My Lords, the Government have no current plans to introduce a standard system of concessionary fares for young people travelling by bus in England. However, I take this opportunity to reiterate the Government’s continued commitment to protect the free bus pass.
My Lords, young people are twice as likely as the rest of us to rely on buses. They use them to access education and work. Some councils and bus companies provide concessions, but the situation is very patchy. Does the Minister agree that we should provide all young people with a standard entitlement to reduced fares, along the lines used in Wales as a result of Liberal Democrat influence? Given that concessions to older people have proved very popular, as the Minister will know, is it not time that we played fair by young people by giving them a similar scheme?
First, I am fully aware of the scheme in Wales. For the record—I am sure the noble Baroness acknowledges this—it is both a Liberal Democrat and a Labour initiative in Wales. We are always magnanimous from the Dispatch Box.
Coming to the more central point, the noble Baroness is quite right to raise the issue of young people’s travel. I appreciate the challenges that she has put into context. Across England, there are about 89 concessionary travel programmes outside London, of which about 22 currently practise young people’s schemes. We look to ensure that good practice is shared; at the moment, as I said, no plans are being made for statutory provision across the country.
The Select Committee on Social Mobility of your Lordships’ House, which I have the privilege to chair, reported last week on the transition from school to work. Evidence that we took from organisations, including Barnardo’s, was that young people who live in rural areas who would like to go to FE colleges or take up apprenticeships are prevented from doing so because of the cost of transport. Surely, young people like that, if the Government are truly honest in their apprenticeship levy, should be given the opportunity to get to training or study with some kind of concessionary scheme.
I will review the recommendations of the noble Baroness’s full report, which I have not yet done, and perhaps we can meet in that regard after I have done so. But she is quite right—I agree with her that we need to ensure concessionary schemes across the country that provide good open access to all those who require it. However, we also need to emphasise the point that local authorities carry responsibility in this regard.
Affordability is an important issue to recognise. Of course, the definition is one area that sometimes causes confusion, because there are different definitions in different concessionary schemes of what constitutes a young person. I shall certainly take on board what my noble friend says. Anecdotally, for example, even across Europe, I was Spain recently, only to be confronted by a Spanish inspector who had no English—and I speak very little Spanish—who told me that my four year-old was required to pay an adult fare. Perhaps we need to look at these schemes in a wider context.
Is the Minister aware that help with transport costs for young people is particularly important in rural areas, where the population is very sparsely spread? Is he aware that, if you are a young person in my home town of Berwick-upon-Tweed, it is 50 miles and two hours by bus to your nearest FE college, and 67 miles by train—which is even more expensive—to Newcastle? Is he also aware that, because of this, take-up of FE for training and skills continues to be below the national average in our area, and has been for a long time?
I am aware now of the situation in the noble Baroness’s area, as she has highlighted it. As I have said, we look towards local authorities to see what can be done. While I accept that we live in challenging times in terms of their settlements, they nevertheless have a responsibility to provide for local people in their area.
On rail, there is of course the railcard, which is something that is sustained and available to many people, and is utilised. There are very good examples across the country of good concessionary schemes on buses within urban cities, which can perhaps be shared across rural areas as well.
The Government’s own figures show that since 2010 the number of transport authorities providing a concessionary youth scheme has fallen from 29 to 22—a reflection, no doubt, of the financial hammering taken by local authorities under the coalition Government and continuing under this Government. In the light of the question asked by my noble friend Lady Corston, what assessment have the Government made of the impact of the differing provision, including non-provision, of concessionary fares for young people between transport authority areas, including the impact on their opportunities in further education and employment?
I am not aware of a specific overall review that has been done, but the noble Lord is right to point out that the number of young persons’ schemes have dropped over the last few years. As I have said, we are looking through the various other changes that we are making in local government financing, including the recent announcements on issues such as business rates, to empower local authorities to prioritise what they believe are the correct schemes.
My Lords, in agreeing with the Minister, I can say that North Lincolnshire provides a concessionary scheme for young people. We are a rural area and we know that it is very difficult to access FE colleges. No young person should be denied an opportunity to go further with their education. So although budgets are tight for local authorities, we provide that scheme.
Normally when the noble Lord rises to his feet it is a history lesson. However, he points to the challenges posed by construction taking place for the cycle lanes and by other construction in London. I will review this issue with TfL and write to him.