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Ms Winterton: I assume that my hon. Friend is talking about the quality contracts scheme as opposed to the concessionary fares scheme. I absolutely agree, which is why we have tried to ensure that our approvals board is established to avoid difficulties and secure greater certainty—we can never reach complete certainty, but we can at least bring about greater certainty—for local authorities that proposals have been through an independent process and can proceed
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as quickly as possible. Local authorities need that certainty, and where bus operators may be withdrawing services from an entire area because they cannot meet a contract, we also need certainty that the proposals have been through an independent process.

Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): Does the Minister realise the effect that the so-called 50 km rule is having on the provision of bus services, particularly in rural areas? In some cases, routes are being segmented, resulting in increased cost and inconvenience to passengers; and in other cases, routes may be axed altogether. Clearly, this is not a safety issue, because in order to comply, it is possible to change the passengers but not the driver. Will the Minister apply, as Finland has already, for a derogation to restore some sanity in this area?

Ms Winterton: As I said earlier, I have had discussions with operators about this issue. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town is having further discussions. Those issues were not raised when this was going through the directive process, and it is important to remember that this is about ensuring the safety of passengers as well as working conditions for drivers. Those should be put together, as the decision has been taken to make longer journeys safer for drivers and also for passengers. We should bear that in mind when we hear the hon. Gentleman saying that we should do away with it all.

Mr. Mark Hendrick (Preston) (Lab/Co-op): My right hon. Friend will be aware that bus wars have broken out in Preston, with Stagecoach trying to muscle in on the town’s profitable routes. We are seeing races down the road and jostling for position at stops, which is putting passengers at risk. Would the Minister be willing to visit Preston to meet local authorities and representatives to discuss the situation? I am afraid that there will be injuries, and possibly even a death, if things carry on as they are.

Ms Winterton: I know that my hon. Friend has been extremely concerned about this matter. He raised it in an Adjournment debate last week, to which the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town, replied. I met the owner of Stagecoach recently and, having heard the representations of my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Mr. Hendrick), I made clear my concerns about the situation. I do not know whether my hon. Friend is aware that the traffic commissioner has taken a strong interest in this issue and has taken the decision to convene a public inquiry into Stagecoach’s behaviour, which will start within the next two weeks. I will certainly keep in touch with my hon. Friend about this matter, and I would, of course, like to visit his constituency. It is also important to ensure that Lancashire county council, as the transport authority, is involved, in order to try to resolve what is clearly a very difficult situation.

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend confirm that local authorities and members of the community have the right to scrutinise bus companies’ accounts? I ask that because, like all of us, I want to ensure that the routes being subsidised are
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the routes that people need most, even if they are less profitable, and it has been suggested that subsidy is being put into profitable routes so that shareholders get a dividend.

Ms Winterton: I suggest that my hon. Friend respond to our consultation document, which deals with what the new body that we are establishing may be able to do. I imagine that some of the companies’ accounts are in the public domain, although some may of course be commercially confidential. My hon. Friend may wish to suggest, in response to our document, a method of making it more obvious where money is being spent and where routes are not being run.

Lewes-Uckfield Line

4. Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): If she will make it her policy to support the reopening of the Lewes-Uckfield railway line. [170387]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tom Harris): Reopening regional or rural lines will not normally be the most effective way of delivering the capacity increases that, as the rail White Paper explained, are our priority. I nevertheless remain willing to consider any reopening proposal that is supported by a proper business case and can be funded privately.

Norman Baker: I am grateful for the Minister’s supportive comments here and elsewhere. He will know that a strong cross-party campaign, backed by a professional board including members of Network Rail, wants the line to be reopened. Can he guarantee that if a business case is produced—and I accept the need for that—he will look sympathetically at the possibility of providing funds? Sometimes it seems that it is easy to obtain funds for new roads, but not funds for new railways.

Mr. Harris: I can certainly guarantee that we will look at the business case. Capital costs would have to be met entirely by the private sector, but as well as the private investment that would be needed for the rebuilding of the route, extra finance might be required to enable trains to run along it, in which case the Department would have to step in and decide whether there was a value-for-money case for those services. If a robust business case is supplied, however, I shall be more than happy to consider it, and ensure that my officials give it a fair hearing.

Charles Hendry (Wealden) (Con): A strong argument in favour of reopening the link is the increased popularity of the existing service to Uckfield, but one of the consequences of that increased popularity is that hundreds of cars are being parked every day, very inconsiderately, in residential areas because of the lack of parking at the local stations. Will the Minister work with councils and the appropriate rail authorities to see how the problem can be addressed?

Mr. Harris: There is indeed a growing problem with car parking at Uckfield, complicated by the fact that existing land owned by BRB (Residuary) has been tied up in a five-year development plan of which only one
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year has elapsed. However, if the council is willing to re-examine a policy that, I understand, restricts access by cars to any feasible car park on the site from the high street, it may be possible to find a way of making progress on this important issue.

