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Clause 5

Volume 955: debated on Monday 31 July 1978

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Community Bus Services

Lords amendment: no. 1, in page 6, line 32, at end insert—

("(2A) A community bus service may extend to the provision of excursions and tours as defined by section 159 of the 1968 Act.")

3.34 p.m.

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

I understand that with this amendment we are also to take Lords amendments nos. 2, 3, 4, 7 and 25.

May I first explain this group of amendments? Amendment no. 1 allows community minibus services to be used for excursions and tours. Amendments nos. 2 and 4 are essentially paving amendments for the next Lords amendment, which is amendment no. 5 and which we are taking separately.

Amendments nos. 2 and 4, and ultimately amendment no. 5, allow community minibuses to be used for private hire. In practice, private hire and excursions and tours amount to more or less the same thing. The differences are mainly technical. I propose to make the substance of the case for Lords amendment no. 5 on this group of amendments. Therefore, I hope that we shall be able to deal with Lords amendment no. 5 fairly speedily later. This will lead to a more logical debate.

Amendment no. 7 is consequential and amendments nos. 3 and 25 deal with entirely separate subjects, to which I shall come later.

The main issue which is the substance of most amendments in this group and of Lords amendment no. 5 which follows separately, relates to the finances of the community bus service. Even with the economies that come from the use of volunteer drivers, experience has shown that revenue from the basic stage services, which it is the main purpose of the community bus to provide, is not enough to meet all the costs of running the vehicle, in particular the capital cost and depreciation. Subsidy from the county council will be needed and we have provided the necessary powers in clause 1(5). But that subsidy should be kept within reasonable limits, and existing community bus services have kept their overall deficit down by operating occasional excursions and tours for local people and by a certain amount of contract hire—for example to take the Women's Institute on an outing. The revenue they get from these two sources helps to subsidise the less remunerative but essential stage services, and these outings are in themselves a valuable means of enhancing the quality of life for isolated rural communities.

To this end, we make it clear for the avoidance of doubt that a community bus service can extend to the provision of excursions and tours. That is the purpose of amendment no. 1. In the new clause that we shall come to on use of community buses for contract work and the paving amendments nos. 2 and 4 we provide for the traffic commissioners in granting a road service licence or permit for a community bus service to authorise the use of the community bus as a contract carriage. That allows the second part of the additional usage. Without these provisions, the community bus would still have needed PSV licences for driver and vehicle alike to do excursions and tours or contract work and this would have undermined the licensing relaxation which is at the heart of what we are doing in this part of the Bill.

The other amendments to clause 5 and the amendments to clause 7 and schedule 2 are purely technical and provide for the avoidance of doubt that the vehicle disc referred to in subsection (5) of clause 5 has to be issued by the traffic commissioners and by no one else, and that regulations made under section 160 of the 1960 Act can cover the procedure governing applications for and issue of the disc. The disc is the visible sign that the use of the community bus is properly authorised by the traffic commissioners, and it is particularly important that there should be no doubt about its authenticity if the community bus is also to be allowed to operate for private hire.

These provisions are fully in accordance with the principle we have followed throughout of allowing as much flexibility as possible while maintaining adequate safeguards to prevent abuse and ensure that the appropriate safety standards are maintained. All the safeguarding provisions in clause 5 will apply equally to the use of the community bus for private hire under clause 6 and there are additional controls which allow the traffic commissioners, if necessary, to restrict the scope of private hire and which prevent the organisers from employing an additional vehicle solely for private hire work. Finally, the traffic commissioners must be satisfied before authorising the community bus to do private hire work that this
"is reasonable in all the circumstances with a view to financial support of the community bus service".
The essential point contained in this group of amendments is that a community bus service can augment its income, and in many cases the authorities are willing to do this by taking people on excursions and tours and by undertaking a certain amount of private contract hire. This is a sensible spelling out of what was always implicit in our intentions in respect of the community bus.

What discussions has the Minister had with the Confederation of Road Passenger Transport on this matter?

We have had discussions with the confederation on this subject. If the hon. Gentleman is not aware of those discussions, certainly one of his hon. Friends is aware of that fact. I think that we have consulted fairly fully on this matter—if not at the first stage, certainly at this stage. I hope that the House will agree to the Lords amendment.

I am grateful for what the Minister has said and I agree that we should also consider Lords amendment no. 5 while dealing with this group of amendments. Amendment no. 5 was taken with this group in another place. We are dealing essentially with two separate functions of the community bus services, though they have very much the same motivation.

We welcome the proposals. I accept that it was intended that excursions and tours should be covered by the Bill and the amendments now express that intention clearly in the Bill.

Licensing provisions in transport are potentially complicated. That will be a familiar argument to those who served on the Standing Committee, but, bearing in mind the considerable ramifications of the Bill, I suggest that after our consideration, we shall not have heard the last of it. So vague are some of its provisions that there will be considerable discussion and dispute about them.

