With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:
No. 31, in clause 1, page 1, line 19, at end insert—
‘(2A) The Secretary of State may by regulations make provision for the definition of “eligible journey” to exclude services which are primarily for the purposes of tourism.’.
No. 32, in clause 1, page 1, line 19, at end insert—
‘(2A) The Secretary of State may by regulations make provision for the definition of “eligible journey” to exclude services which have limited stops or are not primarily local services.’.
No. 15, in clause 1, page 3, line 2, at end add—
‘(12) Two years after the commencement of this Act the Secretary of State shall conduct a review of the definition of an “eligible service” and shall lay before Parliament a report setting out his findings.’.
No. 35, in clause 8, page 7, line 6, at end add—
Thank you, Mr. Bayley. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. Like the Minister, I welcome this Bill. It extends provision and continues what the Government started 12 months ago, when they introduced free concessionary bus fares in localities throughout England and Wales.
Amendments Nos. 7, 31, 32 and 35 seek to broaden the definition of an eligible journey. In her opening remarks, the Minister alluded to the fact that the Government may, at some future time, extend the provision. However, we would like to see that written in the Bill so that we have a clear commitment over a period of time. Also, given the fact that the Bill applies only to England and Wales and that there are different arrangements in other nations of the UK, we would like to see some clarity. In particular, we want the provision extended to trains, trams, ferries and community transport.
I will use community transport to illustrate one of the faults in the current scheme. Eighteen months ago, a bus operator in my constituency decided to withdraw a service. The passenger transport authority decided in its wisdom to put a dial-a-ride community transport scheme on that route and not another subsidised bus. That has been a source of great upset to pensioners in Deeplish. Although they can use their concessionary bus pass on a bus, there is no bus in their locality and they have to pay 50p for the community transport scheme. In our view, we should extend the provision to that service. I know that the Minister will say that passenger transport authorities and local authorities have their own resources to make that provision now, but we would like that enshrined in the Bill along with a clear Government commitment to extend free travel to those modes of transport.
On Second Reading, some hon. Members asked why the Isle of Wight is going to get some of this money when it provides no buses. If the amendment is accepted by the Government, the ferry service that goes to the Isle of Wight will be eligible for the provision.
We also want to tighten the definition of what is and is not provided. For example, at the moment we think that open-top tourist buses could be eligible. However, as they do not fall within the normal definition of public transport, we do not think that they should be included in the Bill.
We also want to see some provision made with regard to what we mean by “bus”. Clearly, the ideas of limited stock or a fast sort of coach does not come within that provision. I hope that the Minister will accept that. She has said that the Government retain the power to introduce such proposals. We would like to see a clear commitment written into the Bill to enable that to happen.
Thank you, Mr. Bayley. It is an honour and privilege to serve under your chairmanship. As the Minister and the hon. Member for Rochdale have already said, this is a small but none the less important Bill. Like the Minister, I welcome the general cross-party consensus in support of the Bill, which was made clear on Second Reading. We are here to consider some of the nuances and, perhaps, one or two elements that can be tidied up.
The Liberal Democrat amendments have the superficial merit of exploring and tightening the definition of “eligible service”, but the problem is that they would involve a huge cost to the Exchequer of up to £300 million, considering some of the current estimates, and they have been tabled without any knowledge of demand, uptake, usage and cost. That is clearly one of the great advantages of the amendment tabled in my name and those of my hon. Friends. The Minister will have to agree that our amendment is reasonable and sensible—it would compel the Secretary of State to conduct a review of the modes of transport in the concessionary scheme two years after it commences. Given that the Minister has already said that flexibility is her watchword, I am sure that she will want to include that flexibility in the Bill.
Unlike the Liberal Democrats, we have chosen not to table amendments extending the scheme at this stage, because, as it has been made clear not only by the Minister on Second Reading but in Committee in the other place, the current projected costs are considerable. My Conservative colleagues and I want to make it clear at the earliest opportunity that we are not in the business of making unpublished spending commitments. The amendment would not allow the Minister or any of her colleagues to make that mischievous accusation against us, although, of course, we know that she would not dream of doing that. However, two years in, it will be far clearer what the costs of the scheme are, as it is currently defined, what the take-up rates are and whether an extension of the scheme might be funded and might increase the aim of aiding social inclusion.
It is clear that certain groups of disabled and elderly people would benefit from a wider application of eligible services. A great many elderly and disabled people live in rural locations in which the most effective method of providing a convenient eligible service will not be the bus—it will be provision of community transport, whether a minibus or taxi. The current scheme will allow access to concessionary fares only if the local transport authority commissions a bus service to those areas. In many cases, that will be economically unsound and environmentally irresponsible, yet those are exactly the elderly and disabled residents for whom this Bill was designed. There is a paradox, because on one hand the intention is to enable the elderly and disabled to have a better quality of life, to be socially included and to participate more fully in their communities, but, on the other hand, the funding will be allocated only to those who can have an eligible bus service, meaning that it will prevent such people from getting it.
For many elderly and disabled people who live in Sheffield, Nottingham and Manchester, for example, the best service will be not the eligible bus service, but the tram. Let us also consider those with handicaps and impairments, for whom door-to-door services would be not only medically advisable, but socially inclusive. That may also apply to those who access higher rates of disability living allowance and to autism sufferers, for instance.
Let us consider those who regard ferries as their everyday local transport. On Second Reading in the other place, much was made of journeys by ferry in Scotland. I want to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner), who forcefully argued that access to the benefits of this scheme for his residents would necessitate the ferry from the Isle of Wight to the mainland being included where it is absolutely necessary to access specialist medical help that is available only on the mainland. Of course, for Londoners in many cases the tube, not the bus, will be the local transport choice.
The Minister will retort that this scheme does not prevent local authorities from going further than the national scheme. She will also retort on cost. I welcome the fact that the Bill allows a continuing discretion for local authorities to offer travel concessions on other forms of transport as an enhancement of the statutory minimum. However, such local discretion will receive no national compensation, so other local services will have to be cut or local council tax will have to be increased to pay for a sensible local extension to the scheme.
Local authorities are currently under tight funding constraints and cannot be expected to absorb the costs of local discretionary extensions. Redefining eligible services to include community transport, trams, trains and ferries would enhance the access to transport and social inclusion for the elderly. That is one of the primary motives behind the Bill and a forceful argument for making it a Government responsibility.
