Previous Section Index Home Page

My hon. Friend also emphasised the importance of community transport. I absolutely agree with her. More quality partnerships and, if necessary, quality contracts are needed. In that way, it could be easier for local authorities in some instances to insist on integrated ticketing. I am sure that she needs no reminder that those on the main Opposition Front Bench have consistently voted against the changes in the Local Transport Bill— [Interruption.] I said those on the main Opposition Front Bench. It is astonishing that they have done so, because Conservative councillors have said that Opposition
7 July 2008 : Column 1208
Front Benchers are totally out of touch with local authorities, which need the ability to work more closely with bus operators and to introduce quality contracts if that is the right approach. Conservative Members shake their heads, but I suggest that they consult more closely the councillors in their areas. If they do so, they will find that those councillors are reflecting what the public are telling us as Members of Parliament: they want better bus services. We intend to introduce those through the Local Transport Bill. I urge those on the Conservative Front Bench to take heed of that.

Following on from my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn) made an important point about gating. Of course, we need to protect revenues, and gating can be an important part of that. However, I assure my right hon. Friend that we would not expect a station operator to install gate lines outside the boundary of the station lease, or unreasonably to restrict access to a pedestrian route shared with other facilities. I am sure that, having heard my right hon. Friend’s speech, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will consider the points that he made.

Mr. Caborn: The Select Committee report called for a more holistic policy on gating, which may involve economic regeneration and other factors. “Holistic” is a lovely word that encompasses everything, and I am therefore hopeful of a solution to the particular problem that I am experiencing in Sheffield.

Ms Winterton: I am sure that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will raise that point with the train operating companies.

Some £1 billion is being spent on concessionary travel, which was mentioned by many Members. I hope that they will rejoice in the fact that people over 60 and eligible disabled people can now use their bus passes anywhere in the country. That gives older people enormous freedom, but I sometimes feel that certain Members are a bit grudging in their support for it. We have allocated an extra £212 million for 2008-09, rising to £217 million and £223 million in the following years, to travel concessions in England. That is enough to fund about 200 million additional bus journeys in local authority areas across England.

When we consulted local authorities on how the scheme should be extended, they asked us to provide a special fund rather than allocating money through the rate support grant, which we agreed to do. We then consulted the authorities on how they wanted the money to be distributed, giving them four or five options, and we have since distributed it on the basis chosen by most of them. I can tell our seaside colleagues, the hon. Members for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill) and for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), that the allocation took account of the number of overnight visitors, which is greater in some areas. I think that local authorities should welcome the fact that they can attract visitors, because of the knock-on effect on their local economies. Although some welcome it, others sometimes complain.

Tim Loughton: I hope the Minister recognises that I was in no way grudging about the scheme. We certainly welcome visitors to Worthing and Adur, both tourists and others. However, I should like to know how she calculated the number of additional visitors to Worthing
7 July 2008 : Column 1209
who were likely to take advantage of the scheme. The figure is entirely arbitrary, and we are not convinced of the exactness or the rigorousness of the formulae that the Government used.

Ms Winterton: As the hon. Gentleman probably knows, there are clear mechanisms for local authorities to submit returns about their visitor numbers and available retail space. It is not for the Department to tell Worthing how many overnight visitors it has; it is for Worthing to tell the Department. I should have thought the hon. Gentleman knew that.

Of course we believe that bus operators are entitled to reimbursement for carrying concessionary travellers, but local authorities should provide it on a “no better off, no worse off” basis: operators should neither gain nor lose money as a result of carrying concessionary travellers. That is laid down in legislation. It is important for authorities to reach agreement with operators on how they should be reimbursed in relation to the numbers carried.

Mrs. Ellman: There is clearly overwhelming support for the concessionary scheme. Will my right hon. Friend undertake to re-evaluate the way in which it is working and, in particular, examine the allocation of available funds to ensure that it remains universally popular?

Ms Winterton: The issue has been raised by a number of Members. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, for instance, said that his local authority did not necessarily want to participate. Some smaller district councils have said that they would prefer the county councils to carry out this function. We said in our response to the Select Committee report that, later this year, we would consult on whether the function of district councils should be transferred to county councils.

As I am sure Members will appreciate, the matter is not necessarily as clear-cut as it may seem. The concessionary fares element represents a considerable part of the budgets of some district councils.. A number of issues need to be taken into account as we move from a system that includes an element of rate support grant to a new system, but we have said that we will consult on it.

Tim Loughton: Worthing invited officers from the Minister’s Department to open the books and look at all the figures, but the Government did not use the figures that we had provided. Either the Minister believes that my local authorities are giving her Department the wrong figures, or she thinks that we are inventing the shortfall, or she thinks that the authorities are paying too much to the bus operators. Those are the only possible explanations. Which does she think my local authorities are guilty of?

