HC Deb 03 March 1978 vol 945 cc902-30

2.32 p.m.

Mr. John Farr (Harborough)

I beg to move, That this House, whilst recognising that the Government felt it necessary to prohibit new schemes for concessionary bus fares or an extension of existing such schemes as part of a national economic plan, welcomes the raising of the embargo on such new or extended schemes now, and believes that priority should be given for a nationwide scheme to be introduced, as in other countries, rather than to rely upon local authorities to take the initiative. I wish to take the opportunity to raise this important subject for two reasons. First, I believe that it is right to examine concessionary travel from a national point of view now that the Government have lifted the embargo imposed two years ago on local authorities either in extending existing schemes or in introducing new ones. I recognise that at that time the economic climate was difficult, but now that the restraints have been removed and local authorities can go ahead I wish to advance the view that this should be done on a national pattern and that some uniformity should be introduced.

The needs of a pensioner in, say, Rother, where concessionary bus travel is not available, is the same as that of the pensioner in Derby, where there is concessionary travel. If concessionary travel by road and rail is to be available to the elderly and disabled, as I believe it should be, I consider that it should be there for all. I submit that there is no logical reason, and I believe that there is much injustice, in the fact that one pensioner should receive this facility whereas another pensioner a few streets away in identical circumstances should not.

Let me give a brief example of a case in my constituency in Leicestershire. Within a span of six or seven miles, pensioners have three different types of treatment. In the city of Leicester, a pensioner can travel anywhere by city transport by paying just 2p. In the borough of Oadby and Wigston to the south, pensioners receive vouchers for free travel worth £3 in any one year. Yet a mile or two away in the Harborough district area no free travel facilities are available to pensioners. I understand that the district council has recently voted £10,000, towards the establishment of a scheme of concessionary travel.

I am sure I am right in saying that every Member present in the Chamber today has his or her own car. Therefor, it is not easy for us to appreciate what a concessionary fare means to a pensioner. Let us try to put ourselves in the position of pensioners who may be on small fixed incomes which do not cover the cost of running a car, even if in their advancing years they felt inclined to drive one. Almost certainly their chief interest in life lies with their families. If a generous concessionary travel scheme exists, they have the ability to get out of their own homes, to widen their horizons, to visit family and friends and to go shopping in nearby towns and cities. They would not otherwise be able to afford to undertake such travel as frequently. In other words, because of such schemes they are able to live fuller lives.

In areas where no concessionary scheme exists, pensioners have been hard hit. I have received a good deal of correspondence on this subject from constituents and others, and I shall quote from only one case in my constituency. It relates to a Mr. E. Longbottom, who lives in the Great Glen area in the Harborough district, an area in which no concessionary fare scheme operates. Mr. Longbottom tells me in his letter that Great Glen is six and a half miles from the centre of Leicester City, and he has to pay a fare of 90p return on the bus to go into the city to shop or for any other purpose. However, when he paid a recent visit to Doncaster, visiting relatives who live seven miles outside the city of Doncaster in which a concessionary fare scheme operates, he discovered that they paid a fare of only 12p for the return bus journey. Furthermore, if Mr. Long-bottom had relatives in London and visited them, he would find that all old-age pensioners in London enjoy considerable privileges.

Since the Conservatives came to power in the Greater London Council, concessions to old-age pensioners have been extended. Not only do pensioners enjoy free travel on red London buses and can travel on the Underground for 20p, but they can now travel at half price on Green Line buses in the GLC area. Furthermore, a proposal from the London Transport Executive to increase pensioners' fares on the Underground from 20p to 25p is likely to be rejected by the GLC on Tuesday.

Mr. Ernest G. Perry (Battersea, South)

The hon. Gentleman said that the elderly people of London were privileged. I think that the term "privileged" is wrong. I agree that they receive concessions, but I do not like the use of the other word. I think that as senior citizens they are entitled to these concessions.

Mr. Farr

I am grateful for that intervention, and I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman. If he waits to hear the rest of my speech, he will find that I agree with him exactly in wanting to see a national pattern of assistance. I agree with him that it is not a privilege but more of a right.

I have been lucky enough to receive many expressions of support from national organisations and others concerned in this campaign and with the inequality that exists. Age Concern England has been kind enough to let me see sections 55 and 56 of its new campaign document. Although that document is not due to be ratified until July of this year, I have the organisation's authority to quote briefly from the document. It says: Concessionary fares on buses should be made available to all State retirement pensioners who wish to avail themselves of the facility at hours that meet their needs. The cost to local authorities of such concessions should be met in part by Exchequer grant. There is a need for a major review of all concessionary arrangements so as to bring about greater harmonisation and uniformity of practice. In addition to this evidence from Age Concern, which will be published in its strategy document in the summer, I have received many expressions of support from my hon. Friends, not least my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Thanet, West (Mr. Rees-Davies). As the House knows, my hon. and learned Friend recently had an accident and is now in Westminster Hospital. We all wish him a speedy recovery.

My hon. and learned Friend has had a long interest in this subject as there are more old people in Thanet than anywhere else in the United Kingdom, but the area has a low rateable value and the local authority finds it difficult to give old people a reasonable concessionary fare system. However, I am pleased to see that it is not in the list of 56 districts, published in Hansard on 8th February, which have no concessionary fare schemes at all.

I should like to quote from a letter sent to me by my hon. and learned Friend. He says: Many of the old people in Thanet simply do not understand a situation where in London and in other big cities they are able to travel in buses and indeed in the underground, free frequently and always with a huge concession, whereas living in the country and in the seaside towns such as in Thanet they can only receive a minimal concession. The other relevant paragraph of my hon. and learned Friend's letter says: Thanet must try to obtain better concession rates for off-peak travel to limit the increased rate charge which would in any event be inevitable if any further benefit is to accrue to qualified persons. Surely subsidy is really worthwhile in this instance, but it should be on a national basis. I agree with my hon. and learned Friend, and I believe that we must cease to look to local authorities to implement this national policy of concessionary travel. We must set an example by intro- ducing a national pattern of what we should like to see developed.

