Concessionary Bus Travel Bill [Lords]

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Schedule 1

The London free travel scheme
Amendment proposed : No. 19, in schedule 1, page 13, line 18, at end add—
‘(7) After paragraph 5(7) insert—
“(8) Where a London authority considers the amount notified by Transport for London under paragraph 5(1) to be excessive—
(a) the authority may within 7 days of being notified by Transport for London apply to the Secretary of State to review the proposed charge; and
(b) if the Secretary of State agrees that the proposed charge is excessive, then he shall notify both Transport for London and the authority of an alternative lower amount.”.’.—[ Stephen Hammond.]
Question put, That the amendment be made:—
The Committee divided: Ayes 5, Noes 10.
Division No. 2 ]
Hammond, Stephen
Leech, Mr. John
Rosindell, Andrew
Rowen, Paul
Scott, Mr. Lee
Blizzard, Mr. Bob
Clelland, Mr. David
Levitt, Tom
McIsaac, Shona
Merron, Gillian
Moffatt, Laura
Roy, Mr. Frank
Snelgrove, Anne
Starkey, Dr. Phyllis
Waltho, Lynda
Question accordingly negatived.
Schedule 1 agreed to.
Clauses 6 to 8 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 9

Variation of reimbursement and other administrative arrangements
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Stephen Hammond: I rise to make some brief comments and to seek the Minister’s reassurance because, on the face of it, the clause gives me and my colleagues some concern.
The thrust of the Bill is to extend concessionary free travel on eligible services to eligible people. Until now, the mechanisms of application to verify service provision, of operator reimbursement, and of travel concession authority reimbursement have been via local government. However, subsection (1) allows the Secretary of State to alter that mechanism by order, and to impose a central system in relation to reimbursement and/or other administrative functions of the English travel concession authorities under sections 145 to 150 of the Transport Act 2000. The Secretary of State could therefore take such powers and, in effect, underfund the scheme, which would impose greater burdens on local government grants. Additionally, the Secretary of State could take such powers and, by not using the mechanisms of local government, render the whole scheme opaque, withno right of appeal for operators or for local government.
Although the clause provides a mechanism to appeal to the Secretary of State in the event that such powers are taken, the Secretary of State is not actually under an obligation to take the powers. Will the Minister therefore clarify under what circumstances the Secretary of State might wish to take such powers, thereby altering the thrust of the Bill? Will she reassure us that the relevant order would be dealt with by means of the affirmative regulatory impact procedure, and that there would therefore be an obligation to prior consultation? Will she also assure us that, notwithstanding the making of the order by affirmative procedure, there would also be a vote in the House? Will she further confirm the exact nature of the parliamentary scrutiny that is intended by the clause drafting, and, finally, will she explain the circumstances in which the clause would apply?
Gillian Merron: I assure the hon. Member for Wimbledon that if we were to centralise arrangements by secondary legislation, it would be consulted on and it would require an affirmative resolution. I hope that I have reassured him of the scrutiny that would be involved.
Stephen Hammond: I wish to clarify that that procedure would require a debate on the Floor of the House and a vote thereon.
Gillian Merron: The normal parliamentary arrangements would apply.
Clause 9 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 10

