Travel Concessions (Eligibility) Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Clifton-Brown: Having had that opening canter in the debate on the finance of the measure, we now come to the subject of the people involved. Amendment No. 8 would add an important provision to the Bill. Unless we had published information of the sort suggested in the amendment, we could not easily evaluate how well the scheme worked.

I have already referred to the problem of generation of use, especially in relation to men still in employment, and the effect in different areas. Of the 1 million men between 60 and 64 who will benefit from the Bill, 147,000 are still in some paid employment. If we estimate that 10 per cent. of them may be disabled, that leaves 127,000 non-disabled men still in work who would gain the benefit of the scheme. We wholly welcome that. However, it is incumbent on the Government to help us gather better information.

We need to know if, for example, the take-up of the scheme is low in an area relative to the number of pensioners, because we must ensure that individual local authorities have the appropriate advertising or other methods to inform pensioners that the scheme is available. There is no point in having a scheme unless it is used. Today, we have heard about a number of schemes; it is important that they continue. For example, we know of the scheme that had been operating in Birmingham since 1913 and was ended without any consultation with blind and partially-sighted people. The Minister told us in passing that the problem in Birmingham had been sorted out. I should be grateful if he would say how it has been sorted out, and that the scheme will be reinstated.

The Royal National Institute for the Blind has made a number of points. Blind people with white sticks have particular difficulty in travelling. If the schemes from which they have previously benefited are withdrawn they, more than the rest of us, face a real problem.

It is essential that we ensure that the scheme is taken up and that we help people with their quality of life. If we do not, people will become increasingly isolated, particularly in rural areas. My hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury has mentioned the decline in the number of bus services—and do not forget that the scheme applies to bus and rail services. In rural areas such as his and mine, there are not that many services. My hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell has made the point that in city areas there is often more than one mode of transport. Amendment No. 8 is necessary so that we can be clear which schemes are being used in which areas. There is no point in operating a scheme unless we can persuade people to use it. If we cannot persuade them to use it, we should operate a different scheme—we need to be inventive.

The Minister has been very helpful in telling us that existing schemes where there is an age differential will be fully reimbursed. However, he did not explain—and I press him now—how local authorities will be reimbursed for new schemes that they might wish to operate. Nobody wants such provisions to be set in concrete. We want local authorities to come up with innovative schemes and it would be useful to know what mechanism will be available when a local authority proposes to change a scheme. I presume, but the Minister will tell us, that the local authority will have to consult his Department and it will have to approve such schemes. Perhaps authorities will have discretion in the matter. If they do, how will they be reimbursed for all the changes?

New clause 5 requires the Minister to publish each year a list of the scope, benefits and eligibility requirements of every monetary concession fares scheme offered by each individual local authority and to make such information available on the Department's website. That is a thoroughly good idea. All of us, in representing the people, want to improve people's quality of life. None of us has a monopoly of wisdom. Where one local authority operates a particularly innovative scheme, it would be useful for it to be detailed on the Department's website as that would allow other local authorities to gain from the knowledge. There might be a cost to that, but few benefits come without some cost. Details of best practice can be disseminated faster than ever using modern electronic communications. That would be a useful innovation to come out of the new clause. It would help if the Minister could say something about that.

It would also be useful if the Minister could say something about rail schemes. We have hardly mentioned rail today, but in many areas rail and tram services are becoming an increasingly useful form of transport. I know that the Government want to encourage such services. How does the Minister expect the Bill to benefit pensioners aged over 60—and those other groups covered by the Bill? We should not forget that the Bill covers disabled people over the age of five, people with impaired vision and learning difficulties and anyone who cannot apply for a driving licence. That wide range includes mentally impaired people.

One reason why the information should be published—officials are now scrabbling for their papers, so the Minister will doubtless tell me if I am wrong—is that, for one reason or another, blind people or mentally impaired people living near a mental hospital might not be benefiting from an existing scheme. I shall let the Minister answer; we shall then know whether we need to probe further.

The Chairman: Order. Before the Minister replies, I must advise the Committee that the Bill is about the age requirements of concessionary travel, not concessions for blind or disabled people. I should be grateful if Members would abide by that advice.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: On a point of order, Mr. Stevenson. I understand that the Bill amends the Transport Act 2000. According to the House of Commons brief, Ministers announced on 5 June that the existing concessionary travel scheme would be extended to the disabled people described under section 146. Will you clarify your ruling as to whether the scheme does or does not include disabled people, because it is clearly an important consideration?

The Chairman: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Perhaps the Minister can help, but my advice is that the Bill amends the age requirement from 60 to 65 and that it does not deal with travel concessions for blind or disabled people. That is my advice and that is my ruling.

Mr. Spellar: I am grateful to the hon. Member for Cotswold for explaining the purpose of the amendments, which deal with the annual publicising of details of each local authority's concessionary fare scheme. We are not clear what effect the changes might have, but I shall deal with what I think are the main issues.

The Transport Act 2000 places a duty on all local authorities to offer their elderly and disabled residents a free bus pass giving them half fares or better on local buses. It is up to individual authorities to decide whether to offer further concessions over and above the statutory minimum. The Bill will change the statutory minimum requirement and provide the related funding.

12.45 pm

The extent of concessionary fare travel schemes over and above the statutory minimum is best decided locally, in the light of judgment of local needs and circumstances and local authorities' overall financial priorities. I alluded to that in my previous remarks. Against that background, it would be difficult for Ministers to justify through statute regularly publishing information detailing each local authority's concessionary fare scheme, especially in the way in which it is described in the amendment. To obtain meaningful data, it would be necessary to undertake detailed on-bus surveys of the estimated age and employment profiles of users, and that would impose extra costs on local authorities that would produce marginal benefits. Concessionary fare schemes are the local authorities' responsibility within the statutory framework.

Mr. Andrew Turner: The Minister is suggesting that taking on-bus surveys would impose additional costs on local authorities to no obvious benefit.

Mr. Spellar: It would produce marginal benefits.

Mr. Turner: Most local authorities and bus companies will already be undertaking the collection of such data—the authorities to assess the costs of their existing concessionary fare schemes, otherwise they would have no data on which to base their budgeting for the provision of those schemes, and the bus companies to be able to judge where to provide bus services in future. It would be a peculiar scheme if that kind of data were not being collected.

Mr. Spellar: Local authorities and central Government will from time to time assemble data to evaluate the success of schemes and best practice, but it would be a different thing to write that into statute and to have a statutory requirement on all local authorities on an annualised basis.

We are keen to see what changes local authorities have made and we are surveying all local authority concessionary fare schemes to get a snapshot and identify the changes. The results of that survey will be published next year. Ensuring that we have clear evidence and data available is not at issue; the real question is whether we need to enshrine that in statute and create a legislative matrix. We believe that that is unnecessary and bureaucratic and hope that the hon. Member for Cotswold will withdraw his amendment.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I can well understand that the Minister does not want to incorporate the requirement in the Bill. He says that it would create a lot of what he terms unnecessary work for local authorities. Nevertheless, I would have hoped that he might have accepted the purpose behind the amendments, because most of the work that I have outlined is sensible, especially the dissemination of best practice. If the Minister had told us today that local authorities should be doing that work and that his Department would co-ordinate it and make best practice available on its website, we could dispose of the amendment and not press it to a Division.

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