|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
The main point that I want to make is that we need to move as quickly as possible from funding the scheme on a district basis to funding it on a county basis. We know that that cannot be done overnight, and we know the reason for that, but it has not been mentioned. A
lot of district councils receive a lot more money than they spend on concessionary fares, and they spend it on other things. If we take that money away from those councils their MPs will start carping, and if we do it immediately, council tax will increase or services will be reduced. That is because some local authorities could have introduced concessionary fares, but decided to spend the money on other things. That must come to an end.
Carlisle has been mentioned. Carlisle city council has said that it is underfundedbut it would say that. It is controlled by the Tories and Lib Dems, and before the previous election it made a pledge that it would give free cross-border travel throughout the day, but then said, Were going to cut it nowits got to be the national scheme, starting at 9.30. That was fortunate, in a way, because the individual who used his vote to clinch that decisionthere was only a majority of onehappens to be my Conservative opponent at the next election, and I do not think that the pensioners of Carlisle will forgive him for that.
Then there was a row among the Conservatives. They came back and said, No, were going to give it to the disabled now. They can have free travel all day, but the pensioners cant. I had an old lady ring me up and say, Ive got a pass here that theyve sent me. Im a pensioner and Im disabled, but now Ive got a letter saying I have to send the pass back, then theyll send me another one because Im disabled. That is the sort of council that we have in Carlislea council that cant make decisions and breaks pledges. I make a prediction that the Conservatives will lose control of the city council at the local elections. Labour will control Carlisle because of that issue.
Mr. Martlew: No, I am not suggesting that at all. I am suggesting that local authorities should keep their promises. I forgot to say that the other person who voted against the scheme was the Liberal Democrats prospective candidate for Carlisle. We should have known that they would vote against it.
To be serious and to return to the major issue, if we are to have a truly nationwide scheme that does not have winners and losers, we need to move quickly to a county-wide basis. We have heard the arguments from Derbyshire and various other authorities; it could have been Somerset where it was argued that one of the authorities was no longer part of the loop. The scheme is not working, and we really need a system funded by the counties. If that happenswe will have to let councils have time to adjustthe Government will no longer have to put in any money at all, because the money is there, but in some cases has not gone to the right authorities. [ Interruption. ] That is true, and I have explained why. In the case of Carlisle, the money has gone to the local authority; it has just not been spending it.
If the hon. Gentleman accepts that some money has been misallocated and gone to the wrong authoritiesI agree with him on thatdoes he
think it wrong for the Government to have a three-year funding arrangement? Should they not review it after a year?
Mr. Martlew: My view is that the hon. Gentleman should perhaps have listened more carefully. The system has to be put on a county-wide basis. It is no good adjusting the system in three years. We have to move to a totally different system. If we do that, we will have a better system, as well as larger authorities to negotiate with the likes of Stagecoach, First Group or National Express. The idea of my local authority arguing the case against Stagecoach frightens me, because to be honest I do not think that it is up to the job. We need large authorities to do that.
Let us return to the main point. The scheme is a great success. The Labour Government have promised to do this, and they are doing it. People will get the benefit in my constituency, and up and down the land, on 1 April this year. If it had been left up to the Opposition parties they would have talked about it forever, but they would never have found the money.
Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): I do not intend to detain the House for long, but I want to raise one issue, and a spin-off problem. We have heard in the debate so far, particularly from the Opposition Benches, a common thread to many of the complaints: despite the majestic efforts of the Minister to spin the situation, it is not quite as rosy as she claims. The Government are not providing the full funding, despite the glowing percentage increases that she has cited. Of course it is possible to have glowing percentage increases if one does not take into account the other costs involved with a scheme. Moreover, what figures do those percentages relate to, and do they relate to the estimated cost of funding a scheme fully?
As I said to the Minister in an intervention, an independent study has been done by independent people on behalf of the Government, in conjunction with local authorities, to work out the cost of a fully funded scheme along the lines of what the Government have promised. Taking my local authority of Chelmsford borough council as an example, it was independently assessed that in order to fund the scheme fully the council would have to be given £1.1 million. The Government have actually provided £413,000 for the coming year, which leaves a shortfall of £738,000. That is a considerable amount of money. The borough council has to look for efficiency savings and switch around some of its priorities to help pay for the scheme, which it is determined to make a success for those who look forward to its starting on 1 April.
