Schedule 1 — The London Free Travel Scheme

Orders of the Day – in the House of Commons at 4:30 pm on 28th June 2007.

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Photo of Paul Rowen Paul Rowen Shadow Minister, Transport 4:30 pm, 28th June 2007

I beg to move amendment No. 4, page 13, line 18, at end insert—

'(7) After paragraph 5(7) insert—

"(8) Where a London authority considers the amount notified by Transport for London under paragraph 5(1) to be excessive—

(a) the authority may within 14 days of being notified by Transport for London apply to the Secretary of State to review the proposed charge;

(b) if the Secretary of State agrees that the proposed charge is excessive, then he shall notify both Transport for London and the authority of an alternative lower amount.".'.

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 7, page 13, line 18, at end add—

'(7) After paragraph 5(7) insert—

"(8) Where a London authority considers the amount notified by Transport for London under paragraph 5(1) to be excessive—

(a) the authority may within 28 days of being notified by Transport for London apply to the Secretary of State to review the proposed charge; and

(b) if the Secretary of State agrees that the proposed charge is excessive, then he shall notify both Transport for London and the authority of an alternative lower amount.".'.

Photo of Paul Rowen Paul Rowen Shadow Minister, Transport

Amendment No. 4 deals with Transport for London charges for permits and seeks to change the reserve concessionary travel scheme in London, so that if London boroughs consider the amount that Transport for London wants to charge is excessive, the boroughs can ask the Secretary of State to arbitrate.

The London reserve free travel scheme is set out in section 241 and schedule 16 of the Greater London Authority Act 1999. It applies only to London, and in negotiating travel concessions London Councils has to reach agreement with TfL on a scheme for its services by 31 December prior to the financial year for which the scheme comes into effect.

If no agreement is reached, the statutory reserve scheme, at a cost determined by TfL, comes into effect. That puts London Councils at a disadvantage when negotiating with TfL, because TfL can determine the costs of the reserve scheme. In effect, uniquely for London, the costs of the concessionary fares scheme are determined by the operators who benefit, whereas elsewhere they are determined by the local authorities, subject to appeal to the Secretary of State.

By way of explaining why the amendment is needed, I refer to a recent example of how TfL is acting in relation to concessionary fares. The reserve scheme covers all the services provided or procured by TfL. As a result of TfL taking over responsibility for the North London Railway franchise from next November, concessions for that route will form part of the reserve scheme for the first time. London boroughs had no say about that. The amount that TfL will get for concessions on those services is currently under negotiation. I understand that TfL has suggested that London Councils should pay around £1 million for the concessions. London Councils currently pays the Association of Train Operating Companies only about £600,000 for those concessions. Nothing will have changed when the new scheme comes into operation next year, yet TfL has insisted that the London boroughs should pay two thirds more than is currently the case by paying directly to ATOC. There is no appeal, and London boroughs will have to pay up.

Despite claims by the Mayor of London, the amendment is not about seeking to water down or change London's freedom pass. For the past 23 years, London boroughs have paid for the freedom pass. The scheme provides older and disabled Londoners with free travel on all the capital's buses, trains, tubes and trams, and the amendment is not an attempt to change that. It is designed to ensure that the London boroughs are put on the same level playing field as other boroughs, so that if there is no agreement on the amount that the concession should cost, the Secretary of State can arbitrate on it. That is a fair and reasonable request, and I am prepared to press the amendment to a vote.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

I seem to have spent half my adult life defending the London concessionary scheme. I pay tribute to those councillors on the Greater London council who instigated the scheme on a cross-party basis—Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat. The scheme was well in advance of its time, and it brought an advantage to London pensioners that improved the quality of their lives. It was years in advance of its time in terms of its impact on the environment, because it took people out of their cars and on to London transport.

During the debates on the abolition of the GLC, a cross-party lobby of London MPs linked up with pensioners and GLC councillors—the London boroughs unfortunately split on the matter—to insert in the legislation a reserved scheme and arrangements to bring the boroughs together to ensure that the concessionary scheme continued. In my period on the GLC—I was chair of finance and deputy leader—we brought forward investment in the scheme. That improved the benefits for pensioners, of which I am proud. When the GLC was abolished, that legislation protected the scheme.

