House of Commons
Monday 14 May 2007
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
The Ministry of Defence has regular discussions with the Ministry of Justice about the management of, and support to, inquests relating to deaths on operations. Since last summer, additional assistant coroners have been available to relieve pressure on the Oxfordshire coroner. The use of home coroners for single fatalities has been introduced and, in addition to the existing arrangements for all three services, a dedicated team has been established to support coroners preparing for inquests. As of today, there are five outstanding inquests in respect of operations prior to 1 January 2006, three of which should be heard by the end of July.
I am grateful to the Minister for that reply, because the point has been made that waiting three or even five years for an inquest is unacceptable to the families concerned. That is sometimes compounded by their having then to travel a long way, perhaps to Wiltshire, for the inquest. Is the Minister considering coroners’ requests for further resources to speed up the process in the light of the additional deaths that have occurred? What progress has been made in considering the proposal put forward by the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) to allow inquests to take place nearer to the homes of the families of the deceased where that would make matters easier for them?
This is a very important issue. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the time taken has been inordinately long, and that has not been helpful. Sometimes there are good reasons for that, because of the very nature of the boards of inquiry by means of which the Ministry of Defence establishes the technical facts, which then help the coroner to come to a conclusion. Sometimes those can take a considerable time to assemble the best information. The reasons behind the amount of time taken by the coroner rest elsewhere, but that is why the Ministry of Justice and ourselves have put more assistant coroners in place. We shall continue to monitor that, and should there be greater demand and need, we would work with our sister Department to find the best solution. On getting inquests carried out nearer to home within England—I make the point that this cannot apply to Scotland because of the nature of the fatal accident inquiry system that applies there—we will always seek to get them carried out close to home. That is how both Departments are seeking to find a solution.
It is good to know that considerable progress has been made, but will my right hon. Friend reassure me by confirming that the Department fully understands the need to give support and advice to families at such a difficult time?
That, too, is an interesting and important question, and we have already established a dedicated team. One of the issues that I am examining is how to ensure that, in terms of our duty of care for our families, all that we do is the best it can be. I am also trying to encourage a more family-friendly approach within the inquest system, and all that work is under way. We have learned valuable lessons, and we shall continue to throw our best resources at this to ensure that the families receive the best advice and support during a difficult time.
I note what the Minister says about resources being thrown at this, but the fact remains that this question has been coming up for at least three years and, as he says, cases are still outstanding from 2005. Will he guarantee that proper dedicated resources will be provided, or would he consider establishing military coroners, who could add to the speed of the process and reduce the grief for the relatives?
Let me give the hon. Gentleman a word of advice. If the MOD were seen to be more closely engaged in what can be seen as highly contentious issues, it would look as if we were somehow interfering with the normal process of the consideration of these matters. Although we should rule nothing out, we would have to take that into account to ensure that there was a proper balance and that the families were certain that justice was being carried out in the inquest. On the allocation of resources, what I have said is that recently we have moved considerably in a short period of time. Some cases are long outstanding, and there are good reasons in respect of all of those. Where we can expedite them we shall, but that rests with the coroner, and not necessarily with the MOD.
The answer to that is yes; we will always work with any Administration in any part of the United Kingdom—and long may Scotland remain part of the United Kingdom. My understanding is that there would need to be a change to primary legislation. We need to look into that, but if there is a will to change in Scotland, let us hear the propositions.
Before I ask the Minister my question, may I point out that my hon. Friend the shadow Defence Secretary visited RAF Lyneham last Friday, and that he would like to place on record how impressed he was with the sensitivity and professionalism of all those who deal with the repatriation of our fallen service personnel?
The latest information in the ministerial statement made at the end of March by the Minister’s colleague the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), was that there were still 91 military inquests outstanding, 25 of which dated from before May 2006. It sounds as if there has been a little progress since then, but progress in dealing with the backlog has been painfully slow. Given that Ministers expect the Wiltshire and Swindon coroner to transfer jurisdiction to the next of kin’s local coroner wherever possible, how confident is the Minister that all coroners will have the expertise to deal adequately with military inquests—and if that is the right solution, why on earth was it not put in place four years ago, so that we could avoid the delays and anguish suffered by bereaved families?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments about those who will carry out a daunting task at Lyneham with the same high level of professionalism as is found at Brize Norton. Considerable progress has been made; there is no question about that—and as I said in an earlier answer, lessons have been learned. At the end of the day, this is not just a Ministry of Defence issue. I again make the point that some of the delays were occasioned by the requirement for boards of inquiry to be thorough and exhaustive, so that we can best learn lessons. In the main, coroners await the outcome of the BOI. They do not need to, but I think that they benefit from it. On the point about assistance for the coroners system, we now have a dedicated team, and we will give the best technical and support assistance to coroners if they require it. Experience tells us that they would welcome all that, because a difficult and complex set of circumstances, which coroners may be encountering for the very first time, is involved. Progress has been made, and we can only seek to improve on that, but we have to take into account all the mitigating circumstances, some of which are outwith the control of the agencies and organisations involved.
Service Personnel (Health Care)
We regularly assess the medical support for service personnel to ensure that it is among the best in the world. That support can range from life-saving surgery in the UK’s NHS hospitals and the excellent facilities at the Defence medical rehabilitation centre, to the treatment of routine ailments on a daily basis.
General Dannatt has made it clear that he wants a dedicated military ward for our service personnel, but the Prime Minister will only support a military-managed ward, which is not good enough as a long-term solution to the problems. Will the Under-Secretary look again at the issue, because a number of our service personnel feel that they are being let down?
May I quote what General Sir Richard Dannatt actually said about Selly Oak?
“There is nowhere better in the country, nowhere more expert at polytrauma medicine than that hospital in Selly Oak, that’s why our people are there.”
We are moving to a fully military-managed ward during the summer. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that work commenced on the partition in the ward today. We are increasing the number of military nurses there, and there is also welfare support and psychiatric support. As part of the examination of the new hospital building, a military ward is being considered under the new private finance initiative scheme at Birmingham. Obviously, we will take that into consideration in the next few months.
Although military personnel who are critically ill or injured must of course have the best treatment available anywhere, wherever that may be, does the Under-Secretary accept that there are overwhelming reasons why, for psychological and morale reasons, military personnel should be treated in a military environment? Other nations, and military personnel themselves, are incredulous that the Royal hospital Haslar, which is just such a military environment, should be closed.
I listen very carefully not just to the experts in the Ministry of Defence but to the clinicians and nurses who carry out their duties in places such as Selly Oak and in our field hospitals in the operational theatre, and no one whom I have come across so far believes that we can go back to military hospitals. There are not enough patients to ensure the training and care experience that our clinicians and nurses need if they are to provide the world-class care and treatment that they currently do.
However, as I said in response to the previous question, we recognise that the military environment is important, which is why we are moving to a military-managed ward at Selly Oak. That includes at least 26 military nurses—the number will be increased to 39 in the summer—military medical consultants, clinicians, welfare support and psychiatric support. There are also liaison officers in the ward, who liaise with the units of the injured service personnel. We recognise the importance of the military ethos, but it is important to ensure, too, that we use the best NHS skills and support within the NHS to ensure that our injured service people receive the best possible treatment and care.
The Minister’s remarks are welcome, as resources have at last been made available to our recovering servicemen. However, does he not understand the distinction between a military-managed ward and all that that means, which he described, and a ward on which only military people are treated, so that service personnel can recover surrounded by their comrades, and not find themselves, as in one recently reported case, waking up with elderly ladies on either side, one of whom said, “What happened to you, lad?” People recover faster when they recover among their own kind.
It is clear that a military-managed ward is the stage to which we are moving. With partitions, it will allow a much better military environment, with the involvement of many more military and medical personnel, plus welfare support, as I have already said. The new hospital being built at Birmingham offers us an opportunity to improve on that by providing a better military environment, and we will consider whether we can provide a full military ward. That is something that we are examining, and the decision will be made in the coming months.
Iran (Seizure of British Equipment)
We continue to press by all diplomatic means the Government of Iran to return the boats and equipment seized illegally in both 2004 and 2007.
I am not in a position to give the House that sort of detail in relation to operations, for good operational reasons. I can reassure the hon. Gentleman, however, that all issues relating to operations, particularly the operations in March 2007 when boats and equipment were seized, will be looked into by the inquiry ordered by the Chief of the Defence Staff, which will be led by Lieutenant-General Sir Rob Fulton, and will report to the Select Committee on Defence.
I can see no reason why the Iranians would want to hold on to that equipment, as they took it illegally and in law should return it. The embassy in Tehran, as one would expect, takes the lead in these matters, and continues to press at every opportunity for the return of the boats and equipment.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s decision to allow the Select Committee on Defence, of which I am a member, to look at the results of the Fulton inquiry, and to reach a conclusion. In the meantime, may I invite him to consider how we are going to move from the present situation to a dialogue with those in Iran who would have a dialogue with the rest of the world? I appreciate that there is every opportunity to take offence at things that the Iranian Government are doing, not least to our own forces, but how are we to resolve the question of Iran unless we are in dialogue with those who would be in dialogue with us?
In relation to the materials, may I tell the hon. Gentleman that dialogue is indeed taking place between Ministers and officials, particularly officials in London who represent Iran? He will be aware that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary took advantage of the recent meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh to speak to her Iranian counterpart.
Rules of engagement are entirely a matter for the assessment made by the command in relation to the tasks that those in their care face. To the extent that they are different, that is because we hold on to the relevant distinction that we should be able to make rules of engagement for the protection and care of our own troops.
Returning to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne), may I say that it would be extremely strange if highly sensitive cipher cards were indeed in the possession of a boarding party, given the duties that it has to perform? May I also ask the Minister why a ministerial written answer on 24 April said that we had not at any stage sought the support of the United Nations in recovering the boats, even though both in 2004 and in 2007 the boats were captured while carrying out a mandated mission supported by the United Nations? Why are we making only bilateral approaches, when the right hon. Gentleman said in his answer that all diplomatic approaches were being made?
The judgment as to the most effective way of approaching the Iranians in relation to the matter entails a complicated assessment of what will be to best advantage in the wider circumstances of our relations with Iran and our other interests in that part of the region.
Good progress continues to be made in developing the capability of the Iraqi security forces. To date, more than 143,000 Iraqi armed forces have been trained and equipped by the multinational forces.
We are continually looking to improve the effectiveness. As for numbers, we are getting towards the figure that was set as the target for recruitment. The emphasis is now on building the Iraqi security forces’ capability, particularly in leadership, command and control, intelligence and logistics. If the House wishes for evidence of the improvement in capability, I point to the conduct of the Iraqi security forces, especially the Iraqi army, in Amarah last October, their contribution to Operation Sinbad at the turn of the year, and the contribution of the 10th Division of the Iraqi army, which the United Kingdom has mentored in relation to the Baghdad security plan. In the assessment of others, including some hard-nosed American generals, they were among the best Iraqi troops deployed in Baghdad.
Just over a year ago when I and other Members visited HMS Bulwark in the Shatt al-Arab, we were advised that the Iraqi navy had been fully trained to carry out boarding, and the only reason why it could not do so was its lack of boats. Bearing in mind recent events, can the Minister confirm that the Iraqi navy is indeed fully trained to undertake boarding, and can he tell the House what efforts have been made to provide it with the necessary boats so that it can carry out those duties?
Better than that, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that about two weeks ago when I visited Umm Qasr, where the Iraqi navy is based, I saw for myself that not only was it fully trained to carry out boarding, but it was doing so, although that was further up the river than the area where the incident involving our Marines took place in March. With reference to equipment, within months the Iraqi navy will receive the first of 21 new boats, all of which have been specifically designed for it to carry out such work. In the meantime, it has boats, provided by the Italians, from which it is able to carry out boarding.
I can, of course, confirm that. Significantly, that has been the case for some time now, not just in this phase of the development of the Iraqi army. It is amazing the number of very senior and older officers whom I meet when I go to Iraq who were trained in Britain, or in the British way in defence colleges elsewhere, perhaps in Pakistan or India.
Does the Secretary of State now accept that the Iraqi army would be in much better shape, and the security situation in Iraq would be more stable, if we had not expelled all Ba’athists from the army—and will he accept that a very bad mistake was made, and lessons had not been learned from what happened in Germany in 1945?
Retrospection always lends clarity to people’s opinions. I know from my conversations with Iraqis, and in particular with Iraqi politicians, that de-Ba’athification is still a contentious issue. I was not involved in the particular decisions that were being made at the time, but I understand their complexity. They were finely balanced decisions, and the balance may have fallen on the wrong side.
We welcome the progress made with regard to the training and deployment of Iraqi troops, but can my right hon. Friend give us an estimate of when he expects Iraqi troops to be of sufficient numbers and ability to take over all of the British sector in the south? What confidence does he have that the Iraqi forces will be able to monitor and control the border between Iraq and Iran?
When the balance between the level of threat in the remaining part of the south-east of Iraq—Basra province and Basra city—and the ability of the Iraqi security forces to deal with that threat is right, we will be able to hand over. We are in that transition phase at the moment. In Basra city we have successfully handed over two of our operating bases and we have substantially handed over the Shaibah logistics base. We plan to consider the handing over of Basra palace within a matter of months, and around that time we will be able to assess whether the Iraqi security forces, in particular the 10th Division of the army, have reached a level of capability to face down the threat, as they have been able to do in the provinces that we have already handed over.
Over the next 20 years we expect to contract for, or build, more than 20 major warships, including nuclear attack submarines, new aircraft carriers and more air defence destroyers, and to begin a new class of fleet escorts. Numerous Royal Navy support ships will also come into service over this period.
There has been some exploration of the possibility of working with the French in a joint venture on the two super-carriers. It is probably welcome that we should share costs by joint working on design and other aspects, but will the Minister take this opportunity to rule out any option that includes building the ships in French yards, and guarantee that our carriers will be built entirely and wholly in British yards?
I would like to think that we could bid for the French ship to be built in British yards as well—and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would see that as a major success, but would still say that the converse would somehow be wrong. We have a deep and growing relationship with the French on this, and their contribution to the cost has been welcome. We are working to get common design, which again we welcome in terms of our relationship over the decades ahead with the French as a major ally. Let us take this a step at a time. At present our plan is to build those ships in British yards, and that is what we seek to do. That is what the maritime industrial strategy is all about, and every encouragement should be given to it.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is good news not only for the Navy but for the UK defence industry? Will he join me in congratulating organisations such as Northern Defence Industries, which is working hard to ensure that medium-sized and small enterprises access the supply chain for these contracts, not only in the north-east but throughout the north of England?
