HC Deb 25 November 1983 vol 49 cc627-34

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

2.43 pm
Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

I wish to draw attention to the serious concern felt by London's pensioners and local councillors about the future of the Greater London council's free travel passes when responsibility for London Transport passes from the GLC and is vested in London Regional Transport—a a new quango to be set up by the Government.

I am trying this afternoon to obtain an assurance from the Minister that pensioners' free travel passes will be statutorily guaranteed by the Government when responsibility passes to the boroughs. Much though I dislike what the Government are doing to London Transport, I shall be the first to welcome such an assurance from the Minister.

The travel passes were first introduced by the London borough of Camden in 1970. In 1971 the London Boroughs Association commended a model scheme to its members, and by April 1972 the concession allowed travel between 9.30 am and 4 pm and after 7pm on Mondays to Fridays and all day at weekends. The concession was uniform, but not universally available to all of London's old age pensioners. Some boroughs made a charge for the permit while others restricted its issue, for example, to pensioners receiving supplementary benefit.

In July 1973 the Labour GLC decided that, in the interests of equity, it would assume responsibility for a London-wide scheme available free of charge to all men aged over 65 and all women aged over 60 normally permanently resident in the GLC area. The scheme has been added to since then, much to the credit of the GLC. In London today old age pensioners can travel free every day on buses and tubes after 9.30 am and on British Rail at half price on awayday tickets on production of a GLC permit.

It is proposed that for 1984–85 the restriction on free travel before 9.30 am should be lifted and that free travel should be introduced on British Rail's London services for holders of GLC travel passes. The scheme's extension will continue as long as the GLC exists.

Nearly 1 million Londoners hold old age pensioner passes. They make about 300 million trips a year on London Transport buses and tubes. That includes about 65 million trips to visit friends and relatives, 40 million for shopping and 35 million for entertainment. Each pensioner in London makes an average of six trips a week.

In co-operation with London Transport and the Post Office, the GLC has over the years built up a system which is a model of simplicity and efficiency and is probably the most comprehensive in the United Kingdom. All that appears now to be at risk because of the Government's doctrinaire decision to take London Transport away from the democratically elected GLC and to give it to an unelected, unaccountable quango. Why should 1 million pensioners have to suffer simply because Mrs. Thatcher has decided to wage war on the Labour GLC? The Secretary of State and his Under-Secretary, Mrs. Chalker, have said that the GLC is—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

Order. The hon. Member knows our convention is not to refer to right hon. and hon. Members by name, no matter how distinguished their office. I should be grateful if the hon. Member would refer to hon. Members in the third person or by identifying their office.

Mr. Banks

I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for drawing my attention to that convention.

The Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary have said that the GLC is trying to frighten pensioners by insisting that the travel passes are at risk. The travel passes are at risk. It is up to the Government to remove the risk and to say that they are not to be removed.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Banks

No, I will not.

If the Government believe that the GLC is trying to frighten pensioners, let them give a categorical assurance that the passes are to be safeguarded. It is that assurance that I am trying to get this afternoon. Nothing less will do. We do not want any more weasel words from the Minister.

Mr. Greenway

Nor from the hon. Member.

Mr. Banks

The Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary have said in answer to parliamentary questions that the London Boroughs Association will take responsibility for the travel schemes. That is recorded in the Official Report of 24 October 1983. Such statements reveal a total——

Mr. Greenway

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) is accusing the Government of lying. He has no means of proving what he says and is adding to what the Labour GLC has said in propaganda at a cost to the ratepayers of millions of pounds. Will the hon. Gentleman withdraw his remarks?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I have not so far heard anything that is out of order, except the words for which I reproached the hon. Gentleman. It is not fair for hon. Members to make bogus points of order when another hon. Member has only a limited time.

Mr. Banks

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. If the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) will sit still for a while and keep his mind open and his mouth shut, he may learn something to his advantage.

Ministers have said that the LBA will take responsibility for old age pensioners' free passes. That reveals their fundamental misunderstanding of the structure of local government in London. The LBA has no mandatory powers; it can only advise the London boroughs what they should do, and it issues guidelines. Of course, the boroughs are not obliged to adhere to those guidelines, unless the Government make the provision of old age pensioner passes mandatory for the boroughs.

The LBA does not even represent all the London boroughs. Therefore, the assurances given by Ministers that the LBA will take responsibility are based on a misunderstanding of local government structure in London and are not worth the paper they are written on.

I assume that when London Transport is transferred from the GLC to the new quango—London Regional Transport—the boroughs will take responsibility for the passes, just as they had responsibility before 1973. However, each borough will be able to organise its own scheme, and variations will undoubtedly arise, just as they arose before the GLC took over the scheme in 1973.

I remind the Under-Secretary, who is to reply, that the cost of the present scheme is about £58 million—a sum raised by the GLC effectively taking money away from the wealthy boroughs, such as the City, Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea, and sharing the burden throughout London as a whole.

