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11 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Mr. David Jamieson): I congratulate the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) on securing this important debate for his constituents. He is becoming a regular contributor to debates on transport matters. We have been seen so often in the same room discussing the subject that I fear that people may begin to talk. He also thanked me for coming here to answer the debate, but there was no need for him to do that. There is no place that I would rather be at 11 o'clock at night than here answering a debate on the matters that he raised.

I have listened with great interest to the hon. Gentleman's points. He has raised concerns about the disparities that exist on the fringes of London in the charging structures for bus services. One concern relates to concessionary travel passes for pensioners and the other relates to the effects of Transport for London's fare policies. I should like to start by saying how important the Government regard bus services in providing essential public transport. We probably agree on that.

It will be helpful to the House if I put the matters raised in the debate in the context of our overall approach to improving bus services. Last year, we produced our 10-year transport plan, which identified the major investment that we need to make to achieve the kind of improvements that we all want. The 10-year transport plan and associated investment will modernise public transport and improve the road network. It will deliver improvements for passengers, motorists and business—to make journeys quicker, easier and safer for everyone. The bus has an absolutely vital role to play in delivering the plan.

In London, responsibility for bus services rests with the Mayor for London and his transport executive, Transport for London. The Mayor's policies on buses are set out in his statutory transport strategy published in July under section 142 of the Greater London Authority Act 1999. Copies of the strategy are available in the Library. It highlights the vital role that buses already play in the capital's transport system and outlines the Mayor's plans to achieve a significant improvement in both the quantity and quality of services.

The transport strategy explains that bus fare initiatives, in parallel with service improvements, have the potential to alleviate rail overcrowding and offer a real alternative to the car because capacity on the bus system can be increased more rapidly.

Buses are the most commonly used form of public transport in this country. So, when formulating our transport policies for outside London, we took a

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particularly close look at what changes were necessary in the existing arrangements for buses in order to raise the standard of service provision. In doing so, we took on board a very wide range of views from all parts of the bus industry in both the private and public sectors, as well as from a broad range of other interest groups.

Broadly speaking, our proposals for buses are aimed at strengthening the existing arrangements and improving the stability of services while seeking to encourage the investment and good practice that commercial operators have shown they are capable of providing.

We have recently put in place, under the Transport Act 2000, powers to improve the quality and delivery of bus services. These powers—for the introduction of statutory quality partnerships and quality contracts—are designed to address the weaknesses of the deregulated regime that we inherited from our predecessors. The hon. Gentleman was not in the House at the time but, if he had been, 26 October 1986 would have been clear in his mind as the date on which deregulation was introduced by the then Government. The policy did much damage to bus services, particularly in areas such as his.

On concessionary fares, the Transport Act 2000 places a duty on all local authorities to offer their elderly and disabled residents at least half fares or better on local buses, with a free bus pass. It is up to individual authorities to decide whether to offer further concessions over and above the statutory minimum requirement in the light of their judgment of local needs and circumstances and their overall financial priorities.

The basic principle of the concessionary travel passes provided by local authorities is that they are local passes for local people. They are there to enable elderly or disabled residents to go about their essential daily business and enhance their mobility. Parliament has placed a duty on local authorities to provide half-fare concessions, but it is up to individual authorities to decide whether to go beyond the statutory minimum.

Residents of all London boroughs who are entitled to concessionary travel get freedom passes that allow free travel on most transport services within Greater London. Outside London, it is the responsibility of district councils to provide the standard minimum requirement or better. There is nothing to prevent local authorities from working with neighbouring authorities to provide a countywide or an area-wide scheme, or to make special arrangements with transport operators in respect of particular journeys, for example to a hospital or superstore. Indeed, Surrey residents have concessions granted by local authorities acting jointly under the auspices of Surrey county council.

The countywide scheme provides half-fare bus travel within Surrey and on bus services making specified cross-boundary journeys. The hon. Gentleman may well say that that is a less generous scheme than the London scheme. However, it would be wrong for us in Westminster to dictate to local authorities their policies on concessionary fares. We are clear that those matters are best decided locally.

The hon. Gentleman complained about the disparities between concessionary travel in London and some outer London areas. It may help him to know that it was mainly Labour boroughs that came together in London to introduce free bus travel for elderly and disabled people in the first instance. In those parts of the country where, unlike his area, concessionary half fares were not

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available—some people were receiving no concessions at all—the Government have made them available in our latest transport legislation.