Concessionary Bus Travel

5. Laura Moffatt (Crawley) (Lab): What steps her Department is taking to raise awareness of the entitlement to concessionary bus travel. [170388]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Jim Fitzpatrick): The Department for Transport will deliver a national publicity campaign, which will start in the new year. We will also provide travel concession authorities with a comprehensive communications toolkit, containing resources that can be adapted for local needs and including advertising material.

Laura Moffatt: I am grateful for that response, especially as a member of the Public Bill Committee that aimed to ensure that the concessionary bus fare scheme would operate nationwide. In Crawley a good Labour council has provided the constituency with a concessionary scheme for decades, but will now be able to offer something far beyond the boundary. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important for people to know that that will be happening very soon?

Jim Fitzpatrick: I entirely agree. We must ensure that the message reaches everyone who is entitled to use the new passes. I congratulate my hon. Friend’s local authority on the service that it has delivered until now, and I am sure that the whole House looks forward to the start of the nationwide scheme next year.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): Is the Minister aware of the problem of who will pay for concessionary fares in tourist areas such as that governed by Harrogate borough council, part of which falls within Vale of York? The council will potentially be left with a shortfall of £1 million. Where is it supposed to find that money, which corresponds to a 10 per cent. increase in council tax?

Jim Fitzpatrick: We are aware that a number of local authorities are saying that they cannot afford the scheme. However, the Department’s calculations of the amounts that each local authority will receive have been generous, based on assumptions of take-up set against experience of the take-up of existing local schemes elsewhere. Additionally, the Department will supply £212 million next year, on top of the Government grants for the scheme locally, to make sure that all travel concession authorities will be able to ensure that the scheme is available to its residents.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend ensure that local newspapers, such as the Chorley Guardian, the Lancashire Evening Post and the Chorley Citizen, carry the adverts, because as older people read local newspapers, that will be a good way of clearly getting across the message that this Government have provided the concessionary travel?

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Jim Fitzpatrick: I am sure that my hon. Friend’s local newspapers will carry his mention of their titles in their copy next week, and that will assist in getting the message across. We have built into the grants to local authorities an element of local communications funding, and it is to be hoped that the local travel authorities will be able to take advantage of that.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): But as my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) pointed out, the Government’s concessionary scheme does have some malign consequences. In Bromsgrove, for example, the local council has offered free parking to disabled and pensioner citizens, but that has now been put in jeopardy by the cost of the new national concessionary scheme. What do the Government think is better: local determination of transport priorities or their own national schemes?

Jim Fitzpatrick: Travel concession authorities can appeal in a number of ways if they are unhappy with the way in which the scheme is likely to be introduced in their area. There has always been discretion for travel concession authorities to offer a scheme different from the national one. What we are introducing next year, with hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money, is a de minimis scheme that will apply right across the country for all pensioners and for most disabled people. This is a huge step forward for people right across the UK.

Railway Safety

6. Ms Celia Barlow (Hove) (Lab): What assessment her Department has made of the impact on railway safety of deforestation on chalk railway cuttings. [170389]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tom Harris): As my hon. Friend knows, this is a matter for Network Rail, which tells me that the company’s practice is to clear trees where they might endanger or delay trains.

Ms Barlow: Is my hon. Friend aware of the work of Professor Rory Mortimore of the university of Brighton, an international expert on geotechnical matters? In his report relating to my constituency he claims, with a lot of evidence, that because of the limestone structure of the cuttings, this could lead to dangerous slippages. Is the safety of passengers not a matter for my hon. Friend’s concern?

Mr. Harris: I am aware of the professor’s report; my hon. Friend supplied a copy of it to me during a meeting with her and her constituents, who have expressed concern about this issue. She should be aware—Network Rail has informed me about this—that the part of the cutting in question has been without vegetation for long periods in the past without the consequent slippages that she fears. However, although it is ultimately up to Network Rail, as a private company, to decide how to deal with this matter, I understand that it will have a meeting with her and her constituents later today to try to come to agreement on a way forward. It is incumbent on Network Rail to consult local residents where there is concern about such procedures. However, it is also
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incumbent on Network Rail to make sure that the railway is safeguarded and is free from the risk of such slippages. I would trust Network Rail to use its own scientific advice to come to the appropriate conclusions.

Concessionary Bus Travel

7. Mr. Adam Holloway (Gravesham) (Con): What estimate she has made of the costs of the national concessionary bus travel scheme for 2008-09. [170390]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Jim Fitzpatrick): I could refer the hon. Gentleman to the answer I gave a few moments ago. However, in case he was unable to hear that, let me tell him that the Government are providing local authorities in England with an extra £212 million next year for the national bus concession in England. This extra funding is based on generous assumptions about the probable cost impact of the new concession, and we are confident that it will be sufficient in total.

