10. What consultation he has had with coach operators on the effects of the withdrawal of the coach concessionary travel scheme. (71838)
The decision to end Government funding for the half-price coach concession was announced as part of the 2010 spending review. The Government have corresponded with affected operators on the proposed change and my officials have held discussions with National Express—one of the operators affected by the phasing out of the concession. An impact assessment relating to the ending of the coach concession has been submitted to the Reducing Regulation Committee. The final assessment will be published on the Department’s website and a copy will be placed in the Library of the House.
I thank the Minister for that answer, but I suspect that he will have received, as I have, countless letters from constituents who see much more expensive coach travel coming down the line as a result of the scrapping of the scheme by October 2012. Am I right in my understanding that no public inquiry with disabled or older people’s groups has been carried out? If so, what justification can he have for scrapping the scheme without first consulting the most affected users?
Of course we assessed the proposal as part of the spending review, and I mentioned the Reducing Regulation Committee assessment a moment ago. May I suggest that the position is not quite as apocalyptic as the hon. Gentleman makes out? A year ago, after the 2010 spending review announcement, National Express said:
“We are already planning for the removal of the coach concessionary fares scheme in October 2011 and will announce new products aimed at the over 60s and disabled travellers in due course. We believe the financial impact of the scheme’s removal is manageable and will be mitigated by our own plans”.
I thank the Minister for his comments. Many elderly and disabled people in my constituency have become reliant on coach travel because of its ease of use and cost-effectiveness. If this decision results in the withdrawal of some routes, what choice does he think those vulnerable groups in my constituency will be left with, given that train travel is acknowledged to be very expensive?
First, we have retained the bus concession in its entirety when many thought that was vulnerable in the current financial circumstances—that has not been chopped in any way. Secondly, the senior citizen railcard continues to exist, and it enables those people to receive a significant discount on rail travel. Thirdly, as I have said, National Express, which is by far and away the largest coach provider, is intending to put its own scheme in place, and I am sure it will do that. I say that, first, because it makes commercial sense for National Express to do so and, secondly, because the profits on its coach division increased by 14% in the last six months.
This proposal beggars belief—only on planet Norman can this be a good idea. Does the Minister not understand that removing the concessionary coach fares—an entitlement for almost 12 million pensioners and an additional number of disabled people—will, as Age UK puts it, have a “devastating effect” on many people, who will struggle to afford their coach journeys in future? Does he not see that by cutting too far and too fast his approach is having an unfair impact on pensioners and disabled people, and increasing the chances of them being socially isolated?
That was rather over the top, if I may say so. The fact is that National Express operated its own coach concession arrangements before 2003, and it indicated last year that it believes the situation is manageable and that it intends to introduce a further concession. As I said a moment ago, the profits of the UK coach division of National Express have increased by 14%. Indeed, the profits of the National Express Group—a very successful company—have risen by 26% in the first half of this year. If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that the public purse should subsidise the profits of National Express, that would be an odd position for the Labour party to take.