Travel Concessions (Eligibility) Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Spellar: No. We are saying clearly that the change in legislation places an additional burden on local authorities. Accordingly, the Government will make money available to cover that additional cost. We are in discussion with the local authorities as regards the methodology involved, following the well-established procedure for the rate support grant. If that procedure throws up significant anomalies, local authorities, as the hon. Gentleman will probably accept, will not be backward about raising the issue.

The hon. Gentleman can see that there are several balancing items within the procedure that we are following. The funding of the extra provision needed for men aged 60 to 65 will be included in the annual local government settlement. As we always do under the rate support grant, we will consider the anomalies.

I assure hon. Members that local authority associations will be consulted on our proposals for the local government settlement and that we will listen carefully to their comments alongside all the other representations that will inevitably be made on other elements of the scheme. That will happen before we take the final decisions on the local government settlement. In the light of those assurances, I hope that the hon. Member for Cotswold will feel free to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Don Foster: I am grateful to the Minister. Since he clearly intends to draw his remarks to a close very shortly, will he answer an important question that I raised, and which other hon. Members touched on, about the Government's view on other current concessionary schemes involving an age distinction between the sexes? Those include London schemes in which, over and above the arrangements that the Government are concerned with, free passes are offered at different ages to men and women. Will the Minister categorically state whether it is the Government's view that any scheme with a different starting age for men and women is now in breach of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 or, equally, that it would be likely to cause problems in the European Court, were a case to go before it?

Mr. Spellar: We would have to look at the detail. We would certainly examine the current state of affairs as to concessionary fare passes. I am not sure what other concessions the hon. Gentleman had in mind. Obviously, the local authorities in question would have to adjust their procedures to take account of our understanding of the legal position.

Mr. Foster: In that case will the Minister accept that the Bill will give rise to additional financial burdens for some authorities, in view of the clear opinion that he has given of the status of the relevant provisions? Will those additional costs also be covered by central Government?

Mr. Spellar: It is for local authorities to draw to our attention particular schemes that they run, so that we can examine them together. The Bill deals with the specific issue of concessionary fares and prescribes a remedy for the problem in question. It also allocates Government funding to local authorities to cover that. If the hon. Gentleman believes that other schemes might give rise to similar legal requirements, the local authorities in question should raise the matter with the Department.

Mr. Foster: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way again, and I apologise if I appear to be badgering him, but the point is an important one.

The Minister will know that in different parts of the country there are already travel concession schemes that are of greater benefit to the people there; nevertheless, those schemes—the freedom pass in London is just one example—operate at a different age for men and women. The Minister has just said that he believes those schemes would now be considered inappropriate and in need of change, in the light of the Government's decision about their own scheme. If the local authorities running relevant schemes are to make the changes, they will incur additional costs. The Minister has agreed that they can raise those matters with the Government. The question is how the Government will respond.

Mr. Spellar: At this stage we are dealing with the Bill. It is not clear to me whether the hon. Gentleman is arguing that the freedom pass is not a concessionary fare scheme in the sense used in the Bill and covered by it accordingly. Is it not a concessionary fare scheme?

Mr. Andrew Turner: So will any scheme of concessionary fares provided under any of the legislation referred to in clause 1, eligibility for which is equalised under the Bill, be funded by the Government?

Mr. Spellar: If concessionary fares are covered by the Bill, the Government will deal with that. We are committed to the new burdens principle, which means that we will reimburse local authorities for the extra cost that they face as a result of local authority concessionary fare schemes requiring action under the Bill.

Mr. Turner: So in the case of a scheme that is not mandatory, such as an interoperable travel concession scheme between, say, Southampton unitary authority and Hampshire county council, which is available at the moment to men aged over 65 and women aged over 60, the Government will meet the additional cost to those two authorities to men aged between 60 and 65?

Mr. Spellar: If it is an existing scheme that must be amended to comply with the Bill, the Government will reimburse local authorities for the extra cost.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am grateful for another opportunity to comment on the amendments before I decide whether to divide the Committee. The Minister has been helpful in that he has put it on the record that if any existing scheme, wherever it operates, currently operates a system of different ages for men and women, it will be reimbursed by the Government. That clearly included London, and the hon. Member for Bath is right—the Association of London Government has produced a figure of £28 million. I assume, therefore, that the Government's current estimate of costs of £50 million for the implementation of the whole Bill is a serious underestimate. If I have got that wrong I should be grateful if the Minister would intervene. The issue is very important. When considering the measure, we need to know the Government's best estimate of the cost of implementing it.

Mr. Spellar: I will deal with that in my response.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am grateful for that. However, the Minister has still not answered a number of points. I know that he is trying to be helpful to the Committee, so I would like to press him on them.

The standard spending assessment methodology is all very well, but I have been involved with councils who have met the Minister to talk about why they have been disadvantaged. All councils do that—the Minister will have seen delegations from several of them. Unfortunately, a range of issues get put in a melting pot and so particular issues tend to be ignored. I cannot understand why, with modern accounting mechanisms, the actual cost of the schemes cannot be reimbursed. It seems so simple—the local authority would produce a complete list of all the journeys undertaken that qualified and the costs incurred and the Government would reimbursement it. There would be no question of any local authority being out of pocket.

I fail to understand why the Minister cannot adopt that system. It is at the heart of the amendments. We need a clear answer from the Minister as to why we must go through a complicated process involving the SSA, the revenue support grant, total spending assessment and all the other things that apply to local authority spending. The reimbursed sum will represent a very small part of the environment block grant and will therefore get lost in the wash. If the Minister gives me a clear answer to that question, it will be easier for us to decide whether to withdraw the amendments or press them to a vote.

Mr. Spellar: I hope that I was clear, even if the hon. Gentleman does not agree with my answer. I am advised that we can be confident in our £50 million estimate for England. We understand that the Association of London Government has estimated that the measures will cost more and we are therefore meeting its representatives soon to discuss the matter. Obviously, we cannot respond until those discussions have taken place. Although several interesting issues have been aired during the debate, we will resist the amendment for the reasons that I have given.

12.30 pm

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I still have not heard a clear answer from the Minister on why the actual costs cannot be reimbursed. He makes various statements that do not address that key issue. Unless I receive a clear answer, I shall press the amendment. I am giving the Minister one more chance. Why can local authorities not be reimbursed for the actual costs that they incur?

Mr. Spellar: I believe that I have answered that question, so it is probably unnecessary to prolong discussions.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: As we have failed to receive a clear answer from the Minister, and as some local authorities will lose out under the measure, it is essential that we press the amendment.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 5, Noes 6.

Division No. 1]

Clifton-Brown, Mr. Geoffrey
Foster, Mr. Don
Grayling, Chris
Robertson, Mr. Laurence
Turner, Mr. Andrew

Keeble, Ms Sally
Pope, Mr. Greg
Spellar, Mr. John
Stewart, Mr. David
Williams, Mrs. Betty
Woolas, Mr. Phil

Question accordingly negatived.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I beg to move amendment No. 8, in page 1, line 21, at end insert—

    `(9) The appropriate Minister shall publish each year the number of users of the scheme by local authority area, with estimates for the age and employment profile of the users.'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take new clause 5—Concessionary fares schemes (publicity)—

    `. The appropriate Minister shall publish each year a list of the scope, benefits and eligibility requirements of every mandatory concessionary fares scheme offered by each individual local authority, and make such information available on the Department's website.'.

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