Mr. Holloway: But what the Minister calls generous funding is actually less than the rate of inflation, when the operating costs of bus companies are rising by more than that, so is this not just another example of a scheme whereby the Government get the local council tax payer to fund one of their announcements?

Jim Fitzpatrick: We know that some local authorities are claiming credit for the introduction of this scheme and not giving any credit to Government. We are proud of the amount of money that we are giving, which, as I mentioned, is £212 million this year—it will be £217 million next year and £223 million the year after. Bus operators have the opportunity to appeal if they are not satisfied. So many more people are using buses as a result of our transport policies, and we regard that as a success.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Would the Minister care to congratulate Conservative-controlled Kettering borough council—of which I am proud to be a member—which is going to build on the Government scheme and ensure concessionary travel for pensioners at peak times too? [Interruption.]

Jim Fitzpatrick: I am being encouraged by Labour Members not to congratulate the hon. Gentleman’s Conservative local authority, but that would be ungracious, so I congratulate him and his local authority. As I said in answer to the hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride), who is not in her place, some travel concession authorities provide more than the minimum scheme that we are introducing; but that minimum scheme is a big step forward on what went before.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): The Minister is big enough to deal with matters, and I am delighted that he congratulated my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone). Will he deal with the question of rural areas and remote villages, where sadly there is little, if any, public transport? How can people in those villages, who often live on their pension or on a very low income, take advantage of this scheme, which I applaud? [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) knows that I applaud
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anything good, even if it is introduced by the Labour Government. What will the Minister do for people in rural areas where there is little or no public transport?

Jim Fitzpatrick: The hon. Gentleman is being kind and generous enough to welcome what is being introduced in the Local Transport Bill. We have been doing what we can to support rural communities and rural bus services, and the Bill will deliver even more.

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Holloway) is a newer Member of the House, but when a question is put he should remain within the Chamber at least until we get to the next one. He is not the only offender I have had to pull up a few over the years.

Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): The Minister will, of course, remember that the principle of concessionary travel enjoyed support across the whole House. The key point was how it was to be funded. The trouble is that the Government’s sums simply do not add up. The level of increases in extra funding that he is proposing are less than inflation, and he will have received many representations from councils telling him that they will face deficits as a result of the scheme over the next two to three years. For example, Southampton city council estimates a deficit of £1.5 million—before a delayed appeal; the council is reimbursing at 67p in the pound and the operating company seeks 74p. All that will happen in a number of the scheme areas, because the Government have underfunded this, is that council tax will increase by more than 10 per cent.

Jim Fitzpatrick: That is the second time that that figure has been mentioned. Obviously it is a line that has been produced for these questions. As I have said, we are confident that our calculations on the amount of money needed to support the scheme will be more than adequate, and an announcement will be made shortly.

8. Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley) (Lab): If she will ensure that the free bus fare scheme to be introduced in April 2008 will include scheduled community transport dial-a-bus and dial-a-ride schemes. [170391]

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Ms Rosie Winterton): The national bus concession will be available on all eligible, registered local bus services, which can include some—but will include by no means all—community type transport services, for example, services that are provided under a section 22 permit, charge a fare and are open to the general public.

Judy Mallaber: I think that I welcome that answer. The free local bus scheme has been wonderfully effective in our area, and we are looking forward to the national scheme. Will the Minister meet me and other colleagues to prevent the apparent anomaly that someone who is entitled to use the free national bus pass but who cannot do so because they physically cannot get on those buses may not be able to use it on a community transport bus service? Will she confirm that in an area such as Derbyshire, where the community bus services are scheduled, regular and
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responsive to demand, such people will be eligible to use the national concessionary bus fare?

Ms Winterton: I would certainly welcome a meeting with my hon. Friend and her constituents to explain the issue. If a community transport service is restricted to a particular group of people—perhaps people with disabilities or elderly people—it would not be eligible under the concessionary fares scheme. However, other community transport schemes are eligible, such as those in rural areas that are demand-responsive so that someone can be picked up at a particular time. Many dial-a-ride services operate in that way.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I think that I share the puzzlement of the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber): we are not sure that the Minister’s reply is the one that we want to hear. In my area, the Mendip community transport scheme will cease operation next year, apparently because of a lack of funding. That scheme is the only option for many people who have no access to other public transport because it is a very rural area. A concessionary fare scheme is useless without a bus to ride on, so it would be helpful if the scheme applied to community transport schemes of that kind. I ask the Minister to look into that.

Ms Winterton: I am, of course, prepared to look into that. However, I re-emphasise that the changes to be introduced in April will not change the eligibility, so I am not clear why the hon. Gentleman thinks that the bus service will stop because of the new scheme. If a community transport service is open to the wider public, it can participate in the concessionary fare scheme. The Local Transport Bill will make changes that will make it easier for community transport services to operate by, for example, allowing the payment of drivers, which has been widely welcomed by the Community Transport Association because it will make it easier to run the type of services that we are talking about.

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