There is a second problem because of the underfunding. Under the ambit of the Governments proposals, the scheme has to start at 9.30 in the morning, but under Chelmsford borough councils scheme, the start time was 9 am. A responsible council cannot cut services dramatically in other areas due to the shortfall in funding, because that would cause significant problems, over and above efficiency savings. It will have to abide by the Governments guidelines of a 9.30 start, because it cannot find the money for a scheme that is based on the
Governments scheme but that starts at 9 am. That will cause problems for a number of pensioners and disabled people in the Chelmsford borough council area who for a number of reasons have got used to using their bus passes from 9 oclock; it may be convenient or necessary for them to travel at that time.
It is sad that there should be an element to this scheme, which is welcomed by everybody in this House in many ways, that spoils the overall effect. That has happened solely because the Government are not prepared to provide the full funding that independent assessors have said the scheme needs. I hope that the Minister will take the advice of a number of hon. Members in interventions and speeches today, and monitor the scheme from its start date of 1 April. A year may be too short a period of time for thatexperience and time will tell. If the period in question is to be three yearsa three-year period is not viable for the Minister and her Government, because they will not be in office to do thisI hope that the Government of the day are prepared to look at the scheme again to identify its strengths and weaknesses in order to address maintaining the strengths and buttressing the weaknesses.
As one steps through the report, it is very clear that it is not a national scheme at all, but an England scheme. When the Prime Minister, then the Chancellor, promised the scheme, it was clearly spun and reported as a national scheme, so many of my constituents quite rightly thought that that meant they could travel anywhere in the UK. As has already been said by hon. Members with constituencies in Wales or near the Scottish borders, this has been a severe let-down. The impression was certainly given that the scheme would be UK-wide, but that has clearly not been delivered. All I ask for is a little honesty. Ministers should not use the word national; they should say only England to make it clear that the scheme allows people not to cross national borders but only local authority ones. Ministers should be honest about what exactly they are promising.
I said in my intervention that the scheme does not mean much to many of my constituents, and that is exactly right. If someone needs to travel across the border into Wales, the scheme will not help. A constituent who lives in Lydney can get the bus from there to Chepstow, but continuing will mean changing in Chepstow and paying for the rest of the journey. For many of my constituents, that will be the more significant part of the journey. Because of the geography, someone starting a journey from the southern end of my constituency and wanting to go back into England will have to pass through Wales. If that means changing buses, even though the start and end points of the trip are both in England, it will not be possible to claim for the cost of the whole journey. That is a ridiculous situation.
Someone starting in Lydney who has to catch a bus to Chepstow and then change, perhaps to go to Cribbs Causeway, which is also in England, will have to fund the bulk of the trip themselves. My constituents think
that that is simply bizarre. It is all very well saying that the local authority has the option to fund that part of the journey: of course it does, but it will cost money, and it means that the Government have made a promise but not funded it. Something else will have to giveeither council tax will have to rise or other services will not be funded. The Minister should take that into account and work on it with her colleagues in the Welsh Assembly Government.
Let me take hon. Members through some of the questions that I have asked on this issue. When I challenged the then Secretary of State for Wales, the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Hain), by asking him whether he would work with his colleagues in the Welsh Assembly Government
to take up that framework legislation to ensure that we can have seamless journeys across the English-Welsh border,
Indeed. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that Welsh Assembly Government Ministers will do that.[ Official Report, 17 January 2001; Vol. 455, c. 772.]
When I asked the then Transport Minister, the hon. Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron), the same sort of question, she pointed out in a written parliamentary answer that the Concessionary Bus Travel Bill had a framework for working closely with the devolved Administrations and that all had indicated support. She saidthis was in May last yearthat the Government and the devolved Administrations would have to work closely together. We do not seem to have made a great deal of progress since then.
to see the scheme operating properly across the borders.[ Official Report, 4 December 2007; Vol. 468, c. 670.]
When I challenged the Minister responsible for Transport in the Welsh Assembly Government on that matter, however, he said that he wanted to see the scheme settle down. That was not the Ministers position at the time, but I notice that the two have now got their act together and co-ordinated their responses, as the Minister is now saying that she wants the scheme to settle down.
I do not see why my constituents should have to cope with an unholy mess on 1 April as they discover that they cannot use the scheme for many of the journeys that they need to takegoing to hospitals, doctors surgeries, dentists and so forth. Why should they be denied that? Why should they have to wait for the scheme to settle down while the Westminster Government and the Welsh Assembly Government try to get their act together to ensure that the scheme will work across borders?
