HC Deb 29 October 1985 vol 84 cc928-38

94.—(1) The payments provided for under an agreement providing for service subsidies entered into by an authority repsonsible for expenditure on public passenger transport services may not include payments in respect of the provision of travel concessions except as provided below in this section. (2) Subject to subsection (3) below, provision may be included in any such agreement for the making of payments by the authority in question to the person providing the service to which the agreement relates in respect of the provision of travel concessions on journeys on that service or any part of it for any description of persons eligible in accordance with section 87(8) of this Act to receive travel concessions under a travel concession scheme under that section. (3) Subsection (2) above only applies where the concessions in question are not available, or not available to that description of persons, under any such scheme administered by the authority concerned or by that authority acting jointly with any other authority or authorities.

No. 238, to leave out clause 95.

No. 239, after clause 95, to insert the following new clause —Travel concessions on services provided by local authorities— —(1) Where the council of any county or district in England and Wales or of any region or islands area in Scotland are operating any public passenger transport service, they shall have power to provide travel concessions for persons travelling on that service of any description eligible in accordance with section 87(8) of this Act to receive travel concessions under a travel concession scheme established under that section. (2) In respect of travel concessions provided under this section, any such council may, if they think fit, from time to time transfer to the credit of the account of their transport undertaking sums from the general rate fund or, where that council is the council of any region or islands area in Scotland, from the general fund (within the meaning of section 93 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973). (3) Sums so transferred must not exceed the cost to the council concerned of providing the concessions or so much of that cost as would not apart from subsection (2) above fall to be met out of the fund there mentioned.

No. 251, in clause 98, page 99, line 3, at end insert— (bb)references to the current reimbursement arrangements for eligible service operators participating in any scheme under section 87 of this Act shall be read in accordance with section 88(5) of this Act; (bc) references to a participation notice shall be read in accordance with section 89(2) of this Act.

No. 366, in schedule 6, page 146, line 1, at end insert— (". In section 10(1)(xiii) of the 1968 Act (power of Passenger Transport Executive to charge for services, etc.), after the word "Act" there shall be inserted the words "and section (Travel concessions on services provided by Passenger Transport Executives) of the Transport Act 1985 (travel concessions on services provided by Passenger Transport Executives)". . In section 15(2)(b) of that Act (approval of Passenger Transport Authority required for reduction or waiver of charges by Executive), for the words "138(1) of this Act" there shall be substituted the words "(Travel concessions on services provided by Passenger Transport Executives) of the Transport Act 1985 (travel concessions on services provided by Passenger Transport Executives)".".

No. 367, in page 146, line 2, leave out "the 1968" and insert "that".

No. 373, in page 147, line 24, leave out "(7)" and insert "(8)".

No. 374, in page 147, line 27, leave out ("7") and insert "(8)".

No. 416, in page 154, line 12, column 3, leave out "50(8)(a)" and insert 50, subsections (2) and (6) and, in subsection (8)(a), subparagraph (i) and

Mr. Ancram

When the Bill left the House, it contained eight clauses concerned with travel concessions. It now returns to us with 13 clauses, all of which contain amendments and all but three of which were only tabled in their present form in another place. I would like to explain to the House why the Government felt such radical action was necessary.

During the Bill's passage through the House the Government gave a commitment to introduce provisions for operators of local services to be required to enter a concessionary fare scheme if they were unwilling to do so on a voluntary basis. This power complements the right that operators have to enter any concessionary fare scheme established on a voluntary basis and enjoy its benefits. At short notice, on the Report, the Government tabled new clauses to make the necessary provision for compulsory participation. The principles behind these clauses remain in the amendments that we are now considering, although it has been necessary to refine much of the detail.

I hope that the House will forgive me if I do not go into all the technical changes that have been made. These have been fully examined in another place. The advent of the compulsory participation provision, which was requested by this House, has required us to recast the form of many of the clauses as they originally appeared in the Bill.

