Travel Concessions (Eligibility) Bill [Lords]

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Chris Grayling: My hon. Friend makes a valuable and important point to which the Minister will be well able to respond. That is another example of the fact that what is at first glance simple proposed legislation can throw up some significant complications. I hope that the Minister will listen to the arguments and take them into account in the structure of the legislation. If, however, we cannot convince him to make the small number of modifications suggested by Opposition Members, then at the very least I hope that he will accept the spirit in which the proposals are being made. When he deals with authorities and sets future funding parameters, I hope that he will remember hon. Members' contributions and take them into account in reaching future decisions.

5.30 pm

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury): May I start by welcoming you to the Committee, Miss Widdecombe? It is always a pleasure to work with you.

I want to touch on one or two of my earlier arguments that the Minister did not fully address when he wound up the debates on the amendments. I should also like to pick up some points that have already been made.

This morning, I said that the Bill addresses a real concern because transport is important. In my constituency, which is not as large as that of my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) but is nevertheless very big and contains several towns and many villages, transport is a problem. We have bus services but they are inadequate. Whether children are travelling to school or pensioners and older people are travelling to do their shopping or go to hospital, the situation is unsatisfactory. The Bill goes some way towards addressing that problem but, as my hon. Friend said, there are still gaps that we should like further to explore.

Two particular areas concern me. The point about the cost to the local authority has been pressed with great determination by my hon. Friend, but he has not got the answers that Opposition Members were seeking. We are all in constant touch with our local authorities: it is not only the Tewkesbury local authority that says it is being given more to do without being compensated and it is not only Tewkesbury that is complaining about the support that it gets from the Government. When it sees another scheme being proposed, it is naturally concerned about the financial impact. We have heard that there will be general compensation—that was not quite the word that the Minister used, and if he would like to remind me of exactly what he said I should be grateful.

Mr. Spellar: Broad.

Mr. Robertson: Yes. Local authorities broadly will be covered. Tewkesbury local authority could argue that local authorities broadly get increases in the revenue support grant, which Tewkesbury has not received. The broad concept is unsatisfactory.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold has also pressed the question why we do not compensate local authorities for the exact costs that they have incurred, which seems sensible. I accept the Minister's point that that does not always happen in every aspect of local government, but there are aspects in which it does. Several transport schemes are promoted and managed by the county council and the Government give it grants to promote those schemes. However, the borough council will be responsible for administering this particular scheme. There is an obvious gap: an agreement could be made on how much Tewkesbury would receive, but during the financial year Tewkesbury's requirements could change considerably. How broad is the Government's guarantee? It strikes me that this could create a big problem for Tewkesbury.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: My hon. Friend has hit upon an important point. The county council is the precepting authority, but the district or borough council is the collecting authority. The county council sets the scheme and raises the money, but the district council has to collect the money and operate the scheme. This is an anomaly that has not been properly addressed in the Bill.

Mr. Robertson: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The county council largely determines the council tax that will be raised because it has the bigger budget. However, Tewkesbury borough council would be blamed for the increase because it sends out the letters. Anything that the county council does directly impacts on what Tewkesbury has to collect. If the Government increased the money for Gloucestershire to introduce new bus routes, Tewkesbury would then have to administer the scheme. I accept that the Government might one day finance that, but there is a big gap in between.

Mr. Andrew Turner: It appears that there are different arrangements in some shire counties from those pertaining in others. The hon. Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard) said on 4 July that pensioners in his constituency would benefit from the new arrangements in the Government's scheme for half fares. The pass is valid in the area covered by the local authority--in his case, that is Suffolk. That implies that the power is common to both shire and shire districts. In some parts of the country, it is operated by the district and in others by the county. That is anomalous and deeply unfair because some people will be able to travel the breadth of Suffolk, but others will be prevented from travelling the length of Gloucestershire. The Government overlook that unfairness at their peril because boundaries in rural areas are often wholly arbitrary.

Mr. Robertson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for throwing more confusion and complication on what is already a difficult situation. He demonstrates how difficult it is. No doubt the Minister will explain how Tewkesbury can be satisfied that it will be fully compensated for what is, on the face of it, a sensible measure.

My other point concerns costs for places such as Tewkesbury and it will certainly apply also in Cotswold. Under current legislation, the borough council can make discretionary concessions. In areas where there are few buses or in very large areas, there will be more concessions and the requirement on those authorities will be greater. For example, Cheltenham and Gloucester are self-contained and people can live there without leaving them unless they want to, but it is different in country areas where the concessions will have to be greater. Equalisation of the age will increase the cost of the extra concessions. It could be said that Tewkesbury does not have to give them, but I know from my mailbag that there is a great requirement on Tewkesbury to give them. The extra cost arises not only from the mandatory concessions, but from the additional concessions, which the Government will not finance. I want them to be clear about the knock-on effect for Tewkesbury.

We have heard about crossing borders and that it important in my constituency. It is ridiculous that some villagers with Worcestershire postcodes will be unable to travel to Worcestershire because they live not in Worcestershire but in Gloucestershire, although they have Worcestershire postcodes. They will be unable to travel to Evesham, for example. People who live in places outside Gloucestershire with Tewkesbury postcodes will be unable to use the scheme to travel to Tewkesbury. What is even more worrying is that none of the 12,000 people living in Churchdown in my constituency--it is one of the largest villages in the country and only a few miles from Gloucester and Cheltenham--will be able to travel to Cheltenham hospital because they will not qualify for the concession as they will have to cross a borough border. We have only one or two cottage hospitals in my constituency, so if they need even semi-major treatment, the Bill will not cover them when they go to those hospitals. It is difficult to design a scheme to suit everyone, but the Government must deal with the problems that I have outlined.

Mr. Spellar: The Bill equalises the availability of concessionary fare passes to men and women. The financial side of the Bill seeks broadly to compensate local authorities for the additional costs that they incur in the course of that equalisation. According to my hon. Friend the Whip, the hon. Member for Oldham, East and Saddleworth (Mr. Woolas), who was on the Committee that considered the Transport Bill in 2000, some of the measures that cover borders were supported and encouraged by the Opposition, especially because the areas where borders were crossed often related to the activities of specific operators.

Many of the relevant matters are for the discretion of the local authorities. Under the Bill, and subject to discretionary decisions that they take, the Government will compensate authorities for the additional expenditure that they bear as a result of the legislation. Borders, water transport and other such matters have been covered by previous legislation and are for the discretion of local authorities. If we allowed discretion for local authorities on the scheme, we would end up with differential conditions. That is the nature of discretion and of local autonomy.

Chris Grayling: I want to return to my argument. It is tremendously important, although less so in places like London, which has huge sums of money available to support bus services, than in shire counties where the sums are relatively small for the great demands on them. Will the Minister assure us that those councils will not lose out and will not have to divert resources from other programmes to support the scheme because the Government have not fully funded them? The answer should be a simple yes or no.

Mr. Spellar: I have described the re-funding provision at considerable length on several occasions. The hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members seem to hold the view that the streets of London and other metropolitan authorities are paved with gold. Any examination of the poverty indicators, ward by ward and borough by borough, would dispel that impression. I accept the fact that extremes of poverty and wealth live alongside each other in London and to an extent in other metropolitan areas as well. It should not be assumed that wealth is universally spread across the city.

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