HC Deb 05 November 2001 vol 374 cc30-42

Order for Second Reading read.

4.13 pm
The Minister for Transport (Mr. John Spellar)

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

The Chamber is slightly quieter and less crowded than when I addressed it a couple of weeks ago.

The Bill is straightforward. It has a single specific purpose—to equalise the entitlement to concessionary travel for men and women at the age of 60. It will bring to some 8 million the number of people who benefit from the Government's statutory requirements for travel concessions.

Concessionary fare schemes offer cheaper travel on public transport for people who are economically disadvantaged, and demonstrate our commitment to fighting social exclusion. The Government are committed to ensuring that bus travel in particular remains within the means of those on limited incomes and those who have mobility difficulties.

Legislation requiring local authorities to offer a minimum of 50 per cent. reductions for elderly and disabled people on local buses came into force earlier this year. Those changes are benefiting 5.5 million pensioners and 1.5 million disabled people across England and Wales. With this Bill, a further 1 million men aged between 60 and 64 will be able to share the benefits of concessionary travel, bringing the total number of people who benefit to about 8 million.

The provision for travel concessions is at present in the Transport Act 1985, the Greater London Authority Act 1999 and the Transport Act 2000. As I said, local authorities in England and Wales must arrange for elderly and disabled people living in their areas to receive a half-fare concession or better on local bus services—those within the local authority's area—subject to the person obtaining a permit, which must be given free of charge.

Local authorities also have discretion to offer further concessions on bus and other public passenger transport services, such as local trains, metros, ferries or the London underground. They may also provide concessionary travel outside their boundaries if they wish. Indeed, many local authorities offer concessions on other modes of public transport and fares cheaper than half price, or they join to offer an area-wide scheme—an obvious example of that is London. However, authorities must not offer a scheme providing less than the half-fare statutory minimum.

David Winnick (Walsall, North)

The Bill raises an important point for the west midlands. I certainly welcome what my right hon. Friend is introducing, but as he knows, since he is a fellow west midlands Member of Parliament, the region has a totally free bus scheme, which pensioners are keen to keep. We hope—I am sure that he agrees—that there will be no undermining of that scheme, which has been in operation for some time?

Mr. Spellar

As my hon. Friend is aware, all that the legislation provides, which is important in many areas of the country, is the statutory minimum. It is open to local authorities to provide more than that, and, as he rightly says, the west midlands has been doing so for a considerable period. I know that he has been an extremely worthy exponent of the advantages of the scheme and the mobility that it gives elderly and disabled people in the region. He is aware of the commitment of local authorities in the west midlands to maintaining that scheme.

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar)

I was a little surprised to hear the Minister mention ferries. I understand that there is an issue concerning any crossing of the Solent except by jobseekers and some hospital patients. Will he clarify that specific matter?

Mr. Spellar

It is open to local authorities to offer further concessions. The matter raised by the hon. Gentleman may need to be discussed with the local authorities involved—presumably, Isle of Wight unitary council and Hampshire county council—but, following his intervention, I am certainly happy to have a look at it.

At the moment, entitlement to travel concessions for elderly people is linked to pensionable age, as defined in the Pensions Act 1995. That means that women may take advantage of concessionary travel schemes offered by their local authority at 60, but men must wait until their 65th birthday to do so. There is of course no age barrier to entitlement to concessionary fare schemes for disabled people. Given the opposition to current legislation, which discriminates on the ground of gender, we have decided to end the anomaly. In this Bill, we are therefore legislating to equalise entitlement at 60. We expect the provisions to take effect from April 2003 at the latest.

Under the provisions of the Pensions Act, pensionable age will start to equalise from 2010, so that by 2020 both men and women will receive state pensions at age 65. Clause 1(4) provides reserve powers for the Secretary of State or the National Assembly for Wales to restore the link to entitlement to concessionary fares with that to state pensions. Should orders be made under that power—in 2010 at the earliest—the age of entitlement to concessionary travel for both men and women would similarly rise to 65 by 2020.

The Bill will not create new concessionary fare schemes. Local authorities will have to adjust their concessionary fare schemes to broaden entitlement to men aged between 60 and 64, but we envisage that the additional administrative burden on local authorities of issuing passes will be minimal.