If the present arrangement is scrapped, it will mean that the richer boroughs will make big savings and most other London boroughs will lose out. In the borough of Newham, it will cost an extra £700,000 out of the rates to continue the GLC scheme.[Laughter.] Conservative Members laugh, but perhaps they will laugh on the other side of their faces when I tell them that Tory boroughs, such as Barnet, Bexley, Enfield and Waltham Forest, will have to find more money from the rates. Ironically, the largest rates increase to maintain the scheme will have to be borne by the London borough of Bromley. It will have to find an extra £1.2 million—a 2.3p rate—if the passes are to be a rate-borne charge. There is a poetic justice about that, bearing in mind what Bromley did to the GLC over cheap fares.

Boroughs such as Croydon, Enfield and Bromley have said that they will vary the existing scheme if they are given responsibility. The evidence is in the Department of Transport, and I suggest that the Under-Secretary starts to read it, because that evidence blows sky high the Government's wholly unsubstantiated claims that the boroughs will protect concessionary fares. After all, with Government penalties being imposed on the boroughs and with rate capping to come, it will be a question not of the willingness of boroughs to maintain the scheme, but whether they have the financial capacity to do so. They will not be able to afford to do so.

Ministers have had ample opportunity to give assurances about the scheme, but they have consistently refused to do so. In the reply to which I referred, the Under-Secretary said that the Government had no plans to introduce legislation to impose a statutory duty on boroughs to maintain the real level of spending on concessionary fares and no plans to legislate to ensure that boroughs grant concessionary fares to all classes of pensioners currently enjoying such fares in London.

In the light of that answer, how can the Under-Secretary have given assurances to the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath), as reported in The Standard recently, that pensioner passes were safe with the boroughs? They are manifestly not safe, unless the Government say so. The LBA cannot guarantee the passes. In the absence of the GLC, only the Government can. I repeat that the GLC is not trying to frighten old age pensioners. [HON. MEMBERS: "Yes, it is."] No, not even the old age pensioners on the Conservative Benches. The GLC is merely drawing attention to the equivocal and confused statements being made by Ministers. I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) wants to come in on this aspect of my remarks.

Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton)


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

Order. Does the hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) wish to participate in the debate?

Mr. Cohen

I wish to make a brief intervention. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) for giving me a few moments——

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I thought that the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) was giving way to allow the hon. Member for Leyton to make an intervention. Mr. Speaker has made it very clear that hon. Members should not seek to participate in an Adjournment debate unless they have the prior agreement of both the hon. Member whose Adjournment debate it is and the Minister. Does the Minister object to the hon. Member for Leyton taking part?

The Minister of State, Department of Transport (Mrs. Lynda Chalker)

It would be churlish of me to do so, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Cohen

I am grateful to the Minister for making that clear and, as I said just now, I am also grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West for giving me a few moments of his time. I fully endorse my hon. Friend's excellent comments. I have had well over 400 petition slips and letters from local old age pensioners attempting to save their free travel passes.

I invited all those who wrote to me to come to the House for tea and biscuits. About 200 of them came on Monday. I have had plenty of phone calls in support as well. My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Deakins) and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition have also conveyed their support. A local man came to the House on Monday bringing a petition containing 500 more signatures. That shows the strength of feeling among pensioners in my area and in London as a whole about this matter.

We went to Downing Street and presented a letter to the Prime Minister. It reads: Please accept this petition on behalf of old age pensioners in my constituency. It contains over 400 petition slips and letters calling for the retention of London pensioners' free travel passes. Pensioners' mobility is of enormous importance in a constituency like Leyton, where old-age pensioners often have to travel quite a distance from homes to shops. Leyton has a large elderly population who naturally like to keep in touch with their families and friends living in other parts of London. In this respect free travel passes are a vital aspect in maintaining the well-being and independence of our senior citizens. Without such inks the resulting isolation and loneliness can directly lead to serious health problems, incurring in the process, greater cost to the Health Service. We therefore ask that you give an absolute guarantee that during the lifetime of your Government London pensioners' free trvel passes are maintained. I am proud to be associated with this delegation on behalf of Leyton pensioners. That letter outlines the case that it is necessary to keep London pensioners' free travel passes. My constituents and all London pensioners await the Prime Minister's reply with considerable interest and concern.

Mr. Banks

That was a rather lengthy intervention—[Interruption.] It was an intervention, and I gave way to my hon. Friend, just as I did to a Government supporter earlier in my speech.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I think that the House shared my assumption that the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) had concluded his remarks.

2.53 pm
The Minister of State, Department of Transport (Mrs. Lynda Chalker)

I am sorry if Opposition Members did not work out their tactics before beginning this debate.

