HC Deb 05 February 1980 vol 978 cc459-68

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

1.42 am
Mr. D. A. Trippier (Rossendale)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the important issue of bus passes for pensioners and to highlight the problems which have led many colleagues on both sides of the House to become increasingly frustrated because no national legislation has been introduced to correct the various anomalies created by different local authorities.

Many hon. Members represent constituencies which cover more than one county council area. Those of us who represent such constituencies are made more aware than other colleagues of the anomalies to which I have referred. At the same time, district local authorities which operate their own public transport and yet lie within the sane county can offer widely differing facilities for pensioners. In order to illustrate my point, it is necessary for me to explain briefly what happens in Rossendale. Let me begin by explaining that, although my constituency is not on the map yet, its geographical location covers four major towns in east Lancashire—namely, Bacup, Rawtenstall, Haslingden and Ramsbottom. The first three towns lie within the local government boundary of the Rossendale borough council and are in the Lancashire county council area.

The Rossendale council, being a district council, operates its own public transport and offers concessions to pensioners who travel on its buses. Of these, a popular concession is the Rossendale concessionary pass, which allows its holders to travel within the boundary of the borough at a reduced fare, the minimum amount being 5p and the maximum 14p. Travel tokens are also available up to the value of £13 in payment or part payment of full fare on transport operating within the authority's area and to a certain extent outside it. Pensioners who live within Rossendale can apply for one other permit, to which I shall refer later.

The fourth town which lies within my constituency, Ramsbottom, forms part of the Bury metropolitan borough council, which, in turn, lies within Greater Manchester. The Greater Manchester transport authority offers pensioners very different concessions from those offered by Rossendale council. Greater Manchester transport permit holders pay a fare at a flat rate of 8p per journey and the pensioners who hold passes can travel on them anywhere within the Greater Manchester county, an area obviously far larger than that of Rossendale.

As the House will realise, the pensioners who live within the Rossendale borough are well aware of the greater benefits due to pensioners who live in Ramsbottom, and, for obvious reasons, a great deal of resentment is bound to creep in when one considers oneself disadvantaged because one happens to live just outside the county boundary. That resentment turns to a white heat when the Rossendale pensioners, who live practically on top of the boundary, find that to travel to local shops, doctors' surgeries, hospitals, post offices and so on they have a considerable amount of cross-boundary travel. This applies particularly to my constituents who live in Edenfield. Their anger is not abated when they apply for a Greater Manchester transport concessionary pass, because they have to pay an extra £16 for such a pass and the flat fare is 14p.

These are just some of the anomalies which occur for my constituents. Other hon. Members may have experiences which are worse. Having spoken at length to many of my pensioners who are annoyed with present conditions, I am convinced that the only equitable solution to these and similar problems throughout the country is for the Government to introduce a national bus pass for pensioners.

From research which I have undertaken, it would appear that such a pass would cost a gross amount of approximately £75 on current fare values. Obviously, the cost of such a pass could be reduced by either flat fare travel or half fare travel, or, if the pass were to be issued on an annual basis, making the claimants pay a charge of, say, £5, which could still be part and parcel of either of the two alternatives that I have just mentioned. This pass would enable pensioners to travel anywhere in the country.

A system could easily be devised whereby local authorities were charged a precept from national Government to ensure that there was no extra charge on taxpayers. As ratepayers invariably fund the balance of money lost by the present system, I am certain that a more equitable system can be devised. There are hidden costs to ratepayers anyway in the precept already imposed by metropolitan county councils on their district authorities.

I do not believe that the political implications of such a policy are very great. A large amount of money could be saved by having a unified system common to every pensioner in the land. A good deal of bureaucratic red tape could be removed overnight. The scheme would be simpler for the bus companies to operate, and the bus drivers and/or conductors would find such a system far simpler than the various concessions currently in operation.

I have found, since becoming a Member of the House, that the vast majority of people are prepared to make many sacrifices for the benefit of pensioners. This is as it should be, but, apart from the economic argument for introducing a national scheme, the House should consider that there should be a moral obligation on the part of the Government to encourage retired people to develop their recreational activities. I believe that this is particularly relevant in this decade as we move towards the end of the twentieth century. No one seriously doubts that the retirement age for men will be lowered and that it is certain that retired people will live longer. Whilst both these facts are costly facts to face for any Government, I believe that travel will become increasingly important and that a scheme such as the one I am proposing will have even greater relevance towards the end of the century than it does now.

