HC Deb 09 May 2000 vol 349 cc804-11
Mr. Jenkin

I beg to move amendment No. 300, in page 72, line 33, at end insert— 'or that he will receive discretionary travel concessions which are at least equivalent to the concessions provided for under subsection (1).'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Amendment No. 146, in clause 125, page 72, line 43, leave out from "attained" to end of line 45 and insert— 'the age of sixty years or over.'. Government amendments Nos. 187 and 188.

Mr. Jenkin

At this late hour, I shall explain the purpose of amendment No. 300, which amends clause 124(3). The clause contains the necessary technical definitions and regulation-making powers so that the price of the bus pass can be altered in a concessionary fares scheme.

Subsection (3) states: A person may agree with the travel concession authority that he is not entitled to be provided with concessions under subsection (1) for a period in return for being entitled during that period to receive travel concessions under a scheme under section 93 of the Transport Act 1985.

I confess that I have not made a detailed study of section 93 of the Transport Act 1985, but the amendment would add to the end of clause 124 the words, or that he will receive discretionary travel concessions which are at least equivalent to the concessions provided for under subsection (1). 12 midnight

The amendment's importance is immediately apparent. When a person benefits from a non-statutory concessionary travel scheme, the local authority should be released from its obligation to provide that person with statutory concessions under the Bill. Groups of local transport authorities that offer non-statutory concessionary travel schemes, should not need to offer a statutory discretionary fare scheme under the Bill.

I hope that the Minister realises that several transport authorities have made representations on the matter. I hope that he will accept the amendment or undertake to accept a similar amendment at a later stage.

Mr. Moore

As the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) said, the hour is late and the fluidity of our discussions is not what it might be, not least since our earlier exchange of acronyms.

Amendment No. 146 strikes at the heart of major discrimination in the Bill on concessionary fare schemes. My hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) believes that it would be unwise for him to speak about the amendment because he might have to declare an interest: under our proposal, he would qualify for a concessionary bus pass in 2007; under the Government's provisions, he would have to wait until 2012. As we get closer to 2007, the matter worries him greatly.

Mr. Raynsford

When will the hon. Gentleman qualify?

Mr. Moore

In my case, it does not matter which scheme is implemented. If I am spared, it will be a wee while before I qualify. [Interruption.] I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Bath has rejoined us to hear us fight the case for an earlier bus pass for him.

In Committee, the Minister did not tackle the fundamental point and identify the reason for the discrimination. He hid behind the fact that pensions legislation refers to equalisation by 2020. That is a long time to wait, and many organisations, including Parity, Age Concern and the National Federation of Post Office and British Telecom Pensioners, fail to understand the reasons for the discrimination.

The European courts, especially in the Atkins case, have failed to back the proposal that the amendment presents and have supported the Government's position. However, in case the Minister is tempted to hide behind that defence again, the Government won the case because the issue was further confused by others, not least young people, who were entitled to concessionary fares.

In Committee, the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) tried to clarify the cost of the amendment. He is a diligent Member and he contributed greatly to those proceedings. In his own way, he hoped to back the broad principle that we support and said: I do not look forward to being issued with a bus pass, but it will at least qualify me as a pensioner to sit in the pub, twang my braces, bemoan the fate of modern society and comment on every subject under the sun.—[Official Report, Standing Committee E, 29 February 2000; c. 811.] We all denied that he was up to that already.

Our amendment has broad cross-party support so we hope that the Minister has changed his mind in the weeks that he has had to consider it and sees fit to support us.

Mr. Snape

I hope to follow the hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Moore) without repeating anything that I said in Committee, except that asked the Liberal party how much the proposal would cost. Answer came there none, and answer came there none tonight. I hate to inject a controversial note, but I voted against it, as did my hon. Friends, on the ground that it represented a dash of cheap populism—not that that is common, of course.

Mr. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire)

It came from the Liberal party's vast store.

