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Concessionary Fares

Volume 478: debated on Tuesday 8 July 2008

The Department for Transport conducted regulatory impact assessments of both recent extensions to the statutory concessionary fares scheme. They showed that significant benefits such as improved social inclusion cannot be easily quantified, but that even without considering those benefits, on which it is difficult to put a price, the schemes could still offer value for money.

It will not come as a surprise to the Minister that I am going to ask here about the cross-border impact of concessionary bus travel between my constituency and Wales. I have been very disappointed by some of the answers that I have previously had from her. She has admitted that extending the scheme across borders would be very expensive, so we cannot rely on local authorities to do it, but I am very disappointed that she has said that she has no plans even to meet Welsh Assembly Government Ministers to discuss whether that might be possible at some point in future. Will she at least reconsider extending the scheme across the border?

I fear that I may continue to be a disappointment to the hon. Gentleman. That saddens me enormously, but he must recognise that extending the scheme into Wales or Scotland has some quite strong financial implications. At this stage, we want to make sure that the England-wide scheme is settling down. Obviously, negotiations about that are still going on and we want to wait before we proceed any further.

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the situation in Chorley. Concessionary travel was initially welcomed, but the council will no longer let people use the 50p scheme before 9.30 am, and its opposition to the continuation of the scheme means that people cannot travel across Chorley into any other district in Lancashire. What can she do to help pensioners who have to go to hospital, or people who have disabilities or are on training schemes, who now have to pay either full price or half price? The council’s decision seems to have led to a real anomaly.

I certainly understand the point that my hon. Friend makes. As he knows, central Government funding provides that the scheme should run from 9.30 am to 11 pm, but some local authorities have exercised the discretion that we have given them to extend it. In my area, it has been extended to carers, and people are able to use it on local trains. In addition, the hours for which it operates have also been extended. It is unfortunate that his local authority is not doing something similar, but I am sure that he will continue to campaign for such a change.

In replying to yesterday’s debate, the Minister disappointed us yet again when she admitted that the Government intended to stop reimbursing local authorities for the administrative cost of issuing bus passes. Many councils already have to subsidise what was supposed to be a Government-funded scheme. Is this another example of the Government taking the credit for something and local council tax payers picking up the bill—in this case, one of £50 million?

I wonder whether I sense another Tory spending commitment in the air. We gave local authorities a very generous grant of something like £31 million, equivalent to about £4.50 per pass, to cover the scheme’s introduction. In the past, local authorities have produced their own passes, so giving them money for the introduction of this pass was a change. However, given that something like £1 billion goes to local authorities for the concessionary fares scheme, we think it is entirely reasonable that they deal with further applications and renewals from now on.

The concessionary fare scheme has been a tremendous success. It is popular and a credit to the Government, but does my hon. Friend recall the Prime Minister saying that he wanted to remove all barriers to people receiving training and acquiring skills? Will she encourage local authorities and other bodies to come together and extend concessionary fares to young people between the ages of 16 and 19 who are pursuing further education and training?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. As he said, something like 11 million people nationwide will be eligible for concessionary fares as a result of the changes that came in on 1 April. He is right to say that local authorities, transport authorities and other organisations in some parts of the country have come together to look at the problems facing young people undertaking training; in some instances, I think they are looking at facilitating travel for young people doing the new diplomas. We have given local authorities freedom to deal with this matter at their own discretion, and I am sure that some of them will consider what my hon. Friend suggests to be a good way forward.

Does the Minister recall the meeting that we had this morning with representatives of the Doncaster youth council? They raised the possibility of extending the scheme to students, especially those attending sixth-form colleges. Will she consider whether they might be included in the scheme in future?

Fortunately, I do remember the meeting that we had not five hours ago. My hon. Friend is right to say that Doncaster youth council was extremely keen to see the concessionary fares scheme extended to young people. As I explained to the council, extending the scheme nationwide to young people would have some severe financial implications, but as I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland), some local authorities are looking at extending it to young people, especially in areas where people want to get to school or training.