Clause 4

Part of Concessionary Bus Travel Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:00 pm on 5th June 2007.

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Photo of Gillian Merron Gillian Merron Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport 4:00 pm, 5th June 2007

These amendments bring us to the thorny issue of the London reserve free travel scheme. Lord Davies of Oldham, representing the Government in the other place, discussed it in considerable detail during debates on the Bill. I hope that hon. Members will forgive me for echoing much of what has already been put on the record, because the Government’s position has not changed.

The purpose of the reserve free travel scheme is to guarantee concessionary travel in London in situations where there is no agreement either among the London boroughs, or between the boroughs and Transport for London about how best to provide and to fund the national minimum.

Amendment No. 21 seeks to alter section 240 of the Greater London Authority Act 1999 to replace a discretion for London boroughs and TFL to agree arrangements to provide travel concessions with an obligation to agree arrangements that include the national concession. That would be a significant change. Arrangements for concessionary travel are different in the capital. The 1999 Act secures that the boroughs are able voluntarily to agree schemes with TFL. The voluntary arrangements are underpinned by a safety net: the reserve scheme. If the voluntary arrangements do not meet certain minimum requirements, the reserve scheme is triggered. That system has successfully delivered uninterrupted concessionary travel in the capital over the past eight years.

The effect of the amendment would be somewhat contradictory. The ability to enter into arrangements implies that all parties do so voluntarily and by agreement. The amendment would force the parties to agree. How do we force parties to agree? Officials have designated that as a shotgun wedding of an agreement. What would happen if the parties did not agree or if an agreement or contract is breached and that leads to termination of the agreement? Simply stating baldly that something will happen is, I fear, not the same as putting in place a framework to ensure that it does happen.

There is clearly an intentional link with amendment No. 22. That introduces the idea of replacing the reserve scheme as the fallback arrangement for London with a rolling over of the current arrangements. Hon. Members will not be surprised to learn that I am also concerned with that idea. As there is no guarantee that these arrangements would be in place, and given that we could not roll over arrangements that did not exist, we would effectively have no guarantee of concessions in London. I suspect that that is where the true purpose of amendment No. 21 lies. The logic of all this is complicated. If we force the parties to agree, there are arrangements in place, but if those arrangements are not up to scratch, we trigger the safety net. What is the  safety net? It is rolling over those arrangements, but they may not be up to scratch.

Amendment No. 22 proposes that the Secretary of State would be able to specify the terms of the arrangement, but we need to pause for a moment. Has the Secretary of State not already specified the terms of the safety net? Is that not laid out clearly in legislation? In my view it is. It is called the reserve free travel scheme—the very scheme that the amendments seek to remove and replace.

Amendments Nos. 23, 24 and 25 are consequent upon the principles embodied in amendments Nos. 21 and 22, thus I do not propose to refer to them in detail. Amendment No. 19 brings a new element to the equation: the specific issues of cost. The amendment provides for the addition of new paragraph 5(8) to schedule 1 to the 1999 Act in relation to the London reserve free travel scheme.

Paragraph 5 of schedule 1 to the 1999 Act allows TFL to stipulate the charge per pass payable by London authorities to cover the costs to it of providing the concessions under the reserve free travel scheme. The amendment would allow London authorities to appeal to the Secretary of State when they consider the charge to be excessive, and for the Secretary of State to determine a lower amount if appropriate. However, paragraphs 5(3) and 5(4) of schedule 1 to the 1999 Act already specify the costs that may be included in calculating the costs of the reserve free travel scheme and any further matters that must be taken into account.

TFL will already be aware that if it is not reasonable in its assessment of costs and charges, London authorities will judicially review the determination and may even refuse to pay while a review is under way. I understand that there are genuine concerns among the London boroughs about the reserve free travel scheme and its perceived inequity. However, as we have heard—I hope in the points that I have made—it is a complex area in which, I fear, no one solution will please all people.

The Secretary of State said on Second Reading that until the London boroughs and TFL can agree a way forward with any potential change to the reserve scheme, we are not convinced of the case, which the amendments partially make, for removing the guarantee of a minimum standard of concessionary travel throughout the capital.

There has been a reference to the comments of the Mayor of London, who, of course, is able to look after himself. However, looking at the press release, the concern is the exact point that I have made. The amendments call for the abolition of the Mayor’s guarantee of the freedom pass. London Councils transport and environment committee agreed on 14 September 2006 in a briefing that it should lobby for the abolition of the London reserve scheme. In doing so, it is not surprising that for the 1 million older and disabled people in London who benefit, there are immense concerns.

Organisations such as the London Older People’s Strategies Group, Independent Living Alternatives and Counsel and Care have all expressed their members’ concerns that they should continue to receive the worthy, worthwhile and appreciated benefits of the freedom pass.

I am sure that hon. Members will agree that a Bill proposing a national concession for England that did not guarantee for all concessionaires resident in England the statutory minimum level of concessionary travel in London would be a very strange Bill indeed. The reserve free travel scheme best guarantees the continuation of concessionary travel in London for all people who currently benefit. With that in mind, I hope that the hon. Member for Rochdale will withdraw his amendment. I also commend to the Committee clause 5 and schedule 1.