The important aspect of the provisions relating to excursions and tours is the recognition that there is very little money in this form of transport. All of us who take an interest in transport, particularly rural transport and community bus services to transport minority groups, small populations and so on from one place to another, appreciate that in virtually every case there is very little money in it.

The amendments recognise that fact and keep public subsidy to a minimum. My hon. Friends and I very much approve of that.

I recognise, without turning round, the well-known and not so dulcet tones of my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow). It is always a comforting thought to know that there is such a voice behind one and I hope that it augurs well for our later discussions.

Public subsidy will be cut to a minimum and if the proposals in the Bill had been a little more adventurous, we could have hoped more positively that there need be no public subsidy at all. However, we welcome the provisions because they go in the right direction.

The uses to which the provisions relating to excursions and tours will be put are commendable in every way. We are dealing with outings of the Women's Institute, a village community or part of an urban community. These are very suitable uses of the Bill's provisions and in some ways it is surprising that we have had to wait until 1978—many years into the use of the motor car and public transport generally—before getting such simple provisions stipulated and we are able to meet what has seemed a blatantly obvious need for many years.

We welcome also the greater flexibility in transport particularly in country areas, that is provided by the amendments. We have been championing this for some time and all of us who are engaged in transport matters have been round the various courses for two years in the Transport (Financial Provisions) Bill in the last Session and in this Bill during the current Session. Throughout our discussions, my hon. Friends and I have championed greater flexibility and since these provisions help to that end, we agree with them.

3.45 p.m.

Amendment no. 5 deals with contract hire and we welcome that for much the same sort of reasons. In an intervention during the Minister' speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) asked about consultations with the Confederation of British Road Passenger Transport. We are dealing with potentially complicated matters and I wonder to what extent it is reasonable to expect us—as front-men to the Minister—to appreciate these aspects, particularly when they creep into a Bill—or charge into a Bill—at the Report stage in another place. That is a very late time for such provisions to be inserted, commendable as they may be.

The confederation is the most prominent body dealing with these matters in this country and it has voiced concern. It would have been better if we had considered this matter during the 20 elaborate sittings of the Standing Committee rather than having it bounced at us at this late stage. The Committee stage might have stretched to 21 sittings, but I am sure that the Minister would not have minded that.

Considerable changes in the normal licensing pattern are involved. This was raised in another place and has been taken up by the confederation with the Under-Secretary and the Secretary of State who were kind enough to see representatives of the confederation. The Under-Secretary has dealt with the detail of this matter because his has been the principal responsibility.

The relaxation of the PSV requirements in some cases and the sole reliance upon the road service licence is a departure about which the confederation is extremely concerned. It has put forward proposals which are, to say the least, complicated. I see the Minister nodding his head in sympathetic agreement. I hope that he will intervene in the debate to tell us that he has heard from the confederation about the proposals and that he will watch the development of these departures in the licensing system. The PSV requirements have been important for many years and their relaxation is not unimportant. That provision should have been put into the Bill at an earlier stage.

The vexed subject of the traffic commissioners has concerned us all, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne, during each stage of the Bill. The commissioners are singled out, in regard to contract hire, as the main body to protect the Government's overriding policy, which we believe needs questioning and occasional relaxation, of an overwhelming protection of public bus services. The traffic commissioners, being the retired generals they may be, have been chosen to perform this task. The safeguards that have been provided are consistent with the Government's overall policy, but, again, the commissioners are brought in as the body which will not only grant the road service licences, but will supply the safeguards. Amendment no. 5 deals with the various safeguards that the commissioners may recommend if they wish.

I do not know whether I am up the right tree on my next subject, but I believe that I am. With the safeguards expressly included in the Bill by way of a new clause and applying to contract carriage, I am slightly confused about why they do not also apply to excursions and tours. There is a very narrow borderline. In many cases, a contract carriage will be an excursion or tour.

All the safeguards are to be implemented by our mighty traffic commissioners on a regional basis. If they are to do that for contract carriage, why cannot they do it for excursions and tours? Surely exactly the same criteria apply to excursions and tours as to contract carriage. The excursion tour or contract carriage will be for the financial support of a service. In other words, they will minimise public subsidy. The commissioners have to be satisfied
"with a view to the financial support of the service".
It is to be wondered whether the commissioners necessarily form the most satisfactory body to conduct the licensing. From public service vehicles that operate on the boundaries of one council into the boundaries of another, from county to county or nationally, we come to the small bus that is operated, for example, by a village or a community. The commissioners operate regionally and they know the mighty pattern of public transport in the regions, but are they best fitted to decide whether "X" village is to have a bus service and to implement the safeguards? We are left wondering how the system will work out and whether this is yet another example of verbiage being poured into the Bill that at the end of the day will not make the least difference.

