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25 Apr 2007 : Column 322WH—continued

3.39 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Gillian Merron): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) on securing this time to discuss the Government’s concessionary fares policy. Many of my hon. Friends and I believe that it will further improve the lives of 11 million over-60s and disabled people in England. I share the views expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts). He described this Labour Government’s commitment to improving the well-being and social inclusion of those people on the back of economic success. That success allows us to make a level of commitment that no previous Government have ever been able to make and to which no party other than ours has committed.

Mr. Leech: Will the Minister give way?

Gillian Merron: If the hon. Gentleman allows me to continue for a moment, I will gladly give way.

I should like to make a few general points and then go on to discuss the specific points that hon. Members
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have raised. As we all know, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced last year that from April 2008 people in England who are aged 60 or over and disabled people will be able to travel for free by local bus not only within their local authority area, but anywhere in England. That guarantee will apply from 9.30 am on weekdays, and all day on weekends and bank holidays. The Government are providing up to an extra £250 million a year to fund this important and popular policy.

Mr. Leech: The Minister is clearly not aware that when the Chancellor introduced in the Budget the decision that local travel was going to be free, it was already Liberal Democrat party policy.

Gillian Merron: The hon. Gentleman has called for the scheme’s further extension, and I shall be interested to hear the costings and to see whether the Liberal Democrats will commit to them.

This extension will benefit the people whom we represent. To make it happen, we introduced the Concessionary Bus Travel Bill, which moved to this House earlier this year. It has made excellent progress, and I look forward to the further debates in the coming weeks about its contents. I am glad to hear support on both sides of the Chamber for the positive difference that the enhanced concession will make to people in communities throughout England.

The hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech) urged me to change my mind before the Bill’s Second Reading. I wondered what I could possibly change my mind about, because my commitment is to extending this scheme and having national free travel in England for those 11 million people whom I mentioned. While listening to his comments, I became concerned, because I got the feeling that we are all doomed—I heard criticism after criticism of the policy. It is important to remember that we would not even be having this discussion were it not for the Labour Government’s commitment to the people whom I mentioned.

We all know that April 2008 is a challenging deadline, but it is achievable with the assistance of local authorities and bus operators. I wish to put on record my thanks for the valuable input from the concessionary fares working group and its task groups. This has been, and will be, a good example of how central Government, local authorities and the bus industry can work together to deliver a real difference to people’s lives. I emphasise that it is in all our interests to ensure that we get this popular and correct policy right, which is where my commitment lies.

Buses are enormously important for getting people out and about, and bus journeys account for two out of three public transport journeys, which comprise more than 4 billion journeys a year in England. We want buses to be used by even greater numbers, and our commitment to concessionary travel will help that aim. Reference has been made to the need to change the way in which buses are run in some areas to attract more people on to them, and I share that view. Our proposals published in “Putting Passengers First” represent the most fundamental change in bus policy for 20 years.

Last April saw, for the first time, free local off-peak bus travel for older and disabled people. Some local
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authorities had concerns about the funding that they received from the formula grant. An extra £350 million was distributed—the figure is increasing to £367.5 million for this year—and that reflects local government’s wish to have freedom and flexibility in how it spends its funding. That Government policy is generally welcomed. As I have said before, we recognise the concerns expressed about the distribution of existing and future funding, especially in respect of visitor hotspots.

I shall refer to some of the points made by hon. Members. Some of my hon. Friends, who are tremendous advocates for bus passengers in both their local areas and up and down the country, have made several points. I was asked about funding following the passenger. Funding will certainly follow where the trip originates, and it is in all our interests to ensure that funding reflects usage.

Clarification has been requested on the administration of the national concession. We have announced that, in order to give some stability, from April 2008 the national concession will be administered by local authorities and passenger transport executives, as it is at present. I also confirm that the Bill will allow local decision making to continue. Local enhancements to the national scheme may continue, and I look forward to that.

An inquiry was made as to whether the funding level is sufficient. I am confident that it is, and it includes a large contingency due to uncertainties about take-up. The positive concern is that success will put pressure on the scheme, but, as always, I would rather deal with the consequences of success, and the extra funding from this Government allows for that. It is important to state that local authorities were consulted on how we calculated the extra money, and we included them all along the way.

I move on to the card that will be used. What will people have in their hands in April 2008? That question is still subject to consultation. I assure hon. Members that we are working with local authorities and are in the process of holding a series of workshops around the country this month and next month, whereby local authorities can give their input and find out more. We are discussing all aspects of the pass design with our stakeholders, including bus operators and local authorities, and the proposals will go out for consultation before a final decision is made. We intend to negotiate framework agreements with suppliers, which authorities will be able to use, should they wish. We also recognise that issuing passes represents a new burden, and we have proposed to pay an additional grant to cover the issuing costs. We are doing everything possible to assist local authorities in delivery, and we will continue to offer advice and support beyond April 2008.

