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Session 2008 - 09
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Public Bill Committee Debates

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: John Bercow
Ainger, Nick (Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire) (Lab)
Ancram, Mr. Michael (Devizes) (Con)
Bacon, Mr. Richard (South Norfolk) (Con)
Baker, Norman (Lewes) (LD)
Clarke, Mr. Charles (Norwich, South) (Lab)
Grogan, Mr. John (Selby) (Lab)
Hammond, Stephen (Wimbledon) (Con)
Khan, Mr. Sadiq (Minister of State, Department for Transport)
Leech, Mr. John (Manchester, Withington) (LD)
Murphy, Mr. Denis (Wansbeck) (Lab)
Singh, Mr. Marsha (Bradford, West) (Lab)
Tami, Mark (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab)
Tredinnick, David (Bosworth) (Con)
Watson, Mr. Tom (West Bromwich, East) (Lab)
Wilson, Mr. Rob (Reading, East) (Con)
Wyatt, Derek (Sittingbourne and Sheppey) (Lab)
Mark Oxborough, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Third Delegated Legislation Committee

Tuesday 9 June 2009

[John Bercow in the Chair]

Travel Concessions (Eligible Services) (Amendment) Order 2009

4.30 pm
Mr. John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr. Bercow. May I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Tooting on his appointment as Minister of State at the Department for Transport? I assume that this is his first speaking engagement as a Transport Minister in Committee.
In general, my Liberal Democrat colleagues and I welcome the Government’s attempt to clarify the eligibility of services for the mandatory national bus concession scheme. For the most part, we fully support the proposals; however, we are concerned about the unintended consequences of the order. We tabled a prayer against the order so that we could debate it in Committee and give the Minister the opportunity to reassure us that local transport authorities will not be left to pick up significant costs to maintain free concessions on services that are the only option for local people and are used as local services. Our concerns have been echoed by some passenger groups around the country, including TravelWatch SouthWest.
Some of the services excluded through the order are specific, and the order is helpful in clarifying that they are excluded from the national concessionary scheme.
“Services operated primarily for the purposes of tourism or because of the historical interest of the vehicle”
were clearly never intended to be part of a concessionary scheme aimed at improving the social inclusion of older and eligible disabled people in England. Similarly, although the concessionary scheme remains focused only on bus services, rail replacement bus services clearly should not be part of it. Unfortunately, the other types of services excluded are less specific, so I seek assurances from the Minister.
Excluding services that operate for less than six consecutive weeks is clearly aimed at clarifying that shuttle services for special events are not included in the concessionary scheme, but it will also exclude temporary Christmas park and ride schemes, including one that ran in my constituency. Is the Minister’s intention really to discourage pensioners who are doing their Christmas shopping from taking advantage of special park and ride schemes aimed at cutting down on Christmas shopping traffic?
In a letter to me, Les Warneford, the managing director of Stagecoach UK Bus, seems to agree with my view, saying:
“In general Stagecoach has no objection to the Government proposals to define eligible services for free concessionary travel, with one exception, which is Park and Ride services. It seems perverse to exclude the elderly and disabled from free travel on such services, thereby giving them an incentive to drive into congested towns and cities. It would be more logical to expect them to pay any parking fee element of the charge if applicable, but not to pay the bus fare element of the charge. However, we hope that Local Authorities will use discretion and include such services as eligible.”
I agree with Mr Warneford: it is to be hoped that local authorities use their discretion and include such services as eligible. However, that could prove to be impossible given that some local authorities are already struggling to fund eligible services, because, from one transport authority to another, there are clear winners and losers in the national concessionary scheme.
Where the fare includes a special amenity element, permanent park and ride schemes will also be affected by the exclusion of services. I do not believe that anyone would agree that services including complimentary drinks or a commentary should be included, but has the Minister considered the suggestion from Stagecoach of excluding parking charges from the concessionary scheme, while allowing eligible passengers to continue using the bus service for free?
“Services where more than half of the accommodation on the vehicle can be reserved in advance”
are the final type excluded by the order. The consultation highlighted concern that the order would affect some long-distance coach services that are used as local services. I think the Government accepted that there was an unintended consequence and in response to the consultation stated:
“We accept that there may be exceptional circumstances where a service may primarily function as a long-distance express service and as such be outside of the scope of the mandatory concession, although it also meets an important local travel need. If there is such a service, which was part of the statutory concession under the old criteria and is excluded by these changes, a local authority can include it in its concessionary travel scheme as a discretionary enhancement. We believe a local authority is best placed to make this decision. The funding the local authority receives for the statutory concession will not be affected.”
My concern is the potential cost incurred by local transport authorities if they continue to fund those services. I have quite a long list of National Express services affected by the changes. I would like some assurance from the Minister that local people will not miss out as a result of the order, with services no longer being provided free for pensioners.
Some local transport authorities are already facing cuts to other services to fund the mandatory concession scheme, because of a shortfall in Government funding, so they may simply not be in a position to fund those discretionary concessions. Will the Minister confirm whether local authorities have agreed to continue to fund the concessions? How many services around the country are no longer being covered by the concessionary scheme because the transport authority will not cover the cost?
