Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Alan Campbell.]
I am delighted to have secured the debate. October seems to be my lucky month. In October 2002, I had a debate on bus security, and in October 2003 I secured a debate on bus re-regulation. I make no apology for raising the subject again, as good, reliable, affordable and safe bus services are vital for social inclusion, economic renewal, the reduction of congestion and the improvement of our environment. As those arguments are universally accepted, I shall not repeat them.
I am optimistic about today’s debate, because I sense that the time has finally come for proposals for additional powers, or for the removal of barriers, to promote and deliver quality bus services. In the October 2002 debate, I said that it would be the first debate in a series that I wanted to have. The debate gains strength every year, and I pay tribute to the many hon. Members who have highlighted the subject in this Parliament. In June 2005, my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) tabled an early-day motion on re-regulation, which he followed up by securing an Adjournment debate in March this year. In February, my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller) introduced a Bill to deal with the unilateral removal of bus services and the needs of the least mobile passengers. In July, my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown) introduced a ten-minute Bill to enable passenger transport authorities in some metropolitan areas to regulate their operations. Those contributions have all helped to further this important debate.
This year, the Select Committee on Transport is conducting another inquiry into bus services, in which it is considering whether deregulation has worked and whether metropolitan areas outside London should be allowed to develop their own form of regulated competition. In its July report “Reducing Carbon Emissions from Transport”, the Environmental Audit Committee outlined its important recommendations on buses, and concluded that the Department for Transport should
“explicitly adopt modal shift from cars to buses as an environmental objective, and set itself a target of emissions savings to be gained as a result.”
The report went on to recommend:
“Something much more effective in enabling authorities throughout England to apply the kind of powers currently enjoyed only by Transport for London should be introduced as an urgent priority.”
If, for some, that does not add up to an irrefutable case for change, they should consider that at the end of September an independent report from NERA Economic Consulting, commissioned by the Passenger Transport Executive Group, predicts that service levels and patronage will each fall by about 20 per cent., while fares will rise by 20 per cent. unless control of key bus services and fares policy is passed to local authorities. That is a sign of the failure, apart from a few notable exceptions, of the current deregulated system outside London and Northern Ireland. So, just when we are looking for one report to support our argument, like buses, three come along at the same time.
What are the core facts about bus travel? Bus services outside London and Northern Ireland have been deregulated for 20 years and are now predominantly provided by five large companies: Arriva, First group, Go-Ahead, National Express and Stagecoach. Buses account for 31 per cent. of the turnover of the big five, but 47 per cent. of their profits. The taxpayer subsidy to the industry continues to rise, and in 2004-05, it was estimated to be £1.86 billion.
Are we getting value for money and, most importantly, a bus service that meets the needs of local passengers? Sadly, in many instances, the answer is no. Since deregulation, bus use in Great Britain outside London has declined by 37 per cent., and fares have risen by 45 per cent. in real terms. Alarmingly, in our largest cities, the decline has been more severe, with patronage down 38 per cent. and fares up by 86 per cent. in real terms, yet 85 per cent. of all public transport trips in PTE areas are made by bus—1 billion journeys a year. The PTEs and local authorities support the bus industry with an investment of £500 million each year through concessionary fares, support for subsidised services and improvements such as new, sometimes expensive, bus shelters.
In Greater Manchester, the overall decrease in bus journeys between 1994-95 and 2004-05 was about 10 per cent. The Greater Manchester PTE is committed to the development of bus services and has a published bus strategy. It is investing more than £80 million in a quality bus corridor programme, which will include a total of 33 routes when completed by 2008. The strategy is already helping to improve reliability and reduce journey times. In contrast to the trend of declining bus usage in the UK, the GMPTE estimates that patronage on quality bus corridor routes is around 10 per cent. higher than it would have been if action had not been taken. The people of Manchester have also benefited from some joint ticketing schemes and the introduction of a central information service, so we in Greater Manchester have maximised the opportunities provided in the Transport Act 2000.
I have followed my hon. Friend’s arguments with great care. He makes a good point about investment in quality bus corridors, but does he accept that when they are introduced in Greater Manchester as part of the deregulated system, private companies such as Stagecoach and First group withdraw their services from other routes, so we get a smaller network even though more people are travelling on those radial routes?
Absolutely. I accept my hon. Friend’s important point.
I admit to having served on the Standing Committee that considered the Transport Act 2000, but as I and others then predicted, we were too optimistic about what could be achieved on a voluntary basis. In Greater Manchester, we have worked in non-contractual partnerships: the Greater Manchester passenger transport authority, the Greater Manchester district authorities, the Highways Agency, Manchester airport and the bus operating companies are all party to our voluntary “integrate project”, so I appreciate that voluntary co-operation brings some limited success.
In January, the SAFEST—the Salford agreement for ensuring safer travel—protocol was launched. It is a partnership of bus operators, the GMPTE, Salford police and Salford city council. In August, we were informed that the crackdown on bus crime in Salford had led to a drop in crime of nearly 25 per cent. in the first six months of 2006. We are confronting the problem of physical and verbal assaults on staff and passengers, and vandalism to buses and bus shelters, by the use of CCTV and special police operations targeting antisocial behaviour. Already, one evening bus service which was withdrawn in 2002 because of persistent vandalism has been restored. Things are better, but they are not good enough.
After 20 years’ experience of deregulation, we can say with some certainty when voluntary co-operation does not work and when further initiatives are needed. The quality contracts provided for in the Transport Act 2000 have not, in the main, materialised. My union—the Transport and General Workers Union—believes that that is because local authorities are concerned that they will be sued by private bus companies for undermining their share price. We still have a situation in which bus operators can, subject to minimum safety and operating standards, run the services they like at whatever cost they determine, with what is called light-touch monitoring—exactly the point that my hon. Friend made.
I am fortunate to represent a constituency that is served by the largest remaining municipally owned bus operator in the United Kingdom, Lothian Buses, which provides an excellent service to customers and the wider community. Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be desirable if changes to transport regulations allowed local authorities in other areas to develop further the idea of community-owned bus operators, as one way of ensuring that we provide a good service to customers, consumers and, of course, workers?
I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution. As I shall say later, no single model is applicable to the whole country, and we should learn from good practice in other areas, although it is patchy. I shall argue that, despite limited success, the voluntarist approach is not good enough in itself and that PTEs and local transport authorities need further powers.
