Travel Concessions (Eligibility) Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Andrew Turner: In supporting the new clauses, I want to draw attention to the successful operation of a similar scheme on the Isle of Wight. The council came in for a bit of inferential flak from the Minister over its failure to provide concessionary fares on ferries, but I am pleased to say that it has an extraordinarily good record in providing a so-called youth mover ticket for young people under 18. It is a concessionary scheme that is available to all young people on the island regardless of whether they are in education, enabling them to travel on public transport at, I believe, half price—not being eligible I have never got to the bottom of the exact cost. It has the great benefit in rural areas—I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold would not restrict the scheme to London—

Mr. Clifton-Brown: The hon. Member for Bath deliberately twisted my words. If he looks carefully at the record, he will see that I said ``initially'' and then expressed the hope that it could be rolled out elsewhere.

Mr. Turner: I am pleased to accept that in the hope that the rolling out would take place rapidly.

On the island, the scheme provides several benefits. First, it encourages people to travel by public transport. Secondly, it means that they are less likely to hitchhike at night. I realise that that is not a common practice in rural areas on the mainland, but it has been on the island, which is, I am pleased to say, considerably safer—but still not very safe—as a place in which to hitchhike. Thirdly, it means that people are not travelling in cars with friends who may have drunk rather more than is good for them. Fourthly, it enables parents to get to bed early instead of operating as taxi services.

The scheme offers a combination of benefits that would be felt in rural areas, apart from the benefits for metropolitan areas that my hon. Friend advertised so effectively.

Chris Grayling: I very much welcome the objective of the new clauses. The principle of expanding concessionary fares to support young people is extremely important. Indeed, if I have one criticism it is that we have not gone far enough. There is a case for considering whether such schemes should apply to all those in higher education, given that they already incur substantial costs when living through their university or college years. There is certainly a case for extending the scheme to those over 18. However, I recognise the limitations that we face in tabling new clauses, in that the Government have not been entirely receptive to such proposed extensions.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Not at all receptive.

Chris Grayling: Indeed. Perhaps we are already pushing our luck in respect of 18-year-olds. However, it is worth doing because it is an important principle to provide such support, especially to those between 16 and 18. In much of today's public transport world, when teenagers reach the age of 16 they lose the half-fare status that they enjoyed as a child, yet few of them find that their financial situation has changed between the ages of 15 years and 364 days and 16 years. The majority continue with some form of education and do not immediately gain the benefits of an income, so to have a mandatory cut-off point at the age of 16 is unhelpful and unfair.

6.45 pm

If we can encourage the Government, through the two new clauses, to take a long hard look at the potential to develop schemes that address that financial situation and that deliver a valuable social resource for younger people, it would be welcome. I commend the new clauses and, even if the Government are not willing to accept them in their entirety and fall back on the votes of the silent majority behind them, I hope that they will accept the principles of our objectives behind tabling them and will consider what support they can offer a scheme of this kind in future.

Mr. Laurence Robertson: I have just a couple of points to make, one of which concerns school transport. I make no apology for telling the Committee about my constituency because we are here to represent our constituents.

I am aware that there is some subsidised travel for children travelling to school but for certain mileages there is not. We know, from driving anywhere, how much heavier the traffic is during the school term compared with the holidays—there is a tremendous difference. If there are few buses, as in my constituency, transport becomes a problem with regard to getting to school and the congestion caused around schools from people travelling in cars. New clause 9 is particularly relevant to my area and would address such problems.

I will draw on an example concerning the national lottery, which I assure you, Miss Widdecombe, is relevant, but I must crave your indulgence for a moment. Earlier, I referred to a large village in my constituency—Churchdown—which has about 12,000 inhabitants. They applied for a lottery grant to build swimming baths in the village. The reply from the National Lotteries Board turned down the application. One of the main reasons for that was the fact that the village is within a 20-minute drive of similar facilities. The then Minister for Sport, the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), said that that reply was absolute rubbish—she understood its implications. It meant that if children wanted to go to the nearest swimming baths, their parents would have to take them, and come back, then collect them and come back—four car journeys would be necessary because children under 17 are not allowed to drive. The alternative would be not to go swimming, or to pay full fares on the bus. I was stunned by the reason for the rejection, however it is an illustration of how new clause 9 would help children in that area. It is a village of 12,000 so this is not a small problem.

Ms Keeble: I have listened carefully to the points made by Opposition Members and have considerable sympathy for their strength of feeling and for some of the sentiments expressed.

It is part of the Government's agenda to provide public transport to combat social exclusion and to deal with safety issues. It is an attractive proposition to require local authorities to offer concessionary fares to other groups of people including young adults but, under the Bill, we must be realistic. Although I fully accept that the new clauses would simply require the Secretary of State, or the National Assembly for Wales, to consult local authorities on the possibility of extending schemes to young adults, I am not sure what purpose such a consultation would serve.

We have heard much about local authorities' discretionary powers in relation to extending concessionary fare schemes. Local authorities can choose to extend their schemes to young adults and I congratulate the local authority of the hon. Member for Isle of Wight on its innovative scheme. Local authorities already have a statutory duty, with which most hon. Members will be familiar, to provide free travel for school pupils within certain ages and for certain distances.

In relation to the pertinent points raised by the hon. Member for Tewkesbury about safety around schools, the Government have provided funding to establish school travel plans to deal with the issues that he identified such as encouraging children to walk or cycle to school and dealing with parking and safety around schools. That is recognition of the problems that he identified.

Local authorities have the power to provide concessionary travel for young people up to 18 years of age who are in full-time education. That applies not only to travel to and from college, but to other journeys. Given the number of journeys expected to be undertaken by young adults, and bearing in mind the social activities that were mentioned—it is important to encourage young people not to drink and drive—the revenue foregone by transport operators would be substantial. I can confirm the figure quoted by the hon. Member for Bath of approximately £180 million. However, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that work is being undertaken to ensure that young people's needs are not overlooked. My Department is working closely with the Department for Education and Skills in developing a Connexions card. It will offer a range of commercial discounts for young people in full-time education, and it will be capable of carrying existing travel concessions. There is no exciting announcement to make—I have not known many exciting announcements in Standing Committee—but we shall examine the options that exist for travel, which I hope will generate yet another postcard for the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Don Foster: I do not know whether it warrants a postcard just yet. We are discussing an announcement that was made on 24 July by the Minister's noble Friend in another place. That was a long time ago, and what we have just heard from the Minister is almost identical to the wording of the announcement that was given to another place on 24 July. If we are not going to get an announcement, I hope that we can have an indication that progress has been rapid and that a clear announcement is imminent. Even if an announcement cannot be made in Committee because big announcements are not made in Standing Committee, I hope that it is coming soon. Can the Minister at least give us a little bit of comfort by telling us that something has happened?

Ms Keeble: We are making progress and we shall examine these proposals. In particular, we shall examine the options for travel so that we can deal with some of the issues that hon. Members have raised today. I assure hon. Members that we take seriously the points that they have raised about the importance of ensuring that transport is used as a means of combating social exclusion, providing greater safety and ensuring that young people are not excluded from schools.

Incidentally, another issue is making sure that young people are not excluded from work. There are some interesting initiatives going on around that matter through, for example, the urban bus challenge.

I ask hon. Members to withdraw the two new clauses. The Bill will extend better travel benefits to pensioners, which picks up a group that has previously been missed out. The Bill will mean progress for pensioners up and down the country, and I hope that hon. Members will withdraw the two new clauses in the interests of making progress and of completing the Bill.

 
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