HC Deb 15 April 1964 vol 693 cc426-9
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. I believe that the case for this small amendment to the law is very well-known to the House. Therefore, I will take only a few minutes to go over the facts again. I am glad to see the Minister of Trans-port here, I, because I do not think that he has ever really understood what this is all about.

It is one of the minor mysteries of this Government s period in office that they have not made this small change in the law. Indeed, their continual refusal to do anything about it is one of the meanest decisions they have taken in their whole 12 years, because this matter involves a miserable amount of hard-ship to millions of people—old people, blind people and disabled people—in all the big towns and cities in England, Wales and Scotland.

I have estimated that the Government's refusal to tare any action in this matter is costing pensioners in my area between 2s. and 3s. a week. That is the equivalent of about 17s. or 18s. a week on a Member of Parliament's gross salary and £5on the Prime Minister's salary, so it is a matter of some importance to these old people.

The facts are these. Ninety-six local authorities, mainly big towns, have their own transport undertakings and through-out the whale of this century—indeed, way back into the last century—they gave concessionary fares—sometimes cheap fares; sometimes free passes—to certain categories of people—pensioners, disabled people and blind people.

This went on quite happily, and no-body objected to it, until 1954, when a gentleman in Birmingham, named Prescott, wert to the Chancery Division of the High Court and obtained a declaration from the court that Birmingham's concessionary fares to pensioners were ultra viresthe corporation and, therefore, illegal. I think that it was bad law, but, whether it was bad law or good law, only this House can change it.

There were two alternatives before local authorities after that decision. One alternative was to wind up their concessionary schemes, which they did not want to do. The other alternative was for the whole 96 local authorities to introduce Private Bills to get this specific power. To save that colossal waste of public money, as well as to save the burden which that would have placed upon the House, I myself introduced a Private Member's Bill which would have given them the power which they assumed they had until Mr. Prescott intervened.

When the May, 1955, General Election came along the then Prime Minister, Mr. Anthon.y Eden, sent for me. In his room in the House he told me that he would allow this and one other Private Member's Bill to reach the Statute Book and that the Government would give Government time for it. When we got upstairs in Standing Committee, we discovered the catch in it, because the Government amended my Bill so that, instead of it giving the local authorities the power which they always assumed that they had, all it did, after it was amended, was to legalise the concessions which existed on the day on which Mr. Prescott intervened.

We warned the Minister—it was not this Minister then; it was another one, but this Minister was then in the Government, so he is equally responsible—that this would be all right for the moment, but that after a very short time it would create chaos throughout the country.

This has happened for a number of reasons. First, many local authorities have changed their vehicles—from trams to trolley buses and then to diesel buses. When the vehicle is changed the concession is extinguished.

Secondly, every town in the country has built new housing estates since 1954, in many cases around the periphery of the towns, in many cases miles from the towns. They have had to extend old routes and lay on new routes. A new route which has come into existence since 1954 cannot carry any concessions. We have got the quite ridiculous situation now where an Old-age pensioner can have a concession on half a route but not on the other half. It is absolutely fantastic.

Thirdly, some local authorities defined the category of people who could get concessions by reference to income. Incomes have changed in 10 years and this criterion is now out of date. Other local authorities, like my own, had the words "resident within the borough ". Thousands of our people are now resident outside the borough, and, therefore, they are ruled out. So there is real distress and hardship and a real sense of grievance in almost every big town and city about this at present.

Over the last few years, efforts have been made to change this. First, I myself have introduced a Bill to do this on a number of occasions. It has come up in the House on Friday after Friday and it has always been objected to by one or more hon.. Members opposite. We have now got a General Election in the offing, and I think that it would be much more hon.est if hon.. Members opposite who object to it now would call a Division and stand up and be counted, instead of mumbling an anonymous "Object" on a Friday afternoon.

Secondly, many local authorities—between 20 and 30—have inserted Clauses in their Private Bills in the last 10 years to get this power. In every single case, on the instructions of the Ministry of Transport, or at the request of the Ministry of Transport, the Clause has been deleted. In one case, it got through this House and at this Minister's request it was deleted in the other place.

Thirdly, a large number of national bodies have written to the Minister of Transport and to the Prime Minister, including the Scottish T.U.C., the National Federation of Townswomen's Guilds, and the National Federation of Old Age Pensions Associations. In every case, they have got a refusal without any reason being given at all.

Fourthly, I tabled a Question on 17th July last year and the hon.. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East (Mr. Montgomery) tabled a Question on 23rd March of this year. We received identical replies. The Minister said, "I cannot pledge the Government to amend this Act ". More hon.est language would have been, "No, Sir".

We have tried everything we know to get the Government to change the 1955 Act. Now they have decided to extend their life by six months, and they will be very hard put to fill up the 40 or 50 Parliamentary days. On behalf of my right hon.. and hon.. Friends, I want to say that if the Government will give a little Government time for this Bill we will cooperate to get it, or a similar Bill, if this one is not properly drafted, through within a few hours.

If the Government will not do this and they force this hardship on old, blind and disabled people to continue for another six months, I want to make it quite clear—my right hon.. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has authorised me to say this—that this or a similar Bill will be one of the first Bills that the Labour Government will put through when they come into power.

I sincerely hope that the Government will not make these old people wait for six months. If they care to do this next week or the week after, we will co-operate to help get this through

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Short, Miss Bacon, Mrs. Braddock, Mr. McBride, Mr. Monslow, Mr. Popplewell, Mr. G. Thomas, and Mr. Willis.