HC Deb 26 July 1965 vol 717 cc191-200

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn—[Mr. Howie.]

11.28 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Palmer (Bristol, Central)

In the great and ancient City of Bristol, the Central constituency which I have the honour to represent is largely, if not entirely, the oldest part, and probably it has more elderly people resident within its boundaries than any other part. There are two reasons for that. First, it is a general and natural tendency in the shifting of population for the younger, more energetic people, those with families, to move to the outer parts of a city, the elderly remaining behind. Also, in Bristol the city corporation, in connection with its new flat dwelling schemes, is rehousing in the central part of the city a fairly high proportion of elderly people because that is felt to be more socially desirable.

Therefore I make no apology at all for raising this issue again, because my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary knows that I have already put down a Question to him on the point. I think that it will be generally accepted on both sides of the House that the care of the aged is a matter of increasing public concern. It is sometimes said that the elderly should not be helped in kind, but only by means of adequate pensions. Contributory pensions have been improved fairly recently, but it has always seemed to me that, in any case, that is an excessively theoretical argument, because in a full employment economy, with an observed trend, under Governments of both parties, towards an inflation of prices and charges, that a limited number of benefits in kind to those who cannot adjust their incomes according to changes in the price level is perfectly justified. Among such benefits I should have thought we should rank highly concessionary travel for old-age pensioners, for at least short distances, because this opportunity to move about to visit friends and relations helps a great deal to reduce loneliness and the isolation that all too unfortunately sometimes goes with old age.

The principle of concessionary travel in cities is already accepted in legislation, particularly by the Public Services Travel Concessions Act, 1964, passed during the time of the present Parliament. As the law now stands, all local authorities who run their own buses have the power to grant travel concessions on their vehicles to certain classes of travellers, including men over 65 years of age and women over 60 years of age. The local authorities adopting this principle can if they wish, charge a part, or a whole of the cost to the rates. This useful power has been taken advantage of in a number of cities with public transport undertakings, for example in Liverpool, Birmingham and Glasgow.

Yet this justified privilege which is now available in many cities is not available in the city of Bristol. In this city the needs of old-age pensioners are just as great as anywhere else, and certainly the cost of living bears on them as hardly as it does elsewhere. But in Bristol the old-age pensioner who travels on the buses, up till now, is obliged to pay the full rate, and he has to do this even if the buses are half empty at off-peak times. What is the reason for this anomaly, this curious state of affairs in which what one can have in many large cities if one is an old-age pensioner, is denied to those in the City of Bristol? It is certainly not that the buses in Bristol are privately-owned.

The history of the Bristol transport undertaking, as I understand it, is that it was originally owned before the war by the Bristol Tramway Co., with the Bristol Corporation having the option to buy out the Tramway Co. every seventh year.

It then passed to Tillings, it became part of a larger combine, and at nationalisation was acquired by what was then the British Transport Commission. Now, in the fullness of time and with changing legislation, the owners in part are the Transport Holding Company, still a nationalised concern. In 1939, Bristol County Council in part exercised its option and acquired very nearly half the financial interest in the company. Therefore, directly or indirectly, Bristol's transport undertaking is a publicly owned concern.

If Bristol old-age pensioners do not get this concession which is available elsewhere, it is not because the city council is indifferent to the needs of old-age pensioners; quite the reverse. On a number of occasions it has carried motions, generally supported from both sides of the council, in favour of travel concessions or reduced fares for local old-age pensioners. Therefore—and I press this on my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary—in Bristol there are present the two conditions normally necessary for reduced fares for old-age pensioners, namely, public ownership and a public authority willing to take action.

The only obstacle is an unfortunate technicality—the absence of joint management of the transport undertaking between the city council and the executive of the undertaking. There is an advisory committee, with three representatives from the council and three from the transport undertaking, which is an influential body, but it does not actually manage the undertaking. That is the difficulty.

This is the basis of my appeal to my hon. Friend, whose human sympathy and that of his right hon. Friend are well known. I know that the issue has been raised before and that the Ministry has sent representatives to Bristol to discuss at length what I call the technical difficulties, and I am not for a moment suggesting that the Ministry is remiss. I know that it has taken great trouble to go into the technical problem.

