The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mr. Sadiq Khan): It is a pleasure to get off the mark with you in the Chair, Mr. Bercow. I thank my hon. Friends and hon. Members for their kind words during
Touching on the previous contribution, I was deliberately trying not to be party political about this
The Chairman: Order. For purposes of clarification, may I just advise the Minister of State that he is winding up? The hon. Member for Manchester, Withington may seek to intervene on him, but the last speech is that of the Minister of State.
Mr. Khan: That is useful for both of us. When I get back I will give a slap on the wrist to my official who said that the hon. Gentleman would wind up.
Let us be clear: the statutory instrument and concessions we are talking about are new. The £1 billion we are discussing and the clarification we are seeking relate to a new £1 billion. Given the lecturing we have had from some hon. Members, it is worth bearing that in mind when it comes to discussing the clarification we are making in this statutory instrument in 2009. I am proud of the Governments record on concessionary travel. While I am happy to deal with questions that people may have, I frankly do not need lectures from hon. Members about our making buses accessible to the disabled or elderlypeople who would otherwise not be able to use the buses on a concessionary fare.
I am disappointed at the way in which minor technical changes to facilitate the better functioning of this schemeas alluded to by the hon. Member for Wimbledonhave been misrepresented to the public by the media and some others. It has caused confusion and consternation among some concessionaires, who fear their concession is being significantly eroded. That is absolutely not the case and concessionaires deserve better than to be alarmed in this way.
Mr. Leech: I understand the Ministers concern about the representation by the press, but that could have been avoided had we had the debate under the affirmative rather than the negative procedure in the first place. The Ministernot the current Ministerwould then have had the opportunity to clarify those concerns and give reassurances at that time.
Mr. Khan: I am happy to discuss the process, but perhaps I could tell the hon. Gentleman via you, Mr. Bercow, that we consulted with operators, local authorities and the public and it was only after a national newspaper published an article that some Opposition Members expressed concern. I will deal with the hon. Gentlemans points, and will comment on the article later.
Since April 2008, older people and eligible disabled people have been able to use off-peak local buses free of charge anywhere in England. That extension built on the Governments previous achievements of introducing the first mandatory concession of half-price local travel in 2000 and improving that to free local off-peak bus travel in 2006. The criteria for which services are included within the mandatory concession had remained unchanged
The considerable improvement in the level of the mandatory concession since 2002, which I remind Opposition Members is all down to the achievements of this Government, has brought the question of which services should be included in the mandatory concession under greater scrutiny. Following the introduction of the new national concession, the time was right to revisit the eligibility criteria to ensure that they were the most suitable for a concession which is now worth more than £1 billion of new money per year in reimbursement.
The message that we gotwe got itfrom operators and local authorities who are responsible for administering the concession at a local level was that while the existing criteria remained appropriate for the vast majority of services, there was some ambiguity at the margins that could be unhelpful when assessing a small number of services. That has been alluded to by the hon. Member for Bosworth. That problem would most likely become more significant over time unless greater clarity could be given. As requested, we therefore chose to look again at the eligibility criteria for bus services, with a view to making improvements to provide greater clarity. I welcome the comments by the hon. Member for Wimbledon, who accepted in principle the idea of the concessionary fares and understood why clarity might be a good thing, notwithstanding his questions, which I will come to in a while. After a full public consultation, and working in conjunction with a working group consisting of representatives from operators and local authorities, we have made those improvements.
Let me be clear: the mandatory national bus concession is intended to improve the social inclusion of older and eligible disabled people in England. To respond to an earlier comment, I am afraid that that rules you out, Mr. Bercow, from any extension that anyone would like to bring in relation to the scheme. The intention was to provide free travel on eligible local bus services and the order does that by providing improved access to services and amenities, but it was never intended to provide free travel on all types of public passenger service.
The working group identified five types of servicereferred to by Opposition Membersthat could be considered to be outside the spirit of the mandatory concession, but regarding which there was a potential for confusion when applying the existing eligibility criteria. To clarify, the instrument specifically excludes those five types of service from the concession. They are, first, services on which the majority of seats can be reserved in advance of travel. That exclusion makes it clear that long-distance inter-city services such as coaches are not included in the mandatory bus concession. The second type are services that are intended to run for less than six consecutive weeks, such as shuttle buses for special events and the Christmas example given by the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington, which I will refer to in a while. The third type are services operating primarily for the purposes of tourism or because of the historical interest of the vehicle, such as open-top sightseeing services. An example of the confusion experienced by local authorities is the fact that the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington accepted that they should be excluded and the hon. Member for Wimbledon asked questions about whether they should be excluded. That demonstrates why we need to clarify this.
Stephen Hammond: I am not suggesting necessarily that they should not be excluded; I am just asking for clarity that there are no unintended consequences of the phrase, purposes of tourism.
The fourth example is bus substitution services, which are commonly know as rail replacement services. I think that the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington accepted our conclusion on this matter, and the hon. Member for Wimbledon also asked a question relating to it.
The fifth exclusion is services for which the fare charged by the operator has a special amenity element typified by a much higher fare than that for a comparable local servicethe park-and-ride example was mentioned by the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington.
It is clear that, in general, none of those services can be considered a typical local bus service, so it is only right that, to dispel all doubt, they should be excluded explicitly from the mandatory concession. There is also a discretionary concession, which I shall come to in a while. The hon. Members for Manchester, Withington and for Bosworth referred to their own wonderful local authoritieswonderful in their eyes, but that wonderfulness will be demonstrated by whether they are able to fill any gaps in the discretionary element. However, in keeping with the fact that these are mandatory concessions with a statutory minimum, such local authorities can offer, on a discretionary basis, concessionary travel on any service affected by these changes.