So far, I have referred only to bus travel. I have studied British Rail's schemes and I commend British Rail for introducing two types of rail card for pensioners. One costs £7 a year and entitles the holder to half-price travel any day, anywhere. The other costs £3.50 a year and permits the purchase only of day return tickets at half price. I understand that in 1976 480,000 pensioners purchased these cards.

I commend British Rail, but I feel that if the cost of these expensive cards were reduced or, better still, abolished the increased number of pensioners who would avail themselves of half-price rail travel would allow British Rail more than to recoup lost revenue.

The motion refers to the situation in other countries. The Secretary of State is kindly corresponding with EEC officials to ascertain for me details of schemes in the Community. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for the letter he sent me on 7th February.

In the Republic of Ireland, anyone aged over 67 can travel free anywhere in the country by rail or bus. In Northern Ireland a scheme for half-price travel by rail or bus throughout the Province for those aged over 65 is about to be introduced, and all EEC countries provide reduced fares or free travel by air and bus.

The White Paper on transport policy was produced in June and has been debated in the House. The Transport Bill has flowered—if that is the right phrase—from that document. Unfortunately, the Bill does not mention concessionary travel, though the White Paper dealt with it explicitly and at some length and seemed to recognise the need for the inequalities that I have mentioned to be removed.

The White Paper says: A national scheme, or at least some national standard, has been advocated as the only certain way to reduce the disparities which many people feel to be unfair. It also says: The schemes in operation vary widely between areas. Of almost £80 million which local authorities in England and Wales currently spend on concessionary fares, 70 per cent. is spent in Greater London and the metropolitan areas where 38 per cent. of pensioners live. That confirms what I have said about the unfairness of the present situation. We have an apparent haphazard implementation of what should be a national policy.

We must remember that as the White Paper was published in June last year, the evidence that it contains is at least 12 months old. The White Paper said that the possibility of a national minimum scheme could be considered, but it was felt that it would be ruled out because, unless the minimum were comparatively low, even that could be costly—perhaps more than twice as expensive as the present arrangements.

That would be true unless the scheme, however low the standard, was only an indication to local authorities of the path that the Government would like to see them follow. A recommended national minimum would rot be too costly, though we would hope that local authorities would considerably improve on it. The present cost of concessionary travel in England and Wales is £95 million. I cannot believe that the introduction of a national minimum standard of, say, a 25 per cent. reduction—more if we could get it—would lead to greatly increased costs, especially when one bears in mind that only 56 districts in England and Wales have no scheme at present.

I said earlier that I had two reasons for raising this subject. I have dealt with the inequalities and injustices that we should tolerate no longer. The cost of establishing a reasonable minimum scheme is not too high for the House to contemplate and approve.

My second reason for raising the subject is the link between the problems which I have covered so far and the plight of all, young and old, who do not possess a motor car and who rely upon public transport to get anywhere. This problem is by no means confined to the rural areas, and in this connection I turn again to the White Paper. I am not used to praising the present Government's White Papers as much as I have praised this document, but it seems to me that in paragraph 144 they have hit the nail on the head in an important respect: Within the expenditure now planned for revenue support for buses, the Government intends to increase the annual provision for rural services in England and Wales by about £15 million by the end of the decade. Dis- cretion for local authorities to introduce new concessionary fare schemes will be of particular value also to people living in rural areas, where such schemes have been less common. These decisions will provide a more favourable financial basis for bus operators, contribute to the maintenance of basic services, and help them to be better used". Of course they will. If a national minimum concessionary fare structure for buses is introduced, bus travel in rural areas in particular will greatly benefit.

At present, it is often too expensive for a pensioner to contemplate regular bus travel from the countryside or from suburbia into town unless it is on a concessionary basis, and all too often, I am afraid, such travel can be only an occasional treat where schemes do not exist.

The establishment of a national three-quarters or half-fare bus scheme for all pensioners is long overdue. It is more profitable for the already subsidised rural bus services to take pensioners at half fares than it is for them to take no passengers at all. British Rail has already recognised that.

I urge the Minister to look again at paragraphs 106 to 114 of his own White Paper to see whether a national scheme could be introduced, and local authorities encouraged, perhaps, to implement it by a small—say, 10 per cent.—additional subsidy from the central Government.

2.53 p.m.

Mr. David Weitzman (Hackney, North and Stoke Newtington)

The House is indebted to the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) for raising this issue. It is perhaps appropriate that I should speak in the debate because I am, I believe, the only old-age pensioner among the youngsters I see here. Indeed, I have to declare an interest since, as an old-age pensioner, I enjoy—I am sorry to use the word "privilege", although it does not seem to me very different from "concession"—the privilege of free travel in the prescribed hours, although I have to admit that I rarely use that privilege.

It would, of course, be excellent if it were practicable to have a national scheme allowing pensioners throughout the country to have concessionary fares instead of the selective schemes now operated by local authorities. Obviously there are many who do not need the privilege, but for many reasons, apart from cost, it would be unwise to have a means test so that only, as the hon. Gentleman put it, the many elderly persons who frequently are housebound because they cannot afford the cost of public transport would obtain the benefit.

Unfortunately, a national scheme as suggested by the hon. Gentleman would not, in my view, be practicable, for a number of reasons. I have studied the White Paper on transport policy, and I have noted what it says about this matter in particular. The House recognises that the position was recently reviewed by the Government in the preparation of their White Paper.

