HC Deb 09 February 1960 vol 617 cc247-50

4.9 p.m.

Mr. Edward Short (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make further provision with respect to the allowing of free travel or reduced fares on public service vehicles run by local authorities, and for purposes connected therewith.

In 1954, about—

Mr. Speaker

Order. We must be able to hear the hon. Member who is seeking the leave of the House to do something.

Mr. Short

In 1954, about 96 local authorities throughout the country, local authorities which owned their own transport undertakings, were operating schemes of concessionary fares, chiefly for old people, blind people, children and disabled persons. In 1954, a Birmingham ratepayer, Mr. Prescott, in the Court of Chancery, challenged the Birmingham Corporation's scheme for concessionary travel to old-age pensioners.

The court held that the corporation had no power to initiate such a scheme, or to prohibit such a scheme. Therefore, the question whether the scheme was ultra vires the corporation would have to be decided on general principles. The court decided that as the corporation had a duty to hold a balance between all sections of its population and that as this concessionary travel scheme for old people meant, in fact, a gift to one section of the population it amounted to a differentiation and therefore was ultra vires the corporation.

That meant that travel concessionary schemes on local authority transport throughout the country were illegal. Many local authorities began to cancel their schemes for concessionary travel. They were faced with that, or with each of the 96 of them promoting their own Private Bills, because the Government took no action to remedy the situation.

At that point, in 1954, I was fortunate enough to draw a place in the Ballot for Private Members' Bills and I introduced a Bill which eventually became the Public Service Vehicles (Travel Concessions) Act, 1955. That Measure was given Government time before the General Election of May, 1955, and was the only Private Member's Bill which was carried in that year.

As I introduced it, that Act would have legalised all the powers to introduce concessionary travel schemes which local authorities were operating and which they thought and assumed they possessed, until the Birmingham court case. That Act set limits to the categories to whom concessionary fares could have been granted.

The Government of the day used their majority to amend the Bill and, instead of giving local authorities the discretion which they previously assumed they possessed, the effect of the Government's Amendment was to freeze the travel concession pattern throughout the country as it was on the day of the Birmingham case, in November, 1954. That is, it legalised concessions which existed in November, 1954, but it did not empower any local authority to increase or to extend them in any way.

My hon. Friends and I who were concerned with that Measure warned the Government that if they persisted in their Amendment they would solve the immediate problem, but they would very soon create a tangle of anomalies throughout the country. That is precisely what has happened. The whole question of concessionary travel on local authority transport is now one great jungle of anomalies and administrative difficulties and those anomalies increase almost every week.

The first of the chief anomalies is that local authorities who own their own transport and who were not operating concessionary fares in November, 1954, cannot introduce such concessionary fares now.

Secondly, authorities which granted concessionary fares in 1954 are unable now to extend or to vary them in any way.

I will briefly explain to the House how that works out. For example, local authorities owning transport systems cannot apply their concessionary fares to new routes which have come into existence since 1954, yet there is scarcely a town in the country which has not built great new housing estates since November, 1954, estates which are served by new bus and trolley bus routes. However, concessionary fares for old people and blind people, and so on, cannot be operated on those new routes. That is causing tremendous difficulty and a great deal of bad feeling throughout the country.

Thirdly, some concessions were related to personal income, and they cannot now be varied to take account of changes in income levels since 1954.

Fourthly, a local authority cannot amend the days or hours of availability of concessionary fares, no matter what industrial or social changes have taken place in its locality.

Fifthly a local authority cannot amend the classes of grantees for concessionary Fares, even within the limits of qualified persons within my Act. If a local authority gave concessions to only three out of the four categories in 1954, it cannot now extend the concession to the fourth category.

Sixthly, with some local authorities there are difficulties about the qualifications of old-age pensioners. Some schemes, before 1954, used the words, "old-age pensioners resident within the borough". Many authorities have built old people's homes outside the borough boundaries, as we have in my local authority, and those old people cannot now take advantage of the concessionary fares because they are no longer resident within the borough and the local authority is unable to alter the scheme.

Seventhly, the 1955 legislation, as it was amended by the Government, did not give local authorities power to levy a rate for the estimated value of the concession granted.

Eighthly, a local authority cannot make a contribution to a private company operator, although it can do so to another local authority. Almost every hon. Member will have an estate in his constituency served by a private company operator, but the local authority concerned cannot make any contribution in respect of concessions by that company.

With the development of our cities throughout the country, existing concessions affect 8 million or 9 million people and, as development has gone on, the anomalies have created a quite ridiculous situation. The anomalies are completely indefensible and have to be cleared up without delay.

If the Government meant what they said during the passage of the Local Government Act, 1958, when the general grant was introduced, they should agree that local authorities should be given discretionary powers about concessionary fares in the same way as they have discretionary powers about other local government matters.

After all, members of the Government cannot go round the country saying that they intend to give more power to local authorities and then deny them power which they all believe they had until Mr. Prescott got to work in the High Court in 1954.

The Bill I seek to introduce is simply to give them the power which they assumed they had before the Birmingham case. As I said, it sets a limit to the concessions which can be granted, restricting them to the four categories of people I have mentioned, and does not include local councillors.

It may be argued, as some hon. Members opposite argued in 1954, that provision for old-age pensioners, blind persons and disabled persons is now a matter for the Government and not for local authorities and that such people should be given an adequate income, so that price concessions of all kinds, whether concessionary coal or concessionary travel, would be unnecessary.

I would be the first to agree with that and I am sure that my hon. and right hon. Friends will concur, but it is obvious that at the moment the community is not ready to shoulder the considerable burden of ensuring that when people retire or go blind or become gravely disabled they shall not suffer a catastrophic drop in income. Until the community is ready to take on that burden, it would appear to be a humane and Christian attitude by local authorities to wish to assist those categories of people.

The purpose of the Bill is simply to enable them to do so and I hope that the House will enable the Bill to proceed.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Short, Miss Bacon, Mrs. Braddock, Mr. G. Darling, Mr. Mitchison, Mr. Monslow, Mr. Popplewell, Mr. G. Thomas, Mr. H. Wilson, and Mr. Wheeldon.