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Bus Safety

Volume 77: debated on Monday 15 April 1985

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asked the Secretary of State for Transport what recent representations he has received concerning the safety of the public on transport following deregulation of buses.

Since the publication of the Transport Bill at the end of January we have received about 800 letters and a number of petitions about various aspects of the policy, including the implications for safety.

Is the Minister aware of the great concern of the general public and of workers in the industry over the great dangers that will result from poor maintenance following the privatisation of the buses? Do the Government intend to employ more staff to keep tabs on cowboy operators, who will flourish when the Bill is enacted?

There is always concern about safety standards. It is because of that concern that, quite apart from the Bill, we have been reviewing numbers and priorities for both vehicle and traffic examiners. I shall be having meetings about the issue later this week. The Government are already committed to making additional resources available for vehicle and traffic examination. Following deregulation, the quality of long-distance services has improved immeasurably. There is no reason why services cannot improve, irrespective of the operator, provided that they are supervised properly, and that will be done.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the safety standards of many municipal and public services leave much to be desired and that the steps that are being taken by herself and her ministerial colleagues will ensure that the safety standards of private operators in future will be an improvement on those which now exist in the public sector?

The comments of the chairman of the West Midlands traffic commissioners and others, which take into account the experience of private operators as against public and passenger transport executive operators, suggest that the private operator is generally no worse and no better than other operators. There is variability. In 1983, pass rates for private operators were about the same as the average pass rate but well above the rates of the PTEs and, at that time, of London Transport. I have no doubt that proper vehicle examinations annually and spot checks will ensure that safety can be as good as at present, if not better, and we shall ensure that it is improved.

Does the Minister agree that the present regulations will not be able to cope adequately with both the large number of companies and the small companies? Does she agree that if the regulations are inadequate the spot checks will be completely useless, no matter how many more people are put into the inspectorate?

I am aware of some concern about the regulations. I would review those regulations regularly in any case. Clause 31 of the Transport Bill, which is being considered in Standing Committee A, provides for the extension of the public service vehicles prohibition powers to those vehicles which are not for hire or reward. There are nearly 10,000 such vehicles. We are already doing what the hon. Gentleman asks.

Surely the Minister must acknowledge that there is growing concern about the fact that the deregulation of buses will result in a vast reduction in expensive maintenance services, especially in inner-city areas, and will be liable to cause breakdowns and accidents in busy city streets.

Just because the hon. Gentleman keeps on repeating his concern and keeps on whipping up concern among people who do not know the facts, he cannot expect—any more than I do—dead silence on the issue from the press. There is a need for improvements in maintenance standards, but that need is in no way restricted to private operators. We are in the business to ensure that the maintenance standards of all operators are improved.

Why are the safety requirements on carriage for hire and reward that are laid by the House on British Rail so much more stringent than those laid on coach operators?

In the past, more people—sadly, not as many today—chose to travel by British Rail, and I am sure that that aspect was considered in framing the original legislation. I have made it clear to the House this afternoon that the safety standards imposed on buses should not be lower than those imposed on British Rail. That is exactly what we are working for.

Did the Minister see the party political broadcast last week on behalf of the Conservative party? Does she agree that the bus shown in that broadcast does not operate in Hereford, despite the commentary? Is it a fact that one of the two passengers concerned is an active member of the Conservative party? Is it true that the other passenger admitted afterwards that she had never used a bus? Is it not disgraceful that the Conservative party should seek to mislead the country in this way? Bearing in mind this type of appalling conduct, how on earth is the House supposed to accept the hon. Lady's views on future safety standards?

I have sufficient confidence in my party not to have to be persuaded by party political broadcasts on its behalf. I did not watch the broadcast, but I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman did so. Conservatives and members of every other party, including many hon. Members, regularly travel by bus. There are others who do not travel by bus regularly, but do so at times. am sure that if the hon. Gentleman analysed the antecedents of some of the actors in Labour party political broadcasts he would find them wanting. The hon. Gentleman knows well enough from past debates and discussions that what I have said about safety is absolutely correct. We are not prepared to have safety standards that do not meet the regulations. We shall increase the staff by the number necessary when we know how many private operators will come forward. Their buses will need to be checked on an annual and spot-check basis.