HL Deb 23 April 1980 vol 408 cc864-76

7.54 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. I am glad to note that my name is Ross and not Hutchinson. I am not the next one to speak. But if I may just strike another note, there were many occasions on which I had to pass on the opinions of Lord Mountbatten to the War Cabinet offices, because I was, for quite a time, his special signals officer. I was certainly in full agreement with many of the things that my noble friend said about Lord Mountbatten.

This is a short Bill and it applies only to Scotland. Its purpose is limited, seeking to end an anomaly in the concessionary travel legislation as applicable to Scotland, which has been to the disadvantage of certain handicapped persons North of the Border. The Bill gives to regional authorities and islands authorities in Scotland exactly the same discretionary powers to offer concessionary travel to handicapped persons as are already available in England and Wales. So that we are not seeking to steal a march on England and Wales. What we are doing is, seeking to catch up with England and Wales, and to do justice to a deserving group of people in Scotland. It will, I hope, help to clarify the law of Scotland on this subject, and end this injustice which is affecting the mentally handicapped and certain groups of physically handicapped persons in Scotland.

This anomaly has existed since about 1974—it has developed since that time—and it came to light only just over 18 months ago. Perhaps it will be as well for me to explain how the anomaly arose, the extent of the anomaly and how the Bill seeks to remedy it and, indeed, to ensure that in future Scotland will not be left behind in such desirable welfare provision.

The Travel Concessions Acts of 1955 and 1964, and the Transport Act 1968, had United Kingdom application, applying to Scotland as to England and Wales. They empowered local authorities to offer concessionary fares to the elderly, to blind persons and to those suffering from disability or injury which was seriously impairing their ability to walk. But these schemes did not include the mentally handicapped and certain other groups of handicapped people. So they were without this right to concessionary travel until 11th February 1974, when the Secretary of State for Social Services further empowered local authorities in England and Wales to extend concessionary travel schemes to physically and mentally handicapped persons who were not covered by the existing concessionary travel legislation.

He did so by direction in a circular D/N.120/8 of 11th February 1974, and therein specified the categories to whom it would now apply as well—the blind, the deaf or dumb, other persons substantially and permanently handicapped by illness, injury or congenital deformity and those suffering from mental disorder. He also made it clear that it included "those who are partially sighted" or "who are hard of hearing". That power of direction stemmed from Section 29(1) of the National Insurance Act 1948. That was the revolutionary Act which was a great advance, and which ended the Poor Law and listed the welfare services that were available to those in need, under the National Assistance Board and under the local authorities. I think it was Part III of that Act that listed those matters for the local authorities.

Your Lordships may ask: "It was a United Kingdom Act, so why was this not applied to Scotland?" I stand here draped in sackcloth and ashes. In 1968, Scotland made a tremendous advance—I was reminded of it when the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, was speaking last night on a very important amendment—because we instituted the Social Work Act in Scotland, which was much more comprehensive than that which followed later in England. But in doing so we repealed, so far as Scotland was concerned, Section 29(1) and restated the duties of local authorities in much more general words. We did not specify them, as had been done in the 1948 Act. The terms being less specific, there arose doubt as to whether or not concessionary travel would apply in Scotland as it did in England. That has been the cause of the trouble. I do not know whether at that time the Scottish. Office thought that it did.

One must remember that the extension applied to England and Wales from 1974. It was not until 1978 that the question arose in Scotland—I think in Strathclyde where the father of an adult person who suffered from mental illness was refused a travel warrant in respect of his son, so he got on to his Member of Parliament. The question was also raised by, I think, the Lothian regional council who got on to the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. They contacted the Scottish Office.

