§ 3.22 p.m.
§ The Minister of State, Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Lord Falconer of Thoroton)
My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.
I hope not to detain your Lordships for too long this afternoon. This is a very straightforward Bill with a single, specific purpose; that is, to equalise the entitlement to concessionary travel for men and women at age 60. It will bring to 8 million the number of people who benefit from the Government's statutory requirements for travel concessions.
Concessionary fares schemes offer cheap travel on public transport for people who are economically disadvantaged and demonstrate our commitment to fighting social exclusion. We want to ensure that bus travel, in particular, remains within the means of those on limited incomes and those who have mobility difficulties. Just last month we brought into force legislation requiring local authorities to offer a minimum of 50 per cent reductions to elderly and disabled people. Those changes benefit some 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 65 will be able to share these benefits, bringing the total number of people who benefit from our statutory travel concessions provisions to around 8 million.
Provision for travel concessions is at present contained in the Transport Act 1985, the Greater London Authority Act 1999 and the Transport Act 2000. Local authorities in England and Wales must arrange for elderly and disabled people living in their area to receive a half-fare concession, or better, on local bus services—that is, services within the local authority's area—subject to the person obtaining a bus 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, as well as concessionary travel 936 outside their boundaries if they wish. Indeed, many local authorities offer concessions on other modes of public transport and fares cheaper than half-price—an obvious example is London—but they must not offer a scheme less than the statutory minimum.
Why are we legislating? Entitlement to travel concessions is linked to pensionable age as defined in the Pensions Act 1995. This means that women may take advantage of the concessionary travel schemes offered by their local authority at age 60, but men must wait until 65. There is no age barrier to entitlement for concessionary fares schemes for disabled people. Given strong opposition to current legislation because it discriminates on the ground of gender, we have decided to end the anomaly and are therefore legislating to equalise entitlement at age 60. As your Lordships may recall, this was raised during the passage of the Transport Act 2000 which introduced the statutory minimum requirement, and therefore I hope that the new legislation will be welcome.
Under the provisions of the Pensions Act 1995 pensionable age will start to equalise from 2010 so that by 2020 both men and women will receive their state pensions at 65. Your Lordships will notice that Clause 1(4) of the Bill provides for reserve powers for the Secretary of State, or National Assembly for Wales, to restore the link to entitlement to concessionary fares with that for state pensions. Should orders be made under this power, which could not be until 2010 at the earliest, the age entitlement to concessionary travel would similarly rise to 65 by 2020. Orders made under that subsection would treat a man as if he were a woman born on the same day. We may have some fun discussing this at a later stage of the Bill.
This Bill will not create new concessionary fares schemes, nor will it involve new bus operators entering the market. Local authorities will have to adjust all of their current concessionary fares schemes to broaden entitlement to men aged between 60 and 65, but we envisage that the additional burden on local authorities of issuing these extra passes will be minimal.
Reimbursement arrangements under existing legislative provisions mean that the financial impact on bus operators will be neutral. Bus 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. The calculation of the level of reimbursement by the local authorities may take into account increases in the number of passengers who travel—the "generation" factor. These reimbursement arrangements are well tried and tested, and I am pleased to be able to reassure your Lordships that neither local government nor the bus industry foresees any difficulty in administering or operating the increased entitlement.
There is no doubt that concessionary fares are expensive for governments. In England local authorities at present spend £440 million each year on their schemes. Extending eligibility to men aged 60 to 65 could involve an additional £50 million per year in England, and we will need to take this into account in the local government finance settlement.
937 I should perhaps say something about the territorial extent of this Bill. The Bill applies to England and Wales, and the National Assembly has its own commencement powers. Concessionary travel is devolved to Scotland and separate legislation is being progressed there. In Northern Ireland entitlement is already equalised at 65.
There was considerable debate in this House during the passage of the Transport Act 2000 that introduced the statutory minimum requirement for concessionary fares, and no doubt some of the same issues will be raised in the context of this Bill. I can see that several noble Lords are eager to join in this debate. I very much look forward to our consideration of these issues over the coming months, and I therefore commend the Bill to your Lordships.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.— (Lord Falconer of Thoroton.)
§ 3.27 p.m.
§ Lord Dixon-Smith
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for his brief, concise and precise summary of the Bill and its provisions. I have no interest to declare in this Bill, having arrived at the age of discretion. Others who take part in the debate may be in a different situation. It is worth noting that the background to this Bill begins with yet another case before the courts. Concessionary fares were first provided by a number of local authorities, and their power to do so was challenged back in 1954. As a result, the introduction of the 1955 Act gave local authorities the power to grant concessionary schemes.
One of the reasons for the complexity of the provision of concessionary fares is that its origin was a local authority discretionary service. A series of Bills has been introduced since then. But it is perhaps no coincidence that this Bill arrives as a result of yet a different case before the European Court of Human Rights involving discrimination laws. In that case a man claimed, unusually, that he was being disadvantaged by the present situation. The fact that that court has admitted the case is the reason why this brief and easily understandable Bill is now before us.
