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We had an interesting debate on Report, and I am grateful to everyone who took part in it and in our deliberations in Committee. We have given the Bill a thorough consideration. I am also glad to say that the Bills principles have received widespread support on both sides of the House. I am pleased that hon. Members comments were both constructive and insightful.
Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): My hon. Friend says that there was detailed consideration on Report and in Committee, but there did not appear to be much consideration of provisions on the reciprocal arrangement for providing travel concessions between different parts of the UK. How will that be taken forward? Obviously, I have a particular interest in the arrangements between Scotland and England, and other parts of the UK as well.
Gillian Merron: As my hon. Friend is aware, the Bill extends off-peak concessionary travel from local to national areas within England, but as I have stated several timesI am happy to give the assurance againit also allows local authorities to make immediate cross-border arrangements if they do not have them in place. It also allows for debate and discussion with the devolved Administrations, which has taken place and will continue. However, our priority is to get the scheme up and running in England from April 2008.
I am glad to remind the HouseI make no apologies for continuing to say thisthat the Bill means that for the first time around 11 million older and disabled people will be able to use off-peak local buses free of charge anywhere in England. They will have the freedom to travel across district or county boundaries to nearby shops, to access health care and to visit friends and relatives, and they will have free off-peak bus travel when visiting any part of England. As I have said many times, this Government recognise that buses are particularly important for some of the most vulnerable people in our society. They often provide a vital lifeline to services such as shops, leisure facilities and hospitals. That is why the measures are so important and why, from next year, we will be providing around £1 billion a year for concessionary travel.
The steps that we are taking build on the Governments previous work. In 2001, we acted to ensure that half-price bus travel in England for all older and disabled people would be available within their local authority area. In 2006, we made such travel completely free. Now we are going still further for those 11 million people up and down the country by enabling them to enjoy free England-wide bus travel. It is an achievement of which all Labour Members can be justly proud. I am sure that it is one that our constituents will continue to welcome.
I want to put on the record my gratitude, and the Governments gratitude, to a wide range of local authority and bus operator representatives and others, who have been so constructive in assisting us as we prepare for the national concession. The Departments concessionary fares working group and its specialised sub-groups have been invaluable in assisting us as we
finalise details of implementation. We are also grateful for the constructive dialogue that we have had with groups representing disabled and older people. I very much look forward to the Bill becoming an Act and to the considerable benefits that this important piece of legislation, introduced by this Government, will deliver.
For the first time, the Bill guarantees that no older or disabled person in England need be prevented from travelling by cost alone. It brings real social inclusion benefits for our communities. It is another important step forward in transport provision, and with great pride I commend the Bill to the House.
Stephen Hammond: From the outset, the official Opposition have made clear our wholehearted support for the principle behind the Bill. As the Minister said, the introduction of a national concessionary bus travel scheme will benefit many people, and the proposals have rightly enjoyed cross-party support.
We have given the Bill proper and extensive scrutiny, both in Committee and today on Report. We have examined its definitions and scope, as well as the eligibility of the persons and services involved and how the scheme will be funded. The spirit was one of great minds working together, so I am disappointed that the Minister did not see fit to accept one or two of the clarifying amendments that we tabled. Our concerns were well founded, but I accept her explanations.
I am grateful to the Minister for the way that she has answered our questions throughout the Bills passage through Parliament. I am also grateful to her and her officials for their courtesy in inviting us to the pre-meeting, and for the explanatory letters that she has provided. They have been extremely useful to all Opposition Members. I am grateful, too, to those of my colleagues who were also in the Committee, and to my staff who helped me with drafting all the amendments.
The Bill may be small, as was noted earlier, but it is extraordinarily important. It has the power to enrich the lives of many fellow citizens. The departing Prime Minister spoke yesterday about the power of good that politics can achieve, and I think that he was probably referring to measures such as this. Many elderly and disabled citizens will now be able to use local services nationally, free of charge. The quality of their lives will be the better for it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) stated the Oppositions approach at the outset, when he said that we supported the Bill and the principle behind it. I am pleased to reiterate that now: the Bill has our support, and we wish it well in its progress to the statute book.
As the Minister noted earlier, the Bill applies only to England and Wales. I have no objection to that, as I am glad that the example set by the Administration in the Scottish Parliament, who were until recently led by Labour, is being followed in England. However, the anomaly is that the Bill does not take us forward to a UK-wide concessionary scheme. As a result, pensioners and others entitled to concessions in Newcastle, for example, will get free bus
travel in London, Truro or Plymouth, but not in Edinburgh. Similarly, their counterparts in Edinburgh can get free travel in Aberdeen and Glasgow but not in Newcastle, Carlisle or elsewhere.
It is not merely a matter of cross-border arrangements for people who live in Berwick-on-Tweed or Dumfries, for example, although I sympathise with those hon. Members who represent those areas. Nor do I want to suggest that people should be able to travel from Caithness to Cornwall by bus, as that journey is not likely to be made very often, but we should allow pensioners and others to take advantage of these provisions in the different cities, towns and other parts of the UK. We should not lose sight of that goal, and I welcome the Ministers statement that the matter is being discussed with the devolved Administrationseven though some of them seem to want to build barriers between the rights and benefits enjoyed by citizens in different parts of the UK. I hope that the Government will pursue the establishment of a UK-wide concessionary scheme. Those of us with constituencies in the devolved areas will be lobbying the devolved Administrations to ensure that they respond positively to any discussions held at UK level.
