab)

In December 2021, alongside ambassadors from the VOICES network, who are in the gallery today, I launched a campaign for free bus travel for people seeking asylum here in Scotland.

Since then, the campaign has attracted widespread support from across the asylum sector and from third sector organisations such as Maryhill Integration Network, MIN Voices, the Scottish Refugee Council, JustRight Scotland, Grampian Regional Equality Council and Friends of Scottish Settlers, among others. On top of that, there is cross-party support in this Parliament. This week, the Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee backed the extension of countrywide provision to asylum seekers through the national concessionary bus travel scheme, calling the policy “transformative”. I also thank Bob Doris, the member for Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn, and Mark Ruskell, the Green member for Mid Scotland and Fife region, for their continued cross-party efforts in support of the campaign.

In my Glasgow region, an all-day bus ticket costs £5. People seeking asylum do not have the right to work and therefore rely on an allowance of only £6 per day to cover the cost of living; for the ever-increasing number of people living in provided hotel accommodation, the allowance can be as little as £1.36 per day. Having to fork out £5 for bus travel to attend medical, social, legal or even urgent Home Office appointments is simply not an option unless they go without food or other essentials. Asylum accommodation is often situated in isolated parts of cities with the lowest rents and unaffordable public transport, compounding the isolation for many new Scots.

Concessionary bus travel is therefore a key social justice policy and one that has the ability to positively transform the lives of those who are stuck in the dreadfully slow and inadequate asylum system that is presided over by the Conservative-run Home Office.

People who are seeking asylum are among the most vulnerable people in our society. They are forced to live in squalid conditions on next to no money and they are prevented from getting a job to earn money despite often being highly qualified and despite being eminently capable people who are able to contribute so much to our communities.

The difficulties that are faced by people who are seeking asylum in Scotland lie firmly at the door of the Conservative United Kingdom Government. However, the Scottish Government has the ability to improve the lives of asylum seekers in many practical ways. Free bus travel would enable people who are seeking asylum to explore and integrate in their new home country. It would also vastly improve their quality of life, with the cost of bus travel eating up the already scarce amount that is provided by the Home Office for essentials.

As I mentioned in my opening remarks, the third sector and the asylum sector are right behind the campaign, but it is important to draw attention to the support from wider civic society, too. Indeed, all faith leaders in the Scottish religious leaders forum have signed an open letter in support of the policy, and the Mental Health Foundation and the Poverty Alliance have recommended the proposal.

I have been pleased to work on a cross-party basis with parliamentary colleagues, engaging with the Scottish Government on this ask and liaising directly with successive transport ministers and Transport Scotland. I also personally met the Deputy First Minister in her previous role as Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Housing and Local Government and the Cabinet Secretary for Wellbeing Economy, Fair Work and Energy in his previous role as Minister for Culture, Europe and International Development with special responsibility for refugees, both of whom saw merit in the proposal.

Following the commitment in the 2022-23 programme for government to work with the third sector partners and councils to consider how best to provide free bus travel for asylum seekers, a 12-week trial took place earlier this year in Glasgow. However, there was no mention of a national roll-out of free bus travel for asylum seekers in the 2023-24 programme for government, which came as a disappointment to those who have worked on the campaign for almost two years now. Now is the time to implement it on a full-time basis.

The Scottish Government is already providing concessionary travel through the young persons scheme and the older and disabled persons scheme. The framework is there and it can easily be extended.

Jackson Carlaw (Eastwood) (Con)

Mr Sweeney will be aware that the proposal is the subject of an active petition that is before the Citizen Participation and Public Petitions Committee and that it has drawn cross-party support. On behalf of the committee and the petitioner, I put the issue directly to the First Minister when he appeared before the Conveners Group just before the October recess. At that meeting, he gave a very strong commitment to look into seeking to deliver on the aims of the petition. Is Mr Sweeney pleased, at least, with that progress to date? Is he, like me, hopeful that the Minister for Transport will be able to advance the First Minister’s commitment beyond that which he was able to give in June?

Paul Sweeney

As an alumnus of the Citizen Participation and Public Petitions Committee and an evangelist for its work, I commend the member for Eastwood, in his capacity of convener of that committee, for putting that question to the First Minister at the recent session with him. I am pleased that there are encouraging responses from the First Minister. I hope that the Minister for Transport has heard those remarks, too, and will respond in due course.