Yes, I can say “Hear, hear” to that. It is important that the areas that have that expertise, and have had it for a good number of years, see this as a major opportunity. The more small and medium-sized enterprises in the supply chain see that opportunity—and, more importantly, seize it—the better it is for our industrial base overall. We have a strong supply chain, and support not only for the maritime industry but across the range of defence industries. I give every encouragement to those organisations, including the particular one mentioned by my hon. Friend, to work hard to ensure that they maximise the opportunities available to them.
To what extent does the Minister agree that there is no point in having aircraft carriers if we do not have the aircraft to fly off them? In the event that the joint strike fighter project fails, what discussions is the Minister, or his officials, having with the French about the possibility of flying Rafale aircraft from our aircraft carriers?
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is advocating that; I suspect not. We have said that we intend the joint strike fighter project to succeed, and every effort has been put into that. I thank everyone who lends weight to that argument in their visits to the United States and impresses on people there the importance of our engagement and our relationship with them. There is a plan B, but as I have already said, we want to succeed with plan A. I do not think that plan B should be ventilated at this stage, but it is not along the lines suggested by the hon. Gentleman.
Can my right hon. Friend update us on the Type 45s, two of which are sitting in my constituency being fitted out, with a third to join them before the end of the year? What is happening with ships Nos. 7 and 8 in particular, as we know that four are required to defend each aircraft carrier? [Interruption.]
I am being asked to give a short answer—I do not think that that will be the case, but I shall do my best.
We are concluding our negotiations on ships Nos. 4 to 6, and until those issues are resolved we cannot move on to the next development, which would be that of ships Nos. 7 and 8. I have said this to my hon. Friend before, because he constantly asks this question—and rightly so, because he represents the interests of his constituents and those shipyards extremely well. No doubt he will be the first to ask the question again as we get closer to a final decision.
I welcome what the Minister has said about the carriers, which enjoy support across the House. Will he give us some indication of how the Ministry’s thinking is developing on future procurements, given the need for the Navy to play a part in rapid responses in conflict and humanitarian situations? In particular, what response does he have to those who argue in defence journals and elsewhere that too much of our naval capability is geared up to anti-submarine warfare, and that we need more multi-purpose ships and small, faster, more versatile craft for the future?
First, I do not think that there is universal acceptance on both sides of the House that we need the aircraft carriers; I am sure that some would argue that we do not. It is up to them to articulate that, but if they do say so they will be wrong. In terms of anti-submarine warfare, some of the recent changes in defence have been because of our understanding of the changing nature of the submarine threat. We cannot make a complete exit, because we do not know when things could change. We need to keep a number of options open, not only in terms of the surface fleet and the submarine fleet but across the range of personnel who give essential protection from the air and elsewhere. All those issues have to be taken into account. The planned expenditure on the Royal Navy over 20 years is £14 billion. Clearly, if the threat changes within that time scale the need to procure different types of vessels will be taken fully into account, based on the military assessment at that time.
We are trialling that approach to keep the ships at sea for longer. That is one issue about the size of the Navy versus its capability. The more capable the ships, the longer there should be between refit and maintenance work. The ships can thus be kept at sea and closer to the point of deployment. It is then a case of working out how best to use the Navy personnel who serve on those ships. Trials are under way, and the Navy will take account at all times of any adverse impact on the naval personnel involved in such a process. Let us wait and see how it works. However, I would have thought that my hon. Friend would welcome the opportunity to deploy ships at sea for longer than at present, when they have to return to base port or home port and are therefore not in action.
The Minister boasts about the order book, but I understand that, in the past five years, the Government have ordered only one ship—an offshore patrol vessel. Is not it the case that, by selling off perfectly serviceable Type 23 frigates, mothballing six ships out of a surface fleet that has already been cut from 35 to 25 and relentlessly reducing orders for Type 45 destroyers and attack submarines, the Government have demoralised the once proud Royal Navy, all at the behest of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who does not understand Britain’s armed forces?
That was a bit of a rant, which does not relate to reality. The Navy is not being mothballed. Ships are in different states of readiness—it has never been the case that all ships are maintained at a high state of readiness at all times. Ships have to go into refit and undergo modification, with new equipment being fitted to them. That means that they fulfil a different role.
We are considering a development programme of £14 billion, and I have listed the ships that are in the process of being contracted for or built. The hon. Gentleman’s comments are inaccurate. I suggest that he read my parliamentary answer about what has been procured under the Government. That will help educate him.
As far as I know, the French are not causing the delay. If anything, the delay is about ensuring that we have the best fit for the building capacity in the yards. That is where the ongoing, progressive and helpful discussions between Vosper Thornycroft and BAE Systems are leading. All that will be greatly beneficial. As I said in response to an earlier question, there are great opportunities, and industry should be getting itself best placed in its planning to maximise the time when it can make a bid for different aspects of that programme. Matters are complicated by the fact that the programme is not signed off and the steel cutting is therefore not under way. Once that happens, the pace will quicken and the enterprises should be assured that there is a good future ahead for them.
Government policy is to decide on a case-by-case basis whether or not to employ private military and security companies, which already have a significant role in Iraq. For example, much of the progress in building civilian security capacity has been achieved through the work of the UK civilian policing mission to Iraq, including trainers and mentors who are employed by ArmorGroup. A review of private military and security policy is under way.
The Secretary of State knows that War on Want estimates that 48,000 employees who work for almost 200 different companies are now in Iraq, making them the second-largest occupying force after the United States. He may also know that there have been allegations of human rights abuses by some of those companies. Why have not the Government’s intentions, which are stated in the 2002 Green Paper, to introduce legislation to control those companies, been implemented? We have waited five years for that.
The hon. Gentleman is right to identify the significant contribution that private military and security companies make, particularly in Iraq, where they are ever present. Given the nature of the conflict in Iraq, even the green zone could be considered part of the battle space and those companies are there in significant numbers, and therein lies the answer to his second question. That was not the case in 2002, but since then, the proliferation of private military and security companies—not contracted by this Government, I should say, but by many other Governments—into the battle space where we deploy in coalition has greatly complicated the circumstances. We are presently looking at the nature of any regulation that we might need to bring in, which was anticipated in the Green Paper and subsequent discussion. It is a complex issue, so when we legislate, we will need to get it right. Consideration is going on across the relevant Departments at the moment.
I refer the hon. Gentleman to an answer given to the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) on 19 March 2007, in which the House was told that one contract had been awarded by the MOD not in Iraq, but in Afghanistan, and that the value was approximately £35,000.
Will the Secretary of State tell the House what proportion of the amounts going to private security companies in Iraq are in respect of past or present advisers to, or members of, Bush Administration companies?
I will have to write to my hon. Friend to answer that. I am sorry that my brief does not have that specific information. I know that a significant number of other Government Departments have contracts with private military security companies, which were detailed in another answer to the hon. Member for Lewes on 20 March. The detail is set out there if anyone wants to look at it. The contracts went substantially to a firm called ArmorGroup, of which the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) is the non-executive chairman.
UK armed forces are deployed in Iraq in support of United Nations Security Council resolution 1723. We continue to make progress in creating the conditions required to transfer security responsibility to the Iraqi authorities by helping to train and mentor the Iraqi security forces and by conducting joint security and counter-terrorist operations with them. Last month, Maysan province—the third of the four provinces in our area of operations—was handed over to Iraqi security control.
Given that the whole House is united in the conviction that so long as our troops are there, they must have the best equipment, will the Secretary of State tell us the current assessment of the timetable for the deployment into Iraq of the Mastiffs that were earmarked to go this summer? Will the anticipated reduction in the number of troops have any consequences for the number of Mastiffs to be put in theatre?
Our current plans are to have 100 Mastiffs in theatre in Iraq by the end of the summer. They will be complemented by 100 Bulldogs and, if I remember correctly—I am relying on memory—160 Vector or advanced protection vehicles. Whether we meet that target precisely will depend on a number of factors. I say that because, in recent months, in order to advance our ability to get protected vehicles into theatre, we have gone for a solution that allows those vehicles to go into theatre and for those who use them to tell us how the next batch can be improved. I ask the House not to hold me to any specific day, but we have been able to meet the challenge in this procurement that the procurement process has not been able to meet before. Indeed, when I was in Iraq a couple of days ago, I was privileged to be shown the presently deployed vehicles by the people who use them and I can say that they were singing their praises highly.
Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the number of troops will be reduced and that those who have served will not go back into theatre as quickly, but will get the proper rest and full training that they need before being redeployed?
I have already announced to the House our intention to reduce the number of troops deployed in Iraq, down to about the 5,000 figure, by the autumn of this year or thereabouts. One of the consequences of that reduction will be our ability to rest, train and recuperate our troops better than we can currently, because of the tempo of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. That is certainly part of the plan.
With the Secretary of State’s recent visit in mind, I am sure that he will have met members of the 2nd Battalion the Rifles in Basra, and will therefore be aware of the splendid service that they have performed and the injuries and fatalities that they have suffered. The regiment is now coming to the conclusion of its tour of duty. I seek the Secretary of State’s assurance that the Ministry of Defence will be in touch with the commanding officer of the regiment to ensure not only that its troops are properly debriefed and that lessons are learned from their tour of duty, but that every assistance is given as the regiment adjusts back to life in the United Kingdom.
I can give the right hon. Gentleman all the assurances that he seeks. From the moment those troops who have served in the operational theatre board the aircraft to come out, the process begins of rehabilitating them, debriefing them and allowing them to decompress. That process is uppermost in the minds of those who look after them. I join him in paying tribute to the contribution that the 2nd Battalion the Rifles has made. He is right: I saw with my own eyes the brave and professional work that those troops are doing, but they are not alone. All the troops we have deployed into Iraq have made a significant contribution and are doing splendid work.
I have asked the Secretary of State on a number of previous occasions about Iranian involvement in arming insurgents. It is becoming increasingly clear that factory-grade weapons are crossing to Iraq from Iran. They include explosively formed projectiles capable of piercing armoured vehicles, and killing and maiming our troops. What is being done to secure the border and how will that task be handled during the withdrawal of forces from Basra? It is essential that we minimise the risk of such weapons being used against coalition forces throughout Iraq.
The hon. Gentleman is right that there is evidence to suggest that armaments, and in particular improvised explosive devices, are being deployed against our troops in southern Iraq that have their provenance in Iran. That is why we have deployed our forces along the border in Maysan. During my recent visit to Iraq, I spoke to those who were deployed in that area. I commend them on the work that they are doing and the intelligence that they are able to build up in that area. That is one of the reasons why we conduct the boarding operations along the Shatt al-Arab waterway that we have already discussed today.
Over and above that, we seek through the Iraqi Government and their engagement with the Iranian Government to send the Iranians the strong message that, apart from anything else, it is not in their interests to have a destabilised southern part of Iraq. We seek every other opportunity that we have, including the increasing opportunities that we now seem to have, to speak to the Iranians and get the message across to them.
The Mahdi army has been behind some of the worst atrocities in Iraq and some of the most lethal attacks on British forces. Can the Secretary of State explain to the House and to our troops what the Government’s current position is with regard to Moqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the Mahdi army? Do the Government regard him as a political figure or a terrorist?
The fact of the matter is that Moqtada al-Sadr is, in terms of Iraq, both. He is a man who plays a significant political role—there is no question about that. It is not for me to define who is a political figure and who is not, and he undoubtedly plays a significant political role. It is also clear that elements of the Mahdi army behave as if they were insurgents, or indeed terrorists. There is no doubt about that, either. What is not entirely clear, however, is which parts of the Mahdi army are under his control and which are not. In the south of Iraq, where we have forces deployed, a competition is going on—including, among others, the militia of the Mahdi army—for influence. That fact that we stand between them and the effect that they could have on the people of that part of Iraq, especially in the city of Basra, causes them to attack us so frequently. That is why we treat them as we do, and we have had significant successes over the past month or so in dealing with them in that community That is not to say, however, that they are not still a significant bad presence.
Selly Oak Hospital
Selly Oak hospital provides first-class treatment and care for military patients. The military-managed ward there reached initial operating capability before Christmas. There are now military managers involved at every level and a total of 26 military nurses, which is double the number in August 2006. As I mentioned earlier, that number will increase to a total of 39 by this summer, when the ward will reach its full operating capability.
As military-managed wards require specialist support, will the Minister indicate what staffing changes have been made on that ward? After all, we are seeking the best possible care for our soldiers and service personnel, whether that is provided by military or national health service personnel.
My hon. Friend raises an important issue about the way it is operating. Clearly, we have a number of military medical personnel, as I mentioned in answer to previous questions. The increase in the number of nurses and other clinicians to 39 is significant. Our partnership with the NHS is also important. I want to place on record my thanks and appreciation to Selly Oak hospital and those from the NHS who have been caring for our military personnel, who have received outstanding, world-class treatment and operations. Again, it is not just about meeting clinical needs, but about providing welfare and psychiatric support, as well as excellent family accommodation, which has been developed with the help of the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association, which I also thank. A range of support services is provided for our personnel at Selly Oak.
I am pleased that the Minister, for whom I have a high regard, has mentioned the psychiatric care available to our service personnel, both men and women, who return from Iraq or Afghanistan suffering, in many cases, from trauma as a result of their horrific experiences in operational areas. Is he satisfied with the level of psychiatric and psychological care available to our service personnel when they return from areas such as Iraq and Afghanistan?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind comments. He will know that psychiatric support is also available on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we are always looking to improve psychiatric support. As I have mentioned, Selly Oak has two psychiatric nurses, and there is also support at Hedley Court and in defence community mental health care provision based in different parts of the country. The mental health care provided has improved tremendously, and gives the support that our service personnel expect. We are also trying to improve the provision for veterans.
The security situation in Iraq varies from province to province. In Baghdad and surrounding areas, violence perpetrated by sectarian and insurgent groups remains a very serious problem. Recent action by Iraqi and coalition forces as part of the Baghdad security plan has led to a reduction in murders by the militia death squads. But the terrorist groups continue to use suicide bombings to inflame the sectarian divide.
Outside Baghdad and its environs—which account for around 80 per cent. of the violence in Iraq—the security situation is better, particularly in the north and south of the country. But there are still security challenges in both parts.