Lord Davies of Oldham stated that it would cost an extra £300 million to redefine eligible services to include trains, underground, trams and ferries, which is a very large sum. The noble Lord split the cost into its constituent parts. He attributed £250 million to trains, £15 million to trams, £25 million to community transport, and nothing to ferries. I concur that £15 million for trams and £25 million for community transport are large incremental sums, but out of a total cost of £1 billion, which the Government say they are providing, an extra £40 million, after a proper review, consultation and consideration, might be viewed as a sensible use of public moneys.
None of the retorts that we will hear from the Minister in a minute militate against accepting the amendment for review. They would carry weight only if the amendment were to include in the Bill a wider definition of eligible services. On the other side of the coin, in two years’ time we may need to reconsider some of the services that are currently possibly eligible. For example, such services include securing free rides on open-top buses and short coach journeys from Heathrow to Victoria. Local authorities in the areas from which the journeys commence could face enormous financial burdens. It may well be that after a proper review we would concur that such services should be withdrawn from the definition of eligible service.
It is sensible to ensure that local authorities and the Government have the opportunity to put right any malfunctions of the concessionary scheme that become apparent after it has bedded down. It is sensible to allow the Government the opportunity to review the primary motivation of this Bill, which is currently being enacted by the tightly drawn definition. If the primary motivation of the Bill is not being served by the current definition of eligible services, then it is only right to redraw that definition. Therefore, amendment No. 15 puts in the Bill a requirement for reassessment after two years of operation. It is an entirely sensible and rational amendment, and I look forward to the Minister concurring with me.
First, may I also welcome you to the Chair this morning, Mr. Bayley? I am sure that we will have an excellent time in Committee, and hopefully we can deal with the amendments and clauses in a speedy fashion.
May I add my support to the amendment proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale in relation to the extension of the national concession to other modes of public transport? I want to mention two brief points. First, although free bus travel for the elderly and the disabled is very welcome, some parts of the country have introduced other modes of transport for sections of regular journeys. For example, part of the journey from New Addington to Croydon used to be on a bus, but that service has now been replaced by the Croydon Tramlink. If we do not have a free service for the elderly and disabled on that section of that route, how will those people access the free transport that they are entitled to? Secondly, the Mersey crossing forms part of journey from Birkenhead to Liverpool. Surely, there is a very strong case to suggest that those journeys should be included as part of the free scheme?
As for other modes of transport supporting and enhancing bus services, if we do not have free services on other modes of transport, bus services will then be in direct competition with existing services, such as Metrolink in Manchester. We should really be looking at integrating the services rather than setting them up in direct competition. Surely the best option is for people to use one or the other. By including the other forms of public transport within the concessionary scheme, there would be no need for the operators of bus services to try to take passengers from the other modes of transport.
My final point concerns accessibility. Unfortunately, some areas do not have a bus service. If we do not have an alternative form of transport for local people, those in the most remote areas are likely to miss out on the free transport. In areas with bus services, those services are not necessarily accessible by certain disabled people. By including community transport and dial-a-ride utilities that provide door-to-door services, we will be making services accessible to the most vulnerable people in such areas.
I understand that hon. Members have some concerns about the existing definition of eligible services for the purpose of concessionary travel. I have been hopeful that the information provided in my letter of 23 May to you, Mr. Bayley, which was copied to members of the Committee, has assisted in providing some clarity about the existing definition.
I made it clear on Second Reading that the Bill is about extending the geographical scope of the statutory minimum concession to guarantee that older and eligible disabled people can access important services outside their local authority boundary by bus for free. It is a major step forward and one of which I am extremely proud. It has also secured the commitment of unprecedented levels of funding from the Government. The Bill is not about extending the concession to other forms of public transport such as trains, trams, community transport and ferries at this time. However, I re-emphasise that we are not ruling out further improvements in the future. The Government certainly have an excellent track record on concessionary fares.
Amendment No. 7 proposes a regulation-making power to change the definition of “eligible journey” to allow the Secretary of State to extend the statutory concession to other modes. It would not actually extend the mandatory concession to other modes. Clause 8(1)(b) already allows the Secretary of State by order to amend part 2 of the Transport Act 2000 to extend the national concession to other modes of public passenger transport. The amendment is therefore without purpose. It would neither require anything to be done nor give us the power to do something that we cannot already do.
In addition, under the Transport Act 1985, local authorities have the discretion to offer a range of travel concessions on other forms of public transport and many do. The Bill preserves the flexibility for local authorities to enhance the statutory minimum to reflect local priorities and circumstances. From the amendments, I detect an obvious concern about the definition of eligible services. I hope that I can reassure members of the Committee about such matters, as I believe that such worry is somewhat misplaced.
Amendment No. 31 proposes that the definition of “eligible journey” excludes services that are primarily for the purposes of tourism. Amendment No. 32 would provide powers for the definition of eligible services to exclude services that have limited stops or that are not primarily local services. I assure the Committee that the amendments are unnecessary. The power already exists under regulations made under section 146 of the Transport Act 2000 to change the definition of eligible service in response to developing requirements. The current regulations are detailed and stipulate broadly that a service must be sufficiently accessible to the public, have stops that are 15 miles apart or less and have stops that are situated at locations where they are likely to be used by the public.
Amendment No. 15 proposes a review of the definition of eligible services after two years and a report to be laid before Parliament. I would accept the principle that policies should be properly evaluated. We will, of course, review how the national bus concession is working after implementation in April 2008, including the definition of “eligible service”. However, as I have already said, we already have the power to change the definition of “eligible service”, so I cannot see the need for such an amendment.
Amendment No. 35 would amend section 93 of the Transport Act 1985 to provide
“flexible alternative forms of concession, including for use on community transport”.
Local authorities already have powers to offer a range of concessions on all modes of public passenger transport, including travel tokens and some community transport, and many have already decided to offer those. The Government have no plans at present to extend the statutory minimum concession to other forms of public transport or community transport or to include travel tokens. Any decision to extend the national statutory entitlement would have to be fully funded.
