I beg to move,
That this House has considered concessionary bus passes.
It is a pleasure to serve when you are in the Chair, Ms Ryan. During my three years in Parliament, it has been noticeable that although most of our fellow citizens use buses, we rarely get to discuss bus issues in the House. I am delighted to see in the Chamber my good and hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), Chair of the Select Committee on Transport, who I am sure will be putting that right in the coming months and years. Today, I shall focus mainly on the concessionary fares scheme and highlight its value and how it could be extended, but I shall also make a few observations about the problems that arise when running such a scheme in parts of the country with unregulated bus systems, and draw out possible solutions.
The national concessionary fares scheme has been a huge success. It has really changed the way older people live their lives, by increasing their freedom and, in many cases, reducing loneliness and isolation. As I think hon. Members will be aware, the bus pass in England provides free bus travel for older and disabled people during off-peak times—from 9.30 am onwards. Ironically, should anyone have chosen to use their concessionary fares pass to get here this morning, they would have been late. I can see that some of my colleagues set out much earlier—not that I am suggesting they would qualify for a bus pass. I am very pleased that so many people have made such an effort to be here at what is quite an early hour for Parliament on its return from recess.
The age of eligibility for the concessionary fares scheme has become slightly flexible. If the eligible age had remained what it was when the scheme was first announced, I might almost have qualified by now, but it seems to be slipping into the distance; I hope one day to catch it up. I think it is now 66. I hope that, in the future, many more people will be able to benefit from the scheme.
The trigger for calling this debate was the 10-year anniversary of the scheme. I congratulate the National Pensioners Convention, which made a big effort to celebrate it, including by sending birthday cards to Downing Street; I joined members to go and hand those in. I have to say that I was hoping there might be slightly more enthusiasm from the Government for celebrating the anniversary. We did have a discussion at Transport questions, and the Minister, I am delighted to say, had removed the threat of ongoing review, but I was hoping for something slightly more celebratory—a bit more Jürgen Klopp, a bit more dancing up and down, celebrating the success of the bus scheme.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. He is a very long-standing supporter of buses. Will he also congratulate the TUC Midlands pensioners’ network? Its members marked the 10th anniversary of the concessionary bus pass by touring the midlands using their passes. My hon. Friend will not be surprised to hear that, when they came to Nottingham and we were talking to residents in Market Square, the overwhelming number of people did not avoid us; they came and spoke to us, and they expressed their great joy and made celebratory remarks about the bus pass for older people and disabled people, because they know what a lifeline it has been for so many people. Does my hon. Friend agree?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. She is very prescient, because the TUC campaign was in the next paragraph of my speech; she has pre-empted it. She is right. Those of us who have done market square campaigning will know that we are not always a magnet for people to come and join us and enthuse, but I find that whenever we speak to older people, they are enthusiastic. I echo my hon. Friend’s congratulations to not only the east midlands TUC but Richard Worrall, who, when the scheme was initiated, set off on a tour of the country and was able to demonstrate that, using his bus pass, he could get round the whole country, which was very exciting. I am told that he is going to do that again, and certainly if he comes through Cambridgeshire I shall be very pleased to join him, although I shall be paying the extortionate fares that we suffer in rural Cambridgeshire—should we be lucky enough to find a bus. I say that because the enthusiasm to which I have referred is tempered by the fact that, in far too many areas, the Government seem to be managing decline rather than celebrating new routes. I will say a little about how that might be addressed, but first I would like to go back to the history of this scheme.
As I look around the Chamber, I see that some of us are old enough to remember that in the ’80s and ’90s pensioner campaigning was central to everything we did. I remember that, as a parliamentary candidate, I was summoned to many vibrant meetings—the pensioners’ organisations had a long list of demands at the time. That was because they compared, strangely enough, our situation in the UK with that in many other European countries and found that our European neighbours often enjoyed a whole series of things that pensioners in our country did not. One success of the post-1997 Labour Government was that they addressed pensioner poverty. I am thinking of measures such as free eye tests, the winter fuel payment and so on, and the bus pass was of course a key part of that.
However, there was not a particularly smooth path to that. We started with quite a panoply of schemes. Some places, such as London, had long had better schemes. Some of the urban areas—I have to say that they were almost always Labour-run areas—had been much more generous in the past. However, in the shires, it was much more of a battle. A kind of halfway house was introduced back in the Transport Act 2000, which gave pensioners half-price fares. That led to quite a lot of even more vexed campaigning.
I remember going to a Labour policy forum in 2004 with colleagues from adjoining counties in the rural east of England—I particularly remember the then leader of Norfolk County Council, Celia Cameron, and Bryony Rudkin from Suffolk. We sat with the then Secretary of State for Transport, Alistair Darling—this was long before he realised he was to become Chancellor of the Exchequer—and explained to him why we thought that a concessionary fares scheme of this type would be not only equitable and fair but hugely popular. I remember the look on Alistair’s face: he said, “Do you know how much that would cost?” That was actually quite a good question because, as I shall explain in a minute, the question of costs has never been properly tied down. His point, of course, was that it would be quite a costly commitment. We went away, having established the idea in principle, but with no great hope that it would necessarily be adopted, so it was with huge joy that we greeted the development a year later. I am not suggesting that it was just we who achieved this; it was a wide range of campaigners, but in the 2005 Labour manifesto a full scheme was suggested, and it was finally implemented in 2006.
The issue of funding is important because, right from the beginning, it has proved to be complicated and difficult. When I was a parliamentary candidate, I spent many a happy hour trying to work out, with my local county councillors and district councillors, who was paying for what and how much it was really costing, and, frankly, coming to the conclusion that probably no one was entirely sure.
We are told that, overall, this scheme now costs £1.17 billion per annum. Not surprisingly, the cost has increased since the scheme was introduced. We are told that, in 2013-14, 9.73 million concessionary travel passes were issued across the country; that puts the average cost at £120 per person. When the scheme was first introduced, the Government provided an extra £350 million for 2006-07 through the formula grant system to fund the cost to local authorities as they then saw it. Between 2008 and 2011, the Department for Transport provided a special grant, totalling just over £650 million, to local authorities to pay for the statutory concession.
Since 2011, however, it is the formula grant that funds the bus pass; money is no longer ring-fenced. Of course, it is a familiar sleight of hand by central Government to apparently put money into the local government grant and tell local government that it has to do this. As the years go by, it becomes less and less clear what the money is for. There is a strong suspicion that it is a sleight of hand, and particularly when councils are being so heavily squeezed, it is asking a lot of them.
Therefore, my first question to the Minister is whether she would like to have a word with the Treasury about looking again at providing proper, ring-fenced funding for the scheme to local authorities. It is not entirely clear to me that the current system of local government finance, particularly with the move away from central Government funding and, supposedly, to business rates retention, actually provides a good, sustainable model for supporting a scheme such as this.