In a parliamentary answer to my question of 18 March 2009 the then Minister, the hon. Member for Gillingham (Paul Clark), suggested that the total cost to local authorities in England to fund the services that would no longer be covered by the mandatory free concessionary scheme would be a mere £80,000. Will the Minister confirm whether that estimate remains the same? The Government, using 2008-09 figures, estimate that 22,500 coach trips are affected by the order. Is the £80,000 estimate realistic?
Will the Minister also assure the Committee that the matter will be kept under review and that the impact on local services will be re-examined to ensure that some of our most vulnerable constituents do not lose out as a result of the changes brought in by the order? I hope the Minister can give me the reassurances I am looking for and I look forward to hearing his response.
The Chairman: Whatever view the hon. Gentleman ultimately takes of the merits of the order, which depends on the response he receives from the Minister, he is at this point procedurally required to move the motion.
Mr. Leech: I shall take your advice, Mr. Bercow.
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That the Committee has considered the Travel Concessions (Eligible Services) (Amendment) Order 2009 (S.I. 2009, No. 575).—(Mr. Leech.)
4.38 pm
Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): I start where the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington started by congratulating the Minister on not only surviving this weekend’s reshuffle chaos, but being promoted? He is the fourth Minister of State I have faced in this role, and we now have our fifth Secretary of State for Transport.
I had the pleasure of serving on the Committee that scrutinised the Bill that became the Concessionary Bus Travel Act 2007, which was the first legislation on the scheme. As the Opposition said then, and I have said many times since, we strongly support the scheme and recognise the great benefits it brings to older people. It was disconcerting to see, yet again, the Government suggesting, rather desperately, that the Conservatives would scrap both the concessionary bus fare scheme and the winter fuel payments. Those assertions are certainly not true. We have always recognised that the ability to travel is important to the elderly and disabled, which is why we have supported the scheme throughout.
The purpose of the scheme, in the initial Bill and the extension, was always to allow elderly and disabled to travel free on local, not national, services. It was intended to help those who, for example, could not get to the shops or hospital by car. It was always intended for the purpose of travelling around one’s local area, not for long-distance services. I understand that the Government’s intention in the instrument is to clarify that, and it is stated explicitly in paragraph 7.5 of the explanatory memorandum.
I hope that the Minister will clarify a number of issues. The principle of concessionary travel is important and I did not wish to pray against the order, but there are some issues beyond those raised by the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington that we would like the Minister to clarify.
We welcome the Government’s new consultation exercise on how the scheme should be financed. The Minister will remember—his predecessors certainly will—my saying many times that, although there is probably enough money nationally for the scheme, there have been some problems because of the local distribution of funding. Such problems are noticeable in counties such as Lancashire, where the borough of Preston faces an £824,000 shortfall, whereas next door in Blackburn there are surplus funds because of the way that the funding scheme works. We therefore welcome the Government’s consideration of the refunding of a larger area scheme.
Mr. Charles Clarke (Norwich, South) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the same funding issue arises in the county of Norfolk, where the city of Norwich has the same problems as those that he has described in his own county? We hope that the Government will make changes in relation to the differential impact in different parts of the county.
Stephen Hammond: May I correct the right hon. Gentleman? I do not actually come from Lancashire, although I am happy to mention it. I come from God’s own county of Hampshire and I am fortunate to represent the constituency of Wimbledon. He is absolutely right to mention Norfolk. The same situation is found in counties such as Surrey and Lincolnshire, where informal agreements have been reached exist across the counties so that, rather than having a differential impact from borough to borough, the funding mechanism works,.
As the statutory instrument indicates, there were some loopholes in the original legislation. I am sure that the Minister hopes that the instrument will remove them. The crux of the matter is found in paragraph 7.6 of the explanatory memorandum, where the types of services that the Government wish to exclude are set out. The first item is fairly straightforward:
“Services where more than half of the accommodation on the vehicle can be reserved in advance”
are excluded. I certainly accept the point made by the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington about park and ride schemes, but I suspect that the Government are more concerned about special and major events. However, I am sure that the Minister will clarify the point about shuttle buses for park and ride.
I am concerned about the third point in paragraph 7.6, which states that services
“operated primarily for the purposes of tourism or because of the historical interest of the vehicle”
will be excluded. How will a tourism service on the one hand, and a local service on the other, be defined? If I was 65 or over and eligible for the concessionary fare scheme, I could pay to travel to Bournemouth from my Wimbledon constituency and then use the scheme to use a local bus service from Bournemouth station to Bournemouth beach. Such a trip would purely be for the purpose of tourism. The Minister needs to be quite careful. If he cannot offer us an absolutely clear definition of tourism services today, I hope that he will write to us with one, because a crucial local service for many elderly and disabled people might be affected in tourist areas. Moreover, the scheme’s purpose of allowing anyone across the country to use local services might also be affected. People should not be denied the right of concessionary travel, so I hope that the Minister will clarify the matter.
