[Relevant documents: The Eleventh Report from the Transport Committee, Session 2005-06, on Bus Services across the UK, HC 1317, and the Government’s response thereto, (Third Special Report, Session 2006-07, HC 298).]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Kevin Brennan.]
To many people, buses are a lifeline. They give people access to health-care, jobs and shops, and allow them to stay in touch with family and friends. To other people, buses are a convenient option—an alternative to using their car, and an alternative that we want more people to choose.
Over the last half century, the number of people using our buses has fallen dramatically in many parts of the country. Deregulation two decades ago was supposed to reverse that, but it did not. Since 1997, the decline has slowed down, but not enough. It need not be like this. In places such as York, Cambridge and Brighton, buses are thriving because they are delivering the kind of service that people want. Passengers want local bus services to be regular, affordable, reliable, comfortable and safe. They want pleasant, well-lit bus stops giving good information, easy-to-use ticketing systems and services that link up smoothly with other transport, such as rail services. At a time when we are trying to tackle congestion and promote more environmentally friendly travel, it is vital that the public have good public transport choices.
My hon. Friend mentioned the environment. We have all sat behind buses that are emitting filthy diesel smoke. Is there anything that the Government can do—through either the grant system, incentives or perhaps a direct mandate—to insist that, within a fairly short period, buses have engine systems installed that do not emit carbon dioxide and that are compatible with the highest environmental standards? Will the Minister take up that challenge?
I will certainly respond to that point in more detail later in my speech. My right hon. Friend rightly says that we need to look at the way in which the present bus service operator grant is working, to see whether it is properly incentivising people to use cleaner engine technologies. We also need to continue to work with the European Union on the directives that cover the improvement in pollution standards for diesel engines. He has put his finger on an important issue, and it is one that the Government and industry are closely interested in and are already looking at.
The headline statistic for passenger use is striking: two out of three public transport journeys in Britain are made by bus—more than 4 billion passenger journeys a year in England alone. In some areas of the country, provision is good, with bus operators and authorities working in partnership. In others, however, it is poor. We want to see bus services work in every community, in every part of the country.
That is why, last year, the Government decided to take a long, hard look at bus services. That work was led by the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron), who will wind up this debate. We published our conclusions in the document “Putting Passengers First; the Government’s proposals for a modernised national framework for bus services”. Those proposals are designed with one thing in mind—to give passengers a better service.
The measures that we have put forward are aimed at ensuring that the punctuality of services improves; creating better partnership working, including making what are called quality contracts—in which bus operators can bid to be the sole provider of a service in a given area—a more practical option where appropriate; and giving community transport a bigger role in providing services in areas poorly served by other transport. One further issue that we are considering is whether changes to current bus subsidies would help better to deliver the Government’s objectives on congestion, the environment and accessibility, which relates exactly to the point raised by my right hon. Friend a moment ago.
Have the Government looked at the subsidy regime in rural areas? There is a clear misuse of funds in such areas—not corruption, but misuse in the sense that we are not benefiting from the best use of the money. Is it not time for a wholesale look at some of the Spanish practices that exist? I am told, for example, that bus companies receive payment in connection with bus stops that have not been used for donkeys’ years. That needs to be brought into the open and dealt with.
If my hon. Friend has specific examples of what he describes as “Spanish practices” he should report them to his local authority, which is responsible for ensuring that matters are dealt with properly in the community. As for his general point, we said in our document that we wanted to know people’s views on the way in which subsidies operate. For instance, the current bus service operators grant is based on consumption of diesel. Is that the right way in which to subsidise bus transport if we want it to become more environmentally friendly, and is it robust from an accounting point of view?
May I pursue the point made by the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) about problems in rural areas? The Minister said that he wanted every community to benefit from bus transport. There are 120 villages in my constituency, a large number of which have no bus service at all. Some, like my own village of Witham Friary, officially have a bus service, but there is only one bus a week, and such a service is not of enormous value. How can we provide a proper public transport system with the flexibility that people need in rural areas? Have the Government a real strategy for that?
We want to provide improved services for every community and every type of community, but doing so cost-effectively is obviously a problem, and in rural communities it is particularly difficult. We are providing substantial subsidy around the country— about £2.5 billion a year in England alone—but it is up to local authorities, which know most about their communities and where the problems are, to create partnerships that can deliver services to those communities. They need not be commercial services: community transport is an option, and we have suggested ways in which that might be made more sustainable and effective. I encourage the hon. Gentleman and his council to respond to the consultation document by suggesting ways of dealing with problems in rural communities.
We in London are particularly proud of the investment and the partnership between the Mayor and the Government, which have helped to increase bus use. Indeed, in recent years London has seen the only major modal shift towards buses in any world city.
Does my hon. Friend share our grave concern about the fact that, in their alternative budget, Conservative members of the Greater London authority propose to end free transport for those under 18, and the fact that councillors in the London borough of Ealing are expressing enthusiasm for the removal of free public transport for older people? Does he agree that the decision to invest in free transport for children and elderly people in London is one of the reasons why we have achieved such phenomenal growth in bus use in the city?
I entirely agree. It is not for me to comment on the specific position in London, but I was very surprised when I heard about the Conservatives’ proposals, which are in complete contrast to comments that they make in public. I thought it extraordinary that they should wish to limit bus services in that way. I have no doubt that my hon. Friend and other London Members will make their views known forcefully, possibly even in this debate.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. He is being very indulgent.
