Previous Section Index Home Page

14 May 2007 : Column 408

Mr. Alexander: I have just made it clear that, at this stage, we do not anticipate changes to the concessionary scheme that is available nationally for coach travel. I am keen to emphasise to my hon. Friend that the statutory framework that we are putting in place should best be thought of as a floor rather than as a ceiling; it is without prejudice to the choices made by local authorities and local communities across England about what best suits their needs, although obviously the budgetary constraints of each authority will apply. In that sense, we are seeking not to prescribe the services that can be made available, but to ensure that individuals who live close to local authority boundaries can obtain a standard of service that allows them to travel across those boundaries.

Martin Linton (Battersea) (Lab): I welcome the Bill, but am I right in interpreting my right hon. Friend’s comments as an assurance that he would resist any amendments to it, such as those proposed in the Lords, that would water down or dilute the freedom pass in London? That pass covers the tube, the docklands light railway and buses.

Mr. Alexander: I am aware that this is an issue of some debate. I re-emphasise the point I made a few moments ago: I do not anticipate changes to the freedom pass as a result of the Bill. A huge number of freedom passes are available across the capital, so we will need to take steps to ensure that they can be recognised and used outside the capital for the first time. That is why we are examining the practical issue of stickering the passes. We do not think it would be wise to have a wholesale turnaround of the freedom passes in 2008. The framework that has been negotiated for freedom passes is rightfully a matter for those in London, as opposed to one that is determined by the Secretary of State for Transport.

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham) (Con): The Secretary of State was talking about coach travel. Will he define coach travel, because some of my constituents have no bus service save long-distance coaches? Will those people travel half-price or free?

Mr. Alexander: I should be happy for the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln, who is responsible for buses, to clarify in her winding-up speech the specific definition of coaches that we use—we can see the enthusiasm with which she has embraced that particular responsibility. The substantive point is that the Bill will not alter the definition of what is deemed coach travel and what is deemed bus travel. I am happy for my hon. Friend to detail the statutory basis on which the concessionary scheme for coaches is provided in her winding-up speech. As I say, the Bill will not affect the existing half-price concessionary scheme for coach travel, which was introduced back in 2003. The Bill also retains powers to increase the scope of concessions in future.

Mr. Kevan Jones: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Alexander: I will give way one last time, and then I will seek to make progress.

14 May 2007 : Column 409

Mr. Jones: I am glad that my right hon. Friend gave way to me; I thought that it might be personal. I welcome the Bill, and it will be very welcome in my constituency of North Durham, but the problem that we have had in North Durham over the past few months, and in the lead-up to the introduction of the Bill, is that Go Northern has been stripping out routes. That means that large parts of my constituency, and other constituencies across County Durham, have no access to a bus, so the Bill will not be any good to most of those rural communities. What powers can my right hon. Friend give Durham county council, so that it can ensure that the Go-Ahead group, and other operators that completely ignore social need and concentrate just on profit, can be brought to book?

Mr. Alexander: The assurance that I can offer my hon. Friend is that this is not our last word on reform of the regulation of buses. If he looks at the “Putting Passengers First” policy document that we published before the turn of the year, and if he looks in due course at the draft Bill that we will publish in the months ahead, I hope he will get the assurance he seeks, that new powers will be available to local authorities to ensure the kind of effective working relationship between local authorities and bus operators that is present in too few communities. Today we are dealing with the issue of concessionary travel, but there is the additional issue of how we empower local communities and work effectively with bus operators to make sure that there are decent services on which the concession can be enjoyed.

I am keen to make it clear that where local authorities wish to go even further than the new statutory entitlement, they can continue to do so; a number of colleagues across the House have alluded to that point. Local authorities can make use of existing discretionary powers to achieve the best solution for local people, and I have already referred to the London freedom pass in that regard.

Susan Kramer (Richmond Park) (LD): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Alexander: I will give way one last time.

Susan Kramer: I thank the Secretary of State very much. Is he aware that Transport for London has been using the freedom pass and the reserve scheme, which is unique to London, to cost-shunt on to local councils, particularly with respect to the new rail services that have come on line? Will he consider giving London the same protection as he described to his colleague, the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer)—an appeals process, in which appeals could be made either to the Department for Transport or to an independent arbiter? That would be better than allowing the operator to make whatever charges it pleased.

Mr. Alexander: I know that that is a matter of dispute between the boroughs and TFL. If there were agreement between TFL and the boroughs on the way forward, given the statutory assurances that are in place, an appeals process could be considered, but my understanding is that there continues to be disagreement, and I am not
14 May 2007 : Column 410
convinced that because of that disagreement we should remove the guarantee of a minimum standard of service provided across the capital.

