New Clause 6 - Extension of concessionary fares to persons18 or younger (greater london)

Travel Concessions (Eligibility) Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 6:15 pm on 20 November 2001.

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`. The appropriate Minister shall consult the Association of London Government and the Greater London Authority over the possibilities of extending the concessionary schemes to people aged 18 years or younger in full-time education within London.'.—[Mr. Clifton-Brown.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald

With this we may discuss new clause 9—Extension of concessionary fares to persons 18 or younger—

`. The appropriate Minister shall consult local authorities over the possibilities of extending the concessionary schemes to people aged 18 years or younger in full-time education.'.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Conservative, Cotswold

I am grateful, Miss Widdecombe, for your very clear chairmanship. Perhaps I need to develop a louder voice, as on several occasions you have not heard me shout for the ayes or for the noes. Next time, I shall make sure that you are deafened and that our voice is well and truly heard.

Government Back Benchers have voted against granting their own pensioners concessions on ferries and other forms of transport. Let us see if we can do better with these new clauses by encouraging them to support us in extending concessionary travel schemes. New clause 6 would extend such schemes to those aged 18 or under who are in full-time education in London, and new clause 9 would require the appropriate Minister to

``consult local authorities over the possibilities of extending the concessionary schemes to people aged 18 years or younger in full-time education.''

The new clauses are important. We want to encourage our youngsters to travel by public transport where possible, rather than adding to the ever-growing number of cars in this country. If we can delay the urge to own a car the moment that they reach 17 and pass the test, we would be doing everybody a service. We would also be doing a service to the youngsters themselves. After all, having chosen to stay on in full-time education, many are by definition on very low incomes. The new clauses bear some scrutiny, and if the Government will not accept them I hope that they will at least consider them seriously.

We know that, whatever the system, students in full-time education are in considerable difficulty. Systems such as student loans and a graduate tax have been discussed, as has the question of whether students should contribute to fees. In a small way, the new clauses would help those who want to stay on in further and higher education, and it is in the nation's interest to encourage them to do so. The new clauses would be of particular benefit in our bigger inner cities. An attempt to stem the number of cars owned by students would greatly help the travelling public. Students' cars are often ill maintained and therefore cause some of the bigger problems. If an appropriate concessionary scheme were in place for those in full-time education, we would all benefit.

The Local Government Association has suggested that the Bill provides an opportunity for school children to receive mandatory concession fees, and the new clauses encourage the Government to consult on the pros and cons of such an extension. In the light of that, I strongly urge the Minister think about the new clauses. It may or may not be appropriate to extend the scheme; for example, it may be appropriate only in London, where there is the biggest problem. The mayor is proposing congestion charges and other plans in an effort to reduce extreme congestion in central London. Anyone who uses any form of transport in London knows how severe that congestion is at certain times of the day, at any rate.

People who have to live in cheaper accommodation on the edge of London and in the suburbs often need to own a car. It is difficult for them to get to remote university campuses late at night or early in the morning when they are doing their studies, so they resort to their cars. If we could encourage them just a little to think twice about whether they need to own a car, or could travel on public transport instead, it would do everyone a service. Will the Minister seriously consider the new clauses?

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Liberal Democrat, Bath

I commend the hon. Member for Cotswold for raising this matter. I have some concern with the wording of new clauses 6 and 9, which leaves in some doubt whether the Conservative party favours extending the concessionary scheme to people aged 18 or under who are in full-time education. The new clauses raise the possibility of a discussion, rather than including in the Bill the requirement for the Government to extend the scheme to those groups.

I suspect that the hon. Gentleman's intention was to have a discussion of the issue. He has rightly drawn our attention to the importance of developing opportunities for the provision of public transport for such people. I suggest an additional reason why such an extension would be valuable in helping the Government to achieve their intentions. All the evidence suggests that about 50 per cent. of young people at the age of 16 give up the opportunity to enter further or higher education. When surveyed on why they made that choice, a large percentage cite travel problems as a major factor. Alongside the other issues that the hon. Gentleman raised, I believe it important to consider the educational aspect.

I have no doubt that the Minister who replies will draw attention to the cost of carrying out the endeavour. There are considerable differences over what the figure would be. My hon. Friend in another place, Baroness Scott, estimated a figure in the region of £50 million. Lord Falconer, responding to the debate, suggested that the much higher figure of £180 million was more realistic. I am not in a position to judge between those competing claims about the expense.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Conservative, Cotswold

The whole matter might be more palatable were it restricted to London, at least for a start. There are particular merits to operating the scheme in London, where the cost of living is higher and traffic congestion is greater.