The first objection is cost. I understand that to provide free off-peak travel for all pensioners throughout England and Wales would cost £220 million a year, a sum which we simply cannot afford.

A second point to be noted is that about 20 per cent. of all pensioners, because of disability, because they live in areas where buses are infrequent, or for other reasons, are unable to use public transport or find it difficult to do so. In the big cities there is a frequent service, and, indeed, the need is often greater, but obviously—I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will accept this—there is a great variety of local circumstances and the need, therefore, is for local flexibility. The hon. Gentleman himself spoke of certain differences. It seems to me that that is the paramount consideration in this matter.

It has been suggested that the bus industry could enable concessions to be made by providing reduced fares, but I am sure that hon. Members on the Opposition Benches, in particular, will be the first to recognise that bus operators, whether muncipal or private, have to pay their way, and a reduction of fares for pensioners could be met only by cutting out or reducing the routes over which they run or by charging higher fares to other passengers. Plainly, these alternatives would be resented by other passengers.

At present local authorities vary greatly in the schemes which they admire, as the hon. Gentleman said. In London there is free travel during the permitted hours. In other areas there are only limited con- cessions or no concessions at all. Naturally, pensioners in these areas resent the disparity of treatment.

I understand from a survey carried out in 1976 that 56 local authorities have no free scheme. Nineteen of these authorities are Conservative-controlled and the rest are independent. I need hardly stress that it has always been part of Labour policy in the municipalities to behave as generously as possible towards the pensioners living in their midst.

Of course, everyone will recognise the need to assist pensioners in this direction as much as possible. In my view, the Government have recognised that in their proposals. I understand that there is only about £110 million a year available for concessionary fare schemes up to the end of the 1980s. That has to be set against the £220 million a year which would be required if there were a national scheme. The expenditure of that £110 million would mean that the present generous schemes could be kept on and that, in addition, in the rest of the country there would be room for half fares.

Having regard to the objections that I have made, it seems to me that a national scheme is impracticable. The answer to the problem is, as the Government suggest—especially having regard to the need for flexibility because of local conditions—that local authorities should deal with the problem as generously as they can.

In some cases, especially where travel by bus is of little help, some local authorities have provided alternative aid by way of assistance with fuel bills or television licences, and such help is to be welcomed, of course. There are those local authorities—and I am afraid that there are a number of Conservative ones among them, although I am anxious not to make any party point—which have provided little or no aid, and it is those local authorities which should tackle the matter in their own areas. Such authorities cannot plead lack of resources, because the Government have provided sufficient resources for every district to provide a half-fare scheme.

I have always been very concerned about the position of the chronically sick and disabled, and I hope that in any scheme which may be considered something will be done to ensure that their needs are considered. As I said at the outset of my remarks, this proposal, despite the persuasive way in which the hon. Member for Harborough undoubtedly presented it, seems on the face of it one which should be considered sympathetically at some future date when resources permit and when the case can be made out for its effect to be made worth while. In my view it is impracticable at the moment. Help should be given in the way that I have suggested.

3.0 p.m.

Mr. Donald Stewart (Western Isles)

I too, congratulate the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) on moving this motion. With respect to the hon. and learned Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Mr. Weitzman), the difficulties which he posed in the way of such a scheme do not appear to me to be as insuperable as he suggested.

It is all very well our talking about leaving flexibility to local authorities. That brings me to the argument which I wish to advance on behalf of my constituency where, however charitable or caring the local authority might be, there simply are not the funds to introduce concessionary fares of the kind required. It is an area of low rateable value and of scattered communities. The age pattern is such that one person in four is over 65 years 1 age, which must be compared with a ratio of one to eight in the rest of Scotland.

Mr. Weitzman

I appreciate the case being put forward by the right hon. Member on behalf of his constituency, but it is an exceptional case, and it occurs to me that he would do well to consider putting forward an appropriate clause, possibly in another place, for inclusion in the Scottish devolution Bill.

Mr. Stewart

I note that suggestion. However, I was replying to the hon. and learned Member's idea that flexibility should be left to local authorities, and I was pointing out that that would be of no use to my own where there are so many people in need of these concessions.

We also have a tremendous number of elderly people who are isolated from their families. Owing to the lack of development—and we have had consistently the highest unemployment figures in the United Kingdom, certainly for the period of my lifetime—young people have to go away to other parts of Scotland, to England and even abroad in order to earn their bread. As a result, many elderly people are separated from their families for most of the year, and for them even to make a trip to the mainland once a year to see them would add to the sum of human happiness.

I do not believe that the costs would be as astronomical as those suggested by the hon. and learned Member. What is more, in my view, the proposal should be extended to all forms of travel. The rail card is very useful, but a person coming from my part of the world inevitably must take a sea or an air journey. The costs of air travel are such that to fly from, say, Stornoway or Benbecula to Glasgow is, within a few pounds, not far short of the fare which Mr. Laker charges to fly people to Canada. Members can imagine how unlikely it is that an elderly person from my constituency would travel by air. However, the aircraft, on the admission of British Airways, are travelling with only 25 per cent. of their seats occupied. Who would suffer if old-age pensioners enjoyed concessionary air travel? Who would suffer on the railways if elderly people received concessionary travel?

The hon. and learned Member talked about the resentment of other passengers. Governments and politicians are inclined to underestimate what the public would be willing to do to help older people in our society. People might even stand for higher tax contributions, provided that they knew that such money would go into a fund for old people and not into a general kitty to be looted by the Government when they chose. People in other age groups would be pleased to put up with a great deal if they thought it was helping older people with their travel costs.