First Bus, which serves the Eastwood constituency, is the largest bus operator in Scotland and indeed in Glasgow, which is the asylum dispersal area with the highest numbers in the United Kingdom. It has confirmed that it would support any mechanism that would offer travel assistance to displaced people providing that provisions were reviewed and tied to a reimbursement rate that was similar to that for the existing concessionary travel schemes.

I have had recent correspondence with the Minister for Transport in which she committed to looking further into the proposal. In addition, the First Minister, as the member for Eastwood mentioned, has said that he is actively considering the matter. I therefore urge the minister to update Parliament today on whether the Government will make an order, in exercise of the powers conferred by the Transport (Scotland) Act 2005, to establish a national bus travel concession scheme for those people who are seeking asylum in Scotland as defined by section 94 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. Extending the free bus travel scheme on that basis is well within the Scottish Government’s gift.

Supplementing the existing concessionary travel schemes will cost a fraction of the overall Scottish budget, and the change can be brought in at speed and at pace, providing quick relief to those who are seeking asylum here in Scotland. Frankly, for such small change, it would make a huge difference to thousands of lives.


Kaukab Stewart (Glasgow Kelvin) (SNP)

I am grateful to Paul Sweeney for bringing the debate to the chamber. I also note that a petition on this very issue has been lodged. Clearly, there is public momentum behind the campaign, and I know that the Scottish Government will be listening very carefully.

We know that the financial burden that is associated with bus travel is an obstacle for many asylum seekers. I, too, welcome the pilot schemes and urge the Government to carefully consider the recommendations that arise from them, such as the pilot that is being conducted by the Refugee Survival Trust and First Bus, which is supported by the Grampian Regional Equality Council and the Scottish Refugee Council.

As Paul Sweeney mentioned, earlier this week, in my capacity as convener of the Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee, I announced the publication of the committee’s report on its inquiry into the lived experience of asylum seekers in Scotland. The committee heard very clearly from witnesses on the issue and has therefore included in its report a strong recommendation for the expansion of the national concessionary travel scheme to include asylum seekers. I hope that that will lend further weight to calls for something that would make a huge difference to their lives.

Understanding that immigration and employment are reserved matters, on three separate occasions, the committee wrote to the UK Government’s Minister for Immigration, Robert Jenrick MP, inviting him to give evidence to us, but no reply was received. That is disrespectful, to say the least. Once again, it falls to the Scottish Government to mitigate the situation. We in the Scottish Parliament can provide action to back up our message of welcome and support for asylum seekers.

What I say will never be as powerful as the words of asylum seekers themselves, so I will use my remaining time to give voice to their words, which have been given to me in a statement by asylum seekers who are working with the Maryhill Integration Network. I read them verbatim:

“We are writing this statement as a collective of people who are currently in the asylum process, in communities and in hotel accommodation across Scotland. Free bus travel will provide us with the opportunity to travel, especially to appointments crucial to our asylum claim, such as with our lawyers. Hotels feel like open prisons, and although we can leave, we have no funds to do so. Being confined into one space has also led to a decline in our mental health and wellbeing as we are left alone, with nothing to do as we don’t have the right to work. Free bus travel will also allow us to integrate into the community, volunteer, attend college classes, places of worship and become familiar with our new home. The current asylum support is only enough to cover our food and essential needs, so some of us who are unable to walk for long distances due to medical reasons, may need to prioritize spending the allowance on transport. We want to contribute to society by volunteering, we want to gain new skills and we want to have the choice to travel. We are individuals with experience and education, and most importantly we are human. Humans that have gone through hardship, struggle and even persecution—and with this free bus travel, we will have some degree of freedom during our difficult Immigration process. The immigration system is stressful with many difficulties, with Free Bus Travel in Scotland, for such a small change, it will have a huge difference for us all.”

Those are their words, Presiding Officer. I need not say anything further.


Douglas Lumsden (North East Scotland) (Con)

I thank Paul Sweeney for bringing this important debate to the chamber. It concerns a timely issue that the Parliament is right to discuss. As we have heard, many organisations have raised the issue as a matter of concern. It is from members’ business debates such as this one that we become more informed and start asking serious questions. We have also heard that the issue is the subject of a live petition, so there will be progress on it.