Surely a proper cost-benefit analysis ought to be part of that assessment. In many rural areas, the benefit is that people in smaller, local towns can access services. Most significantly, the benefit is to the health budget, by keeping so many of our pensioners active and engaged. There are lots of studies now on the impact of loneliness on older people. This scheme helps to get people out and about, and maintains their health for much longer.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I will come on to the social and environmental benefits in a minute. This partly shows us how complicated it is to assess the long-term benefits.
Returning to the relationship between central Government and local government, local authorities were charged with coming up with a reimbursement system that left the operator no better or worse off, but they are in a difficult place, and I will come on to the reimbursement system in a minute. The Local Government Association estimates the cost to local authorities at around £760 million a year, with a funding shortfall of £200 million. I suspect that that pressure will only get worse.
The operators are not keen on the system at all. I frequently hear complaints. It is difficult to prove what it costs to carry passengers for free, in a way that observes that reimbursement rule. Putting some extra people on half-empty buses does not necessarily cost more. If there are too many extra people, however, extra services are required.
I understand that the prime task of the bus operators—the big five and many smaller operators—is to return a profit to their shareholders. That is right and proper; that is what they do. They will inevitably claim that this costs rather a lot. In the early days—this was my experience in Cambridgeshire—the bus operators did quite well, because the reimbursement cost they extracted from the county council was rather high. Over time that seems to have settled. As has been said in questions to Ministers, the number of appeals has settled down, which suggests that there is a kind of settlement in all this. I think there is a wider question, however, of how and whether the reimbursement system works.
There is a comparison to be made between London, which has a regulated system, and the rest of the country. Thanks to the Bus Services Act 2017, we hope that some of the new mayoral authorities will adopt franchising. I hope my own in Cambridgeshire does. In London, where you have gross cost franchising, it is much simpler for Transport for London to make decisions about the public good. It decides the fares and the frequency, and then it pays the operator to deliver the service. In a way, the operator has much less to worry about, provided it does not drive up usage and extra costs too far. For London, which groups pay and which do not, and how much is made up by the fare box and how much is raised in others ways, are political choices.
In the rest of the country, it is much less clear. It could be suggested that operators have a perverse incentive to put up fares, because if they know that many of their passengers will be concessionary fare holders, they will be reimbursed for that. We will see whether that gets any response from the operators. The choice over discounts and whether young people should qualify for similar fare schemes is essentially market driven; it is not a choice around social need or the social good. There is a huge opportunity, if we shift to franchising, to move to a much clearer and more efficient model. It may reduce operators’ profits, but if it provides lower fares and space for social choices for the social good, it is worth them paying that price.
I pay tribute to the work being done by the Transport for Quality of Life team, including Lynn Sloman and Ian Taylor, who have begun to look at European systems where, effectively, transport is provided for free across an urban area—it is predominately urban areas at the moment. That is not a novel or unprecedented idea, because many people take the view that public transport—like health, education, policing, parks and museums—is an essential public service that contributes to the fabric of local life. The organisation’s work—often commissioned by my trade union, Unite—shows that this is already happening in 100 towns and cities worldwide, including more than 30 in the United States and 20 in France. Dunkirk, with a population of 200,000, will apparently become fare-free in September. The largest city in the world to have made its public transport free is Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, with a population of 440,000. Free transport was introduced to residents in 2013. It has cost the city €12 million, but it believes that that has been offset by a €14 million increase in municipal revenues, as many more people have moved there, increasing the tax base.
That links to some of the work being done by my colleagues on the Transport Committee about mobility as a service. We are looking at a whole new range of ways of getting around cities. My vision is what I see when I visit an airport. Some airports are like small cities. There are travellators, lifts, shuttle metros and shuttle buses. The noticeable thing is that we do not pay to get on each of them, because it is in the interests of that community to get people where they want to go quickly and efficiently. I argue that is in the interest of all of us, in all our cities and smaller towns, to ensure that people can get around quickly and efficiently.
That is my vision for the future, but to return to the present, extending franchising beyond the mayoralty areas would allow local authorities much more control over services in their areas. It would put them in a much stronger position to maintain stability in funding the national concessionary travel bus scheme. The additional flexibility could also be extended to the community transport sector. That is sometimes a controversial issue, but it is being raised by people in the sector. If we are looking for a flexible mix of transport solutions, particularly in rural areas, I think it should be considered.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (John Spellar) has already raised the social issues involved. Very good work has been done on that by Claire Haigh at Greener Journeys. She demonstrated, in research done a few years ago, that each pound spent on a bus pass generates at least £2.87 in benefits to bus pass users and the wider economy.
Like my hon. Friend, I am very familiar with “Bus2020: The Case for the Bus Pass”, produced by Greener Journeys. I noted that in responding to the Government’s decision to confirm the bus pass, Claire Haigh produced an updated figure. Greener Journeys’ research has now shown that every pound spent on a bus pass delivers at least £3.79 in wider benefits for society. That updates the case made in 2014, when Greener Journeys first published that research.
That shows why my hon. Friend is Chair of the Transport Committee—I should keep up. That is an even bigger benefit. I know it is always difficult for Government when such figures are put forward, but in straitened times, understanding the wider cost-benefits is one of the challenges. How many of us have sat on councils where we have talked about trying to pool budgets and make things work more efficiently? It is a challenge, but one worth pursuing.
As we have heard, there are also savings for social services. The social benefit is intangible, but some interesting recent research by Transport Focus has shown that the social benefit of the bus—people talking to one another as opposed to taking separate taxi journeys—has a real value. We must not underestimate these social benefits. The bus absolutely contributes to the wider social good.
My hon. Friend is being generous with his time. Does he agree that the value of the bus is not only in its social benefits, but in the opportunities for the Government to realise some of their other policy goals, such as tackling poor air quality and congestion in our cities? Does he share my concern that the Government’s figures on congestion and traffic rises indicate that by 2040 there will be a 55% rise in traffic and an 86% rise in congestion? That is why it is in all our interests for the Government to adequately support bus travel.
Once again, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. The environmental benefits are really important. I was pleased to see the Minister announce at the UK bus summit the retrofitting proposals, which I was happy to see in the Labour party manifesto last year. It is always good to see the Government adopt such things, and I will have some more suggestions for the Minister in a minute. Alongside that proposal are the very good hydrogen buses that are being developed. I suspect that other Members, like me, have been happy to go and see them. All those things add to my point that the bus is one of the important ways forward in improving the quality of life in our cities, towns and villages.
One extremely good way of promoting buses is by looking at the younger generation, who we are reading about this morning.
