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4.37 pm

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): Like the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles), Liberal Democrats welcome the Bill and will not seek to divide the House this evening, or whenever the opportunity arises.

Let me begin by saying in a friendly way to the Minister that it is a pity, given the crowded legislative programme, to have this legislation before us. The Government were given an opportunity in February of last year to put this matter right. During the Committee stage of the Transport Bill I moved amendments that would have had the same effect as this Bill. When I did that on 29 February, the then Minister, the hon. Member for Streatham (Keith Hill), said that he recognised the strength of feeling about the issue and claimed that his ministerial postbag

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Unfortunately, having thought hard about it, he decided to do nothing and the problem remains.

The Government had a further opportunity to act before drafting this Bill. As a result of the endeavours of the excellent organisation, Parity, a case was brought before the European Court of Human Rights. The Government were told that Mr. Matthews case had been deemed to be admissible and they had to decide what to do. I was a bit disappointed in the Government's treatment of the issue. I looked back in Hansard and saw that on 13 February this year, when I asked the Government what they would do about it the same then Minister said:

I was delighted that they did not think very long about it. Only three days later, at the Labour party conference in Glasgow, the Deputy Prime Minister said:

It is slightly odd that the Deputy Prime Minister did not point out that this was being forced on the Government. It was not something that they had done of their own volition and could have done several months earlier. Notwithstanding all that, I am delighted that at last the Government have seen sense, many months later than might have been the case.

Like the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar, I, too, have concerns about three issues, and I hope that we will have an opportunity to debate them in Committee. First, the Minister will be aware of concerns among local government associations that the Government's current estimates of the likely additional cost of this measure may be inadequate. I am delighted that the Government have given assurances that there will continue to be consultation on these issues. Like the hon. Gentleman, I accept that there is a problem in that we do not have an effective set of data to use as a starting base from which to make comparisons of future costs. However, it is vital that the Government stick to their assurance and allow for continuing consultation on costs.

The hon. Gentleman said very eloquently that there are many examples of local authorities having to make cuts in other concessionary fare schemes as a result of introducing new ones. He referred to examples in London, the west midlands and Lancashire. I am sure that many hon. Members will have seen those and other examples in the briefs that have been prepared in advance of this debate. Introducing one set of concessionary fare schemes must not lead to the abandonment of others that have been considered very necessary in supporting people of various groups.

Secondly, there is the opportunity to widen the scope of the categories of people who could be helped through concessionary fare schemes. Like many other people on both sides of the House, I am concerned about the situation in our educational system. One in two young people at the age of 16 gives up the opportunity to continue with any further education and, when questioned, a large proportion of them cite the cost of transport as

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one of the key reasons for giving up further educational opportunities. Given that we are all desperately keen to see an increase in educational opportunities for that age group, I hope that we will use the Bill to address one of the barriers—the cost of transport—to opportunities for further education.

The third issue, raised by the hon. Gentleman, is cross-boundary travel. I received a briefing from Age Concern which expresses the problem succinctly. It says:

I recognise that the Government, too, wish to make progress in developing a national scheme, examining all the various schemes that currently exist and finding ways of establishing more integration between them.

I welcome the Minister's announcement that we have at last found a way forward in respect of national coach travel. He said that there would be a Government quid pro quo in relation to availability of a fuel duty rebate to fund that, but I hope that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions will tell us a little more about how she expects the scheme to operate. To whom, for instance, should an individual apply? I am not talking just about applications for tickets; what will be the source of the recompense? Will it come from local authorities, or will there be a nationally funded scheme whereby individual coach operators go directly to the Department for any recompense that is not covered by the availability of fuel duty rebate? This is, however, a move in the right direction.

I feel that there is further work to be done in Committee on the three issues of funding, the widening of the scheme to other groups—particularly young people—and its extension to cross individual council boundaries. Nevertheless, like the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar, we welcome the proposals and look forward to making more progress in Committee.

