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Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest): The hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Moore) spoke of a certain type of discrimination. Although I do not agree with what he said, I see the point that he was making; but I want the Minister to clarify the position relating to a different type of discrimination involving concessionary fares.

Clause 124(1)(a) makes it clear--although I appreciate that there has been no argument about this tonight--that eligible journeys are those between places in a particular travel concession authority area. That is a reasonable point, but I want to ask the Minister about his attitude to people who are in the position of my constituents who live on the edge of greater London. The area referred to, for their purposes, will be Epping Forest or, perhaps, Essex, but not Greater London.

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It so happens that most of my constituents who live on the London-Essex border find themselves in an inequitable position. No, iniquitous. Well, an unfair position. [Laughter.] It is awfully late; "inequitable" will do.

I know of a case in which the border between Essex and London falls in the middle of a semi-detached house. The pensioner living on one side of the border receives concessionary fares, while the one living on the other side does not. The pensioner who does not receive the concessionary fares is the fortunate one, benefiting--owing to living in my constituency in Essex--from all that Epping Forest district council and Essex county council can provide. I appreciate that the responsibility falls on the local authority as well as the Government to arrange these matters, but I ask the Minister to tell us how the Government view the inevitable unfairness.

I have received many letters from constituents. In their 1998 White Paper "New Deal for Transport: Better for Everyone", the Government announced:

Only a few months ago, the Deputy Prime Minister made an announcement to the House--in his last transport statement: the one that did not really say anything that he had not said before--that gave the distinct impression that the Government would fund concessionary fares. Pensioners in my constituency who do not benefit from concessionary fares were extremely pleased about that, and wrote to me in droves saying how wonderful the Deputy Prime Minister was to do this. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) says "Vote Labour". I am glad to say that last week people did not do so. It is clear why they did not, and I will tell him why. [Interruption.] I am sorry. I thought that it was the hon. Member for Bath who said "Vote Labour". Anyway, a Liberal Democrat Member said it. It is a slight change from last week, when Labour Members said "Vote Liberal". Of course, we are becoming used to that: we understand the anti-Conservative alliance, and the reason for it.

12.15 am

I will not stray from the point, despite the lateness of the hour. I ask the Minister to confirm that my constituents have been misled in thinking that the Government were going to fund their concessionary fares. The Deputy Prime Minister got a lot of credit for what he said but he did not mean it. He wanted my constituents to believe that they would benefit considerably from concessionary fares. It now appears that they will not do so. It is a genuine question. I ask the Minister to comment on it.

Mr. Peter Atkinson: At this late hour and briefly, may I press the Minister on the unanswered question that was left over from the Committee when we dealt with concessionary fares: what happens to those authorities that have a token scheme? All this relates to bus or rail travel and to half-priced concessionary fares, but nothing has been said about people such as my constituents who have no access to bus or rail travel.

My local authority, properly, operates a token system because that is fair to all pensioners, regardless of whether they have access to bus or train travel. Many pensioners

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in country areas who cannot travel by bus save their tokens and then take taxis to and from the shops because that is the only way that they can travel.

What the Government propose, with money to be put into the scheme for half-price travel, leaves such other schemes high and dry. The Minister said nothing in Committee about what will happen, who will fund those other schemes and how a token scheme will be funded once the new scheme comes in. I hope that, in the last minutes of our debate, he might be able to answer the question that has been troubling pensioners in my constituency.

Mr. Hill: I shall deal first with amendment No. 300. I fear that we find it technically rather strange. Clause 124(3) already provides--I hope clearly--for an individual elderly person to opt for an alternative that the local authority might provide, rather than the statutory minimum. We included that provision because we entirely recognised that some local authorities run schemes based on tokens--exactly the point that the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson)--

Mr. Jenkin: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Hill: Let me at least tell the hon. Gentleman why we find it a strange amendment and then he can intervene.

We were aware that some local authorities, as the hon. Member for Hexham has pointed out, run schemes based on tokens, which may be used on taxis as well as on buses. Such schemes may be particularly valued by elderly people, even if they do not technically conform with the statutory minimum.

Mr. Jenkin: My amendment provides for someone who uses a scheme that is provided not by their own transport authority--their local authority--but by a consortium of transport authorities, or a passenger transport authority.

Mr. Hill: Let me continue with my explanation of the difficulties that the Government have with the amendment.

To add a provision for an elderly person to be able to opt for an "equivalent" scheme seems to add nothing to the clause. Indeed, the amendment brings in a problem: who is to decide what is "equivalent"? That seems a strange and difficult judgment. It would not be fair to anyone for the Bill to impose the task on them--although another problem with the amendment is that it is silent on who is to decide equivalence. The statutory minimum is what the Bill says it is. The clause allows an individual to opt for an alternative if they prefer it. That seems to provide all reasonable flexibility. Therefore, I do not feel able to accept the amendment.

Amendment No. 146 would equalise the age at which men and women become eligible for concessionary fares. Currently, eligibility is tied to pensionable age, with women qualifying for the state pension at 60, while men have to wait until 65. The hon. Member for--I am delighted to have the opportunity to pronounce this wonderful constituency name--Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Moore) has expressed very well the view

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that the age at which people qualify for concessionary fares should be the same for men and for women, and that the common age should be 60, not 65. I certainly acknowledge that view.

I have to say, however, as I said repeatedly in Committee, that I believe that there is another view. It seems to me that it is not unreasonable that the age at which one becomes eligible for financial benefit in the form of a pension should be the same as the age at which one becomes eligible for financial benefit in the form of reduced bus fares. That raises the further issue of whether it is right for that age to be different between men and women. Again, however, I have to give the same reply that I gave in Committee: the issue has been addressed by Parliament, and legislation has already been passed to equalise the two ages.

Mr. Don Foster: It is the same speech.

Mr. Hill: If the hon. Gentleman protests that that is word for word what I said before, let me add a different word. If the hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale really profoundly disagrees with the proposition that a bus pass should be available at the same time as other benefits to senior citizens, it is up to him and other Liberal Democrat Members to seek to introduce other legislation to equalise--

Mr. Foster: That is what my hon. Friend is trying to do.

Mr. Hill: No; Liberal Democrats should introduce a general provision. We are talking about provisions that would apply across the board and not simply to the exceptional case of bus passes, and equalisation of the two ages would have to be done in primary legislation. The Government stand by the fact that the Pensions Act 1995 states quite clearly that the common age for men and women alike will be 65, and that that will be phased in in 2010 and 2020. In the light of that legislation, I really do not feel that I am able to accept amendment No. 143.

I should deal with the issues raised by the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing), who dwells on the edge of London. The concessionary fare laws have always been based on the principle of local authority discretion. I am not persuaded that that is so wrong. Local authorities are best placed to take decisions on local transport.

The hon. Lady also raised the funding issue. We have certainly said that local government will be reimbursed by us for the costs of the statutory minimum.

I am afraid that that is all rather bad news for Opposition Members.

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