In early September—thankfully before it successfully hosted the Labour party conference—Manchester saw its traffic grind to a halt along a major city-centre route, as private buses competed for a site to drop off passengers. The problems started when an operator launched a new service on a route that was already serviced by another operator. According to market analysis, that should have led to more choice and happy passengers, but it led to gridlock for public and private transport, and people were forced to use their feet to get to work. Police were needed to sort out the chaos.
Under the current system, local authorities and passenger transport authorities can franchise bus services in their area via a quality contract only if such a franchise can be deemed “the only practicable way” to achieve a local bus strategy. Under such a contract, the public sector specifies the service that is required, and the bus companies can bid for the exclusive right to provide that service. As a member of the Committee that considered the 2000 Act, I noted that those powers were inadequate for PTEs, and they still are.
So what is the solution to the problems that I have highlighted? I fully accept that I am speaking from a metropolitan perspective and I do not claim that the solution for the Manchester city region will necessarily be the solution for other regions, small towns or rural areas—or vice versa. I do not wish at this time to be prescriptive in my solution to the problem and I accept that there are a number of different potentials. For example, the Transport and General Workers Union believes that the Northern Ireland solution, under which buses are publicly owned, and bus and rail company policies are co-ordinated by Translink, would be best. It believes that the London model is the second-best alternative, although that would undoubtedly need to be modified if it were to be extended beyond the capital. Some argue, for example, that it would need modifying to cover geographical areas rather than specific individual routes. However, that is not my territory, so I shall leave it to my London colleagues to champion any changes that our capital city may require. It is worth noting, however, that the Government’s target for growth in passenger numbers will be met by growth in passenger numbers in London alone, while the numbers outside London will continue to decline in the main.
Some large cities outside London are not persuaded that the London model is for them. Indeed, PTEG has proposed that only minor changes to the 2000 Act are needed to solve our current difficulties. Local authority franchises or quality contracts can be introduced only if they can be demonstrated to be “the only practicable way” to achieve a local bus strategy. That is too high a hurdle, and PTEG says that the “practicable way” test should be removed, leaving the existing tests of economy, efficiency and effectiveness. It also believes that the current five-year limit on such franchises should be extended to act as an incentive for operators to invest.
Whatever option is chosen, it must enable us to meet our objectives of ensuring that buses connect rather than compete, and that they link up with local tram and rail services, provide more reliable services and penalise poor performance, integrate networks so that passengers need to purchase just one ticket and have access to clear and accurate information about buses, provide more stable networks, with less frequent changes to fares, times and frequencies, and develop networks that keep pace with the social and economic needs of our local communities.
When I opened the debate, I said that I was optimistic. That is not only because the debate is being attended by a large number of hon. Members who, along with other Members of Parliament and a variety of outside bodies, support some form of managed regulation, but because the Minister has put on the record her intention to increase and improve bus travel. Furthermore, at the very successful Labour conference in Manchester last month, the Secretary of State for Transport said:
“I will act to give the local transport authorities that need them real powers to make a real difference.”
With such high-level support, a solution must surely be imminent. I should add that, in many areas of policy and delivery, the Government have already devolved powers to the regions and local authorities, and doing the same for transport would be a natural extension of that approach.
I want, therefore, to make an appeal to the Minister and to emphasise that whatever option is chosen, it must be implemented soon, not in two or three years’ time. If legislation is required—I think that it will be—it must be announced in the next Queen’s Speech on 15 November.
Finally, I want to address labour market issues in the bus industry. I am a proud member of the Transport and General Workers Union, which is the largest trade union in the bus industry, representing more than 100,000 employees in the UK. Those members are employed in various occupations in the industry and include engineers, inspectors and clerical staff, but bus drivers form the bulk of the membership. Unless we have the required number of bus drivers and engineers, we shall not achieve our desired improvements in bus services.
Since privatisation and deregulation, however, average wages in the industry have declined in real terms. Currently, bus drivers earn 57 per cent. of the male average wage, and the lowering of real wages has resulted in an estimated shortage of 33,000 drivers. Yet bus companies highlight fuel and staffing costs as key reasons for raising fares. Raising fares, however, contributes in turn to the loss of passengers and to service reductions. So we have a difficult problem to address.
Whatever form the new powers proposed by the Secretary of State take, I should like the new contracts, partnerships or whatever they might be called to cover minimum employment and pay standards for reasonable hours. The T and G recently issued a bus workers charter, which sets out those objectives, and I am sure that some of my colleagues will refer to them.
The union has also identified pensions as a serious block to flexibility in the bus industry labour market. Currently, many employees will not even transfer employment within the same group, let alone move to a new operator, because different pension schemes can operate in different subsidiaries. My union believes that that key barrier to labour market flexibility will remain unless a universal pension scheme is introduced for the industry as a whole. It proposes that the major bus groups should have access to the local government pension scheme, and I hope that that option will be explored as a matter of urgency.
In conclusion, I referred to the NERA report, which was commissioned by PTEG. It concludes that if we are to meet our objectives of increasing bus usage for all the well-known social, environmental and economic reasons, we must deliver local control of key bus services, but it adds that that alone might not be sufficient and that we might need other measures to control the use of cars in our cities, such as park and ride schemes and congestion charging. Indeed, such measures have already been introduced in some of our towns and cities.
The issue is complex, and, given the time constraints, I have concentrated on regulatory reform powers. However, the Government are now in a position to put the next piece of the jigsaw in place and to champion a better bus service for all.
I look forward to the Minister’s reply. If hon. Members and Ministers want to engage in the debate further, they are welcome to attend the Greater Manchester PTE’s parliamentary reception, which will take place next Tuesday from 4 pm to 5.30 pm in the Members Dining Room. Our topic for debate is “Bus deregulation: has it worked well?”
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. This is the first time that I have heard an opening speech end on a commercial.
I intend to call the Liberal Front-Bench spokesman at 10.25 am. The debate finishes at 11 am. Five Members have indicated that they wish to speak, and I know that others wish to intervene. If hon. Members choose to do the sums, they will work out that overly long speeches on their part may lead to a loss of opportunity for somebody else.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Ian Stewart) on securing the debate. As he said, it is one of many that have taken place in this Chamber and the House. Such debates tend to follow a familiar ritual: we fire off our arguments based on personal experiences and those of our constituents, only for them to bounce off stubbornly thick-skinned responses from Ministers. I hope that the Minister’s response will be different today.
The Secretary of State for Transport made some interesting comments at the Labour conference. He said that he would
“act to empower local communities…I will act to give the local transport authorities that need them real powers to make a real difference.”
