Travel Concessions (Eligibility) Bill [Lords]

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Ms Keeble: I am sorry that I did not give way. The question said:

    ``Pensioners in my constituency are very pleased that they have no longer to pay the £6 per year for their concessionary half-fare bus . . . Pensioners are therefore asking for a concessionary scheme for longer distance travel. What plans does my right hon. Friend have further to extend concessionary travel for pensioners?''

The answer:

    ``We are going to extend it so that it will also be available for long coach journeys.''—[Official Report, 4 July 2001; Vol. 371, c. 259.]

It is very specific. It does not mention the train.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: It does not mention trains, so we have that matter clarified. That leads to what I was about to say. I do not think that the hon. Lady has grasped the paucity of bus services in rural areas. Sitting in Northampton or London, it is hard to do so. Even scheduled long-distance bus services are fairly few and far between. I invite her—I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury will join me—to come to Gloucestershire. My hon. Friend and I will organise it and we will show her the paucity of bus services. It might be instructive for her to find out the difficulty that some of our remote villagers have in travelling about our constituencies.

Mr. Laurence Robertson: I am delighted to extend an invitation to the Under-Secretary to visit, so that we can show her our constituencies—not only to illustrate the lack of bus services but to dispel the myth that we are a prosperous area. My hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold travels down here every week, so he knows that although the train services from Cheltenham and Gloucester to London might be expected to be very good, they are not.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: My hon. Friend makes the case for transport. Public services—full stop—in Gloucestershire are poor. I hope that the Under-Secretary may be able to consider whether train services can be included in the long-distance travel scheme. A number of train services within Gloucestershire would offer some choice, albeit limited. I ask her to consider the matter seriously.

It is disappointing that the Government have not chosen to accede at least to the principles of the new clauses and to acknowledge the particular problem that my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight faces in his constituency. Bearing him in mind, I recommend that he join me in voting for the new clauses and I give notice that I wish to press them to the vote.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 5, Noes 7.

Division No. 3]

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
Watts, Mr. Dave
Williams, Mrs. Betty
Woolas, Mr. Phil

Question accordingly negatived.

New Clause 6

Extension of concessionary fares to persons18 or younger (greater london)

    `. The appropriate Minister shall consult the Association of London Government and the Greater London Authority over the possibilities of extending the concessionary schemes to people aged 18 years or younger in full-time education within London.'.—[Mr. Clifton-Brown.]

    Brought up, and read the First time.

6.30 pm

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The Chairman: With this we may discuss new clause 9—Extension of concessionary fares to persons 18 or younger—

    `. The appropriate Minister shall consult local authorities over the possibilities of extending the concessionary schemes to people aged 18 years or younger in full-time education.'.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am grateful, Miss Widdecombe, for your very clear chairmanship. Perhaps I need to develop a louder voice, as on several occasions you have not heard me shout for the ayes or for the noes. Next time, I shall make sure that you are deafened and that our voice is well and truly heard.

Government Back Benchers have voted against granting their own pensioners concessions on ferries and other forms of transport. Let us see if we can do better with these new clauses by encouraging them to support us in extending concessionary travel schemes. New clause 6 would extend such schemes to those aged 18 or under who are in full-time education in London, and new clause 9 would require the appropriate Minister to

    ``consult local authorities over the possibilities of extending the concessionary schemes to people aged 18 years or younger in full-time education.''

The new clauses are important. We want to encourage our youngsters to travel by public transport where possible, rather than adding to the ever-growing number of cars in this country. If we can delay the urge to own a car the moment that they reach 17 and pass the test, we would be doing everybody a service. We would also be doing a service to the youngsters themselves. After all, having chosen to stay on in full-time education, many are by definition on very low incomes. The new clauses bear some scrutiny, and if the Government will not accept them I hope that they will at least consider them seriously.

We know that, whatever the system, students in full-time education are in considerable difficulty. Systems such as student loans and a graduate tax have been discussed, as has the question of whether students should contribute to fees. In a small way, the new clauses would help those who want to stay on in further and higher education, and it is in the nation's interest to encourage them to do so. The new clauses would be of particular benefit in our bigger inner cities. An attempt to stem the number of cars owned by students would greatly help the travelling public. Students' cars are often ill maintained and therefore cause some of the bigger problems. If an appropriate concessionary scheme were in place for those in full-time education, we would all benefit.