The Bill retains powers to increase the scope of the concession in the future, potentially to other categories of people, to other modes of transport and to different timings. I would like to address the issue of funding, which has already been mentioned by a number of hon. Members. All the measures mean that from April 2008 the Government will be providing around £1 billion a year to fund concessionary travel—a significant sum of money in anyone’s book. Indeed, overall Government funding for buses now amounts to over £2.5 billion a year, and that is up from £1 billion a year in 1997. The framework of the Bill will allow a workable scheme to be in place by next year, to ensure as smooth a transition as possible from the current arrangements. Of course, it is in all our interests to ensure that local authorities are properly funded so that they can provide the statutory concession.

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op) rose—

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab) rose—

Mr. Alexander: I have been generous in giving way, and I am keen to make a little more progress.

Our overriding principle is that the extra £250 million of funding should be directed to where the extra costs will fall, to ensure that we recognise passenger hotspots as far as we can. We are looking carefully at a number of funding options together with the Treasury and the Department for Communities and Local Government. We are discussing the options in detail with our concessionary fares working groups, which consist of representatives from all tiers of local government. We have met with Nexus, London councils, Transport for London and other key stakeholders. We hope to have taken a decision on the preferred funding route by the summer, and we intend to consult widely on our preferred formula for distribution.

We recognise the importance of ensuring that operators receive fair payment for carrying concessionary passengers. Reimbursement will continue to be offered on a “no better off, no worse off” basis, so no operator should be disadvantaged. Operators can appeal if they believe that reimbursement is too low. We also want the power to simplify the administration of concessionary fares. There is a wide variety of concessionary travel schemes across the country, and 291 separate travel concession authorities, which means that some bus operators have to negotiate with many different authorities each year. There is therefore provision in the Bill to transfer reimbursement and administration powers to higher-tier local authorities or to the Secretary of State. That could improve efficiency and save money, but any such change would be subject to extensive consultation and indeed parliamentary scrutiny. It would not be made until after April 2008, so local authorities have plenty of time to prepare for it. We continue to work closely with local government, the bus industry and, of course, with groups representing older and disabled people.

Concessionary travel is a devolved issue—a subject that has been raised by a number of hon. Members, but we want it to be possible in future for concessionaires—

Linda Gilroy: Before my right hon. Friend moves on, will he give way?

14 May 2007 : Column 411

Mr. Alexander: I shall do so, I hope for the final time.

Linda Gilroy: Is my right hon. Friend confident that what he has just described will adequately reimburse the bus companies in Plymouth, Devon and Cornwall—an area which, outside London, is the biggest tourist destination for people travelling within the UK?

Mr. Alexander: I can assure my hon. Friend that such issues are exactly why we have undertaken such detailed work, not just with local authorities but with bus operators and others, to ensure that we devise a mechanism and formula that recognise that resources should be allocated where costs fall. We are looking at a number of different options to make sure that we anticipate where bus usage is likely to be heaviest as a consequence of the national concession.

It is important to understand the measures in the Bill within the broader context of the Government’s strategy for growing bus patronage, which is a matter of some debate. In contrast to the Tory Government, we have put buses at the centre of our transport strategy. As I have already said, patronage steadily declined in the 1980s and early 1990s, but—backed, yes, by record increases in funding—bus use under this Government has increased by 7.3 per cent. since 2000-01, and has gone up six years in a row. Today, there are about 23,000 more buses and coaches registered than in 1997, and the fleet is younger and more accessible for disabled people and other passengers. Although 4 billion bus journeys were taken in England in 2006, we want that figure to continue to rise. The bus review that we undertook last year, “Putting Passengers First”, showed that too many local authorities and bus operators are still failing to work in partnership, to the detriment of services in many towns and cities.

Our ambition is to maximise the full potential of every bus in every part of the country. We have therefore mapped out a new structure for buses under “Putting Passengers First”, in which local authorities provide effective priority schemes, better traffic management and an infrastructure that allows buses to thrive. We want operators to focus on improving services, making sure that they are clean, safe, convenient, accessible and, indeed, comfortable for passengers. We will give traffic commissioners increased powers to improve performance by holding operators and authorities to account for poor performance. We want to make it easier for both groups to arrange frequency of services, timetables and fares through stronger partnership working. We have already achieved tremendous results in areas where operators and authorities work closely together, not simply in London but in Cambridge, Brighton and York, for example, and a rise in patronage, too, in more rural areas such as East Sussex and Kent. We want that success to be replicated in other cities and regions to help to tackle social exclusion and congestion and to support the measures in the Bill.

We have established a strong foundation for a more successful bus industry in recent years. We have introduced a package of measures for the bus sector, of which the Bill is a fundamental. This is unequivocally a Labour Bill. This is a Labour Government delivering for some of the most vulnerable in society. I commend the Bill to the House.

