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The Bill is important. We hope that it will be enacted on the earliest possible date, and if that is 1 April 2003, so be it. Sadly, however, as it leaves this place for the last time a number of questions remain unanswered.
We are still not sure that the Bill will have no impact on existing schemes. We are still not certain that the Government will find a fair mechanism for the distribution of the pot of money that they make available to compensate councils, and we are still not certain that, however it is distributed, it will cover the full cost. That said, however, I echo what was said by the hon. Member for Cotswold and wish the Bill godspeed.
Mr. Wiggin: Local authorities' power to offer concessionary fares was introduced as early as 1955 under a Conservative Government. The latest Transport Act seeks to ensure that pensioners and disabled people are guaranteed half-price fares or better on local buses. Bus travel is vital for my constituents. Access for disabled travellers at Leominster station is already negligible, and the estimated cost of putting that right is well over £400,000.
Under current legislation, eligibility for travel concessions is linked to the state-pension age, currently 60 for women and 65 for men. I personally welcome the equalisation of the qualifying ages at 60 and accept the wisdom of increasing the qualifying age to 65 by 2020, but I expect that in 2032, when I am eligible, it will have become even higher. Local authorities are obliged to reimburse bus operators for their forgone revenue; in theory, local authorities are reimbursed from central Government through the revenue support scheme. In my area, Malvern Hills district council was forced to introduce concessionary fares by the Government, but did not receive compensation through the revenue support scheme. Indeed, the only money which it received was a tiny sum to help pay for consultation, which forced it to increase council tax. I am worried that that is another gap in the funding chain, forcing councils with higher proportions of elderly people to charge more council tax and further penalise people on fixed incomes, especially
The Government's failure to follow their funding through gives rise to serious concern. The travel concessions scheme will cost £54 million, which has been factored into the local government finance settlement. However, distributing funds via the standard spending assessment means that smaller district councils that receive no revenue support grant will not be properly compensated. That is another flaw in the scheme which needs to be corrected. I am not making a spending commitment for the Government, as they have already pledged to fund the scheme; what is needed is a fair and effective distribution of money.
Councils already suffer enough from red tape and stealth taxation without another burden being imposed on those of us who pay council tax. We want guarantees that those holes will be plugged so that we can support the alteration to the concessionary travel age. We want a reduction in ring-fenced funding, which has risen from 4 per cent. to 10 per cent.
The fact that buses cross local authority boundaries gives rise to another problem. It would be fair for travel concessions to be valid across boundaries, which may result in a higher take-up of the scheme. That would be a tremendous asset, as well as a positive and sensible step. It does not make sense for the Government to go to all that trouble to introduce a less popular scheme. Indeed, the target in one of their 10-year plans suggested an increase in bus usage of up to 20 per cent, so it would be wise to budget for a rising uptake. An amendment tabled when the Transport Act 2000 was in Committee gave the Government the chance to equalise the age for concessionary fares. However, despite the fact that ageism and sex discrimination are prohibited and reviled, the Labour Government chose to vote against it. Today, let us put right that wrong.
The hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) urged us to ensure that all local authorities raise their schemes to the level of the best. The Government have repeatedly advised and exhorted local authorities to do just that. However, I pay tribute to all those local authorities, most of them Labour-controlled, but also some Conservative ones, which pioneered concessionary fares for pensioners and people with disabilities, and kept that going through all the years of cuts under the Conservative Government. It is an acknowledgement of their work over the years that the Labour Government are now able to extend the concessionary fares scheme nationally and to back it fully, I remind the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin), with Government funds.
The hon. Member for Cotswold talked about providing better services for pensioners. Again, I remind him that the Government introduced the winter fuel allowance, as well as the concessionary fares scheme, which we are now extending. We abolished eye test payments for pensioners. The Bill is not the last word on what we are doing for pensioners; we are discussing the extension of fuel duty rebate to coaches, an issue raised by the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster). That plan will be introduced. Another
The hon. Member for Bath talked about concessions to students, which are being progressed through the Department for Education and Skills, and trialled in local authority areas in the north-east with the aim of a national extension. There is genuine progress on that issue. Interest in the Bill is in direct proportion to its benefits. I believe that I am the only Member in the Chamber at present who will not benefit from it at all. The hon. Members for Bath and for Leominster expressed uncertainties, queries and qualms about it, but I urge the House to give it a ringing endorsement. Whatever the difficulties or pressures involved in its implementation, it gives us the certainty that all over-60s, men and women alike, will have a national system of concessionary fares for the first time ever. That will result in a genuine difference in their quality of life, as they will be able to travel and lead the kind of life that we want older people to lead. For the first time, there is the certainty of a concessionary fare backed by Government funds; people will recognise that a Labour Government achieved that.
When the Minister replies to the debate, will he outline the scale of the problem that the regulations are designed to address? How much evidence is there, for example, that valuable heathland, marshland and environmentally important farmland is being ploughed up or changed in a way that the regulations seek to prevent? I am aware that because some unscrupulous people have realised that regulations are in the pipeline, there has been an increase in the ploughing-up of valuable sites. The Government have used existing powers in the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 to prevent that.
I speak with feeling about that because a few years ago, as the Minister may recall, I introduced a private Member's Bill to protect hedgerows. As a result, I suspect that I am inadvertently the person most responsible for the destruction of hedgerows in the countryside. However, the point is that powers are in existence and can be applied. I should be grateful if the Minister addressed the scope of the problem; how, precisely, will the new regulations address the problem?
