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12 Feb 2003 : Column 275WH—continued

Buses (Young People)

11 am

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West): Although many people decry the debates held in this Chamber, I welcome the greater flexibility that its layout offers. It enables me to hold an Adjournment debate by addressing the Minister face to face instead of talking to the back of his neck.

I make absolutely no apology for returning to a subject—young people and public transport—that I have raised before, particularly in the ten-minute Bill that I introduced in the previous Session on travel concessions for young people. Public transport and, in particular, affordable public transport is a key issue for young people. Whenever I speak to young people in my constituency, every discussion always comes back to transport. The issue is top of their list, because it affects every other aspect of their lives.

In many ways, young people are like pensioners. Both groups are heavily reliant on public transport and have low access to cars. Both are, in general, low-income groups. Unlike pensioners who, regardless of their income, are all eligible for travel concessions on public transport, only specific groups of young people are entitled to travel concessions. Usually, those concessions are for those in full-time education and training, and sometimes only for journeys to and from school or college. The scale of the concessions varies widely across the country, since they are offered at the discretion of local authorities. The transition from half-fare to full fare also occurs at different ages across the country and, sometimes, it takes place for people as young as 14.

Access to affordable transport is a social exclusion issue. The cost of transport excludes many young people from full access to other facilities and services. However, there is another important transport reason for providing concessions: it is to encourage young people to use public transport. The Government have rightly set a target for increasing bus passenger usage by 10 per cent. by 2010 and they are trying to discourage the use of cars in urban areas.

As I said, young people are already, relatively speaking, heavy users of public transport. Some 13 per cent. of all journeys by 17 to 20-year-olds are by bus, which is more than twice the proportion of other age groups. However, all too often, their dissatisfaction with public transport means that, as soon as they can, they acquire alternative means of transport. They see public transport as the transport that they use if they have nothing else available and not as the transport that they use out of choice.

If young people were encouraged to use public transport and found it affordable, reliable and convenient, they would be much more likely to regard it as a reasonable alternative to car use, at least for some journeys. As they got older, they would be more likely to continue using public transport instead of reverting to using private cars. We need to promote familiarity with public transport in young people if we are to have any hope of building greater bus usage by adults.

The Commission for Integrated Transport considered how Government funding can best be used to promote greater bus usage in its recent report, "Public

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Subsidy for the Bus Industry". Its recommendations included the idea that the Government should increase the total public subsidy to buses and that the subsidy should be related to bus passenger usage rather than bus mileage.

The commission also recommended that, since bus passenger growth in London has already exceeded the 10 per cent. target—I think it has increased by 30 per cent.—the Government should set a separate 10 per cent. target for the rest of England, excluding London, to provide an impetus to everywhere else to try to catch up with London's example.

The commission recommended that travel concessions should be used to reduce social exclusion by being extended to socially disadvantaged groups on means-tested benefits, and that half-fare concession fares should be introduced, where not already provided, for education journeys for those in full-time education. Finally, the commission suggested that half-fare concessions should be introduced, where not already provided, for all under-16s for all journeys, to promote a more positive attitude to bus use.

My hon. Friend the Minister is well aware that affordable transport is a big issue for young people. In November 2002, the Youth Parliament held a special session at Westminster on public transport. My hon. Friend attended and responded to the concerns expressed by the members of the Youth Parliament, who were gathered from all over the country.

Last week, the Youth Parliament held a further meeting at Westminster, and again transport issues were raised. Its members identified a number of problems in relation to bus transport: the low frequency of services and, particularly, the fact that there were few services in the evenings and at weekends; the poor quality of many buses, and the often hostile attitude of staff to young people; and poor information about service frequencies and routes. But above all, affordability was still the major issue.

The Government's social exclusion unit has gathered statistics on young people and transport. They show that nearly half of 16 to 18-year-olds say that they find transport costs hard to meet. In 1999, the average annual transport cost to students in post-16 education was £371. Six per cent of 16 to 24-year-olds had turned down training or further education over the previous 12 months because of transport problems.