The cost for the disabled of travelling from my constituency to the mainland was very heavy. I suggested to Caledonian-MacBrayne that it might introduce concessionary fares for disabled people who wanted to travel with their cars. Charitably and sensibly, the company decided to give a 50 per cent. concession on the cost of taking a car to the mainland. As a result, many disabled people who could not previously afford to go to the mainland now travel. This makes a profit rather than a loss for the company. I am sure that the same would apply to other forms of travel if concessions were made available.

It is good sense as well as Christian charity to introduce schemes of this kind. They should be operated on a nationwide scale. I pledge the support of myself and my colleagues to the intention of the motion.

3.6 p.m.

Mr. Ernest G. Perry (Battersea, South)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Fan) on this motion. I am sure that he is anxious about the hardship experienced by many elderly people when they wish to go from one place to another. I agree with him when he talks about people not being able to make contact with others who live only a short distance away because of lack of transport.

I agree with practically everything that the hon. Member said about British Rail. He said that a few concessions have been made. At present when a full fare is £6 the concessionary fare is £3. On 1st April that full fare is to be increased to £7.50. The hon. Member was most generous to British Rail, which should be congratulated on introducing this scheme. When it was introduced two years ago it was found to be successful and profitable. There are also examples of how private enterprise is trying to help.

The right hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Stewart) explained the situation in his constituency. It is true that a larger proportion of older people live there than in many other places. Such places deserve special attention. I go along with the right hon. Member when he says that there should be exceptions to the rule. Special attention should be paid to the Western Isles.

In some cases, local authorities have been lax in introducing schemes. The hon. Member for Harborough mentioned an area in the South of England with which I have some connection—the Rother district. He mentioned the Rather District Council. I use the Maidstone and District automobile services as well as other services. It is appalling to see empty buses going from place to place in the South-East because many people cannot afford to travel.

In the South of England there are many places where concessionary fares are never operated. The situation is often stupid. There are many areas such as Rother where a person who lives on the outskirts of the town cannot get a concessionary fare while a person living in the next street or village can get it because he comes within the ambit of a larger conurbation. As owner-occupiers such people may pay rates, and as tenants they may pay rent and rates, but they still do not qualify.

There is, therefore, a strong argument for a national scheme, but we must go further. The opportunity exists for wealthy local authorities in the South of England south of a line drawn from Bristol Channel to the Thames, to introduce concessionary schemes. They have failed to grasp that opportunity in the last few years.

Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch and Lymington)

Will the hon. Member name one such wealthy local authority?

Mr. Perry

They are the ones with the money. With 70 years' experience, I can tell the hon. Member that many local authorities in Southern England are in a much better position to operate concessionary schemes than poorer authorities such as the Western Isles. Surely the hon. Gentleman knows the authorities I am referring to. I pay him credit as a fighter for concessionary fares for many years. There is a list of over 20 authorities in the South of England which do not operate such a scheme for old people.

Mr. Adley

The hon. Member used the phrase "wealthy local authorities". Will he name what he considers to be a wealthy authority which does not operate a concessionary fare scheme?

Mr. Perry

I have referred to one already. In the area of the Rother District Council there are more car owners per head of the population than in many other parts of the country. That applies to almost all the South of England. Concessionary fares are often not required because of the extensive existence of private transport. The hon. Member asks me to name a wealthy authority. There are many of them which could well afford to operate such a scheme.

Mr. Weitzman

Will my hon. Friend be good enough to mention Christchurch?

Mr. Perry

I never like to reduce these matters to a personal level as between one hon. Member and another. The scheme must be examined on its merits, and that is why so many Conservatives believe that their local authorities have been sluggish in introducing a concessionary fare scheme.

The hon. Member for Harborough said that he had received letters from people who, because they lived 100 yards outside Leicester, were denied the concessionary fares given to people living in Leicester. This is a bone of contention between old-age pensioners living just a few yards from each other. It is a legitimate point. Who would not be upset to find that a neighbour could travel at a cheap rate while that facility was denied to oneself?

There is a good bus service in Rother. It runs from Hastings Station to St. Helen's Hospital in an area known as Ore. That is just outside your constituency, Mr. Deputy Speaker. There are many elderly people in the hospital and they are visited by equally elderly relatives, including wives and husbands. When the visitors make the journey, they have to pay full fare because there is no concession. Therefore, people from a rural area have to pay the full fare to get to a town like Hastings. That is the justification for a national scheme. Even with State help, sluggards have failed to introduce concessionary schemes.

Mr. Farr

I hope that the hon. Gentleman is clear that they were not always sluggards by intent. Often a district council like Thanet has an influx of old people for retirement purposes. Because it does not have a high rateable value, with the best will in the world it cannot afford to institute a scheme.

Mr. Perry

That is so true. Many local authorities, including some in London, have bought old people's homes in Thanet and—although I do not like this word—dumped a large number of their old people there. The Isle of Thanet is not where people choose to retire to today: they may do so by a sort of local authority order. The cost of a concessionary scheme is prohibitive in those circumstances, which reinforces the case for a national scheme.

I repeat that many wealthy parts of Southern England can well afford such a scheme. The elderly people I am sorry for are those in rural areas with no train service, where the bus runs once or twice a day, or at most hourly.

People from isolated villages cannot afford the fare to Hastings, Eastbourne, Bournemouth or Brighton to do shopping and have a meal out. They get a hospitable reception if they go, they can go into Sainsbury's and can come home having saved the cost of their fare.

The 56 local authorities which have been referred to should be brought into line and made to do something not only for their own people but for those who pass through on their way somewhere else. I am in favour of a national scheme when a local authority cannot offer a scheme locally. But most local authorities can do so, and I hope that they will be in operation very soon.

3.19 p.m.

