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Free Bus Travel: Care Leavers

Volume 724: debated on Wednesday 7 December 2022

I beg to move,

That this House has considered free bus travel for care leavers.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. I am pleased to have the opportunity to make this case, as I have a long-standing interest in the challenges that care leavers face, which I pursue as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for looked after children and care leavers.

Those in care and care leavers have many issues to contend with. There are about 80,000 children in the care system across England and Wales, with about 10,000 attempting to exit the system each year. Children and young people in care tend to do less well on a number of indicators. They do less well in education and training and end up with lesser qualifications. Nearly half experience mental health difficulties, and an estimated 25% of homeless people have been in care at some point in their life. From age 18, many young people are expected to become independent and manage their own affairs. A wealth of research shows just how financially vulnerable care leavers are, and obviously the cost of living crisis will only exacerbate the difficulties they face.

I am conscious that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden), will reply to the debate, so let me be clear at the outset why I requested the debate, and why I am pleased that he is responding. There is a tendency in both national and local government to see issues involving the care system as the responsibility of the Department for Education, or of children’s and education departments in local government, but one clear theme arising from the recent inquiry chaired by Josh MacAlister is the corporate nature of parenting, and how responsibility for those who experience the care system is a cross-Government and cross-departmental responsibility.

For many care-experienced young people, travel can almost become a luxury. They are unlikely to afford to own, or even run, a car, so they are heavily dependent on buses, not as a luxury but as an essential. The average cost of a bus pass is about £18 a week, which represents a third of the income of care leavers under 25 on universal credit.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing forward the debate, and thank him for highlighting the issue. As he outlined, those care leavers under 25 on universal credit do not have much money to start with. Does he agree that they, and care leavers seeking employment, need to afford buses, so that they can get to appointments and get a job? The Government have been keen to encourage young people to get jobs. Does he feel that free bus travel would enable young people to get the opportunities in this life that they need?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I will say a bit more about the work situation later. We have a problem with vacancies that cannot be filled, and the travel-to-work pattern is the obstacle in some situations. If youngsters are looking to move outside their immediate area to find employment that works for them, they have to be able to travel, so he is quite right.

Travel is not a luxury for the very reasons the hon. Gentleman set out. It is essential to attend work and interviews, go to the jobcentre and remain in touch with family, friends and former foster carers—the normal social links that the rest of us take for granted. A lack of access to transport can contribute to young people feeling cut off and isolated. One in five care leavers already identifies loneliness as an acute problem.

A recent Barnardo’s report, “Transport for Freedom”, makes a powerful case for extending free bus travel to care leavers aged 18 to 25 in England. If the Minister has not already seen it, I will be happy to furnish him with a copy. The Barnardo’s campaign is inspired by work that it undertook in Cornwall in 2021, when it teamed up with Carefree, a local charity, to run a pilot project with support from bus operator First Bus. It provided free bus passes for local care leavers for a year. I ask the Minister to consider the report when he has an opportunity, and I would like him to agree to meet me and representatives of Barnardo’s to discuss issues raised in it, and the potential for a scheme for care leavers in England aged 18 to 25.

The Scottish Government recently recognised the important role that bus travel can play in improving the lives of young people, and introduced a national scheme of free bus travel for all young people under the age of 22. There are schemes for other groups, including some vulnerable groups. The English national concessionary travel scheme, with which the Minister will be familiar, provides free off-peak bus travel in England for pensioners and those with a disability.

Some bus companies have their own schemes. One of the biggest is Back on Board, which is offered by Stagecoach. It gives jobseekers a 50% discount on bus travel to help them attend job interviews. That is the point that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made. Some areas have their own schemes. Greater Manchester offers free bus travel to all care leavers aged 18 to 21 in its 10 authorities, and Newcastle has recently started a pilot looking at care leavers aged 18 to 25, offering free travel on the bus and metro network. I believe that the Mayor of London is also looking at introducing a reduced fare scheme on the London transport network some time next year.

Those schemes are good, but they are inevitably thinly spread. In these difficult economic times, the vast majority of local authorities have no such support. Some care leavers can seek help if they can negotiate the system by applying for discretionary awards, but in an era of ever-tightening budgets, they are harder and harder to access.

Based on the average weekly cost of a bus ticket of £18.77 and a take-up rate of around 76%, which the Minister will recognise is equivalent to similar national concessionary bus travel schemes, Barnardo’s estimates that a national scheme for all care leavers aged 18 to 25 would cost £77 million. That is not cheap, but when we think about the costs incurred for care leavers for other support after a life in care, it may be a figure worth exploring.

