Richard Holden – 2022 Speech on Free Bus Travel for Care Leavers

The speech made by Richard Holden, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, in Westminster Hall, the House of Commons, on 7 December 2022.

It is a pleasure to serve for the first time under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. I start by thanking the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) for bringing the debate forward, and I congratulate him on securing it. As chair of the APPG for looked after children and care leavers, he has done a huge amount in this area, and continues to do so. On a personal note, let me say more power to his elbow, because he does a great job of advocating for those who, too often, do not have a voice in this place.

The hon. Gentleman is right that there is a cross-Government responsibility to care leavers, whether on the part of the Department for Work and Pensions, as he and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned, the Department for Transport, the Department of Health and Social Care or the Department for Education.

We know that buses are the foundation of an efficient and inclusive public transport system. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak was right that I have a healthy desire to increase public transport use, particularly following the pandemic, when we saw a drop-off in ridership, with the biggest fall happening in concessionary schemes for the elderly and disabled. I hope the hon. Gentleman will welcome some of the schemes to re-boost ridership over the coming few months. It is only through usage that we can help to keep buses sustainable for everybody to use.

As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, buses provide important access to employment, as well as education, leisure and other crucial connections that are valued by so many, including care leavers. In England, we provide free bus travel for those who are older or who have certain disabilities, and that important scheme helps maintain the network of bus services. It is also well used and popular, with more than 860 million journeys made in the year before the pandemic and take-up of around 80%, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

The Government are committed to bus services, and we provided £2 billion during the pandemic to keep them going. We have continued to provide support for the sector, which is helping to maintain services. It is not just about maintaining our existing network of bus services, but expanding it in scope and quality, through the city region sustainable transport settlements, the zero emission bus regional areas fund and, crucially, the bus service improvement plans. We aim to transform the quality of bus services across the country.

Why do I say all of that? Free bus travel does not mean much if there is no bus service. Our approach with the national bus strategy, as well as the enhanced partnerships and franchising we have enabled under the Bus Services Act 2017, will put buses on a more sustainable, long-term footing as a key part of England’s transport network.

Dr Dan Poulter (Central Suffolk and North Ipswich) (Con)

The Minister is right to point out the challenges of running a bus service when there are not enough customers to fund it. There are concessions for many groups in society, so might he at least take away from this debate the potential to look at this proposal, given the vulnerabilities of care leavers? We are dealing with a vulnerable group that is disadvantaged in many ways, for whom this could be a great benefit.

Mr Holden

I thank my hon. Friend for that point, which I will come on to address and which has been well made by both him and the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak.

We know that care leavers face massive challenges, including with transport. They need to get to work, education and training, as well as to have social interactions that are sometimes more difficult for them. The issue is of interest to me because of my previous life as a special adviser in the Department for Education, and I did a lot of work on it at the time. The “staying put” and “staying close” schemes have been really important in that respect. It is also important that we recognise that we have an extra responsibility to care leavers beyond the age of 18, and there has been important movement on that in recent years. That is where the Barnardo’s report is driving forwards today.

However, we could do more across Government. We have heard about the real and significant difficulties that exist, which the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak described so well. I am happy that a number of local authorities are already providing support, and the hon. Gentleman mentioned some of them. The work Barnardo’s undertook demonstrated that only 11 local authorities of the 116 that responded provided no transport support for care leavers. So only a few provide absolutely no help but, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, much of that is discretionary, and those authorities are under pressure.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Greater Manchester scheme, which has been in place since the end of 2019 and offers free travel up to the age of 21. Many other places provide that discretionary help, but perhaps the hon. Gentleman thinks we need to look beyond bespoke pathways. Since the publication of the report in July we have also seen a pilot launch in my part of the world, the north-east, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned. More than 300 young care leavers have been offered free transport across Tyne and Wear. That pilot, which is a partnership between the councils, bus operators and the NHS, demonstrates how improving opportunities for care leavers touches many aspects of public services, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned. If the pilot is successful, it will be rolled out further locally using the BSIP funding, on which my Department is currently in negotiations with north-east authorities. That is a small part of the wider changes to bus services in the north-east, which I am keen to support as the Minister responsible. However, at the same time as praising the value of these trials, I must acknowledge that we face a tough fiscal environment, as noted by the Chancellor in his fiscal statement. Sadly, I am not sure that the Treasury would allow me to play Santa, even at this time of year.

As the hon. Gentleman noted, providing universal bus travel would cost around £77 million—adding around 7.5% to the current concessionary schemes. I am sure hon. Members present are aware that concessionary travel is managed by local authorities. In many ways, they do not get sufficient credit for operating—sometimes almost invisibly—the complex system of transaction and reimbursement around the concessionary scheme. That scheme needs to be sustainable in the long term. I am happy to say that 76 of the 83 authorities have chosen to enhance the scheme using their own resources, above what the Government provide.

If we wish to add further complexity to this locally run and operated system, it should meet three criteria: it has to be deliverable, effective and affordable. In many ways, the third part is enabled by the first two. The hon. Member’s proposals face some short-term challenges in terms of affordability, and I have gone into those. In terms of deliverability, the legislative regime would face challenges in simply providing for care leavers to receive free transport nationally. There would need to be changes to the Transport Act 2000. I am sure hon. Members present appreciate that that cannot be done overnight.

In terms of effectiveness, that is perhaps where we could benefit most from further work. As I have mentioned, trials and projects are under way in England to provide free transport for care leavers. My officials have recently been in touch with officials from some of the key authorities trialling these projects. I will ask to be kept apprised of developments and any evaluation of the trials, including the impact on employment outcomes, which the hon. Member for Strangford mentioned. It is perhaps worth mentioning that these schemes do not involve the English national concessionary travel scheme or legislative change, and they are seeking to do things more quickly by getting existing smart-ticketing products to care leavers. This is something local authorities could do with their own resources, and I will be very interested to see the outcomes of the trials.

I have previously mentioned the care leaver covenant, which is a fantastic initiative designed to provide support for care leavers, not just within Government, but across the public, private and voluntary sectors. My Department has played its part in that by participating in the civil service care leavers internship scheme. I would love to see transport providers, including bus operators, sign up to the covenant and provide free or discounted travel to care leavers to recognise the importance of inclusion across our society.

We take seriously all requests for extensions to concessionary travel, including for care leavers—I certainly do—but we have to balance them with universal changes, the financial sustainability of the scheme, local areas’ knowledge of how their transport networks work best, and how quickly we can deliver the changes we want.

In closing, I again thank the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak for calling for the debate, and I thank other Members for their contributions. I will meet the hon. Gentleman and Barnardo’s in the new year—possibly in Cornwall, where Barnardo’s scheme has been in place, because it would be interesting to see it on the ground. I will continue to look at the issue as part of our reviews of concessionary schemes. Perhaps there will even be a fourth-Session Bill—the hon. Gentleman could help me by lobbying broader Government in that direction. I will continue, as he asked, to engage across Government in this space, which is important, particularly in terms of employability and helping young people leaving care to make connections that will put them in good stead for the rest of their lives. This is a vital issue, and I look forward to engaging further with the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members as we seek to improve concessionary travel across England.