Mr. Beith: I remind the hon. Gentleman that the Government say that they have made no detailed assessment of the cost of introducing mutual recognition, yet they produced generalised financial arguments against it. Should they not at least be doing that work now?
Absolutely, and I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that point. The Minister suggested that mutual recognition would be very expensive. If we accept that that is the case, it follows that it would be very expensive for local authorities to fund mutual recognition across the borders. They
cannot be expected to fund that from the limited resources available to them through the council tax. Many of their constituents are already hard pressed. If Ministers make generous promises, they should ensure that they fund them fully, as they have made clear throughout, but I do not think that they have done so, and they certainly have not done so in a way that allows my constituents to take advantage of a genuinely national scheme. This is an England-only scheme, and it needs to be looked at again.
Ms Rosie Winterton: This has been a very interesting debate, although I am not sure that it has been particularly enlightening in respect of the position of the Opposition parties. The hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) refused to say how much extra he thought should be invested in the concessionary fares scheme. He certainly did not tell us whether a Conservative manifesto would include a commitment to providing extra funds, and whether that had been cleared with the shadow Chancellor, the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne). The hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) wanted the scheme to be extended even further. It would be interesting to know whether the Conservative Front-Bench team intends to fund the extra costs of extending the scheme to Wales and Scotland.
Stephen Hammond: I know that the right hon. Lady is always fascinated by what our policies are, but I remind her that the debate was about her policies. I assume that her fascination is due to the fact that in two years time she will be where I am now, and she is considering how she might oppose our policies.
Ms Winterton: Given all the unfunded schemes that the hon. Gentleman listed this evening, I think the electorate will recognise that without a Labour Government there would not be a national concessionary fares scheme, and there would not be nearly £1 billion going into it. The Conservative Government ran down bus services after deregulating the market. What we heard tonight were vague promises of unspecified future funding to which, as far as I know, the shadow Chancellor has not given the go-ahead. The same applies to the Liberal Democrats. The hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) said that an extra £60 million was needed, and he too seemed to want to extend the system to Scotland and Wales. If that is a manifesto commitment from the Liberal Democrats, it would be interesting to know how their sums add up.
Ms Winterton: I have only three minutes left, and I want to mention the important points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew), particularly his point about the boost to the economy given by people coming into an area. The Liberal Democrats, and perhaps other Opposition Members, appeared to be saying Our town is closed to visitors. I am sure that the shopkeepers and restaurateurs in their areas will not be very pleased to hear that they do not welcome people from outside.
My hon. Friend mentioned the 7 per cent. fare increase imposed by one bus company. This is an issue
that some Members overlooked in their speeches. Local authorities must take into account not just one increase but the whole basket of fares in reaching agreement with bus operators on what constitutes a fair reimbursement.
The hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) spoke of an independent assessor. No independent assessor supplied an analysis to the Department for Transport. I believe that someone in the bus world has carried out assessments for bus operators, but that is entirely different from an independent assessment carried out for the Government. The hon. Gentleman may be confusing these arrangements with the appeals system.
The three-year settlement is very generous. I take on board some of the points that have been made about the possibility of county-wide settlements in the future, and we will keep that under review, but 11 million older and disabled people will benefit from this scheme. I think we should welcome it, and I commend the report to the House.
That the Local Government Finance Special Grant Report (No. 129) on the grant to be paid towards the cost of implementing the new statutory minimum bus travel concession in England (House of Commons Paper No. 256), which was laid before this House on 19th February, be approved.
That the draft Child Benefit Up-rating Order 2008, which was laid before this House on 6th February, be approved.
That the draft Guardians Allowance Up-rating (Northern Ireland) Order 2008, which was laid before this House on 6th February, be approved.
That the draft Guardians Allowance Up-rating Order 2008, which was laid before this House on 6th February, be approved.
That the draft Tax Credits Up-rating Regulations 2008, which were laid before this House on 6th February, be approved.
That the draft Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 (Cash Searches: Code of Practice) Order 2008, which was laid before this House on 19th February, be approved.
That the draft Serious Crime Act 2007 (Amendment of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002) Order 2008, which was laid before this House on 20th February, be approved.
That the draft Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 (Investigations in England, Wales and Northern Ireland: Code of Practice) Order 2008, which was laid before this House on 19th February, be approved.
That the draft Official Statistics Order 2008, which was laid before this House on 26th February, be approved. [Alison Seabeck.]
|Next Section||Index||Home Page|