The amendments deal with reciprocal arrangements between the other nations of the United Kingdom. I wish to make it clear at the outset that by proposing a minor change from “may” to “shall”, we are not suggesting that the Secretary of State should impose complete reciprocity at the beginning for someone living in, say, the Shetland Isles to be able to use the system in London. The particular areas about which we are concerned were those referred to on Second Reading by my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith). He raised the issue of authorities being on the border and circumstances in which a pensioner may need to visit a hospital that is just over the border. Under the current arrangements, there is no system in place for reciprocity. We are concerned about limited circumstances in which people in border towns may need to access services just across the border.
This a probing amendment. I hope that the Minister can assure us that such arrangements will be put in place to cover those instances when it is important that someone can access a service that is just over the border. If that does not happen, we shall disadvantage many people who might have to travel considerably further to access a hospital, whereas just a few miles down the road in, say, Scotland—as is the case in Berwick-upon-Tweed—is a hospital that people need to access.
The amendment is not about extending the provision across the piece, but dealing with a specific situation in which there is a border town and the services that people may need to use are only a few miles away. I hope that the Minister can assure us that some reciprocal arrangements will be put in place fairly quickly. That would certainly satisfy my right hon. Friend, who represents a border constituency.
We recognise the intent of the two amendments. Indeed, we are keen to see the introduction of reciprocal arrangements for concessionary bus travel by residents in England established as soon as possible in Wales and Scotland, particularly in circumstances that are covered by the amendment.
However, my concern is that the amendment would not set any time frame by which the Secretary of State could work. Conservative Members are worried that the amendment could delay the start of the 2008 scheme in England, which would not be wise. Unless a time frame can be established, we shall be cautious about it.
I understand the intention behind the amendments from our previous discussions. I accept the wish to move swiftly forward in respect of the mutual recognition of concessionary bus passes throughout the United Kingdom. However, now is not the time. Our absolute priority must be to implement a workable, national concession in England in April 2008.
Indeed, the Bill provides for the legislative changes that would be needed to allow for mutual recognition in the future. The hon. Member for Rochdale made a specific point about short journeys across borders, to hospitals and so on. I emphasise that local authorities already have the discretionary powers that they need in order to allow their residents to cross into and out of devolved Administrations and England using their concessionary passes. That is the way to deal with that specific point. However, there is a wider point to be made. As a Government, we want older or disabled people resident anywhere in the UK to be able to travel on any eligible local bus services in the UK.
I remind the Committee that concessionary travel is a devolved policy area. One of the reasons why I cannot agree to amendment No. 14 is that we would be legislating for Welsh Ministers without proper consultation and without their agreement. Surely it is also not desirable to oblige the Secretary of State and Welsh Ministers to do something for which there has not yet been full consultation with the devolved Administrations, operators and users. We must ensure that the arrangements work effectively and that the important work on the practical issues is done.
There is also no guarantee that the recognition of Scottish passes in England, as would be obliged by the amendment, would be mirrored in Scotland or Northern Ireland, by the recognition of English concessionary passes there, nor that the Scottish or Northern Irish Administrations would agree to fund travel by their concessionaries in England and Wales. Moreover, questions about eligibility, modes and timing are just some of the issues that would need to be discussed and agreed, in addition to pass recognition and funding arrangements for the reimbursement of operators. To repeat a well worn figure, from April next year the Government will be providing around £1 billion a year for concessionary travel in England. Further spending will occur in the devolved Administrations.
Any move to mutual recognition will of course incur further costs, which are extremely difficult to predict at this stage. We know from the introduction of the Scottish national scheme that people’s travel patterns change when concessions are enhanced. It would seem wise to have in place—and working well—the provision for people to travel across England in the first instance. Once those data are available, we shall have far greater certainty on the costs of extending coverage still further. Hon. Members are already pressing me for more certainty on funding and reimbursement in respect of the April 2008 changes. The Department is working to provide that certainty in England for next year, and we do not wish to put at risk all the hard work that local authorities, operators and the Government are doing in preparing for the implementation of the national concession.
Forcing the arrangements for mutual recognition to be hastened, particularly where there is provision for local authorities to come to a sensible and local arrangement, would threaten the successful implementation of the English national concession. I hope that hon. Members would not want to do that. I therefore urge the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment.