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Volume 453: debated on Tuesday 21 November 2006

I have taken account of the concerns that many hon. Members have raised with me on the standard of deregulated bus services and will shortly set out proposals on the direction of future bus policy. Legislative measures will be included in the draft road transport Bill.

It used to be a joke when people said, “You wait for hours and then three come at once”, but that is exactly the impact of deregulation on my constituents. Will the Secretary of State confirm that when he introduces legislation he will make provision for social enterprises, such as Durham Integrated Transport and the Dene valley community transport scheme?

I know of the important work that such organisations provide in supporting bus travel in rural and in urban areas, and I welcome their important contribution. As I understand it, Durham has successfully bid for funding for three rural bus challenge schemes. We support the efforts of the sector in a number of ways, and my officials are happy to discuss how we can further increase its effectiveness in years to come.

The Secretary of State will be aware that bus use is highest among the poorest 20 per cent. of our population and that the decline in bus use has hit hardest those who are least able to afford an alternative. Does he accept that the deregulation of the mid-1980s has failed? After eight and a half years of Labour Government, when will we see some action to give local communities back the power they need to provide the bus services that their communities want?

If I interpret the question rightly, it seems to be an endorsement of the proposals that I am contemplating. Certainly, I recognise that in the 20 years since deregulation, some communities have not enjoyed the bus service to which they are entitled. It is therefore important not simply to highlight areas where there are successful local bus services, such as Brighton, York and Oxford, but to focus on communities, not least those in many Labour constituencies, to which buses can be a vital life-line. That is why I intend to bring forward proposals and draft legislation to address the exact point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman). I fully recognise that, in many local communities, bus services are a vital link to economic and social regeneration.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the road transport Bill must redress the balance in favour of bus passengers, whose experience of bus travel all too often leads them to believe that business interests override passenger interests in areas such as south Yorkshire?

Certainly, in many areas a free-for-all has left the needs of passengers far behind, and that is why it is important that, in the proposals that we bring forward, we recognise that there is a genuine desire for improved bus services in many communities across the country.

The Secretary of State will know that No. 10’s website on the draft transport Bill states that it will enable

“local authorities to improve the standard of bus services”.

He will also know that, since deregulation, the average age of the fleet has fallen as investment has risen, and that fares have risen at less than half the rate of council tax. In 2006, overall satisfaction levels are increasing. His predecessor as 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.]

Will the Secretary of State confirm today that that remains the policy of the Government, and that his proposals will not take us back to the era of regulated buses?

It encourages me greatly, in respect of the debate that we are about to have, if the hon. Gentleman is suggesting on behalf of the Opposition that he is content with, and indeed complacent about, the bus services enjoyed in every community in the country. It is an entirely false choice to say that we should either go back to the state-owned and state-controlled system that existed before 1986, or accept that the present system is beyond improvement. I believe that improvements can and should be made, and it is on that basis that I shall, in due course, bring forward proposals.

While my right hon. Friend considers the evidence, before bringing forward the draft Bill, will he look at the experience of people in Merseyside? Passenger numbers have halved since deregulation 20 years ago, there has been an increase of 30 per cent. in fares, and there have been no extra bus miles. There is an unstable system under which bus routes can be, and indeed are, changed regularly; legally, they can be changed every 56 days.

I will certainly look into that. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron), who has responsibility for buses, and I engaged in a series of discussions and made a number of visits over the summer and in recent months to try to ensure that we are informed; that will be the basis of the proposals that we will bring forward in due course. Tomorrow, I will meet the “big five” bus operators to discuss our emerging thinking on bus travel. I fear that the situation described by my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle) is not unique to her area, and that is why we need to take action. It is on that basis that we will bring forward our proposals.

Buses in Northern Ireland were not deregulated, of course, and they are still under public ownership. Will that successful model be offered as an option in the draft Bill for Wales?

The hon. Gentleman is factually correct: in 1986, the deregulation that took place everywhere else did not take place in Northern Ireland. That should act as a cautionary note to anybody who suggests that there is a single approach to the provision of effective bus services that will work in every community. That certainly has been one of the examples that we have considered while preparing our proposals, and it is on that basis that, in due course, we will bring them forward.