Mr. Tim Sainsbury (Hove)

I intervene briefly to comment on some of the remarks of the hon. Member for Battersea, South (Mr. Perry), particularly as he was kind enough to mention a certain store group.

I represent a constituency with a large percentage of retired people—over 30 per cent. The hon. Gentleman spoke of wealthy local authorities. It is not the local authorities that are wealthy or poor but the people who live in their areas. In the very local authorities where the need for concessionary fares is greatest, because there are many retired people, there are a large number of retired people who do not have the wealth to meet the cost of a concessionary fares scheme. The cost falls on the same people, because they are also the ratepayers.

Moreover, in areas such as the one that I represent, rateable values seem to be rather high in relation to those in other parts of the country, particularly Wales, for example. I should be delighted if all my constituents could have the average rateable value that the citizens of Wales seem to get away with, not to mention the additional domestic element that is afforded to them.

Mr. R. E. Bean (Rochester and Chatham)

The hon. Gentleman mentioned ratepayers' problems in funding concessionary fares, but the State contributes about 61 per cent. of the cost, through the rate support grant, so it does not fall only on the ratepayers. I believe that enough funds are available now—about £86 million—to ensure, if allocated throughout the country, that old-age pensioners receive half-fare concessionary fares.

Mr. Sainsbury

I do not want to start a debate about the rate support grant and the needs element allocation, but I think that the hon. Gentleman will accept that the distribution of the grant is very uneven. Its justice is arguable, and in any case it goes to the counties and not to the districts, which would bear the cost of the support schemes.

I support the motion. It is misleading to suggest that because a local authority has a relatively high rateable value the inhabitants are in a position to pay to meet the cost of a concession to all the retired people in the area. I am delighted that my local authority has a scheme, but it would be much fairer to follow the suggestion in the motion and make it a national scheme, so that it was the Government's responsibility to fund it, in the same way as they fund the old-age pension.

3.22 p.m.

Miss Jo Richardson (Barking)

I join in welcoming this debate, which I think will also be generally welcomed in the country, because we all receive in our mail almost every day at least one complaint from an old-age pensioner. It may be about travel, pensions, widows' pensions or other problems. This is a good opportunity to talk about one aspect of the difficulties that face elderly people and people who are approaching old age.

I was going to say that I approach the matter from a different standpoint from those who have spoken already, but probably it is not different in the long run. I look forward to the day when we can afford to provide free travel on buses and rail for all old people, pensioners and disabled people. That would be a very good aim. I also hope that the decade is not too far distant when we can provide free travel for all, because there is a great and unfair disparity between the amount that different workers have to pay to travel to work.

The Government have provided £25 million more for local authorities to give concessionary fares by 1980–81 and an- other £4 million in the rate support grant immediately. I suppose that in principle we all agree with the national scheme that the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) has suggested. But it is a matter of practical use of our resources. I understand that a national scheme would cost about £220 million. Some would say that it would be £220 million well spent, but we understand that there are other calls upon resources.

Mr. Donald Stewart

Does not the hon. Lady think it odd that the Republic of Ireland, which cannot be regarded as one of the most affluent nations in Western Europe, can give that concession now to people over 65?

Miss Richardson

That is a very good point. In view of the poverty in which many people live there and the lack of good schools and housing for them, the fact that the authorities have looked after their elderly in this way is worthy of commendation.

I stress that there are differences in the ways authorities operate these schemes. We all receive grumbles through the post from constituents who live in the area of an authority which grants good concessions and who remind us of other authorities which do not make such concessions. The elderly in Barking receive free bus passes. However, a large number of our elderly people have relatives who move away to the coast, for we have many good transport links with Southend and Clacton. Constituents frequently complain to me "I want to go and visit my daughter who lives in Clacton. I cannot afford the fare", even when there is a concessionary fare.

Concessionary fares vary from authority to authority and from passenger transport executive to passenger transport executive. Some concessionary fares are at the rate of two-thirds, some are one-half, and some involve no concession at all. People living on small fixed incomes become distressed if they cannot afford to visit their family at the weekend.

Until I received the list of authorities which do not operate concessionary schemes I was unaware that there were so many. I was under the mistaken impression that the overwhelming majority of districts operated some concessionary system, however limited. It causes me great concern to find that 56 operate no concessionary fares. I hope that the Minister will tell us whether the Department has made attempts to persuade these local authorities to operate some discretionary or concessionary fare system. If it has not, the Department is at fault.

3.28 p.m.

Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch and Lymington)

As I, unfortunately from the Government's point of view, had caught a glimpse of the brief issued by the Labour Whips containing the famous list, I was not altogether surprised to learn that the hon. Lady the Member for Barking (Miss Richardson) had also seen a copy of the list but expressed ignorance of the fact that some authorities were unwilling or unable as the case may be—to operate concessionary fare schemes.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) on the service he has rendered the House in enabling it to discuss this matter today. Everyone will agree that we should all like to see a solution to the problem. In the very limited time which unfortunately is available today we can merely discuss the options available to the Government or to local authorities or—most importantly and astonishingly—to an organisation whose name has not been mentioned in the debate, the National Bus Company. In the absence of a national scheme, can we create circumstances in which everyone has an equal opportunity of access to some form of scheme?

My hon. Friend the Member for Harborough mentioned logic and justice. Those words would provide a very good text for us this afternoon as we try to find a scheme which is both logical and just. He rightly pointed out—it was confirmed by my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mr. Sainsbury)—that it is not a coincidence that many areas which have a lot of old people living in them, and which are attractive as retirement areas, are areas of low rateable value, where there is little or no industry. It is because there is little or no industry that they are environmentally attractive and agreeable, and these are the areas in which there is a high retirement population. This is why many of them appear on the lists that the Minister produced, I think, in answer to a Question which I put down a few weeks ago.

