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Mr. Byers: My hon. Friend is right to point out the importance of the channel tunnel rail link phase 2. He will be aware that it is a good example of how a special-purpose vehicle can be used effectively. The project is on time and is under budget, and we are confident that it will proceed. It will be unaffected by the changes made as a result of Railtrack going into administration.

My hon. Friend asked me to give assurances to the people of north Kent and east London who want the channel tunnel rail link to proceed. I can give them the commitment that they want: the project is moving ahead; it is on time and on schedule; and we look forward to receiving the benefits of that investment.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): As co-chairman of the all-party railways group, I put it to the Secretary of State that in all his statements on this sorry fiasco he has sought to define three separate categories. He has mentioned the travelling public and employees, and has exhibited his and his Back Benchers' visceral hatred of shareholders and the private sector. However, he has failed to understand that much of the travelling public and an even greater proportion of the employees are shareholders. Will he answer the specific allegation that his inaction between the end of July and early October created a false market in Railtrack shares? He misled shareholders and, in particular, did not discharge his responsibilities in the last week? Having talked about his three Rs, he should add a fourth—his resignation.

Mr. Byers: The decision was taken on 5 October not to provide additional funding for Railtrack. As a

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consequence, Railtrack could not cover its debts because it could not control its costs. It would be interesting to know what approach the hon. Gentleman would have taken. On 25 July, I received information in confidence from Railtrack's chairman that unless it received more Government money it would not be able to make a going-concern statement on 8 November. Would the hon. Gentleman have expected me to tell Railtrack's shareholders of that on Monday? Clearly not.

There is a conflict in the Conservatives' approach. Information is given to a Secretary of State in confidence, which he abides by and respects, and he discharges his legal duties up to 5 October. Why did not the chairman of Railtrack ensure that his shareholders knew that without extra Government money he would not be able to make a going-concern statement? That is what the hon. Gentleman needs to answer.

David Winnick (Walsall, North): Should not my right hon. Friend be grateful to the Opposition for raising this subject? It constantly reminds the public of the disastrous privatisation of the industry, the misery that has flowed from it and the vast sums of public money that have gone into private pockets. If I were Secretary of State, I would suggest that the Opposition continue to raise it time and again.

Mr. Byers: I am more than happy to discuss the way forward for the railway industry. As I think I said in my statement on 15 October, the circumstances of Railtrack going into administration are regrettable, and no one will celebrate them. However, now that it has happened, we have a golden opportunity to create a railway network fit for the 21st century. The real challenges lie ahead. We have to put in place changes to franchising, the structure and regulation to ensure that the railway system can respond to the new pressures and demands of the time. That is exactly what we intend to do with the new opportunities that are available to us.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker: Order. We must move on.

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Orders of the Day

Travel Concessions (Eligibility) Bill [Lords]

Order for Second Reading read.

4.13 pm

The Minister for Transport (Mr. John Spellar): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Chamber is slightly quieter and less crowded than when I addressed it a couple of weeks ago.

The Bill is straightforward. It has a single specific purpose—to equalise the entitlement to concessionary travel for men and women at the age of 60. It will bring to some 8 million the number of people who benefit from the Government's statutory requirements for travel concessions.

Concessionary fare schemes offer cheaper travel on public transport for people who are economically disadvantaged, and demonstrate our commitment to fighting social exclusion. The Government are committed to ensuring that bus travel in particular remains within the means of those on limited incomes and those who have mobility difficulties.

Legislation requiring local authorities to offer a minimum of 50 per cent. reductions for elderly and disabled people on local buses came into force earlier this year. Those changes are benefiting 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 64 will be able to share the benefits of concessionary travel, bringing the total number of people who benefit to about 8 million.

The provision for travel concessions is at present in the Transport Act 1985, the Greater London Authority Act 1999 and the Transport Act 2000. As I said, local authorities in England and Wales must arrange for elderly and disabled people living in their areas to receive a half-fare concession or better on local bus services—those within the local authority's area—subject to the person obtaining a 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, such as local trains, metros, ferries or the London underground. They may also provide concessionary travel outside their boundaries if they wish. Indeed, many local authorities offer concessions on other modes of public transport and fares cheaper than half price, or they join to offer an area-wide scheme—an obvious example of that is London. However, authorities must not offer a scheme providing less than the half-fare statutory minimum.

