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Passenger Vehicles (Experimental Areas) Bill Lords

Volume 930: debated on Wednesday 27 April 1977

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10.30 a.m.

I beg to move,

That the Chairman do now report to the House that the Committee recommend that the Passenger Vehicle (Experimental Areas) Bill [Lords] ought to be read a Second time.
This is a small Bill, with a particular and limited aim. Therefore, in introducing the Bill I propose to concentrate on the Bill itself and its immediate context, and not to discuss the general issues of Government policy on transport as a whole, and rural transport in particular. In any case, these matters have been the subject of long consultation leading up to the White Paper that we hope to produce later this Session. Those issues have been thoroughly ventilated, and there is little definitive that I can add until that White Paper has been produced. I should, therefore, like to stick to the Bill.

The present programme of rural transport experiments has its origins in consultations on the problems of rural transport with both sides of the bus industry, with local authority associations and with other interested bodies. From these consultations it was clear that there was no consensus on the best way of tackling the issue.

The problems differ considerably from area to area, in both nature and scale, and there was clearly no single solution that could be shown to be acceptable throughout the country. Sweeping changes in licensing law across the board might benefit some areas, but elsewhere their effect could do much harm to surviving services.

It was also clear that though alternatives to ordinary bus services were being tried out in various parts of the country, no systematic effort was being made to exploit fully the wide scope for flexibility in the provision of services which already exists in the licensing system. What appeared to be needed, therefore, was a range of solutions that could be fitted into the circumstances of individual areas.

Therefore, it appeared sensible to promote a series of experiments in various parts of the country to test, on the ground, what could be done to help rural communities. The experiments are under the overall control of a steering committee. I chaired that committee, which is made up of representatives of local authorities, bus operators, trade unions, taxi and voluntary interests, consumer organisations, as well as Scottish and Welsh Office Ministers. Responsibility for the detailed arrangements and proposals for experimental schemes for each area is in the hands of local working groups made up roughly in the same way as the steering committee.

The steering committee held its third meeting on 24th March 1977 and gave the go-ahead for 16 experiments in four selected areas—Dyfed, South Ayrshire, Mid-Devon and North Yorkshire. Perhaps it will assist the Committee if I outline the sort of schemes that are now going forward, and those that will go forward completely if the Bill is enacted.

There are, as I said, a total of 16 schemes. Some are, however, similar, involving the same sort of methods, and there are not 16 different types of scheme. There are two flexible route services using small, professionally driven buses and offering pick-up on demand. There is a volunteer-driven community minibus, also with flexible routing. There are three variants on a new form of operation involving shared hire cars charging each passenger separately at rates comparable to bus fares. These will provide highly flexible, low-cost feeder services to local centres, to longer distance bus services, and, in one case, to a local rail service.

There are four schemes involving the use of private cars to provide an organised transport service authorised to charge fares in areas of particularly low demand for public transport. There are two hospital transport schemes which may involve hire cars, private cars or minibuses to tackle the problems of people living in remote areas who need to get to centralised hospitals in towns, to visit patients, or to attend clinics.

There are three post bus services. This is a familiar concept in some parts of the country—notably Scotland—that is not so widely used in other areas, and we want to see whether the possibilities of development are good. There is also an emergency car service catering for unexpected and urgent transport needs. In addition, a special zone will be designated in the Devon study area where motorists will be able to make private arangements to give lifts for payment—which is at present illegal—on a regular basis. In this case, motorists will have to make sure that their insurance cover is valid for such an operation.

That is the panoply of various devices that have been suggested, not by the Department at the top, but by working groups working from the bottom and reviewing the situation in each area.

The experiments will begin this summer, as soon as possible. We expect to have usable results well before the two years, which is the minimum period considered in the Bill. We expect to have a clear indication of the sort of findings in some cases well before that time, possibly in a matter of months—half a year—rather than have to wait the full two years.

There are some schemes which, clearly, can operate under the existing law. For example, a volunteer-driven community minibus, which is analogous to the Norfolk community bus, can operate under existing legislation. Equally, the two flexible route services, using small professionally driven buses can operate under the existing legislation. They offer a different type of bus service. It is more of a pick-up-on-demand service. Post buses can also operate under the present licensing arrangements. There is, therefore, no need for the Bill in respect of some of the services that we are putting into operation.

In other cases, we clearly need to change the law. As I have said, it is illegal to charge for taking a passenger in one's car on a regular basis. That is outside the present law. I have no doubt that it occurs from time to time, but it is illegal. If charging in this way is to operate on a properly developed area basis to see exactly what rôle it can play in meeting transport needs, it needs to be outside the existing licensing arrangements. People will then have no fear of being penalised. Several of the other schemes that I mentioned are also outside the existing licensing law.

Essentially, the Bill revolves round three areas. First, the use of one's private car. Secondly, the shared use of taxis and hire cars—again unconventional and outside existing licensing arrangements. Thirdly, private minibuses. Those are roughly the areas where existing licensing arrangements need to be changed in order to conduct the sort of experiments that we have in mind.

I shall now briefly go through the clauses of the Bill to clarify them for the Committee.

Clause 1 defines an experimental area. This is an area designated in accordance with the Bill's provisions, within which the requirements of Part III of the Road Traffic Act 1960 may be modified. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State may designate by order the whole or part of a county to be an experimental area.

The order will be effective for up to two years, but it can be extended by order for periods of not more than two years at a time. Before making the order, there must be consultations with the local authority, both sides of the bus industry, and any others that seem appropriate. There was some feeling in another place that the time scale for these two-year orders should be lengthened. There was a debate about that, and eventually the amendments designed to lengthen them were withdrawn.

Clause 2, which is the heart of the Bill, delineates the powers of local authorities to grant authorisations for the use of certain vehicles within a designated area for the carriage of passengers for hire or reward. Where a vehicle is used in compliance with an authorisation, it will be treated as not being a public service vehicle. It will fall outside the public service vehicle provisions.

Authorisations will be of two kinds—general or special. The general authorisation will cater essentially for the over the-fence, neighbourly type of arrangement to carry somebody in a car on a regular basis. It would obviously be ludicrous to have a bit of paper for each private car owner operating in that way, So there will be a general category to cover such arrangements.

The special authorisation will operate where a service is run in a more formal and organised way. In that case, the vehicle operator will need a piece of paper to indicate what service is being run.

In Clause 2 there is a reference to a local authority being concerned with an experimental area. The Minister mentioned county councils. Should that have been a reference to a county council, or to a district council? Will the Minister state what the situation will be in adjoining counties, or in adjoining local authorities? He is obviously aware that busses, and people's needs for them, do not stop at county boundaries.

My next sentence is literally about that. I should of course, have referred to county councils. They are the transport authorities in rural areas. There will be special provision for adjoining designated areas so that authorities can issue permits that apply to more than one experimental area.

There was a separate point, I think, implicit in what the hon. Gentleman said. It concerns arrangements outside an experimental area, and I shall come to that later because there was some discussion of the subject in another place.

The approval of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is required for the granting of authorisations.

Clause 3 permits authorities to make the same arrangements for the granting of travel concessions with those operating vehicles under authorisations as they can at present with those who operate public service vehicle undertakings. The clause was added in another place to meet representations made on behalf of local authorities. I think the feeling was that they did not want to put the arrangements at a disadvantage compared with those which they had worked out for giving concessionary fares on ordinary buses. In deference to the views of another place, the clause was added to the Bill.

Clause 4 deals with the short title, interpretation, and extent of the Bill when enacted.

The schedule provides that certain conditions have to be attached to every general authorisation. In the case of special authorisations, it provides powers for the local authority, rather than the Government, to attach conditions relating to such matters as the route, timetable, advertising, charges, and so on. The schedule also deals with the duration and revocation, or variation, of authorisations, and with publicity and other procedural matters.

In another place, it was suggested that publicity should be given to intentions to grant authorisations. The steering committee was consulted on the matter between stages on the Bill, at its meeting in March. As a result, an undertaking was given in another place that the Government would bring forward a suitable amendment at the Committee stage in this House to deal with publicity for proposals to grant authorisations.

A further matter discussed at the meeting of the steering committee, which represents all the interests involved, concerned the form of authorisations. The preparation of experimental schemes for presentation to the committee had pointed to the desirability of certain amendments to the Bill in that respect. Indeed, one working group was doubtful whether a particular scheme it favoured was feasible without an alteration to the terms of the Bill.

