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My hon. Friend tempts me down a road that would extend this debate longer than was intended. I certainly agree that we need to put in place a regional facility for transport issues generally. Public transport would probably be included in a regional look at such
issues, now that we have acknowledged that transport can go beyond local government boundaries.
As I said at the outset, the scheme is a good one, and has been widely welcomed. It is a huge step forward in public transport provision. The Bill, however, has two possible outcomes. The problems that it faces are technical, and can be overcome. If they are, the introduction of free travel will go down as one of the great achievements of the Labour Government. If they are not, I fear that the unfairness that results will lead to dissatisfaction and disgruntlement when there should be celebration. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron), will want to strive to achieve the former and avoid the latter.
Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): I thank the Minister and, through her, the Secretary of State, for the help and information provided in the lead-up to the Bill. The Bill has been, and will be, welcomed on both sides of the House. Bus travel is already the most widely used form of public transport, and the earlier provision of free local bus travel has already seen bus patronage, after a long period of decline, risingfor once, not just in London.
Liberal Democrats welcome the extension of the concessionary bus fares scheme to make it a genuinely national scheme. The provision of free bus use for the elderly and disabled increases social mobility and inclusion. However, as my noble Friends did in the other place, we shall seek to extend and improve the nature of the concession in Committee. On Second Reading I and other Members will raise concerns, which I hope that the Minister will address.
The concessionary bus fares scheme is a national scheme administered locally, and we welcome that. On Second Reading in another place, however, Lord Davies of Oldham stated that if the scheme were administered nationally, according to a National Audit Office report, annual savings of £12 million would result. I hope that the Minister will indicate the estimated additional cost of administering the scheme for local authorities. How much of the extra £250 million allocated has been set aside for that? What are the estimated start-up costs? I have been given estimates of between £35 million and £75 million, depending on how the scheme is set up. How will those costs be met, and by whom?
The Government have also stated their desire to have a national bus pass. The official Opposition spokesman referred to the smartcard. It will be impossible for the smartcard scheme to be available next year, but it is important that the Minister should set out the framework in which she expects smartcards to be introduced. Various schemes operate at present, not least the oyster card in London. We need to examine how that transition will be managed. I agree that the new scheme and the new cards should be ITSO-compliant. But what is the cost of introducing those cards, and who is going to meet it? I agree with the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) about issuing the cards next year, even though they will not be widely usable on buses. We need to ensure that we do not introduce a scheme next year, and then in following years introduce another new scheme with additional
costs. Will the Minister give some detail in her wind-up about how the transition scheme will be managed?
Funding is the issue that will exercise most Members; it has been the major focus of the remarks and interventions made so far. The current scheme has been introduced via the formula granta blunderbuss instrument that deals with population and demographics but takes no account of bus use. The London boroughs, for example, have estimated that the actual cost of the scheme for London was £100 million, but they received only £53 million through the formula grant, the balance having been met through increases in council tax or cuts in other services. The hon. Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland) spoke of the experience in Tyne and Wear, where cuts in other services were necessary to pay for the scheme.
We must ensureother Members will no doubt press thisthat there is reimbursement for the costs of any scheme. It has been said that the reimbursement will come from journeys within a local authority, but how will that work? I recently asked the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport how many people were travelling to various tourist destinations. Other Members have mentioned some of themplaces such as Blackpool, Cleethorpes, Scarborough, London and Manchester. Although the Department was able to give those figures, no information was available about the number of over-60s or the number of disabled people who were using buses in those areas.
It is important for us to deal with actual figures, because, as I have said, the formula grant is a blunderbuss. I hope that the Minister will agree to meet leaders of a cross-party delegation from those tourist destinationssome of the main honeypotsto discuss how the scheme might operate in their areas. While I know that all local authorities have an interest in ensuring that the scheme is fully funded, those areas have particular concerns. If a direct grant is to be administered for actual journeys, how will the Minister ensure that the necessary information is provided? We know how the formula grant operates, but that question is particularly important.
