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Bus Routes (London)

Volume 164: debated on Thursday 21 December 1989

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3 pm

I was intending to start by saying that it falls to me to make the last Back-Bench speech not only of 1989 but of the decade. It will not be the speech of the decade, but I had thought that it would give me a minor place in history at least. Selfless as I am, however, I have given that honour to my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing). This will be a double act on behalf of Newham, and my hon. Friend will have the last word unless my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) rushes in with a last-minute point of order. If he does, Mr. Speaker, I hope that you will show him no mercy whatever.

The decade has not been a good one for London. I am afraid that during the past 10 years homelessness and poverty in the capital city have doubled so that cardboard boxes and begging have become very much the symbols of Thatcherism in London. With the abolition of the GLC, London became the only capital city in Europe without a citywide local authority and, whatever the Minister and Conservative Members may say, that shows in the largely unco-ordinated planning that we now have in London. Many of our roads resemble ploughed fields and traffic congestion is appalling. Recently the Government announced their proposals for red routes. What we need in London is a bit of red terror to go with those red routes. The extent to which people park on double yellow lines and at bus stops is appalling. It is anarchy, in traffic terms, out on the streets of London, and parking laws are largely unenforced.

This may be the time of good will, and the spirit of Christmas may be all around us, but I have no good will whatever towards selfish parkers in London. Rather than having their cars clamped, I should be in favour of having their cars towed away to the car crusher straight away and sending them the bill afterwards. That is how strongly I feel about selfish parkers.

I want to discuss transport in London. The policies pursued by the Government during the past decade have resulted in London's having probably the most understaffed, unreliable, overcrowded, dirty and inefficient transport system in Europe, and certainly the worst that London has had. London seems to many of us to be going backwards from developed status towards less-developed status.

Earlier this week, the Secretary of State for Transport announced the phasing out of revenue subsidies for British Rail's Network SouthEast. It is ridiculous that whereas the French, German, Belgian and Dutch Governments are all giving more subsidies to their urban transport system, the British Government are taking away revenue support. They talk about capital investment in transport in London and elsewhere, but most of that capital investment comes from internally generated sources within British Rail and co-operative schemes with private enterprise.

If we had a beter transport system than the Belgians, the Dutch or the French, the Government might have a case to argue for their policy. But we do not. We obviously —manifestly—have a far worse transport system in London and elsewhere than any of those countries, and everyone knows it.

Only today, I noticed in the newspapers that London Regional Transport, in response to excess demand, has announced that there will be fare increases each year for the next five years at least above the rate of inflation to
"deter passengers because soaring numbers cannot safely be accommodated."
What sort of system is that? If one had a restaurant where people wanted more tables, or if one were selling things from a market stall and there was great demand, one would not try to kill off that demand, but to expand the capacity and produce more goods, and so continue to increase revenue. One would not try to kill off revenue, but that is what LRT will do by imposing increases to deter passengers. That is absurd. What sane commercial undertaking would pursue such a course? The Government are not fit to run a market stall despite the spiv-like tendency of a number of Conservative Members. I exonerate from that accusation, of course, the young and handsome Minister for Public Transport, who will reply from the Dispatch Box.

London, and especially London transport, have become a sick joke. Passengers are treated as if they were an inconvenience getting in the way of running an efficient transport system. The blame for that attitude lies wholly with the Government and their inefficient and purblind transport policies. A classic example of the chaotic nature of London transport may be seen in the system of tendering for bus routes currently being operated by LRT, at the insistence of the Government themselves. Tendering has been taking place since 1985. The system is designed to try to cut the cost of bus operations by inviting various companies to undercut each other in a bid to win contracts.

For the workers, tendering means lower wages, worse conditions and longer hours. The passengers do not benefit from lower fares because the same fares apply on the tendered routes as on the routes operated by London Buses. Passengers will notice that the service is far less efficient in many cases than on the routes operated by London Buses. Many of the companies use older vehicles to save money which leads to more breakdowns and unreliability. Low wages mean staff shortages, the cancellation of buses and longer waits for passengers at bus stops. Safety standards are also much reduced. Private bus companies simply do not demand the same level of safety as does London Buses and they do not carry out the same medical checks on staff. London Buses has a good reputation for ensuring that the most rigorous health checks are carried out on its drivers. Some people who have previously been rejected by LRT or who have been discharged by LRT as being unfit to drive end up as bus drivers on some of the tendered routes. That cannot be good for the safety of passengers in London.

