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Concessionary Bus Travel

Volume 474: debated on Tuesday 22 April 2008

From 1 April—chop, chop—the Government implemented the new statutory minimum entitlement to concessionary travel so that up to 11 million older people and eligible disabled people could travel free at off-peak times on buses in any part of England, not just in the area where they live.

Notwithstanding the millions of pounds that the Minister boasts of having distributed, is she aware of the disaster being visited on communities, particularly those on the western edges of counties, as county councils attempt to balance the interests of the council charge payer with the traveller and reduce the service in order to be able to afford concessionary fares? Does she realise that it is a fat lot of use having a free bus pass if there is no bus to travel on as a result? Does she know that although 11 million passes have been issued, there are hardly any buses that can process them?

The additional allocation in the hon. Gentleman’s area for 2008-09 was £493,000, which represents a 48 per cent. increase—48 per cent.—over the spending in 2006-07. I would hope that the hon. Gentleman welcomes a scheme introduced by a Labour Government to help older people in this country and to save them considerable amounts. I hope that he will encourage people in his local area to take it up.

As for the hon. Gentleman’s point about bus services, I urge him to ask local councillors what they feel about the Local Transport Bill. I shall be very surprised if they are not supporting our plans for quality partnership schemes and quality contracts.

I agree. Certainly everyone I have met supports our proposals. If the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) has that conversation with local councillors, I suggest that he then discuss with Conservative Front Benchers whether they will support them as well.

As a former Transport Minister, I, too, pay tribute to Gwyneth Dunwoody. She was a great parliamentarian.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend and her colleagues on the introduction this month of the English national concessionary travel scheme. In Scotland, we have had such a scheme for some years, and it has given a tremendous boost to elderly people in particular. However, some elderly people living close to the English border with Wales and Scotland do not enjoy as much free travel as we should like. Is it possible that in due course concessionary travel can be extended throughout Great Britain?

It is refreshing to hear my right hon. Friend welcome and celebrate the proposals for older people, rather than adopting the mealy-mouthed approach of the Conservative party. As he might know, we have had some discussions about the issue of cross-border travel, and many services can already cross county borders. We want to ensure that the English scheme settles down before looking further, but although that has been a priority, it does not rule out further discussions in the future.

There is no help for buses trying to provide services to and from the Isle of Wight. What are the Government doing to improve the position?

What the Government are doing to improve bus services is introducing the Local Transport Bill, which gives local authorities more powers to improve services and work with operators in their areas. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman supports that direction of travel, as it were. I urge him, too, to talk to local Conservative councillors about their views, and then talk to his party’s Front Benchers.

I welcome the Minister’s remarks about cross-border travel. What discussions are taking place with the Welsh Assembly Government to enable my constituents to travel freely on buses between Wales and England, and within what time scale will we see that benefit?

As I explained earlier, if buses are simply to cross the border, agreements can be made between the local authorities concerned. We wanted to ensure that the system in England was implemented from 1 April and that all the passes were issued before proceeding to further discussions. There are, of course, enormous financial implications for the extension of the scheme to Wales and Scotland, and I am sure that my hon. Friend will understand that we must take them very seriously.

May I add my voice to the tributes paid to Gwyneth Dunwoody? She was a great friend of my party and its leader, and a great friend to the people of Northern Ireland, where she was held in high esteem.

How does the Minister expect the concessionary travel schemes across the United Kingdom to interlock in the coming years, and what is her estimate of the increase in the number of people availing themselves of the schemes?

As I have explained, our first priority was to ensure that the English scheme was implemented and the cards sent out. The option remains for us to extend the scheme more widely, but we need to consider issues such as financial implications. The extension of the scheme has not been ruled out, but we must take those issues into account.

Will my right hon. Friend congratulate London and its Mayor on the comprehensive bus pass and the very efficient bus service in the capital? There is currently a proposal before the capital to get rid of the modern single-decker buses that have been provided and to replace them with the old Routemaster. Has my right hon. Friend done a cost-benefit analysis of the use of the Routemaster, and is that bus appropriate in the 21st century for a capital city such as London?

My hon. Friend is right to congratulate the Mayor of London on the freedom pass; it has been immensely valuable to the residents of London. What they ought to be worried about to start with is the fact that the Conservative Front Bench has said that if—[Interruption.]

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Now we can hear the authentic voice of the Conservative Front Bench. National free bus travel was supposed to start on 1 April. Amidst all the contributions today, the Minister is forgetting that because of its botched introduction hundreds of thousands of pensioners were unable to travel as the smartcards and temporary passes the Government had promised them were not available. Why did the Government so badly botch the introduction of national concessionary travel, and how many hundreds of thousands of pensioners were prevented from travelling—and how many are still prevented from travelling?

Once again the Conservative Front Bench is attacking local authorities who actually have done quite a lot of—[Interruption.] Obviously, the hon. Gentleman does not understand how passes are distributed. That was done by local authorities. The Government purchased 4 million temporary passes in case local authorities got into difficulties, because distributing more than 11 million passes over the course of a year was a huge undertaking. The authorities should be congratulated on the work that they did, instead of once again being beaten over the head, which is what the Opposition Front Bench wants to do. About 99 per cent. of passes have been distributed. Some people who applied later—they might not have been aware of the introduction of the free pass—have experienced a delay. However, the Department for Transport bought 4 million temporary passes, which can be used with people’s existing passes up until September of this year. I congratulate the local authorities and others who worked very hard to get these passes distributed, and the Conservative Front Bench should join me in that.