The commissioners operate regionally and they are rather remote from the small operators. In practice how can they decide other than that the scheme that is put before them is for the financial support of the service? Indeed, it is possible to say that the service will not be profitable anyway and that it is bound to be in need of financial support. I hazard a guess that many services will need public subsidy in spite of the provisions contained in the Bill and in spite of the fact that they are running excursions and operating contract hire where they can.

The various words of wisdom spoken by my hon. Friends in Committee about the commissioners are relevant to the amendments. Is there a case for local authorities to take over the powers that we are discussing? The cost of going to the commissioners if there is a dispute is such that it would put the unfortunate scheme out of business before it began. That is apart from the remoteness of the commissioners and the fact that they operate regionally.

The local authorities must be considered seriously as being the most suitable licensing authorities to deal with these matters. I feel that I have been speaking long enough to put forward the basic arguments of the Opposition.

I am flattered to hear encouraging cries from my hon. Friends but to delay the House any longer would not be fit.

The proposals before us are welcome as far as they go. They are not radical They do not embrace a wide enough spectrum. They do not deal with certain problems that have been tryingly obvious for many years. For example, they do not bear on commercially operated minibus services that might be operated by local garage owners. They might have minibuses that are used for school transport in the mornings and they might be available to be used for outings later in the day. The Opposition have always had an open mind and, dare I say, a radical attitude to the problems of transport in the rural, specialised and needy areas. It seems that the Government are coming towards us, and we welcome them. May they keep on coming until they achieve a realistic policy.

Order. It has already become clear that the House wishes also to discuss amendment no. 5. At a later stage I shall call amendment no. 5 formally.

If there is criticism from the Opposition that the amendments do not go far enough, there is a case for the House to consider the other side of the coin before it turns its attention to undertakings such as community buses. Some of the propositions contained in the amendments contain obvious dangers.

I shall read a letter that I received from the Association of District Councils. The letter is headed
"Transport Bill: the use of community buses for excursions and tours".
These are technical amendments and I seek some assurances from my hon. Friend on matters of safety. He assured us in Committee that such matters were ever in his mind, but the Association writes:
"I am writing to you in the hope that you will he prepared to express when the House receives the Transport Bill from the Lords in its amended form the Association's concern about the possible ramifications of the amendment adopted in that House which allowed community bus services to be extended to cover the provision of excursions and tours.
The ADC's primary concern is to ensure the safety of passengers, particularly as regards the competence of the driver. We believe that it would be dangerous to invite the possible serious consequences following the use on such services of a driver who does not meet the high standards of fitness normally associated with PSV licensed drivers, who would normally be used on licensed excursions and tours. This danger would be especially apparent where, for example, (i) regular volunteer drivers are not available and an inexperienced substitute is inveigled into taking over, or (ii), an unfamiliar vehicle is substituted for the regular one just prior to a journey with, say, manual rather than automatic gearbox. Passengers and others could be put at risk in these circumstances. There have been several well reported cases of deaths arising out of minibus accidents so far this year and although we are not aware of the inquest results in any of these cases, we would urge extreme caution as many drivers will undoubtedly have a higher opinion of their ability to control a heavily loaded minibus than is justified. The EEC rules on drivers hours would not apply and there is a possibility of a driver, having worked all day, then taking out a minibus that he could drive all night."
I have quoted the letter in full because it raises some serious matters. I hope that my hon. Friend will assure the House that these serious matters are fully noted.

In Committee the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) was even further to the right in his opinions than his Front-Bench colleagues. The amendments seek to broaden the main provisions that we discussed in Committee. It may be a slight broadening, but some of us do not know what the ramifications will be. In my area there are complaints about the bus services. I receive letters complaining about infrequent services and buses not appearing. Opposition Members say "All hail to the amendments and the general provision. Everybody can flood on to the market and the drain on the general taxpayer's pocket can be stopped."

I could run a bus service in my constituency without being an entrepreneur of any great expertise. I would lay on minibus services to neighbouring villages. I would provide coach services to bring in steel workers from the villages in the morning and I would have one or two contracts with the county council to take children to school. I would have some other occupation for the rest of the day, or I would sit with my feet up and enjoy a nice little income.

What would happen to the service in my village? What would happen to all those who live in the village who wish to go into town to do their shopping? What would happen to the old people who want to go into town to get their prescriptions? It is a fact that we have fewer post offices. We have gone down that road so far that people are getting very bad services.

4.0 p.m.

The Government have referred to measures that they are taking to try to improve the situation—for example, by giving grants to county councils. Many of those county councils—my own in particular—have submitted plans for subsidies to bus services. They are mainly Conservative-controlled councils. But, having received money from the Government, they have not paid it out in grants. They have said "What good boys are we. We were elected on the promise that we would keep down the rates. That is what we are doing." Therefore, they are using the money that we have made available for grants for transport services for other purposes.

