Travel Concessions (Eligibility) Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Clifton-Brown: My hon. Friend raised an interesting point, which the Minister must tackle. If a local authority wishes to change the range of services eligible for a concessionary scheme during the year, will it be reimbursed at the end of the year? At the moment, the Government make a calculation at the beginning of each year, which determines the total amount that a local authority receives. That sets in aspic the range of services that a local authority can offer.

Chris Grayling: My hon. Friend makes a good point. If we are going to operate in a prescriptive environment, a national scheme may be needed to ensure that disparities of funding do not occur among different authorities and neighbourhoods. The Government must consider that.

I hope that the Minister will welcome the amendments in the spirit in which they are intended and that he will offer the Government's support. Conservative Members have no desire to undermine the aspirations of the Bill; our goal is to ensure that it is improved when it leaves the Committee and that those improvements can make a difference to a subject that is a minefield for many.

Mr. Laurence Robertson: Transport is important, especially these days. I acknowledge the great car-owning democracy, but many people do not own cars and cannot get about as they wish. Whether transport is for leisure purposes, to do vital shopping, or to visit hospitals, it is important to do what we can, particularly in the sort of areas represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold and myself. Our constituencies include a few towns and villages with big spaces in between. I welcome the Bill and hope that it will help my constituents. I have received many letters on this issue, not only because of the difficulty of getting from one place to another, but because of the unfairness of the present situation. At the moment, local authorities have to offer concessionary bus tokens. They can offer further concessions at their discretion, but it can be controversial if they do not.

The national cost for the change of age qualification will be about £50 million. Presumably, administering the changeover will incur an extra cost. That cost may not be significant, but will local authorities be able to cover it? On the extra concessions that local authorities can provide, as I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold, authorities are under greater pressure to grant concessions where the bus service is inadequate. I presume that if they do so, they will not be compensated. Counties such as Gloucestershire experience great unfairness. For example, Cheltenham borough is not under pressure to give further concessions because it is a small area and it is easier to get about. Someone living there who needed to get to hospital in Cheltenham would easily be able to do so, but it would be more difficult for someone living in Tewkesbury. Tewkesbury borough council or Cotswold district council will therefore be under pressure to give further concessions.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: My hon. Friend touches on a real problem in our area—I suspect that it is a problem in other rural areas. He will know that the health authority has tightened considerably the criteria for using hospital transport. In one or two cases, I have persuaded the county council to re-route bus services so that they pass Cheltenham hospital. I presume that people using those bus services will be eligible for the concessionary fare. That aspect of bus travel will become ever more important for people wishing to travel to hospital. Elderly people who need to go to hospital are the most vulnerable group and the scheme could help them.

Mr. Robertson: My hon. Friend demonstrates that extra pressure will be placed on some areas and not others. He touched earlier on a further problem. I said that someone living in Cheltenham who wanted to go to hospital in Cheltenham could get there easily, and without the extra concessions they would be able to do so under the ordinary bus permit scheme. However, those who live in Tewkesbury would probably need an extra concession, but that will not be available. As my hon. Friend pointed out, the journey would cross borough borders and would therefore not qualify.

The Chairman: Order. I confirm that cross-border arrangements are outside the scope of the Bill and that the amendments do not come within its scope. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will want to confine his remarks to the scope of the Bill.

Mr. Robertson: I certainly will, Mr. Stevenson; I am grateful for your guidance. I move to a slightly different point, which I hope is relevant.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: On a point of order, Mr. Stevenson. Your ruling has raised an important point. The operation of cross-border schemes is clearly a matter of great concern. It seems to me—I should be grateful for your guidance—that the long title of the Bill is very wide. It says that it is a Bill to

    ``Amend the law relating to the age at which certain persons become eligible to receive travel concessions on journeys on public passenger transport services; and for connected purposes''

Why cannot cross-border schemes be included in the Bill if an appropriate amendment is moved?

The Chairman: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I shall try to reflect that in the course of debate, but I was referring specifically to the amendments on cross-border facilities. I am advised that they are outside the scope of the Bill. However, in the ensuing debates, I have tried to allow the maximum flexibility to hon. Members so that they can make their arguments. Secondly, we shall have a clause stand part debate, when reference may be made to cross-border facilities. I simply point out that the amendments are outside the scope of the Bill.

Mr. Don Foster: Further to that point of order, Mr. Stevenson. I am grateful for your ruling, but I would appreciate further clarification. You have agreed to a debate on new clause 4, which relates to coach travel, which by its very nature is cross-border.

The Chairman: Again, I am advised that amendments Nos. 9, 10 and 11 are outside the scope of the Bill because they attempt to change the format of existing travel concessions geographically rather than changing the age at which people become eligible for benefits. I realise that it is an important distinction, but as Chairman, I have to make it. The point of order raised by the hon. Member for Cotswold leads me to repeat that I have tried to allow the debate to be as flexible as possible. I intend to call a stand part debate and I am sure that hon. Members will want to refer to matters outside the Bill. However, I feel obliged to point out what is within the scope of the Bill and what is not.

Mr. Andrew Turner: On a point of order, Mr. Stevenson. I wanted simply to ask you to define a border, for the purposes of the Bill.

The Chairman: I am tempted to speculate on that. I was fascinated by the hon. Gentleman's interpretation of a water bus service as opposed to a ferry. I am sure that he is much more qualified than I am to make such a distinction.

12 noon

Mr. Laurence Robertson: I think that the net result of that exchange is that I must move on to a different point—but that I may be allowed to return to my original subject later.

We are talking about publishing a breakdown of the cost of travel concession schemes. How certain will the cost be? Many areas have two-tier local government, and bus transport schemes seem to be administered by the county council. However, the district council or borough council will run the scheme under discussion. To a large extent the provision of transport will be determined by the county council, possibly influenced by Government grants given as an encouragement. What impact will that have on the scheme, which will be run by the district council? It may be a matter of logistics or of finance coming through in one year rather than another. However, it is an important point, and I would be grateful if the Minister picked up on it.

Amendment No. 7 refers to the revenue support grant, one aspect of which always puzzles me. Can we be sure that local authorities, which will have extra requirements, will receive the total sum due to them through the revenue support grant system? Is there any possibility that the extra sum is given with one hand, while the other chips away elsewhere to withdraw money from another area? If an authority was given, say, a baseline figure of 100 and something cost five, would it receive 105 under the revenue support grant or 104 because one had been taken away from something else?

It is important that we consider that issue, as local councillors always tell me that extra work and burdens are placed on them yet the resources do not come their way. That has especially been the case in Tewkesbury, which has not received very generous revenue support grants during the past few years, forcing the council to decide whether to continue to provide services and to put up council tax. It is in that dilemma now, as it has to decide whether to put the council tax up after it has cut back on services. That brings us back to the issue about the further concessions that councils would like to offer but are not necessarily in a financial position to offer.

Given the restrictions that you rightly placed on me, Mr. Stevenson, I do not want to make any further remarks.

Mr. Spellar: The debate has certainly been quite discursive, especially on an underlying issue that has run through debates on local government for several decades. If there is discretionary expenditure as well as minimum standards, that will inevitably lead to differences and anomalies, which will inevitably lead to arguments about whether people in different authorities are treated fairly by comparison with their next-door neighbours. Equally, there will inevitably be border issues in respect of service provision, be the differences perceived or real. That goes to the heart of the question of local discretion, because the only way in which to iron out such differences is to have national uniformity.

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