In a number of schemes dependent on the Bill—this refers to the point made by the hon. Member for Christchurch and Lymington (Mr. Adley)—the intention is to help people in a remote area to get to places outside that area, such as a large or specialised hospital, or a major shopping centre. Under the Bill as at present drafted, journeys under authorisations must take place entirely within designated experimental areas. Thus, extremely extensive and yet closely defined areas would need to be designated. It would be simpler, more convenient, and more effective from the point of view of monitoring if there were additional forms of authorisation which allowed for journeys starting or finishing within an experimental area but connecting with places outside it.

The steering committee entirely accepted the case for having new forms of authorisation to provide for this additional flexibility in designing schemes, and suitable amendments to the Bill are being prepared. The House authorities advise, however, that the amendments would, strictly speaking, be outside the scope of the Bill as at present drafted, and that accordingly the House would need to instruct the Standing Committee before it could consider them. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will accordingly be putting down an appropriate instruction.

I hope that I have dealt adequately, reasonably clearly and shortly with the general purpose of the Bill, the clause-by clause arrangement, and one or two matters that were brought to our attention in the course of the debate in another place. That was a very useful and thorough debate, and went over the ground very satisfactorily.

The purpose of the Bill is to help us to obtain hard information about the sort of transport problems that exist in rural areas and to see what experience and evidence can teach us about sensible ways forward. We want to find out what works in practice, as opposed to what has often been said works in theory. Many people anxious to improve the situation have had many ideas about what would work in these situations. It is important now to get down to the task of finding out what does work.

A good example is post buses, which are widely mooted as a solution to our problems in England because they have been fairly successful in some of the remoter areas of Scotland. But there may be reasons why they are a success in Scotland and may not be so successful in this country. If we look into that possibility and get some experience on the ground, we can find out whether there are any differences geographically or in any other way that make the operation of a successful post bus system different in Scotland. That is the sort of example that we want to study.

I think, also, that the experiments will add to the store of knowledge which the Government accumulate, and which they can then convey to local authorities. One of the problems in local transport is that too often local authorities do not know what is going on in other areas. They are not aware of good schemes of pedestrianisation, cycling provision, or the kind of traffic management schemes that have been successful in other parts of the country.

It is one of the Government's jobs which often has not been done well in the past to make sure that local authorities know what is going on in all parts of the country, so that the best evidence and the best practice are brought to bear on a particular problem. We shall be pioneering various types of experiment that we can then use to show local authorities, by example, the sort of things that they can do, if they so wish.

I am sure that the Bill will be a continuing part of any sensible approach to solving the problems of rural transport. It is a matter that exists quite independently of what may be the particular state of the licensing law at any point in time. We can gain from looking at this matter as a continuing programme designed to help us to find a way forward in an area where there has been much talk but not a lot of hard evidence. That is what the Bill is designed to provide, and on that basis I commend it to the Committee.

10.49 a.m.

I shall speak very briefly. This debate is taking place in a Committee Room upstairs instead of in the usual place, the Foor of the House, because it was put to us by the Government that, unless we agreed to taking it in Committee the Bill would fail because of the difficulty in finding time on the Floor of the House. Therefore we agreed, although I am bound to say that at the time we agreed to it the situation was somewhat different from what it is now.

The reason we agreed to take the Bill in Committee upstairs is that we attach great importance to rural transport. Although we do not believe that the Bill goes anything like far enough, it is at least a faltering step from the Government who, up to now, have appeared so frozen in immobility that we wondered whether any life remained in this subject.

Frankly, this is not one of the most dramatic pieces of legislation that even the Department of Transport has brought before this House. It is a mouse of a Bill, but it does no harm, and it might even do some good. Clearly, therefore, we shall not obstruct it, and, equally clearly, our attitude contrasts sharply with the attitude of the Labour Party when confronted with a similar situation in 1974 when it took office, and I believe that it is worth recalling the history of this measure.

The transport problems of rural areas are not new. They have existed for many years. Indeed, they existed even before the war, but undoubtedly they have developed since then. To summarise, whereas in urban areas the problem is of too many people trying to travel, in rural areas the problem is clearly one of too few people making use of the existing transport facilities. Therefore, there is a major difficulty in preserving an adequate system of public transport because of a combination of falling passenger demand—falling because of the progressively greater use of the car—and increasing operating costs.

The potential demand for transport services is low and fragmented, and it will clearly remain so in rural areas. Even in the 1920s and 1930s, when there was little competition from the car, many of the rural services were unprofitable. Since then, car ownership has become more common, with 70 per cent. of households in rural areas now having cars—appreciably more than in urban areas, and appreciably above the national average. I point out, however, that that does not necessarily mean mobility for all the family.

At the same time, the old concept of cross-subsidisation—the support of non-economic routes by more profitable routes—has become less and less valid. We therefore have a position where conventional public services have been reduced, although a real and urgent demand for transport still exists among, for example, the elderly, housewives and the young—three of the biggest groups that are affected.

It was to help that specific problem that my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton), when he was Minister for Transport, brought forward his 1973 Road Traffic Bill. In January 1974 the Bill received its Second Reading. Three clauses in the Bill introduced modest reforms in the licensing system, and I believe it would be conceded that they were modest reforms.

For example, they permitted the development of minibus services and the giving of lifts for payment. No one would claim that those reforms were revolutionary. Indeed, the major complaint of the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Park (Mr. Mulley) who at that stage led for the Opposition on transport matters, was that they did not go far enough. He said:
"We would have liked to see something more dramatic to meet the problems of public transport, especially in rural areas."
A Labour Back Bencher, the hon. Member for Glasgow, Kelvingrove (Mr. Carmichael) intervened in the debate to say that he hoped
"that there will not be too many pettifogging regulations about the use of minibuses"—[Official Report, 30th January 1974; Vol. 868, c. 472–4.]
What actually took place? A General Election intervened, and the progress of the Bill was brought to an end. When the Labour Party came to power it reintroduced the Bill, but with one exception. It left out the three clauses on de-licensing. The party which a few weeks previously had talked of dramatic solutions now turned its back on all reform, while with true irony the Back Bencher who had said that there should not be too many pettifogging regulations was the very same junior Minister who argued against the amendments to the Bill to have the de-licensing proposals reinserted. That was the history of the situation at that stage.

The amendments were put to the vote. They sought to reintroduce those modest reforms put forward by my right hon. Friend in 1973, and they would have allowed new services to develop. The amendments were voted down by the Government, and among the 114 Labour Members who voted against those reforms were the right hon. Member for Dudley, East (Dr. Gilbert), then the Minister for Transport, the right hon. Member for Stockton (Mr. Rodgers), now the Secretary of State for Transport, and, last but not least, the hon. Member for Gateshead, West (Mr. Horam), now the Under-Secretary of State who has introduced this Bill. They are among the incredible total of Government transport spokesmen whom we have seen during the past few years.

Even more was to come. For the next two years, the Government did precisely nothing. The right hon. Member for Sheffield, Park gave way to the right hon. Member for Dudley, East. Whether that was an advantage, I leave the Committee to decide. Eventually, in November 1975, a dramatic Government announcement was made. The Government were to set up a committee to consider the problems of rural transport. That was from the party that had complained that the progress on rural transport had not been dramatic enough.

Such was the priority that the Government gave to that committee that it took seven months for the committee to meet for the first time, and now in May 1977, we have a Bill that proposes nothing more than four limited experiments. The matter is entering its final stages.

We shall not delay the Bill, because the Government have themselves done their worst in delaying the reform of rural transport, but we believe that the Government have a shabby and disreputable record on rural transport. Above all, they have shown a total disregard for the needs of rural areas and the people living in them. It is not just that they have not given priority to those needs. They have ignored them. They have wasted three years, and they have made the position considerably worse.

If one takes into account the Budget proposals of the Chancellor of the Exchequer only a few weeks ago, one finds that motoring costs have been increased. In which places does that hit hardest? The answer is, of course, in the rural areas where the car is not a luxury, but is essential to mobility.

It is interesting that the Automobile Association has just conducted a survey on car ownership. It carried out the survey among motorists, and it was found that two-thirds of them used their cars to travel to work. That need was greatest in the rural areas. In other words, the car was indispensable for travelling to work.

That fact was underlined by the answers to another question. Motorists were asked to respond to the statement "I could not do without my car". The statement was agreed to by 58 per cent. of the working population in urban areas, by 65 per cent. of those in surburban areas, and 78 per cent. in rural areas. Among the non-working population the proportion was a little lower. It was only 68 per cent. in rural areas, but again it was the highest of the three categories.

I think it will be conceded by hon. Members on both sides that the car is most essential in rural areas, and that the Budget price rises will increase the problems of mobility, rather than decrease them, yet the Chancellor of the Exchequer in his Budget Statement talked not only about energy conservation—which I hear he is also discussing in Washington—but about the increases being an aspect of transport policy. We shall wait to hear what that aspect of transport policy is, because so far the Secretary of State for Transport has refused to reveal even the slightest glimpse of where it fits into his transport strategy.