I was the chief executive of the Association of London Authorities and then the Association of London Government, which brought the boroughs together to protect the scheme. Unfortunately, an axis of malevolence among the boroughs has repeatedly tried to undermine the scheme, either by introducing means tests and charges or by crippling it in some other way. No matter what the intentions of Paul Rowen are, the amendment is another dangerous attempt to undermine the scheme in the long term by passing powers to the Secretary of State and out of the hands of Londoners.

TfL is under the control of the Mayor of London, who is directly elected by Londoners. Londoners will have a democratic say in determining this scheme, and as a result TfL will be held to democratic account through the Mayor. The amendment is incredibly dangerous. If we pass from London government to central Government the opportunity to undermine the scheme and the benefits to pensioners, no London pensioner will forgive the parties responsible.

Photo of Paul Rowen Paul Rowen Shadow Minister, Transport

I do not represent a London seat, but my seat is in Greater Manchester. Will the hon. Gentleman point out some examples of other boroughs across the country where the Secretary of State has—God forbid!—acted malevolently against the interests of concessionaires?

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

Because the London scheme is so much in advance of those outside London, central Government and some individual boroughs have always argued that it is too expensive and that it is extravagant. However, any London pensioner will tell the hon. Gentleman how it has enhanced the quality of their life. I do not trust central Government under any guise with the long-term future of the scheme. The hon. Gentleman may well have tabled the amendment with good intentions with regard to equity, but knowing the history of the scheme, central Government cannot be trusted with its long-term future. I urge the Government to reject the amendment and hope that London MPs can join together, as we did in the past, on a cross-party basis to protect the scheme, which provides such benefits to London pensioners.

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport)

Amendment No. 7, which stands in my name and those of my hon. Friends, makes a small yet important change to the reserve concessionary fares scheme, but is in essence exactly the same as amendment No. 4.

Let me state at the outset, so that John McDonnell can hear and so that there can be no dissembling from City Hall as to our position, that the Conservatives support the freedom pass and will continue to do so. London Councils, the body that runs the concessionary fares schemes on behalf of the boroughs, strongly supports the amendments. London Councils is the voice of the 32 boroughs and the City of London, and for the past 23 years it has paid for and run the freedom pass. The pass did not arrive with the Mayor. London Councils has no intention of watering down or scrapping the scheme, and to suggest otherwise is arrant nonsense.

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport)

Just once, because I only have a short time.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

Does the hon. Gentleman appreciate that in the past several boroughs have put forward proposals to reduce the benefits that the scheme provides to London pensioners? That is a matter of historical record.

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport)

That may be so, but it is equally true that no one is currently proposing that the scheme should be watered down; neither would the amendments water it down.

In the latest edition of his freesheet, "The Londoner", the Mayor states:

"My ability to guarantee the scheme if boroughs disagree ensures that it is never under-funded or watered-down."

That is nonsense. London Councils and the official Opposition have always been consistent. There is no threat to the freedom pass and no attempt to underfund it or water it down. The guarantee of the scheme is enshrined in law, not with the Mayor. The Mayor goes on to state:

"My ability to guarantee the Freedom Pass each year ensures that older and disabled Londoners continue to get free concessions."

Again, that is wrong. It is guaranteed by the 2006 scheme, the Greater London Authority Act 1999, and now, the Bill, not by the Mayor.

The legislation on concessionary fares in London differs from the rest of England, partly, but not entirely, because the bus industry in London is more regulated. A further major difference is that the concessionary fares negotiations in London are underpinned by the statutory reserve free travel scheme in section 241 and schedule 16 of the 1999 Act. There is no equivalent scheme anywhere else in the UK. It is odd that the Government continue to consider that this elaborate special legislation for a reserve scheme is necessary in London but not anywhere else in the country. In negotiating travel concessions, London Councils, on behalf of the London boroughs, has to reach agreement with Transport for London for a scheme that needs to be implemented on their services by 31 December before the financial year in which the scheme comes into effect. That clearly puts London Councils at a disadvantage when negotiating with TfL. TfL can determine the costs of the reserve scheme. The negotiations cannot be conducted on an equal footing, because whatever London Councils proposes, TfL—or in most cases, as he so often claims, for TfL read the Mayor—can reject whatever the proposals may be. There is no reason or incentive for it to negotiate.