So far, the Government have not responded to the suggestion that some bus companies are virtually blackmailing local authorities by saying that if they enter into the quality contracts that the Minister has recommended to us today, they will receive no co-operation from them—that is, from the private bus companies involved. In the event of legal action, will the Government undertake to indemnify local authorities against this wholly pernicious attack?
If there is evidence that that is happening, we will react to it very strongly. We will engage with local authorities that feel they are under such pressure to find out how best we can support them and deal with it. If a local authority decides that it is in the best interests of its local public to enter into a quality contract and wins the case, a private operator that does not go along with that decision will find itself unable to provide services and will lose out commercially. It is therefore in operators’ interests at least to co-operate in the planning of such schemes, but if my hon. Friend has specific examples we would like to hear about them, and we will certainly take them up.
I should like to make a little more progress first.
We are also introducing separate, but perhaps related, legislation to help our most vulnerable citizens by improving access to free bus travel. From April 2008, some 11 million older and disabled people will be entitled to free off-peak local bus travel anywhere in the country. That builds on recent improvements in the scheme introduced last April which allows free off-peak bus travel in local authority areas. The improvements will enable concessionary pass holders to use buses free of charge in other local authority areas in order to use important services, and to keep in touch with friends and family who may not live just down the road.
Obviously, it is good news that England has followed the example of the Labour-led Scottish Executive in introducing a national concessionary scheme, but it does not quite cover the entire country. Although it is possible for pensioners to travel from Cornwall to Northumberland—or, under the Scottish scheme, from Berwick to Orkney—there are no cross-border arrangements. I am not suggesting that people should be able to travel from Cornwall to Orkney, but it would be quite convenient for older citizens in Newcastle to be able to travel to Edinburgh, and vice versa.
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for eventually giving way to me. May I return him to what he was saying about quality contracts? The Government obviously wish to make them a more realistic option, but the process described in “Putting Passengers First” seems unduly convoluted. Has he or his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made any assessment of how long it would take from start to finish?
It is true that making quality contracts more practical is a key objective in the document, but I do not agree that the process is convoluted. It seems quite straightforward to me. We propose that if a local authority considers it to be in the public interest and can make a case for its being in the public interest, it should be an option. If the authority opts for the contract and local operators disagree with it, there will be an independent appeal process. If local authorities consider that too convoluted, they can respond to the document and to our consultation on the draft Bill, and we will try to deal with their concerns.
May I return the Minister to the subject of concessionary fares? A national scheme has been operating north of the border, and one is being proposed for Wales. Does the Minister agree that if a national scheme operated in England, it might be possible to reduce fraud and disadvantages such as passenger transport authorities being forced to cut spending in other areas? If a scheme were administered nationally, we would know where the money was going, and some authorities would not lose out.
I thought that the Liberal Democrats were in favour of devolution and taking power away from the centre and giving it to local authorities, but I think that I have just heard a bid for us to take control of bus services away from local authorities and bring it back into Whitehall, which is a bizarre suggestion.
We are proposing—there will be plenty of opportunities for this to be discussed in the House—a scheme under which we will provide additional funding to make it possible to have a system in which older and disabled people can travel anywhere in England for free, and after discussion with the devolved Assemblies we might be able to expand that to anywhere in the United Kingdom. I do not think that the idea that we should backtrack on local authority control of bus services is a goer, but I will be interested to hear the contribution of the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen).
I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for giving way, and I join him in welcoming the free bus passes for the elderly. They have been tremendously welcomed in my North Durham constituency, but many of my elderly constituents are now finding that because Go Northern has removed bus services from isolated villages in my constituency, they have no access to a bus at all. The latest example of that is the community of Pelton Fell having its No. 739 bus removed without any consultation with local people. Therefore, although elderly people have got a free bus pass thanks to a Labour Government, thanks to a heartless bus company some of them have no access to a bus.
That is why it is right that we give control of such issues to local authorities and to local passenger transport authorities. Local people who know what the local issues are, and who know when local services are being withdrawn, can try to build partnerships with the private sector to fill gaps in services. If the private sector is acting in the way that my hon. Friend suggests, it is up to the local council to decide whether it wants to step in and provide a subsidy for a particular scheme, or to provide the service by means of a community transport option, or—if it cannot build a successful partnership—it might need to think about having a quality contract in future in order to be able to put in place the sort of service that will provide buses to such isolated villages.
Given my hon. Friend’s welcome comments on community local governance, does he consider it appropriate that traffic commissioners or transport tribunals should sit in judgment on the merits of a quality contract? Should not local government make such decisions in consultation with local people?
Under our proposals, it will be for local government to make a public interest case for a quality contract. Having made such a case and having moved towards having a quality contract, if commercial operators feel that they have been unfairly disadvantaged and not properly consulted, there must be an appeal process for them to go through. We have suggested that there should be such an independent appeal process, but I hope that it will never be used because I hope that local authorities that decide to go down that route will involve everybody in making their decision.
I wish to make an important point. What the Minister is trying to explain is slightly different from what appears on page 43 of “Putting Passengers First”. It says there not that there can be an appeal when a local authority has reached a decision about going ahead with a quality contract, but that that automatically goes to a senior traffic commissioner, acting together with a panel of experts, who decides whether to approve it. Beyond that, there is an appeal to the transport tribunal. However, at the interim stage involving the traffic commissioner there is no appeal. The commissioner has a right to determine whether the local authority, acting in the public interest, is correct or not. That second guessing of an elected body causes great concern.