That said, while the Bill itself is simple, the financing arrangements are not. There is a common thread. Transport operators should not be disadvantaged as a result of operating the scheme. That sounds quite simple. However, there are a number of problems in arriving at their actual costs. Those costs then fall with the local authorities concerned, which is where they arose. Local authorities have never found the revenue support grant to be an adequate and sufficiently precise means of distributing government revenues. Therefore, there may be a great deal to be said in the later stages of the Bill on that particular detailed front.
Behind the payment which local authorities make there are the annual negotiations of the costs to the operators. They are not straightforward. Although one is dealing with a 50 per cent concessionary fare, one asks, "50 per cent of what?" Every transport operator—bus companies or indeed railways, because on a local scale railways are involved, or London 938 Underground, and I shall turn to London in a moment—operates fare incentive schemes to try to persuade people to travel at times when the system is not under such great pressure. So one has annual negotiations at a local level with the transport operators and with local government, and, at a national level, with the Government. There is a great deal of opportunity for inaccuracy.
Unusually, too, as the Minister said, the Bill provides for something that is somewhat different. At present, concessionary fares are available to those drawing pensions or those who are disabled. That is straightforward. However, the Bill takes concessionary fares for the first time to a group of people who may be still at work. It is very easy—dare I say, facile—to describe the existing arrangements for calculating demand as rather erroneous, because if those people are at work they will be much greater users of the transport system than the people who at present are able to use it. To calculate the liability on the basis of existing practice, therefore, is potentially quite dangerous and would leave the local authorities with a shortfall of funds.
Perhaps one should think about that issue in a little detail. If concessionary fares are not available before 9 a.m. one might suppose that a good many people travelling to work would be excluded from a concessionary fares scheme. But those who have advised me tell me that that is probably not so. For a start, there are people in part-time work. That is a slightly reduced liability compared with that relating to those in a full-time occupation. However, there are people who work flexitime. If someone works flexitime he could probably travel using exclusively concessionary fares five days a week, week in and week out. Even if he could not use flexitime and get to work by travelling to work after 9 a.m. the matter is complicated because he could use a single fare for the outward journey and use the concessionary fare to return home. Therefore, there is a considerable problem with the calculation of funding.
One matter that we shall need to probe during the passage of the Bill is whether the arrangements for reviewing what actually happens are adequate so that if the Government's figure turns out to be greater than they are at present suggesting, there is some provision for recouping that sum.
I said that I would mention the situation in London. London is different because it has its own legislation on this. That requires not a 50 per cent but a 100 per cent concessionary fares scheme. Therefore, if the calculation is a miscalculation—I am first to admit that we need to prove that it is—the costs will be commensurately greater. The £50 million figure mentioned by the Minister suggests a London figure of about £15 million. The Association of London Government tells me that it thinks that the costs could rise as high as £28 million. That could ca use some difficulties.
There is yet another subject worth mentioning. I would welcome reassurance from the Minister on this matter. The judgment of the European Court of 939 Human Rights was that the arrangements made in this country to equalise the pension arrangements were not adequate. The original intention was that discretionary fares should be equalised between the sexes on the same basis as the pension arrangements are going to be equalised. If the European Court is admitting that at least there is a case to answer in relation to this particular point of concessionary fares, there must be a risk—I put the matter no higher than that—that someone might bring a case under the pensions arrangements. Is the Minister aware of any threat of any such action? If the noble and learned Lord is, that would concern me a great deal, as I am sure it would him.
My final point is that it is extremely tempting to go down a road which demands an hypothecated—if one wants to put it that way—specific grant from the Government precisely spread to local authorities on the basis of their actual expenditure; in effect, a national scheme. I return to the origins of this matter, which was local authority discretion. If we believe in local authorities and in local authority powers and independence, then I would regret a national scheme. I hope that the Government would regret one also. We must accept a certain amount of diversity in our community. Desirable though absolute equality might appear, communities should have a right to decide their own affairs. Therefore, although we need to make sure that what is done to aid this scheme and to help it forward is as precise as possible, I should regret any resulting suggestion that we should have a national scheme. I hope we shall not go down that path.
§ 3.38 p.m.
§ Baroness Scott of Needham Market
My Lords, at the start of the passage of the Bill, I declare an interest as a county councillor in Suffolk and also as vice chair of the Local Government Association transport executive.
I would like to thank the Minister for his introduction and welcome him to the House of Lords transport Mafia. After the marathon Bills to which the noble and learned Lord is accustomed, I expect that this one must feel like a stroll around the park. Nevertheless, I hope that the noble and learned Lord enjoys it.
