Previous Section Index Home Page

28 Jun 2007 : Column 536

28 Jun 2007 : Column 537

28 Jun 2007 : Column 538

Clause 1

The national concession

Stephen Hammond: I beg to move amendment No. 8, page 1, line 19, at end insert—

‘(d) is taken on a service which has three or more stops on its route,

(e) is not taken on a service where there is a commentary (live or recorded) which is primarily provided for the purposes of tourism, and

(f) is not taken on a service where there are one or more seats bookable in advance.’.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:

No. 6, page 2, line 14, at end insert—

‘(4A) For the purposes of this section a disabled person is a person who—

(a) is blind or partially sighted,

(b) is profoundly or severely deaf,

(c) is without speech,

(d) has a disability, or has suffered an injury, which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on his ability to walk,

(e) does not have arms or has long-term loss of both arms,

(f) has a learning disability, that is, a state of arrested or incomplete development of mind which includes significant impairment of intelligence and social functioning, or

(g) would be defined as having a mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on his ability to carry out day-to-day activities in accordance with section 1 of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 as amended, or

(h) would, if he applied for the grant of a licence to drive a motor vehicle under Part III of the Road Traffic Act 1988, have his application refused pursuant to section 92 of that Act (physical fitness) otherwise than on the ground of persistent misuse of drugs or alcohol,’.

28 Jun 2007 : Column 539

No. 9, page 2, line 30, leave out ‘may’ and insert ‘shall’.

No. 10, in clause 4, page 4, line 18, leave out ‘may’ and insert ‘shall’.

Stephen Hammond: Amendment No. 8 seeks to clarify the definition of services on which concessionary journeys can be taken. That is a concern across England, but it is a particular issue in London. London Councils, as the body running the concessionary fare scheme on behalf of the boroughs in London, has indicated to me that it particularly supports the amendment.

Although London has the most generous concessionary fare scheme in the country, the current freedom pass is not valid on some bus services, because they do not form part of the London bus network and are operated under what are known as London service permits, issued by Transport for London. According to the current definition of an eligible service, London Councils has estimated that the concession could apply to 118 of those services, operated by 51 different companies, from next April. Most people, however, would recognise only about 13 of those as local bus services.

Where a local bus service is clearly provided, which all eligible persons could use, there is no question but that the concession should apply. The current definition of an eligible service, however, could include special events services, park-and-ride services—where a bus fare is charged rather than a car parking fee—open-top bus services and many of the express coach services starting in London. Clearly, those are not what most people would call local bus services. They should not be included in the concession, but London Councils and I estimate that under the current Bill, all those routes would be eligible for the new concessionary fares.

The Minister will no doubt say that she has the power to make an order if there proves to be a need to clarify the definition of an eligible service. In the interim, however, that will merely result in uncertainty for everyone: uncertainty for operators as to whether they should accept concessions and whether they will get reimbursement; uncertainty for local authorities, as they will not know for sure whom they should negotiate with; and most importantly, uncertainty for pass holders as to whether they can use their pass. That is not efficient, and many of the organisations involved will not be able to plan ahead. That is why my hon. Friends and I have tabled the amendment. The amendment would exclude some of the more obvious examples of services that are not truly local bus services. I have suggested three exclusions. The first is services with no intermediate stops between the point of departure and the end destination. A topical example is the special service to Chelsea flower show from Victoria station. Another example is park-and-ride services. Where parking is free and a bus fare is charged, it would be odd for the concessionary traveller to benefit when they would not benefit where the bus was free and the parking was charged for.

3.45 pm

The second exclusion would be services with a commentary. Such services are primarily for tourism purposes, such as the open-top sightseeing buses that
28 Jun 2007 : Column 540
we see coming down Whitehall and past the Palace. The third exemption would be services with at least one bookable seat. That would exclude the coach services between Heathrow and Victoria. If that service were included, London Councils would end up paying for the airport transfers of thousands of visitors to the capital, and I am convinced that that was not the intent of the Bill. So amendment No. 8 is specific and clear.

Section 146 of the Transport Act 2000 allows a change of definition of eligible services. I suspect that the Minister will claim that the order-making power will be sufficient, but I do not believe that it will, for the reasons that I have just stated and because of the uncertainty to which I alluded previously. The amendment has the benefit of clarity. It would add to the definition of eligible services those that should be included and excludes those that should not be included in the Bill. The three extra definitions would remove considerable uncertainty, and there is no reason why they should not be added to the Bill. I listened carefully to the Minister’s attempts to reassure me, but I can see no reason why she should not accept this sensible amendment.

Amendment No. 6 addresses the definition of eligibility of concessionary fares in the 2000 Act and would add to them an additional section covering those with mental health difficulties.

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): Is the wording of amendment No. 6 correct? Proposed new section 4A(e) seeks to include in the definition of a disabled person someone who

I can envisage a situation in which someone has the short-term loss of both arms, perhaps because they have been involved in an accident and the arms have yet to be sewn back on, but I cannot envisage someone having the long-term loss of both arms. Should not the wording read “or has the long-term loss of the use of both arms”?