In dealing with the question of whether concessionary fare schemes are the best way to provide better travel facilities for elderly people, we must ask ourselves whether higher pensions would be the answer. But higher pensions would mean a higher cost of living, a higher cost of living would mean higher wages for bus drivers and conductors, and that in turn would mean higher fares. I believe, therefore, that we should be concentrating our minds quite properly on my hon. Friend's proposals this afternoon. Can we find a way of helping to fill empty buses without any additional public expenditure or extra expenditure on wages which will have an effect on the cost of living? It is most important for us to concentrate on this aspect.

I think that the social and economic trends point towards a concessionary fares scheme as the best way to tackle the problem. As the Minister will know, I have studied the problem for some years, and the hon. Member for Battersea, South (Mr. Parry) kindly mentioned my interest in the subject.

There has been mention of British Rail, and I pay my tribute to British Rail. British Airways also has a part to play in the discussion. Both bodies have been extremely helpful to me in providing information. I do not think that it would be unkind, however, to say that a changed attitude on the part of the National Bus Company in its response to Members of Parliament on the question of concessionary fares would not come amiss.

There can be few more frustrating sights for a pensioner than to see an empty bus go by and to be unable to afford the fare to make a visit to relatives or to do many of the things in adjacent areas that pensioners like to do. What we are trying to do, in effect, is to find a way to fill Tuesday's seat on an empty or half-empty bus on Tuesday. There is nothing more unsaleable in life, I suspect, than Tuesday's empty seat on Wednesday. As much as anything it is a marketing problem as well as a political problem. I hope that we shall not have to indulge in a party political exercise across the Dispatch Box. I do not think that that will help anyone to find a solution.

From my own commercial experience in the hotel business, I know that Wednesday night's empty hotel bed is very unsaleable on Thursday morning. The hotel industry in this country has therefore actively sought ways to fill its empty beds, often by means of concessionary bed schemes, in a way which has not put up its own operating costs but has enabled it to offer concessions to people who would not usually be able to afford to stay in hotels at the regular rate. There is an analogy between accommodation and transport.

The hon. and learned Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Mr. Weitzman) was not as logical as he usually is in dealing with these matters. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility to find ways of offering concessionary fare schemes to people to enable them to travel at times when the buses are empty, and in such a way as not to place any cost directly on the ratepayer or the national taxpayer. The anomalies are legion. In view of the limited amount of time available, I do not propose to go into the situation in my area, but it is extremely unsatisfactory. Bournemouth has its own buses and its own scheme. The New Forest District Council has in its area parts of the Hants and Dorset bus company and operates a limited scheme and between the two is Christchurch which has no scheme.

The hon. Member for Battersea, South, unusually for him, displayed a total ignorance of the situation and I shall explain to him the problems faced by what he described as a wealthy local authority. I shall explain shortly the situation to him on the basis of figures given to me this morning by the town clerk of Christchurch.

One key point has not been mentioned in the debate. It is very much easier to arrange concessionary fares if the local authority is the transport undertaking. That is why almost every big city and municipal authority has such a scheme. It is merely a bookkeeping arrangement between two departments of the local authority. If we are talking politics, most of the big cities are more often controlled by Labour than by Conservatives.

Mr. Michael Ward (Peterborough)

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that, apart from seaside resorts, many of the first authorities to introduce concessionary fare schemes were the London boroughs, which are not transport undertakings? Is it not a matter of having the will to do it and is not that will lacking in places such as Christchurch?

Mr. Adley

No, it is not only a matter of having the will; it is a matter of having the money. In many parts of the country small local authorities have to negotiate with a huge nationalised organisation and all the power and muscle is in the hands of the nationalised undertaking.

The National Bus Company seeks to foster the assumption that the funds it receives from ratepayers would have to be deducted, pound for pound, from its operating revenues, if it were to operate its own scheme. That is not so. It is not a subsidy in the traditional sense of the word but a contribution towards the cost of running buses which are running anyway. As far as I am aware, no one is suggesting that we should start putting on extra services for pensioners.

The lack of enthusiasm is shown not by local authorities but by the NBC. In a letter to one of my constituents as long ago as November 1976, the area manager of the Hants and Dorset Motor Services wrote: You will appreciate that if we offered, say, a half-fare concession, we should need to double the number of retired persons travelling or those already travelling would have to travel twice as often as they do now in order for us to break even. Let us hope that we can send a message to the NBC and ask it, for goodness sake, to take the initiative. I understand the argument about concessionary fare schemes reducing the revenue from fare-paying pensioners. We understand the bus company's point, but the results—as opposed to the allegations—are speculative.

The NBC bleats about not being able to introduce concessionary fare schemes because they would reduce revenue. But let the company try it. Suppose it introduced the scheme that some of us have been pressing for and the bus company proved to be right. We would have increased the number of journeys but decreased the revenue but we would have provided a social benefit at a known cost. At present we have no idea of what the costs that so frighten the NBC would be.

Whilst the NBC rejects the idea of a concessionary fare scheme for pensioners, the extraordinary thing is that it has a very generous scheme for its own employees and retired employees. Under this scheme husbands, wives and two children up to the age of 14 can travel half fare on stage carriages and express services. The director of central activities of the NBC, Mr. J. Niblock, writing to me about a pensioners scheme, said: Concessions can therefore only be paid for by charging others extra. Yet what is the cost of the NBC staff scheme, and who is paying for it?

The NBC covers large tracts of England and Wales as a monopoly. Therefore, it is not unfair or unreasonable to suggest that it should be invited to return something to the community in exchange for this monopoly. What is the good of nationalisation if we cannot finish up with a national scheme?

