Clause 1 — The national concession

Orders of the Day – in the House of Commons at 3:15 pm on 28th June 2007.

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Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport) 3:15 pm, 28th June 2007

I beg to move amendment No. 8, page 1, line 19, at end insert—

'(d) is taken on a service which has three or more stops on its route,

(e) is not taken on a service where there is a commentary (live or recorded) which is primarily provided for the purposes of tourism, and

(f) is not taken on a service where there are one or more seats bookable in advance.'.

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:

No. 6, page 2, line 14, at end insert—

'(4A) For the purposes of this section a disabled person is a person who—

(a) is blind or partially sighted,

(b) is profoundly or severely deaf,

(c) is without speech,

(d) has a disability, or has suffered an injury, which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on his ability to walk,

(e) does not have arms or has long-term loss of both arms,

(f) has a learning disability, that is, a state of arrested or incomplete development of mind which includes significant impairment of intelligence and social functioning, or

(g) would be defined as having a mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on his ability to carry out day-to-day activities in accordance with section 1 of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 as amended, or

(h) would, if he applied for the grant of a licence to drive a motor vehicle under Part III of the Road Traffic Act 1988, have his application refused pursuant to section 92 of that Act (physical fitness) otherwise than on the ground of persistent misuse of drugs or alcohol,'.

No. 9, page 2, line 30, leave out 'may' and insert 'shall'.

No. 10, in clause 4, page 4, line 18, leave out 'may' and insert 'shall'.

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport)

Amendment No. 8 seeks to clarify the definition of services on which concessionary journeys can be taken. That is a concern across England, but it is a particular issue in London. London Councils, as the body running the concessionary fare scheme on behalf of the boroughs in London, has indicated to me that it particularly supports the amendment.

Although London has the most generous concessionary fare scheme in the country, the current freedom pass is not valid on some bus services, because they do not form part of the London bus network and are operated under what are known as London service permits, issued by Transport for London. According to the current definition of an eligible service, London Councils has estimated that the concession could apply to 118 of those services, operated by 51 different companies, from next April. Most people, however, would recognise only about 13 of those as local bus services.

Where a local bus service is clearly provided, which all eligible persons could use, there is no question but that the concession should apply. The current definition of an eligible service, however, could include special events services, park-and-ride services—where a bus fare is charged rather than a car parking fee—open-top bus services and many of the express coach services starting in London. Clearly, those are not what most people would call local bus services. They should not be included in the concession, but London Councils and I estimate that under the current Bill, all those routes would be eligible for the new concessionary fares.

The Minister will no doubt say that she has the power to make an order if there proves to be a need to clarify the definition of an eligible service. In the interim, however, that will merely result in uncertainty for everyone: uncertainty for operators as to whether they should accept concessions and whether they will get reimbursement; uncertainty for local authorities, as they will not know for sure whom they should negotiate with; and most importantly, uncertainty for pass holders as to whether they can use their pass. That is not efficient, and many of the organisations involved will not be able to plan ahead. That is why my hon. Friends and I have tabled the amendment. The amendment would exclude some of the more obvious examples of services that are not truly local bus services. I have suggested three exclusions. The first is services with no intermediate stops between the point of departure and the end destination. A topical example is the special service to Chelsea flower show from Victoria station. Another example is park-and-ride services. Where parking is free and a bus fare is charged, it would be odd for the concessionary traveller to benefit when they would not benefit where the bus was free and the parking was charged for.

The second exclusion would be services with a commentary. Such services are primarily for tourism purposes, such as the open-top sightseeing buses that we see coming down Whitehall and past the Palace. The third exemption would be services with at least one bookable seat. That would exclude the coach services between Heathrow and Victoria. If that service were included, London Councils would end up paying for the airport transfers of thousands of visitors to the capital, and I am convinced that that was not the intent of the Bill. So amendment No. 8 is specific and clear.