A survey carried out by members of the Youth Parliament in Essex showed that the problems are just as real for younger students. The Essex survey of 732 14 to 18-year-olds showed that 309 identified cost as a reason why they do not use buses more. That is more than two out of five of those young people.

The same barriers affect people on benefits as well as young people. More than one in six people in low-income areas have turned down a job in the past 12 months because of transport problems, and 38 per cent. of jobseekers say that transport is a key barrier to getting a job. It is a depressing thought, when we are trying to persuade people out of cars and on to public transport, that jobseekers with driving licences are twice as likely to get jobs as those without.

I turn to the Government's role in addressing this issue. As I said, the Government are committed to increasing bus usage, particularly in urban areas. Young

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people should be considered an important target group. At present, the Government try to encourage bus usage through a variety of mechanisms. The first is direct public subsidy to bus companies, through the fuel duty rebate, at a total cost at present of £253 million. That is a substantial direct subsidy.

Secondly, the Government give guidelines to local authorities. For example, the guidelines on various transport schemes indicate that local authorities should include an element that will encourage greater bus usage, through schemes such as quality bus partnerships. The third mechanism is travel concessions.

In the past, the Government have pointed out that local authorities already have the power to fund travel concessions for young people, and indeed for any other excluded group. That is true, but the Government's own survey of local authorities showed that there was huge variation across the country in whether travel concessions were available for young people and in which groups of young people were eligible. The view expressed last week by many members of the Youth Parliament was that central and local government all too often tried to pass the buck on this issue. When they speak to their local council, they are told, "We would do it, but we need funding from the Government," while the Government say, "We don't need to do it. Your local authority already has the power to do it if it wants to."

The Government have established the precedent for pensioners by granting them an entitlement to a travel concession of at least a half fare across the country. It is open to local authorities to provide a more generous concession, but they are all obliged to provide at least that. There is no reason why the Government should not pursue the same policy by providing such a concession for young people.

There is another player: the bus companies. They should be much more active in encouraging greater passenger usage among young people. Although young people are an important group of bus users, bus companies seem to be apathetic about encouraging greater usage and tapping into a potentially huge market of young bus users. When the Youth Parliament held its session in November, it was disappointed that more bus companies did not take up its invitation to attend. They were only interested in going if they could sell their wares and did not want to listen or respond to what young people wanted. Even when bus companies provide young people's travelcards entitling users to cheaper fares, publicity is often poor and many young people are unaware of their availability. The member of the Youth Parliament from Hertfordshire said that he had a £5 card that entitled him to a half-fare, but he did not know of any other young people in Hertfordshire who knew of it or had applied for it.

In recent discussions with my local bus company in Milton Keynes, it suggested that it was necessary to change the way in which Government and local authority subsidies are offered to bus companies. Most bus subsidies support particular services and give the company little or no incentive to attract extra passengers. The services remain essentially dependent on subsidy, locking the local authority or the Government into continued funding. An alternative would be to use subsidies as seedcorn to help the bus company to break into the youth market.

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For example, a subsidy could be given for a set period only, perhaps for three or four years, with the level of subsidy reducing year on year. Specific targets could be set for increased passenger usage, especially by young people, and part or all of the subsidy could be dependent on reaching those targets with perhaps the possibility of a bonus if the bus company exceeded them. Such a subsidy regime would encourage bus companies to grow passenger usage and to retain it as the subsidy diminished because they would keep the extra fare income. I suspect that the Treasury would welcome such an approach, because any public spending commitment would be time-limited and clearly linked to the achievement of Government aims.

The Government say that they are committed to encouraging people to switch from the private car to public transport, especially in urban areas. Reducing social exclusion is also a Government target. By establishing the children and young persons unit, the Government have demonstrated their commitment to responding to the needs of young people. Buses are an extremely cost-effective, efficient and flexible mode of public transport. The Government should bring all those different aims together and respond to young people's calls for affordable and accessible transport.