Despite its modest size, it is an important Bill. It has the support of these Benches. Indeed, it would be extraordinary if it did not, given that we tabled amendments to the Transport Act last year aimed at doing exactly what is proposed—equalising the age of eligibility for concessionary fares. It seems like only yesterday—in fact it practically was only yesterday—and it is a pity that in a crowded legislative programme we have had to find time for this extra piece of work when we could have got it right just a few months ago. Local government is now faced with altering within a matter of weeks a scheme only recently introduced. I hope that perhaps a lesson can be learned. Certainly, when from these Benches we table amendments, they are intended not only to be constructive but are also based quite often on a great deal of experience. My 940 noble friend Lord Bradshaw who cannot be here today has a lifetime of experience in the transport industry and his input is very valuable. I should like to think that our amendments might not be treated so cavalierly in the future, but then I am an eternal optimist. One has to be to sit on the Liberal Democrat Benches.
As I said, we support equalising the ages for men and women in this regard and see no good reason why inequality should have been brought into new legislation when we have been slowly phasing it out. However, there are still some unresolved issues in the area of the new concessionary fares, and the Bill provides an opportunity to explore some of them. First, I wonder whether the Minister has had time to become aware of some of the significant structural problems facing the bus industry. Right across the country we are seeing large numbers of de-registrations of less commercially viable services, often in rural areas but not exclusively so. That puts pressure on local authorities to provide subsidies, either directly or through the Government's rural bus grant. The operating costs of buses are increasing way ahead of general inflation and in some areas chronic employee shortages are leading to significantly higher wage bills. Fuel bills are rising in the bus industry, as elsewhere, and so too are insurance premiums. There is a limit to the amount by which fares can be increased to counter those costs. We know very well that bus patronage quickly declines whenever fares are increased beyond inflation. I mention all those points because it does not matter how good the concessionary fares scheme is or who is eligible if there are no buses on which to use it.
Secondly, I should like to raise the issue of the cost of the concessionary fares scheme. The Explanatory Notes estimate that the Bill will add £50 million to the cost of the scheme provided in the Transport Act. Understandably, that is only an estimate and will be subject to variation according to take-up, fare levels and so on. At this stage we are not sure whether the costs incurred by local authorities through the 2000 Act will be fully met by the grant made. Early indications are that, even with the increased figure made available, the costs were underestimated. The significance is that the funding is to be made available through the standard spending assessment and revenue support grant. Therefore, any shortfall will be made up by local council tax payers or through reductions in other services. In response to a question I asked during the Committee stage of the Transport Bill, the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, agreed to keep the matter under review. I should like to ask the Minister—I shall understand if he cannot give me a detailed reply today but I would appreciate a response in writing—whether mechanisms are in place to review those costs.
A further area is worthy of discussion. The provisions of the Transport Act have given us a nation-wide set of schemes with a minimum standard. That is a welcome advance on the patchwork of schemes previously available but falls short of being a national scheme. Unlike the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, I should like to see a national scheme and I shall 941 explain why. Currently, the administrative areas are set on district council boundaries. But travel needs are not set in such a tidy way; and the kind of people covered are even more likely than the rest of us to require services such as hospitals, which often lie across county borders, never mind district ones. In some rural areas, and in parts of the patch I represent, the nearest bus stop may be in another district council area and therefore outside the scheme. I should like to think that we could move towards a genuinely national scheme, which would not only cross those borders but could be extended to other forms of travel, notably rail, and which would be cheaper to administer centrally. I know that it is an ambitious aim, but perhaps the Government are prepared to make a modest start by including in the guidance to local authorities the need to include essential services which lie across administrative boundaries.
In a similar vein, I should like to mention that some local authorities have always offered up to 100 per cent concessionary fares to blind and partially sighted people. There is a danger that in the future conformity with the 50 per cent concessionary fare could severely disadvantage that group. I wonder whether the noble and learned Lord can comment on that aspect.
Finally, I return to another matter which was the subject of one of our amendments during proceedings on the Transport Bill. I refer to the extension of the scheme to children and young people up to the age of 19 while they remain in full-time education. Our estimates are that this would cost approximately £50 million each year, a relatively modest sum for the potential benefits available. Young people deserve to have access to the services they need and the facilities they want. It is the other side to the coin advocated by the hard-liners. It is about understanding that the majority of teenagers are decent young people who simply want to be able to get out and about independently. It is the group that, sadly, is most vulnerable to road accidents, yet we positively encourage them into cars by ending cheap fares at such an early young age. On the same note, we should also consider whether it is wise to encourage car use among those who are forming the travel habits which will stay with them for life. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, was at least sympathetic when I raised the matter last year. I hope that we might progress from sympathy to action this year.
The role of the bus in developing a more sustainable transport network is just beginning to be recognised. If it is to fulfil its potential in this regard, there are wider issues which must be taken more seriously by the Government. I look forward to the Minister's response.
§ 3.45 p.m.
