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Mr. Clifton-Brown: Who one elects to one's council is also important, and local authorities have discretion. Here we have a Government scheme that is fettering local authorities' discretion because councils will not have the money to offer such schemes in the future.
Are the Government happy that the scheme will absolve Northern Ireland, which, as the Minister mentioned, will equalise the age for the scheme at 65? That seems to be unfair to women. If women in Great Britain can take advantage of the scheme at 60, why must the women of Northern Ireland wait until they are 65?
It was unfortunate that Mr. Matthews had to go to the European Court of Human Rights to bring about this proposal. We are living in an age of increased equality and I hope that, in future, the Government will think more clearly and get the elementary things right before they rush legislation through the House. The hon. Member for Bath was right to point out that Liberal Democrat amendments tabled on a previous occasion would have avoided the need for us to discuss this measure this afternoon. When Opposition parties table amendments, I hope that the Government will consider our opposition with the depth and purpose that it deserves.
Nevertheless, 1 million people will benefit from the proposal and will be grateful to the Government for what has happened in the House today. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure us that the scheme will come into operation at the end of this year, so that those 1 million people will be able to benefit next year instead of in 2003.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Ms Sally Keeble): I welcome this brief yet interesting debate on this short but important Bill. The level of interest in the Bill in the Chamber does not reflect that outside the House. I agree with the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) that given the gender and age profile of Members of Parliament, one might have thought that the Bill would have been of more interest to them. I assure him that I will be up with him collecting my pass.
Concessionary fares are of major interest to a wide range of people outside the House, as is reflected in the constant letters and queries on the subject. Some controversies have been discussed this afternoon, such as the concerns raised by people from the Isle of Wight, Birmingham and the west midlands and elsewhere.
The Government have made it clear that local authorities' discretion is not fettered by previous legislation. We strongly encouraged local authorities to maintain their existing programmes and not to reduce their schemes because of legislation. Reductions in Birmingham and the west midlands have been discussed, but I understand that Birmingham city council has agreed to revert to its original scheme and pay for free travel through a free bus pass for blind residents, although other disabled residents receive a slightly less generous concession.
Anxieties have also been raised about Greater Manchester. The Department's advice makes it clear that it can continue with its previous schemes. Representatives from the area will meet me to discuss some of their concerns. We are anxious to ensure that councils maintain their existing schemes.
Mr. Pickles: Will the Minister confirm that the holder of the social services portfolio in Birmingham's cabinet is so worried about lack of adequate funding for the concessionary fare scheme in Birmingham that he fears that he may be forced to cut blind people's free travel again?
Hon. Members asked several other questions, which I shall try to answer before concluding with some general remarks. We were asked about cost. The total cost of implementing the Bill is expected to be approximately £50 million, but there will be careful discussions with local authorities about that. The hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar is right that the way in which the grant is provided to local authorities will have to be carefully calculated.
Hon. Members asked about cross-border travel. Again, it is up to local authorities to work together to provide schemes that are valuable to local residents. Nothing prevents them from making arrangements with each other to fulfil the travel requirements of their local residents. We urge them to do that.
The hon. Gentleman claimed that he thought of the scheme first and that we could have implemented it some time ago. He has made such comments before. For many years, entitlement to concessionary fares has been linked to the state pension age: 60 for women but 65 for men. It was expected that the age would gradually equalise at 65 by 2020 under the Pensions Act 1995. Parliament has therefore already legislated on age equalisation.
During the progress of the Transport Act 2000, we were aware of claims that entitlement to concessionary travel was unfair on the ground of gender. However, given that age entitlement for concessionary fares has been questioned again, and the strength of feeling about the matter, it is right to introduce this small but important Bill to equalise the age of entitlement earlier than 2020. I hope that hon. Members, including the hon. Gentleman, will accept the measure in the spirit in which it is intended.
Several hon. Members raised the serious issue of why concessions cannot be provided for everyone, but it is not possible; they must be targeted. Bus transport is one of the main means of overcoming barriers to work or attending hospital appointments and we need to ensure that people are not disadvantaged because of lack of access to it. The Government are especially concerned about that issue, and that is why we recently introduced the urban bus challenge, following the introduction of the rural bus challenge programme, so that we can find ways to target bus services at those people who need them. The lack of bus transport must not prevent people from leading normal lives or, especially, young unemployed people from finding work.
Several hon. Members asked about schemes in the devolved areas. In Wales, a half-fare scheme was introduced on 1 April 2001. The intention is to follow that with a Wales-wide free travel scheme, funded by the Welsh Assembly, at a further cost of £21 million a year, starting in April 2002. Equalisation for eligibility for travel concessions is expected to start at the same time as in England in April 2003, and I hope that that information satisfies my hon. Friend the Member for Conwy (Mrs. Williams).
In Northern Ireland, a Province-wide scheme is run by the Government. It allows half-fare travel for elderly and disabled people on bus and rail services, with no charge for the pass. It is also intended to introduce free travel for pass holders from April 2002.
Ms Keeble: Decisions of that sort are for the Assembly to make. One of the consequences of the devolved Assemblies is that they will on occasion take decisions that differ from the ones that we take here. In Northern Ireland, eligibility for travel concessions is already equalised at 65.
I think that I have answered most of the questions raised in the debate. The Government are committed to fighting social exclusion and to ensuring that all elderly people can take advantage of discounted travel. Extending the advantages to men aged 60 to 64 will help to achieve that goal. The Bill is a straightforward measure that will enable a further 1 million men to take advantage of concessionary travel on top of the 7 million elderly and disabled people who are already entitled to cheaper fares. The Bill will bring to 8 million the number of people who will benefit from statutory travel concessions, which means that at a minimum they will pay half-price bus fares with no charges for the pass. It will be a big help to many pensioners.
Ms Keeble: I have already dealt with some of those issues. The Bill first has to go through Parliament, and we are in the hands of various peopleincluding the Conservativeswhen it comes to the passage of legislation. We must also resolve several issues with local authorities about the implementation and costs of the scheme. However, whenever it comes in, it will be a big help to the many pensioners who cannot afford to use public transport to get out, to visit friends and relatives, to go shopping or to get to medical appointments.
The Bill underlines the Government's commitment to fighting social exclusion, promoting equality and, in particular, improving the lives of older people. I believe that it will be widely welcomed by people throughout the country. I commend it to the House.