Those are bold words. If things are as good as they sound, the Minister who is to respond to the debate stands on the brink of being the most celebrated bus Minister in living memory, and possibly of all time; beatification is just a few steps away. Let us be clear that it would be well deserved, because it is 20 years since the Tory Government garrotted the local, democratically accountable bus services. Bus operators have had 20 years to show that they can provide decent services, and they have failed. It is time that they were made more accountable to passengers and communities.
Quality and standards have fallen dramatically, and fares have increased by almost 50 per cent. in real terms. For example, in west Yorkshire, First increased off-peak fares by 36 per cent. and peak fares by about 11 per cent just in the period from April 2004 to January 2006. Since 1986, the number of passengers has fallen by 40 per cent. in west Yorkshire. That represents more than 100 million passenger journeys, many of which will have been replaced by car journeys, with all that that entails.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles said, public subsidy stood at an estimated £1.86 billion in 2004-05, which was an increase from about £1 billion in 1999-2000. Passenger transport executives subsidise about 13 per cent. of services; the rest are simply out of their control. There is little or no competition for contracts, so it is impossible to gauge whether the taxpayer is getting value for money.
Deregulation has meant that companies can pick and choose what services they provide. They are free to make profits while providing a poor service, resulting in many people having been denied a reliable and affordable service to their work, or to schools, colleges, shops, health centres and hospitals. We all know from our constituents’ letters that week in, week out services are chopped, changed, missing or late. Passengers suffer or they vote with their feet.
My hon. Friend should be congratulated on raising an important dimension that is too often omitted in this debate: bus workers. We must examine the impact on their pay and conditions, and the fact that they bear the brunt of passenger dissatisfaction. As we know to our frustration and to that of our constituents, there is little that passengers, communities, MPs, councillors or even PTEs can do in the deregulated system to make private companies maintain or improve services.
The decline not only affects passengers; it affects everyone. Poor services lead to increased car use, which creates even more congestion, pollution and road safety hazards in our communities. Other forms of transport, such as rail, have a role to play, but as my hon. Friend said, buses provide more than three quarters of local passenger transport journeys.
I can give a number of examples from my constituency of where deregulation has failed to provide a decent local service. I am sure that such examples can be reflected by almost every Member present. Superstores outside the centre of Pudsey have effectively caused the closure of small supermarkets and other businesses. Somerfield recently announced the closure of a store in the centre of Pudsey, yet bus links to the superstores are limited or non-existent, which causes a particular problem for older people and those who do not have access to their own transport. Communities such as Hough Side were suddenly cut off from work, shops and other facilities by the simple stroke of an operator’s pen. Direct access to Wharfedale hospital—rebuilt under this Labour Government—is not available to patients from my constituency. The links to neighbouring Bradford, which is a city in its own right, are pathetic during the evenings and at weekends. Changes to services such as the Nos. 97, 647 and 651 in the Guiseley and Yeadon areas have resulted in significant reductions in the links to nearby Bradford, which has caused tremendous hardship for a large number of people. At this point, I was going to quote extensively from letters that I have received from constituents, but because of time constraints, I shall spare the Minister those comments. I am sure that she can guess just how wise and trenchant they are.
I appreciate that partnership is the Government’s preferred way forward. As my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles said, it is true that it sometimes works in smaller, often historic, cities where road space is restricted, local economies are strong and parking spaces are expensive and their number limited. There are even examples in metropolitan areas, such as Leeds, where such partnerships work, but they are few and far between.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) said, on profitable routes along major transport corridors buses can be seen queuing up for passengers. However, off the beaten track the picture is completely different. We should not use the few good examples that can be quoted to mask or dismiss the widespread deficiencies of which we are all aware. Currently, PTEs are totally dependent on local monopoly providers and whether they choose to act responsibly and take a long-term view. The experience of all hon. Members is that such situations are unfortunately not the norm.
What needs to change? I need not reiterate the points so cogently made by my hon. Friends. There needs to be a change to the Transport Act 2000. We need to be able to use its teeth—quality contracts—and remove the “only practicable” test, which effectively muzzles it and makes it unworkable.
As has been said, franchises can currently run for five years. That needs to be extended to a longer period, because doing so would reduce the net costs of franchises and act as an incentive to operators to invest. I believe, as does the Passenger Transport Executive Group—I make no apology for speaking on its behalf—that the result would be multifold. It would lead to more reliable services; poor performance being penalised; integrated networks; clear and comprehensive information at bus stops; buses connecting rather than competing; less pollution with operators required to provide newer, cleaner buses and to maintain them properly; more stable networks with less frequent changes to fares, times and frequencies; and networks that keep pace with the economic and social needs of the areas they serve.
If the Minister is prepared to go down that particular route, she, like my hon. Friends and I, will be vilified by bus operators. She will be told that the clock cannot be turned back, and predictions will be made of some sort of bus Armageddon. I ask her not to listen. It is time to listen to passengers, to us as their representatives and to PTEs, and to give back some powers to the communities to have bus services that meet their needs.
It gives me great pleasure to speak in the debate and, in particular, to welcome the announcement about changes to bus services made by the Secretary of State for Transport just a couple of weeks ago.
I first started looking into bus workers’ conditions in 1999-2000. In 2000-01, I chaired an inquiry by the London assembly into affordable housing, which we called “Key issues for key workers: affordable housing in London”. We concluded that bus drivers in London were not earning enough money to pay even council or housing association rents. Bus drivers were coming from cities such as Leeds, living four days a week in houses of multiple occupation provided by the bus companies, driving London buses and then going back home again. It was no surprise that with that level of income there was a shortage of drivers, a high turnover of drivers without local knowledge of London streets and a great deal of passenger dissatisfaction.
Shortly after our report, the Mayor of London—I like to think that we had some influence on his decision—decided in 2001 to increase bus drivers’ pay by £20 a week. In addition, Transport for London introduced a training programme for bus drivers and other benefits to improve their working conditions. During our inquiry, we heard clear evidence from bus drivers who found that at the end of a journey there was nowhere for them to use a toilet—they would have to beg the indulgence of a local publican—and often there was nowhere for them to have hot food.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Ian Stewart), my hon. Friend talks about pay, pensions and general conditions. Bus drivers in my constituency are worried about the nature and pattern of shifts, in particular the length of time they spend behind the wheel, which can be a maximum of five and half hours. That is obviously a great concern because with increasing traffic and road rage, a tired bus driver is a dangerous bus driver. Would my hon. Friend care to comment on reducing bus drivers’ hours?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention and I shall go into the matter later. There are good examples in London of how bus drivers’ shifts have altered and been made safer and better. That has also aided the retention of drivers.
According to Transport for London, in 2000 bus drivers received an average of £18,000 to £19,000, but from my direct experience and contact with bus drivers during the key workers inquiry, I know that in many cases it was lower than that. Pay of £15,000 to £16,000 was normal, and that involved some creative accounting. In 2006, as we stand here today, bus drivers in London earn around £23,000 to £24,000 a year depending on their shifts and overtime. In addition, all bus drivers in London with at least one year’s experience have passed a BTEC diploma in passenger relations and disability awareness. All bus drivers throughout the country will have to do that under the European Union’s driver training directive, and we should encourage that to happen more quickly outside London because we have seen a huge difference. Transport for London is also introducing further training for garage staff and a higher level of disability awareness training for drivers. That has already made a difference in London. The level of service now lost in London because of staffing problems is 0.17 per cent. That is an all-time low and I suspect—I do not have the figures for other areas—that it is considerably lower than in other parts of the country.
There is always more to do. Transport for London and the Transport and General Workers Union—my trade union—are considering flexible working practices, and I want to highlight an example that is local to my constituency. They are also pressing for basic improvements, including toilets and other facilities in those bus stations that still do not have them, better working times, which my hon. Friend mentioned, and no rest-day working, which I feel passionate about.
In my youth, I worked in the merchant navy and back then, in the late 1980s and the 1990s, rest-day working was never sanctioned on board ship. As privatisation crept in, with the use of agency workers, rest-day working became the norm. I saw closely the effect that that had on people. I do not want to be on a bus with a driver who has worked on a rest day and is too tired to drive safely.
On conditions for bus drivers, does my hon. Friend agree that the bus service, warts and all, is one industry that has not sought to exploit migrant workers, in particular people from eastern Europe, such as Polish workers? Companies such as First bus have a proud record of paying and guaranteeing the same wages and conditions for migrant workers as exist for indigenous workers.
As a trade unionist I believe in equal pay for equal work, and my hon. Friend made a fair point. In London, we do not now have to have migrants from northern cities to do our work, which shows what good pay can do to maintain local jobs in cities.
I want to highlight briefly one example in my constituency of an extremely good transport provider. Hackney Community Transport is a social enterprise that runs transport services in Hackney. It has been so successful in reinvesting in the transport service and in being a good operator that it now operates two local Transport for London routes—394 and 153. The 394 is particularly close to my heart because it was an initiative from local people which was taken up by Transport for London and provided by a local provider. I helped to launch that bus route.
The bus route had a low turnover of staff before that was the case for other London bus companies because it worked hard to make its working conditions family friendly. In doing so, it has managed to have an above average number of women working for it not just as bus drivers, but at all levels in the company. That is partly because of flexible working patterns. Drivers who are also carers can opt to work early or late, but never both. They do not have ridiculous split shifts, which exist in too many other bus companies. It is not surprising that Hackney Community Transport was named social enterprise of the year last year and its chief executive, Dai Powell, was named in the honours list.
The Transport and General Workers Union has launched a London bus workers charter—I was a veteran of the London bus engineers charter some years ago—which shows that there is still work to be done. One essential is to maintain the level of pay increases. The difficulty in London is that many key workers cannot afford to buy housing and to live in the inner city. We must ensure that pay keeps up with inflation and house prices.
We need greater safety. I have touched on working times, which is a key issue, but safety for drivers going about their business and ensuring that there are intercoms on buses and so on are also important.
Another key issue is pensions, but I shall not reiterate the points made by my hon. Friends, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Ian Stewart). Pensions are critical and too many bus drivers and bus workers are second-rate citizens in that respect. Providing good pension rights is a way of keeping good staff and maintaining a low turnover. We must also ensure that bus workers have rights to affordable housing alongside other key workers in our city. We saw what happened in London before the changes were introduced and there are lessons for the Government to learn.
As a member of the Transport and General Workers Union, I am proud of the work that it is doing. In London, there has been a 32 per cent. increase in bus journeys, in contrast with a 7 per cent. decrease in the rest of the country, as my hon. Friend said. We have improved bus services and seen huge improvements to the environment, to our health and in congestion. In London, control has gone to a local transport body, with sensitive services run by good local providers, such as Hackney Community Transport, with better pay and conditions, which are critical to ensuring good bus services, family-friendly working—there is still more to do on that—training and investment. In short, we have seen the future in London and we have seen that it works. I commend the model to my hon. Friend the Minister.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Ian Stewart) on securing the debate. Again, it is October, which seems to be his lucky month.
I go back some time in the bus industry. I was joint secretary of the negotiating machinery in Scotland and was involved in the whole matter of deregulation as a trade union official in 1985. I sat in a room here for almost six months listening to the good reasons that the Tory Government at the time gave for deregulation. All that was promised for bus usage has not come to fruition.
I am a realist, and I understand and respect that even in the Government’s 2000 White Paper on the 10-year plan they concede that bus patronage has been in decline for almost half a century. With my experience and knowledge of the industry, having represented the workers at that time, I know it was not all rosy before deregulation. On bus quality, the average bus in 1986 was 20 years old; today, the average bus throughout the country is about seven years old, so there has been improvement. I say that from a Scottish perspective, because Falkirk has one of the best bus building operations in the UK, and it supplies those buses and is a good employer.
We should consider the trend during that period. It is not all doom and gloom. I am glad to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), who described the position in London, because similarly in Scotland, bus use has increased. Throughout Scotland, it is up by about 1 to 2 per cent. My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) has left the Chamber, but in Lothian, bus patronage has increased by about 26 per cent. since 1986.
North of the border, many of the terms of the Transport and General Workers Union bus workers charter have been achieved. The average salary for Lothian Buses workers is £21,500, and they have maintained their final salary pension scheme. Throughout the industry, the two big players, First group and Stagecoach, have also maintained those schemes, so the picture is not all doom and gloom. We must consider the industry as a whole to work out the best direction to take. We are considering re-regulation, but we cannot do that in isolation. We must consider the reality of modern life.
