HC Deb 12 March 1999 vol 327 cc653-79

Order for Second Reading read.

12.46 pm
Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

When I was fortunate enough to attend Committee Room 10 just as you were drawing the ballot for private Member's Bills this year, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I think that I was pleased that my name was drawn from the box, giving me the opportunity to present this Bill. Once he has been lucky in the ballot, an hon. Member is offered many choices for the subject of his private Member's Bill. Many hon. Members have told me how many letters one gets as soon as one's name is drawn. This is the first time that I have been so high in the ballot, and I was surprised to receive about 600 letters over Christmas suggesting subjects for my Bill.

Last September, I visited one of the community transport schemes in my constituency, in Bakewell, to see the good work done and the help provided by the Community Transport Association.

At this stage, I must thank all the sponsors of the Bill, who range from the Chairman of the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs to a former Secretary of State for Transport and a former Local Government Minister, as well as hon. Members representing Derbyshire—the hon. Members for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) and for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes)—the deputy leader of the Liberal Democrat party, and other Members of Parliament, who have all understood what I am trying to achieve.

The Bill would exempt operators of certain community bus services from the payment of Customs and Excise duty on fuel used to operate the services. In particular, it would ensure that the exemption is granted to those community bus services that assist thousands of elderly and disabled people in both rural and urban areas. The service is particularly helpful to my constituents, many of whom live in isolated villages where the terrain makes a walk of even the shortest distance difficult for old people.

The House may not be aware that registered commercial bus services already receive a fuel duty rebate, which was raised in line with the duty increase in the Budget. It amounts to around two thirds of the duty paid by commercial operators. However, that fuel duty relief does not apply to voluntary and charitable community trust bus services, which assist elderly and disabled people daily. I was surprised to find out that that anomaly existed, particularly given the way in which the Government continue to increase fuel prices—as we have seen with the escalator. The increases will have a detrimental impact on community bus services.

Community bus services do not qualify for fuel duty relief because they do not operate a fixed route or timetable. That means that those valuable services are penalised for going out of their way to offer a door-to-door service that accommodates people who might otherwise be housebound and unable to gain access to mainstream transport. It is a huge anomaly that a bus operating empty but on a registered route qualifies for the rebate but a community bus that offers a specific service to individual people does not. It is ironic that such a huge differential applies between the commercial and voluntary sectors. Community transport is valuable but is denied the fuel duty relief to which commercial operators are legally entitled.

The Bill's sponsors agree that community transport schemes perform a valuable service. Their real value derives from the quality of life that they help to bring to so many elderly and disabled people with mobility problems who would otherwise be unable to access essential day-to-day amenities such as health care—dentistry, chiropody, hospitals—or visit friends and community groups. Such people thereby gain active involvement in society in a way that would otherwise not be possible for them.

Deborah Oddy of the Bakewell scheme told me: There are a substantial number of people who have needs which deny them access to the things that others take for granted, such as appointments at the doctors or hospital, visiting friends and relatives or joining in adult education classes. There are increased problems faced by rural communities in making even the smallest journey unless you have a car". I saw the service at first hand in my constituency when I undertook a bus journey on 16 September to from Hassop to Bakewell. The people using it found it tremendously valuable, particularly in remote rural areas such as those in the north of my constituency. It is no exaggeration to say that the bus services are a lifeline to housebound people who would otherwise not have access to towns.

Community transport services in Derbyshire have been at the forefront of the campaign for fuel duty exemption. A convoy of five community bus transport groups from the county came down before Christmas and their petition and was presented by the hon. Member for Amber Valley to the House and the Government. Following the first scheme in Glossop 18 years ago, others have replicated the service throughout the county in Bakewell, Chesterfield, Clowne, Ilkeston, Ripley, Swadlincote and Derby.

In 1998, there were eight community transport schemes in Derbyshire. They used an estimated 265,000 litres of fuel, had running costs of £2.5 million and a contribution from the county council of £775,000. They covered nearly 1.2 million miles and carried some 443,000 passengers. During an average month, community transport in Derbyshire covers more than 65,000 miles and carries some 76,000 passengers. All the Derbyshire schemes are registered non-profit-making charities that have been operating for the past 10 years with a mixture of paid staff and volunteers. They operate a range of targeted schemes.

Dial-a-bus takes people who have difficulty using public transport from their homes to local town centres and supermarkets. Dial-a-ride transport allows people who are unable to use ordinary taxis to travel from home to wherever they want to go—to hospitals or to visit friends or relatives. The social car scheme offered by the Bakewell and Eyam service is similar to dial-a-ride. Volunteer drivers use their cars to provide transport for people, escorting or waiting for them when they reach their destination or returning for them. The community bus operates normal services in Bakewell, Eyam, Clowne and Swadlincote on designated routes on which no commercial service operates. Small detours can be made to pick up regular passengers who are unable to get to the bus stop. That can be very important in the remoter parts of my constituency and hilly areas where the terrain can be steep and difficult.

Financial support for such bus services comes from Derbyshire county council, district and parish councils, local businesses, trusts and fund-raising schemes. The rural nature of Derbyshire illustrates one of the key points in the debate. In many rural areas of the United Kingdom, sparsity of population and public transport provision mean that there is even greater dependency on community transport schemes.

As the TAS partnership has said: some 20 per cent. of rural settlements in England are estimated to have a bus service below 'subsistence' levels—fewer than four return journeys a day, and no evening/weekend service. The Minister of Transport has said: a significant proportion of people in rural areas—upwards of 20 per cent. in rural households—have no access whatever to a car."—[Official Report, 20 October 1998; Vol. 317, c. 1075.] According to a survey by the Rural Development Commission, 75 per cent. of parishes had no daily public bus service in 1997.

The Government have recognised the value of community transport. In the last Budget, they announced a rural transport fund of a further £10 million for capital modernisation funds, matched by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions over the next two years. I am sure that rural areas will benefit from, and welcome, that money. However, this week's Budget announced an 11.6 per cent. increase in the duty on diesel from 44.99p to 51.13p per litre. I doubt that any road user will have welcomed the fuel duty increases announced in the Budget but, while registered bus operators have the consolation of an increase in fuel duty rebate in line with the duty increases, no such cheer is available for the 5,000 voluntary community transport schemes, which offer a wonderful and valuable service.

The Minister may well point out the capital programme that she has announced. However, it is not always the capital that is the difficulty. Often, it is the revenue running costs. That is what the Bill deals with. It addresses the severe problems that community bus services feel that they may face as a result of the road fuel duty escalator.

The Bill gives the Government an opportunity to ease the pain that the fuel duty increases have caused community transport operators. The savings that exemption will allow could provide resources for operators to broaden their services, and many more handicapped, disabled and elderly people would benefit. The savings for Derbyshire as a result of the Bill, now and following implementation of the measures in this week's Budget, could well be more than £117,000, which could pay for new specified minibuses and enable operators significantly to increase the mileage covered.

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton)

The hon. Gentleman said that the cost to the Exchequer for Derbyshire alone, after the fuel escalator, would be about £117,000. Can he give the House an idea of the likely cost to the Exchequer of a nationwide scheme?