I have heard my hon. Friend’s point and it will be taken into consideration. He is right that a senior traffic commissioner and a panel of experts review the decision to go to a quality contract to make sure that it is appropriate and in the public interest, and there then is an independent appeal process that operators can go through. If some hon. Friends feel that that is too convoluted or that it is unfair, they should put their comments to us and we will take them on board. I think that there is an appropriate protection in the light of the evidence that we have so far received, but I encourage hon. Friends to communicate their views.
I welcome the draft Bill, but I remind my hon. Friend that some of us warned Ministers in 2000 that the voluntarist approach would not be successful, and I think that it is fair to say that it has not been successful to date. The intention behind the draft Bill is good, but will the Minister assure me that the powers that local authorities and passenger transport executives will be given will mean that I can be sure that trains stop at my Swinton stations and that the bus routes will be kept going through my constituency of Eccles?
I would be surprised if the draft Bill included a specific Swinton stations and Eccles clause, but my hon. Friend can table an amendment on that if he wishes. The voluntarist approach has worked in some parts of the country—in some communities it has worked very well, but in others it has completely failed. We have put forward our proposals because we want everybody to have top quality bus services and the opportunity of increased bus patronage. My hon. Friend might have been prescient when the proposed legislation that became the Transport Act 2000 was being discussed in respect of his own local authority, but he should not assume that that is the case for everywhere in the country.
Let me make a little progress. Many colleagues want to speak—at least many Labour Members do. That there are so few Members present on the Opposition Benches shows what the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats think about the importance of buses, and I note in particular that the Liberal Democrats have been able to put up only a Front-Bench spokesman to contribute to this important debate on public transport.
The House has debated on many occasions the issue of why no quality contract or franchising schemes have been made under the Transport Act 2000, although a number of local transport authorities have supported them in principle. The Government’s review has concluded that the barriers to quality contracts have been set too high. We recognise that they are not the right model for everywhere, but we want to make them a more realistic option for those authorities that consider that they would best address the problems facing their areas. They could be particularly valuable where they are part of a package of measures to improve public transport and reduce urban congestion.
We also recognise the need to safeguard the legitimate interests of bus operators. Currently, a quality contract can be offered only if it is the only practicable way to improve services in a given area, and the “only practicable” test is set out in legislation. We propose to replace that test with a more objective and measurable public interest test, and in order to protect operators we will replace the Secretary of State as approval authority with an independent body chaired by the senior traffic commissioner, and give a right of appeal to the transport tribunal. Those changes will make quality contracts a realistic option for authorities to pursue.
It is also clear that one of the biggest factors that will put off existing and potential passengers is lack of punctuality. If services are late—or, if I dare say so, early—or do not turn up at all, they will not be an attractive alternative to the car. Currently, bus operators are not required to provide records of punctuality, although many monitor that for their own purposes. We propose to work with the industry to develop a new performance regime that will place bus operators under a duty to keep records of the punctuality of their services, and to provide regular, reliable data to the traffic commissioner.
We also recognise that many matters affecting punctuality are outside the operator’s control, so we want to give the traffic commissioners more leverage over the local authorities as well, and to encourage them to work with operators on remedial measures. If performance fails to improve, there will be penalties that they can impose on operators. If the traffic commissioners are dissatisfied with performance on the local authority side, we propose that they should apply to the Secretary of State to use his intervention powers under the Traffic Management Act 2004.
Another thing that puts off passengers is hikes in bus fares. Lancashire county council is looking to plug a big hole that it has in its budget. Last year, it put up fares, which put a lot of youngsters off the idea of going to school by bus. This year, it is cutting real services, which the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) said earlier is happening in his constituency. What protection can the Government give to the people of Lancashire—particularly those living in rural areas—in order to ensure a future for their bus services?
Of course, it is up to local authorities to build partnerships with local bus operators and to make sure that subsidies are properly targeted where they can best be used, in order to guarantee the success of these services. If they are unable to do that under the current powers, they might be in a better position to do so under the proposed new ones. I should point out that under this Government, the public purse is now providing £2.5 billion a year to subsidise bus services throughout the country. That money is spent on ensuring that services are available in isolated places, and that the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, for example, have access to decent services. I fail to see, however, how his party’s proposal to cut public expenditure by £16 billion would allow local authorities to receive more of the funding that they need to improve services.
The transport innovation fund will also allow local authorities to develop and deploy smarter, more innovative solutions to congestion in their areas. Up to £200 million a year—and possibly more—is being made available to authorities from 2008. Hard demand-management measures, including road pricing, will be introduced alongside significant improvements to public transport. As we have seen from the example of London, the introduction of road pricing will create a growing market for buses. The provision of improved bus services will be integral to establishing the bus as a viable alternative to the car.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way once more; he is very generous. Is not one of the key measures in delivering better local bus services the exemption of such services from competition legislation, which is getting in the way of through-ticketing and sensible timetabling?
My hon. Friend needs to look at these proposals in the round. If it is not possible through the voluntary or the statutory partnership arrangements to deal with the issues that concern her, her local authority might want to look at a quality contract. Such a contract does not put an end to competition in a particular area; rather, it offers a different way of providing competition, and it will enable us to deliver to other parts of the country some of the benefits of a franchising scheme that we have seen in London.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. He talks about building partnerships, which we all agree is very important. Milton Keynes unitary authority is geographically very small, and it is surrounded by Bedfordshire, Northamptonshire and Buckinghamshire. Most buses go into Milton Keynes, but many people in the surrounding doughnut do not want to commute to Milton Keynes, but to Northampton, Bedford or Buckingham. What can the Minister do to encourage the building of partnerships between local authorities to enable the creation of such routes? At the moment, that is not happening.