What concerns me, as I am sure it concerns hon. Members opposite who sit for Bristol constituencies, is whether, with such a wealth of good will in the Council—and I must say that I have had courteous correspondence with the transport company itself—and in the Ministry, there is no way of getting over the technical legal difficulty, if it is one. I express doubt because, from information given to me, I understand that in York, where ownership conditions are roughly similar, the authorities have gone ahead and granted reduced fares to old-age pensioners. Perhaps they are taking a risk that some irate or, some might say, mean-spirited ratepayer, who would nevertheless be within his rights, will ask for an injunction against them in the High Court. Can my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary tell us how York has been able to go ahead? Are the authorities there taking a legal risk, or has the technical problem been overcome? Any information which my hon. Friend can give will be of the greatest interest to the people of Bristol.

The issue is of concern in other places also. Brighton, which has been mentioned to me, does not have an exactly similar problem, but the state of affairs there is generally analogous and, presumably, there are other places which have this difficulty. Therefore, in giving an answer to us in Bristol, my hon. Friend may be helping other parts of the country and generally clearing up what is an annoying anomaly to those who are anxious to help the elderly in this matter but find themselves frustrated.

It would not be proper for me to advocate new legislation; that does not come into my case. I am asking whether something can be done within the terms of the existing legislation, which went some way in the matter but, some people might say, not far enough.

I know that the cost to the rates in Bristol has been discussed between the City Council and the transport undertaking, but I have not gone into this tonight because it is largely irrelevant to my case. The question of cost is, presumably, being dealt with quite satisfactorily in the other cities which have adopted this principle; and if it can be done there, equal success should be possible in Bristol.

If this debate serves no other purpose, it will give my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary an opportunity to make an up-to-date statement. I assure him that his statement is awaited with interest and hope, not only by the elderly of Bristol, but by welfare social and religious bodies in the city who, like myself, cannot believe that nothing can be done to bring Bristol's position into line with the favourable situation in the matter of travel concessions for the elderly which exists in other large cities.

11.43 p.m.

Mr. Martin McLaren (Bristol, North-West)

I hope that the hon. Member for Bristol, Central (Mr. Palmer) may like to have the support of one of his colleagues who has, perhaps, known the Bristol buses for a few years longer than he has. I was amused at the outset of the hon. Member's speech to hear him imply that my constituents on the outskirts of the city were a livelier and more energetic lot than his.

It seems to me that the reasons why the retirement pensioners feel that they would like reduced bus fares, not only in the city of Bristol, but elsewhere, are three in number. The first is that since, I would say, about October of last year, the value of money in their pockets and in their handbags has gone down sharply. Secondly, again since about October, fares have gone up sharply. Thirdly, as the bus company itself admits, the standard of service has been reduced.

It seems to me that the best assistance that we could render is to see that prices and costs remain much steadier than they have in recent months. That is a subject to which we shall have the opportunity to revert the day after tomorrow, when, on this side of the House, we shall want to show the shortcomings of the Government.

11.45 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. Stephen Swingler)

The topic that my hon Friend the Member for Bristol, Central (Mr. Palmer) has raised tonight is not only one of wide concern, as I know from the correspondence and representations I have received over the last few months, but also a matter of considerable complexity—more complexity than some hon. Members sometimes give credit for. My hon. Friend has raised a basic question, and has asked why the old people in Bristol cannot enjoy the same fare concessions on the buses in their city as are enjoyed by old people in other places where municipal buses are run.

It is significant that this question is raised at all. Had this debate been taking place a year ago my hon. Friend would probably have had to ask why concessions to old people were so limited and so anomalous in places all over the country. As the House knows, before this Government's Travel Concessions Act was passed last year—the first Act of Parliament passed by this Government—concessionary bus fares for old people were deliberately limited, by the Tory Act of 1955, to those which had existed before that date. But we were pledged to do something about this, and we did do something about it. As a matter of urgency we restored the freedom and power of local authorities which had bus undertakings to grant those concessionary fares which they chose to grant.

I have said that this is a complex matter—and many complexities have arisen in relation to local authorities over the years. It will help my hon. Friend and those who are interested if I state briefly the position which exists. Under the Travel Concessions Acts of 1955 and 1964 certain fares concessions, including concessions to old people—men over 65 and women over 60—may be granted by any local authority which is operating a public service vehicle undertaking to persons travelling on the buses run by the local authority.

A local authority for this purpose includes a joint committee so operating, on which a local authority is represented. The cost may be borne from the rates, but in the case of a joint committee only up to the proportion in which the local authority shares the general expenses of the committee. Whether a local authority makes use of these powers is entirely in its discretion. Some may not do so, but there is a long tradition in the municipal bus world of concessions for deserving categories of people, such as old-age pensioners and disabled persons, and so on. The 1964 Travel Concessions Act removed the restrictions imposed by the 1955 Act which, in effect, froze the concessions to those which were actually being given at that date.