The principle has been enunciated clearly by the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks), assisted in some way by the hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen). I am glad to have this opportunity of dealing with this issue, but I am not glad about the cause for the debate.

Concessionary fares for the elderly in London are of great importance. There are 1 million pensioners involved, and their anxiety should never have been stirred up in the way that it has been by the GLC. The extent of the fears was underlined by the intervention of the hon. Member for Leyton. These people are frightened, but they need have no fear of the Government. It is the GLC which they need fear.

This issue of concessionary fares has been the subject of totally unscrupulous allegation and misrepresentation, and much of that has been repeated in this short debate. I shall make it clear that this campaign is being used as a device to obscure the real issues about London, and that is a worry.

Mr. Greenaway

Will my hon. Friend underline the point that the concessionary passes in question were continued under Conservative and Labour administrations at county hall? The Labour campaign has cost the ratepayers hundreds of thousands of pounds and is a disgrace.

Mrs. Chalker

The ratepayers have paid out a great deal of money for the GLC's campaign, but I shall come to that later.

Let us not forget that the then Labour Government said in their Green Paper of 1979: Local discretion to take account of local conditions and priorities is valuable and must be retained. That shows that both the Labour and Conservative parties started from the same viewpoint. Concessionary fares have rightly been regarded by successive Governments as part of the local government package of services for the elderly. That is why they do not figure in the transport supplementary grant. Concessionary fares are paid for as part of the block grant to local authorities. The grant-related expenditure assessments include a special allowance for the number of old people in each area because it is well recognised that there is need for special provision for them. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, a London Member, has written to his constituents quoting from a letter sent to him by the former Secretary of State for Transport, in which he said: I can assure you that the Government appreciate the value pensioners place on their concessionary fares and that there is no intention that they should be deprived of travel concessions when the GLC is abolished. I could not give a clearer undertaking than was contained in that letter. The whole matter rests on the fact that the local authorities, as the Labour Green Paper said, have the choice in deciding how the help to the elderly is used——

Mr. Tony Banks

What does that mean?

Mrs. Chalker

—whether in the home, on residential care, in travel concessions or for special transport vehicles. There are those in this House busy saying that this Government are taking away local choice.

Mr. Cohen

Hear, hear.

Mrs. Chalker

They are ignoring the reality of the situation; it is for the local authorities to decide, in the light of their local circumstances, what is right for thier elderly.

Mr. Banks

Exactly, in the light of their circumstances.

Mrs. Chalker

Local authorities have in the past chosen travel concessions, and for good reasons, and I see no reason why they will not make that decision again, and shortly I will come to what the London Boroughs Association has said. It is clear that they have chosen travel concessions because in their boroughs that is what is wanted.

If people are to travel freely in peak hours—the hope that the hon. Member for Newham, North-West was holding out for the future as a result of the GLC resolution—there will need to be extra buses and drivers. If there is heavy off-peak travel, buses that would otherwise be in for servicing will have to be duplicated. It does not actually matter who owns or runs the transport undertaking. What matters is that the cost of the concessionary travel is recognised for what it is and is paid for, and, as we have been told, the cost now is £58.6 million. It must all be paid for.

I come to the next misconception of the hon. Member for Newham, North-West. This has nothing to do with London Regional Transport. The whole issue of LRT is the management of the provision of bus and underground services in greater London. LRT will be like any other transport undertaking; it will be there to deliver whatever concessionary travel schemes it is asked to deliver. It will have a duty to see that the travel services are properly run and paid for, but it will be for the London boroughs to decide what scheme should be made available for the elderly of London.

Mr. Banks

Some of them will opt out.

Mrs. Chalker

When the hon. Member for Newham, North-West reads Hansard tomorrow, he will see that he did not make that point. The real issue is the sort of concessionary travel scheme that the boroughs choose to operate in two years' time.

Mr. Cohen

Exactly, in two years' time.

Mrs. Chalker

Yes, and I stress that this issue does not arise until then. The choice is up to the London boroughs, not the Government. It is not an issue arising from the setting up of LRT, as I said, but a consequence of the abolition of the GLC. It is one of a whole bundle of issues that are being discussed by Government with the boroughs. That is two years away. It is also one of the many consequences of the abolition of the GLC that it will give to the local boroughs the freedom that they seek.

I object to the fact that the panic presentations of the GLC and the noise and commotion that Labour Members are making is because they are determined to kick up a political dust cloud to screen the real issues and to manipulate whoever they can, be it the pensioners or the disabled, to assist them.

I have been asked today to give a categoric assurance that the same scheme will continue, and that the Government will step in and force local authorities to provide an identical scheme if they decide that they do not want to. That is the kernel, but it is a curious proposition from those who argue that the Government are taking too many decisions away from local authorities. The Government's obligation on concessionary fares is to sit down with the local boroughs and sort out how the scheme will operate. It is not to tell the local boroughs what to do. The Government have done what they should by inviting the local boroughs to consider and work out a joint scheme.