However, more substantively, we recognise that in giving this power to local authorities we have to ensure that it is not used to the detriment of the operator. Following representations from my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Fry), an amendment was introduced to allow compensation to be awarded to an operator who can show that the terms under which he is reimbursed for his compulsory participation are inadequate, either when the initial compulsory participation is imposed or at any time during its course. There is also provision for the Secretary of State to release operators from compulsory participation at any time if the reimbursement is inadequate. There is provision for a time limit to be set on the duration of a single period of compulsory participation so that an authority has to take stock of its arrangements from time to time.

None of these amendments diminish the power of an authority to use its power to invoke compulsory participation—they merely ensure that it is done fairly. Before the amendments on compulsory participation were introduced, it was felt in some quarters that too much of an advantage rested with the operators. With these amendments, I feel that we have now reached an equilibrium between the interests of the operators and authorities.

A number of other amendments have been tabled to clarify the powers of local authorities and to ensure the effective provision of concessions. A concessionary fares scheme may now be limited to only part of an area so that an authority can use its powers to establish schemes for children, for example, selectively to top up whatever is commercially available. The definition of "children" has been more precisely formulated so that authorities have the power to provide concessions for school children at any time up to their 19th birthday.

The amendments meet the concern expressed by some authorities that they may find difficulty in running an effective scheme by providing that within limits they may control the times of entry to and exit from their scheme by operators. Steps have also been taken to meet the concern expressed by operators that the administration of a scheme might be left to one dominant operator in an area to the disadvantage of his competitors. The Secretary of State now has the power to make regulations to cover that.

Provision has been made also for concessions to be provided on the limited number of services that will continue to be operated directly by the PTE or local authorities following the formation of the new public transport companies.

Finally, I draw the attention of the House to two sets of amendments that are now incorporated within clause 87 that should allay fears that were expressed in another place about the adequacy of local authorities' powers to provide concessions. As it left the House, the Bill was designed to reproduce the powers which authorities already had under the Transport Act 1968 in relation to the services to be covered and the provision of concessions for pensioners, the blind, and those suffering from handicaps which severely impair their ability to walk. It also gave authorities the power to provide concessions for children. However, it became clear during debate and in the light of consultation with the authorities that there was a problem over rail services in the non-metropolitan counties.

The powers in the Bill as drafted reflected the situation in which the metropolitan counties had powers to provide concessions on rail services in their areas as a result of their general responsibilities for the support of those services under section 26 of the 1968 Act. However, there were no corresponding powers for authorities in the shire areas. It appears that a number of non-metropolitan authorities and their equivalent in Scotland are already providing support for rail services. Indeed, in some instances local rail services are at least as important to local transport facilities as the bus services that were covered by the powers under the 1968 Act.

It was therefore decided to remove the distinctions between metropolitan and other areas so that all authorities will have the power to provide concessions on all forms of public passenger transport services.

Mr. David Marshall


Mr. Ancram

I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman in a moment. The powers of the non-metropolitan authorities will be extended to cover local travel by rail and services such as ferries and social car schemes. I am sure that the House will agree that this is an improvement.

Mr. David Marshall

The Minister has anticipated what I was about to ask him. I rose to seek clarification on concessionary fares on the ferries in Strathclyde.

Mr. Ancram

It was for that reason that I finished the section with which I was dealing before giving way to the hon. Gentleman. I am sure that he appreciates that there have been areas in Scotland where ferries have been dealt with in the same way previously. The amendment will regularise the position throughout Scotland as well as the rest of the United Kingdom.

Mr. George Park (Coventry, North-East)

Perhaps the Minister will be rather more explicit. In Coventry there are at least half a dozen routes which do not make a profit although they are well used by holders of concessionary tickets. What will happen, when the Bill is enacted, to ensure the continuance of service on these routes? The Minister has mentioned that operators who might be interested in tendering for such routes are already expressing doubts about their ability to handle the necessary administration of such schemes.

9 pm

Mr. Ancram

The hon. Gentleman is bringing together two slightly different aspects of the legislation. In the areas where services currently require subsidy, the Bill provides that those routes should be put out to tender, if the local authority so wishes, to ensure that they are run in the most cost-effective way to the level required by the local authority.