Tendering is not full privatisation, but it is a form of sub-contracting. I find it especially objectionable that London ratepayers and passengers have to pay the bills. All London Regional Transport has done is to say that it will give companies a certain amount of money to operate bus routes. London ratepayers and the London travelling public have to pay the full cost.

The tenders are decided in secret and we do not know how the system operates or what is taken into account. It is said that no one is entitled to know that because of commercial confidentiality. When the Greater London council used to run the London transport system, we would not have been able to get away with that. There were part 2s on our agendas so that matters of commercial consideration would be respected by members, but members would know about them and would be accountable for what they did. There is no accountability now, which is one of the most objectionable aspects of tendering for bus routes that I have discovered so far.

I shall take us on a little trip around some of the routes in London that have been put out to tender, so that we can see what has happened to them. On route 317, from Enfield to Upshire the tender was awarded to Samson Coaches. Unfortunately, because of its policy of low wages and the use of old buses, it simply could not get the staff, and after one year, LRT was forced to take back the route.

Route 250, which runs from Romford to Hornchurch, was awarded to Front Runner. The company had to bus its drivers down from the midlands to drive in London because the low wages and poor conditions that it offered did not attract drivers from London. The knowledge that such drivers had of the routes in London was not as good as that of native Londoners, but that is not a matter of any consideration for LRT and the Department of Transport. That route was taken back from Front Runner and awarded to Ensign Bus Company. Let us hope that it is slightly more successful.

Route 200 runs from Kingston to Streatham and route 196 runs from Crystal Palace to Brixton. They were awarded to a company called Cityrama on a three-year contract basis. Route 200 was taken back after two years by LRT and handed back to London Buses. Route 196 was taken back in October this year and awarded to a company called London and Country Buses.

Route 403, from Coulsdon to Epsom, and route 197 and 197A, from Caterham to Croydon, were also awarded to that company, but, because of staff shortages brought about through poor pay and long hours, the service was appalling. Many complaints were received not only by LRT but by Members of Parliament representing Croydon. In August this year, LRT asked Croydon garage to provide evening and Saturday services for those routes. On 26 October, it was asked to take over the routes completely.

On the same day, London and Country Buses was asked to take over the 196 route. That is madness. Here is a company that is manifestly incapable of running an efficient bus service for the people of south London, particularly the people of Croydon, with whom you have more than a passing acquaintance, Mr Speaker. Having failed to run that service, it was still offered another service by LRT and a service that had been taken away from another inefficient private company. Is this the way to run a bus service in London? The question is rhetorical, because no one who uses London buses would say that it was the right way. Dogma cannot drive buses, but that is what the Government, through LRT, are attempting to do.

I would give a great deal to inspect the finances behind the No. 24 route. This is a prestigious route, which stands alone in comparison with the other tendered-out routes. That route is important, and goes right by the House of Commons. Many distinguished Members of Parliament use it. That route is a fiddle—I am convinced of that. Something has happened between LRT, the company that runs it—Grey-Green—and the Department of Transport. I hope that the Minister will say that he is prepared to let me go over the books so that I can see how the tender was awarded.

London buses are in a mess. I know that the Minister will say that bus miles are at an all-time record. I do not know how often he uses buses, but those bus miles are being kept up in several ways. The first is by the use of the small feeder buses—hoppers. One cannot make a comparison between those buses and enormous double-decker buses. Secondly, because many double-decker buses run into congestion problems on the streets of London they are being told to run empty with "Special" in the destination window. They go past bus stops with passengers waiting for them. Many passengers say that they wish that they could live in a place called "Special service" because there seem to be so many buses on their way to it. That is nonsense and it goes back to the point that I made earlier. We now have an organisation running London's transport which thinks that passengers get in the way of the operation of an efficient transport system. That is the madness that the decade has brought us to on the buses and in London's transport generally.

London used to have one of the best bus systems in the world, but it is now reduced to an overpriced slow and unreliable patchwork quilt of a service. After a decade of authoritarian second-rate government, the Government cannot even share the boast of a previous dictator, in justification for what he was doing, that the trains have been made to run on time.

I cannot allow my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South to intervene without wishing you and your family, Mr. Speaker, the happiest Christmas and, on behalf of my colleagues on the packed Benches on both sides of the House, I offer our thanks to all the staff of the House of Commons who have worked so hard over the year and over the decade to provide us with the sort of service that we have come to expect. We may have a rotten bus service out there, but we have high standards in here. We make sure of that. I should like to see the standards that we operate here operating on London buses as well. On behalf of all my colleagues, I thank them for all the services that they have given us.

