George Freeman responds to debate on bus passes

30th October 2019

George Freeman responds to a debate on bus passes for women born in the 1950s who are affected by the pension changes. 

George Freeman MP speaking in a Westminster Hall debate, 30 Oct 2019

Thank you, Sir Christopher, for the chance to serve under your chairmanship. I echo your justifiably warm comments about the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham). It is a pleasure for me to make my first appearance as the newly created Minister for the Future of Transport, but it is also a real pleasure to pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman. In my 10 years here, I have seen the quality, calibre and tenacity of the representation that he has given to the people of Coventry South. I am aware that this may be his last debate. He has given 50 years of public service, including as a city councillor leading the council and as an MP since 1992. Whoever returns in December, this House will miss the hon. Gentleman for his contributions.

My constituency is affected by the pension changes. It defies the stereotype of Norfolk as the playground for the golden Range Rovers from Chelsea to go to the coast. Mid Norfolk is a low-income, largely blue-collar, rural constituency. I well appreciate and understand the issues that the hon. Gentleman has raised, and the importance of concessionary fares on public transport and these pension reforms.

I want to set the scene by reminding everyone why these reforms were necessary. First, they reflected changes in average life expectancy. When the pension system was created, life expectancy was decades younger than today, when it is going up by about a year every decade. These are substantial changes to our workplaces and in the demography of our nation.

Changing the state pension age was a difficult but, in my view, necessary decision. It was necessary not least because we had to deal, in 2010, as a coalition Government, with the horrendous Budget deficit that we inherited. To remind those who are not familiar, the Government at the time were borrowing £1 of every £4 they were spending. Some very tough decisions had to be made. It is worth remembering that these changes were part of recognising some incredible and welcome changes in the workplace of modern Britain. Women now rightly enjoy—it is long overdue—the chance to fulfil careers based on equality in the workplace and to work long, healthy lives, and to enjoy the opportunities that have been dominated by men for too long. That is part of what the reforms were about. However, I totally accept, as I have with my constituents, that where there is a change or threshold in any benefit, concessionary travel or pension situation, there will be people who are caught at the margins or the cut-off point. That is what has happened in this case.

I would not be doing my job if I did not point out that women who reached the state pension age in 2016 will have received, on average, more state pension over their lifetime than women ever have before. Furthermore, if we had not equalised the state pension age, women would be expected to spend on average more than 40% of their adult lives in forced retirement. There are two sides to this coin.

On the suddenness of the change, although many women in my constituency were surprised in 2010-11—as I am sure they were in the hon. Gentleman’s—the changes have been coming. The Pensions Act 1995 included plans to increase the women’s state pension age from 60 to 65, to align with men. The Pensions Act 2011 moved the state pension age for both men and women to 66. As he signalled, the High Court ruled in favour of the Government in its judicial review ruling of 3 October.

I would need to check it out, but I understand that there may be an appeal on that ruling, so I do not think that the matter is finished.

There may well be an appeal, but I obviously cannot comment on it. I simply make the point that the appeal will be against the ruling in favour of the Government.

On concessionary travel, we all know that for many people the concessionary bus pass can be an absolute lifeline, providing access to work, public services, healthcare, education and, particularly in rural areas, to the very fabric of community and the fabric of active and healthy societies. That is why the Government continue to support concessionary bus travel to the tune of £1 billion a year through local authorities in the UK, to try and ensure that no older or disabled person in England is prevented from travelling by bus for reasons of cost alone. However, I accept that we must go further, and I will set out shortly what the Government will do.

As the Minister knows, one of the challenges with bus passes is that there is a bit of a postcode lottery: they vary between cities and rural areas. In the spirit of positivity that the Minister spoke about, will the Government make any proposals to ensure that people get the same level of bus pass across the piece, so that WASPI women in rural areas will not suffer more than they would if they lived in London?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very interesting point; will he drop me a line about it? As he knows, I am a champion for rural areas and tackling rural inequality, and I will be looking at what we need to do in our new bus package, which I will describe shortly, to ensure that rural areas do not suffer.

In April last year, we announced a change in the legislation to protect the concessionary travel scheme in its current form so that it can continue to provide free travel for eligible older and disabled people for years to come. I should point out that equalising the age difference between men and women removed the anomalous situation in which non-disabled citizens of working age received free bus passes.

To mitigate the effect of the state pension age changes on the people worst affected, Parliament has already legislated for a £1.1 billion compensation package, which reduced the proposed increase in state pension age for more than 450,000 of the hardest-hit men and women. That means that no woman will see her pension age change by more than 18 months relative to the 1995 Act timetable. I accept that that does not deal with all the issues that the hon. Member for Coventry South raised, but for me that is really important. Some of the constituents I have spoken to are among the most seriously affected, and the idea of the package is that it will help at least to substantially mitigate the impact on them.