§ Baroness Hanham
My Lords, although my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith has already referred to London, as a member of a London local authority—the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea—I should like to concentrate on some of the issues in the Bill that will affect the capital's scheme.
942 There has been some talk about when the scheme started. I am sure the House will be aware that London has had a mandatory scheme of concessionary fares, paid for by individual London boroughs, since the passing of the London Regional Transport Act of 1984. The scheme, which was amended by the Greater London Authority Act, includes not only those of pensionable age but also anyone above the age of five who is blind or suffers from a disability or injury which seriously impairs his or her ability to walk. There is a secondary discretionary entitlement which my borough, among others, has adopted so that those with hearing difficulties or learning disabilities and the seriously mentally ill receive passes as well. The Transport Act 2000 extended those eligibility criteria.
As we have already heard, the London scheme is more generous than the statutory minimum 50 per cent discounted fares on local buses which the Transport Act 2000 introduced for the rest of the country as it offers free fares for all the eligible categories. The scheme is currently run on behalf of all 33 London boroughs by the Association of London Government, and the freedom pass entitles its holders to free travel on London Transport buses, the London Underground, the Docklands Light Railway, national rail services and the Croydon tram link. It consequently conforms with, but far exceeds, the statutory minimum requirements, introduced in the Transport Act 2000, of 50 per cent entitlement on just local buses. The current cost for London as a whole is some £150 million.
The provisions in the Bill before us today, which would give the concessionary fare entitlements to men of 60—many of whom, as my noble friend indicated, will be in work as they will not have reached the official age of retirement—will severely increase these costs. It is estimated that there are 141,000 men aged 60 to 64 living in Greater London. About 10 of those will already hold a disabled person's pass or other concessionary freedom pass, so the additional numbers in the scheme could be as many as 127,000. Demographic trends are likely to make those numbers increase. We have heard that —50 million has been set aside by the Government to cover the additional costs for the whole of England. However, as my noble friend said, it has been calculated that, because of the complexity of the compensation arrangements between the boroughs and Transport for London, an additional —28 million will be required annually by London alone.
As I have already said, the London mandatory scheme is for free fares on a variety of transport run by Transport for London, but the country-wide scheme is based on half fares on local buses. I ask the Minister today how he proposes under those circumstances that London should be compensated for the additional costs which will now arise. If that compensation is to be based on half fares on buses only, then either the boroughs are going to be faced with the possibility that the London scheme will have to be reduced to maintain affordability, or they are going to have to make decisions about other priority services in order to continue to support the freedom passes as now.
943 It is clear that London cannot introduce the option of giving men between the ages of 60 and 64 passes for half fares only since, at the very least, it would make the scheme cumbersome and could raise further issues about discrimination if women and the other groups currently receiving concessions were to continue to do so on the full fare basis. Indeed, the Minister probably acknowledged this point when he suggested that we might encounter some fun on the question of eligibility for men and women.
It is clear that this provision seeks to pave the way for the ultimate harmonisation of benefits for those of pensionable age. In order to do that, it envisages reducing the age of eligibility for men at a time when, as my noble friend has already indicated, they will still be at the height of their earning capacity and when their need to travel frequently in respect of that work is still a part of their lives. Their use of the concession will, in all probability, far exceed all other users.
Once the age has been harmonised at 60 years in respect of concessionary fares, it is intended that, in due course, both men and women will have that entitlement gradually raised—in tandem—to the age of 65; namely, from where the men are starting now. This is what I would call the "inside out umbrella" effect—what goes down must come up. One can only presume that external forces are at work here since the rationality of what is being proposed does not seem clear. However, whatever the reasons which have brought this about, I believe that the question of proper compensation for the London scheme has not been addressed adequately. I hope that, before the Committee stage, the Government will provide the answers to some of the problems that I have raised.
Finally, from London's point of view, the date of implementation of any changes is crucial. In order to keep costs to a minimum, the freedom pass is issued every two years. The next date when this will be done is 2002. If London is to meet that timetable, it will need to hold discussions with the transport operators and advertise the extensions to the scheme by December this year. If, as has been suggested, implementation is to take place in 2003, then other arrangements will have to be made. Either implementation in London will have to be delayed until 2004 or London will need to incur the extra costs of issuing passes in 2002 for one year only. This is another matter which it would be helpful if the Minister could take on board and respond to with an answer in due course.
§ 3.53 p.m.
§ Baroness Wilkins
My Lords, I join with many organisations in the disability field in warmly welcoming this Bill, which will equalise the age at which men and women become eligible for concessionary bus travel. In particular, the Royal National Institute for the Blind believes that this will benefit many thousands of men in their early sixties who may be losing their sight but who have not yet been identified as being blind or partially sighted, or who are unwilling to define themselves as such.
944 I wish to concentrate on the points already raised by the noble Baronesses, Lady Scott of Needham Market and Lady Hanham. The RNIB is concerned that the legislation may lead inadvertently to a reduction in the travel concessions which are currently available to blind and partially sighted people and other disabled people of working age.
