Concessionary Bus Travel Bill [HL]
Lord Davies of Oldham (Deputy Chief Whip (House of Lords), HM Household; Labour)
My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.
Buses are the most widely used mode of public transport in this country. Over two-thirds of all public transport journeys are made on them. The number of bus journeys is at a 10-year high, around 5 billion in the UK in 2005.
Our buses now boast their best ever environmental performance. They are more accessible for disabled passengers than ever before and there has been good progress on improving the quality of the buses on our roads. The average age has come down by more than 20 per cent over the past 10 years.
The flexibility of bus networks means that they can provide a genuine alternative to the car, helping to tackle congestion, improve social inclusion and contribute to meeting our goals on climate change. The Government recognise that buses are particularly important for some of the most vulnerable people in our society. They often provide a vital lifeline to services such as shops, leisure facilities and hospitals and are an important connection to the community. That is why, in 2001, the Government acted to ensure half-price bus travel in England for all older and disabled people within their local authority area, and why, earlier this year, we provided an additional £350 million per annum to make such travel completely free.
These measures have already reduced transport-related social exclusion and have helped to enhance well-being in our communities, but we want to go further. We want pensioners and disabled people to be able to go further too, not just travel within local authority areas. We recognise that the places to which people need to travel are no respecters of sometimes arbitrary local authority boundaries. The Bill means that, for the first time, around 11 million older and disabled people will be able to use off-peak local buses free of charge anywhere in England. That will give them the freedom to travel across district or county boundaries to nearby shops, to access healthcare or to visit friends and relatives. They will have free travel when visiting any part of England, from Cumbria to Kent and from Cornwall to Cambridgeshire.
Those important changes require a change in the law. We will ensure clarity and consistency in how the new national concession is implemented across England. The Bill will guarantee, in legislation, free local bus travel anywhere in England from 9.30 am to 11 pm on weekdays and all day on bank holidays and at the weekend. We will do that by amending the Transport Act 2000 and, for Greater London, by amending the Greater London Authority Act 1999. The Government will provide up to £250 million of new money each year to pay for this extended national bus concession.
A national scheme will require some changes to current arrangements. A bus driver in Devon needs to be able to easily recognise a pass issued in Durham; we need a national standard. The Bill therefore includes a power to standardise the appearance of passes. We will continue to encourage councils to take account of local circumstances. Where local authorities wish to go even further than the new national statutory entitlement, they will be able to do so. Section 93 of the Transport Act 1985 gives local authorities the discretion to provide concessions at additional times or on different modes. The Bill will not change that. It means that local authorities up and down the country can continue to offer concessions on other modes or travel token schemes. In London, the Freedom Pass system will not change. Whatever works best for local authorities and their residents will be in place.
What about scheduled coach travel? I assure the House that the Bill will not affect the existing half-fare concessionary scheme, which we introduced in May 2003. Government funding of £15 million every year means that millions of older and disabled people will go on benefiting when making longer journeys by coach. We are listening to stakeholders, and we are discussing the measures in the Bill with local authorities, bus operators and bus users. We recognise the importance of ensuring that bus operators receive fair payment for carrying concessionary passengers. In the same way as now, reimbursement will be offered on a "no better, no worse off" basis, so no operator should be disadvantaged by the new measures. An operator can appeal if he believes that reimbursement has been set at the wrong level.
We also need to ensure that councils get a fair deal. At present, the Government provide around £800 million a year to local authorities via the formula grant system. Local authorities then reimburse bus operators for carrying concessionary passengers. We are committed to working with local authorities and bus operators to ensure that the mechanisms for funding and reimbursement are fit for purpose. The concessionary fares landscape varies across England. In some areas, the travel concession authorities responsible for providing reimbursement are district councils; in other areas, it is unitary county councils or passenger transport executives. Overall, there are 291 separate travel concession authorities, and separate arrangements apply in London. This can mean that some bus operators need to negotiate with many authorities each year. It means a wide variation in schemes and reimbursement regimes across the country, and it means that even where countywide schemes are set up, there is no guarantee that they will last.
The Bill provides the power to simplify the system in the future. There is provision to transfer reimbursement and other administrative functions, such as issuing permits, from district councils to county councils, or to transfer those functions to the Secretary of State. If such steps were taken, district councils could also be asked to co-operate at the county level on the administration of discretionary Section 93 schemes.
We expect that moving reimbursement and administration to higher-tier authorities or to the Secretary of State could improve efficiency and save money. A recent National Audit Office report estimated that annual savings could be as much as £12 million, but I can assure the House that any such change would be subject to extensive consultation and there would be full and proper parliamentary scrutiny of any draft secondary legislation, which would be introduced by affirmative resolution.
Lord Foulkes of Cumnock (Labour)
My Lords, my noble friend will be aware that there is already a nationwide concessionary scheme in Scotland. I have my card here, as has my noble friend Lord Hogg. His is issued in Aberdeen and mine in Ayrshire but they look exactly the same. They allow us to travel around Scotland. This Bill introduces a similar system for England. Will the schemes be reciprocal? Will Scots pensioners be able to travel in England and English pensioners in Scotland?
Lord Davies of Oldham (Deputy Chief Whip (House of Lords), HM Household; Labour)
My Lords, I was coming to that. Of course we intend that to be the case. My noble friend will recognise that cross-border schemes already operate; for example, people from Carlisle can cross the border into Scotland and take advantage of their pass. We intend to make the scheme nationwide; this is a Bill for England but the scheme will be consistent with Scottish and Welsh legislation, and it takes in Northern Ireland.
Lord Davies of Oldham (Deputy Chief Whip (House of Lords), HM Household; Labour)
My Lords, I am more than grateful to my noble friend and await the fire-bolt still to come after that helpful intervention.
The Government's first priority is to implement a successful all-England scheme, but the Bill enables us, when we have done that, to put in place with the co-operation of the devolved Administrations a scheme whereby eligible people have the right to free bus travel anywhere in the United Kingdom.
The Government would consult fully the devolved Administrations to obtain their agreement before pursuing any UK-wide scheme. I know that there might be some anxiety in the Scottish Administration, and in Wales and Northern Ireland, about the implications of the English scheme. We have already thought carefully about the legal arrangements. The Bill enshrines in legislation the ability for Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish passes to be recognised in England, and for English, Scottish and Northern Irish passes to be recognised in Wales. The Bill also ensures that bus operators can be fairly reimbursed for journeys by any eligible UK resident travelling anywhere in the UK.
Nothing in the Bill needs to affect existing cross-border arrangements set up by local authorities. I mentioned the Carlisle scheme that allows concessionary travel across the border into Scotland; likewise, a scheme for Shropshire enables concessionary journeys into Wales. Authorities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have the discretion to make short cross-border arrangements under existing legislation.