I am concerned that we should provide as good a service as possible to the people. Because of the changing pattern of rural life, fortunately more people now have cars. But there are fewer people in rural areas, and many still cannot afford cars. Therefore, they need to take advantage of what services are available. The hon. Member for Eastbourne, who has a rural constituency, nods. He knows that village shops and post offices are closing. People now need to get into the towns more than ever before for all kinds of specialist services, many of which are not available in rural areas.

Many transport services are uneconomic. One of my hon. Friends told me about a bus service which served one particular village—a service which was uneconomic and made a loss. Some good people got together, had meetings in the village hall, and arranged to put on a minibus service. They found two retired gentleman to run it. Everyone was delighted. The community was going into action to serve itself. The local bus company opted out of providing the service. All went well to begin with, but what is often entered into with enthusiasm at the first flush is not always sustained. After they had been running the service for a few months and it got round to the winter and it was a question of getting up early in the morning, taking vehicles out on the ice and snow and coming home late at night—I have no criticism of these people—they said "After all, we are retired. We cannot keep it up. We have bitten off more than we can chew." So that service came to an end. Did the bus company come back with a service? No, it did not. There was bitterness and ill feeling in the village because what had been a marvellous concept had not worked out.

Therefore, I am less than enthusiastic about the ramifications of some of the main ideas in the Bill. Although the amendments, in so far as they are technical, make the achieving of these objects easier, I still have my doubts. Therefore, I ask my hon. Friend, in reply, to make specific reference to the safety standards that will operate in these areas. Does he consider that the legislation with the amendments is sufficiently tight? Despite the wide gulf that separates the hon. Member for Eastbourne and me in these matters, I hope that he will not express the view that we should tamper with the safety aspects. I am glad to see him nod. Those who take vehicles out should have the appropriate licences and skills. As the ADC memorandum stated, there should be no possibility that, after a hard day's work, a person will take out a vehicle and finish up driving it all night. Otherwise, the riposte will come back to this House as a result of tragedies.

I nail my colours to the mast. We live in a changing society. However, I do not believe that the amendment will achieve a great extension of services to people in rural areas. I think that there will be a creaming off of the better areas, thus rendering it more difficult for the nationalised bus undertakings and other companies to provide any kind of comprehensive service covering whole areas. We may find ourselves going down that path. Therefore, I urge the House to watch the implications of this measure.

I do not apologise for taking up the time of the House. It would be an ill day if this important measure went through without someone perhaps putting a contrary view by pointing to the implications not only for bus services, but for railway services.

One of the misfortunes which afflicts Speakers of the House of Commons is the tradition that they do not attend our debates upstairs.

I was about to pay tribute to the Secretary of State, the Under-Secretary of State and the hon. Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe (Mr. Ellis) before paying tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) and Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris), because the debate upstairs was characterised by great vigour of expression upon either side.

I express my ready agreement with the hon. Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe that, whatever we may do to liberalise the licensing laws, one precondition should be that standards of safety for buses and standards of skill for bus drivers are not only maintained but, if possible extended. Therefore, I find myself somewhat unusually in wholehearted and enthusiastic agreement with the hon. Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe.

We need to note at the outset of the debate the virtue and merit of another place. We heard the Under-Secretary of State no less, in the presence of the Secretary of State, actually recommend that the House should agree with the amendments suggested by another place.

I am delighted to see the hon. Member for Birmingham, Handsworth (Mr. Lee) in his place. He will not, to our sad loss, be in his place much longer, but he is in his place today. That is why it gives me particular pleasure to pay tribute to another place—a place to which the hon. Member for Handsworth has not always given the warmest praise in the past, as he would always recognise.

One of the marvels of the past four and a half years has been the way in which the Treasury Bench has in some respects moved under the influence of my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield towards the concept of a free market in the provision of transport. No one who reads the Transport Bill—the House will know what an impartial reader of the Bill I am—could fail to recognise in clause 5 a substantial measure of liberalisation. No one could fail to see in this clause, which permits a community bus to operate in circumstances in which today it cannot, the mind and the heart or part of the mind and part of the heart of my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Cold- field. He is entitled to claim part authorship of clause 5 and more than part authorship of the amendments from another place which have been commended to us by the Under-Secretary of State. Why do we so warmly welcome the amendments? It is because they liberalise still further the reluctant steps taken by the Transport Department.

In preparation for this debate, and possibly in common with the hon. Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe, yesterday I made a journey on a community bus—the first that I have made. The bus service is well known both to the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary of State. It is called the Cuckmere Community Bus, but on the Sabbath it is called the Rambler bus.

I caught the bus in company with my two sons at Friston Pond. I made the journey to the "Horse and Groom" at Polegate. The cost of that journey for two minors and their aged father was 50p. Others were also travelling upon the bus. It was not like a Southdown bus on a Sunday. This bus was half full. It was a dreadful day. It was pouring with rain in Sussex, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Prime Minister will be able to testify—and as will the Secretary of State, who was staying at West Wittering. That is in West Sussex, whereas I was in East Sussex, so I was closer to the Prime Minister than the Secretary of State.