Stephen Hammond: My right hon. Friend makes a good point. It is a standard definition that has been used before, and I had envisaged it applying to people who had had a stroke and suffered long-term loss of use, but the drafting would benefit from the addition of the words “the use of”. I am grateful to him for pointing that out.

My main intent in amendment No. 6 was the definitions in paragraphs (f) and (g), and the eligibility of people with mental health problems—

Mr. Scott: Can my hon. Friend confirm that the provisions would include children suffering from autism, and their travel to school when provision for their education is not available in their local area?

Stephen Hammond: No, that is not the intention. The amendment relates to people with mental health problems. It is clear that eligibility for concessionary fares is a major factor in determining an individual’s chance of recovery and reintegration into society. Access to community care, drop-in therapy centres, counselling and self-help groups all aid their recovery, and many of those service users rely on public
28 Jun 2007 : Column 541
transport. The essence of my point is that the amendment does not use the phrase “not holding a driving licence” to prevent people from accessing concessionary fares because even if they hold a driving licence, poverty and a fluctuating health condition may make driving impossible. Access to and eligibility for concessionary bus travel could be a major contributor to recovery from mental illness. I urge the Minister to consider the amendment.

David T.C. Davies: I am dealing with one such case in my constituency, in which a gentleman has had his driving licence revoked by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Authority because of an alleged black-out. My hon. Friend will be well aware from his Front-Bench duties that that can be appealed against. Will people lose their right to a concessionary bus pass if they apply for it in the interim period between appealing against a decision to revoke their licence and the return of that licence?

Stephen Hammond: My understanding is that those people would lose that right, because holding a driving licence would militate against the need for concessionary travel—although I would be delighted for the Minister to say otherwise.

Amendments Nos. 9 and 10 concentrate on sole and principal residence. They would oblige the Secretary of State to issue guidelines to local authorities on how to determine a person’s principal residence for the purpose of issuing concessionary passes. As the Bill stands, the Secretary of State will be afforded the powers to do that, but will not be obliged to do it. It is extraordinarily important that local authorities be provided with clear guidance so that passes are issued on a consistent and rational basis. For instance, is the principal residence the place where people spend the most time, the place where they are registered to vote or the place where they pay full council tax?

It is clear that that will be of considerable concern when the 2008 scheme comes into operation. If an elderly person has two residences, one in a town and one in a coastal resort, which is the place of principal residence? Had we used the previous council tax regulations, with reference to discount, we would have had clear guidance, or the Government may intend to include the test of principal residence for capital gains tax purposes. Neither of those tests can predict where someone spends the bulk of their time, and hence where the bulk of the concessionary travel usage is. The phrase

is ambiguous and open to interpretation.

In Committee, the Minister stated that she would issue guidance to local authorities. The amendments enshrine in text the fact that she must issue that before the Bill comes into operation. Local authorities should not have to suffer uncertainty. The amendments bring clarity and certainty and should be supported.

Mr. Walker: I was interested to hear what my hon. Friend said about what is defined as a local service. I want the Minister to give me guidance on a service in my constituency. Although bus services in Hertfordshire are largely the responsibility of the
28 Jun 2007 : Column 542
county council, within the borough of Broxbourne it was decided some months ago to provide a funded service from some of the main locations—the towns—to Chase Farm hospital. The bus is provided by the council, and people pay £5 one way and £5 to return. Would that be defined as a local service under the Bill? If so, would it be required to provide concessionary travel? Although the county council has responsibility for bus services, this one is provided by a local council in the county of Hertfordshire.

Paul Rowen: The three amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) cover some of the issues discussed in Committee, but I hope that the Minister can give an assurance about the eligibility of certain bus routes, as set out in amendment No. 8. We want to ensure that only normal bus services qualify: tourist buses, or buses that have only a limited number of stops or are provided for special circumstances, should not be covered.

I want to concentrate on amendment No. 6. It is very similar to the proposals in amendments Nos. 2 and 1, which are in my name, and it deals with some important matters that remain unresolved. The problem with amendment No. 6 is that we had reached agreement on how disabled people should be defined for the purposes of concessionary fares. For example, the matter was covered by section 146 of the Transport Act 2000, and in section 240(5) of the Greater London Authority Act 1999.

However, mental health is not covered. The Minister wrote a detailed letter about the problem, and I am pleased that her officials have begun talks with Mind to see whether there is any scope for broadening the existing definition. The Bill’s primary definition of a person with mental disability is someone who is not fit to drive. That is a medical rather than a social definition, and so not appropriate.

David T.C. Davies: I have worked with mentally ill people in various capacities, and fully understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying. However, mental illness can encompass a wide range of problems—from people who are unable to care for themselves to those who, sometimes exaggeratedly, claim to have minor depression as a way to enhance the benefits that they receive from the Government. Unless we pin down what is meant by mental disability due to mental illness, it would be difficult for the Government to introduce the concession, as there could well be a flood of applications from people not necessarily entitled to it.