It was appreciated that something needed to be done and the result is this Bill. It was a Private Member's Bill introduced by Mr. Ian Campbell, the Member of Parliament for West Dunbartonshire, on 29th June of last year. There is something to be said for the way in which we in Scotland deal with legislation. Very few Private Members' Bills have come from another place, and they have been sandwiched between the Abortion Bill and the Seat Belts Bill. However, this one Scottish Bill got through because we have a special procedure which is to the advantage of Scotland; in another place there is a special Scottish Committee that can deal with Scottish Bills. So it is the one Private Member's Bill which has survived, and it has all-party support, the support of the Scottish local authorities and the blessing of the Government. I should like to pay my own tribute to the Scottish Office for their help in the drafting of the Bill and in other ways.

I think your Lordships will agree that it is desirable that we should close the gap and make this provision, and I am perfectly sure that I shall have the full support of the House. I had better explain the clauses, for many a time I have complained about people not explaining clauses. It is a short Bill.

Clause 1 enables local authorities to extend the concessionary travel arrangements to those handicapped who are not already covered in respect of their own transport system, if they are a transport authority, in respect of passenger transport executives—there is only one in Scotland, the Greater Glasgow Transport Executive—or in respect of other transport authorities: for instance, the Scottish Bus Group. Clause I also gives the power to co-operate with other authorities and to take over their burdens with regard to the payment of cost.

Clause 2 is important. It is the interpretation clause and it reinterprets the handicapped persons to whom this will apply. They are the handicapped persons who are not covered by previous legislation. Then, just to make sure this time, it more or less takes the specified list from the 1948 Act, as brought up to date by the Mental Health (Scotland) Act of, I think, 1960 and also introduces the assurance which was given by the Minister in his circular reply to the partially sighted and the partially deaf. So we in Scotland now have exactly the same power as exists in England. In addition, we make sure that we shall not be left behind by giving the power to the Secretary of State to prescribe further disabilities, if they come to light in the future, without the need for primary legislation. But any extension in that way has to be done by regulation, and that is subject to the negative procedure in either House.

So far as finance is concerned, the power is discretionary. I have heard it said that the number of people who might be involved might number 8,000, but when one takes into account that not all of them will be able to avail themselves of public transport and, secondly, that there may not be any public transport where they live—which is one of the serious weaknesses of the concessionary travel legislation—your Lordships will appreciate that the cost will not amount to very much. Indeed, it is entirely in the hands of the local authority as to whether or not to apply it. I think that most of them will. But then, they will have to appreciate that they must abide by the cash limits, as laid down, and fix their own priorities in respect of them.

The concessionary travel legislation has been of inestimable value to many people who would otherwise be isolated. Because of the rehousing which now takes place in towns, old people are separated from their grandchildren by miles and miles. Taking into account the state of affairs at the moment and the rise in fares, without these concessionary travel arrangements they will not be able to afford it. It really is an injustice, one which we must put right as soon as possible, that a very deserving group of people should be left out. It has been incidental and it has been accidental, and it may not he a great injustice, but it is an important one which I trust noble Lords will put right by giving a Second Reading to the Bill. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Ross of Marnock.)

8.7 p.m.

Viscount THURSO

My Lords, it gives me great pleasure from these Benches to welcome this little but valuable Bill, one which, if I may say so, is compassionate and indeed Christian in its provisions. On behalf of my noble friends on these Benches, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Ross of Marnock, and his honourable friend in another place for having brought forward this Bill since it is indeed very much needed by certain classes of disabled persons in Scotland. It has also been a fine sight to see the noble Lord, Lord Ross of Marnock, discarding his sackcloth and shaking the ashes out of his shaggy locks!

In giving this welcome to the Bill, may I please ask the noble Lord one or two questions, and even ask the Government one or two questions. May I also draw your Lordships' attention to one or two points that arise as a result of the Bill. I follow the way in which the categories of disabled persons have been enlarged. To the blind, to those who are impaired in walking and to old-age pensioners, we have added those who are disabled in other ways, including those who are mentally disabled.

