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Buses (Licensing Laws)

Volume 931: debated on Wednesday 11 May 1977

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6.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport whether he has plans for relaxing licensing laws for buses.

25.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport whether he has plans for relaxing licensing laws for buses.

During the debate on rural transport on 2nd May, my right hon. Friend indicated that the forthcoming White Paper will include proposals for changes to the bus licensing system. Meanwhile, the Passenger Vehicles (Experimental Areas) Bill includes modifications to the present licensing law.

Is there any recognition by Ministers that the most efficient and effective form of public transport, particularly in rural areas, is not necessarily a heavily-subsidised 32-seater bus, and that there are other forms which should be allowed to show that they can produce the service that the public requires?

Yes, Sir. In the debate on rural transport, the hon. Member for Dorset, West (Mr. Spicer) made precisely that point. We are aware that subsidies are not the whole answer to the problem, although at the moment they are an inescapable part of it. If subsidies are sliced, as has been done in some parts, to the great detriment of rural bus services, there is a speedy effect on fares and the level of services. Some support is inescapable. Nevertheless, I agree that we must look anew at the responsibilities of the traffic commissioners and the licensing system.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that many of us from the rural areas will be pleased to have heard what he said? Will he recognise the extreme urgency of tackling this problem, because the lack of flexibility available to county councils makes their life difficult? Will he undertake to bring forward his proposals as early as possible, and give them the maximum possible flexibility, to tackle the question of rural transport?

We are anxious that local authorities should have the maximum power and flexibility to tackle these problems, which, fundamentally, are best solved by local people because they know them best. We accept that action is urgently needed.

Will my hon. Friend direct his attention to the number of serious accidents involving buses that have taken place in recent months? In the light of that figure, does he not agree that there must be no lowering of safety standards which would endanger the public or the employees?

I accept that point. The safety check must be preserved—that is accepted on both sides of the House. Indeed, the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) referred to it in his speech in the rural transport debate.

Is not the only reason why the licensing revisions of the Conservative Government are not on the statute book now that the incoming Government, in March 1974, disreputably scrapped proposals which, only a few months previously, they had supported when in opposition? The next Conservative Government will reintroduce these revisions—and, following the local elections, nothing is more certain than that there will soon be a Conservative Government.

The hon. Gentleman is indulging in some wishful thinking. I find his explanation of what the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton), who was the Minister then, was doing somewhat curious, to say the least. The fact is that the Conservative Government themselves had grave misgivings about their 1973 Bill, which itself was a heavily modified form of the consultation document, and even after Second Reading the right hon. Gentleman announced that he would have further consultations. All we got in three and a half years was the promise of more consultations. I assure the House that we will take some action.

Will my hon. Friend beware of allowing flexibility to destroy existing public services, particularly stage services? It would be folly to allow existing services to be destroyed, thus creating the transport desert to which the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) referred.

My right hon. Friend is right. The whole point of policy here must be to strike a balance between preserving existing stage services, including protecting them by the bus licensing system and adequate levels of subsidy, and getting a reasonable degree of flexibility whereby unconventional means of transport can be used in those areas where they are most right for people's needs.

Will the hon. Gentleman exert his considerable powers of persuasion on the large bus companies to try to get them to accept that it is far better to provide really cheap fares in the middle of the day than to run large buses which are completely empty?

I accept the hon. Gentleman's point. We shall be coming to this later when the hon. Member for Christchurch and Lymington (Mr. Adley) has a Question about the National Bus Company. I think that the hon. Gentleman is on to a very fair point. If we can utilise capacity in off-peak periods in a more imaginative way—this is true of the railways as well as buses—we can make some considerable progress.