Paul Rowen: I totally agree, and that is why I welcomed the letter from the Minister and the ongoing discussions conducted by her officials. If amendment No. 6 is pressed to a vote, I shall not support it, as I would far rather engage in discussions that would enable us to arrive at a workable definition.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Was the hon. Gentleman not rather shocked by the unsubstantiated assertion that a substantial proportion of claims for incapacity benefit, for instance, on the grounds of mental ill health are fabricated cases? In fact the evidence shows the reverse: good numbers of
28 Jun 2007 : Column 543
people with mental ill health, who may or may not be eligible for concessionary transport under the amendment, neither seek help nor have their condition diagnosed. So the suggestion that somehow there is large-scale fabrication is just not true.

4 pm

Paul Rowen: I agree. Mental health is one of the big unsung issues that we as a country and this House need to address. That is why I welcome the ongoing discussions on a workable definition of mental ill health. Whether we like it or not, for many people part of the road to recovery is getting out into the community, visiting drop-in centres or education centres, and often a barrier to that is the lack of public transport.

Stephen Hammond: I understand why the hon. Gentleman has reservations about amendment No. 6, but I am sure that he agrees with the intent of the amendment, which is to widen the clause to ensure that people with mental illness have access to concessionary travel.

Paul Rowen: I accept that. I hope that part of the outcome of the debate this afternoon will be that the definition is broadened. We can come back to the House once we have a workable definition and the discussions with Mind have been brought to a conclusion, so that more and more people can qualify.

There is one other area that I do not think that other hon. Members have mentioned, although I believe that it is partly covered by the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Wimbledon. People with a communication or social disability such as Asperger’s syndrome do not have a learning disability. They would be excluded by strict interpretation of the definition in the Transport Act 2000. While people with Asperger’s syndrome are not generally refused a driving licence, they have to notify the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency of their condition. Their cases are assessed on an individual basis. That can make car insurance unaffordable, especially for young people. So I hope that when the Minister continues her review, she will consider people suffering from Asperger’s, and whether we can deal with those issues.

In conclusion, although we agree with the thrust of the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Wimbledon, we believe that the most sensible course will be to continue the dialogue with Department for Transport officials and then bring a definition back to the House.

Gillian Merron: This is a large group of amendments and they span a number of important issues. I shall start with amendment No. 8 in respect of “eligible journey”. I am grateful to hon. Members for raising once again the interesting issue of how we define “eligible journey”, which in the context of clause 1 must be considered alongside the definition of “eligible service”. The amendment would add three additional requirements for a journey in England to be considered eligible for the purposes of concessionary travel.

28 Jun 2007 : Column 544

I give an assurance to hon. Members that the issue of how to define “eligible service” is already receiving much attention, and we keep it under active review. Some of the proposals in the amendment may well have merit, and we will certainly consider them. I can give that undertaking as we go forward.

Interestingly, at the end of March my officials convened a workshop to discuss this issue. Only last week, officials again discussed the issues with Transport for London, London councils and other local authority and industry representatives. By a remarkable coincidence, if I might describe it that way, some of the initial suggestions that emerged last week bear a striking resemblance to the content of today’s amendments. I can only conclude that in this case great minds clearly think alike. It would surely be a mistake to turn initial suggestions into legislation without having had a proper chance to reflect and consult more widely, whether informally or formally, on the proposals. We want to hold extensive discussions with those who would be affected to avoid unintended consequences, and I reassure Members that there will be plenty of time for such consideration.

The term “eligible service”, to which “eligible journey” is linked, is defined clearly in secondary legislation—currently, the Travel Concessions (Eligible Services) Order 2002. If necessary in the future, the Government could amend the order to make any of the changes outlined in the amendment proposed by the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) and his colleagues, by virtue of powers under section 94 of the Transport Act 1985 and section 146 of the Transport Act 2000. As well as giving time for full and proper consideration, such an approach would of course preserve flexibility to make further changes to the definition in future, if necessary. Like the House generally, I believe that primary legislation is simply not the place to specify a definition of that type. The proper place for such matters is in secondary legislation, not on the face of a Bill. With that in mind, I hope that the hon. Member for Wimbledon will withdraw the amendment.

Amendment No. 6 relates to the definition of disability in the context of the Bill. As I said in Committee, I realise that the intentions behind the proposal are good. However, as I have explained previously, the Bill is about expanding the geographical scope of concessionary bus travel; it is not about extending the concession to other groups of people, so it is premature to consider extensions when the Government are still in the process of introducing the national bus travel concession. However, I hope Members agree that the Government have already done a great deal to improve the well-being of older and disabled people, who are, as we all agree, among the most vulnerable in our society. Indeed, we are providing about £1 billion of funding each year for concessionary travel in England—a major public spending commitment of which we are rightly proud. The extension from local to national entitlement alone involves substantial new moneys, which will provide significant new opportunities for those who are disabled and over 60.

Next Section Index Home Page