4.46 pm

Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy): I welcome the Bill with open arms. I can tell the Minister that many of my constituents who have been writing to me about the issue for some months will also welcome it, as, no doubt, will others throughout the country.

Will the Minister clarify one point? If the National Assembly for Wales wants to bring the scheme forward to, say, April 2002, will it be able to do so? That is important, because the Assembly may want to introduce such schemes before other parts of the country. That is what devolution means.

4.47 pm

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): I echo my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) in confirming that Her Majesty's Opposition strongly support this relatively straightforward measure, which arises from the Matthews case, which was taken to the European Court of Human Rights.

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Like the hon. Member for Conwy (Mrs. Williams), I should like to know when the Minister expects the measure to come into force. That is important, especially in relation to London. As she knows, the two-yearly scheme in London must be renegotiated at the beginning of 2002, and that poses a particular problem for the capital. If the Bill comes into operation before the end of this year, London will be able to incorporate it into the new scheme that starts in 2002; otherwise, it will have two options. Either it must pay for the additional scheme for a year, or the operation of the scheme will be delayed until 2004. I hope that she can clear that up. It is in everyone's interests for the Government to push the Bill through so that it can come into force by the end of this year, and the additional 1 million or so people who will benefit can do so in 2002 rather than 2003.

I calculate that the Government already invest, or propose to invest, some £571 million in concessionary schemes of one kind or another. Under the Transport Act 1985, which gives local authorities quite wide powers of discretion, they spend £440 million, and £54 million under the Transport Act 2000. As I understand it, this Bill will cost £50 million in England alone, and another £15 million in Scotland and Wales. With the fuel rebate scheme that the Minister for Transport mentioned today, which has an estimated cost of £12 million, the total Government spend on concessionary travel is £571 million. As I understand it, 7 million people— 5.5 million pensioners and 1.5 million disabled people—benefit from concessionary travel, and the Bill's proposed scheme will make another 1 million people eligible. The Government are therefore operating a very considerable concession.

I should like to examine commuting, who will benefit from the new concession and when they will benefit from it. Last year, my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) promoted his Road Transport Bill which, had the Government accepted it, would have allowed one local authority's concession scheme to operate in another local authority's area. Such an arrangement seems only fair. If the Bill is to establish a national scheme, each local authority's scheme should operate in other local authorities' systems. I hope that the Minister will address that.

The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) asked about the scope of the Bill, which will clearly apply only to those who travel between 9 am and 11 pm. It seems likely that those who work flexi-hours and particularly those who have reached more senior posts towards the end of their working lives will be able to take advantage of the scheme. Will the Minister therefore say something about reimbursement of local authorities, such as those in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar, that face a burden because of considerably increased usage? I am glad that Ministers will consult the Local Government Association and the Association of London Government, but will they consider that issue carefully?

We all know about the anomalies that arise when any grant is distributed through the standard spending assessment via the rate support grant. Although I know that the Government are committed to distributing the concession outlined in the Bill by means of those mechanisms, I do not know why they cannot directly reimburse local authorities on the basis of concessionary journeys made, tickets issued or schemes implemented, so

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that no local authority will be out of pocket. What do the Government plan to do if a local authority can prove—clearly, it would have to do so retrospectively—that it is considerably out of pocket because of the skewing effect of the SSA system?

Further to my hon. Friend's comments on the law of unintended consequences, will the Minister tackle the postal code lottery? On the Bill's Second Reading in the other place—I believe that this is precisely the type of example that my hon. Friend had in mind—in describing the situation for visually impaired people in Birmingham, Baroness Wilkins said:

Instead of having something for a relatively nominal fee of £18.70, they face considerably increased costs. She went on to say that, not surprisingly, blind, deaf and partially sighted people living in Birmingham had been much distressed by the move. I hope that the Government will encourage local authorities to use their discretion and ensure that existing schemes can continue.

It is high time that we in this House ended the postcode lottery of Government money. If the Government offer a scheme on transport concessions, health or anything else, it should be offered to everybody in the country equally, and not on the basis of postcode.

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