Everyone knows that the incoming Prime Minister will ensure that all British troops have left by the time of the next general election. Whatever else is said, let us be honest about one thing: this is a political decision. Why do we persist in an illusion? Whether we get out in a month’s time, a year’s time or two years’ time, there will be a mess after we leave. The only difference will be that more British troops will die. That is the reality on the ground. We are now the target—the magnet—for terrorists, particularly those from Iran. Why will the Secretary of State not be honest with the House and say that we have acted honourably, we have done our bit, and we should now withdraw?
I understand why the hon. Gentleman put his question in that way, although his vocabulary was slightly extravagant at one stage. I have always sought to be straightforward with the House about the complexity of the challenge that we face, and the nature of the challenge that we ask our troops to face, in southern Iraq. I have always said that the transition process is a condition-based process, and I have evidence that that is exactly how we have dealt with it in the three provinces that we have already handed over.
I am not suggesting, and have never suggested, that those areas are perfect places in which to live. I am merely describing the evidence in respect of transition and provincial Iraqi control there. I was told, not only in the House but elsewhere, that there would be meltdown and mayhem within weeks, but in all three provinces the Iraqi security forces have been able to maintain some stability—although not complete stability—with the help of the politicians.
That is our objective for the city of Basra and the Basra province, and I will not take my eye from it, although the fact that we stand between the militia in southern Iraq and what they want to do to the people of southern Iraq makes us a target in the meantime. We have a duty to those people to stay with them, while maintaining the balance of which I have spoken in the past. We also have a duty to members of our forces who have lost their lives or sustained injuries in trying to achieve that objective to see it through.
One of the biggest challenges in Iraq remains the lack of helicopter lift. It was announced recently that the six Merlin helicopters that had been delivered to Denmark would be returned to the United Kingdom, but they are fitted for search and rescue, a fitting that is wholly unsuitable for service on operations. Will the Secretary of State confirm that funds will be found to fit those helicopters appropriately?
When I announced not only that the Danish Government had agreed to send us the six Merlin helicopters on the basis of their contract, but that the eight Chinook helicopters previously fitted for mark 3 performance but unable to fly would be refitted for mark 2 performance, I announced in the same statement funds to ensure that all the helicopters would be capable of deployment in the operational theatre. We will indeed ensure that funds are available to fit them appropriately. It is unthinkable that we would fly helicopters in the operational theatre that were not protected in the way in which all the helicopters we currently fly are protected.
Military commanders have been advising nothing of the sort. I have already explained twice to the House that what is happening in southern Iraq is a competition between the militia for political or economic advantage. In Basra city and its immediate surroundings, we are what stands between the militia and the damage that they would do to the people of Basra city. We attract the preponderance of the attacks because we stand between them and their objectives, but we hold that position until the Iraqi security forces, particularly the army, are able to take over from us. Increasingly, during the transition in Basra city, they have proved able to do that.
We are not the cause of the problem; the militia are the cause of the problem. We just happen to be the people who stand between them and their intentions.
The Joint Helicopter Command was formed in 1999 with the specific purpose of delivering integrated battlefield helicopter and air assault capability provided by all three services. Other helicopters operated solely by the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force may also be called upon for cross-service support. This integrated approach means that it is common for an aircraft from one service to support one or more of the other services’ personnel, equipment and aircraft. RAF Chinooks, Merlins and Pumas that combine to form the support helicopter force within the Joint Helicopter Command are frequently employed in transporting troops and equipment from the Army or Royal Marines. Attack helicopters from the Army Air Corps can provide defensive cover for RAF Chinooks in operational theatres.
I thank the Minister for that full and comprehensive reply, but what plans does he have to replace the current Gazelle fleet, and will he consider the purchase of light assault helicopters to fill the capability gap, bearing it in mind that the 40 Future Lynx aircraft that are due to come into service in 2014 will replace more than 200 aircraft from the current Gazelle and Lynx fleets? Does he acknowledge that there will be a huge future shortage of capacity, and what will the Government do to fill that?
Clearly, we must define what that future shortage is; it must be well defined. We then have to define what the procurement strategy should be to fill that gap and make sure that that which we procure has durability and utility over the longer period. The reason why I am giving that answer is because procurement is not simply about saying, “Let’s take it off the shelf and stick it out into theatre.” I know that the hon. Lady understands that. I will provide her with a written response to the detailed points she has raised so that she can have the best understanding of how these matters are progressing.
I beg to ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House, under Standing Order No. 24, to debate an important matter that requires specific and urgent consideration, namely, the decision by Burton’s Foods to cease production of biscuits at its Moreton site, with the loss of 660 full-time jobs.
Burton’s is currently the largest private sector employer in my constituency. It has provided a reliable source of employment for generations of my constituents living in Moreton and Leasowe. It is not uncommon for entire families to work at the plant. Many employees have given decades of unbroken service to the company. Last Friday, the employees were taken without warning into the canteen, where the announcement of this intended closure was made. They were then sent home.
Wirral metropolitan borough council and I had been in dialogue with the company some months ago about its review of production and had been promised by the company that it would keep us in touch with the review. That promise was not kept. The first I knew of this devastating closure decision was when I received phone calls from shocked and distressed employees.
In 2001, Burton’s Foods was the recipient of £3 million of regional selective assistance from the Government and £1 million of rate rebates from the local authority to help to finance an expansion of production at the site and safeguard employment in the area. As part of that deal, the work force accepted a three-year pay freeze. Burton’s Foods’ obligations under those agreements ran out in March of this year.
To say that people feel angry and betrayed understates the strength of feeling in Moreton and Leasowe today. Despite the company’s behaviour, however, Wirral council, the trade unions and I stand ready to assist in any way that we can, and urge the company to reverse this decision and work with us to go forward in a more positive way. I believe that it owes it to a long-standing and loyal work force to find another way through these difficulties.
I would welcome the opportunity to discuss these issues further in the House.
I have listened carefully to what the hon. Member has said and I must give my decision without stating any reasons. I am afraid that I do not consider that the matter that she has raised is appropriate for discussion under Standing Order No. 24 and I therefore cannot submit the application to the House.
Point of Order
On Thursday 10 May, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) raised a point of order about the failure of Government to lay a document before the House under the Identity Cards Act 2006 within the statutory time set out in the provisions of that Act. I deprecate the fact that that happened and I suggest that the hon. Member might like to take the matter up with the Select Committee on Home Affairs and the Liaison Committee to consider how a better system of compliance can be monitored. That might be the most fruitful avenue to pursue, although it is, of course, open to him to follow that matter up through parliamentary questions or an Adjournment debate. I hope that that is of help to the hon. Gentleman.
Orders of the Day
Concessionary Bus Travel Bill [Lords]
[Relevant document: The Third Report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Session 2006-07, Legislative Scrutiny: Second Progress Report, HC 287.]
Order for Second Reading read.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Buses are at the heart of Britain’s transport system and are a lifeline to many of our communities. Two out of three public transport journeys in Britain today are made by bus. Buses can reach people in places that other forms of public transport cannot. Millions of people, including some of the most vulnerable in our communities, depend on buses to get to the shops, to see their doctor, to get to work or to visit friends and relatives. Without bus services, many people would feel cut off and less involved in the day-to-day life of their community, so buses are providing more than a simple transport service; they are also providing a public service. They are promoting accessibility, tackling social exclusion and improving people’s lives.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way and I apologise for intervening so early in his speech, but I do so as he has mentioned the importance of bus services to vulnerable people. What would he say to vulnerable people in Tyne and Wear whose essential services have been cut because of the way that the funding formula was applied when the concessionary fares scheme was introduced, and will that be corrected under this Bill?
My hon. Friend is a tireless campaigner on this issue; indeed, he spoke in the most recent Adjournment debate on buses and received an answer from the Minister with responsibility for buses, my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron). As I recall, she said that she had visited Newcastle and that discussions had taken place with the Department for Communities and Local Government. I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland) that I will come to the financing of the national concessionary scheme—in the north-east and across the rest of England—during my remarks.
Our buses are now more environmentally friendly than ever and, indeed, more accessible by disabled people. Their flexibility means that they can for some provide a genuine alternative to the car, helping, of course, to tackle congestion. These are some of the reasons why this Bill is so important, and why I welcome Opposition Members having signalled during the Adjournment debate to which I referred their support for the principles contained in this Bill.
This Government have placed helping vulnerable people at the centre of their programme for government, and transport has played, and will continue to play, a key role in this endeavour. In 2001, this Government introduced half-price bus travel in England for all older and disabled people within their local authority area. This installed a national minimum, in contrast with the previous Tory Government’s patchy provision of services. However, this Labour Government also wanted to go further, so from last year we have provided an additional £350 million per year to make such travel completely free.
We have continued to listen to what people want, which is why we are going further still. We want older and disabled people to be able to look beyond their local areas and to have free access to local bus services anywhere in England.
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. He will be aware of the successful scheme in Wales introduced by the Welsh Assembly Government, but can he confirm that this Bill will go far enough to allow cross-border arrangements between the Westminster Government and the devolved Administrations?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question. The Bill contains enabling powers that would facilitate such cross-border travel, if agreement is reached between the Westminster Government and, in the case that she suggests, the Welsh Assembly Government—or, indeed, the Scottish Executive. Speaking candidly, those are not discussions for today but ones that will take place in due course. I should also point out that that is without prejudice to the ability of local authorities in areas adjacent to the border to go beyond the statutory provision and ensure that their schemes allow for exactly the kind of cross-border travel of which my hon. Friend speaks.
My hon. Friend the Member for Conwy (Mrs. Williams) was reading my mind with her intervention. I cannot emphasise enough to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State just how important that issue is. Many of my constituents travel across the Welsh border and across the county border into Merseyside to visit relatives, and the whole travel-to-work area in the Deeside hub is an enormously strong economic zone. It is important that the schemes cross the borders and I urge my right hon. Friend to do all that he can to speed up the dialogue with the Welsh Assembly Government on this fabulous legislation.
I thank my hon. Friend for his generous tribute to the step forward that the Bill represents. Of course further discussions will be taken forward with the devolved Administrations—in his case with the Welsh Assembly Government, but also with the Scottish Executive. Notwithstanding the enthusiasm with which my hon. Friend speaks, I wish to add a couple of caveats about the case for cross-border travel. First, the level of provision of concessionary travel varies across the United Kingdom and it would be necessary for the discussions to reflect that. Secondly, it is a point of principle for those of us who advocated devolution before the establishment of the Assembly and the Parliament that such decisions should involve the devolved Administrations. Therefore it is appropriate that our discussions should be without prejudice to their views.
May I press the Secretary of State to start the discussions now? He has nearly a year. For some of my constituents, their nearest hospitals and shops are in Scotland and it would not be fair for them to have to wait for another year or two when there is still time to have the negotiations and have an agreement in place for the start of the new scheme.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his contribution to this debate. It echoes the contribution that he made to the Adjournment debate, in which he spoke forcefully on behalf of his constituents and their cross-border travel needs. I hope that I can offer him some assurance in that I had ministerial correspondence with the previous Scottish Executive about the issue, because officials asked whether it was an enabling power that we should seek to put in the Bill. I was clearly of the view that enabling powers should be taken at this stage. That is without prejudice to important discussions that need to take place, and I am mindful of the points that have been made by Members on both sides of the House about the importance of this issue.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his characteristically astute observations. I am not sure that the principal criticism directed at this Government is that not enough Scots are reaching London. It is certainly the case that a high proportion of English-born citizens now live in Scotland and vice versa. It was with such considerations in mind that, when the options were put to me by officials, I was keen to ensure that we took this opportunity to ensure future-proofing of the Bill without prejudice to any discussions on the issue. That is why I welcome the fact that the enabling powers are included in the Bill.
Whatever sensible conclusions my right hon. Friend reaches, will he ensure that it is widely publicised that the decisions have been made by Her Majesty’s Government of the United Kingdom and have not been taken at local authority level alone?
As ever, my hon. Friend speaks with wisdom. It is a matter on which I have been reflecting even in relation to the design of the concessionary travel card, because it is important to acknowledge the scale of the contribution being made by Her Majesty’s Government to the financing of the national concessionary travel scheme, rather than to leave the impression that it is solely for local authorities.
The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) may be right, but if the Government are to claim the credit for the scheme—to pick up the point made earlier—it is imperative that they fully fund whatever promises they make. Local authorities cannot afford to subsidise such schemes from the council tax, as they are doing in my area.
That was not the most generous of contributions. There has already been additional support for concessionary travel and the Bill reflects the fact that the Chancellor of the Exchequer made it clear in his announcement that £250 million of additional money would be available for national local concessionary travel. In that sense, we are not asking the House, or indeed the general public, to accept that worthwhile objective without our having committed resources in advance. There was a clear commitment on the part of the Government to make sure that resources are available to reflect the enhanced provision and services that will be available to the country’s pensioners.
Forgive me. I have been generous in taking interventions, and I shall endeavour to take some more before the conclusion of my remarks.
We have continued to listen to what people want, which is why we are determined to go further. We want older and disabled people to be able to look beyond their local area and have free access to local bus services anywhere in England, linking exactly those family members and friends of whom my hon. Friends have already spoken—giving them access to different places and more services.
As I mentioned, in the 2006 Budget the Chancellor committed up to £250 million of new money each year to pay for the change. It will mean for the first time that about 11 million older and disabled people will be able to use off-peak local bus services free of charge anywhere in England from 9.30 am until 11 pm on weekdays and all day on bank holidays and at weekends, allowing travel, for example, from Cornwall to Cambridgeshire or from Durham to Dorset.
This is indeed an excellent Bill, but the system contains a perverse incentive for bus companies to put up their fares, thus enabling them to make an extra raid on public finances. What will my right hon. Friend do to stop that perverse incentive and stop bus companies exploiting the situation?
I know that the matter is of concern to my hon. Friend; he raised it in his recent Adjournment debate on concessionary travel. I hope that I can offer him some assurance in that we are looking at the whole issue of appeals. I fear that at present there is an incentive for appeals to be brought too quickly, given the 28-day time scale, so I hope that an extension to the period during which appeals can be made will avoid the speculative appeals that we have seen to date. I have appointed an independent figure to determine appeals, but I assure my hon. Friend that we continue to give the matter consideration in the Department, not least given the scale of public expenditure involved.