Mr. Snape

My hon. Friend's sedentary comment is somewhat unkind. I am not sure how vast that store is, but that is how the proposal struck me. The Liberal party wrote to various people in various parts of the country, usually in constituencies represented by Liberals. They wrote to members of the Committee, me included—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) shakes his head and professes to know nothing about it, but of course he did that. I do not complain; that is politics.

Most of the letters accusing me and other Labour members of the Committee of sex discrimination and refusing to allow elderly gentlemen to participate in a pensioner scheme—I almost fall into that category as the magic date is approaching—came from constituencies represented by Liberals. I have no objections as that is part of the rough and tumble and hurly-burly of politics, but I still want to know how much the proposal will cost. It is incumbent on the Liberal party, before engaging in cheap populism, to tell us—[Interruption.] I did not; I voted against. The Liberal party must tell us the cost.

Mr. Don Foster

May I attempt to answer both the hon. Gentleman's points briefly? The hon. Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth), who served as the Whip in Committee, was the first to express concern about the letters. I assured him, as I assure the hon. Gentleman, that although I wish that I had thought of writing such letters, another organisation—not my party—wrote them without our knowledge or agreement.

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point about cost, but it would be absolutely zero in the next 18 months. The Government, for the past three years, have made great play of their introduction of the concessionary fares scheme. However, that will not happen for another 18 months. As the cost of their proposed package is about £40 million, it is not unreasonable to suppose that supporting our amendment represents a cost of about an additional £10 million. As that is so little, I am sure that he can support us.

Mr. Snape

The cost is part of the magic penny that we have heard about. [Interruption.] In fact, it is a small part of it and we are grateful to the hon. Member for Bath for that clarification. However, I say to him and the hon. Member for Ettrick, Tweeddale and Lauderdale—

Mr. Moore

Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale.

Mr. Snape

I will get it right one of these days. If the hon. Gentlemen moved to my constituency—I should be glad to welcome them, although they would have to shed the false doctrines that they have followed for years—and waited until the legal retirement age, they would enjoy free bus and rail travel across the west midlands conurbation. I hazard a guess that that scheme, which was provided and maintained by Labour local authorities in the teeth of hostility from Conservative Governments over the years, is far more generous than those in Bath and Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale, or whatever that constituency is called.

Before the Liberals go round the country stirring up discontent in such an appalling way and attack hon. Members who merely seek financial clarification of some of their more outrageous proposals, they should sit down with us and work out which parts of the country have the most generous pro-pensioner schemes. It will come as no surprise to them—it will certainly come as no surprise to the Conservative party—that the most generous schemes are in areas that have been controlled by Labour for many years. [Interruption.] That includes areas that were involved in what happened last Thursday.

Regardless of what happened then, we are talking about places that are still controlled by the Labour party. We are proud of the way in which we looked after pensioners and gave them travel facilities, and we will take no lessons from the Liberals. Unless the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill), who keeps describing me as his guru—after my last intervention, I am not sure whether I still qualify for that title—has a spare ten million in his back pocket, I suggest he tell the Liberals to get lost and stop indulging in the populism that they love so much, especially at this time of night.

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest)

The hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Moore) spoke of a certain type of discrimination. Although I do not agree with what he said, I see the point that he was making; but I want the Minister to clarify the position relating to a different type of discrimination involving concessionary fares.

Clause 124(1)(a) makes it clear—although I appreciate that there has been no argument about this tonight—that eligible journeys are those between places in a particular travel concession authority area. That is a reasonable point, but I want to ask the Minister about his attitude to people who are in the position of my constituents who live on the edge of greater London. The area referred to, for their purposes, will be Epping Forest or, perhaps, Essex, but not Greater London.

It so happens that most of my constituents who live on the London-Essex border find themselves in an inequitable position. No, iniquitous. Well, an unfair position. [Laughter.] It is awfully late; "inequitable" will do.