It makes sense to adopt a flexible concessionary fares framework. We want the Government to be able to respond to changing circumstances in the most appropriate way to maximise benefits for users. That is why the Bill includes powers to extend the times when concessionary travel is available or to provide it on alternative modes such as trams or community transport, should the resources for such national extensions become available. We have retained the power to include new categories of concessionary travellers in the future, such as students or carers for disabled people.
In conclusion, this Bill will guarantee for the first time that no older or disabled person in England is prevented from travelling by cost alone. It brings real social inclusion benefits for our communities. It is another important step forward in transport provision. I commend the Bill to the House.
Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Davies of Oldham.)
Lord Bradshaw (Spokesperson in the Lords, Transport; Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, we welcome the Bill, although we feel that the money has been spent in a rather careless way and that it could perhaps have been spent better. However, as regards the objects of the Bill, we agree with the Minister. The problems spring from the haste with which the arrangements were implemented after an announcement by the Chancellor before the last election, and they also spring from political ends rather than from those that meet practical objectives and efficiency in implementation. But increased bus use, which has certainly taken place within limited resources, is an aim that we all share.
Money has been—I use these words advisedly—sprayed around through the random mechanism of the rate support grant. It is, I submit, something of a blunderbuss approach to the issue, rather than one that we would ascribe to the surgeon who is trying to pinpoint the cause of the trouble. In summing up, my noble friend will highlight some of the problems that arise for local authorities, some of which have gained and some of which have lost from the way in which the money has been spent. The result is that some money—but not enough in every case—has gone to those that, with lots of bus services and lots of pensioners, are in greatest need and other money has gone to those with very few bus services and many fewer potential beneficiaries. This is what I call bad outcome No. 1—the money has been spent carelessly.
In the areas with passenger transport authorities, to which the Minister made reference, the money has gone to their constituent district councils, which may or may not pass the money on to the authority charged with the job of securing bus services. This is what I call bad outcome No. 2—the money has not flowed to the people who need it. This is an indirect route for paying subsidy: it pays little regard to actual bus use and is full of leakage.
Bad outcome No. 3 is that the maximum bureaucracy has been created with, as the Minister said, every district council negotiating separately with each of their bus operators about the reimbursement that they should receive as a result of participating in the scheme. This is at a time when local authorities, of which I am a member, are obliged to reduce staff and bureaucracy. That system is inefficient and creates bad feeling among district councils on the one hand and bus operators on the other, when those two groups should co-operate in providing the highway space and other facilities necessary to provide a good bus service.
Bad outcome No. 4 is the appeals mechanism, to which the Minister made reference. The timescale is limited to 28 days. An operator must appeal within that time, but that is before he has carried any passengers and before he knows how many passengers he will be carrying or what costs or losses he may face.
Lord Hogg of Cumbernauld (Labour)
My Lords, the noble Lord's doom-laden speech is depressing us here on the Back Benches. Does he not agree that the scheme in Scotland, which was introduced by a Liberal Democrat Transport Minister, is very similar to what is being introduced here?
Lord Bradshaw (Spokesperson in the Lords, Transport; Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, if the noble Lord will be a little patient, I shall come on to Scotland, but first I think that it is pertinent to focus on the problems that need to be addressed if we are to go forward with a new scheme.
The appeals system, to which the Minister referred, means that people have to appeal very early. The law, as it is written now, says that if after 28 days one finds something wrong, it is too late as one cannot appeal after 28 days. That means that the appeal is not evidence-based, which is a defect.
There are other bad outcomes, but there is also the overwhelming good outcome that more people are using buses. I noticed in my district council area that the number is up about 45 per cent. Many more people are using buses, despite the defects to which I have referred and despite what the noble Lord opposite said. We want an even better outcome that gives further scope to grow the market and to redirect subsidy to increase the market further.
The Treasury has long been concerned—why we should worry about the Treasury's concern I am not sure—that subsidies paid to bus users should be more accurately targeted, particularly what used to be called the fuel duty rebate and is now called the bus service operators grant, which reimburses operators for the fuel that they burn rather than the number of passengers whom they carry. The many studies into the subject have always concluded that fuel duty rebate is very easy to pay and there is no simple system to replace it. Through successive transport Acts, we have continued the process of badly aimed subsidies, to which the Minister referred, as no better toolkit was available. The opportunity to change that is now presented to us by the mechanism of the Bill. The smart card is the intelligent tool; it will gather information of journeys made.
Perhaps I may pay tribute to my friends north of the Border, who seem rather anxious that we should include them in this discussion. The Scottish citizens' pass is a smart card that enables the number of passengers using the buses to be counted. I can assure noble Lords that it will do that in time. The passenger now gives the pass to the bus driver, but he or she will touch it on a reader and it will record the journey made.
Lord Foulkes of Cumnock (Labour)
My Lords, I assure the noble Lord that that is not the case. That is certainly the case in London, but in Scotland it is an ordinary card and the bus driver has to record the fact that someone has made that particular journey.
Lord Bradshaw (Spokesperson in the Lords, Transport; Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, the noble Lord is quite right. That is the situation at the moment. Soon there will be smart-card readers. Once the card is enabled, like the Oyster card in London, one will not have to engage the driver at all. It is not there yet but that is on the way. As well as in Scotland, smart cards are being introduced in Blackpool, in the north-west, in Lancashire, in Cumbria, in south Yorkshire and in Oxford and, of course, we have the Oyster card in London.
We should move quickly to an ITSO-compliant smart card, nationally available and compatible throughout Great Britain. There will be some risks. The Minister made great play of the fact that there will be much consultation on this, but the scheme is supposed to be introduced in April 2008, so there is limited time for consultation. Decision time, which is not well beloved of Ministers, is very close. They will have to decide whether to go forward with a smart card rather than spending lots of time consulting on it. There are risks and costs, but the rewards are substantial. First, there is much reduced scope for fraud by both the user and the operator. There is currently nothing to prevent an unscrupulous operator from pressing the button several times for non-existent passengers. Secondly, there will be a much better system of reimbursement for operators, targeted to where people actually use buses.
If we have a national scheme, the money can go to where people are using buses. For example, lots of people come to Blackpool in the summer, but the Blackpool Corporation currently gets no money from them. Bus operators in honeypot areas—be they Edinburgh, Blackpool, London or wherever—should get some reward for what they provide. We could have one set of centrally negotiated national reimbursement rates and consider a growth factor where operating costs have demonstrably increased. In some cases, there are so many extra people using the buses that more have to run. Providing more buses is expensive.
Where they exist, passenger transport authorities should be the conduit for the money. Otherwise, district councils, which are not transport authorities, should not be involved in smart cards, the cash flow or negotiations with operators. Where those district councils are highway authorities, they should concentrate on the issues of the free flow of buses in their area. Bus drivers, who have a difficult enough job anyway, should not be involved except to see that a valid smart card is presented to the card reader on the bus. That could well speed up boarding times and shorten journey times.
