HL Deb 22 November 1984 vol 457 cc686-9

3.29 p.m.

The Chairman of Commmittees (Lord Aberdare)

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a third time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a third time.—(Lord Aberdare.)

Lord Underhill

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to make a few points on this Bill. I am advised by the Oxford City Council that this matter involves a principle for which 1 and a number of other noble Lords have indicated our support in recent years. When this Private Bill was deposited it included a clause which was disallowed at the Unopposed Committee stage. That clause—it was then Clause 31—would have authorised the Oxford City Council to make arrangements for travel concessions for the unemployed and for those involved in youth training schemes.

I am informed that evidence submitted on behalf of the city council pointed out that there were some 4,300 unemployed in the city and some further 800 persons involved on youth training schemes. Bus fares within the city of Oxford are among the highest in the United Kingdom. The average city bus fare is no less than 31 p; and an analysis of the residential distribution of those persons unemployed and of the particular journeys they might have cause to make would entail fares ranging from 32p to 75p, which noble Lords will appreciate is a lot of money to take out of unemployment and other benefit.

Should it be argued that special assistance is given to meet the cost of journeys to seek work—we have discussed this before—I must point out that letters were presented in evidence from the manager of the DHSS local office and also from the Manpower Services Commission which make clear the limited nature of these particular arrangements. The Department of Transport submitted a written report with regard to this clause. I understand that this was considered when the department's representative came before the committee. It was stated that the Secretary of State objected to the clause on various grounds. May I draw attention to these? First, although Section 137 of the Local Government Act 1972 gives a local authority power to incur expenditure up to a 2p rate, it was argued that this provision is specifically designed not to cover areas which are already the subject of other legislation.

The second point was that Section 138 of the 1968 Transport Act provides that concessionary fares shall be limited to certain groups—those of pensionable age and the disabled. The third point was that on four occasions in the last two years Parliament has rejected similar proposals in Private Members' Bills, and also that such proposals were debated during the 1983 Transport Bill. The fourth point of the department was that the clause would create a precedent for other authorities, and the cost of such extended concessions could have possible implications for local government expenditure generally. Finally, it was said that the unemployed are only one of such groups to which assistance could be given.

I also understand that before the committee the department's representative put forward another point: that the department would have no objection to the promotion of schemes for travel concessions for the unemployed on a self-financing basis; and that the department were aware of a number of schemes promoted by local authorities and public transport undertakings which enabled unemployed persons to travel at off-peak times at concessionary rates on the ground that the seats occupied would otherwise be vacant. It would be interesting to know whether consideration was given to making this proposal to the Oxford City Council.

On the points mentioned by the department in their written evidence, certainly the 1968 Act, in Section 138, gives an authority the power to arrange concessions for persons of pensionable age and the disabled, but surely it must be stressed that it is the purpose of a Private Member's Bill to endeavour to get parliamentary approval for matters which otherwise are not in legislation.

I and other noble Lords are fully aware of the decisions taken, including those in your Lordships' House, on the question of concessionary fares for the unemployed. May I explain what happened in your Lordships' House? To the 1983 Transport Bill I proposed an amendment on behalf of the Opposition which received support from various parts of the committee. It was to give this provision to all unemployed persons and those in training. On that occasion the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, questioned whether that was the appropriate means by which to secure the desired objective. On that basis I said that I would withdraw the amendment, but would consider bringing it forward at Report stage.

Before the Report stage my noble friend Lord Molloy introduced a Private Member's Bill to achieve the same objective. On that occasion the Government said that their principal objection was the consequence to public expenditure of this being generally applied. The Second Reading was refused on an amendment by the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, which he said was on procedural grounds and not on the principle. That amendment to defer the Second Reading was agreed.

At the Report stage of the Bill I proposed the same amendment. On that occasion we were told that a Private Member's Bill was not the way to handle the issue. The Minister has tried to have it both ways up to this stage. All that the Oxfordshire Bill was seeking under Clause 31 was that only the Oxford City Council would have this extra provision to have concessionary fares for the unemployed and those in training.