There is nothing to cheer about in the Government's attitude towards the problems of rural areas. There is nothing to admire. Certainly the Bill does no harm, but it fails to measure up to the challenge of rural areas. It permits experiments, but we have had experiments before. Indeed, the 1973 Bill was based on the result of experiments. I doubt whether these new experiments will take the argument much further. At the end of the day, crucial decisions will still need to be made on the question of licensing.

Even given the limitations and the lack of ambition of the Government's approach, an alternative approach was available to the Government. Had they taken the approach of setting up a committee, they would have done better to have given that committee the task of considering how the licensing laws could generally be reformed. Experiments and innovating services could have developed naturally throughout the country, and not just in four areas. In other words, the aim should have been to give power locally with, on a national level, the committee considering how the law could be reformed to enable such innovations and changes to develop naturally.

The case for that is very strong, and I say that for two major reasons. First, in my view, it is not too revoluntionary to suggest that an Act that was passed in 1930, based on a Royal Commission report of 1928, might not be totally relevant to the conditions of the late 1970s. The Act was passed at a time when minibuses scarcely existed, when the car was still a luxury, and when it was not the case that such a high proportion of those living in country areas owned a car.

Secondly, the whole basis of the traffic commissioner system, or at least part of that system, has changed. Clearly, there is a need for a safety checking system. I do not dispute that. But we must remember also the basis of the licensing system itself. That basis was that a provider of profitable routes was protected, and the price paid was the support of more unprofitable routes, notably in rural areas. There was a quid pro quo for that licensing arrangement.

Whatever one may think of the basis of that system—even that is open to challenge on a number of theoretical and practical grounds—it is certainly not the case today. Cross-subsidisation goes on, perhaps internally on a route where the profitable parts of the day subsidise the unprofitable parts of the day, but it has long since ceased to be a factor that profitable routes subsidise the unprofitable routes. That just does not happen any more, and it is time that the Government recognised not only that, but also the logic of that situation.

The position has changed. Today the demand is for low-cost transport, both from the point of view of the traveller and of the provider, and the local authority. It also follows that there will be no one general solution that will necessarily apply to every part of the country. As the Economist pointed out one or two weeks ago, post buses have done better in Scotland than in the rest of Britain. We should not be surprised about that.

Different areas will work towards different solutions. Oxfordshire, for example, is working towards another solution which, in the view of the Oxfordshire County Council, is to the benefit of the people in that county. But it does not follow that that will be to the benefit of, or be a blueprint for every other county. Each county, and each rural area, must be allowed to develop its own system to meet its own needs.

What we can demand is that the national law enables such local initiatives to be taken. The law should not be allowed to stand in the way of innovation, as so many operators and authorities complain to me is the case today. That is the challenge which the Government should have met, but which they have failed to meet over the past three years.

I shall not take this any further because we shall want to pursue the arguments on rural transport in a debate on the Floor of the House, rather than in the debate today, but it helps to explain our attitude to the Bill. In the meantime, we shall certainly allow the Bill to have a Second Reading because it recognises, for the first time in this Government's reign, that there is a problem with rural transport. However, we remain deeply disappointed that it is such a mouse of a Bill and that it has failed to measure up to the real and urgent social problems of rural areas today.

11.6 a.m.

I, like the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler), give the Bill a critical welcome, although my criticisms are somewhat different from and, I hope, of a more constructive nature than, those that he made. Perhaps in some ways the hon. Gentleman is to be congratulated. He has carefully chosen Opposition Front Bench cliches that are very much in line with what we have come to expect from members of the present Official Opposition Front Bench.

There are, as the hon. Gentleman has rightly said, existing problems that existed even before the last war. He might find it instructive to look back to that period when, with those problems already developing, the Labour-controlled Durham County Council introduced a Bill into the House specifically to take powers not entirely dissimilar to those that we are now debating. The Committee might find it instructive to read the scorn, and even personal abuse, that was poured on members of that council. Comments were made by members of the Conservative Party about the then chairman of the council which would have been libellous if said outside the House. I take the point that it is a long-standing problem, but it must be approached rather more constructively than it was by the hon. Gentleman.

I listened with great interest also to the speech of my hon. Friend the Minister. I appreciate that the nature of the Bill, and the problems with which it seeks to come to terms, presents certain difficulties. It is, as he indicated, to a large extent an experimental Bill. It is seeking to deal with wide-ranging differing problems and the nature of the various regions of the country—England, Scotland and Wales—to which the Bill must, of course, have overall application.

Even allowing for those wide-ranging problems, and the obvious problems of drafting a Bill such as this, there are certain queries that ought to be raised on the content of the Bill, and I hope that I shall receive answers to them.

It is surprising that there is no definition of what constitutes an experimental area. My hon. Friend said that the appropriate clause defined that, but the definition, as far as I can see, leaves the Secretary of State to define what he considers to be such an area.

Having due regard to the experimental nature of the Bill—if one can use that phrase—and the wide-ranging problems, that may be desirable, but, on the other hand, the only real definition in Clause 1 is that the Secretary of State may designate such an area as one where
"Part III of the Road Traffic Act 1960 … may be modified."
That can mean almost anything, and there ought to be a more precise definition of the nature of the modifications, because nothing in the Bill gives any indication or any reason for so designating an area.

That is not written into the Bill, and my hon. Friend indicated that the problems of definition and the whole wide-ranging nature of the problem make it difficult to lay down precisely what is intended. Nevertheless, I feel that because the Bill is loosely drafted in this manner it merits closer consideration at a later stage.

I accept that there are areas in which something must be done. I should like to cite my own constituency. I do so not to make a constituency point, but because it is a county constituency with some relatively remote districts. It is typical of the constituencies of many hon. Members on both sides of the Committee and of the House.

In my constituency there are many areas where it is not economical to run bus services, and therefore services have been cut. At the same time, fares in relation to the incomes of those who do not possess their own transport have become astronomical and prohibitive.

I represent not one of the lush southern county constituencies but one in the North-East where the conditions of life are somewhat grimmer. The income level is low. I have constituents who are finding it increasingly difficult to go to town in order to shop, because of the high level of fares. In addition—and I accept that it is not economical for the services to be run—there is often no service.

It is obvious that something must be done. It is that problem, perhaps above all others, with which the Bill seeks to deal. What I am slightly worried about is that, in seeking to deal with the problem, the Bill does not define precisely what is to be done. The terms of reference are very wide. I note in that respect that, in accordance with the Bill, the Secretary of State must consult local authorities and representative bodies.

Although my hon. Friend the Minister touched upon the nature of some of the representative bodies, I should like to see them more clearly defined. I hope, for instance, that it is not to be only the Traffic Commissioners. I am not sure whether it was a good or an ominous thing that my hon. Friend specifically did not mention the Traffic Commissioners. My experience is that the Traffic Commissioners never seem to do anything except endorse applications for ever higher fares, which causes ever fewer people to use the buses and exacerbates the problem.

The Committee should have a fairly clear declaration of intent, if I may use that phrase, of precisely who will be consulted if the Bill becomes law. There has been a vague mention of consumer bodies. I wonder to what extent these bodies, with all the panoply that we have set up, are representative of passengers, or potential passengers.

I note the "Hear, hear". I wonder to what extent passengers, potential passengers and ex-passengers bother to acquaint themselves with the channels that are available to them for their views to be represented. I am sure all hon. Members will agree that it is invariably the Member of Parliament to whom, sooner or later, they fly.

There is another aspect of the Bill about which I must express some unease, and that is the safety of passengers. Because the public service vehicle regulations do not apply, the protection of passengers will have to be looked into very stringently. For instance, what provision will there be for inspection of the vehicles to be used, in line with the frequent and stringent inspections that are made of public service vehicles?

I hope that it will not be the same practice as that which applies to a private car or other vehicle, where an MOT certificate is issued annually after the appropriate period.

It seems to me that there is an important issue here. If people are to be carried for hire and gain in private and commercial vehicles, apart from public service vehicles, there must be stringent examination to ensure the safety of the vehicles in which they are carried.

Any driver may give someone a lift in his car. My hon. Friend pointed out that that is illegal, although it will be legalised by the Bill. One of the things that causes me concern is the extent to which the insurance cover of the driver will genuinely extend to any passengers whom he is carrying. It is often the case that following an accident involving passengers, irrespective of whether they are being carried for hire, if they are not members of the driver's family there are long, drawn-out arguments over the liability of an insurance company to pay out.