In preparation for the debate, I read through the Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee’s recently published report and the report on the travel choices project, which members received last night. Both reports highlight benefits to asylum seekers, but it is clear that more work needs to be done.

We need to understand the costs of the measure—the bus companies would need to be reimbursed from somewhere. We need to understand whether there is more of an issue in rural areas such as the north-east and Highlands than there is in urban areas. We need to understand how we can identify those who might be eligible for the scheme. We need to understand how the scheme would benefit those in rural areas, where bus services are few and underresourced. I suppose that the Government might have choices around options that it could provide in the scheme, such as whether travel would be limited by ticket price or distance, or whether it should be an unlimited scheme to allow asylum seekers to travel right across Scotland.

As we have heard, there are still many unanswered questions, and it is imperative that the Scottish Government looks into the matter in greater detail, as the committee report calls on it to do. I know that the Assembly in Wales has taken similar action, so it should be possible for us to learn from its experience and to evaluate its scheme prior to considering one for Scotland.

I fully appreciate the calls from many charities and faith groups to introduce the scheme here. It feels like a simple thing that we can do to help those who are fleeing persecution. However, we have to understand better the implications on public finances and the potential implications for our local government colleagues. With so many strains on public finances, we need to be sure that this is the right thing to do at this time.

We also need to have people’s asylum applications dealt with faster. I note from the travel choices report that one of the asylum seekers who took part in the pilot had been here for 20 years without a decision being made.

The cost to the public of transport in Scotland is high. Bus and train fares are high, and we need to work together to ensure that transport is not a barrier to accessing vital public services and support.

I appreciate that Mr Sweeney is a member for Glasgow, so the focus of the motion is on that city. However, rural regions such as the one that I represent have different challenges and priorities. I would like to know whether such a scheme would help asylum seekers in those areas when rural bus services are under such pressure.

Paul Sweeney

The member is making a series of fair points. However, will he also note that the total number of asylum seekers who are present in Scotland as of March this year was only just over 5,000? We are talking about a relatively small number of people, so there would be a fairly marginal increase in the number of entitlements in the current schemes.

Douglas Lumsden

I absolutely recognise that but, in this chamber, we are often challenged about where money is going to come from, so it would be good to know the overall cost. I am sure that it will not be huge, and the proposal is surely something that we can implement.

I echo the final paragraph in the statement by the faith communities, which have also called for the scheme to be introduced. In doing so, I commend the work of the third sector in Scotland, which carries a great deal of the burden in our social care sector. The faith communities’ statement says that they look with hope

“to a future in Scotland where everyone has the opportunity to thrive and contribute to their communities.”

That is a sentiment that we can all agree with.

I agree that the Scottish Government should look more closely at getting accurate costings, and should consider where the money should come from and how the system would work. It must also consider the implications for our rural communities, because one size probably will not fit all, but I am sure that that is something that we can overcome.

I thank Mr Sweeney for raising the issue, and I look forward to discussing it further as we go through the process.


Stuart McMillan (Greenock and Inverclyde) (SNP)

I thank Paul Sweeney for bringing the debate to the chamber.

I want to live in a Scotland where we treat everyone who lives within our borders with dignity and respect. I gently remind Paul Sweeney about his party’s chequered position on immigration, but he and I can agree that the Tories at Westminster have ripped up the rule book when it comes to treating people with compassion—particularly people seeking asylum. The rhetoric from Suella Braverman and Robert Jenrick, among others, has been nothing short of appalling. It has made bringing forward proposals such as free bus travel for people seeking asylum more challenging.

No doubt there will be people watching the debate who disagree with the motion, saying that the money could be better spent elsewhere—we know that the Scottish Government budget has consistently been cut, and it is tight to say the least. However, I think that, sadly, many will have been taken in by the rhetoric from the UK Government and will not appreciate that we are talking about a very small number of people. As Paul Sweeney indicated, we are talking about around 5,000 people.

Along with the local MP, Ronnie Cowan, I have met many of the asylum seekers in my constituency. The hotel that is being used to accommodate them initially had a maximum capacity of 80, but that has recently been increased to 160. That doubles up the strangers in rooms. No extra money is coming from the UK Government to help to deal with that and provide local services as a consequence.

