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This Government have placed helping vulnerable people at the centre of their programme for government, and transport has played, and will continue to play, a key role in this endeavour. In 2001, this Government introduced half-price bus travel in England for all older and disabled people within their local authority area. This installed a
national minimum, in contrast with the previous Tory Governments patchy provision of services. However, this Labour Government also wanted to go further, so from last year we have provided an additional £350 million per year to make such travel completely free.
We have continued to listen to what people want, which is why we are going further still. We want older and disabled people to be able to look beyond their local areas and to have free access to local bus services anywhere in England.
Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy) (Lab): I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. He will be aware of the successful scheme in Wales introduced by the Welsh Assembly Government, but can he confirm that this Bill will go far enough to allow cross-border arrangements between the Westminster Government and the devolved Administrations?
Mr. Alexander: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question. The Bill contains enabling powers that would facilitate such cross-border travel, if agreement is reached between the Westminster Government and, in the case that she suggests, the Welsh Assembly Governmentor, indeed, the Scottish Executive. Speaking candidly, those are not discussions for today but ones that will take place in due course. I should also point out that that is without prejudice to the ability of local authorities in areas adjacent to the border to go beyond the statutory provision and ensure that their schemes allow for exactly the kind of cross-border travel of which my hon. Friend speaks.
Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): My hon. Friend the Member for Conwy (Mrs. Williams) was reading my mind with her intervention. I cannot emphasise enough to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State just how important that issue is. Many of my constituents travel across the Welsh border and across the county border into Merseyside to visit relatives, and the whole travel-to-work area in the Deeside hub is an enormously strong economic zone. It is important that the schemes cross the borders and I urge my right hon. Friend to do all that he can to speed up the dialogue with the Welsh Assembly Government on this fabulous legislation.
Mr. Alexander: I thank my hon. Friend for his generous tribute to the step forward that the Bill represents. Of course further discussions will be taken forward with the devolved Administrationsin his case with the Welsh Assembly Government, but also with the Scottish Executive. Notwithstanding the enthusiasm with which my hon. Friend speaks, I wish to add a couple of caveats about the case for cross-border travel. First, the level of provision of concessionary travel varies across the United Kingdom and it would be necessary for the discussions to reflect that. Secondly, it is a point of principle for those of us who advocated devolution before the establishment of the Assembly and the Parliament that such decisions should involve the devolved Administrations. Therefore it is appropriate that our discussions should be without prejudice to their views.
Mr. Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): May I press the Secretary of State to start the discussions now? He has nearly a year. For some of my constituents, their nearest hospitals and shops are in Scotland and it would not be fair for them to have to wait for another year or two when there is still time to have the negotiations and have an agreement in place for the start of the new scheme.
Mr. Alexander: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his contribution to this debate. It echoes the contribution that he made to the Adjournment debate, in which he spoke forcefully on behalf of his constituents and their cross-border travel needs. I hope that I can offer him some assurance in that I had ministerial correspondence with the previous Scottish Executive about the issue, because officials asked whether it was an enabling power that we should seek to put in the Bill. I was clearly of the view that enabling powers should be taken at this stage. That is without prejudice to important discussions that need to take place, and I am mindful of the points that have been made by Members on both sides of the House about the importance of this issue.
Mr. Hamilton: Indeed. The English are coming to Scotland in droves too, so that would work well the other way. Cross-border travel would allow the Scots to go not only to Berwick and Carlisle but to London.
Mr. Alexander: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his characteristically astute observations. I am not sure that the principal criticism directed at this Government is that not enough Scots are reaching London. It is certainly the case that a high proportion of English-born citizens now live in Scotland and vice versa. It was with such considerations in mind that, when the options were put to me by officials, I was keen to ensure that we took this opportunity to ensure future-proofing of the Bill without prejudice to any discussions on the issue. That is why I welcome the fact that the enabling powers are included in the Bill.
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): Whatever sensible conclusions my right hon. Friend reaches, will he ensure that it is widely publicised that the decisions have been made by Her Majestys Government of the United Kingdom and have not been taken at local authority level alone?
Mr. Alexander: As ever, my hon. Friend speaks with wisdom. It is a matter on which I have been reflecting even in relation to the design of the concessionary travel card, because it is important to acknowledge the scale of the contribution being made by Her Majestys Government to the financing of the national concessionary travel scheme, rather than to leave the impression that it is solely for local authorities.
Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) may be right, but if the Government are to claim the credit for the schemeto pick up the point made earlierit is imperative that they fully fund whatever promises they make. Local authorities cannot afford to subsidise such schemes from the council tax, as they are doing in my area.
Mr. Alexander: That was not the most generous of contributions. There has already been additional support for concessionary travel and the Bill reflects the fact that the Chancellor of the Exchequer made it clear in his announcement that £250 million of additional money would be available for national local concessionary travel. In that sense, we are not asking the House, or indeed the general public, to accept that worthwhile objective without our having committed resources in advance. There was a clear commitment on the part of the Government to make sure that resources are available to reflect the enhanced provision and services that will be available to the countrys pensioners.
We have continued to listen to what people want, which is why we are determined to go further. We want older and disabled people to be able to look beyond their local area and have free access to local bus services anywhere in England, linking exactly those family members and friends of whom my hon. Friends have already spokengiving them access to different places and more services.
As I mentioned, in the 2006 Budget the Chancellor committed up to £250 million of new money each year to pay for the change. It will mean for the first time that about 11 million older and disabled people will be able to use off-peak local bus services free of charge anywhere in England from 9.30 am until 11 pm on weekdays and all day on bank holidays and at weekends, allowing travel, for example, from Cornwall to Cambridgeshire or from Durham to Dorset.
Graham Stringer (Manchester, Blackley) (Lab): This is indeed an excellent Bill, but the system contains a perverse incentive for bus companies to put up their fares, thus enabling them to make an extra raid on public finances. What will my right hon. Friend do to stop that perverse incentive and stop bus companies exploiting the situation?
Mr. Alexander: I know that the matter is of concern to my hon. Friend; he raised it in his recent Adjournment debate on concessionary travel. I hope that I can offer him some assurance in that we are looking at the whole issue of appeals. I fear that at present there is an incentive for appeals to be brought too quickly, given the 28-day time scale, so I hope that an extension to the period during which appeals can be made will avoid the speculative appeals that we have seen to date. I have appointed an independent figure to determine appeals, but I assure my hon. Friend that we continue to give the matter consideration in the Department, not least given the scale of public expenditure involved.
Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): The Secretary of State is being extremely graceful and generous in giving way, so I shall be brief. I very much support the Bill, but I have a concern, which is shared by the highways and transport authority of Bracknell Forest borough council. By April next year, the authority will have to produce a uniform national pass for concessionary bus fares. It wants to use smartcards, which will be efficient and reduce fraud, but as it will be quite some time before the Department for Transport makes a decision it could be too late to set up a smartcard system. What hope can the right hon. Gentleman give Bracknell Forest borough council?
Mr. Alexander: The hope I can offer the council is that a great deal of work is under way in my Department on that issue. I do not preclude the possibility that there could be the smart ticketing of which the right hon. Gentleman speaks, not least given its real benefits, for example in avoiding fraud. There is an important distinction to be drawn between the London freedom pass and the possible development of smart ticketing in authorities that have not previously used it. We are not convinced of the case for an immediate change in the widely distributed freedom pass, so we are looking at the option of stickering freedom passes in London. We are working closely with local authorities outside London on a procurement framework that would facilitate local authorities, such as the right hon. Gentlemans, setting up smartcard systems according to the appropriate time scale. We have not yet reached a definitive decision on that matter. Clearly, given the number of pensioners relying on the cards and the scale of the procurement involved, we want to have the necessary assurances in place before reaching a decision, but I can assure him that we are addressing the matter with great speed.
Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): I will be generous to the right hon. Gentleman and his Government for bringing forward this excellent Bill, which we hope to support. Is he aware of the concerns of the NUS that some councils that have discretionary schemes for young people and students may be tempted to move some funds away from those schemes to fill any gaps in the funding for the scheme that he proposes? What will he do to try to prevent that?
Mr. Alexander: It is not for me to determine the budgetary allocations of every local authority in England. However, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we believe that the additional resourcesthe £250 million of which I spokeshould be able to provide the supplemental service that the Bill facilitates. If he has concerns about his own local authority, I would strongly urge him to have those discussions in advance with the local authority and to impress upon it the fact that it also has a responsibility in terms of the budgetary choices that it makes.
Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire) (Lab):
Secretary of State, you will know that in such authorities as West Lancashire district council, the funding formula that you employed this year meant that they had ample money to implement the scheme. They have not spent all that money on the scheme. My constituents whose shops or nearest hospital are just across the border have got to pay. We have not got a scheme across
Lancashire. These proposals should resolve that issue, but can you give my constituents the guarantee that the process whereby they travel by bus through various areas within Lancashire will be seamless?
I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper) that the scheme is designed to facilitate travel across the wider area, because, of course, an individual could quite easily live near the boundaries of three local authority areas. There could be local services on which they rely that lie outwith a particular local authority boundary. It was with exactly that in mind that we were determined to make further progress.
Mr. John Baron (Billericay) (Con): May I return the Minister to the point about adequate funding? Although I hear what the Government are saying about putting additional money in, the concern of Essex county council is that it is something like £750,000 downlooking at what the Government plan to give the council and what the council believes that the scheme is going to costwhich has a knock-on effect on my local authority, Basildon council, which believes that it is going to be £100,000 down. Will the Minister look at the matter again to make sure that the funding is going to flow appropriately? Would he consider meeting Essex county council to try to iron out those problems?
Mr. Alexander: I cannot claim to be familiar with the specific case that the hon. Gentleman raises on behalf of his constituents, and I would struggle to share his view of those figures on the basis of the future service provision that we are discussing today. He may be discussing historical concerns, in terms of the level of resources available for the local concessionary travel scheme within the county. If he wants to pass the figures and the concerns to me on paper, one of my colleagues or I will look into the matter that he raises.
The contrast that can be drawn clearly is with the previous Conservative Administration, under which I would argue that buses were neglected. The Tory Government might have left some with the impression that buses were deemed to be a problem, rather than a key part of the transport solution. The contrast between the previous Tory Government and this Labour Government is perhaps best exemplified by todays debate on the Bill. The Tory Governments significant bus legislation led to about a 20 per cent. decline in bus patronage between 1985 and 1997. Our reforms have delivered the first year-on-year increases in bus patronage in, quite literally, decades. We will also shortly bring forward further draft legislation on public transport. Buses will be a central aspect of that.
Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell) (Con):
Will the Secretary of State confirm that the only part of the
country of any size in which ridership is increasing is London, which receives a Government subsidy of many hundreds of millions of pounds, and that in most of the country bus patronage continues to decline?
Mr. Alexander: I shall make a couple of points. First, bus patronage is increasing in some localities outside London, and such increases often reflect effective partnership working between the local authority and the local bus operator. However, the hon. Gentleman is right to the extent that he acknowledges that those relationships are not working effectively in too many communities across the country. That is why this Labour Government published Putting Passengers First before the turn of the year. We want to ensure that we extend best practice, which is limited to too few communities, across the country. I believe that Putting Passengers First offers the basis for moving forward towards patronage rises in not just one part of the country, but many other areas.
I am proud to be a Labour Secretary of State for Transport who is putting better bus services at the heart of our transport policy. Improvements in concessionary travel specifically require a change in the law. We must ensure that they are implemented consistently, so that everyone understands how they work. We need to amend the Transport Act 2000 and the Greater London Authority Act 1999
A national concession also requires other changes, and I should like to deal with each of those in turn. The first involves passes, an issue that a couple of hon. Members have raised. It is important that, for example, a bus driver in Kent can easily recognise a pass issued in Yorkshire, so the Bill includes a power to standardise passes across England. We have been working closely with local government and bus operators to finalise the pass design, and we are grateful for their valuable input. We are also seeking to help local authorities with pass procurement.
Where local authorities wish to go even further than the new statutory entitlement, they will continue to be able to do so. They will be able to make use of existing discretionary powers to achieve the best solution for their local communities. For example, the freedom pass arrangements in London will include the new concession but will otherwise not change. The Bill will not affect the existing half-price concessionary scheme on coach travel, which this Government introduced in 2003.
Ms Celia Barlow (Hove) (Lab): The Secretary of State will be delighted to learn that there has been great interest in this scheme in my city of Brighton and Hove, but there is also confusion on the point that he mentioned. In Brighton and Hove, free medical cards are given out for coach travel outside the city. Will they now be available for the over-60s? Will there be a national framework for a coach travel scheme?
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