David Winnick (Walsall, North): The Bill raises an important point for the west midlands. I certainly welcome what my right hon. Friend is introducing, but as he knows, since he is a fellow west midlands Member of Parliament, the region has a totally free bus scheme, which pensioners are keen to keep. We hope—I am sure that he agrees—that there will be no undermining of that scheme, which has been in operation for some time?

Mr. Spellar: As my hon. Friend is aware, all that the legislation provides, which is important in many areas of

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the country, is the statutory minimum. It is open to local authorities to provide more than that, and, as he rightly says, the west midlands has been doing so for a considerable period. I know that he has been an extremely worthy exponent of the advantages of the scheme and the mobility that it gives elderly and disabled people in the region. He is aware of the commitment of local authorities in the west midlands to maintaining that scheme.

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): I was a little surprised to hear the Minister mention ferries. I understand that there is an issue concerning any crossing of the Solent except by jobseekers and some hospital patients. Will he clarify that specific matter?

Mr. Spellar: It is open to local authorities to offer further concessions. The matter raised by the hon. Gentleman may need to be discussed with the local authorities involved—presumably, Isle of Wight unitary council and Hampshire county council—but, following his intervention, I am certainly happy to have a look at it.

At the moment, entitlement to travel concessions for elderly people is linked to pensionable age, as defined in the Pensions Act 1995. That means that women may take advantage of concessionary travel schemes offered by their local authority at 60, but men must wait until their 65th birthday to do so. There is of course no age barrier to entitlement to concessionary fare schemes for disabled people. Given the opposition to current legislation, which discriminates on the ground of gender, we have decided to end the anomaly. In this Bill, we are therefore legislating to equalise entitlement at 60. We expect the provisions to take effect from April 2003 at the latest.

Under the provisions of the Pensions Act, pensionable age will start to equalise from 2010, so that by 2020 both men and women will receive state pensions at age 65. Clause 1(4) provides reserve powers for the Secretary of State or the National Assembly for Wales to restore the link to entitlement to concessionary fares with that to state pensions. Should orders be made under that power—in 2010 at the earliest—the age of entitlement to concessionary travel for both men and women would similarly rise to 65 by 2020.

The Bill will not create new concessionary fare schemes. Local authorities will have to adjust their concessionary fare schemes to broaden entitlement to men aged between 60 and 64, but we envisage that the additional administrative burden on local authorities of issuing passes will be minimal.

Reimbursement arrangements under existing legislative provisions mean that the financial impact on transport operators will be neutral. 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. Calculation of the level of reimbursement by local authorities may take into account increases in the number of passengers travelling—the so-called generation factor. Those reimbursement arrangements are well tried and tested, and we do not foresee any difficulty in administering or operating the increased entitlement.

There is no doubt that concessionary fares are expensive. In England, local authorities currently spend £440 million each year on their schemes, and extending

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eligibility to men aged 60 to 64 might cost an additional £50 million a year in England. That will be a new cost to local authorities and additional funding will be made available through the revenue support grant in the normal way as part of the local government finance settlement.

In terms of territorial extent, the Bill applies to England and Wales. The National Assembly for Wales has its own commencement powers. Concessionary travel is devolved to Scotland and separate legislation to equalise entitlement is making progress there. In Northern Ireland, entitlement is already equalised at 65.

As a further measure to tackle social exclusion, I take this opportunity to announce our agreement in principle to a proposal under which coach operators would offer half-price fares to older and disabled passengers on long-distance scheduled coaches in England; in return for the fare concessions, operators would, for the first time, receive fuel duty rebate. That was recommended by the Commission for Integrated Transport. After discussions with the Treasury, we are responding to that recommendation. Many older and disabled people rely on coaches to travel long distances, especially to maintain family links, so I am sure that they will welcome a free pass entitling them to half-price fares.

The Bill is a small but important measure that will ensure that men and women receive the benefits of concessionary travel without discrimination. That will be welcomed by an additional 1 million elderly people and, I hope, by the whole House.

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