I understand that my proposal moves risk to government, although much of the work involved can be outsourced to some other organisation. If a local authority wishes to extend their scheme's scope, they should be able to do so, as the Minister said. I suggest that that should be at their expense, however.
Although there are risks, their evaluation will quickly become evidence-based because there is a record of every journey. That opens the way to revising, if anybody wants to, the system of bus service operators grant. Smart cards depend on each bus having a card reader, like the buses in London. Fitting those will have a cost, but smart cards should be regarded as the golden key, bringing rationality to a sprawling and rather shambolic system of bus-user subsidy and appealing to the Secretary of State.
As the Minister said, the Bill is enabling legislation; real meat will appear in the regulations. I hope that real discussions will take place with all involved, mapping a quick way forward. I wish the Bill every success and hope that the Minister will take account of what I have said.
Lord Low of Dalston (Crossbench)
My Lords, I imagine most of us in this House will welcome the Bill. It implements the Government's commitment that everyone aged 60 and over, and disabled people, should enjoy free off-peak travel on all local buses anywhere in England from April 2008, replacing the current scheme which restricts free travel to a single local authority area. It continues the process begun in 2001 with the introduction of half-price travel for disabled people, which was extended into the present scheme in 2006. From 2008, as we have heard, free travel will be extended to local, off-peak bus travel across local authority boundaries provided the bus stops at least every 15 miles. I have a friend who lives more or less at the point where Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire meet. He finds it virtually impossible to go any distance before crossing a local authority boundary, so the Bill will be beneficial to him.
The Bill is a welcome enhancement of the scheme for elderly and disabled people, but more still needs to be done to ensure that it fully meets the mobility needs of disabled people. I was pleased to hear the Minister say that one of the objectives of the Bill is to combat social exclusion. Disabled people are among the most socially excluded people in the country, and I hope that it may be possible to make some further improvements to the Bill to combat the social exclusion of disabled people. That is the aspect of the Bill that I shall talk about today.
It would be good if the Minister could consider five things as the Bill goes through the House: first, free travel at peak times in the morning; secondly, free travel on other modes of transport; thirdly, free travel for a companion where the person's impairment means that he cannot access transport on his own; fourthly, concessions to apply to community transport services such as dial-a-ride; and, fifthly, a definition of disability that makes clear that the Bill covers all disabled people whose impairments affect their ability to use public transport, including those with mental health problems.
We would all be glad to have free travel at peak times in the morning, but there are good reasons for introducing it preferentially for disabled people. First, it is often necessary for disabled people to use public transport even for short journeys rather than walk. I do it myself and did so this morning. I will take a bus just one stop, where someone else would walk, in order to give myself the choice of a greater number of buses. Secondly, for persons with restricted mobility, the pedestrian environment is often inaccessible or unsafe. Thirdly, disabled people are typically less well off. According to the report, Disability in Great Britain, the incomes of disabled adults are 20 to 30 per cent below those of non-disabled people, even when disability benefits are taken into account. Fourthly, that has a lot to do with their lack of employment opportunities.
The recent annual report of the New Policy Institute, which is funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, reported that disabled people are twice as likely to be unemployed as non-disabled people and pointed to the lack of access to paid work as the main reason for poverty among disabled people. Recent research on a sample of 1,000 blind and partially sighted people showed an employment rate of only 34 per cent and research by the RNIB—in which, as its chairman, I obviously have an interest—suggests that blind and partially sighted people who are employed are more likely to be in lower paid jobs. It is sometimes thought that disabled people in employment may obtain assistance with the cost of travelling to and from work through the Access to Work scheme run by the Department for Work and Pensions, but that form of financial support is available only to disabled people who are unable to use public transport. For all these reasons, free bus travel at people's normal travel to work time would support the Government's welfare to work agenda for disabled people.
Restricting concessionary travel during morning peak periods has a number of untoward consequences. As the Government have improved the minimum concessionary fare scheme for older and disabled people, some local authorities have degraded schemes that offered more than the statutory minimum. For example, schemes that provided free morning peak travel for blind people but not for other disabled people or older people have come under pressure. As the proud possessor of a London Freedom Pass, which entitles me to free travel at all times, I must declare an interest here, but that also enables me to tell the House what an excellent scheme it is and to commend it to the House. When the issue arose in London, the Association of London Government, now renamed London Councils, wanted to level down so that all disabled people, the blind included, benefited from the restricted concession only. Following representations from disabled people, the scheme was levelled up and free travel was extended to all disabled people in the morning peak as well as at other times.
There have been no time restrictions on using the Freedom Pass in the morning peak in London since April 2003, and that has not caused any particular difficulties, despite the huge pressure on public transport in the morning peak in the capital. But blind people elsewhere, as in Warwickshire, have not always been so lucky.
Needless to say, organisations representing disabled people would prefer to see the London solution adopted, with schemes that previously offered free morning peak travel only to blind people being extended to disabled people generally. That is what the Scottish scheme offers, as we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, which means that the scheme for England contained in the Bill, if it is not improved, will provide yet another unfavourable comparison with what is available in Scotland. At the very least, reciprocal arrangements with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland should be established. I was very pleased to hear the Minister's assurance that that will be done.
It should be clearly understood that in arguing for morning peak schemes for blind people to be retained and extended to other disabled people, my motives are entirely altruistic and not ones of self-preservation. I simply want the good fortune which I am lucky enough to enjoy extended to more of my fellow men. It might be thought that this was an oasis of privilege enjoyed by blind people that ought to go. It runs somewhat counter to the generally disadvantaged position of blind people, which I talked about in my maiden speech, but I would call it a case of compensatory advantage, rather than one of privilege.
As we have heard from the Minister, the Bill will not prevent local authorities from continuing to offer concessions which are more generous than the statutory minimum, but that approach effectively offers a postcode lottery. The Warwickshire example shows that local authorities cannot be relied on to provide or to continue to provide free morning peak travel where it has previously been available to all or some disabled people, so that needs to be part of the statutory minimum scheme.
The other points that I mentioned at the beginning of my speech can be dealt with somewhat more briefly. First, I mentioned concessions on other modes of transport. In some areas, concessionary fare passes can be used for taxis, community transport and other door-to-door transport. That is particularly important in rural areas and it would be good if the Bill could do something to make such provision more generally available.
Secondly, I mentioned travelling with a companion. Not all disabled people are able to access mainstream public transport on their own. Concessions should be available to allow a companion to travel free of charge where that is necessary to enable the disabled person to access public transport. That is already provided for under the Welsh scheme and there is no good reason why the English scheme should be inferior. It is invidious that distinctions of that sort should operate in different parts of the country. In some cases, disabled people will not be able to access mainstream public transport even with assistance, and concessionary fares should therefore also be available on community transport and similar door-to-door services.