I know of a case in which the border between Essex and London falls in the middle of a semi-detached house. The pensioner living on one side of the border receives concessionary fares, while the one living on the other side does not. The pensioner who does not receive the concessionary fares is the fortunate one, benefiting—owing to living in my constituency in Essex—from all that Epping Forest district council and Essex county council can provide. I appreciate that the responsibility falls on the local authority as well as the Government to arrange these matters, but I ask the Minister to tell us how the Government view the inevitable unfairness.

I have received many letters from constituents. In their 1998 White Paper "New Deal for Transport: Better for Everyone", the Government announced: We will introduce a national minimum standard for local authority concessionary fare schemes". Only a few months ago, the Deputy Prime Minister made an announcement to the House—in his last transport statement: the one that did not really say anything that he had not said before—that gave the distinct impression that the Government would fund concessionary fares. Pensioners in my constituency who do not benefit from concessionary fares were extremely pleased about that, and wrote to me in droves saying how wonderful the Deputy Prime Minister was to do this. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) says "Vote Labour". I am glad to say that last week people did not do so. It is clear why they did not, and I will tell him why. [Interruption.] I am sorry. I thought that it was the hon. Member for Bath who said "Vote Labour". Anyway, a Liberal Democrat Member said it. It is a slight change from last week, when Labour Members said "Vote Liberal". Of course, we are becoming used to that: we understand the anti-Conservative alliance, and the reason for it.

12.15 am

I will not stray from the point, despite the lateness of the hour. I ask the Minister to confirm that my constituents have been misled in thinking that the Government were going to fund their concessionary fares. The Deputy Prime Minister got a lot of credit for what he said but he did not mean it. He wanted my constituents to believe that they would benefit considerably from concessionary fares. It now appears that they will not do so. It is a genuine question. I ask the Minister to comment on it.

Mr. Peter Atkinson

At this late hour and briefly, may I press the Minister on the unanswered question that was left over from the Committee when we dealt with concessionary fares: what happens to those authorities that have a token scheme? All this relates to bus or rail travel and to half-priced concessionary fares, but nothing has been said about people such as my constituents who have no access to bus or rail travel.

My local authority, properly, operates a token system because that is fair to all pensioners, regardless of whether they have access to bus or train travel. Many pensioners in country areas who cannot travel by bus save their tokens and then take taxis to and from the shops because that is the only way that they can travel.

What the Government propose, with money to be put into the scheme for half-price travel, leaves such other schemes high and dry. The Minister said nothing in Committee about what will happen, who will fund those other schemes and how a token scheme will be funded once the new scheme comes in. I hope that, in the last minutes of our debate, he might be able to answer the question that has been troubling pensioners in my constituency.

Mr. Hill

I shall deal first with amendment No. 300. I fear that we find it technically rather strange. Clause 124(3) already provides—I hope clearly—for an individual elderly person to opt for an alternative that the local authority might provide, rather than the statutory minimum. We included that provision because we entirely recognised that some local authorities run schemes based on tokens—exactly the point that the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson)—

Mr. Jenkin

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Hill

Let me at least tell the hon. Gentleman why we find it a strange amendment and then he can intervene.

We were aware that some local authorities, as the hon. Member for Hexham has pointed out, run schemes based on tokens, which may be used on taxis as well as on buses. Such schemes may be particularly valued by elderly people, even if they do not technically conform with the statutory minimum.

Mr. Jenkin

My amendment provides for someone who uses a scheme that is provided not by their own transport authority—their local authority—but by a consortium of transport authorities, or a passenger transport authority.

Mr. Hill

Let me continue with my explanation of the difficulties that the Government have with the amendment.

To add a provision for an elderly person to be able to opt for an "equivalent" scheme seems to add nothing to the clause. Indeed, the amendment brings in a problem: who is to decide what is "equivalent"? That seems a strange and difficult judgment. It would not be fair to anyone for the Bill to impose the task on them—although another problem with the amendment is that it is silent on who is to decide equivalence. The statutory minimum is what the Bill says it is. The clause allows an individual to opt for an alternative if they prefer it. That seems to provide all reasonable flexibility. Therefore, I do not feel able to accept the amendment.