Mr. McLoughlin

I was expecting such a question to be asked—not planted; that would be an absurd suggestion. The Bill would give the voluntary sector the same treatment as the commercial sector. The Government whom the hon. Gentleman supports will make an allowance for an increase in the fuel duty rebate to the commercial sector this week, following the Chancellor's Budget announcements. A few weeks ago, in a written answer to a question that I had asked, the Minister for Transport in London said: Expenditure"— this was last year, before the Budget— is expected to be £270 million in this financial year, reflecting the increase in the rate of rebate in line with this year's increase in duty."—[Official Report, 19 January 1999; Vol. 323, c. 445.] The Government will therefore increase the fuel duty rebate for the commercial sector even more this year.

I am saying to the hon. Gentleman that the Government are finding about £300 million for the commercial sector. In some cases—not in all cases, and they would not want to do so constantly—operators may be running buses empty, and they will receive a Government subsidy for doing so. The community transport scheme provides a valuable service, which is used.

I say to the hon. Gentleman, anticipating the intervention that he or another hon. Member may make, that my Bill would give a 100 per cent. rebate. I am the first to accept that the Bill has not been drafted by the parliamentary draftsmen whose services were open to the Government to use—and we know that sometimes even they can make mistakes in Bills. I believe that, so far, more than 70 amendments have been tabled to schedule 1 of the Employment Relations Bill—a Government-drafted Bill.

I am happy for the Bill to pass into Committee and for the Government to use their draftsmen and to say that we have not quite got it right and a few amendments—tinkerings—are needed. I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that, if no such amendments were needed, it would be the first time ever that a Bill needed no amendment at all. My Bill may not be perfectly drafted, but there will be an opportunity in Committee to address some of those problems.

I also point out to the hon. Gentleman that another charity gets a 100 per cent. rebate—I am very pleased that it does—and that is the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. I consider that the schemes that I am talking about today provide a valuable service to all those elderly, handicapped or disabled people in my constituency. I am not sure which constituency the hon. Gentleman represents, but I am sure that the same applies there.

This important Bill should progress further through its parliamentary stages.

Mr. Love

I return to the question that I asked earlier. Will the hon. Gentleman give the House an idea of the likely cost of his Bill to the Exchequer, should it be introduced nationwide?

Mr. McLoughlin

I have just said that the amount of money that the Government are spending this year or as a result of the Budget that the hon. Gentleman no doubt supports and no doubt waved his Order Paper for, will mean that the commercial sector will get a £300 million rebate, on the Government's figures. As a matter of fairness, the Community Transport Association should be treated in the same way as the commercial sector. The points that the hon. Gentleman makes about cost can be discussed in Committee.

The hon. Gentleman must acknowledge that some of the costs that are already being faced by local authorities in giving the money to community transport schemes are a call on the Exchequer. The simple fact is that 50,000 registered bus services already place a charge of about £300 million on the Exchequer.

It is also possible to assume that the exemption would lead to lower charges for users. For example, the Bakewell and Eyam community transport scheme charges to cover the costs and has stated that, with the £14,500 a year saving which it has estimated would come from a fuel duty exemption, it would be able to offer lower fares and expand the service.

The Public Accounts Committee report on the bus fuel grant, which was presented to Parliament in June 1989, stressed the contribution that bus fuel grants for public bus services make to keeping fares down and enabling wider mileage of provision than would otherwise be possible.

I have already described the tangible difference that community transport schemes make to everyday life for elderly and disabled people. The Bill could make even more of a difference by extending that excellent service. That would increase the provision of public transport, especially in rural areas, and help to build the integrated transport system that the Government keep talking about. If they are serious about that, they should take the Bill seriously.

I believe that this measure is fair for voluntary community transport schemes, which do so much good for their communities. They and the registered operators should be given equal treatment, especially because community bus services, which go out of their way to help those who have least access to mainstream transport, are disqualified from assistance. My Bill would correct that anomaly.

I have had plenty of support for the Bill. I have already referred to its sponsors, and I should like to thank some of the other people who have given me tremendous help with the Bill. I thank the Public Bill Office for its help with drafting the Bill. It is difficult to draw up legilsation. This private Member's Bill has not been given to me by the Government to progress through the parliamentary process.

It is outrageous that the Government have made a statement, which took an hour of our time, on a Friday during debate on a private Member's Bill. This is only the third Friday of this parliamentary Session on which the House has sat, and it is the second Friday on which the Government have made a statement. It is disgraceful to interrupt discussions on a private Member's Bill. In the past, the Government have made statements at seven o'clock on a Thursday evening before a non-sitting Friday. Given that this statement was trailed in the press yesterday, there is no justification for the Government to take valuable time away from debate on private Member's Bills. They are obviously attempting to ensure that my Bill makes no further progress. I hope that the Procedure Committee will examine that problem. When that happens on a Friday—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. The hon. Gentleman has made his point many times over.

Mr. McLoughlin

The point is always worth making strongly, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I accept your ruling. I hope that the Procedure Committee will look into the matter.

I have received support from various people. I should like to mention Colin Smale, who runs the Amber Valley community transport scheme in my constituency. He said: If the Government are going to be looking to Community Transport to continue to expand their work in rural areas in particular then it is reasonable for us to look to government to offer financial support to help make that happen. In the Community Transport Magazine in 1999, the Minister for Transport in London said: The White Paper is about integration: different modes of transport, of transport policy with other policies and of transport policy at local, regional and national levels. It is also about integrating the needs of a wide variety of groups and individuals in the operation of transport planning and provision. It's about transport helping to build and serve communities. The White Paper is founded on the principle that transport should be safe, it should be efficient, it should be clean, and it should be fair. It must be fair in that it serves the needs of all those who use it, including elderly people, disabled people and children. In other words, it must mitigate, not contribute to, social exclusion. It must serve rural areas as well as urban ones. Rural communities have a strong tradition of self-help and community and voluntary transport has made a significant contribution to the quality of life in rural areas for many years. If the Minister and the Government mean what they say, they should not object to discussion of the issues in Committee, so that we can find out more about the Government's views. The Bill is small and not complicated, but it would significantly improve the operation of community transport in a number of constituencies.

As I have said, a contribution is already being made to the commercial sector, and the Budget will increase that contribution. Help is already being given to one voluntary organisation, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. I am asking for the same help for another voluntary organisation, which provides much help and support throughout the country.

1.12 pm
Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley)

A couple of months ago, I visited a centre in Heanor, in my constituency, called Stepping Stones. It provides lunch every day for pensioners. For the first time, I achieved my ambition to keep fit by joining the centre's morning keep-fit class. I do not normally get around to that here, although I always intend to go to the gym.

At lunchtime on the day of my visit, we discovered that several people who should have been there were missing, because of a bomb scare near the pick-up point for the community transport buses. People had not been able to travel to a centre on which they relied for their daily meal. That shows how important community transport is every day. The system started in Derbyshire in the early 1980s, as a result of the international year of the disabled. As the hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) said, there are now eight groups in the county, one of which is in Derby.

As a sponsor of the Bill, I am delighted that my neighbour has seen the light, recognised the importance of this issue and become aware of the campaign that took place all last year in Derbyshire, and has also been taking place in other parts of the country. I shall restrain myself from talking about the Conservative Government's record on public transport, although the hon. Gentleman lashed out a bit at the end of his speech, letting himself down after showing a very co-operative approach. I will, however, give a little of the history of the campaign that led to the Bill.

Let me say, first, that the community transport services in my area have even been visited by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, during the election campaign. She has seen the valuable work that community transport can do.