Thirdly, there is a good case for having a definition of disability in the Bill but there are concerns about proposed new subsection (4) in Clause 1, which requires the issuing of concessionary fares to those who appear to be disabled. That leaves too much room for subjective and potentially discriminatory discretion. New subsection (6) goes on to state:
"The Secretary of State may issue guidance",
to which local authorities "must have regard". It would be very helpful if "may" could be changed to "shall".
Very clear guidance was issued following the introduction of the minimum half-price concessionary fare for disabled people under the Transport Act 2000. However, in addition to that guidance, Section 151(4) of the Act specified that disabled people with a broad range of impairments were covered. Between the guidance and the primary legislation, most impairments—with the exception of those with mental health problems—were explicitly covered. It is to be hoped that, for the avoidance of doubt, a similar approach can be adopted with this legislation and a definition agreed that includes all disabled people whose impairments affect their ability to use public transport, including those with mental health problems.
In conclusion, I repeat my welcome for the Bill and say that it is very useful; it makes a clear improvement in concessionary travel arrangements for bus passengers. However, I should be grateful if the Minister would consider my various points about extending the scheme somewhat further to benefit disabled people in the interests of combating the social exclusion that they so generally experience.
Baroness Quin (Labour)
My Lords, I, too, welcome the Bill and this opportunity to comment on it. I also welcome the approach to the whole issue that was outlined by the Minister when he introduced the Bill.
My interest in concessionary bus travel led me, when I was a Member of the other place, to introduce a Bill, in the autumn of 2003, that was very much along the lines of this Bill. At that time, my Bill attracted much Back-Bench support and demonstrated a strong level of dissatisfaction with the situation at that time: concessionary bus travel arrangements were very patchy across the country and could genuinely be described as involving a postcode lottery. Having introduced the Bill, I had a meeting with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, at which he undertook to look at the matter carefully. Some time afterwards, I was delighted, along with others, when he announced appropriate measures in his 2004 Budget.
What is being proposed was always an affordable and sensible measure with obvious nationwide benefits. Indeed, survey after survey of older people, particularly those on low incomes, has identified transport—its cost, affordability and availability—as an important issue for that section of the population. It had an obvious link with their quality of life.
The Minister mentioned the cost involved, which he put at something like £350 million. That compares very favourably with many other transport commitments that the Government have entered into. I remember when I introduced my Bill that the Government announced a costing of, I believe, an extra £340 million for London Transport in connection with the preparation of the bid for the Olympics—at that stage, we had not been fortunate enough to have won the bid. It struck me then that that was a very good example of how affordable this measure was; it would have such obvious nationwide benefits.
The principal step forward was taken by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the 2004 Budget. Nonetheless, the Bill is important in several respects, not least in the key change of removing the artificial barriers that local authority boundaries impose on the beneficiaries of concessionary travel. Important, too, is the change to allow for reciprocal arrangements across the UK—the subject of the exchange between the Minister and my noble friend Lord Foulkes. I therefore very much welcome the Bill as a whole, but in speaking today I shall focus particularly on the application of the Bill's provisions to my own part of the country, the north-east, and in particular to the Tyne and Wear metro system that serves the Tyne and Wear conurbation.
Originally, as the Minister will know, the Tyne and Wear metro system was designed as an integrated transport system in the late 1970s. Unfortunately, not long after it was set up, two separate blows affected it very badly. The first was the abolition of the metropolitan county, which was the co-ordinating authority for the metro system. The second was bus deregulation a few years later. I recall a valiant effort at the time in your Lordships' House to exempt the Tyne and Wear system from the effects of bus deregulation, but unfortunately that effort was ultimately unsuccessful.
I do not mention bus deregulation and the Tyne and Wear system primarily from an ideological perspective, although ideological arguments raged about bus deregulation when it was brought in. The opposition to it in my area, particularly these days, has been based very much on the fact that it adversely affected what had been designed as an integrated bus and rail system. There was obvious congestion, which greatly concerned business in particular in our region because competing buses were crossing the River Tyne at the various river crossing points, greatly adding to the congestion across Tyne and Wear as a whole. This is still a problem today, although, given the approaches that the Government have been outlining recently, we can see improvements and can look forward to more improvements in the years to come.
Ironically at the time of bus deregulation, the GLC and London were exempt. I contend that the London solution would have helped Tyne and Wear all along. Interestingly, the noble Lord, Lord Low of Dalston, mentioned the comparisons between London and the rest of the country, and I very much agreed with his points about that. Indeed, absolute parity with London in financial support and the regulatory regime would still be the best way forward for my part of the country.
When the Chancellor's measures first came into effect in the north-east, sadly the immediate impact was not as positive as many of us who had been urging the concessionary travel arrangements to be brought in had hoped. The reason, as I am sure the Minister will know, is that the measures applied to buses but not to trains in the metro system. Given that the whole system was integrated, it obviously made sense for concessionary travel to apply to all passengers on the metro system, whether travelling by bus or train, but instead a financial penalty was incurred, which made the situation very difficult. The good news about concessionary travel was more than offset by the negative news about cuts in other services—particularly the deterioration in the teen discount travel arrangements, the axing of 11 of the subsidised routes of the Tyne and Wear system, and increases in child fares—in order to finance the concessionary travel scheme. All these measures were, of course, accompanied by very unfavourable publicity.
I am glad to say that the Government did listen to representations from local Members of Parliament, local businesses and local authorities in the area, and came partly to their rescue and allowed the concessionary travel scheme to go ahead. It is certainly true that the situation in Tyne and Wear has improved. Nexus, the Tyne and Wear operator, has brought in a gold card, which costs £8 a year and entitles holders to free travel within the system. Because of government help, some services that were cut are being restored. The Government have also helped greatly through the outcome of the Eddington report and the measures that they want to bring in for better rationalisation and organisation of the transport system in such a distinct travel-to-work area as Tyne and Wear.
However, there are ongoing concerns and I echo some of the comments made by previous speakers. I would like to see the hours of concessionary travel in London available elsewhere. The noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, referred to the rate support grant and how the measures are financed. This relates to population levels, but it does not relate to public transport usage levels in areas such as Tyne and Wear, which has a lower level of car ownership. We want to promote people using public transport rather than discouraging them from doing so, which has financial implications. The future investment plans of the Tyne and Wear system also ought to be looked at favourably by the Government in order to ensure that the future of a somewhat ageing system will be assured.
Because of the timeliness of this Bill, I urge the Government to look at the Tyne and Wear situation carefully and support it in a way that does not just bring it closer to parity with the London transport regime, but also helps to promote the original integrated transport concept in that area, which I believe is as valid today as it was when it was introduced.