I can now wish you, Mr. Speaker, a happy decade to come. I hope that that decade will see the restoration of a Labour Government; Labour Members translated to the Government Benches. Who knows, I and my hon. Friends may be making a speech from the Dispatch Box at the last knockings of another decade. There would certainly be a better country and a better capital city in which to live because we would restore Londonwide government to London.

I hope also that we shall be able to say that as the 1990s draw to a close we have an efficient, properly run and comfortable transport system in London, which is something that Londoners want and deserve.

3.17 pm

I join my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) in wishing you, Mr. Speaker, and the staff of the House who have served us so well a happy Christmas and new year.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for allowing me a few minutes in which to contribute to the debate. We in east London are particularly dependent on public transport.

Car ownership is our area is, understandably, rather lower than elsewhere and that has the advantage of not adding to congestion.

My hon. Friend referred to the great London transport system of the 1930s which was brought about by the London Passenger Transport Act 1933—a bipartisan measure. That organisation became the envy of the world. The former boroughs of East Ham and West Ham and the former London county council willingly gave up their tramway services, locally controlled to help local people, in order to provide that very service.

Now we find the reverse tendency. My hon. Friend referred to the red buses. Alas, there are now 11 companies ready to be split up and no doubt privatised if the Government so wish. The ability to do that is contained in legislation. Some of the minibuses to which my hon. Friend referred belong to London Buses Ltd. and some are organised by private contractors, not even subject to London Regional Transport which has a statutory duty to co-ordinate transport. They are clearly designed to undercut the existing comprehensive service, in 11 parts though it be, and it is no doubt the Government's ultimate intention to have a sort of Hong Kong situation, a territory in which they are rather interested at the moment.

In Newham there have been bus route changes without effective consultation with the council, leading to many problems for elderly people, particularly going to the Canning Town shopping centre. The zones, which are very useful for persons with through tickets, have been changed. If people want to go to the Asda supermarket, they now have to cross a zone boundary within the borough. I took up the matter with London Buses. I was told that this was to protect revenue. That sort of nonsense is spreading like wildfire throughout the city.

The Routemaster buses are coming towards the end of their useful life. It is a reflection on this Government's priorities, in terms of production as against services, that London Regional Transport contemplates obtaining engines for the buses—which were made entirely in London at Park Royal—from Poland, Italy and, believe it or not, from India. That is the state to which the Government have brought the country's manufacturing capability. We know what they have done to public services. There was an earlier debate about ambulances. The Government have destroyed the concept of public service.

The Prime Minister was right when she said that the House should call the Administration to account over legislation and taxation. However, her policies are wrong. I believe that the verdict on the Thatcher decade will be that the Government's social and economic policies have been disastrous.

3.20 pm

I thank the hon. Members for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) and for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) for what has turned out to be a historic debate. I had not fully appreciated its significance. I feel sorry for anyone who switched on their television set at 3·15, hoping to see the Prime Minister, and ended up watching me. However, anyone who switched on their set because they wanted to see the Leader of the Opposition but saw instead the hon. Members for Newham, North-West, and for Newham, South will have been delighted by the substitution. Their remarks provide me with an opportunity to extend good wishes for Christmas to you, Mr. Speaker, and to the Officers of the House.

The hon. Member for Newham, South is concerned about transport in east London. If he were to be entirely fair, I think that he would be willing to admit that I have given a great deal of personal attention to transport in east London. I am very concerned about it. The Jubilee line extension to docklands and to the east end of London, including the constituencies of the hon. Members for Newham, North-West and for Newham, South was approved by the Government. We look forward to that extension becoming a reality. They also know that the east-west cross rail, which will he of particular benefit to Stratford, is being urgently considered by the Government and may be the line for which a Bill is introduced next year.

A number of privately operated minibuses are now used in dock lands. They benefit the constituents of both hon. Gentlemen. They could not have been provided without the liberalisation of transport under this Government. The main theme of the debate is about bus services that have gone out to tender, but it would be wrong not to say a word or two about the opening remarks of the hon. Member for Newham, North-West concerning revenue support and investment. As a former chairman of the Greater London council, he is in a very good position to appreciate the greatly increased investment in London Regional Transport and in the railways. It is much higher today than it was when the GLC had control of London Regional Transport. Today's investment in London Regional Transport is about double what it was under the GLC.