Reimbursement arrangements under existing legislative provisions mean that the financial impact on transport operators will be neutral. Operators are reimbursed for revenue forgone so that they are financially no better and no worse off than if they did not participate in the concessionary fares scheme. Calculation of the level of reimbursement by local authorities may take into account increases in the number of passengers travelling—the so-called generation factor. Those reimbursement arrangements are well tried and tested, and we do not foresee any difficulty in administering or operating the increased entitlement.

There is no doubt that concessionary fares are expensive. In England, local authorities currently spend £440 million each year on their schemes, and extending eligibility to men aged 60 to 64 might cost an additional £50 million a year in England. That will be a new cost to local authorities and additional funding will be made available through the revenue support grant in the normal way as part of the local government finance settlement.

In terms of territorial extent, the Bill applies to England and Wales. The National Assembly for Wales has its own commencement powers. Concessionary travel is devolved to Scotland and separate legislation to equalise entitlement is making progress there. In Northern Ireland, entitlement is already equalised at 65.

As a further measure to tackle social exclusion, I take this opportunity to announce our agreement in principle to a proposal under which coach operators would offer half-price fares to older and disabled passengers on long-distance scheduled coaches in England; in return for the fare concessions, operators would, for the first time, receive fuel duty rebate. That was recommended by the Commission for Integrated Transport. After discussions with the Treasury, we are responding to that recommendation. Many older and disabled people rely on coaches to travel long distances, especially to maintain family links, so I am sure that they will welcome a free pass entitling them to half-price fares.

The Bill is a small but important measure that will ensure that men and women receive the benefits of concessionary travel without discrimination. That will be welcomed by an additional 1 million elderly people and, I hope, by the whole House.

4.22 pm
Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar)

The Minister is right to describe the Bill as a small and modest piece of legislation, but on a personal level it is frightening, because it reminds us of our own mortality. I noted with considerable shock that should we make the decision in 2010 to phase in the concessions to reflect the arrangements for the state pension, I will become a beneficiary in June 2014, and my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) in June 2016. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble), looks at me inquiringly, but I was far too gallant to look up in "Vacher's" the information needed for me to state the relevant date for her.

We shall not oppose the Bill, but we have some reservations which are founded on the law of unintended consequences. We are worried that the Bill might adversely affect some discretionary schemes such that some other groups have their rights withdrawn—the Minister had a taste of that concern courtesy of his hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (David Winnick)— or existing beneficiaries of age-related schemes get a poorer deal.

The worst that could happen is that the scheme becomes bogged down in arguments about the formula, so we must be sure that it is correct and not based on false assumptions. The Minister is aware that the Local Government Association, of which I, with many others, have the honour to be a vice-president, believes that his Department might have underestimated the effects.

Agreement was reached on an increased aggregate revenue support grant. Provision of £54 million—slightly more than the original estimate of £47 million—was made for the cost of the proposals. I understand that the Department estimates that the additional requirements under the Bill will cost about £50 million. The basis of those calculations will have to be carefully considered during the Bill's passage through Parliament.

The principal difference resulting from the reduction in the qualifying age for men is that many of the recipients will be in full-time employment; their transportation usage is likely to be greater than that of a retired person. I note that, in another place, assurances of full consultation were given by the Government; I hope that they will be honoured.

Mr. Spellar

indicated assent.

Mr. Pickles

The right hon. Gentleman is nodding, which is reassuring.

Making estimates, both nationally and locally, of the consequences of the Bill is difficult, as operators have not produced a body of evidence for revenue that will be forgone by current public transport users in that economically active category. I am not entirely sure—I am not pushing this aggressively—that we are on tried and tested ground.

Mr. Spellar

In a similarly co-operative way, may I help the hon. Gentleman? Of course, he will be aware that concessionary fare schemes start at 9.30 am. Therefore, allowing for the fact that some people work shifts, a considerable number of those in work would not be able to use their pass because the rush hour is already excluded. We believe that that will tend to minimise the additional costs, but I recognise that there may be an issue, on which we shall consult.

Mr. Pickles

That is fair and reasonable but, by way of an attempted rebuttal, the situation will be continuing for a period of years. The Government are actively encouraging flexi-working and public transport companies are actively offering inducements to take up spare capacity outside peak hours. I therefore hope that the Minister will forgive me for saying that I am not entirely sure that we are using tried and tested methods.