As I explained on Second Reading, and as Lord Davies of Oldham explained in another place, it is difficult to estimate how much it might cost to extend the scheme to other modes of transport, but we are talking about significant sums. As has been mentioned in various debates, early estimates from the Department suggest that extending the concession to rail alone would cost an extra £250 million per year, with another £15 million a year to extend it to trams and a further £25 million a year to extend it to community transport. Those costs could be a lot higher, depending on take-up. We are not currently in a position to commit further funding to concessionary travel. We need carefully to consider our spending priorities not only in this area, but overall, and I urge Opposition Members to do the same. It is about not only the availability of further resources to fund the scheme, but making the right decision. That involves fully considering the potential impacts in consultation with those involved to avoid any unintended consequences.
On community transport, for example, although there are arguments for extending concessions to dial-a-ride and other flexible services, many local authorities already do that. However, making it a mandatory requirement is a significant step and would require consideration of a number of issues. I urge Opposition Members to consider whether the sector could meet the extra demand that would be generated, what the impact would be on local bus services, particularly in rural areas, and what extra burdens—particularly administrative ones—would be placed on the voluntary sector.
As I have explained, the Government have already delivered significant improvements to the statutory minimum scheme in stages. In 2000, they introduced the first statutory minimum concession for older and disabled people—half-price, off-peak travel within local authority areas. We are now discussing the introduction of free off-peak bus travel anywhere in England from April 2008. That means that the Government will be spending around £1 billion a year on concessionary travel to improve the mobility and well-being of older and disabled people. We would not even have the luxury of talking about further extensions without the steps that the Government have already taken.
As I have indicated, older and disabled people currently qualify for a third off most rail journeys, as the Department for Transport requires train operators to participate in the senior and disabled person railcard schemes. In addition, there is a half-price coach travel scheme. Until the full impact of the introduction of the new national bus concession has been evaluated for effectiveness and cost it would be premature to extend the scheme further. With that in mind, I hope that the hon. Member for Rochdale feels able to withdraw his amendment.
‘(2A) If a disabled person is unable to access mainstream public transport as a result of the person’s impairment the travel concession authority in England shall mark that clearly on the permit.
(2B) Where a person whose current statutory travel concession permit is marked in accordance with subsection (2A) the person shall be entitled to a waiver of the fare for a journey when using a dial a ride vehicle, community transport service, Hackney carriage vehicle or other door to door transport.
(2C) The Secretary of State shall issue guidance to travel concession authorities in England to which they shall have regard in determining for the purposes of subsection (2A) whether a disabled person needs to travel by door to door transport.
(2D) Before issuing guidance under subsection (2C), the Secretary of State shall consult—
(a) the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee;
(b) associations representative of travel concession authorities; and
(c) such other persons as the Secretary of State thinks fit.’.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:
No. 8, in clause 1, page 2, line 11, at end insert—
‘(4A) If a disabled person requires the assistance of a companion to travel on journeys on public transport services, the travel concession authority in England other than a London authority must mark that clearly on the permit.
(4B) Where a person whose current statutory travel concession permit is marked in accordance with subsection (4A) is entitled under this section to a waiver of the fare for a journey, one companion travelling on the journey with the person (and nominated by the person as the person’s companion for that journey) is also entitled to a waiver of the fare for the journey.
(4C) The Secretary of State shall issue guidance to travel concession authorities in England to which they must have regard in determining for subsection (4A) whether a disabled person needs a companion in order to travel.’.
No. 10, in clause 1, page 2, line 11, at end insert—
‘(4A) For the purposes of this section a person whose ability to travel is impaired by a mental disorder within the meaning of section 1 of the Mental Health Act 1983 shall be considered to be a disabled person.’.
No. 9, in clause 1, page 2, line 22, leave out ‘subsection (6)’ and insert ‘subsections (4C) and (6).’.
No. 12, in clause 4, page 4, line 11, at end insert—
‘(ba) after sub-paragraph (ix) insert—
“(x) whose ability to travel is impaired by a mental disorder within the meaning of section 1 of the Mental Health Act 1983 shall be considered to be a disabled person.”’.
No. 29, in clause 6, page 5, line 41, at end insert—
‘(8C) If a disabled person is unable to access mainstream public transport as a result of their impairment the London travel concession authority shall mark that clearly on the permit.
(8D) Where a person whose current statutory travel concession permit is marked in accordance with subsection (8C) they shall be entitled to a waiver of the fare for a journey when using a dial a ride vehicle, community transport service, Hackney carriage vehicle or other door to door transport.
(8E) The Secretary of State shall issue guidance to travel concession authorities in London to which they shall have regard in determining for the purposes of subsection (8C) whether a disabled person needs to travel by door to door transport.
(8F) Before issuing guidance under subsection (8E) the Secretary of State shall consult—
(a) the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee;
(b) associations representative of travel concession authorities; and
(c) such other persons as the Secretary of State thinks fit.’.
No. 27, in clause 7, page 6, line 15, at end insert —
‘(3A) After subsection (5) insert—
“(5A) If a disabled person requires the assistance of a companion to travel on journeys on public transport services, the London travel concession authority must mark that clearly on the permit.
(5B) Where a person whose current statutory travel concession permit is marked in accordance with subsection (5A) is entitled under this section to a waiver of the fare for a journey, one companion travelling on the journey with the person (and nominated by the person as the person’s companion for that journey) is also entitled to a waiver of the fare for the journey.
(5C) The Secretary of State shall issue guidance to travel concession authorities in London to which they must have regard in determining for the purposes of subsection (5A) whether a disabled person needs a companion in order to travel.
(5D) Before issuing guidance under subsection (5C) the Secretary of State shall consult—
(a) the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee;
(b) associations representative of travel concession authorities; and
(c) such other persons as the Secretary of State thinks fit.”.’.
The previous amendments were probing amendments, but, in my view and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington, these go to the heart of what is missing from the Bill. We would like the Government to implement various provisions in the amendments, particularly those relating to access for disabled people.
Amendment No. 28 would ensure that someone’s concession permit is clearly marked with the fact that they are disabled. It would also enable a person to go with them if they require a companion to accompany them. That is vital. We know that many disabled people feel anxious when using public transport. Having a companion travelling with them for free would be a valid, welcome concession for disabled people. We are not talking about huge sums. Many disabled people are not able to use a bus. This matter can be properly discussed with the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee. Where there is a need for disabled people to go door to door, use of a dial-a-ride scheme is required. Extending the scheme to include those people would be valuable and useful.