Section 146 of the Transport Act 2000 allows a change of definition of eligible services. I suspect that the Minister will claim that the order-making power will be sufficient, but I do not believe that it will, for the reasons that I have just stated and because of the uncertainty to which I alluded previously. The amendment has the benefit of clarity. It would add to the definition of eligible services those that should be included and excludes those that should not be included in the Bill. The three extra definitions would remove considerable uncertainty, and there is no reason why they should not be added to the Bill. I listened carefully to the Minister's attempts to reassure me, but I can see no reason why she should not accept this sensible amendment.

Amendment No. 6 addresses the definition of eligibility of concessionary fares in the 2000 Act and would add to them an additional section covering those with mental health difficulties.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Chair, Procedure Committee 3:45 pm, 28th June 2007

Is the wording of amendment No. 6 correct? Proposed new section 4A(e) seeks to include in the definition of a disabled person someone who

"does not have arms or has long-term loss of both arms".

I can envisage a situation in which someone has the short-term loss of both arms, perhaps because they have been involved in an accident and the arms have yet to be sewn back on, but I cannot envisage someone having the long-term loss of both arms. Should not the wording read "or has the long-term loss of the use of both arms"?

S

what nonsense

Submitted by Steve Price Read 1 more annotation

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport)

My right hon. Friend makes a good point. It is a standard definition that has been used before, and I had envisaged it applying to people who had had a stroke and suffered long-term loss of use, but the drafting would benefit from the addition of the words "the use of". I am grateful to him for pointing that out.

My main intent in amendment No. 6 was the definitions in paragraphs (f) and (g), and the eligibility of people with mental health problems—

Photo of Lee Scott Lee Scott Conservative, Ilford North

Can my hon. Friend confirm that the provisions would include children suffering from autism, and their travel to school when provision for their education is not available in their local area?

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport)

No, that is not the intention. The amendment relates to people with mental health problems. It is clear that eligibility for concessionary fares is a major factor in determining an individual's chance of recovery and reintegration into society. Access to community care, drop-in therapy centres, counselling and self-help groups all aid their recovery, and many of those service users rely on public transport. The essence of my point is that the amendment does not use the phrase "not holding a driving licence" to prevent people from accessing concessionary fares because even if they hold a driving licence, poverty and a fluctuating health condition may make driving impossible. Access to and eligibility for concessionary bus travel could be a major contributor to recovery from mental illness. I urge the Minister to consider the amendment.

Photo of David Davies David Davies Conservative, Monmouth

I am dealing with one such case in my constituency, in which a gentleman has had his driving licence revoked by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Authority because of an alleged black-out. My hon. Friend will be well aware from his Front-Bench duties that that can be appealed against. Will people lose their right to a concessionary bus pass if they apply for it in the interim period between appealing against a decision to revoke their licence and the return of that licence?

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport)

My understanding is that those people would lose that right, because holding a driving licence would militate against the need for concessionary travel—although I would be delighted for the Minister to say otherwise.

Amendments Nos. 9 and 10 concentrate on sole and principal residence. They would oblige the Secretary of State to issue guidelines to local authorities on how to determine a person's principal residence for the purpose of issuing concessionary passes. As the Bill stands, the Secretary of State will be afforded the powers to do that, but will not be obliged to do it. It is extraordinarily important that local authorities be provided with clear guidance so that passes are issued on a consistent and rational basis. For instance, is the principal residence the place where people spend the most time, the place where they are registered to vote or the place where they pay full council tax?

It is clear that that will be of considerable concern when the 2008 scheme comes into operation. If an elderly person has two residences, one in a town and one in a coastal resort, which is the place of principal residence? Had we used the previous council tax regulations, with reference to discount, we would have had clear guidance, or the Government may intend to include the test of principal residence for capital gains tax purposes. Neither of those tests can predict where someone spends the bulk of their time, and hence where the bulk of the concessionary travel usage is. The phrase

"appearing to the authority to have their sole or principal residence in the authority's area" is ambiguous and open to interpretation.