I have tried throughout this speech to avoid being too specific, for fear that my suggestion will fall flat on its face because of a technicality. My purpose in this debate has been to draw the attention of the House to the fact that bus pass concessions for our senior citizens need to be carefully examined. I hope that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport will give me that assurance tonight.

1.50 am
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. Kenneth Clarke)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale (Mr. Tripper) for raising this subject, which is one of wide interest to the constituents of all Members of Parliament. He has taken a close interest in the matter ever since he entered the House. I last answered a question from him on Wednesday 7 November of last year on the subject of concessionary travel for pensioners. But all of us in our constituencies find that elderly people have a considerable interest in it. We all accept that mobility is an important matter for the elderly. It is easy for them to get isolated from family and friends, and they look to a system of public transport to help them to keep in touch with their environment and their acquaintances.

The Government give high priority to the mobility of isolated elderly people. I have just come to this debate from the proceedings on the Transport Bill in Committee, where my right hon. Friend and my colleagues are persevering with measures which we hope will encourage the facility of a much wider range of services in rural areas, and in the rural areas in particular we have in mind in putting forward our proposals the many elderly and disabled people who are becoming isolated and cut off from any form of public passenger transport.

That is not to say that I accept that the difficulties of introducing a national scheme of concessionary fares of the kind that my hon. Friend advocates are as small as he perhaps believes. I see considerable practical disadvantages in moving towards a national scheme in the near future.

There is a long tradition of local decision-making in this matter. The first concessions were probably given by local authorities running their own municipal transport undertakings, and the last powers conferred on anyone by the House were given in the Transport Act 1968, which allowed, but did not compel, county and district councils to give travel concessions for local travel on buses.

Having had a look at the subject again, I believe that it remains true that the local authorities, with their detailed knowledge of their own areas, are best placed to judge what is most suitable for their localities and their retired people and to devise schemes within their own resources.

It has so far, therefore, been a matter for local authority decision, and, as I hope to persuade my hon. Friend, it ought so to remain. It follows, of course, from the fact that it is a local authority responsibility that different local authorities sometimes come to differing conclusions about their own areas. I know that that gives rise to anomalies which are sometimes difficult to explain to people who live in adjacent areas with different rules, but it seems to me inescapable that if we allow for local government independence at all we have to give authorities leeway to reach decisions that match their localities and may give rise to some local variations of the kind complained of.

Obviously, local authorities are best placed to consider the needs of their areas and to judge what resources they may devote to this way of assisting the retired. There are wide variations in the usefulness of concessionary fare schemes of various kinds to retired people in different localities. Nationally, there are quite a lot of retired people who cannot make much use of bus services anyway. The handicapped—and that includes a high proportion of the very elderly—are often incapable of making their way to a bus and getting on to a bus at all. There are also areas where there are many retired people who do not live near enough to any kind of bus route to be able to take advantage of concessionary fare schemes.

On a broad national average, that means that, if we were to devote resources to concessionary fare schemes as a first priority to the retired, there would be about 10 per cent. of elderly people living too far from bus routes to use them and another 10 per cent. too handicapped to board a bus readily. We should thus be devoting money for the assistance of the elderly which would be of no benefit to about 20 per cent. of those of retirement age.

There are localities where that proportion is much higher. Let me take the example of the county of Cornwall, where so far, I think, there has not been widespread use of concessionary fare schemes. The proportion of retired people who live too far away from any kind of bus service to take advantage of concessionary fares is quite high. If we were to introduce a national scheme, it would be to the advantage of a particular section of the retired population. Those who benefited would not necessarily be those in greatest need of assistance of this kind. It is poor value to provide an expensive pass for pensioners who may be able to make only limited use of it.

I see virtue in local authorities adopting policies towards the retired on a basis which looks at the needs of old people generally in their locality and not just at the question of transport in isolation. We must accept that some local authorities prefer to use their limited resources to help elderly people by subsidising bus operators—for instance, enabling them to maintain bus services which might otherwise have to be withdrawn from the whole population. Looking beyond transport, some local authorities seek to help by way of the provision of home helps, meals on wheels and other facilities which might be of more assistance to their retired and elderly population, given the transport policy of the locality.