Just before my hon. Friend moves on, I want to make a point that may lead on to the next part of his speech. Does he share my concern about the Resolution Foundation’s report today that calls for increased taxes and charges on pensioners? It once again raises the concern that many pensioners have that their use of or access to bus passes will be rationed or restricted. I hope he would say that that certainly should not happen, and perhaps give the Minister an opportunity to make it clear on behalf of the Government that they will definitely not be taking any action to change the availability of bus passes for pensioners.
My right hon. Friend is an experienced and skilled operator, and I am sure the Minister will have heard his challenge, which echoed the challenge I laid down at Transport questions the other day. Older generations may have done better—as I indicated, only 20 years ago pensioner poverty was a very real and terrible thing, and because of policy changes it is only recently that people have been less likely to be poor when they are older—but we have to get the balance between generations right. We do not do that by punishing another generation; we do that by finding the resources from other places.
Turning to younger people, who now need to benefit, I want to reiterate something about the scheme in general. Claire Walters, the chief executive of Bus Users UK, recently said:
“Far more people rely on bus services than trains in this country. They are as vital to many people’s lives as gas, electricity and water”.
For many young people, particularly those in rural counties such as mine, getting to college or work is a real challenge. We are not talking about home-school transport today, but the Government would do well to consider that at some point, because there are rumblings in the shires, as they may have noticed last Thursday. Part of the challenge for young people is the cost of travel, including home-school transport.
As my right hon. Friend has just mentioned, the Resolution Foundation report showed the immense squeeze on the younger generation. They have experienced the tightest squeeze on household spending we have known since 2000, and they now consume 15% less than older working-age people on items other than housing. As we know all too well, home ownership is now out of sight for many people who are working, particularly in cities like mine. At the other end of the spectrum, those under 25 face significant restrictions on the amount of benefits they can claim.
I was absolutely delighted by the announcement by Front-Bench hon. Friends a few weeks ago that in future Labour would provide free bus travel in some parts of the country to those under 25. That would reduce the barriers to accessing work and education that so many young people face. The proposal could benefit up to 13 million young people, helping them save up to £1,000 a year. My hon. Friends have suggested that money ring-fenced from vehicle excise duty could be used. In addition to my earlier argument about franchising, with much greater control from local authorities there could well be extra headroom within local funds to help fund such an extension of the scheme.
I can anticipate the reaction from the bus operators. My local Stagecoach bus manager, with whom I have had many detailed conversations about bus franchising over the years, is not shy in coming forward to warn me of the perils of such an approach. I say gently to the operators that while their books remain closed and their finances opaque, it is not unreasonable for those of us interested in the wider public good to wonder whether more savings could not be made. We are told it is an unregulated market, but it is a funny kind of free market when public money accounts for more than 40% of bus operator revenues through local authority contracts, the bus service operators grant, reimbursement for trips made under the concessionary passholders scheme and grants. We therefore have a responsibility to ask whether we are making best use of that public money.
There is a lot of public money going into the bus system. Can we make it work better? I welcome the announcement that the concessionary fare scheme is no longer under review, but as I intimated earlier, I would like a slightly warmer endorsement of the underlying principles and a true enthusiasm for universally available mass public transport systems. Let’s hear it for the bus! Where older people have led the way, let us open the door for young people too. As we do not know when the next general election is coming—it could be a little while yet—will the Minister consider meeting me and the shadow Minister responsible for buses to discuss adopting yet another of Labour’s excellent bus policies? Young people would be as happy with their new bus pass as millions of older citizens have been with theirs over the last decade.
I am pleased to speak in this debate about concessionary bus passes. As the House will know, the matter is devolved to the Scottish Parliament, and it is a policy to which myself and my party remain absolutely committed. As we have heard, the point of free bus passes for our senior citizens is not only to enable them, but to actively encourage them to go out and about and to socialise. We know that improves their wellbeing and their mental and physical health. It is worth remembering that society encouraging good physical health in senior citizens, even in purely monetary terms, is a sensible and ethical thing to do since the older someone is, the more likely they are to develop problems with their physical health.
It does not help senior citizens or society for our older people to be trapped at home, whether that is for reasons of poverty or a lack of social contact. We want them to live productive lives, travelling about the country, volunteering, spending time with grandchildren and building up social networks. That will keep our communities vibrant and our older people healthier for much longer. Indeed, a fairly recent study by KPMG found that every pound spent on the bus pass generates more than £2.87 of benefits for society and the wider economy. We have heard from the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) that that has been revised upwards to £3.79, which is good news. The same report said that scrapping the passes would cost £1.7 billion due to the likely decline in volunteering and poorer health and wellbeing among older people. The news on free bus passes is very positive.
The scheme enables older and disabled people to have fuller and more efficient access to the key public services they need and to take part in activities that would not be affordable to them without the free bus pass. That freedom to travel has a wide range of social, economic and environmental benefits, including the ability to use local shops and being more able to look after children and care for others. The study says that four out of five of those eligible to take up bus passes do so. The 12 million pass holders altogether took more than 1.2 billion trips across Britain in 2012-13. According to Passenger Focus research, some 95% of passengers believe that older and disabled people should be entitled to a free bus pass.
The Department for Transport’s latest statistics reveal that outside London, concessionary bus journeys have decreased by 14% since 2010-11. In London, they decreased by 4.8% in the same period. Does the hon. Lady not share my concern that the reduction in bus travel generally and the reduction in services, particularly supported services, by local authorities is leading to fewer people making use of their bus pass, perhaps because there is not a bus on which they can use it?
The hon. Lady anticipates an important point I was going to make. My party and I are absolutely committed to free bus passes, because the policy makes ethical and financial sense. We know it would be penny wise and pound foolish for the bus pass to be under threat, and the hon. Lady makes a very good point.
In Scotland, Transport Scotland provides an annual subsidy of about £70 million to the bus industry, the aim of which is to keep fares at affordable levels and to enable bus operators to run services that might not otherwise be commercially viable. However, as a bus user myself, as someone who relies on public transport and having listened to what my constituents tell me—which I see for myself every day—I am concerned about cuts to bus services across North Ayrshire. That has persuaded me that we need to look seriously at bus reregulation—in my constituency the cuts to bus services have been nothing less than savage.
There is limited value in giving someone a free bus pass to encourage them to get out and about and to improve their health and wellbeing, if the bus services are cut to the point at which one cannot go where one would like to go using that bus pass. We need to look at bus reregulation, because the cuts have had a devastating effect in my constituency. I know that I am not alone in that situation.
Politics is always about choices. The principle of the free bus pass is a prize that we need to hang on to. Whatever else happens, it is something that we need to value, not forgetting the benefits it brings to us and to older people in our wider society. Politics is about choices, and we in the Scottish National party will continue to support the principle of free bus passes for pensioners but, like the hon. Member for Nottingham South, I am concerned about the overall cuts to bus services in our communities.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, Ms Ryan, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) on securing it and on setting the scene for us.