As a result of the Bill, an extra 1 million men will become entitled to half-price bus travel. The estimated cost to local authorities is £50 million, which will be reimbursed by the revenue support grant. What concerns the RNIB is whether this represents a realistic assessment of the level of subsidy which will be required. If the eligibility extension is not properly funded, it will jeopardise the more generous concessionary fare schemes for disabled and older people which are currently operated by some local authorities and which the Government have said that they wish to encourage. Local authorities will simply reduce their provision to the minimum required by law.
That is precisely what is happening in many authorities falling within CENTRO—the West Midlands Passenger Transport Authority. Before the Transport Act 2000, which established the national minimum half-price bus travel concession for disabled and older people, along with a £50 million subsidy, a number of these authorities provided blind people with free travel on public transport.
For example, visually impaired 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.
Not surprisingly, blind, deafblind and partially sighted people living in Birmingham have been extremely distressed by this move. Four out of five are unemployed and have a range of visual impairment-related costs which disability living allowance does not begin to meet. If they cannot afford to get out and about, this will have a damaging impact on their health, independence and well-being. Other disabled people, who currently pay £13 every four weeks for unlimited travel, will also be hit by a £146 a year increase. In total, around 6,000 blind and disabled travel pass holders will be affected.
Birmingham City Council argues that it has had to pare down its provision for disabled people to the minimum because the costs of funding the subsidised travel passes have increased dramatically as bus operators have more than doubled their charges. It should be remembered that local authorities must reimburse bus companies for revenue forgone so that they are neither any worse nor any better off as a result of participating in concessionary fare schemes.
What is the reaction of my noble friend on the Front Bench to the situation in Birmingham and its potential impact on the mobility and quality of life of disabled 945 people in that area? Can he say whether any further subsidies will be provided to protect the position of blind and other disabled people currently benefiting from more generous travel concessions in this and other areas? Furthermore, can he give the House an assurance that sufficient subsidy will be provided so that the extension of eligibility proposed in the Bill will be funded in such a way so as not to lead to cuts in the existing provision?
§ 3.58 p.m.
§ Lord Swinfen
My Lords, I should declare an interest in the provisions of this Bill. Although currently I am not old enough to benefit from the provision of the proposed age-related travel concessions, by the time the Bill has been enacted, I will be. I was going to speak about the blind, but the noble Baroness, Lady Wilkins, has already done so for the House. She has spoken far more eloquently than I would have done, so I shall shorten what I have to say, which I hope will be of benefit to the House as a whole.
I hope that the Bill will encourage more people to use public transport. But where is that to take place? It will be of very little benefit to those who live in rural areas. That is because of the paucity of public transport provision, in its volume, the range of its routes and the hours of operating. Furthermore, I wonder whether the change from having most shops situated in the centres of towns, where people used to shop, to large supermarkets and hypermarkets on the edge of our towns, very often served by little public transport, does not mean to say that many people must use a car out of necessity in order to do their shopping. If elderly people live, as I do, a mile and a half from the nearest available public transport, it is hard to imagine them—even with a travel concession—walking home on a dark evening, in foul weather, carrying all their shopping. They will not use it.
There will be a number of people, mainly men—all men, in fact—over the age of 60 and below the age of 65 who will be working and eligible for the concession. I wonder whether the tax authorities will consider this to be a benefit in kind and that such men will have to pay tax on it. Can the Minister assure the House that that will not be the case until such time as the pension age is equalised and men and women retire at the same time? The noble and learned Lord may feel that he cannot tie the hands of his right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but we should be given some assurance on that point.
The noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market, suggested that the scheme should be extended to young people to keep them away from private cars. But the noble Baroness lives in the country and she knows that young people need to get home after they have been out and that public transport does not run. So it will not work there. However, the suggestion is well worth looking at in greater detail because if we can get people into the culture of using public transport it will benefit the nation in the future.
Today, we all drive around in our own cars because it is so much more convenient. I know that I live way out in the country, but it is quicker to get to the House 946 by private car than it is by using public transport. It also means that I can leave the House when I am ready and not when the train wants me to board it, and I can remain in the House for a Division or to hear the contribution of a particular Member of the House.
My noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith suggested that we should have local schemes and the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market, suggested that we should have a national scheme. I am sorry that my noble friend does not agree with me, but I believe that the noble Baroness is right, for the simple reason that many people making journeys of any considerable distance cross many local authority boundaries and county boundaries and move from one kind of transport to another.
The system seems to have become very complicated. It would be better if we were in a position where we could buy one ticket to take us straight from A to Z, rather than having to buy a ticket from A to B, B to C, C to D and so on, at possibly different concessionary rates all the way through. We should keep the system as simple as possible. The more complicated we make it, the more likely people are to use private vehicles rather than public transport.