Ms Winterton: The hon. Gentleman seems to have got into a bit of a muddle about the order in which the allocations were made. As I have said, when we consulted local authorities about the approach that they wished us to take, the formulae that I have set out proved the most popular. It is up to authorities to inform the Department of, for instance, visitor numbers or the amount of retail floor space. I should add that, according to the most recent annual figures available to us for Worthing’s expenditure on concessionary fares, its special grant allocation for this year is 42 per cent. higher than the amount they said themselves was previously spent on concessionary fares.

7 July 2008 : Column 1210

In our response to the Committee’s report, we said that we would commission research on reimbursement arrangements to look at the latest evidence on the number of passengers generated by local and national schemes, the revenue forgone by bus operators and the additional costs. We also want to work closely with bus operators and local authorities to share the evidence. The research will explore the scope for more simplistic and deterministic ways of setting reimbursement, such as, perhaps, a table of payments for different regions and area types. But it is important to remember that, within this framework, local authorities have three-year settlements. We want to make sure that we do not disrupt agreements that have been reached, but we want to make sure that we are researching in the way that the Committee has suggested to look at potential suggestions from bus companies and authorities.

Norman Baker: I welcome the terms of the review that the right hon. Lady has set out. It is indeed sensible and good news but I am slightly worried by the three-year time scale. I understand that there is a three-year settlement for local government, to which she has referred, but I think she will accept that certain local authorities are, for whatever reason, deeply out of pocket as a consequence of the present arrangements. It seems unjust to make them wait a further couple of years before any recompense is available to them.

Ms Winterton: At this stage, we are commissioning research to look at some of the issues. I reiterate: it is not easy to come up with brand new formulae that could in some circumstances upset arrangements reached with bus operators. There is an appeals process, which I will come to later.

Graham Stringer (Manchester, Blackley) (Lab): I am doubly grateful to my right hon. Friend, first for giving way, and secondly for providing in a parliamentary answer the fact that, on the commercial network, the average subsidy per bus is £37,500 per year, comprising the bus service operator grant and concessionary fares. Is she worried that with that huge level of subsidy, bus operators are directing their operations more to how much public subsidy they can get rather than to the interests of the passenger?

Ms Winterton: As my hon. Friend knows, there are some areas where it is clear that bus operators and local authorities are working closely together and are producing a good service for passengers. However, it is also true that does not happen in other areas, which is why we are making some of the changes in the Local Transport Bill and which, as I pointed out, the main Opposition party does not support.

The hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby asked about cross-border travel. There is nothing I can add to what I have said previously in the House, which is that we want the scheme to settle down in England before we look at what could be an immense financial commitment in extending it to Scotland and Wales. If the hon. Gentleman is committing his party to that, I suggest that he cost it very carefully and look at some of the technical issues that surround it. However, that does not prevent individual local authorities on the border coming to agreements with authorities on the other side.

7 July 2008 : Column 1211

The hon. Gentleman also talked about funding. The Government are certain that a generous settlement was made; the increase in his local authority was 58 per cent. on what was spent previously on concessionary travel. He also asked whether the £4.50 grant would be repeated. We felt that it was right to pay local authorities for the initial issue of smartcards to make the changes. We covered the full cost of that issue but it is not unreasonable to ask local authorities to cover the cost of renewal.

The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) is not in his place so I will not answer his points.

The hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) talked about putting smartcard readers on all buses. He raises an important point. We felt that it was important, given the change in terms of the national concessionary scheme, to say, “Let us have a system that can be interoperable.” That is why we designed the ITSO smartcard approach. Readers are not yet available on all buses, but there are different ways of looking at that issue and it is important that we do so. The hon. Gentleman will know that we are looking at BSOG, the bus service operators grant, to see where there are incentives. Quality contracts and quality partnerships could well be ways to make it easier to introduce smartcards. He raises an important point, but if we had not got a system that could be smartcard-compliant everywhere, it would have been a missed opportunity. He also raised the issue of penalty fare appeals. In the response to the Select Committee, we said that we would look at the penalty fares rules of 2002.

I think that I have addressed most of the points made by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, particularly in terms of the increase in funds available. I am glad that he is campaigning for the pedestrian crossing that he has now decided is the answer to the problems. I am very glad that he is not asking me to install it.

Mr. Goodwill: I asked the Minister about the number of appeals that bus companies had lodged, which is a way of measuring the level of dissatisfaction.

Ms Winterton: Yes, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Some 102 appeals were received in respect of travel concession schemes for the financial year 2007-08. Of these, 27 were subsequently withdrawn. A handful did not proceed owing to lack of data. Of the 71 appeal determinations, 33 were successful and 38 dismissed. They have been notified to the applicant bus operators and each relevant transport concession authority.