It is regrettable that insurance companies, which are always so anxious to take, and continuously to increase, their premiums, are noticeably reluctant to pay out when it comes to the insured person making a claim. An accident can often give rise to long, drawn-out claims. On the general issue, whilst it is true that having insurance to cover accidents is important, even more important is the avoidance of accidents.

My hon. Friend said that the responsibility for having insurance cover will be on the driver of the vehicle. There must be some means of knowing precisely what sort of check there is to be on whether the insurance cover is adequate, and, secondly, how drivers who make their vehicles available for the purposes of the Bill will know their responsibilities.

I am not against the idea of the responsibility being put upon the driver, but in complex matters such as these something has to be done to make clear, first the need for insurance cover, and, secondly that the drivers and owners of vehicles know what their responsibilities are in this respect.

As I said at the beginning, I give the Bill a critical welcome. I believe that it is an interesting and important measure, but it leaves answers to be given to many questions, some of which I have sought to pose. For example, precisely what is meant by a "designated area"? Who will be consulted in the process of designating such an area, and how will the safety of passengers be covered?

I hope that the Committee will be given answers to some of these questions. The Bill may well need modification in Committee in order to cover some of the points that I have raised. Nevertheless, I agree with the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield that, notwithstanding any criticisms of it, the Bill ought to be given a Second Reading.

11.18 a.m.

When I knew that I was to be on this Committee I tried to find the reasons for the origins of the 1930 law. I was told by people who remembered the occasion that, apparently, there was ruthless competition in some areas for passengers, with buses racing each other to the bus stops in order to pick up passengers, and the Bill was designed to stop that. I cannot conclude that in Cornwall the Bill was 100 per cent. successful, because nobody would ever accuse the buses of racing, nor would he accuse them of going in for ruthless competition.

Although my points are, in many ways, general, I shall tie most of them into Cornwall, because in many ways Cornwall is a good example of the problem to which the Committee is referring.

I believe that the problem is substantially worse than the words that have been spoken in this Committee today have indicated. It is worse, not because of the situation as it is today, when massive subsidies are being paid to the buses, but because of what will happen in five to eight years' time.

Let me give the Committee an example. St. Austell, which is a substantial town in my constituency, is based in the hinterland, with old clay-mining villages all around it. I have a list of losses on the bus services running out of St. Austell last year, and the figures are amazing.

The losses were as follows: St. Austell to Bodmin £12,000; St. Austell to Newquay £46,000; St. Austell to Luxulyan £6,000; St. Austell to Fowey £26,000; St. Austell to Tywardreath £3,000. There are not many buses running to Tywardreath, and that is why the loss is less there. St. Austell to Gorran Haven £13,000; St. Austell to Penwithick £12,000; St. Austell to Carthew £8,000; St. Austell to Bugle £11,000; and St. Austell to Boscoppa £19,000.

The idea that profitable bus services subsidise the others is absurd. I have a list of the bus services in Cornwall. There are about 85 different routes, and somehow—I congratulate those concerned on their efforts—the Newquay to St. Ives route runs at a profit. That poor little trip, which makes only £900 a year profit, is somehow supposed to subsidise virtually all the other bus trips in Cornwall.

That situation does not worry me all that much, because at least there is a bus service. What worries me is that one day—the Official Opposition seem to be indicating that they will apply the hatchet on these services—someone will come along to Cornwall and say that there can no longer be bus service losses and that the subsidies must end. Frankly, that would decimate life in whole parts of my constituency, especially the areas around St. Austell and to the south of Truro.

There are parts of Cornwall that are far worse off than mine. My hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Pardoe) and the hon. Member for Bodmin (Mr. Hicks) have Bodmin Moor in their constituencies, and transport in that area has virtually disappeared.

I looked up what it costs to run a bus. This indicates another part of the problem. According to the figures that I have, which are supposed to be estimates for this year, the average cost per mile is about 50p per mile on the longer trips, and as much as £1·50 per mile on the short trips. As bus fares in Cornwall are approaching 7p per mile, it means that for the average journey—on some of these buses there are as few as five or six people—the figures do not add up.

People ask why these routes are not scrapped if they are not being used. It is far more complicated than that in rural areas. That is why I welcome the Bill. It will enable some research to be done into the subject, but, having been a Member of Parliament for two and a half years I am becoming increasingly sceptical about the Government's claims to carry out research. It seems to me to be the best and most reasonable excuse for doing nothing.

The problems of transport, in parts of Cornwall, and in Devon, Scotland and many other rural areas, are changing the whole fabric of life. The structure of the old village from which people used to commute because there was a transport system to local towns is being destroyed because of the difficulties of rural transport. The only people who go to live in the villages of my constituency—and I suspect those of other hon. Members—are the slightly better-off. Indeed, some of the villages in my constituency are now little more than commuter villages.

One of the ironies of Cornwall, with its enormous housing problem, is the reluctance on the part of some constituents, especially those at the bottom of the income structure, to go to rural areas. That is not because they are not desperate for a house, but because they realise that if they go to a council house in the village they are condemned to virtual unemployment because they cannot afford the public transport to the nearest job. This will upset some of the bus drivers and workers in my constituency, for whom I have a great deal of admiration, but I think that there are parts of my constituency where the private car will, in the end, be the only answer.

I should like to see as an extension to the Bill a clause to enable the county council to take the lead in approving people who are willing to pick up anybody en route from their village into the local towns, and giving them a nice badge to stick in the front of their cars. The system would operate on a casual basis, but in any part of any constituency, at any time of the day or night, cars are to be seen on the roads. One can only think that those empty seats, which are, in effect, being paid for, must in some areas—particularly the remote rural areas—provide the backbone of a rural transport system.

With all the optimism in the world, I cannot believe that some of the problems in my areas will be solved by minibuses or, frankly, by anything else run on a fixed-schedule basis. There is, for example, a village called St. Mawes, which many hon. Members on this side of the Committee visit during the summer. St. Mawes has no public transport at all, and there are 1,000 people living there. It is perhaps not strictly true to say that there is no public transport, because on a fine day one can catch the boat to Falmouth, and then go from Falmouth to Truro by bus. But apart from that nonsensical possibility, there is no public transport at all in St. Mawes.

I have spent a lot of time looking into the problems of St. Mawes. There are seven Rolls-Royces there, which must be the record for any village of 1,000 people. I suspect that none of those owners has any great problem about there being no bus service. But in Mawes there are about 100 to 120 perfectly ordinary Cornish folk who wish to make a living as best they can in their county where they were born and brought up. Their difficulties are, of course, obvious. What they have done is to buy motor cars and run them themselves. I am sometimes dubious about some of the motor cars that I see in Cornwall being run on shoestring budgets, but the alternative is not to move at all from one area to another.

The hon. Member for Consett (Mr. Watkins) said that an enormous bureaucracy was needed to check whether a private car was safe for any passengers that it might carry.

It is a gross misrepresentation for the hon. Gentleman to say that I advocated a vast bureaucracy. Is he contesting that it is in the interest of passengers and the drivers of vehicles that the vehicles should, first, not be safe and, secondly, not be properly insured?

I do not disagree with that. I was about to make that point. Because the person who is hiring the car will also be the person who is driving it, I should have thought that the real danger of someone knowingly driving his car when it was dangerous was rather different from a large company whose boss was somewhat removed from the individual problems of a vehicle about which he could not be expected to know every detail. Although there are MOT tests, which are better and more effective than many people say, I do not want an enormous increase in the amount of testing required for the vehicles to which I referred.

I understood that the insurance problem had been sorted out. I was assured by somebody that the insurance certificate now has a clause dealing with hire or reward. I was told that all insurance companies now put that clause in their insurance cover. I do not know whether the Minister can confirm that, but I am told that that is so. It appears that insurance cover is no longer a problem, but if what I have been told is not correct the matter must be sorted out, because we cannot have accidents, of a major or minor complexion, following which people are not able to receive payments to which they should be entitled.

I shall not oppose the Bill. Frankly, there is not a great deal in it to oppose. I wish that it were more widely based than it is. A friend of mine in another place moved a number of amendments to that effect. I believe that Westminster, or what I call the London bureaucracy, should take its fingers out of this pie and give the power back to the people in the areas who at least have some understanding of the difficulties.

With all respect to the Minister, I cannot believe that sorting out the bus services to Luxulyan, Tywardreath and other parts of my constituency is what he is best qualified to do, while representing Gateshead and commuting to this place. If ever there was a cause for devolution, this is it. This is one of the issues on which we must push power back to the people where they live.