I have explained the difficulties of small local authorities coughing up scarce resources for large concessionary schemes. If Christchurch, for example, introduced a scheme with The same travel opportunities as are available in Bournemouth, the town clerk estimates that the cost would be £100,000 on the district rates. A small district council like this would be faced with a huge burden—in fact, it is estimated at 12 per cent. of the total district rates. Hon. Members should understand why local authorities like Christchurch cannot afford to introduce a comprehensive scheme, much as I regret it.

The British Rail scheme is attractive and uniform throughout the country. It is easily understood, easily marketed and involves no public expenditure. It offers a choice of schemes, without any local authority involvement, and is profitable. British Rail has a positive attitude. I wish it were shared by the NBC.

The latest figures available showed that £3.8 million in revenue came from the sale of cards—pensioners and students cards—before any tickets were purchased. The travelling is done on trains running anyway, in the same way as the buses run anyway. Thee NBC tells us constantly of the complexity of introducing a national scheme, and the hon. and learned Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington made great play Of this. However, I believe that a national scheme by the NBC would not be too complex to run. If the company can run one for its own staff, why should it not run one for pensioners?

It would be far less complex than the scheme of concessionary fares operated by British Airways. These fares are available to BA staff to fill empty seats on an airliner, just as concessionary fares could fill empty seats on buses. Cut-rate fares help to fill empty seats and bring in much revenue to British Airways, so much so that the Government were prepared to tax travel concessions in 1976.

I quote from Sir Henry Marking, at that time deputy chairman of British Airways, who said of the proposed tax in a Press release on 11th June: It would deprive British Airways of millions of pounds of revenue, in this case largely profit. If British Rail and British Airways can do it, why not the National Bus Company?

The Minister will know that I came to see him with another hon. Member on this matter as long ago as 1976. On 21st March last year the Secretary of State told me: The Chairman of the National Bus Company has told me that the company is studying the possibilities for introducing fare concessions for elderly, blind and disabled and I have told him that I look forward to seeing the findings of this study."—[Official Report, 21st March 1977 Vol. 928, c. 374.] I look forward to it too. The NBC certainly will not frighten us by the speed at which it works.

I believe that it unusual for the responsibility of funding the social needs of the elderly to lie with district councils. Surely an humane State should accept the need to care for the elderly. How could we accept a situation where a pensioner's basic pension was dependent for its size or even its availability on the local authority? This is the position with concessionary fares. The anomaly was pointed out by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Kelvingrove (Mr. Carmichael) when he was Under-Secretary at the Department of Environment. He wrote to me on 16th December 1974 and said in referfence to concessionary fares: They have offered a means of supplementing social security benefits, made available generally, in cash, at the best level possible, by central Government. That is indeed how I see the concessionary fare scheme. The relationship between the NBC and local authorities, with the latter providing most of these schemes, is unfair. The fact is that it is the least agile and least affluent members of our society who are in the greatest need of transport. They are the people who need our help. It is a challenge to which we in the House should rise. I end as I began by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough on introducing this debate.

3.45 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. John Horam)

The House is indebted to the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) for providing an opportunity to debate this important matter. I also wish to pay tribute to the hon. Member for Christchurch and Lymington (Mr. Adley), who takes a great interest in this subject. I was delighted that he was able to be present. I do not always agree with him, but I recognise his interest in this topic.

This is a subject of great importance, because we all know how vital it is that elderly people should have travel facilities available to them. This is an extremely difficult problem when the costs are so great.

A good deal of the debate rightly concentrated on the main dissatisfaction among hon. Members—namely, the large variations throughout the country. There are some areas with very good schemes and other areas with no schemes at all or poor schemes. A figure of £86 million is spent in England and Wales on travel concessionary schemes for the elderly, the blind and the disabled in the current year, and no less than 70 per cent. of that sum is expended in the metropolitan areas and the Greater London Council.

London is a pioneer in many of these schemes. All the large urban authorities possess such schemes. That has happened because they have had the will to do so, because on the whole they are Labour-controlled. The Labour Party has been consistent in every manifesto in demon- strating the importance of this facility and the need to do something about the situation. That is the reason why there has been a willingness to take on this task, with the benefits to pensioners in the main urban areas.

There are 56 districts, predominantly in rural areas, which contain no schemes at all. I emphasise that it is a matter not of having a free scheme but of having no scheme at all. The areas with no schemes at all include, unfortunately, Harborough and Christchurch—although I was pleased to learn from the hon. Member for Harborough that his area has voted £10,000 for such a scheme. I must point out that of those districts 19 are Conservative and not one is Labour.

This shows the importance of an authority having the will to take action. That is the crucial matter—namely, the political will to do something about the situation. Nobody can doubt that it is the Labour-controlled areas which possess such schemes and it is the richer areas which do not have schemes. Furthermore, it is the areas which are Labour-controlled and which are among the lower rateable value areas which have schemes.

My hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr. Ward) emphasised that this was a matter of political will. The hon. Member for Christchurch and Lymington seemed to think that it was merely a matter of having the money. I must still emphasise that it is the poorer Labour-controlled areas which have schemes. That is a fact of life and it must be stated. This holds up Labour's record of trying to do something to ease the position.

The Government also must have a positive attitude to the problems which the hon. Member for Harborough has rightly raised. We are doing a number of things. First, as my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Miss Richardson) pointed out, we are making more money available to local authorities for concessionary fare schemes. At present, £86 million is being provided. In the next financial year that will rise to £90 million, and, if we can persuade local authorities to prepare schemes in the way we intend, that figure will rise to £110 million by 1981. We have allocated money for that purpose.