I have no doubt that it was raining.

The purpose of my recounting to the House my first expedition in a community bus is to illustrate that these bus services in rural areas are of the greatest value and importance to the travelling citizen. I hope that our acceptance of the amendments will mark the start of a recognition by the House of the need to follow the lead which the Government have set in clause 5 for a progressive and radical liberalisation of our licensing laws.

When the Under-Secretary of State advised the House to accept the amendments, I had the impression that he was doing so with a certain amount of reluctance. We know his views. He is one of the brightest stars upon the Treasury Bench, but he has to glance over his shoulder and look below the Gangway. I exclude from the term "below the Gangway" the hon. Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe and the successor to Lord Glenamara, the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Mr. Cowans). There are Luddites below the Gangway. There are those who do not recognise that the liberalisation of the licensing laws is the greatest service that the House can render.

How far would the hon. Member go with the liberalisation of the licensing laws? I am sure that many of his hon. Friends would not favour the abolition of the licensing system for certain types of business.

I nail my colours firmly to the mast. I answer directly the question put to me by the hon. Member for Preston, North (Mr Atkins). I should happily abolish the traffic commissioners and all their works with one exception. I should allow their residue, or a new body, to insist that nobody and no company could operate a public transport system unless two crucial criteria were met—that he or she who drove the bus had the necessary qualifications and that the bus itself complied with the strictest safety standards.

I am pleased to see that my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson) has arrived, because I have sat at his feet on these matters. He and I believe that the best interests of the travelling public will be served if there is a free market in the provision of bus services, subject only to those two crucial safety elements.

4.15 p.m.

Would the hon. Member apply the abolition of the licences to other types of vehicle?

It would be out of order for me to deal with lorries. We are now dealing with buses. I have enunciated my views about licensing for buses. I would allow anybody to run a bus provided that the driver was capable of driving and that the vehicle complied with the strictest safety regulations. No one could accuse me of having fudged the answer to that question.

What would my hon. Friend do about buses running along narrow country lanes?

One of the marvels of mankind is that the magic of the market place will operate even in country lanes. We should allow motor cars to pick up passengers. We should allow—as we have in Cuckmere—volunteer drivers to serve communities, such as those now working for the WRVS and other voluntary organisations who would be only too pleased to drive villagers into the market town. That is to be permitted to a limited extent under the Bill. In a small way, it was permitted in the Minibus Act. If we could go further along that road. we should be able to provide citizens in rural areas with the means which they lack today of getting to towns and larger villages. That is why the Bill is so important. That is why the amendments are so important. They show that the two Ministers have overcome the protests from below the Gangway and recognised that liberalisation is required.

In the past 30 years there has been a dramatic increase in the regulatim and control of bus services. That experiment has failed. The Bill, and the acceptance by the Government of the amendments, are a modest recognition of that failure. That is why my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster was right to welcome the amendments.

We have a further hope. We hope that the partial recognition of the need for liberalisation will be extended. We hope that those of us who are on the libertarian and radical wing of the Tory Party will be able to carry with us to further triumphs the Ministers who sit on the Treasury Bench—although sadly, only for the three days that remain in the Session.

It is remarkable to hear these antediluvian arguments. which I thought had been killed on both sides of the House, about the free play of market forces in transport. There may well be need for that free play in many aspects of economic life, but in transport it is a certain way to destroy regular stage services.

The history of transport, before nationalisation and since, seems to indicate this, because the small operators existing with the free market forces have been mopped up by the bigger operators in the interests of economy. As the public service transport services have become increasingly more expensive and because they have been expected to run regular services, even at times when there is not a great demand for them but as a great service to the community, and because these extraordinary expenses cause public transport to be a greater economic problem than any other sphere of economic activity, it has been necessary to rationalise transport services. Because of this, the smaller operators, operating under free market conditions, have had to give up and their businesses have been taken over by bigger concerns.

This concentration has gone on. Eventually, the great majority of this country's bus services have come under the public sector, because private enterprise could not run those services at a profit.

The problem is that if one goes back to the early stages and allows a private operator who has retired, perhaps, or who has another income, to operate a service during a period when he can take the cream of the traffic, during the rush hour, for instance, or perhaps for special excursions or for contract hire, eventually it means the erosion of the regular services which are provided for the whole community throughout the day.

There is a great danger in this. We must remember that some of the losses of the public transport services are mopped up because they can provide vehicles for excursions and for contract hire. It is for that reason that I support the views expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe (Mr. Ellis). We are not very doctrinaire about this. We accept the fact that community buses should be allowed contract and excursion work. However, we are asking the Minister to ensure that the losses which are reduced in their undertaking will not increase the losses of the public service vehicle undertakings. This can easily happen.

