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Mr. Don Foster: The Minister made some sensible points, which the hon. Gentleman acknowledged, on the value of a 1 April date. Does he agree that she should at least stop saying that it is the Government's hope and intention to bring the Bill into effect on 1 April 2003, and assure us that that will be the latest date for implementation?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Before I decide whether to press the amendment to a vote, I am happy to give way to the

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Minister so that she can give a cast-iron guarantee that the Bill will be implemented on 1 April 2003, because that would help the 1 million men to whom the debate is relevant.

Ms Keeble: Discussions have to take place with local authority associations and Transport for London. Subject to those and the agreement of the House—for all I know, the hon. Gentleman might decide to vote against the Bill—the provisions will come into effect in April 2003.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: To be reasonable, that is the strongest assurance that we could hope for from the Minister. We will, however, watch her every move closely and hold her to account if that does not happen. On the basis of her genuine assurance, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Order for Third Reading read.

3.42 pm

Ms Keeble: I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

We are all aware of the purpose of this small but important Bill. It will entitle men to take advantage of all concessionary travel schemes from the age of 60 instead of 65. Equalising the age of entitlement for concessionary fares further demonstrates our commitment to tackling social exclusion and to ensuring that older people in society enjoy a full and active life. We want bus travel in particular to remain within the means of those on limited incomes and those with mobility difficulties. Bus travel is the most used form of public transport, especially by older people, and is of the most value to people as they move about their communities and go about their day-to-day lives.

The House will recall that last year we brought into effect the provisions of the Transport Act 2000, which for the first time require local authorities to offer a minimum of 50 per cent. reductions for pensioners and disabled people on local bus services. The necessary bus travel pass must also be issued free of charge. Those changes are already benefiting 7 million people across England and Wales. In addition, many local authorities have more generous schemes that allow concessionary travel on other modes of transport. Some also provide free travel. The Bill will enable an extra 1 million men aged between 60 and 65 to enjoy the concessionary travel that is offered in their area.

The debate has been constructive at all stages of the Bill's proceedings. I am grateful to those hon. Members who have taken part. I know that many Members have much to say on concessionary travel. I am pleased that there is a general appreciation of and, despite the minor reservations, support for what the Bill attempts to achieve. It will bring real benefits to many people.


Mr. Clifton-Brown: We had a good debate on Second Reading and examined many issues in Committee on a fairly consensual basis. The Government did not accede to many amendments, but the broad consensus is that the Bill is welcome. It will benefit 1,177,700 men aged between 60 and 64 in England. They will be grateful to

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Mr. Matthews for taking his case to the European Court of Human Rights and to the Government for implementing the judgment. It is worth reiterating that the problem could have been put right had the appropriate amendment to the Transport Bill been accepted.

There is still some dissatisfaction, however. The level of concessionary fares, which are in place throughout the country, varies according to where one lives. We support the principle that the Minister outlined: local authorities should be responsible for their spending and taxing decisions, and we would expect some variance. However, the variance is considerable, and I ask the Minister to urge all local authorities to aim to match the best schemes.

As with all schemes, it would be interesting to discover why thousands of pensioners do not take advantage of the benefits that are on offer. The Minister should not let the Bill be the end of the matter—indeed, perhaps it should signal the beginning of a new era of providing a better service for our pensioners. I have a particular interest in the Bill because my constituency has the third highest number of over-85-year-olds in the country. There must be something about the Cotswold air that makes them live longer. I am delighted about that and hope that the average age continues to increase. Mercifully, advances in medical science are enabling the population to live longer. I am all for it because it means that I shall live longer too, much to the chagrin of Labour Members—but then they, too, will live longer, so we will also have to put up with them for longer.

If we are a civilised society, we should do all that we can to help people at the end of their working life, and the Bill goes a long way towards achieving that. It is interesting that a significant number of men in the 60 to 65 category are still working and may benefit from the scheme, as I said in Committee. I suspect that there might be an uneven take-up among authorities, especially metropolitan authorities in London and those on its edges, because people in that age group who commute are likely to want to benefit from the scheme. I know that the concessions do not apply in normal working hours, but people who are at the end of their working life, especially those in more senior jobs, can work more flexible hours. They may well be able to amend their hours to take advantage of the scheme. That is a good thing.

We will watch the Government carefully on costs. I do not want to go into them in too much detail, but they are important and we need to ensure that the Government make adequate provision for the full costs of the scheme. The Minister for the Environment said that local authorities will be reimbursed for reasonable costs. A good general principle is that when Government impose additional burdens on local authorities, those authorities should be reimbursed for the full costs of those obligations.

The Government have recently imposed a raft of obligations on local authorities, and authorities are losing out because they are not being reimbursed. Examples are the best value initiative, changes in arrangements for the collection and disposal of waste, the fuel tax and extra pension costs, but the list is pretty long. Because the Government have not funded council tax properly this year, most rural shire counties will have to raise council tax by an average of 7.5 per cent., three times the inflation rate. That is one of the biggest stealth taxes imposed by

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the Government. I hope that, once the Bill has been enacted, all local authorities will consider carefully how it can be applied to their citizens' best advantage.

It is regrettable that the scheme does not apply to local authority boundaries. That is unfair on those living near such boundaries. In Committee, I pointed out that someone travelling from Moreton-in-Marsh, in the north of my constituency, to a hospital in Evesham would have to cross at least one—possibly two—local authority boundaries. The scheme would not help that person if they wished to travel by bus, which would be perfectly feasible.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid–Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) nods. His constituents living in and around Evesham might want to make the journey in reverse, and travel to the hospital in Moreton-in-Marsh. I would urge them to do so, because that would benefit the hospital.

We have engaged in a long debate on a relatively simple Bill. I think all Members now wish it godspeed, and hope that the Minister will consult local government associations and major metropolitan counties so that authorities can benefit their citizens as soon as possible.

3.52 pm

Mr. Don Foster: I have already made clear that Liberal Democrats support the Bill. We have engaged in helpful discussions of what is, as the Minister says, a relatively small Bill—discussions that have ranged widely, and have provided an opportunity for a number of further points to be discussed with Ministers.

In Committee, for instance, there was a fair amount of discussion of the need for better facilities for disabled people on public transport. Members on both sides mentioned that. We have been able to discuss the need to extend concessionary fare schemes, not least for young people. More than 50 per cent. of those who have not taken advantage of further and higher education cite lack of public transport as one of the main barriers.

Today we have had an opportunity to ask the Minister for an assurance that existing schemes that are more generous than the mandatory minimum schemes will not be jeopardised. As was pointed out by the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), we have also had an opportunity to discuss other possible extensions to concessionary fare arrangements. The hon. Gentleman rightly raised the issue of boundaries, to which Age Concern referred cogently in a briefing that was used in Committee:

Members of all parties supported that view then, and I suspect that they still do.

The Committee then moved to the issue of concessionary fare schemes for coaches. When I asked the Minister about that, she replied

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I should be grateful if the Minister would remind us of the implementation date, and also give absolute assurances that the funding regime has been established and accepted by all parties.

As is often the case, we have been ably supported during our deliberations by a number of organisations with particular interests in the issues. It is only right for us to pay tribute to the good work of many of them, such as Age Concern, the Royal National Institute for the Blind, the Local Government Association, the Joint Committee on Mobility of Blind and Partially Sighted People and Greater London Action on Disability. The greatest credit, however, must surely go to Parity, which, by taking the original Matthews case to the European Court, put pressure on the Government to introduce this much-needed and long overdue legislation.

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