In Committee, the Minister stated that she would issue guidance to local authorities. The amendments enshrine in text the fact that she must issue that before the Bill comes into operation. Local authorities should not have to suffer uncertainty. The amendments bring clarity and certainty and should be supported.

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Conservative, Broxbourne

I was interested to hear what my hon. Friend said about what is defined as a local service. I want the Minister to give me guidance on a service in my constituency. Although bus services in Hertfordshire are largely the responsibility of the county council, within the borough of Broxbourne it was decided some months ago to provide a funded service from some of the main locations—the towns—to Chase Farm hospital. The bus is provided by the council, and people pay £5 one way and £5 to return. Would that be defined as a local service under the Bill? If so, would it be required to provide concessionary travel? Although the county council has responsibility for bus services, this one is provided by a local council in the county of Hertfordshire.

Photo of Paul Rowen Paul Rowen Shadow Minister, Transport

The three amendments tabled by Stephen Hammond cover some of the issues discussed in Committee, but I hope that the Minister can give an assurance about the eligibility of certain bus routes, as set out in amendment No. 8. We want to ensure that only normal bus services qualify: tourist buses, or buses that have only a limited number of stops or are provided for special circumstances, should not be covered.

I want to concentrate on amendment No. 6. It is very similar to the proposals in amendments Nos. 2 and 1, which are in my name, and it deals with some important matters that remain unresolved. The problem with amendment No. 6 is that we had reached agreement on how disabled people should be defined for the purposes of concessionary fares. For example, the matter was covered by section 146 of the Transport Act 2000, and in section 240(5) of the Greater London Authority Act 1999.

However, mental health is not covered. The Minister wrote a detailed letter about the problem, and I am pleased that her officials have begun talks with Mind to see whether there is any scope for broadening the existing definition. The Bill's primary definition of a person with mental disability is someone who is not fit to drive. That is a medical rather than a social definition, and so not appropriate.

Photo of David Davies David Davies Conservative, Monmouth

I have worked with mentally ill people in various capacities, and fully understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying. However, mental illness can encompass a wide range of problems—from people who are unable to care for themselves to those who, sometimes exaggeratedly, claim to have minor depression as a way to enhance the benefits that they receive from the Government. Unless we pin down what is meant by mental disability due to mental illness, it would be difficult for the Government to introduce the concession, as there could well be a flood of applications from people not necessarily entitled to it.

Photo of Paul Rowen Paul Rowen Shadow Minister, Transport

I totally agree, and that is why I welcomed the letter from the Minister and the ongoing discussions conducted by her officials. If amendment No. 6 is pressed to a vote, I shall not support it, as I would far rather engage in discussions that would enable us to arrive at a workable definition.

Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour, North West Leicestershire

Was the hon. Gentleman not rather shocked by the unsubstantiated assertion that a substantial proportion of claims for incapacity benefit, for instance, on the grounds of mental ill health are fabricated cases? In fact the evidence shows the reverse: good numbers of people with mental ill health, who may or may not be eligible for concessionary transport under the amendment, neither seek help nor have their condition diagnosed. So the suggestion that somehow there is large-scale fabrication is just not true.

Photo of Paul Rowen Paul Rowen Shadow Minister, Transport 4:00 pm, 28th June 2007

I agree. Mental health is one of the big unsung issues that we as a country and this House need to address. That is why I welcome the ongoing discussions on a workable definition of mental ill health. Whether we like it or not, for many people part of the road to recovery is getting out into the community, visiting drop-in centres or education centres, and often a barrier to that is the lack of public transport.

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport)

I understand why the hon. Gentleman has reservations about amendment No. 6, but I am sure that he agrees with the intent of the amendment, which is to widen the clause to ensure that people with mental illness have access to concessionary travel.