We know, for instance, that it may well be that public service operators have provided excursions and buses which on the way to the destination would have gone to some of the outlying villages and picked up and deposited at the end of the excursion. The services which they operate from the little market town may be eroded if there are operators in the hamlets who run bus services independently. If because of the excursion and contract work of the community buses, similar work is reduced by the public service transport operator, this may mean an increase in his losses. It may well also mean a reduction in the services, and sometimes the total annihilation and destruction of the services, as has happened in the past.

This has happened, of course, quite naturally when people have clubbed together in using a car to take them to a certain destination either for work or for pleasure.

Would not the annihilation of a loss-making service actually produce a net saving, or, indeed, a profit for the other operator? Therefore, would not the hon. Member compensate someone else?

The fact is that if an operator loses this trade, his losses are increased. If the losses are increased, either a greater subsidy is required—let us remember that the community buses are subsidised—or the operator reduces his services. If this should undermine his position so much that he has to cease the services, the communities will be worse off than previously because people will have to wait for certain hours on certain days before they can travel where they wish to travel. This is a great inconvenience. Already many rural areas have worse public transport services than they had 100 years ago. This is because the annihilation of those services has followed the increasing cost of transport, which has occurred through excessive competition under free market forces.

I have spoken for longer than I intended. However, I hope that the Minister will ensure that the extra powers that are being given to the community bus services will not erode the public service undertakings that are doing a job under difficult conditions.

After listening to the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow), I must say that one of the things that I shall miss when I am no longer a Member of the House is not hearing the most engaging and rather charming way in which he puts over the most extraordinary Right-wing opinions. When listening to the hon. Member, I was rather reminded of a remark of Hugh Dalton, who once said that there were some supporters of extreme private enterprise who did not believe in traffic lights because they interfered with the law of supply and demand.

Certainly the hon. Member's attitude seemed to be a logical extension of that when he was answering his hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Costain). I should not have thought that the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe was regarded as having very much in common with those of us below the Gangway on the Labour Benches. He raised a perfectly reasonable question about the social implications of the misuse of roads. The hon. Member for Eastbourne brushed him off in just the same way as he would brush us off.

I am tempted to divide the House on this amendment. It seems to me that the Government have engaged in a bit of sleight of hand. They have slipped in a rather important provision or, rather, have allowed the Lords to slip it in and have acquiesced in it. I confess that I was not paying particular attention to what was going on in the other place. I do not know whether these amendments were carried against the Government or were accepted by the Government in the other place. It is whispered to me that this is a Government amendment—which makes it even worse. It is not even as if the Government had accepted the amendment from another source because they feared that they would be defeated if they did not accept it. We shall certainly need to know certain answers before we can allow this to go through without some sort of challenge.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe (Mr. Ellis) made mention of one question. It is all very well for a number of people, in a first flush of social enthusiasm, to provide a service which apparently fills the gap in the public service provisions, but that enthusiasm may wane when the difficulties of winter or, perhaps, the tedium of sustained effort, or perhaps financial difficulty, render it more difficult. If in the meantime, as a result of temporary competition, the public service—which is being rather painfully maintained, perhaps, in circumstances in which, because of dispersal of population over wide areas, it is difficult to make it economically viable—is forced into further retrenchment of services, one ends up in a worse situation after all.

I wish that those who believe in a competitive private enterprise would tell us what happens when the various competitors have been knocked out of the ring. We know that through the weakness of Labour Governments or through strong periods of Conservative government private operators have been allowed to enter the field. Charter air operators have had the picking of the airways. It is interesting to observe that Sir Freddie Laker, who after all appears to be one of the heroes of the Tory Party, has conceded that there are limits to the usefulness of the type of operations in which he himself is—at present, at any rate—a pretty conspicuous operator.

4.30 p.m.

Will my hon. Friend tell us a little more about what is intended in terms of the remit of the traffic commissioners? Is it expected to be a condition of licensing that a new operator will guarantee use of the service for a set period of years? Is that the sort of thing that the traffic commissioners will be expected to demand of an applicant before granting a licence? If not, may we know what is meant in clause A(2) by the use of the phrase
"on a regular basis for the purposes of the service"?

I am sure that in his anxiety to be wholly evenhanded between the operators who are subsidised by the State and those who make their own way the hon. Gentleman would not wish to impose on anyone conditions more onerous than would apply to the public transport system.

No, I do not think I would. but I should like to know how long the service would operate. I should like to know whether it was going to be merely a flash in the pan. As regards public transport services, they have to bear the heat and burden of the day of non-viable routes. This is only natural, because we expect that rural areas should be provided with services which are taken for granted in the towns. It is perfectly reasonable that we should demand to see the colour of the money of those coming forward with these proposals.

