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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill): Local authorities in England spend more than £390 million on concessionary bus fares each year--money largely funded by central Government. The local government finance settlement for 2001-02 takes account of local authorities' responsibilities in this area. In particular, we have injected an extra £54 million to cover the additional costs of introducing the mandatory half-fare scheme for pensioners and disabled people under the Transport Act 2000.
Mr. Marshall: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Perhaps this is a rare occasion. May I congratulate the Government on the implementation of another election pledge--namely the introduction of mandatory concessionary fares. Will my hon. Friend tell the House how many pensioners and disabled people are likely to benefit directly as a consequence of the scheme? For the information of the House, can he also tell us the view of the Tory Opposition on the scheme when it was debated in the Standing Committee?
Mr. Hill: I am extremely grateful for my hon. Friend's congratulations. Our mandatory concessionary travel scheme will guarantee at least half fares on local buses for pensioners and disabled people. The bus pass will be free of charge. Where more generous schemes are already in place, they will, of course, continue. The scheme will come into effect from 1 April in Greater London and from 1 June in the rest of England. We expect about 5.5 million pensioners and up to a further 1.5 million disabled people to benefit from the new arrangements.
Notwithstanding the Conservatives' new-found passion for pensioners, it is worth recalling that the Conservative party voted against the scheme. The scheme will be especially welcomed by pensioners in those Conservative- controlled authorities where, until now, there have been no concessionary fares schemes at all.
Mr. Don Foster (Bath): Given that we read in the newspapers today that the Government are keen to outlaw age discrimination, will the Minister explain why the Government want to continue the discrimination whereby a man has to wait until the age of 65 to receive a concessionary bus pass even though a woman receives one at the age of 60? Is the Minister aware of the case before the European Court, and of the fact that he only has until next week to make a decision on whether to contest that case, at great expense to the Government, or to accept that, on entitlement to bus concessions, there should be equality for men and women at age 60?
Mr. Hill: The Government certainly are aware of the Matthews case, which is before the European Court, to which the hon. Gentleman alludes. We are considering the implications of that case and our response.
Mr. Vernon Coaker (Gedling): Will my hon. Friend endeavour to speak to Tory-controlled Gedling borough council, which, despite the extra money that we have put into the half-fare scheme, has decided to axe the full-fare pass scheme for pensioners from April 2001? Will he do all that he can to get Tory-controlled Gedling borough council to change its mind because thousands of pensioners in my constituency are outraged at the fact that the council is receiving extra money but choosing to axe the full-fare scheme?
Mr. Hill: My hon. Friend makes a powerful case in condemnation of that Tory authority. I very much hope that that Tory authority will understand the force of his representations and the passions of local pensioners. It is an absolute outrage that Tory-controlled Gedling borough council has abolished the full-fare pass for pensioners from 1 April 2001.
Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset): The Minister has visited Purbeck on several occasions. I wonder whether he will have a word with the treasurer of Purbeck district council, who tells us that the bus concessionary scheme that it is being forced to introduce, which is very welcome to Purbeck pensioners, will put their council tax bills up by as much as 17 per cent. Will he please look at where the money has gone to, because it certainly has not arrived in Purbeck to pay for the scheme?
Mr. Hill: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for drawing my attention to the situation in Purbeck. My presumption is that, heretofore, Purbeck has not provided such a concessionary fare scheme. The reality is that, although the Government, by allocating £54 million extra to local authorities, has made a proportionate allocation to each authority to allow it to introduce the scheme, those Scrooge authorities that heretofore have not had such a concessionary fare scheme will have to bear some pain in the process. However, the hon. Gentleman should think not only of the implications for the local ratepayers, but of the wonderful opportunities that will be opened up to pensioners in that locality.
The Minister for Local Government and the Regions (Ms Hilary Armstrong): Local strategic partnerships will provide a single, overarching local co-ordination framework, which will enable local stakeholders to address issues that really matter to local people. They will prepare and implement local community strategies and local neighbourhood renewal strategies. They will allocate neighbourhood renewal funds, which have now doubled to £200 million for next year, and rationalise local partnerships, working to deliver better services.
Mrs. Humble: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. She can be assured that the additional £6.5 million of neighbourhood renewal funding allocated to Blackpool over the next three years will be very warmly welcomed by my constituents. Will she confirm that the successful existing partnerships that Blackpool council has developed can form the basis for the new local strategic partnership, so that that very welcome additional investment can be effectively targeted for the benefit of my constituents?
Ms Armstrong: I congratulate my hon. Friend on her commitment to ensuring that the deprivation is effectively tackled in Blackpool, and, indeed, elsewhere. This Government have recognised the importance of effectively targeting deprivation, wherever it arises. I assure my hon. Friend that local agencies should seek to build on the local arrangements that have already worked well, rather than starting again from scratch. As cross-sector, cross-agency umbrella partnerships, LSPs offer real opportunities to streamline existing partnership arrangements and to make them more effective, by making better connections between individual initiatives.
Ms Armstrong: I am very sorry that the hon. Gentleman was not able to hear because of the way in which his colleagues on the Front Bench were behaving. We are establishing local strategic partnerships throughout the country. Each local authority is working out how it can most effectively develop a strategic partnership that has an overview of the whole area, and really ensure that it identifies the strategic priorities, who will work on them and how they can ensure that services work much better in their areas. I am sure the hon. Gentleman supports that objective.
The Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. John Prescott): The Government are keen to encourage the new United States Administration to engage constructively on climate change. We have supported the deferral of the next round of talks by a few weeks to give them more time to prepare. I shall be taking every opportunity to raise the issue with the United States, including at the G8 Environment Ministers meeting in Italy next month. I have also asked
Mr. Williams: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister for that informative reply. The United States Administration asked for the resumption of the talks in Bonn to be postponed. What can we read into that? Are they dragging their feet, or does Colin Powell, the new Secretary of State, need more time to prepare the new Bush Administration's case on global warming?
Mr. Prescott: My interpretation of the events is that the United States could have attended the conference in May and refused to co-operate with its objectives. The fact that the Administration have asked for more time, are seriously considering the issue and are appointing new officials to negotiate on their behalf is a hopeful sign, and I am forever optimistic in such matters.
Mr. Prescott: Anything that encourages people to make a better environmental contribution, including the greater use of environmentally friendly fuels, is to be encouraged. Tax arrangements which are dealt with by the Chancellor, are also important. We are making headway in such matters.
Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford): Will my right hon. Friend consider early-day motion 232 on climate change, which has been signed by 122 Members and which welcomes the e-campaign T.5.20? Does he agree that a country with 5 per cent. of the world's population that produces 20 per cent. of the world's greenhouse emissions has a particular responsibility to get its policy right? Giving it a little more time is probably appropriate in this case.
Mr. Prescott: It is right to give everyone an opportunity to meet the objectives to which they signed up as part of the Kyoto agreement. Indeed, the recent UN conference in China on climate change revealed new and stronger evidence to show that global warming is continuing to increase and to have an effect on the environment, and that it is created by manmade activities. We are all beholden to take steps to reduce such activities.
Mr. Damian Green (Ashford): It is instructive that Labour Back Benchers wish to express their suspicions of a new American Administration who have been in office for fewer than three weeks, rather than performing the role of the House in holding our Government--in this case, the Deputy Prime Minister--to account. The right hon. Gentleman led the European negotiators at The Hague with such diplomatic finesse that, when the talks failed, he characteristically blamed everyone else and his colleague, the French Minister, said that