My final point concerns the problems being caused for the elderly. In Cornwall, there is no concessionary bus fare scheme. It is not for lack of effort. A majority of members on the local council do not support my sort of politics, and they oppose my suggestion time after time. I have argued endlessly with them. In many ways, there is logic in their argument. They argue that losses to the bus company would be substantial. That, of course, is true, because about the only passengers left are those who go to school, and the elderly.

I wonder whether that attitude of the Cornwall County Council is not causing far more hardship than individual councillors realise. I cannot believe that a bit more on top of those losses would make much difference at all. In fact, some of the bus services do not take 30p a mile.

Cornwall County Council now spends £1 million a year on carting children to school. I keep intending to put down a Question asking whether the Minister has the national figure for carting children to school, but it costs £1 million in Cornwall. We have a hospital car service which costs about £750,000 a year to run. I have been told by a representative of British Rail—frankly, I do not believe it—that local—not main line—train services in Cornwall lose £1 million a year. I do not believe that, because not enough people ever get near the trains to lose that much on local services in Cornwall.

If one adds those figures together—£1 million for the buses, £1 million for carting children to school, £750,000 for the hospital car service and a loss of £666,000 on the buses—they show that a large sum is being spent on providing transport in one rural area. Cornwall has only five parliamentary constituencies, so the national figure must be colossal.

If I were convinced that that money was being spent wisely and that it was giving my constituents a good local transport system on which they could rely over the next two or three decades to provide them with a service, I should be a great deal happier than I am. But all these subsidies are from Departments that have no connection at all with one another. At present, there seems to be no way of co-ordinating them.

My main criticism of the Bill is not its limitation, but the relatively small power that it gives to the county councils to try to suggest solutions for their own problems in their own areas. In the final analysis, the councils will have to do that because, as so often with rural problems, this place just does not understand them.

11.33 a.m.

It was encouraging to hear the Liberal Party proclaiming its concern for rural transport. Most of us were impressed when that party positively asserted its opposition to increases in petrol tax. We felt that the Liberal Party was demonstrating its genuine concern for people in rural areas. But how disappointed we were when the Liberals expressed that conviction in the House simply by abstaining and sitting on their Bench! However, today we have a reassertion of the Liberal Party's concern for rural transport, and we welcome it.

I echo what the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon) said about the nature of the crisis in rural transport. No one, on hearing the Minister today, would have sensed that there was a crisis in rural transport, but there is, and I agree with the hon. Member for Truro when he says that it will get worse. One would not have gathered that from the Minister's words today.

The hon. Member for Truro said that, to judge from the noises coming from it, it was the Conservative Party that was likely to make Draconian cuts in public expenditure and reduce subsidies for travel. That may or may not be right. However, it should be understood that the present threat to cut subsidies, whether to the railways or to the buses, is coming not from the Conservative Party, but from the Government. No matter which party is in power, there comes a time when the reality of providing subsidies has to be faced.

I suspect that the Government are receiving some sympathetic support from the Opposition. Often it is not a Conservative Government who say that subsidies have gone too high, whether on rail or buses, but a Socialist one. I emphasise that, because I believe that it is in the interests of the travelling public generally to get away from subsidies. There always comes a moment of truth.

I basically accept the tenor of the hon. Gentleman's argument. That was the point that I sought to make. Subsidies are getting so big that the day will come when somebody will question them, but it is not the Labour Party that has been talking of public expenditure cuts of £5,000 million a year. How does one make cuts of that magnitude? The Government have made cuts, and many of their own supporters have taken a deep breath and not been very enthusiastic about them, but there appear to be some Conservatives who suggest that even bigger cuts would be better.

I hesitate to stray out of order, Mr. Blenkinsop. All I say in response to the hon. Gentleman is that it is extraordinary that two or three years ago we were saying that there was a need for £4 billion cuts in public expendi- ture, and now the Government are proclaiming with pride that they are carrying out precisely that programme. We can leave the point there and return to the Bill.

Let me take up one or two of the points made by the hon. Member for Consett (Mr. Watkins). He always conducts his defence of, and even his attacks on, Government policy with great vigour. On this occasion, however, he had more vigour than conviction. He made some fundamental points about the crisis in public transport, and, by implication, if not explicitly, he damned the Bill as inadequate.

I must also take up the hon. Gentleman's point about lush southern constituencies. I represent a Kentish seat, and I suspect that the problems facing the people in our rural areas are just as great as those in other parts of the country.

I should not want the hon. Gentleman to misunderstand me. Perhaps I did not make clear that there is a much lower level of car ownership in North-East constituencies with rural areas, such as mine, than there is, on the whole, in southern county areas.

That may be true as a generalisation, but, knowing my area, which is probably not untypical of the south-east of England—and it is probably true of, say, Cornwall and other parts of the United Kingdom—there are many isolated communities with an ageing population where the level of car ownership is not up to the level of, say, the whole region.

Let me deal with one part of my constituency. In the Isle of Sheppey, in what the hon. Gentleman would call a lush southern area, the unemployment rate is more than 10 per cent., and that is within a specific employment district. That is not a lush southern pasture. It is, perhaps, a reflection of the standard of living and the quality of life in those areas.

Order. I draw the attention of the Committee to the fact that it is the general desire of hon. Members that we should complete our proceedings this morning. Hon. Members should not, therefore, stray too far outside the terms of the Bill.

Thank you, Mr. Blenkinsop. I was about to say that in our area we have similar problems of reducing services, isolated communities, and astronomical bus fares. Faced with the problem of public expenditure cuts, I can see little but gloom for the bus services in the years ahead. The situation will continue to deteriorate. That is why I feel that this is about as miserable and feeble a Bill as one could possibly have.

One recalls the phrase about mountains labouring mightily to produce a mouse. That is precisely the circumstance here. It is extraordinary that, after at least a decade of debate on the problems of rural transport, and at least a decade of experimentation with a variety of schemes, the Government have come forward with a Bill to have four experimental areas, with a number of fairly minor experimental schemes in them.

The Minister says that he wants to find out what works in practice, and not just in theory. That comes from the party that came into office proclaiming that it knew what to do with public transport. It was to have an integrated and co-ordinated transport policy. Three years later, experimental schemes are to be introduced to find out what works in practice, as opposed to in theory. That is a splendid conversion, and if the Government apply that to the rest of their manifesto there might not be much of it left.

There are better ways of doing it. That is all that I say to the hon. Gentleman. He could have dealt a more deathly blow at Socialism by adopting other tactics.

The Minister said that the experiments would add to our store of knowledge, and I thought that that was a terrifying statement. We are talking about a situation in which the people of our villages have no bus services. It is not very encouraging to the old lady waiting for a bus that might never come to say: "Do not worry. The Minister is conducting an experiment in North Yorkshire and the results will add to his store of knowledge." That might be helpful in producing the next Labour Party Manifesto, but it is like a squirrel storing nuts for winter. It is not of much benefit to the public.

I was puzzled why the Bill had come here for a Second Reading. I gather that the reason is that the Government's commitment—even to a scheme as experimental as this—was so feeble that they could not guarantee to find time for it on the Floor of the House. That is a somewhat devastating state of affairs. I assume that my hon. Friend had a momentary lapse, or a fit of compassion, and decided to try to save the Government the embarrassment of having to admit in a more public place that they had no policy to deal with the crisis of public transport, which I find appalling.

It is worth looking briefly at the history of the Bill. In 1973, when positive proposals were put forward by the Conservative Government to relax the licensing system, they were opposed by the Labour Opposition. When the proposals were brought forward in 1974, they were accepted in the Lords but rejected in the Commons.

The significant thing is that when the Bill was proposed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) the propositions in it were broadly accepted by the then Opposition transport spokesman. Indeed, a number of Labour Members urged the Conservative Government to go even further with their proposals. It is not, therefore, true to say that the measure was opposed by the Labour Party. The opposition to it came later.

That is an interesting point. It seems to me to provide evidence of the Labour Party proposing something in theory, but doubting it in practice. It has certainly resisted any relaxation of the licensing system.

When the Labour Government came to office in 1974 and removed the amendments from their Road Traffic Bill, they announced that there was to be a process of consultation. That is a familiar phrase from a Labour Government's transport Minister. How long did that consultation take? It took until the end of 1975, and the Government then said that there would have to be a short Bill to allow experiments. That was 18 months ago. What on earth has happened in the meantime? This is an extraordinary saga of foot dragging and dilatory attitudes, indicating a clear lack of concern and understanding of the problem that exists in the rural areas.

