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New Clause 1

Volume 126: debated on Monday 1 February 1988

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Coach Services

`In section 199(d) of the principal Act, for the words "or railway passenger vehicle" there shall be substituted the words "railway passenger vehicle or advertised, timetabled road passenger coach service with serving staff.".'.—[Mr. Roger King.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The purpose of the new clause is to bring up to date the position of a new branch of transportation—inter-city road passenger coach services—which is left out in the cold, in that it is unable to offer for sale alocholic refreshment on its vehicles.

I have looked at section 199(d) of the principal Act to see whether exemption from the licensing laws enjoyed by railways, aircraft and ships could be extended to road passenger vehicles on scheduled services with staff on board.

8.15 pm

One of the greatest successes of the Government since 1979 has been their policy of deregulation. The passenger coach industry was one of the first to be deregulated. It has enjoyed extraordinary success as it has developed into a formidable system, with thousands of services being provided throughout the length and breadth of the country.

When the principal Act was devised in 1964, this type of service did not exist. Coach services were in their infancy and were not integrated into a national system. But now they are, and they can be seen on our roads system, operating to the requirements of the passengers whom they serve.

It is a national system; it is sophisticated and respectable. It offers a highly competitive service compared with other modes of transport. It has been sufficiently competitive to force the railways and airlines into competition. In turn, they have reflected, with their improved services, the greater desire of customers to use them.

Our legislation has opened up the service of road transport to a wide new market. Although coach services cannot compete directly on time, they offer good comfort and a much cheaper service. The latest coaches are not remotely like the traditional football charabancs of the past. They are very sophisticated vehicles, with double-deck construction, air conditioning, aircraft-style seats, video cassette machines, toilets and hostess services. Such service has transformed the principle of coach services. The customer has the highest level of comfort on board, and food is also available.

Coach services at present are denied the opportunity to sell alcoholic refreshment, which should be put right. One can take drink on board the coach and the operator can give drink away. There is no reason why coach operators should not be allowed to sell drinks on their vehicles. Other modes of transport are allowed to do so.

I have been in correspondence with my hon. Friend the Minister to explain why this new clause should be agreeable to him. He has been kind enough to reply, and it seems that there are one or two obstacles that the Home Office and certainly the police find unacceptable. First, there is the worry about football hooliganism. We all agree that we should combat the evils of football hooliganism, which often arises as a direct result of excessive alcoholic refreshment. That problem has not been created by intercity scheduled coach services any more than by inter-city rail services. If we are to ban the consumption of alcohol on a scheduled coach, we must ban alcohol on a scheduled train. It is often going to the same place as an ordinary road coach. To say that a coach operator, operating a timetable scheduled service, attracts football hooliganism is to say that British Rail suffers from the same problem, which it does not.

Is not most football hooliganism caused by young louts taking drink on board? I have some sympathy with my hon. Friend, but would there not be the same problem?

Scheduled inter-city coach services have been with us for a number of years. There is no evidence that football supporters use those services. It is a scheduled service travelling from point A to point B, not to football grounds. However, the problem might occur with private coach operators. The Government have been keen to eliminate that problem by extra policing at football grounds. The problem cannot be laid at the door of scheduled coach services. If it were, it would have been self-evident in the services already provided.

The Home Office is equally worried about an inebriated passenger on a coach presenting a danger to the driver — hitting him on the head and causing an accident. However, that could happen if he takes his own alcohol on board. The provision of a hostess or steward on the coach would surely eliminate that possibility. In any case, that can happen on a train. The new sprinter trains have alcohol available on them, so it would be easy for an inebriated customer to walk up to the cab, force the door open and accost the driver. That does not happen, so that argument does not stand up.

It is argued that it would create confusion among continental coach operators who see drinks being provided on one type of coach and wonder why they are unable to provide them. If one travels in any country, one should acquaint oneself with the local laws of the land. I see no difficulty in a foreign operator understanding the difference between his tour operation and a scheduled inter-city coach service.

I shall not press the new clause, because I understand that there are problems, but it is worthy of further examination, with a view to including it in forthcoming legislation. The argument that the new clause might attract other amendments to the Bill does not hold water. We are talking about one element of public transport which is denied the opportunity to compete in the way allowed to other transportation modes.