On concessionary fares, authorities will be allowed to draw up their schemes, and it is for them to decide in what areas and to what extent such schemes should apply. That matter is now being regulated, especially by the restructuring part of the Bill that has come to us from another place.

I accept that there are some complexities in what I am setting out, but it is important to appreciate that, if we are to have a scheme that works fairly and properly—many of the ideas for the scheme have come from hon. Members on both sides of the House — we cannot produce something as simple as was originally envisaged.

I come now to another group of amendments from another place, which were tabled by Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove, Lord Stallard and Baroness Stedman. I hope that the House will give the Government credit for accepting these amendments. Although they give my right hon. Friend a wide general power to add additional groups to those eligible to receive concessions under clause 87 by order, they reflect the debate in another place about specific problems that have arisen in relation to groups of people who are eligible to receive assistance with travelling expenses under the terms of the National Assistance Act 1948.

Those groups, including people such as the mentally handicapped and the deaf and dumb, are eligible to receive support from social services authorities. However, it has become clear that in some cases—Greater Manchester springs to mind—concessions are being provided not by the social services authority that has the statutory powers, but by the transport authority.

We have reached the conclusion that it would be appropriate to provide a machinery for removing the financial and administrative problems that would result if transport authorities did not have the power to provide concessions for people in those groups. It is in the light of those problems that we accepted the amendments, which I hope will be welcomed by the House.

My right hon. Friend, in consultation with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services, will consider how best the order-making power can be used to extend the coverage of schemes to those in groups covered by the 1948 Act. It is obviously only right that any decision should be taken jointly by both my right hon. Friends, bearing in mind their common responsibilities and the continuing interest that social services authorities inevitably must have in that area. I must, however, emphasise to the House that, in accepting the amendments, the Government have in mind the problems in relation to the 1948 Act.

Although the amendments on concessionary fares are substantial in number, they continue, in a more refined form, the central policy to which this House has already agreed, and extend the coverage of concessionary fares in a manner which I hope the House will support.

I am sorry to have dealt with this matter at some length, but the provisions are new to the House. I hope that I have, at least in outline, explained the way in which the Government see them working.

Mr. Jim Craigen (Glasgow, Maryhill)

I wish to speak to the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) to Lords amendment No. 223.

The Minister did not have the benefit of a Scottish education — [Interruption.] Well, he did not have a Scottish primary or secondary education. At one stage I thought that he was in danger of getting his three Rs wrong because he spoke of radical action, refining much of the Bill and recasting many of its clauses. Frankly, we take the view that the Government, rather than extending the area of concessionary fares and the principles that underlie the system, have actually narrowed the application.

The Minister referred to Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove. I have just seen a long letter that my hon. Friend wrote to Lord Belstead after the long passage of the Bill in the other place, expressing some misgivings about the way in which the Government sought to restrict some of the concessions which will operate in practice.

I noted what the Minister said about the National Assistance Act of 1948 to which Lord Carmichael also referred in his letter. I am not unmindful of the way in which the legislation applicable to Scotland operated in recent years under the Concessionary Travel for Handicapped Persons (Scotland) Act 1980. When discussing concessionary fares we must bear in mind that one of the largest restraints on the operation of concessionary fare schemes is the way in which the Government continue to cut the amount of aid to local authorities. That will be the biggest constraint on the ability of local authorities to provide and finance adequate concessionary schemes. No matter what is said, and no matter what legislation the Government say is there in a discretionary form, if the resources are not available to local authorities the schemes will become inoperable.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Is my hon. Friend aware that in recent months when I have gone to see elderly people, on every occasion the inevitable question is, "What is going to be done about concessionary fares?" That is the fear uppermost in people's minds. It is a justifiable fear because, as my hon. Friend said, at the end of the day it depends on the amount of money available from the Government. It is remarkable that a Government who pay lip service to the elderly and the care of the elderly should, in effect, be putting the concessionary fares scheme in danger.