I am sure that in a moment the Minister will repeat that if London Councils and the Mayor reached an agreement on alternative arrangements, the Government would consider them. However, it is no good her saying that. The reserve powers have never been used because TfL is in an unfair and unequal position. The Mayor and TfL have no incentive to agree any change. It suits them very well to have a reserve scheme in the background where the costs can be determined by TfL, which is one of the parties to the negotiations, and where there is no appeal mechanism.

The attempts by London Councils to raise this issue have been met by the Mayor saying that that it is attempting to water down the scheme and to reduce benefits. London Councils has repeatedly said that that is not so. There has been a war of press releases, and the Mayor has even roped in various celebrities to support him. This week, Andrew Gilligan's article in the Evening Standard was most interesting. It stated:

"WARNING to all London pensioners: if a man with a nasal South London accent, a nasty temper and a bad record of dodgy press releases turns up at your door claiming your free bus pass is 'under attack', call the police at once."

That is fair.

All that the amendments would do is give the Secretary of State a role as the final arbiter in the event of a dispute about whether the cost is excessive. That would happen in only limited circumstances. First, London Councils and Transport for London would have to fail to reach an agreement by 31 December. Secondly, the reserve scheme would have to be effected, Transport for London would have to let London Councils know the cost, and London Councils would have to take the view that it was excessive. The Secretary of State would have a role only if those things happened. One hopes that they never will.

The current scheme is unique and places a more onerous requirement on London than on authorities in other parts of the country. If the Under-Secretary believes that the new scheme will work so well elsewhere and that the appeal process is appropriate for other parts of the country, why is it not appropriate for London?

The amendment's impact would be significant. By having the Secretary of State as the final arbiter in the circumstances that I described, Transport for London and London Councils are much more likely to agree to reasonable demands. The threat to invoke the reserve scheme if no agreement is reached will lessen. The change is simply to ensure a fair and appropriate deal for boroughs in their negotiations with Transport for London and to put the boroughs on an equitable basis with all other local authorities in the country.

The amendment is not, was not and will not be about altering the concessions that well over a million older and disabled Londoners, many of whom are my constituents, enjoy.

I urge the Government to use the opportunity of the Bill to alter the reserve scheme so that, in the case of a dispute, it is decided, in extremis, by the Secretary of State. That puts London in line with the rest of the country and must be correct.

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

There is a sense of déjà vu about the debate as we discuss again the London reserve free travel scheme. I thank my hon. Friend John McDonnell for his correct and spirited defence of the freedom pass and the provision of the Mayor, which does much for people in London, especially those who are more vulnerable. On that basis and with those Londoners' interests in mind, I shall recommend that the amendments should not be accepted, and, indeed, that they should be withdrawn.

As hon. Members know, the purpose of the reserve free travel scheme is to guarantee concessionary travel in London when there is no agreement either among the London boroughs or between the boroughs and Transport for London about how best to provide and fund minimum travel concessions.

Amendments Nos. 4 and 7 deal with the specific issue of cost. If I may say so, with as much graciousness as I would always wish to display, it is disappointing to consider again amendments that are so similar to those that were rejected in Committee. Indeed, the only difference between today's amendments and the amendment that we discussed in Committee is that the deadline for a London authority to appeal to the Secretary of State would be extended from seven to 14 days in amendment No. 4, and from seven to 28 days in amendment No. 7.

Whether the proposal is for a week, a fortnight or a month, hon. Members will not be surprised to learn that the Government's position remains constant, especially given that the Opposition parties propose differing deadlines.

Like the amendment that was tabled in Committee, where it was amendment No. 19, the amendments provide for the addition of a new paragraph 5(8) to schedule 1 of the Greater London Authority Act 1999. Paragraph 5 of schedule 1 to the 1999 Act allows Transport for London to stipulate a charge per pass payable by London authorities to cover the costs to it of providing the concessions under the reserve free travel scheme. The amendments would allow a London authority to appeal to the Secretary of State in the event that the charge is considered "excessive", and allow the Secretary of State to determine a lower amount if appropriate. However, paragraphs 5(3) and (4) already specify what may be included in calculating the costs of the reserve free travel scheme, and further matters which must be taken into account. Transport for London will already be acutely aware that if it is not reasonable in its assessment, London authorities will seek judicially to review the determination, and may even refuse to pay while a review is under way. I would hope that that offers the soundest of guarantees. I would also ask Opposition Members what exactly the word "excessive" should be taken to mean. How is it to be interpreted? How is it to apply?