I should not mind too much if I thought that the experiments would go to the heart of the problem, but I do not think that they will. The areas are limited, and that makes sense because these are, after all, only experiments. It seems to me that the long-term answer to our transport problems is the harnessing of enterprise and the profit motive to the provision of minibuses. One could argue that they will be public transport minibuses, but the answer certainly lies in commercial minibuses of one kind or another.

Car-sharing schemes are all well and good, and there was a reference to a social car scheme run by the WRVS, for instance. I am sure that that is a worthy scheme, but I do not think that the problems of the rural areas will be solved in that way. The answer lies in commercial minibuses, publicly or privately operated, under whatever system of control and scrutiny is necessary.

If I have understood it correctly, the Bill provides only for privately owned cars or minibuses, or for commercially owned cars and not for commercially owned minibuses.

That seems to me to be leaving out the key to the problems of rural transport. The Minister in another place said:
"The essential point here is that the Bill is not intended to provide short cuts for people who want to be in the business of carrying passengers. This is a perfectly proper aim, but the licensing system is there to regulate professional activities with buses."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 15th February 1977;c. 1518.]
That is the problem. We do not want to provide short cuts for people who want to carry passengers. Perish the thought that we should encourage people to want to carry passengers. We shall have nice, social, equitable, car-sharing schemes. Frankly, I view that with some scepticism, except on a very limited scale.

The answer to our rural problems does not lie there, so why on earth are the Government not extending these experiments to include genuine commercial schemes to enable those who feel that they can make a profit out of them to provide services in some of the rural areas where they are prevented from doing so at present because of the licensing system? It seems to me that part of the answer lies in trying to encourage the local garage or local taxi owner to extend his services to provide commercial minibus services in that area.

I do not believe that we shall break this problem until there is a general relaxation of the licensing system. The general attitude is one of non-profit for the individual operator. I can think of many places on the Continent where the individual operator, the small man, provides rural services of the kind that the Committee is considering.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) made the point that the present system springs from the 1928 Royal Commission. We are therefore talking about a licensing system that is half a century old. It is that old sysem that is preventing the development of the rural bus services, the minibus services, that we need and which will, in the long term, provide the answer.

This is a pretty miserable Bill. The very nature of its presentation is an indictment of the Government's failure to deal seriously with the problems of rural transport in recent years. For a Bill of this sort to come three years after the Labour Party was elected on a ticket of knowing what to do about transport is an appalling admission of failure by the Government.

Of course one wants the experiments to go ahead—there is no point in stopping them—but I hope that when my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Cold-field takes over responsibility for the transport policies of this country—which will not be long now—he will say that the period of experimentation is over.

We know all that there is to know about experimentation. What we have to do is to break with the past and get rid of the straitjacket, the dead hand of licensing that exists over many areas, and, by introducing greater flexibility, encourage people to provide services to the public, with either local authorities or private operators providing flexible services in those villages which at the moment are losing their transport services.

11.48 p.m.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) made a pertinent speech and referred to the real and urgent need for transport improvements, particularly in rural areas.

The Minister spoke to the Bill but did not take this opportunity, which I rather regret, to elaborate on the further moves which he said the Government would have to take to provide, or to cut the strings to enable others to provide, better transport for people, which we all know everybody desperately needs, and which many of us believe could be provided if a lot of red tape was cut away.

This is a small Bill. In content it is non-controversial, other than that we feel that it does not go anything like far enough.

I agreed with the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon) when he said that Westminster and Whitehall are not the places to deal with these problems. The Explanatory and Financial Memorandum states that Clause 1
"empowers the Secretary of State by order to designate the whole or part of a local authority area as an experimental area".
Why on earth must it be left in the hands of the Secretary of State to make these decisions?

The hon. Member for Truro said that transport was an ideal area for devolution, and I agree with him. The Secretary of State is not the right person to be responsible for designating these areas, because he is responsive to pressure from the National Bus Company, from the T&GWU, and from different county councils which may not all have in mind the spirit of freedom which, presumably, is the motivation behind the Bill.

I give the Bill a limited welcome, but it is only a minor step down a long road It does perhaps implicitly acknowledge that competition is the only likely spur towards providing the travelling public, and the potential member of the travelling public, with a better, cheaper and more effective bus service.

The Minister referred to the existing licensing system—a system which we have heard this morning has not changed since 1930. There can, surely, be no one who believes either that the circumstances pertaining to transport in 1930 are in any way similar to the circumstances of today's, or that the activities of the Traffic Commissioners are universally considered to be wholly satisfactory.

I turn now to the next stage in the Bill; namely, what will happen when requests for designation come forward. It appears—perhaps the Minister will put me right if I am wrong—that the only people who will be able to make requests formally to the Minister are the county councils, or possibly district councils. Orders for designation to the Department cannot be considered formally if they come from bodies other than local authorities. If that is correct, it is a great shame.

The Minister will be familiar with the system of airport limousine buses which operates in the United States of America. Perhaps I should declare an interest, in that I am connected with a hotel company. The assumption behind the Bill is that all these problems are responsive only to proposals put forward by local authorities, and also that they arise only in rural areas. That is far from the truth. If for example, a transport operator wanted to operate an airport limousine service similar to those operated at most major American airports, could that be considered by the Department, or would it have to be put forward by the relevant county council? If a scheme was proposed for, say, Heathrow, would the GLC have to approve the scheme before it was put to the Minister?

Can the Minister say something, either now or later, about what will happen in the event of a disagreement? A district council might have ideas that differ from those of the county council. For instance, the Christchurch District Council in my constituency might have ideas about operating bus services which differ from those of the Dorset County Council. How will such a dispute be resolved? Is it only county councils that have the power to make representations for designation to the Minister?

I said a moment ago that the problem of passenger transport services does not arise only in rural areas. The Minister must be aware that one or two experiments of park and ride have been tried. The hon. Member for Truro mentioned that his constituency, like mine, suffers—or benefits, whichever way one looks at it—from a vast influx of people during the summer months, when there is tremendous pressure on car parks. Is it the Minister's idea that park and ride schemes from car parks to seafront areas or to shopping centres should be encouraged? If so, are they to be operated or recommended only by county councils?

Again echoing a point made by the hon. Member for Truro, local people know the services that are needed. The essential thing about a park and ride scheme is that it should be responsive to local needs and local demands. It does not make sense to me that the decision whether a park and ride system should operate anywhere in Great Britain should be dependent upon the blessing or otherwise of the Secretary of State.

The point about the remoteness of the Secretary of State, and his knowledge, from the problems of local people was passingly referred to in a different way by the hon. Member for Consett (Mr. Watkins), when he said that Members of Parliament are the people who receive representations about inadequate or unsatisfactory bus services. I suspect that that again has a lot to do with the attitude of the National Bus Company which, in the minds of our constituents, fulfils a similar rôle to that of the Department of Health and Social Services, or the Treasury, in that it is some distant foreign body without any immediate contact or relevance to local problems.

The hon. Member for Truro spoke about the St. Austell bus services operated by Western National. He did not mention Western National, but obviously he was referring to that company. I do not know how his local bus drivers in the St. Austell bus garage feel about the management of the National Bus Company, but I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Costain), for instance, has fairly strong views on this matter, which he has expressed to the Minister on previous occasions.

Clause 3 refers to travel concessions. I hope that I shall not be out of order, Mr. Blenkinsop, if under that heading I take up the question of concessionary fares—the relationship between the National Bus Company and the county councils, and the provision of concessionary fare schemes for the elderly. The Minister knows that I am exceedingly unhappy with the present arrangement. I think that it is wholly unsatisfactory. I cannot understand why in this area, and this area alone—

Order. That does not come within the context of the Bill, so any reference to it should be brief.

I shall keep it brief, Mr. Blenkinsop, although I respectfully point out that the clause on travel concessions was inserted in another place. I hope, therefore, that you will not consider it wholly irrelevant to the Bill.

I shall be brief. My point relates to the centralisation mentality of the National Bus Company. The reason why Dorset County Council, Cornwall County Council and numerous other county councils and district councils may, or may not, provide concessionary fare schemes is that in public transport, and in public transport alone, it is assumed that the local ratepayer, not the State, accepts responsibility for people when they reach the age of 60 or 65.

That seems a good deal for the National Bus Company, but it is a bad deal for ratepayers. I hope, therefore, that the Minister will continue to prod the NBC into recognising that its virtual monopoly position should lay upon it a responsibility to devise a more satisfactory concessionary fare scheme.

The Bill relates to public service vehicles. I assume—it does not say so—that these public service vehicles have four wheels and rubber tyres, and therefore the measure is related only to buses and cars, and not to trains. I wonder what would have happened if the railways had not been nationalised and the GWR and the LMS were still running competitive services to Birmingham. I wonder what they would have done, with modern marketing techniques, about the provision of better services. The lack of marketing techniques by the NBC is one of the main causes of dissatisfaction with the bus services that it operates up and down the country.