The Minister may be slightly embarrassedindeed, there may be embarrassment on both sides of the Housebecause the directive behind the regulations dates back to 1985. It has taken 17 years and the threat of infraction proceedings for the Government finally to get round to introducing national regulations. The directive already applies to wide areas of industry, but agriculture is the one that got away. The problem is that, in the end, nothing gets away from EU directives, however long ago they were signed and however inappropriate or anachronistic they may turn out to be when they eventually become enforced under the threat of infraction procedures, as is happening in this case.
In the 17 years since the directive was introduced, life has moved on. As the Curry report, which was published earlier this week, has reminded us, there is now greater recognition of the interlinked relationship between farming, the environment and the whole of rural ecology and the rural economy. Good environmental practice is now much more widely recognised to be good business practice as well. That understanding is not confined to the rural economy; it applies to industry and to the economy as a whole. I think that that it is extremely welcome.
What is really required, however, is a change in the culture of regulation. There is a need for the Government to change their mindset. They should challenge the assumption that they should always do more and ask instead whether they could do less and do it better. A mature relationship between Government and the governed and between the Department and farmers will be based not on rules, regulations and threats of punishment, but on trust. In agriculture more than almost anywhere else, the old command and control mentality still prevails and trust seems to have broken down utterly. Restoring and building trust between Government and the rural community is one of the greatest challenges that we face. Be that as it may, we accept that the Government have no choice but to introduce these measures in some form, even though they are based on the false assumption that they know best and that all farmers are inclined to be rapers and pillagers of the landscape if they are given half a chance.
The issue today is not the fact that the regulations are being imposed, but the way in which they are being introduced. There are a number of concerns. First, on timing, it is unfortunate to say the least that the Government are introducing new regulations on the farming industry after what has been in many ways its worst year in living memory. Foot and mouth disease has left lasting scars in the rural community. New outbreaks of bovine tuberculosis are causing serious problems. Classical swine fever, rhizomania and poor harvests have added to the problems faced by this beleaguered industry. Together with the weakness of the euro and the strangulation of red tape, those problems lie behind the fact that farm incomes are still 72 per cent. below their 1995 level. This must be one of the worst times to introduce new rules and extra costs for the farming industry, but that is exactly what the regulations entail.
I know that the Government carried out two consultations on the regulations during 2001. I am grateful to the Secretary of State for providing on 17 January some information in response to my parliamentary question about the number of responses that the Department received. The Minister might be tempted to take comfort from the fact that not many responses were submitted. The Department received 42 replies to the first consultation and 32 to the second. That is not many, given that the regulations affect every single registered agricultural holding in England. In her reply, the Secretary of State said:
As a result, the regulations have taken many people by surprise. The latest edition of Farmers' Weekly, that excellent publicationI have no doubt that the Minister will agree that it is essential readingreports:
Andrew Clark, NFU head of environment, said while it was reassuring farmers finally had some details, they had been given fewer than 10 days to get to grips with them.
'It doesn't give people enough time to figure out what it is', he said."
There is also the question of the regulations' cost. In replying to my question on the matter, again on 17 January, the Secretary of State admitted that the Government did not know how much the regulations would cost either the Department or the landowners. The Minister shakes his head, but the Secretary of State said that the costs to the Department of administering the scheme are put at between £100,000 and £200,000. A 100 per cent. margin of error seems pretty generous. Compared with the average farm income of £7,800 a year, the sum is considerable. As the Department cannot cope at the moment even with handling routine support payments, the Minister might wish to consider whether the money could be spent rather more productively. The costs to landowners are put at between £20,000 and £28,000 per 100 projects. Of course, that is money that they can ill afford, but it may also represent a fraction of the real cost.
The NFU has expressed concerns about the regulations' impact on the capital value of farmland. It has recorded that it is "extremely concerned" that the new regime will undermine land values by reducing the flexibility of the uses to which land can be put. It has calculated that the capital devaluation for potential arable land could be as much as £500 to £1,000 a hectare, which is about £200 to £400 an acre. Given that the capital value of agricultural land has effectively underpinned the banking sector's confidence in farming during this very difficult period, that is potentially a serious issue. Has the Minister undertaken an analysis of the regulations' possible impact on the underlying value of farmland?
Uncertainty surrounds the issue of whether set-aside land will be caught by the regulations. The pamphlet issued by the Department merely advises people to call a helpline if they have concerns about such land. I know of a farmer who telephoned the helpline earlier today. He rang 0800 028 2140 and a pleasant voice answered, saying "EIA"[Laughter.] Not "Ee ay addy oh". The farmer said that he had a parcel of land that had been set aside since 1992 and asked whether it would be affected by the new regulations. The person at the other end answered that they did not know and that he needed to speak to the countryside stewardship scheme. They very kindly provided a phone number. He dialled the number and got through to the scheme, but he was transferred and then cut off. He dialled the number again and finally got through to somebody who said that they did not know the answer to his question and that he needed to speak to someone at the environmental impact assessment unit. At that point, he thanked them and they said that they would call back. The service that is being offered to farmers who are genuinely concerned about how the regulations will affect their livelihoods and what they can do with their land is not adequate.
The guidance notes provided by the Department are equally unclear. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that landowners get proper, timely and accurate advice when they inquire about set aside? Will set-aside land be excluded from the new regime? I would welcome the Minister's comments.