|Travel Concessions (Eligibility) Bill [Lords]
Mr. Clifton-Brown: My hon. Friend raises a good point indeed. In the light of the vast Transport Act 2000, under which we are seeking to amend clause 146, I direct him to clause 147 to observe the gobbledygook that we pass in this place. I shall quote that to him, and to the Minister:
Mr. Turner: I would very much like the Minister to explain that but, as I understand the procedures of this place, I must try first.
It is clear to me that a scheme can operate between, say, a travel concession area, such as Southampton city council, and a place just over the boundaryI take it that that is what is meant by ``in the vicinity of''or between two places outside the boundary with or without a detour into the travel concession area. I am sure that someone will correct me if I am wrong. That demonstrates that the particular border of the travel concession area is, to some extent, irrelevant as far as travel concessions are concerned.
When I was a member of Oxford city council, if I remember correctly, the scheme provided for people who lived on council estates that were outwith the city boundary. Oxford city council provided for them to be eligible for membership as if they were within the city boundaries. I am still a little unclear as to why certain boundaries cannot be considered under the Bill and others fall under it. I would like the Minister to explain that.
I will now return to questions that I asked this morning and to which, I regret, I received no answers. The Minister may recall them, so I will not state them in detail, but the first referred to the imbalance of concession between, say, the London area and a rural area. If an area already has a more expensive scheme, the Government will effectively spend more on supporting it than on one that is less expensive. I described it as giving money to the rich areas. In fact, it is to them that hath shall be given, and to them that hath not shall be given absolutely nothingat least, not very much. That seems an unfair aspect of the Bill.
I understand the concern that the Minister would face in London if he supported the extension of the scheme by only 50 per cent. On the other hand, equal concern exists in rural areas that money, which the Minister is putting aside, is being diverted to favour metropolitan areas even though rural areas have more difficulty with transport and schemes in those places may be less expensive per headI nearly said per manbecause of the dearth of transport there. That runs contrary to the Government's objective of enabling more public transport to be provided in rural rather than urban areas.
My other point concerns the types of transport that are eligible for support. I mentioned earlier that there is no reference, so far as I am aware, to water taxis or water buses in any of the legislation. I asked whether the Bill covers travel concessions on those means of transport, but the Minister could not answer this morning. Can he do so now?
Mr. Clifton-Brown: In section 240(6) of the Greater London Authority Act 1999, another of the sections that we are amending,
Mr. Turner: I thank my hon. Friend for drawing my attention to that example. Clearly, by that definition, the river Thames is both above and below the high tide mark. I believe that the tide runs to Teddington, so the provision does not apply simply to non-tidal waters. I therefore expect it to be possible in the future, if not in this Bill, to provide the concession to travel on water taxis, water buses and other passenger ferries plying between places on the Isle of Wight and the mainland.
The Minister does not seem to have provided clearly for that extension and I can understand why: he hopes that it will not take place. We will consider that later. Nor has the Minister provided for traffic generation. Several of my hon. Friends and I asked about the consequences of traffic generation in providing resources to meet the costs of the Bill. As I recall, the only promise that the Minister has made is to reimburse the costs of extending the concession. Does that promise apply only to the first year, which would upset local authorities, does it extend infinitely, which might upset the Chancelloralthough I am happy with thator does it extend to some time in the future, yet taking account of traffic generation? Clearly, traffic generation, as I mentioned earlier, will result from the legislation. The Government have made, or declared, no provision to take account of that and reimburse local authorities for the cost of the Bill. I look forward to the Minister's answers.
Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell): I retain two areas of anxiety about the impact of the clause. First, although the Minister was pressed quite hard earlier on the likelihood that local authorities will be completely reimbursed for the extra costs incurred, some of his commentshe used the word ``broadly''left me unconvinced that when the small print is examined in detail by every local authority, they will find every last penny met. The implication is serious, not simply because of the impact of this legislation but because in recent years central Government have developed an unerring habit of introducing new rules, regulations and stipulations, which they require and expect local authorities to implement, but examination of the detail reveals that local authorities end up having to pick up part of the bill. Consequently, year on year, local authorities pile up extra financial burdens, which, however small, leave them with less disposable income to spend on local services.
I hope that the small print of the Bill will not lead to local authorities ultimately incurring extra costs. I take the Minister back to his use of the word ``broadly''. Can he give us an unequivocal statement that if any unforeseen circumstances emerge that affect individual authorities, it will not be a matter for debate because the Government will be committed to picking up the tab?
Mr. Clifton-Brown: My hon. Friend raises an important point, to which the Minister did not give a clear response this morning. In practice, when a local authority discusses its standard spending assessment with the Government, a range of issues are bundled up into one. I suspect that this would be just one of those issues and unless the situation became extremely serious it would probably be forgotten. Nevertheless, it has an impact on the council tax and we all know about the recent large rises in council tax in shire counties.
Chris Grayling: I thank my hon. Friend for those comments. It is often easy for those in central Government to forget the disproportionate impact that small amounts of money can have on the council tax. Such a high proportion of local government finance comes from the centre and only a relatively small proportion is raised through the council tax, that even the smallest adjustment or shortfall in a local authority's available funding can have a significant effect on that tax. The cumulative effect of that happening in several different areas can have a significant effect on the ordinary taxpayer.
Secondly, many authorities, such as mine in Surrey, have not yet been able to develop the breadth of concessionary fare schemes that they would wish. That is the result of various factors. The case that I described to the Minister this morning arose because Surrey has had to divert its resources for public transport into supporting a number of socially necessary bus services. The council retains the aspiration to introduce, as soon as possible, a flat rate 50p fare for buses across the county. The Bill will make it more expensive for it to do so and it will not be entitled to receive any compensation. Will the Minister consider introducing a periodnot open ended, but time limitedin which new schemes can be introduced that will still benefit from the compensatory package that is available?
At its most basic level, the content of the Bill presents little reason for debate or question, but when one examines the practical consequences of even the most simple legislation, potentially adverse effects on local communities can become evident. I hope that the Minister will accept the comments of Conservative Members in the spirit in which they are intended.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: Will my hon. Friend press the Minister on another matter that he mentioned this morningthat is, how local authorities will introduce new schemes? We need to know what sort of discussions with the Department will be required in order for them to get clearance to do so. This morning, the Minister made the important concession that the Government will pay for any existing schemes that rely on unequal ages. That seems to give a green light to all local authorities to hurry to introduce schemes before the Bill is implemented, after which there will be a two-tier system.
|©Parliamentary copyright 2001||Prepared 20 November 2001|