Mr. Craigen

My hon. Friend did not have the advantage that we had of serving hour after hour on the Transport Bill Standing Committee. Even if he had, he would still be unable to assuage the fears of his elderly constituents, because the Minister did not give the guarantees necessary to eliminate those genuine fears. We had a lot of soft soap from Ministers and, as the hours wore on, even some of the most dim-witted Government Backbenchers—there were one or two—began to realise that the concessionary scheme was not going to do all that the Minister claimed it would do.

The second main area in which we have to be wary about the Government's pronouncements is about the extent to which local authorities will be able to exercise discretion. Even where there is a will, we now have ratecapping, and the Government, by reducing the amount of transport subsidy, will have a second bite at local authorities, because, effectively, the Government can reduce what local authorities are able to do to sustain concessionary schemes.

In Scotland the average fare in the regions and islands works out at half fare and, in some instances, at a third fare. I am afraid that that will he squeezed even more because of the reduction in the transport subsidy forthcoming from central Government and because of the way in which the Department of the Environment, the Scottish Office and the Welsh Office will work the principles of rate capping.

The Minister referred to the arrangements for the blind, and I shall put on my spectacles for a minute. Bodies such as the Royal National Institute for the Blind and the National League of the Blind and Disabled are worried about the position of the partially sighted passengers as a group. Their numbers are not inconsiderable. In March 1982 there were about 58,000 registered partially sighted people in England. In March 1984 the figure was 3,271 in Scotland and 4,876 in Wales. In December 1983 there were 1,230 registered partially sighted people in Northern Ireland.

Will the Minister make it clear that these people will not be disadvantaged by the radical changes, recastings and refinements in the other place? Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove went into the matter in some detail in his letter to Lord Belstead, but I shall not weary the House with the details. It is understandable that a person who spent a bit of time looking at the Bill during its passage through the other place took pen to paper and wrote three pages to the Minister. I hope that the Minister can assuage some of our genuine fears.

Mr. David Marshall

My hon. Friend is right to voice concerns about the future of concessionary fares. Does he agree that it is a matter of not only the lack of resources but the possible lack of services? Does he agree that many areas which have services used by people who benefit from concessionary fares are likely, because of the Bill's long-term effects, to have drastically reduced services or even no services? What use is a concessionary fare if there are no services to use it on?

Mr. Craigen

I can tell that my hon. Friend was not hauled up the Clyde in a barrel. Obviously, services need to be running before we can benefit from concessionary fares. Our colleagues and I have taken issue with the Government over the rest of their obnoxious legislation. We are well aware that the other clauses will seriously cripple the ability of operators in many parts of the country to run adequate services.

I have been trying to keep within the confines of order, so I have concentrated merely on dealing with concessionary fares. I hope that the House will in due course agree the amendments standing in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) because they seek not only to broaden the range of groups who should be eligible for concessionary fares but to avoid any confusion from a Government team that was clearly mystified by the whole process during the Bill's passage.

Mr. Conal Gregory (York)

I shall speak in a positive tone, unlike the hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mr. Craigen) who showed a negative view. I should like my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State to comment further on the partially sighted to whom the hon. Member for Maryhill rightly alluded. In another place on 24 October the Government accepted an amendment intended to help disabled passengers. I welcome that.

9.15 pm

I want to make a point which may be in danger of being overlooked. Surely our aim is to ensure that the partially sighted are not excluded from the categories for whom concessionary fares may be provided, if local authorities wish. The Government have agreed to include a power for the Secretary of State to specify "other classes of persons" as eligible for concessions in addition to those already listed in the Bill. In other words, we are going further than pensioners, children, full-time students under the age of 18, blind people and those with a seriously impaired ability to walk.

I understand that it is the Government's intention to make an order specifying the other categories who are to be eligible. Lord Belstead, the Minister in another place, referred to the mentally handicapped, the deaf, the dumb and other passengers. He said that the Government would consider how far it would be appropriate for transport authorities to provide concessions for disabled people other than those named in the Bill.

The point should be registered that partially sighted passengers often have the same mobility needs as blind people and should be among those for whom transport authorities may make provision. Partially sighted people may use buses to avoid a hazardous journey by foot involving busy road crossings. A partially sighted person's level of sight may be affected greatly by changing light conditions, such as darkness on a winter morning or shadowy light and dark. Partially sighted people are often found in low income groups and may have difficulty in finding work. Public transport is vital for them.

