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Rail Privatisation: Concessionary Fares

Volume 571: debated on Wednesday 1 May 1996

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3.3 p.m.

What effect rail privatisation will have on the future of the concessionary fares scheme for pensioners and disabled people in London.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Transport
(Viscount Goschen)

My Lords, concessionary rail fares for pensioners and disabled people in London are being safeguarded under privatisation. The franchising director requires franchise operators to participate in the London concessionary fares scheme, and he will continue to do so provided the boroughs wish to maintain a rail scheme and are prepared to continue to fund it.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for the comfort in his Answer. Will he confirm that after a long period of negotiation the British Rail Board stopped discussions with the London boroughs, saying that it had to negotiate with each of the rail-operating companies and that the likelihood of a new seven-year agreement was therefore a little remote? Does that not in effect put the long-term future of the concessionary scheme for pensioners and the disabled in London into jeopardy?

No, my Lords, I do not believe that that is the case. The reason why the British Rail Board took its decision to defer a longer-term negotiation was that at the time the decision was made I understand that only one of the franchises was in private hands and the rest were still in the public sector. Therefore, the board considered it more appropriate to wait until progress had been made and more of the franchises were in the private sector. We believe that it will be in a position to negotiate with the London boroughs to agree a scheme for the future.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that, whereas London Regional Transport has operated for some time a system so that the disabled traveller can pay the excess beyond the limit of the scheme at the station where the traveller got on board, British Rail has only recently agreed to that; indeed, it was some way behind London Regional Transport? It agreed at the instance of the Association of London Authorities. Does he agree that it is very important for disabled people that that facility should continue under the new dispensation so that they do not have to get off the train to buy the excess ticket and then get on the next train?

My Lords, I take the point that my noble friend has made; it is an important one. I believe that the train-operating companies will realise that they should not, unless absolutely necessary, insist that disabled people get off the train to buy another ticket. That would obviously present clear difficulties.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, although the disablement rail card is guaranteed under the Act, there is no guarantee for the level of discount, which is obviously important? Does he further agree that there is no guarantee whatever about companions travelling with very severely disabled people, which is also important, or about the timing for the use of the rail card? Should not a strong message go out from Parliament that this is a social provision which should not be sacrificed for commercial considerations?

My Lords, I understand that the noble Lord is referring to the national scheme whereby disabled people have a discount card to travel on the railways. It has been common practice for a very long time now for such cards and discounts to be available. It is provided within the Act that that type of card shall continue. We believe that the national scheme has been a success. As regards concessionary schemes on a wider basis, it has been shown that they pay their way, although that is not necessarily the case with the card for the disabled. But I believe that the scheme will continue to operate in a successful manner.

My Lords, will my noble friend continue to give the facts of the case, because this is not the first time that these scare stories have been run just before local elections? Will he be sure to continue to give the facts as he has given them?

My Lords, I shall certainly endeavour to continue to give the facts. The facts here are that there is no cause to be concerned. It has been a perfectly straightforward decision by the British Rail Board in the light of the stage in the privatisation scheme. The train-operating companies will have the opportunity to negotiate with the London boroughs to agree a discount scheme when it comes up for renewal.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there are no local elections in London? Does he recognise that the continuing uncertainty is causing concern among the elderly and the disabled? Therefore, why is it not possible for the Minister to ensure, by knocking heads together in this way as soon as possible, that an agreement is reached which is similar to the current situation? Would that not be the best outcome?

My Lords, I do not believe there is any need to panic about this, nor to bang heads together: the matter is perfectly straightforward. The duty under the instructions and guidance given to the franchising director requires that the new train-operating companies participate in this scheme, provided the London boroughs wish to continue to fund it. The indication is that they do. Therefore, we have no reason to believe that a proper scheme will not continue to operate.