Other Members have mentioned bus fares, and the definitions of the types of transport and bus services that are eligible. In the past 12 months, bus fares have risen faster than the retail prices index. In Greater Manchester, an appeal to the Secretary of State by bus operators resulted in a substantial increase in bus fares and an extra cost of £3.5 million to the passenger transport authority. With an increasing number of bus journeys funded through the concessionary fare scheme, is there not a temptation for bus operators to increase fares? What mechanism will the Secretary of State introduce to ensure that there is reimbursement for actual costs, and no element of profiteering by bus operators?
The Secretary of State said that 291 authorities would be involved in negotiations with the major bus operators. While I do not want to see national control of the scheme, I hope that there will be a national framework enabling us to operate to common guidelines when it comes to amounts per mile, so that local authorities administrative burdens do not increase dramatically because they have to engage with, effectively, just five major bus operators to provide a scheme in their areas.
As I have said, we need a proper definition of the services that will be eligible. For instance, will the open-topped buses that are used by tourists in Manchester qualify, or will they be exempt? Services have been mentioned which in other areas might be classed as coach services. Again, we need a proper definition of the services that will be included.
Following our experience of the scheme for appeal, I hope that the Secretary of State will undertake a review of how the scheme has operated in 2006 and ensure that it applies equally, including to the London boroughs. The Liberal Democrats are fully in favour of the freedom pass, but we do not think that it is fair for Transport for London to be able to override the London boroughs in terms of the costs that are charged to them. We believe that the scheme should apply equally to all authorities and not exclude the London boroughs, as it does at present.
Turning finally to those who will be eligible, I hope that we can have a proper discussion of what we mean by disabled. We need to have an inclusive definition that ensures that there is maximum usage, including by those suffering from mental illness. Will the Minister also consider extending the provisions of the scheme to those who are disabled and need a companion to accompany them? At present that is not provided for, but it is important.
The Bill does not extend to other forms of transport. I understand why the Government might be reluctant at this stage for it to do that, but the Bill does not take account of what happens in areas which do not have a dedicated bus service. The hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) mentioned the effects on rural services when buses have been lost: people have had to rely on either community transport or taxi voucher schemes. Why cannot the concessionary bus scheme be extended to such areas?
In my own area recentlyin Deeplishan operator decided to remove a bus and the passenger transport authority put on a taxi service for which people pay 50p. I know from talking to pensioners that they feel that it is iniquitous that they lost the bus service and although they got a free bus pass, they are not able to use it and they are having to pay. There ought to be some recognition of that. We have heard about the fact that the Isles of Scilly do not have any bus services. The ferry service to the Isles of Scilly ought to apply as a concessionary service as that is the means of transport that those on the Isles of Scilly have to use. Also, what will happen where other modes of transport are used but where part of the journey is travelled by bus, such as on some of the Merseyside ferry journeys? Why cannot there be an extension to include those?
We also heard mention of cross-border issues. The devolved Administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland already operate more generous schemes than those proposed in the Bill. I hope that those benefits will be extended to neighbouring local authorities, and that we can have a working scheme in place before next April so that people who live near the borders can make full use of the schemes that exist. That should be a prerequisite of the introduction of a genuine multi-modal scheme that covers all modes of transport. The Government have left scope in the Bill
to introduce that, and I hope that we receive some suggestion during the progress of the Bill of their intentions in that regard.
Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): I welcome the Bill. I know that it is warmly welcomed in North Durham, and in Durham in general, for pensioners and disabled people. The 11 million people nationally who will gain from its provisions will warmly welcome it.
I am glad that the Government are now concentrating on buses. In the first couple of terms of our Labour Government, we have concentrated too much on capital incentive schemessuch as for light railin urban areas. We may have forgotten that the main mode of transport in many rural areas is the bus, and that buses are not a luxury but a necessity in those areas.