I do not deny for a second that the money would have to come from somewhere, but I note that a study of the English concessionary travel scheme shows that, for every £1 invested, nearly £3 of benefits were created in a host of ways, whether in reduced demands on the health service or better employment and tax returns. That is not to mention the benefits of creating a culture where there is a healthy desire to use public transport from a young age—something I am sure the Minister is anxious to promote. Beyond the return on investment, there is both a social and a moral case for supporting young care leavers by providing free bus travel. When we add the distinct economic benefits of doing so, the case becomes clearer and clearer.

Will the Minister take advantage of the opportunity of the MacAlister report to talk to his colleagues across Government? The Government have said that they are considering the implementation plan for the children’s social care review and hope to make announcements early in the new year. This is a classic example of the need to overhaul the package of support we provide for young people in care. We should remember that the reason most young people end up in care is that the state determines that the quality and nature of care they are experiencing in their existing arrangements is not good enough, so the onus is on us to guarantee that the care they receive while they are in the system and as they leave it is infinitely better than it was before. At times, it is in danger of not being as good, which is clearly not an acceptable state of affairs.

I have been listening intently to the hon. Gentleman. While I am ever mindful of the fact that these children are coming out of the care system, does he think that free bus passes could be tied to seeking employment? That would give care leavers an incentive to seek employment and would help the Government to achieve some of their employment goals.

That would be an extremely valuable use of the idea. As I said, it is not the only reason for considering this proposal, but it is a crucial reason.

Will the Minister commit to assess the impact of extending concessionary bus travel schemes to other vulnerable groups and consider that in the context of care leavers? His Department will have considerable data on the issue already, so will he look at that in the context of care leavers? When time allows, will he meet me and representatives of Barnardo’s in the new year to explore the potential for introducing such a scheme? Will he talk to his colleagues across Government about the opportunity presented by the implementation plan for the independent review of children’s care to bring forward such a measure, which would clearly be in keeping with the thinking of the MacAlister review?

We are at that time of year—the season of good will—when the Minister gets the opportunity to play Santa, and I get the opportunity to tell him all I want for Christmas. On this occasion, I want him to agree to that meeting, look at those reports and review this proposal in the context of children leaving care. I ask him to give it serious consideration. I would prefer him to say that I can just have it, but I will settle for serious consideration of introducing, at the very least, a decent pilot scheme for concessionary or free travel for 18 to 25-year-old care leavers, so that we can do our best by them.

It is a pleasure to serve for the first time under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. I start by thanking the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) for bringing the debate forward, and I congratulate him on securing it. As chair of the APPG for looked after children and care leavers, he has done a huge amount in this area, and continues to do so. On a personal note, let me say more power to his elbow, because he does a great job of advocating for those who, too often, do not have a voice in this place.

The hon. Gentleman is right that there is a cross-Government responsibility to care leavers, whether on the part of the Department for Work and Pensions, as he and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned, the Department for Transport, the Department of Health and Social Care or the Department for Education.

We know that buses are the foundation of an efficient and inclusive public transport system. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak was right that I have a healthy desire to increase public transport use, particularly following the pandemic, when we saw a drop-off in ridership, with the biggest fall happening in concessionary schemes for the elderly and disabled. I hope the hon. Gentleman will welcome some of the schemes to re-boost ridership over the coming few months. It is only through usage that we can help to keep buses sustainable for everybody to use.

As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, buses provide important access to employment, as well as education, leisure and other crucial connections that are valued by so many, including care leavers. In England, we provide free bus travel for those who are older or who have certain disabilities, and that important scheme helps maintain the network of bus services. It is also well used and popular, with more than 860 million journeys made in the year before the pandemic and take-up of around 80%, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

The Government are committed to bus services, and we provided £2 billion during the pandemic to keep them going. We have continued to provide support for the sector, which is helping to maintain services. It is not just about maintaining our existing network of bus services, but expanding it in scope and quality, through the city region sustainable transport settlements, the zero emission bus regional areas fund and, crucially, the bus service improvement plans. We aim to transform the quality of bus services across the country.

Why do I say all of that? Free bus travel does not mean much if there is no bus service. Our approach with the national bus strategy, as well as the enhanced partnerships and franchising we have enabled under the Bus Services Act 2017, will put buses on a more sustainable, long-term footing as a key part of England’s transport network.

The Minister is right to point out the challenges of running a bus service when there are not enough customers to fund it. There are concessions for many groups in society, so might he at least take away from this debate the potential to look at this proposal, given the vulnerabilities of care leavers? We are dealing with a vulnerable group that is disadvantaged in many ways, for whom this could be a great benefit.

I thank my hon. Friend for that point, which I will come on to address and which has been well made by both him and the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak.