We propose to reduce Network SouthEast's subsidy from £100 million today to zero in about 1992. The network agrees that that is an objective which can be achieved. However, the £100 million reduction in subsidy has to be compared with the £5 billion investment programme in the network over the coming year. There is no comparison between a £100 million loss of subsidy and £5 billion of investment. Investment leads to the railway of tomorrow, new rolling stock and the better stations that many people in the south-east are now beginning to enjoy.

That investment will require a partnership between the taxpayer on the one hand and the farepayer on the other, or taxpayers—many of them from outside London—would have to bear the full brunt of British Rail's future investment in the London area.

I want to concentrate on tendering. Tendering of London bus services has led to increased reliability. The hon. Member for Newham, North-West was rather anecdotal, so I shall give some figures. Tendering has led to an increase in the number of bus miles run, a decrease in the costs of the services and meant, therefore—

But, as the hon. Member for Newham, North-West pointed out, the fares are the same whether on a tendered service or on a normal service. The costs that have been saved have been ploughed back into better service.

I dispute the idea that there has been a compromise on safety. The hon. Member for Newham, North-West said that standards in the private sector were lower than in the public sector. All these services are subject to the public service vehicle operation conditions which are laid down by the Department of Transport. Those are the minimum conditions and all the people who run bus services are required to meet those standards, whether they are in the private or public sector. If the hon. Gentleman knows of instances of bus drivers operating below those nationally set standards or of operators disobeying the law, he would draw that to my attention, because we would certainly want to know all about it.

Accessibility for the disabled and the elderly has been greatly improved under the tendered services. During bus strikes, the tendered services in London have continued to run. That gravely undermines any case that the hon. Member for Newham, North-West might care to make about wages being in some way unsatisfactory in the private sector on tendered services. The evidence shows that industrial relations have been better in that sector and that in those tendered services the public have been able to rely on a service when the rest of the network has been shut down.

The hon. Member for Newham, North-West was trying to have it both ways. He said that the services tended to run old, unreliable buses. When he came across a service where that was palpably not true—the No. 24, with new buses and where the public enjoy a good service—the only response he could make was that in some way it was a fiddle. That suggestion was not worthy of the hon. Gentleman. As for whether these matters are investigated, all the tendering processes are subject to strict audit. I receive many complaints from private sector companies saying that they believe that the system is tilted in favour of London Buses Ltd. They may have some justification on the face of it in that 103 of the 176 routes put out to tender so far—58 per cent.—have been won by subsidiaries of London Buses Ltd.

The Government strongly believe in the fairness of the system. Our auditors tell us that it works fairly. We are satisfied that even where London Buses Ltd. wins a tender in fair competition, it tends to act more competitively and show more respect and concern for the customer than before. The figures showing much better reliability of bus services apply not only to tenders that have been won by the private sector but to those won by London Buses Ltd. Operating in that more competitive environment, even London Buses Ltd. appears to wish to raise the standard of its services in order to compete.

LRT, which is responsible for judging the tenders, wishes to be sure that the record of the operator that is applying for the tender does not disqualify it from the competition, so it obviously takes account of previous performance. LRT wants to ensure also that the wages offered are set on a realistic basis and are likely to enable the tenderer to operate a reliable service with a reasonably contented staff. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and these services have continued to run when non-tendered services have been out on strike. The tender documents specify that the buses should be seven years old or less, so it is likely that these services will run by newer, better buses than traditionally run on other services.

There have been great benefits to the travelling public. There have been shorter waiting times for buses and the public have been able to rely more on buses turning up. The fact that the buses used by the tendering companies generally conform to the standards laid down by my Department's advisory committee on disabled passengers means that there is a better prospect that the steps and handrails will be designed to help the elderly or disabled passenger.

The hon. Member for Newham, North-West was right on one point—this is only a halfway stage. It will be right in due course to press on to the privatisation of London's buses and full deregulation in London so that these great services, which are restricted at present, can be enjoyed by all.

Before adjourning the House after the last debate of this decade, I should like to thank the hon. Members for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) and for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing), the Minister and the hon. Member for Bolton, West (Mr. Sackville)—who has been faithfully in his place on the Treasury Bench—and echo the comment of the hon. Member for Newham, North-West about the staff of the House. We are deeply grateful to the staff for the service that they give us throughout the year. The hon. Member for Newham, North-West also mentioned the high standards that we have—I think that he meant standards of service from the staff. I echo his points. We have a reputation for other high standards—high standards of behaviour in the House, which I am sure we shall see in the new decade.

Question put and agreed to.

It being half-past Three o'clock, Mr. Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to Order [8 December] and the Resolution yesterday till Monday 8 January.