Those in charge of community transport are very pleased about the new understanding of its role that is developing among Transport Ministers, in particular. They are especially pleased with what has been said in the transport White Paper. Paragraph 5.35 states: Conventional public transport cannot always meet the diverse accessibility needs of all in our communities, particularly the needs of disabled people and those who live in remote rural areas. The White Paper goes on to refer to the strength of voluntary action and community transport. The Community Transport Association is pleased that the Government have commissioned a special report to examine the issues surrounding community transport and is therefore confident that action will be taken to help it. The Bill proposes one way in which to help.

That report, which was commissioned from Steer Davies Gleave, has not yet been published, but, as a result of a parliamentary question that I asked my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport, I have been given a copy of its findings. It says that a number of issues should be taken on board to assist community transport: The voluntary transport sector requires encouragement if it is to develop; otherwise, as it faces increasing pressure to deliver transport services it will become less effective; and, its task will become ever more difficult. It recommends that a number of measures should be taken by central Government, including providing the voluntary sector with access to passenger transport financial support comparable to concessionary fares and fuel duty rebate". That recommendation will go to the Government from a report that they themselves have commissioned. As I say, the Bill provides one mechanism for giving that assistance.

The petition to which the hon. Member for West Derbyshire referred had 7,000 signatures from people throughout the county, and I presented it in December. It raised a specific issue: if we allowed the fuel duty rebate paid to commercial bus operators to be paid to community transport vehicles, that would end the discrimination faced by elderly and disabled people who were unable to gain access to normal bus services. Those people seek an end to discrimination. That is the campaign that I have been pursuing.

Because of the mechanisms that one has to use in terms of parliamentary procedure, the Bill goes rather further than that, but we look for some assurance that, even if the Bill cannot progress, some mechanisms will be examined to meet the recommendations in the report to end that discrimination.

I am not particularly fussed about what mechanism is used. I am continuing to pursue the issue of extending the fuel duty rebate, but I want that issue to be taken forward.

Mr. McLoughlin

May I assure the hon. Lady that I did realise that? As I understand it, although I was not able to extend the rebate scheme, for the reasons to which she referred, it would be possible to amend the Bill to allow a percentage of the rebate, so that it would indeed do exactly what we both want: give the same to the commercial sector as to the voluntary sector.

Judy Mallaber

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that comment.

My hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) asked what the costs of the scheme would be. On a completely rough-and-ready basis, depending on exactly what parts of the community transport service are involved, my proposal to extend the fuel duty rebate would cost between £4 million and £8 million. That is a ball-park figure. Obviously, I do not have access to the information. I hope that more will become available as a result of the study by the consultants.

As a result of the petition, my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Mr. Levitt) and I visited the Chancellor and the Minister of Transport. Before I talk about the some of the specific issues that they raised with me, I shall look a little more at the role of community transport and some of the things that it does.

I mentioned the White Paper on public transport, which looks at an integrated transport system. Unfortunately, the current transport system is not accessible to all the general public; it is not accessible to perhaps 10 per cent. of people who have mobility problems: the elderly or disabled. I ask the Minister to acknowledge in her reply that the current public transport system is not open to all the general public. That will at least get that out of the way.

I agree that the position has been made worse by what happened in the Budget, although I do not in any way criticise the fuel duty escalator, which was introduced by the previous Government. However, an issue arises from it. We estimate that the measure will cost Amber Valley Community Transport an extra £1,900. I understand that about £50 million will be added to the fuel duty rebate to commercial bus companies. I say that not to challenge the provision, but merely to raise an issue that should be addressed.

We already get community transport on the cheap. Amber Valley Community Transport has 40 drivers and 36 escorts who volunteer—they work for free—in driving buses and in helping people who cannot reach supermarket shelves, for example, to do their shopping. There are many examples of the work done by those volunteers—such as John Waldron, who gave up his Christmas day to drive people to a Christmas dinner.

As an example of the lengths to which people will go to help in providing community transport, I should mention Karen Dudley, the operations manager at Amber Valley Community Transport, who herself is in a wheelchair but—I was rather stunned to hear it—did a free-fall parachute jump, in tandem with an experienced parachutist, to raise funds for the scheme. By doing the jump, she raised £2,000 from a Chesterfield firm and another £1,000 from other people.

Another example is the Amber Valley Community Transport administration officer, who is also a barbershop singer. She organised a barbershop concert to support community transport. Those are the types of things being done to subsidise a community transport service for a section of our community.

Amber Valley has four different services, which were mentioned by the hon. Member for West Derbyshire. Dial-a-bus—which is equivalent to dial-a-ride elsewhere—provides both regular bus services from one part of the area to another and free helpers to assist people with tasks such as shopping. There is also a door-to-door pick-up service, which, in our area, is called dial-a-ride. There are also group rides. Finally, there is a bus contracting facility—which would not be covered by the Bill. All four are valuable services, and any rebate to one service would enable us to expand the others.

I should like to give a couple of examples—with which I was provided, just the other day, by my local community transport—of the assistance provided by community transport services.

Mrs. B is 79 years old and lives alone four miles from the nearest town centre. She suffers from arthritis and walks with sticks. She travels on dial-a-bus into Alfreton every Thursday morning, and into Mansfield every other Monday, to do her own shopping, to visit the bank and to collect her pension. The service is the only way in which she can remain independent. She has also built up a wide social circle by using dial-a-bus.

Mrs. D is in her late 30s and has multiple sclerosis. She uses a wheelchair. She is the mother of two children. She goes into Heanor every week to do the family shopping. She uses a dial-a-bus escort to help her get around town. It is the only way in which she can maintain her family and her role within the family nucleus.

Mr. O is 84 years old. He is a war veteran and lives alone. He has double vision, and therefore cannot use conventional public transport. He travels on the Wirksworth dial-a-bus every Tuesday, and also uses the regular Matlock bus—in the constituency of the hon. Member for West Derbyshire. Mr. O also travels on the fortnightly out-of-town service, which takes passengers into Derby, Mansfield and Chesterfield. He is a very proud man, and the service is the only way in which he can keep his independence.

I have given those examples not only to show the importance of community transport, but to explain the type of services that are provided, and why I believe that such services should, like commercial bus services, be assisted.

Some of the issues on community bus services that Ministers have raised with me can be tackled. I realise that there will be some complications in addressing the issues, but, as I said, I am not hooked on any one particular method of doing so. I am speaking today simply to try to raise the issues and to get Ministers to consider them seriously. I certainly hope that resolving the matter will not require a private Member's Bill. I hope also that the matter will be taken on board in the current review of community transport, to which I know Ministers are sympathetic.

The current legal position is that the fuel duty rebate is available only for buses that run scheduled services that are open to any public passenger. I contend, first, that commercial bus companies are not open to all the general public living along their routes, as 10 per cent. of the population along those routes are unable to access bus services because they have mobility problems. People in wheelchairs, for example, cannot use the buses.

Secondly, some community bus services, particularly dial-a-bus, which makes 60 per cent. of the journeys in my area, are scheduled services. All the people I mentioned earlier use a regular scheduled bus service that happens to be a community transport service. I have a whole sheaf of schedules. One can go from Somercotes to Alfreton every Thursday. The bus gets there at 10.30 am and leaves at 12 o'clock. They are all scheduled services which run on a regular basis in the same way as those operated by a commercial bus company. They are open to all members of the general public who do not have access to the services operated by the standard commercial bus companies which claim to be available to the general public; the only difference is that people phone in advance to say that they will be using the service and arrange to be picked up from their homes.