No, I will not at the moment. I am addressing my remarks to the Minister. The hon. Gentleman is another Poujade. He can make his own speech in a moment. He need not get so excited. He need not wave his arms quite so excitedly. I am addressing my remarks to the Manifesto group who form the Department of Transport.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Surely the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hansworth (Mr. Lee) is supposed to be addressing his remarks to you and not to any other body.

I think that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Handsworth (Mr. Lee) has allowed his enthusiasm to run away with him. The Chair belongs to no group.

I am obliged to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. That was a piece of pedantry: the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) knew full well what I meant. My remarks are addressed for the hearing of the Minister and the Under-Secretary, if they are minded to address themselves to the subject.

Subsection (3) of new clause A says:
"The licence or permit shall not be granted with an authorisation under subsection (1) unless the commissioners are satisfied that it is reasonable in all the circumstances with a view to financial support of the service."
That seems to be an unexceptionable term, if only one knew what it meant. It seems to be tantamount to saying "How long is a piece of string?" May we have some more precise indication of what is intended? There is not a large body of authoritative case law in this aspect of the work of the traffic commissioners. The minibus service is a fairly recent innovation and, therefore, to some extent we at large in matters of traffic commissioners' case law.

There is limitation as to the number of persons involved. It must be at least six and not more than 16. To some extent this invariably provides some indication of the size of vehicle. It would have been helpful if there had been some indication with regard to physical size, having regard to the fact that many roads in rural areas, even to this day, are not very wide. As the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe said in his intervention in the speech of the hon. Member for Eastbourne, safety arises not only in the sense of the competence of the operator and the vehicle's roadworthiness. The size and the use of the vehicle on roads which are inappropriate because of the narrowness of carriageway are factors which have a bearing on road safety and on the question of accident prevention and hazards.

Unless I receive some very good answers to these questions, the Lords amendment will not go through with quite the murmur of unanimity that I think the Minister expected.

I had not intended to intervene, but it has been made necessary for me to do so by the curious reluctance of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Handsworth (Mr. Lee) to give way and let me make one or two simple points and I hope that the House will not mind if I detain it for a few moments.

What worries me about the hon. Gentleman's attitude to these matters is that he enters the Chamber in the most orthodox of garbs and propounds the most unorthodox of opinions. He has been doing so for a long time. I do not know who will take his place in this no doubt necessary role.

The hon. Gentleman seems to have some extraordinary ideas on the subject of competition and the position which should be accorded to the public sector above all. He has some very odd ideas as to what actually has happened in some areas of rural bus services. If it is of interest to him—it may not be, but it should certainly educate him—I could take him to a part of the country not 50 miles from here where over 15 years ago the public service operator abandoned the loss-making service and left a number of local communities with no bus service. There was no question of the operator being forced by the traffic commissioners to continue the service. There was no power in the traffic commissioners to force the operator to do any such thing. It would be ludicrous to suggest that they had any such power.

As I was the local councillor at the time and the villagers wanted a bus service, we broke a few rules and we hired a bus. We were persecuted by the inspectors, so we used the church bus for a while. That was persecuted by the inspectors. Then a very public-spirited local citizen obtained for himself a public service vehicle licence and a bus and ran a community bus service, in effect, over a considerable mileage of the routes which had been abandoned by the public service operator. I am happy to say that that service is still running. I do not know how the gentleman concerned, who is a busy consultant psychiatrist at one of the local hospitals, manages to do this. It is a considerable testimony to what can be done by the private sector and by voluntary effort coming in and picking up the bits when a public service operator has completely abandoned local communities.

I do not want anything to happen under the Bill or under the Lords amendments which will be likely to make such an event more difficult in the future. What concerns me about certain provisions in the amendment and about certain provisions in the Bill is that if competition is to be intensified against the marginal operator—the private operator who has come in to pick up a service and who has been running it on a shoestring for a long time, perfectly safely, but not necessarily very profitably—that will not necessarily be to the public advantage. Therefore, I hope that whatever happens the private sector will not be subjected to unfair competition.

I do not know whether the hon. Member was present at the time I made my speech. He is now making exactly the point that I made, except that he is now making it for the smaller entrepreneur whereas I was making it for the larger bus companies. This is what we all fear.

It is always a matter of pleasure and surprise to me to find myself agreeing with people whose views I do not know. I am correspondingly delighted to find that the hon. Member would have carried me with him in my absence. I think that there is room for unease on this question and I shall be interested to. hear what the Minister has to say about it.

By leave of the House. may I speak again? It is not the usual custom for a Minister to wind up a debate on a Lords amendment as well as to open it, but in view of what has been said on both sides of the House I think that I should say a few words.

First, I respond to my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe (Mr. Ellis), who asked for an assurance about safety. I agree with him absolutely that safety standards must not slip. That is a view which has been advanced by hon. Members on both sides throughout our debates on community minibus services.