The LGA said: the imposition of this specific new, burden with its widely varying local consequences requires an innovative look at whether there can be transitional measures to ease the particular problems which some authorities may face. That is reasonable. After all, this is the second large review that transport authorities have had to undertake within a relatively short period. We do not know how concessions will be bedded in. Ministers involved with the Transport Act 2000 talked about the way in which the measures would be bedded in. It will be several years before concessions are on-stream. It would be a mistake to embark on a fundamental review of the formula, but we should look most carefully at the transitional arrangements.

For example, £15 million was allocated to the London boroughs to cover the cost of equalisation for the freedom pass. Because of the way in which the grant system and the mechanism works, they received only £11 million, leaving the council taxpayer to fill the hole. There was a time when I could recite the formula for the allocation but, I am pleased to tell the House, I have forgotten it and have no desire to learn it again. Nevertheless, it illustrates the point that these things are complicated; we can come up with a simple intention with which we all agree, but find ourselves leaving local authorities materially worse off.

We have already heard from the hon. Member for Walsall, North, the Minister's friend and neighbour from the west midlands, who expressed worries similar to those of the Royal National Institute for the Blind. In a briefing document prepared for our debate, it says that there are concerns that need to be carefully considered as the Bill proceeds if there are not to be further cuts in the provision of concessionary fares for blind and partially sighted people and other disabled groups.

The Minister conceded that some earlier discretionary schemes are much better than existing schemes. The failure to match funding and reality has already created problems in a number of authorities. The Local Government Association has identified about 20 local authorities that have made amendments to existing alternative schemes which might be taken as reductions. The hon. Member for Walsall, North referred to the West Midlands passenger transport authority. Many authorities have removed a previous 100 per cent. concession for all modes of transport and replaced it with the choice- of a free bus pass allowing half-price travel on buses, or the option of paying for a pass giving bigger reductions.

In Birmingham a scheme that had been in place since just before the first world war was ended without consultation with blind and partially sighted people. Redress was made following the intervention of local Members of Parliament, but I understand that the chairman of the passenger transport authority says that unless there is a substantial increase in grant, the process will be reversed. I hope that I am wrong about that, but the chairman is on public record as saying so.

Lancashire county council proposes to stop issuing passes to blind people allowing them to travel for a flat 30p fare. Existing passes will be maintained, but in future blind people will be issued with a statutory half-price pass for buses only. The RNIB highlights the problem of blind and partially sighted people having the right change, the possibility that people with white sticks or guide dogs may be targets for muggers, and the social inconvenience of blind people delaying other passengers.

The RNIB has anecdotal evidence that other local authorities have reduced their concessionary fares to the 50 per cent. statutory minimum, even before they incur the costs of the Bill when it is enacted. I do not believe for a moment that that is what the Government want. I also know of the long discussions and the brinkmanship in which everyone in local authorities engages with Government in respect of funding. That is why I refer to the law of unintended consequences.

We are not likely to get primary legislation such as the Bill very often. We have made a number of comments in relation to the Transport Act 2000 and the Greater London Authority Act 1999. We are missing an opportunity to pull together all the concessionary fares and put them on a unified footing. We should decide, for example, whether schemes are to be available to young people. The LGA believes that the Bill may provide an opportunity for statutory eligibility in respect of certain persons to be inserted in the Transport Act 1985 or the Transport Act 2000, perhaps by applying the statutory minimum scheme or other schemes to schoolchildren and/or young persons in full-time education.

The Minister spoke about coaches. Some operators offer a 33 per cent. discount to people of pensionable age, which is welcome. When the Under-Secretary replies, it would be helpful if she could spell out the kind of sum envisaged. Will that be in addition to the £12 million coach concessionary fare scheme? Can she also clarify whether the money will come from the unallocated Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions funds in the spending plans for the next three years under the 10-year transport plan?

It would be helpful if the Minister could respond on another matter that causes all kinds of problems, particularly for authorities that border large conurbations. The problem is particularly acute when that large conurbation is London. It concerns journeys that start in one local authority area and finish in another. I have difficulty explaining to pensioners in my constituency why they experience problems when they undertake journeys outside the Brentwood area and into Romford. It is a serious problem for my constituents because all our hospital services are outside the local authority area, which causes confusion and resentment.

Help the Aged said of the Bill: Our ultimate goal is for all over 60 in the United Kingdom to have a freedom pass to travel by bus when and where they like in their locality. Only then will older people nationally feel that they have been given a fair deal.