Reciprocal arrangements for providing travel concessions
Paul Rowen: I beg to move amendment No. 13, in clause 10, page 8, line 31, leave out ‘may’ and insert ‘shall’.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 14, in clause 10, page 8, line 38, leave out ‘may’ and insert ‘shall’.
Paul Rowen: The amendments deal with reciprocal arrangements between the other nations of the United Kingdom. I wish to make it clear at the outset that by proposing a minor change from “may” to “shall”, we are not suggesting that the Secretary of State should impose complete reciprocity at the beginning for someone living in, say, the Shetland Isles to be able to use the system in London. The particular areas about which we are concerned were those referred to on Second Reading by my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith). He raised the issue of authorities being on the border and circumstances in which a pensioner may need to visit a hospital that is just over the border. Under the current arrangements, there is no system in place for reciprocity. We are concerned about limited circumstances in which people in border towns may need to access services just across the border.
This a probing amendment. I hope that the Minister can assure us that such arrangements will be put in place to cover those instances when it is important that someone can access a service that is just over the border. If that does not happen, we shall disadvantage many people who might have to travel considerably further to access a hospital, whereas just a few miles down the road in, say, Scotland—as is the case in Berwick-upon-Tweed—is a hospital that people need to access.
The amendment is not about extending the provision across the piece, but dealing with a specific situation in which there is a border town and the services that people may need to use are only a few miles away. I hope that the Minister can assure us that some reciprocal arrangements will be put in place fairly quickly. That would certainly satisfy my right hon. Friend, who represents a border constituency.
Stephen Hammond: We recognise the intent of the two amendments. Indeed, we are keen to see the introduction of reciprocal arrangements for concessionary bus travel by residents in England established as soon as possible in Wales and Scotland, particularly in circumstances that are covered by the amendment.
However, my concern is that the amendment would not set any time frame by which the Secretary of State could work. Conservative Members are worried that the amendment could delay the start of the 2008 scheme in England, which would not be wise. Unless a time frame can be established, we shall be cautious about it.
Gillian Merron: I understand the intention behind the amendments from our previous discussions. I accept the wish to move swiftly forward in respect of the mutual recognition of concessionary bus passes throughout the United Kingdom. However, now is not the time. Our absolute priority must be to implement a workable, national concession in England in April 2008.
Indeed, the Bill provides for the legislative changes that would be needed to allow for mutual recognition in the future. The hon. Member for Rochdale made a specific point about short journeys across borders, to hospitals and so on. I emphasise that local authorities already have the discretionary powers that they need in order to allow their residents to cross into and out of devolved Administrations and England using their concessionary passes. That is the way to deal with that specific point. However, there is a wider point to be made. As a Government, we want older or disabled people resident anywhere in the UK to be able to travel on any eligible local bus services in the UK.
I remind the Committee that concessionary travel is a devolved policy area. One of the reasons why I cannot agree to amendment No. 14 is that we would be legislating for Welsh Ministers without proper consultation and without their agreement. Surely it is also not desirable to oblige the Secretary of State and Welsh Ministers to do something for which there has not yet been full consultation with the devolved Administrations, operators and users. We must ensure that the arrangements work effectively and that the important work on the practical issues is done.
4.30 pm
There is also no guarantee that the recognition of Scottish passes in England, as would be obliged by the amendment, would be mirrored in Scotland or Northern Ireland, by the recognition of English concessionary passes there, nor that the Scottish or Northern Irish Administrations would agree to fund travel by their concessionaries in England and Wales. Moreover, questions about eligibility, modes and timing are just some of the issues that would need to be discussed and agreed, in addition to pass recognition and funding arrangements for the reimbursement of operators. To repeat a well worn figure, from April next year the Government will be providing around £1 billion a year for concessionary travel in England. Further spending will occur in the devolved Administrations.
Any move to mutual recognition will of course incur further costs, which are extremely difficult to predict at this stage. We know from the introduction of the Scottish national scheme that people’s travel patterns change when concessions are enhanced. It would seem wise to have in place—and working well—the provision for people to travel across England in the first instance. Once those data are available, we shall have far greater certainty on the costs of extending coverage still further. Hon. Members are already pressing me for more certainty on funding and reimbursement in respect of the April 2008 changes. The Department is working to provide that certainty in England for next year, and we do not wish to put at risk all the hard work that local authorities, operators and the Government are doing in preparing for the implementation of the national concession.
Forcing the arrangements for mutual recognition to be hastened, particularly where there is provision for local authorities to come to a sensible and local arrangement, would threaten the successful implementation of the English national concession. I hope that hon. Members would not want to do that. I therefore urge the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment.
Paul Rowen: Having made the point, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 10 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 11

