HC Deb 28 January 2002 vol 379 cc126-34

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Dan Norris.]

10.14 pm
Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley)

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing this debate to take place.

I congratulate the Government on many of the measures and the assistance that they have so far provided for pensioners—for example, the minimum income guarantee, the increase in the basic state pension, the £200 winter fuel payments, and the free television licences for all those aged 75 or over. In my view, that last measure should be extended to all pensioners. I shall continue to pursue the matter with support from hon. Members on both sides of the House. It is important that there should be equality between all pensioners.

I welcome also the free pass that entitles all pensioners to half-price concessionary travel on buses, which was introduced in 2001. However, many pensioners are dependent on public transport and live on extremely limited incomes. Transport costs take a significant part of pensioners' disposable income. The need for free public transport is important, especially if one lives outside town areas and in remote villages, where the costs are even greater. There are areas that have never benefited from municipal transport, and we have always been envious of towns that had that facility. Unfortunately, that benefit did not extend to most parts of Lancashire.

The need for free concessionary pensioner travel has been recognised in Scotland and Wales and in many metropolitan areas within England. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister is well aware that in Wales concessionary fares are within the remit of the Welsh Assembly. We welcome the Assembly's efforts on behalf of pensioners. It was after the 1999 elections that the Assembly decided to adhere to the decision that it would bring free travel into Wales in April this year. It is important that from April this year a pensioner can travel on buses throughout Wales. That is something of which we are envious in England.

I look to Scotland, where Fife has always allowed free travel for pensioners. Strathclyde has low travel costs. Scotland now has the ability to consider the introduction of free travel for those who are blind, disabled or pensioners. Once again, we must recognise that the poor relations will be English pensioners.

London is a good example of somewhere which offers something positive to pensioners. The standard concession in London for elderly, blind and disabled people crosses 33 boroughs. The scheme provides for free travel for pass holders on buses, the underground, the docklands light railway and other rail services. Free travel is available on buses from 9 am to 3 am the next day from Monday to Friday, and at any time on Saturday, Sunday and public holidays.

Free travel on railway services in the London area is available from 9.30 am from Monday to Friday until the last train at any time on Saturday, Sunday and public holidays. Once again, that is a benefit for pensioners within London.

Greater Manchester adjoins my constituency, which is in Lancashire. There, we look across the border with envy because although Manchester does not offer free travel to pensioners, it offers travel all the way across Greater Manchester at a cost of only 40p.

Mr. David Crausby (Bolton, North-East)

My hon. Friend will know that I represent a Greater Manchester constituency, albeit on the northern fringe. My constituents have concessionary travel, but effectively in only a southerly direction. If they lived in the centre of Greater Manchester, they would have concessionary travel in all directions. Does my hon. Friend agree that even within Greater Manchester there is still a postcode lottery?

Mr. Hoyle

I recognise that. My hon. Friend makes a valid point. He represents a constituency that is on the edge of the area. He has Lancashire to one side and Greater Manchester on the other. I understand that there is a lottery in terms of where a person lives in Greater Manchester, and I appreciate the importance to his constituents of ensuring that there is free travel and doing away with the 40p charge. However, I am still envious of what my hon. Friend's constituents enjoy. At the same time, I am aware that if they travel towards the west, the east or the north, they will suffer from the problem of paying much higher fares.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I represent a Cheshire constituency to the south of Greater Manchester. My constituents feel aggrieved that they cannot benefit from the 40p charge to which he referred. If there are to be concessionary fares for the retired, they should be universal throughout the United Kingdom and not available, in the main, only to those who live in metropolitan areas. Does the hon. Gentleman, for whom I have great regard, agree with me?

Mr. Hoyle

The point of this debate is to ask for universal free travel throughout the United Kingdom; that is the starting point, and we have got to ensure that that happens. I shall look at the interest expressed by the hon. Gentleman; his constituency is near to mine and he could probably enjoy the benefit of free travel so, of course, I take his concern to heart.