It is not for central Government to do everything. There is not a steel fence around Milton Keynes that prevents its authority from talking to other authorities in the area, or vice versa. It is for local authorities to get together and address these issues for themselves. We provide the powers and the funding, and it is for local authorities to use them to best advantage to make sure that the services are of a type of which constituents such as the hon. Gentleman’s can make use. Of course, we are not only providing bus services, we are rapidly expanding train services and making a lot of funding available for local authorities. If a local authority wants to bid for funding from the transport innovation fund and to convince us that it is a good bid, it will have to look at issues such as the surrounding areas and the partnership arrangements between local councils.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way again. Just before Christmas, my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods) and I had a meeting with our local bus companies and the county council, and one issue that we talked about was through-ticketing. They said that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith) pointed out, competition law prevents through-ticketing and they could not legally implement it. Through-ticketing would, however, be very beneficial to my constituents and others.
We are working closely with the Office of Fair Trading in examining such issues. If authorities have received legal advice that they would be in breach of competition law if they provided what would be sensible new arrangements, we need to know about such examples and to address this issue as part of the review. That is certainly what we will try to do.
If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I will not give way. A lot Labour Members, in particular, want to speak, so let me make a little more progress.
It is clear that a key factor in areas where buses are popular is the strength of partnership working between local authorities and bus operators. Although there are statutory powers in the Transport Act 2000, all the arrangements currently in force have been purely voluntary. I am pleased to note that a statutory scheme has recently been created in Sheffield—my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith) will be glad to know—and will soon come into force. Such voluntary arrangements often work remarkably well, but there are limits to what can be done in locations where there is more than one operator, because of constraints in competition legislation. We propose to develop a new legal test to determine when multi-operator agreements are permissible.
As well as changes to the voluntary model, we also want to extend the scope of statutory partnership schemes, so that they can cover minimum frequencies and co-ordination of timings and, possibly, allow some control over maximum fares. We also want to make the schemes more flexible, so that the facilities provided by local authorities and the service improvements made by operators can be phased in over time.
Although the bus review was mainly about commercial provision, we also fully recognise the important role that the voluntary transport sector plays, and realise that it could do even more if certain restrictions were lifted. Community transport groups are major providers of specialised services for older and disabled people, but their powers under section 22 of the Transport Act 1985 to provide local services for the general public are underused. We therefore propose to lift the restriction on paying drivers on those services more than expenses, which will encourage more drivers to come forward and allow the sector to expand. We also propose to lift the restriction regarding vehicles with more than 16 passenger seats, so that larger buses can be used. We hope that that will encourage more local voluntary groups to fill the gaps in commercial services and to reach the places that buses cannot realistically go.
We also need to consider whether local government, particularly in metropolitan areas, is empowered to take the hard decisions that need to be taken for the effective delivery of transport in local areas. For instance, there are concerns about the decision-making split in passenger transport authority areas, whereby the passenger transport executive has no powers over roads, traffic, parking and bus priority measures. We consider that governance reform in PTA areas should be an important part of establishing a quality contract scheme in a metropolitan area, and we propose to address that issue through the draft road transport Bill.
Finally, I come to bus subsidy. After declining in the decade after 1986, bus subsidy in England has almost doubled in real terms since 1997-98. Some £2.5 billion of revenue funding supports bus services in the form of reimbursement of concessionary fares, service subsidies and the bus service operators grant. We need to ensure that that spending contributes effectively to our wider objectives. For example, BSOG is currently a grant from central Government related to fuel usage. We will consider whether there is scope for reforming BSOG to link it more directly to bus operators performance or environmental outcomes. We recognise the importance of understanding fully the potentially adverse impact or unintended consequences of any reform, so as I have said, we will consider these issues with stakeholders.
I thank the Minister for giving way. The Oyster card system is very popular with people who travel on the buses in London because it is a pre-payment system and there are concessionary fares, for example. The other good thing is that it enables bus operators to know exactly who is travelling on their buses. Will his proposals make it easier for Greater Manchester passenger transport authority to introduce such a system for the convenience both of passengers and of bus operators?
I would certainly hope so. My hon. Friend is right. The convenience of the Oyster card is one more factor that encourages people on to the buses in London, and I would like to see similar arrangements throughout the country. I hope that our proposals facilitate such schemes and if anybody has any reason to think that they may be a barrier to the introduction of schemes, we would like to hear about it as part of this debate.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for emphasising that point, although I was aware of it and I was reminded by my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) earlier. It is a baffling proposal and could only come from Conservatives. I may be misleading the House, because it could also have come from Liberal Democrats in other areas, who make equally silly suggestions. In London, it could only come from the Conservatives. It will be interesting to hear how the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) justifies that proposal.
Is my hon. Friend aware of real concerns that some bus operators are trying to milk the concessionary fares system for pensioners? First has just put fares in Sheffield up by 10 per cent., which means that it will want 10 per cent. more for every concessionary fare. The bus grant is going up by 4 per cent. to compensate the PTE for the concessionary fares. At that rate, within five years all the money that the PTE has to spend on bus services will go on concessionary fares with nothing left for tendered services, unless the system is significantly reformed.
