I mentioned the young people in my constituency. The Bill is about concessionary bus travel for the elderly, but the Mayor of London introduced free travel for those aged 17 and under. I welcome that scheme, although that could be because I have three children aged 17 and under who use it. However, it has become increasingly obvious that a minority, albeit a small minority, are abusing the scheme and causing a great deal of antisocial behaviour on busesso much so that some people are calling for that particular concession to be withdrawn. Obviously, I would like the Government to look into that, but I mention it also because many people who would like to use buses are
finding that they can be a bit of a no-go area. Elderly people, in particular, can feel threatened by large groups of young people who are severely misbehaving. It may be a small minority who are involved, as I said, but the situation is increasingly becoming a problem.
Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): My hon. Friend said that some people wish that the concession had not been allowed. Would it surprise him to know that my borough commander is one of them, because of the number of incidents of the nature that he has just described, which the borough commander feels are causing so much trouble to genuine passengers?
Mr. Randall: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There are a great many calls for the concession to be withdrawn. I can well understand them and I have some sympathy, althoughI may be biased as a parent of children who use the schemeI feel that it would be unfair to disadvantage those who use buses sensibly. I do not know where the answer lies. Sometimes these things go full cycle, and I am sure that I will be told that it was those well-known sons of Beelzebubthe Conservative partywho got rid of conductors on buses and things like that. Perhaps we should look at that. Things do go in cycles, but there is a real, severe problem. Luckily, the scheme that we are talking about offers concessions for the elderly and the disabled, and I think that the concept of hells grannies still remains firmly in the realms of Monty Pythonalthough perhaps just occasionally, at advice surgeries, some of us wonder about that.
The real problem will be in the detail of the Bill and the implementation. I look forward to hearing the definitions of bus and coach. The hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) mentioned the open-top buses in Manchester. The same thing happens in London. Also, we have services that go through Uxbridgethe 724 and the 727which are quite long- distance, but which I would regard as bus services. I do not know whether they will be included. The 727 connects the various airports, so it might be quite useful to have it involved in the scheme.
I am not entirely sure that it will be possible to implement smartcards by 1 April next year. I look for reassurance from the Minister on that. One thing that occurred to me was that freedom passes, which are already smartcards, have a separate photo ID card. Those cards are currently issued over the counter at post offices, which, I think we would all agree, most elderly and disabled people find convenient. The national standard being imposed by the Government requires that a photograph be embossed on the card. That means, I think, that applications will have to be sent off and then come back. I think that it would be true to say that that will be much more expensive for usersthe administration will certainly be more expensiveand that it might increase the opportunity for fraud. Perhaps this is another concept to further the diminution in the number of services offered by post offices.
I understand that the existing London scheme, which is based on the oyster card system, is neither compatible nor compliant with the Governments required ITSO standards for the new concessionary travel passes. I assume that all the pass-reading equipment on London buses will need to be changed. I
am sure that my borough and all London councils will want assurances that the cost of re-equipping London buses with new readers will be met by the national purse, rather than by my council tax payers.
Angela Watkinson: Does my hon. Friend agree that when Transport for London negotiates contracts with bus companies, it should be able to collate from Uxbridge, Upminster and all the London boroughs an accurate comparison of the total value of the journeys undertaken each year and the contribution of each local authority to the London-wide scheme?
How will we in London know whether any of the cards issued outside London are fakes assuming that there is a slight difference involving the treatment of identityor whether they have been lost or stolen? There is quite a good system in London. However, I understand that the Department has no plans to create a national database to allow basic checks to be made on the validity of passes that are used outside their home area.
Of course, I welcome the concession for disabled people, as I think we all do. However, we need to take a serious look at disabled facilities on public transport, especially buses, even though some advances have been made. I think that it was my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) who talked about bus drivers who move away quickly, which is not sympathetic to elderly and disabled people who need a little more time than others to take their seats. While it sounds great that the concession will be available, we must ensure that people have the opportunity to use it. That is true especially in rural areas, whether those people are elderly or disabled, as hon. Members have said. The buses in London are excellent. Many people use them to travel from place to place very simplythe system is wonderful. However, as one goes further out into the countryside, it becomes more difficult to find buses. While having a concession is great, people need buses so that they can use it.
I congratulate the Government on bringing forward the Bill and on the intentions behind it. They must listenI am sure that they willto the variety of people who are not only putting forward suggestions, but commenting on possible problems. If the Bill is enacted properly, it will bring great benefits to many, not only in Uxbridgewe have discovered such benefitsbut throughout the country. I wish the Bill well.
Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham) (Con): It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall). He gave a slightly different geographical dimension to the debate, which has been dominated by north-eastern Members. It is good that we have had the balance of a view from London, but I will be returning to the north-east, given that I represent a large rural constituency in that region in which there are particular problems.
The Secretary of State was quite rude about the Conservative Government and the privatisation of the
bus services. He is quite young and I am quite old, and I remember the world before the privatisation of bus companies. I remember when buses were run by municipal bus undertakings, and I know perfectly well what a rotten, dreadful service the majority of those bus companies provided. I seem to remember that there were signs saying, No change given on this bus, as if a visitor to a city would know the price of a ticket.
Mr. Atkinson: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman in a minute. Privatisation gave the bus systems new impetus and created some good new companies. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman is seeking to intervene, because two of the leading companies born of bus privatisation are in our area: the Go-Ahead group, which came from Gateshead, and Arriva, which used to be called the Cowie group. They have made a huge difference to investment in the bus service.
Mr. Jones: In my constituency, those companies have left whole communities without any buses at all because they are concerned with making money, rather than with social responsibility. The hon. Gentleman is elderly, as he says, so he must remember the system under which bus companies and the Tyne and Wear Metro operated; there was through-ticketing and through-timetabling, which worked very well. When the Conservative Government did away with bus regulation, that system went away overnight. That led to absolute chaos for a short period, and to the system described earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland).
Mr. Atkinson: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, and I accept the point about through-ticketing for the Metro system and the bus service. I am not saying that deregulation of the bus services was entirely beneficial; it was not, and it certainly needed some adjustment. However, the principle was right. The principle was that we would eventually get a great many innovative new companies, vastly better buses paid for by those companies, and extremely good long-distance coach routes. We need to defend the original decision, as I believe that it was rightand now that the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) has left the Chamber, I feel it is safe to say so.
I join in the general welcome given to the Bill, which will reduce an enormous number of anomalies. The hon. Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland) rightly concentrated on the financial problems from which the Tyne and Wear area is suffering, but of course the scheme will be of great benefit to my constituents, too. About 25,000 of them live on the fringes of the Tyne and Wear area, and they could never understand why
they could not travel free, even though the buses started only about a mile down the road from them in some cases. In one sense, our gain will be Tyne and Wears loss, because it will subsidise the change. The original system created by the Government had some ludicrous anomalies. In a village on Hadrians wall called Heddon-on-the-Wall, the only journey that any resident could make using a concessionary fare was one of less than two miles between one authority boundary to the west of the village and the city of Newcastle boundary to the east. It was great nonsense, and I welcome the fact that we are removing those anomalies.
I shall briefly hijack the debate to discuss the problems of providing bus and transport services in rural areas, a subject that the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) covered to some extent. There is a problem in that regard. Rural people pay income tax and council tax, so when we talk about providing £250 million for the scheme and having provided £350 million, or whatever it was, for the earlier scheme, we are talking about their money. If they do not have any bus services to use, they reasonably feel somewhat aggrieved. Clearly, in all rural areas there are problems providing public transport systems, but as soon as the Bill is enacted, we should start to consider how its provisions could be extended.
One of the local authorities in my area, Tynedale council, used to have a taxi token system. People collected their taxi tokens, then they would often join together to share them and hire a taxi to go shopping. That was an extremely important scheme. In other areas, people rely on the post bus; that is another crucial lifeline in parts of Northumberland. I am not quite sure how that will fit into the system.
I intervened on my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) to support the notion of help for a community transport system, which is a good way of proceeding with public transport in very rural areas. It is difficult to envisage a regular bus service in some remote communities: it would simply not be practical and the subsidy would be too great. A community system could work quite well. For instance, I mentioned earlier the system that serves Kielder, which has the distinction of being the most isolated village in Englandand also the most tranquil, I heard the other day. The village relies on a community transport service for villagers who want to go shopping across the border in Hawick once a week. It is a valuable service because it allows them to go to a supermarket. Otherwise, they would have to travel a great distance to Hexham to do so.
