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I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Concessionary Bus Travel Act 2007 to broaden the definition of eligible journeys to allow people with complex mobility problems who cannot access public transport to use concessionary travel passes on community transport services;
and for connected purposes.
I am sure that everyone in the Chamber is aware how much our constituents value the current concessionary travel scheme, even if we tend to argue about it come election time. Indeed, there are perhaps few issues that are more controversial. However, there is one imbalance in the application of the existing legislation that needs to be addressed—one that I fear was not in the minds of those who framed the legislation back in 2007. Able-bodied pensioners who can use existing public transport can use their concessionary travel cards without any problem, but anyone with the misfortune to be a disabled pensioner or to have complex mobility needs, who perhaps cannot even make it to the bus stop in the first place, might have to rely on dial-a-ride services, demand-responsive services or other forms of community transport. In many cases, such people will have to pay their own way because, in essence, the community transport sector does not enjoy the statutory benefits for which the concessionary card scheme allows.
To me, that imbalance seems to be not only unfair, but contrary to the spirit of human dignity. Community transport as a sector ranges from the dial-a-ride services that I have mentioned to wheels-to-work schemes for apprentices, demand-responsive bus routes and community car schemes. There are at least 60,000 community transport volunteers up and down the country. Indeed, one could argue that the sector was nothing less than the big society in action. As hon. Members may be aware, section 22 community transport services are beginning to play a crucial role in filling the gaps that are appearing in many rural bus networks. However, my proposals focus on services provided under section 19 of the Transport Act 1985, which allows not-for-profit organisations to charge for providing transport to those whom it serves, without the need to obtain a public service vehicle operator’s licence. The provisions apply to any not-for-profit body associated with educational, religious, social welfare, recreational and other activities of benefit to the community.
I understand that many councils seek to subsidise travel for those who are disabled in various ways. However, not every council does, and with increasing budgetary pressures, which Members on both sides of the House must recognise, I fear that fewer and fewer will. For example, in my constituency, which is covered by two upper-tier councils, there are two ways in which those needs are fulfilled. Blackpool, for example, has an excellent dial-a-ride charity called Ride-Ability. One needs to be a member to access its services, and any member presenting a concessionary NoWcard with a blue stripe can obtain services for a half-fare. A disabled passenger with an orange NoWcard issued by the local authority can, on payment of 50p, obtain any single passenger journey that they wish to make. In Lancashire, however, the situation is slightly different in that the system is mileage related. People pay £2 to travel any distance up to two miles, and the fare goes right up to £10 for a journey of 18 miles or more.
I understand that, even as we speak, Blackpool council is reassessing whether to continue funding the Ride-Ability charity, which it subsidises to the tune of £112,000. One option that it seeks to adopt would involve restricting access to between 11 am and 3 pm, when the council’s existing vehicles are not used by people with other forms of special transport needs. My fear is that that option would restrict individual freedom and spontaneity. I am not sure that I would like to have to live my life only between the hours of 11 am and 3 pm.
I realise that my proposal will be interpreted by many, including the Government, as a request for a spending commitment. I am often contacted by pensioners who ask why they have been given a concessionary travel card when they do not need one. They tell me that they can afford to pay their own way. I often reply, “Actually, you are not obliged to use your concessionary travel card. There is nothing to stop you paying your own way, if you wish to do so.” That might be a sensible way forward, if the Government are concerned about how to fund the proposed extension.
Given the Government’s current enthusiasm for de-ring-fencing spending, I note that they have ring-fenced £10 million to local government for community transport schemes, so they have already established a slight predisposition towards the sector. I also note the words of the Community Transport Association, which has written:
“Any person unable to make use of their concession on existing eligible transport services as a result of disability, age or other limiting factor should be permitted to use it on other transport services, with the operators of those services being reimbursed by the administrators of the local concessionary travel scheme. All eligible passengers should receive equal access to services. However, the provision of this fair level of service to currently excluded individuals must not adversely affect the level or quality of service enjoyed by existing passengers”.
That goes to the nub of the matter.
My proposals might strike some as an unwelcome and unnecessary extension of the concessionary scheme. I accept that the present system is not ideal, by any stretch of the imagination. It contains too many flaws, inconsistencies and perverse consequences. Anyone who has read the recent Transport Committee report on bus services will be aware that more and more people have a concessionary fare card, but do not have the bus services on which to use them. I would say to anyone present who disagrees with my proposals that all I am seeking to do is ensure that the welcome benefits that apply to one section of the community should apply to everyone, including those with particular complex mobility problems. This is not a matter of bus policy, or even of wider transport policy. It is simply a matter of human dignity.
Question put and agreed to.
That Paul Maynard, Dr Julian Huppert, Paul Goggins, Mark Lazarowicz and Mr Lee Scott present the Bill.
Paul Maynard accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on