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Bus Services

Volume 77: debated on Monday 15 April 1985

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6.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport what further representations he has received regarding the Transport Bill.

Since the publication of the Transport Bill at the end of January we have received around 800 letters and a number of petitions about various aspects of the policy.

If the Minister will not consider the widespread opposition to the Bill and drop it, will he at least give an assurance that no person who enjoys concessionary fares at present will be detrimentally affected by the passage of the Bill? Will he also assure the House that those employed in the industry will not find that their pay and conditions are worsened when the Bill becomes law?

Concessionary fares are a matter for local decision by locally elected people. The hon. Gentleman is already aware that it is not for the Government to dictate what pattern they choose to follow.

Is my hon. Friend aware that those who enjoy the meanest and most unsatisfactory of bus services are easy fodder for the distortions of the Oppostion, in particular since Labour councils have promised that when the Bill becomes an Act no financial support will be given by county councils to existing bus services? Is it not time for a more determined effort to be made to present the virtues of the bus policy nationwide so that people may be satisfied that their services, particularly in rural areas, are likely to be improved, not destroyed?

Ministers are undertaking a series of visits to explain the Government's policy and proposals in order to combat the widespread distrotion to which my hon. and learned Friend has referred. So widespread and so extensive is it in some parts of the country that local authorities have been spending not hundreds, not thousands, but in some cases over £100,000 of ratepayers' money on campaigns to distort and discredit the Government's proposals.

Is the Minister not aware that Conservative Members of Parliament have been telling those who are very concerned about losing their concessionary fares that they have nothing to worry about? The Minister seems to be peddling a new line from the Dispatch Box. Will he give a clear assurance that if the Transport Bill is enacted all bus operators will be required to preserve concessionary schemes in those areas which now operate them and that they will be no worse that existing schemes?

Two separate matters arise from this question: first, the scale of the concession; and, secondly, the operators through whom it is available. The Bill provides that concessions through operators will have to be available to all operators and not, as at present, be reserved to the municipal operator or to the other favoured son of the rating authority. As for the level of concessionary fares, I repeat the point that I made earlier: it is for the local authority to decide what it believes to be right in the light of its own local circumstances.

My hon. Friend has already said a little about the pension rights of the various bus operators' employees, but is he aware that there is great concern about pensions and that it must be a matter of principle for pension rights to be fully protected after the Bill is passed? Will he therefore say a little more about this matter?

It may be helpful if I say that I understand that the matter will be debated fully in the Committee examining the Bill. I am sure that all the more detailed points in which my hon. Friend is interested will be brought out then. It is for the National Bus Company to make the proposals which it believes to be appropriate in relation to its staff and their pensions. We fully accept that the position of the staff has to be protected.

As the Adam Smith Institute would appear to be the only organisation supporting the Transport Bill, will the Minister have another look at the 800 representations that he has had and heed the voices of more moderate groups such as the Women's Institute?

A number of groups, particularly those representing the consumer, have expressed support in principle for the Government's proposals. Moreover, the hon. Gentleman should be aware that there has been widespread misunderstanding and distortion as to what the Government's proposals actually envisage.

Will the Minister explain to the general public that, far from writing in safeguards either for those who work in the industry or for consumers who at present have concessionary fares, he is removing the few safeguards that exist? Why did he agree to remove from the Bill, more than two thirds of the way through the Committee stage, a safeguard which would have enabled the public to make representations to the traffic commissioners about the quality of the operators? Is that what the hon. Gentleman calls offering safeguards? Is he not just, as always in the Bill, seeking to perpetrate an enormous confidence trick on the public?

The hon. Lady knows perfectly well that what she is suggesting is not true. The position is that we removed, under pressure from my hon. Friends, a clause in the Bill which was otiose, unnecessary and repetitive, and the right of being heard by the traffic commissioners that remains.