I believe ensuring disabled and elderly people can continue to benefit from free off-peak bus travel should be a key priority for the Government. It is therefore extremely welcome that Ministers have amended legislation in order to protect the free bus travel scheme for years to come. This means that elderly and disabled people can remain connected with their towns and cities.
Since April 2008, the scheme has provided free off-peak local bus travel to eligible older or disabled people anywhere in England. Currently, the age of eligibility for concessionary travel in England for both men and women is tied to the state pension age. You may be interested to know that around 10 million people across the country have access to free off-peak bus travel.
I understand that legislation in this area has been amended to remove the need for it to be reviewed every five years. This means that those who make use of free bus travel have the certainty they deserve.
The current scheme costs around £1 billion annually and any changes, such as introducing free statutory bus travel for other groups, must be carefully considered for their impact on the scheme’s financial sustainability. Such changes would also require changes to the relevant legislation.
Local authorities in England have the power to offer concessions in addition to their statutory obligations, such as extending free bus travel to other eligible groups. Discretionary concessions are funded by authorities through local resources such as Council Tax, based upon their assessment of local need and funding priorities. Bus companies also understand that helping young people to use the bus now may encourage them to use the bus in the future as they move from education and training into full time employment, and offer concessions of their own.
Furthermore, the English national concessionary bus pass scheme was introduced to assist people in maintaining their independence in retirement (and to support those with a disability). The age of eligibility changes in line with amendments to the state pension age. Reducing the criteria for non-disabled people of working age, some of whom may earn significant wages, would result in unjustified eligibility. This would be in opposition to the scheme’s original aims.
The variation in eligibility for free bus passes in the different parts of the UK is because concessionary travel is a devolved policy area, so the arrangements in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland differ from those in England.
The current national concessionary scheme in England costs around £1 billion and any further extensions could jeopardise its sustainability. The realignment of eligibility in England with the state pension age both helps to address the anomaly where non-disabled, working-age people would receive free bus passes, and also assists with the financial viability of the scheme.
Local authorities in England do have the power to extend concessionary travel to those who are yet to reach the qualifying age. I believe they are better placed to decide how to deliver services and manage budgets for their area.
I fully support the disabled persons bus pass and share the Government’s determination that that disabled people are able to access public transport easily, confidently and without any excess cost.
To support this ambition, I am aware that the Government provides around £1 billion to local authorities each year to enable them to provide statutory and discretionary concessions for the UK’s 9.8 million disabled and older travel pass holders.
I understand the frustration that concessionary bus passes can only be used between 09:30am and 11:00pm on weekdays and all day at weekends and on bank holidays. However, local authorities already have discretionary powers to provide additional concessions, such as extending the hours of the concession. It is my understanding that three quarters of local authorities offer this further concession.
While this is primarily a matter for local authorities, I am assured by Ministers that this area is kept under constant review. Given the annual cost of the English National Concessionary Travel Scheme, any changes – such as extending the concession to include morning peak time travel – would need to be carefully considered so that they do not hamper the scheme’s financial sustainability.
Unfortunately, I was unable to attend the Westminster Hall debate on 7 December 2022 due to prior Parliamentary commitments. However, please be assured that I recognise what an important issue this is and will look at any briefings provided.