The Secretary of State is being extremely graceful and generous in giving way, so I shall be brief. I very much support the Bill, but I have a concern, which is shared by the highways and transport authority of Bracknell Forest borough council. By April next year, the authority will have to produce a uniform national pass for concessionary bus fares. It wants to use smartcards, which will be efficient and reduce fraud, but as it will be quite some time before the Department for Transport makes a decision it could be too late to set up a smartcard system. What hope can the right hon. Gentleman give Bracknell Forest borough council?
The hope I can offer the council is that a great deal of work is under way in my Department on that issue. I do not preclude the possibility that there could be the smart ticketing of which the right hon. Gentleman speaks, not least given its real benefits, for example in avoiding fraud. There is an important distinction to be drawn between the London freedom pass and the possible development of smart ticketing in authorities that have not previously used it. We are not convinced of the case for an immediate change in the widely distributed freedom pass, so we are looking at the option of stickering freedom passes in London. We are working closely with local authorities outside London on a procurement framework that would facilitate local authorities, such as the right hon. Gentleman’s, setting up smartcard systems according to the appropriate time scale. We have not yet reached a definitive decision on that matter. Clearly, given the number of pensioners relying on the cards and the scale of the procurement involved, we want to have the necessary assurances in place before reaching a decision, but I can assure him that we are addressing the matter with great speed.
I will be generous to the right hon. Gentleman and his Government for bringing forward this excellent Bill, which we hope to support. Is he aware of the concerns of the NUS that some councils that have discretionary schemes for young people and students may be tempted to move some funds away from those schemes to fill any gaps in the funding for the scheme that he proposes? What will he do to try to prevent that?
It is not for me to determine the budgetary allocations of every local authority in England. However, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we believe that the additional resources—the £250 million of which I spoke—should be able to provide the supplemental service that the Bill facilitates. If he has concerns about his own local authority, I would strongly urge him to have those discussions in advance with the local authority and to impress upon it the fact that it also has a responsibility in terms of the budgetary choices that it makes.
Secretary of State, you will know that in such authorities as West Lancashire district council, the funding formula that you employed this year meant that they had ample money to implement the scheme. They have not spent all that money on the scheme. My constituents whose shops or nearest hospital are just across the border have got to pay. We have not got a scheme across Lancashire. These proposals should resolve that issue, but can you give my constituents the guarantee that the process whereby they travel by bus through various areas within Lancashire will be seamless?
I will leave it to the judgment of the House as to whether we might end up with a better scheme if you were the person distributing those funds, Mr. Speaker.
I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper) that the scheme is designed to facilitate travel across the wider area, because, of course, an individual could quite easily live near the boundaries of three local authority areas. There could be local services on which they rely that lie outwith a particular local authority boundary. It was with exactly that in mind that we were determined to make further progress.
May I return the Minister to the point about adequate funding? Although I hear what the Government are saying about putting additional money in, the concern of Essex county council is that it is something like £750,000 down—looking at what the Government plan to give the council and what the council believes that the scheme is going to cost—which has a knock-on effect on my local authority, Basildon council, which believes that it is going to be £100,000 down. Will the Minister look at the matter again to make sure that the funding is going to flow appropriately? Would he consider meeting Essex county council to try to iron out those problems?
I cannot claim to be familiar with the specific case that the hon. Gentleman raises on behalf of his constituents, and I would struggle to share his view of those figures on the basis of the future service provision that we are discussing today. He may be discussing historical concerns, in terms of the level of resources available for the local concessionary travel scheme within the county. If he wants to pass the figures and the concerns to me on paper, one of my colleagues or I will look into the matter that he raises.
The contrast that can be drawn clearly is with the previous Conservative Administration, under which I would argue that buses were neglected. The Tory Government might have left some with the impression that buses were deemed to be a problem, rather than a key part of the transport solution. The contrast between the previous Tory Government and this Labour Government is perhaps best exemplified by today’s debate on the Bill. The Tory Government’s significant bus legislation led to about a 20 per cent. decline in bus patronage between 1985 and 1997. Our reforms have delivered the first year-on-year increases in bus patronage in, quite literally, decades. We will also shortly bring forward further draft legislation on public transport. Buses will be a central aspect of that.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that the only part of the country of any size in which ridership is increasing is London, which receives a Government subsidy of many hundreds of millions of pounds, and that in most of the country bus patronage continues to decline?
I shall make a couple of points. First, bus patronage is increasing in some localities outside London, and such increases often reflect effective partnership working between the local authority and the local bus operator. However, the hon. Gentleman is right to the extent that he acknowledges that those relationships are not working effectively in too many communities across the country. That is why this Labour Government published “Putting Passengers First” before the turn of the year. We want to ensure that we extend best practice, which is limited to too few communities, across the country. I believe that “Putting Passengers First” offers the basis for moving forward towards patronage rises in not just one part of the country, but many other areas.
I am proud to be a Labour Secretary of State for Transport who is putting better bus services at the heart of our transport policy. Improvements in concessionary travel specifically require a change in the law. We must ensure that they are implemented consistently, so that everyone understands how they work. We need to amend the Transport Act 2000 and the Greater London Authority Act 1999—
I have been generous, and I had better make a little more progress.
A national concession also requires other changes, and I should like to deal with each of those in turn. The first involves passes, an issue that a couple of hon. Members have raised. It is important that, for example, a bus driver in Kent can easily recognise a pass issued in Yorkshire, so the Bill includes a power to standardise passes across England. We have been working closely with local government and bus operators to finalise the pass design, and we are grateful for their valuable input. We are also seeking to help local authorities with pass procurement.
Where local authorities wish to go even further than the new statutory entitlement, they will continue to be able to do so. They will be able to make use of existing discretionary powers to achieve the best solution for their local communities. For example, the freedom pass arrangements in London will include the new concession but will otherwise not change. The Bill will not affect the existing half-price concessionary scheme on coach travel, which this Government introduced in 2003.
The Secretary of State will be delighted to learn that there has been great interest in this scheme in my city of Brighton and Hove, but there is also confusion on the point that he mentioned. In Brighton and Hove, free medical cards are given out for coach travel outside the city. Will they now be available for the over-60s? Will there be a national framework for a coach travel scheme?
I have just made it clear that, at this stage, we do not anticipate changes to the concessionary scheme that is available nationally for coach travel. I am keen to emphasise to my hon. Friend that the statutory framework that we are putting in place should best be thought of as a floor rather than as a ceiling; it is without prejudice to the choices made by local authorities and local communities across England about what best suits their needs, although obviously the budgetary constraints of each authority will apply. In that sense, we are seeking not to prescribe the services that can be made available, but to ensure that individuals who live close to local authority boundaries can obtain a standard of service that allows them to travel across those boundaries.
I welcome the Bill, but am I right in interpreting my right hon. Friend’s comments as an assurance that he would resist any amendments to it, such as those proposed in the Lords, that would water down or dilute the freedom pass in London? That pass covers the tube, the docklands light railway and buses.
I am aware that this is an issue of some debate. I re-emphasise the point I made a few moments ago: I do not anticipate changes to the freedom pass as a result of the Bill. A huge number of freedom passes are available across the capital, so we will need to take steps to ensure that they can be recognised and used outside the capital for the first time. That is why we are examining the practical issue of stickering the passes. We do not think it would be wise to have a wholesale turnaround of the freedom passes in 2008. The framework that has been negotiated for freedom passes is rightfully a matter for those in London, as opposed to one that is determined by the Secretary of State for Transport.
I should be happy for the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln, who is responsible for buses, to clarify in her winding-up speech the specific definition of coaches that we use—we can see the enthusiasm with which she has embraced that particular responsibility. The substantive point is that the Bill will not alter the definition of what is deemed coach travel and what is deemed bus travel. I am happy for my hon. Friend to detail the statutory basis on which the concessionary scheme for coaches is provided in her winding-up speech. As I say, the Bill will not affect the existing half-price concessionary scheme for coach travel, which was introduced back in 2003. The Bill also retains powers to increase the scope of concessions in future.
I am glad that my right hon. Friend gave way to me; I thought that it might be personal. I welcome the Bill, and it will be very welcome in my constituency of North Durham, but the problem that we have had in North Durham over the past few months, and in the lead-up to the introduction of the Bill, is that Go Northern has been stripping out routes. That means that large parts of my constituency, and other constituencies across County Durham, have no access to a bus, so the Bill will not be any good to most of those rural communities. What powers can my right hon. Friend give Durham county council, so that it can ensure that the Go-Ahead group, and other operators that completely ignore social need and concentrate just on profit, can be brought to book?
The assurance that I can offer my hon. Friend is that this is not our last word on reform of the regulation of buses. If he looks at the “Putting Passengers First” policy document that we published before the turn of the year, and if he looks in due course at the draft Bill that we will publish in the months ahead, I hope he will get the assurance he seeks, that new powers will be available to local authorities to ensure the kind of effective working relationship between local authorities and bus operators that is present in too few communities. Today we are dealing with the issue of concessionary travel, but there is the additional issue of how we empower local communities and work effectively with bus operators to make sure that there are decent services on which the concession can be enjoyed.
I am keen to make it clear that where local authorities wish to go even further than the new statutory entitlement, they can continue to do so; a number of colleagues across the House have alluded to that point. Local authorities can make use of existing discretionary powers to achieve the best solution for local people, and I have already referred to the London freedom pass in that regard.
I thank the Secretary of State very much. Is he aware that Transport for London has been using the freedom pass and the reserve scheme, which is unique to London, to cost-shunt on to local councils, particularly with respect to the new rail services that have come on line? Will he consider giving London the same protection as he described to his colleague, the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer)—an appeals process, in which appeals could be made either to the Department for Transport or to an independent arbiter? That would be better than allowing the operator to make whatever charges it pleased.
I know that that is a matter of dispute between the boroughs and TFL. If there were agreement between TFL and the boroughs on the way forward, given the statutory assurances that are in place, an appeals process could be considered, but my understanding is that there continues to be disagreement, and I am not convinced that because of that disagreement we should remove the guarantee of a minimum standard of service provided across the capital.
The Bill retains powers to increase the scope of the concession in the future, potentially to other categories of people, to other modes of transport and to different timings. I would like to address the issue of funding, which has already been mentioned by a number of hon. Members. All the measures mean that from April 2008 the Government will be providing around £1 billion a year to fund concessionary travel—a significant sum of money in anyone’s book. Indeed, overall Government funding for buses now amounts to over £2.5 billion a year, and that is up from £1 billion a year in 1997. The framework of the Bill will allow a workable scheme to be in place by next year, to ensure as smooth a transition as possible from the current arrangements. Of course, it is in all our interests to ensure that local authorities are properly funded so that they can provide the statutory concession.
I have been generous in giving way, and I am keen to make a little more progress.
Our overriding principle is that the extra £250 million of funding should be directed to where the extra costs will fall, to ensure that we recognise passenger hotspots as far as we can. We are looking carefully at a number of funding options together with the Treasury and the Department for Communities and Local Government. We are discussing the options in detail with our concessionary fares working groups, which consist of representatives from all tiers of local government. We have met with Nexus, London councils, Transport for London and other key stakeholders. We hope to have taken a decision on the preferred funding route by the summer, and we intend to consult widely on our preferred formula for distribution.
We recognise the importance of ensuring that operators receive fair payment for carrying concessionary passengers. Reimbursement will continue to be offered on a “no better off, no worse off” basis, so no operator should be disadvantaged. Operators can appeal if they believe that reimbursement is too low. We also want the power to simplify the administration of concessionary fares. There is a wide variety of concessionary travel schemes across the country, and 291 separate travel concession authorities, which means that some bus operators have to negotiate with many different authorities each year. There is therefore provision in the Bill to transfer reimbursement and administration powers to higher-tier local authorities or to the Secretary of State. That could improve efficiency and save money, but any such change would be subject to extensive consultation and indeed parliamentary scrutiny. It would not be made until after April 2008, so local authorities have plenty of time to prepare for it. We continue to work closely with local government, the bus industry and, of course, with groups representing older and disabled people.
Concessionary travel is a devolved issue—a subject that has been raised by a number of hon. Members, but we want it to be possible in future for concessionaires—
I can assure my hon. Friend that such issues are exactly why we have undertaken such detailed work, not just with local authorities but with bus operators and others, to ensure that we devise a mechanism and formula that recognise that resources should be allocated where costs fall. We are looking at a number of different options to make sure that we anticipate where bus usage is likely to be heaviest as a consequence of the national concession.
It is important to understand the measures in the Bill within the broader context of the Government’s strategy for growing bus patronage, which is a matter of some debate. In contrast to the Tory Government, we have put buses at the centre of our transport strategy. As I have already said, patronage steadily declined in the 1980s and early 1990s, but—backed, yes, by record increases in funding—bus use under this Government has increased by 7.3 per cent. since 2000-01, and has gone up six years in a row. Today, there are about 23,000 more buses and coaches registered than in 1997, and the fleet is younger and more accessible for disabled people and other passengers. Although 4 billion bus journeys were taken in England in 2006, we want that figure to continue to rise. The bus review that we undertook last year, “Putting Passengers First”, showed that too many local authorities and bus operators are still failing to work in partnership, to the detriment of services in many towns and cities.
Our ambition is to maximise the full potential of every bus in every part of the country. We have therefore mapped out a new structure for buses under “Putting Passengers First”, in which local authorities provide effective priority schemes, better traffic management and an infrastructure that allows buses to thrive. We want operators to focus on improving services, making sure that they are clean, safe, convenient, accessible and, indeed, comfortable for passengers. We will give traffic commissioners increased powers to improve performance by holding operators and authorities to account for poor performance. We want to make it easier for both groups to arrange frequency of services, timetables and fares through stronger partnership working. We have already achieved tremendous results in areas where operators and authorities work closely together, not simply in London but in Cambridge, Brighton and York, for example, and a rise in patronage, too, in more rural areas such as East Sussex and Kent. We want that success to be replicated in other cities and regions to help to tackle social exclusion and congestion and to support the measures in the Bill.
We have established a strong foundation for a more successful bus industry in recent years. We have introduced a package of measures for the bus sector, of which the Bill is a fundamental. This is unequivocally a Labour Bill. This is a Labour Government delivering for some of the most vulnerable in society. I commend the Bill to the House.
May I welcome the Secretary of State back to the House? He is one Scot, I suspect, who is extremely pleased to be back in London. Fortunately, the issue before the House is relatively uncontroversial, and there are certainly no complicated votes at the end of the evening.
