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Mr. Hill: I begin my response by congratulating you, Madam Deputy Speaker, on your elevation to your distinguished office. I am sure that I speak on behalf of all hon. Members present in extending those congratulations and felicitations.
Let me deal with the point raised by the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake), with whom I expect to have a number of exchanges until a relatively late hour this evening. He raised the ability of quality partnership schemes to stipulate minimum frequencies. The matter has been debated thoroughly, and the hon. Gentleman would certainly have known that, had he been present during those long but stimulating 87 hours in Committee. The matter was debated at length during proceedings on the Bill in both Houses. I can only say that nothing has persuaded us to change our views.
If the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Executive have reached a different conclusion on the matter, so be it. That is democracy and, dare I say it, devolution. We believe that it would be a mistake to go down that road. As I have said repeatedly, it would blur the distinction between quality partnerships and quality contracts and it would give rise to potential legal and practical difficulties.
I turn now to the question of competition issues, which was raised by the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms). I hope that he will forgive me if I read the words before me with some care, as these are delicate issues with many implications. It is therefore necessary to get the matter exactly right--not something for which I am always noted.
The Government believe that there has been unnecessary anxiety about the potential impacts of the Competition Act 1998. Officials have discussed the point with the bus industry and local government representatives, and have sought to give reassurances. However, if it will help the hon. Member for Poole, I am happy to put the matter on record, although I fear that it may prove to be a little technical.
In short, the issue is whether, in spite of the special competition test provided for in schedule 10, a strategic quality partnership scheme could constitute an agreement that could be prohibited under section 2(1) of the Competition Act 1998. Our considered view, which is shared by the Department of Trade and Industry and the
In such circumstances, the authority would simply be exercising public law powers in the public interest. We know of no case where the exercise of public law powers of that nature has been held to amount to economic activity.
In addition, to argue to the contrary, it would be necessary to demonstrate that the 1998 Act is not disapplied by the Bill. However, in the event that I am wrong in my interpretation--and that the 1998 Act would otherwise apply--it is our belief that the effect of schedule 10 is to disapply it. That schedule expressly gives the Director General of Fair Trading powers of investigation and decision in respect of quality partnership schemes, in circumstances where the 1998 Act would otherwise apply. It would be odd indeed if the general provisions in the 1998 Act were to operate alongside the special provisions in schedule 10.
The Office of Fair Trading, whose view that is, has made it clear that it does not expect to proceed under the Competition Act 1998. All things considered, therefore, we believe that any fear of duplication can effectively be discounted.
The hon. Member for Poole asked about through ticketing. I can tell him that the Office of Fair Trading is still taking forward its examination of block exemption on ticketing agreements between operators. I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman, and deals with his concerns.
Lords amendment: No. 81, in page 80, line 25, leave out from ("Any") to ("subsection") in line 36 and insert
("person to whom a current statutory travel concession permit has been issued by a travel concession authority and who travels on an eligible service on a journey--
(a) between places in the authority's area, and
(b) beginning at a relevant time,
is entitled, on production of the permit, to be provided with a half-price travel concession by the operator of the service.
(2) A travel concession authority must, on an application made to it by any person who appears to the authority to be an elderly or disabled person residing in its area, issue to the person free of charge a permit, in such form and for such period as the authority considers appropriate, indicating that he is entitled to the concession specified in subsection (1).
(2A) In this section "statutory travel concession permit" means a permit issued pursuant to subsection (2).
(2B) The Secretary of State (as respects England) or the National Assembly for Wales (as respects Wales) may issue guidance to travel concession authorities to which they must have regard in determining for the purposes of subsection (2) whether a person is a disabled person.
Mr. Hill: These amendments concern the statutory minimum concessionary fares scheme under clauses 133 to 139. The main effect is to extend the half-fare concessions to people defined as disabled, and to empower the Secretary of State or the National Assembly for Wales to issue guidance in connection with eligibility, to which authorities must have regard.
The Bill, as originally introduced, applied the statutory minimum scheme to elderly people only. Amendments were agreed in another place to extend the mandatory concessions to disabled people, and that extension has been widely and warmly welcomed. It will mean that up to 1.5 million disabled people will benefit from concessions, in addition to the 5.5 million pensioners who were previously eligible.
In extending the scheme to disabled people, the amendments do two things. First, they refine previous statutory definitions of the various categories of disability, in the interests of consistency and clarity. Secondly, they provide for the Secretary of State to issue guidance on eligibility for concessionary fares, to which local authorities must have regard. This provision follows representations from both local government and members of DPTAC--the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee--to the effect that such guidance would be helpful to those implementing the new requirements at the local level. The amendment requires that guidance should be subject to prior consultation, and we shall be circulating a draft in due course.
It may be helpful if I say a word about the funding implications and about bringing these provisions into force. During our discussions with the local government associations, it was put to us that the amount of funding we proposed to provide was inadequate to cover the likely costs of the scheme. We have listened to what was said. We have looked again at the figures and in the light of those representations, we are now proposing an annual injection of £54 million into the revenue support grant, which will be distributed to local authorities in the normal way.
We believe that this is a fair settlement, based on the best information available. It represents a further £7 million a year on top of our previous estimates of £47 million a year to offset the additional costs to local authorities. However, I assure the House that we will keep these matters under review in the light of early experience with the new scheme.
We also recognise that there are timing constraints in bringing this new scheme into force, not least for those local authorities that have no concessionary travel scheme at present or will need to make changes that require them to give the statutory four months' notice to the bus operators. Our present intention, therefore, is that the requirement outside London to offer half-fare concessions should not be commenced until 1 June 2001. Again, we expect to be consulting local authorities on that very shortly.
We believe that that should allow sufficient time to put the necessary arrangements in place. Equally, many authorities should be in a position to bring in the concessions sooner, and we would encourage them to work with bus operators to do so. The funding adjustments to revenue support grant will be in place from 1 April.
I should stress that we have sought throughout to take into account representations received from local government and DPTAC, and to respond to what all those people have said to us. We believe that the result is a better, more generous scheme, and I commend the changes to the House.