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7 July 2008 : Column 1196

I am grateful to the Committee for its comments on the concessionary fare scheme, and I hope that it will follow them through, because this is an important area of delivery not only for people up and down the country but for the new Government policy, which needs to be examined. That is exactly the sort of thing that the Committee should be doing.

The report is not just about concessionary fares; it also deals with other matters. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside mentioned fare evasion, which is an important issue. I support her suggestion that there should be a better independent appeals body. It is quite right that those who are seeking to avoid paying their fare should be caught and dealt with properly. It is unacceptable to the proper fare payer that others are getting free travel by seeking to avoid payment. However, people are sometimes given unjustified penalties. A constituent of mine, a young student, got on a train without having paid the fare because there was no one in the booking office. They were subsequently charged a penalty fare because they had not seen the conductor on the train to get a ticket as soon as they got on. That cannot be right, and we need to resolve issues such as those. An independent appeal body that works would be the right way forward, and I fully endorse the hon. Lady’s proposal for such a body.

One way of dealing with such problems is by gating stations. I do not pretend that that is the full answer, but I know from speaking to Transport for London that it has massively increased its fare income—by 15 to 20 per cent., I think—by putting gates on the North London line, which it has taken over from a British Rail-type body. I am not sure which of the train operating companies it was. TFL has improved its income stream markedly by gating those stations. Technology can therefore help to provide answers.

I want also to deal with integrated ticketing, but I shall preface my remarks by saying that we need to recognise that there is a problem with the bus services that are provided in this country. The problem dates partly if not wholly back to deregulation in the 1980s. The statistics from the Department demonstrate that the average cost of bus fares has increased markedly above inflation in the intervening years, and particularly since this Government came to power in 1997. The average cost of bus fares has increased by 13 per cent. above inflation since 1997.

Those who use buses are often among the poorest in society. They do not all qualify for free passes as they are often working people, and this is a significant cost for them to meet. The cost of travelling by bus has gone up by more than the cost of travelling by train and, dare I say it, by more than the cost of motoring in those years, notwithstanding recent fuel price increases.

The cost of travelling has gone up, but the cost of subsidy has gone up as well. The subsidy to bus services in 1986 was £847 million. When this Government came in, it was largely unchanged at £881 million. By 2006, however, it had rocketed to £2,452 million. That represents a tripling of the subsidy in the 11 years of this Government, at a time when fares have been increasing at above the rate of inflation and bus passenger numbers have continued to fall. That is not a success. Between 1985 and 2006, the number of bus journeys in Scotland fell by 30 per cent., in Wales by 28 per cent. and in the non-metropolitan areas of England by 22 per cent. It is only in London
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that there has been any success in driving the numbers up. The subsidy per head in London is markedly higher than elsewhere in the country.

Mr. Clelland: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Norman Baker: In a moment.

A further element of the equation is the fact that the profits of the bus companies have rocketed over that period. Therefore, we have seen rocketing profits for bus companies, rocketing fares for passengers, rocketing subsidy by the taxpayer and a decrease in services and passenger numbers. That is not a success story.

Mr. Clelland: The hon. Gentleman has just made the very point that I was going to raise, in recognising that the profits of the bus companies have indeed rocketed in that period. What proposals does he have to deal with those rising profits and with falling bus ridership?

Norman Baker: To be fair to the Government, they have started to go along that track with their proposals in the Local Transport Bill. They will make it easier to bring in quality contracts and give local authorities more control over the type of bus operations in their area. We would go further than the Government are going, however, and I have tabled amendments to the Bill to try to achieve that, as the Minister knows. Collectively, however, we all have to recognise that the statistics that I have just given demonstrate a failure of bus policy over 20 years, and unless there are proposals to remedy that—such as those that we have put forward and, to some extent, those from the Government, though they are not enough—the failures, including decreasing patronage and increasing costs, will continue. That cannot be sensible.

The report refers to integrated ticketing, which is an important issue. It is easier for people to use public transport if their tickets are integrated. They want to be able to buy just one ticket for their whole journey. Integrated ticketing also helps to avoid extra costs. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside rightly drew attention to the fact that people often have to buy multiple tickets, which drives up the cost of their journey. Even in London, someone who gets off one bus and gets on another has to pay again, until they have reached the ceiling on their Oyster card.

The fact is that no real attempts are being made to make integrated ticketing work. Paragraph 1 on page 30 of the report states:

That is absolutely right, and the Committee is right to draw our attention to that point. However, I do not see much in the Government’s response to suggest that they are taking it on board or that anything is going to happen as a consequence.

The Government talk about the voluntary schemes that are working, including plusbus. They are indeed working, and I am glad that plusbus is there, but less than a quarter of rail tickets that are sold have any sort
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of cross-ticketing arrangement with buses. More than 200 towns and cities outside the metropolitan areas are covered by the scheme, which is fair enough, but there are many areas that are not covered. It is not sufficient to rely on local initiatives to make up the difference. It would take a very long time to achieve that, and the Government need to be more proactive in encouraging integrated transport ticketing, between rail and bus services in particular, but also between bus operators.