I hear what my hon. Friend says. It is for the local authority, especially when renewing arrangements with local operators, to ensure that they get value for money from the concessionary fares scheme. If they do not feel that they are getting value for money from the schemes, they need to take appropriate action. If they feel that they do not have the powers to take appropriate action, I hope that they will feed that into the consultation so that we can be made aware of the problem. If the situation in my hon. Friend’s area is as he says, we should all be concerned.
Local authorities and private operators know that they need to work together to deliver modern, integrated transport services, and we are committed to giving those areas that want them the powers to provide better services that meet the needs of the local population. The publication of “Putting Passengers First” was intended to get people talking and there will be further public scrutiny of the proposals when we publish the draft Bill.
No one says that it will be easy and there is no one-size-fits-all solution, but the opportunities are there, provided we are bold and the right local solutions are put in place. The prize is a transport system that will meet the challenges of the future and bus services across the country that give passengers in every community what they rightly expect.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate on the future of buses, but it is worth first looking back at what has happened over the past 40 years. The standard of living has improved over time and, to put it bluntly, as people have become more prosperous they have migrated from public transport to cars. Some of the most interesting passages in the Eddington report were the details of how car travel in Great Britain doubled in just seven years between 1953 and 1960. It doubled again between 1960 and 1967. By 1990, the distance travelled by car had increased to more than ten times the 1953 figure.
It is no real surprise, therefore, that bus travel should have declined. It was at its peak in the 1950s, when there were 16,455 million passenger journeys by bus per year. By 1971 that figure had halved. By 1999 it had halved again, to about 4,350 million. The number has picked up in recent years, to 4,719 million.
That is the point that I am making. With general prosperity, people have chosen to go by car and it is against that background that we should consider the use of buses. If the hon. Lady will let me develop my theme, I will come to that point.
Buses are still very important. The bus and coach sector today has approximately one seventh of its market share in 1952, when the industry accounted for some 42 per cent. of all travel in Great Britain. That share had fallen to 28 per cent. by 1960 and by 1973 it had dwindled to 14 per cent. Since 1991, the market share has stabilised at around 6 per cent. The overall cost of motoring has remained at or below its 1980 level in real terms. By contrast, public transport fares have risen in real terms since 1980. In 2004, bus and coach fares were 37 per cent. higher than in 1980. Over the same period, average disposable income increased by more than 95 per cent. in real terms. It is also worth pointing out that council tax receipts increased between 1995 and 2000 by 94 per cent.
Transport by any mode has therefore become more affordable, but with a significantly greater improvement in the affordability of car use than that of public transport, especially buses. Despite those external factors, the bus continues to remain critical. Many cities have been working hard to reverse the downward trend of bus use, as wealth creation has raised the importance of environmental and quality of life factors, as the Minister mentioned. There are still some 4.1 billion bus journeys per year in England, equivalent to some 187 bus journeys per household. Although the sector accounts for just 8 per cent. of all journeys, the bus remains the most widely used public transport mode. Interestingly, across the UK the number of bus trips is twice the number of rail and underground trips put together.
Does the hon. Gentleman therefore support the measures that have been taken in London by the Mayor, including congestion charging, which has helped to speed up public transport journeys? Will he take this opportunity to make it clear that he dissociates himself from the initiatives by London Conservatives to undermine free transport for under-18s and the freedom pass for pensioners?
I am happy to discuss that issue and I shall come on to the issue of London in a moment. There has been a huge increase in subsidy in London, which has unique circumstances. On the issue of fares for under-18s, it is a devolved issue, but as I understand it, my Conservative colleagues are concerned that the service is sloppily administered and it is not clear who qualifies for it. There is also a problem with public disorder and vandalism. However, the hon. Lady should take the issue up with Conservative members on the GLA, because it is a devolved issue.
Buses are critical in supporting labour markets in urban areas. A quarter of the work force in cities such as Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, Sheffield and Leeds travel by bus. A quarter of all households in England—two fifths in London—are without access to a car and that is a principal driver of continued bus demand.
As the Minister said, buses also have a role to play in tackling road congestion. In the right circumstances, buses can be important in encouraging modal shift from the car in congested areas. Although buses typically tend to support non-business trips, without them some such trips would, potentially, be made by car. Buses can therefore play a valuable role in attracting leisure and commuter travellers off the road network, freeing up road space and reducing travel time for business and freight traffic. Inevitably, there is a price to pay for that and it can be too high, as was beginning to be the case before deregulation.
At this point, I wish to pay public tribute to the late Nicholas Ridley, who became Lord Ridley of Liddesdale. I am completely partisan on the subject, because he was my wife’s uncle. He was one of the most remarkable members of that Conservative Government. He had many talents and was a brilliant cook, water-colourist and architect.
I had the delight of opposing Nicholas Ridley when he introduced the Transport Act 1985 and he always had great clarity of thought. He had the simple attitude that buses cost too much, the people who used them were mainly poor and that they should be removed from that category as soon as possible. He was a sensitive colourist and a most insensitive Secretary of State for Transport.
I am very grateful to the hon. Lady, who is my near neighbour, for that intervention. I predicted that it might come along. However, 85 per cent. of the decline in bus use over the past 40 years took place before deregulation, and 15 per cent. happened after it. Nicholas Ridley arrested the decline—[Interruption.] That is what the figures show.