I noticed in a newspaper today that the Deputy Prime Minister is examining whether taxis could be used to provide a more comprehensive service without requiring a bus to go to every village: the taxi service would complement the bus service. It is an excellent idea, which would expand the integrated transport system. If such a facility could be arranged to enable people living in remote areas to have access to the scheduled bus service, why would the same not be possible in respect of community transport? It is the only factor that distinguishes dial-a-bus from a commercial bus company. Some of the legal arguments and definitions are not necessarily valid, and that should certainly be taken seriously.

Because of the way in which it is formulated, the Bill is in Treasury hands. However, according to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, any rebate scheme would be paid out of the transport budget. Quite understandably, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport was concerned that it would be an open-ended commitment; so it is a difficult issue.

As there are many different types of community transport, definitions are also important. There will have to be a number of gateways. Which organisations would be eligible to be defined as community transport organisations? That is easy. Section 19 of the Transport Act 1985 defines who is eligible for a permit to run community transport bus services. That could be the first gateway. It would then be necessary to decide which parts of the service qualified to be included in the provision. That would need to be examined carefully. My contention is that at least the dial-a-bus service should be eligible.

It is also argued that, if a large section of the public are unable to use the general transport service because of mobility problems, the same applies to others who cannot access public transport because no services are provided in rural areas. That is a legitimate point. People could set up a car-sharing scheme in a rural area and expect it to qualify. The issue needs to be examined, but we are taking action and putting money into rural transport. In south Derbyshire, we have a rural bus challenge for which we have gained money. It will use some of the community transport vehicles.

Mr. Gareth Thomas (Clwyd, West)

My hon. Friend has put her finger on the problem with the Bill. First, it is necessary to establish the category of exemptions, how broad a category it should be and precisely how it should be defined. Does she accept that that in itself is problematic, before one even begins to look at the other vexed question of defining exempted and non-exempted use?

Judy Mallaber

I am quite sure that Ministers and civil servants are perfectly capable of producing some fairly robust definitions. I would be happy if the provision applied simply to community transport in Derbyshire, although we are unlikely to get away with that.

There are a number of possible definitions. One is in the Transport Act 1985 in relation to organisations that are eligible for permits. We would also need to specify exactly which services qualified. I am not particularly hooked on the Bill; however, the issue will be raised in the forthcoming community transport report which the Government have commissioned.

I am happy for any mechanism to be considered. The Bill is an opportunity to raise the problem of the genuine discrimination between the services. If some other mechanism is used to address that issue and another way of providing better services for those with disabilities is found, I shall be equally happy. My aim is to get the issue on the agenda and push it forward. Much as the hon. Member for West Derbyshire would like the Bill to become law, I do not have any expectation of that happening, but it has given us an opportunity to ask for the issue to be taken seriously.

I should like to mention one other issue on the transport White Paper that community transport groups have raised with me, which relates to alternative methods of developing an integrated transport system. Local authorities have been asked to draw up local transport plans. The draft guidance puts strong emphasis on the importance of involving cyclists and walkers from the beginning. I hope that similar emphasis will be put on involving community transport at the start of the development of local transport plans. That may answer some of the questions that have been raised and make the financial mechanism in the Bill less necessary.

Community transport is important and provides a valuable service; I have not heard anyone argue with that. I support the principles of the Bill. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to accept that public transport is not open to all members of the public and that there is discrimination against people with mobility problems. The Government have recognised that in the White Paper. I ask her to pass on to Transport Ministers how pleased we are that they will take the issues seriously. If she cannot accept the mechanism in the Bill, will she discuss with her colleagues alternative measures on the fuel duty rebate? If they cannot accept that, will she encourage Transport Ministers to consider alternative ways of assisting the community transport service? I have every confidence that that will be done, because we are committed to a fair public transport system. I am confident that Ministers will look seriously at community transport issues.

I am delighted to have had a chance to raise the issue today. I hope that we shall find a mechanism—through the Bill or in some other way—of removing discrimination and ensuring that the most vulnerable are able to live in their home and have a full life, with access to the public transport system.

1.32 pm
Mr. Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham)

On behalf of the Opposition, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) on securing a place in the ballot and on introducing a measure to address an apparent anomaly in the funding of local bus schemes that discriminates unfairly against crucial community bus links.

The Bill raises some important issues with which all hon. Members can be sympathetic, whether they represent rural or urban constituencies. The distinguished cross-party sponsorship of the Bill shows the wide support that it has gained. I hope that it will strike a chord with the Government's apparent policy on public transport, as articulated so often by the Deputy Prime Minister, when he is in the country.

We support a Second Reading for the Bill and believe that the problems that it highlights deserve close scrutiny in Committee. It should be for the Committee, when the issue can be given a full airing, to decide whether the method of supporting community transport schemes set out in the Bill is the most practical way to tackle the problem. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing the issue to the attention of the House. Many of the queries about eligibility and gateways raised by the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) can be dealt with in Committee.

I am sure that, like me, all hon. Members have first-hand constituency experience of the essential service provided by community bus schemes. As my hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire has said, in rural areas, up to 20 per cent. of the population have no access to a car and local shops can be few and far between. For those people, such bus services are a lifeline.

In urban areas, too, elderly people in particular can be stranded if they live a mile or so away from essential services, as is so often the case. Such people obviously need links with shops, banks, post offices, doctors' surgeries, health centres and hospitals for appointments. In the Worthing and Adur districts in my constituency, local community bus schemes are run by very dedicated staff to provide links with just those essential services. Without such schemes, and if scheduled bus services do not pick up close by, people are reliant on friendly neighbours, family or expensive taxis, which are often out of their price range.

Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border)

Is my hon. Friend aware of the most recent Rural Development Commission survey of 1997, which showed that 75 per cent. of parishes do not have a regular scheduled daily bus service? In view of the astronomical hike in petrol duty of 17p a gallon and the 28p a gallon hike in diesel, will not rural people particularly be severely disadvantaged unless they have a community bus service? Surely community bus services will be crucified unless they are given the same fuel duty exemption as commercial operators.

Mr. Loughton

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. This week's Budget did no service to people living in rural areas. The anomaly in transport provision in such areas has been exaggerated even more by Tuesday's events. I reiterate, however, that we are not just talking about rural communities.

Even more crucial than the plight of elderly people is that of disabled people, who are obviously even less mobile. Scheduled bus services are often unable to cope with wheelchairs, although, in some areas, low-floor buses are making wheelchair access easier. It therefore seems absurd that community buses, which are tailor-made to cope with the needs of elderly and less mobile people in particular, suffer discrimination at the hands of the taxation system—a system through which, by offering scheduled bus services a fuel duty rebate that is worth £270 million already and is likely to rise, owing to measures in the Budget, to around £320 million, the Government already recognise the work and worth of public transport systems. Through what appear to be minor technicalities, that system excludes arguably the most community-oriented and public-spirited of all bus services.

The existence of more than 5,000 community transport schemes in the United Kingdom bears testimony to the take-up rate. Many operate on a shoestring, often only through the goodwill of volunteer drivers and charitable fund raising, which pays for the maintenance and purchase of the buses. Many more community bus services are needed, and I am sure that many more would start up if given a level playing field on fuel duty rebate.

