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Paul Rowen: Amendment No. 4 deals with Transport for London charges for permits and seeks to change the reserve concessionary travel scheme in London, so that if London boroughs consider the amount that Transport for London wants to charge is excessive, the boroughs can ask the Secretary of State to arbitrate.
The London reserve free travel scheme is set out in section 241 and schedule 16 of the Greater London Authority Act 1999. It applies only to London, and in negotiating travel concessions London Councils has to reach agreement with TfL on a scheme for its services by 31 December prior to the financial year for which the scheme comes into effect.
If no agreement is reached, the statutory reserve scheme, at a cost determined by TfL, comes into effect. That puts London Councils at a disadvantage when negotiating with TfL, because TfL can determine the costs of the reserve scheme. In effect, uniquely for London, the costs of the concessionary fares scheme are determined by the operators who benefit, whereas elsewhere they are determined by the local authorities, subject to appeal to the Secretary of State.
By way of explaining why the amendment is needed, I refer to a recent example of how TfL is acting in relation to concessionary fares. The reserve scheme covers all the services provided or procured by TfL. As a result of TfL taking over responsibility for the North
London Railway franchise from next November, concessions for that route will form part of the reserve scheme for the first time. London boroughs had no say about that. The amount that TfL will get for concessions on those services is currently under negotiation. I understand that TfL has suggested that London Councils should pay around £1 million for the concessions. London Councils currently pays the Association of Train Operating Companies only about £600,000 for those concessions. Nothing will have changed when the new scheme comes into operation next year, yet TfL has insisted that the London boroughs should pay two thirds more than is currently the case by paying directly to ATOC. There is no appeal, and London boroughs will have to pay up.
Despite claims by the Mayor of London, the amendment is not about seeking to water down or change Londons freedom pass. For the past 23 years, London boroughs have paid for the freedom pass. The scheme provides older and disabled Londoners with free travel on all the capitals buses, trains, tubes and trams, and the amendment is not an attempt to change that. It is designed to ensure that the London boroughs are put on the same level playing field as other boroughs, so that if there is no agreement on the amount that the concession should cost, the Secretary of State can arbitrate on it. That is a fair and reasonable request, and I am prepared to press the amendment to a vote.
John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): I seem to have spent half my adult life defending the London concessionary scheme. I pay tribute to those councillors on the Greater London council who instigated the scheme on a cross-party basisConservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat. The scheme was well in advance of its time, and it brought an advantage to London pensioners that improved the quality of their lives. It was years in advance of its time in terms of its impact on the environment, because it took people out of their cars and on to London transport.
During the debates on the abolition of the GLC, a cross-party lobby of London MPs linked up with pensioners and GLC councillorsthe London boroughs unfortunately split on the matterto insert in the legislation a reserved scheme and arrangements to bring the boroughs together to ensure that the concessionary scheme continued. In my period on the GLCI was chair of finance and deputy leaderwe brought forward investment in the scheme. That improved the benefits for pensioners, of which I am proud. When the GLC was abolished, that legislation protected the scheme.
I was the chief executive of the Association of London Authorities and then the Association of London Government, which brought the boroughs together to protect the scheme. Unfortunately, an axis of malevolence among the boroughs has repeatedly tried to undermine the scheme, either by introducing means tests and charges or by crippling it in some other way. No matter what the intentions of the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) are, the amendment is another dangerous attempt to undermine the scheme in the long term by passing powers to the Secretary of State and out of the hands of Londoners.
TfL is under the control of the Mayor of London, who is directly elected by Londoners. Londoners will have a democratic say in determining this scheme, and as a result TfL will be held to democratic account through the Mayor. The amendment is incredibly dangerous. If we pass from London government to central Government the opportunity to undermine the scheme and the benefits to pensioners, no London pensioner will forgive the parties responsible.
Paul Rowen: I do not represent a London seat, but my seat is in Greater Manchester. Will the hon. Gentleman point out some examples of other boroughs across the country where the Secretary of State hasGod forbid!acted malevolently against the interests of concessionaires?