It is appropriate that the hon. Gentleman should reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) with humour and not objective facts. He is well informed, and will have read the report from the Transport Select Committee entitled “Bus Services Across the UK”. Does he agree that table 2, which disaggregates the effect of deregulation in the metropolitan areas from London, shows that deregulation added to the general decline in bus use?
No, I do not. As I said, 85 per cent. of the decline of the past 40 years occurred before deregulation. That decline continued afterwards, but tapered off. In London and some other places, bus use has recently increased. The difference between us is that I believe that the decline would have remained precipitate had not deregulation taken place, but it is interesting that the Minister has had to battle today against a barrage of demands from Labour Members for more regulation. At no time in their 10 years in office have the Government hinted that deregulation should be reversed.
That is a good point. London is unique, as I shall explain in a moment.
The 1985 Act deregulated the bus industry outside London, and road services licensing outside London was abolished from October 1986. At the same time, proposals were introduced to change the structure of the bus industry through privatisations. As the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) said, London was treated differently: the bus companies were privatised but the capital retained a regulated regime, and all services were secured following competitive tendering.
A complete change took place. In 1985, 75 per cent. of bus services were in the public sector, but the proportion amounted to only about 7 per cent. by 1997.
I travelled on a bus from Euston station at about 2 pm yesterday.
The most obvious gain of deregulation was that it forced the franchise market in London and the deregulated markets in other urban areas to achieve substantial and dramatic reductions in operating costs. The largest real-terms reductions in operating costs between 1986-87 and 2005-06 were achieved in Scotland, where they fell by 48 per cent. The PTA areas achieved 47 per cent. cost reductions, and London 34 per cent. That shows that there had been huge waste in the industry, and that deregulation brought about a remarkable change.
The decline of the bus market has continued since deregulation, but it has slowed down. Overall, passenger numbers in Great Britain have fallen by 19 per cent. since 1985-86, although they have risen again in recent years. A rise of 8.5 per cent. since the lowest point has been driven by London, which now accounts for 38 per cent. of the market. The London market has grown by 59 per cent. since 1985-86, but other areas have suffered major declines in passenger numbers, with the PTAs losing 49 per cent. of passengers and the English shires 57 per cent.
Labour Members want to believe that regulation works, but a look abroad shows that it does not. In France, in the 10 years to 2004, passenger numbers using urban transport rose by an average of only 1.4 per cent a year. In the same period, the proportion of costs met from fares fell from 51 per cent. to 39 per cent. That compares with average falls of 1.4 per cent. a year in England outside London, where passengers met 68 per cent. of the costs of bus services through fares. Many people look to France as an example of regulation, but the costs are high and the benefits are small.
In Italy, buses are the main component of public transport use. Between 2002 and 2004, that use fell by 14 per cent. in the largest cities, where all services are regulated and co-ordinated by public authorities. That shows that Italy has not been well served by a regulated public transport system. In Northern Ireland, where the market is still regulated, bus use fell by 3 per cent between 2000 and 2005.
The Government placed much reliance on the work of Sir Rod Eddington. His report was emphatic about buses, and it is worth quoting what he said in full.
“This study is strongly of the view that competition forces rather than the alternative model of State ownership and control are the appropriate mechanisms for securing successful economic outcomes in urban areas and delivering bus services that users value. Competition forces create on-going incentives for efficiency and responsiveness of provision to the needs of users. The former has clearly been evident since deregulation, which led to a fall in operating costs in some markets of 50 per cent. There has also been considerable innovation in the bus market following deregulation including improvements in bus fleet, variable bus sizes, out-sourcing of maintenance, smart ticketing and the introduction of part-time working arrangements for employees in the sector.”
A little earlier in the report, when discussing the three broad options that urban areas might adopt to deliver bus services, Eddington said:
“Underlying each of these options is the principle of employing competitive forces. There is no evidence to suggest that there should be a return to the pre-1986 era where government owned buses.”
I am sure that Ministers are aware that the former Secretary of State for Transport, who is now Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, told the House:
“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.]
The document being discussed today does not suggest going back to that. The hon. Gentleman is trying to argue that bus deregulation slowed down the decline in patronage, but that slowdown has taken place largely since 1997. Is it not possible that this Government’s doubling of bus subsidies to £2.5 billion a year has had rather more to do with it?
The Minister needs to be practical. The 1986 measures were not going to have an instantaneous effect in changing people’s behaviour. The smoky, clattering old nationalised buses that used to bumble around Shropshire, for instance, had to be got rid of, but that took time. I am trying to help the Minister by giving him some arguments to counter what Labour Members are saying to him.
Deregulation slowed the decline in bus use but, 20 years later, it is worth looking at imaginative techniques for improving the deregulated regime. My contention is that, without deregulation, the precipitate decline would have continued.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that deregulation has destabilised the bus system? It has led to services constantly being chopped and changed, and diminished passengers’ confidence in their reliability. People in Leeds have voted with their feet and taken to their cars—not because they want to, but because there is no alternative.
I am sure that the debate will reveal major variations around the country. I shall come to some good examples of how local authorities have made use of the benefits of deregulation and entered into good partnerships locally. However, I do not dispute the hon. Gentleman’s knowledge of his area, and it is clear that deregulation has not been so successful in some parts of the country.
My party is very much in favour of partnership working, but I am adamant about the basic contention that, without the huge efficiency improvements that followed deregulation, the headlong decline in bus use would have continued at a faster rate.
The Minister pointed out that the biggest change wrought by the Government has been the huge increase in subsidy to £2.5 billion. That has mainly gone on concessionary fares and increased expenditure in London. Indeed, the subsidy has rocketed from £572 million to £711 million recently. What have we got for this in London?