Asylum seekers want a home of their own and they want to contribute to society, and many have skills that many local businesses and the public sector could utilise. Instead, they are left to find things to do day after day before returning to their room without their family. Until we have experienced the lives that asylum seekers live, nobody can fully understand what they are going through mentally. They are human beings, and they often come from war-torn countries.

The Scotland that I believe in is a warm and open country that welcomes people who want to come here and create new lives for themselves. Organisations such as Your Voice are doing a great job in trying to help asylum seekers in the Greenock and Inverclyde constituency. I am very proud of my constituents and the job that they have done in opening up the hand of friendship and being very warm and welcoming to asylum seekers. However, the fact that asylum seekers are regularly moved around the country without any choice makes things a lot harder for my community and other communities in which there are asylum seekers. I have spoken to a man who, in the space of 15 months, has moved from a hotel in Northern Ireland to three more in Scotland. At the end, he came to Greenock. That is no way to live—it is an existence.

That is why I fully support providing free bus travel for people who are seeking asylum, which might make it just a wee bit easier for them to get around.

Jackson Carlaw

It is clear that asylum seekers who are under 25 and over a certain age will already be eligible for free bus travel. I do not have an issue of principle with the Government; it is an issue of practical implementation, in that the Government has to identify, in a transparent and measurable way, a cohort of individuals to extend the scheme to. I hope that the minister will be able to advance us on that. I think that we agree on the principle; the issue is the practical way in which it might be implemented.

Stuart McMillan

I am sure that the minister will deal with that matter. Obviously, that was not a question for me.

I have witnessed locally men supporting each other over language barriers. If a person speaks Arabic and is well spoken in English, they can become a helpful conduit for the rest of the group. That can be very important when people need to raise an issue or seek help, particularly when it comes to reading formal letters.

Asylum seekers receive a very small allowance each week. If a person is staying in a hotel, they will receive £9.58. Asylum seekers stay in hotels in my constituency. As we know, that is not a huge amount of money, particularly with the costs of travel. For a relatively low cost, the benefit of free bus travel to asylum seekers would be truly game changing, and it would reflect the different approach that we could take in Scotland to supporting those in need. However, I go back to the point that I know that finances are extremely tight, to say the least.

Disabled asylum seekers aged between 22 and 59 may experience issues in accessing the current concessionary travel scheme, as their eligibility may be dependent on the receipt of certain UK welfare benefits that asylum seekers cannot access.

The Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee report was published this week, and the convener of that committee, Kaukab Stewart, has already spoken in the debate. I will quote from that report. An asylum seeker told the committee:

“When I’m stressed, everything about me goes down. So bus passes would be a big help”.

I welcome the committee’s findings. An extension of the existing national concessionary scheme to include all asylum seekers would be transformative. I hope that the Scottish Government will consider that during the upcoming budget process, but I also recognise that doing that would be extremely difficult.


Paul O’Kane (West Scotland) (Lab)

I thank my friend Paul Sweeney for bringing the debate to the chamber. I pay tribute to him for his long-standing work—in this Parliament, in the House of Commons and in the communities of Glasgow that he represents—on this issue and wider issues that have an impact on people who are seeking asylum.

As we have heard, the issue that we are debating sits in the context of the Illegal Migration Act 2023 and the backlogs in asylum processing, which demonstrate—I think—a lack of support and dignity afforded to people who are seeking asylum from the many dangerous situations in which they have found themselves in their country of origin.

I spoke on this subject on behalf of Scottish Labour in the debates on the Illegal Migration Bill, and I have expressed my view of the callous approach that the UK Conservative Government has taken in passing that bill. It is vital that the Scottish Government uses the powers and resources that it has at its disposal to alleviate the structural problems that people seeking asylum face when they are living in Scotland.

As we have heard, access to transport is one of the most fundamental and basic barriers with which we can provide help. We have heard that asylum seekers are not allowed to work and therefore have to live off an allowance that amounts to only £6 a day. That leads to there being little money left for travel, once basic essentials such as food are taken into account.