John McDonnell: Because the London scheme is so much in advance of those outside London, central Government and some individual boroughs have always argued that it is too expensive and that it is extravagant. However, any London pensioner will tell the hon. Gentleman how it has enhanced the quality of their life. I do not trust central Government under any guise with the long-term future of the scheme. The hon. Gentleman may well have tabled the amendment with good intentions with regard to equity, but knowing the history of the scheme, central Government cannot be trusted with its long-term future. I urge the Government to reject the amendment and hope that London MPs can join together, as we did in the past, on a cross-party basis to protect the scheme, which provides such benefits to London pensioners.
Stephen Hammond: Amendment No. 7, which stands in my name and those of my hon. Friends, makes a small yet important change to the reserve concessionary fares scheme, but is in essence exactly the same as amendment No. 4.
Let me state at the outset, so that the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) can hear and so that there can be no dissembling from City Hall as to our position, that the Conservatives support the freedom pass and will continue to do so. London Councils, the body that runs the concessionary fares schemes on behalf of the boroughs, strongly supports the amendments. London Councils is the voice of the 32 boroughs and the City of London, and for the past 23 years it has paid for and run the freedom pass. The pass did not arrive with the Mayor. London Councils has no intention of watering down or scrapping the scheme, and to suggest otherwise is arrant nonsense.
John McDonnell: Does the hon. Gentleman appreciate that in the past several boroughs have put forward proposals to reduce the benefits that the scheme provides to London pensioners? That is a matter of historical record.
My ability to guarantee the scheme if boroughs disagree ensures that it is never under-funded or watered-down.
That is nonsense. London Councils and the official Opposition have always been consistent. There is no threat to the freedom pass and no attempt to underfund it or water it down. The guarantee of the scheme is enshrined in law, not with the Mayor. The Mayor goes on to state:
My ability to guarantee the Freedom Pass each year ensures that older and disabled Londoners continue to get free concessions.
The legislation on concessionary fares in London differs from the rest of England, partly, but not entirely, because the bus industry in London is more regulated. A further major difference is that the concessionary fares negotiations in London are underpinned by the statutory reserve free travel scheme in section 241 and schedule 16 of the 1999 Act. There is no equivalent scheme anywhere else in the UK. It is odd that the Government continue to consider that this elaborate special legislation for a reserve scheme is necessary in London but not anywhere else in the country. In negotiating travel concessions, London Councils, on behalf of the London boroughs, has to reach agreement with Transport for London for a scheme that needs to be implemented on their services by 31 December before the financial year in which the scheme comes into effect. That clearly puts London Councils at a disadvantage when negotiating with TfL. TfL can determine the costs of the reserve scheme. The negotiations cannot be conducted on an equal footing, because whatever London Councils proposes, TfLor in most cases, as he so often claims, for TfL read the Mayorcan reject whatever the proposals may be. There is no reason or incentive for it to negotiate.
I am sure that in a moment the Minister will repeat that if London Councils and the Mayor reached an agreement on alternative arrangements, the Government would consider them. However, it is no good her saying that. The reserve powers have never been used because TfL is in an unfair and unequal position. The Mayor and TfL have no incentive to agree any change. It suits them very well to have a reserve scheme in the background where the costs can be determined by TfL, which is one of the parties to the negotiations, and where there is no appeal mechanism.
The attempts by London Councils to raise this issue have been met by the Mayor saying that that it is attempting to water down the scheme and to reduce benefits. London Councils has repeatedly said that that is not so. There has been a war of press releases, and the Mayor has even roped in various celebrities to support him. This week, Andrew Gilligans article in the Evening Standard was most interesting. It stated:
WARNING to all London pensioners: if a man with a nasal South London accent, a nasty temper and a bad record of dodgy
press releases turns up at your door claiming your free bus pass is under attack, call the police at once.