I shall talk about Greater Manchester for a little longer. Perhaps the Minister will consider a 40p charge for people in Lancashire as a stepping stone. Free travel is obviously a major step, but a concessionary fare would be welcomed by many pensioners who do not have the benefit of city schemes. Free travel would be welcomed by 15,500 pensioners in my Chorley constituency. Concessionary schemes are excellent, but we must bear in mind the costs borne by pensioners in towns such as Chorley, even with the half-fare pass. Pensioners in Chorley still have to make a difficult choice; they can have a half-fare pass, but it cannot be a combined pass for rail and bus—it is one or the other. That is sad; we should aim for the goal of schemes which cover any form of public transport.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Crausby) said, a half-price ticket from Chorley to Bolton—a matter of miles—costs a pensioner £1.90. Pensioners can travel across London for free; they can travel all the way across Greater Manchester for 40p. There is therefore a great difference for pensioners who do not get the benefit of such schemes. There is a strong case, not only for free travel for pensioners, but for stricter regulation of prices charged by private bus and rail operators. A half-price pass can leave pensioners facing high transport costs if prices continue to rise as they have been.

I have been approached by many pensioners who are concerned about the cost of travelling by bus and train, particularly when they hear that friends and family who live in Greater Manchester receive good treatment compared with the people of Lancashire. Better rail concessions are needed. Once again, there are varying rates for pensioners, depending on where they live. In London, travel is free; in Manchester, it is 40p. We can do much more to end those anomalies for pensioners.

Given the Government's commitment to an integrated transport system, it would make sense to introduce competitive concessionary rates or, if not, off-peak free travel for pensioners; we should aim to move towards free transport and introduce a combined pass for pensioners so that they can switch between rail and bus. If we are to encourage people to use public transport, we must make it easy for pensioners to use a combined pass that would allow them to travel anywhere on any form of transport; we must achieve that objective. For all those dependent on public transport, travel often involves using more than one form of transport and changing buses, which is costly with a half-price pass.

I am aware that my proposals would be expensive, with a possible additional cost of £300 million if free transport were introduced. However, as I have said, it could be introduced in stages over a number of years; the money would be well spent and the initiative would be welcomed throughout the United Kingdom. At the end of the day, off-peak free travel would not cost very much. We subsidise many of those routes; off-peak trains and services are empty. Why not make a start and allow free off-peak travel for all pensioners throughout the UK? We should consider the benefit of doing so.

In conclusion, we can see the benefits of free travel for Londoners; in April, free bus travel across Wales will be introduced. Cities throughout England have various schemes. My hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Laxton), when leader of Derby city council, introduced free bus travel in Derby. However, Derbyshire has only half-fare passes, which is anomalous; there is struggle between the country and the city, which we must resolve. Surely it is time to ensure that villages enjoy the same benefits as cities and towns. They miss out on many opportunities, but we have a chance to take a positive step towards equality.

I find it interesting that the Government say that they will give the private Member's Bill on age equality a fair wind, but once again we see that there is no equality for pensioners. There ought to be equality for pensioners and we can make a start tonight. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will take on board a lot of what is said and give it a warm welcome. A great deal could be done for very little money and, by working through the Minister's good offices and through the Treasury to consider funding, we could achieve a better quality of life for all pensioners throughout the United Kingdom.

We must emphasise there should be equality for all pensioners, whether they live in Wales, Scotland or England. As a start, they should have the benefit of free off-peak travel or a limited Greater Manchester-type 40p scheme, but let us ensure that we head towards free concessionary pensioner travel.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries)

I applaud my hon. Friend's initiative on free travel for pensioners, which my area had for four years in the early 1990s with assistance provided through the local council. Quality of travel is the other issue, however, and my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) would tell the House that Stagecoach's cuts in services in our area do nothing to help pensioners and nothing to achieve the free travel that they seek.

Mr. Hoyle

I agree. Stagecoach operates in our area as well. I say to my hon. Friend that we ought to make a start. If buses and trains are running around empty, the scream goes up that they should be removed because nobody uses the service that they provide, but people would begin to use them if we provided free travel. That should develop increased provision for rural areas, because at least services would be justified. We must justify the subsidies that we offer and introducing free off-peak travel for all pensioners is the way to do it.

That is a clear means to ensure that remote areas have services and that people will use them. Those involved in local government always argue, "We've done a survey and we have worked out that one person uses this service one day a week." We all recognise that that is not acceptable, so we must persuade people to use services and give them a choice by providing public transport. If pensioners who want to visit the nearest town or to see friends know that they can travel free off-peak, they will use those services, which will justify the subsidy.