Equally, I am sure that he would like to put on record that local services do not use vehicles of historical interest. To use an absurd example—I am sure that this is not possible—some buses around the country have antique badges, bumpers and so on. How will historical interest be defined? We understand the order’s intention, but again, as the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington has said, there may well be a number of unintended consequences. The Minister needs to be careful about how matters covered by the phrase I quoted are defined.
Will the Minister also explain exactly why he wishes to exclude rail replacement services? I would have thought that they were already excluded from the scheme. He needs to tell us exactly why he wishes to have that in the order. It seems to me that if one is on a rail replacement service, one would have bought a ticket for that rail service and that would have covered the journey anyway. I would like to hear his explanation of why that needs to be in the order. The provision seems to me to be superfluous.
Finally, I hope that the Minister will be able to detail the number of services that are currently covered by what he wishes to exclude, and the financial cost. The explanatory memorandum states that each travel concession authority must decide which services are to be eligible and which will not. Clearly, he is now rendering a number ineligible. Is he suggesting that some authorities will be able to decide to operate some of those services, or is he saying that they are all ineligible? Is there any right of passenger appeal against the exclusion of services that were previously in the scheme? Can he say what happens if there is some dispute between local areas about the eligibility of a service and how he intends to resolve that matter?
The concessionary travel scheme is clearly welcome. I understand the intent of the statutory instrument, but there are a number of points on which it would be helpful if the Minister provided clarification, so that unintended consequences are not harmful to not only the principle, but the practicalities of people using the bus concessionary scheme.
4.46 pm
Mr. Marsha Singh (Bradford, West) (Lab): May I congratulate my hon. Friend on his promotion? He is now the most senior British politician of Muslim origin in the House.
My constituents will welcome the order very much. I hope this point is not totally flippant, but could the scheme be extended to the future Speaker of the House, so that he does not have to take as many taxis as his predecessor?
4.47 pm
David Tredinnick (Bosworth) (Con): I am taken aback by the speed and the humour of the preceding speaker’s contribution. Building on the hon. Gentleman’s remarks, I have a Muslim college in my constituency and I know that staff and students there will be very happy at the Minister of State’s promotion. However, I have to say to him that the image I have of him in his current role is of a man on a life raft supported by 40 gallon oil drums in a sea of the chaos of this disintegrating Government. His tenure may be very short if we have a general election in the autumn.
Turning to the motion, it is inevitable that we shall be back considering this matter again, because the scheme was poorly defined in the first place and its scope was far too wide. What the Government did, in their usual casual style, was to make a grand gesture to widen the concessionary scheme. That attracted much attention but has now brought much misery, or is going to bring much misery, to many ordinary, decent people across the country.
I listened to the remarks made by the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington about the order only affecting shuttle services, coach trips and guides with microphones, but that is not the case. I received an email from one constituent, which says that the provision affects the most basic services for pensioners and others. Metropolitan Hinckley, a major town in the midlands that I represent, is made up of Burbage, Barwell, Earl Shilton and Hinckley—all contiguous and co-terminus. The bus service between Hinckley and Burbage will be reduced; the bus service between Hinckley and Hollycroft and Wykin will be discontinued; buses before 9 am from Hinckley and Earl Shilton will be discontinued; and in Hinckley and Barwell, all Saturday services will be discontinued. Those are fundamental services used by pensioners to get about their neighbourhoods—to get them to the post office and into town to do their shopping.
The situation is very serious and complicated. In Leicestershire, we have the county council negotiating on behalf of the borough councils, but the Minister’s predecessor, in his wisdom, saw fit to pay the borough councils—to give them the money. Administratively, it is very complicated. When I was looking at it today, I found some confusion among those with whom I discussed the matter. I look this afternoon for some reassurance about the future definition. I hope we are going to get some narrowing of the scheme, so that I do not lose the fundamental services in my constituency. I have a situation where a bus company has said it is going to reduce those services. I need to take a message back and give some hope to the company, the county council and the borough council.
Before I sit down, Mr Bercow, I would just like to say that I really commend Leicestershire county council. There was a Tory landslide everywhere in the country, but we had a massive re-endorsement of the hugely successful Conservative county council on Thursday. We have twice as many members as the Liberal Democrats, and as for the Labour party—you are looking at me Mr Bercow, I know. Were you able to occupy the great Chair below, you would call us to order, and I am sure you were about to call me to order here. However, there is a point which is relevant to the debate, so I hope you will look favourably on me. I know there is an election coming up soon, and if I were you I would think twice about calling hon. Members to order. You have a vested interest in letting me ramble on and on. I thank you for your generosity. I have noted it and will remember downstairs.
The serious point is that the county council’s bus support policy, which provides at least an hourly Monday-to-Saturday bus service within an 800-metre walk of 95 per cent. of the homes of Leicestershire residents, is an important safeguard. Not withstanding the Government’s intervention, that sort of safeguard is one of the reasons why we have such a successful Conservative county council in Leicestershire.
4.52 pm
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