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Lord Swinfen: I am grateful to the Minister for agreeing to consider these matters further. If in a particular area a good number of disabled or elderly people need to travel outside the relevant time, they will probably use their own vehicles and add to congestion. Therefore, the removal of the relevant time provisions will ease rather than worsen congestion. I hope that in the case of door-to-door transport provisions the Minister will bear in mind that often severely disabled people have the smallest incomes and, therefore, can be described as the poorest of the poor in this country. I am sure that they would very much appreciate any help that the Government could provide. Having said that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

10 Jul 2000 : Column 101

Lord Bradshaw moved Amendment No. 162:

    Page 88, line 8, at end insert--

("(6) Where a flat fare scheme is provided which overall offers better value than a half-price travel concession the flat fare scheme may be substituted by the authority.
(7) An appeal against such substitution may be made to the traffic commissioner for the area.").

The noble Lord said: Amendment No. 162 is a very important amendment related to flat fare schemes. The Bill proposes that a half-fare scheme should be introduced for people of pensionable age. In many towns and cities the local authority provides a flat fare which for most people is a distinctly better option than a half-fare. Where one has a flat rate, which is often 30p, the ordinary single fare may be 40p or 50p. However, the vast majority of fares are 60p, £1 or £1.50. A flat fare in a city is extremely valuable to an operator in terms of its simplicity.

Elderly people make up a large proportion of bus passengers. They become used to tendering 30p. They have the money ready, drop it down, and the bus moves off. A change to a half fare scheme involves calculation. The lowest fare may be 50p. Therefore the half fare cost is 25p for a short journey and a 30p flat fare scheme is a more generous offer and would be allowable. But one still has two different fares within that company's area. In many cases the situation would be far more complex.

The amendment seeks to provide that where there is a flat fare scheme at present, provided that it gives better value to the vast majority of users than the half fare scheme, it should be possible to leave the flat fare scheme in place. It suits better the vast majority of users. It suits the bus companies. It is less complex to administer. One of the most important factors is that the boarding of buses should take place as quickly as possible so that the bus does not hold up the traffic flow.

We recognise that someone has to exercise a judgment as to whether a flat fare scheme is better than a half fare scheme. The amendment provides that that person could be the traffic commissioner. In other suggestions it is the regional office of government. The traffic commissioner might provide a faster route to obtaining an answer to a local problem.

Perhaps the Minister can reassure us about the resources to meet the costs of these schemes. The sums mentioned in Committee in another place fall short of the likely cost; a large sum might fall on local authorities. In another place, the Minister said that he expected local authorities which had different schemes in operation to allow existing schemes such as token schemes to operate and for users to have a choice of both schemes. A local authority might have to fund the half fare scheme and continue to fund a parallel token scheme which some individuals might choose instead of the half fare bus pass.

It is a complex but serious issue for bus operators who seek to simplify travel by bus. In many cities bus companies and local authorities are united in their view that flat fares should be left in place provided they pass the test of being best value for the user. I beg to move.

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10.15 p.m.

Lord Whitty: I appreciate that there is concern on this issue. However, there are three reasons why we should stick with our present position.

First, the White Paper promised travel at half fare on buses. There was no reference to "most buses", "except where there is a flat fare" or, to use phraseology in the noble Lord's amendment, "overall". We should need to be more convinced than at present to abandon that commitment.

Secondly, it will be difficult for someone to make a judgment on whether one scheme "overall" offers better value than others. "Overall" is a difficult word when we refer to individual fares for individual journeys and have to weigh one journey against another. There is plenty of scope for serious grievance and, possibly, legal action. That is a difficult task to put on the hard-pressed traffic commissioner, particularly since he otherwise has no involvement in the concessionary fare scheme.

Thirdly, cheap fares for short journeys may be particularly valued by the elderly and disabled--those facing mobility difficulties. They may value their short journey to the shop and it might be hard to explain to them why, when the flat fare is more than half, we were not giving them what we had promised. I hope that those in local authorities and among the operators who are concerned about the matter will think around those difficulties.

I would not rule out alternative answers. One answer might be to have a lower fare for short journeys and a higher fare for longer trips. However, that begins to move away from the simplicity of the initial approach. I hope that a solution can be found and that we can deliver a provision which meets most concerns. For the moment, I am not convinced that we should move away from the principle.

