I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. There are so many good reasons why extending the pass will be beneficial, and not just to the people who can travel. Allowing older people the opportunity to travel more freely will mean that they
lead healthier, more active lives. They will travel more, spend more money, go to the local shops more and to different towns, go on days out and enjoy themselves. I cannot express more strongly my belief that those who have served our country and paid their taxes all their livesmany of whom fought for this country in the last warshould be given the opportunity to lead fit, healthy, active lives and gain the advantage of freedom to travel.
The overall real cost is not as great as some may think. As we all know, after 9.30 in the morning many buses and other means of transport are often nearly empty with only a few seats being used, so the real cost of this is pretty small. It is always important to consider the cost of such measures, but it is also important to consider the ongoing benefits. If an older person can travel and go out and enjoy themselves and lead a fit and healthy active life, that will be of benefit to the country and possibly save the health service a considerable sum of money. It will also benefit the local economy. There are many advantages. Many elderly people become depressed if they cannot travel. They stay indoors; they cannot get out and see their friends, visit their clubs or have days out to the shops, the seaside or wherever they may choose to go. Giving older people the freedom to travel in all directions can only be a huge advantage to them all, including those with disabilities.
You have probably heard me mention this before, Madam Deputy Speaker, but administrative boundaries are often a block, not just to transport but to a range of matters. My hon. Friend will know North Ockendon in her constituency. People living there can travel into London but not down to South Ockendon, which is next door. Havering-atte-Bower in my constituency is an historic village right at the top of Romford on the boundary of Essex, and next to it is Stapleford Abbotts, but that comes under Essex county council. There is no sense to this, and I am glad that at long last common sense prevails and we will see real opportunities for people to travel freely without being blocked by nonsensical local government boundaries, which, as I have said many times before, were drawn up at a time when not much thought was given to communities and other reasons for determining such boundaries.
I endorse the words of many, including my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson), on rural services. The constituency of Romford is not really rural, but Havering-atte-Bower is. There are a few horses up there and certainly a few dogs. There are deer in Bedfords park, which people from all around like to visit. There is a hospice, which many with sick and dying relatives come to visit, and a local village school, and the people need to travel. Unfortunately, the bus service is very poora fact that I hope the Under-Secretary will take on board.
We are supposedly part of Greater London, but so far the Mayor of London has not given the people of Havering-atte-Bower the option to travel freely in the way that those from other parts of London do. It is wrong that parts of outer London and rural London are neglected and people there are not given the same opportunity to travel as those in inner London are. I hope that this will be taken on board. This is a great Bill, but it is no good if older people living in a place
such as Havering village are unable to get to Romford town centre because the 500 bus is so unreliable and the Sunday service has been stopped altogether.
I chaired a meeting in Havering village on 23 February, attended by almost all its inhabitants, who are up in arms about being denied a proper bus service on which they can rely. If someone misses the one bus in the morning to the station or it does not turn up, they will be an hour late for work. Schoolchildren who miss their bus cannot get to school on time. There is no other way of getting into the town centre, because the village is 2 or 3 miles away from the train station.
Although this is an excellent Bill, I hope that it will be followed through so that rural communitiesand I have one little rural communitywill not be neglected and forgotten. I hope that the Under-Secretary can raise the subject of Havering-atte-Bower with the Mayor of London, and that the option of extending the 499 bus service will be put forward so that, with a bit of luck, people in the whole of my constituency can have equal availability of bus services.
Let me move on to the costings. We have already said that we need to ensure that the money is available so that the system works. The Bill is well intended, and we all support it, but the last thing we want is to find that the system does not function properly because the money is not available or that local councils have to make cuts in other services in order to fund it. The detail will have to be considered carefully when we meet in Committee, and I hope that the Minister will address the concerns of many hon. Members.
That brings me back to Transport for London, because boroughs such as Havering are being striped up by TFL. We do not receive the services that other parts of London do, and we do not even have an underground in Romford. Is it fair that so much money should be paid to TFL when, as my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster correctly pointed out, there is no proper way to assess what is being spent, and the cost of all this? I am 100 per cent. for the freedom passI have defended it in this Chamber on many occasions, and I have fought to keep and extend itbut we need to know what these things cost so that we can assess them properly. TFL should not be allowed simply to take whatever money from the boroughs it chooses. There should be a proper account of how many people use the services and what they cost. In that way, boroughs such as Havering will not end up subsiding areas in the rest of the country, particularly in London. There has to be a fair way of funding so that everyone pays for their use of the services. The system needs a review, and I hope that the Minister will consider that.
