Concessionary Bus Fares Council
‘(1) There shall be a Concessionary Bus Fares Council.
(2) The Concessionary Bus Fares Council shall comprise—
(a) representatives from passenger user groups,
(b) representatives from local authorities,
(c) representatives from the Department for Transport, and
(d) such other persons as the Secretary of State thinks fit.
(3) The Concessionary Bus Fares Council shall undertake the following functions—
(a) determining a framework for eligible services,
(b) determining a pricing framework for the reimbursement of operators,
(c) overseeing the introduction of any national smart card scheme,
(d) undertaking other roles as determined by the Secretary of State.
(4) Before performing the functions set out in subsection (3) the Concessionary Bus Fares Council shall consult—
(a) the Secretary of State,
(b) local authorities,
(d) passenger groups, and
(e) such other persons as the council sees fit.’.—[Paul Rowen.]
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
Earlier, under clause 8, the Secretary of State gave herself powers to introduce the national scheme and clause 9 contains provisions on how the variation for reimbursement and administrative arrangements will operate under the current scheme. On Second Reading I think that the Secretary of State quoted a figure of around 215 local councils or transport authorities that will have responsibility for introducing and running the scheme. New clause 3 would provide a framework, rather than impose national arrangements, within which negotiations for the introduction of a local scheme could operate.
It is obvious to most hon. Members that within many authorities the five big bus companies probably run and operate a large number of the services provided. A considerable administrative and bureaucratic burden will be imposed on individual councils or passenger transport authorities entering into an arrangement on the operation of the scheme in their local authority. New clause 3 would provide a framework for the basic outline of the scheme to be agreed nationally. I know that the Secretary of State has asked a number of working parties to work on parts of the Bill and that they have sought to bring about agreement on how it might operate. The statutory framework via which such negotiations could take place would be provided by setting up a concessionary bus fares council. The bus council would include representatives from user groups, local authorities, the Department for Transport and anyone else that the Secretary of State considers appropriate, which would obviously include the operators. That would allow us to reach some agreement and would save an awful lot of duplication as a result of individual arrangements having to be negotiated.
On Second Reading many hon. Members referred to how schemes had operated in their locality and the ways in which operators who had not been happy with the agreed scheme in a particular authority had then successfully appealed to the Secretary of State. For example, in the case of Greater Manchester, that then imposed an additional cost of £3.5 million this financial year on the passenger transport authority. If we could agree to establish a concessionary bus fares council, an appeal and subsequently the imposition of an additional charge on council tax payers would be unnecessary because agreement would have been reached between the operators, the users and the councils responsible for operating the scheme on how the broad framework of services would operate.
As I have said, the new clause would not remove the right of individual local authorities to negotiate enhancements and departures, but it would provide an overall framework. Given the Minister has said that we will have an ITSO compliant scheme and a national database, a concessionary bus fares council would provide the framework within which those discussions could take place. That would not detract from the work of the Department; rather it would reflect the views of some of the user groups and working groups that are currently meeting to discuss the Bill and provide a statutory framework within which they could operate.
I hope that the Minister will agree to the new clause because it is genuinely an attempt to strengthen the Bill. There are no additional costs attached to the provision; indeed, it would probably save money because it would reduce the duplication that local authorities will have to engage in if they each have to negotiate a framework for their own scheme. I hope that she will agree to the new clause because it would place processes in the Bill that are already happening anyway. It would strengthen those processes and provide everyone with a framework within which to operate.
I am slightly perplexed by the intentions behind the new clause because it almost replicates the existing concessionary fares working group, although it attempts to put the group on a statutory basis. I believe that the hon. Gentleman’s comments indicate that the intention is to formalise the consultative arrangements between the Department, local authorities, operators and user groups. If that is the case, I would have to ask hon. Members to cite specific examples.
The point I was making before the Division was that, if the new clause’s intention is to formalise the consultative arrangements, I must ask the hon. Member for Rochdale to cite the specific reasons why the arrangements need changing, and why, presumably, they are not working effectively. The concessionary fares working group involves representatives from all tiers of local government—PTEs, London Councils, district, county and unitary councils, the Local Government Association, operator representatives from the Confederation of Passenger Transport, the Government offices for the regions and the Department itself. The group has been meeting monthly for almost a year, and it met regularly before that time.
Hon. Members might also wish to know that several sub-groups of the working group provide advice on particular issues. For example, the operations and technology sub-group is considering, among other issues, the technical specification of the proposed national passes. It has met once a fortnight for many months. Funding and reimbursement sub-groups have recently been re-established, and we are organising a workshop with local authority representatives to focus on eligibility.
I welcome the important work that the concessionary fares working group and its sub-groups have put into considering concessionary bus travel matters over the past two years, both in advance of the changes that were introduced in April 2006, and in preparation for the implementation of the proposed national concession in England later next year. The working group plays a vital role in driving the implementation forward, and I put on record once again my appreciation of its efforts and involvement.
Similarly, user group representatives—pensioners and disabled people—play an important role in keeping the Department informed about issues that concern them as concessionaires. I recently attended a meeting of the stakeholder group, and I welcome the opportunity to hear from people who will benefit first hand. Engagement will continue, especially as we prepare to communicate to potential users the key messages about the national concession.
We should remind ourselves that the Department relies not only on informal consultation. For example, we have just begun formal consultation on the design and technical specifications of the national concessionary pass. The consultation is open until 20 July, and to the public as a whole.
I return to the purpose of the new clause. From a recent and informal canvass of members of the concessionary fares working group, there is little appetite for putting it on a statutory footing. I was happy to hear that result, because such action would increase bureaucracy and reduce the flexibility of the group to respond to changing circumstances, and I am not at all clear about the added value. Would council recommendations be binding? If so, how would they be enforced? If not, how would they be useful? How many members would the council have? How would they be chosen? What would be the decision-making procedure? How would it be administered? Who would fund it? And how exactly would it help all parties to implement the national concession successfully next year?
Yes, it certainly will. As I believe I said on the Floor of the House, in April 2008 we will assign dedicated people in the Department to assist local authorities with any administrative difficulties that they might have. Not only will we have continuity beyond April 2008, which is important, but we will make available extra support. I do not doubt that the hon. Gentleman’s intentions are good, but setting up a statutory concessionary bus fares council could have a negative effect, by taking up valuable time and resources at precisely the wrong moment.
We will of course examine the forward role of the concessionary fares working group. To put a more positive slant on local authority assistance, I should point out that it is already available. The Department is providing local authorities with clear, dedicated resources to ensure that the measures work for the benefit of their communities. Bearing all that in mind, I urge reconsideration of the need for such a statutory body. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw his new clause.