In 1986, when I worked in Parliament for six months, about 30 per cent. of households did not have a car. The figure is down to 18 per cent. That reflects some of the reasons why the bus industry has problems. As a past member of the Select Committee on Transport, I suggested that we should consider the modern household and a modern housewife with two children, one four years old and the other six. In one morning, the mother has to take one child to nursery and the other to school, go on to a dental appointment and then go shopping. Even in urban areas of Scotland, the task is impossible. In a constituency with rural areas, the task is well nigh impossible on buses. If the Government are serious, and I am told that they are, they must explain how it is possible for that woman to operate with the bus as her main source of transport, because I do not think that it is. Enormous investment will be required if it is to be achieved, and that is what I am interested in learning about from my hon. Friend the Minister.
I do not see the impact of deregulation on services in south Yorkshire since 1986 from the perspective of my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Donohoe). By and large, the measures have been bad for passengers and workers. They have been an unmitigated disaster. Bus services are one of the few public services that have worsened since 1997.
I shall quote some stark figures. The network mileage in south Yorkshire has declined by 34 per cent. since 1986. For every 3 miles that buses ran then, they run for 2 miles now. Compared with the retail prices index, which has increased by about 100 per cent. since 1986, bus fares in south Yorkshire have increased by more than 1,000 per cent. The contrast is enormous: the increase is 10 times more than inflation. It is therefore unsurprising that ridership, which has increased by 55 per cent. in London, has decreased by 48 per cent. in the passenger transport executive areas outside London. In south Yorkshire, ridership has decreased by 68 per cent. For every three passengers on a bus in 1986, there is one left. That public service provision in my constituency is an unmitigated disaster.
Deregulation was supposed to bring in competition, but only two operators provide 91 per cent. of the services in south Yorkshire, and they do not compete with each other. It is unsurprising that the major bus operators make a 21 per cent. return on capital on their investments in the PTE areas.
The reality is that quality contracts have failed. They are non-existent. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Ian Stewart) on securing the debate. For the reasons he gave, quality partnerships are ineffective. Through-ticketing is the subject of one row after another between operators that will not co-operate. South Yorkshire has an excellent super-tram system, which was built to link in with the bus services. However it does not, because they try to compete with it. There is no integrated public transport system; deregulation has destroyed that concept, too.
Those measures hit the poorest hardest because they have no access to a car. However, I accept that more people have access to a car, and that re-regulation alone is not the answer. As well as improving public transport, we must consider some restraints on car use. The withdrawal of a bus service can cut the pensioner off from their post office and the child off from their school. Somebody with a job, starting a shift at 6 o’clock in the morning, who finds that the bus service that gets them to work is being withdrawn, effectively has 42 days’ notice in which to find another job. That is unacceptable in the modern age.
The solution exists: re-regulation works in London. Whether we opt for the precise London model or the PTEG proposal, it is crucial that we get the details right. In order to get right the re-introduction of regulated services in our major towns and cities outside London, I say to my hon. Friend the Minister, for heaven’s sake, please do not simply listen to the interests of the major bus operators. Their interests are in retaining profits. She should listen to the PTEs, because they have one vested interest, which is to improve the public services to which we are also committed. Their vested interest is our vested interest. It is the vested interest of our constituents. It is important that we get the details right so that we can bring back regulation and make our bus services work once again for the people whom we represent.
It is a great pleasure to follow a passionate speech from a Yorkshire MP. It is one of several that we have heard from Yorkshire and Lancashire, and I intend to add to them. I also want to add a rural perspective, which we have not heard so far.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Ian Stewart) on securing the debate. He referred to the speech of the Secretary of State for Transport. It was the most radical speech about buses from a Transport Minister for several generations. The hall in Manchester filled up as he made his speech, although he had the grace to admit that that may have been in part because President Clinton was following him. Nevertheless, my right hon. Friend’s speech was witnessed by people who, when they see the improvements that we hope will follow, will look back to that critical moment.
Ministers in the Department for Transport are becoming bolder by the day. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron), told me in a written answer only in early September that
“I am taking a long, hard look at bus policy with the aim of taking decisions in the autumn on whether or not changes need to be made.”—[Official Report, 13 September 2006; Vol. 449, c. 2262W.]
Three weeks later, it is clear from the radical speech of our right hon. Friend that there will be changes—for all the reasons that have been well rehearsed today. They include the massive decline in bus patronage outside London—down 11 per cent. in the past four years in Yorkshire—the unjustifiable rate of return that many bus companies enjoy in metropolitan areas outside London, and the many complaints that traffic commissioners receive about bus safety.
I shall not rehearse those reasons, but I make three points to the Minister. I represent the southern suburbs of York. Down the years, whenever Ministers were in trouble about the subject, civil servants would hand them a piece of paper saying, “What about York, and Brighton, too?” My hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell), whom I hold in great esteem, did not mention York, but discussed historic walled cities and poor parking. He may have meant York. As a York MP, I know that bus deregulation is no more a success there than in many other areas, although it is true that on the main routes into the walled city, there have been improvements, because of co-operation between the main bus company and a progressive council over the years.
However, in the rural areas near York which I represent, such as Wheldrake, Elvington and Dunnington, bus services have been cut. They have changed by the month, as in other areas. The services in the Fordland road area of Fulford, just off the main road, have been cut in recent weeks and there have been massive increases in fares. The people of York feel frustrated when they are told that their bus services are the future, which I do not believe they are.
My hon. Friend the Member for Eccles quoted a phrase in the historic speech made by the Secretary of State, who said:
“I will act to give the local transport authorities that need them real powers to make a real difference.”
I hope that the Minister will not just listen to the strong, powerful lobby from the more urban areas—the old six passenger transport authority areas—which makes unanswerable points. If powers are to be given to one set of local authorities and passenger transport authorities, it is hard to find a logical reason why the same powers should not be given to such bodies across the country.
We have a proud record of putting money into rural areas to improve bus services. In our early years in power, the rural bus challenge led to services such as the C1 service—I know my bus numbers as well as my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey does—between Tadcaster and York, through such villages as Appleton Roebuck. Funding for the rural bus challenge has now been cut. We peaked in our support for rural bus services in 2003, with the provision of £68 million. That figure is now down to £54 million. The problems of deregulation are felt in many villages, such as those whose residents work at the designer outlet centre in my constituency, just outside York. If such people are given 40 days’ notice that a bus service is going, as they were in that case, their job prospects disappear because it is difficult for them to find other jobs in a rural area. If regulation is to return, it must apply across the country or there will be anger in many rural areas and a belief that we are only thinking about urban areas.
On travel-to-work areas, I am at one with my hon. Friend.