I emphasise the importance of not forgetting disabled members of our community. I know that the freedom to travel scheme is aimed at retired people and pensionerspeople who have left work and are in their latter yearsbut many people of all ages who are disabled also need that opportunity. We need to consider the accessibility of buses and whether, in certain cases, if buses are not appropriate some of the subsidy could be used to help those people to travel by other means. Some disabled people simply cannot get on a bus, no matter what is doneit is very difficult for
them. If they miss a bus or if it is inaccessible for whatever reason, they can be stranded. That is the last thing any of us would want.
In closing, I want to endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge said when he expressed concerns about student travel. It is important for students to travel, but only when it is for educational purposes. In London, we have a serious problem with joyriders on buses; they go on buses, travel around and use them for all kinds of activities. A lot of people who want to use the bus for genuine purposes are sometimes fearful of getting on when gangs of youngsters are using it. It is not right that we should teach young people that this is all free. If they are travelling for educational purposes or something worth while, there should be some assistance, but there should not be a complete free-for-all so that young people can just sit on buses with their mates, which might be great fun and all the rest of it but is not what buses are there for. That needs to be considered carefully before it becomes a serious problem, not only in London but elsewhere.
Finally, I commend the Government for introducing the Bill. I look forward to its implementation and hope that many elderly and disabled people throughout the country will benefit as a result of it. I believe that they will.
Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): I see from the Order Paper that the debate could last till 10 oclock, which presents us with a challenge. I am sure that hon. Members will be pleased to hear that I have decided to resist the temptation of creating a new record for the length of an Opposition winding-up speech.
The debate on this important Bill has been interesting and wide ranging. Mandatory bus travel concessions for England residents are provided on eligible services outside London under the Transport Act 2000 and, in Greater London, under the Greater London Authority Act 1999. Under the 2000 Act, concessions are provided only in the area of the travel concession authority where the person resides. The crucial point of the Bill is that it extends free bus travel so that it is available not only in the local area where the passholder is resident, but anywhere in England, including on the London bus network.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), the shadow Secretary of State, stated at the outset, we welcome the principle behind the Bill. It has our wholehearted support. However, the way in which the Government enact the principle will be the subject of scrutiny, amendment and debate in Committee. We had a foretaste of that today.
The debate has been interesting and excellent, with important contributions. My hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) initially intervened about funding. Indeed, the leader of his council has already written to me about the perversities of funding that it has suffered. My hon. Friends comment was the forerunner of several contributions on funding and cross-border issues.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay) made interesting points about the extent to which Bracknell was advanced in smartcard
technology and asked whether the Government would be in the same position in April 2008.
My hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) mentioned the possibility of funding for the Bill taking away funding from students. My hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) spoke about the deficit that Essex is likely to suffer, and the Secretary of State gave assurances that he would examine that. I trust that the Under-Secretary will reiterate that reassurance.
Being a relatively new Member, I understand that there was a tradition that Whips did not speak in debates. However, todays excellent contributions show the loss that would ensue if Whips were not allowed to speak.
My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) introduced a new socio-economic groupthe twirlieswho wait outside for the 9.30 buses. He discussed the concessions to young people and some of the problems associated with that. He also forcefully raised several London issues, which my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) also mentioned. My hon. Friend the Member for Romford introduced us to another socio-economic group, the harpiesthe Havering Association of Retired Persons.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) made a detailed and important contribution on the status of the buses before deregulation and the service that was experienced in his area and by many people in rural communities. He spoke passionately about the needs of rural communities today, which we need to consider in Committee.
The hon. Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland) spoke about the current funding anomalies in Tyne and Wear, and he and the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) considered bus company exploitation of the system. I am sure that they will want to reread the concessionary fares debate that we held recently in Westminster Hall, in which the Under-Secretary reiterated the reality as she saw it: that bus companies should be reimbursed on a no-better-off, no-worse-off basis. I pointed out that many bus operators see a different side to the story and argue that they receive neither the appropriate reimbursement for carrying concessionary passengers nor the investment needed for increased frequency of travel, which is a direct result of the schemes.
Mr. Kevan Jones: The hon. Gentleman was obviously not listening very carefully. My point about Go North East and other companies was that they are stripping out routes that are marginally profitable or not profitable and concentrating only on the so-called profitable routes, on which the rate of return is staggering.