This has been an interesting and constructive debate. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside and other Committee members will feel that our response to the Committee’s report was helpful. I certainly believe that it was extremely useful to discuss some aspects that, in the normal course of most debates, are not necessarily raised but that have enormous implications, particularly when we are trying to encourage more people to use public transport and examining how to improve our bus services. I congratulate the Committee on the report.

Question deferred, pursuant to paragraph (4) of Standing Order No. 54 (Consideration of estimates Etc.).

7 July 2008 : Column 1212


Science Budget

[Relevant documents: T he Fourth Report from the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, HC 215, on Science Budget Allocations, and the Government response, HC 639.]

Motion made, and Question proposed,

7.10 pm

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (LD): I welcome the opportunity to debate the Innovation, Universities and Skills Committee report on the science budget allocations, and, on this estimates day, to have a debate on the departmental estimates and on budget issues. I am glad that a significant proportion of the Committee’s members who were involved in the inquiry are present, and I hope that all of them will be called to speak before the end of the debate.

This inquiry sits against a backdrop of significant investment in science and research, and it is worth putting on record the Committee’s acknowledgement of, and support for, what the Government have done for science over three consecutive comprehensive spending reviews. The allocation for the current CSR to 2011 is an overall increase of 17.4 per cent. in the science and research budget—an increase of just over £3.5 billion.

Inevitably, some research councils have had bigger increases than others, reflecting Government and societal priorities. The Medical Research Council received a 30.1 per cent. increase in funding and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council had a 21.8 per cent. increase. That, in turn, reflects the increase in the volume of translational research that takes place in those councils. At the same time, other councils received different amounts. The Arts and Humanities Research Council received a 12.4 per cent. increase—its budget remained on a plateau—and the Science and Technology Facilities Council received 13.6 per cent. They received the smallest allocations.

When the Committee started the inquiry, its intention was to take a short, sharp look at the science budget allocations for the 2007 CSR and then to move on. Immediately after announcing the inquiry, however, all members’ mailbags were filled with correspondence from the particle physics and astronomy community. When the Secretary of State announced the budget allocations at Church house on 11 December, he and the Minister were taken aback by the fact that almost every question from the floor on that occasion came from members of that community. It soon became obvious that the allocation for the STFC was causing significant problems, so, although our report was about science budget allocations as a whole, it focused heavily on the STFC. Other
7 July 2008 : Column 1213
Members will undoubtedly want to raise issues about specific elements of the STFC budget, but let me outline some of the key considerations.

Inevitably, considering the controversy that surrounded the allocations to the STFC, there has been a fair amount of progress since the publication of our report, and it is important to put that on record. Both the Government and the STFC have responded, and last week the STFC made a number of welcome announcements on its future plans. This estimates day debate offers the Minister an opportunity to give further clarification on some of the still outstanding issues, and I hope he will take it.

The Government accepted some of our recommendations, and we should be grateful for small mercies. For example, we recommended that the Government change the name of the science budget to the “science and research budget” to reflect the inclusion of the arts, humanities and knowledge transfer, and the fact that they accepted that major change needs to be shouted from the rooftops. We welcomed the Government’s commitment to maintaining above-inflation increases for the science budget—now the science and research budget. We also welcomed the Government’s commitment to innovation and knowledge transfer. I think that there is general agreement that it is right to turn world-leading basic research into health and wealth benefits for the country, and we compliment the Minister and the Government on that.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (UKIP): The hon. Gentleman is beginning his speech on characteristically great form. Does he agree, however, that the name does not matter, and nor, in some ways, does the total amount that is expended? What matters is how that money is used, and not enough of it is used on blue-sky, innovative, high-risk research that will become translational and will deliver those results that are unexpected but are what we need to move things forward.

Mr. Willis: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. He was—or, rather, is—a distinguished member of our Committee; the problem is he never turns up.

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North) (Lab): The hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) is a party of one.

Mr. Willis: I refuse to respond to such comments from a sedentary position. It is right to say that maintaining blue-sky research is crucial for this nation’s future in terms of wealth and of health. All Committee members are conscious of the fact that we have to keep the Government’s nose to the grindstone in producing the resources for basic research, and I think that this report does that. It is up to other parties to match that commitment—that might be a comment the Minister wanted to hear.

To return to my speech, unfortunately we could draw few other positive conclusions from our investigations. Indeed, the way both the Government and the STFC handled the budget process was, to put it mildly, deeply flawed. Disappointingly, rather than engage with the criticisms, the Government have rejected almost all of the conclusions and recommendations that followed. I know that other Members will wish to return to them, but I want to focus initially on the STFC.

Next Section Index Home Page