May I begin by giving the Bill a warm welcome? Indeed, I could hardly do otherwise. The Secretary of State rightly said that it is a Labour Bill, because there is a Labour Government, but it is a Bill, too, that commands support across the House. When I was first elected in 2001, one of my first actions was to hold an Adjournment debate on concessionary fares for pensioners, because of an anomaly in my constituency facing many of the pensioners whom I represent. In Worcester Park, a small centre in London that is divided between the London boroughs of Sutton and Kingston and the borough of Epsom and Ewell in Surrey, the boundary literally divided the community on the provision of bus passes. Pensioners living in London enjoyed the benefit of the freedom pass; those living in my constituency did not. Believe me, they let me know regularly how annoyed they were about that. It was not just. I called for change then, and I am delighted that the Secretary of State is leading an initiative to make a genuine change. There was an anomaly, and that is to change. I am delighted that the Government’s move to extend the existing schemes nationally makes the likelihood of local anomalies in future much smaller.
We have always said that where the Government get things right, we will back them, and on the Bill, we think they have got things right. However, the Secretary of State cannot resist lobbing in a few jibes about buses. He makes the old comments about the decline in bus patronage post-1985. I remind him that the decline in bus patronage was greater pre-1985 than it has been post-1985. I also recognise that there are problems with the current system. He paints a rosy picture of what has happened under the present Government. A few weeks ago I went to Sefton, where people are losing their bus services and losing the means of their journey to work, because of failings in the current system.
There are still problems to be addressed in our bus system. If the Government get things right, we will support them, but they do not have a particularly good track record. The last great initiative from the Government on bus reform, quality contracts, has not been an unbridled success. The country is not full of quality contracts changing the face of our bus industry, so I wait with some trepidation to see what happens as a result of these reforms—but, as I always say, if the Government introduce positive reforms and positive changes, we will consider them constructively.
Are not the problems that the hon. Gentleman saw on his visit to Sefton a result of the fact that the Tory Government deregulated the buses, which led to the stupid idea of competition which, in most areas, has ended up with monopolies? He referred earlier to the fact that bus patronage in London has increased. That was the only area that was left regulated.
The hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways. Many in his party hark back to the days of the municipal bus company, but the fact that the Secretary of State can stand at the Dispatch Box and talk about the improvements to our bus fleets and the increased availability of local buses is down to the investment made by private companies, so the idea that there is some great nirvana to return to is a myth that still seems to delude some on the Labour Benches.
I am delighted. This is wonderful—the greatest fairy story that I have heard for a very long time, and I am the grandmother of 10. May I congratulate the hon. Gentleman? I sat through the 1985 Transport Bill, when the Conservative Government made it clear that as far as they were concerned, buses were a means of transport for the poor and the incompetent who had not managed to make money. The idea that the private bus companies have been fighting to bring in new and useful services in order to expand is absolute nonsense. Will he, just for once, have a little humility? The Government whom he supported destroyed the bus industry. My Government are reorganising it. Will he please give us credit for a little common sense, and admit it?
I am happy to consider the bus industry today and the future of public transport provision. When the Government get things wrong, as they frequently do, we will hold them to account. When they get things right, as with the Bill, we will support them in doing so.
The introduction of a national scheme for concessionary bus fares for the old and disabled will be welcomed by people all around England. The extension of the scheme that the Government introduced two years ago in a blaze of glory ahead of the general election was essential. The first effort to extend free bus passes nationwide proved to be rather more limited than the headlines suggested, with travel limited to borough boundaries, which was not much use to people whose local shops, local hospital or the services that they needed to access were just across a borough boundary. I hope the Bill will remove such anomalies for the future.
As ever, the devil is in the detail. Although the Bill has cross-party support, important points have been raised on both sides of the House as to exactly how it will be put into practice and what the consequences will be. There are still areas of concern that need to be addressed by the Minister who is to wind up the debate. On funding—an issue raised by the Secretary of State—there are still aspects of the Government’s plans that remain unclear.
The Under-Secretary has informed us on a number of occasions that from April 2008 the Government will be providing around £1 billion a year in total to fund concessionary travel. When she replies, may we have a little more explanation of how that is made up? The £350 million that was made available for local concessionary travel in 2006 has been topped up by £250 million as part of this package, making a total of £600 million today, but where does the extra £400 million come from and how will it be delivered? If the detailed work is being done now on the way in which the funding will be allocated, how can Ministers be sure that £250 million is sufficient to meet all the needs? Can they provide assurances that it will be enough to cover the costs of the scheme? The experience under the fares scheme introduced in April last year is that they did not get it right the first time round.
We have already heard from some hon. Members how the 2006 scheme has affected their areas, but I will pick up on a couple of examples. During the recent Government consultation on the 2007-08 local government finance settlement, the Government received representations from 23 local authorities and local authority groups that the funding for concessionary fares was insufficient to meet the costs of the scheme. We heard about the major issue in the north-east from the hon. Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland). The introduction of the scheme cost Tyne and Wear £5.4 million in the last financial year. It had to make £3.4 million-worth of cuts because the Government had underestimated the take-up of the scheme. There was a 24 per cent. rise in child concessionary fares, a 50 per cent. rise in the cost of teen travel tickets for 16 to 18-year-olds in further education, and the scrapping of 11 subsidised bus routes providing services to areas that benefited from no other forms of public transport.
There is a similar situation at the other end of the country. In Christchurch, roughly 6 per cent. of the population is over the age of 60—the highest percentage of any local authority area in England or Wales. With the introduction of the 2006 local concessionary scheme, the Government increased the council’s grant by £237,000, while its total budget for concessionary fares was £395,000, including £20,000 of its own money. However, the take-up was even greater than anticipated, and 69 per cent. of those eligible have been issued with a pass. The £395,000 budget has been overspent by almost 100 per cent.—equivalent to an 11 per cent. increase in the borough’s 2006-07 council tax. There is no point in giving our pensioners free bus travel if they just have to pay the bills through their council tax instead. It is not just local authorities that have had problems with the funding of the local concessionary scheme. Sixty appeals have been lodged with the Department for Transport by bus companies since the start of the local concessionary scheme, 45 of which remain unresolved.
It is essential that the Government not only clarify exactly how much is being spent, how it will be broken down and how and where it will be allocated, but confirm and prove that they have sufficiently allowed for take-up in excess of expectation.
How the money is allocated will be just as important as how much there will be. The Government have used the normal local authority grant to support the 2006 scheme of local concessionary bus fares. The local authority in which a concessionary journey begins will have to compensate the bus operator. However, if the Government reimburse local authorities according to their resident over-60 population, areas with large numbers of elderly visitors will end up with a large financial burden for which they will not be adequately compensated. Again, I hope that the Under-Secretary will address that when she replies, because it is a particular problem for holiday resorts that attract a large number of elderly visitors. If towns such as Brighton, Cleethorpes or Poole have a disproportionate number of elderly visitors, inevitably they will end up footing the bill for a much higher level of bus usage than will have been provided for under the grant that they receive. How do Ministers plan to address that issue?
Let me touch on a number of issues related to the scope of the scheme. The Secretary of State will be aware of the pressure coming from a variety of sources to provide concessionary fares on other transport systems as well, such as trains and ferries. I am particularly aware of the representations being made by my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) about his constituents. I understand the problems that the Government would face in funding such an extended scheme, but when the Under-Secretary replies will she brief the House about the work that was done on the scope of the scheme and what assessments were carried out on the viability and costs of extending it to cover other local transport systems, such as trams and ferry links?
In particular, can the Minister tell the House what assessment the Government have carried out of the cost of extending the scheme to cover community transport? Ministers will be aware of the valuable work done by our community transport sector. An underlying principle behind the Bill must be to help tackle social exclusion, but the reality is that some of the most socially excluded in the country are those who, for whatever reason, are unable to use public transport and for whom innovative community transport schemes are their only lifeline to the wider world. The truth is that the Government have decided to exclude community transport from the scheme. Will the Minister explain her approach to that issue?
I want to reinforce my hon. Friend’s remarks about community transport. In my constituency I have one community, Kielder village—the most remote village in England—that depends entirely on a post bus to go south and a community bus to go shopping in Scotland. Without subsidy, that service is extremely vulnerable.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the fact that in some areas of the country, particularly in our rural areas, community transport schemes—we have some tremendous community transport operations and great work is done by the social enterprise sector—are the only transport service. The Government must support them.
The Secretary of State addressed the cross-border issues to some degree, but I am not entirely certain that he is confident that he will deliver a solution. Wales and Scotland have concessionary bus schemes, and England will have one from 2008. I hope that the Minister can assure us that between now and then as much as possible will be done to ensure mutual recognition of the schemes across borders. For those who live in the border areas, whose local bus service can begin on the other side of the border from where they live, that mutual recognition is vital, as we heard from the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller) in relation to his constituency. There is a risk that the new scheme will not help. If we get things wrong and if Ministers do not take the right decisions and cannot reach the right agreements with the devolved Administrations, there is a danger that people in those areas could be losers. Many local authorities have arrangements to help to fund concessionary cross-border travel, but if their contributions are squeezed by a national scheme that is not funded to work most effectively with those authorities, they might impose cutbacks on that help. Certain services have already been cut as a result of the previous scheme, and I would not want cross-border services to be cut because the funding package was not right.
May I also press the Minister on the subject of start times? At present, the scheme applies only to travel after 9.30 am. Obviously, I appreciate that it could not possibly be extended across peak times, but the start times for other services are an issue. For example, the first appointment at most hospitals is 9 o’clock. The pensioners’ parliament has alerted my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) to the problems that the start time for the scheme will cause some pensioners who have early medical appointments. Will the Minister consider such people? What work have the Government done to assess that dimension and the relationship between pensioners’ entitlement to free travel and start times in the health service?
On the issue of technology, the Welsh and Scottish schemes already use smartcard technology. The Minister is clearly working on the issue, but there are still big doubts about whether smartcards will be available at the start of the scheme in England. Clearly, that poses a number of problems. I have already explained why there are question marks over how funding will be handled and whether it will be possible to get it right through the grants system. Smartcard technology would help to create a smoother funding mechanism by making it possible to fund directly the number of journeys made in the areas where they were made rather than having to use block grants made on an assessment of population. That is a more attractive way of distributing future funding. However, even if it is not immediately possible to do that, it is logical to do as much as we can to provide for the use of smartcard technology in future. I listened with interest to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay) and his account of the work of his local authority.
Given the time frame, would not it make sense for the passes that are handed out to be enabled with ITSO technology so that, even if it is not possible to introduce a smartcard scheme up front, when the technology is ready to come on stream six, 12 or 18 months later, the Government will not ask local authorities to withdraw all the passes and replace them with a new generation of smartcards? Will the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary consider that approach?
Let us consider technology and the prevention of fraud. Little can be done immediately if a lost or stolen photo card is used fraudulently. However, under a smartcard system, such as the oyster card system in London, a lost or stolen card can be cancelled to prevent fraudulent use and any credit on the card can be reissued to a replacement card so that the rightful owner does not lose out. Given that electronic ticketing systems may not be available in the first months or years of the scheme’s operation, what plans do the Government have to help prevent fraudulent abuse? Fraud is especially relevant, given the funding pressures on some local authorities. There simply does not seem to be the room for manoeuvre for local authorities to bear the cost of significant fraud.
It is worth briefly referring to the impact of the proposals on London. The Secretary of State referred to the freedom pass, which has existed for 23 years and is funded and run by the London boroughs. It is the most generous concessionary fares scheme in the country, giving older and disabled Londoners free use of the capital’s trains, tubes, trams and buses.
The introduction of a national scheme could cause problems for London. The extension of concessionary fares nationwide means that London will be in danger of losing out because of tourism. It is a major tourist centre, which attracts many retired visitors from all parts of the country, who will be entitled to free bus travel in London. Under a national scheme, journeys taken by those visitors will have to be underwritten by London councils as part of the overall cost of concessionary fares in London. I hope that the Department will consider that.
I sensed from the Secretary of State’s remarks that he recognised the potential problem of technology. London already has an established electronic ticketing system—the oyster card. It would be daft to have systems around the country that are not technologically interoperable. It would be valuable if the Under-Secretary could give some idea of the steps that are being taken to ensure genuine interoperability between the smartcards that are in use throughout the country, and especially between the scheme in London and those that will be introduced outside London.
The debate today essentially comes down to dealing with unintended consequences of a well-meaning Bill, of which all parties generally approve. That is a task especially for the Committee. We must ensure that the measure does not cause problems, which no one has previously envisaged, for local authorities.
I am delighted by my hon. Friend’s constructive approach to the Bill. Does he agree that we need to go further to increase the attractiveness of buses to elderly people? We need to tackle some of the barriers that prevent them from travelling on buses: drivers driving off before elderly passengers have taken their seats; the accessibility and readability of timetables; co-ordinating bus and train times, and tackling antisocial behaviour on buses. We need a comprehensive and holistic approach to increasing travel on buses.
My hon. Friend is right. If we are to have any chance of providing genuine alternatives to the car or achieving a balanced system, we must ensure that public transport offers as much as possible. It must provide a genuine alternative to people who may choose to leave their cars at home, or might not otherwise travel at all, because they have no means of doing so.
Getting public transport right must be a priority for any Government, whatever their political persuasion, now and in future. My colleagues and I fully support the principle of national concessionary fares, but we shall have to examine the details carefully in Committee to ensure that, when put into practice, the scheme does what it is supposed to do. We need to be sure that it does not have a negative effect on the most excluded from society, who cannot or do not have access to public transport.
It is a good Bill with a good set of intentions and will provide a well-deserved additional pillar of support for pensioners who have contributed so much to Britain during their working lives. All too often, however, the Government have started with good intentions and then failed to deliver, so the Committee needs to ensure that that does not happen this time.
When the scheme was introduced in 2006—indeed, when it was announced by the Chancellor in 2005, too—it was widely welcomed, not least in Tyne and Wear, because it returned us to a position that we were in 30 years ago. The Labour Tyne and Wear authority introduced a free travel scheme around the county 30 years ago, which had to be abandoned because of the Conservative party policy of introducing charges. I have to say that I resisted it at the time, because I felt that if charges were introduced, they would inevitably be increased, which is precisely what happened.