As regards funding, in Grand Committee my noble friend indicated that the cost of moving to a concessionary fare scheme on a half-fare basis would be fully funded. It may be that some local authorities will continue to run existing schemes, but that will be a matter for them. The additional cost would be met by central government and that is clearly provided for.

Lord Bradshaw: I thank the Minister for that reply. There is a danger that people who at present enjoy a flat fare may find that in its place they will be paying a half fare which costs more. That will not be seen to be fulfilling the hope in the White Paper, which is cheaper bus fares.

I hope that before Report stage the Minister will consider the issue carefully and perhaps talk to people in the bus industry and local authorities to see whether he can put forward a satisfactory test. It might be, for instance, that 90 per cent of journeys must be cheaper. I realise that there is a judgment to be made in such issues--there often is--but there is genuine concern among many people. It is not just a matter of me talking late at night in order to pass the time. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

10 Jul 2000 : Column 103

Clause 144 agreed to.

Clause 145 [Mandatory concessions: supplementary]:

[Amendments Nos. 163 to 167 not moved.]

Lord Islwyn moved Amendment No. 168:

    Page 89, line 1, leave out ("9.30") and insert ("9.00").

The noble Lord said: It has been a long vigil to move Amendment No. 168, which is short but important. An issue of principle is involved.

The issue in question is referred to on page 89 at lines 1 and 2. The same subject is also referred to on page 92 at lines 30 and 31. It relates to the time of implementation of concessionary fares for elderly and disabled people, who are particularly concerned about hospital appointments.

It was said earlier that as regards public transport, the disabled were miserably looked after. Perhaps the same can be said of pensioners.

In London the time of 9 a.m. has worked perfectly well for approximately 20 years. The county of Essex also operates a 9 a.m. start for the concessions, and it is applicable in other parts of the country, too. Therefore, why does it not apply throughout the whole country? I should have thought that this would be the time to bring some rationality to the whole issue. As it is set out in the Bill, this is a somewhat restrictive measure.

Perhaps I may ask the Minister to tell the Committee what consultation has taken place with pensioner organisations and the disabled. I am sure that they would have voiced the strongest objections to this provision. As a friend of this Government, I also say to the Minister that it is time for them to take more notice of pensioners. I should like to know who was the skinflint who brought about the alteration in the Bill. I understand that originally it was proposed that the scheme should commence at 9 a.m. Perhaps the Minister can give the Committee answers to those questions. I beg to move.

Lord Swinfen: I support the amendment, having spoken to a similar one earlier.

Lord Whitty: I am in danger of repeating myself. In answer to my noble friend's last question regarding a skinflint, I do not believe that the proposal reflects a skinflint move. As a result of substantial representations to both Opposition parties and to ourselves, it was agreed in Committee in another place that the present provision of 9 a.m. led to an excessive demand on the public transport system and that it would be easier, both for pensioners and for the operators, if the concession were to start at 9.30 a.m. That view was fairly widespread across the country. It relates partly to the fact that school journeys are still taking place at 9 a.m. and partly to the fact that in some parts of the country people are still travelling to work at that time.

My noble friend is of course right that in the past in London and in many other parts of the country a 9 a.m. start has operated relatively well. There is

10 Jul 2000 : Column 104

nothing to stop local authorities which believe that they can operate it well expanding the time in any direction, including a start time of 9 a.m. Therefore, where there are particular local circumstances and particular problems about journeys to hospitals, for example, local authorities can extend the time. However, I believe that we should have been foolish to ignore completely the widespread view of local authorities and operators that a shift from 9 a.m. should take place.

I understand the problems in relation to hospital appointments, although even at 9 a.m. some problems would arise in that regard. I also understand the point regarding disabled people who travel to work at that time, but I do not believe that that issue was raised when the Committee in another place changed the time. At that point, the concession related only to pensioners. Therefore, to some extent, our generosity has now raised an anomaly.

In answer to another point raised by my noble friend, I have received representations from various pensioner organisations about this matter. We must balance those against the representations made by local authorities and operators. For the moment I am not convinced that we should change the provision, but I have no doubt that we shall return to this issue at a later stage.

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