We should make no mistake about it: travel is essential. Seeing a general practitioner or a solicitor, attending support appointments, seeking advice or just seeing other people to feel a sense of community are all fundamental things that every member in the chamber takes for granted; it should be no different for those who are seeking asylum.

Over the past year, the Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee, on which I sit, has heard a lot of evidence on the subject through our inquiry into asylum seekers in Scotland, and, as we have heard, it has highlighted the issue of free bus travel. Just last week, the committee’s report made clear recommendations on that issue, and the evidence in that report is compelling. Along with committee colleagues, I was greatly moved by the evidence that we heard, both formally and informally, about the impact that a lack of access to travel has on people.

During the committee’s work, it was particularly helpful for us to visit the Maryhill Integration Network and hear directly from people who experience those barriers daily. I thank my colleague the committee convener, Kaukab Stewart, for taking the time today to share some of those experiences.

I will add to that some of the formal evidence that we heard. Pinar Aksu of the Maryhill Integration Network told the committee that free bus travel

“would make life a little easier for people who are living in such horrific conditions”,

and that

“in cases in which people are put into hotel accommodation in rooms that have been described ... as their cells, it would literally save lives.”—[Official Report, Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee, 2 May 2023; c 22.]

The observations that I have quoted hold true for asylum seekers across Scotland; in particular, for those who live in rural communities, such as many of the rural areas in my West Scotland region.

Obviously there are higher costs for providing concessionary travel for individuals in rural areas, which is why the committee wanted to recognise the importance of ensuring that the scheme is properly designed, tested and costed. I think that every member in the chamber agrees that we have to do that.

I welcome the recognition in the motion of the calls by the Scottish religious leaders forum for access to free bus travel for asylum seekers. When I spoke to people who are currently in the system, I heard that there are challenges with getting to a place of worship, for example, which—as we all know—is a fundamental human right. I also heard about the ability to access services that are provided by faith organisations such as the Jesuit Refugee Service in Glasgow and the excellent English for speakers of other languages classes that are run at St Aloysius’ church in Garnethill. I look forward to visiting that service soon and discussing the work that we are doing to try to improve access, not least by ensuring that people can get transport to such services.

I am conscious of time, so I will conclude. I welcome the debate, the work that the committee has done and its strong recommendations. I look forward to hearing from the minister how we can move forward quickly with an enhancement of the national concessionary scheme to ensure that people who are seeking asylum are afforded the basic human rights and dignity that I think such a scheme would provide.


Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

I, too, thank Paul Sweeney for bringing this important members’ business debate to the chamber, and I pay tribute to the incredible activists who have been driving the campaign over the past two years; I know that many of them are in the public gallery today. For me, their testimonies have been deeply moving, and I am sure that it is thanks to them that many of us are in the chamber to take part in the debate, amplifying their voices.

It will come as no surprise to many of my colleagues to hear me talk about buses. I am incredibly proud of the success of the extension of concessionary bus travel to under-22s. With millions of young people now signed up to the scheme, we have been shown exactly how transformative free bus travel can be.

All young people under 22, including those who seek asylum, can access that concession, which, undoubtedly, makes a huge difference to their daily lives, especially in the middle of a cost of living crisis. Extending that scheme to all people who seek asylum would be a real and tangible step that would make a huge difference to a community that is forced into poverty by the Home Office.

I use the word “forced” carefully. People who seek asylum are forced into poverty because they are not allowed to work. Instead, they must rely on a limited form of housing and support from the Home Office of £6 a day for all essential living needs: clothing, travel, keeping in touch with loved ones, toiletries, school supplies for their kids, food and so much more. That is barely 58 per cent of what anyone else would receive on universal credit.

Those who live in hotels get only £1.40 a day. In my region, more than 100 people in Perth are in that situation. In Perth, a bus day ticket costs £3.90. To travel by bus from Perth to Edinburgh or Glasgow, a ticket costs £9. Travel is completely unaffordable for someone who survives on £1.40 a day.

Over the past few years, the inadequacy of that so-called support from the Home Office has become painfully clear. The UK Government has forced torture survivors into squalid camps on former Army bases; folks have been forced on to repurposed barges, which are better described as floating prisons; and, here in Scotland, people have been stuck in hotels, sharing rooms with people that they do not know, for months on end, unable to access the services and support that they desperately need.