Subject to consultation, the card will be a credit-card-sized photo pass. It will bear the national logo to ensure recognition by bus drivers throughout England, and it will have space for local customisation, such as a logo, to show eligibility for local concessions. In London, the freedom pass will have a national sticker put on it as a temporary measure, because it is not practical or cost-effective to introduce a national pass there in April 2008.

Concerns about cuts in other services have been raised. Sufficient funding is going to local areas for the statutory scheme, but it is for local authorities to
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implement affordable schemes that meet their statutory obligations. After that, they must assess local need and their overall financial priorities, and exercise freedom, flexibility and responsibility in deciding how they spend their funding.

Mr. Clelland: I hear what my hon. Friend has said about local discretion, but local discretion in Tyne and Wear before the free bus pass system was introduced was that an extra £3.4 million should be spent on local services because of the introduction of the free pass.

Gillian Merron: Perhaps it will be helpful if I turn to Tyne and Wear. I was pleased recently to have the chance to go to Newcastle for continuing discussions with Nexus about its good work to develop bus services in the area.

On Tyne and Wear, the Government accept that in such schemes there will be winners and losers. However, that is not specific to the issue of concessionary fares. Indeed, local authorities have long argued in favour of unhypothecated funding. The issue is not unique to concessionary fares. The Department for Communities and Local Government continues to talk to concerned local authorities, such as Tyne and Wear. It is in all our interests to ensure that local authorities are adequately funded to provide the statutory concession.

Mention has been made of the Isles of Scilly, particularly by my hon. Friend. I have no brief to speak specifically for the Isles of Scilly, but their eligible residents will be entitled to the national concession on the mainland, so they will need to administer passes for their residents.

On reimbursement and appeals, which a number of hon. Members have mentioned, we have acknowledged that there are some problems with the current arrangements for reimbursing operators, which are rather complex and open to too much interpretation. Appeals are time-consuming, costly and in no one’s best interests. We are working closely with operators and local authorities to put in place revised and rather more efficient arrangements for the new 2008 concession. We aim to issue new guidance on reimbursement in the autumn, and I hope that hon. Members will take an interest in them.

On the general issue of appeals, it is right that bus operators should have a right to appeal. They should be reimbursed on a not-better-off, not-worse-off basis, and the Secretary of State has appointed an external, independent decision maker to determine appeals on his behalf.

On the allegations of operators putting up fares, it is worth reminding hon. Members that “Putting Passengers First” will give local authorities a role in the determination of maximum fares as and where appropriate. It is also worth reminding ourselves that the majority of bus passengers are not in receipt of concessionary fares. Bus operators must take account of the fact that putting up fares will be a deterrent to fare-paying passengers. Operators receive not the full fare charged, but an average fare, taking into account the whole range of tickets, including discounted tickets.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe asked specifically whether local scheme additions will remain available. The answer is yes, absolutely, and the Bill makes that provision.

On fraud prevention and the delivery of passes, smart cards contain a chip that can record data, which will be immensely helpful. They have many benefits, including the potential to reduce fraud, precise targeting of concessions, and allowing ease of travel, which is very much in line with our integrated approach and our encouragement to get people on to buses. We are actively exploring the possibility of the passes being smart cards. We propose that they should be used as smart cards in areas that have the necessary readers, but will be flashed up in areas where there are no readers. Again, in our discussions with bus operators and local authorities, the need to be pragmatic about what is possible by April 2008, with an eye to beyond, is paramount.

The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) mentioned the mutual recognition of concessionary passes throughout the UK, and that was raised with me when I had the pleasure of being the guest of my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew). I understand the point, but it is the nature of devolved Administrations to take devolved decisions. Concessionary travel on buses is indeed a devolved policy area, but I assure the right hon. Gentleman that the Bill contains the powers it does because we hope that in future—we have had initial discussions with the devolved Administrations—it will be possible to travel on eligible local bus services throughout the entire country. However, I want to make two points. First, it is our absolute priority to get a workable national concession in England in April 2008. That must be the No. 1 priority. Secondly, local authorities across borders can make their own arrangements, if they fund them. That option will always be available under the Bill.

The hon. Member for Manchester, Withington called for a range of extensions to the Bill, but it extends geographical scope only. I shall give some figures, which the Liberal Democrats might want to consider their commitment to. If the scheme were extended statutorily to the under-18s, it would cost an extra £500 million a year, and if it were extended to community transport, it would cost an extra £25 million a year. Those are rough estimates, because the figures would be affected by take-up, and we do not know about the switch from other transport or the additional capacity required. I understand the point, but cost is clearly not the only concern—the Government have already made a substantial commitment of £1 billion a year—and we must consider fair and robust definitions for eligibility, demand, and whether community transport, which is largely a voluntary sector, would be able to cope without full and proper consideration, so I urge caution.

The hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) extended his support to the legislation, for which I am grateful, but I am disappointed today, as on previous occasions, by the paucity of interest from his hon. Friends. His party has given no commitment to our sustained investment in transport.

There have been references to quality contracts, and the proposals in “Putting Passengers First” will make them a realistic option, while ensuring that the
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legitimate interests of operators are safeguarded. Quality contracts are about not only cutting social exclusion and reducing traffic congestion, but the radical rearrangement of bus services, and it is important to ensure that that benefits local people.

