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Baroness Morris of Bolton: I am grateful to the Minister for that very detailed reply, which I look forward to reading at leisure in Hansard. Had I known that Essex was such an exemplar I could have asked my noble friend Lord Hanningfield and saved the Minister a lot of time. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
(a) the basis on which the charge will be calculated,
(b) the arrangements for increasing the charges,
(c) the availability of concessionary fares, and
The noble Lord said: In Amendment No. 13, we seek to provide guidance to potential scheme authorities on how the charging mechanism might work. Paragraph (a) of the amendment means that there would be a need to understand what the basis of a charge might be. Would it be a flat-rate charge, with everyone on the bus paying the same amount, which would be very easy to administer? There are some attractions to that option, of course, but people living close at hand would probably end up subsidising those who lived further away who paid the same rate. There would be no correlation between the charge and the extent to which someone used the bus. The Government might find that attractive, because they could charge just one rate, as buses in London charge £1.05 regardless of the length of the journey.
On the other hand, if there were a distance-related charge, people living close at hand would not subsidise those who lived further away. Would the higher charge for those living in the more outlying or rural areas dissuade such people from using the bus? We had that debate beforethe charge is too high and people use cars, and so on. Most bus fares are distance related, but there is a trade-off between flat-rate and distance-related charges, and the Government and scheme authorities need to think about that in relation to any guidance given on the matter.
Paragraph (b) relates to the basis for any future increases. It is all very well having a scheme that one day sets out a charge which those consulted think fair and reasonable. But what happens in subsequent years? What if there is a poor settlement for schools and a problem with local authority funding? The local authority might decide to increase the charges well above the rate of inflation in order to try to recover a shortfall in grant from government. Therefore, it would be interesting to have clarity on the basis of increase in charge.
What happens about concessionary fares? Many groups are concerned about the impact of charging on social inclusion. We need to ensure that concessionary fares are discussed in the scheme consultation. We also need to consider who would collect the fare revenue. Will there be conductors in every bus collecting the flat rate or distance-related charge? Will we expect the head teacher to collect the money from pupils at school and so add to the burdens which they face? Will we expect the local authority to require parents to set up a standing order to enable it to collect the revenue? What would be the most efficient way to collect the charges?
Will we expect parents to pay daily, weekly, monthly or each term? Clearly, collecting one payment per term would make life easier for LEAs and would cut down costs, but what if a family cannot pay a term's transport in one fell swoop? It could well be several hundred pounds and some families will find such a payment difficult. I would look to spreading the payment across a term.
Revenue collection is a dull topic in many respects, but how many schools operate and how we collect the revenue will affect a household's finances. The purpose of the amendment is to tease out some of those
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details and to get the department, in its next consultations, to consider the next draft of the prospectus and to discuss the issues with local education authorities. That way, before the scheme is unleashed on an unsuspecting public, there can be some guidance on these issues. They can be consulted on whether the scheme should apply in their area.
I know from my knowledge in local government that often a great deal of time and money is spent collecting small amounts of revenue. We have to do that, but I want to examine the different ways in which we might cut down the bureaucracy. We shall be interested to hear the Minister's comments and I beg to move.
Lord Triesman: The amendment would place a statutory duty on LEAs to insert details of charging proposals in travel scheme proposals, the basis on which they are to be calculated, arrangements for increasing charges, availability of concessionary fares and the method of collecting fares.
Our formal consultation on the draft Bill revealed widespread agreement among local authorities that any introduction of charges for home-to-school journeys should be accompanied by an improvement in the services on offer. The prospectus accompanying the Bill requires scheme applications to explain what LEAs and local transport authorities are doing to ensure that good quality, well maintained and appropriate vehicles are used on the journey to school.
It also insists that charges must be affordable, pitched at a level which will not lead to an increase in car use. We also ask LEAs to explain how they propose to manage the charging regime effectively, taking into account the needs of low income and large families.
I can therefore tell the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, that flat rate or distance as a method must be considered by the charging authority following consultation. It would need to do what suits the area and to examine the efficiency of the operation in relation to the methods of collection. We do not believe that it is right to prescribe those matters nationally because we want those who run the local schemes to think them through. ButI return to the "but" because it is importanta local authority which suddenly decided to charge for the whole year or even a term, or to charge a prohibitively large amount of money, would not take into account the needs of low income and large families or the other issues which are intended to discourage the use of cars. I hope that that gives the noble Lord some assurance on the important points he has made.
We see these requirements as including details which have been sought in the amendment. However, the prospectus goes further than that. It states that charges may have a differential impact within scheme areas geographically. In some areas there will be net losers of public funding, with other areas gaining overall. LEA proposals must provide transparent information about any imbalances between the areas generating or
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absorbing charges. The prospectus also requires scheme applicants to provide a thorough analysis of the impact of charging on different groups of pupils to clarify the net impact of any scheme on different segments of the pupil population.
The prospectus also deals with transitional arrangements, requiring LEAs to set out their strategy for introducing the new arrangements. It also provides for ongoing monitoring and the provision of detailed financial information through annual reports as part of the evaluation process. It might be disproportionate in regulatory terms to go beyond all those requirements, which are pretty extensive in their own right.
The place to deal with those issues is the prospectus rather than the Bill. It gives the scope to local authorities that we seek to give in the whole of the legislation, so I hope that the noble Lord will feel that that is a proper response to the issues that he probed and that he can withdraw the amendment.
Lord Hanningfield: I thank the Minister for that reply. I am basically pleased to hear that matters will be left to a lot of local discretion. As everyone will gather, I am not much in favour of the Bill anyway. I support the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsleysome blue-sky thinking on how we tackle the issues might be rather better. If we are to have this legislation, it might be best left to local authorities. However, I repeat that the cost of collecting very small amounts of money can be prohibitive. Local authorities will have to find various ways of doing it, otherwise people will be faced with large bills, which will not be very desirable in terms of affordability from the point of view of a lot of parents. I will reflect on what the Minister said and see whether we need to come back to the amendment at all. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
"( ) Income from the charges shall be applied only to furthering the objectives of the scheme."
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