In conclusion, I strongly welcome the Bill, but I would like renewed assurances from my noble friend that it will be part of a transport policy for areas like mine which will promote a well organised and resourced public transport system and will do so in a way that helps and not hinders the wider economic, environmental and social objectives which the Government have so rightly set themselves.
The Earl of Mar and Kellie (Spokesperson in the Lords, Transport; Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, this debate has been well informed, and perhaps subsequent speakers will be further informed after I have finished speaking. I am unable to display a Scottish bus pass yet, but I suspect that I will be able to declare that interest in 2009, if I am spared.
In preparing for this debate one fundamental question arose which I looked at from a Scottish angle. I wonder whether the Minister could clarify the extent of local bus services, as he started to do earlier. I hope to understand how far a local bus service might allow a card holder to travel. Am I right to presume that a free long-distance journey will have to be taken by a sequence of local services rather than by one express bus? Will English card holders be able to access local bus services anywhere in England and not just in their local areas? During the Minister's speech I began to get the idea that that was the case. I can see that for longer journeys in England the railway will be less deserted by bus pass holders than may happen in Scotland because, I gather, long-distance bus travel in England will remain at half-price rather than be free. At least in Scotland the temptation not to go by train, even with a senior railcard, when one can have a free bus journey, will continue to be very attractive. In Scotland, a different scheme has allowed many card holders to make substantial journeys unfettered by a start time in the morning, during the week or by the type of bus service to be accessed.
It is perfectly okay for different Governments to have different schemes. I am pleased that the Government in Scotland have announced that a concessionary fare scheme for 16 to 18 year-olds will start in January 2007, giving young people one-third off single bus fares and a free young person's railcard that will give them one-third off rail fares. Volunteers under 25 will be included in the scheme. I am pleased and gratified as someone interested in remote areas policy that all 16 to 18 year-olds living on an island will be allowed two free trips to the mainland each year. That is proof that Scottish solutions are enhanced when we have a First Minister who grew up on an island and a transport Minister who not only is a Liberal Democrat but represents an islands group. After listening to the analysis of my noble friend Lord Bradshaw regarding the 291 local authorities involved in the scheme, I conclude there must be a certain merit in terms of relative simplicity in having only 32 unitary authorities in Scotland.
My second and final point concerns the interesting provision in Clause 10 for possible reciprocal arrangements. I hope the Minister can say whether the idea is for the four schemes to be extended into each of the respective home countries and, if it is, according to which set of rules it will be done. For example, will Scottish card holders trying to access bus services in England have to accept the 09.30 am start and the use of local buses only, or could the Government in Scotland negotiate an extension of the unrestricted Scottish scheme across England, and vice versa? I hope that Clause 10 will be implemented but I recognise that there will be confusion if reciprocal schemes are different from the card holder's home conditions.
I conclude by asking whether Scottish 16 to 18 year-olds will be included in reciprocal schemes under Clause 10 now that, from next year, they will be getting used to the idea of concessionary fares.
Lord Smith of Leigh (Labour)
My Lords, like other noble Lords, I broadly welcome the Bill. By providing nationally the benefits of the travel concessions introduced in April 2006, the Bill will enable many of the vulnerable groups in society to have better mobility and encourage them to shift to a more sustainable form of public transport. The existing schemes have been very successful. In Scotland there has been a 95 per cent take up and in our area it is about 90 per cent. However, I am grateful that the Minister's friends on the Back Benches have left because I have some concerns about the Bill which I hope we can address in a serious way. I fear that, unless we do so, we will not be able to sustain the benefits in the Bill.
I start by declaring two interests. Although I am entitled to receive a senior citizen's card, I am one of the 5 per cent of those who have not claimed their card. As noble Lords will be aware, I am also the leader of a local authority. I have taken the opportunity to consult a number of my transport colleagues and PTEs.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, my first concern is about funding. The Minister confirmed in his speech that up to £250 million will be available to fund the scheme. On what basis was the calculation made? Or was it simply a matter of putting up a finger and making a good guess at what it might cost? Given the success of existing schemes and rapidly rising off-peak fares, in particular—I think that until this summer off-peak fares in my area were increasing by roughly 12 per cent annually—the cost could be significantly more.
The more critical issue is how we distribute the money around the country. As my noble friend Lady Quin said, the distribution of funding for the current scheme was particularly harsh to the Tyne and Wear area, which did not receive enough money. That reflects the vast complexity of the system of distributing money which makes England more difficult to deal with than Scotland. We still rely on the formula of my noble friend Lord Barnett, devised more than 30 years ago as a temporary, stop-gap measure, which determines the way in which money travels around the country. So some of the money in the pot for schemes in England ended up in Scotland, a little ended up in Wales and some went to the Isles of Scilly which, although in England, do not have any buses, so I am not sure why they need any money to fund travel concessions on buses. The Government need to reflect on the fact that the current funding does not reflect the high usage of buses in urban areas that my noble friend mentioned.
I am not too concerned about the problem mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, about the system in metropolitan areas. PTEs are not precepting but levy authorities, so the money goes to the metropolitan and district councils which have to fund the PTE through a levy. Once the levy has been agreed, that is the sum that must be paid, so it is not such a problem.
The distribution of funding for the proposed scheme will be even more difficult than under the current scheme. Additional patronage on buses will not be evenly spread across the country. Urban centres and tourist areas will receive a greater increase in bus usage than other areas. We need to find a way of covering special events. In 2008, Liverpool will be the European Capital of Culture; that will inevitably generate exceptional visitor numbers, many of whom will qualify for the scheme. We must make sure that there is enough money to cover that. We have to find a more sophisticated way of distributing the money around the country than the current formula allows.
My second concern is about bus operators. Our experience is not as sanguine as some. As my noble friend mentioned, it is partly down to deregulation. It is the 20th anniversary of deregulation—an example of 20 years of failure. In our areas, bus fares have gone up considerably more than the rate of inflation and bus patronage has not increased, it has gone down. In London, the exact opposite is true because they retain the right of regulation. In Wales there is a perverse incentive for bus operators to raise off-peak fares so that they can claim more money in the reimbursement. We face the constant problem that where bus operators regard a bus route as non-commercial, they may withdraw the service or try and persuade the PTA or other authority to fund it. Ultimately, pensioners may have free fares but much less frequent bus services.
On reimbursement, we must make sure that bus operators are no worse off under the scheme than they would otherwise have been. Under the current scheme, 44 appeals against the form of reimbursement have taken place in five or six PTEs. Depending on the results, significant amounts of public money could be at risk in those areas. We need to develop a workable model for reimbursement which will work across the country.
