HC Deb 15 June 1999 vol 333 cc139-40
3. Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

When he expects to bring forward legislation on concessionary travel for the elderly and the retired. [85781]

The Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. John Prescott)

Legislation to fulfil our commitment to minimum half-fare travel on buses for pensioners will be introduced as soon as parliamentary time permits. Individual local authorities are free to adopt the proposed minimum standard in advance of legislation.

Mr. Mackinlay

Does the Deputy Prime Minister appreciate that, while Back Benchers and our constituents understand that the Labour Government cannot achieve everything at once—it is a question of priorities and dealing with legislative bottlenecks—there is a growing impatience among some, particularly in the conurbations where boroughs such as mine interface with London boroughs, who believe that the measure should be implemented as quickly as possible? I urge my right hon. Friend to persuade business managers to provide early legislative time so that we may have the scheme up and running long before the next general election.

Mr. Prescott

I understand my hon. Friend's comments about the impatience in this area. We are committed to introducing the half-fare system for pensioners, which we think is right. However, there is nothing to stop any authority introducing that scheme now. I understand that the authority of Thurrock has introduced a half-rate scheme that it subjects to means testing. The difference with our scheme is that 17,000, rather than 7,000, pensioners in Thurrock would qualify for it. Some 3 million pensioners overall will benefit from the scheme.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Given that approximately half of local authorities are currently unable to provide the concessionary fare schemes of which the Government are in favour—partly because of the substantial costs that they would entail—can the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the statutory scheme that he proposes to introduce will involve no additional cost whatsoever for any local authority in this country and that, therefore, no local authority will be required to increase council tax to pay for the right hon. Gentleman's pledge?

Mr. Prescott

It is just not true to say that a substantial number of local authorities do not pay for some form of concessionary fares—in fact, only 10 do not and they are all Conservative or Independent councils. The total scheme will cost an extra £25 million nationally, which the Government are quite prepared to meet.

Ms Rosie Winterton (Doncaster, Central)

I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware that national concessionary travel is extremely good news for pensioners. Is there similar good news for those pensioners who are former employees of the National Bus Company and whose pension fund was raided by the previous Tory Government to the tune of millions of pounds?

Mr. Prescott

The House is well aware of the ability that my hon. Friend has demonstrated in pursuing the injustice that arose out of the privatisation of the National Bus Company, whereby many thousands of pensioners were denied hundreds of millions of pounds in pension rights. We have now concluded an agreement, and I can confirm that we have reached a settlement with the pension fund trustees which is worth £356 million to 50,000 pensioners, and the trustees will be recommending that offer to the court. That corrects an injustice that arose from the privatisation.