We know that care leavers face massive challenges, including with transport. They need to get to work, education and training, as well as to have social interactions that are sometimes more difficult for them. The issue is of interest to me because of my previous life as a special adviser in the Department for Education, and I did a lot of work on it at the time. The “staying put” and “staying close” schemes have been really important in that respect. It is also important that we recognise that we have an extra responsibility to care leavers beyond the age of 18, and there has been important movement on that in recent years. That is where the Barnardo’s report is driving forwards today.

However, we could do more across Government. We have heard about the real and significant difficulties that exist, which the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak described so well. I am happy that a number of local authorities are already providing support, and the hon. Gentleman mentioned some of them. The work Barnardo’s undertook demonstrated that only 11 local authorities of the 116 that responded provided no transport support for care leavers. So only a few provide absolutely no help but, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, much of that is discretionary, and those authorities are under pressure.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Greater Manchester scheme, which has been in place since the end of 2019 and offers free travel up to the age of 21. Many other places provide that discretionary help, but perhaps the hon. Gentleman thinks we need to look beyond bespoke pathways. Since the publication of the report in July we have also seen a pilot launch in my part of the world, the north-east, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned. More than 300 young care leavers have been offered free transport across Tyne and Wear. That pilot, which is a partnership between the councils, bus operators and the NHS, demonstrates how improving opportunities for care leavers touches many aspects of public services, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned. If the pilot is successful, it will be rolled out further locally using the BSIP funding, on which my Department is currently in negotiations with north-east authorities. That is a small part of the wider changes to bus services in the north-east, which I am keen to support as the Minister responsible. However, at the same time as praising the value of these trials, I must acknowledge that we face a tough fiscal environment, as noted by the Chancellor in his fiscal statement. Sadly, I am not sure that the Treasury would allow me to play Santa, even at this time of year.

As the hon. Gentleman noted, providing universal bus travel would cost around £77 million—adding around 7.5% to the current concessionary schemes. I am sure hon. Members present are aware that concessionary travel is managed by local authorities. In many ways, they do not get sufficient credit for operating—sometimes almost invisibly—the complex system of transaction and reimbursement around the concessionary scheme. That scheme needs to be sustainable in the long term. I am happy to say that 76 of the 83 authorities have chosen to enhance the scheme using their own resources, above what the Government provide.

If we wish to add further complexity to this locally run and operated system, it should meet three criteria: it has to be deliverable, effective and affordable. In many ways, the third part is enabled by the first two. The hon. Member’s proposals face some short-term challenges in terms of affordability, and I have gone into those. In terms of deliverability, the legislative regime would face challenges in simply providing for care leavers to receive free transport nationally. There would need to be changes to the Transport Act 2000. I am sure hon. Members present appreciate that that cannot be done overnight.

In terms of effectiveness, that is perhaps where we could benefit most from further work. As I have mentioned, trials and projects are under way in England to provide free transport for care leavers. My officials have recently been in touch with officials from some of the key authorities trialling these projects. I will ask to be kept apprised of developments and any evaluation of the trials, including the impact on employment outcomes, which the hon. Member for Strangford mentioned. It is perhaps worth mentioning that these schemes do not involve the English national concessionary travel scheme or legislative change, and they are seeking to do things more quickly by getting existing smart-ticketing products to care leavers. This is something local authorities could do with their own resources, and I will be very interested to see the outcomes of the trials.

I have previously mentioned the care leaver covenant, which is a fantastic initiative designed to provide support for care leavers, not just within Government, but across the public, private and voluntary sectors. My Department has played its part in that by participating in the civil service care leavers internship scheme. I would love to see transport providers, including bus operators, sign up to the covenant and provide free or discounted travel to care leavers to recognise the importance of inclusion across our society.

We take seriously all requests for extensions to concessionary travel, including for care leavers—I certainly do—but we have to balance them with universal changes, the financial sustainability of the scheme, local areas’ knowledge of how their transport networks work best, and how quickly we can deliver the changes we want.

In closing, I again thank the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak for calling for the debate, and I thank other Members for their contributions. I will meet the hon. Gentleman and Barnardo’s in the new year—possibly in Cornwall, where Barnardo’s scheme has been in place, because it would be interesting to see it on the ground. I will continue to look at the issue as part of our reviews of concessionary schemes. Perhaps there will even be a fourth-Session Bill—the hon. Gentleman could help me by lobbying broader Government in that direction. I will continue, as he asked, to engage across Government in this space, which is important, particularly in terms of employability and helping young people leaving care to make connections that will put them in good stead for the rest of their lives. This is a vital issue, and I look forward to engaging further with the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members as we seek to improve concessionary travel across England.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.