Has it worked? It is interesting to look at the passenger figures. The Transport for London annual travel report 2005 stated that the average load was 15 passengers per bus. The mayor’s target for 2011 is to increase that average load by 40 per cent. to 19 passengers per bus. Yet the average capacity for a London bus, taking in all types, is 93. The Assembly’s transport committee recently commissioned a value for money study of London’s buses. Its consultants, Colin Buchanan and Partners, showed that the productivity of London’s buses has collapsed. In 1997-98 the buses ran without a subsidy and the average bus carried 13 passengers. By 2005, the buses consumed an annual Government subsidy of £550 million and carried an average of 15 passengers per bus. The subsidy given is like paying the additional passengers to ride the buses.
My constituents in Greater Manchester would love the equivalent to a London bus service operating in their area. Does the hon. Gentleman not recognise that in places like Greater Manchester, where there has also been a massive increase in subsidy to private bus operators, we have not got a lot in return? The benefit of the London system, with its franchising arrangements, is that bus companies cannot just cherry-pick the profit-making routes; they must take on a whole network. Integration is part of that.
I will cite some examples of partnership that have worked. The trick with partnerships is not to overegg the arrangement and kill the advantages of deregulation. The debate will probably reveal great regional variation. The London service is devolved. My Conservative colleagues are convinced that while the increased investment in buses has been good for London, we need to run them so that the services they offer better reflect when people need to use them. The contract should cater for that. However, most of the day buses are running around empty, and at the same frequency as in the rush hour because the operators pay the same either way. That means that the roads are getting more congested during the day because the operators are paid to provide a rush hour service for a fraction of the passengers.
I am enjoying the hon. Gentleman’s analysis of the situation. He seems to be suggesting that the provision of public support for bus services has led to them becoming less cost-effective. As I am keen to learn about Conservative party policy, and I suspect that most of our constituents are too, can he confirm that it is Conservative party policy to withdraw or cut the current public subsidies for bus services?
No, I do not know where the Minister got that idea from. We are talking about spending money more effectively. I have just quoted some independent consultants who have shown that bus service productivity in London has collapsed. The Minister stood up and trumpeted that he was cleverly spending a record £2.5 billion; I am quietly trying to analyse whether the money has been spent effectively and for the public good.
I got that impression from listening to the hon. Gentleman. If subsidy has led to the collapse of a cost-effective bus service, it follows that his party will do something about that. He obviously intends to cut the bus subsidy. Our constituents would like to know that the Conservatives do not support buses, do not want to see a successful bus service throughout the country and will start withdrawing bus subsidies. That will inevitably mean under a Conservative Government that the most vulnerable services, particularly to rural and isolated communities, will disappear first.
This is all very depressing. I thought that we were going to have a sensible debate. We are talking about spending a titantic slug of public money more effectively. With this extra money the Minister and his colleagues in the London Assembly have increased bus ridership in London from 13 to 15 passengers on average. I am just asking whether that is a good way of spending public money. My colleagues in the London Assembly are seeing how existing subsidies can be spent more effectively and efficiently. [Interruption.] The Minister cannot misinterpret what I am saying. He stands up and says that the Government have done a great thing by increasing bus subsidies. I am quietly trying to look and see whether those subsidies have been spent wisely. I am suggesting that my Conservative colleagues in the Assembly could spend that money more effectively.
We should not get too hung up on London because, in many ways, the London model is unique. First it has had a big increase in subsidy by 548 per cent. at constant prices between 2001 and 2005. That is a 30p subsidy per passenger. The metropolitan areas have had their subsidy reduced by 2.5 per cent. That is a massive contrast.
The hon. Gentleman is being uncommonly generous in giving way. Does he accept that another failure of the deregulated system in areas such as west Yorkshire is that it has created a virtual monopoly? When the passenger transport executive puts subsidised services out for contract, it invariably gets just one tender. Is that a good way of spending public money?
Again we get regional variation. If hon. Members will let me make some progress, I will give examples of excellent partnerships, in some cases involving one and in others two operators. It can work. It would be helpful if, when the hon. Gentleman catches your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, he explains why that arrangement has not worked in his area unlike in places such as Hove, Oxford and elsewhere.
London has had a huge increase in subsidy, but other factors should be taken into account. London’s population has increased by 9.2 per cent., whereas in the metropolitan areas the population has declined by 1 per cent. and, if west Yorkshire is excluded, by 2.9 per cent. For huge numbers of people in London, using a car is simply not an option. Unlike other met areas, the city is filled throughout the day by commuters who arrive by train or tube. In London, 80 per cent. of the public use public transport, compared with the west midlands where about 30 per cent. of people use public transport. Furthermore, almost 12 million tourists visit London. That is more than a third of the total tourist traffic in the United Kingdom. Few of them have cars.
The hon. Gentleman is gravely underestimating the impact that the additional investment and new strategies on bus policy have had in London. The result has been half a billion additional passenger journeys. From what the hon. Gentleman is suggesting, we are led to understand that, if his colleagues have their way, the services most impacted upon will be those to the vulnerable—people who do not fall into his category of economic efficiency—older people, families and young people who have benefited by the equivalent of £1,000 a year through free travel, night services and services to areas that have not been best served by buses hitherto. Is it not true that his drive for efficiency will impact on precisely those vulnerable individuals and communities?