Earlier this year, my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) introduced a private Member's Bill that sought to amend section 145 of the Transport Act 2000 so that it covered neighbouring authorities. That tidying up might be helpful. It may not be possible to do so, but it would be appropriate to examine the possibility in Committee. Only in that way will we be able to iron out that major anomaly in the scheme.

Obviously, we shall not oppose the Bill. We require some scrutiny of it, principally of the measures that I have outlined. We believe that the Bill should answer many of the questions left unanswered in the course of proceedings on the Transport Act 2000. Above all, we must guard against the law of unintended consequences.

4.37 pm
Mr. Don Foster (Bath)

Like the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles), Liberal Democrats welcome the Bill and will not seek to divide the House this evening, or whenever the opportunity arises.

Let me begin by saying in a friendly way to the Minister that it is a pity, given the crowded legislative programme, to have this legislation before us. The Government were given an opportunity in February of last year to put this matter right. During the Committee stage of the Transport Bill I moved amendments that would have had the same effect as this Bill. When I did that on 29 February, the then Minister, the hon. Member for Streatham (Keith Hill), said that he recognised the strength of feeling about the issue and claimed that his ministerial postbag has made me well aware of the issue, so I have thought hard about it"—[Official Report, Standing Committee E, 29 February 2000; c. 818.]. Unfortunately, having thought hard about it, he decided to do nothing and the problem remains.

The Government had a further opportunity to act before drafting this Bill. As a result of the endeavours of the excellent organisation, Parity, a case was brought before the European Court of Human Rights. The Government were told that Mr. Matthews case had been deemed to be admissible and they had to decide what to do. I was a bit disappointed in the Government's treatment of the issue. I looked back in Hansard and saw that on 13 February this year, when I asked the Government what they would do about it the same then Minister said: The Government are certainly aware of the Matthews case, which is before the European Court, to which the hon. Gentleman alludes. We are considering the implementation of that case and our response."—[Official Report, 13 February 2001; Vol. 363. c. 144.]

I was delighted that they did not think very long about it. Only three days later, at the Labour party conference in Glasgow, the Deputy Prime Minister said: I have also received representations saying 'why shouldn't men and women qualify at the same age?' I agree. I can announce today that in a second term we will equalise the age for concessionary fares, benefiting an extra one million people over 60 years of age. That's good for transport and it's good for social justice, too. It is slightly odd that the Deputy Prime Minister did not point out that this was being forced on the Government. It was not something that they had done of their own volition and could have done several months earlier. Notwithstanding all that, I am delighted that at last the Government have seen sense, many months later than might have been the case.

Like the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar, I. too, have concerns about three issues, and I hope that we will have an opportunity to debate them in Committee. First, the Minister will be aware of concerns among local government associations that the Government's current estimates of the likely additional cost of this measure may be inadequate. I am delighted that the Government have given assurances that there will continue to be consultation on these issues. Like the hon. Gentleman, I accept that there is a problem in that we do not have an effective set of data to use as a starting base from which to make comparisons of future costs. However, it is vital that the Government stick to their assurance and allow for continuing consultation on costs.

The hon. Gentleman said very eloquently that there are many examples of local authorities having to make cuts in other concessionary fare schemes as a result of introducing new ones. He referred to examples in London, the west midlands and Lancashire. I am sure that many hon. Members will have seen those and other examples in the briefs that have been prepared in advance of this debate. Introducing one set of concessionary fare schemes must not lead to the abandonment of others that have been considered very necessary in supporting people of various groups.

Secondly, there is the opportunity to widen the scope of the categories of people who could be helped through concessionary fare schemes. Like many other people on both sides of the House, I am concerned about the situation in our educational system. One in two young people at the age of 16 gives up the opportunity to continue with any further education and, when questioned, a large proportion of them cite the cost of transport as one of the key reasons for giving up further educational opportunities. Given that we are all desperately keen to see an increase in educational opportunities for that age group, I hope that we will use the Bill to address one of the barriers—the cost of transport—to opportunities for further education.

The third issue, raised by the hon. Gentleman, is cross-boundary travel. I received a briefing from Age Concern which expresses the problem succinctly. It says: The government's present limitation seems to expect that elderly and disabled people should keep all their family and friends, all their health care providers, all their shopping, entertainment and recreations, all their places of worship—indeed all their possible reasons for travel—in the same local authority area as themselves. The government may believe in strong local neighbourhoods, but this seems to be carrying the principle a little too far. Age Concern England believes in a minimum travel concession scheme which is truly national.

