HC Deb 27 February 1963 vol 672 cc1260-4

3.34 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. For very many years a large number of local authorities possessing transport undertakings have granted travel concessions to a number of categories of people. The main categories are retirement pensioners, disabled persons, blind persons and children and young people attending Educational establishments. At the moment, approximately 90 local authority transport undertakings grant concessions in this way.

At the end of 1954, a Birmingham rate-payer, Mr. Prescott, challenged the Birmingham Corporation's scheme for free travel for retirement pensioners in the High Court. The case was heard in the Court of Chancery, and the Court decided that the Corporation had neither the power to authorise nor the power to sanction such schemes and that, therefore, the question whether or not the Corporation scheme was ultra vires or intra vires had to be decided on general principles.

The Court held that as the Corporation had the duty to hold a fair balance between all classes of ratepayers, and as its concession meant a free gift, in effect, to a certain category, it amounted to a differentiation between different classes of ratepayers and therefore was ultra vires. This decision was subsequently upheld by the Court of Appeal.

Because of this, in February, 1955, I introduced my Public Service Vehicles (Travel Concession) Act, 1955, which, in its original form, would have reversed the High Court decision and have given the local authorities the power which they assumed they had possessed before the Prescott case. It would have legalised these powers—or almost so, for I sought to limit the categories of grantees to four. The Government amended this proposal in Committee and Lord Avon, then Prime Minister, took a personal interest in the Measure. Indeed, it became the only Private Member's Act which the Government allowed to go through before the General Election in May, 1955.

In Committee, the Government amended the Act so that it did not, however, authorise the local authorities to use the powers they assumed they had before the Prescott decision. The Amendment meant that all that the Measure did was to legalise concessions existing on 30th November, 1954, the date of the High Court decision, so that the pattern of concessionary fares throughout the country was frozen as of that date.

My colleagues and I warned the Government then that although this would solve the problem for the moment it would create considerable and increasing difficulties as time went on. A whole tangle of anomalies and administrative difficulties began to make themselves apparent throughout the country very quickly. The result is that considerable hardship and a great sense of unfairness have been caused about the way the concessionary fares are working. Incomes, types of vehicles and routes have changed. The pattern of housing has also changed.

I want to quote a letter sent to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Exchange (Mrs. Braddock) from a group of old-age pensioners in the Woolton area of Liverpool. It says: Dear Mrs, Braddock, I am enclosing a Petition to ask you if you can do anything for us. We are all old-age pensioners here, and our passes have been taken off us, so we are not able to travel free on our bus No. 4, which is our only transport to use our passes. This has caused us considerable financial hardship as we have to travel on buses to church and the shops, and even for our pensions there is 4d. taken out in fares. We consider this action to be grossly unjust to pensioners who are on a fixed income and can least afford this imposition. I myself have been given this flat in this area without being forewarned that our passes would be withdrawn. Will you kindly help us to get our passes returned?… I imagine that most hon. Members who represent towns and cities throughout the country can quote similar letters. The chief anomalies are, first, that local authorities which were not granting concessions in November, 1954, cannot now introduce them, and, secondly, that local authorities which were granting concessions then cannot alter them in any way to apply to a different type of vehicles or to a different route or to a section of a route.

For instance, a local authority cannot introduce concessionary fares on new roads to new estates, and in some cases the definition of a grantee in 1954 included an income figure. But, of course, incomes have changed since then. Yet the local authorities cannot amend these figures to take account of the changes in income. In some places, the schemes specify the days of the week and the hours of the day in which concessionary fares can be used. Social habits have changed and local authorities cannot amend the days or hours in which the passes can be used. They cannot amend the classes of grantees, even in the list of qualified persons set out in the 1955 Act.

In some cases there is a definition of old-age pensioner in a local authority scheme, and that definition cannot be amended. For example, my own local authority's scheme's definition contains the words "resident within the borough" Many of these old people have been rehoused outside the boroughs, but because of this frozen definition the concession cannot be changed.

