Travel Concessions (Eligibility) Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Spellar: I was in brushing mode.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I hope that we can deal with the matter in more detail. The Minister brushed us aside by saying that we should not worry because the Bill applied to people travelling between the hours of 9.30 am and 11 pm only and most eligible people who work will travel before 9.30 am. I doubt that that is the case. I suspect that because of flexi-working and because people aged 60 or more are likely to work either in senior positions or part-time jobs, they will travel outside peak hours, particularly in the morning. The so-called generation factor will therefore affect certain local authorities, because people will be encouraged to travel more once the concessions have been implemented and will perhaps travel into work more than they would otherwise have done. That issue must be dealt with.

The issue of London and reimbursement is a core matter. Approximately half the London boroughs run a 100 per cent. concessionary scheme for all eligible people travelling on the London underground, docklands light railway, London Transport buses and the Croydon tram link. Under the Bill, the boroughs will be eligible for concessionary reimbursement from the Government of only 50 per cent. The boroughs are faced with a considerable problem. Either they will have to offer men aged 60 to 64 a half-price scheme and everyone aged more than 65 a full-price scheme, or they will have to pay the difference out of their own pockets.

The Government need to tell us clearly how the London boroughs will be reimbursed, if they will, because it would contravene the spirit of the Bill if men aged 60 to 64 were still allowed only a half-price concession whereas women in that age group were allowed a full-price concession. Under those circumstances I would not be surprised if a man who felt disadvantaged could go back to the European Court of Human Rights and win his case, necessitating another Bill. The Government must concentrate seriously on that area and give us some answers.

Mr. Foster: Following the logic of the hon. Gentleman's argument—with which, incidentally, I entirely agree—does he accept that the Government's decision on the Bill has wide ramifications for any form of concession? In 1990, the House of Lords made a ruling relating to Eastleigh borough council that stated that the use of pensionable age as a basis for determining concessions would be against the Sex Discrimination Act 1975. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government must be clear today about how they understand the implications of the Bill and say whether they understand it to relate to a wide range of concessions, not only in London but elsewhere?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: The hon. Gentleman is right. I was about to mention some of the other schemes, in Birmingham and elsewhere, through which people are already disadvantaged. I hark back to what the noble Lord Falconer said on Third Reading in another place, which I hope that the Ministers will repeat today. He said that no concessionary scheme operated anywhere, by any local authority, would be eliminated or reduced. It would be a terrible indictment of the Committee if any of these schemes, which are aimed at helping some of the poorest and most vulnerable in our society, were curtailed as a result of the Bill.

No one could argue that it would be wrong for the Minister to publish the local authority costs, but we should address how that would relate to the revenue support grant. If a local authority is out of pocket, we should be told how that has arisen and what the Government will do about it. An assurance from the Minister today that, if a local authority is out of pocket, it will subsequently be reimbursed, would go a long way to reassuring local authorities, the Association of London Government and other local authority bodies that they have nothing to fear from the Bill. Otherwise, some local authorities will be doing some figures and burning a lot of midnight oil to decide what they will do about it.

Mr. Laurence Robertson: My hon. Friend refers to extra costs. Does he agree that to some extent the situation in his constituency and mine will be open ended because of the extra concessions that local authorities will be allowed to provide, which will be discretionary. If they do not provide those extra concessions in our areas—they cannot provide help when there are no bus services—will not the cost be open ended and does that not reinforce the need for the amendment?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: The Bill has a number of shortcomings, not least given the paucity of buses in rural areas and the fact that the schemes cannot cross local authority boundaries.

I cite an example of why the Bill will make it difficult for authorities such as my hon. Friend's and mine. Let us imagine someone travelling from Inverness to Ullapool, which is a distance of 100 or more miles—although that journey is used only as an example, because the Bill has a different effect in Scotland. If that distance were covered in England, one would get a half-price ticket. A long journey within one local authority area is no problem, but if one of my constituents travels from Mickleton in the north of my constituency to Evesham, which is six miles away, he crosses a local authority boundary.