Asylum is, of course, reserved to the UK Government. Although we may want to dismantle that racist and hostile environment in its entirety, we cannot yet legislate in this place to do so. However, we have the powers—and the responsibility—to mitigate some of the worst harms that are caused by UK Government policy. The Scottish Government has shown leadership in protecting people who seek asylum, through the limited powers that are available. Extending free bus travel must be part of that safety net.

We also now have evidence of how such a scheme might work and the impact that it could have. The Scottish Government funded a pilot in Glasgow, and there have been similar schemes in Aberdeen and Wales. The evidence is clear: 100 per cent of participants in Glasgow said that the scheme had a positive impact. Every pilot has recommended a national roll-out of free bus travel to all people who seek asylum.

I know that the minister is actively considering the outcomes of the recent pilot and the options going forward. I thank the Scottish Government for its constructive engagement over the past two years with me, Paul Sweeney, Bob Doris and others.

I end by saying that we do not need any more evidence to show us how much such an intervention is needed or the impact that it will have. In the words of a pilot participant in Glasgow,

“this ticket is a life saver.”

The route to implementation may be challenging, but we have to get such a scheme over the line. That is our responsibility, as a country that is proud to protect all those who seek safety.


Katy Clark (West Scotland) (Lab)

I congratulate Paul Sweeney on securing what is an important debate, and I thank him for his tireless campaigning on the issue. Most of us in the Parliament agree that the UK presides over an asylum system that treats asylum seekers inhumanely.

Earlier this week, I visited the Muthu Glasgow River hotel in Erskine, which currently provides accommodation for around 160 asylum seekers. From the discussions that I had there, it was clear that travel costs remain a major financial burden for asylum seekers. Under current Home Office rules, as we know, asylum seekers are prevented from working, even though many have skills that we need. At Erskine, they receive a payment of £9.50 to cover essential costs, including travel. As Paul Sweeney and others have indicated, many at other sites receive far less.

It was clear that a lot of work has been done in Erskine. The staff have worked with Renfrewshire Council to ensure that young asylum seekers at the hotel are provided with concessionary bus travel under the scheme for people who are under 22 years old. That allows about 10 asylum seekers at the hotel to have bus passes, but that means that the remainder—the majority—are ineligible for any concessionary travel schemes that are currently offered.

Given the hotel’s location in Erskine, asylum seekers there often have to rely on bus travel to reach other parts of Renfrewshire or greater Glasgow—for example, to go to college. They often need to travel to appointments with their lawyers or to access volunteering and—as I said—education, but also to connect with members of their community who live further afield. We need to be aware of the language issues, as many asylum seekers do not yet have good English. Bus fares in the Erskine area can be as high as £5.20 per day, which is more than half the £9.50 payment that asylum seekers are given.

The recent travel choices trial that took place in Glasgow earlier this year highlights the positive impact that free bus travel can have on asylum seekers. It is clear that free bus travel for asylum seekers can work, and it is crucial that we encourage integration from day 1. I would be interested if the minister could outline any work that has been done on costings for such a scheme, to enable further discussion. It is important that the Parliament uses the powers that are available to us to ensure that asylum seekers in Scotland are treated as humanely as possible.


Bob Doris (Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn) (SNP)

I congratulate Paul Sweeney on securing this debate on free bus travel for all asylum seekers and on his on-going dedication to the campaign. I also thank the VOICES network and Maryhill Integration Network, which is based in my constituency, for their dedication and tenacity in leading the campaign.

I thank MIN for the wide range of other campaigns that it shows leadership on and for the support that it offers migrants in the north of Glasgow more generally. It is great to see people from MIN here this afternoon.

I make it clear from the outset that I support the campaign. We must find a way to deliver free bus travel to all asylum seekers. I have been pleased to work in partnership with colleagues—particularly Paul Sweeney and Mark Ruskell—on a cross-party basis. That partnership work is a key strength of the campaign.

However, the campaign’s most compelling strength is the lived experience of our asylum-seeking community. It is absolutely clear that the UK Home Office does not come close to supporting the most vulnerable people to meet their basic needs. They are forced to survive on as little as £45 a week, as we have heard, which is little more than £6 a day. If they stay in a hotel, they have little more than £1 a day. They are also denied the right to work.