We all know that this will take time. We are talking about a scheme not for this year or for next year but for another two years. The London Boroughs Association agreed in October: The Association considers that, on the setting up of LRT, the boroughs should assume responsibility for concessionary fares.

Mr. Banks

There is no guarantee.

Mrs. Chalker

The hon. Gentleman is asking about the future. The association has written to one of the hon. Gentleman's hon. Friends and sent a copy of the letter to me in the past 48 hours. The letter shows clearly that the LBA has agreed in principle to work out the further details of the scheme and to put forward proposals.

Mr. Cohen

Who pays?

Mrs. Chalker

The question of who pays is part of the issues being worked out over the coming two years. That is why I shall not, in the House or anywhere else, need to impose on the London boroughs a scheme that they have agreed to accept in principle and that they are prepared to work on. It is also why I believe that the activities of the GLC and certain Labour Members in frightening old people are thoroughly reprehensible.[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Newham, North-West keeps seeking to interrupt, when I wish to get on record what is happening. He had his opportunity at the beginning of the debate.

Unfortunately, there are certain London boroughs, which I shall name, that have refused to discuss the issue. They are Brent, Greenwich, Hackney, Islington, Lambeth, Lewisham and Southwark. They have refused to discuss the creation of the scheme for concessionary fares because they are running a political campaign against the abolition of the GLC that is paid for with ratepayers' money.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)


Mrs. Chalker

That is not simply politics, but the subject of a court investigation. I remind the House that those boroughs have in their hands the future concessionary fares of 250,000 of London's 1 million pensioners. The rest of the boroughs are busy discussing what is involved in such a scheme.

The hon. Member for Newham, North-West quoted a number of figures that had been chosen, composed and circulated in press notices by the GLC as part of its campaign. Those figures are misleading. They assume the cost to the boroughs to be exactly the same as it is now to the GLC, but the cost to the GLC is high because, as a result of other high-spending policies, the GLC receives no rate support grant from the Government in respect of this or other expenditure. That is reflected by the contributions which each borough currently makes to the scheme. After the abolition of the GLC, the boroughs, by pursuing sensible levels of expenditure, will be able to benefit from rate support grant. That is why I say that the GLC figures are bogus. They are based on an unrealistic assumption, and they are aimed purposely at causing more confusion and uncertainty. That is what I objected to in the remarks of the Members for Newham, North-West and for Leyton.

A large part of the discussion is bound to be about cost. No one has tried to get away from that issue. The cost will depend entirely on how it is shared between the boroughs, and how the allowance for the transfer of responsibility from the GLC will be reflected in each borough's grant-related expenditure assessment, and all the other financial arrangements associated with the abolition of the unnecessary tier of the GLC. The Government's approach is set out clearly in the White Paper on the abolition of the GLC and the metropolitan county councils: The Government consider that there should be no undue financial advantage of disadvantage to any authority as a result of abolition, and will discuss with the authorities concerned any special steps necessary to even out the financial effects on individual authorities. That is why the Opposition slurs on the outer London boroughs are not in order. We have not had even the first detailed discussions with the LBA because the boroughs are getting together to decide how they shall run the scheme. The discussions will take place as part of the overall changes in local government during the next two years, and the concessionary scheme will continue. However, the financing of such a complex scheme—which has been presented in the House and in other places in a very simplistic way—needs much discussion. I repeat that my hon. Friend's letter shows that there is no intention to deprive pensioners of travel concessions when the GLC is abolished. It is ridiculous to assume that no scheme can be prepared; and it is only because the GLC wishes that no scheme should be prepared that it joins the boroughs that are refusing to meet and discuss the effect of the abolition on 250,000 Londoners.

It is with considerable regret that I must speak so harshly today about a matter that should not worry l million pensioners and many other Londoners.

Mr. Banks

The Government should not abolish the GLC.

Mrs. Chalker

The GLC is extremely cold-blooded in its attitude. It is trying to manipulate old age pensioners with scare stories.[Interruption.] It is interesting to hear the hon. Member for Newham, North-West shouting, because I quote from an article in the Sunday Telegraph of 17 April this year, in which the hon. Gentleman said: If you win political control you carry out policies in line with your political programme … I am a local politician making political decisions. I remind the hon. Gentleman that on 9 June there was a general election. The Conservative Government were elected on a clear manifesto to abolish the GLC: and we are now, in his words, carrying out political policies in line with our political programme.

I hope that when Mr. Wetzel, the chairman of the transport committee of the GLC, makes his demogogic speeches—as I expect he will—he will pause to consider whether it is right to frighten old people in the way that he is unscrupulously doing to seek a political end. That is wrong. I have three simple messages for Londoners——

It being after half-past Two o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at thirteen minutes past Three o'clock.