The passenger transport authority in west Yorkshire, with its creative and visionary leader, the chief executive Kieran Preston, is coming up with a plan to expand its horizons. The leaders of not only west Yorkshire councils, but some councils in north Yorkshire, will come to the House in November to present a plan to Ministers to extend the passenger transport authority area beyond the traditional west Yorkshire area to such places as Selby, Harrogate and York. Bus services in those places are integrated with Leeds, the dynamo of the local economy, although they should be more so. There is a lot of debate about the choice between regions and city regions, and I know that Ministers are tentatively considering changes to the boundaries of passenger transport authorities. It would make a real difference if, like those people a few miles away over the west Yorkshire border in Garforth, somebody in Selby could get a metropass to go to the same place, namely Leeds.
I shall finally make a political point. Nothing shows the bankruptcy of Thatcherite ideology better than bus deregulation. There is an apocryphal story of the then Secretary of State for Transport, Nicholas Ridley, going to the north-east and asking how many bus drivers owned their own buses, such was the lack of knowledge of how bus services worked at the time. Social democracy, regulation and community involvement will provide the answer, and I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Donohoe) that there is nothing inevitable about the decline of buses. Other countries in Europe have not had such massive increases in car ownership as us, and one of the reasons for that is that they have decent, reliable public transport and bus services. Let us not be pessimistic.
I am sorry that I was out of the room for a few minutes when my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire spoke about the bus operator in my area. I suggest to my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) that we should not restrict our ambitions. Yes, regulation must be available to our local authorities, but we should also consider creating opportunities for community ownership, municipal ownership and public ownership, which exist in many European countries.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Eccles (Ian Stewart) on securing the debate and the other hon. Members who have made cogent and valid points about why we must improve bus services. There is no doubt that in the past 12 months the campaign for re-regulation has gained pace. Ministers have said publicly that something must be done and we are all waiting to see what happens in the Queen’s Speech.
I shall not repeat the many excellent points made by the hon. Gentleman, but it is clear that outside London, in both rural and urban areas, bus fares are up and services down. The public monopoly has been replaced with a private monopoly and our communities have not been served as they should have been. He mentioned the bus wars in Manchester. It was interesting that they seemed to stop during the week of the Labour party conference. I do not know whether the private operators were trying to ensure that Ministers were not made aware of the problem, but anyone who has been to Manchester recently—I was there last week—has seen what it is like on a daily basis, with a crazy system that serves nobody.
Buses are the cheapest, most accessible and most environmentally friendly form of public transport. We all talk about the environment and climate change, and buses are the cheapest and easiest way to get people back on to public transport. They can serve the communities that most need them: for example, in my constituency one third of people still do not have a car and therefore do not have a choice of how to get about. If there is no bus service, they have no means of doing so. I was pleased that at our party conference we were able to pass a motion committing the Liberal Democrats to the re-regulation of bus services. As the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) said, we want regulatory powers not to be restricted to PTEs, but to be available to all local authorities that need them.
There are means of paying for services without incurring costs similar to those experienced in London. I am waiting for the Minister to give me the exact figures, but I am told that something like £350 million a year of vehicle excise duty goes straight to bus operators. If we look at the profit made by bus companies—I do not say that they should not be allowed to make a profit or that they should be privatised—we see that they make a return of 8 or 9 per cent. in London, but 20 per cent. in Greater Manchester. There are clearly means of financing the re-regulation of bus services. Local authorities want and deserve powers to do so.
The hon. Member for Eccles mentioned the bus workers charter, which I have read. Anybody who has had dealings with bus services, as I did in my former life when I was responsible for school buses, knows how difficult a job it is to work as a bus driver. The days of bus conductors in London have gone, and the charter of the T and G—I shall give them a plug—is excellent. I hope that it is adopted once new powers have been awarded. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say and, more importantly, to what is contained in the Queen’s Speech.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Eccles (Ian Stewart) on the eloquent and passionate way in which he presented his case. I note from his comments and from reading the parliamentary website that he has had a long tradition of concern about this issue during his time in Parliament. I read a number of his parliamentary questions yesterday and know that he has been a forceful advocate for his side of the story. He said that he had effectively initiated a debate on public transport. Members in all parts of the House support public transport; what we are talking about is how it will be delivered and continually improved.
The Government produced a 10-year plan back in 2000, in which they set themselves the relatively ambitious target of increasing bus journeys by 10 per cent. That target was to be fulfilled by 2010. They also wished to improve the punctuality of services nationally, but against that they recognised the increasing decline of bus usage over many years, increased prosperity and car ownership, and the increased cost of travel on buses. The Government recognised that that target was unattainable and it has been revised twice since 2000. We now have a combined target of increasing bus and light rail usage by 12 per cent. and of increasing growth in every region. Although I have heard about the speech in Manchester, we shall see whether there is any real difference in progress.
I have listened with interest to the arguments. The hon. Gentleman said that there was a case for change. However, the debate is about what that change is, how we should achieve it and what we should expect from it. The previous Secretary of State said:
“I would be wary of saying that we should go back to the pre-1986 situation.”—[Official Report, 2 July 2003; Vol. 408, c. 404.]
Like the hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell), who initiated a debate on a similar subject earlier this year, I have sat through four such debates since the beginning of the year. As he rightly said, they follow a relatively tried and tested formula—that is, there is a diatribe against the current system and a demand for changes to the Transport Act 2000, but then the other side of the story comes through. The hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Donohoe) pointed out that there had been substantial investment in buses, although bus life has declined, as he rightly said. A number of local authorities and PTEs have also deliberately set themselves against bus operators. It is therefore no surprise that we see the chaos that occurs occasionally.
Both the PTE and the bus operator in the hon. Gentleman’s own area have taken full-page adverts in the local newspaper criticising one another. I would have thought that that would count as evidence.
I agree with the hon. Member for Eccles in accepting that no one model is right. That is one of the lessons that we should learn from this debate. The policy does not necessarily need to be as prescriptive as previously suggested. I agree with the hon. Member for Pudsey about the need for long franchises, which is true not only of buses, but of rail franchises.
We can have franchising within the quality contract.