Given that we have this local authority discretion, we have to examine the other snags of a national scheme. I am afraid that expenditure enters the picture. My hon. Friend said that in some ways costs could be saved by getting rid of some of the variations between local schemes. On the other hand, normally the pressure which is brought upon the Government to introduce some kind of national scheme is based on the premise that the national scheme should be a levelling up of all schemes to the standard of the more generous that are usually found throughout the country. Where there are discrepancies, as I know there are from my hon. Friend's description of his constituency, I would assume that the main pressures would be to bring all schemes in line with the best in the area. The inevitable result would be that a considerable increase in expenditure on concessionary schems would take place.

At the moment, local authorities are planning to spend about £95 million on concessionary fares next year. If we went to a totally free national scheme, and we would have to to bring it in line with the large bus-operating metropolitan areas, London being the prime example—where bus travel is free to pensioners—the cost of such a national scheme would be about £300 million. That is £200 million more than is currently spent on concessionary fares. When we look at the problems of the retired and at the problems posed by financial restraint faced by all branches of the Government, I suggest that it is doubtful whether an extra £200 million would best be devoted to the retired by concentrating on a free national concessionary fares scheme.

The previous Government looked at the idea of a national scheme, but the high cost of a free national scheme was one of the reasons for that Government rejecting such a proposal. They got no further than a Green Paper, which contained a half-way house proposal. That was a national half fare scheme. That presupposed that the "free" counties would retain their present free system and that below that there would be a half fare system nationally. There would still have been local discrepancies. Even then, such a scheme would have cost nearly £150 million annually a year ago. That means that at today's prices the cost would be about £170 million of national expenditure. That is £70 million more than local authorities are spending on concessions in 1979–80. As in so many areas of planned spending which we inherited from the Labour Government, we have no idea where they imagined they would find £70 million more of taxpayers' money to introduce such a scheme, conveniently produced for discussion just before a general election, when they were anxious to canvass pensioners' votes.

The only other way of achieving national uniformity would be to accept the practical difficulties in the expenditure problems and somehow redistribute the existing expenditure evenly across the country, so that there was a uniformity which was nearer the average of present provision. Unfortunately, that would not achieve a free scheme or anything like it and would cause understandable resentment in local authority areas where, to achieve national uniformity, one would be reducing the value of the concessions available to pensioners at the moment.

For that variety of reasons—beginning first with the very considerable range of local needs and circumstances and local judgments of what is best required to help the elderly in their area, and going on to the problems of public expenditure involved in producing any workable and feasible national scheme—I believe it is right that this decision should be taken still by democratically elected local authorities in the light of local circumstances.

As I said at an earlier stage, it is inevitable, if we believe in independent local government and leave matters to local decisions, that there will be a variation in the answers reached in differing and sometimes neighbouring local authorities. Obviously, the local authorities themselves must be aware of the resentment caused when these differences crop up, even on the other side of a street or in different parts of the same housing estate. I hope that local authorities will look at anomalies in their region and will do what they can to eliminate them and produce some uniformity in an area.

There are countrywide schemes introduced by some counties, and I welcome them on behalf of the Government. Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire and Surrey are amoung the counties which have come to an understanding which has resulted in a countrywide concessionary fare level which suits their particular needs.

I hope that other contiguous authorities, including those in my hon. Friend's constituency in Rossendale, will continue to look at whether they can match their own policies to come somewhat nearer to each other and avoid understandable resentment among pensioners, many of whom are probably travelling on exactly the same bus service run by exactly the same operator. But, given the qualification that we hope that countrywide schemes can be devised wherever possible and local anomalies minimised by the local authorities themselves, it seems to me that at the moment there is no scope for a national scheme.

I hope that I have explained to my hon. Friend why I believe that a careful look at the needs of the elderly across the board leads me to the conclusion that fare concessions are not the first priority in all parts of the country at all times and that we have to leave this important judgment to local authorities, which are best able to decide for themselves.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes past Two o'clock.