In addition to the points already made I ought to mention that the Oxford City Council makes available—and I think that everyone will applaud this—sports facilities free to the unemployed, those on youth training schemes and those claiming various social service benefits. I have here a photostat of the brochure issued, with the list of all the sports amenities in the city of Oxford which are available free to the unemployed.

Noble Lords may recall when we discussed the general principle for the whole country that I made the point that what we were seeking were not just facilities for the unemployed to travel to seek work but so that they could live proper and full lives. The Oxford City Council gives these free facilities for sports, but many of them are such a distance that they would incur the type of bus fare to which I have referred, which is outside the pocket of those on unemployment benefit.

The Oxford City Council is not seeking to add expenditure beyond that for which it has authority. It intended, if this clause had been allowed, to meet the cost of the proposed arrangements from the proceeds of the 2p rate permitted under Section 137 of the 1972 Act. It has pointed out that the product of a 2p rate in Oxford is some £421,000. The only item currently provided under that provision is some £185,000 spent principally upon highway and traffic management schemes. It is estimated that if the clause had been allowed the cost of the proposal for concessionary travel for the unemployed and those on training schemes would have been £105.000. That could have been taken out of the 2p rate provision which the council could have used up to that figure if it had this permission.

I hope I have managed to convince your Lordships that there are sound arguments why this clause should have been allowed. The Oxford City Council are anxious for these views to be made known, and say how much they deeply regret the clause was disallowed. On behalf of the Opposition I should like to add my support to that. I am certain that other noble Lords who supported the principle when we discussed the issue in your Lordships' House would likewise regret that this clause has been disallowed.

3.37 p.m.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I wonder whether I may be allowed to give the Government's view, briefly. We of course share the general concern for the unemployed felt on all sides of the House, but we do not believe that the measures of the kind proposed in that clause of the Bill represent the most sensible or effective way of coming to their assistance. On the contrary, we believe that by increasing the burden that subsidies impose on the ratepayer and the taxpayer they are more likely to inhibit the economic growth which represents the best hope for reducing present levels of unemployment.

Both your Lordships' House and the other place have considered these arguments on a number of occasions in recent years, during the passage of the Transport Act 1983, to which the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, referred, and in relation to Private Members' Bills introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Molloy, and in another place by Mr. Alf Morris, MP.

The proposals for the introduction of concessionary fares for the unemployed have not, however, been accepted in any of these contexts. In view of these decisions at national level we did not believe it appropriate that the present Bill should contain provision for the introduction of these fares in Oxford City, since there would seem to be no way in which the position in Oxford is different in this respect from that in other parts of the country.

Lord Aberdare

My Lords, your Lordships have heard exactly the same arguments this afternoon as were put to the members of the Select Committee when they listened to the promoters' and the Government's view on this particular clause. The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, has put forward the arguments that were made on behalf of the Oxford City Council and the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, has put the contrary arguments that were put by the Government to the members of that committee.

I cannot quite agree with the terms in which the noble Lord. Lord Underhill, defined private Acts, but what I would say is that promoters of private legislation have to show need for all the powers that they seek. Where a proposed provision in a private Bill seeks to amend public general legislation, especially legislation involving important considerations of public policy, the onus of the promoters to show that there are exceptional local circumstances justifying the amendment is particularly high.

The committee on the Oxfordshire Bill was not satisfied that the promoters had discharged that onus in the case of this clause, especially as the powers that were sought to allow travel concessions for the unemployed had—as both the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, and the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, mentioned—been rejected by Parliament four times in the last two years in Private Member' Bills. Indeed, as the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, also reminded us, in the course of the proceedings on the Transport Act 1983 he himself moved amendments to this effect and 1 think that both were withdrawn at the Committee stage and the Report stage. I would only add that in this case there was a strong report against the clause from the Department of the Environment and, although of course committees are not bound to give effect to such reports, in this case the committee had no hesitation in accepting the force of the objections to the clause which were contained in that report.

On Question, Bill read a third time, and passed, and sent to the Commons.