I have to tell the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside that we have tabled amendment after amendment to the Local Transport Bill to try to make integration part of the thought process. For example, we wanted to make it a requirement for those involved in local quality contracts to consult Network Rail and the train operating companies, but that proposal was rejected by the Government, so our proposal to help to achieve integration was actually voted down by her colleagues. I hope that she will take that up with the Minister at some point.

Integrated ticketing will be helped by the roll-out of smartcard technologies, and I think that we are all in favour of that. We have only to look at London to see what a great success the Oyster card has been. Incidentally, I hope that we will soon reach the stage at which Oyster cards can be used on mainline suburban rail services as well as on the underground. Not all train operating companies accept them, but I hope that that can be rectified before long.

The fact is, however, that 78 per cent. of travel concession authorities do not comply with ITSO standards. By the end of 2008, only 5 to 10 per cent. of the bus fleet will be ITSO equipped. Therefore, we have a situation in which people who are being given smartcards cannot use them because there are no facilities for them on the buses. In an answer to the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer), the Minister said:

That is the official Government position, but I have to ask why there are no such plans. This is the way forward for dealing with all the problems that the Transport Committee has identified, and for getting justice and ease of use for the passengers who want to use the buses.

I want to ask the Minister a direct question, and I hope that she will answer it when she winds up the debate. How much does she estimate it would cost to put smartcard readers on all buses? I understand that the Department for Transport has made a rough estimate of the cost, but we have failed to see answers to these questions so far. She doubtless shares our vision that that system should be rolled out, so, having given us an estimate, will she tell us how she thinks that the system should be applied to buses? In her judgment, who should pay for it?

Mr. Clelland: Having acknowledged that the bus companies are making massive profits, does not the hon. Gentleman think that they ought to make a contribution to that?

Norman Baker: I do as a matter of fact, because it is in the bus companies’ interests to do so. There is a need to reverse the decline in bus patronage, and they ought to realise that it is in their own interests to do so. It is
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also in the interests of all those who believe in tackling climate change, including the Government, who must lead the process and explain how it can be achieved. Simply standing back and saying, “We’ll let the market sort it out,” does not work; we need more Government intervention and leadership.

I understand that ITSO-based smartcards are being used much more in Scotland and Wales. I do not know how they have managed it—perhaps the same way that railway lines have been re-opened in Scotland and Wales, but not in England. Transport needs south of the border seem to be different from those north and west of the border.

I hope that the Minister will be able to say something very much along the lines of integrated ticketing, and something about how she intends to enable a person who turns up at Lewes railway station, for example, to get a train to Brighton and then a bus from Brighton to wherever they are going.

Tim Loughton: Worthing.

Norman Baker: Perhaps to Worthing, who knows? They can of course get a train to Worthing, changing at Brighton. There is a good service.

How will the Minister facilitate such journeys? How are they going to happen? Who is going to drive the process whereby somebody says at a train station, “I want to get off at this particular bus stop,” and they receive a ticket? It is our ultimate goal. I suggest to her that the Government must lead that process, and that it requires the roll-out of smartcard technology and readers on buses, and the availability of a type of Oyster card throughout the country, not just in London. Why should London get the benefit of a good system when it is denied to the rest of the country?

6.11 pm

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): My hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill) made a very good speech highlighting some of the deficiencies in the Government’s concessionary travel funding for local councils. I applaud the fact that he has raised the issue, because Shrewsbury and Atcham borough council has been grappling with it for a long time. When he raised it, various Labour Members tried to suggest that we were making party political points, but it is a genuine issue, and my local council’s finance director, Mr. Campbell Thomson, has written to me on more than one occasion to highlight the deficiencies—the big gaps—in Government funding. The council has to find funding from elsewhere to cover the concessionary travel scheme, and it is running to hundreds of thousands of pounds. That is a point well worth making, and I hope that the Minister will assure us of increased funding for Shrewsbury and for Shropshire.

We will have a unitary authority—I fought tooth and nail against it—as of June next year. It will cover the whole of Shropshire, apart from Telford, and I shall be watching carefully to see how much the authority receives for the concessionary travel scheme, that the amount is adequate and that local taxpayers in Shropshire do not have to cover the difference.

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I want to highlight for the Minister some specific points about Shropshire. Shropshire has a much higher percentage of over-85-year-olds than anywhere else in the country, and Shrewsbury has been voted the number one retirement destination in England, because it is such a beautiful town. [ Interruption.] It is much nicer than Worthing. I want the Minister to take that into consideration, because with so many senior citizens in Shrewsbury, the travel scheme will be even more popular.

The Minister will know just how rural Shropshire is. There are some very big distances between the many villages in my constituency and the county town of Shrewsbury, and as I said in an intervention on the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman), we have a genuine problem with the growing number of bus services that are being cut in rural Shropshire. I say so impartially again. Just last week, a delegation of senior citizens from the village of Pontesbury highlighted yet another bus service that, regrettably, must stop. They are obviously determined to ensure that I campaign to try to save it, so I should stress to the Minister that, although I applaud her Government for having introduced the concessionary scheme, and I rarely praise socialists or indeed this socialist Government, the scheme must be funded properly and there must be special, extra help for rural areas such as Shropshire, which have large numbers of senior citizens.

My hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby also mentioned the important issue of cross-border traffic. Shrewsbury is a border town—my constituency ends on the Welsh-English border—and many constituents on both sides of the boundary travel backwards and forwards across it. Shrewsbury is the main destination for many people living in Wales who travel across the border from villages to shop there, and they also use vital services in Shrewsbury. There are no major hospitals in mid-Wales, so they use the Royal Shrewsbury hospital. They also use education services. I noticed that when that point was made, the Minister looked somewhat perplexed, because the issue is very thorny and potentially costly. However, as my hon. Friend said, we live in the United Kingdom. We live in one country, and some of us feel very passionately about that, so we want to ensure that citizens—our constituents—on either side of the border, living cheek by jowl, are not discriminated against because they live on the wrong side of it.

In preparation for the debate, I met representatives of the Shropshire Disability Forum. Mrs. Sue Wood, who runs it, wanted me to raise the following issue with the Minister. I do not know whether things have changed since Mrs. Wood acquired this information, but she is under the impression that the concession is available only after 9.30 am. I agree with what was said earlier. Local councils should have the freedom to decide some of the scheme’s nuances, and no mandate from central office—I mean central Government; there’s a Freudian slip—should dictate that everything be done uniformly. The Opposition are always calling for local flexibility, but I very much hope that the Minister will assure us that there will be certain guidelines for councils. It would be rather iniquitous for any council to allow a disabled person to use the scheme only after 9.30 am if that person were trying to get to work. Very few people whom I know start work at 9.30 am. [ Interruption.] The Minister says that it is up to the councils, but I am asking her whether there are any guidelines.

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I turn to the most important part of my speech. I should like to inform the Minister that the largest organisation in my constituency is the Shrewsbury Senior Citizens Forum, which has 5,000 members and is rapidly becoming one of the largest senior citizens organisations in the country. It liaises with other senior citizens forums throughout the country, and a few months ago, it organised a national conference in Shrewsbury, with organisations throughout the country attending to debate various senior citizens issues. Bill Harris, the organisation’s eminent chairman, would like to meet the Minister to discuss some of the concessionary scheme issues that the forum thinks are important. I very much hope that rather than just talking to politicians such as me, she will take an interest in that body and extend an invitation to its members. I could bring them to the House to meet her, so that she could hear about the issues directly from them.

After having campaigned for almost four years for a direct rail service from Shrewsbury to London, I am delighted to inform the House that we finally have the link. It is hugely important for Shropshire and for business investment. Obviously, a lot of senior citizens will want to use the service; I am constantly asking senior citizens in my constituency to do so. I hope that the Minister will give me an assurance on what programmes or Government incentives there are for train operators to have the most imaginative and innovative policies for senior citizens. She may think this an outlandish suggestion, but perhaps there could be Government awards or a national competition for train operators. In that way, we would know which United Kingdom train operator had brought out the most innovative and imaginative schemes to get senior citizens on the trains and give them the best concessionary fares.

Mr. Goodwill: I nominate Grand Central Trains, which is running a new service from Sunderland to London via York. The service offers half-price fares for pensioners and gives a 50 per cent. refund if a person cannot get a seat on the train. That is another interesting idea, which operators in the south-east of England might consider—although it might bankrupt them.

Daniel Kawczynski: I am sure that the service is very good. I would like to nominate the Shrewsbury to London train service, on which some good schemes for senior citizens are already starting.

My point to the Minister is made sincerely. She will agree that it is important to get train operators to compete with one another to show that they are serious about concessionary fares for senior citizens.

David Wright: rose—

Daniel Kawczynski: I give way to my constituency neighbour, with whom I share a 50-yard border.

David Wright: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, whom I would call an honourable friend on this issue. I agree with him about the service between Wrexham, Shrewsbury and Telford. Is he aware that the service is providing a superb improvement for wheelchair users? A constituent of mine recently told me that he caught the train from Telford and that the new company provided a fantastic return service between Telford Central station
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and Marylebone. It was fantastic, and there has been a significant improvement for wheelchair users who want to use the service from Shropshire. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will join me in congratulating the company on that.

Daniel Kawczynski: Yes, I absolutely join the hon. Gentleman on that. Interestingly, I have also heard positive comments from wheelchair-using constituents who have used the Shrewsbury to London service. The attitude of the people operating the trains in dealing with people in wheelchairs is critical. In the past, I have had complaints from wheelchair users about how they were treated by train operators, and that is regrettable. The hon. Gentleman is right about the new operator of the Wrexham-Shropshire-London service. It has won awards and I congratulate its staff for the empathy, kindness and professionalism with which they deal with senior citizens and wheelchair users.

I conclude by reiterating to the Minister that I hope that she will come to Shrewsbury and meet the 5,000-strong Shrewsbury Senior Citizens Forum to hear its views about the future of concessionary bus travel.

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