Amendment No. 146 would equalise the age at which men and women become eligible for concessionary fares. Currently, eligibility is tied to pensionable age, with women qualifying for the state pension at 60, while men have to wait until 65. The hon. Member for—I am delighted to have the opportunity to pronounce this wonderful constituency name—Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Moore) has expressed very well the view that the age at which people qualify for concessionary fares should be the same for men and for women, and that the common age should be 60, not 65. I certainly acknowledge that view.

I have to say, however, as I said repeatedly in Committee, that I believe that there is another view. It seems to me that it is not unreasonable that the age at which one becomes eligible for financial benefit in the form of a pension should be the same as the age at which one becomes eligible for financial benefit in the form of reduced bus fares. That raises the further issue of whether it is right for that age to be different between men and women. Again, however, I have to give the same reply that I gave in Committee: the issue has been addressed by Parliament, and legislation has already been passed to equalise the two ages.

Mr. Don Foster

It is the same speech.

Mr. Hill

If the hon. Gentleman protests that that is word for word what I said before, let me add a different word. If the hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale really profoundly disagrees with the proposition that a bus pass should be available at the same time as other benefits to senior citizens, it is up to him and other Liberal Democrat Members to seek to introduce other legislation to equalise—

Mr. Foster

That is what my hon. Friend is trying to do.

Mr. Hill

No; Liberal Democrats should introduce a general provision. We are talking about provisions that would apply across the board and not simply to the exceptional case of bus passes, and equalisation of the two ages would have to be done in primary legislation. The Government stand by the fact that the Pensions Act 1995 states quite clearly that the common age for men and women alike will be 65, and that that will be phased in in 2010 and 2020. In the light of that legislation, I really do not feel that I am able to accept amendment No. 143.

I should deal with the issues raised by the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing), who dwells on the edge of London. The concessionary fare laws have always been based on the principle of local authority discretion. I am not persuaded that that is so wrong. Local authorities are best placed to take decisions on local transport.

The hon. Lady also raised the funding issue. We have certainly said that local government will be reimbursed by us for the costs of the statutory minimum.

I am afraid that that is all rather bad news for Opposition Members.

Mrs. Laing


Mr. Hill

However, I have glad tidings for the House: I shall give way to the hon. Lady.

Mrs. Laing

I thank the Minister very much for giving way, and for answering my question directly. The point, however, is that the Deputy Prime Minister has given the impression to my constituents that concessionary fares would be funded by the Government. Can the Minister tell my constituents that the Deputy Prime Minister definitely gave them the wrong impression, and that there will be no funding from the Government?

Mr. Hill

The idea of my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister giving the wrong impression is, of course, a contradiction in terms. He did not do so. Moreover, the fact is that the Government are funding the concessionary bus scheme at half the level of bus fares, and we mean to go further.

Amendments Nos. 187 and 188 make our proposals for the statutory minimum standard scheme more generous, and will make it more widely available to those who can least afford to travel. The amendments propose that the travel pass for the half-fare scheme on local buses will be free of charge instead of having a maximum charge of £5, as in our original proposal. We estimate that an extra 2.2 million pensioners will benefit from the change. The extra cost is estimated at £14 million, and that sum will be added to the revenue support grant available to local authorities on the same basis as the cost of the original half-fare proposal. That constructive change shows our continued commitment to an inclusive society and to making travel opportunities more widely available. I commend it to the House.

Mr. Jenkin

I was expecting an intervention from the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape), accusing the Minister of cheap populism. It would have been churlish for him to do so, but it would suggest that there may be a double standard. He accused the Liberal Democrats of cheap populism; usually they are guilty of extravagant populism. The populism of the Government is a good deal more economical than that of the Liberal Democrats.

The proposal provides for an alternative to the travel concession authorities scheme if it is a scheme that is provided by way of section 93 of the Transport Act 1985. It does not provide for an alternative that is provided by some other means. If somebody is receiving a discretionary travel concession by some other means, the proposal does not provide an exclusion. I wonder whether the Minister could explain that—perhaps at another time. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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