In my constituency, I regularly see the impact on asylum-seeking individuals and families of not having enough funds to live on. They struggle to buy day-to-day items that people take for granted and live in temporary accommodation; often, they struggle with a variety of underlying health conditions and live in trauma.

The day-to-day reality for many asylum seekers is deeply challenging. Simply getting on a bus is an unaffordable luxury for many. That is why it is welcome that asylum seekers in Scotland who are under 22 or over 60 have full access to the Scottish Government’s national entitlement scheme, but we must go further.

Given the financially precarious and fragile situation that asylum seekers are living in and—to be frank—the appalling support that the UK Government offers, it is right that we should look to extend free bus travel to all asylum seekers. I know that the Scottish Government agrees with that. The recent free bus travel pilot project, which was funded by the Scottish Government and run through the Refugee Survival Trust, demonstrates that commitment.

The pilot may have been small in scale, but it was powerful. Analysis of the project clearly demonstrates the powerfully beneficial impact that having free bus travel delivers for our asylum-seeking community. The survey of the pilot’s 150 participants showed a 38 per cent increase in those who used buses every day—the rate went up to 72 per cent. Of the participants, 92 per cent travelled more frequently and 88 per cent took longer journeys.

Most journeys were to allow asylum seekers to attend appointments, which sometimes related to their asylum case and sometimes were for other reasons, such as health. Journeys were also made to meet family and friends, which has a clear benefit in tackling social isolation and promoting positive mental health. One in five journeys was made for shopping, and given the limited budget that asylum seekers live on, that is really important.

According to one asylum seeker—I bet that I cannae find the quote now, Presiding Officer—two things changed after the pilot. Their mental health improved and they saved money. They were more available for activities with their son—they could watch him play football—and they were able to use food banks. Is this not a pathetic society that we live in if we have to give someone a free bus ticket to get to a food bank, because they do not have enough money? We must—and we can—do better.

I know that there are budget constraints in this place, but we must find a budget consensus and deliver on this campaign. I know, too, that there must be complexities involved in delivery, because why on earth would the Welsh Government, whose initiative I welcome, extend free bus travel to refugees but not asylum seekers? To my friends who have contacts in the UK Government, I say that if there are complexities in delivering this initiative across Scotland, they should work with us to ensure that we deliver both in budget terms and in practical terms. This simply must happen.


The Minister for Transport (Fiona Hyslop)

I thank Paul Sweeney for bringing this debate to the chamber. I know that he has taken a keen interest in the issue for some time now, particularly in his current role as convener of the cross-party group on migration. A number of members have consistently raised and supported the interests of asylum seekers fleeing war and persecution, not only in this parliamentary session but in previous sessions, and I would highlight among them Bob Doris and Mark Ruskell.

I thank all members for their contributions. Many will be members of the cross-party group and fully behind the campaign to make all people seeking asylum in Scotland eligible for free bus travel under the concessionary travel scheme. For my part, I reflect on the fact that, within months of becoming Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning in 2007, I had established a means by which children of asylum seekers who had been living in Scotland for the requisite time and who had met their academic grades were eligible for home fee status and subsequently free university tuition. At that time, many families had to wait five years or more for their applications to be processed and could go to university only by paying prohibitive international fees.

Therefore, I, too, come from a tradition of working out what can be done to provide support to people seeking asylum living in Scotland. Indeed, my officials and I are in the process of working through a number of areas that need to be addressed to progress our commitment to work with third sector partners and local authorities on how best to provide free bus travel to asylum seekers. The first question is whether there is political agreement to do that. From what I have heard this afternoon and from our earlier programme for government commitment, I think that there is clear cross-party support for action in this area. We have heard from, among others, Kaukab Stewart, convener of the Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee, who said that the committee’s report, which was published on Tuesday, supports the extension of the existing national concessionary scheme to include all asylum seekers and views that as a transformative effort for people in Scotland seeking asylum.

However, in recognising the shared appetite to make progress, I know that members will recognise that delivering the provision of free bus travel is more complex and that there are factors that require to be worked through further. We must ensure that the introduction of free bus travel does not have unintended or negative consequences for the people whom, as we will all agree, we are seeking to support.