The main reason that community buses are excluded from the fuel duty rebate is that most schemes are either not available to all members of the public or, as a door-to-door service, cannot supply a schedule of stopping times and places. Typically, that excludes hopper bus dial-a-ride schemes, which are targeted specifically at elderly and disabled people. The provision of disabled access and wheelchair lifts is proving particularly costly, never mind their on-going maintenance.

In October, the Economic Secretary to the Treasury rejected an extension of the criteria for granting the fuel duty rebate on the grounds that it would entail extra expenditure or a lower rebate overall, and that the provision of dial-a-ride services should be left to each local authority. Much local authority transport spending is taken up by the transporting of school children, especially those who attend special educational needs schools, as well as by many other competing causes. That is understandable. Given the Government's pump priming of local authority bus service provision in rural areas, it would be only consistent to allow local authorities to promote community bus services as well—if they enjoyed the same fuel duty rebate. I know that my local authorities would like to be able to do just that. Community buses do not stack up the raw miles or passenger numbers of the scheduled services, as they are closely targeted and localised, but that should in no way diminish the vital role that they play.

The total amount involved has not been quantified by the Government, but it need not be excessive. It could be merely a matter of the redistribution of the existing rebate funds of £320 million, part of which is being used to fund empty or almost empty buses, which does not seem to be the most efficient subsidy.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire said that services in his county travel about 1.2 million miles a year, carry 443,000 passengers, use more than 265,000 litres of fuel and, if the Bill had been law, would have been able to claim a rebate last year of about £80,000. The figure would of course be much greater after the Budget. We are talking not about small tin-pot schemes but about major contributions to community transport, carrying a great number of people who would otherwise have severely limited transport choices.

The sum is not enormous in the great scheme of things or in the context of bus subsidies overall, but it is an enormous amount to the small community bus service operators and could make the difference between survival or otherwise. The measure is timely, in the wake of the Budget, which brought about an enormous increase of 11.6 per cent. in road diesel duty, bringing it up to 51.1p a litre: the highest duty by far in Europe, and perhaps the highest in the entire world.

That is another substantial stealth tax hike and it is already having serious repercussions for the road freight haulage industry, part of which is already looking to reflag its vehicles and operate from the continent. Tax on diesel is 2.5 times lower in Germany, which is the next highest charger.

The Government seem content that competition will now come from French, German and Belgian lorry drivers filling up on the continent and coming here to take British loads on British roads to British destinations. By no stretch of the imagination will there be similar competition from dial-a-ride—or should I say telephone-un-bus?—services operating from Paris and Brussels. I fear that they will not penetrate as far as Derbyshire. Schemes will be severely financially penalised.

Apart from the effects on the freight industry, the diesel duty rise may have disastrous consequences for the economics of many ordinary bus services, let alone the community schemes, which under current legislation will suffer the full brunt of the increases.

As the green tax Minister, the Economic Secretary may be interested to know about the implications for environmentally friendly road fuel gases. Many of us were pleased that in the Budget the Government revived the previous Government's initiative to promote liquid petroleum gas and compressed natural gas over fossil fuels by substantially reducing the duty on them, although even after the 29 per cent. cut the duty on road fuel gases in this country remains the highest in the European Union. The changes suggested in the Bill could go some way towards providing further financial incentives to promote the use of road fuel gases in community buses converted for the purpose. That should and could be considered more closely in Committee.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire has highlighted the current situation in which the Royal National Lifeboat Institution rightly gets 100 per cent. fuel duty relief, as has been the case for the past 35 years, since 1964. That is an obvious precedent for another service that offers a valuable contribution to the community.

My hon. Friend has done the House a great service by bringing to our attention that obvious anomaly. I hope that the Government will respond positively and allow the Bill to go to a Standing Committee for full debate.

1.44 pm
Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon)

I congratulate the hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) on securing a high place in the ballot. I was very interested in his remarks and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber), who adopted a realistic and flexible approach to some of the problems that may be experienced. My first question is whether the fuel duty rebate is the best way to support community transport. It is a technical and complex scheme. My hon. Friend mentioned section 19 of the Transport Act 1985 and I also researched that Act for my speech today. Some people might think a bus is a bus is a bus and is easy to define, but—in an example of the complexities of the scheme—section 19 defines a bus in several ways. A "bus" is a vehicle which is adapted to carry more than eight passengers. A "large bus" is a vehicle which is adapted to carry more than 16 passengers, and a "small bus" means a vehicle which is adapted to carry more than eight but not more than 16 passengers. We may think that we know what we mean when we talk about a bus, but the legislation is complex even when it comes to simple definitions. I question whether one would wish to get bogged down in such complexities of the law, when it comes to community transport schemes.

Another issue that arises is the transparency of public support for community transport schemes. Many such schemes, in my experience, receive support from a variety of sources, including charities, local authorities, other public bodies and, in some circumstances, commercial companies. It is important to know where the money for community transport schemes comes from. The whole system of fuel duty rebate is very complex and provides some hidden subsidies. Before I started to examine the issue, I was unaware of its existence and the support that the rebate scheme gives to commercial companies.

We must consider the role of community transport in local communities. That issue is addressed in the White Paper on the future of Transport "A New Deal for Transport: Better for Everyone". In paragraph 5.35, it states": Conventional public transport cannot always meet the diverse accessibility needs of all in our communities, particularly the needs of disabled people and those who live in remote rural areas. The Government accept the importance of community transport schemes, and the White Paper pays tribute to the role of those who developed them. It states: Voluntary action is a strength of local communities everywhere. In London, for example"— as a Member for a London seat, I know the situation well— it has given rise to an extensive network of transport services run on a voluntary basis for disabled people. It continues—and this is the important point— We are conducting a review of voluntary and community transport activity. There are already relaxations of the normal rules for bus operator licensing to help non-profit making bodies, especially those who provide 'community' bus services including mini-buses. We must be aware of the possible abuses of the system, including those that are intentional, through fraud, and—probably more likely—unintentional, through inadvertence, that could arise from extending the fuel duty rebate scheme. For example, my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley mentioned the complexities of the scheme and it could be difficult to distinguish between qualifying and non-qualifying use of a vehicle, especially the smaller ones. If a minibus has a full tank of fuel, it might be used sometimes for a qualifying journey and sometimes for a non-qualifying journey. How can we unscramble which litre of fuel was used for one purpose and which for another?

Mr. McLoughlin

The hon. Gentleman is creating a smokescreen. The commercial sector has no difficulty in identifying the difference. Some operations carried out by bus companies do not attract the rebate and some do. The scheme under which the bus companies certify which journeys qualify and which do not is open to inspection, as the Public Accounts Committee pointed out in its report.

Mr. Dismore

That is an interesting intervention, but I am not mixing up two different things. I cannot remember the last time that I saw a driver on a jolly through the west end in his double-decker. It is much more likely that a small community vehicle would be used for non-qualifying journeys. It is also perhaps easier to distinguish between the fuels used by larger vehicles.

We may end up subsidising school journeys that we would otherwise not support financially. When travelling to work in the morning, one often sees little minibuses that are run by private schools. Those schools could afford, by using school fees, to pay for their pupils' transport but they would undoubtedly claim that, because they are running a school bus, they should qualify for a fuel rebate. I question whether those are the sorts of organisations that we should support.

There is an additional complication with regard to the European aspects. I am afraid that we must consider Europe from time to time in the House, and the fuel duty rebate raises particular problems. Duty rates and uses are subject to European Union directives with which the Government obviously comply. If we were to pass this legislation, we would have to try to obtain a derogation from the European Union—and no doubt end up having lengthy arguments about whether we were entitled to do so.