I welcome the fact that the Bill will set up a national scheme and will, hopefully, do away with the various anomalies that the boundaries of counties and local authority areas give rise to. Although we, as politicians, understand those boundaries intimately, it is clear that local people cannot understand why they exist; they do not understand why they cannot catch a bus to wherever they want in the north-east, for example. Therefore, this concentration on bus services in rural areas is welcome. My constituency is a large rural area and, as I said, for most people who do not own a car, access to a bus is not a luxury but a necessity.
The bus network is long overdue for change and the White Paper is a step in the right direction, in that it has been recognised that a degree of regulation needs to be put back into the system. The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) accused me of wanting to go back to the old municipal bus companies. I do not want that, but I do want local authorities and passenger transport executives at least to have some more power to direct bus companies. It is no good giving people in the county of Durham free bus passes if the local bus service is not there. Go Northern has stripped bus routes out of my constituency in the past 12 months, leaving many communities completely isolated and without access to a bus. Although many elderly and disabled people in those communities will welcome access to free and concessionary fares, if there are no buses they cannot access that great benefit delivered to them by a Labour Government.
I turn to a point made by the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen). As we debate this Bill, we need to consider the extension of concessionary fares to other forms of transport in places where bus services are not available or have been withdrawn. In some rural areas, communities use taxi buses or other community transport facilities instead. The hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) referred to the great use that is made of post buses in his large rural constituency. I am not suggesting that we should have a network that delivers people all over the region, but we need one that delivers them to the major hubs, so that they can then
get a bus or another form of transport into the major conurbations. I want the Government to look at that issue, please, and to extend concessionary travel to areas that do not have access to bus services because the market has stripped them out.
I fully endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland) said about the distribution of funds. Last year, Tyne and Wear passenger transport authority had to withdraw funding for well-established schemes that support teenagers and other disadvantaged groups in order to introduce a concessionary scheme. My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) made an interesting point when he said that that led to a reduction in the transport footprint on Tyneside. The PTA had to cut services to pay for concessionary fares, thereby leaving the outer parts of west Newcastle, for example, without a bus service, so that had the opposite effect to the one that the Government wanted, which was to expand free transport and access to it. Sadly, when my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (David Miliband) had responsibility for such matters, the representations made by my hon. Friend the Member for Tyne Bridge and others fell on deaf ears. Hopefully, the present Secretary of State will look at the case that Tyne and Wear is making more favourably.
I turn to the question of who has responsibility for concessionary faresan issue that the Secretary of State mentioned when he opened the debate. The ludicrous situation in Durham is that, although the county council is the transport authority responsible for passenger transport in the county of Durham, responsibility for concessionary fares lies with the district councils. So last year we had the ridiculous situation in which seven district councils were potentially going to introduce individual schemes. Without my intervention, and the very vocal support of my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods), we would have had a silly situation in which people would have been able to travel freely within Chester-le-Street, but when they went over the border into Durham, City of Durham or Derwentside district councils, they would have had to pay a fare. Fortunately, sense prevailed and we now have a county-wide scheme.
We also have a scheme that allows people to travel outside the area, into Tyne and Wear, but I take the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Tyne Bridge made about people travelling from Tyneside into County Durham. I am pleased that the Minister announced that the issue will be reviewed, but I urge him to consider the point that it is no good giving the responsibility to district councils. It has to be a county council decision. People must also be told whose responsibility it is, because I can foresee squabbling between district councils. I hope that we will not have to wait too long before the Government abolish the district councils in County Durham, which would do us all a favour and we could have a unitary council for the area.
The other issue is the national nature of the scheme. According to discussions that I and other County Durham Members have had with bus companies, they have difficulty through-ticketing with other companies. If the scheme is to be successful, people will have to be able to travel seamlessly around the north-east and nationally. I recognise
the point made by the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell from the Conservative Front Bench that we need a system that would allow that to happen. We envy the London oyster card and we need a similar system for the north-east or even nationally, so that pensioners could use their card wherever they went. However, the bus companies tell me that that would require some investment in technology.
