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I congratulate the Government on many of the measures and the assistance that they have so far provided for pensionersfor example, the minimum income guarantee, the increase in the basic state pension, the £200 winter fuel payments, and the free television licences for all those aged 75 or over. In my view, that last measure should be extended to all pensioners. I shall continue to pursue the matter with support from hon. Members on both sides of the House. It is important that there should be equality between all pensioners.
I welcome also the free pass that entitles all pensioners to half-price concessionary travel on buses, which was introduced in 2001. However, many pensioners are dependent on public transport and live on extremely limited incomes. Transport costs take a significant part of pensioners' disposable income. The need for free public transport is important, especially if one lives outside town areas and in remote villages, where the costs are even greater. There are areas that have never benefited from municipal transport, and we have always been envious of towns that had that facility. Unfortunately, that benefit did not extend to most parts of Lancashire.
The need for free concessionary pensioner travel has been recognised in Scotland and Wales and in many metropolitan areas within England. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister is well aware that in Wales concessionary fares are within the remit of the Welsh Assembly. We welcome the Assembly's efforts on behalf of pensioners. It was after the 1999 elections that the Assembly decided to adhere to the decision that it would bring free travel into Wales in April this year. It is important that from April this year a pensioner can travel on buses throughout Wales. That is something of which we are envious in England.
I look to Scotland, where Fife has always allowed free travel for pensioners. Strathclyde has low travel costs. Scotland now has the ability to consider the introduction of free travel for those who are blind, disabled or pensioners. Once again, we must recognise that the poor relations will be English pensioners.
London is a good example of somewhere which offers something positive to pensioners. The standard concession in London for elderly, blind and disabled people crosses 33 boroughs. The scheme provides for free travel for pass holders on buses, the underground, the docklands light railway and other rail services. Free travel is available on buses from 9 am to 3 am the next day from Monday to Friday, and at any time on Saturday, Sunday and public holidays.
Free travel on railway services in the London area is available from 9.30 am from Monday to Friday until the last train at any time on Saturday, Sunday and public holidays. Once again, that is a benefit for pensioners within London.
Greater Manchester adjoins my constituency, which is in Lancashire. There, we look across the border with envy because although Manchester does not offer free travel to pensioners, it offers travel all the way across Greater Manchester at a cost of only 40p.
Mr. David Crausby (Bolton, North-East): My hon. Friend will know that I represent a Greater Manchester constituency, albeit on the northern fringe. My constituents have concessionary travel, but effectively in only a southerly direction. If they lived in the centre of Greater Manchester, they would have concessionary travel in all directions. Does my hon. Friend agree that even within Greater Manchester there is still a postcode lottery?
Mr. Hoyle: I recognise that. My hon. Friend makes a valid point. He represents a constituency that is on the edge of the area. He has Lancashire to one side and Greater Manchester on the other. I understand that there is a lottery in terms of where a person lives in Greater Manchester, and I appreciate the importance to his constituents of ensuring that there is free travel and doing away with the 40p charge. However, I am still envious of what my hon. Friend's constituents enjoy. At the same time, I am aware that if they travel towards the west, the east or the north, they will suffer from the problem of paying much higher fares.
Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): As the hon. Gentleman knows, I represent a Cheshire constituency to the south of Greater Manchester. My constituents feel aggrieved that they cannot benefit from the 40p charge to which he referred. If there are to be concessionary fares for the retired, they should be universal throughout the United Kingdom and not available, in the main, only to those who live in metropolitan areas. Does the hon. Gentleman, for whom I have great regard, agree with me?
Mr. Hoyle: The point of this debate is to ask for universal free travel throughout the United Kingdom; that is the starting point, and we have got to ensure that that happens. I shall look at the interest expressed by the hon. Gentleman; his constituency is near to mine and he could probably enjoy the benefit of free travel so, of course, I take his concern to heart.
I shall talk about Greater Manchester for a little longer. Perhaps the Minister will consider a 40p charge for people in Lancashire as a stepping stone. Free travel is obviously a major step, but a concessionary fare would be welcomed by many pensioners who do not have the benefit of city schemes. Free travel would be welcomed by 15,500 pensioners in my Chorley constituency. Concessionary schemes are excellent, but we must bear in mind the costs borne by pensioners in towns such as Chorley, even with the half-fare pass. Pensioners in Chorley still have to make a difficult choice; they can have a half-fare pass, but it cannot be a combined pass for rail and busit is one or the other. That is sad; we should aim for the goal of schemes which cover any form of public transport.
I have been approached by many pensioners who are concerned about the cost of travelling by bus and train, particularly when they hear that friends and family who live in Greater Manchester receive good treatment compared with the people of Lancashire. Better rail concessions are needed. Once again, there are varying rates for pensioners, depending on where they live. In London, travel is free; in Manchester, it is 40p. We can do much more to end those anomalies for pensioners.
Given the Government's commitment to an integrated transport system, it would make sense to introduce competitive concessionary rates or, if not, off-peak free travel for pensioners; we should aim to move towards free transport and introduce a combined pass for pensioners so that they can switch between rail and bus. If we are to encourage people to use public transport, we must make it easy for pensioners to use a combined pass that would allow them to travel anywhere on any form of transport; we must achieve that objective. For all those dependent on public transport, travel often involves using more than one form of transport and changing buses, which is costly with a half-price pass.
I am aware that my proposals would be expensive, with a possible additional cost of £300 million if free transport were introduced. However, as I have said, it could be introduced in stages over a number of years; the money would be well spent and the initiative would be welcomed throughout the United Kingdom. At the end of the day, off-peak free travel would not cost very much. We subsidise many of those routes; off-peak trains and services are empty. Why not make a start and allow free off-peak travel for all pensioners throughout the UK? We should consider the benefit of doing so.
In conclusion, we can see the benefits of free travel for Londoners; in April, free bus travel across Wales will be introduced. Cities throughout England have various schemes. My hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Laxton), when leader of Derby city council, introduced free bus travel in Derby. However, Derbyshire has only half-fare passes, which is anomalous; there is struggle between the country and the city, which we must resolve. Surely it is time to ensure that villages enjoy the same benefits as cities and towns. They miss out on many opportunities, but we have a chance to take a positive step towards equality.
I find it interesting that the Government say that they will give the private Member's Bill on age equality a fair wind, but once again we see that there is no equality for pensioners. There ought to be equality for pensioners and we can make a start tonight. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will take on board a lot of what is said and give it a warm welcome. A great deal could be done for very little money and, by working through the Minister's good offices and through the Treasury to consider funding, we could achieve a better quality of life for all pensioners throughout the United Kingdom.
We must emphasise there should be equality for all pensioners, whether they live in Wales, Scotland or England. As a start, they should have the benefit of free off-peak travel or a limited Greater Manchester-type 40p scheme, but let us ensure that we head towards free concessionary pensioner travel.