§ 4.4 p.m.
§ Baroness Greengross
My Lords, I am grateful to your Lordships for giving me the opportunity to take part in the debate. I have been working abroad and my name was not on the list of speakers.
I welcome the Bill to equalise the age and eligibility for travel concessions. I have long campaigned for equality, especially on the ground of age but also on the ground of gender, which is what this particular inequality relates to primarily.
But there is still much work to do, for example, for British pensioners who retire overseas to be with family or friends and then find their pensions dwindling away; or for an older person who wants to take advantage of lifelong learning but cannot do so because he or she happens to be over 50. There are many such examples.
It is a shame that the Government have managed to bring the Bill forward only when forced to do so by court action. I have a lot of personal experience of the time and the money that has been wasted by the noble and learned Lord's predecessors and, more importantly, by their departments, which have obstructed this issue over the past decade. The legal costs alone have been enormous.
This points to the failure of governments, across all departments, to take action and to change a policy at the right time—that is, when it is the right thing to do—rather than when they are forced to do so. That is a shame because the credit has to be given to the quite small organisations which have raised the matter—in this case PARITY—outside Whitehall.
In the last Session, during the passage of the Transport Act 2000, we tried to persuade the Minister's predecessor that the Government should take action on this matter. It is a little frustrating that we were ignored then only to be proved right now.
947 The Bill has an enormous drawback for older women. In Clause 1(4), reference is made to the Pensions Act 1995, which will equalise the state pension age at 65 between 2010 and 2020. I am not opposed to this. I believe that much more flexibility has to be introduced because of the rise in longevity. Artificially-set state retirement ages are too rigid for the new society that we are entering. People may want to work longer—60 is not old—and one may have more adult life after the age of 60 than before. That is not unreasonable to suppose and I hope that more people will have a working life beyond the age of 60.
But I am concerned that the Bill is being presented as something more than it really is. It benefits men aged 60 to 64 only for seven or eight years, until 2010. The press release on 28th June makes no mention of this rather crucial fact, other than in the notes to editors at the end. That is a shame. The press release states that,current law means that reduced travel fares would not be equalised until 2010 at the earliest".In fact, it will be 2020 before they are equalised at 65. The press release goes on to say that,The new bill is fairer ensuring that at least one million more men will enjoy reduced travel fares".That is very welcome to the people who will benefit, but it does not say that between 2010 and 2020 all women who turn 60 to 64 will lose this benefit, and that men will have to wait until they are 65, as now.
Perhaps I may ask the Minister a straight question. He may prefer to write to me as this is also the responsibility of many other Ministers. Do the provisions of the Pensions Act 1995 mean that the current eligible age of 60 for benefits such as free entry to museums, free prescriptions, free eye tests, the winter fuel repayment and a reduced TV licence fee in sheltered housing will also rise to 65 between 2010 and 2020? Crucially, also, is the same true of the minimum income guarantee, which now applies from age 60?
If the eligible age increases to 65, I am sure that there will be an uproar from older people. If it remains at 60 for these benefits and concessions, one has to ask why the travel concession is treated differently. If it rises to 65, the Government must give a clear statement of why. The demographic revolution and the unprecedented increase in longevity must inevitably lead to changes in public policy. These changes must be made clear, otherwise it will be a case of over-selling in the same way as the story about the travel concession was oversold.
As has been said, the travel concession applies only to local bus journeys. It is very welcome, but many older people want the concession to apply more extensively—for crossing boundaries and so on—and that is why we tried to amend the Transport Act last year.
I refer finally to a fundamental issue affecting women who will be aged 60 or under in 2010. I earnestly hope that the Government have learnt the lessons of the inherited SERPS disaster or scandal. I know that not enough women are aware that state 948 retirement age for them will increase from 60 to 65 between 2010 and 2020. If in addition they are to lose the benefits that I have mentioned, I hope that the relevant departments—mainly the Department for Work and Pensions, but also the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions—will be honest enough to say so well in advance.
No one can hide from the implications of policy decisions. By the same token, the Government need to be absolutely clear in introducing these policies. Since 1997 the situation regarding travel concessions has not been clear; older people have become angry on finding out what is really the case. It is one of the reasons why people become disillusioned with politics altogether.
Despite my concerns about the process of delivering policy change, I strongly welcome the Bill to equalise travel concessions and congratulate the Minister on introducing it in this House. Discrimination on grounds of age or sex or any other basis is, after all, unacceptable.
§ 4.11 p.m.
§ Baroness Hamwee
My Lords, as my noble friend Lady Scott said, we on these Benches welcome the Bill—although I echo the comment of the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross: it is a great pity that it took an application to the European Court to concentrate the Government's mind. I declare an interest as vice-president of PARITY, the organisation that supported the individual who made the application. I take the opportunity to pay tribute to the doggedness of that organisation. As with so many voluntary bodies, it comes down the work of a tiny handful of people. I also pay tribute to the gentleman concerned. It takes a lot of bottle to go through such an application if you are not used to legal procedures—indeed, even if you are. I declare a further small and indirect interest as a member of the Greater London Assembly. I shall not set out the reasons why that might be an interest; it just might.