The hon. Member for Rochdale touched on another issue that needs careful consideration. In the negotiations on the scheme, the bus companies are playing councils off against each other. There are only five major bus companies now and we are probably not going to get a very good deal for the taxpayers money that we give them. In many areas, the big companies have monopolies with which others cannot compete, and when we discuss concessionary fares with those companies we need to strike a hard bargain. It is hard to agree with a Liberal Democrat twice in one debateI am sure that fellow Labour Members will forgive mebut I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the bus companies have monopolies and we should insist on some national minimum standards for them. Otherwise they will play councils off against each other.
The other sector that we need to take into consideration is the smaller bus operators. Some in rural communities do a fantastic job of providing small, localised services in rural communities. For example, Stanley Taxis in my constituency is a taxi firm, but it also runs a limited bus service. Such operators need to be taken into account when considering concessionary fares, because they are part of the transport network.
I welcome the concentration on buses and concessionary fares by the Government, because it will help thousands of my constituents. Transport is not only about major capital schemes. Alongside this Bill, we need proper transport planning. The electorate in the north-east rejected a regional assembly, and I respect that decision, but we need some body in the area that can consider regional transport infrastructure and the planning of services. Such a body could deal with rail and bus services across the region. If there is to be a unified concessionary fares system for north-east England, we do not want County Durham to have a better deal than Tyneside, or vice versa, or for the scheme to operate differently in different areas. A single transport authority would be able to make a stronger case when arguing with and lobbying the bus companiesthe monopoly suppliers. When I raised that point recently, I was told that it was the responsibility of the North East assembly. I am sorry, but I think the assembly should be abolished rather than be given more powers. However, there is a strong case for a single passenger transport executive or authority to cover the entire area.
People ask what the Labour Government have done for us. The Bill is yet another example of the Labour Government delivering to 11 million pensioners. It is not surprising that the penny is slowly dropping among Conservative Front Benchers and they do not want to be caught opposing the good, popular ideas that Labour is delivering.
Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge) (Con):
Like everybody else, in general I welcome the intentions of the Bill,
although as we have heard from previous speakers, some serious issues will have to be looked at, otherwise there is a danger that, as the hon. Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland) said, those good intentions might not deliver what people expect. Ironically, when people are promised something that sounds wonderful, if it does not turn out to be as good as they expect, they are more disappointed than if they had never been offered it in the first place. However, I wish the Bill well and hope that any potential problems and anomalies will be sorted out in Committee.
As my constituency is in the London area, my elderly constituents in Uxbridge have enjoyed the benefit of concessionary fares for some time, through the use of the freedom pass. Bus drivers have told me that over the years the concessionary fare scheme has given birth to a new type of person. They are who is nicknamed twirlies. They wait at bus stops just before the concessionary period starts, look eagerly at the bus driver and ask, Are we too early? Members in other parts of the country can look forward to that important group becoming a feature of the landscape.
Not all my elderly constituents benefit. As we have already heard, there are problems for people on the edge of a concessionary scheme area, such as my constituents in the area traditionally known as Uxbridge Moor, which stretches from Uxbridge towards Slough in Buckinghamshire. The only bus that serves them, which goes from Uxbridge station to Slough, is not part of the freedom pass system, so they feel extremely aggrieved that they cannot benefit from concessionary bus faresan example of people who are disappointed because they were promised something that they were not given.
The London borough of Hillingdon looked at possible ways of dealing with the problem, such as issuing oyster cards, but the cards cannot be used on that bus route. Those constituents feel that they have been given second-class status, simply by dint of where they live, so they are very much looking forward to the Bill. It is not just the elderly who do not benefit. As the oyster card system does not work in the area, young people in my constituency who are entitled to an oyster card for free bus travel in London cannot use the card to get into Uxbridge town centre. However, let us hope that the scheme solves the problem for my elderly constituents. I flag up the problem not just on behalf of my constituents, but because it happens in other border areas. It should be looked atotherwise, those who live just on the edge of an area could feel that they are unfairly treated.
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