Photo of Paul Rowen Paul Rowen Shadow Minister, Transport

I accept that. I hope that part of the outcome of the debate this afternoon will be that the definition is broadened. We can come back to the House once we have a workable definition and the discussions with Mind have been brought to a conclusion, so that more and more people can qualify.

There is one other area that I do not think that other hon. Members have mentioned, although I believe that it is partly covered by the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Wimbledon. People with a communication or social disability such as Asperger's syndrome do not have a learning disability. They would be excluded by strict interpretation of the definition in the Transport Act 2000. While people with Asperger's syndrome are not generally refused a driving licence, they have to notify the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency of their condition. Their cases are assessed on an individual basis. That can make car insurance unaffordable, especially for young people. So I hope that when the Minister continues her review, she will consider people suffering from Asperger's, and whether we can deal with those issues.

In conclusion, although we agree with the thrust of the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Wimbledon, we believe that the most sensible course will be to continue the dialogue with Department for Transport officials and then bring a definition back to the House.

Photo of Gillian Merron Gillian Merron Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport, Parliamentary Secretary (the East Midlands), Cabinet Office

This is a large group of amendments and they span a number of important issues. I shall start with amendment No. 8 in respect of "eligible journey". I am grateful to hon. Members for raising once again the interesting issue of how we define "eligible journey", which in the context of clause 1 must be considered alongside the definition of "eligible service". The amendment would add three additional requirements for a journey in England to be considered eligible for the purposes of concessionary travel.

I give an assurance to hon. Members that the issue of how to define "eligible service" is already receiving much attention, and we keep it under active review. Some of the proposals in the amendment may well have merit, and we will certainly consider them. I can give that undertaking as we go forward.

Interestingly, at the end of March my officials convened a workshop to discuss this issue. Only last week, officials again discussed the issues with Transport for London, London councils and other local authority and industry representatives. By a remarkable coincidence, if I might describe it that way, some of the initial suggestions that emerged last week bear a striking resemblance to the content of today's amendments. I can only conclude that in this case great minds clearly think alike. It would surely be a mistake to turn initial suggestions into legislation without having had a proper chance to reflect and consult more widely, whether informally or formally, on the proposals. We want to hold extensive discussions with those who would be affected to avoid unintended consequences, and I reassure Members that there will be plenty of time for such consideration.

The term "eligible service", to which "eligible journey" is linked, is defined clearly in secondary legislation—currently, the Travel Concessions (Eligible Services) Order 2002. If necessary in the future, the Government could amend the order to make any of the changes outlined in the amendment proposed by Stephen Hammond and his colleagues, by virtue of powers under section 94 of the Transport Act 1985 and section 146 of the Transport Act 2000. As well as giving time for full and proper consideration, such an approach would of course preserve flexibility to make further changes to the definition in future, if necessary. Like the House generally, I believe that primary legislation is simply not the place to specify a definition of that type. The proper place for such matters is in secondary legislation, not on the face of a Bill. With that in mind, I hope that the hon. Member for Wimbledon will withdraw the amendment.

Amendment No. 6 relates to the definition of disability in the context of the Bill. As I said in Committee, I realise that the intentions behind the proposal are good. However, as I have explained previously, the Bill is about expanding the geographical scope of concessionary bus travel; it is not about extending the concession to other groups of people, so it is premature to consider extensions when the Government are still in the process of introducing the national bus travel concession. However, I hope Members agree that the Government have already done a great deal to improve the well-being of older and disabled people, who are, as we all agree, among the most vulnerable in our society. Indeed, we are providing about £1 billion of funding each year for concessionary travel in England—a major public spending commitment of which we are rightly proud. The extension from local to national entitlement alone involves substantial new moneys, which will provide significant new opportunities for those who are disabled and over 60.

I reiterate that I welcome efforts to raise awareness of transport issues for people suffering from mental health difficulties. As I said in Committee, I shall continue to ensure that officials meet Mind, which they did most recently last month. I certainly intend that constructive dialogue to continue. However, I draw the attention of Members to the fact that Mind indicated that, in terms of possible amendments to the Bill, the issue raised in amendment No. 6 was no longer of as much priority to the organisation as it had been previously.