As a result, I want to highlight certain practical issues as we consider how free bus travel can be delivered to all asylum seekers in Scotland. Amending the statutory concessionary scheme will require secondary legislation, and we should weigh up the merit of local schemes for those asylum seekers who currently do not qualify. That is why I am interested in the work that has been undertaken in the local pilots in Aberdeen, Falkirk and Glasgow, which has shown clear evidence of the benefits that access to free bus travel can offer asylum seekers. I am carefully considering those conclusions in weighing up how best to proceed.

Another consideration is the powers that the Scottish Government has in this area. Everyone will recognise that the issue needs to be worked through fully as proposals are developed. In broad terms, immigration is reserved, while integration and transport are devolved. We understand that the Welsh Government and the Northern Ireland Executive are both considering the question of providing travel support to asylum seekers, and we are liaising with both on shared interests in this matter.

Finally, I want to highlight the issue of funding. That has two dimensions, the first of which is how the Scottish Government might fund what would amount to a recurring annual cost. It is estimated that extending the concessionary travel scheme to all people seeking asylum in Scotland could cost between £1.3 million and £3.2 million annually. The variation in the estimates is due to uncertainty around the expected take-up of the scheme and potential levels of patronage, and it will increase if more asylum seekers are dispersed here, as is planned by the Home Office. The budgetary pressures in this financial year are such that there is currently no funding to support that proposal, although the other issues to be worked through would, in any case, be unlikely to be resolved fully in the same period.

Paul Sweeney

I thank the minister for giving way on that point, and I recognise some of the complexities around having no recourse to public funds, although JustRight Scotland has offered helpful legal advice in that regard, which I hope the minister and her officials have noted.

Is the minister happy to share the detail of the different proposed models so that we can all have sight of what is being proposed and the detailed working of the costings?

Fiona Hyslop

I note the first point and I will come back to the second point.

The second dimension of funding is what effect any proposed provision in this area from the Scottish Government could have on current UK Government support for asylum seekers, which has been flagged up by Mr Sweeney’s intervention. It might also affect the small notional travel element of that support. Members will know that the Home Office is responsible for providing asylum support payments. The Scottish Government has no control over the rate applied.

I know that members and others would like an immediate answer to all those points. That is not possible now, but I assure you that we are actively working through them.

The Scottish Government is clear that people seeking asylum should be supported to integrate from day 1 of arrival. That principle has been set out in the pioneering approach of the new Scots refugee integration strategy for the past decade.

The Scottish Government has repeatedly called for the UK Government, which is responsible for decisions on asylum, including dispersal policy, to ensure that the financial element of support that is provided to people who are seeking asylum reflects the real costs of daily life, including digital access and travel costs.

Historically, the UK Government settled people in and around Glasgow and a support infrastructure has grown in that area over the years. However, the Home Office introduced a full dispersal policy in 2022, presuming that asylum accommodation could be procured in any local authority across the UK, and asylum dispersal is now taking place outside Glasgow.

Therefore, if there is a greater need to help with travel to access essential support services, such as legal advice on applications, that will need to be provided across all areas of Scotland, if we are serious about supporting every asylum seeker to integrate into society and feel at home in our communities from the day that they arrive.

I thank all the contributors to today’s debate. I have discussed the issue with Emma Roddick—the Minister for Equalities, Migration and Refugees—and we agreed that, despite not having all the levers that we would wish to be available and some of the complexities that I have touched on, we are determined to continue to explore every avenue to provide the support that people who are seeking asylum in Scotland so obviously need, to help them in their journey in Scotland and to have a better future.

However, I must stress that we must consider unintended consequences that could potentially cause more difficulties than would be resolved for those who we want to help.

I am meeting representatives of Maryhill Integration Network and partner organisations, including the VOICES Network, JustRight Scotland and the Scottish Refugee Council, on 14 November to hear first hand about the lived experience of people who are seeking asylum and located in Scotland.

I will be extending an invitation to interested MSPs to discuss the issue in more detail with Emma Roddick and me. I look forward to working with you all to put in place the right support for those who come to Scotland seeking safety.

Thank you, minister. That concludes this debate, and I suspend the meeting until 2.30 pm.

13:33 Meeting suspended.  

14:30 On resuming—