The other problem with rural services is that the buses are often in poor condition as a result of lack of use. Many of those services run off the back of the school transport system: they double up as school buses at either end of the day, but they operate on service bus routes during the day. The trouble is that they are old. They are not low-level buses, and as a consequence people who need public transportfor example, the elderly and young women, usually with children and buggieshave difficulty going up the steps of those buses. It is an unattractive prospect, and it discourages them from using the service. We therefore need to look closely at the issue of rural transport, particularly the cost of travel for young
people. My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge mentioned a scheme in London. We do not have such a scheme. In fact, children going to and from school and young people going to and from college in Northumberland have to pay £360 a year for a bus pass unless their parents income falls below a certain level. For families with two or three children, that is a considerable sum of money.
Mr. Kevan Jones: I am listening to the wise old gentleman very carefully. Surely old buses, poor service and a lack of routes are the result of things being left to the market. Is he not arguing for regulation in rural areas?
Mr. Atkinson: The hon. Gentleman misinterprets me. The reason why those buses are as they are is that the services are completely subsidised. Apart from school transport, which is a different issue, they are highly subsidised services. Because the level of subsidy is low, the companies can operate them under the terms of the subsidy only by not investing in new buses. The subsidy is too small to allow those small bus companies to buy expensive modern buses. It is simply not feasible. Some of those buses are extremely old, as the hon. Gentleman will know from his constituency. They run on subsidised routes, often with only one or two passengers, so there are problems that need to be addressed. I hope that when the Bill is introduced we can start to address some of the more acute problems in rural areas. In an intervention on the Secretary of State, I mentioned the difference in the definitions of coach and bus. Some of my constituents are served by a long-distance coach route that runs from Scotland. It is not clear whether they would be eligible for concessionary fares if they boarded in Northumberland or elsewhere on the English side of the border.
As I said, I welcome the Bill but I share some of the concerns expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House about its implementation. It seems to be a nightmare of complexity to implement and, given the Governments record of implementing complicated things, I am somewhat alarmed by it. I hope that in Committee, however, at least we will have a better idea of how the detail of the Bill will be worked out.
Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con): May I echo the words of my hon. Friends and, indeed, all hon. Members by commending the Government on introducing the Bill? It is long overdue, and I have long argued that we should introduce a scheme to allow everyone of a certain age and those with disabilities the opportunity to travel by bus and by other means of transport independent of local government boundaries which, in this instance, have proved to be a block to residents from one part of the country travelling to another part of the country, even if they are next to each other. I could give the House lots of examples.
The most obvious one for me, coming from the London borough of Havering, is that one cannot travel using the freedom pass from Havering into our neighbouring towns in Essex. Hon. Members will know, as I have spoken about the matter on many occasions, that people in my part of Greater London
believe, rightly, that they are part of Essex, yet for all these years they have been denied the right to travel to towns in Essex, whereas they have been able to travel to other parts of London.
Although people in my constituency love travelling to places like Uxbridge because they have such brilliant Members of Parliament, they would rather be able to travel to places like Brentwood. They can travel to Brentford in west London, but they cannot travel to Brentwood, which is next door. They can travel to Harrow, which is a nice place as well, but they would rather travel to Harlow. Similarly, when they feel like going to the seaside, it is Southend that they want to go to, not Southgate in north Londonthere is no seaside there. Up till now, they have been prevented from going to places that they would like to travel to, rather than places that happen to be on a particular map, which they are allowed to visit using their freedom pass.
From all the indications that I have heard this afternoon, I hope that the new law will permit all residents of Greater London to travel in all directions, which means that the people of my constituency and the constituents of my hon. Friends the Members for Upminster (Angela Watkinson), for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) and for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) and of all London Members will have the opportunity to travel freely, without the restrictions that they have had to put up with until now.
I commend all the local groups and organisations that have long campaigned for the change. Their campaign, which I have supported, is not over because people in London travel by means other than buses. Costs must be taken into consideration, but it would be nice if the underground could eventually be included, as well as the overground train system. All these things are costly and must be carefully looked into. No one is jumping the gun, but if the principle is right that an elderly or disabled person can travel by bus, why not also by tube?
Among the groups that I commend for their campaigning work, I should like to mention the Havering Association of Retired Persons and particularly Joan Grant, who lives in my constituency and regularly corresponds with me in defence of the freedom pass and as part of the campaign for an extension of travel for retired people and elderly people to other areas, not just in London but to Essex and beyond. My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster also knows that lady.
Angela Watkinson: I thank my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour for allowing me to intervene. The lady whom he mentioned, Mrs. Joan Grant, told me, and her colleagues, that many of their members work in charities right across London and travel considerable distances with their freedom pass, so the pass is of value not just to themselves, but to the organisations they serve. If they are able to travel into Essex as well, other charities and organisations will benefit.