The Bill does not allow someone who is mentally ill to be recognised as disabled. That is a serious omission. Under amendment No. 10, anyone classed as suffering from a mental disorder within the meaning of section 1 of the Mental Health Act 1983 would be considered as a disabled person. We are not talking about huge numbers of people or a huge extra cost involved in introducing the Bill. Nevertheless, many mentally ill people feel quite aggrieved, because they have a disability that is recognised by the medical profession, yet we are not according them the same right—because it is not a physical disability—that we are according other disabled people.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. The Minister will be able to give us the up-to-date cost, but I understand, from the debate in the other place, that we are talking about £10 million out of a total budget of £1 billion. In the overall scheme of things, that is not an impossible sum to be met within the contingencies that I am sure the Minister has set aside. That could and should be done and it would be appreciated greatly by mentally ill people.
The amendments are important and deal with a serious omission and we would like to have a vote on the matter.
Like the hon. Member for Rochdale, I am concerned about the definition of a disabled person, particularly with regard to people with mental illness. The current definitions are not adequate for the Bill. Let us consider the amendments that were tabled in the other place. When the definition of disablement was being more tightly drawn, the amendment stated in relation to mental health that it
“(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...otherwise than on the grounds of persistent misuse of drugs or alcohol.”
That would have had the benefit of clarifying and putting into the Bill those eligible and, in particular, the difficult group of eligible people who suffer from mental health issues.
It is clear that an individual’s chance of recovery and reintegration into society would be aided by access to community health teams, mental health drop-in centres, therapy and counselling. Many such services rely on public transport and therefore access to them would be aided by concessionary travel. Eligibility for such concessionary fares could be a major contributor to mental illness recovery. Most of those who will qualify for concessionary travel and have mental health issues will do so owing to part 3 of the Road Traffic Act 1988. That Act said that there were five categories of people who should and would be refused licences were they to apply. The second category is severe mental disorder and, under that category, a number of people with mental health problems will qualify for concessionary travel, but not all.
Many people with mental health issues still hold a driving licence, even through fluctuating mental illness. Although that illness may make driving impossible at times, they will still hold a licence, but they should be entitled to concessionary travel. It is important that the definition of an eligible person is more exactly specified than it is under the Transport Act 2000. The Minister might sensibly agree to review what extra definition could be considered, particularly with regard to mental illness. I look forward to her response. I hope that she will reflect compassionately and carefully on those with mental health issues. If the Committee does not consider that it has received an adequate response, I am sure that it will want to revisit the matter.
The thrust of the Bill on Second Reading and today concerns the benefit of social inclusion. Clearly, the position of carers is an oversight. Many elderly and disabled people will only be able to use the provisions of the Bill and access public transport if their carer can do so. As it happens, many hon. Members will be taking part in activities next week, it being carers week. It will highlight the fabulous work of carers. I should welcome the Minister making positive remarks about what she might do. She has already accepted the principle of a review of eligible services. Perhaps she will now accept the principle of extending concessionary travel to carers, given their invaluable work that improves the quality of life for the elderly and disabled. I look forward to her responding positively to my comments.
I am grateful to members of the Committee for raising what I believe to be important issues. I am well aware that the intentions behind the amendments are extremely sound but, as I have explained, the Bill is about extending the geographical scope of concessionary bus travel, not extending the concession to other groups or other modes, as is envisaged by the proposals.
The Bill allows response to changing circumstances. It is premature to consider extensions when the Government are still introducing the national bus travel concession. The Transport Act 1985 provides local authorities with considerable flexibility to offer more than the statutory concession. There are numerous examples of councils that offer concessions to additional groups, such as companions of disabled people. Many councils also offer concessions to other modes, such as taxis or community transport.
The Bill does not stop local authorities continuing to use their discretionary powers to provide enhancements to the proposed national minimum, always taking account of their local circumstances.
That will become quite clear when we talk about the cards later in the Bill. It is in the interests of the local authorities to make it clear, as they always do, that it is they who are enhancing the national scheme. I am not aware of any local authority that hides its light under a bushel. Although we are straying now, I should say that the design of the pass allows for that issue to be made clear.
Hon. Members will know that the Government have sought to provide local authorities with more freedom and flexibility to choose how they use their resources so that they can best reflect local priorities. That approach is both welcomed and supported by local government. I hope that all hon. Members would agree that the Government have done a great deal to improve the well-being of older and disabled people who are among the most vulnerable in our society. I hope that the Committee will forgive me for reinforcing the point that from April 2008 the Government will be providing around £1 billion of funding each year for concessionary travel in England. It is a major public spending commitment of which we are rightly proud. The extension from the local to the national entitlement alone involves substantial new money of up to £250 million.
The costs associated with the amendments are significant. The money, of course, will have to come from other areas. When Opposition Members seek spending commitments, I urge them to consider the impact of that.
I am just about to come on to that, but I emphasise to the hon. Gentleman that it is not just a matter of cost. It is also about practicality, delivery and capacity, so I would put it in that context.
On Report in another place, Lord Davies of Oldham provided the Department’s initial estimates of the annual cost of extending the concession to companions of disabled people and to people with mental disorder, as well as providing free travel on community transport. Amendments Nos. 28 and 29 would provide free travel on door-to-door transport. The cost of community transport alone was estimated as at least £25 million a year.
Amendments Nos. 8, 9 and 27 would provide free travel for companions of disabled people, at an extra cost of some £10 million a year. Amendments Nos. 10 and 12 would extend the national concession to people with a mental impairment, at an extra cost of some £50 million a year.
Those costs are purely indicative and could be much higher depending on the eligibility definitions used, take-up, the extra concessionary travel generated, the switch from other modes, travel behaviour and the amount of additional capacity required. The existence of all those inter-related factors makes estimates of the cost very difficult. We are not ruling out extensions in the future, Mr. Bayley, although you will understand why I am not in a position to make commitments now.