In addition, the Government are committed to improving the outlook for older workers. We are helping many of the people who had planned to retire but now work, to get back into work, including by removing many of the barriers that they may face. To enable older people to work for longer, as many want to, we have reformed the legislation to remove the default retirement age, which means that people are no longer forced to retire at an arbitrary age. We have also extended the right to request flexible working to all with 26 weeks’ continuous employment, which means that people can propose and discuss a flexible working requirement to suit their needs.

Alongside those significant legislative reforms, we have been successfully challenging negative perceptions about older workers through a major programme, Fuller Working Lives, which is led by the Department for Work and Pensions. We have appointed Andy Briggs as the business champion for older workers, to spearhead the Government’s work to support employers in retaining, retraining and recruiting older workers, to actively promote the benefits of older workers to employers across England, and to influence them both strategically and with practical advice. I am not being pat when I point out that the hon. Member for Coventry South is a walking embodiment of the agility, impact and leadership that people can provide in their senior years. There are many people in this country who have a lot to give, in Parliament and in society, and we want to help and encourage them.

There is strong demand and competing claims for concessionary fares. There are many calls on the Government for extensions to the statutory concessionary bus travel scheme for important groups, including young people in search of work, jobseekers and carers, as well as those who are affected by the changes in the state pension age. Each of those groups may have a different and engaging case for access to cheaper travel, but if the Government are to protect the current scheme, which costs £1 billion a year, we must ensure that it is financially sustainable. With that in mind, I will shortly announce, as part of my reforms in my new role, a series of changes to the way in which we tackle demand-responsive bus travel in rural areas.

Concessionary travel legislation gives all local authorities in England the power to introduce local concessions in addition to their statutory obligations, so that authorities that have a particular problem can deal with it. I am delighted that that has happened in the west midlands, which includes the constituency of the hon. Member for Coventry South: the West Midlands Combined Authority, led by its excellent Mayor, Andy Street, has introduced a women’s concessionary travel scheme that gives free off-peak bus and tram travel to women who live in the west midlands and were born between March and November 1954. More than 9,000 women across the region are set to benefit. Lest anyone should think that I am being politically partial, let me say that a similar scheme has been put in place by Mayor Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester, and that schemes that offer free bus travel to residents aged 60 and over exist in London and Merseyside. Local leaders can, and in some cases do, put additional measures in place.

I am grateful that the Minister has set out the fact that that can happen, and that it is a good thing when it does. Has he considered carrying out a cost-benefit analysis, looking at the benefits to society from giving WASPI women the free bus pass that he so praises in the west midlands and in Manchester?

I am grateful for that excellent question. In my new role I am looking, not just at that issue, but at the costs and benefits of widening access to bus and public transport for people in areas where it can tackle disconnection and help to drive up productivity. In my constituency, and possibly in the hon. Gentleman’s, many communities are quite cut off and isolated from the very exciting areas that are creating jobs and have zero unemployment. Cambridge is 40 miles down the road from Mid Norfolk, but I have many constituents who cannot get there, so they cannot get those jobs. As part of my role, I am looking at the cost-benefit ratio for the Treasury of having better travel, better training and better skills.

The Government have committed to seriously transform bus services across the country for the first time in a generation. I therefore welcome, as I hope colleagues across the House will, the announcement of our £220 million package, “A better deal for bus users”. Whatever else one might think about politics in this country at the moment, I welcome the fact that we have a Mayor as Prime Minister—someone who not only gets buses, has designed them and paints them in his spare time, but deeply gets the importance of public transport and interconnected transport for modern connected places. That is, in no small part, why we are introducing our major bus reform, with £50 million to deliver Britain’s first all-electric-bus town or city; £30 million in extra bus funding, paid directly to local authorities to enable them to improve bus services and restore lost services; and £20 million to support demand-responsive services in rural and suburban areas.

On the point that the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) raised a moment ago, as Minister for the Future of Transport I am working actively on whether we can take a more intelligent place-based approach. When we look at a county—Norfolk, in my case—or a city, instead of asking how best to spend our money on subsidising bus services, we should ask a different question: “How best can we help the people in this area who need help to get to work or to get access to public services?” I am absolutely sure—indeed, I have seen it working—that by using digitalisation or simple telephone demand systems, we can make it easier for people to log on and signal where they need to go the next day, and we can ensure that we provide for a mixed economy. Whether it is for two or three people in a car-share, 10 people in a minivan, or 20 or 30 people on a bus, we can do much better in using technology to provide smarter public and community-based travel and support services.

I genuinely thank the hon. Member for Coventry South for raising this important matter, for the chance for us all, at the end of this Parliament, to signal that we need to get this right, and for allowing me to highlight what the Government are doing to get it right. As this Parliament winds up, I congratulate him on his very, very distinguished parliamentary career.

Hansard

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I am not currently an MP, as Parliament has been dissolved until after the General Election on 12th December 2019.

You can contact me on george@georgefreeman.co.uk.

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