I ask the Minister to give serious consideration to two things. The first is to introduce a national half-fare travel concession for young people that is modelled on recent legislation for pensioners. In my ten-minute Bill, I asked for concessions for all young people aged under 25. Perhaps that was over-ambitious but I would be satisfied if, in the first instance, the Government introduced a national half-fare concession for all under-16s, extending it to all under-18s subsequently. Will the Minister estimate the cost of a national half-fare concession for under-16s and under-18s?

Secondly, I would like the Minister to investigate using time-limited seedcorn subsidies to bus companies that are specifically linked to those companies that deliver increases in the number of young people who use their buses. That might be a way of kicking the bus companies into exploiting the youth market. I am sure that the Minister will give me a positive response, as he always does. I depend on it, as do all those young people whose horizons are currently limited by the lack of affordable transport

11.15 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Jamieson) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) both on securing the debate and on her gritty determination on this and many other issues. She made an excellent point about making young people familiar with public transport to secure their commitment to using it. The bus companies should look at that, and we should look at how it could inform our policies.

Last November, I very much enjoyed attending the Youth Parliament here in Westminster. It did not surprise me that transport was of substantial interest to young people around the country, as I know from soundings taken in my constituency that such views are common. I take my hon. Friend's point about the sometimes hostile attitude to young people of bus

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operators or drivers and conductors. However, it must be appreciated that drivers and conductors can find large numbers of young people formidable—it is a two-way process.

I also know that young people's high spirits on buses, particularly when travelling to and from school, can spill over into antisocial behaviour. Two groups of people are affected: the drivers and people who operate the buses, and the vast majority of young people who use buses sensibly. Cracking down on such behaviour and getting good responses from bus companies is important to encourage the use of public transport, especially buses.

My hon. Friend's conclusion was about the importance of getting the views of young people. The Department has been looking carefully at all our policies, not just on buses but on all relevant issues, to see how we can glean young people's views, and evaluate and respond to them. In a healthy democracy, it is extremely important to listen to young people. My experience is that we sometimes get a refreshing view entirely different from that of the conventional groups whom we consult.

My hon. Friend raised the subject of extending concessionary fares to young people under 25 and referred to the recent report by the Commission for Integrated Transport on public subsidy for the bus industry. The Government are keen that young people should be encouraged to use local buses to get to the places where they need to go at fares that they can afford. We also want young people to continue with education and training beyond the statutory school-leaving age. I was therefore particularly concerned to hear those statistics on the number of people who may have been put off taking certain jobs or training because of lack of access to public transport.

We all acknowledge that young people are often on lower incomes and have limited means of travel, but they are perhaps not as vociferous in drawing attention to their situation as older people. However, the Youth Parliament is putting that right, and I very much welcome its sensible, measured and consistent approach which, I believe, will bring it success. None the less, concessionary fare schemes are expensive and we cannot overlook the cost implications.

A number of measures are already in place to help young people who are continuing in education and training with discounted transport costs. For example, under the Transport Act 1985, individual passenger transport authorities and local authorities outside London may extend their concessionary travel schemes to children aged up to 16 or to young people aged up to 18 who are still in full-time education. That power applies to all journeys by young people and not just those to and from school or college. Most bus operators also offer reduced fares for school children and many offer season tickets for young people at school and college, sometimes in partnership with colleges.

In London, responsibility lies with Transport for London, under guidance from the Mayor. Cheaper bus and tube fares are currently offered to children under 16 and there are also discounts on period tickets for young people aged 16 and 17 and student card holders. The

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cheaper child fares—I use the expression for want of a better one—will be extended to all aged 16 to 17 from 1 April this year.

The Government are also promoting the Connexions card project for 16 to 19-year-olds. The card, which was developed by the Department for Education and Skills, offers a range of commercial discounts for 16 to 19-year-olds. It is designed to encourage young people to stay in learning or training beyond the compulsory schooling years by rewarding attendance and is capable of carrying existing travel concessions. In addition, we should not forget that the young person's railcard extends to young people between 16 and 25. Train operators are required through the Strategic Rail Authority to offer the card, which offers savings of a third on a wide selection of ticket types.

