Standing Committee A
Tuesday 20 November 2001
[Mr. George Stevenson in the Chair]
The Minister for Transport (Mr. John Spellar): I beg to move,
That, during proceedings on the Travel Concessions (Eligibility) Bill [Lords], the Committee do meet on Tuesday 20th November at half-past Ten o'clock and Five o'clock, and thereafter on Thursdays at five minutes to Ten o'clock and half-past Two o'clock and on Tuesdays at half-past Ten o'clock and half-past Four o'clock.
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Stevenson.
The motion is straightforward. It allows the Committee to sit twice today and if necessary to sit twice on Thursday. The terms of the motion are well precedented and give the Committee ample time to consider the Bill. I hope, therefore, that the Committee will approve the motion.
If any Members have examined the official record of the Second Reading debate, they will know that the Bill is small, but none the less important. It concerns a matter of equality. Under current legislation entitlement to travel concessions for elderly people is linked to pensionable age as defined in the Pensions Act 1995. Women may take advantage of concessionary travel schemes offered by their local authorities when they reach 60, but men must wait until their 65th birthday. There is no age barrier to entitlement to concessionary fare schemes for disabled people. Given that current legislation has been questioned because it discriminates on grounds of gender, we have decided to end the anomaly. The Bill will make men entitled to travel concessions at the same age as womenat 60. We expect the Bill to take effect from April 2003 at the latest.
Concessionary fares are for cheaper travel on public transport for people who are economically disadvantaged. Our commitment to fighting social exclusion and to ensuring that bus travel, in particular, remains within the means of those on limited incomes and those who have mobility difficulties is clear. We have implemented legislation requiring local authorities for the first time to offer a minimum of 50 per cent. reductions for elderly and disabled people on local buses. The statutory minimum requirement is benefiting some 5.5 million pensioners and 1.5 million disabled people across England and Wales. With this Bill, a further 1 million men aged between 60 and 64 will be able to share the benefits of concessionary travel, bringing the total number of people benefiting to around 8 million.
Local authorities also have discretion to offer further concessions on bus and on other public passenger transport services such as local trains, metros, ferries, or the London underground. They may also provide concessionary travel outside their boundaries if they wish. Many local authorities offer concessions on other modes of public transport, and fares cheaper than half price, or join together to offer an area-wide schemean obvious example is London. However, they must not offer a scheme less than the half-fare statutory minimum. I hope therefore that the Committee can now turn to the detail of the Bill.
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): I begin by welcoming you and your fellow Chairmen Mrs. Adams and Miss Widdecombe to the Chair, Mr. Stevenson. I would also like to welcome two Ministers to the Committee. For a relatively small Bill it is a delight to have such expertise on the Government side. Consequently, we shall be expecting rapid answers to the probing questions that we shall raise.
I am pleased to have the chance to speak on the sittings motion. In particular, I am pleased to tell the Government Whip, who cannot speak for himself, that I am delighted that the usual channels should have negotiated a timetable that is not limited. It is admirable that we should be allowed to sit indefinitely on both Tuesdays and Thursdaysalthough after six weeks of us probing them in full measure, Ministers may have second thoughts about that. I hope that we can deal with this relatively straightforward three-clause Bill expeditiously and in a civilised manner. Nevertheless, we shall want to probe the Government on a few points that were not adequately exposed in the other place.
The Bill ought to be renamed the Williams Bill because, as the Minister said, it arises out of a case brought by a Mr. Williams in the European Court of Human Rights. Mr. Williams argued that that men were being discriminated against on grounds of sexual equality because they could not obtain travel concessions until they attained the age of 65, whereas women reach pensionable age at 60. As a result of that case, the Government announced that they would legislate.
The Liberal Democrats moved an amendment in another place to the Transport Act 2000 that would have obviated the need for the Bill. I have no doubt that the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) will wish to crow about that, but the simple fact is that if we sometimes thought more carefully and in more depth about legislation before rushing it through, often under a guillotine or timetable motion, we might sometimes pass better legislation. I welcome the sittings motion. It will give us plenty of time to debate the Bill.
The amendments cover a relatively narrow area. As it is only a three-clause Bill, I hope that we shall have a clause stand part debate on each clause, because we shall wish to speak on matters other than those raised by the amendments. The principal matters on which we wish to probe the Government are the total cost of the Bill, the number of people who will benefit from it and the number of groups that may be disadvantaged by it because local authorities already offer more generous schemes than would be allowed under the Bill.
We shall be particularly sensitive to suggestions put to us by groups such as the Royal National Institute for the Blind that some local authority schemes will be reduced. Lord Falconer said in another place that he hoped that local authorities would not cut their concessionary schemes, but they may be forced to do so because, as we shall find out during our debate on the first group of amendments, if the Government do not provide adequate funding for those schemes, local authorities will have no option but to cut them. It would be unfortunate indeed if we passed a measure that was supposed to help some of the most vulnerable people but ended up damaging their interests. I am sure that we shall probe that aspect in full measure.