We must ensure that transport becomes more sustainable by carrying more and more people. The Government would welcome such an increase, and that could be achieved by getting away from the old, dangerous British Rail mentality. The usual story was, "We're not making enough profit, so put the prices up. The numbers that we carry don't matter." That myth went out years ago. All it meant was that the number of people using the services declined.

We want to get away from that attitude, but a half-fare pass would not achieve that. If prices go up every year, the service becomes more costly for pensioners, so free off-peak travel is the best way to ensure equality for pensioners, not just in our region, the north-west, but throughout England and the United Kingdom. That would not cost a great deal, but it would make a start on achieving equality for all pensioners. I believe that all old-age pensioners should have that benefit.

We ought not to shy away from that important issue. I know that the Minister will listen carefully and I am sure that she will take on board the points that have been raised. Pensioners are struggling, not just in Chorley, Macclesfield, Bolton, Rochdale and Derby, but throughout England. London pensioners would say, "We have a good service, but why don't our cousins in other parts of England have the same benefits?" They recognise that difference. If those pensioners want to travel outside London, why should they not he able to do so for free? The limited scope should be extended, and the benefits given to all.

I cannot think of any pensioner organisation or any pensioners who would not support this proposal. The clamour of support from my constituency has allowed me to introduce this debate. It is important that the debate has taken place. Hon. Members who have turned out to listen are fully supportive of my proposal. We look to the Government to ensure equality for all pensioners throughout the United Kingdom. We look forward to positive action from the Government, which they have taken on other pensioner issues.

10.30 pm
Mr. Andrew Rosindell (Romford)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle). I regularly agree with him on many issues, and this is yet another. I believe that our pensioners deserve better. One way to enhance the lives of many pensioners is to give them access to travel, and there are many advantages in doing so. It would enable pensioners to travel, go for days out or go shopping, and we would save a lot of money by promoting active lives for pensioners, thus reducing costs for the health service. Furthermore, if pensioners travelled, they would spend money and would thus improve their local economies.

I feel strongly that the postcode lottery must be dealt with, because it is utterly wrong that people who live on one side of a border get the advantage of a free travel pass, whereas those on the other side do not. I could mention many examples of that. The hon. Member for Chorley referred to Greater London, which has a freedom pass that allows pensioners to travel from one end of London to the other. I represent the Romford constituency, which is on the edge of London going into Essex. The problem is that people who live in Romford can travel free to Brentford in the west of London, but not to Brentwood, which is five miles up the road. They can travel free to Harrow but not to Harlow, to Southgate but not to Southend.

I should like to see a universal, freedom bus pass for all pensioners. That would have economic and health advantages. Pensioners have fought for this country and paid their taxes, and they deserve better in their later years. I congratulate the hon. Member for Chorley on raising this issue. I assure him of my full support for everything he said, and I look forward to the Minister's response.

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

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) on securing a debate on this important aspect of older people's needs. I am aware of the interest in free travel for pensioners, which is probably why there are other hon. Members present in the Chamber, not just him and me. My hon. Friend and I have corresponded on this subject, as have a number of other hon. Members on both sides of the House. I hope that my remarks will go some way to addressing the points that he has raised.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to recognise the progress that the Government have made in improving the lives of pensioners. A number of measures, such as bus passes and the winter fuel allowance, have made some of the biggest differences to older people's lives.

Concessionary fare schemes offer cheap travel on local transport for people who are economically disadvantaged. They are a clear demonstration of our commitment to fighting social exclusion. We want to ensure that bus travel remains within the means of those on limited incomes. I am very much aware of the fact that for people on lower incomes, especially older people, buses are the most frequently used form of transport. My hon. Friend might also reflect on the fact that other people who are socially excluded have great difficulties travelling, and affordable and accessible bus transport is important for them, too.

As my hon. Friend said, because of the particular importance of transport to older people, last spring we implemented the provisions in the Transport Act 2000 requiring local authorities to offer a minimum of 50 per cent. reductions to elderly and disabled people using local bus services. People with disabilities, of course, also experience problems when travelling.

The necessary travel passes must be issued free of charge. Let me say to the hon. Member for Romford (Mr. Rosindell) that although there is only a 50 per cent. reduction in the fare, it is important for people to know that they should not have to pay for their pensioners' travel passes.

Our changes currently benefit some 5.5 million pensioners and 1.5 million disabled people in England and Wales. This will be the first time many of those people have benefited from any travel concession, and the new arrangements are a real advance on what they had before.

