Labour claims bus grant cut 'risks fare rises'
Labour has accused the Scottish government of "causing real misery" in communities following changes to the grants given to bus operators.
It claimed changes to the Bus Services Operators' Grant (BSOG) could result in service cuts and fare rises.
Transport Minister Keith Brown said rising fuel prices were the big factor in increased costs for bus operators.
The Lib Dems said ministers failed to listen to concerns, but the Tories said Labour's position was costly.
The comments came as Labour led a debate on the issue at the Scottish Parliament.
The BSOG is paid to commercial and community bus operators with the aim of helping operators keep their fares down, and enabling them to run services that might not otherwise be commercially viable.
Labour claimed changes announced in the recent Scottish Budget have resulted in a 17% cut to the bus grant for next year, while the method of calculating the support has been altered.
The party's transport spokeswoman, Elaine Murray, said buses can be a lifeline in many communities, particularly for those on low incomes and those that do not own a car.
She said: "The SNP seems oblivious to the fact its decisions at Holyrood are causing real misery in local communities across Scotland.
"Fares are soaring out of control, services are being slashed and hundreds of bus staff are losing their jobs.
Ms Murray called on the Scottish government to "urgently revisit its cuts to the Bus Service Operators Grant" and begin negotiations with operators to ensure that the scheme is sustained at a level that "does not threaten services, jobs and fare hikes."
But Transport Minister Keith Brown said any suggestion that changes to grant funding were the major contributing factor in price hikes by bus operators was "entirely misleading".
He added: "The evidence is overwhelming - the price of diesel has increased by 57% over the last five years and petrol has soared by 55%.
"This government does not have control over this most influential of factors and we again call on Westminster to introduce a fuel duty regulator."
Mr Brown said the Scottish government had allocated total funding of almost £250m per year for Scotland's buses - 20% more per capita than south of the border.
And the minister pointed out that he had also recently announced £6m for a green bus fund and put aside £3m for a transition period during the subsidy changes.
"Given that the last few years have seen a 43% increase in fuel costs, our reforms are making the whole system more efficient," he said.
Lib Dem MSP Jim Hume urged ministers to undertake "proper consultation" with operators and users, and use extra money from the UK Budget to prioritise and safeguard bus services, and guard against high fare increases.
"Services have been reduced in frequency or withdrawn altogether, and now the reality of substantial job losses is a worrying prospect for those 18,000 people employed in the bus industry," he said.
The Tories' Alex Johnstone said Labour had come to parliament with a series of proposals which would "cost a fortune", including money to reverse the decision on BSOG, and the re-regulation of bus services.
"The problem is that we have market failure in the bus service system.
"I believe that the de-regulated approach to bus services has a great deal to commend it in the past, today and in the future."
Mr Johnstone said the free market approach was becoming "distorted" by decisions taken by the government.
Green MSP Patrick Harvie said bus operators existed to make a profit: "This debate should be about the people who rely on these services and the impact that changes have on the level of service, price, or any other factor."