I am glad that the Government intend to improve the provisions for eligibility for concessionary fares and I am concerned to make sure that the partially sighted are included, numbering as they do a small category compared with the 130,000 registered blind in the United Kingdom. The Government have argued previously that groups outside those listed in the Bill can be covered if social services departments decide to use their powers under the National Assistance Act 1948. Reference has already been made to that. The Government's acceptance of the amendment in the other place is a welcome recognition that problems arise and that the powers of transport authorities should be widened.

Some authorities include wider categories. The Concessionary Travel for Handicapped Persons (Scotland) Act 1980 extends eligibility in Scotland without the legal complications that arise in the rest of Britain. For example, Tayside and Fife regional councils are among those who give concessionary fares to partially sighted passengers. Thus there is a strong case for that group to be included in categories that are specified as eligible under this legislation. If they are not included, they may be left worse off than they are now.

Mr. Allan Rogers

Opposition Members are disturbed because the Bill places more emphasis on giving fair treatment to operators than to those who are willing to use the transport services. That is demonstrated dramatically in the provisions for concessionary fares. Unfortunately, because of the time restriction, we have to rely on the arguments that were put forward previously.

This is a key issue that will affect many people. In Committee the Government refused to accept amendments which would have ensured a future for concessionary travel instead of the patchwork system which may result. The word "may" in the clause does not give sufficient security for the general provision of concessionary travel throughout the country.

It is hypocritical for any Member to suggest that the Conservatives are concerned about elderly or disabled people not being socially mobile unless there is a concessionary fares system, when the whole public transport system will be severely truncated as a result of the Bill. Conservative members have said in Committee and again today that they want to look after these groups of people but they know that the Secretary of State for the Environment will immediately start cutting the money available and that there is no provision in this or any other legislation to ensure that within the general targets laid down for local authorities or in the rate support grant settlements money can be made available specifically to support concessionary fares schemes.

This is a missed opportunity. The Bill should have provided an opportunity for the Government to go forwards rather than backwards and to show that they are caring and compassionate and want to provide a decent concessionary travel scheme throughout the country. The opportunity has been missed because they do not care. They probably never use public transport and do not appreciate the enormous difficulties that old people, disabled people and young people face, especially in rural areas. The Government have been found lacking in this respect and I hope that some Conservative Members will support the amendment.

Mr. Martin M. Brandon-Bravo (Nottingham, South)

In Committee, Conservative Members were anxious to protect and, indeed, to improve the provisions for concessionary fares. I believe that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State delivered our hopes in full on Report and he seems, indeed, to have improved on that today.

I seek my right hon. Friend's clarification on one aspect — the protection of the legitimate budgeting of local authorities. Members will recall that in Committee I outlined a mechanism whereby a local authority could establish a fair and reasonable valuation of the concessionary pass and thus know at the beginning of the financial year its total commitment for that year. The administrative mechanism whereby that budget was shared among the operators was not in my view, or in that of local authority treasurers, an insurmountable problem.

I seek an assurance from the Government today that under the new provisions local authorities will still be able to establish a finite budget. If they cannot do so, the fear of an open-ended commitment may force some authorities to move reluctantly from a pass scheme to a token scheme when they do not wish to do so. If my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State can give an assurance that finite budgets and therefore passes will still be possible, I believe that the last remaining fears of local authorities can be set aside

We have heard the customary noises from the Opposition and the main thrust of the argument made by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mr. Craigen) has been that even if the Bill achieves all these things, any failure to deliver a concessionary fares scheme will be the fault of wicked central Government failing to provide the resources. In fact, as anyone who has been involved in local government knows, it is not central Government who will determine whether the provision will be made. The rather perverse priorities of some authorities will be the key to whether old age pensioners are threatened. Local authorities which have their priorities right will always find the money for a scheme of the kind that has been set out today.

Mr. Parris

It is rich of Opposition Members to spend their weekends storming up and down the country telling elderly people that their concessionary fares scheme will be taken away, and then spend the weekdays reporting to the House that they have encountered much alarm among elderly people about the future of their pension schemes.

