Infrastructure Minister Ray Harmer has defended the decision to increase school bus fares by 10p per journey.

But he appeared to leave some MHKs scratching their heads with some of the justifications he offered up for the increase, which could increase a pupil’s travel costs by about £38 a year.

He argued that his department had been ordered to make savings on public transport – although some MHKs pointed out that a bus fare increase was not actually a saving.

In the House of Keys on Tuesday Rob Callister (Onchan) branded it a ’stealth tax’ that disadvantaged hard-working families. He complained that there was no direct mention of bus fare increases in the recent Budget.

Pressed for further explanation, Mr Harmer said the aim was to get more children walking or cycling, rather than using the bus for short journeys, and to increase revenue – although he also said that freezing fares on other routes had increased revenue by boosting passenger numbers.

’In terms of price rises, our main focus is to drive income,’ he said. ’Some of that will be to continue to freeze a number of those fares that we have frozen since 2013 to drive more numbers up, so it is very much a mixed picture across the fares.’

Mr Harmer insisted that school bus fares were the ’most subsidised’ out of all bus services.

When it had been a free service, many children used it for journeys of less than a mile and one of the benefits of introducing the charge, initially, was that it ’encouraged these children to walk’.

He rejected suggestions the price increase would lead to more children being taken to school in cars and argued the flat rate, regardless of journey length, was fairer than systems in the UK.

Children eligible for free school meals were entitled to free bus travel, he said.

Chief Minister Howard Quayle claimed the matter had been ’blown out of all proportion’.

The decision to increase the cost of a single journey from 30p to 40p was announced and implemented earlier this month – although Mr Harmer said that any payments on the pre-paid Go card system, made at the previous rate, would be honoured.

The government has projected the increase will bring in an extra £75,000 revenue.

Chris Robertshaw (Douglas East) was one of several to become exasperated by repeated references to the SAVE programme and a budgetary requirement to cut costs in public transport by £333,000 in the coming year.

’Something has been lost in translation between the Treasury and the Department of Infrastructure,’ he said.

’When Treasury came out with the SAVE campaign, it was meant to save money. It was not about finding endless ways of passing costs on to the public and the taxpayer.’

Lawrie Hooper (LibVannin, Ramsey) queried whether the minister knew the difference between increasing revenue and making savings and accused him of trying to blame the Treasury.

Mr Harmer said: ’It is about increasing revenue and making cost reductions and this is anticipated to increase revenue.’

He warned that alternatives for cost-saving measures included cutting rural bus routes, which he said would be unacceptable, or reassessing the terms and conditions of Bus Vannin employees.

In a written question, Mr Harmer was asked what alternatives to increasing school bus fares were considered.

He said: ’As part of the SAVE initiative, public transport’s budget is reducing by £1m over three years.

’A number of initiatives will be undertaken to both reduce cost and increase income. The transport strategy showing the principles that will be used to deliver both improvements is currently planned for submission to July Tynwald.’

In response to further written questions, Mr Harmer revealed that in 2018/19, the bus service generated £3,777,560 in income, compared with running costs of £9,468,237.

By comparison, it cost £3,812,338 to run the MER, Steam Railway and Mountain Railway in 2018/19, compared with £1,956,551 income.

The horse trams cost £411,532 to run in 2018/19 and brought in £87,088.

Source: IoMToday