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Liberal Democrat, Bath

The hon. Gentleman is entitled to that view. I would be interested to hear the reaction from young people in his constituency if he promoted something for Londoners that they were denied, but that is a matter for him and his relationship with his constituents. Were it possible to find the money for such a scheme, and were it deemed an appropriate use of it, it would be better and more sensible for us to look at a nationwide scheme.

I understand that there will be arguments about the amount of money involved. I place it on record that the Liberal Democrat party raised the issue in our manifesto at the last general election, but made it clear that it was an aspiration, not something within our fully costed manifesto. People have often accused the Liberal Democrats of saying that we will do anything and everything and pay for it out of our extra 1p on income tax, but this is a good rebuttal. We made it very clear that it would not cover this. We said that the money could not be found immediately, but that it was a longer-term aspiration.

Although the Government are likely to say no, for the reasons that I have given—and not least the cost—they might also say no because they do see the point in consulting on something that will not lead to anything. That would be the result if we accepted the new clauses. The Government would probably then say that they were improving young people's opportunities through access to various discount travel schemes. That was their response in July, when Lord Falconer in another place talked about the way in which his Department was

``working closely with the Department for Education and Skills in developing a Connexions Card which offers a range of commercial discounts for young people in full-time education and is capable of carrying existing travel concessions.''—[Official Report, House of Lords, 24 July 2001; Vol. 626, c. 1900.]

It is now long after the third week in July so the Minister should be able to tell us that significant progress has at last been made and that she has an exciting announcement for young people not only in London, but in the rest of the country. I look forward to hearing it shortly.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight

In supporting the new clauses, I want to draw attention to the successful operation of a similar scheme on the Isle of Wight. The council came in for a bit of inferential flak from the Minister over its failure to provide concessionary fares on ferries, but I am pleased to say that it has an extraordinarily good record in providing a so-called youth mover ticket for young people under 18. It is a concessionary scheme that is available to all young people on the island regardless of whether they are in education, enabling them to travel on public transport at, I believe, half price—not being eligible I have never got to the bottom of the exact cost. It has the great benefit in rural areas—I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold would not restrict the scheme to London—

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Conservative, Cotswold

The hon. Member for Bath deliberately twisted my words. If he looks carefully at the record, he will see that I said ``initially'' and then expressed the hope that it could be rolled out elsewhere.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight

I am pleased to accept that in the hope that the rolling out would take place rapidly.

On the island, the scheme provides several benefits. First, it encourages people to travel by public transport. Secondly, it means that they are less likely to hitchhike at night. I realise that that is not a common practice in rural areas on the mainland, but it has been on the island, which is, I am pleased to say, considerably safer—but still not very safe—as a place in which to hitchhike. Thirdly, it means that people are not travelling in cars with friends who may have drunk rather more than is good for them. Fourthly, it enables parents to get to bed early instead of operating as taxi services.

The scheme offers a combination of benefits that would be felt in rural areas, apart from the benefits for metropolitan areas that my hon. Friend advertised so effectively.

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Conservative, Epsom and Ewell

I very much welcome the objective of the new clauses. The principle of expanding concessionary fares to support young people is extremely important. Indeed, if I have one criticism it is that we have not gone far enough. There is a case for considering whether such schemes should apply to all those in higher education, given that they already incur substantial costs when living through their university or college years. There is certainly a case for extending the scheme to those over 18. However, I recognise the limitations that we face in tabling new clauses, in that the Government have not been entirely receptive to such proposed extensions.

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Conservative, Epsom and Ewell 6:45, 20 November 2001

Indeed. Perhaps we are already pushing our luck in respect of 18-year-olds. However, it is worth doing because it is an important principle to provide such support, especially to those between 16 and 18. In much of today's public transport world, when teenagers reach the age of 16 they lose the half-fare status that they enjoyed as a child, yet few of them find that their financial situation has changed between the ages of 15 years and 364 days and 16 years. The majority continue with some form of education and do not immediately gain the benefits of an income, so to have a mandatory cut-off point at the age of 16 is unhelpful and unfair.