A train will leave Birmingham and travel towards London and a scheduled coach will do the same, travelling on the M1. For three miles they will travel side by side, offering exactly the same services. They are after the same market. One is allowed to sell alcoholic refreshment when it feels like it and the other is denied that opportunity. As our attitude to travel changes, our attitude to the law should change as well. I hope that, in any future revision of our licensing laws, the Government will look carefully at this proposal. There are not many passenger coach operators, but they operate throughout the country with advertised scheduled services. I hope that the Government will allow them to operate on equal terms with operators of other modes of transport.

I mean no disrespect to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. King), for whom I have great affection, but this is a dangerous proposition. There is enough trouble on trains now from people who consume too much liquor, but at least passengers have the opportunity to move down the train. Such movement is impossible on a coach.

There is a growing tendency—my hon. Friend the Member for Northfield seems to think that the law should be brought into line with this growing tendency—for more and more drinking to take place in public, outside public houses and clubs. One sees this disgraceful situation in any London tube station, but especially the large ones. There are used lager cans on the platform and the rail tracks. The abuse is growing every week.

My hon. Friend the Member for Northfield said that coach travellers take their liquor aboard. Of course they do. That is a well-known fact. They take crates of it aboard. I have just received a letter from one of my constituents, which states:
"My wife and I are the proprietors of a seasonal business in Southend on the front. Every year is getting worse as far as behavioural problems with language, shoplifting, fighting and sexual abuse, all drink related. My wife is verbally abused, and I myself last year had to call the police several times to our premises. I am 47 years of age and am now at the age when I feel threatened and feel that we can no longer enjoy a happy successful occupation in my trade."
My constituent refers in particular to the coach trade. He tells how people come down in coaches, flock into the pubs and, after the pubs close,
"for the next 3 or 4 hours wander round town carrying packs of beer or whole bottles of spirit or cider. They come into our shop and try to steal what they can, and if we object they are abusive, foul-mouthed and dangerous. Nine times out of ten, these coach parties are drunk when they hit town and go from bad to worse."
My hon. Friend the Member for Northfield made his case moderately and eloquently, but I beg the House not to encourage such behaviour and to compare the coach trade with the railway trade. I would have liquor banned on the railways as well. The Royal College of Psychiatrists has warned us more than once that if we wish to preserve the health of our young people, we may have to drink less rather than more. The object of the Bill, and of all the proposals along those lines which provide for longer hours, is to make the consumption of alcohol easier.

There is a price to be paid. The hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson)—I do not know whether hon. Members picked it up, but they should have done—said that it is a well-known fact, established all over the world, that with the increase in the consumption of alcohol there is an automatic increase in the harm done. I make a plea for restraint. That is what the law should observe. I hope that the House will reject this preposterous proposal.

On the face of it, this is quite an attractive measure. It has been attractively argued by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. King). However, I must say, although for slightly different reasons from those advanced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine), that I am not persuaded of the merits of the new clause.

There are substantially three reasons for that. First, it could give rise to control problems on coaches. It seems to me that passengers on a coach have too ready access to the driver and that is a distinction between coaches and, for example, trains. Secondly, I suspect that the measure would be used by football supporters, at least sometimes, and that would tend to get around the control imposed by the Sporting Events (Control of Alcohol etc.) Act 1985. Those two considerations have influenced the police to oppose this suggestion. Thirdly, I have some sympathy with the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point that a passenger on a coach cannot move away from a person drinking in the same way as a passenger on a train. That distinction needs to be noted.

I should like to be candid, once again. I am against Christmas trees of Bills. I have a feeling that if I were to yield on the new clause, I might find it more difficult to maintain the purity of the Bill that hitherto we have been able to establish. For those reasons, I do not commend the new clause to the House.

I have listened with interest to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State and my right hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine). My right hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point made no distinction between the tour tripper going to the seaside on a charabanc and the passenger on inter-city scheduled coach services. There are wide differences, and the two are not to be compared. Of course, there are always problems with tour trippers who go out for the day and with football supporters.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State also made a mistake, if I may use that expression, in suggesting that if drink wereallowed on board an inter-city roadcoach it would attract football supporters. They can use the coaches now and bring their alcohol on board, but there is no evidence that they have done so. By the same token, why is British Rail allowed to run its scheduled Inter-City services to those cities to which football supporters are going, with full drink and refreshment facilities available, but coaches are not?

The logic is that, if drink is not allowed on the road coaches, it cannot be allowed on the rail system. As for moving away from a person who is drinking, my experience is that it is difficult to do that if the train is crowded. During my frequent rail travel I do not see many instances of excess alcohol consumption. The advantage the coach would have is that an attendant would be visible and present on the same deck as all the passengers. However, I understand what my hon. Friend has said, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.