'(4A) Subsections (1) to (4) above shall not affect the operation of any travel concession scheme more generous than that provided by section 145(1) (mandatory concessions outside Greater London) of the Transport Act 2000 and by section 242 (requirements as to scope of concessions which must be given if free travel scheme is not to have effect) of the Greater London Authority Act 1999 as amended by section 151(12) (concessions inside Greater London) of the Transport Act 2000.'.
The amendment follows on logically from the important discussion that we have just had about the cost of the Government's proposals. The Liberal Democrats welcome the broad thrust of the Bill and, like the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), we wish it good speed and a speedy implementation. Like the hon. Gentleman, I am conscious, however, that action on this issue should, and could, have been taken sooner. Indeed, during the passage of the Bill that became the Transport Act 2000, I moved amendments that would have had exactly the same effect that this Bill is intended to have. In other words, the matter could have been done and dusted more than two years ago, and it is a great pity that we are still here debating it.
I want to express my gratitude to the Minister because in speaking to the previous amendment she almost made my case for me, and in a moment I shall quote her remarks in support of this amendment. When the hon. Member for Cotswold spoke to the previous amendment, he referred also to a new clause that was related to it but had not been selected. For ease of understanding, I shall follow the hon. Gentleman's sensible precedent, because I tabled new clause 2 as well as amendment No. 4, and the new clause succinctly expresses the intention of the amendment. It states:
If the money provided by the Government to recompense local authorities in the manner described by the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) and others is not sufficient, they may have little choice but to make up that deficit by removing money from more generous schemes already in existence. During our discussion in Committee, hon. Members gave examples of schemes that are already under threat and considerable concern was expressed on both sides of the Committee about the possible demise of more generous schemes. It was because of those concerns that Lord Falconer made his remarks in the other place.
As I said, the Minister has made it abundantly clear that she, too, is concerned about that possibility. She also made it clear, however, that there is uncertainty even as to the level of funding that the Government will have to provide to meet their existing promise. The debate on the previous amendment dealt with the rights and wrongs of the method of dividing up the pot, but there is still a debate to be had about whether the pot itself is large enough.
In the earlier debate, the Minister said that it was her understanding that debates between her officials and the Local Government Association about the funding that might be required were so successful that the difference between them had been whittled down from millions of pounds to a small amount. She later told us that the additional burdens imposed as a result of the Bill would be round about £50 million. That is worrying. We were told earlier that the figure might be £54 million and that discussions with the Department continue. I hope that when the Minister responds to the debate she will tell the House the precise amount that the Government believe is necessary collectively to compensate local authorities for the imposition of the new burdens.
Mr. Foster: The Minister made that absolutely clear earlier, and I entirely accept that we are now discussing the size of the cake rather than how it is divided up. As I said, I am concerned that the cake may not be big enough fully to recompense councils collectively, and that may lead to some councils dropping more generous schemes. I come now to the point that the mechanism for distributing the cake will, according to the Minister herself, have an impact on a number of local authorities who already have more generous schemes.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: In my opening remarks on the previous amendment, I alluded to concerns about the total cost of the Bill. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is aware of the LGA briefing prepared for Members of Parliament. It states:
Mr. Foster: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and he reminds us that there are two stages to the process. First, the Transport Act sensibly introduced a statutory minimum requirement, which placed burdens on local authorities. As he said, discussions continue as to whether local authorities are being properly recompensed by the Government for those burdens. Secondly, we have the Bill, which could have been incorporated in the Act but was not. It will place an additional burden on local authorities, and discussions continue about the collective cost of that to local authorities who run such schemes.
I hope that the Minister will at least make it clear to the House where we stand with the negotiations on the costs that specifically relate to the Bill, but if she can provide any additional information about continuing discussions on the costs of the original legislative requirement under the Transport Act 2000, I am sure that the House will be pleased to receive it. However, as I have said, the problem is not only that the cake may not be enough, but that the method of dividing the cake may put pressure on certain local authorities that already operate generous concessionary schemes above the
The purpose of the amendment is to ensure that we state clearly in the Bill that nothing will reduce the quality of existing services, whether mandatory or non-mandatory. The Minister referred to several places where that may be the case. She said that Merseyside, the west midlands and Reading were most likely to be put under pressure as a result of the Government's proposals. There will also be additional pressures in London. Reference has been made already to the generous freedom pass scheme that operates in London, and there is much discussion about the operation of that scheme. I have recently corresponded with organisations that are genuinely concerned that, in an attempt to make eligibility for the freedom pass scheme uniform throughout London, several local authorities are tightening up the criteria so that some people, especially disabled people, are losing out.
The London scheme is more generous than the legislative statutory minimum requirement, so a larger number of men in the 60 to 65 age group will benefit from it and an additional cost will have to be met to pay for those people who have been added to the more generous scheme. Does the Minister genuinely believe that the additional costs in London, the west midlands, Merseyside, Reading and many other parts of the country have been taken into account in the sum that will be provided?
The purpose of the amendment is clear: to ensure that nothing done as a result of the Bill will in any way reduce the ability of local authorities to provide those existing schemes that are more generous than the legislation requires them to provide. If the Government disagree to the amendment so that the current schemes in the areas to which I refer can be whittled awaythat has sadly already happened in several areasthey will reap a poor reward for their actions. I hope therefore that the Minister will support the amendment.