HC Deb 16 January 2002 vol 378 cc293-5 3.32 pm
Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to permit local authorities to include persons at or under the age of 25 in travel concession schemes.

The city that I represent, Milton Keynes, has a young population and the highest number of under-25s per 1,000 people of any city in Europe. The figures for 2000 show that 75,000 of the 209,000 population are under 25 and that there are 24,000 young people aged between 17 and 24. Whenever I speak to them about what affects their lives, the issue that is always top of their list is transport, and more specifically, the cost of public transport and how that reduces their access to training, employment, leisure and other services.

Young people rely on public transport. A recent survey by Milton Keynes Community Foundation shows that whereas an average of only 43 per cent. of city residents use public transport, the figure increases to 57 per cent. for 16 to 24-year-olds. The national travel survey shows that 17 to 20-year-olds use buses twice as much as the rest of the population. They make 13 per cent. of all journeys by bus compared with only 6 per cent. for all ages. That reflects the absence of alternatives for most young people. Only 41 per cent. of 17 to 20-year-olds hold a driving licence compared with 71 per cent. of adults.

In relying on public transport, young people are very similar to the over-65s and, like pensioners, they tend to have lower incomes than other adults. Unlike pensioners, however, they are not offered travel concessions unless they fall into certain restricted groups.

The Transport Act 1985, which applies to local authorities in England outside London and to Scotland and Wales, allows councils to provide travel concessions for elderly people, the blind and the disabled, and children under 16 or those between 16 and 18 in full-time education. My Bill would amend the Transport Act to permit local authorities to provide concessions for under-25s so that all young people were covered, whether in full-time education or not. Similar changes would be required to the Greater London Authority Act 1999 to give the same powers to London boroughs.

My experiences talking to my young constituents in Milton Keynes have highlighted to me the barrier that is placed before them by the current cost of public transport. Of course there are some young people who are employed in well paid jobs, but I suspect that most of them will own a car and will be among the minority of young people who do not use public transport at all.

The majority of young people are on low incomes. The national minimum wage levels for 18 to 21-year-olds is only £3.50 an hour. Young people under 25 receive lower levels of housing benefit, income support and jobseeker's allowance. Wage levels in general are often lower for young people, reflecting their lack of experience. Students at further education colleges get little or no financial support, although I am pleased that this Government have begun to recognise the needs of this previously neglected group of students. Unemployed young people are in an even worse position. For all these young people, the cost of public transport is a major problem.

I am indebted to the YMCA, which works with young people across the country, for evidence that shows that the problems identified by my young constituents in Milton Keynes are shared by young people throughout the country. In 2001, the YMCA responded to the consultation by the social exclusion unit on "Transport and Social Exclusion". Questionnaires were sent out to all 160 local YMCAs, working in 230 communities. The responses from young people and youth workers showed the ways in which lack of affordable public transport affects the ability of young people to make the most of the opportunities available to them.

In Nottingham, a YMCA resident—a trained joiner and cabinet maker on jobseeker's allowance—is faced with fares of nearly £4 return to travel to job interviews in nearby Ilkeston. The YMCA had to lend him the money, but the youth workers have commented that they do not publicise the YMCA fund because demand would then exceed supply. Chester YMCA echoes the point that transport problems are the most common problem, from getting to youth projects through to inhibiting job seeking and studying. In Romford, the YMCA often has to make up the shortfall in people's travel costs; otherwise they cannot travel to job interviews or training further afield.

A worker at Bishop's Stortford YMCA highlighted the additional problem of the penalty in fare costs of changing from one bus to another: If young people have to take several buses to sign on, or to get to an interview, that begins to get expensive. Mendip YMCA in Wells drew attention to the problems in more rural areas where support services are widely based. Young people from Wells have to travel to Glastonbury or Frome—over an hour's bus journey—or even to Yeovil to obtain a crisis loan. In urban areas, the probation service, the benefit office and the Employment Service may all be on different bus routes.

If young people find employment, particularly if they are on the youth rate of national minimum wage, the added costs of travel can often more than cancel out the financial benefit of working. Romford YMCA often has to fund travelcards for young people on the new deal when they first start work, or they would be unable to afford transport to work. The lower rate of housing benefit for those under 25 means that they often cannot afford to live in the more expensive areas near their work or training, thus adding to transport costs.

A resident of Milton Keynes YMCA signed off benefits to work for the Post Office over Christmas but could not afford to pay transport costs before his wages were due at the end of December. He had to stop work and go back on benefits. Colchester YMCA highlighted the further education students who face costs of up to £15 a week to get to courses.

The examples collected by the YMCA mostly concern relatively disadvantaged groups of young people, but although the majority of young people may not face severe problems in transport to their education or training, most still find the cost of transport limits their access to sporting and leisure facilities. This has two worrying side effects. The first is that young people may be tempted to accept lifts from people they do not know, or to walk home alone late at night because they cannot pay the transport costs. The second is that young people, unable to afford the transport to city centre activities, tend to congregate aimlessly around suburban shopping centres, drifting into vandalism through boredom.

It has long been accepted that local councils should have the powers to offer travel concessions to pensioners, because access to affordable public transport is seen as crucial to allowing pensioners to lead full lives. Indeed the Transport Act 2000 gave elderly people an entitlement to a half-fare concession on local bus travel. As I pointed out earlier, young people are similar to pensioners in being very reliant on public transport, having low access to private cars and being on lower than average incomes. My Bill recognises that young people, too, need access to affordable public transport to lead full lives. By encouraging young people to use public transport we may also be helping the environment in which we all live, by building a habit that carries through into later life—the habit of using public transport more and the private car less.

I would ask hon. Members to think of the experiences of young people in their constituencies, and to listen to the views collected by the YMCA and echoed by young people all over the country. I ask hon. Members to support my Bill and help our young people to gain a greater freedom of movement and ability to lead fuller lives through access to affordable transport.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Dr. Phyllis Starkey, Charlotte Atkins, Richard Burden, Mrs. Anne Campbell, Vernon Coaker, Phil Hope, Helen Jackson, Mr. David Lammy, Margaret Moran, Mr. Martin Salter and Ms Claire Ward.