The return to free fares was widely welcomed—until the sting in the tail was discovered. The funding allocated to the scheme used the standard local authority funding formula, which meant that it was tied to population, not to bus usage. In Tyne and Wear, of course, there is a high take-up of public transport, so we ended up with a shortfall of funding. In 2006-07, £5.4 million of cuts in bus services had to be made—cuts to vulnerable people and to young people, as the teen travel scheme of subsidised travel for students had to be severely cut back. Furthermore, £2 million had to be taken from the reserves, adding up in total to an actual cut of £7.4 million last year for one of the poorest regions in the country.
This year, of course, the scheme continues under the same formula and has to be subsidised yet again by Tyne and Wear council tax payers. Further subsidies will have to be found, so by the time we get to the national scheme next year, it will have cost Tyne and Wear £10 million to run the free travel scheme over the two-year period.
My hon. Friend is detailing one problem with the current use of the revenue support grant, but are there not two further ones? It also depends on the money being passported from districts through to passenger transport authorities in areas such as my hon. Friend’s and mine, and it does nothing to help when some authorities—including the Isles of Scilly, I understand—get some cash under the system even though they do not have any buses.
My hon. Friend raises a couple of points that I shall come back to later. There are several anomalies in the distribution of this money, and nowhere else in the country has suffered to the same extent as Tyne and Wear. Meanwhile, because of the method of distribution, some authorities with lower public transport usage than Tyne and Wear will once more gain from the funding formula as my hon. Friend has just pointed out. Indeed, funding for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will be found from this cache of money despite the fact that they already have fully funded schemes. My hon. Friend is right to point out that the Scilly Isles will receive a share, even though they do not have any bus services at all. The distribution of this money is therefore nonsense, and I hope that Ministers will accept that it has to be corrected.
Ministers could correct the problem if they devised a system whereby funding went directly to the concessionary travel authorities through a specific grant. We could have a ring-fenced grant to transport authorities, with 75 per cent. allocated for the running of the scheme and 25 per cent. held back as a contingency to provide additional resources where the formula does not fully reflect the cost of concessionary journeys in any particular area. That would iron out many of the anomalies that we face today.
The opportunity must also be taken to correct through the Bill the funding anomalies relating to Tyne and Wear, which I cannot stress too strongly. It is grossly unfair that Tyne and Wear should be put in the position in which it finds itself, so I ask the Minister to give an assurance in her wind-up speech that the acknowledged underfunding of Tyne and Wear will be addressed and that revised arrangements will be made for the distribution of funding in future. If she cannot give that assurance, will she then acknowledge that the introduction of the national scheme will leave Tyne and Wear at a severe disadvantage; that cuts in services and concessions to young people will have to continue; that the area will be denied the level playing field it needs when the scheme begins in 2008; and that we shall also be denied what the Secretary of State implied earlier when he said that this should be looked at as a floor rather than a ceiling? That will mean little to Tyne and Wear unless the funding formula is corrected.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to underline the dire underfunding of the scheme in Tyne and Wear. Has he had elderly constituents come to him, as I have, who say that they do not want the concessions if they can be obtained only at the cost of cutting, for example, the student concession?
Indeed I have. In fact, among the early complaints that we received from elderly people about the scheme was that, although they welcomed the idea of returning to free fares, they did not want them at the cost of student concessions and other bus services, which is how the increase was paid for. We still receive those complaints, which is why the issue needs to be ironed out. Some elderly people were upset that that was the outcome of this otherwise welcome scheme.
What measures do Ministers propose to deal with the problem of bus companies exploiting concessionary fares to their advantage?
Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a particular problem in the areas in the city that are most heavily dependent on buses, such as the outer west area of Newcastle?
Yes, indeed. In fact, some of the services that were cut were to outlying areas, to which it is not profitable enough for bus companies to run services. Certain subsidised services that were run by the passenger transport authority have therefore been cut back in order to pay for the concessionary fares scheme. People in areas such as those to which my hon. Friend referred have suffered as a result.
I would be curious to know whether the hon. Gentleman thinks that the problems that he is describing are a direct consequence of the funding mechanism for buses or part of a broader pattern that has left the north-east receiving the second-lowest transport funding per head from the Government of any region in the country?
The hon. Gentleman refers to a point that will come up in other debates and in other Bills, although I acknowledge that the north-east of England is unfunded so far as transport provision generally is concerned. That is something that some of us will be taking up tomorrow with the Minister responsible for roads.
The exploitation of the system by bus companies also needs to be addressed, if the scheme and the Government’s ambition to increase public transport usage are to be successful. With the introduction of the scheme, surely it is even more important that we move to a system of local franchising of bus services and bus routes. Unless public transport is accessible, affordable, comfortable and convenient, we will never get motorists to abandon their cars, and buses will increasingly become transport for concessionaires and no one else, with taxpayers providing the profits of the bus companies.
There is a further problem that will arise from the Bill as currently drafted and which needs to be addressed—the proposal that transport authorities cover the cost of all concessionary journeys that start in their areas, including those of non-residents. That will impose an additional burden on areas such as Tyne and Wear, to which huge numbers of people come to visit the Metro centre, Newcastle city centre, and the cultural and leisure attractions of Tyneside. All those people coming into the area and beginning a bus journey there will create a burden that will fall upon the Tyne and Wear passenger transport authority, on top of the problems from which it already suffers. It is essential that we should have a more flexible funding system that can take care of all those extra burdens.
As my hon. Friend knows, many of my constituents travel over the border from Chester-le-Street into Gateshead and the Tyne and Wear conurbation not only to work, but to visit the large number of well-managed attractions on Tyneside. Does he agree that one proposal that we perhaps need to consider in the north-east is a passenger transport authority that covers not only Tyne and Wear, but the region as a whole, and which could address some of the broader issues to which he has referred?
My hon. Friend tempts me down a road that would extend this debate longer than was intended. I certainly agree that we need to put in place a regional facility for transport issues generally. Public transport would probably be included in a regional look at such issues, now that we have acknowledged that transport can go beyond local government boundaries.
As I said at the outset, the scheme is a good one, and has been widely welcomed. It is a huge step forward in public transport provision. The Bill, however, has two possible outcomes. The problems that it faces are technical, and can be overcome. If they are, the introduction of free travel will go down as one of the great achievements of the Labour Government. If they are not, I fear that the unfairness that results will lead to dissatisfaction and disgruntlement when there should be celebration. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron), will want to strive to achieve the former and avoid the latter.
I thank the Minister and, through her, the Secretary of State, for the help and information provided in the lead-up to the Bill. The Bill has been, and will be, welcomed on both sides of the House. Bus travel is already the most widely used form of public transport, and the earlier provision of free local bus travel has already seen bus patronage, after a long period of decline, rising—for once, not just in London.
Liberal Democrats welcome the extension of the concessionary bus fares scheme to make it a genuinely national scheme. The provision of free bus use for the elderly and disabled increases social mobility and inclusion. However, as my noble Friends did in the other place, we shall seek to extend and improve the nature of the concession in Committee. On Second Reading I and other Members will raise concerns, which I hope that the Minister will address.
The concessionary bus fares scheme is a national scheme administered locally, and we welcome that. On Second Reading in another place, however, Lord Davies of Oldham stated that if the scheme were administered nationally, according to a National Audit Office report, annual savings of £12 million would result. I hope that the Minister will indicate the estimated additional cost of administering the scheme for local authorities. How much of the extra £250 million allocated has been set aside for that? What are the estimated start-up costs? I have been given estimates of between £35 million and £75 million, depending on how the scheme is set up. How will those costs be met, and by whom?
The Government have also stated their desire to have a national bus pass. The official Opposition spokesman referred to the smartcard. It will be impossible for the smartcard scheme to be available next year, but it is important that the Minister should set out the framework in which she expects smartcards to be introduced. Various schemes operate at present, not least the oyster card in London. We need to examine how that transition will be managed. I agree that the new scheme and the new cards should be ITSO-compliant. But what is the cost of introducing those cards, and who is going to meet it? I agree with the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) about issuing the cards next year, even though they will not be widely usable on buses. We need to ensure that we do not introduce a scheme next year, and then in following years introduce another new scheme with additional costs. Will the Minister give some detail in her wind-up about how the transition scheme will be managed?
Funding is the issue that will exercise most Members; it has been the major focus of the remarks and interventions made so far. The current scheme has been introduced via the formula grant—a blunderbuss instrument that deals with population and demographics but takes no account of bus use. The London boroughs, for example, have estimated that the actual cost of the scheme for London was £100 million, but they received only £53 million through the formula grant, the balance having been met through increases in council tax or cuts in other services. The hon. Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland) spoke of the experience in Tyne and Wear, where cuts in other services were necessary to pay for the scheme.
We must ensure—other Members will no doubt press this—that there is reimbursement for the costs of any scheme. It has been said that the reimbursement will come from journeys within a local authority, but how will that work? I recently asked the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport how many people were travelling to various tourist destinations. Other Members have mentioned some of them—places such as Blackpool, Cleethorpes, Scarborough, London and Manchester. Although the Department was able to give those figures, no information was available about the number of over-60s or the number of disabled people who were using buses in those areas.
It is important for us to deal with actual figures, because, as I have said, the formula grant is a blunderbuss. I hope that the Minister will agree to meet leaders of a cross-party delegation from those tourist destinations—some of the main honeypots—to discuss how the scheme might operate in their areas. While I know that all local authorities have an interest in ensuring that the scheme is fully funded, those areas have particular concerns. If a direct grant is to be administered for actual journeys, how will the Minister ensure that the necessary information is provided? We know how the formula grant operates, but that question is particularly important.
Other Members have mentioned bus fares, and the definitions of the types of transport and bus services that are eligible. In the past 12 months, bus fares have risen faster than the retail prices index. In Greater Manchester, an appeal to the Secretary of State by bus operators resulted in a substantial increase in bus fares and an extra cost of £3.5 million to the passenger transport authority. With an increasing number of bus journeys funded through the concessionary fare scheme, is there not a temptation for bus operators to increase fares? What mechanism will the Secretary of State introduce to ensure that there is reimbursement for actual costs, and no element of profiteering by bus operators?
The Secretary of State said that 291 authorities would be involved in negotiations with the major bus operators. While I do not want to see national control of the scheme, I hope that there will be a national framework enabling us to operate to common guidelines when it comes to amounts per mile, so that local authorities’ administrative burdens do not increase dramatically because they have to engage with, effectively, just five major bus operators to provide a scheme in their areas.
As I have said, we need a proper definition of the services that will be eligible. For instance, will the open-topped buses that are used by tourists in Manchester qualify, or will they be exempt? Services have been mentioned which in other areas might be classed as coach services. Again, we need a proper definition of the services that will be included.
Following our experience of the scheme for appeal, I hope that the Secretary of State will undertake a review of how the scheme has operated in 2006 and ensure that it applies equally, including to the London boroughs. The Liberal Democrats are fully in favour of the freedom pass, but we do not think that it is fair for Transport for London to be able to override the London boroughs in terms of the costs that are charged to them. We believe that the scheme should apply equally to all authorities and not exclude the London boroughs, as it does at present.
Turning finally to those who will be eligible, I hope that we can have a proper discussion of what we mean by “disabled”. We need to have an inclusive definition that ensures that there is maximum usage, including by those suffering from mental illness. Will the Minister also consider extending the provisions of the scheme to those who are disabled and need a companion to accompany them? At present that is not provided for, but it is important.
The Bill does not extend to other forms of transport. I understand why the Government might be reluctant at this stage for it to do that, but the Bill does not take account of what happens in areas which do not have a dedicated bus service. The hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) mentioned the effects on rural services when buses have been lost: people have had to rely on either community transport or taxi voucher schemes. Why cannot the concessionary bus scheme be extended to such areas?
In my own area recently—in Deeplish—an operator decided to remove a bus and the passenger transport authority put on a taxi service for which people pay 50p. I know from talking to pensioners that they feel that it is iniquitous that they lost the bus service and although they got a free bus pass, they are not able to use it and they are having to pay. There ought to be some recognition of that. We have heard about the fact that the Isles of Scilly do not have any bus services. The ferry service to the Isles of Scilly ought to apply as a concessionary service as that is the means of transport that those on the Isles of Scilly have to use. Also, what will happen where other modes of transport are used but where part of the journey is travelled by bus, such as on some of the Merseyside ferry journeys? Why cannot there be an extension to include those?
We also heard mention of cross-border issues. The devolved Administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland already operate more generous schemes than those proposed in the Bill. I hope that those benefits will be extended to neighbouring local authorities, and that we can have a working scheme in place before next April so that people who live near the borders can make full use of the schemes that exist. That should be a prerequisite of the introduction of a genuine multi-modal scheme that covers all modes of transport. The Government have left scope in the Bill to introduce that, and I hope that we receive some suggestion during the progress of the Bill of their intentions in that regard.
The Liberal Democrats welcome the Bill as a first stage in the introduction of a genuinely concessionary transport scheme. We look forward to working on the detail of the Bill in Committee.
I welcome the Bill. I know that it is warmly welcomed in North Durham, and in Durham in general, for pensioners and disabled people. The 11 million people nationally who will gain from its provisions will warmly welcome it.
I am glad that the Government are now concentrating on buses. In the first couple of terms of our Labour Government, we have concentrated too much on capital incentive schemes—such as for light rail—in urban areas. We may have forgotten that the main mode of transport in many rural areas is the bus, and that buses are not a luxury but a necessity in those areas.
I welcome the fact that the Bill will set up a national scheme and will, hopefully, do away with the various anomalies that the boundaries of counties and local authority areas give rise to. Although we, as politicians, understand those boundaries intimately, it is clear that local people cannot understand why they exist; they do not understand why they cannot catch a bus to wherever they want in the north-east, for example. Therefore, this concentration on bus services in rural areas is welcome. My constituency is a large rural area and, as I said, for most people who do not own a car, access to a bus is not a luxury but a necessity.
The bus network is long overdue for change and the White Paper is a step in the right direction, in that it has been recognised that a degree of regulation needs to be put back into the system. The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) accused me of wanting to go back to the old municipal bus companies. I do not want that, but I do want local authorities and passenger transport executives at least to have some more power to direct bus companies. It is no good giving people in the county of Durham free bus passes if the local bus service is not there. Go Northern has stripped bus routes out of my constituency in the past 12 months, leaving many communities completely isolated and without access to a bus. Although many elderly and disabled people in those communities will welcome access to free and concessionary fares, if there are no buses they cannot access that great benefit delivered to them by a Labour Government.