If we can encourage the Government, through the two new clauses, to take a long hard look at the potential to develop schemes that address that financial situation and that deliver a valuable social resource for younger people, it would be welcome. I commend the new clauses and, even if the Government are not willing to accept them in their entirety and fall back on the votes of the silent majority behind them, I hope that they will accept the principles of our objectives behind tabling them and will consider what support they can offer a scheme of this kind in future.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Opposition Whip (Commons)

I have just a couple of points to make, one of which concerns school transport. I make no apology for telling the Committee about my constituency because we are here to represent our constituents.

I am aware that there is some subsidised travel for children travelling to school but for certain mileages there is not. We know, from driving anywhere, how much heavier the traffic is during the school term compared with the holidays—there is a tremendous difference. If there are few buses, as in my constituency, transport becomes a problem with regard to getting to school and the congestion caused around schools from people travelling in cars. New clause 9 is particularly relevant to my area and would address such problems.

I will draw on an example concerning the national lottery, which I assure you, Miss Widdecombe, is relevant, but I must crave your indulgence for a moment. Earlier, I referred to a large village in my constituency—Churchdown—which has about 12,000 inhabitants. They applied for a lottery grant to build swimming baths in the village. The reply from the National Lotteries Board turned down the application. One of the main reasons for that was the fact that the village is within a 20-minute drive of similar facilities. The then Minister for Sport, the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), said that that reply was absolute rubbish—she understood its implications. It meant that if children wanted to go to the nearest swimming baths, their parents would have to take them, and come back, then collect them and come back—four car journeys would be necessary because children under 17 are not allowed to drive. The alternative would be not to go swimming, or to pay full fares on the bus. I was stunned by the reason for the rejection, however it is an illustration of how new clause 9 would help children in that area. It is a village of 12,000 so this is not a small problem.

Photo of Sally Keeble Sally Keeble Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions

I have listened carefully to the points made by Opposition Members and have considerable sympathy for their strength of feeling and for some of the sentiments expressed.

It is part of the Government's agenda to provide public transport to combat social exclusion and to deal with safety issues. It is an attractive proposition to require local authorities to offer concessionary fares to other groups of people including young adults but, under the Bill, we must be realistic. Although I fully accept that the new clauses would simply require the Secretary of State, or the National Assembly for Wales, to consult local authorities on the possibility of extending schemes to young adults, I am not sure what purpose such a consultation would serve.

We have heard much about local authorities' discretionary powers in relation to extending concessionary fare schemes. Local authorities can choose to extend their schemes to young adults and I congratulate the local authority of the hon. Member for Isle of Wight on its innovative scheme. Local authorities already have a statutory duty, with which most hon. Members will be familiar, to provide free travel for school pupils within certain ages and for certain distances.

In relation to the pertinent points raised by the hon. Member for Tewkesbury about safety around schools, the Government have provided funding to establish school travel plans to deal with the issues that he identified such as encouraging children to walk or cycle to school and dealing with parking and safety around schools. That is recognition of the problems that he identified.

Local authorities have the power to provide concessionary travel for young people up to 18 years of age who are in full-time education. That applies not only to travel to and from college, but to other journeys. Given the number of journeys expected to be undertaken by young adults, and bearing in mind the social activities that were mentioned—it is important to encourage young people not to drink and drive—the revenue foregone by transport operators would be substantial. I can confirm the figure quoted by the hon. Member for Bath of approximately £180 million. However, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that work is being undertaken to ensure that young people's needs are not overlooked. My Department is working closely with the Department for Education and Skills in developing a Connexions card. It will offer a range of commercial discounts for young people in full-time education, and it will be capable of carrying existing travel concessions. There is no exciting announcement to make—I have not known many exciting announcements in Standing Committee—but we shall examine the options that exist for travel, which I hope will generate yet another postcard for the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Liberal Democrat, Bath

I do not know whether it warrants a postcard just yet. We are discussing an announcement that was made on 24 July by the Minister's noble Friend in another place. That was a long time ago, and what we have just heard from the Minister is almost identical to the wording of the announcement that was given to another place on 24 July. If we are not going to get an announcement, I hope that we can have an indication that progress has been rapid and that a clear announcement is imminent. Even if an announcement cannot be made in Committee because big announcements are not made in Standing Committee, I hope that it is coming soon. Can the Minister at least give us a little bit of comfort by telling us that something has happened?

Photo of Sally Keeble Sally Keeble Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions

We are making progress and we shall examine these proposals. In particular, we shall examine the options for travel so that we can deal with some of the issues that hon. Members have raised today. I assure hon. Members that we take seriously the points that they have raised about the importance of ensuring that transport is used as a means of combating social exclusion, providing greater safety and ensuring that young people are not excluded from schools.

