Travel Concessions (Eligibility) Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Don Foster: I agree with almost every word that the hon. Member for Cotswold said. I was interested in his enunciation of the virtues of the various amendments; he gave the impression that amendment No. 3 was in his name, but it is not. However, I am delighted to learn that he would support it in a Division.

Without wishing to score debating points, I should say to the hon. Gentleman that although I agree with amendments Nos. 6, 7, 4 and 5, without the crucial amendment No. 3 they would be in vain. Amendment No. 3 would ensure that the scheme would not proceed until there was agreement between central and local government about the cost of introducing it.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: The hon. Gentleman is right; I support his amendment No. 3. I hope that accepting the amendments will not give the Government an excuse to delay implementing the Bill, because it needs to be enacted before 31 December for the concessionary scheme to start working in London.

Mr. Foster: The hon. Gentleman is right, but I suspect that the problems in London may be far greater than has been suggested. Indeed, the problems in implementation in other parts of the country may also be far greater than we anticipate.

I tabled amendment No. 3, and I support the other amendments in the group, in order to give effect to the commitments made on behalf of the Government in another place. On 24 July in Committee Lord Falconer said:

    ``We accept that the funding for delivering the increased concession—which means extending it to men between the ages of 60 and 65, which is not the present position—will cost money. That money will come from central government. A process will need to be developed whereby, properly, the amounts of that extra cost can be assessed between central government and local government. I made it clear at Second Reading—I make it clear again—that that is the objective that central government and local government must work towards in trying to reach a solution in relation to the funding. It will be done through the revenue support grant.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 24 July 2001; Vol. 626, c. 1905.]

Lord Falconer made it clear that the entire cost of the measure would be met by central Government. I hope that that commitment will be reaffirmed by the Ministers today. Like the hon. Member for Cotswold, I should like to know what progress the Government and the local government associations have made in developing a process whereby those extra costs can be assessed and then allocated to the individual local authorities. Those issues must be sorted out before the provisions of the Bill are implemented.

In an intervention on the hon. Member for Cotswold I raised another important issue that will have a significant bearing on the costs that will be borne by local government. There have been a number of concessionary fare schemes since the Eastleigh borough council case in 1990 when the House of Lords decided that the use of the pensionable age as a test for concessions was in breach of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975. The vast majority of concessionary fare schemes have continued to be in breach of that Act. In view of the Williams case, the Government have now accepted the principle that it would be wrong to have concessionary fares at different ages for men and women.

I hope that we will hear a clear statement from the Government about what they believe to be the implications of that decision on all other concessionary fare schemes that are currently operating in the country. The London case raised by the hon. Member for Cotswold is a good example, but it is not the only one. If the Government are now saying that they accept that any concessionary fare scheme that discriminates by gender would be in breach of legislation, there will be a huge financial impact on many local authorities and London boroughs in particular. The Government must explain how that additional cost will be borne, not just the cost of the 1 million men already identified.

I hope that the Minister will make a clear statement about the issue. If we do not have a clear statement about the Government's view and the financial consequences, I suspect that organisations such as Parity will take all sorts of further cases to all sorts of courts at huge cost, when a decision was made by the House of Lords more than 10 years ago and long before there was a need to go the European Court. It is vital that we have some clear answers from the Government about these funding issues. Our decision whether to press the amendment depends on the Minister's answers on this important issue, so we will be listening carefully to every word that he has to say.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that one basis on which Williams brought the case in the European Court of Human Rights was the equal rights directive. It would be extremely unfortunate if, in passing the Act, we created a situation, particularly in London, in which someone could successfully return to the European Court. The Government will have to consider carefully how to deal with London, because it is clearly a major part of the scheme.

Mr. Foster: I for one would not mind if someone had to return to the court on a similar issue as long as they succeeded, as I am sure that they would. The hon. Gentleman's point was that that would be a fatuous exercise to have to undertake and, given the fact that one case has succeeded, the principles should now be applied across the board to all forms of concessionary fare schemes. On that point, we agree.

We have debated funding, and I want to find out whether the money that the Government are saying will be necessary for the scheme is the right amount. As well as answering the more detailed points, will the Minister tell the Committee whether the original proposal of £53 million is still deemed to be adequate?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am sorry to keep interrupting the hon. Gentleman, but his points are important. Is he aware that the Association of London Government estimates that reimbursement in London alone will cost £28 million? That puts the Government's total figure of £50 million under severe scrutiny.

Mr. Foster: I am aware of those figures, and we could trade figures backwards and forwards. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows that Plymouth, for example, has said that it will need about £250,000. Questions are being raised about the Government's global figure. The point is that it is difficult for the Government to form a view unless they have worked out a mechanism to calculate the figures that is agreed with the local government associations. The amendments address the mechanism and its agreement with local government associations on behalf of the councils that will have to operate the scheme. Nevertheless, it would be interesting to hear whether the Government are having second thoughts about the global figure as well.

Mr. Andrew Turner: I shall begin by referring to amendment No. 4, which is about the methodology for reimbursement. I served on a local authority that ran a reimbursement scheme based on usage, which seemed to work satisfactorily both before and after the Transport Act 1985. There was an obvious traffic generation issue, but the local authority, Oxford city council, was able to meet the cost of the bus companies, which competed effectively after the Act carried through by predecessors of my hon. Friends the Members for Cotswold and for Tewkesbury. That was an excellent and successful Act in that city. It is possible to devise a scheme that reimburses fully the number of journeys made, rather than one that makes predictions at the beginning of the year and then finds that there is not enough money at the end. That was a parenthesis on amendment No. 4.

I will pose a few questions about possible ways of reimbursing local authorities for the scheme's implementation and ask Ministers whether there are perverse incentives associated with different methods of reimbursement. Let us imagine the situation in three hypothetical authorities. Authority A offers no concessions to anyone under the age of 65; authority B offers the current requirement—a 50 per cent. concession for women, but not for men between the ages of 60 and 65; and authority C offers a 100 per cent. concession for travel to all women, but not to men between 60 and 65. Authority A is breaking the law, but requires reimbursement to be able to meet its obligations under the Bill. Authority B is providing exactly what the Government want at the moment, but will incur additional costs in providing what the Government want under the legislation.

The Government are committed to a 100 per cent. reimbursement of the additional costs of meeting the minimum requirements under the legislation. However, in my example, authority C is already providing more than is required and to extend the rights in the Bill to men, it would require twice the amount of expenditure per man—assuming equal use of public transport. Does the Government's promise to reimburse the full cost of meeting the requirements extend to paying £2 a head in London, for example, for every £1 a head paid on the Isle of Wight? If so, it is a wholly unfair system based on historical provision rather than a rational method of allocating resources between local authorities.

11.30 am

If the Government intend to provide £2 a head to people in London and £2 a head to people on the Isle of Wight, my local authority will not have any objection—but the Chancellor may have. Much additional money will be necessary and it may not end up being spent on bus concessionary travel. Will the Minister clarify the Government's commitment on that? An authority providing the minimum may get £2 a head for doing nothing. If an area did not have bus services but had the potential for them, would £2 a head be provided for every bus journey subsequently undertaken? The point is that £2 a head for London and £1 a head for the Isle of Wight would mean a significant imbalance. Obviously, I use those merely as examples and I am talking in general terms about metropolitan areas and areas that have provided generously on the one hand, and rural areas and areas with less generous schemes on the other. It is pouring money into areas of the country where a large amount of money has historically been spent and not into areas where little money has been spent.

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