I was somewhat surprised to see Clause 9, given that the local government White Paper is in favour of devolution. The clause will enable the Government to take over and run a system which is currently run pretty effectively by local authorities. I wonder how many people other than civil servants believe that a system of travel concessions that people have to access locally can be run better by the Department for Transport in Whitehall than it can locally. I just do not believe it, and it is against the principle the Government are announcing in other measures.
I support all that was said by the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, about the need for smart cards, which are the way forward. This is where the Government should play a role. They should make sure that all the bus operators and transport authorities get together to produce a smart card that works everywhere and has the most up-to-date technology. We need to do it quickly, though, because if we leave it too late we will not be able to do it in time for the Bill.
I was pleased that when my noble friend introduced the Bill he announced that there were ongoing discussions with all sides to ensure the improvements in the Bill could be achieved. I welcome that, but again there are constraints, partly because of the Bill, but also because we are into the planning stage for April 2008, and unless we know exactly what the system is, it will not be implemented. It is a good scheme; let us hope we can work to improve it and ensure that it will be possible to give pensioners the benefits we all want to see.
Baroness Scott of Needham Market (Spokesperson in the Lords, Department for Communities and Local Government; Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, I join in the general welcome offered to the Bill. I assure the Minister and the rest of the House that comments from me and my noble friend Lord Bradshaw are very much in the spirit of wanting to see a Bill that is fit for purpose and that will achieve the objectives we all seek.
The first legislation I dealt with when I came to the House in 2000 was the Transport Act, to which I tabled amendments to bring in a national concessionary fares scheme. I need not explain all the reasons why I thought that would be desirable because the Minister has just outlined them very well. There is only small satisfaction in saying "I told you so". I really would have preferred that these provisions had been brought in originally; then we would not be changing the legislation now. I mention that mainly to express my preference that some of the concerns raised during the passage of this Bill be taken on board, so that we do not end up coming back in a few years' time to put right things that are already identified as problematic.
I am a member of the Commission for Integrated Transport. Around two years ago, under the chairmanship of Professor David Begg, we had a look at concessionary fares. While supporting a national scheme, the commission did not come out in favour of free fares for the elderly. We were heavily lobbied by pensioners, especially by Professor Begg's mother, who gave him a fairly severe handbagging for not supporting free transport. However, we were making the point that if the pot of money available was limited, perhaps some of it would be better spent on extending the groups to whom half fares would be available; for example, carers for disabled people and, particularly, children in full-time education. The Government did not support the commission's view and have gone forward with free travel, but I welcome the fact that it may be possible to extend the provisions of the scheme to those other groups, because that is important.
The changes to the concessionary fares regime in recent years have led to a number of problems which have not yet been fully worked through and addressed, and which need to be considered carefully before we progress any further with the current proposals. The main issue for local authorities is that, while it is always possible for central Government to argue that they have funded a scheme totally, often the outcome has not been positive for individual authorities. That is always the result where funding has been based on variable inputs, such as population, demographics or economic indicators, rather than the outputs, as in this case; that is to say, how many trips are actually made. My noble friend Lord Bradshaw highlighted the need to think about a scheme that measures outputs rather than the rate support grant formula.
We heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, and the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Leigh, about the problems faced by PTAs, particularly in Tyne and Wear, where Nexus has been forced to cut some services, to abolish the teen fare scheme and raise the child concessionary fare. That is an example of the law of unintended consequences. I am sure that the Government did not intend the outcome of, in some areas, children from poor families subsidising pensioners who are better off than they are.
The shortfall in Bath and north-east Somerset this year is estimated to be around £680,000 because the grant distribution scheme has not recognised the level of bus use in Bath, which is much higher than the national average. In this case, Bath is actually being penalised for having had bus-friendly policies. The same issue was raised by Devon County Council, which has seen an increase from 4.6 million to 9 million concessionary passenger journeys, costing an extra £2 million a year.
Some issues need to be taken into account as we move forward. First, higher costs have accrued because more people are demanding passes. I gather that take-up in Scotland is now 95 per cent—it appears to be 100 per cent among noble Lords from Scotland in this House. In Exeter, for example, 78 per cent of eligible residents now have passes. That is highly desirable, but it shows why we need realistic estimates of take-up. There has been a hugely increased demand for services, much higher in Scotland and Wales than predicted, and, as I mentioned, equally so in English authorities.
There is no doubt that bus fares are rising above the RPI. That is partly because of high industry costs, which my noble friend Lord Bradshaw has raised in your Lordships' House on a number of occasions. However, there is another concern. As the number of fare-paying passengers decreases compared with the number paying concessionary fares, there is a potential disincentive for operators to keep fares down. Normal market mechanisms are being distorted. As fares increase, the public purse bears the burden for concessionary fares and fare-paying passengers bear the burden for others. The operators themselves have expressed concern about that. In this week's Transit magazine, a respected bus operator asked,
"what other business has had the all-important economic lever of its pricing policy so undermined?".
There is evidence of an increasing number of appeals by operators against the reimbursement levels. As the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Leigh, mentioned, many of those are still outstanding, which adds to the uncertainty about future costs. My noble friend Lord Bradshaw is absolutely right in saying that we need to consider whether a less bureaucratic scheme could be introduced.
These are major issues for local authorities, which face severe financial pressures, especially in social care budgets. If they are to face shortfalls in public transport provision, they will have to cut other budgets or, as is more likely, cut the public transport budget or increase the council tax. Given that it is envisaged that this scheme will be up and running by April 2008, this is a fairly ambitious timetable, and there is very little detail available about the administrative structures that will be used. There are previous examples of when government have faced problems due to rushed legislation and regulation.
Set-up costs have been estimated at anything between £35 million and £75 million, depending on how the scheme is set up. How will those costs be met, and by whom? Will the passes be able to be procured nationally, which would save costs and ensure consistency and interoperability, so that they can be recognised right across the country? I add my support to my noble friend Lord Bradshaw and the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Leigh, in saying that, as the passes are developed, they must be capable of moving on to smart card technology.
I am very interested to hear what the Minister has to say about cross-border operations. The matter of travel between England, Scotland and Wales is very significant along border areas. I am interested in what exactly he means by saying that the Government will judge whether the English scheme is successful before extending it. What sort of criteria does he have in mind when judging success? Will his department bear in mind that, if making these passes useful across borders is the ultimate outcome, the scheme needs to be set up to ensure that that can happen from the outset?
The noble Lord must accept that hackles have been raised and suspicions aroused by the clause, which includes the possibility of changing the level at which these decisions are made, particularly at a time when local government structures are being so carefully looked at. It seems extraordinary to make the argument for cost saving by making a national scheme and then not include such provision in the Bill. If that had been done, we could argue either for or against it and we would know where we were. It seems rather odd that the noble Lord made the case for the measure in his opening speech, did not include it in the Bill but kept the relevant power.