The concessionary fares scheme is the right policy for this Government, and it is in all our interests to ensure that we get it right. I record my thanks to all those who continue to give us support, and I am pleased and proud to be involved with this important scheme.

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Romanian and Bulgarian Workers

4 pm

Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): I am delighted to have secured this debate, and I shall use it to seek to change Government policy on the restrictions that are placed on Romanian and Bulgarian nationals in this country. The restrictions are flawed in four ways. First, they are unfairly discriminatory: Romanians and Bulgarians are treated as second-class people, especially when compared with other European Union citizens, including those from recent accession countries. Secondly, the restrictions are counter-productive: they encourage people to work illegally or they force them into the hands of criminals or people traffickers, and they probably cost us in lost tax revenue. Thirdly, the restrictions are ineffective: there are many legal ways around them. Finally, they are costly: the system costs the UK Government a great deal of money, especially when we consider the relatively small number of people involved.

For those reasons, it would be better to abandon the specific restrictions and allow Bulgarians and Romanians the same access to the UK labour market as A8 nationals—people from countries that were admitted to the EU in May 2004. I strongly favour equal access to the UK labour market for all citizens of EU countries—a view that is already on the record from a previous debate of mine in this Chamber on local authority funding and the impact of A8 immigration. It has been my position since well before my election to the House; indeed, I can trace it back to 1989. I do not approach the debate with a general view that the UK should loosen its immigration controls, but the restrictions on Bulgarians and Romanians are wrong, counter-productive, expensive and chaotically administered.

I have been to Romania and Bulgaria on many occasions, but I have not been since I became an MP. I spoke at various stages of the European Union (Accessions) Bill in 2005, and I count myself as a friend of both countries. Indeed, I was in Bucharest during the Romanian revolution of 1989-90. For those reasons and others, it is wrong that the two countries have effectively been demoted to second-class citizens in the EU. However, that is what the Government have done.

Last week I chaired an open, public meeting in Hammersmith for London’s Romanian community. It was organised with a presence from the Romanian embassy, the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants and the Immigration Advisory Service. The meeting was held at the Irish centre, ironically, as it seems that eastern Europeans have already overtaken the Irish as the biggest set of immigrants in Hammersmith and Fulham, although nobody is clear about the precise numbers.

Hammersmith and Fulham hosts not only the Irish centre, but the national Polish cultural centre, POSK. It is one of the—if not the—top UK destinations for eastern European nationals. I cannot say so with certainty, because the Government seem incapable of producing satisfactory numbers on any of those points. Generally, A8 immigration to my part of London has been very positive, with only a few negative side-effects, such as homelessness and handling people whose trip to the UK has not worked out.

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I also consider myself to be relatively knowledgeable about UK immigration regulations. Somewhat surprisingly, the Home Office produces a league table of which MPs produce the most immigration casework. It normally includes me and other inner-London MPs in the top 10. However, at the open meeting that I called, even I was surprised by the amount of confusion about the Bulgarian and Romanian regulations. I have since spent a considerable amount of time researching the issue, and the more time I spend, the more confused I become. The Immigration Advisory Service argues that the Government’s extremely complex set of rules relating to A2 nationals may be deliberate. It says:

Part of the problem arises from the immigrants’ unusual status. They are allowed free entry into and free movement within the UK as other EU citizens, but they are not allowed the same rights to the labour market as them. Like French or German nationals, a Bulgarian or Romanian national who stays here for a long period—normally more than five years—may eventually also gain the right to permanent residence. Students have the same rights as any other EU nationals, and the self-employed—an important group—also have the same rights. The only differences are for people acting or wishing to act as employees.

Unfortunately, there is no time today to describe the regulations in detail. I have the official version, and from the JCWI, an even more lengthy guide to them. Roughly speaking, there are 11 different areas of employment—a real pot pourri of trades—in which an A2 national might obtain an accession worker card. The areas include airport ground staff, but only of foreign airlines, ministers of religion, private servants in diplomatic households and so on.

There is just enough time, however, to consider a few cases that have come before me, showing the perverse effect of some of the regulations. Many of the Bulgarian and Romanian complaints will be familiar to Members who regularly deal with such places as Lunar House: no one picks up the phone, inquirers are left on hold for 30 minutes or more, they never receive an answer to written requests and so on. Those situations arise only after people have applied for registration or some other form of certification, because for those people—Bulgarians and Romanians included—who make initial inquiries, there is no helpline at all. They are given a phone number only after refusal has occurred.

However, many complaints are unique to Bulgarians and Romanians. They are the only nationalities who are not allowed to apply in person to the Home Office. Other EU and non-EU citizens can go to Lunar House in Croydon or another Home Office building, but not A2 nationals—at least that is what I am told. When Romanians get in touch with the Home Office, it is startling how often they are given conflicting advice. I urge Home Office officials to look at the online forum for Romanians in London. I shall happily forward them the website address, so that they can read about some of the Romanians’ experiences.

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