The amount of funding provided by central Government is not affected by these changes. This year, my Department will pay a grant of £217 million purely for the cost of extending the concession, and total funding is now about £1 billion per year. Although it is important for the concession to have clarity in such circumstances, the impact on passengers will be minimal. The hon. Member for Manchester, Withington is genuinely concerned about the number of passengers affected by the clarity that we are seeking to provide, but we estimate that less than 0.01 per cent. of concessionary journeys will be affected by these changes.
I shall address some specific questions raised by hon. Members. I would like to make it absolutely clear that the local bus concession was never intended to include, and never has included, long-distance inter-city coach services. Indeed, since 2003 there has been a separate concession for coach travel where participating operators are reimbursed so as to be left no better or worse off for offering half-price tickets to concessionary passholders. That concession is wholly unaffected by the changes to the bus concession and the coach concession subsidy.
Some reports have implied that, before 1 April 2009, the local bus concession gave free travel on all coach services and that the new criteria had, by stealth, removed this generous benefit, but that is absolutely not the case. The article that referred to that was read by some concessionaires, and they thought it might be true. In fact, however, under the original criteria, some sections of coach serviceswhere stops are close togethercould be construed as qualifying for the mandatory bus concession, while the rest of the service was ineligible. That caused confusion for concessionaires and considerable problems for operators. By explicitly excluding services on which over half the seats can be reserved in advance
Although not specifically mentioned in the exclusions, concerns have been expressed that the changes could create a blanket exclusion for park-and-ride services. That is absolutely not the case. No distinct set of bus services are designated as park-and-ride services. Instead, a wide range of car parking arrangements and bus services can be administered in a number of different ways by local authorities. In some cases, we are aware that the car parking fee is included as part of the bus fare. In such circumstances, that would be an example of a special amenity element, and the service would not be eligible for mandatory concessionary travel. However, many examples of bus services with no amenity element can be considered park-and-ride services. The bus service would therefore be included in the mandatory concession.
The new arrangements clarify which services should be included and give local authorities the freedom and flexibility to make the most appropriate arrangements for their park-and-ride services, without undue constraints from the mandatory bus concession. Local authorities should not be forced, by way of a concession for free local bus travel, to pay for free parking if they do not wish. That was never the intention of the bus concession, and the changes make that clear.
Stephen Hammond: Will the Minister make absolutely clear what he just said? Did he say that the measure does not necessarily intend to exclude park-and-ride services, and that if there is an element of free ride included in the car parking charge, it would be excluded from the mandatory scheme, but if there was no element of bus ride fee in the car parking charge, it would not necessarily be excluded from the scheme? Does he think that that is over-complex? Will it lead to some unscrupulous council somewhere saying, Were not going to have any element of the ride fee in there so you can use the concession?
Mr. Khan: I hope not. The hon. Gentleman always boasts that the local authorities concerned tend to be Tory local authorities, but I hope they are not that greedy. He understands the difference correctly.
Mr. Leech: Will the Minister assure us that he will keep the issue of park and ride under review? There is potential for skulduggery, and I am keen for the Government to keep an eye on things to ensure that local people are not missing out as a result of the order.
Mr. Khan: There is a delicious irony in this: the hon. Member for Bosworth criticises us for returning to the matter a few years after reviewing it, but the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington asks us to keep it under review. Of course I will keep the matter under review, notwithstanding the wrath of the hon. Member for Bosworth, because it is important that parliamentarians do so.
In answer to the specific questions asked by the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington, local authorities can choose to include temporary park-and-ride schemes in their discretionary schemes if they were included in the past. Funding is not affected.
The estimate in the impact assessment accompanying the order, to which the hon. Gentleman referred in his opening, is that the total cost of reimbursement for coach trips is around £70,000 per year, with administrative savings of about £80,000. He asked whether they are the best estimates. They come to about 22,500 trips per year, which is still way below 0.01 per cent. of the total number of trips that the concessionary schemes cover. We are talking about a very small element of the scheme.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about parking, and the hon. Member for Wimbledon asked about complexity. Given that complexity, we are trying to exclude certain matters for the sake of clarity. A local authority could offer a local concession so that a passenger pays only for the parking, but as I am sure the hon. Member for Wimbledon agrees, it is too complex to have a national law for that. Local authorities are best placed to deal with the matter. I hope the many Tory authorities to which I referred will not, to use a word that was used before, engage in skulduggery to try to find a way around the order and profiteer.
Stephen Hammond: Clearly it will not be a Conservative authority that does that. In the unfortunate instance in a few years time that there are Labour authorities again in the country, it might happen.
The Minister has just tried to tell me that a national rule would be too complex. The rule that he has dictated, if my understanding is correct, leaves extraordinary complexity for local authorities. Is the Minister right to assure me that my understanding is correct? Does he mean to exclude the whole element of the scheme?
Mr. Khan: No. Proposed new article 4(1)(e) of the Travel Concessions (Eligible Services) Order 2002 makes it clear that
the fare for the service includes a special amenity element.
If car parking is part of the bus fare, the service is out of the concession. If the bus fare is included in the car parking fee, the bus is free anyway.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South intervened on the hon. Member for Wimbledon to talk about the problems in Norfolk. The hon. Gentlemans point was that £1 billion is the right amount for the country. My right hon. Friend will know that that is one cut the Tories are not making, which is good. The issue is the distribution of the money in different parts of the country. He will be pleased to know that we are reviewing the allocation of the £1 billion because there have been winners and losers.
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