As I said to the hon. Member for Shipley, our concerns are not confined to resources. The amendments also raise important practical and administrative points. On the issue of free travel for companions, for example, there would need to be a robust and fair system for assessing eligibility against whether a disabled person required the assistance of a companion to travel on journeys on public transport services. There could also be issues around fraud. Who would qualify as an accompanying companion? Would it be a nominated person as specified on the pass, or a considerate fellow passenger?
Providing free travel on door-to-door transport for those people who cannot access mainstream bus services, as suggested in amendments Nos. 28 and 29, again throws up a number of difficult and complex practical issues that I urge the Committee to consider seriously. For example, how would this ability to access be defined and assessed? Who would do the assessing and what would the arrangements be for appealing against such determinations? Could the community transport sector meet the extra demand generated from such a change? How would that largely voluntary sector regard the extra administrative burdens placed on it? What would be the impact on existing rural bus services?
Unless we have answers to those questions, via consultation with stakeholders and the relevant experts—in other words, those who are directly affected and concerned—the Government will not be able to accept the amendments. To do so would risk unintended consequences and higher costs to the taxpayer.
As I have said, were it not for the Government’s policy and our commitment of £1 billion a year, we would not even have the luxury of discussing extensions. The Bill is about providing for some 11 million people up and down the country. I hope that the hon. Gentleman welcomes that and the fact that the Bill also allows the flexibility for local arrangements to be made to serve local communities best. I would have thought that that, too, was extremely welcome.
On the definition of disability, I welcome efforts to raise awareness of transport issues for people suffering from mental health difficulties. We are well aware of this issue, and last month officials met Mind to discuss it. Mind has indicated that it welcomes our constructive dialogue approach, which it will continue. On that basis, we are considering whether it is necessary to update the guidance to local authorities on assessing eligibility.
The hon. Member for Rochdale suggested that people with mental health difficulties could not access concessionary travel, but that is not the case. Under the Transport Act 2000 and the Greater London Authority Act 1999 there is an inclusion of those with learning disabilities, those with arrested development of the mind and those with mental health problems who would be refused a driving licence for that reason, so it is not true to say that all those with mental health difficulties are excluded.
I recognise that all the amendments are doubtless born of good intentions, but I hope that hon. Members, having heard about what provision is already available and the implications of the amendments, no matter how well meaning they are, will agree that the Government’s approach is the right one. Our key objective for the present must be successfully to introduce the national scheme from April 2008. I therefore urge hon. Members not to press the amendments to a Division.
I have heard what the Minister has said, but unfortunately I cannot agree to withdraw the amendment. We are discussing a Bill on national concessionary bus fares, and although she may talk about things being geographical, it is important to include provision to enhance the Bill to ensure that people who would otherwise not benefit from it are able to do so. Extending the provision and broadening the definition of mental impairment would considerably benefit more people.
First, I have referred to those people covered under section 1 of the Mental Health Act 1983; it is broader than what we are currently providing for. Secondly, we need to provide for people who are not able to access a bus or who need a companion. The ability for someone to take a companion with them, where necessary, is an important concession, which we would like to be provided.
On companions, when two people travel on a bus and one of them gets a free pass, they both, in effect, travel at half price. That could be regarded as a concession. I intervened to ask about the disability discrimination legislation, which excludes some people with disabilities, such as those with short-term disabilities, from the definition of disabled. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that we should go back and reconsider those definitions? That would be well outside the scope of the Bill.
I refer the hon. Gentleman to amendment No. 28. Proposed new subsection (2A) makes it clear that before the guidance is issued, the Secretary of State would consult with the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee and other persons as he sees fit. I believe that that would enable his suggestions to be implemented. I am not suggesting that everything is decided now, but it is important that before the Bill is fully operational—
For the benefit of the Committee, I bring the hon. Gentleman back to his reference to section 1 of the Mental Health Act 1983. Perhaps he will address the point that the amendment radically broadens eligibility by removing the condition that mental illness is severe. In addition, perhaps he will advise the Committee how his amendment would be affected by the Mental Health Bill, which is currently before the House and which will amend the 1983 Act.
I understand what the Minister is saying. At the moment, however, the 1983 Act governs whether someone is classed as mentally ill. The amendment does broaden and extend the definition, which is what we would like to happen. I do not believe that the provision should apply only to someone who is classed as severely mentally ill, as she is suggesting. We should ensure that as many people as possible can use the concession.
In supporting the hon. Gentleman’s initial thrust, I was looking to the Minister to reassure us about the definition of mental health. Did the hon. Gentleman not take some reassurance, as I did, from the fact that there is an ongoing conversation with Mind, and particularly from the Minister’s stated willingness to come back for review at a sensible time? If Mind, the clear specialist in the field, is prepared to engage in that conversation, I take considerable confidence from that.
I understand what the hon. Gentleman says, and I welcome the Minister’s assurances that there are ongoing discussions. I hope that, even if the amendment is not accepted, she will come forward in the future with some improved guidance. Nevertheless, I feel that the amendments would make effective changes now.
I hope that there are no spies from the Department for Work and Pensions listening to the debate, because many people receive disability living allowance, which might contain a mobility component. That money helps many disabled people with the cost of transport. If we draw too much attention to the issue, someone might make a point somewhere else that there would be a good argument for reducing DLA or leaving it at its current level, rather than increasing it. Does the hon. Gentleman therefore agree with me that it is probably better to drop the issue, so as not to draw it to the attention of the DWP and risk taking money out of disabled people’s pockets?
No, I do not agree with that. We are here to deal with the Concessionary Bus Travel Bill and to consider how that might operate for the people affected. These small amendments would broaden the scope of the legislation, and they should be accepted.
‘(4A) The Secretary of State may by regulations make provision for persons aged 17 years and under and those in full time education to be entitled to the concession specified in subsection (1).’.
The amendment would extend the provisions in clause 1 to people aged 17 years or under, or those in full-time education. Before anyone rushes to say that I am making yet another spending commitment, I point out that it would simply give permission for the Secretary of State to make regulation. It would not introduce such measures with immediate effect. We want proper provision made so that at some future date, as resources allow, the Bill can be extended to young people and those in full-time education. I hope that the Minister will recognise that the amendment would not bring about anything that was a major revolution. We just want to ensure that young people and those in full-time education are not forgotten in respect of concessionary bus fares.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman said about regulation. However, the amendment would be a major extension of the Bill. We tabled earlier amendments to test eligible services and the definition of disability, but this amendment would go way beyond the original thrust of the Bill. By giving the reserve power to extend, we would wander into the area of at least doubling the cost of the Bill’s provisions. There is already flexibility at local level, as we have seen in London, for concessions to be given to those in full-time education or those under 16. Even by giving the Secretary of State the power to change matters by regulation later, we would extend the principle of the Bill well beyond what we discussed earlier and, secondly, the cost implications would require a substantive Bill in itself. I am troubled by the amendment.
