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Baroness Scott of Needham Market: I am very grateful to the noble Lords who have tabled this amendment. I am afraid that I failed to get my amendments on this subject past the vigilant eyes of the Clerk. It is my opinion that we should use this opportunity to reconsider the question of concessionary fares for young people--an issue that I raised during the passage of the Transport Act and also at Second Reading of this Bill.
Of course, some local authorities already provide concessionary fare schemes for young people. Sadly, however, they are few and far between. They are located mostly in urban areas, although Derbyshire is a notable exception. The schemes work very well but, of course, local authorities are limited in their
It was precisely to avoid that sort of patchwork provision for older people that the Government brought in the concessionary fares scheme under the Transport Act. In my opinion, it would be appropriate to consider whether it would also be sensible to make such provision for younger people. I shall not rehearse the arguments that I put forward at Second Reading. In brief, they concern the issues of road safety; sustainability; encouraging young people to use alternative modes of transport to cars; and accessibility to services.
However, there is a wider issue that I should like to explore. At present there are significant structural problems in the bus industry. The proposed and expected benefits of deregulation in the 1980s have not materialised. What has happened is that the ownership of bus companies has become concentrated into very few hands. A few operators run smaller services, but they are diminishing all the time.
In addition, public money, which goes into the bus industry, goes largely to the operators on the basis of running buses, rather than containing passengers. Public money goes in through rural bus grant, local authority support grant and fuel duty rebate. In all those cases, the bus companies have an interest in running buses; they do not have an interest in carrying passengers. When we put those things together, we find that we have ended up with a bus industry which, it is fair to say, is not as passenger focused as it might be.
An interesting issue to consider with regard to using public money for concessionary fares purposes is that public money is spent only when people use the buses and we see all the benefits to the public good that accrue from that. We should be considering whether it would be a more sensible use of public money to extend the concessionary fares scheme, which is a subsidy to the passengers rather than the operators. I hope that over the summer there will be an opportunity to consider that issue, along with the more deep-rooted structural problems in the bus industry.
I should have liked to table amendments that would create a truly national scheme, rather than continuing with the fragmented local authority schemes. That, too, was ruled out of order--perhaps I should speak to the noble Lady, Baroness Hanham, about tabling acceptable amendments. Nevertheless, such a scheme is another issue that I hope the Government will take time to consider during the recess.
Lord Swinfen: Like the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, I tried to table amendments to produce a national scheme, but I was ruled out of order. I was told that the Bill was only a small one, aimed at equalising ages. However, my name has been added in support of the amendment.
I am advised that the Local Government Association agrees with the amendment, as it appears to be a good method of accommodating the association's interest in the possible extension of a statutory scheme to cover young persons in education.
Turning to the other end of the scale, I have been briefed on the amendment by the Federation of Post Office and BT Pensioners. We have moved from the very young to the very elderly--a group which I am rapidly approaching, although I shall never be a BT or Post Office pensioner. The federation hopes that the Government will put forward clear proposals for a further extension of eligibility for travel concessions, to include national public transport journeys. That would represent the clearest signal of the regard that the Government have for older people, especially those with limited financial means.
However, there are no such proposals in the Bill. It does not seem to have followed the Prime Minister's wishes. The current system of local concessions should be extended to include national and through routes. Many pensioners and disabled people have to cross local boundaries when they visit relatives, go to hospital or even see their GP. To be limited to only their own local authority area is ridiculous. The opportunity should be taken to accept the amendment so that the Government can introduce a nation-wide scheme. I should like the scheme to be extended to railways as well as buses.
Lord Bradshaw: I rise to take up a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, who suggested that country dwellers will not benefit from concessions to bus users. I came to the station this morning on a country bus, which is run under the rural bus subsidy scheme, as did about a dozen other people from the place where I live.
Many people living in rural areas use and depend on buses. I have heard it said that bus travel is not of interest to rural dwellers who all use cars, but that is not true. I urge the Government to do everything they can, not only in this Bill but in other legislation during this Parliament, to assist the bus industry and its users. We are talking today about bus users, rather than the bus industry.