I have a particular interest in this issue because we are one of the regions of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland that already has a concessionary bus pass in place. I am pleased to put on the record in Hansard that my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) was the Minister who put that in—and he is now a recipient of the bus pass. It is always good to have such contributions in Hansard. I should add that I, too, am entitled to be a recipient of the bus pass, although I have not applied for it or taken it up. I want to make that clear.
I thank my hon. Friend for mentioning in passing that I introduced the pass. Does he agree that what we have seen in the 17 years since it was introduced in Northern Ireland is the incredible advantage taken of it by our elderly citizens, to the advantage of their social mobility and of their wider community?
My hon. Friend and colleague is absolutely right: the advantage of the concessionary bus pass in Northern Ireland is one that we see the benefits of—I see it in my constituency. For those who are on in years, the introduction of the bus pass has provided the fun of the bus journey, which can be across all of Northern Ireland, so they get the chance of going places, and all that without the fuss and the bustle of driving a car through traffic, which makes it relaxing for them. He is right that the bus pass has helped to improve social inclusion.
I want to declare an interest, not just as someone over 60 but because I am entitled to a bus pass—though, as I say, I have not taken it up. I have not availed myself of the pass because bus services outside the main cities are not the most frequent, including in my home village of Greyabbey on the Ards peninsula. My younger brother does use the pass, and so I want to focus the Minister’s attention on three issues: disability; vulnerability; and, for some people, social isolation, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry said.
Some 12 years ago, my younger brother received a serious head injury during a motorbike race. He avails himself of the bus service, which stops literally outside his house. Our Keithy gets such freedom and independence from the bus. I have to mention the particular care given to him by the bus drivers—simply put, Keith is disabled as a result of the motorbike accident, so needs help getting on and off the bus, and the drivers are extremely helpful and give him specific care. That is a personal experience, but I hope this House will benefit from my alluding to it.
The bus pass for my brother means the difference between a life constrained to his four walls and the ability for him to go to the shop or to call into the office to see my staff, as he so often does. The fact of the matter is that Keith received severe brain injuries in the accident, so he also has someone that goes with him. A lot is happening there. I mention Keith because it is for him and others like him that I stand here—so that we do not forget the disabled or the vulnerable, to whom the pass is the difference between freedom and isolation, between community and loneliness and between connection and seclusion, especially in rural communities.
Those on the disability living allowance or, as it is now, the personal independence payment receive the half-fare concessionary option. Those like Keith who have to live off their state benefits because of their disabilities are therefore able to go out twice a week without being concerned about counting the pennies. It is a tremendous scheme. I am not saying that only because my hon. Friend and colleague introduced it, but because it is tremendous. I pay credit to all the hard work that went into the scheme that operates in Northern Ireland. Furthermore, those who have driven all their lives but are declared medically unfit to drive can still access an affordable way to get to work and to travel.
In 2016-17, to give an idea of the take-up in Northern Ireland, 312,593 SmartPasses were held by older people. I am following up on the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), who listed the advantages for Scotland, as will her Front-Bench colleague, the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown). Comparing the numbers for holders of the 60-plus SmartPass and the Senior SmartPass for those over 65 with the 2016 mid-year population estimate of persons aged 60 and over, uptake of the SmartPasses was approximately 79%, which is a tremendous figure. Ninety-five per cent. of the passes were held by people aged 60 or over.
Moreover, in 2013 to 2015, almost a fifth—18%—of persons aged 16 and over who were surveyed reported having a mobility difficulty. On average, those with a mobility difficulty made 590 journeys per year, so they not only took up the concessionary passes, but made use of them, which goes back to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry: it has turned out to be a magnificently utilised scheme by those who gain the advantage and benefit of it. On average, therefore, those with a mobility difficulty made 40% fewer journeys than those without a mobility difficulty, who made 988 journeys per year. In 2016-17, 98% of buses and coaches used as public service vehicles were wheelchair accessible. Transport NI, which runs the bus service in Northern Ireland, including the private bus companies, has taken significant steps to make its buses wheelchair and buggy-friendly, investing a lot of money.
I say this often, not to boast but to make a point: in Northern Ireland we have taken steps to advance things greatly, as others have in other parts of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and the concessionary fares, with the public transport response and investment, is an example. In Northern Ireland, clearly there has been large uptake of the pass by the elderly population and that is for a reason: many are unable to drive any longer, many feel less confident in driving and parking, and many have worked all of their lives but never had the opportunity to travel throughout Northern Ireland and now wish to do so. The concessionary fares also help take people to the Republic of Ireland, so they go outside our own area.
I recently read an article in the Belfast Telegraph that highlighted the extent of social isolation and loneliness in Northern Ireland. This goes back to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry. I wish to quote it in its entirety, because it is important to have it recorded in Hansard:
“Northern Ireland is in the grip of a loneliness epidemic, with a quarter of people admitting that they don’t even know their neighbours’ names.
Nearly two-thirds (63%) of people admit to feeling lonely, a report found… The Rotary Club’s State of the Nation survey questioned people aged 16 to 59 on social and community issues.
It found that the highest percentage of people feeling isolated were in the 16 to 29 age group (71.5%), followed by 62.7% of those aged 30 to 44—ending the myth that loneliness only affects the elderly.
Further analysis shows that, while nearly half of people (48.6%) see their families on a weekly basis, a small number (2.9%) never see their relatives… The report found the main causes of anxiety for people in Northern Ireland were mental health (60%), poverty (57%), health problems (54%) and opportunities for young people (51%). Worryingly, 92% of people confessed to feeling bogged down by the stresses and strains of modern life”—
“bogged down” is one of the Ulsterisms we often use; I hope everyone understands what it means—
“while 42% thought it was harder than ever to manage finances, get on the property ladder (40%) or maintain a job for life (40%).”
The concessionary scheme is a way of connecting people. It allows people to make the journey to visit a family member without waiting on someone to collect them and leave them home. It allows those who may otherwise not be able to attend their local church or community group seniors meeting, or indeed their care for cancer group, to hop on public transport and go. Those two things are very important in my constituency—they mean a lot to my constituents. I see among the people I speak to on the ground that there is massive take-up of the concessionary fee in my constituency.
The SmartPass concession does not benefit only the holder, does not simply help to combat rural or social isolation and is not merely a means to open up the transport network to those who are no longer able to drive, are widowed or have lost their driver through death or divorce, although all those things are worthy enough. I spoke to constituents yesterday on the doorsteps of Greyabbey—like other Members, I try to make contact with people regularly, and yesterday was an opportunity to do that when people were at home—and a number of them said to me, “I’ve lost my driver,” or, “I was friends with a person who lost their partner, and now they’re away.” The concessionary fee and the bus become a big part of those people’s lives. Concessionary and free bus passes connect us all to each other, and we must think long and hard before we alter that and introduce means-testing.