I recognise that the Government, too, wish to make progress in developing a national scheme, examining all the various schemes that currently exist and finding ways of establishing more integration between them.

I welcome the Minister's announcement that we have at last found a way forward in respect of national coach travel. He said that there would be a Government quid pro quo in relation to availability of a fuel duty rebate to fund that, but I hope that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions will tell us a little more about how she expects the scheme to operate. To whom, for instance, should an individual apply? I am not talking just about applications for tickets; what will be the source of the recompense? Will it come from local authorities, or will there be a nationally funded scheme whereby individual coach operators go directly to the Department for any recompense that is not covered by the availability of fuel duty rebate? This is, however, a move in the right direction.

I feel that there is further work to be done in Committee on the three issues of funding, the widening of the scheme to other groups—particularly young people—and its extension to cross individual council boundaries. Nevertheless, like the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar, we welcome the proposals and look forward to making more progress in Committee.

4.46 pm
Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy)

I welcome the Bill with open arms. I can tell the Minister that many of my constituents who have been writing to me about the issue for some months will also welcome it, as, no doubt, will others throughout the country.

Will the Minister clarify one point? If the National Assembly for Wales wants to bring the scheme forward to, say, April 2002, will it he able to do so? That is important, because the Assembly may want to introduce such schemes before other parts of the country. That is what devolution means.

4.47 pm
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)

I echo my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) in confirming that Her Majesty's Opposition strongly support this relatively straightforward measure, which arises from the Matthews case, which was taken to the European Court of Human Rights.

Like the hon. Member for Conwy (Mrs. Williams), I should like to know when the Minister expects the measure to come into force. That is important, especially in relation to London. As she knows, the two-yearly scheme in London must be renegotiated at the beginning of 2002, and that poses a particular problem for the capital. If the Bill comes into operation before the end of this year, London will be able to incorporate it into the new scheme that starts in 2002; otherwise, it will have two options. Either it must pay for the additional scheme for a year, or the operation of the scheme will be delayed until 2004. I hope that she can clear that up. It is in everyone's interests for the Government to push the Bill through so that it can come into force by the end of this year, and the additional 1 million or so people who will benefit can do so in 2002 rather than 2003.

I calculate that the Government already invest, or propose to invest, some £571 million in concessionary schemes of one kind or another. Under the Transport Act 1985, which gives local authorities quite wide powers of discretion, they spend £440 million, and £54 million under the Transport Act 2000. As I understand it, this Bill will cost £50 million in England alone, and another £15 million in Scotland and Wales. With the fuel rebate scheme that the Minister for Transport mentioned today, which has an estimated cost of £12 million, the total Government spend on concessionary travel is £571 million. As I understand it, 7 million people-5.5 million pensioners and 1.5 million disabled people—benefit from concessionary travel, and the Bill's proposed scheme will make another 1 million people eligible. The Government are therefore operating a very considerable concession.

I should like to examine commuting, who will benefit from the new concession and when they will benefit from it. Last year, my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) promoted his Road Transport Bill which, had the Government accepted it, would have allowed one local authority's concession scheme to operate in another local authority's area. Such an arrangement seems only fair. If the Bill is to establish a national scheme, each local authority's scheme should operate in other local authorities' systems. I hope that the Minister will address that.

The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) asked about the scope of the Bill, which will clearly apply only to those who travel between 9 am and 11 pm. It seems likely that those who work flexi-hours and particularly those who have reached more senior posts towards the end of their working lives will be able to take advantage of the scheme. Will the Minister therefore say something about reimbursement of local authorities, such as those in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar, that face a burden because of considerably increased usage? I am glad that Ministers will consult the Local Government Association and the Association of London Government, but will they consider that issue carefully?

We all know about the anomalies that arise when any grant is distributed through the standard spending assessment via the rate support grant. Although I know that the Government are committed to distributing the concession outlined in the Bill by means of those mechanisms, I do not know why they cannot directly reimburse local authorities on the basis of concessionary journeys made, tickets issued or schemes implemented, so that no local authority will be out of pocket. What do the Government plan to do if a local authority can prove—clearly, it would have to do so retrospectively—that it is considerably out of pocket because of the skewing effect of the SSA system?