We must also consider some important environmental aspects. Vehicles that are perhaps not in the first flush of youth are sometimes used for community transport schemes. Such vehicles may not be very fuel efficient.

Judy Mallaber

I assure my hon. Friend that the nine buses in Amber Valley use clean fuel when they can find it at the local pumps. We are about to get rid of the only vehicle that does not use clean fuel. Therefore, it is possible to have energy-efficient community transport.

Mr. Dismore

I am pleased that my hon. Friend's constituents have such an excellent bus service, but I am afraid that that is not the experience nationwide. We have heard much about community transport schemes in Derbyshire, but the same conditions do not necessarily prevail throughout the country. I think that there is a risk with community transport that the vehicles used will not emit the most environmentally friendly particulates.

Mr. McLoughlin

I think the hon. Gentleman is wrong. The simple fact is that, if we introduce this rebate scheme, many of those who operate community buses will be able to spend more money refurbishing their buses and using more modern vehicles. The hon. Gentleman should not use that argument against the community transport system. As the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) said, the people of Derbyshire have modern community transport vehicles because they have raised so much money through voluntary mechanisms.

Mr. Dismore

The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting issue, which brings me to my next point regarding the position of alternative fuels. The scheme under discussion applies only to certain types of fuel and I think that, in considering community transport, we must have regard to possible alternatives. The Red Book makes it clear that the Government are trying to move towards fairer tax treatment of the different fuels available. Paragraph 5.68 on page 77 refers to the Government's commitment to moving towards a fairer tax treatment of petrol and diesel, when calculated on an energy or carbon basis. This means that the duty on diesel should be higher than that for unleaded petrol". On the following page, the Red Book refers to increasing the duty differential between ultra low sulphur diesel…and standard diesel to encourage the use of this cleaner fuel. This will reduce emissions of particulates and nitrogen oxides from existing vehicles and, over time, encourage the use of cleaner diesel technology. The Government state that they wish to encourage the use of road fuel gases, which produce lower emissions, especially of particulates, than conventional fuels". That is an important start, which is not covered by the proposals in this Bill.

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test)

Is my hon. Friend aware that a particular concern of commercial bus companies has been that the fuel rebate system offers them no incentive to invest in alternative fuels and creates inequalities between conventional and non-conventional fuels? Is he also aware that the Government have apparently moved in the Budget towards increasing the rebate on road gas in addition to reducing the duty? Therefore, a constructive development would have been for this Bill to add an incentive for such alternative fuels to be used by community transport services.

Mr. Dismore

My hon. Friend has a valid point. We have been exploring some of the alternative fuels, one of which has not been mentioned in any of the documentation that I have seen—the use of electric vehicles. For community transport, where smaller vehicles may be used, we should consider ways to support the use of electric vehicles, which have no emissions—other than, perhaps, back at the power station.

On page 122 of the White Paper "A New Deal for Transport: Better for Everyone" the Government state that they intend to consult on more environmentally friendly vehicles, as part of their transport policy, which is an important development.

I asked the Library to look into this issue and was pleased to find that the Government said that they would consider the issue as part of their review of vehicle excise duty and that they intend to go ahead with the proposal…It will be extended to 'clean' buses, which will further improve air quality in urban areas. Also to encourage clean buses, the possibility of changing the fuel duty rebate paid to buses, so that those with low emissions receive more than those with high emissions is to be reviewed.

If fuel duty rebate were withdrawn altogether—I do not think that that is on the cards at present—it would have to be replaced with some alternative payment or support to bus operators. I want such a replacement to give full range to the possibilities of alternative fuels, as my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) suggested in his helpful intervention.

We must also consider the possibility that there would be other people in the queue for rebates if we provided exemptions for community transport. What about other important community uses of transport, for example the emergency services—ambulances, the police and the fire service—which do not benefit from the rebate at present? Ultimately, it will be the taxpayer, either at the local or the national level, who will have to pay. What about the medical profession—doctors and community nurses? If we can provide support to farmers through the scheme, what about providing it to doctors as well?

Mr. Maclean

I cannot believe what I am hearing, especially the hon. Gentleman's latest excuse. The state pays for the emergency services: it pays the whole of their fuel duty. Admittedly, they pay part back to the Treasury, but it is all the same money, going round and round. To suggest that one cannot subsidise community transport because the ambulance, police and fire service would want similar subsidies is scraping the bottom of the exhaust pipe.

Mr. Dismore

That was an interesting intervention. The right hon. Gentleman did not deal with my point. The subsidy might affect the balance between local and national Government—in terms of where the money comes from. I also mentioned the position of general practitioners, who obviously use their cars a great deal for community benefit. I do not recall the taxpayer ever picking up the petrol bill of a GP at the filling station. The same is true of community nurses. I take the right hon. Gentleman's point, but it can be developed.

That begs the question whether the existing system works effectively. My hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley pointed out the many flaws in the existing public transport system. If the fuel duty rebate were such a good way to support public transport, we would have better bus services. She mentioned constituents who benefit from community transport schemes. Perhaps I may respond by mentioning constituents who suffer real problems with their bus service, which already benefits from the fuel duty rebate. For example, consider the 113 service in my constituency. A constituent writes: The buses are still a disgrace, both in presentation and maintenance along with a service which is unreliable and inconsistent. I can only share those sentiments. The problems have clearly not been cured by the availability to Metroline, the bus company in question, of the fuel duty rebate. I question whether such relief would achieve some of the objectives claimed for it by proponents of the Bill.

The head teacher of one of my local secondary schools wrote to me complaining about the school bus service provided by Arriva on behalf of London Transport. She tells me of the problems of almost 100 students who have to travel towards Edgware and leave the school from 15.30 onwards. The buses, scheduled at 15.31., 15.41 and 15.57, should serve the needs of the school adequately.

Liz Blackman (Erewash)

My hon. Friend seems to be arguing that the fuel duty rebate has an inverse relationship to the quality of service. Is he really prepared to sustain that argument?

Mr. Dismore

My argument is that the fuel duty rebate has little impact on the quality of service from what I can see in my constituency of the public bus network. I get many complaints about the bus service in my constituency. I mentioned the 113, which is one of the greatest culprits.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I have indulged the hon. Gentleman long enough. He is stretching his remarks way beyond the confines of the Bill.

Mr. Dismore

I shall refrain from quoting further examples of the rotten bus service in my constituency. I was explaining to my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Liz Blackman) that there is no relationship between the rebate and quality of service.

Mr. Loughton

Before the hon. Gentleman reads out the entire timetable of the outer London bus service, is he saying that bus fuel duty rebate should be scrapped altogether to create a level playing field for community bus services? If he is, has he cleared with it with the Deputy Prime Minister?

Mr. Dismore

I was not saying that. I was saying that I welcome the review of the operation of such schemes. If the hon. Gentleman would like me to remind him of the contents of the White Paper, I would be happy to read out the extracts again.

Mr. Loughton

indicated dissent.

Mr. Dismore

The hon. Gentleman obviously remembers what the White Paper says. I am pleased that the Government will consider the schemes in the round, not only from the point of view of the existing narrow schemes but in respect of the more environmentally friendly fuels that we were discussing in response to the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test. There is a possibility of greatly developing those schemes. As that happens, I would like to think that we could consider community transport in the round.

