|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
We are not ruling out such extensions in the future, although noble Lords will recognise that I am not in a position to make commitments nowless so now that, as from today, I have moved from this brief to the Treasury. In any case, our concerns are not confined to issues of resources. As explained in Committee and on Report, these amendments raise a number of complex practical problems.
I remain concerned about the potential implications of Amendment No. 1 for the community transport sector, as I emphasised during our previous discussions. Introducing a full waiver of the fare for a large number of people would represent a significant shift for community transport in this country. We have had no assurances that the community transport sector could meet the extra demand generated from such a change, certainly in the short term. If we accepted Amendment No. 1, we would run the risk of disappointing many vulnerable people who might not be able to access the services that they would have the right to expect. Such a change would also place additional administrative burdens on the community transport sector, which is of course voluntary.
Not all community transport operators may actually want to be included in a mandatory scheme. We hear that some operators are concerned about the extra administrative, accounting and auditing requirements that would result from inclusion. That may discourage volunteers from donating their time to help to run these very valuable services. We also hear that some are worried by the potential loss of autonomy, the loss of the voluntary ethos and the potential push that that will give to commercialisation. It is only proper that all operators are given a full opportunity to comment on these proposals as they may have profound implications for the voluntary sector.
We would also need to think very carefully about the potential impact of such an extension on current rural bus services. Marginal routes would almost certainly be affected adversely if free travel were available on all community transport. The noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, made that point in his contribution on Report. In the wider work that the department is carrying out on bus policy, following the Putting Passengers First document published in December last year, we have been and will continue to engage with those representing community transport interests. We very much value their input.
I understand from the noble Lord, Lord Low, that over the coming months stakeholder groups may be doing more work on the issues raised in his
5 Feb 2007 : Column 484
We have also noted the concerns, expressed eloquently by noble Lords on behalf of stakeholder groups, about the interpretation of the Secretary of States guidance to local authorities on eligibility of disabled people for concessionary travel. The department keeps that guidance under constant review. Indeed, we reissued it just over a year ago in November 2005. Shortly, we shall be meeting with the concessionary fares stakeholder group, which consists of about 20 different organisations representing the interests of older and disabled people. The guidance on the definition of disability is something we can discuss with them as part of the implementation of the national concession, as the noble Lord, Lord Low, was pressing me to do. We are particularly interested to understand whether there are genuine issues on ambiguity of interpretation of the current definitions. We are more than happy to discuss these matters in more detail with stakeholders and to discuss any work they may have undertaken, once the new national concession is up and running.
I am pleased that we have had the opportunity to discuss these important issues on the Floor of the House and in private discussions to which the noble Lord, Lord Low, has made an outstanding contribution. I thank noble Lords for their contributions. However, at this stage, I cannot accept the amendments, which although well intentioned are premature and I do not believe they represent the best way forward. I hope that noble Lords feel assured that we will keep the issues under close review; and we are prepared to meet interested parties on them. I hope that noble Lords will feel able not to press their amendments and that the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, feels able to withdraw Amendment No. 1.
Lord Hanningfield: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that response. I am still disappointed with it. Towards the end, he used the word premature, which I do not accept. As we are discussing this legislation, the new local government Bill is starting its passage through Parliament in the other place. The local area agreement, on which the Government are putting so much emphasis, means cross-cutting services and transport is already being subsumed. As leader of Essex County Council, I am worried about that. We are not going to spend any more; we just want better value for the £75 million. I am not suggesting more money to the Government, but better value from the £1 billion we will spend on concessionary transport. That means cross-cutting and looking across services. Although the Minister said premature, I would not be surprised if we were
5 Feb 2007 : Column 485
The Minister talked of pressure being put on voluntary services, but the Governments LAA agenda involves the voluntary sector in this. As leader of a county council, I am busy working with and supporting the voluntary sector, to ensure that it plays its full part in developing the Governments policy. I wish the Government would be more joined up, as we are trying to be in local authorities. In supporting vulnerable people through travel, this legislation could well be out of date in two or three years.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, I join the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, in thanking the Minister for his characteristically full and helpful response. I, too, was a little disappointed at the timescale he signalled. His suggestion was that when the national concession had been in place for about a year, the stakeholders might take an initiative. Although I recognise that it will take some time to carry out a review of all the issues we have talked about and to meet the Ministers points, I hope that it will be possible to start a little earlier. Perhaps it will be possible for the Minister and his department to take the initiative in calling the stakeholders together. I shall be happy to indicate to the Minister who the most prominent stakeholders might be; I have already mentioned a couple.