The Government have been able to allay two anxieties which existed in Derbyshire. We were worried about our ability to support concessionary fares schemes on the railways as well as the buses and my hon. Friend has confirmed that that will now be possible. Secondly, we were worried about provision for the mentally handicapped. We knew that we could make such provision through the social services but it would be more sensible to make it through the county council's transport department. My hon. Friend the Minister said that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport will be able to arrange for that by order. Those are two small but helpful alterations to the Bill and I welcome them.

Mr. Ancram

I am grateful to my hon. Friends for the appreciation that they have shown for the amendments which have been made. As I said earlier, I believe that the scheme we are putting forward now is an improvement. It is largely based on the suggestions made by hon. Members during the progress of the Bill. It is significant that in Committee and on Report Opposition Members argued about the details of the concessionary fares provisions within this legislation. Tonight they cannot do that. Only one Opposition Member spoke to the details of Opposition amendments. They could merely revert to singing the same old tune—that deregulation was not going to work, that there were going to be fewer buses and that local authorities would not be provided with enough money.

Mrs. Dunwoody

Be careful.

Mr. Ancram

We have heard all these words and songs over and over again during the passage of the Bill. I am reassured tonight that the provisions we are putting forward on concessionary fares are right, because Opposition Members were cautious not to criticise the hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mr. Craigen) who moved an amendment which contained four extra categories of fares but did not mention any of them. That shows the level of confidence the hon. Member has in his amendment, so we need not spend much time dealing with it.

A number of important points have been raised during what has been a useful debate. The first relates to the partially sighted. It was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Gregory) and by the hon. Member for Maryhill. The partially sighted are included among the group for whom assistance may be provided under the National Assistance Act 1948 and they are affected by the provisions I referred to earlier.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport now has powers under the amendments which have come from another place. Subsection (8)(f) of the new clause which is Lords amendment No. 223 allows him by order to specify other classes of person. I should like to tell my hon. Friend the Member for York that my right hon. Friend will wish to consider whether the partially sighted should be covered under a new order made by the order-making power.

It is important to state that in terms of a number of the categories mentioned tonight, that new order-making power is available, and serious consideration would have to be given to individual cases.

Mr. Craigen

Will the Minister guarantee that he will include that category?

Mr. Ancram

The purpose of having that power available is so that when categories are brought to my right hon. Friend's attention, he can consider them. The hon. Member for Maryhill referred to a letter from his noble Friend Lord Carmichael. Lord Carmichael asked us to accept his amendment and we did so. I believe that the points made by Lord Carmichael in that letter have been met by these provisions.

The hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) suggested that the purpose of these amendments was to be fair to operators. I must say openly that we wish to ensure that we are fair to operators and also to authorities. During the debate there has been a tendency to swing from one to the other, but I believe that we now have the equilibrium right; it is for that reason that the provisions are welcomed by my hon. Friends.

My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Brandon-Bravo) mentioned the ability of authorities to operate concessionary fare schemes without having to move to tokens. Depending upon the method of reimbursement that they adopt, authorities can be reasonably clear at the start of the financial year about the cash that they will have to pay over that year. To ensure that operators are properly reimbursed for journeys that they carry out, authorities may need to make adjustments after the end of the financial year. There cannot be precise, finite budgeting on such a matter, but I believe that within these provisions there is sufficient flexibility to allow past schemes to continue.

9.30 pm

Throughout the course of the legislation there has been debate about whether concessionary fare schemes would continue. Hon. Members such as the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) have talked tonight of people's fears as to whether concessionary fares would continue. I do not suggest that it was necessarily him, but Opposition Members started to put about the scare story that the Bill meant the end of concessionary fares long before the provisions were discussed in Committee. That has caused a great deal of unnecessary distress and fear. We are debating a concessionary fare scheme which, I believe, will provide for the type of concessionary fares that we wish to see across the country. I hope that my hon. Friends will reject the amendments moved by the Opposition and will approve the amendments from another place.

Question put and agreed to.

Lords amendment No. 132 agreed to.

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