We have said that any local authority may contribute to any cost incurred by other local authorities, and any local authority may contribute to the costs of this scheme. However, I am still a little puzzled as to how post buses and rural buses are covered by this scheme. I have tried to follow this by means of the references to the Acts mentioned in the Bill, but I have been unable quite to follow the authority which allows post buses and rural buses to use this scheme. I am satisfied that these services are using this scheme for the other categories of disabled persons who already benefit from travel concessions, but I am not quite clear how this Bill ties in with the various Acts mentioned relating to this question.

There is an anomaly which arises from the use of a post bus, because a post bus goes only in one direction. For instance, the post bus which goes to Altnabreck goes from Altnabreck in the morning to Halkirk and Thurso but there is no return until the following morning, so that if you want to get back to Altnabreck you have to go on the train. When one is forced to use a post bus, it seems a pity that there is no way of being able to complete one's journey, to go to where one wants to go, do one's shopping and return.

I have tried to follow something else and found it extremely difficult because, as I followed back into the Transport Act of 1968 and the Travel Concessions Acts of 1955 and 1964, I found that very large chunks of these Acts had in fact been repealed. I did my best to find out where the money was coming from and how this was affected by such things as cuts in local authority expenditure and so forth. I am really asking this from the point of view of clarification, because it seems to me that if we read the Bill as it is written these provisions appear to be cut-proof. Expenses will be allowed to provide money for … any increase attributable to this Act in the sums payable out of such moneys under any other Act". So this particular one seems to me to be cut-proof, but as I am not quite clear how the provision of the finance works I feel that at this stage I have to ask somebody how it does work.

The other point that arises in this connection is that of course all these provisions are discretionary. Local authorities may or may not apply them; they may apply them to a greater or to a lesser extent. In fact, at this moment if you are a disabled person and you happen to live in the Lothians region, you are extremely lucky because within your region you get free transport; but if you happen to live in the Highland regions you are not quite so lucky because you only get half of the cost of the fare.

I think that the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities is worried about this and would prefer to see a little more uniformity in the way in which these concessions are given as between one region and another. Clearly, it is easier for a region that already owns the buses to give concessions, but I do not think that ought to be the only criterion. If we are trying to do away with the disadvantages which disabled persons suffer from, then we should try to do away with the disadvantages wherever they may hurt the disabled person and, to the same extent, wherever that disabled person may happen to live. Having asked these questions and made that particular point about the anomalies between the different areas, may I say how greatly we welcome this measure and that we consider it to be an advance that has been truly desired and will he greatly appreciated.

8.15 p.m.


My Lords, I think that at this juncture it would be for the convenience of the House if I were to make the announcement that, by agreement with all the speakers who were going to take part in the Unstarred Question tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Hutchinson of Lullington, this will not be proceeded with this evening but on a future occasion.

The Earl of LONGFORD

My Lords, I should like to ask a question. May I say, as one of the speakers and one who is so docile that I will agree to anything, however absurd it may be, that I think it is monstrous that this very important Question should be treated in this way? I hope there is no sense of complacency about the situation. A number of speakers, highly expert, have been mobilised tonight to speak on this Question and now, by some extraordinary misarrangement of the business, the whole thing is off.


My Lords, I should like to make it quite clear that this initiative has come from the speakers themselves. It was not the intention of the usual channels to arrange the business in any other way, but those who were intending to participate have now sought to withdraw.

The Earl of LONGFORD

But, my Lords, this is a rather important Question, and I think a lot of people are shocked by the arrangement. They are only thinking of withdrawing because of the failure of the Government managers to give them a possible time to come on. When I last inquired, I was told that the debate would come on at 9.15. That is just an example of a muddle; I cannot put it more plainly than that, but I should not like the Government to think that in some mysterious way this whole initiative arose from the speakers and that they were very happy at the way it had been managed.


My Lords, I think there are many precedents when an Unstarred Question has come on at quite a late hour—sometimes as late as 10 o'clock. This is really a matter for the Procedure Committee and I shall be happy to pass the matter on through the usual channels for them to deal with.