Page 111 of the transport White Paper shows that the Government are acting on local transport. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton) made a valid point when he said that we are not only discussing rural transport but urban transport. I am pleased that the White Paper talks about local authorities needing actively to involve local people, businesses, transport operators and other organisations, such as those providing health care, in drawing up plans.

That is important in my area because one of the biggest single complaints concerns the health service. People in my constituency in Colindale and west Hendon have difficulty travelling to hospital. Since the previous Government closed Edgware hospital, they have had terrible trouble trying to get to the alternative acute facilities at Barnet because it can require three bus changes. I am pleased that as we develop local transport plans, the health service will be involved. I know from discussions with the chair of my local health authority that there is commitment to working with partners such as the local authority to solve this thorny problem. [Interruption.] I am not sure whether the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) is trying to make an intervention. The Government are making great progress on rural transport.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. These general remarks about local transport and national transport are outside the scope of the Bill, which is about exemption from fuel duties.

Mr. Dismore

The reason why I raise the issue of rural transport is that the proponents of the Bill relied in their arguments on the need to support community transport services. It is appropriate for me to respond to those arguments by questioning the need for the Bill and saying what the Government are already doing for rural transport.

In the Budget, the Government stressed their commitment to improving public transport in rural areas. Last year's Budget allocated an extra £50 million for transport in rural areas, the majority of which was used to provide additional bus services in England. In the Budget statement on Tuesday, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor allocated an extra £20 million to the rural transport fund and £10 million to the capital modernisation fund—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman has heard me. We are talking about whether certain categories of vehicle should be eligible for the exemption from fuel duty. General arguments about rural or any other form of transport are not pertinent.

Mr. Dismore

In those circumstances, perhaps I can conclude by saying that the Bill does not provide a complete answer to a real problem. Support for rural transport can be provided more satisfactorily through some of the initiatives announced by the Government in the transport White Paper. The Government have already addressed many of the problems, but the Bill does nothing to deal with environmental concerns.

2.7 pm

Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border)

It is a pleasure to support the Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin). I apologise that I missed part of his speech; I was tied up in another meeting. I am grateful to him for the excellent brief that he has provided on community transport. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore). I must confess—as a former law and order Minister, it is dangerous to make such confessions—that, as a young child, on occasion I misbehaved by sticking a potato up an exhaust pipe to make a vehicle grind to a halt. As I sat and listened to the hon. Gentleman, I wished that I had a bag of King Edwards handy.

The Bill is an innocuous little measure. It is a simple one-clause Bill. All the points that the hon. Member for Hendon raised were suitable for Committee. One heard cynics say before we came into the Chamber that the Labour party was opposed to the measure. I said, "I don't believe it. It cannot be." The measure is right up the Labour party's street. It is exactly the sort of measure that Labour Members used to advance just before the election.

The Bill is about three things close to the heart of Labour Members—buses, communities and subsidy. In those circumstances, I cannot imagine that any Labour Member opposes it. I heard the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) support my hon. Friend. I am glad to see the same all-party support for the measure that we had for the Mental Health (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill earlier this morning.

As the Bill has already had a good airing this morning, and can safely be sent up to Committee before we end our proceedings today, I shall be relatively brief. There are more than 5,000 community transport schemes across the United Kingdom, which offer a vital service to sections of the community, such as the elderly and disabled people, who might otherwise be denied access to essential day-to-day amenities. It enables them to get to shopping and health care facilities or simply to visit friends or other community groups. It gives them a chance to participate in things that they would not otherwise be able to do.

That is not an exaggeration. The Rural Development Commission—which the Government are abolishing—said: 75 per cent. of parishes had no daily public bus service in 1997". Upwards of 20 per cent. of people in rural areas have no access whatever to a car.

It was a pleasure in the Budget debate to follow the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster), who made a passionate plea on behalf of those people in rural areas who are not wealthy but need to have a car-yes, perhaps an old car, perhaps a slightly smoky car, but, if they do not have a car, they do not travel. It is not that their choice of buses is limited to those at 8 o'clock, 8.5, 8.30, 9 o'clock, 10 o'clock and so on; there are no buses whatever in large parts of the rural areas.

The unfortunate, often inadvertent, discrimination that those people face is that Government Departments—we find this in the health service—look at the structure of the country and say, "There is an area with a lot of buses. People therefore must be poor, so we shall allocate more money. There is an area with a lot of cars; they must be wealthy, so we shall allocate less money." In rural areas, there can be as much poverty and deprivation as in urban areas, but motor vehicles are essential if people—including those who are trying to return to work-are to find a job. I believe that the new deal will reveal how difficult it is, in rural areas, to get transport to work.

Community transport fills a vital role, as it has since its inception. The hon. Member for Hendon made a surprising speech. No doubt, I shall get a letter from London Transport next week, correcting me, but, as a rural Member, I can say that, if buses in the lake district mountains emitted the smoke that I often see coming from London buses, we would make pretty sure that they were put out of action straight away. It sits ill in the mouth of a London Member to suggest that community buses in our rural areas might be more polluting or dirty than commercial buses. That comment—and a few others—may prove a slight source of embarrassment to the Government and to other Labour party members when we have the benefit of analysing Hansard on Monday.

It beggars belief to suggest that a rebate for community transport on the same basis as the rebate for commercial operators would be too complicated for the Treasury to operate. A Department that can apparently make sense of self-assessment has some pretty clever civil servants in it—civil servants cleverer than this taxpayer trying to complete the forms—so the argument that the Treasury would not be competent to administer such a scheme is not persuasive.

I cannot understand why anyone would oppose the Bill. It is not as though it is introducing the radical concept of a subsidy to bus operators for the first time. The subsidies to the commercial regular daily bus operators, including those on the 133 route in London—[Interruption.] I meant the 113. I look forward to trying it out some time if the hon. Member for Hendon will send me a schedule. We know that there is a subsidy to commercial operators. I cannot imagine that any Labour Member is willing to say to the Community Transport Association, and to the 5 million pensioners who will write to them next week if the Bill does not get into Committee today, "It is all very well to subsidise commercial operators, but we cannot give the same subsidy to volunteer operators—those who drive the minibuses for disabled people, those who, in their own time, drive community transport vehicles, providing that vital lifeline to so many of our constituents, urban as well as rural." I know that no Labour Member will wish to oppose the measure.

I look forward to serving on the Committee, where some of the technicalities raised by the hon. Member for Hendon may be properly addressed. We may have to do a couple of sessions in Committee before we get it right, but I believe that we are all willing to sacrifice that time in a proper House of Commons Committee to ensure that we get the technicalities of the Bill right, to bring relief to those wonderful volunteers who do so much to help all our constituents.

2.15 pm
The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Ms Patricia Hewitt)

I shall begin by congratulating the hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) on securing a position in the ballot for private Members' Bills. I also congratulate him, his hon. Friends and my hon. Friends, the co-sponsors of the Bill, on securing an extremely lively and interesting debate on a subject of great importance to their constituents and to many people throughout the country.

The hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members have spoken eloquently about the need to support community bus services, and about the real benefits that they deliver to their communities. The Government accept wholeheartedly the worth of those services, and said as much in the White Paper on the future of transport, "A New Deal for Transport: Better for Everyone", which was recently launched by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister.