Further work by the Department for Education and Skills seeks to evaluate best practice for the provision of transport for students in further education. That work is linked to recent changes to legislation in the Education Act 2002 that clarify the role and responsibilities of local education authorities and their partners in assessing and providing transport for students aged 16 to 19 in further education. In future, LEAs will be required to collaborate with transport providers and other key local organisations in developing and publishing their policy statements for local students.

The Department for Education and Skills has set up more than 60 local education authority-led transport pathfinders to test and develop innovative approaches to transport support and services. It has also set up a transport website that answers frequently asked questions, and a system to post LEA transport policy statements on the Connexions card website. To provide students with better information, our two Departments also aim to bring closer together the work of education and transport planners in local authorities.

I turn now to the Commission for Integrated Transport's report. After a major study to examine the best use of subsidy, the commission suggested that patronage growth and better value could be brought about by reducing the existing concessions to elderly and disabled people, where they were more generous, to the statutory half-fare minimum. The commission suggested that that would assist in the provision of half-fare concessions to additionally socially disadvantaged groups and, where they are not already provided, to under-16s and over-16s for education journeys.

The commission's report makes a useful contribution to the debate on the funding of the bus industry, but I must point out that we have no intention of changing the present statutory half-fare minimum requirement for concessionary travel for elderly and disabled people or of preventing local authorities from offering more generous schemes to those people if they wish to do so. I cannot stress that point too strongly, as it has been the subject of considerable concern among those groups.

My hon. Friend asked for an estimate of the cost of half-fare concessionary travel for all young people under the age of 19. Our estimates suggest that it would be very expensive—possibly as much as £500 million a year. There would also be a serious impact on the present arrangements because part of the cost is currently borne by commercial transport operators, so

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there would be a substantial switch of funds from private to public sector funding. We also estimate that to cover half-fare travel just for 16 to19-year-olds would cost in the region of £180 million a year.

I accept the argument that young people hear central Government saying that local government has the powers, and local government saying that it does not have the funds. It is quite right for members of the Youth Parliament to ask questions of the Government, but I said to them at the gathering—I have also said it to them privately—that these are matters that they should pursue with their local councillors as well. Those young people need a voice here at Westminster to help us to shape our policy, but it is also important that they make their voice heard where the policies are being enacted, in local councils. A lot of them had overlooked the fact that important decisions that affect their lives are taken at local council level. If they approach their local councillors and remind them that they can vote at 18, it might concentrate councillors' minds on putting issues important to young people higher up the agenda of the local authority. I am aware that young people in some areas have been quite successful in drawing these matters to the attention of their local councillors.

The commission's report is only part of the work informing the wider debate on the value of subsidies to the bus industry and its passengers. In addition, as announced in the Budget last year, we are also holding our own review of bus subsidies to look at the value and effect of the £1 billion a year paid by the Government to support bus services. We intend all this work to be drawn together in our review, which will report soon to Transport and Treasury Ministers. I can say now, however, that we see a role for the type of pump-priming support for new bus services that will deliver patronage growth and become viable over a finite period, as my

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hon. Friend has described today. We have been looking at the scope for this in the bus subsidy review, and we are now considering, as a first step in this direction, the funding of some pilot projects as part of this year's urban and rural bus challenges.

Dr. Starkey : Will my hon. Friend give me an assurance that, as part of its consideration of pump-priming grants, his Department will look seriously at whether targets might be set for passenger usage, specifically to increase usage by young people?

Mr. Jamieson : I have to say to my hon. Friend that we have not recently been in the business of gathering more targets. She should accept my reassurance, however, that improving and increasing bus patronage across the age groups—and across the country, geographically—will certainly be our aim and intention. I shall take into consideration the issues that she has raised about targets, and we will put the matter into the process of the review.

This has been a useful and interesting debate. My hon. Friend is urging us to get on with our work, and we certainly have a great deal in hand at present. We will evaluate carefully what the Commission for Integrated Transport and the social exclusion unit have to say, and then draw all the strands together in our bus subsidies review. My hon. Friend raised some vital issues on behalf of young people, and I assure her that her views and the other views that have been expressed outside the Chamber will be given the most careful consideration by my Department.

11.29 am

Sitting suspended until Two o'clock.

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