14 May 2007 : Column 412
4.8 pm

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell) (Con): May I welcome the Secretary of State back to the House? He is one Scot, I suspect, who is extremely pleased to be back in London. Fortunately, the issue before the House is relatively uncontroversial, and there are certainly no complicated votes at the end of the evening.

May I begin by giving the Bill a warm welcome? Indeed, I could hardly do otherwise. The Secretary of State rightly said that it is a Labour Bill, because there is a Labour Government, but it is a Bill, too, that commands support across the House. When I was first elected in 2001, one of my first actions was to hold an Adjournment debate on concessionary fares for pensioners, because of an anomaly in my constituency facing many of the pensioners whom I represent. In Worcester Park, a small centre in London that is divided between the London boroughs of Sutton and Kingston and the borough of Epsom and Ewell in Surrey, the boundary literally divided the community on the provision of bus passes. Pensioners living in London enjoyed the benefit of the freedom pass; those living in my constituency did not. Believe me, they let me know regularly how annoyed they were about that. It was not just. I called for change then, and I am delighted that the Secretary of State is leading an initiative to make a genuine change. There was an anomaly, and that is to change. I am delighted that the Government’s move to extend the existing schemes nationally makes the likelihood of local anomalies in future much smaller.

We have always said that where the Government get things right, we will back them, and on the Bill, we think they have got things right. However, the Secretary of State cannot resist lobbing in a few jibes about buses. He makes the old comments about the decline in bus patronage post-1985. I remind him that the decline in bus patronage was greater pre-1985 than it has been post-1985. I also recognise that there are problems with the current system. He paints a rosy picture of what has happened under the present Government. A few weeks ago I went to Sefton, where people are losing their bus services and losing the means of their journey to work, because of failings in the current system.

There are still problems to be addressed in our bus system. If the Government get things right, we will support them, but they do not have a particularly good track record. The last great initiative from the Government on bus reform, quality contracts, has not been an unbridled success. The country is not full of quality contracts changing the face of our bus industry, so I wait with some trepidation to see what happens as a result of these reforms—but, as I always say, if the Government introduce positive reforms and positive changes, we will consider them constructively.

Mr. Kevan Jones: Are not the problems that the hon. Gentleman saw on his visit to Sefton a result of the fact that the Tory Government deregulated the buses, which led to the stupid idea of competition which, in most areas, has ended up with monopolies? He referred earlier to the fact that bus patronage in London has increased. That was the only area that was left regulated.

Chris Grayling: The hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways. Many in his party hark back to the days of
14 May 2007 : Column 413
the municipal bus company, but the fact that the Secretary of State can stand at the Dispatch Box and talk about the improvements to our bus fleets and the increased availability of local buses is down to the investment made by private companies, so the idea that there is some great nirvana to return to is a myth that still seems to delude some on the Labour Benches.

Mrs. Dunwoody: I am delighted. This is wonderful—the greatest fairy story that I have heard for a very long time, and I am the grandmother of 10. May I congratulate the hon. Gentleman? I sat through the 1985 Transport Bill, when the Conservative Government made it clear that as far as they were concerned, buses were a means of transport for the poor and the incompetent who had not managed to make money. The idea that the private bus companies have been fighting to bring in new and useful services in order to expand is absolute nonsense. Will he, just for once, have a little humility? The Government whom he supported destroyed the bus industry. My Government are reorganising it. Will he please give us credit for a little common sense, and admit it?

Chris Grayling: I have the greatest respect for the hon. Lady and her experience of the House. In 1985 I was just leaving university. I suspect the Secretary of State was doing his driving test. What matters is what is happening in 2007.

Mrs. Dunwoody: Ah!

Chris Grayling: I am happy to consider the bus industry today and the future of public transport provision. When the Government get things wrong, as they frequently do, we will hold them to account. When they get things right, as with the Bill, we will support them in doing so.

The introduction of a national scheme for concessionary bus fares for the old and disabled will be welcomed by people all around England. The extension of the scheme that the Government introduced two years ago in a blaze of glory ahead of the general election was essential. The first effort to extend free bus passes nationwide proved to be rather more limited than the headlines suggested, with travel limited to borough boundaries, which was not much use to people whose local shops, local hospital or the services that they needed to access were just across a borough boundary. I hope the Bill will remove such anomalies for the future.

As ever, the devil is in the detail. Although the Bill has cross-party support, important points have been raised on both sides of the House as to exactly how it will be put into practice and what the consequences will be. There are still areas of concern that need to be addressed by the Minister who is to wind up the debate. On funding—an issue raised by the Secretary of State—there are still aspects of the Government’s plans that remain unclear.

Next Section Index Home Page