My Lords, I should like to make only one very brief point which relates to the manner in which we do our business in this House. I had no intention of taking part in the debate, although I am interested in the subject and might have been interested to hear what was said about it; but I do not really think it is quite good enough for an announcement merely to be made to us that some piece of business will not be proceeded with. I think that when a case of that sort is presented to us an explanation should be given to us at the time when the announcement is made. The explanation should not have to be drawn out of the Minister piecemeal as it is being done tonight.


My Lords, in response to the noble Lord, Lord Howie of Troon, think I made it clear that what has taken place is with the consent, agreement and wholehearted support of all the speakers. The business managers in this case are acting on the advice of those who were intending to participate.


My Lords, far be it from me ever to defend this Government in anything they ever do, but I must say that this was a very difficult situation. I think that, as the people who were to participate in the debate did not wish to proceed, the Government Whips really had no alternative, and I think we ought to thank the noble Lord, Lord Sandys, for his courtesy in interrupting the previous debate so that nobody stays unnecessarily.


My Lords, as somebody who over the last 20 years has been continually mischievous about Unstarred Questions, I find the passage that we have just heard extremely interesting. I hope that the Procedure Committee will apply their minds to it and to the point that Unstarred Questions are important contributions to the proceedings of the House and they should be watched very carefully.

One great thing about what has happened is that we in this important little debate do not need to feel under pressure to hurry on because we are keeping people waiting. Therefore, it enables me to speak for a little longer than I had intended.

I want to support the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Ross of Marnock, on introducing this important little measure and on his robust treatment of the whole thing. I am reminded of an occasion when I was travelling in a ship which sailed from Castlebay at 3.30 in the morning and I joined a party in the saloon at breakfast time at the island of Coll and a fellow passenger said to me, "You are a Conservative, I can see." I said, ".Yes, I am." "Och," she said, "Willie Ross is the man for me". Well, on this occasion, Willie Ross is the man for me and I support this Bill wholeheartedly because indeed I have some experience of the problems of handicapped folk in rural areas in Scotland, and I support any scheme which can be devised to provide concessionary travel for such folk as the noble Lord, Lord Ross, has described. It will be interesting to see how the noble Viscount's questions are answered.

It is not my intention to take much of your Lordships' time, but I ask myself, and I ask the Minister, about the paucity, indeed the complete absence, of public transport in many rural areas. In East Lothian there is a scheme of tokens available for old age pensioners, and I think Lord Ross will confirm that that does not extend to handicapped people unless they are old-age pensioners. These tokens, collectable twice a year, are accepted by the buses and the railways in complete settlement of the fares required for the journey to be undertaken, and it is—or was if it is not still operating—a most acceptable concession and to be highly commended. But, my Lords—and this "but" is what I want to draw to your Lordships' attention—sometimes there is no bus service at all or a very infrequent bus service.

As the noble Viscount pointed out, the post bus concession is a very good one, but it only goes one way in the day, and when there is a public bus service it is very often at very awkward hours for old or handicapped people. There is generally a neighbour who has a motorcar and who would help if petrol could be provided. I say it that way because in any case my experience has been that a lot of handicapped and aged people are proud and are unwilling to accept or to seek favours from neighbours, but would not hesitate to do so if they could contribute by providing petrol. Is it possible that a scheme could be evolved which would enable the local authority to issue some sort of voucher convertible into fuel at a petrol station? I cannot think how it could be done. Perhaps someone could work it out.

Viscount THURSO

My Lords, I do not know if the noble Lord is asking for an answer. I believe that, totally illegally but pragmatically and thriftily, certain people in the north and west of Sutherland used to cash their tokens in with the garage and get petrol in exchange; the garage would then cash the tokens in with the bus company when it filled up the buses. This would be one way in which you could do it. I am sure it is totally illegal. It could only be done in the Highlands.


My Lords, that is a most interesting angle and I am looking forward to what the Minister is going to say in reply. I am convinced that if something of this sort were possible it would provide really helpful assistance to the handicapped, in addition to the assistance with public transport fares. I am not suggesting that it should be in substitution, because assistance with public transport fares is of immense use to the handicapped in urban areas. With those remarks, I support Lord Ross's Bill.