Various other areas are available as evidence of co-operation rather than non-co-operation. I met the managing director of the Brighton and Hove Bus Company—some Members did not want to talk about that this morning—who wrote me a letter about the ingredients for success:
“The key ingredients that we have put into the partnership mixture are frequent services—80 per cent. of our passenger journeys are taken on a bus”
“every 10 minutes; simple pricing offering value for money; continued, sustained investment in new buses, taking advantage of constantly improving technology and comfort, and a passion for excellent customer service…The Local Authority’s ingredients are the installation of effective bus priority measures…a robust parking management and enforcement regime; effective enforcement of traffic regulations associated with bus priority measures…accessible bus stops which are pleasant to wait at with real time information…As we discussed, the private sector is best placed to deal with the first 5 ingredients…and…the local authorities are best placed to deal with the second 5”.
One of the problems in the deregulated market in parts of the country outside London is that a number of the bus companies are becoming increasingly frustrated at what they see as the failings of the local authorities, whereas the local authorities are frustrated at what they see as the failure of the local bus companies either to invest or to be responsive to them.
If I understand rightly, Mr. Coleman has tried two experiments in Barnet, the other one of which is to remove road humps. That is also part of his strategy for Barnet, but it is not necessarily the overall strategy for London, nor is it necessarily the policy of this Front Bench. I shall touch on London later, for I have heard it described—as ever in these debates—as a paragon of virtue.
With the increasing frustration, I wonder whether meeting the operators and local authorities in those areas where co-operation seems to work better might help those frustrations to disappear. I am sure that we will hear from the Minister about whether there is an argument for ditching or improving the system. I await her response, but I am sure that she will bear in mind the comments about the world as it is and what the previous Secretary of State said about buses in Edinburgh, which is that the routes are
“more extensive and imaginative now than when the local authority ran the service…So I would be wary of saying that we should go back to the pre-1986 situation.”—[Official Report, 2 July 2003; Vol. 408, c. 404.]
I have listened to a number of the arguments advanced for PTEs, and I am guided also by a National Audit Office report published in December 2005, which highlighted the fact that, on either method, the Government were unlikely to meet their revised targets of increasing bus usage. The NAO reported on the problems of administrative costs of procuring bus services, commenting that
“if authorities currently tendering for individual routes or small packages of routes adopted a more strategic approach…they could achieve…savings”.
That is an argument for some of the flexibility that has been mentioned in this debate.
I hear a lot about London being a paragon of virtue. I agree with the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) about the encouraging movements and social enterprise developments, including Hackney community transport and—as I am sure she would wish to recognise—Ealing community transport. However, those of us in London do not necessarily recognise all the virtues of the model that are extolled to us. Bus usage is up, but fares are also up by some 40 per cent., although that figure hides the cost of the concessionary fare that Mr. Livingstone has introduced. Those of us who have been local councillors as well as Members of Parliament have noticed that, in order to fulfil Mr. Livingstone’s transport objectives every year, we often have to take money out of other budgets, most usually social services budgets.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned concessionary fares. Could he outline his party’s policy on free travel for under-11s, which gives a lot of families in London money back from their council tax and makes it affordable for children and families to travel on buses?
I am happy to talk about pricing for families, because I was coming to that point. There are some pricing irregularities worth noting. Under this Mayor, London has done away with the family railcard. In my constituency, two adults and two children travelling one stop from Wimbledon Park to Wimbledon now pay £9.10 rather than £3.40, so I do not think we need learn any lessons from the Mayor on that. It is also true that London buses now average only 15 passengers and that the service is the most expensive per mile in the UK. We have heard other Members quote constituents; I could also cite letters from my constituents about problems with routes. Route 200 springs to mind; it is consistently poor on delivery and punctuality. The buses never seem to turn up.
As the hon. Member for Eccles said, there may well be a case for change, but different models may well apply. Before everybody starts over-extolling the London model, we should be careful and remember some of its major problems.
Is not one of the key distinctions between the situation in London and that elsewhere that the people of London can vote for the services that they receive and the amount that they pay for them? People elsewhere cannot. Why should London have a democratic and regulated system when the rest of the country has a system characterised by deregulation and commercial tyranny? Or would the hon. Gentleman deregulate London’s bus service?
The hon. Gentleman makes much of what Londoners may vote for. I hear consistently from my constituents that, given how much they have to pay for the Mayor, they will use their voting opportunity in two years’ time to change the situation.
Much has been made this morning of real powers to make a real difference, which is the clarion call of the new Secretary of State. Will the Minister tell us whether she agrees with her predecessor that a return to the pre-1986 regime is not an option? The rules on quality contracts need to be relaxed so that there is more designation of core and non-core routes. We need quality bus corridors that work, ensuring greater reliability, flexibility and quality—according to some indications, journey times are completed 10 times faster. Turning the clock back is not the answer; re-regulation is not the answer.
The hon. Member for Central Ayrshire said that we need to treat the world as it is today. The world today needs additional flexibility, better procurement and quality partnerships. Will the Minister follow that route—if she does, I suspect that she will make a real difference—or will she, like so many of her predecessors, be remembered for making bold statements but taking no action?
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Ian Stewart) on securing this debate and providing an opportunity to discuss the important issue of bus services and how we seek to improve them, particularly in respect of provisions for bus employees. As always, he was thoughtful and incisive.
I am glad to see such tremendous interest among Labour colleagues, who are enticing me down a celebrated road. They offer me beatification and heroism, to name just a couple of things. I particularly thank my hon. Friends the Members for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) and for Selby (Mr. Grogan) for their promises. Although I cannot accept their kind offers at this stage, I accept the importance of the debate and what stands behind it: the quality of bus services for the people of this country.
Like my colleagues, I am sorry to see such paucity of interest from Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members. I feel that they have missed the opportunity to set out their policies on bus services. We did not hear them, I am afraid, although I would be interested to do so, and I know that I am not alone.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that there are no surprises. We are not going back to re-regulation and the 1980s; I can deal with the comments from the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives in one go. I still feel that it shows a paucity of policy to say that a conference passed a resolution for re-regulation. We need rather better than that, and I would welcome constructive comments on the reality that we face.
I should like to give some context. Buses are Britain’s most used form of public transport. In England, nearly two thirds of all journeys on public transport are made by bus; there are more than 4 billion bus passenger journeys a year. As my hon. Friends have so clearly stated, buses play a key role in enabling people to access essential services, places and aspects of their lives. However, we need to raise our game. Those on buses should not be only those who rely on them; we must also ensure that those with an alternative—namely, the car—take buses because they find them an attractive, convenient and suitable option. If we are to tackle congestion and all the other challenges, of which we are all too well aware, we have to do that.