Further to my hon. Friend's comments on the law of unintended consequences, will the Minister tackle the postal code lottery? On the Bill's Second Reading in the other place—I believe that this is precisely the type of example that my hon. Friend had in mind—in describing the situation for visually impaired people in Birmingham, Baroness Wilkins said: people in Birmingham have enjoyed free travel on public transport since 1913, but that is to end this August. Instead of a free off-peak travel pass, covering train, metro and all bus travel, or a pass costing £18.70 for free travel at all hours, they will be entitled to half-price bus travel only. If they want to continue to have the freedom to travel on the bus, rail and metro, they will have to buy extra tickets costing £232 per year for off-peak and £265 a year for 24-hour travel."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 9 July 2001: Vol. 626, c. 944.1 Instead of having something for a relatively nominal fee of £18.70, they face considerably increased costs. She went on to say that, not surprisingly, blind, deaf and partially sighted people living in Birmingham had been much distressed by the move. I hope that the Government will encourage local authorities to use their discretion and ensure that existing schemes can continue.

It is high time that we in this House ended the postcode lottery of Government money. If the Government offer a scheme on transport concessions, health or anything else, it should be offered to everybody in the country equally, and not on the basis of postcode.

Mr. Spellar

What about the council?

Mr. Clifton-Brown

Who one elects to one's council is also important, and local authorities have discretion. Here we have a Government scheme that is fettering local authorities' discretion because councils will not have the money to offer such schemes in the future.

Are the Government happy that the scheme will absolve Northern Ireland, which, as the Minister mentioned, will equalise the age for the scheme at 65? That seems to be unfair to women. If women in Great Britain can take advantage of the scheme at 60, why must the women of Northern Ireland wait until they are 65?

It was unfortunate that Mr. Matthews had to go to the European Court of Human Rights to bring about this proposal. We are living in an age of increased equality and I hope that, in future, the Government will think more clearly and get the elementary things right before they rush legislation through the House. The hon. Member for Bath was right to point out that Liberal Democrat amendments tabled on a previous occasion would have avoided the need for us to discuss this measure this afternoon. When Opposition parties table amendments, I hope that the Government will consider our opposition with the depth and purpose that it deserves.

Nevertheless, 1 million people will benefit from the proposal and will be grateful to the Government for what has happened in the House today. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure us that the scheme will come into operation at the end of this year, so that those 1 million people will be able to benefit next year instead of in 2003.

4.58 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Ms Sally Keeble)

I welcome this brief yet interesting debate on this short but important Bill. The level of interest in the Bill in the Chamber does not reflect that outside the House. I agree with the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) that given the gender and age profile of Members of Parliament, one might have thought that the Bill would have been of more interest to them. I assure him that I will be up with him collecting my pass.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

I shall get into trouble with the Register of Members' Interests if I do not declare that 1 will collect my pass in 2013.

Ms Keeble

I thank the hon. Gentleman.

Concessionary fares are of major interest to a wide range of people outside the House, as is reflected in the constant letters and queries on the subject. Some controversies have been discussed this afternoon, such as the concerns raised by people from the Isle of Wight, Birmingham and the west midlands and elsewhere.

The Government have made it clear that local authorities' discretion is not fettered by previous legislation. We strongly encouraged local authorities to maintain their existing programmes and not to reduce their schemes because of legislation. Reductions in Birmingham and the west midlands have been discussed, but I understand that Birmingham city council has agreed to revert to its original scheme and pay for free travel through a free bus pass for blind residents, although other disabled residents receive a slightly less generous concession.

Anxieties have also been raised about Greater Manchester. The Department's advice makes it clear that it can continue with its previous schemes. Representatives from the area will meet me to discuss some of their concerns. We are anxious to ensure that councils maintain their existing schemes.

Mr. Pickles

Will the Minister confirm that the holder of the social services portfolio in Birmingham's cabinet is so worried about lack of adequate funding for the concessionary fare scheme in Birmingham that he fears that he may be forced to cut blind people's free travel again?

Ms Keeble

As we progress with the scheme, we will consult all the local authorities, and I am sure that Birmingham city council will want to raise the matter.

Hon. Members asked several other questions, which I shall try to answer before concluding with some general remarks. We were asked about cost. The total cost of implementing the Bill is expected to be approximately £50 million, but there will be careful discussions with local authorities about that. The hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar is right that the way in which the grant is provided to local authorities will have to be carefully calculated.