Because the Bill is so welcome, I ask the Minister immediately whether he can tell the House when he expects its provisions to commence in England. I appreciate that there will be a different arrangement in Wales. Not unnaturally, the campaigners hope that, as they put it, justice will not be delayed and that the Bill's provisions can come into effect within the next two or three months. Those of us who are familiar with parliamentary procedures realise that it will take at least until November or December for the Bill to complete its passage through both Houses of Parliament. However, it would be helpful to hear the Minister's response.
What consultation have the Government had with local authorities—in particular with the local authority associations? In the light of comments by the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, will the Minister meet the Local Government Association and the Association of London Government to discuss the difficulties if that is their wish? I suggest that such a discussion should take place before the Bill has completed its stages in 949 this House. It is a good deal easier in the calm atmosphere of this place to deal with alterations, either on the face of the Bill or in terms of any underlying scheme or regulations.
The noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, said that the cost could be £50 million and that we may have to disprove that figure. I take issue with him on the responsibility to disprove it. It must be kept under review and scrutinised by all involved. While referring to figures—merely so that Hansard gets it right—I should perhaps mention that the briefing I have received from the Association of London Government suggests that it is not "10 men" in London, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, said, who hold a disabled person's freedom pass; it is 10 per cent of men. There was some slight confusion. I am not trying to trip up the noble Baroness; I merely want to put the figure into context.
My noble friend Lady Scott talked about the problems with the current scheme. In London we have rather more provision than the Minister suggested; namely, we have a statutory provision for concessions to travel to places in the vicinity of greater London. During our debates on the previous Bill it was recognised that a journey does not stop naturally at the boundary of greater London. If statutory amendment is required for travel outside greater London, let us take the opportunity in this Bill to deal with such an alteration.
The London scheme, as has been said, extends to more than buses; there is a huge variety of modes of travel in London, which is a complex city. However, it is not the only place where buses are not the only method of travel. The other city that I know moderately well is Manchester, where the light-rail Metrolink is a very useful mode of transport. Encouraging the use of public transport by making changes between modes of transport easy is a point that we must always bear in mind.
Returning to the question of cost, we must be careful that the concessions do not lead either to a reduction in service or to a reduction in other local authority services as a result of local authorities carrying the cost. As my noble friend said, we need buses to be there for the scheme to work. As a member of the Greater London Assembly, perhaps I may briefly "plug" some recently published work highlighting the need for investment in the bus fleet. It points out the need to modernise bus stops, so that they have telephones attached 10 them, and so that they provide public information about when the bus is coming that is accurate and easily understood. They might even—if one dare mention such a thing—have toilets attached to them: if passengers have to wait, let it be made comfortable for them. We must also ensure that bus drivers, who are a part of making the city work, are retained in their jobs. That is a question of money too. It seems that a large number of bus drivers, having learnt their skills at the cost of the bus operators, then go off and drive white vans—which may be why they use bus lanes so often to park!
950 The noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, referred to an effect like an "inside-out umbrella". As the public begin to realise the implications in this and other areas as we move towards equalisation of the retirement age, this legislation will be a small piece in a very complicated jigsaw. However, I strongly agree with the comment of the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, about the context of the Bill. Its provisions are relatively limited but they are extremely important in setting us off on a road of equality which is at least as important as making sure that people move to public transport.
§ 4.19 p.m.
§ Earl Attlee
My Lords, this is, indeed, a simple Bill: it is all about sex equality. I shall not detain the House for very long because other noble Lords have made excellent speeches, and I certainly cannot match their expertise. Before putting down my name to speak on any Bill or in any debate, I consider whether or not I have an interest to declare. On this occasion, it occurred to me that I shall be in a position to benefit from this Bill in about 15 years' time. That observation will obviously annoy many noble Lords: but it terrifies me when I think about my rapidly advancing years.
The noble Baroness, Lady Wilkins, apparently made the substantive point of my noble friend Lord Swinfen for him; and he, in turn, made mine. My noble friend Lady Hanham spoke about the London perspective, while other noble Lords raised the issue of cost uncertainty. We know that a million men may benefit, and that they could be economically active. The Minister said that their inclusion could cost £50 million, but he did not sound certain in that respect. He does, however, always sound confident.
In conclusion, we generally welcome this Bill, while sympathising with the Minister's position vis-à-vis the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, and her amendment to the Transport Act 2000. It must be very galling to introduce a Bill which will have the same effect as the noble Baroness's amendment; and, indeed, for the same reasons. We look forward to debating some interesting amendments to the Bill at a later stage.
§ 4.21 p.m.