Buses are important, as the Government recognise through their support. They give £2 billion a year to help fund the operation of bus services around the country. That includes funding for the introduction, last April, of free local bus travel for those aged 60 and over and for disabled people. That will be extended still further nationally. I am sure that other hon. Members have heard from their constituents, as I have from mine in Lincoln, about how welcome that Government policy is.
In addition, last year we provided £1.6 billion to local authorities to finance capital spending on local transport schemes—including, for example, those aimed at improving the infrastructure for bus services, as well as related traffic management improvements. Hon. Members have rightly raised that matter as important to the future well-being of bus services.
As of this month, the bus industry outside London and Northern Ireland has been deregulated for 20 years. Those years have been challenging for it. My hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Donohoe) rightly talked about the growth in car ownership, the increasing cost of providing bus services and the declining cost of running a car. Outside London, there have been a number of cases of increasing fares, reductions in services and declining bus patronage. As my hon. Friend said, we must remember to be accurate: bus patronage in most places was falling even more rapidly before deregulation. If fares were not rising then, that was often because of high levels of subsidy from local taxation. Rose-tinted glasses are not the order of the day; regulation was not a golden age of smart, punctual, frequent, good-value buses. We must see it as something that happened then, but we need to be accurate about it and help where we are now.
My hon. Friend the Member for Eccles reported—in my view, somewhat surprisingly—that the Transport and General Workers Union regarded the Northern Ireland system as a model solution. In fact, Translink has had problems in maintaining patronage there, and there are inherent flaws in the Northern Ireland system of bus regulation. I am glad to say that colleagues in the Northern Ireland Office are addressing them.
Hon. Members made various references to London, and I would like to give my view. Comparisons with London bus services do indeed produce aspiration, and in many cases inspiration, and that is a good thing, but I resist the invitation to draw a direct comparison with London. As the capital city, it has a unique place in our country. Its range of functions and density of people are unparalleled. Its bus service does not have a history of deregulation, and there is low car ownership, as we heard from London Members. It is also important to note that the London transport system incorporates the underground, congestion charging, the Oyster card, bus priority measures and a range of other means of supporting bus services. Yes, there is much to learn from London, but there is no straight lift and fit to other areas. My hon. Friends are well informed, and I was glad to hear them say that no one size fits all.
Indeed, I pay tribute to those improvements. I would always say that there are things to be learned from London, but we cannot lift from that experience and say that it is the only one.
For all its challenges, the deregulated market can be, and in some cases has been, a positive environment for bus services. Operators who understand the local market can respond quickly to changing travel demands, and many have made considerable investment in better-quality buses. Surveys show that the average age of local buses has fallen to 7.2 years, which is comfortably below the Government target of eight years, which the industry accepted in 2002.
I have seen how bus services massively improve when relations between local authorities and bus operators are good. As we know, more people are persuaded to use buses if they can expect faster journey times and more punctual and reliable services. However, bus operators cannot deliver such benefits on their own. I understand the necessity for and impact of better roads and traffic management. As has been discussed this morning, bus priorities are important, but they must be properly enforced.
As always, there is another side to the coin. Local authorities need assurances that operators will make use of the facilities and raise their game. In many places, assurances on both sides have been successfully achieved through quality bus partnership agreements between local authorities and bus operators. By improving both the infrastructure for buses and the standard of service, a virtuous circle of increased patronage and higher frequencies can be promoted.
I will overcome my nervousness about giving examples and try not to inflame my hon. Friends by those to which I refer. It is certainly the case that there have been tremendous benefits from partnership in places such as Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire. Again, we can learn from such examples. I agree that we should not put down Brighton and Hove, but we should note that there has also been significant growth in bus use in Northamptonshire, Bedfordshire and South Gloucestershire. As my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles said, there is not one solution for everyone. He generously admitted that he spoke from his own experience and that we must take account of other experiences throughout the country.
I am well aware that there are places where real partnership is not a feature. I recently experienced at first hand the unacceptable chaotic situation in central Manchester. My hon. Friend referred to bus wars. Let us put the situation in context: bus wars are a problem in Manchester, but they were more common in the early days of deregulation. In practice, they are quite rare today, because sensible operators know that they cause difficulties and do them no good in the long term. The traffic commissioner has taken steps to bring some discipline to bear by imposing traffic regulation conditions on the Manchester operators involved, and I hope that the situation can soon be resolved.
I endorse the comments of my hon. Friend, who painted a complimentary picture of what the Greater Manchester passenger transport executive has done. I was pleased to have an opportunity to meet with the PTE recently. In addition to my hon. Friend’s comments, I compliment it on the Metro shuttle and night bus network, both of which I experienced for myself, and the yellow school buses, which I have not yet had the chance to experience. Also, GMPTE has been successful in securing Government investment through urban and rural bus challenge awards and through Kickstart, and should be congratulated in that respect.
There has been much talk about the announcement made recently by the Secretary of State. It is important to put on the record his references to empowering local communities and to giving real powers to local transport authorities that need them to make a difference. That means local solutions designed for local needs.
I will not take my hon. Friend’s intervention, as I have only a few minutes.
Hon. Members can take from the Secretary of State’s announcement the direction of travel. I know that many hon. Members have been on the edge of their seat, waiting for an early and private announcement. I regret that I shall not give in to that great temptation this morning, but I assure people in local authorities, PTEs, passenger transport authorities, the bus industry, environmental groups, business and other communities, and bus users as well as colleagues in Parliament, that all the talks and visits are contributing and moving us towards the decision that we shall make in the very near future. I hope that hon. Members will be able to wait until then.
Whatever the service delivery arrangements, we should acknowledge that it is the whole staff team—drivers, administrative staff, engineers, managers and others who work at the sharp end—who are a key factor in the delivery of good services. I pay tribute to them.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) eloquently described what can be done to improve services, and I hope that many others will learn from what she said. The fact is, of course, that the working conditions of drivers and other staff are of primary importance, but they are matters for the industry itself. I know from my experience as a full-time Unison official who represented members in the transport sector that a well-motivated, well-trained and well-rewarded work force is paramount. As my hon. Friend said, working conditions, including suitable toilets and decent places where employees can eat a meal, are of significant importance in attracting and keeping staff.
Pay is a factor. I accept that wage rates traditionally have not been what they should, but average earnings of bus drivers rose by 3 per cent. in real terms in the past year: more than the national average for all occupations.
In summary, I pay tribute to those who provide bus services. We must acknowledge their worth, and we must work together to improve bus services and the conditions of those who provide them for all of us.