I am intrigued to know whether the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that London pensioners should not have the full concessionary fare. Is he suggesting—perhaps he will include this in his manifesto for the Conservatives in London—that they would remove that concessionary fare? If that were his policy, it would not receive universal approval from those people who benefit from it. I listened carefully to him. Perhaps he should go to his county council and make his points on behalf of the disabled and elderly people within his area. It is in the power of the local authority to grant further concessions to pensioners if he and the local electorate think that that is what is required.

Chris Grayling: The core of the argument is not that we want to remove concessionary schemes from pensioners in London. My point relates to a broad range of services, not simply transport. When one reaches the boundaries of London, the level of support for local authorities falls dramatically. Councils such as Surrey do not have the resources to meet the vast range of demands on its needs. They do not have the cash to do that. Transport is one such demand.

Mr. Jamieson: Virtually every authority outside London may well make the same point. Many other authorities, probably far less well off than his own in Surrey, make concessionary fares available—they are totally free—to all elderly people in the area. They make that decision as politicians. People decide on such things when they go to the ballot box. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman engages in the issue locally and asks the people what they think about the choices that face the local authority. These matters are determined locally, rather than by the Government. However, we have ensured that there is a base below which concessions for pensioners do not go, and that should be at least half fare.

Local authorities outside London, of course, have powers under the Transport Act 1985 to subsidise bus services where a necessary service would not otherwise be provided. They can provide such a service by contracting it from an operator on a competitively tendered basis, but it is for each authority to decide whether to subsidise a service, taking account of its overall priorities and financial resources.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the review of cross-boundary bus services. That was announced in the Mayor's transport strategy, and on 12 October Transport for London issued a press notice inviting contributions. The review is investigating the appropriate level of provision for local bus services across the GLA area boundary. It will take account of passenger requirements, existing service provision and the statutory responsibilities of Transport for London and neighbouring local authorities. It will aim to ensure that there is provision for the needs of bus passengers using cross-boundary services.

The review will also consider the London Transport Users Committee publication "Crossing the Border". I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has seen it, but if he has not I commend it to him as light bedtime reading. It was published in January and concerns the provision of

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cross-boundary services. The first stage of the study is to obtain the views of interested parties, including adjoining county and unitary councils, London boroughs, bus operators, democratic representatives, the London Transport Users Committee and other users. The aim is to ensure that bus passengers using services that cross the GLA area boundary are treated with equity, taking into account the statutory responsibilities of Transport for London and the neighbouring authorities. I strongly recommend that the hon. Gentleman and other Members with an interest contribute to the review.

I understand that Transport for London has absolutely no policy of providing cross-boundary services to seize business from commercial operators by unfair competition. Indeed, by agreement with Transport for London, under section 156 of the GLA Act, commercial operators can, and do, run services across the London boundary. Those services, such as the Surrey to Kingston service, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, are considered to be, and are operated, within the London bus network. They are licensed under London local service agreements. They stop at all bus stops and must, therefore, accept Transport for London travel passes and charge the same fares as bus services under contract to Transport for London.

Commercial operators outside the London bus network, such as National Express and Greenline, and those providing a limited-stop commuter service to the Medway towns, can also apply to Transport for London to operate services within Greater London through the grant of a London service permit. That would permit the operation of the London section of a cross-boundary service. As Transport for London is specifically prohibited from determining fare levels on such services, under section 187(3) of the GLA Act, operators are not restricted in what fares they can charge. However, Transport for London does not reimburse operators for the acceptance of its season tickets on those services.

I can see that the present arrangements may lead to certain anomalies of the kind to which the hon. Gentleman referred. Anomalies tend to occur, and not just in the sphere of transport, wherever people living on either side of an administrative boundary use the same facilities. That is the downside of locally responsive services, and it is often accepted as a price worth paying for decentralisation. Transport for London has boundaries not only with Surrey but with Essex, Kent, Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire.

I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman's constituents, who see pensioners and disabled people living nearby getting what they consider to be a better service. However, these matters are determined not in Westminster or Whitehall but by councillors responding to the needs and wishes of their local electorate. If the hon. Gentleman feels so disposed, he could start a campaign with the old folk and disabled groups in his area to see whether he can get the council to provide better concessionary fares. I thank him for raising the issue, and I look forward to hearing from him on another occasion.

Question put and agreed to.

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