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Ms Keeble: I appreciate all the concerns raised by the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster). I do not want to have a very long discussion about the financial arrangements, especially as we have discussed them exhaustively in Committee. I suspect that I would simply end up saying what I have said previously, and we would go round the houses again. The financial figures that I have cited are those that I have been given most recently, so they cover the current state of play. I give an undertaking to ensure that hon. Members are properly notified of any further developments.

3.15 pm

Mr. Foster: The Minister gave from the Dispatch Box a figure of about £50 million, but the figure that she and her colleagues have cited most frequently is £54 million. For the sake of clarity, will she confirm that that is the current figure, agreed by her departmental officials and the LGA? Given that she said that there was a small discrepancy, can she tell us what it is?

Ms Keeble: I too have heard the £54 million figure. The figure that I have been given most recently by

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officials is £50 million. I have previously given an approximation of the remaining difference, which is down from the several millions that it was previously. I do not want to go back around that or to mislead anyone about the continuing discussions. It would probably be more helpful if we made absolutely sure that hon. Members received exactly the right figures, and I undertake to write to hon. Members about them when we know whether those discussions have produced any further results.

In answer to the question about the different local authorities, I said that they were the ones most likely to be under pressure. The point of the negotiations and discussions that are taking place is to ensure that they are not under pressure and that we reach the right the final formula. At the end of the day, the Bill will greatly benefit many people. Overwhelmingly, that will be its impact, and I have no doubt that the concessions that will be extended to 64-year-old men will be very welcome indeed. Of course, we have to ensure that the financial details are right, but we would be unwise to lose sight of the fact that this will be an overwhelmingly popular and practical measure that will produce real improvements for a substantial number of people.

I understand the concern that the hon. Gentleman expresses about ensuring that there is an equalising up, not an equalising down. I shall put things simply before going through my formal notes so that they are on the record. Under the Bill, local authorities will have to do for men what they are doing for women of the same age. If women get free bus passes, so must men. That is the Bill's effect; this is not a discretionary issue. If the local authority runs a half-fare scheme, men will pay half fares. Whatever scheme operates, it must be extended to men aged 60 to 64.

Of course, local authorities can introduce new schemes if they decide to do so at some stage in the future. Indeed, that is the point of local government, as the hon. Gentleman well knows; the Liberal Democrat party is totally in favour of local discretion. All the evidence shows that when people are given concessionary public transport, the pressure is to increase the concessions, not to reduce them. All the discussions about concessionary bus passes—for example, those in the west midlands and Greater Manchester—clearly show the enormous value that is placed on those facilities.

Mr. Foster: There is no disagreement in the Chamber about the enormous benefits that the Bill will produce. May I ask the Minister to turn to the specifics of the issue? For example, the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) said that his local authority's aspiration was to provide a flat-rate 50p travel scheme for people over the age of 60. If his local authority already had in place such a scheme, the Bill's introduction will result in a significant additional cost to that authority for providing a flat-rate scheme for a much larger group of people—men between the ages of 60 and 65—than in a neighbouring authority that was only providing the statutory minimum.

My question to the Minister is simple: will she ensure, by whatever means—let us not argue about the methodology—that that mythical local authority will not lose out and be forced to cut its more generous concessionary scheme?

Ms Keeble: I do not want to return to the finance debate, as we have had that discussion several times and

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I would end up saying the same thing as was said in Committee. The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) was talking about aspirations, although I was not sure whether he was talking about what is in place. I accept that the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) might have liked the debate to be the other way round.

This short Bill, apart from bringing enormous benefits to an important section of society, will make sure that men aged 60 to 64 receive the same benefits as women in that age group. We have undertaken to finance any new burdens that that imposes on local authorities—we have had that debate—but it will not be possible to provide men aged 60 to 64 with different benefits from those provided to women. If, at a future stage, local authorities wish to change their concessionary fares scheme, they may do so.

I have dealt with the arguments about the political realities, rather than the financial realities, of taking such a decision. That has been clearly demonstrated by the concerns that have been raised, much more in the debate about the original concessionary fares schemes than in this debate. We are aware of the concerns that have been expressed in the west midlands and Greater Manchester, and of the reality of what happened subsequently. As I understand it, in all areas, the levelling was up, not down, once the mandatory scheme was introduced.

Chris Grayling: I appreciate that the hon. Lady feels pressed on this point, but the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) has raised an important issue. Will any local authority be forced, as a result of the changes, to reduce the concessionary fares scheme that it provides for its local people, or to divert money away from other services to fulfil the terms of the Bill—yes or no?

Ms Keeble: That point came under the debate that we have just had. The Government have recognised the new burdens, we have sized and cut up the cake and made it as fair as possible.

Mr. Phil Woolas (Oldham, East and Saddleworth): And put cream on it.

Ms Keeble: Yes, and a cherry on top, too. That is the point that we have reached.

The amendment is about making sure that schemes are not reduced as a result of the Bill. The Bill specifically says that, if a scheme is in place, it must be extended to men aged 60 to 64. If a free pass scheme is in place, those men must have free travel, as, of course, the pass must be free. If a 50 per cent. fare scheme is in place, that must be extended to men aged 60 to 64. That is what is being financed, and that will be the effect of the scheme. I have explained that repeatedly and, I hope, as clearly as possible. I shall now make progress.

At the risk of going over the same ground, the Bill will extend all existing schemes to men from age 60. Therefore, as I said, if the local authority offers a statutory minimum of a half fare with a local free bus pass—they cannot be charged for the pass—that must be offered to men aged 60 to 64 once the Bill comes into effect, which should be in April next year. Similarly, in areas where schemes that are more generous than the statutory minimum are offered, those schemes should also be extended. The Bill will therefore extend rather than reduce the existing schemes.

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It is vital that we do not fetter the discretion of local authorities to operate the concessionary fare schemes that they consider best meet the needs of their areas. We do not expect local authorities to use the Bill as a reason to reduce the scope of their current schemes. We are confident that the funding that will be provided through the new burdens procedure will compensate local authorities for extending their schemes to men aged 60 to 64. We are keen to retain local democracy, and we do not want the Bill to reduce the discretion afforded to local authorities on the matter. I am sure that the hon. Member for Bath would support that. It is down to local authorities to decide, in the light of local circumstances, what type of scheme they want to operate.

Mr. Foster: The Minister seeks to reassure us that everything that the Government intend to do will ensure that the Bill does not result in a reduction of the existing, more generous, schemes. Will she add to her reassurance by providing some of the information that must be available to her? Her noble Friend Lord Falconer said in another place:


Will the Minister tell us the result of that investigation?


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