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Concessionary Fares

4. Mr. Stephen Hepburn (Jarrow) (Lab): If he will make a statement on the introduction of the concessionary bus fare scheme. [34463]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Ms Karen Buck): Free off-peak local bus travel in England for people aged 60 and over and disabled people will come into effect on 1 April 2006. The necessary order was laid in Parliament on 28 November. The Government are providing an extra £350 million in revenue support grant for 2006–07, which will be sufficient to fund the cost to local authorities.

Mr. Hepburn: My hon. Friend will know that the metro makes up a substantial part of the transport system in Tyne and Wear and is used by thousands of pensioners. While I welcome the news of extra finance, there will still be a substantial deficit in Tyne and Wear after the provision of free travel for pensioners. Will she review that decision?

Ms Buck: I am conscious of the representations that Nexus has made on that issue. The £350 million provided by the Chancellor is to fund free off-peak bus travel and is a generous boost to bus travel. It is up to local authorities to make the decision to make any additional provision for other transport modes or to extend the scheme in other ways. I am afraid that I cannot give my hon. Friend any assurance in the short term that there will be any extension of the scheme.

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): Welcome though the scheme is, one problem in areas such as mine is that many constituents wish to travel to towns, to shop or visit friends, across district and national boundaries, and that limits the benefit of the scheme. The local authority, although it may wish to extend the scheme, may simply not have the resources. What help can the Minister provide?

Ms Buck: The idea of a fully national concessionary scheme is attractive, but it would cost an extra £160 million. If the hon. Gentleman is saying that his party is committed to providing that extra sum, perhaps he could advise us of that. Transport competes for priority in public expenditure with other services and, at the moment, we are working on the £350 million investment in bus travel that I have mentioned.

Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab): Is my hon. Friend aware that First South Yorkshire has implemented fare increases of more than 30 per cent. in the past year, leaving south Yorkshire with some of the highest fares in the country? South Yorkshire passenger transport executive has now informed us that First South Yorkshire is not willing to sign up to the previously agreed deal to fund the concessionary travel scheme. What advice can my hon. Friend offer South Yorkshire passenger transport executive to correct that unsatisfactory situation?
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Ms Buck: I am aware that in these processes some robust negotiation usually takes place between bus companies and local authorities about the concessions. The Government are funding bus services overall by almost £1 billion and providing an additional boost of £350 million. Inevitably, service levels across the country will vary, but I hope that that investment will be welcomed on both sides of the House as a major step forward in providing concessionary transport to an important and vulnerable constituency.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con): In constituencies such as mine, community transport run by charities—such as those in Bakewell and Eyam, Ashbourne and Amber Valley—provides a valuable and essential service for older people. What arrangements are being made for those services to benefit from the scheme?

Ms Buck: It is for local authorities to decide, according to their resources, whether to invest in other forms of transport, be that community transport schemes or token schemes, which can be more applicable to rural areas. Some local authorities, such as that of my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Jeff Ennis), already fund the concessionary scheme above the present level. Local authorities across the country are taking decisions to meet the needs of local communities in different ways, and they will have to decide how to use the money that was announced by my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government yesterday.

Mr. Nicholas Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend) (Lab): It appears that insufficient funds have been allocated to district authorities in the county of Tyne and Wear and, therefore, to Nexus to cover even the off-peak concessionary pensioners bus fare. If that turns out to be the case, what action will my hon. Friend take to remedy the situation?

Ms Buck: I do not accept that the sum available will create that shortfall. The £350 million that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced is more than sufficient to ensure that full off-peak services are available across the whole country. It is always inevitable in the development of any formula that there is a risk that not every authority will be satisfied. We consulted the Local Government Association about the formula and amended it to weight it more heavily towards the uptake of concessionary transport, and in so doing we went a long way to meet the concerns of Nexus, which we appreciate has a particular problem.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): In the Budget, with typical hyperbole, the Chancellor promised free bus travel for every pensioner, so I was surprised when, a few weeks ago, I received a letter signed by the hon. Lady revealing that pensioners in rural areas such as mine, who need to travel outside their district to reach hospitals and other vital services, will be obliged to pay. She has confirmed that today in answer to questions from both sides of the House. She also said that people using dial-a-ride and community bus schemes may have to pay, too, unless local councils
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divert resources from other key priorities. She really must correct the Chancellor's claim, or apologise for her letter, withdraw it and think again. Is this free travel for every pensioner or is it free only if they do not travel where they need to go?

Ms Buck: I absolutely refute what the hon. Gentleman says. Since the announcement was made in the Budget, it has been clear that the concession extends and builds on the existing scheme, which is free off-peak travel for pensioners within their local authority area. That has never differed, and it has been raised on a number of occasions in the House and outside—it builds on the existing scheme. To create a national scheme would require primary legislation and, as I said earlier, an additional £160 million. I confirm to the hon. Gentleman that the concession that was announced builds on the provision that I have outlined.

Mr. Hayes: The Chancellor said:

So now we know: another of the Chancellor's forecasts has been downgraded. Local councils fear that the Treasury's grant will not meet the extra demand on the buses and that yet again they will have to rob other budgets or raise council tax to bail out the Government.

The explanatory notes to the statutory instrument say that

among, for example, disabled people aged under 60 who are now entitled to concessionary travel. Is not it true that local government will be underfunded and bus operators will be reimbursed only once they have paid out, that pensioners and the disabled will not know where they are allowed to travel free of charge, and that the Government do not have a clue about the financial effects of the scheme? Hapless, helpless, hopeless.

Ms Buck: The hon. Gentleman should tell us what arrangements his party has made to extend the scheme. It is a very generous extension to concessionary transport and builds on the existing scheme, which is for local transport. That is consistent with the announcement that my right hon. Friend made at the time of the Budget. It is consistent with the form of words that we have used throughout. At present, local half-price transport on buses is available to pensioners and people with disabilities and we are putting in an extra £350 million to take that up to a full concession. That is absolutely consistent with everything that has already been said and I am confident that pensioners across the country will welcome the scheme.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): It is such a good idea that I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me for saying that it would be most unfortunate if it got off on the wrong foot. It is important that the Department takes charge of the various schemes and ensures that they run seamlessly together. Otherwise, we shall be in the extraordinary situation where a good scheme, needed by pensioners and benefiting so many people, will fall into disrepute simply because of incompetence over which the Government are not in control.
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Ms Buck: I am afraid that I do not accept what my hon. Friend says. At present, we have a scheme that works well across the country and which we are topping up with an additional £350 million. I see no reason why the scheme as it will be implemented from next April will not work and will not provide, as it is intended and funded to do, a much more generous concessionary scheme for disabled people and for pensioners.

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): Although I welcome the extra investment in concessionary fares, in my constituency it will actually make things worse for pensioners. My constituency neighbours Tyne and Wear, and many of my constituents travel over the border into Tyne and Wear for their services. Under the scheme as outlined, which is based on district council boundaries, they will not get free travel; they will have to pay more to travel across the border.

Ms Buck: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, but I honestly do not see how it could possibly make anything worse. At the moment, the half-price concessionary scheme extends to the local authority border. We are now making that a free concessionary scheme extending to the local authority border, so I see absolutely no reason why this is anything other than an additional generous contribution to concessionary travel.

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