I say this cautiously, but for how much longer will we squeeze our middle classes—people who have worked all their lives? Will it be until they are brought to poverty the minute they retire and stop working? Surely they deserve to retire at some age, and we must attempt to protect this perk. I spoke to the Minister and her Parliamentary Private Secretary, the hon. Member for Bolton West (Chris Green), before the debate to remind them of the things I want them to focus on. The priority should be disabled people, vulnerable people and those who feel socially isolated. I believe that we could do something on the mainland. I know there would be a cost to that, but we cannot ignore the many benefits that would come off the back of it.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who spoke passionately and movingly about the progressive policies in Northern Ireland. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), who certainly did the bus proud in celebrating the 10th anniversary of concessionary bus passes. I am 57 years old, and I hope—if the Lord spares me—to get my own bus pass by the 20th anniversary. There is no greater joy in life than sitting on the front seat at the top of a double-decker bus, as I did this weekend. I must put on the record that, in my unbiased opinion, Keighley bus station is the friendliest in the United Kingdom.
The hon. Member for Strangford rightly said that conversations on buses can be frank. Having conversations we would not normally have is one of the great joys of travelling on buses. I left the House in 2010 and spent a number of years outside it. I used to get the little hopper bus—the 962—from Otley to Ilkley. I was the youngest person on that bus by far. A particular lady who was well into retirement shouted across the bus to me every week, “Have you got a proper job yet, love?” The whole bus was riveted by the progress of my career outside the House.
The question of means-testing comes up from time to time, but the evidence shows that concessionary bus passes are a progressive policy. They are used by the middle class, but they are used most by those who need them most. If I remember the statistics correctly, a 2016 Department for Transport study showed that people with an income of £10,000 or less make twice as many journeys as those who earn more than £20,000, and that non-drivers tend to use their concessionary pass about three times more than drivers. It is a progressive policy. A quarter of people, like the hon. Gentleman, do not use their bus pass, but that is self-selecting. I do not think people waste their bus passes, but those who need them most use them most.
We have heard a lot about loneliness. This policy—one of the Labour Government’s most progressive measures—was introduced in 2006 for local public transport in England and extended nationwide in 2008. To be frank, loneliness did not come into the debate very much at that time. However, as other hon. Members have put more powerfully than I can, whatever someone’s income and however many friends they have—even if they have nowhere to go—they can get on a bus and get out, do a bit of window shopping, have a few conversations and so on. That is wonderful, and I hope that all parties commit in their next manifestos to leaving the scheme unaltered.
My hon. Friend makes an important point about people making journeys almost for the sake of it, to keep up with friends or just to get out of the house, but around 25% of bus journeys by older people using concessionary bus passes are for medical appointments. Many of those people struggle with inaccessible or irregular bus services, as Age UK stated in its recent “Painful Journeys” report. Does he share my concern that those journeys are becoming increasingly difficult because of the number of bus routes that have been cut?
I do. As the number of bus routes is cut, the potential for journeys is cut. I think that is why there has been a slight but significant decline in the use of bus passes.
One of the great things about the scheme in 2008 was that it was universal in England. People over 60 knew that, wherever they went, they could travel on a bus for free. With the rise in the pension age and so on, that is no longer true. There is a patchwork of schemes across the country. As I understand it, London, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have put extra money into the scheme so that people over 60 can travel for free on buses. In the rest of the country, I think that is true only in Merseyside. The scheme, which was national in England, and indeed throughout the United Kingdom, is now broken, in the sense that people over 60 cannot be sure, unless they live in certain areas, that they can travel for free. That is a cause of resentment in areas of England outside London.
I will not divert too far into rail, but in some parts of England bus passes also give people rail concessions. Indeed, a number of years ago there was a revolt by so-called “freedom riders” against Sheffield City Council’s plans to abolish the rail concession completely. As in West Yorkshire, concessionary bus pass holders in South Yorkshire now get half fares on the railway, so there is that anomaly, too. I would like us to return to the idea that people over 60 can travel throughout England as of right, as they can in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, London and Merseyside.
I do not want to detain hon. Members for much longer, but it is worth looking at bus regulation and the Opposition’s plans for the under-25s. The politics of bus regulation is fascinating for those of us who were lucky enough to be in the House in 1997. If we are honest, even though the Labour Government were progressive in bringing in the concessionary fare scheme, they resisted bus regulation. We brought in a very complicated scheme of bus partnerships—it was almost impossible to jump through all the hoops—and we consulted on strengthening bus regulation only when we were out of office, because there was a lot of pressure, particularly from urban councils, to introduce it.
The current editor of the Evening Standard, George Osborne, then came along and wanted to do deals on devolution. What was the obvious thing he could offer to get Labour councils to sign up? Bus regulation. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge said, it suddenly became fashionable in areas that were going to have Mayors. Then, lo and behold, some Tory shires thought, “We want a bit of this as well; we want to have a little bit more control of our buses,” hence we have the Bus Services Act 2017. We will have to see how that develops.
In theory, areas throughout England now have the potential to go for bus franchising. I have always thought that it is a very good idea, for the reasons that my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge outlined. I understand that we now have a policy on free bus travel for the under-25s, and I look forward to hearing the details. Whatever we decide to do must be properly costed to stand the rigours of a general election campaign, and I am sure that it will be, in time. I would like whatever we offer to be a national offer. Otherwise we shall be doing exactly what was done in the 1990s for the over-60s. There is a patchwork of schemes, depending on whether councils opt for bus regulation. I believe in devolution and in councils’ right to determine the best way forward, but in my humble opinion it would overcomplicate things to say that under-25 concessions should be given only in areas that adopt a particular model of bus franchising or ownership.
I want to end on a positive note. My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge lifted our eyes to the horizon of what is possible, and talked about free public transport as a possibility in some areas. That is not an idea of just the left or green elements of European politics; Chancellor Merkel’s Administration are clearly looking, on grounds of air quality rather than anything else, at running some experiments with free public transport in places such as Bonn, in the west of Germany. In future, on environmental as well as social grounds, it will be well worth looking at those ideas—properly costed.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) on securing the debate. We know that someone is passionate about a subject when they take the 9.30 slot after a bank holiday weekend; that is testament to his keenness. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Keighley (John Grogan). He made an excellent speech, in which he outlined his own passion for the subject. I was curious to hear about his excitement at sitting in the front seat of a double-decker bus. It took me back to my schooldays, but then the measure of how cool we were was how far back in the bus we could sit. I never quite made it to the very back seat—that tells Members all they need to know. I am also curious to know whether the constituent he mentioned thinks he has a proper job yet. I suspect that most people think working in this House is not a proper job.
