asked Her Majesty's Government:
What steps they are taking to provide free public transport for the disabled or pensioners.
My Lords, we are committed to the introduction of a national minimum standard for local authority concessionary fare schemes in England. This would entail half-fares rather than free fares for pensioners on buses on the purchase of a £5 bus pass. Local authorities would remain free to offer wider or more generous schemes if they so wished. Implementation of the minimum standard will require primary legislation. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Wales has also announced that he expects local authorities to provide the proposed minimum standard from April 1999. The aim is to move to free fares for pensioners in Wales over the next two to three years.
My Lords, does the Minister appreciate that if Wales is anything to go by concessionary travel is ludicrously piecemeal? When will the Government honour their commitment to establish nationally a minimum half-fare scheme for pensioners and the disabled? Is it not time that we caught up with the Republic of Ireland, where free transport for these groups is available on road and rail?
My Lords, as I indicated, the situation in Wales is that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has reached agreement with the Welsh authorities that a minimum scheme covering Wales will be in place by April of next year. He would hope, with statutory powers, to move to a free bus pass system in Wales subsequently. The situation in the Republic of Ireland, as in Northern Ireland, is somewhat different, but in Wales substantial progress is being made. I hope that the noble Lord's characterisation of the Welsh situation will, within just over 12 months, prove to be wrong.
My Lords, will the Government take into account that some physically disabled people cannot use buses and find railway stations very difficult, and that, for them, public transport is not an option? Does the Minister agree that, instead, they need access for their Motability cars or other vehicles in which they are able to travel as passengers?
My Lords, I wholly appreciate that situation. I believe that a large number of local authorities also recognise the need for special access for disabled people and their vehicles.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that, as far as concerns able-bodied people, there is a danger of creating the impression that once people reach pensionable age they become automatically dependent on the state and must look to the state even for assistance with transport?
My Lords, I do not accept the point that is put in those terms. It is reasonable to recognise that many pensioners rely on public transport more than the population as a whole and that therefore they are entitled to provision at both local authority and national level to ensure that they have access to public transport. That has been recognised by local authorities of all political persuasions up and down the land.
My Lords, if it is accepted that in two months' time we will have a scheme that allows concessionary fares, can the Government confirm that it will cost only £25 million to introduce? Can the Government provide an approximate date on which they intend to extend that scheme to the disabled? As it is such a small increase in cost, surely it would not cost very much more to extend it to the disabled.
My Lords, I should correct the noble Lord on two matters. First, the reference to April 1999 relates to the voluntary scheme in Wales. We shall require statutory provision to introduce a mandatory minimum scheme in England, and in Wales if it applied there. Secondly, the £25 million cost is related to the intended introduction of the concessionary half-fare scheme in England. Clearly, any widening of the scope of the scheme will involve greater cost, but local authorities have the right to extend the scope as well as the generosity of their provision.
My Lords, I agree with the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Laming. Does the Minister agree that it is absurd to force local authorities by law to provide concessionary fares and ultimately free travel to everybody over the age of 65 irrespective of their financial background?
My Lords, in a large part of the country local authorities of all political persuasions have regarded it as part of their job to ensure access to public transport for our senior citizens.I am surprised at the approach of the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Laming. I believe that it is recognised as a good thing throughout the country. However, a few areas have no such scheme. We felt it right, therefore, to introduce a minimum level concessionary scheme, as we announced in our White Paper in July.
My Lords, does the Minister accept that many people throughout the country think that local government autonomy is important?
My Lords, it is a well-established principle between central and local government that central government frequently sets minimum standards and local authorities have the ability to improve on them. That is precisely the situation we propose to introduce in this area.