§ Lord Falconer of Thoroton
My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who took part in the debate. A few days ago I introduced the Commonhold and Leasehold Reform Bill. On that occasion, the Liberals referred to me as joining the group of housing "nerds" in the House, whereas today they welcome me as having joined the "Transport mafia". So there is much to be said for this particular job.
Perhaps I may run through what I believe to be the important points in the debate. The noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, and, to a lesser extent, the noble Baroness, Lady Wilkins, raised the question of cost. The underlying questions were: how will this cost be calculated; what about the particular position of London; and will other services suffer? As regards the costs, local authorities will have to reimburse the bus operators for 951 any additional costs incurred. In turn, local authorities are entitled to be reimbursed by central government for the additional cost of complying with this change in the law. That reimbursement will come from the revenue support grant, which is reviewed each year when the standard spending assessment is considered and the settlement agreed. My department keeps a watching brief on the costs involved, but local authorities must bid for funds as part of the normal settlement process.
We have already consulted local government associations. I am very aware that the ALG has particular concerns in this respect, and that its estimate of the costs differs from that of the department. A meeting is to take place this week to discuss the issue. As mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, another deeper issue is involved; namely, whether 100 per cent or 50 per cent will be reimbursed. In the circumstances, I believe that the less I say about that the better at this stage. I believe that such a conversation should take place between the ALG and officials. We can then see what progress can be made in that respect. I understand the importance of the costs issue; it is one that must be addressed. However, that should not detract from the fact that, in principle, the Bill before the House is a good one.
Save for the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, I detected from what most speakers said that the Bill is broadly welcomed. The noble Lord speaks on behalf of the Conservatives, but it was impossible to tell from his remarks whether or not they welcome the Bill.
As regards the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Scott—
§ Lord Dixon-Smith
My Lords, the noble and learned Lord tempts me to rise to my feet. When the Government are operating under force majeure, it is rather difficult to make up one's mind whether one should welcome the Bill or sympathise with them in their predicament. I thought it better, therefore, to hold my peace.
§ Lord Falconer of Thoroton
My Lords, that rather confirms what I said; indeed, we still do not know where the Conservatives stand in relation to the Bill. We shall no doubt find out during the course of the Bill's passage through the House.
If I may say so, the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, displayed commendable self-restraint. At no stage in today's debate did she say, "But I introduced a similar amendment under a previous Bill", whereas the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, mentioned the fact that the provision was previously proposed.
I turn to the important issue of travel outside a local authority's area. The example that the noble Baroness gave of hospitals being located outside local authorities' boundaries is a good one. As the noble Baroness knows—indeed, she specifically pointed this out—under their discretionary powers local authorities can make arrangements with neighbouring 952 authorities and offer concessionary travel beyond their own boundaries if they so wish. This concession has already been made available in certain areas.
We believe that local discretion is important in relation to the issue of cross-boundary schemes, and where local authorities acting singly or jointly are best placed to meet the needs of their elderly and disabled citizens. The noble Baroness made the specific suggestion that we should give some thought to updating the guidance to deal with the situation, which I shall certainly consider.
The noble Baroness, Lady Wilkins, supported by the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, raised the question of free fares for the blind, and specifically drew my attention to the position in relation to Birmingham. The Transport Act 2000 guarantees half fares for the elderly and disabled on local bus services. As the noble Baroness acknowledged, that is an improvement on the previous, rather piecemeal, situation. It is important to remember that it is the minimum and that local authorities are free, if they so wish, to offer greater concessions to other categories of people; for example, blind people.
In practice, the extra cost of complying with the legislation will be met out of the revenue support grant. Therefore, this Bill should not endanger any existing concessions. As for the contention that this provision will bring into the costing equation a cohort of men who work, I can tell noble Lords that that is right in the sense that the retirement age for men is 65 and this provision will apply to men between 60 and 64 years of age. Although the retirement age for women is 60, it is true to say that many women over that age continue to work. Therefore, it is wrong to say that a person has to be retired at present in order to gain the benefit under the Bill. The "pensionable age" is simply the starting-point for gaining the benefit available under the Bill.
The points made about how many men in the cohort of a million would be likely to take advantage of the benefit are also important. It seems to me that that leads us to the conclusion that we need to be most careful in working out the best way to monitor the use of the benefit so as to ensure that local authorities and bus companies are properly reimbursed.
A number of other points were raised, with which it would not be appropriate for me to deal at this stage. It is obvious to me that the Bill has broad support. I hope, therefore, that we can work through it as quickly as possible. However, I should perhaps deal with the timing of this provision's introduction. The noble Baronesses, Lady Hanham and Lady Scott, specifically asked when this benefit would be introduced. We trust that it will be introduced as soon as possible. We shall, of course, take into account the kind of points that have been raised during the course of today's debate. We very much hope that it will be introduced no later than April 2003. I commend the Bill to the House.
On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.