Earlier, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport announced a concessionary coach travel scheme, which will be implemented through the coach industry. Discussions about that will take place with the industry. The scheme is expected to cost approximately £10 million.

Mr. Don Foster

What is its likely starting date?

Ms Keeble

I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman that because we must sort out the exact details of its operation so that it is effected in an orderly way.

Hon. Members asked about cross-border travel. Again, it is up to local authorities to work together to provide schemes that are valuable to local residents. Nothing prevents them from making arrangements with each other to fulfil the travel requirements of their local residents. We urge them to do that.

The hon. Gentleman claimed that he thought of the scheme first and that we could have implemented it some time ago. He has made such comments before. For many years, entitlement to concessionary fares has been linked to the state pension age: 60 for women but 65 for men. It was expected that the age would gradually equalise at 65 by 2020 under the Pensions Act 1995. Parliament has therefore already legislated on age equalisation.

During the progress of the Transport Act 2000, we were aware of claims that entitlement to concessionary travel was unfair on the ground of gender. However, given that age entitlement for concessionary, fares has been questioned again, and the strength of feeling about the matter, it is right to introduce this small but important Bill to equalise the age of entitlement earlier than 2020. I hope that hon. Members, including the hon. Gentleman, will accept the measure in the spirit in which it is intended.

Mr. Foster

I do.

Ms Keeble


Several hon. Members raised the serious issue of why concessions cannot be provided for everyone, but it is not possible; they must be targeted. Bus transport is one of the main means of overcoming barriers to work or attending hospital appointments and we need to ensure that people are not disadvantaged because of lack of access to it. The Government are especially concerned about that issue, and that is why we recently introduced the urban bus challenge, following the introduction of the rural bus challenge programme, so that we can find ways to target bus services at those people who need them. The lack of bus transport must not prevent people from leading normal lives or, especially, young unemployed people from finding work.

Several hon. Members asked about schemes in the devolved areas. In Wales, a half-fare scheme was introduced on 1 April 2001. The intention is to follow that with a Wales-wide free travel scheme, funded by the Welsh Assembly, at a further cost of £21 million a year, starting in April 2002. Equalisation for eligibility for travel concessions is expected to start at the same time as in England in April 2003, and 1 hope that that information satisfies my hon. Friend the Member for Conwy (Mrs. Williams).

In Northern Ireland, a Province-wide scheme is run by the Government. It allows half-fare travel for elderly and disabled people on bus and rail services, with no charge for the pass. It is also intended to introduce free travel for pass holders from April 2002.

Mrs. Betty Williams

I seek further clarification on the situation in Wales. If the Assembly chooses to have a scheme that will equalise provision for men and women from April 2002, would it be possible for the Government to make provision in the Bill to allow it to do so, so that men in Wales will not have to wait until 2003?

Ms Keeble

Decisions of that sort are for the Assembly to make. One of the consequences of the devolved Assemblies is that they will on occasion take decisions that differ from the ones that we take here. In Northern Ireland, eligibility for travel concessions is already equalised at 65.

I think that I have answered most of the questions raised in the debate. The Government are committed to fighting social exclusion and to ensuring that all elderly people can take advantage of discounted travel. Extending the advantages to men aged 60 to 64 will help to achieve that goal. The Bill is a straightforward measure that will enable a further 1 million men to take advantage of concessionary travel on top of the 7 million elderly and disabled people who are already entitled to cheaper fares. The Bill will bring to 8 million the number of people who will benefit from statutory travel concessions, which means that at a minimum they will pay half-price bus fares with no charges for the pass. It will be a big help to many pensioners.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

Is it the Government's intention that the Bill should come into operation by 31 December this year to enable men aged between 60 and 64 to benefit next year instead of in 2003?

Ms Keeble

I have already dealt with some of those issues. The Bill first has to go through Parliament, and we are in the hands of various people—including the Conservatives—when it comes to the passage of legislation. We must also resolve several issues with local authorities about the implementation and costs of the scheme. However, whenever it comes in, it will be a big help to the many pensioners who cannot afford to use public transport to get out, to visit friends and relatives, to go shopping or to get to medical appointments.

The Bill underlines the Government's commitment to fighting social exclusion, promoting equality and, in particular, improving the lives of older people. I believe that it will be widely welcomed by people throughout the country. I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.