Like other noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Low, I welcome the possibility for widening the scope of the scheme, for example to include community transport schemes. In rural areas such as the one where I live such schemes are far more important than bus services. Community transport schemes are the only way forward in deeply rural areas, where there are very few bus services. In areas where there is a light-rail system or schemes such as the Croydon Tramlink, it is vital for integration that the concessionary scheme should include both of those.
I look forward to Committee, when many of these issues will no doubt be aired further.
Lord Hanningfield (Deputy Chief Whip, Whips; Conservative)
My Lords, I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak on this small yet significant Bill and I am happy to say that we support its aims and objectives. However, we have a number of reservations, not least regarding its funding and implementation, as several noble Lords have said. Therefore, many of my comments will echo those made by others. Like them, I have a number of questions relating to how the Bill will operate in practice. However, I hope and trust that these concerns can be swiftly sorted out so that we can all support the Bill as it makes its way through the House.
As the Bill is to be effectively run and administered by local government—I, too, have strong reservations about the Secretary of State running it—I declare an interest as leader of Essex County Council. We all recognise that the ability to travel is particularly important for pensioners and disabled people as it gives them the opportunity to engage with local communities, combating isolation and helping them to lead full, independent lives. We applaud the efforts that the Government have taken over recent years in this regard. I do not often applaud the Government but I do on this occasion.
As the Minister mentioned, the Bill enhances the statutory minimum travel concession of free off-peak travel for pensioners and disabled people on local buses anywhere in England. Local authorities wish to work with the Government to ensure the successful delivery of this scheme by 2008. However, to do so requires sound legislative, funding, reimbursement and administrative arrangements, some of which are not yet clear, as others have said.
This is a challenging project to deliver within the time scale set by the Government, as several noble Lords have said. Experience in Essex, where some time ago a countywide scheme similar to the one before us today was introduced, suggests that funding by the Government was insufficient for some district councils. In the end the county had to help out. This in turn put at risk sensible arrangements for those who should enjoy the benefits of the scheme. Other district councils had to provide extra resources from their own finances. Finance is a big issue, as the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Leigh, pointed out.
While local authorities have an important role to play, this is a national scheme therefore local authorities must be given sufficient funding to make it work. The mechanism by which this will happen has not yet been determined. Several versions have been mentioned today. I share doubts about administering the scheme through revenue support. Most counties in England are at floor level, as are many London boroughs. As to putting money into the revenue support grant, we do not get it. How will we put extra money in to fund such a scheme? The funding of the schemes needs to be carefully thought through.
Changing the tier at which the scheme operates will have significant effects on how the funding will be sorted out. Whatever arrangement is settled on, the key principle must be—and we must watch this as the legislation goes through—that local councils will be fully funded for the new scheme and will suffer no financial risk. Indeed, authorities already have full flexibility to determine whether a scheme operates at district or county level, so I cannot understand the Minister's proposal on that; it could be left as it is.
I repeat that I would not want to see the Secretary of State having the power, even if it was a reserve one, to run a national scheme. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Leigh, that we have just had a White Paper on devolution, and suggesting a national bus scheme seems to be going about it in totally the wrong way.
Bus operators must also be adequately reimbursed to ensure that the commercial network remains at its present level and does not put additional burdens on local authorities again. Therefore, perhaps the Minister could clarify today—and if not today, in Committee—how the funding might become available and on what basis. It would be useful if the Minister commented on that today; otherwise, we will have to pursue it in considerable depth in Committee.
Local authorities and several noble Lords today have expressed concerns about whether the scheme can be up and running by the date intended by the Government. In particular, there seems to be doubt about whether the new passes required for the national concession could be in place by 2008. Perhaps the Minister could update us on how the re-stickering of existing passes, together with the implementation of a cost-effective procurement system, could be completed by that time.
I wish to probe the Minister on other issues that the Bill flags up, some of which have been raised by noble Lords today. What consideration have the Government given to extending the scheme to other transport modes? In some areas, concessionary fare passes can be used in taxis, community transport and other door-to-door transport modes. In Scotland, as we have heard, many ferry journeys are covered by the concessionary fares scheme. In urban areas, concessions are often also available on local rail and light-rail services. That is important where train and tram services are used as an alternative to the bus for local journeys. It would seem sensible to at least look at the possibility of extending the concession to other types of transport. I remind the Minister that, while we have heard quite a lot about urban areas today, in some rural areas there is not even a bus service to talk about. We would like to see what will come out of this for rural areas.
Does the Minister agree that the restriction of concessionary travel during morning peak periods could have a detrimental effect on disabled people travelling to work or looking for work? Here, I support much of what the noble Lord, Lord Low, said. Employment for blind people is often in lower-paid jobs, as he said; therefore, having a concessionary scheme during peak times would be very important to them. In addition to the effect on employment, restricting concessions to off-peak times affects disabled people travelling to an early medical appointment, appointments for benefits and other interviews, or education and leisure activities with an early start time. I hope the Government might reconsider that for disabled people, particularly the blind, as the noble Lord, Lord Low, stated. Why did the Government choose to operate the scheme on a basis excluding peak hours? Can the Minister tell us how much more the scheme would cost to operate if it were extended to cover that period?
There also appears to be some concern, especially among groups campaigning on behalf of the disabled, regarding the definition of the term "disabled" as used in the Bill. Again, I support the noble Lord, Lord Low. Therefore, for the avoidance of doubt, would it not be better if an agreed definition were specified in the Bill and in guidance which includes all disabled people whose impairments affect their ability to use public transport, including those with mental health issues? I would welcome any clarity that the Minister could provide today.
Putting Passengers First was published today by the Secretary of State. I have just seen it but I do not think that anyone has had a chance to scrutinise it. Perhaps the Minister could say whether that document has any effect on the Bill.
In conclusion, I repeat that we on these Benches are happy to support the principle of this Bill, which brings greater freedom and independence to some of the most vulnerable in society. However, while we understand the significant legal, financial and administrative arrangements that have to be made, we remain concerned at the lack of a clear project plan for the delivery of the Bill's objectives and, more importantly, the lack of a clear assurance on funding issues. As ever, we will try to clarify and seek answers to our questions in Committee.
Lord Davies of Oldham (Deputy Chief Whip (House of Lords), HM Household; Labour)
My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken. Given the impressive array of local government expertise present among them, I am not surprised to have been challenged about how local authorities deal with a scheme intended to bring benefits nationwide in England.
I recognise the crucial role that local authorities will play in arranging such services. The only point that I wish to make at this stage is obvious. The noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, emphasised local authorities' crucial role, as did the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield. Both were supported by other noble Lords, who, for the best of reasons, emphasised the advantages of the earliest possible introduction of a smart card that would operate throughout England, and expressed the hope that it would soon cover the whole of the United Kingdom. There is an element of contradiction in emphasising the local dimension as well as the need for solutions that can be thought of only in national terms.