We shall wish to probe the Government on how they intend to reimburse local authorities, and especially on how the scheme will work in rural areas. Hon. Members who represent rural areas know that many areas do not have any bus schemes that could operate a concessionary fare. The services have been eroded to such an extent by the lack of funding under the bus grant scheme that there are very few buses. Not only are people in rural areas such as mine and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) already suffering from the lack of bus schemes, but because my local authority has up to five different authorities on its borders we wish to probe whether it is possible for the local authorities that have discretion in the matter under the terms of the Bill to operate cross-border schemes. It is difficult to see how the scheme will work for those who live on the borders.
Finally, at the instigation of my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner), we shall wish to see whether the scope of the Bill can be widened to encompass other forms of travel. Many people in his constituency wish to use ferries to cross the Solent, in order to reach the mainland. We wish to probe the Government as to whether they are prepared to allow the concessionary scheme to operate for the benefit of his constituents.
I am sure that other matters will arise in the course of our scrutiny of the Bill. It is a relatively straightforward Bill, founded on very complex law within the European Court of Human Rights and the European Court of Justice. It amends the Transport Act 2000 and the Greater London Authority Act 1999. That also brings problems, particularly about how it will operate in London, how the London boroughs and Transport for London will be refunded, and whether they will be refunded in sufficient measure to continue the current 100 per cent. concessionary scheme operated by many of the boroughs.
Those are the matters that we shall cover. I look forward to a good-tempered, constructive debate under your very stern and wise chairmanship, Mr. Stevenson.
Mr. Don Foster (Bath): I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Stevenson. I was slightly confused by the opening remarks of the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), who requested rapid answers from Ministers. I assume that he meant brief answers, rather than speeches at high speed. I was concerned when he spoke of the possibility of the Committee sitting indefinitely, and whether in six weeks' time the Government might think of bringing in a programme motion. I hope that his latter remarks, to the effect that it might be possible to make rapid progress, were correct.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: I hope that in nit picking over words we are not starting as we mean to continue. The hon. Gentleman knows that when I asked for rapid answers, I meant expeditious ones, so that we should not still be sitting in six weeks' time. We all hope that the Committee will deal with matters in a business-like way.
The Chairman: Order. I know all the hon. Members on this Committee and, having had the pleasure of chairing Committees on which they have sat in the past, I have no experience of nit picking. However, the odd reference to Tuesday and Thursday would be appreciated.
Mr. Foster: As I was just about to say, Mr. Stevenson, I hope very much that because we shall be able to make expeditious progress, we might well have to talk about only one Tuesday and possibly one Thursday. I hope that during that possible Tuesday and even more unlikely Thursday, we shall have an opportunity to discuss some of the issues rightly raised by the hon. Member for Cotswold, as well as other subjects that are before us. It will be important to explore with the Government their plans for the extension of the concessionary fare scheme to other groups, not least young people. We need to have more detail from Ministers about Government plans in respect of extending eligibility for concessionary fares to coach travel, because, despite an assurance by Ministers that that was to go ahead, it came out on Second Reading that little had been done to set the groundwork for it to happen. I hope that we shall have the opportunity to explore that subject briefly.
Another important issue that we need to tackleit was touched on by the hon. Member for Cotswoldis that of cross-border travel. All members of the Committee will be aware that we began to discuss it on Second Reading, and I hope that we can take that discussion further.
The issue that will be uppermost in many of our minds is that of cost, about which local authorities and various groups are concerned. We are aware that the Transport Act 2000 introduced concessionary fares and that the Government announced that £47 million would initially be made available to local authorities to fund the scheme. Following subsequent discussions with the Local Government Association and others, the Government acknowledged that the sum was inadequate and increased it to £54 million. That shows that mistakes can be made and that consultation and discussion can lead to different figures. To judge from amendments tabled by Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, the Opposition are anxious to suggest ways and mechanisms whereby the Government can ensure that the sums of money that will be made available under the provisions to ensure equality at the age of 60 are correct.
The hon. Member for Cotswold suggested that I might crow about the amendments tabled by Liberal Democrats in another place. I remind himI think that he served on the relevant Committeethat those amendments were first seen in this place on 29 February last year. We do not want to crow about it, because several organisations have campaigned on the issue for a long timesince the Sex Discrimination Act 1975. I draw attention to the great deal of work that Parity has done on the subject. Like members of the Committee, it will be aware that the issue of equality raised its head with the British Rail senior travel card, which was available from the age of 60 for both sexes in the early 1980s. Some victories were achieved long before any proposal that I made in February last year.
I will not crow, but many organisations that have campaigned for equality might. They are grateful to the Government for recognising that something had to be done, notwithstanding the pressure that was placed on them by the Williams case. In our brief discussions in Committee, I hope that we will explore in a little more detail one or two of the issues that arise from the Government's proposals.