Skip to main content

Concessionary Bus Travel

Volume 468: debated on Tuesday 4 December 2007

7. What estimate she has made of the costs of the national concessionary bus travel scheme for 2008-09. (170390)

I could refer the hon. Gentleman to the answer I gave a few moments ago. However, in case he was unable to hear that, let me tell him that the Government are providing local authorities in England with an extra £212 million next year for the national bus concession in England. This extra funding is based on generous assumptions about the probable cost impact of the new concession, and we are confident that it will be sufficient in total.

But what the Minister calls generous funding is actually less than the rate of inflation, when the operating costs of bus companies are rising by more than that, so is this not just another example of a scheme whereby the Government get the local council tax payer to fund one of their announcements?

We know that some local authorities are claiming credit for the introduction of this scheme and not giving any credit to Government. We are proud of the amount of money that we are giving, which, as I mentioned, is £212 million this year—it will be £217 million next year and £223 million the year after. Bus operators have the opportunity to appeal if they are not satisfied. So many more people are using buses as a result of our transport policies, and we regard that as a success.

Would the Minister care to congratulate Conservative-controlled Kettering borough council—of which I am proud to be a member—which is going to build on the Government scheme and ensure concessionary travel for pensioners at peak times too? [Interruption.]

I am being encouraged by Labour Members not to congratulate the hon. Gentleman’s Conservative local authority, but that would be ungracious, so I congratulate him and his local authority. As I said in answer to the hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride), who is not in her place, some travel concession authorities provide more than the minimum scheme that we are introducing; but that minimum scheme is a big step forward on what went before.

The Minister is big enough to deal with matters, and I am delighted that he congratulated my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone). Will he deal with the question of rural areas and remote villages, where sadly there is little, if any, public transport? How can people in those villages, who often live on their pension or on a very low income, take advantage of this scheme, which I applaud? [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) knows that I applaud anything good, even if it is introduced by the Labour Government. What will the Minister do for people in rural areas where there is little or no public transport?

The hon. Gentleman is being kind and generous enough to welcome what is being introduced in the Local Transport Bill. We have been doing what we can to support rural communities and rural bus services, and the Bill will deliver even more.

Order. The hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Holloway) is a newer Member of the House, but when a question is put he should remain within the Chamber at least until we get to the next one. He is not the only offender I have had to pull up a few over the years.

The Minister will, of course, remember that the principle of concessionary travel enjoyed support across the whole House. The key point was how it was to be funded. The trouble is that the Government’s sums simply do not add up. The level of increases in extra funding that he is proposing are less than inflation, and he will have received many representations from councils telling him that they will face deficits as a result of the scheme over the next two to three years. For example, Southampton city council estimates a deficit of £1.5 million—before a delayed appeal; the council is reimbursing at 67p in the pound and the operating company seeks 74p. All that will happen in a number of the scheme areas, because the Government have underfunded this, is that council tax will increase by more than 10 per cent.

That is the second time that that figure has been mentioned. Obviously it is a line that has been produced for these questions. As I have said, we are confident that our calculations on the amount of money needed to support the scheme will be more than adequate, and an announcement will be made shortly.

8. If she will ensure that the free bus fare scheme to be introduced in April 2008 will include scheduled community transport dial-a-bus and dial-a-ride schemes. (170391)

The national bus concession will be available on all eligible, registered local bus services, which can include some—but will include by no means all—community type transport services, for example, services that are provided under a section 22 permit, charge a fare and are open to the general public.

I think that I welcome that answer. The free local bus scheme has been wonderfully effective in our area, and we are looking forward to the national scheme. Will the Minister meet me and other colleagues to prevent the apparent anomaly that someone who is entitled to use the free national bus pass but who cannot do so because they physically cannot get on those buses may not be able to use it on a community transport bus service? Will she confirm that in an area such as Derbyshire, where the community bus services are scheduled, regular and responsive to demand, such people will be eligible to use the national concessionary bus fare?

I would certainly welcome a meeting with my hon. Friend and her constituents to explain the issue. If a community transport service is restricted to a particular group of people—perhaps people with disabilities or elderly people—it would not be eligible under the concessionary fares scheme. However, other community transport schemes are eligible, such as those in rural areas that are demand-responsive so that someone can be picked up at a particular time. Many dial-a-ride services operate in that way.

I think that I share the puzzlement of the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber): we are not sure that the Minister’s reply is the one that we want to hear. In my area, the Mendip community transport scheme will cease operation next year, apparently because of a lack of funding. That scheme is the only option for many people who have no access to other public transport because it is a very rural area. A concessionary fare scheme is useless without a bus to ride on, so it would be helpful if the scheme applied to community transport schemes of that kind. I ask the Minister to look into that.

I am, of course, prepared to look into that. However, I re-emphasise that the changes to be introduced in April will not change the eligibility, so I am not clear why the hon. Gentleman thinks that the bus service will stop because of the new scheme. If a community transport service is open to the wider public, it can participate in the concessionary fare scheme. The Local Transport Bill will make changes that will make it easier for community transport services to operate by, for example, allowing the payment of drivers, which has been widely welcomed by the Community Transport Association because it will make it easier to run the type of services that we are talking about.