There is no doubt that the money is available for local authorities. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Chatham (Mr. Bean) said, it is money which attracts rate support grant at the rate of 61 per cent., and that is another encouragement to local authorities to bring schemes forward. In fact, local authorities pay only a relatively small proportion of the total cost. At present, the average cost of a scheme is £12 per pensioner per year. Thus, we are not talking about a very great deal of money, but we are talking about assistance which local authorities can provide. The money is there if they wish to do so.

As the House has heard, there are many areas which have no schemes and many where there are very poor schemes. I shall not go into the number of areas which have schemes which are of very little benefit, but the hon. Member for Harborough mentioned one district in his own area where, I understand, only £3 worth of free travel per year is provided. That is not very much—it will not go very far nowadays—and there are many local authorities offering schemes which arc not sufficiently good.

We have, therefore, issued a circular—I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Barking that it went out just over a month ago—in which we have said: The Secretaries of State that is, the Secretary of State for Transport and the Secretary of State for Wales— consider that it will generally be appropriate for an authority, in introducing a new or improved concessionary fares scheme, to aim to meet about half the cost of the local bus fares that would otherwise be paid by concessionaires. Therefore, what we are advocating as a national standard, so to speak, is the half-fare approach. We recognise that many local authorities will do much more than that, and we hope that many will find it within their capacity to do so, but, obviously, many will feel that the jump to a completely free scheme may well be beyond their means, in which case we advocate that they should run things at least to the level where people pay half fare. I regard that as a generally satisfactory level at which to aim, and that is what we have specifically said in Circular 2/78.

There is also the other point raised by my hon. Friends that these arrangements do not apply only to the elderly, central to our thoughts though they may be. They apply also to handicapped people—that is, the disabled and the blind. There is a different dimension in their case, because for elderly people or pensioners the journey will not, in the main, be a journey to work. They will be going to visit members of the family, taking a trip to the coast, or whatever it may be. In the case of disabled or blind people, of working age, however, the problems of getting a job are that much greater because, if they have travel difficulties, they have to meet the full cost. Therefore, as I say, there is an extra dimension in their case, and we have accordingly asked local authorities to be especially generous in the provision which they make for the handicapped.

I shall quote again from the circular to indicate the lines on which we wish local authorities to proceed in respect of handicapped people: The comments in the preceding paragraphs on concessions for the elderly are generally applicable to concessions given to people who are registered as blind or who have a disability which seriously impairs their ability to walk. In the view of the Secretaries of State, all such people … should, irrespective of age, normally be entitled to appropriate travel concessions … In the Government's view invalid chairs and guide dogs should generally be carried free and local authorities are asked to do their utmost to help achieve this. That is the sort of problem with which disabled people have to cope, quite apart from the problems experienced by the elderly.

Further, we said in the circular: Here, concessions will normally be justified in peak as well as in off-peak periods. We urge that precisely to cover the problem of getting to work, which does not face the elderly.

Thus, in those two ways we wish local authorities to be more generous to the handicapped than we wish them to be to the elderly.

I quote again: When considering schemes for blind and disabled people, authorities should have particular regard to the special needs created by their handicaps. These may include the need to make longer journeys, for example to places with special facilities (which may justify concessionary arrangements with more than one operator), the need to use public transport for frequent short journeys to avoid walking in hazardous areas; and the need of many handi- capped people to be escorted when travelling, which, in the absence of concessions, involves great expense. I stress to local authorities whose representatives may read this debate or learn about it from the Press that, in addition to the half-fare scheme which we want them to adopt for elderly people, we also want them to take account of the special problems faced by handicapped people. That is an important part of the generosity which we wish them to assume in their approach to these problems.

As a number of hon. Members said, one of the particularly frustrating problems associated with the present wide divergencies is that, whereas someone may be living in one street or village which has a generous scheme, someone else may be living in another village which may have no scheme at all. There is not only that problem, though that is a bad enough aggravation to a general sense of fairness. Someone may live on the edge of a district which has a good scheme only to find that his normal bus travel pattern is to a town which is in another local authority which does not have a scheme. Therefore, although he has a scheme, it may be of little benefit to him where he lives.

In addition, people may be moved around. That is a common complaint, and I am sure that hon. Members who represent London constituencies will be aware of it. A person may be living on a GLC estate in the GLC area and become used to the GLC free travel to elderly people. He may then be moved out to an area round about, and he will very soon begin to see the costs of travel very forcibly. Obviously, he will want to travel back to his old area, but he will find that he has to pay the full price. This hits people very hard. They may be losing benefits which they have enjoyed for a long time.

These are some of the problems which result from the big discrepancies that there are between different local authorities. So on this area, too, we are including advice in our circular to local authorities and we are asking them to try to make arrangements which sort out these very grave difficulties that arise from art area having a scheme being cheek by jowl with another area which has a less generous scheme or no scheme at all.

We are asking local authorities to co-ordinate their activities over the whole operations of a specific bus company so that, where a bus company operates over two or three different district areas, those districts get together in looking at concessionary schemes with the operator and co-ordinate so that there is not this juxtaposition of problems. That is a further way in which we are trying to spread a generally standardised approach—what might be termed a national minimum—throughout the country.

The hon. Member for Christchurch and Lymington asked me about a matter which he has pursued over a long period, and he may feel that developments have not moved fast enough. He wanted to know whether the National Bus Company and other companies of that kind should introduce schemes of their own, quite apart from our wish for local authorities to introduce schemes financed from the rates and taxes. The hon. Member will know that the National Bus Company has responded to the wishes which he and other hon. Members have expressed by introducing three experiments in Lincolnshire, Warwickshire and Wiltshire, and I can say that the results of those studies will be available shortly. We shall look carefully at the experience which they indicate—

It being Four o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.