I reiterate one point made by my noble friend Lady Scott. The bus industry is in a great deal of trouble. Fuel costs are rising. Wage costs are also rising considerably because people do not want to drive buses. Bus driving is an unsocial and unpleasant job which entails contending with both traffic congestion and passengers. Passengers attack drivers when buses are late because there is no one else to blame. Finally, insurance costs in the industry have risen by 35 per cent
We on these Benches are most anxious that travel concessions are extended to people in the country as well as the town. We also implore the Government to examine closely the economics of the bus industry, because the money that they devote to rural bus grants and local authorities to support the bus industry through the rate support grant is being eroded as quickly as it is being applied.
Lord Berkeley: I cannot support this amendment which widens the debate far beyond what I believe to be the scope of the Bill. It is slightly ironic that the Official Opposition suggest that the problems of country buses can be ameliorated by giving people over 60 petrol vouchers. After all, it was the Conservative Party which wrecked country bus services many years ago. It is good that it now recognises that fact.
I do not believe that the solution is to provide petrol vouchers to older people, who should probably not be encouraged to drive for very long. I speak as someone who is over 60. I believe that I am quite capable of driving, but it is clear that older people have more accidents. There must be other ways to encourage people who are able to receive these benefits to take advantage of adequately funded basic provision of public transport, whether it is taxis or something else. I oppose the idea of petrol vouchers.
Similarly, for young people the position is fairly chaotic. There is a variation in support between different local authorities. Certainly, children in Oxford become adults at seven o'clock every night and must pay full fare for no particular reason. Perhaps they enjoy themselves after seven o'clock but not before, but the logic escapes me. I hope that the Government will consider the introduction of much more comprehensive legislation to put right some of the problems of buses.
In conclusion, the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, suggested that these concessions should be extended to rail. I believe that they are already extended to rail. As I am over 60 I can obtain a senior citizen's railcard which entitles me to one third off virtually every train fare. I believe that that is an extremely good concession.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: I read the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, in the same way as the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, and the noble Baroness, Lady Scott; namely, it aims to give power to extend the concession to different age groups. They both spoke to the proposition that it should be given to young people. That is incredibly attractive but, as both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness are aware, there is a problem of money. Such an extension would cost approximately £180 million. Therefore, although it is tempting we do not believe that that is the right thing to do.
The noble Baroness and the noble Lord are aware that in effect this Bill sets minimum requirements for local authority travel concession schemes. The delivery of those minimum requirements will be funded by central government through the revenue support grant. If there is to be anything on top of that it must be provided by local authorities. As the noble Baroness and the noble Lord are aware, local authorities in London already have discretionary powers under the Transport Act 1985 to extend concessionary travel on public transport services to young people in this age group based on individual authorities' judgment of local needs and financial circumstances. Therefore, whether to extend the concession is a judgment to be made by local authorities.
Further, separately my department is working closely with the Department for Education and Skills in developing a Connexions Card which offers a range of commercial discounts for young people in full-time education and is capable of carrying existing travel concessions.
With the greatest respect to the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, she made a Second Reading speech about transport generally. To an extent she focused on the rural situation. Rural local authorities are entitled to give such concessions as they believe to be appropriate over and above the minimum concessions required by this and other legislation which are financed by central government. The noble Baroness made a number of broader points, which were echoed to some extent by the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, and the noble Lords, Lord Bradshaw and Lord Swinfen, about rural transport and transport generally.
The Committee will forgive me for not wanting to be drawn into a general debate about transport because that is not what this measure is about. However, to counter the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, about rural bus services, we have a number of initiatives in place to improve bus provision; for example, rural bus grants, quality partnerships and the Rural Bus Challenge. These measures underline the importance we attach to bus services. We are keen for additional provision to be provided, particularly in rural areas.
The noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, and the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, said that they would like a national scheme if that was possible. We think that there should be minimum levels of concessions given to local authorities. They should decide what provision there should be over and above that level. The "to go anywhere" schemes are attractive. They could be dealt with by agreement between local authorities. We are looking at this issue with the bus industry. I am obviously not in a position to make any promise in relation to that today.
Finally, there was a reference by the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, to an Answer given about the coach issue in another place by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. The matter was also raised by the
I hope that I have answered all the questions raised. I should mention one other point. Changes in eligibility which could be considered desirable in the future in relation to concessionary fares can be achieved by secondary legislation under Sections 147 and 151 of the Transport Act 2000. In the light of the answers that I have given, I hope that the noble Baroness feels minded to withdraw the amendment.
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