Incidentally, another issue is making sure that young people are not excluded from work. There are some interesting initiatives going on around that matter through, for example, the urban bus challenge.

I ask hon. Members to withdraw the two new clauses. The Bill will extend better travel benefits to pensioners, which picks up a group that has previously been missed out. The Bill will mean progress for pensioners up and down the country, and I hope that hon. Members will withdraw the two new clauses in the interests of making progress and of completing the Bill.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Conservative, Cotswold

This is the last group of new clauses and amendments. We have made reasonable progress today. In response to the Minister's closing remark, it is not a matter of extending concessions either to pensioners or to young people; we are asking for both. The Bill, which I hope is about to be ratified in Committee, provides concessions for men aged between 60 and 64. We are asking the Government to consider our new clauses 6 and 9, which would require consultation on whether the Government should introduce a concessionary scheme for students aged 18 or under in full-time education.

The hon. Member for Bath is a friend and a reasonable Member of Parliament, but he has been in a nit-picking mood today. If he did not like our amendments on the subject, he should have tabled his own amendments. I notice that only one of his amendments to this narrow Bill has been selected. We have had great difficulty in getting our amendments selected, but we managed 10. If the hon. Gentleman will settle for one tenth of the number of Members of Parliament in our party, I shall give way to him.

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Liberal Democrat, Bath

In that case, I shall not intervene. I am not prepared to accept the deal.

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald

Order. If hon. Members wish to say anything, they must do so standing up, otherwise they must keep quiet.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Conservative, Cotswold

I am glad that I have managed to close down the hon. Gentleman. That is one of my biggest achievements in the Committee. He is looking very sheepish, but I do not know what is the matter with him. He has only one postcard for his wife this Session, so she will be feeling a little lonely. He will have to work harder in the next Standing Committee to ensure that he sends a few more, or she will feel unloved.

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Conservative, Epsom and Ewell

Notwithstanding my hon. Friend's comments about the hon. Member for Bath, does he agree that the hon. Gentleman deserves credit for being the first member of his party whom I have heard admitting the limits of his mystical 1p on income tax.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Conservative, Cotswold

The hon. Member for Bath is a decent person and I am sure that he always tries to portray his party's policies with the utmost clarity. I shall return to the new clause before you call me to order, Miss Widdecombe.

We must consider an agenda for young people. I say that with utmost seriousness. We saw at the last election one of the lowest turnouts since the war. We know from the figures that part of the reason for that low turnout was that young people of all political persuasions are simply turned off politics. If we could demonstrate in the House one or two measures such as the new clause to show that we are thinking carefully and hard about their needs and to improve the quality of their lives, we would be doing them and ourselves a great service. We must be very careful in a democracy when a whole section of our society is not participating in our democratic processes.

The Minister gave a costing of £180 million and my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight castigated me for wanting to start the scheme in London. It would be as well to get it up and running in London, but, as he said, then very quickly to see where else in the United Kingdom it would be appropriate to roll it out.

I am sorry that the Minister has not felt it wise to accept our new clauses. I hope that she will not forget about the matter. My hon. Friends and I will not forget about it and if we do not hear of some Government progress with those ideas, we shall find opportunities to keep prompting them.

The hour is fairly late and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the Chairman do report the Bill to the House.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Conservative, Cotswold

It would be remiss of me, on behalf of my hon. Friends in the official Opposition, if I did not thank you, Miss Widdecombe, for chairing this Committee firmly, but fairly and clearly. I also thank your co-Chairman, Mr. Stevenson, who was helpful with his rulings this morning on our points of order. I would also like to thank the Hansard writers, those in the Serjeant at Arms' Department and the police, who are often forgotten, for their hard work and the long hours that they spend in this place. I also thank the Ministers for the courteous—although it was not sympathetic—way in which they dealt with our requests, and their officials.

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar Minister of State (Department of Transport, Local Government and Regions) (Transport)

Further to that point of order, Miss Widdecombe. In the time available, I associate myself with the comments of the Opposition spokesman.

Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Liberal Democrat, Bath

Further to the point of order, Miss Widdecombe. Being, as the hon. Member for Cotswold said, a decent Member of Parliament, I too would like to be associated with his comments.

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald

I am grateful to the Committee for their kind comments. I echo their thanks to the police, the Hansard writers and others.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill to be reported, without amendment.

Committee rose at Seven o'clock.