The withdrawal of scholars' concessions by British Rail is another point which I am sure I should be out of order to raise—

—so I shall not go into that.

Let me end as I began, by giving a modest welcome to the Bill. In my view, it is merely a start. It would be wrong for the Conservative Party to oppose the Bill. After all, far wider-reaching proposals were contained in the Conservative Party's proposal in 1973, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) was trying to steer through the House. This is a very small egg indeed, but I suppose a small egg is better than none.

12 noon.

The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) launched into what we have come to expect as his usual tirade on the subject of rural transport. Wherever the subject is mentioned, one is supposed to have the answer to the whole problem concealed in a short five-minutes speech to a small Bill. I suppose that the hon. Gentleman was wise once again to go down his well rehearsed path. The Conservative Government achieved nothing. In four years of government they had nothing to show in respect of rural transport experiments. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle), in her Transport Act 1968, did far more for rural transport than successive Conservative Governments ever did.

Let us look at the record of the Conservative Government, who, the hon. Gentleman says, at least tried to do the right thing. In 1971 they had a consultation document which was launched with great bravura about new experiments and a spirit of freedom, to quote the hon. Member for Christchurch and Lymington (Mr. Adley). By 1973, however, when the Bill came forward, it was much watered down and most of the ideas which had been in the 1971 consultation document were heavily modified in the light of subsequent experience. Even after the 1973 Bill was introduced, there was further consultation promised and further watering-down was about to take place.

When the occasion finally came, with Conservative Peers putting down amendments to the then Labour Government's Bill, not even the commercial minibus, about which the hon. Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate) waxed so eloquent, was to be seen among those Conservative amendments. That shows, perhaps, that all the change of Conservative philosophy which occurred sharply in the middle of the 1970–74 Government was having an effect. Perhaps there was also a little more wisdom about the real difficulties in this area.

I hope that the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield, now that he is launched on his path of claiming that we must have more freedom in these matters, with more right to have innovations and so on, will not find himself, if he ever becomes a Conservative Minister for Transport, once again, like the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton), eating his own words at a late date—as he accused my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Park (Mr. Mulley) and others of my hon. Friends of doing.

Everything the Under-Secretary says makes it more clear to me that, if it is not myself, there will be a Conservative Minister for Transport fairly soon.

I put two points to the Under-Secretary. In the other place, Ministers were complaining that the Conservatives did not consult. The hon. Gentleman is now saying that we were consulting too much. I do not mind what case the Government use, so long as it is the same argument.

Second, we put forward the 1973 Bill, and that Bill, with the modest reforms in it, did not become law only because of the Under-Secretary's Government and, incidentally, in the end because of his vote. Does the hon. Gentleman now stand by that and accept that?

Yes, indeed. May I say, Mr. Blenkinsop, that it was not I in my modest, short and relevant speech—I think you will agree that I was exemplary in the degree to which I kept to the Bill—who launched this torrent of remarks about the whole problem of rural transport, which we are not considering in its generalities here.

On a point of order, Mr. Blenkinsop. This is a Second Reading debate about rural transport. This is not the Committee stage. We are talking about the problems of rural transport, and if we cannot do so when considering this miserable measure to deal with that problem, the whole process becomes a farce.

That is not entirely a point of order. We have had a fairly wide discussion, and I do not think anyone can complain of that. I only point out that this is a Bill which is very limited in its actual scope.

The hon. Member is now shooting so wide that I am not sure whether he is shooting at you, Mr. Blenkinsop, or me. None the Jess, he seems to have somebody in his target, although he is very unsure about his aim.

Unfortunately the Conservatives have been very unsure of what they want to do about rural transport, and have changed their minds continually from year to year, as previous experience of their Government shows. The hon. Gentleman summed up the position when he said that what he would do, and what we should be doing, is not having a steering committee to look at experiments but a committee to look at the whole problem of rural transport. I note that it is also proposed that there should be a committee to examine motor cycle safety and another to consider insurance write-offs.

I thought that committees were a disease of Government, but they now appear to be a disease of Opposition as well. I do not know whether the disease is limited to the hon. Gentleman the Shadow Minister of Transport, but it is surprising that the Opposition have begun to approach things in this way.

The hon. Gentleman, not content with misquoting me in the last debate on motor cycle training, which I was glad to see Hansard got right and he got totally wrong, is now misquoting my remarks in this Committee. What I said—I implore the hon. Gentleman to take the trouble to listen—was that if the Government wanted to set up a committee, it would be better to have one to look at the licensing system rather than use this Committee. I want the licensing system reformed, not a committee. If, however, the Government want a committee, let it examine the correct subject.

All I am saying is that the hon. Gentleman has an undue faith in committees, which I have not. I prefer a certain amount of action rather than a pathetic attempt to sweep everything under the table by the use of more and more committees. One fact that the hon. Gentleman does not seem to recognise is that the licensing system was reviewed by the Thesiger Committee in the 1950s. That was not mentioned. Let us get the facts right before we proceed to elaborate further on methods of non-action.

The practical remarks of the hon. Member for Faversham dealt with the problem more clearly than did those of the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield. The hon. Member for Faversham put his faith in commercial minibuses. He pointed out that the commercial minibus was not within the scope of the Bill, and he is right.

I ask the hon. Gentleman to look at the matter more sensibly than he appeared to be doing. The size of the bus is immaterial; the problems of rural transport will not be solved by our discussing whether to have minibuses or double-decker buses. I think that the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon) would agree with that. There are far more important considerations at stake.

It is absurd to suggest that there should be a minibus running over routes, either in competition with existing services or by itself. It does not begin to solve the problem. If he were to look at the matter more seriously, he would see that. I am not accusing the hon. Gentleman of not wanting, or trying, to help, but there is a danger of putting forward ideas that, on second thought, have nothing much to offer.

The point that the Minister has just made makes sense only in the context of inflexible schedules for bus services. If that is the case, of course it does not really matter whether there is a 50-seater or 10-seater bus. He said that I assumed that a minibus would have to keep to timetables, whereas what I meant was that on the Continent one finds that rural services are often provided by commercial minibuses. They do not necessarily run to fixed timetables.

I do not understand the difference between a commercial big bus and a commercial minibus service, apart from the size of the bus, which is not the heart of the matter. Apart from being an unwise proposal, I think that the Opposition would do better to acquire a little more knowledge of the subject before making generalisations.

Let me now turn to the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Consett (Mr. Watkins). In contrast to the Opposition, he spoke many wise words on the subject. I know the problems in his area particularly well. Like my hon. Friend, I was brought up not in the lush pastures of Southern England but in the harsh, bracing environment of Durham.

Not in a constituency where there are seven Rolls-Royces per village.

I should hasten to add that my reference to the harsh bracing atmosphere of Durham could equally apply to that of Cornwall.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that Cornwall has the lowest average wage of any county in England and the highest unemployment, so it is hardly lush.

Exactly. I was suggesting that the hon. Gentleman's area, precisely because of such circumstances as those to which he has just referred, has more in common with that of my hon. Friend and myself.

My hon. Friend suggested that the definition of an experimental area was rather loose. Indeed, it is loose and is designed to be fairly loose. It is the experiments which matter. We do not necessarily want to complicate the experiments by having too much of a legal back-up. All that the Bill does is enable certain changes in the licensing laws to be made so that the experiments may take place. In a sense, the Bill is an adjunct to the real action of the experiments. In practice, an area that has been selected and surveyed as suitable for an experimental service will be the basis for suggesting which areas should be experimental areas.

In trying to be practical and down to earth, the Government have perhaps strayed into inviting my hon. Friend's criticism on that score, but I believe that it is sensible to be as wide as we possibly can in this area to give the maximum opportunity for people to designate suitable areas to be experimental areas. We do not want to confine people too much. We have already run into one problem in respect of buses running from an area to one which is not an experimental area, which comes from drawing up a Bill in this way. We do not want to run into too many problems of that kind, though I understand my hon. Friend's concern.

On the people to be consulted, local authorities, bus operators, taxi operators, unions, of course, the WRVS, the National Consumer Council, the National Council for Social Services, local Women's Institutes, parish councils—all of these are the sort of bodies which will be consulted.

I noted that towards the end of his remarks upon this subject my hon. Friend rather doubted the value of consultation in some cases, and, indeed, the representative nature of those who were being consulted. I was agreeing with some of his sentiments in this matter, but none the less the Government are undertaking whatever consultations seem sensible from the point of view of obtaining a representative body of opinion.