A strong theme came through about how successful concessionary bus pass schemes are in social terms, because they give people mobility and stop them being isolated. That brings further benefits, and different cost-benefit ratios were cited, but the higher figure of £3.79, against £1 spent on the bus pass scheme, is clearly a good thing. The discussion of middle-class people using the schemes brought to mind a curious thing that happened in Scottish politics. A Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition in Scotland brought in the concessionary bus pass scheme in 2006, and it has been successful. Now that it is administered by the Scottish National party, however, apparently the universal concessionary element is suddenly a bad thing. We hear comments such as, “Why should a millionaire get a bus pass?” I have not met too many millionaires on the buses I have used, but if a millionaire takes a bus, leaves their gas-guzzler car in the garage and mixes with normal people like you and me, that is clearly a good thing for social cohesion. The universal aspect is important and we need to stick to it. I think most Members today believe that.
I like the fact that the hon. Member for Cambridge highlighted where there is universal free public transport. It is something we should monitor. The example of Tallinn in Estonia shows what a small independent country can do when it puts its mind to something. That welcome example is something to bear in mind for the future.
It would not have been a debate if the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) had not spoken, so it was good to see him in his usual place. I must admit that the opening of his speech slightly disappointed me; I like to say how Scotland is first at everything, but he highlighted the fact that Northern Ireland brought in concessionary bus passes 17 years ago, and clearly it was the first part of the UK to do it. It is clearly a good thing, and we have all learned from that and introduced schemes. He gave a good personal example when he talked about his brother’s accident, and how having a bus pass enables him still to get out and about. That aligns in a way with the comments of the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), the Chair of the Transport Committee. She explained that many people use bus passes for medical appointments, and they can thus be a lifeline service. That lifeline must be protected.
The hon. Member for Cambridge suggested that in England there is something of a hotch-potch, with a variety of qualifying ages. For most people it aligns with pension age, which, as we know, is continuing to rise—it is mostly 66 for people in England. In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, we have retained a qualifying age of 60, which is clearly a good thing. We know about the WASPI—Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign—women who have lost pension; they have suffered a double whammy, because they cannot retire when they want and they do not get free bus travel. They must wait longer for all their benefits, and that is a real shame. At least in other parts of the UK there is a slight mitigation for those women, because they can still have concessionary bus passes.
I personally consider Labour’s proposed scheme for free bus travel for the under-25s to be a good thing. There was a wee bit of friendly fire in the debate on the question of how well costed it might be, so it would be good to hear the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda), explain the costings. In Scotland we are looking at extending the scheme not universally to the under-25s, but to modern apprentices, to help young people get to work, so we are going somewhat in that direction. We also have free travel for under-25s if they are volunteers. It would be good to hear how a universal scheme for under-25s would operate.
This is the type of Westminster Hall debate where those who speak are mostly in agreement. We all agree that concessionary bus travel is a good thing that should not be eroded. The UK Government need to look at extending it along the lines we have heard about, and that certainly includes removing the link between eligibility age and pension age. There are clear benefits in reducing loneliness and promoting social cohesion, and of course there are cost benefits. To give one more example, in response to what the hon. Member for Strangford said about the middle class, I speak to people who could be called middle class who love using their bus pass in Scotland for travelling and going out and about. I am a big fan of Kilmarnock Football Club and some of those people use their bus passes to go to away matches. People may ask why middle-class people should do that, but it gets them out and about, and used to using buses. There are cost benefits, as we have heard, because they go to other places and spend money, buying meals and so on, which helps the economy more widely.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Ryan. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) and congratulate him on securing this important debate, and on his knowledgeable speech. He has been a consistent campaigner on transport issues for many years. I also thank other hon. Members for their many and varied contributions. The debate is indeed timely; as my hon. Friend mentioned, it is 10 years since the then Labour Government’s Concessionary Bus Travel Act 2007 introduced free off-peak travel on local buses, nationally, in April 2008. It is right to mark that milestone.
More journeys are made on buses than on any other form of public transport. Indeed, for many people buses are the only form of public transport available. My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge correctly says that the research shows the enormous benefits that concessionary bus passes bring to older people. For example, although it also covers modes of transport other than buses, Transport for London’s freedom pass is aptly named: it gives older people the freedom to travel locally, it increases their access to services and activities, and it reduces loneliness. I am sure we all agree that is a good thing.
My hon. Friend is also right, however, that the funding for concessionary bus passes has been contentious. Although there is a statutory duty on local authorities to provide concessionary travel schemes for pensioners and disabled people in England, there is no ring-fenced money. At a time of growing austerity, local authorities have highlighted how funding cuts have forced them to divert money from other services to continue to support the concessionary fares scheme. A recent Local Government Association briefing estimated that there is a £200 million shortfall in the moneys paid by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government as a non-ring-fenced formula grant. I am afraid that is down to a failure by the Government in devolving the cuts, giving local authorities the responsibility to deliver services while not providing the resources, or the means for them to raise funds, for that delivery. The next Labour Government, however, have committed to enabling councils across the country to provide first-class bus services for all, by extending the powers to reregulate local bus services to all areas that want them.
We have also committed to supporting the creation of municipal bus companies: those publicly run for passengers and not for profit. Municipal companies often provide cheaper services. They have higher usage and, as a result, provide much better value, both to passengers and to local businesses and services. Firms such as Nottingham Transport Group, and Reading Buses in my constituency, are indeed a model for many other areas. We would also introduce regulations to designate and protect routes of critical community value, including those that serve schools, local hospitals and isolated settlements in rural areas.
Labour will always be on the side of pensioners and will work to ensure security and dignity for older people in retirement. In our last manifesto we committed to keeping free bus passes for older people as a universal benefit, which we believe is a right rather than a privilege. However, as has been mentioned, we would go further. We are committed to concessionary travel, and the next Labour Government will extend free bus travel to under-25s across the country, in a move that would benefit up to 13 million younger people. Young people and households with children have less disposable income than working-age adults or households without children. Young people tend to be in lower-paid and more insecure work and they spend a higher proportion of their income on travel. Free buses are therefore an investment in the future of our children and young people, through improving their access to education and work. As with older people, encouraging children and young people to lead more active lives has significant related public health benefits.
The next Labour Government will provide funds for free travel for under-25s for local authorities that introduce bus franchising, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (John Grogan), or move to public ownership of local services through municipalising buses. Labour will support and incentivise such local authorities, and local municipal bus services will be run for passengers and not for profit. Research shows that removing the profits that are extracted from the bus sector would achieve savings of £276 million per year for the taxpayer.