8.24 p.m.


My Lords, the Government welcome this Bill, which will give Scottish local authorities the same discretionary powers to offer concessionary travel to handicapped persons as are already available to local authorities in England and Wales. It is clearly appropriate that Scottish local authorities should be in the same position in this matter as the local authorities south of the Border, and the Bill simply seeks to rectify a legislative anomaly which came to light recently, as we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Ross. Despite the need to effect expenditure economies, I believe that Scottish authorities will welcome the availability of powers to take such steps as they see fit, of course within the available resources, to assist the disadvantaged members of the community to whom this Bill especially relates.

My Lords, the Government are very glad that the scope of the Bill as initially introduced in another place was widened in the course of its passage through that place to include not only mentally handicapped persons, on whose behalf concern was originally expressed by the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and other interested parties, but also to certain other groups of disadvantaged persons, such as the deaf, the dumb and those substantially and permanently handicapped by illness or by injury. This again simply places the Scottish local authorities in a similar position to those in England and Wales. By giving sympathetic consideration to this Bill, your Lordships' House will be able to show that it is concerned about vulnerable members of the community and is willing for Scottish local authorities to have a discretionary power to offer these concessionary travel facilities to a group of people whose needs are clearly greater than those of others among the general public.

We should like to congratulate the honourable Member for Dumbartonshire West in another place for his special efforts in introducing and promoting this legislation. The House will also be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Ross, for the admirable way in which he has described the purpose and content of this modest and humane Bill. We are also grateful for the support from the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, and from my noble friend Lord Ferrier. I think I would not wish to add anything to what I have said, apart from pointing out to them that this Bill is simply giving to the local authorities discretionary powers to grant these concessions. It is, as I have said, a simple Bill, but we wholeheartedly commend it to your Lordships.


My Lords, I am very grateful to those noble Lords who have spoken and given their support to the Bill. I was touched by the thought that the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, would in any way be inhibited; I have never appreciated that he could be inhibited whether by time or anything else. As far as the paucity of public transport is concerned, all I can do is agree with him. But I cannot see any local authority providing, under any piece of legislation which at present exists, tokens for transport on buses that do not exist. This is the great weakness of his scheme, albeit illegal, and it was a very unwise man who rose in this House to declare the illegality of what was happening—I do not believe it for a minute—in the north of Scotland.

The noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, did raise the question of categories of transport. I can assure him that they are all covered. If he looks closely at Clause I and that subsection which gives them the right to make arrangements in respect of their own transport, it says: … and other transport provided by other persons". That could include any private purveyor and also, of course, the post buses that he mentioned.

So far as money is concerned, it is one of the great tribulations of a Private Members Bill to get any money. It is all right if there is some fund there; then you can get away with it. This Bill could not have proceeded unless the Government had agreed to this particular formula. It is the usual formula; it just means that the money the local authorities get for the general purposes under the rate support grant can be used for this particular purpose. As to whether or not they will use it, I point out that it is not mandatory: it is discretionary and the extent to which they give the concession is entirely up to them.

The noble Viscount touched upon a point which is a sore point with many people. Different kinds or forms of concession are given by the different local authorities in the different regions. I remember that in Ayr, under the old authority, the pensioners—of whom I am one, but I never made any claim—were issued with so many free tickets and, when the free tickets were used up, that was it—it was finished.

Now with the general Strathclyde procedure it is a question of getting one's particular card. It may well be that they are more careful in Strathclyde than in the more northern parts and the tickets are not transferable or cannot be reduced to cash. But it is not true to say that it is only available where local authorities own their own buses. It is much wider than that. My regret, of course, is that in certain parts of the country there are no rural bus services and so many people are denied this extremely useful and very desirable concession. But I think we shall agree that it is right that this should go ahead and I very much appreciate the support that has been given to the Bill in your Lordships' House.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.