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4.22 pm

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): The Minister is right to describe the Bill as a small and modest piece of legislation, but on a personal level it is frightening, because it reminds us of our own mortality. I noted with considerable shock that should we make the decision in 2010 to phase in the concessions to reflect the arrangements for the state pension, I will become a beneficiary in June 2014, and my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) in June 2016. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble), looks at me inquiringly, but I was far too gallant to look up in "Vacher's" the information needed for me to state the relevant date for her.

We shall not oppose the Bill, but we have some reservations which are founded on the law of unintended consequences. We are worried that the Bill might adversely affect some discretionary schemes such that some other groups have their rights withdrawn—the Minister had a taste of that concern courtesy of his hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (David Winnick)—or existing beneficiaries of age-related schemes get a poorer deal.

The worst that could happen is that the scheme becomes bogged down in arguments about the formula, so we must be sure that it is correct and not based on false assumptions. The Minister is aware that the Local Government Association, of which I, with many others, have the honour to be a vice-president, believes that his Department might have underestimated the effects.

Agreement was reached on an increased aggregate revenue support grant. Provision of £54 million—slightly more than the original estimate of £47 million—was made for the cost of the proposals. I understand that the

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Department estimates that the additional requirements under the Bill will cost about £50 million. The basis of those calculations will have to be carefully considered during the Bill's passage through Parliament.

The principal difference resulting from the reduction in the qualifying age for men is that many of the recipients will be in full-time employment; their transportation usage is likely to be greater than that of a retired person. I note that, in another place, assurances of full consultation were given by the Government; I hope that they will be honoured.

Mr. Spellar indicated assent.

Mr. Pickles: The right hon. Gentleman is nodding, which is reassuring.

Making estimates, both nationally and locally, of the consequences of the Bill is difficult, as operators have not produced a body of evidence for revenue that will be forgone by current public transport users in that economically active category. I am not entirely sure—I am not pushing this aggressively—that we are on tried and tested ground.

Mr. Spellar: In a similarly co-operative way, may I help the hon. Gentleman? Of course, he will be aware that concessionary fare schemes start at 9.30 am. Therefore, allowing for the fact that some people work shifts, a considerable number of those in work would not be able to use their pass because the rush hour is already excluded. We believe that that will tend to minimise the additional costs, but I recognise that there may be an issue, on which we shall consult.

Mr. Pickles: That is fair and reasonable but, by way of an attempted rebuttal, the situation will be continuing for a period of years. The Government are actively encouraging flexi-working and public transport companies are actively offering inducements to take up spare capacity outside peak hours. I therefore hope that the Minister will forgive me for saying that I am not entirely sure that we are using tried and tested methods.

The LGA said:

That is reasonable. After all, this is the second large review that transport authorities have had to undertake within a relatively short period. We do not know how concessions will be bedded in. Ministers involved with the Transport Act 2000 talked about the way in which the measures would be bedded in. It will be several years before concessions are on-stream. It would be a mistake to embark on a fundamental review of the formula, but we should look most carefully at the transitional arrangements.

For example, £15 million was allocated to the London boroughs to cover the cost of equalisation for the freedom pass. Because of the way in which the grant system and the mechanism works, they received only £11 million, leaving the council taxpayer to fill the hole. There was a time when I could recite the formula for the allocation but, I am pleased to tell the House, I have forgotten it and have no desire to learn it again. Nevertheless, it illustrates

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the point that these things are complicated; we can come up with a simple intention with which we all agree, but find ourselves leaving local authorities materially worse off.

We have already heard from the hon. Member for Walsall, North, the Minister's friend and neighbour from the west midlands, who expressed worries similar to those of the Royal National Institute for the Blind. In a briefing document prepared for our debate, it says that there are concerns that


The Minister conceded that some earlier discretionary schemes are much better than existing schemes. The failure to match funding and reality has already created problems in a number of authorities. The Local Government Association has identified about 20 local authorities that have made amendments to existing alternative schemes which might be taken as reductions. The hon. Member for Walsall, North referred to the West Midlands passenger transport authority. Many authorities have removed a previous 100 per cent. concession for all modes of transport and replaced it with the choice of a free bus pass allowing half-price travel on buses, or the option of paying for a pass giving bigger reductions.

In Birmingham a scheme that had been in place since just before the first world war was ended without consultation with blind and partially sighted people. Redress was made following the intervention of local Members of Parliament, but I understand that the chairman of the passenger transport authority says that unless there is a substantial increase in grant, the process will be reversed. I hope that I am wrong about that, but the chairman is on public record as saying so.

Lancashire county council proposes to stop issuing passes to blind people allowing them to travel for a flat 30p fare. Existing passes will be maintained, but in future blind people will be issued with a statutory half-price pass for buses only. The RNIB highlights the problem of blind and partially sighted people having the right change, the possibility that people with white sticks or guide dogs may be targets for muggers, and the social inconvenience of blind people delaying other passengers.

The RNIB has anecdotal evidence that other local authorities have reduced their concessionary fares to the 50 per cent. statutory minimum, even before they incur the costs of the Bill when it is enacted. I do not believe for a moment that that is what the Government want. I also know of the long discussions and the brinkmanship in which everyone in local authorities engages with Government in respect of funding. That is why I refer to the law of unintended consequences.

We are not likely to get primary legislation such as the Bill very often. We have made a number of comments in relation to the Transport Act 2000 and the Greater London Authority Act 1999. We are missing an opportunity to pull together all the concessionary fares and put them on a unified footing. We should decide, for example, whether schemes are to be available to young people. The LGA believes that the Bill may provide an opportunity for statutory eligibility in respect of certain persons to be inserted in the Transport Act 1985 or the Transport Act

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2000, perhaps by applying the statutory minimum scheme or other schemes to schoolchildren and/or young persons in full-time education.

The Minister spoke about coaches. Some operators offer a 33 per cent. discount to people of pensionable age, which is welcome. When the Under-Secretary replies, it would be helpful if she could spell out the kind of sum envisaged. Will that be in addition to the £12 million coach concessionary fare scheme? Can she also clarify whether the money will come from the unallocated Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions funds in the spending plans for the next three years under the 10-year transport plan?

It would be helpful if the Minister could respond on another matter that causes all kinds of problems, particularly for authorities that border large conurbations. The problem is particularly acute when that large conurbation is London. It concerns journeys that start in one local authority area and finish in another. I have difficulty explaining to pensioners in my constituency why they experience problems when they undertake journeys outside the Brentwood area and into Romford. It is a serious problem for my constituents because all our hospital services are outside the local authority area, which causes confusion and resentment.

Help the Aged said of the Bill:

Earlier this year, my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) introduced a private Member's Bill that sought to amend section 145 of the Transport Act 2000 so that it covered neighbouring authorities. That tidying up might be helpful. It may not be possible to do so, but it would be appropriate to examine the possibility in Committee. Only in that way will we be able to iron out that major anomaly in the scheme.

Obviously, we shall not oppose the Bill. We require some scrutiny of it, principally of the measures that I have outlined. We believe that the Bill should answer many of the questions left unanswered in the course of proceedings on the Transport Act 2000. Above all, we must guard against the law of unintended consequences.

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