On savings for younger people, it has been noted that they would save up to £1,000 a year through free bus travel, which would generate a lifelong habit of using public transport. We will pay for that by using just one fifth of the revenue from the vehicle excise duty, which is currently ring-fenced for building new roads. We are committed to providing additional funds for new road building to support that policy through our other borrowing from central Government.
I am interested to hear what the Minister has to say about the policy, given her previous remarks that the scheme is undeliverable, despite the Welsh Conservatives proposing a similar policy last autumn, offering free bus travel for all 16 to 24-year-olds in Wales. Perhaps the Minister will explain why a policy of free bus travel is affordable for young people in Wales but not in England.
I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge that the Minister’s announcement that the concessionary bus fare scheme is no longer subject to review is welcome. I am glad that he highlighted the immense value in our policy of free bus travel for under-25s, and I urge the Minister to join him in that.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) on securing this debate about concessionary bus passes, and it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan.
I am a little bit nervous that I am not dancing or doing cartwheels, and the hon. Gentleman wanted a lot of excitement. Nevertheless, he is right that this debate is very timely and I am delighted that we are here this morning to mark the national concessionary bus pass. Instead of my dancing and singing, the good news may be that I announced some legislation only last month to protect the national concessionary travel scheme in its current form. I know that this issue was raised by more than one Member, so the Government have demonstrated our commitment to making sure that we no longer have to review legislation every five years, and this scheme will now be protected. Surely no greater celebration than that is needed.
Buses are essential for many people to get to work, to school, to doctors, to hospitals and to shops. Also, many hon. Members have commented today on how buses help to tackle loneliness and aid cohesion. For many people, particularly those in rural areas such as my constituency, the bus is a lifeline and without it they would not be able to access essential services or go shopping and socialise, with over half of those who rely on buses having no access to cars.
As the Minister represents a rural area, does she share my concern about the fact that the number of bus miles being served is decreasing? In the last year alone, there has been a 13.8% decrease in mileage on local authority-supported services, which she will know are approximately a fifth of all services. What will the Government do to address that decline in supported services?
Bus services in rural areas are a concern —especially in my constituency of Wealden—when we are dealing with an older population and people who might not have access to cars. However, this issue is complicated; it is not just about making sure that there is more money available. Funding is available through the £250 million grant that supports bus services, and the bus service operators grant, with £40 million going directly to local authorities. It is also about making buses accessible and easier to use. I will go on to discuss the other things that we are doing to make buses a far more attractive way to travel, in one’s own constituency let alone across the country.
Before that, however, I will just go on to another issue that the hon. Lady raised, which was loneliness. As part of the Prime Minister’s commitment to deliver a national strategy on loneliness, a ministerial group has been set up: I sit on that group as the representative of the Department for Transport. I am a passionate campaigner—even if I am not doing the cartwheels that the hon. Member for Cambridge wanted—for explaining and sharing how buses are vital in tackling loneliness and helping cohesion.
The benefits of a reliable and innovative bus service are clear—less congestion, greater productivity, and communities that are connected rather than being kept apart. However, we need more people to benefit from buses. That is why we introduced the Bus Services Act 2017, which provides local authorities with new powers to bring about change and unlock the potential for the bus industry to achieve more for passengers than it does today.
That includes a range of powers to introduce franchising or enhanced partnerships, with guidance on how local authorities and bus operators can work together to improve bus services in their area. These could include multi-operator tickets, improved vehicle standards and better connections between transport modes, employment and housing, all of which will drive an increase in bus usage and performance.
That is also why, as I mentioned earlier, last month I announced a change in legislation to protect the national concessionary travel scheme in its current form, so that it can continue to provide free travel for elderly and disabled passengers for years to come. It has been noted that the scheme has a value of £1 billion for 10 million people, which means 929 million concessionary bus journeys, or, on average, 95 bus journeys being taken per bus pass.
The concession provides much-needed help for some of the most vulnerable people in society, offering them greater freedom, independence and a lifeline to their community. It enables around 10 million older and disabled people to access facilities in their local area, and helps them to keep in touch with family and friends. It also has benefits for the wider economy, which was a point made earlier.
The national concession sets a minimum standard available to any eligible person anywhere in England, but of course it does not come cheap. That is why, given the current economic situation, there are no plans to extend the remit of the basic concession any further. However, local authorities have the powers to enhance the offer with discretionary concessions, according to local need and funding priorities. That may include extending the times when concessions are available to include peak-time travel, offering a companion pass for people who need assistance to travel, and offering concessions on different modes of transport. Some 71% of local authorities offer further concessions for elderly and disabled passengers. In Cambridgeshire, there are concessions for the elderly and the disabled before 9.30 am and after 11 pm.
Encouraging bus use among the elderly and the disabled is about more than just concessions. We are doing a lot to make buses more accessible. I draw attention to the comments made by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on dealing with disability in his family and accessibility. On occasion, when I am allowed to leave this place, I am a carer for my parents, who both have very different disability needs. I know full well the occasional difficulties of being unable to understand which buses are running on which routes when dealing with people with different disabilities.
I will say more about accessibility later, but the hon. Gentleman will know that the Equality Act 2010 requires the bus industry to ensure that buses are as accessible as possible for disabled passengers. Recently we also made announcements to make it clear that priority seating should be for people in wheelchairs. Since 2016, all buses have been required to meet minimum standards, with low-floor access. From March this year, all drivers are required to complete disability awareness training. The next step will be to ensure that all buses have audio-visual announcements, so that people with hearing or visual impairments have confidence that the bus they take will work for them. We plan to consult on those proposals this summer.
I welcome audio-visual announcements. I am one of the MPs who backed the “Talking Buses” campaign by Guide Dogs. Can the Minister give a clearer timescale for when audio-visual information will be mandatory on buses?
We have had the action accessibility plan, which we will respond to shortly—within the month.[Official Report, 10 May 2018, Vol. 640, c. 10MC.] We are working with the Royal National Institute of Blind People and the charity Guide Dogs. We meet regularly with them to talk about how we can make the information available on all our buses, and in the most appropriate form. Unfortunately, during a trial some passengers complained that too much information was being given out all the time, and that occasionally the wrong information was given out. We are working on that with all the charities involved with people with visual impairments.
The hon. Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) has talked about concessions for younger people on several occasions. I draw attention to the comments made by the hon. Member for Keighley (John Grogan) that any concessions or free bus service available for younger people has to be financially robust and stand up to the rigour of examination. The Government recognise that public transport is of particular importance to young people, and that the cost of travel can cause difficulty for those seeking education, training or employment opportunities. That is why a trial extension of discounted rail travel for 26 to 30-year-olds has recently been announced. That industry-led initiative to gather evidence on a full roll-out has seen a 100% take-up. The first phase of the trial saw 10,000 railcards sold across Greater Anglia, including Cambridge.