Amendment No. 11 provides that the Secretary of State may by order extend the national concession to people aged 17 years and under, and those in full-time education. As I said earlier, the Transport Act 1985 provides local authorities with the discretion to offer more than the statutory concession to their residents. Indeed, many authorities already go further than the statutory minimum and there is free travel for young people in a number of areas. There is no reason why the costs of any discretionary enhancements should affect the provision of statutory entitlement. The funding is separate. Central Government are providing funding for the national concession, whereas local extensions are to be decided and funded locally, in line with an authority’s overall financial priorities. However, in terms of national extensions to the concession, hon. Members will be pleased to hear that I am fully behind the principle of flexibility in the Bill, giving the Secretary of State the power to respond to changing circumstances in future. That provision runs through the Bill and it already allows the Secretary of State to make the extensions that hon. Members opposing the amendment envisage.
Clause 8(1)(a) allows the Secretary of State, by order, to amend the Transport Act 2000 and the Greater London Authority Act 1999 to extend the national concession to other groups of people. The particular groups who can be added are set out in the Transport Act 1985. Those are the same groups to whom local authorities can choose to offer additional concessions using their existing discretionary powers. Maintaining a consistent set of clearly defined groups of people helps to avoid confusion about eligibility. I can confirm that the groups set out in the 1985 Act currently include people aged 16 or under and people aged 17 or 18 who are in full time education. In addition, the Secretary of State may, by order, amend the 1985 Act in future to include further groups of people, such as students.
As I have said, I am in favour of a flexible legislative framework, but it would nevertheless be prudent—if I might borrow the word—to touch on costs. The cost of making young people aged 5 to 18 eligible for the national concession has been conservatively estimated at the considerable sum of £500 million plus a year. As with other extensions, the actual cost could be much higher than the estimate, depending on factors such as take-up, travel behaviour and the amount of additional capacity required.
Although the hon. Member for Rochdale said that his amendment was not seeking such provision, that is perhaps not the case. One should consider spending commitments. It may be appropriate for Opposition Members to indicate whether they would be prepared to stand by their commitments.
Does my hon. Friend the Minister detect, as I do, a trend among the Liberal amendments not only to make free bus travel available to absolutely everybody—the only group that they would currently exclude is the one that is statistically least likely to use buses—but to make it compulsory?
My hon. Friend, as always, puts it so eloquently. I could not improve on his detection skills.
We are not ruling out extensions in future, although as I am sure hon. Members will understand that I am not in a position to make unfunded and difficult-to-deliver commitments now. I hope that hon. Members will recognise that existing legislation already goes further than their amendment envisages. On that basis, I hope that the hon. Member for Rochdale feels able to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
I welcome the Minister’s commitment that there is scope within the Bill for our suggestions. She may recall that, when the local scheme was introduced, the funding that went to the local authorities did not always match the need. One major change in Tyne and Wear was the doubling of the cost of travel for students. I hope that, when this scheme is considered, further cuts are not made elsewhere to fund the national scheme because the Government have not got the funding right. I hope that the situation for young people and students is not made worse as a consequence of the power not being used. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 18, in clause 1, page 3, line 2, at end add—
‘(12) The Secretary of State shall by regulations specify arrangements for the purposes of fraud prevention.
(13) Regulations under subsection (12) may include—
(a) provisions for a national database of permits;
(b) requirements for travel concession authorities to provide information about permits and permit holders; and
(c) requirements for travel concession authorities and operators to take such steps as are practicable to prevent the use of permits which are not valid.’.
No. 33, in schedule 1, page 13, line 7, at end insert—
‘(1B) The Secretary of State shall make such payments to London authorities as he considers appropriate to ensure that permits in London meet the national standard and can continue to be validated on vehicles operating on the London Bus Network.’.
The amendment is fairly simple and helps to clarify which standard should be used as and when
“a permit issued pursuant to subsection (4)” is issued in the form of a smartcard. The Minister has already accepted that as and when it is technically possible—perhaps at the start of operation—the permit issued for travel will be a smartcard. Like most Committee members, we are grateful to her for circulating the consultation documents about the shape and the look of the permit last week.
The amendment has a number of advantages. In the Bill as it currently stands, there is some ambiguity in the specification of the proposed national smartcards. The Bill does not specify the form that the smartcard should take. That would not be a problem were it not for the fact that a national standard in smartcard technology already exists and is known as the ITSO standard. Detailed specifications were published in 2004 under Crown copyright.
In my view, the lack of rigid specification theoretically allows the Government to deviate from the ITSO standard, which would be a senseless waste of the significant work already completed in introducing the scheme. As the Minister has already said, local authorities will continue to have input into the development of the card scheme.
I know that the Government support the implementation of smartcards of this specification and that they have been working to develop the scheme. Therefore, formalising that intention is important to provide clarity to the local authorities whose duty it will be to deliver that scheme on the ground. That is the import of amendment No. 17.
Amendment No. 18 goes to the heart of the concern of many organisations, local authorities and transport authorities that not enough regard has been given to fraud and fraud prevention. Permits that contain photographs and security devices are important, and a first step. They will prevent the casual, opportunist fraudster, but they will do little to deter organised and illegal use.
Concessions are already in use in London. London authorities have worked hard to reduce and to prevent fraudulent use. For example, Oyster card technology allows a card that is reported lost or stolen to be switched off immediately. The amendment aims to enable travel concession authorities across the country to prevent fraud.
The Minister would be required to specify that a national database of cards be set up and maintained. The ITSO technology would then allow lost or stolen cards to be disabled. Unless that happens, there is no way of knowing whether the cards that are being used are stolen or fakes. Given the extension of the scheme, the potential for fraudulent use beyond the locality of a principal or sole residence is massively increased. The only way to prevent such fraudulent usage is the maintenance of a national database and a current hot list of lost and stolen cards.