Unless the local authorities pay out of their own pocket without being reimbursed by the Government, that will not be covered by the Bill. That is a good, practical example. It is far easier for someone living in Mickleton to shop in Evesham than Cirencester, which is some 25 miles away. The journey from Mickleton to Cirencester would be more expensive for the Government, but it lies within one local authority area so the concession could be provided.

The Government need to think carefully about the cross-boundary issue and about long distance journeys. I suspect that eventually there will be one national concessionary scheme for all pensioners, although it may not happen in this Bill. It may, in fact, be some years away and not under consideration at the moment.

Mr. Andrew Turner: The one national concessionary scheme for all pensioners may sound attractive to those for whom there are lots of bus services, but it would be no earthly good to those for whom there are none.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I accept what my hon. Friend says. I have been talking about that with regard to constituencies in rural areas. My hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury and I represent the most rural of all the constituencies represented on the Committee. There is a particular problem in rural areas. The Government recognise that in various White Papers and they will be using separate mechanisms to deal with that issue. It may not be strictly appropriate for the Bill to tackle the paucity of bus services, although if there are no bus services, there are no bus services on which to promote concessionary schemes.

Amendment No. 6 would provide for each local authority's costs to be published. Amendment No. 7 would provide that the Government published what they had given to local authorities. Amendment No. 4 would deal with how the Government worked out the methodology for distributing grants to each local authority, and this is where I run into a problem. As a chartered surveyor—a declaration that is in the Register of Members' Interests—I know something about that. I know that the Government, to their credit, have taken steps to simplify the SSA methodology. Formerly it contained some 100 elements, including some highly complicated mathematics that dealt with regression analysis. The methodology is still complicated and not transparent, and I am certain that, for some of the reasons to which I have alluded, it will give rise to considerable anomalies for some local authorities.

The Government are not prepared to alter the SSA methodology for at least two years, although they are considering it. The constituencies that my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury and I represent do not get the area cost adjustment and our local authority in Gloucestershire suffers considerably compared with neighbouring local authorities in terms of the amount of money that our schools receive. It would be especially unfortunate if the Bill added to that anomaly and I hope that the Government will not simply rely on the existing methodology to distribute the money under the Bill, but will consider carefully how anomalies arise and how they can quickly be put right.

I want the Government to tell us why they must distribute the money in that way at all. In London, the money is reimbursed on the number of journeys made. One could not ask for anything simpler. Each year, an estimate is made of the number of journeys and an amount is paid. At the end of the year, an audit is carried out, a reckoning is made and the Government are either reimbursed or pay out the extra money.

I am a great believer in keeping things as simple as possible. There are those in government who like to make matters complicated, because it makes them less transparent. I believe in a good democracy and total transparency. Part of the problem with all Governments, but especially this one, is that they need to keep amending the regulations and making more bureaucracy. Let us have less bureaucracy and keep things simple. The kernel of the Bill revolves around that fact. Why cannot we simply reimburse on the number of journeys made? After all, that is what happens in London. Why cannot that happen in the rest of the country? I am concerned about this complicated methodology and how the Government will reimburse local authorities.

Amendment No. 5 states:

    ``The appropriate Minister shall ensure that the methodology for compensating local authorities for expenditure under subsections (1) to (4) is published.''

One hopes that the Minister will publish some indication from the Government as to how they will deal with anomalies arising from the methodology, because to publish the methodology would be to say that the following local authorities are disadvantaged and the following advantaged, which would be unhelpful. It would be useful if the Minister would publish the information in a form that was helpful to local authorities.

11.15 am

Amendment No.3 to clause 2 would insert the paragraph on the amendment paper. Local government organisations represent local authorities, which can make representations to the overarching bodies, which can then discuss matters with the Government. The Government need to focus on the methodology; perhaps they have, but neither House has been told their conclusions. If we can be told how the local authorities will be reimbursed, those on local authorities who are listening to the debate and reading the report of proceedings will feel that the Committee has done a good job today and have much less anxiety about the Bill. If they are confident that the Government will fully reimburse them, they may be able to say, ``We have a bit of extra money so we can offer the additional scheme to some of the most vulnerable in society.''

The amendments are straightforward, but they have considerable knock-on effects. If the Government do not accept them, they should answer my questions so that we can decide whether or not to divide the Committee.

 
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