On safety, the schedule requires that local authorities have regard to the fitness of vehicles to be used under the special authorisations. That is where a vehicle has a particular permit to do a particular job.

On the question of more general authorisations, the Government will be seeking to give proper publicity to the necessary insurance aspects. I agree that if one enters this area one opens up a new sphere as regards safety. Indeed, part of the point of PSV licensing is that it guarantees certain things in some respects.

If one goes outside that area, one has the guarantee diminished to a degree. I would not pretend that there may not be problems here, but I believe that what the Government are trying to do in the Bill does the most one can do to ensure both specifically, in the case of vehicles which are used by special authorisation, that they are suitable and the local authority finds that they are suitable, and in the case of the general authorisation that the Government make known to people as widely as possible what obligations they are undertaking if they give people a lift and operate their vehicles in this way. I believe that that is the most the Government can do in the existing situation.

The hon. Member for Truro has temporarily left the Committee room. May I say to him, so that it is on the record even if he does not hear it now, that the British Insurance Association put out a Press notice in June 1975 saying that insurers accepted that taking a contribution towards petrol costs, but only towards petrol costs and nothing more, would not be regarded as vitiating the ordinary domestic car policy.

More generally, the Motor Conference is closely involved in the preparation of experiments, and proper advice will therefore be given on general insurance matters. I can assure the hon. Member on that.

The hon. Member for Christchurch and Lymington asked me a number of questions about the county council's and district council's responsibility. The county council is the transport authority; it takes primary responsibility in these matters. The district councils will be represented on the working groups, so the district councils' point of view will be taken into account in the setting up of experiments. But the local authority power will rest with the county councils.

It is not just rural areas which are involved in the Bill. As my hon. Friend the Member for Consett said, the Bill is drafted in a fairly general way, although, of course, we are tackling rural areas in the first instance because the problem is most urgent there.

The hon. Gentleman instanced a limousine service—a transport operator wanting to operate a limousing service. I am not quite sure what he had in mind. Perhaps it was to operate around Heathrow.

Let me explain that it is a service which is mainly operated at airports in the United States. A large car or minibus picks up people when they get off a flight and takes them to various destinations—their hotel, home or whatever it may be. The vehicle does a little runabout and then comes back to the airport. It sits at the airport and picks up passengers as flights come in.

Clearly, that does not fall into the category of rural transport, and it is rural areas which we are considering for the first four experiments. None the less, it is certainly something which we could take into account, though the hon. Gentleman is right in supposing that any application for such an experiment would have to come through the relevant local authority. That is so simply because it is the local authority which has the function of looking after transport in an area, and it is the only body which can take an overall view.

The whole point of having experimental areas is to have a number of different types of experiments in order to take a comprehensive look at what would happen. One particular service may have an effect on other services. Therefore, it is right to take an overall look, and it is the local authority which is in the best position to do that.

With respect, the Bill does not use such phrases as "rural areas". It refers to

"the law relating to public service vehicles".
It would be a disadvantage if people were to get the impression that this Bill was only for rural areas, important though they are. Can the Minister make clear that he would welcome representations to the Department by county councils—if they have to come via that route and that route alone—which may cover the middle of cities or large towns?

I confirm that the Bill does not simply relate to rural areas. Experiments can be set up in any part of the country. The powers are defined in such a way that we can carry out experiments in any part of the country. But, as the hon. Gentleman said, suggestions for them should be routed through the county councils, which are the local authorities responsible for transport.

In relation to car-sharing schemes, is the Minister contemplating car-sharing applying to ministerial limousines, perhaps sharing them with members of the Opposition?

If members of the Opposition feel that they should have a car suitable to their position, that is an interesting idea which I am prepared to look at. I know that various ideas are being considered about how we can cut back on public expenditure in relation to Government car sharing. I personally do not have a Government car. I am one of the few Ministers who do not, because I take a moral view about it. I believe that public expenditure should be restrained. We should look at these matters extremely carefully before—

That is an interesting point which relates directly to the Bill. The Under-Secretary has just said that he takes a moral view of the situation. Does that mean that all the other Ministers who have cars take an immoral view?

Absolutely. I think the idea of having a car totally at one's disposal for the entire day is wholly immoral, and I universally condemn my colleagues in this respect. I am really surprised that they continue to use cars.

Order. I hope that we shall consider the Bill, and I hope that we are moving towards a conclusion.

I hesitate to say that I am setting a shining example in this respect. A better explanation may be simply that I came most recently into the Government and that a car was not available.

I want to bring the Minister back to the question of designation, before he finishes his speech. I think that I speak for a number of my hon. Friends when I say that we are not satisfied that this Bill is the way to tackle the problem.

Perhaps I can relate this question to the Minister's own constituency. Does he believe that, if there is a demand for a service for shoppers from a housing estate in Gateshead to the centre of Newcastle, the Tyne and Wear County Council is more likely to interpret the wishes of the people concerned than, say, the Townswomen's Guild or the local residents' and ratepayers' group?

Our point is that at the moment this is a bureaucratically-minded Bill. It assumes that the county councils know everything there is to know about trans port in their areas and that they shall be the only bodies to put up propositions to the Minister. Can the Minister give a glimmer of hope to those of us who feel that individuals and small groups of individuals are as likely as—if not more likely than—a county council to know their precise transport requirements? The county council may be as bureaucratic as any Government Department.

The hon. Gentleman seems determined to misunderstand me. On the working groups which are looking at the experiment and devising individual schemes, all the bodies which he has just mentioned—Women's Institutes, the parish councils, the operators, the unions, the WRVS, the consumer associations and all real community groups in any particular area—are represented. The whole point of a working group is that it should be as close to the grass roots as is possible, without getting people off the streets to serve on the groups.

I emphasise that this is a non-bureaucratic and not over-legal way of looking at things. It is an attempt to get outside the existing licensing arrangements and the existing scope of transport to look at things very much from the grass-roots point of view.

Will the hon. Gentleman now answer the question that I posed in my speech? With respect, he will not achieve anything by being rude to me and saying that I am deliberately trying to misunderstand. I asked him what happens if there is a disagreement. I cited the possibility—we are not saying that it will happen—that people in, say, part of Christchurch wanted a service and thought it an excellent idea and, all the grass-roots consultation having taken place, they put it up to the Dorset County Council, but the Dorset County Council decided that the application was frivolous or inappropriate and would not forward it to the Department of Transport. What would happen in that instance? Is there no route to Whitehall that people can take other than through the county council?

The working groups come forward with their proposals, which then go forward to the steering committee of which I am the chairman. That is the route by which any scheme comes forward. There is a balance there, I think, between the legitimate interests of the county council and the clearly expressed views of any other organisation which may be on the working group.

There is no way in which the county council can block an idea or stop people, if there is a sufficient number, from going forward. We have set up these arrangements precisely to get as far as possible schemes which people actually want and will use.

I share the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Consett that there is some doubt about whether some of the organisations which purport to represent ordinary people in a community have the right ideas or know what ordinary people will in practice use. I think that there is some reason to doubt that. We may well find that some of the schemes which are set up after consultation are in fact wrong in the sense that, perhaps, they are, for example, too reliant on volunteer work. But, in practice, some schemes which are not well thought of go very well. The point of having these experimental areas is to find out what people will use and what the consequences would be of the relaxing of licensing arrangements for a particular area, looking at every sort of transport in that area.

Blenkinsop, Mr. Arthur (Chairman)McDonald, Dr.
Adley, Mr.Moate, Mr.
Crowther, Mr. StanMorrison, Mr. Peter
Fowler, Mr. NormanPenhaligon, Mr.
Harper, Mr.Watkins, Mr. David
Horam, Mr.Weetch, Mr.
Lambie, Mr.

The hon. Member for Truro was out when I made some reply to his speech. I answered his point about insurance. He also stressed his opinion that local people know best, and I am glad to say that the Opposition took that point up. I am sure that he is right. I am also sure that the Government in Whitehall are not the right body to work out the best bus service out of Luxulyan or some of the other villages which the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

The Bill gives people more power locally to do what they want. That is the point of it. It relaxes the national licensing arrangements in particular cases. It is a step against big government and bureaucracy and in favour of letting local people decide what they want to do in transport. I am in favour of that, the Government are in favour of that, and it is absolultely right. The more we can get down to that level of decision making in transport, the surer we shall be to solve our problems.

Question put and agreed to.


That the Chairman do now report to the House that the Committee recommend that the Passenger Vehicles (Experimental Areas) Bill [Lords] ought to be read a Second time.

Committee rose at twenty-six minutes past Twelve o'clock.