For the national list to be effective, each travel concession area must provide information, which would be protected by the Data Protection Act 1998 and only used on a need-to-know and access basis. It therefore follows that each travel concession area would be required to maintain and supply a list of basic details. The cost of that would be minimal, if anything, as all the information will be necessary and will have to be offered as proof of eligibility for the concessionary travel permit.
London councils have raised a particular concern with regard to fraud. The freedom pass is used in conjunction with a separate photo identity card. Most of those are issued at post offices, which is popular and convenient for the elderly. However, the new national standard permit will contain an embossed photograph, which means that the post office will no longer be able to issue it. Application forms will have to be sent away. Not only will that increase costs, but it will increase the chance of fraudulent use and application. Amendment No. 18 would require the Minister to consider fraudulent applications and use, and to specify arrangements for prevention by travel concession authorities. The cost indications are minimal, yet the protection offered to the public and the concession authorities would be substantial.
I support the amendments tabled by the hon. Gentleman, particularly amendments Nos. 17 and 18. I want to speak about amendment No. 33, which is tabled in my name. Local authorities and passenger transport authorities operate a variety of schemes, and if we have a national scheme it is important that we have a common technology and a common modus operandi. Specifying the ITSO standard in the Bill is, in our view, an important step in ensuring that we have a genuinely national scheme.
Amendment No. 18 deals with fraud prevention. Like the hon. Gentleman, I believe that the Government’s proposal of an embossed photograph will not be convenient for elderly people. Although it is not ITSO compliant, the scheme as it operates in London at the moment is an excellent example of a scheme that is convenient to use but has a database that enables fraud to be reduced. The fact that the photo ID can be obtained at a post office is convenient for many people. The scheme that the Government propose would not enable that to happen, as the application would have to be sent away and people would have to wait. The Oyster card can be obtained at a variety of local outlets and because the database is a national one, if the Oyster card is stolen, it can be switched off and cannot be used.
In moving forward, we need some common agreed standards. There needs to be a national database to ensure that cards issued in one area cannot be used elsewhere if they are stolen. An ITSO standard, a national database and ensuring that the relevant authorities work together will allow us to ensure that that happens.
My amendment deals in particular with the effect in London. Although the Government have agreed that people can continue to use their existing cards in London until 2010, that is merely moving the problem forward. The machines that are used by Transport for London are not ITSO compliant. They will all have to be replaced and a new system will have to be put in place. Clearly, there is an additional cost in that. Amendment No. 33 would make the Government sit down with Transport for London and the London boroughs to agree a way forward to ensure that the London scheme, which is better than that which operates elsewhere in the country, is ITSO compliant and that the additional costs are not all borne by Transport for London or the London boroughs. That is important, and we need to ensure that the excellent scheme that operates in London continues. However, there is a way forward that is agreed by discussion, so I hope that the Minister will support the amendment.
This group of amendments is linked to the issuing of passes. It deals with three specific issues: requiring that all passes are ITSO smartcards; specifying arrangements for fraud prevention, and ensuring adequate funding for London to issue passes. I will deal with each amendment in turn to ensure that I address fully the separate but interrelated issues that they raise.
First, amendment No. 17 recommends that we should make the pass an ITSO-compliant smartcard. This is not the first time that such an amendment has been debated. Speaking on behalf of the Government, Lord Davies addressed the point on several occasions in the other place. It is difficult to see how we can state more clearly the fact that although we absolutely agree with the intention of the amendment, which is to encourage the increase of smart ticketing, we fundamentally disagree that putting an obligation in the Bill is the practical or sensible way to achieve what we all agree would be a desired outcome.
I have stated many times our commitment to smart ticketing and to the ITSO specification, which we see as vital to ensuring the interoperability of smartcards throughout the country. We recently published a consultation document, to which the hon. Member for Wimbledon referred and which Committee members were in receipt of last week, that clearly sets out that our preferred option for the specification of passes is for them to be ITSO-compliant smartcards. However, it is wholly unnecessary to have such a requirement in the Bill. Proposed new section 145A(5) of the Transport Act 2000 provides for the specification of the permit in regulations. As I have already indicated, our preferred option is to use that power to specify that passes will be ITSO-compliant smartcards.
Primary legislation is an inappropriate place to address such technical issues. Regulations are the appropriate place to deal with such matters, and that is where we intend to deal with them. There are still practical and technical matters that need to be fully considered before we can specify the necessary requirements. Furthermore, we must consider the implications of specifying the requirements of the passes in primary legislation. Even the most minor of changes, such as the change of the name ITSO, would require amendments to primary legislation. I am sure that that cannot be the intention of the hon. Member for Wimbledon.
Amendment No. 18 proposes that the Secretary of State be required to specify in regulations arrangements for fraud prevention. Again, I cannot agree with that suggestion. Fraud prevention is, without any doubt, an important part of a workable scheme. We also believe that smart ticketing will do much to prevent fraud, as we have already seen in those areas where it has been implemented. Issuing smartcards already requires the creation of a database containing details of cards that have been issued to concessionaires. Smart ticketing brings with it the ability to deactivate cards reported as lost or stolen. A lot of technical work is being undertaken to lay the foundations for interoperable smart ticketing in England, and indeed the UK generally. An effective method of hot-listing lost and stolen cards is an important part of that work.
Since the national concession will continue to be administered at a local level from April 2008, the most effective solution to fraud lies in ensuring effective communication at a local level, rather than introducing another national level of bureaucracy, which will further complicate matters. The issue of how to combat fraud effectively is one that we visited many times during the development of our proposals. The concessionary fares working group and the operations and technology sub-group, both of which contain representatives of travel concession authorities and operators, have debated at considerable length the most effective fraud prevention measures, including in areas that will not have smart ticketing from April 2008. The matter is also covered in our consultation document.
Travel concession authorities and operators clearly share our strong motivation to minimise fraud, since fraudulent travel has serious financial implications for both parties, as well as for the Government. We therefore do not believe that it is necessary or desirable to specify fraud reduction arrangements in regulations; rather, practical, workable solutions should be developed by those who are best placed to do so.