Community minibuses will in fact be more restricted in the journeys which they may undertake than are minibuses operating under permits under the Minibus Act. We shall ensure that the essential safety requirements will be plainly set out in the regulations to be made for these buses. The drivers will have to be over 21 years of age and have a current full, not provisional, driving licence. The vehicles themselves will have to meet the safety elements of the existing public service vehicle regulations. Moreover, we shall be producing a booklet giving advice on the setting up of community minibus schemes, and in that booklet we shall recommend the organisers to enlist the professional assistance of their local bus operators in selecting suitable drivers.

I was asked by the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) as well as by my hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Handsworth (Mr. Lee) and Preston, North (Mr. Atkins) for an assurance about the effect of community minibuses on existing stage services. We come here to the whole point of putting the operation of community minibuses under the aegis of the traffic commissioners. Much to the chagrin of the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow), this essential safeguard remains, and the traffic commissioners, in deciding whether to grant a permit or licence for a community minibus, will have regard to the effect of the community minibus on the operations of any existing operators, whether they be large subsidiaries of the National Bus Company or small, marginal operators such as those to which the hon. Member for Woking referred.

If there is likely to be any creaming-off effect on those other services, the traffic commissioners will take that into account and may in certain circumstances not grant a permit. That is why the hon. Member for Eastbourne wants to abolish them, but my view, which, I think, has support on both sides of the House—the hon. Gentleman's view has the support of only a very restricted part of the House, if I may say so, without being unfair— is that we should keep the traffic commissioners.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hands-worth asked precisely what was meant by the words in subsection (3)—
"unless the commissioners are satisfied that it is reasonable in all the circumstances with a view to financial support of the service."
The point is that many of these community minibus schemes, although they may have volunteer drivers, will not be able to support themselves exclusively out of their fares on their normal stage carriage operations, and they may therefore from time to time hire themselves out to, say, an old-age pensioners' club or a Women's Institute for the purpose of excursions. This will add to their income and make the service more readily viable.

To the extent that minibus schemes are able to do that, the service will be more likely to pay its way and there will accordingly be a smaller subsidy demanded from the county council, and it is likely that more minibus schemes will be brought into being if a smaller subsidy is required for any particular service.

The traffic commissioners will therefore look into the finances of the community minibus in question and decide whether they should allow it to indulge in such excursions or private contract service to help meet its costs, which will be minimised in any event by the use of volunteer drivers.

One cannot be more specific in the legislation than that. The traffic commissioners will look at the particular circumstances of community minibuses in deciding whether to allow that additional facility.

What about the length of time to which a would-be operator would commit himself?

I think that the traffic commissioners will have a general remit to keep the service under review, and if they feel that this aspect is in any way being abused they will, I am sure, take that into account

Next, I was asked about the size of minibuses. I inaugurated a new minibus service at the end of last year in a part of Devon. If my lion. Friend the Member for Handsworth knows that part of the country, he will be aware how narrow are the roads and how high are the hedges. The minibus in question, which was of the maximum size, negotiated those roads quite satisfactorily. Therefore, if a minibus can manage roads of that character, other such buses will, I am sure, successfully negotiate most roads in the country

I believe that the sort of minibus which we are talking about is well tailored to the type of road we find in the more remote parts. I hope, indeed, that manufacturers of community minibuses will be able to standardise now and adopt a pattern which will enable their buses to be produced rather more cheaply so that community minibus operators or county councils, as the case may be, can buy them more cheaply.

4.45 p.m.

The hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris) asked me for an assurance about the way we propose to bring in the provisions regarding private hire. He pointed out that the Confederation of British Road Passenger Transport had advocated a rather different way of approaching this matter, a way which would have meant that we did not have this debate at all because we would not need these Lords amendments but could proceed under existing legislation. However, we felt that it was more straightforward to make quite explicit what the Government intended instead of achieving our objective by encouraging operators to put themselves outside the existing restrictions on private hire and thus become subject to the road service licensing provisions, which was the alternative way that the confederation put forward.

We believe that ours is the better way, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall watch developments—I think that that was his phrase—and if we turn out to be wrong we can certainly look at the matter again, or some future Government can look at it again. At the moment I think it right to make explicit what we intend and to operate in an open way rather than encourage people to break regulations and thus come under a different technical part of the Bill.

I believe that these provisions are balanced, and certainly, as I judge the tenor of the debate today, they seem to accord with the general spirit on both Front and Back Benches on both sides. They represent a balanced approach to the serious problems which we have in remote rural areas, and I am sure that they will therefore commend themselves to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

We come now to Lords amendments nos, 2, 3 and 4, to be moved formally. In addition there is also Lords amendment no. 5, which Mr. Speaker indicated should be dealt with in the same grouping. Have I the leave of the House to put the Question on all four altogether?

Lords amendments nos. 2 to 5 agreed to.