Now I turn to the position of non-municipal undertakings. They have always been free to grant concessions, subject to the approval of their fares by the Traffic Commissioners. But non-municipal undertakings must finance their own operations from their revenue; they have no rate fund on which to fall back. To grant concessionary fares may mean in the case of these undertakings higher fares for ordinary passengers or the curtailment of non-paying services. We in the Ministry of Transport know of no bus company which is granting concessions to old people in these circumstances, and it is not our policy to persuade these companies to grant concessions. It is a matter which we leave to their commercial judgment.

It has been argued that local authorities ought to be able to pay for concessions granted to old people by non-municipal bus undertakings. This is a point which we debated last year during the passage of the Travel Concessions Act. It was decided not to extend the Bill to allow local authorities to meet out of the rate fund the cost of concessions on non-municipally owned transport. To have done so would have violated the general principle of local government that local authorities ought not to use public money to subsidise the commercial activities of private concerns. To grant these concessions would have led to a tremendous demand on public funds.

There is no history of concessions of this sort on non-municipal transport. Bus companies which are privately owned and operate on a commercial principle generally speaking grant children's concessionary fares only, and no other.

While we thought it right to give all local authorities the permissive powers which some of them had always enjoyed, we do not rely on concessions in kind, such as concessionary travel fares, as a general policy for helping the aged. Our general view is that help should be given for the aged in the form of cash pensions. Beneficiaries should have the money at their disposal in their pensions to spend according to their circumstances, and the benefit should not be confined to those who happen to use any particular form of transport. Everybody knows what the Government have done about raising pensions and social benefits.

I know that there are a number of places where there is a borderline situation. Bristol is one of them. These situations arise because there are many permutations and combinations in the arrangements between local authorities and non-municipal undertakings for the running of buses and have arisen mostly under private legislation.

If under the arrangements the local authority remains the sole operating authority running the vehicles, then Travel Concessions Acts powers are established. But if there is a joint committee which is purely advisory and does not actually operate the undertaking and run the buses, the Travel Concessions Acts do not apply; or if there is a joint committee which does have these executive functions, the local authority's contribution is limited according to the authority's stake in the undertaking. The basic difficulty which then arises is that the non-municipal undertaking concerned does not feel able to meet the cost of the concessions out of its own pocket, and thus it does not prove possible to arrange a concession scheme.

We have a great deal of sympathy with local authorities which are in these borderline situations. Indeed, these difficulties were brought out fully when we debated the Travel Concessions Act, 1964. As we said then, we felt that we could only draw a clear-cut line. It would not have been feasible to give local authorities powers to provide rate-assisted concessions in these borderline cases without jeopardising the principle of confining that Measure to municipally owned transport.

The Bristol Omnibus Company is, of course, one of the nationalised Tilling Group. As such, it operates commercially in the same way as a private company, like other subsidiaries of the Transport Holding Company. Any concessions would have to come out of its own revenue, unless the corporation proves to have the power to meet the cost out of the rates.

Like all bus operators in present circumstances—faced with rising costs and falling traffic due to competition from the private car—the company, as it is, has great difficulty in keeping its fares down. Concessionary fares—which, solely for the category of old people, would cost in Bristol about £80,000 a year—would require accompanying rises in the ordinary fares for ordinary travellers. My right hon. Friend does not, therefore, feel that he could direct the company to operate concessionary fares in Bristol.

I do not want to leave my hon. Friend with the impression that the door is completely closed to concessionary fares in Bristol. I understand that the corporation is examining the extent of its powers. It is not, of course, for my right hon. Friend to interpret the law or the powers granted under private Acts to local authorities and I do not think it would be right for me to express an opinion on the issue of whether the corporation's arrangements with the Bristol Omnibus Company are such as to establish powers for the corporation to grant concessions or a share in concessionary fares. This is entirely a matter for the Bristol Corporation to sort out and one on which it must take its own legal advice.

I therefore conclude by emphasising that the peculiar position in which the Bristol Corporation finds itself, vis-à-vis the Bristol Omnibus Company, is not one on which my right hon. Friend would care to give an opinion. However, Bristol Corporation may find it possible to grant to elderly people the concessionary fares which they wish.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at two minutes to Twelve o'clock.