Provision for travel concessions is contained in three Acts—the Transport Act 1985, the Greater London Authority Act 1999 and the Transport Act 2000. As I have said, local authorities in England and Wales must arrange for older and disabled people in their area to receive at least a half-fare concession. There is nothing to stop authorities providing a more generous scheme. Indeed, as Members have said, some already do, especially in London.

The 1985 Act gives local authorities discretion to offer more generous concessions on bus and other public transport services—including local trains, metros, light rail and ferries—as well as concessionary travel outside their boundaries, if they so wish. Many authorities already offer local concessions on other modes of public transport. As my hon. Friend says, many also offer transport cheaper than at half price. Obvious examples are London, Merseyside and the west midlands, where free travel is offered not just to pensioners but to people with disabilities.

Some Members mentioned better schemes in Scotland and Wales. Decisions of that sort must be made by devolved Administrations. One consequence of devolution is that those Administrations will sometimes make decisions that differ from those made by the Government in England.

As my hon. Friend said, concessionary travel schemes are important because they allow some of the most socially excluded people, especially pensioners, a chance to travel which they might not otherwise be able to afford. The Government, however, cannot ignore the resource implications. There is no doubt that concessionary fares are expensive for them. Of course it is an attractive option to go further with our statutory half-fare minimum requirement, but making the standard even more generous—perhaps by providing completely free travel—would increase the cost of concessionary travel considerably. As my hon. Friend said, it would raise the total cost of bus travel by some £300 million. That would be in addition to the £490 million that local authorities in England are already spending. Whether authorities offer pensioners free travel on public transport is wholly at their discretion.

My hon. Friend mentioned rural transport, perhaps because of the position of pensioners living in villages. Concessionary fare schemes are not all that we provide to help to subsidise bus services. Only last Friday, the Government announced spending of some £30 million on a series of new rural services under the rural bus challenge scheme. That is extremely important, not because it provides extra concessionary fares but because it provides new and innovative services that meet the needs of some of the most disadvantaged people in rural areas. Some services have been particularly designed to meet the needs of pensioners. The need to be taken to hospital is one of the most obvious. Mobile services are also provided: instead of people being taken to services, the services are taken to people in country areas.

I therefore urge my hon. Friend and others to look carefully at the thoughtful work that the Government are funding local transport authorities to do to make absolutely sure that lack of transport is not a barrier to pensioners and other people with mobility problems using services, going shopping or going about their day-to-day life.

It is undoubtedly true that free or low-price rail travel would produce benefits for passengers, but a huge subsidy cost would arise from such a policy, to be met by the Government and consequently by the taxpayer. As all hon. Members well know, our policy is to stimulate investment in improvements in capacity and quality of rail services, through a mixture of public and private investment. There are no current plans to introduce free or low-price travel generally.

Some train operators promote widespread reduced fares to attract passengers to rail services. For example, the senior railcard is available to people aged 60 and over. That costs £18 a year and offers one third off most rail fares. All train operators are required by the Strategic Rail Authority to participate, and the scheme is run by the Association of Train Operating Companies. The terms of the senior railcard must be no less favourable than under British Rail and may not be amended without the SRA's agreement.

Further recognising the need for pensioners to he able to make long-distance journeys at lower prices, which is important if they are to enjoy the same rights as other people, we announced in November our agreement to a proposal under which coach operators would provide half-price fares to older and disabled passengers on long-distance scheduled coaches in England. In return for those fare concessions, operators would for the first time receive a fuel duty rebate. That will be an important step in taking travel for pensioners forward.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley probably knows, our Travel Concessions (Eligibility) Bill will equalise the entitlement to concessionary travel for men and women at the age of 60. Again, that will improve the position of pensioners.

I am not unsympathetic to the aims of my hon. Friend, but we must look at the financial implications of providing wholly free travel and balance the available funds with the many other competing demands on the public purse—not just services generally but the demands of different people to be able to travel at a reduced price. For example, there is always pressure to include groups such as school children, students and young people. My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) recently introduced a ten-minute Bill to allow local authorities to extend schemes to people aged up to 25.

I hope that my remarks demonstrate how seriously the Government take the needs of older and disabled people. We have taken and continue to take measures to improve their quality of life and to ensure that transport does not act as a barrier to people enjoying their right to move properly around this country and enjoying a good quality of life.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seventeen minutes to Eleven o'clock.