Stephen Hammond: As I said earlier, we will continue to support the principle underlying the Bill and to study it as it moves through its parliamentary passage. There are a number of practical points that remain matters of concern, as my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell outlined in some detail. We look forward to hearing the Ministers response here and in Committee. Clearly, the important issues include costs, the definition of eligible services, card technology and exactly what type of card will be introduced, cross-border services, the timing of the scheme and hot spots where considerations about funding and other related matters will require further study.
First, on funding, the total amount of available moneys has been discussed across the House. When the new local concessionary scheme was introduced, we were told that the extra moneys provided by the Government would be enough to cover the arrangements. Not so, said the local authorities. At that time, I conducted a random survey of 15 local authorities across the country. Only one calculated that it would receive enough to cover the extra cost of the schemes, with 14 saying that they would not. Today, we are being reassured that the Governments extra moneys will cover the cost of the concessionary scheme, so I look forward to hearing much greater reassurance from the Minister about that, and to finding out in detail how the £1 billion calculation was made. If we cannot get that reassurance today, we will look forward to exploring it in greater detail in Committee. My hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell highlighted the impact of concessionary schemes on Tyne and Wear and Christchurch, and other hon. Members made similar points about other areas.
As the Bill stands, there remain a number of issues about hotspots and honeypots, and I am told that Nottingham authorities are particularly keen that the Government listen to what is said about those issues. Honeypots, as opposed to hotspots, are key destinations within regional areas that those eligible for concessionary travel are likelyeither through necessity or for social reasonsto go to more often. For example, someone may start a bus journey in one area, perhaps in Gedling, and travel to Nottingham. They may get off the bus in the city and travel to Nottingham hospital, subsequently travelling back to the city centre and then back to Gedling. That involves four journeys, exemplifying the sort of honeypots that we are talking about. Can we yet be clearand can the Government reassure ushow the money will follow the passenger? Are the Government absolutely certain that the methods of reimbursement will provide the correct amount to the correct authorities?
As I said earlier, the principle is excellent, but we need more clarity on the practice. As the Bill progresses, we will be looking for further reassurance that the Government will adequately and fully fund the concessions without placing covert extra burdens on local authorities. We need clarity on the reimbursement mechanisms and on
the money following the passenger. The Government need to convince us that they will look further both into hotspot funding, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen), and into the honeypots that I have just described.
The Government will have to clarify exactly what services are eligible. Are community transport and dial-a-ride eligible? If not, why not? If so, why do they meet the definition while other services do not? The Bill will be all the stronger if the Government introduce a clause with a commitment to review eligible services after one year of operation. For example, trams are excluded at the moment, yet many people use them in exactly the same way as they use buses. My hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell raised the issue of the Isle of Wight and I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) intends to discuss it further with the Minister. They will be seeking to persuade her that the ferry service is used in the same way as the bus service. That is why I believe that the Bill will be all the stronger if the Government give a commitment to review eligible services after one year of operation.
The Secretary of State spoke about one of the key drivers behind the Bill being the benefits that it would bring for social inclusion. If that is so, the Government will need to explain whether they will consider the needs of carers. Many people will be given concessionary travel but unless it is given to carers, its benefits will not be available and the arguments about the exclusion of old people that my hon. Friend the Member for Romford made will apply. I look forward to hearing the Ministers comments on that.
As we have heard from a number of hon. Members, we are yet to clarify exactly what type of pass will be available on the proposed date. Will it be a smartcard? Where are the Government on the development of the technology? Our ability to make accurate assessments of take-up and usage will be absolutely reliant on some form of smartcard technology. With that type of card in operation, it will be possible to ensure that the concessionary subsidy is allied to where it is actually needed, so that the subsidy follows the passenger. I look forward to the Minister enlightening us on what type of card the Government propose to introduce in April 2008 and where they are with the technology.
A number of comments have been made about the issues in London. The Secretary of State declined to get involved in the discussion between Transport for London and the London boroughs, yet the issue is real and it needs reassessment. Before my election to the House, I was a councillor in the London borough of Merton. I remember well the 2004-05 budget round, when TFL imposed a 9 per cent. increase in fares for concessionary travel on the local council. That was all very well, but there was no consultation and the 9 per cent. increase was not available in the transport budget, so it had to be found in the social services budget. We therefore may need to re-examine in Committee the arrangements in the Bill for how TFL and the London boroughs interact. Giving TFL complete control to dictate to London boroughs is not a great example of local government and it is not working.
In summary, there is unanimous agreement throughout the House with the principle of national
concessionary fares. We look forward to considering the Bill and its consequences in detail in Committee, although not out of opposition, but to ensure that the content of the finalised Bill enjoys the same unanimous support later that its intent has enjoyed today.