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Concessionary Bus Fares

Volume 501: debated on Thursday 3 December 2009

9. What recent representations he has received on the national concessionary bus fares scheme; and if he will make a statement. (303672)

I have received many representations, including those from my hon. Friend, on the concessionary travel scheme recently, mainly in relation to funding issues. As she will know, I have recently launched a consultation regarding the concessionary travel special grant funding for 2010-11. Representations have been received from Members of both Houses, local authorities, councillors and members of the public.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. The reason why the campaign to safeguard this scheme has been so important is that the scheme has meant so much to the over-60s, especially in such very rural places as North-East Derbyshire. Will he use this opportunity to put on the record a guarantee for this scheme under any future Labour Government?

May I put on the record a recognition of the work that my hon. Friend has done, and not only in lobbying me? I remember that at the previous Transport oral questions she asked a similar question about access issues for her constituents on rural buses. The £1 billion that goes towards concessionary bus travel in off-peak hours means that 11 million older and disabled people in England can use buses at off-peak times. Had we accepted the advice to make a cut in this year’s budget from a 2.25 per cent. increase to a 1 per cent. increase, that would have led to cuts. We will not means-test this, or cut it as some would want us to do.

Will the Minister of State congratulate Conservative-controlled Kettering borough council, of which I am a member, which has extended the concessionary fare scheme to cover peak-time travel, too?

May I, through the hon. Gentleman, commend the council for its use of that discretionary element of the scheme? Other parts of the country have also, on a discretionary basis, increased the coverage that they provide and have found the means within their coffers to do so. I congratulate them on that.

Does not the enormous success and popularity of the pensioners’ concessionary fares scheme lead the Government to conclude that we must now extend the national concessionary fare scheme to young people? From the point of view of reducing congestion, reducing emissions, improving road safety and reducing car dependency, is that not the next step in a sensible, integrated green transport policy?

Mr. Speaker, I know that you were present during the Youth Parliament debate that took place here a few Fridays ago, although some did not want it to take place in the Chamber. My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that that was one of the key issues raised by the young people who came to Parliament. I met young people around the country on my bus tour and this was one of the key issues that they raised. He will appreciate the pressures on our budget, but we keep these things under review all the time.

The Minister will remember that we urged the Government to consider the distribution of funding arrangements for the scheme. Indeed, we welcome the commitment to a review. However, we cannot welcome the fact that the Minister has arbitrarily reopened the three-year settlement. His proposals would savagely penalise London and savagely penalise the constituents of Tooting. I urge the Minister yet again, as London Councils has, to reconsider that proposal, which will savagely hit the voters of London. I am sure that the voters of Tooting will savagely remember that.

The hon. Gentleman is a mate—a savage mate—but I have to say that there are dangers in trying to face both ways. I caution him against doing so. We know, because we have seen the London Councils minutes, that in 2008-09 the councils spent £5 million on off-peak travel caused by the additional intake of out-of-London commuters. We gave them £55 million. They did not send us a cheque for the difference. We know from discussions that I have had with the Tory chair of the transport and environment committee that next year they will need £18 million, with the TfL agreement. We are giving them £30 million. I look forward to receiving a cheque from the Tory chair for the difference.

Could the Department work more closely with the devolved Administrations to improve and increase free bus travel across borders?

My hon. Friend asks an important question. At the moment, we are unable to have a harmonious system across borders because, as he will appreciate, these matters are devolved. Councils near the borders have made arrangements to reach agreements with councils on the other side of the border. He will appreciate that if we were to harmonise cross-border travel with Scotland and Wales, the cost would be extreme, but we will keep this under review and we encourage local authorities to reach agreement where they can.