I recognise that there are genuine concerns among the London boroughs about the reserve free travel scheme and its perceived inequity.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

There may have been concerns raised by individual boroughs, but none of them has gone to the electorate with this proposal. As we shall have mayoral elections next year, may I suggest that, if the other parties in the House wish to amend the scheme in a way that will undermine it—as I think this would—they should put it to the London electorate to decide on next year?

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

My hon. Friend makes a constructive point that I am sure Opposition Members will wish to consider.

As we have seen from this discussion, this is a complex area. It is also one where, I fear, no one solution will please all parties. As the Secretary of State said on Second Reading, until the boroughs and TfL can agree a way forward with regard to any potential change to the reserve scheme, we are not convinced of the case for changing in any way the legislation that guarantees a minimum standard of concessionary travel across the capital. I suggest that the reserve free travel scheme, as currently specified, best guarantees continuing concessionary travel in London. In the light of that, I hope that Paul Rowen will withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Paul Rowen Paul Rowen Shadow Minister, Transport

I have listened to the Minister's arguments, but on this occasion, I still wish to press the amendment to a vote.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The House divided: Ayes 139, Noes 244.

Division number 166

See full list of votes (From The Public Whip)

Question accordingly negatived.

Order for Third Reading read.

Photo of Gillian Merron Gillian Merron Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport, Parliamentary Secretary (the East Midlands), Cabinet Office 5:10 pm, 28th June 2007

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

We had an interesting debate on Report, and I am grateful to everyone who took part in it and in our deliberations in Committee. We have given the Bill a thorough consideration. I am also glad to say that the Bill's principles have received widespread support on both sides of the House. I am pleased that hon. Members' comments were both constructive and insightful.

Photo of Mark Lazarowicz Mark Lazarowicz PPS (David Cairns, Minister of State), Scotland Office

My hon. Friend says that there was detailed consideration on Report and in Committee, but there did not appear to be much consideration of provisions on the reciprocal arrangement for providing travel concessions between different parts of the UK. How will that be taken forward? Obviously, I have a particular interest in the arrangements between Scotland and England, and other parts of the UK as well.

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

As my hon. Friend is aware, the Bill extends off-peak concessionary travel from local to national areas within England, but as I have stated several times—I am happy to give the assurance again—it also allows local authorities to make immediate cross-border arrangements if they do not have them in place. It also allows for debate and discussion with the devolved Administrations, which has taken place and will continue. However, our priority is to get the scheme up and running in England from April 2008.

I am glad to remind the House—I make no apologies for continuing to say this—that 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. They will have the freedom to travel across district or county boundaries to nearby shops, to access health care and to visit friends and relatives, and they will have free off-peak bus travel when visiting any part of England. As I have said many times, this 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. That is why the measures are so important and why, from next year, we will be providing around £1 billion a year for concessionary travel.

The steps that we are taking build on the Government's previous work. In 2001, we acted to ensure that half-price bus travel in England for all older and disabled people would be available within their local authority area. In 2006, we made such travel completely free. Now we are going still further for those 11 million people up and down the country by enabling them to enjoy free England-wide bus travel. It is an achievement of which all Labour Members can be justly proud. I am sure that it is one that our constituents will continue to welcome.

I want to put on the record my gratitude, and the Government's gratitude, to a wide range of local authority and bus operator representatives and others, who have been so constructive in assisting us as we prepare for the national concession. The Department's concessionary fares working group and its specialised sub-groups have been invaluable in assisting us as we finalise details of implementation. We are also grateful for the constructive dialogue that we have had with groups representing disabled and older people. I very much look forward to the Bill becoming an Act and to the considerable benefits that this important piece of legislation, introduced by this Government, will deliver.

For the first time, the Bill guarantees that no older or disabled person in England need be prevented from travelling by cost alone. It brings real social inclusion benefits for our communities. It is another important step forward in transport provision, and with great pride I commend the Bill to the House.

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport) 5:14 pm, 28th June 2007

From the outset, the official Opposition have made clear our wholehearted support for the principle behind the Bill. As the Minister said, the introduction of a national concessionary bus travel scheme will benefit many people, and the proposals have rightly enjoyed cross-party support.