I turn to a point made by the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen). As we debate this Bill, we need to consider the extension of concessionary fares to other forms of transport in places where bus services are not available or have been withdrawn. In some rural areas, communities use taxi buses or other community transport facilities instead. The hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) referred to the great use that is made of post buses in his large rural constituency. I am not suggesting that we should have a network that delivers people all over the region, but we need one that delivers them to the major hubs, so that they can then get a bus or another form of transport into the major conurbations. I want the Government to look at that issue, please, and to extend concessionary travel to areas that do not have access to bus services because the market has stripped them out.
I fully endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland) said about the distribution of funds. Last year, Tyne and Wear passenger transport authority had to withdraw funding for well-established schemes that support teenagers and other disadvantaged groups in order to introduce a concessionary scheme. My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) made an interesting point when he said that that led to a reduction in the transport footprint on Tyneside. The PTA had to cut services to pay for concessionary fares, thereby leaving the outer parts of west Newcastle, for example, without a bus service, so that had the opposite effect to the one that the Government wanted, which was to expand free transport and access to it. Sadly, when my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (David Miliband) had responsibility for such matters, the representations made by my hon. Friend the Member for Tyne Bridge and others fell on deaf ears. Hopefully, the present Secretary of State will look at the case that Tyne and Wear is making more favourably.
I turn to the question of who has responsibility for concessionary fares—an issue that the Secretary of State mentioned when he opened the debate. The ludicrous situation in Durham is that, although the county council is the transport authority responsible for passenger transport in the county of Durham, responsibility for concessionary fares lies with the district councils. So last year we had the ridiculous situation in which seven district councils were potentially going to introduce individual schemes. Without my intervention, and the very vocal support of my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods), we would have had a silly situation in which people would have been able to travel freely within Chester-le-Street, but when they went over the border into Durham, City of Durham or Derwentside district councils, they would have had to pay a fare. Fortunately, sense prevailed and we now have a county-wide scheme.
We also have a scheme that allows people to travel outside the area, into Tyne and Wear, but I take the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Tyne Bridge made about people travelling from Tyneside into County Durham. I am pleased that the Minister announced that the issue will be reviewed, but I urge him to consider the point that it is no good giving the responsibility to district councils. It has to be a county council decision. People must also be told whose responsibility it is, because I can foresee squabbling between district councils. I hope that we will not have to wait too long before the Government abolish the district councils in County Durham, which would do us all a favour and we could have a unitary council for the area.
The other issue is the national nature of the scheme. According to discussions that I and other County Durham Members have had with bus companies, they have difficulty through-ticketing with other companies. If the scheme is to be successful, people will have to be able to travel seamlessly around the north-east and nationally. I recognise the point made by the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell from the Conservative Front Bench that we need a system that would allow that to happen. We envy the London oyster card and we need a similar system for the north-east or even nationally, so that pensioners could use their card wherever they went. However, the bus companies tell me that that would require some investment in technology.
The hon. Member for Rochdale touched on another issue that needs careful consideration. In the negotiations on the scheme, the bus companies are playing councils off against each other. There are only five major bus companies now and we are probably not going to get a very good deal for the taxpayers’ money that we give them. In many areas, the big companies have monopolies with which others cannot compete, and when we discuss concessionary fares with those companies we need to strike a hard bargain. It is hard to agree with a Liberal Democrat twice in one debate—I am sure that fellow Labour Members will forgive me—but I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the bus companies have monopolies and we should insist on some national minimum standards for them. Otherwise they will play councils off against each other.
The other sector that we need to take into consideration is the smaller bus operators. Some in rural communities do a fantastic job of providing small, localised services in rural communities. For example, Stanley Taxis in my constituency is a taxi firm, but it also runs a limited bus service. Such operators need to be taken into account when considering concessionary fares, because they are part of the transport network.
I welcome the concentration on buses and concessionary fares by the Government, because it will help thousands of my constituents. Transport is not only about major capital schemes. Alongside this Bill, we need proper transport planning. The electorate in the north-east rejected a regional assembly, and I respect that decision, but we need some body in the area that can consider regional transport infrastructure and the planning of services. Such a body could deal with rail and bus services across the region. If there is to be a unified concessionary fares system for north-east England, we do not want County Durham to have a better deal than Tyneside, or vice versa, or for the scheme to operate differently in different areas. A single transport authority would be able to make a stronger case when arguing with and lobbying the bus companies—the monopoly suppliers. When I raised that point recently, I was told that it was the responsibility of the North East assembly. I am sorry, but I think the assembly should be abolished rather than be given more powers. However, there is a strong case for a single passenger transport executive or authority to cover the entire area.
People ask what the Labour Government have done for us. The Bill is yet another example of the Labour Government delivering to 11 million pensioners. It is not surprising that the penny is slowly dropping among Conservative Front Benchers and they do not want to be caught opposing the good, popular ideas that Labour is delivering.
Like everybody else, in general I welcome the intentions of the Bill, although as we have heard from previous speakers, some serious issues will have to be looked at, otherwise there is a danger that, as the hon. Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland) said, those good intentions might not deliver what people expect. Ironically, when people are promised something that sounds wonderful, if it does not turn out to be as good as they expect, they are more disappointed than if they had never been offered it in the first place. However, I wish the Bill well and hope that any potential problems and anomalies will be sorted out in Committee.
As my constituency is in the London area, my elderly constituents in Uxbridge have enjoyed the benefit of concessionary fares for some time, through the use of the freedom pass. Bus drivers have told me that over the years the concessionary fare scheme has given birth to a new type of person. They are who is nicknamed twirlies. They wait at bus stops just before the concessionary period starts, look eagerly at the bus driver and ask, “Are we too early?” Members in other parts of the country can look forward to that important group becoming a feature of the landscape.
Not all my elderly constituents benefit. As we have already heard, there are problems for people on the edge of a concessionary scheme area, such as my constituents in the area traditionally known as Uxbridge Moor, which stretches from Uxbridge towards Slough in Buckinghamshire. The only bus that serves them, which goes from Uxbridge station to Slough, is not part of the freedom pass system, so they feel extremely aggrieved that they cannot benefit from concessionary bus fares—an example of people who are disappointed because they were promised something that they were not given.
The London borough of Hillingdon looked at possible ways of dealing with the problem, such as issuing oyster cards, but the cards cannot be used on that bus route. Those constituents feel that they have been given second-class status, simply by dint of where they live, so they are very much looking forward to the Bill. It is not just the elderly who do not benefit. As the oyster card system does not work in the area, young people in my constituency who are entitled to an oyster card for free bus travel in London cannot use the card to get into Uxbridge town centre. However, let us hope that the scheme solves the problem for my elderly constituents. I flag up the problem not just on behalf of my constituents, but because it happens in other border areas. It should be looked at—otherwise, those who live just on the edge of an area could feel that they are unfairly treated.
I mentioned the young people in my constituency. The Bill is about concessionary bus travel for the elderly, but the Mayor of London introduced free travel for those aged 17 and under. I welcome that scheme, although that could be because I have three children aged 17 and under who use it. However, it has become increasingly obvious that a minority, albeit a small minority, are abusing the scheme and causing a great deal of antisocial behaviour on buses—so much so that some people are calling for that particular concession to be withdrawn. Obviously, I would like the Government to look into that, but I mention it also because many people who would like to use buses are finding that they can be a bit of a no-go area. Elderly people, in particular, can feel threatened by large groups of young people who are severely misbehaving. It may be a small minority who are involved, as I said, but the situation is increasingly becoming a problem.
My hon. Friend said that some people wish that the concession had not been allowed. Would it surprise him to know that my borough commander is one of them, because of the number of incidents of the nature that he has just described, which the borough commander feels are causing so much trouble to genuine passengers?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There are a great many calls for the concession to be withdrawn. I can well understand them and I have some sympathy, although—I may be biased as a parent of children who use the scheme—I feel that it would be unfair to disadvantage those who use buses sensibly. I do not know where the answer lies. Sometimes these things go full cycle, and I am sure that I will be told that it was those well-known sons of Beelzebub—the Conservative party—who got rid of conductors on buses and things like that. Perhaps we should look at that. Things do go in cycles, but there is a real, severe problem. Luckily, the scheme that we are talking about offers concessions for the elderly and the disabled, and I think that the concept of hell’s grannies still remains firmly in the realms of Monty Python—although perhaps just occasionally, at advice surgeries, some of us wonder about that.
The real problem will be in the detail of the Bill and the implementation. I look forward to hearing the definitions of “bus” and “coach”. The hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) mentioned the open-top buses in Manchester. The same thing happens in London. Also, we have services that go through Uxbridge—the 724 and the 727—which are quite long- distance, but which I would regard as bus services. I do not know whether they will be included. The 727 connects the various airports, so it might be quite useful to have it involved in the scheme.
I am not entirely sure that it will be possible to implement smartcards by 1 April next year. I look for reassurance from the Minister on that. One thing that occurred to me was that freedom passes, which are already smartcards, have a separate photo ID card. Those cards are currently issued over the counter at post offices, which, I think we would all agree, most elderly and disabled people find convenient. The national standard being imposed by the Government requires that a photograph be embossed on the card. That means, I think, that applications will have to be sent off and then come back. I think that it would be true to say that that will be much more expensive for users—the administration will certainly be more expensive—and that it might increase the opportunity for fraud. Perhaps this is another concept to further the diminution in the number of services offered by post offices.
I understand that the existing London scheme, which is based on the oyster card system, is neither compatible nor compliant with the Government’s required ITSO standards for the new concessionary travel passes. I assume that all the pass-reading equipment on London buses will need to be changed. I am sure that my borough and all London councils will want assurances that the cost of re-equipping London buses with new readers will be met by the national purse, rather than by my council tax payers.
Does my hon. Friend agree that when Transport for London negotiates contracts with bus companies, it should be able to collate from Uxbridge, Upminster and all the London boroughs an accurate comparison of the total value of the journeys undertaken each year and the contribution of each local authority to the London-wide scheme?
I agree with my hon. Friend. Despite the intentions behind the Bill, it will be quite difficult to make its implementation fair and equitable.
How will we in London know whether any of the cards issued outside London are fakes— assuming that there is a slight difference involving the treatment of identity—or whether they have been lost or stolen? There is quite a good system in London. However, I understand that the Department has no plans to create a national database to allow basic checks to be made on the validity of passes that are used outside their home area.
Of course, I welcome the concession for disabled people, as I think we all do. However, we need to take a serious look at disabled facilities on public transport, especially buses, even though some advances have been made. I think that it was my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) who talked about bus drivers who move away quickly, which is not sympathetic to elderly and disabled people who need a little more time than others to take their seats. While it sounds great that the concession will be available, we must ensure that people have the opportunity to use it. That is true especially in rural areas, whether those people are elderly or disabled, as hon. Members have said. The buses in London are excellent. Many people use them to travel from place to place very simply—the system is wonderful. However, as one goes further out into the countryside, it becomes more difficult to find buses. While having a concession is great, people need buses so that they can use it.
I congratulate the Government on bringing forward the Bill and on the intentions behind it. They must listen—I am sure that they will—to the variety of people who are not only putting forward suggestions, but commenting on possible problems. If the Bill is enacted properly, it will bring great benefits to many, not only in Uxbridge—we have discovered such benefits—but throughout the country. I wish the Bill well.
It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall). He gave a slightly different geographical dimension to the debate, which has been dominated by north-eastern Members. It is good that we have had the balance of a view from London, but I will be returning to the north-east, given that I represent a large rural constituency in that region in which there are particular problems.
The Secretary of State was quite rude about the Conservative Government and the privatisation of the bus services. He is quite young and I am quite old, and I remember the world before the privatisation of bus companies. I remember when buses were run by municipal bus undertakings, and I know perfectly well what a rotten, dreadful service the majority of those bus companies provided. I seem to remember that there were signs saying, “No change given on this bus”, as if a visitor to a city would know the price of a ticket.
I will give way to the hon. Gentleman in a minute; I am deliberately trying to excite him, so I will finish exciting him, if I may.
Bus crews were heavily unionised and rude, there were strikes, and in many cases the companies provided an extremely poor service, run for the benefit of the management, not the public.
I will give way to the hon. Gentleman in a minute. Privatisation gave the bus systems new impetus and created some good new companies. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman is seeking to intervene, because two of the leading companies born of bus privatisation are in our area: the Go-Ahead group, which came from Gateshead, and Arriva, which used to be called the Cowie group. They have made a huge difference to investment in the bus service.
In my constituency, those companies have left whole communities without any buses at all because they are concerned with making money, rather than with social responsibility. The hon. Gentleman is elderly, as he says, so he must remember the system under which bus companies and the Tyne and Wear Metro operated; there was through-ticketing and through-timetabling, which worked very well. When the Conservative Government did away with bus regulation, that system went away overnight. That led to absolute chaos for a short period, and to the system described earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland).
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, and I accept the point about through-ticketing for the Metro system and the bus service. I am not saying that deregulation of the bus services was entirely beneficial; it was not, and it certainly needed some adjustment. However, the principle was right. The principle was that we would eventually get a great many innovative new companies, vastly better buses paid for by those companies, and extremely good long-distance coach routes. We need to defend the original decision, as I believe that it was right—and now that the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) has left the Chamber, I feel it is safe to say so.
I join in the general welcome given to the Bill, which will reduce an enormous number of anomalies. The hon. Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland) rightly concentrated on the financial problems from which the Tyne and Wear area is suffering, but of course the scheme will be of great benefit to my constituents, too. About 25,000 of them live on the fringes of the Tyne and Wear area, and they could never understand why they could not travel free, even though the buses started only about a mile down the road from them in some cases. In one sense, our gain will be Tyne and Wear’s loss, because it will subsidise the change. The original system created by the Government had some ludicrous anomalies. In a village on Hadrian’s wall called Heddon-on-the-Wall, the only journey that any resident could make using a concessionary fare was one of less than two miles between one authority boundary to the west of the village and the city of Newcastle boundary to the east. It was great nonsense, and I welcome the fact that we are removing those anomalies.