Paul Rowen: Like the hon. Members for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) and for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz), I welcome the passage of the Bill through the House. It is an example of where political parties of different persuasions can work together for the common good. I am grateful to the Minister and her team for the work that she has put in to make sure that we have been adequately briefed and engaged during the passage of the Bill. I am aware that during proceedings on the Bill in the other place and here she and her team have continued to listen to some of the issues that we have raised.
I have no doubt in my mind that, although the legislation that we are passing today is rather uncluttered and not as complicated as other Bills, its national implementation will require the Government to ensure that on 1 April, or whatever day is deemed the start date, the 12 million pensioners to whom the
Minister referred are able to make full use of an excellent piece of legislation.
During the passage of the Bill, we and other Opposition Members have raised a number of issues, including cross-border issues, which the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith has just mentioned, and eligibility for concessions on other modes of transport and the issue of using boats, which my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) raised. We have asked whether carers should be able to use the service. We also raised the extension of eligibility, widening the definition of mental illness and the issue of cost. The Government have listened on some of those issues. They continue to listen.
As the Minister mentioned, this is the third concessionary bus travel Bill that has made it easier for people to use public transport. I look forward to continuing the progress that we have made today and to having a genuine national concession which includes not just bus but other forms of transport and broadens eligibility. Notwithstanding that, I am delighted that the Bill is on its way and I look forward to its implementation.
That the draft Railway Pensions (Transfer of Pension Schemes) Order 2007, which was laid before this House on 4th June, be approved.
That the draft European Communities (Definition of Treaties) (Agreement amending the Cotonou Agreement) Order 2007, which was laid before this House on 4th June, be approved.
That the draft European Communities (Definition of Treaties) (Amended Cotonou Agreement) (Community Aid Internal Agreement) Order 2007, which was laid before this House on 4th June, be approved .[Mr. Roy.]
Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on an issue of huge importance to families in my constituency. The Minister will know, I am sure, that I am very concerned about the lack of burial provision and have raised the matter regularly with the Ministry of Justice and its predecessor, the Department for Constitutional Affairs.
Only last week in this Chamber during Questions I highlighted the plight of many bereaved families with the former Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), who indicated that under the provisions announced in her written statement earlier this month, councils have additional options available to them, and that there really is no excuse for not providing the burial services much needed by local people.
I understand that the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson) is answering the debate at short notice, but I must impress on him how important the matter is for my constituents. My purpose today is to remedy the dreadful situation that persists in my constituency because of the unwillingness of West Lancashire district council to provide sufficient cemetery plots, a crematorium and a remembrance garden so that all local residents can bury their loved ones locally if they so choose. That is not the case at present, as many bereaved families are forced to find burial spaces in neighbouring authorities.
The lack of burial facilities facing many West Lancashire families, especially those in Skelmersdale, is unjust, unfair and morally unacceptable. People are not being treated with the dignity and respect they deserve. The situation is compounded because it affects those most in need the worst. I am aware that inadequate provision of cemetery and crematorium space is not a West Lancashire-specific problem but that it affects many communities across the UK.
The scale of the problem was recognised in the eighth report of the Environment Sub-Committee of the Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs in 2001. The results of a burial ground survey demonstrate that the problem of lack of burial space will only get worse unless steps are taken to resolve it. The survey found that approximately 80 per cent. of land available for burials is already occupied by graves, with only 20 per cent. unused. The Select Committee report states that as space in cemeteries runs out, it becomes more and more difficult to ensure that families have the widest possible choice of decent affordable options for the burial of their loved ones. I agree with the report that it is not good enough just to say to the bereaved, Sorry, youre going to have to bury your loved one 20 or more miles away because theres no space left in your local churchyard.
The report was the catalyst for work subsequently carried out by the Home Office, the Department for Constitutional Affairs and latterly the Ministry of Justice. The option of introducing a requirement for
local authorities to make an assessment of local needs was set out in the recently published paper Burial law and policy in the 21st centurythe way forward. Disappointingly, the document did not make it a duty for local authorities to provide cemeteriesa missed opportunity.
Today, West Lancashire district council has a population of about 108,000, of whom 75,000 live in my constituency; Skelmersdale alone accounts for more than 40,000 people. In the 1960s, people from Liverpool and the surrounding areas were asked to move to the new town of Skelmersdale and many did. The towns churches and their existing graveyards were meant only to serve Skelmersdale before it was developed into a new town. The graveyards are now full. As one constituent told me, You can live in Skelmersdale and you can work in Skelmersdale, but whatever you do dont die in Skelmersdale.
As long ago as 1997, it was estimated that Ormskirk and Aughton had cemetery capacity for only another 12 months. At that time only 30 new grave spaces were available in Skelmersdale. The problem increasingly affects all communities across my constituency, and it is getting worse by the day; information obtained from local clergy gives an idea of its scale. A Catholic priest recently informed me that in his parish more than 75 per cent. of local people were buried or cremated outside Skelmersdale. A local vicar told me that in his parish more than 90 per cent. of burials were outside West Lancashire.
Mr. Goodwill: I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and the hon. Lady. She and I serve together on the all-party funerals and bereavement group where she has raised this issue, in which I declare an interest. Does she recognise that many farmers have responded to the demand for green burials by setting up green burial sites in the countryside where there is plenty of land? Does she think that local authorities in her part of the world should smile on applications from farmers for those alternative burial spaces?
Rosie Cooper: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Later in my remarks, he will hear that I have had discussions with local farmers and they are offering their land. The district council should accept the offer and move with it immediately.
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