Paul Rowen: I beg to move amendment No. 3, in clause 11, page 10, line 19, after ‘10’, insert ‘, [Application to Isles of Scilly]’.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 4, in clause 11, page 10, line 22, after ‘8’, insert ‘or [Application to Isles of Scilly]’.
No. 5, in clause 16, page 11, line 16, leave out ‘Bus’.
New clause 1—Application to Isles of Scilly
‘(1) This Act, in its application to the Isles of Scilly, has effect subject to such exceptions, adaptations and modifications as the Secretary of State may by order prescribe.
(2) In particular, an order under subsection (1) may—
(a) provide for the application of this Act to water-borne public passenger transport services;
(b) amend the categories of person who are entitled to concessionary travel under this Act.’.
Paul Rowen: Earlier today, we discussed the extension of what might be classed as a committed public service vehicle. One of the classes included the use of a ferry or boat. The amendment, which I have been asked to move by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Andrew George), relates to the Isles of Scilly. They merit a special mention under clause 2, where the national arrangement is extended to them. As was pointed out on Second Reading by some hon. Members, there are no buses on the Isles of Scilly, and some people have questioned why the scheme should apply there. I am sure that hon. Members know that five islands make up the Isles of Scilly, and that just over 2,000 residents live on those islands. The Isles of Scilly operate as a unitary and county council that runs all its services from a narrow council tax base.
It is for that reason that I am asking the Minister to make a specific and special exception in extending the scheme to the Isles of Scilly. At present, the cost of the ferry boat to the mainland is £7 per trip. The council has reckoned that it will receive no more than £10,000 in the revenue support grant settlement as reimbursement of the costs of introducing a concessionary scheme. There is no way that a council could operate its own special concessionary scheme with that sum of money. Furthermore, it cannot fund such a scheme because its council tax base for providing all the services for just over 2,000 residents is so narrow.
We are asking for the same sort of arrangement that operates for Scotland. Residents from the islands of Orkney or Shetland, for example, are permitted to take one ferry journey a year to the mainland and then use the buses. I have not specified frequency in the amendments, but we are looking for some recognition from the Department that the Isles of Scilly are a special case, and that there is no way that the council, which has to fund all the other services on such a narrow council tax base, would be able to introduce its own scheme.
The amendment would extend the scheme to use of the ferry boat by residents only. The scheme would not apply to tourists who are visiting the Isles of Scilly if they use the boat—they would pay the full price—but it would enable residents to access services on the mainland via a free ferry ride.
Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge) (Lab): Under the Bill, people who live in Tyne and Wear, for instance, will be able to use bus services in London or another part of the country. Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that they ought to have their fare from Tyne and Wear to London paid so that they can access services?
Paul Rowen: No, I am not suggesting that. We discussed that earlier.
It is clear that the Isles of Scilly are a special case. There are no buses there. To access buses on the mainland, residents have to take the ferry. Given that it is the only mode of public transport available to them, and given that everything is funded by only 2,000 residents, I am asking for an exception to be made for them.
Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): Would not the thrust of the hon. Gentleman’s point be that, if individuals live in rural parts of England where there are no buses, they should be given a concession to get to the nearest bus service? Otherwise, they would not be able to use the concession either.
Paul Rowen: I accept that, and that is why earlier today we introduced an amendment that would enable the Secretary of State to extend the scheme to other forms of transport. I gave an example from my constituency of a bus service that had been withdrawn. There is now a service that residents have to pay for, although they qualify for the national concessionary bus fare scheme. I would like that to be established and developed.
I would not want an immediate blanket exception—we had that discussion earlier today—but the Isles of Scilly are a special case and, given that, I have asked for an exception.
Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman has already acknowledged that the Isles of Scilly have no buses. Is he saying that, if his earlier amendment had been accepted, someone in need of community transport on the mainland who went to the Isles of Scilly would be able to access community transport free of charge there?
Paul Rowen: The amendment that I proposed this morning gave the Secretary of State the power to implement that change. Clearly, I would not have expected him to introduce a blanket exception right away; I would have expected him selectively to introduce exceptions or to extend the scheme, so that for rural areas without any other services—no bus service, for example—community transport would qualify under the concessionary fares scheme. That is fair.
I do not believe that the biggest cost would fall on rail if the scheme were extended to everyone, as the Minister said this morning. My immediate reaction would be to look at communities, particularly rural communities—the Isles of Scilly would fall under that definition—consider the alternative forms of transport that are available and ensure that those qualify under the scheme. There could be a gradual roll-out, enabling people who would otherwise not benefit from the national scheme to receive some benefit. That is all we are asking the Minister to consider.
Gillian Merron: It is interesting to see the excitement with which hon. Members debate the Isles of Scilly. I have not had the pleasure of visiting them yet, but my predecessor did, and officials were there 10 days ago to discuss transport issues with the council. One of the points they reported back to me on, about which I can assure the hon. Member for Rochdale, is that the Isles of Scilly will, as I mentioned earlier, be working closely with Cornwall county council in preparation for April 2008. I commend them for doing so.
The Bill is good news for older and disabled people, because for the first time it makes the council of the Isles of Scilly a travel concession authority, meaning that it will be able to issue concessionary passes to eligible residents that they can use anywhere in England when visiting the mainland.
I am a little bit surprised by the hon. Gentleman’s amendments, because they would give the Secretary of State two powers. First, he would be able, by order, to extend travel concessions to
“water-borne public passenger transport”
serving the Isles of Scilly, which in my language means ferries. Secondly, he would be able to change who is entitled to concessionary travel in the Isles of Scilly. The Secretary of State already has the power, under clause 8(1)(a), to expand eligibility for the national concession to new categories of people living in the Isles of Scilly. Similarly, there is a power under clause 8(1)(b) to include ferries serving the Isles of Scilly in the statutory scheme, so that they can offer free travel to all England pass-holders.
In addition, the council of the Isles of Scilly already has the power to agree voluntary schemes with transport providers, allowing discretionary travel concessions to its residents under section 2 of the Local Government Act 2000. That could, for example, include free travel on ferries. The people best placed to take account of unique local circumstances—no or few buses, for example, or being on an island—are those in the local authorities involved in discretionary schemes. That is why we have protected that right.
Gillian Merron: I remind the hon. Gentleman that on Second Reading, and earlier in the Committee’s deliberations, some hon. Members mentioned the funding for concessionary travel that goes to the Isles of Scilly through the formula grant system, even though there are currently no bus services operating there. It is worth gently pointing out that the council could use that money to provide travel concessions on ferry services and other modes of transport. The hon. Gentleman might take that constructive message back to the hon. Member for St. Ives, who represents constituents on the Isles of Scilly, because there is scope in that regard.
The amendments constitute unnecessary duplication and they are somewhat inappropriate. I restate my belief that it is right for local authorities, given their knowledge of local circumstances, to decide for themselves what discretionary enhancements are best for their residents. These proposals would simply duplicate powers that are already held by the Secretary of State and the council of the Isles of Scilly. I therefore ask hon. Members not to press the proposals to a Division.
4.45 pm
Paul Rowen: Having made my point, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clauses 11 to 13 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
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