As I mentioned, local authorities have the powers to offer travel concessions on buses to local residents, and there are many examples of that for groups such as students. As part of the Bus 18 partnership between operators and West Yorkshire combined authority, there are half-price tickets for young people up to the age of 19, and pupils wearing their school uniform will no longer have to show a half-fare bus pass. In Liverpool, the voluntary bus alliance between Merseytravel, Arriva and Stagecoach has seen a flat fare of £1.80 for young people, with growth of 140% in bus travel by young people, as well as overall passenger growth of 16%. In Hertfordshire, young people aged 11 to 18 can pay £15 for a card that entitles them to half-price fares on local services.
There is more to encouraging bus use than cost alone. A recent report by Transport Focus found that young people want better access to information about buses. That is why we introduced powers through the Bus Services Act 2017 to require operators to provide better information on fares, timetables and when the next bus will arrive. In addition, a national scheme such as that in place for older and disabled people would require a change to primary legislation, but there are no plans to do that presently. The hon. Member for Reading East will appreciate that this is a complex area and there are no quick and easy solutions. The Department continues to work with local authorities and bus operators on young people’s travel.
I return to the comments made by the hon. Member for Keighley on the robust nature of the budget put forward for free bus travel for the under 25s. Labour originally calculated that policy to cost more than £1 billion, but unfortunately, the numbers were later calculated to be closer to £13 billion. At the moment, that has not reached robust investigation in Westminster Hall.
I thank the Minister for her support and praise for local discounted schemes. I want to raise the report by University College London, “Social prosperity for the future: A proposal for Universal Basic Services”. Although we are not proposing this—perhaps to the disappointment of my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner)—the research by University College London estimates the possible cost of free bus travel for every person in the UK to be £5 billion per year. That suggests that the Minister’s estimate of £13 billion is somewhat excessive. Our estimate of £1.3 billion has been costed carefully.
The hon. Gentleman started at £1.3 billion and then moved on to £5 billion, which possibly could reach £13 billion—I am a little nervous about the true figure. We already have a concessionary programme that costs £1 billion. To announce something as available without it having been costed would do the bus industry no service.
The hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) mentioned apprentices; the Department is considering concession options for apprentices and is completing research on a feasibility study. We will report on that later this year and it will inform the development of the policy. There are no plans to fund such a scheme but we will see what the feasibility study concludes.
Reimbursement by local authorities to bus operators is made on a “no better off, no worse off” basis. The hon. Member for Cambridge noted that reimbursement appeals have been in decline and have reached a new low. In 2006-07, there were 69 appeals, but in 2017-18 there were just 21. That means that operators are fairly recompensed for the cost of providing concessionary travel in both urban and rural areas. The reimbursement mechanism is now fit for purpose, as shown by the large fall in reimbursement appeals in recent years. EU state aid rules do not allow the Government to provide the concessionary scheme on any other basis—it cannot be used to provide hidden subsidy to operators.
Much has been said about the increase in pension age; the state pension age of men and women is being equalised. The pensionable age for women has risen gradually to reach 65 this year, and the state pension age for both men and women will rise to 66 by 2020. Equalising the age at which free bus travel applies makes the national travel concession scheme more sustainable. Finding efficiencies in this way rather than cutting back on the entitlement offer to older and disabled people is the best way to focus support on those who need it most.
It is right that Government support focuses on the most vulnerable members of society. The Government believe that local authorities are often in the best position to offer concessions that work for the people who live there. All local authorities have powers to introduce concessions in addition to their statutory obligations, including the extension of concessionary travel to those who are yet to reach the qualifying age. For example, in Cambridgeshire, the largest operator offers half-price travel to jobseekers.
I return to the point raised by the hon. Member for Cambridge about securing funding for concessionary travel schemes, which sit across many Departments. He was right to note that the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government is responsible for the concessionary travel budget. The Treasury is jointly responsible for local authority ring-fencing. I work with all those Departments to ensure that we get the best that we can for bus services. We have just agreed a further two-year ring-fence for the local authority element of the bus service operators grant for the next two years.
The hon. Member for Cambridge also mentioned franchising; he will be aware that any local authority can request franchising, but will need to demonstrate delivery capability and a track record of doing so. We will see how that pans out.
I want to quickly talk about air quality and congestion, which was raised by the Chair of the Transport Committee, the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood). We have recently made some good announcements on that. The Government are committed to buses being greener, which is why we announced an extra £48 million for ultra low emission buses. That follows £30 million in funding for 300 new buses through a low emission bus scheme and £40 million for retrofitting 2,700 older buses to reduce tail-pipe emissions of nitrogen dioxide through the clean bus technology fund. We are trying to make journeys easier and more accessible, and to ensure that the concessionary bus pass remains in place.
I hope that I have demonstrated that the Government are committed to protecting the national concessionary travel scheme for buses. We are keen to do what we can to improve bus service patronage. Of course, I will meet with the hon. Member for Cambridge if he has good evidence of best practice, especially of initiatives that have taken place in other countries that we can use here, and especially if they involve new, innovative technology, to learn as much as we can to ensure that the Department is doing what it can to increase bus patronage.
We are determined to ensure that bus patronage increases as much as it can, and we are focused on delivering concessions to those who need it most, while allowing local authorities and operators the flexibility they need to support their local populations. It was interesting to hear that, as we get older, we migrate from the front of the bus to the back of the bus, and then to the front of the bus again. Hopefully, we can all wait our turn until we get hold of our concessionary bus pass. Some will have to wait a little longer than others, but it will definitely be there, once we reach our old age.
I thank all hon. Members for the positive and constructive tone of the debate. I commend the Minister for her enthusiasm for the national concessionary fares scheme, which I hope will take it out of the political arena in future. For many older people, it has been a cause for concern but, if I understand what she is saying, we no longer need to have any concern about it.
A couple of points came out of the debate, such as universalism and means testing, as raised by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). It is fair to say that that debate ran through the Labour Government years. I think it has shifted in favour of universalism, and I hope it continues to, for all the reasons that hon. Members mentioned, such as bringing society together. There is an old adage that services for the poor produce poor services, but if they are universal services, they will be better services. That case has been particularly well made in terms of transport.
In the wise words of the Chair of the Transport Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), the concern is the declining availability of buses in too many areas. Having a bus pass without a bus is no use to anybody. In some of my wider reflections about how we could make better use of the public money that is spent, I was trying to suggest how to reverse what has seemed to many of us to be a sad decline. We all want my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (John Grogan) to enjoy the view from the front of his bus, but I suspect that if many more young people were on that bus, whether they were sitting at the front or the back, there would be more chance of having it. I commend Labour’s policies to the Minister and I suspect, over time, that we may well see progress.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered concessionary bus passes.