We have given the Bill proper and extensive scrutiny, both in Committee and today on Report. We have examined its definitions and scope, as well as the eligibility of the persons and services involved and how the scheme will be funded. The spirit was one of great minds working together, so I am disappointed that the Minister did not see fit to accept one or two of the clarifying amendments that we tabled. Our concerns were well founded, but I accept her explanations.

I am grateful to the Minister for the way that she has answered our questions throughout the Bill's passage through Parliament. I am also grateful to her and her officials for their courtesy in inviting us to the pre-meeting, and for the explanatory letters that she has provided. They have been extremely useful to all Opposition Members. I am grateful, too, to those of my colleagues who were also in the Committee, and to my staff who helped me with drafting all the amendments.

The Bill may be small, as was noted earlier, but it is extraordinarily important. It has the power to enrich the lives of many fellow citizens. The departing Prime Minister spoke yesterday about the power of good that politics can achieve, and I think that he was probably referring to measures such as this. Many elderly and disabled citizens will now be able to use local services nationally, free of charge. The quality of their lives will be the better for it.

My hon. Friend Chris Grayling stated the Opposition's approach at the outset, when he said that we supported the Bill and the principle behind it. I am pleased to reiterate that now: the Bill has our support, and we wish it well in its progress to the statute book.

Photo of Mark Lazarowicz Mark Lazarowicz PPS (David Cairns, Minister of State), Scotland Office 5:17 pm, 28th June 2007

As the Minister noted earlier, the Bill applies only to England and Wales. I have no objection to that, as I am glad that the example set by the Administration in the Scottish Parliament, who were until recently led by Labour, is being followed in England. However, the anomaly is that the Bill does not take us forward to a UK-wide concessionary scheme. As a result, pensioners and others entitled to concessions in Newcastle, for example, will get free bus travel in London, Truro or Plymouth, but not in Edinburgh. Similarly, their counterparts in Edinburgh can get free travel in Aberdeen and Glasgow but not in Newcastle, Carlisle or elsewhere.

It is not merely a matter of cross-border arrangements for people who live in Berwick-on-Tweed or Dumfries, for example, although I sympathise with those hon. Members who represent those areas. Nor do I want to suggest that people should be able to travel from Caithness to Cornwall by bus, as that journey is not likely to be made very often, but we should allow pensioners and others to take advantage of these provisions in the different cities, towns and other parts of the UK. We should not lose sight of that goal, and I welcome the Minister's statement that the matter is being discussed with the devolved Administrations—even though some of them seem to want to build barriers between the rights and benefits enjoyed by citizens in different parts of the UK. I hope that the Government will pursue the establishment of a UK-wide concessionary scheme. Those of us with constituencies in the devolved areas will be lobbying the devolved Administrations to ensure that they respond positively to any discussions held at UK level.

I hope that the Minister will take my remarks on board, and I welcome the assurances and commitments that she made a few minutes ago in her opening remarks for this debate.

Photo of Paul Rowen Paul Rowen Shadow Minister, Transport 5:19 pm, 28th June 2007

Like the hon. Members for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) and for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz), I welcome the passage of the Bill through the House. It is an example of where political parties of different persuasions can work together for the common good. I am grateful to the Minister and her team for the work that she has put in to make sure that we have been adequately briefed and engaged during the passage of the Bill. I am aware that during proceedings on the Bill in the other place and here she and her team have continued to listen to some of the issues that we have raised.

I have no doubt in my mind that, although the legislation that we are passing today is rather uncluttered and not as complicated as other Bills, its national implementation will require the Government to ensure that on 1 April, or whatever day is deemed the start date, the 12 million pensioners to whom the Minister referred are able to make full use of an excellent piece of legislation.

During the passage of the Bill, we and other Opposition Members have raised a number of issues, including cross-border issues, which the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith has just mentioned, and eligibility for concessions on other modes of transport and the issue of using boats, which my hon. Friend Andrew George raised. We have asked whether carers should be able to use the service. We also raised the extension of eligibility, widening the definition of mental illness and the issue of cost. The Government have listened on some of those issues. They continue to listen.

As the Minister mentioned, this is the third concessionary bus travel Bill that has made it easier for people to use public transport. I look forward to continuing the progress that we have made today and to having a genuine national concession which includes not just bus but other forms of transport and broadens eligibility. Notwithstanding that, I am delighted that the Bill is on its way and I look forward to its implementation.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed, with amendments.