The Disability Discrimination Act 1995, to which the amendment refers, is an important piece of legislation and the Department has used its provisions to improve accessibility to transport vehicles for disabled people, but the Act was never intended to determine eligibility for concessionary travel, and it is not appropriate to use it in that way. The amendment would significantly expand the number of people who could become eligible and, as we have discussed many times, the consequence would be the need for a commitment of considerable sums of money to provide such a concession.

It is not simply a question of resources, however. A number of practical and administrative issues would have to be considered and resolved; for example, we would need a robust and fair system for assessing eligibility against the definition of mental impairment. We would need to decide who would do the assessing and set up a process for people to appeal against determinations. It is important that all those with an interest and expertise in the area have the opportunity to feed into the development of such a significant change before legislation, so changing the definition of "disabled person" on the face of the Bill at this stage would be premature and impractical. However, I assure the House that the Government are keeping these issues under review. Indeed, as part of our plans for the implementation of the national bus concession, we are already considering whether it is necessary to update the guidance to local authorities on assessing eligibility. I hope that hon. Members will now be able to agree that the approach that the Government are taking is a right, measured and practical one. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not press the amendment.

Amendments Nos. 9 and 10 would oblige the Secretary of State to issue guidance to travel concession authorities on the issue of "sole or principal residence" for people applying for a pass. As I have already said, the Department is actively engaging with local authorities and bus operators regarding the implementation of the national bus concession for April next year and it will continue to do so. Let me reassure hon. Members that if we felt, following consultation with local authorities, that such guidance was needed, we would of course issue it, after working closely with local authorities on the drafting.

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Conservative, Broxbourne

The Minister is making rapid progress, but may I take her back to the beginning of her speech? Can I clarify that the eligibility of Broxbourne council's hospital bus scheme for concessionary fares will be considered in secondary legislation? Am I right in thinking that?

Photo of Gillian Merron Gillian Merron Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport, Parliamentary Secretary (the East Midlands), Cabinet Office

To assist the hon. Gentleman, I refer him to the order that I have already mentioned. Bus operators and local authorities should refer to that. Obviously I cannot comment on specific cases, but should he require assistance, I would be happy to provide it on the receipt of further details.

On amendments Nos. 9 and 10, the Bill already includes a power for the Secretary of State to issue such guidance, so I see no need for the amendments. In fact, it would be bizarre to be required to implement guidance that was not required by those who would be in receipt of it and that would risk diverting valuable resources from other important work to which I am sure both sides of the House wish us to be committed. The amendments are insufficiently flexible and are superfluous. With that in mind, I hope that the hon. Member for Wimbledon will not press amendments Nos. 8, 9 and 6 and that he will withdraw amendment No. 8.

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport)

I was delighted to hear at the outset of the Minister's speech that great minds think alike. There is certainly some agreement. I listened with interest to what she had to say about amendments Nos. 6, 9 and 10. As she knows, they were essentially probing amendments, particularly as she said in Committee that she would make sure that guidance was available to local councils. I therefore take her points on amendments Nos. 9 and 10 and about the continuing discussions with the relevant charities and bodies about amendment No. 6.

Great minds think alike, and my small mind has joined the great minds of the Minister and her excellent officials who have come to the same conclusion as I have, which is that the three extra possible definitions of eligibility should be considered. However, I am slightly troubled by her saying, "Let's leave it all to secondary legislation." There are three definitions in the Bill and given that there seems to be a general consensus that we are likely to want to operate the three extra definitions, there seems to be no reason why they should not be in the Bill. I would therefore like to test the will of the House on amendment No. 8.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The House divided: Ayes 165, Noes 239.

Division number 165

See full list of votes (From The Public Whip)

Question accordingly negatived.