All that the amendments would do is give the Secretary of State a role as the final arbiter in the event of a dispute about whether the cost is excessive. That would happen in only limited circumstances. First, London Councils and Transport for London would have to fail to reach an agreement by 31 December. Secondly, the reserve scheme would have to be effected, Transport for London would have to let London Councils know the cost, and London Councils would have to take the view that it was excessive. The Secretary of State would have a role only if those things happened. One hopes that they never will.
The current scheme is unique and places a more onerous requirement on London than on authorities in other parts of the country. If the Under-Secretary believes that the new scheme will work so well elsewhere and that the appeal process is appropriate for other parts of the country, why is it not appropriate for London?
The amendments impact would be significant. By having the Secretary of State as the final arbiter in the circumstances that I described, Transport for London and London Councils are much more likely to agree to reasonable demands. The threat to invoke the reserve scheme if no agreement is reached will lessen. The change is simply to ensure a fair and appropriate deal for boroughs in their negotiations with Transport for London and to put the boroughs on an equitable basis with all other local authorities in the country.
I urge the Government to use the opportunity of the Bill to alter the reserve scheme so that, in the case of a dispute, it is decided, in extremis, by the Secretary of State. That puts London in line with the rest of the country and must be correct.
Gillian Merron: There is a sense of déjÃ vu about the debate as we discuss again the London reserve free travel scheme. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) for his correct and spirited defence of the freedom pass and the provision of the Mayor, which does much for people in London, especially those who are more vulnerable. On that basis and with those Londoners interests in mind, I shall recommend that the amendments should not be accepted, and, indeed, that they should be withdrawn.
As hon. Members know, the purpose of the reserve free travel scheme is to guarantee concessionary travel in London when there is no agreement either among the London boroughs or between the boroughs and Transport for London about how best to provide and fund minimum travel concessions.
Amendments Nos. 4 and 7 deal with the specific issue of cost. If I may say so, with as much graciousness as I would always wish to display, it is disappointing to consider again amendments that are so similar to those that were rejected in Committee. Indeed, the only difference between todays
amendments and the amendment that we discussed in Committee is that the deadline for a London authority to appeal to the Secretary of State would be extended from seven to 14 days in amendment No. 4, and from seven to 28 days in amendment No. 7.
Whether the proposal is for a week, a fortnight or a month, hon. Members will not be surprised to learn that the Governments position remains constant, especially given that the Opposition parties propose differing deadlines.
Like the amendment that was tabled in Committee, where it was amendment No. 19, the amendments provide for the addition of a new paragraph 5(8) to schedule 1 of the Greater London Authority Act 1999. Paragraph 5 of schedule 1 to the 1999 Act allows Transport for London to stipulate a charge per pass payable by London authorities to cover the costs to it of providing the concessions under the reserve free travel scheme. The amendments would allow a London authority to appeal to the Secretary of State in the event that the charge is considered excessive, and allow the Secretary of State to determine a lower amount if appropriate. However, paragraphs 5(3) and (4) already specify what may be included in calculating the costs of the reserve free travel scheme, and further matters which must be taken into account. Transport for London will already be acutely aware that if it is not reasonable in its assessment, London authorities will seek judicially to review the determination, and may even refuse to pay while a review is under way. I would hope that that offers the soundest of guarantees. I would also ask Opposition Members what exactly the word excessive should be taken to mean. How is it to be interpreted? How is it to apply?
John McDonnell: There may have been concerns raised by individual boroughs, but none of them has gone to the electorate with this proposal. As we shall have mayoral elections next year, may I suggest that, if the other parties in the House wish to amend the scheme in a way that will undermine itas I think this wouldthey should put it to the London electorate to decide on next year?
As we have seen from this discussion, this is a complex area. It is also one where, I fear, no one solution will please all parties. As the Secretary of State said on Second Reading, until the boroughs and TfL can agree a way forward with regard to any potential change to the reserve scheme, we are not convinced of the case for changing in any way the legislation that guarantees a minimum standard of concessionary travel across the capital. I suggest that the reserve free travel scheme, as currently specified, best guarantees continuing concessionary travel in London. In the light of that, I hope that the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) will withdraw his amendment.
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