There are bound to be pleas for greater clarification of some aspects of the scheme, but we are taking part in negotiations on it and there is much work to do before we can envisage introducing the wholly desirable concept of a universal smart card. While I do not concede that the Government are less enthusiastic than noble Lords opposite about the advantages of such a scheme, the practicalities of implementing it are substantial.
This Bill seeks to put myriad local arrangements into a national scheme for England. Several contributions, including that of the noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie, emphasised how comparatively advanced Scotland is on a national scheme. I am not sure that I entirely accept his contention that that has been due to the minority contribution of the Liberal Party in Scotland, but he is bound to make that point. There have been rather more Labour Ministers concerned with the development of that policy in Scotland, but I hear what the noble Earl said.
It is bound to take us time to get the scheme up and running. We aim to have the scheme for England in place in 2008, but the full reciprocal arrangements for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are bound to take time. When I responded to my noble friend Lord Foulkes, who, regrettably, is not able to be present at this stage in our deliberations, I sought to clarify that I shared his obvious enthusiasm for reciprocal arrangements. We are already engaged in the discussions, but I hope that the House will recognise that it will take time to put the English scheme and the reciprocal arrangements in place right across the United Kingdom.
The same applies to the minor points with which the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, opened his speech. He said that he was only really concerned about funding and implementation. Well, surprise, surprise: it would be amazing if the noble Lord were not interested in those things; so are the Government. Funding and implementation lie at the heart of effective policy, but I hope he will understand that we are creating the legislative framework within which the funding and implementation issues can be worked out. I accept that we shall be able to discuss some of these issues in more detail in Committee, but the Bill is about identifying the necessary powers and strategy to put in place an England-wide scheme in 2008.
By the same token, I am not at all surprised that the noble Lord, Lord Low, with his enthusiastic and effective advocacy for the case of the disabled, argues about categories and asks why the scheme should not operate before 9.30 in the morning and at rush hours. We all know the basic answer to that. I accept what the noble Lord said about the advantages of no such restriction operating on the use of transport by our fellow disabled citizens at those times, but there are very acute pinch-points in transport usage at peak hours in many parts of the country. My noble friend Lady Quin identified that we have to tread very carefully when it comes to increasing pressure on services, which at present are often stretched. I recognise the validity of her point that Tyne and Wear, as a transport authority, was presented with acute difficulties. That was a source of great dismay to her, given that she was so far forward with her concept of how this legislation might work, as envisaged in her own Bill a few years ago. I understand her keen interest. She will know that we have taken some steps to remedy the position in Tyne and Wear, and we have learnt from that the necessity of meeting the objectives of all noble Lords. When we implement this legislation, it has to work effectively and fairly, but there are acute difficulties.
We have to be careful about trying to have the issue both ways. On the one hand, several noble Lords contended that they were mightily suspicious of any suggestion that power should move upwards from the local level and that the scheme should depend on anything beyond the local authority for implementation. At the same time, it was emphasised first that it was necessary to bring in the scheme as rapidly as possible to make it fully contingent with the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish schemes so that we have a universal position, and, secondly, that the permit to travel, which would guarantee the scheme's smooth-working, should receive appropriate recognition. None of that is easily resolvable with local idiosyncrasies. It will be necessary for us to have effective discussions with local authorities to iron out these issues for implementation in 2008. This scheme cannot work without a universally recognised valid permit across England. The issue of smart cards is a little more sophisticated than that and will take longer. I accept that a valid travel permit will need to be recognised across all areas of England.
I was also pressed on where buses end and coaches start—or perhaps it is the other way around—as the half-fare subsidy will continue for coaches. Nothing in the Bill changes that. On that point, the definition of a local bus service is one where bus stops are within 15 miles of each other. We will operate the system on that criterion.
I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Low, that the definition of "disabled" in the Bill will not change. In this legislation we will use the same definition that governs entitlement.
Lord Bradshaw (Spokesperson in the Lords, Transport; Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, there are great difficulties with the funding of the present scheme. The noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, referred to the flaws in the scheme operated by many local authorities. I do not think that local authorities want to keep the issuing of bus passes, and they certainly do not want to be seen to be obstructing the introduction of smart cards. As I said, that will give us the basic information that we need to ensure the efficient distribution of money to operators. We need to get on with this. I assure the House, and I hope the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, will concur, that we shall make every effort to ensure that the necessary discussions take place as quickly as possible. The prize at the end is very substantial.
Lord Davies of Oldham (Deputy Chief Whip (House of Lords), HM Household; Labour)
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, and glad that the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, indicates his assent to that broad proposal. That is exactly the Government's perspective. I recognise that implementation of this legislation involves extensive consultation with significant interests in this matter, and local authorities play their part. As I indicated, I am not at all surprised that noble Lords have emphasised the necessity for effective consultation and the crucial role that local authorities play. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, for his commitment. Certain aspects of the problems of a national scheme will require us to negotiate on such a basis and to achieve national solutions. I reassure the House on that as I did on concessions. Every concession involves additional cost.
The Chancellor made it clear that he was making certain sums of money available for this scheme on the basis of making free that which obtains as a concession at present on those criteria. We do not propose to change the criteria. I hear what the noble Lord, Lord Low, and others say—I have no doubt that they will press these points in Committee—about where extensions might be desirable, but in the legislation we are rendering free that which, at present, is of only limited value to the elderly and the disabled. We will therefore inevitably be extremely wary of significant extensions to free travel. The noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie, might identify certain extensions in Scotland of our present broad position in England. That is also true of some local authorities, which have extended support in England.
In the Bill we are concerned to extend the general present situation in England on a free basis. I look forward to vigorous debate in Committee, and recognise the sincerity with which views are held on these matters. There is bound to be concern about funding and implementation, as the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, said. He will also recognise, however, that legislation is about the framework within which we intend to act. Some of the issues he and others have identified are properly the basis of negotiations between the Government and the appropriate authorities, to arrive at the most effective forms of implementation.
We have had an extremely interesting debate. I am delighted that there is recognition on all sides of the House of the importance and value of concessionary travel. The free use and availability of public transport are of immense importance to many in our community, particularly the elderly and disabled, who otherwise have limited opportunities to lead a full life. We are introducing that free use across England and recognising that this has already been achieved in Scotland in Wales—in less difficult circumstances, but it is an important illustration nevertheless. It is a significant cost: £250 million to enable older and disabled people to take advantage of the national bus travel concession. All sorts of points will be made in Committee, but the Bill is good news and I accordingly commend it to the House.
On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Grand Committee.