The hon. Gentleman and others who have spoken in the debate stressed the fact that many people living in rural areas do not have access to bus services. That is right. In paragraph 5.35 of the White Paper, we said: Conventional public transport cannot always meet the diverse accessibility needs of all in our communities, particularly the needs of disabled people and those who live in remoter rural areas. I am a little surprised to hear from the official Opposition such concern for rural transport, given that the Conservative Government did so much to undermine rural transport. It is because of our concern for people living in rural communities that we have allocated £50 million a year to rural transport.

Mr. Maclean

It is most courteous of the hon. Lady to give way. I accept that she has allocated £50 million a year to rural transport. Will she tell us what the income to the Treasury will be from the 17p a gallon increase in petrol that rural motorists will have to pay in the next year?

Ms Hewitt

We are continuing the fuel duty escalator introduced by previous Government—the right hon. Gentleman was a member of that Government. Now that the Conservative party is in opposition, it has given up on the policy that it correctly introduced to reduce people's dependence on car transport, and in so doing to contribute to our environmental objectives, in particular, the achievement of the Kyoto and other targets for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

I shall explain what the Government are doing to assist rural transport, especially in Derbyshire. Derbyshire's share of the rural transport fund is £700,000 a year: the fund assists new bus services in rural areas. That is a matter of concern not only to the hon. Member for West Derbyshire but to my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber). There is also a further £800,000 for the Southern Derbyshire rural access initiative, which has been awarded through the rural bus challenge competition.

Dr. Desmond Turner (Brighton, Kemptown)

Does my hon. Friend agree that this morning has been a bit like a session in another forum with which my hon. Friends are familiar? An important subject is raised and a resolution is proposed—in this case a Bill—that addresses the subject but not necessarily in the most helpful way, and the movers are asked to remit it. In expressing the Government's support for, and intention to promote the interests of, community transport, will the Minister please take into account that this subject is just as important in urban areas as it is in rural communities?

Ms Hewitt

My hon. Friend is right. There are notable examples of community and voluntary transport schemes—in London, for instance—that are enormously helpful to people with disabilities. My hon. Friend made another important point in reminding us that concern about rural transport and community transport schemes is not the subject of the Bill.

Judy Mallaber

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Ms Hewitt

I should have liked to finish what I was saying in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner), but of course I will give way.

Judy Mallaber

I understand that, although so far petitions on the issue that I raised have come from Derbyshire, petitions are being signed in the West Midlands metropolitan area asking for exactly what we in Derbyshire have asked for. This is not just a rural issue.

Ms Hewitt

That is an interesting point, but I am sure that, like me, my hon. Friend welcomes the additional funds that the Government's rural transport initiative has provided for people in Derbyshire.

My hon. Friend spoke eloquently about the volunteers who participate in community transport schemes in her constituency. I pay tribute to them, and to others involved in such schemes in urban as well as rural areas throughout the country. They provide a vivid example of what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has described as the need for more people to give to their neighbours—to give their time, as well as their money, to their communities, and in doing so to build a stronger, more inclusive community for us all. I am particularly aware of the invaluable work done by volunteers in regard to community transport initiatives, because—until recently, when she became too frail to drive—my 83-year-old mother was a volunteer driver for a community transport scheme.

My hon. Friend mentioned a study by consultants that was commissioned by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. My hon. Friend the Minister for Transport in London, who has joined me for the debate, assures me that she and her colleagues will consider the consultants' report carefully as part of their review of community transport schemes.

Mr. McLoughlin

When does the Minister expect the Department to complete its review?

Ms Hewitt

It will do so as quickly as possible. The matter is complex, and my colleagues and their officials wish to consult and reflect on it. An announcement will be made in due course.

The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton) spoke of the need for community bus services, and the need for community transport to be put on the same footing as commercial operators. Like the hon. Member for West Derbyshire, he referred to what he described as the precedent set by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. He is wrong: although the RNLI is exempt from fuel duty and receives a rebate, that is not because it is a charity doing deserving work but because all sea-going vessels are exempt from fuel duty under a European Union directive. The RNLI has not been singled out for special treatment, and it does not set a precedent in that regard.

Mr. Loughton

I believe that the RNLI has been exempt since 1964, which probably predates an EU directive. Moreover, it provides a community service, both on sea and on land. That is the principle that we were trying to extend.

Ms Hewitt

I am grateful for that clarification. Of course the RNLI provides an invaluable community service, and it is one of the many charities whose work we wish to support; but the fact is that a European Union directive exempts all vessels, and another exempts aircraft. I am afraid that, in 1999, the hon. Gentleman cannot support what he has said.

Mr. Loughton

Will the Minister confirm that, in 1964, there was no European Union directive and that the RNLI was exempted under other directives, which emanated from our Government? Therefore, is she not confusing two things?

Ms Hewitt

I was trying merely to bring the hon. Gentleman up to date with the position as it exists now.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) also spoke about the Government's review of community and voluntary transport schemes. That is an important point. As I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley recognised, it is to that review and the work of the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions that she and other sponsors of the Bill need to direct their concern and efforts.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon stressed the technical difficulties with the Bill. They are real. They are not mere matters of drafting that can be sorted out in Committee. As the hon. Member for West Derbyshire recognized—indeed, admitted, when he courteously came to see me in anticipation of the debate—although his objective was to secure an extension of the fuel duty rebate for commercial bus operators to operators of community and voluntary transport schemes, his Bill was directed at the operation of fuel duty itself and would require the fuel that was made available for community and voluntary transport schemes to be exempted from duty. That is not a matter that can simply be sorted out in Committee. As the hon. Member for West Derbyshire recognises, nor can the operation, or possible extension, of the fuel duty rebate be properly dealt with in a private Member's Bill. That problem goes to the heart of the Bill. It is not simply a technical difficulty to be ironed out upstairs in Committee.

Mr. Maclean

I have listened carefully to the hon. Lady. I accept that it may not be a matter for a private Member's Bill, but will she accept an amendment to the Finance Bill, or preferably introduce a relevant and appropriate amendment to the Finance Bill, so that the matter can be dealt with properly in the budgetary measures, where much more complicated things are dealt with easily?

Ms Hewitt

The right hon. Gentleman was a member of the previous Government. I am sure that he will recognise that it would be a wholly inappropriate matter for the Finance Bill. I shall explain, should I have the time, precisely what the implications of the Bill, or a similar amendment to the Finance Bill, will be. The objectives that the hon. Member for West Derbyshire and the Bill's sponsors seek to secure are properly a matter for public spending, whether through the rural transport fund, the fuel duty rebate or some other mechanism involving my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions.

Mr. McLoughlin

I want to press the Minister on the matter. I am surprised by that answer. I do not accept it. Bearing in mind that, in his Budget speech, the Chancellor announced that there was to be a review of shipping, cabotage and the rights of shipping, surely it is a matter that could be accommodated—I will not say easily—in the Finance Bill.

Ms Hewitt

The hon. Gentleman indicated his full understanding of the difficulties with his Bill when we met last week, but it would assist in answering him and other hon. Members if I said a little more about the operation of the fuel duty scheme, to which the Bill refers, but to which few hon. Members have referred.

We have an efficient means of collecting Excise duties. They are collected essentially at an early stage in the production and distribution system. Road fuel duty is collected on delivery from the refinery, or import warehouse. There are few taxpayers. Those that pay are mostly household names from the oil industry. They are reputable, compliant businesses who pay a large amount of money to the Exchequer every month, on time and accurately.

It being half-past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed on Friday 19 March.