Amendment No. 33 appears to be intended to ensure that London authorities receive the funding necessary to issue cards to the national specification, and to ensure that they can be used as smartcards on London buses. Although the amendment as drafted relates to the provisions dealing with the reserve free travel scheme, I assume that it is intended to apply generally, and not just in those circumstances. Again, I understand the motivation for such an amendment, but can assure hon. Members that it is entirely unnecessary. The Secretary of State already has the power, and has stated his intention, to make appropriate payments to ensure that passes in London—indeed, in all of England—meet the national standard.
The Government have continually stated their commitment to funding new burdens that are imposed on local authorities—I am happy to restate that commitment. We recognise that the issuing of passes to a national standard represents a new burden and have repeatedly stated that it is our intention to pay a grant to cover all reasonable new cost burdens associated with the issuing of passes. The power to pay such a grant exists under section 31 of the Local Government Act 2003. As I have said, and as is set out in the recent consultation paper that is available to all Committee members, we recognise the unique situation of London and have taken account of that in our planning.
It is neither cost-effective nor practical to require London to issue ITSO-compliant smartcards forApril 2008. That is why we are proposing that existing freedom passes will be re-stickered with the national logo for April 2008, so that bus drivers throughout England will recognise a Londoner’s entitlement to concessionary bus travel.
Our proposals state that concessionary travel passes in London must meet the national standards fromApril 2010. However, we recognise that issuing cards to the national standard in 2010 will represent a new burden to London and we have stated that we fully intend to pay a grant to cover it. We also fully realise the need for a migration strategy for London. The intention of specifying that passes must be ITSO-compliant smartcards is to lay the foundations for interoperable smart ticketing for all of England and, ultimately, the UK. London is, of course, a vital part of that.
To reassure hon. Members, in May 2006, the Mayor of London and the Secretary of State for Transport agreed that the Oyster network would be made interoperable with ITSO smartcards. A technical solution to achieve that is under development. We are involved in a continuing dialogue with London councils and the Local Government Association to determine the nature of the new burdens that will be borne by London and the most appropriate basis on which to pay the grant. The way in which the amendment is drafted suggests that the Secretary of State would make such payments only under the reserve free travel scheme. I assure the Committee that we intend to pay a grant to cover London’s new burdens whether or not the free travel scheme is in operation.
In summary, I trust that I have demonstrated clearly that the amendments, despite being tabled with the best of intentions, would not achieve their aims of promoting the spread of smart ticketing or of ensuring that a workable system is in place for April 2008. On that basis, I hope that hon. Members will not press the amendments to a Division.
I am grateful for the Minister’s reassurance, particularly on amendment No. 18 and the discussions that are taking place about fraud prevention. On amendment No. 17, Ministers often say that regulations are the most appropriate method of dealing with things. Far too often, Ministers do not want to include things in Bills, but I accept her contention that were the amendment to be accepted, it might require primary legislation if the name of ITSO were changed. Although, if I am lucky, I may bring it back on Report, on that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
I do not propose to detain the Committee for long, particularly as we have had a chance to debate in detail a number of aspects of the clause. The substance of the clause provides for any qualifying England-resident pass-holder to receive concessionary travel on an eligible journey on an eligible service. We have gone into some depth about eligibility and who would qualify.
However, subsection (8) allows the Secretary of State to issue guidance about what constitutes sole or principal residence, and it is intended to provide a consistent approach. The guidance will be issued should the Secretary of State so desire. Surely the Secretary of State should issue the guidance before the enactment of the Bill if the consistency that is explained in the explanatory notes is to be achieved. For instance, if an elderly person has two residences in a town and a coastal resort, which is the principal residence? Under previous council tax regulations, it might have been clearer, but will it be the capital gains tax principal residence, where they spend most time, or where they have their driving licence or passport registered? All may be different.
Subsection (4) includes the phrase,
“appears to the authority...whose sole or principal residence is in the authority’s area”,
which, again, is ambiguous and open to interpretation. Will the Minister clarify the Secretary of State’s intentions? If she cannot reassure us today, perhaps we can return to the issue on Report.
I am glad to speak to this clause stand part debate. Under section 145 of the Transport Act 2000, an eligible person is restricted to free off-peak local bus travel within their local authority area. The clause changes the provisions affecting England and enables eligible England residents on production of a travel concession permit to travel free on off-peak local bus services on journeys beginning anywhere in England other than on the London bus network. The national concession is secured on journeys beginning on the London bus network under changes that clause 6 makes to the Greater London Authority Act 1999.
As now, people aged 60 and over and disabled people will be eligible. The definition of travel concession permit now includes passes issued to eligible London residents, so that for the first time Londoners will be able to benefit from the concession outside London. I am sure that hon. Members who represent constituencies outside London will look forward to welcoming Londoners who use their bus travel passes.
The definition of “eligible journey” in new section 145A(2) of the 2000 Act will mean that operators of eligible services within London but not beginning on the London bus network—that is, eligible London permit services—must for the first time offer the concession. Currently, operators of those services are not required to offer any concession, although some may do so voluntarily.
Hon. Members will be aware that a travel concession authority must issue permits to elderly and disabled people “residing” in its area, which is a point that the hon. Member for Wimbledon raised. New section 145A(4) secures the provision that a travel concession authority outside London must issue permits to elderly and disabled people whose “sole or principal residence” is in its area. I can confirm to him that following consultation with local authorities, we fully intend to offer guidance to assist local authorities in that regard.
The change is made to promote a more consistent approach to pass issuing throughout the country. New section 145A(5) secures a power for the Secretary of State to make regulations about what a permit issued outside London will look like. The provision is again to ensure that the appearance of cards throughout the country can be standardised in an agreed form that bus drivers easily recognise.
Regulations can also be used to require the introduction of smartcards. The provision mirrors a power in relation to passes issued to London residents under the Greater London Authority Act 1999. The provisions of section 145 of the Transport Act 2000, relating to Wales, have been restated as newsection 145B, which is referenced in schedule 2 to the Bill.
As before, a person can give up the national concession in exchange for other concessionary travel benefits offered by their local authority, such as travel tokens, although to avoid confusion it has been clarified that that can be done only if the same body administers both schemes. I am glad to move that the clause stand part of the Bill, which I believe takes us forward in our wish to extend the concessionary fares scheme.