The Minister has his work cut out for him in piloting this Bill through Parliament and getting the national concession extension in place. I obviously do not expect the Minister and his department to take any initiative tomorrow, but would hope that before a year was out, maybe in the next six to nine months, he might be able to call the stakeholders together to indicate the matters that need to be addressed. I am sure that the stakeholders are working on it as we speak. Taking that action so that stakeholders and officials can get down to tackling the issues jointly, and we do not have to wait for the extension to be in place for a whole year before tackling the ancillary issues, will be an extremely helpful move. I beg to move.
The Lord Speaker (Baroness Hayman): My Lords, the amendment has obviously been moved. Perhaps the Minister could say a word, and then we could see if it could be withdrawn in line with the proposers wishes.
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I had hoped to anticipate any comment on Amendments Nos. 2 and 3 in my reply to Amendment No. 1, because the amendments were grouped together. I assure the noble Lord that I stand by what I said; my department would be eager to meet with the appropriate groups as policy evolves in this area. We already have a meeting scheduled, and we want to stay in contact. The Bill is the start, not the end, of policy. It is an important start, and there are significant costs attached. We recognise that groups of disabled people and their representatives will want to press us further in this area, and we will be happy to meet them once the Bill is under way.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, we have already debated the proposed national smart card scheme at length, and there is cross-party consensus that such a scheme is imperative. On Report, there was a dispute about whether the legislation should formalise the intention to implement the scheme using the ITSO standard to ensure uniformity across the country. The Minister assured me that the Government are committed to introducing a national smart card and have taken steps to achieve that goal. However, he was reluctant to amend the Bill to formalise that intention. As it stands, there is provision for the specification of the permit in regulations, which the Minister suggested could permit an ITSO-compliant smart card. However, the provision remains ambiguous: the ITSO standard is not robustly specified, so the Government would be able to change the specification if they wished. I accept that that is unlikely, but local authorities, which will be responsible for delivering the scheme, would welcome the clarity created by this amendment. This debate has featured heavily throughout the passage of the Bill, and I hope that the Minister will be willing to act on the reasoned and extensive argument he has heard regarding the amendment. I beg to move.
Lord Bradshaw: My Lords, I support the amendment. I would have added my name to it, but I was not here to do so. From the beginning of the Bills passage, we argued that the ITSO standard is important as a token to show that we are moving towards compatibility between smart cards. The last thing we want is companies introducing smart cards that are not compatible and having to bring them together. I hope the Minister can give us concrete reassurances that the Government are not going to allow a free-for-all to develop. We hope he will commit to ITSO-compliant smart cards.
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I have a slight feeling of déjÃ vu as we address ourselves to this amendment. It is difficult for me to see what further assurances I can give noble Lords about the Governments firm commitment to smart ticketing in compliance with the ITSO standard. The amendment is clearly motivated by the laudable aim of ensuring the faster and wider spread of smart ticketing, which we discussed in some detail in Committee and on Report.
We are entirely supportive of that aim. Indeed, the department has already done a great deal to promote the use of smart ticketing. We are committed to the use of smart cards in the transport area and I reassure noble Lords that we are committed to the ITSO standard, which we see as vital to ensure the interoperability of smart cards across the country. However, I do not accept that it is appropriate to make amendments in the Bill in respect of this issue. Clause 1(5) provides for the specification of the permit in regulations, and those regulations could specify that the permit be an ITSO-compliant smart card. Under the Bills current provisions, the Secretary of State can ensure that permits issued by local authorities both outside and within London are in a form he stipulates. That can cover a unified appearance and ITSO compliance.
I cannot accept the amendment. We firmly believe that technical matters such as this have no place in the Bill. They are better suited to regulations, and that is where we intend fully to address them. Moreover, a number of technical and practical issues need to be fully considered before we can specify these necessary requirements in legislation.
Let us consider for a moment what would happen if, in a few years, the ITSO standard is renamed. We would have to amend primary legislation at that point. Surely, that is not what the noble Lord intends.