The Local Government Association has suggested that the Bill provides an opportunity for school children to receive mandatory concession fees, and the new clauses encourage the Government to consult on the pros and cons of such an extension. In the light of that, I strongly urge the Minister think about the new clauses. It may or may not be appropriate to extend the scheme; for example, it may be appropriate only in London, where there is the biggest problem. The mayor is proposing congestion charges and other plans in an effort to reduce extreme congestion in central London. Anyone who uses any form of transport in London knows how severe that congestion is at certain times of the day, at any rate.

People who have to live in cheaper accommodation on the edge of London and in the suburbs often need to own a car. It is difficult for them to get to remote university campuses late at night or early in the morning when they are doing their studies, so they resort to their cars. If we could encourage them just a little to think twice about whether they need to own a car, or could travel on public transport instead, it would do everyone a service. Will the Minister seriously consider the new clauses?

Mr. Don Foster: I commend the hon. Member for Cotswold for raising this matter. I have some concern with the wording of new clauses 6 and 9, which leaves in some doubt whether the Conservative party favours extending the concessionary scheme to people aged 18 or under who are in full-time education. The new clauses raise the possibility of a discussion, rather than including in the Bill the requirement for the Government to extend the scheme to those groups.

I suspect that the hon. Gentleman's intention was to have a discussion of the issue. He has rightly drawn our attention to the importance of developing opportunities for the provision of public transport for such people. I suggest an additional reason why such an extension would be valuable in helping the Government to achieve their intentions. All the evidence suggests that about 50 per cent. of young people at the age of 16 give up the opportunity to enter further or higher education. When surveyed on why they made that choice, a large percentage cite travel problems as a major factor. Alongside the other issues that the hon. Gentleman raised, I believe it important to consider the educational aspect.

I have no doubt that the Minister who replies will draw attention to the cost of carrying out the endeavour. There are considerable differences over what the figure would be. My hon. Friend in another place, Baroness Scott, estimated a figure in the region of £50 million. Lord Falconer, responding to the debate, suggested that the much higher figure of £180 million was more realistic. I am not in a position to judge between those competing claims about the expense.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: The whole matter might be more palatable were it restricted to London, at least for a start. There are particular merits to operating the scheme in London, where the cost of living is higher and traffic congestion is greater.

Mr. Foster: The hon. Gentleman is entitled to that view. I would be interested to hear the reaction from young people in his constituency if he promoted something for Londoners that they were denied, but that is a matter for him and his relationship with his constituents. Were it possible to find the money for such a scheme, and were it deemed an appropriate use of it, it would be better and more sensible for us to look at a nationwide scheme.

I understand that there will be arguments about the amount of money involved. I place it on record that the Liberal Democrat party raised the issue in our manifesto at the last general election, but made it clear that it was an aspiration, not something within our fully costed manifesto. People have often accused the Liberal Democrats of saying that we will do anything and everything and pay for it out of our extra 1p on income tax, but this is a good rebuttal. We made it very clear that it would not cover this. We said that the money could not be found immediately, but that it was a longer-term aspiration.

Although the Government are likely to say no, for the reasons that I have given—and not least the cost—they might also say no because they do see the point in consulting on something that will not lead to anything. That would be the result if we accepted the new clauses. The Government would probably then say that they were improving young people's opportunities through access to various discount travel schemes. That was their response in July, when Lord Falconer in another place talked about the way in which his Department was

    ``working closely with the Department for Education and Skills in developing a Connexions Card which offers a range of commercial discounts for young people in full-time education and is capable of carrying existing travel concessions.''—[Official Report, House of Lords, 24 July 2001; Vol. 626, c. 1900.]

It is now long after the third week in July so the Minister should be able to tell us that significant progress has at last been made and that she has an exciting announcement for young people not only in London, but in the rest of the country. I look forward to hearing it shortly.

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