There is no power now to levy a rate for the estimated value of the concession. This provision was deleted by the Government when the 1955 Act was in Committee. Local authorities can make a contribution to another local authority for these concessions, but cannot make a contribution to a private operator. The development of our cities throughout the country and of our transport system have made the whole pattern of concessionary fares anomalous and ridiculous. The anomalies are now indefensible and should be cleared up without delay. I might mention, in passing, that both the T.U.C. and the Scottish T.U.C. have passed unanimous resolutions about this subject and have sent them to the Minister of Transport, but have had no more reply than a curt acknowledgment.

I apologise to the House for quoting my own local authority of Newcastle. It grants 19,600 old-age pensioners the right to travel on trolley buses for ld. during certain hours of the day, but as that concession did not apply to motor buses in 1954 it cannot now be extended to them. As I have said, the definition of old-age pensioner includes the words "resident within the borough", so it excludes all those old-age pensioners who have been moved out to the new estates outside the borough—as I know to my cost, because our new housing has left the older parts of the city which I represent and gone outside the perimeter to the constituencies of my hon. Friends. Many of our old people have gone outside the borough and now cannot have concessionary fares.

In Newcastle, we are beginning the central area redevelopment. This means considerable changes, with split levels, and so forth, and trolley buses will be an inappropriate means of transport in this new development, for they will be too inflexible. Newcastle Corporation has decided to change over from trolley to motor buses over a five-year period, which means that virtually all the concessionary fares will have to end.

During the Christmas Recess, the Minister of Transport laid the foundation stone for what, in effect, is the beginning of our central area redevelopment —a very large roundabout and underpass at the end of the Tyne Bridge, costing £1¼ million. Trolley buses will not be able to use this underpass, which means that one of the most important trolley bus routes, going from the far west end of the city, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, West (Mr. Popplewell), to the far east end of the city, will change to motor buses. All the retirement pensioners and blind and disabled people, and so on, living along that route will lose their concessionary fares in June of this year.

In 1960, Newcastle Corporation introduced a Private Bill which contained a concessionary travel Clause. That Clause was passed by a Select Committee of this House, but deleted by a Committee of the other place. I wish that I could take their Lordships who were concerned to see what a difference a few shillings can make to old-age pensioners and the difference which 4d. extra a week to collect their pensions makes to their tight budgets.

Local authorities have many discretionary powers in many activities. During the passing of the Local Government Act, 1958. the present Home Secretary, who was in charge of the Bill, said that he was in favour of an extension of discretionary powers to local authorities. I should have thought that as they have so many discretionary powers in other respects the Government could grant them discretionary powers in this.

The Bill would simply give them the powers which they thought and assumed they possessed until the Act of 1954, except that it would set a limit to the categories of people to whom concessions could be granted. It does not include local councillors. The argument which was often used when the Bill was going through in 1954, and subsequently when I tried to introduce another Bill, was that provision for old-age pensioners and the blind and the badly disabled, and so on. was a matter for the Government and not for local authorities and that they should have adequate incomes so that concessionary fares and concessionary coal and the other concessions would not be necessary.

I absolutely agree that they should have adequate incomes so that arrangements of this kind would not be necessary, but the community is obviously not yet ready to shoulder the burden of preventing the catastrophic drop which occurs when a person retires, or when blindness or a bad disablement occurs. Until the community is ready to shoulder that sort of burden, it would be humane and Christian to allow local authorities who wish to assist to do so.

The purpose of my proposed Bill is simply to enable them to do that and I hope that the House will give me leave to introduce it and that the Government will provide facilities for it to reach the Statute Book during this Session.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Edward Short, Miss Alice Bacon. Mrs. Braddock, Mr. Percy Collick, Mrs. Alice Cullen, Mr. Charles A. Howell, Mr. James H. Hoy, Mr. A. J. Irvine, Mr. Ernest Popplewell, and Mr. W. R. Williams.