The Department for Transport has a task groupconsisting of representatives from all tiers of local government and from bus operatorsto advise on the practicalities of implementation and the specification of the pass. They meet fortnightlyindeed, they are meeting in two days timeand we value the expertise they contribute.
I hope that the noble Lord recognises therefore, and acknowledges, the efforts that the department and others put in to move forward swiftly on the form of the pass, which he regards as desirable, and so of course do we. It is imperative, however, that we have a workable scheme in place for April 2008, so that an eligible person can use their pass anywhere in England. Subject to this requirement, which must be the Governments priority, I am happy to reiterate our goal of having ITSO-compatible smart ticketing spread as far, and as fast, as possible. With that in mind, I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
Lord Hanningfield: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that answer. There is no difference of policy between us; we all want to see this happen. We on these Benches just want to make certain it happens, and are trying to devise ways through the legislation
5 Feb 2007 : Column 488
I accept what the Minister says. We shall watch very carefully the regulations as they are published. We shall also carefully watch and question the development of the scheme over the next few months. We all want the end result out of this, and it is imperative that the Government push on with it. The Minister has given several assurances, which we wanted to hear again today. We shall follow this issue with some vigilance. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, this returns to a subject we discussed both in Grand Committee and on Report, where we drew attention to the fact that the appeal period after a scheme is implemented is too short for an operator to make a meaningful appeal on the basis of any information which he might have to hand. We have sought, through discussionfor which I thank the Ministerto draft an amendment. Amendments Nos. 5 and 9 provide the longer period of 56 days for that appeal to take place. I am sure that as a result there will be fewer appeals and less bureaucracy and I think that the bus industry will be very satisfied that this is a step in the right direction. I beg to move.
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, for his careful consideration of my comments and, indeed, objections, to his amendment at Report stage. I am very pleased that he has returned with an amendment with which I have a great deal more sympathy.
As the noble Lord explained, his new amendments focus purely on extending the deadline within which bus operators can appeal to the Secretary of State over the levels of reimbursement set by local authorities. This is currently 28 days; his amendment would extend it to 56 days in England in respect of appeals against reimbursement of the national concession under the Transport Act 2000 and in respect of appeals against reimbursement of concessionary schemes under the Transport Act 1985. As both sets of appeals are, in practice, often made jointly by operators, the noble Lords proposed changes to the 1985 Act would help to facilitate this
5 Feb 2007 : Column 489
I recognise that bus operators will welcome the additional period of time within which they will be able to lodge appeals. We hope that the extra time will offer scope for the full gathering of high-quality data so that any appeals which operators feel compelled to make are firmly grounded in empirical evidence. With a reduction in the possible incentive for lodging speculative appeals, it may even be that this change will result in a reduction. That can only be welcomed by local authorities. It will reduce some of the uncertainty that they might otherwise face.
Around a quarter of appeals made in this financial year were withdrawn or agreed locally in the weeks after submission. As I explained in Committee, choosing not to set a deadline for the submission of appeals was unacceptable. Fifty-six days is a reasonable proposition. Of course, even with this extension, we will still expect bus operators to start their consideration of reimbursement arrangements as soon as local authorities publish their concessionary travel schemes at least four months before the start of each financial year.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, for his constructive approach in taking on board my earlier concerns. I am glad that we have reached a consensus on the best way forward and I am happy to accept his amendment.
Where a travel concession authority has responsibility for the administration of the national concession including the reimbursement of operators as defined under section 3(2), the Secretary of State shall reimburse the authority the full costs of doing so, including capital and set-up costs.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, we now come to a slightly difficult point. The Government have willed the end that elderly people and others will have concessions but they have not willed the means to the local authorities which have to pay the bus operators for the concessions that people enjoy.
I have been talking to bus operators and local authorities in the past few days. We are in a situation where some authorities have large concession bills and are struggling to pay for them, and other local authorities are getting too much money. It is probably the case that the Government have made sufficient money available, but the method of distribution through the rate support grant can cause difficulties for concession authorities receiving the money. I shall not wax lyrical, but the rate support grant is a crude method of dividing up the available resource between the local authorities concerned. This relates to many things, but the number of elderly persons using buses is probably not one of them.
In any case, it comes into conflict with the Governments policy relating to the floors and ceilings which are applied to local authorities when
5 Feb 2007 : Column 490
|Next Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|