I shall briefly hijack the debate to discuss the problems of providing bus and transport services in rural areas, a subject that the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) covered to some extent. There is a problem in that regard. Rural people pay income tax and council tax, so when we talk about providing £250 million for the scheme and having provided £350 million, or whatever it was, for the earlier scheme, we are talking about their money. If they do not have any bus services to use, they reasonably feel somewhat aggrieved. Clearly, in all rural areas there are problems providing public transport systems, but as soon as the Bill is enacted, we should start to consider how its provisions could be extended.
One of the local authorities in my area, Tynedale council, used to have a taxi token system. People collected their taxi tokens, then they would often join together to share them and hire a taxi to go shopping. That was an extremely important scheme. In other areas, people rely on the post bus; that is another crucial lifeline in parts of Northumberland. I am not quite sure how that will fit into the system.
I intervened on my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) to support the notion of help for a community transport system, which is a good way of proceeding with public transport in very rural areas. It is difficult to envisage a regular bus service in some remote communities: it would simply not be practical and the subsidy would be too great. A community system could work quite well. For instance, I mentioned earlier the system that serves Kielder, which has the distinction of being the most isolated village in England—and also the most tranquil, I heard the other day. The village relies on a community transport service for villagers who want to go shopping across the border in Hawick once a week. It is a valuable service because it allows them to go to a supermarket. Otherwise, they would have to travel a great distance to Hexham to do so.
The other problem with rural services is that the buses are often in poor condition as a result of lack of use. Many of those services run off the back of the school transport system: they double up as school buses at either end of the day, but they operate on service bus routes during the day. The trouble is that they are old. They are not low-level buses, and as a consequence people who need public transport—for example, the elderly and young women, usually with children and buggies—have difficulty going up the steps of those buses. It is an unattractive prospect, and it discourages them from using the service. We therefore need to look closely at the issue of rural transport, particularly the cost of travel for young people. My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge mentioned a scheme in London. We do not have such a scheme. In fact, children going to and from school and young people going to and from college in Northumberland have to pay £360 a year for a bus pass unless their parents’ income falls below a certain level. For families with two or three children, that is a considerable sum of money.
The hon. Gentleman misinterprets me. The reason why those buses are as they are is that the services are completely subsidised. Apart from school transport, which is a different issue, they are highly subsidised services. Because the level of subsidy is low, the companies can operate them under the terms of the subsidy only by not investing in new buses. The subsidy is too small to allow those small bus companies to buy expensive modern buses. It is simply not feasible. Some of those buses are extremely old, as the hon. Gentleman will know from his constituency. They run on subsidised routes, often with only one or two passengers, so there are problems that need to be addressed. I hope that when the Bill is introduced we can start to address some of the more acute problems in rural areas. In an intervention on the Secretary of State, I mentioned the difference in the definitions of “coach” and “bus”. Some of my constituents are served by a long-distance coach route that runs from Scotland. It is not clear whether they would be eligible for concessionary fares if they boarded in Northumberland or elsewhere on the English side of the border.
As I said, I welcome the Bill but I share some of the concerns expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House about its implementation. It seems to be a nightmare of complexity to implement and, given the Government’s record of implementing complicated things, I am somewhat alarmed by it. I hope that in Committee, however, at least we will have a better idea of how the detail of the Bill will be worked out.
May I echo the words of my hon. Friends and, indeed, all hon. Members by commending the Government on introducing the Bill? It is long overdue, and I have long argued that we should introduce a scheme to allow everyone of a certain age and those with disabilities the opportunity to travel by bus and by other means of transport independent of local government boundaries which, in this instance, have proved to be a block to residents from one part of the country travelling to another part of the country, even if they are next to each other. I could give the House lots of examples.
The most obvious one for me, coming from the London borough of Havering, is that one cannot travel using the freedom pass from Havering into our neighbouring towns in Essex. Hon. Members will know, as I have spoken about the matter on many occasions, that people in my part of Greater London believe, rightly, that they are part of Essex, yet for all these years they have been denied the right to travel to towns in Essex, whereas they have been able to travel to other parts of London.
Although people in my constituency love travelling to places like Uxbridge because they have such brilliant Members of Parliament, they would rather be able to travel to places like Brentwood. They can travel to Brentford in west London, but they cannot travel to Brentwood, which is next door. They can travel to Harrow, which is a nice place as well, but they would rather travel to Harlow. Similarly, when they feel like going to the seaside, it is Southend that they want to go to, not Southgate in north London—there is no seaside there. Up till now, they have been prevented from going to places that they would like to travel to, rather than places that happen to be on a particular map, which they are allowed to visit using their freedom pass.
From all the indications that I have heard this afternoon, I hope that the new law will permit all residents of Greater London to travel in all directions, which means that the people of my constituency and the constituents of my hon. Friends the Members for Upminster (Angela Watkinson), for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) and for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) and of all London Members will have the opportunity to travel freely, without the restrictions that they have had to put up with until now.
I commend all the local groups and organisations that have long campaigned for the change. Their campaign, which I have supported, is not over because people in London travel by means other than buses. Costs must be taken into consideration, but it would be nice if the underground could eventually be included, as well as the overground train system. All these things are costly and must be carefully looked into. No one is jumping the gun, but if the principle is right that an elderly or disabled person can travel by bus, why not also by tube?
Among the groups that I commend for their campaigning work, I should like to mention the Havering Association of Retired Persons and particularly Joan Grant, who lives in my constituency and regularly corresponds with me in defence of the freedom pass and as part of the campaign for an extension of travel for retired people and elderly people to other areas, not just in London but to Essex and beyond. My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster also knows that lady.
I thank my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour for allowing me to intervene. The lady whom he mentioned, Mrs. Joan Grant, told me, and her colleagues, that many of their members work in charities right across London and travel considerable distances with their freedom pass, so the pass is of value not just to themselves, but to the organisations they serve. If they are able to travel into Essex as well, other charities and organisations will benefit.
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. There are so many good reasons why extending the pass will be beneficial, and not just to the people who can travel. Allowing older people the opportunity to travel more freely will mean that they lead healthier, more active lives. They will travel more, spend more money, go to the local shops more and to different towns, go on days out and enjoy themselves. I cannot express more strongly my belief that those who have served our country and paid their taxes all their lives—many of whom fought for this country in the last war—should be given the opportunity to lead fit, healthy, active lives and gain the advantage of freedom to travel.
The overall real cost is not as great as some may think. As we all know, after 9.30 in the morning many buses and other means of transport are often nearly empty with only a few seats being used, so the real cost of this is pretty small. It is always important to consider the cost of such measures, but it is also important to consider the ongoing benefits. If an older person can travel and go out and enjoy themselves and lead a fit and healthy active life, that will be of benefit to the country and possibly save the health service a considerable sum of money. It will also benefit the local economy. There are many advantages. Many elderly people become depressed if they cannot travel. They stay indoors; they cannot get out and see their friends, visit their clubs or have days out to the shops, the seaside or wherever they may choose to go. Giving older people the freedom to travel in all directions can only be a huge advantage to them all, including those with disabilities.
You have probably heard me mention this before, Madam Deputy Speaker, but administrative boundaries are often a block, not just to transport but to a range of matters. My hon. Friend will know North Ockendon in her constituency. People living there can travel into London but not down to South Ockendon, which is next door. Havering-atte-Bower in my constituency is an historic village right at the top of Romford on the boundary of Essex, and next to it is Stapleford Abbotts, but that comes under Essex county council. There is no sense to this, and I am glad that at long last common sense prevails and we will see real opportunities for people to travel freely without being blocked by nonsensical local government boundaries, which, as I have said many times before, were drawn up at a time when not much thought was given to communities and other reasons for determining such boundaries.
I endorse the words of many, including my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson), on rural services. The constituency of Romford is not really rural, but Havering-atte-Bower is. There are a few horses up there and certainly a few dogs. There are deer in Bedford’s park, which people from all around like to visit. There is a hospice, which many with sick and dying relatives come to visit, and a local village school, and the people need to travel. Unfortunately, the bus service is very poor—a fact that I hope the Under-Secretary will take on board.
We are supposedly part of Greater London, but so far the Mayor of London has not given the people of Havering-atte-Bower the option to travel freely in the way that those from other parts of London do. It is wrong that parts of outer London and rural London are neglected and people there are not given the same opportunity to travel as those in inner London are. I hope that this will be taken on board. This is a great Bill, but it is no good if older people living in a place such as Havering village are unable to get to Romford town centre because the 500 bus is so unreliable and the Sunday service has been stopped altogether.
I chaired a meeting in Havering village on 23 February, attended by almost all its inhabitants, who are up in arms about being denied a proper bus service on which they can rely. If someone misses the one bus in the morning to the station or it does not turn up, they will be an hour late for work. Schoolchildren who miss their bus cannot get to school on time. There is no other way of getting into the town centre, because the village is 2 or 3 miles away from the train station.
Although this is an excellent Bill, I hope that it will be followed through so that rural communities—and I have one little rural community—will not be neglected and forgotten. I hope that the Under-Secretary can raise the subject of Havering-atte-Bower with the Mayor of London, and that the option of extending the 499 bus service will be put forward so that, with a bit of luck, people in the whole of my constituency can have equal availability of bus services.
Let me move on to the costings. We have already said that we need to ensure that the money is available so that the system works. The Bill is well intended, and we all support it, but the last thing we want is to find that the system does not function properly because the money is not available or that local councils have to make cuts in other services in order to fund it. The detail will have to be considered carefully when we meet in Committee, and I hope that the Minister will address the concerns of many hon. Members.
That brings me back to Transport for London, because boroughs such as Havering are being striped up by TFL. We do not receive the services that other parts of London do, and we do not even have an underground in Romford. Is it fair that so much money should be paid to TFL when, as my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster correctly pointed out, there is no proper way to assess what is being spent, and the cost of all this? I am 100 per cent. for the freedom pass—I have defended it in this Chamber on many occasions, and I have fought to keep and extend it—but we need to know what these things cost so that we can assess them properly. TFL should not be allowed simply to take whatever money from the boroughs it chooses. There should be a proper account of how many people use the services and what they cost. In that way, boroughs such as Havering will not end up subsiding areas in the rest of the country, particularly in London. There has to be a fair way of funding so that everyone pays for their use of the services. The system needs a review, and I hope that the Minister will consider that.
I emphasise the importance of not forgetting disabled members of our community. I know that the freedom to travel scheme is aimed at retired people and pensioners—people who have left work and are in their latter years—but many people of all ages who are disabled also need that opportunity. We need to consider the accessibility of buses and whether, in certain cases, if buses are not appropriate some of the subsidy could be used to help those people to travel by other means. Some disabled people simply cannot get on a bus, no matter what is done—it is very difficult for them. If they miss a bus or if it is inaccessible for whatever reason, they can be stranded. That is the last thing any of us would want.
In closing, I want to endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge said when he expressed concerns about student travel. It is important for students to travel, but only when it is for educational purposes. In London, we have a serious problem with joyriders on buses; they go on buses, travel around and use them for all kinds of activities. A lot of people who want to use the bus for genuine purposes are sometimes fearful of getting on when gangs of youngsters are using it. It is not right that we should teach young people that this is all free. If they are travelling for educational purposes or something worth while, there should be some assistance, but there should not be a complete free-for-all so that young people can just sit on buses with their mates, which might be great fun and all the rest of it but is not what buses are there for. That needs to be considered carefully before it becomes a serious problem, not only in London but elsewhere.
Finally, I commend the Government for introducing the Bill. I look forward to its implementation and hope that many elderly and disabled people throughout the country will benefit as a result of it. I believe that they will.
I see from the Order Paper that the debate could last till 10 o’clock, which presents us with a challenge. I am sure that hon. Members will be pleased to hear that I have decided to resist the temptation of creating a new record for the length of an Opposition winding-up speech.
The debate on this important Bill has been interesting and wide ranging. Mandatory bus travel concessions for England residents are provided on eligible services outside London under the Transport Act 2000 and, in Greater London, under the Greater London Authority Act 1999. Under the 2000 Act, concessions are provided only in the area of the travel concession authority where the person resides. The crucial point of the Bill is that it extends free bus travel so that it is available not only in the local area where the passholder is resident, but anywhere in England, including on the London bus network.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), the shadow Secretary of State, stated at the outset, we welcome the principle behind the Bill. It has our wholehearted support. However, the way in which the Government enact the principle will be the subject of scrutiny, amendment and debate in Committee. We had a foretaste of that today.
The debate has been interesting and excellent, with important contributions. My hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) initially intervened about funding. Indeed, the leader of his council has already written to me about the perversities of funding that it has suffered. My hon. Friend’s comment was the forerunner of several contributions on funding and cross-border issues.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay) made interesting points about the extent to which Bracknell was advanced in smartcard technology and asked whether the Government would be in the same position in April 2008.
My hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) mentioned the possibility of funding for the Bill taking away funding from students. My hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) spoke about the deficit that Essex is likely to suffer, and the Secretary of State gave assurances that he would examine that. I trust that the Under-Secretary will reiterate that reassurance.
Being a relatively new Member, I understand that there was a tradition that Whips did not speak in debates. However, today’s excellent contributions show the loss that would ensue if Whips were not allowed to speak.
I could not disagree with that. Indeed, I reinforce the point and look forward to enjoying that care and attention during my time in the House.
My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) introduced a new socio-economic group—the twirlies—who wait outside for the 9.30 buses. He discussed the concessions to young people and some of the problems associated with that. He also forcefully raised several London issues, which my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) also mentioned. My hon. Friend the Member for Romford introduced us to another socio-economic group, the harpies—the Havering Association of Retired Persons.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) made a detailed and important contribution on the status of the buses before deregulation and the service that was experienced in his area and by many people in rural communities. He spoke passionately about the needs of rural communities today, which we need to consider in Committee.
The hon. Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland) spoke about the current funding anomalies in Tyne and Wear, and he and the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) considered bus company exploitation of the system. I am sure that they will want to reread the concessionary fares debate that we held recently in Westminster Hall, in which the Under-Secretary reiterated the reality as she saw it: that bus companies should be reimbursed on a no-better-off, no-worse-off basis. I pointed out that many bus operators see a different side to the story and argue that they receive neither the appropriate reimbursement for carrying concessionary passengers nor the investment needed for increased frequency of travel, which is a direct result of the schemes.
The hon. Gentleman was obviously not listening very carefully. My point about Go North East and other companies was that they are stripping out routes that are marginally profitable or not profitable and concentrating only on the so-called profitable routes, on which the rate of return is staggering.