I do not see that. I do not see what is good about wasting public money or what is bad about trying to spend existing sums better. The hon. Lady is talking about a nil sum gain. It is not a case of subsidies as they stand: good; any change in the regime: bad. My colleagues in the London Assembly are looking at spending the money more efficiently. I would have thought that she would endorse that, as would her taxpayers. London has seen an increase in its population and attracts many tourists. We must be careful because London is unique in many ways.
In some urban areas bus usage has been increasing. Eddington was interesting on this and talked about York. Those urban areas tend to be historic towns where car restraints can be easily applied and where there is usually a widespread cultural acceptance of the need for alternative transport.
I represent part of York and it is true that on the arterial routes in and out of the city partnerships have worked quite well, but in many of the villages that I represent, such as Wheldrake and Elvington, there have been cuts in bus services. There is the big controversy in the city about the level of fares. York is often used as an example, but there is great disquiet in the city about the operation of buses.
That is a helpful intervention. I was deliberately citing the examples in the Eddington report. As the report was partly published by the Department for Transport and the Treasury I would have thought that the facts would be accepted on both sides of the House, particularly by those on the Labour Benches. The hon. Gentleman has detail on those services in York and it would be interesting to hear more. Indeed, Eddington tells us that York has achieved growth of 50 per cent. over the past five years, 30 per cent. of which was due to park and ride schemes, where one principal bus operator works in voluntary partnership with the unitary authority to run high quality services. The old city centre is obviously unsuitable for cars, so a tough parking regime has been imposed.
Eddington also refers to Oxford, which offers another example of how congestion can be reduced by a sustained and coherent policy. There has been a 30-year partnership between Oxfordshire county council, Oxford city council, bus operators and others. Growth has been achieved there, while it has been falling in other places. Bus use grew by 80 per cent. between 1988 and 2002 and it continues to increase. The local authority has maintained successful partnerships with two competing operators, but without restraining competition. There are park and ride schemes and the large student population must help to increase bus use, but the overall environment seems to work.
The Brighton and Hove system was cited by Eddington. The number of passengers has gone up by 62 per cent.,—equivalent to 14 million journeys—between 1993 and 2005. A unitary authority with distinct geographical boundaries operates a voluntary partnership with a single bus operator. What successful schemes have in common is that control and management of the roads and decisions about who runs the buses are in the same hands.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond), who sadly cannot be in the Chamber today, recently received a letter from Roger French, managing director of Brighton and Hove’s bus and coach company, which stated that
“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 that runs at least 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 on the road; 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 five ingredients … and … local authorities are best placed to deal with the second five ingredients”.
That happy pattern does not appear to work in rural areas, about which I have a little local knowledge, like the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), who has left the Chamber. My constituency has 98 villages and I think one of them has the greatest length of road of any village in England—100 miles in Whixall. People in rural areas who do not have private transport are massively and disproportionately disadvantaged if there is no public transport.
There are some good schemes and I was delighted by the Minister’s comments in response to the Transport Committee’s report. Changing the number of passengers allowed to travel in voluntary vehicles and changes relating to driving seem thoroughly worthwhile. Since deregulation, some imaginative schemes have been developed. I will not give too strong a plug to North Shropshire Community Transport Ltd., which is a registered charity and a company. NSCT does not operate buses on a strictly defined route; in effect, there is a dial-a-ride system. On certain days, a bus travels from Wem to Ellesmere and people in a broad swathe of country between the two towns can call it up. Such imaginative schemes should be encouraged, so I am pleased about the changes the Minister proposes to the size of buses and the number of passengers that can be carried by volunteer drivers. Those volunteers do a terrific job and their work is vital.
Community car schemes are also vital in areas such as mine, where the council pays 48 per cent. and the passengers pay 52 per cent. of the costs. When the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron) replies to the debate, will she tell us whether existing subsidies could apply to community car schemes? A bus is not needed in some areas and a small car would be adequate. As I said, isolated people in rural areas are hugely and disproportionately disadvantaged; they cannot live a proper life, so imaginative local schemes are well worth developing and it is fair to say that they have blossomed since deregulation.
I take issue with the Government about their separation of funding, organisation and operation. Changing funding distribution from the Countryside Agency to regional development agencies has not helped. Local authorities close to the ground are much better qualified to decide where funding should be allocated, so I would like the Minister’s comments on that point.
More control should be given to local government rather than to traffic commissioners, as has been said. In country areas, the county council is always seen to be the provider of public transport, but it has to conform to regulation by the traffic commissioners and to funding decisions made by the RDAs, which is unsatisfactory.
The Government are in trouble over disability rights. Since January 2001 all buses coming into service have been required to be accessible, which means they should be fitted with ramps and low floors, and space should be set aside for wheelchairs. By 2017, all buses in Britain must comply with those regulations. The latest figures from the Department for Transport show that only 47 per cent. of buses are accessible. There are exceptions: 100 per cent. of London buses are accessible and the figure in Edinburgh is 75 per cent. However, 38 per cent. of disabled people do not travel on buses or other public transport. They lack confidence in the transport system.
I am interested in the hon. Gentleman’s two examples. In London, where accessibility is 100 per cent., the transport system is regulated and many Members are happy with that. In Edinburgh, although the system is not regulated, the bus company is municipally owned and there is 75 per cent. accessibility. Does the hon. Gentleman think some conclusions can be drawn from those coincidental facts?
I cannot comment on that situation. I am merely asking how the Government intend to implement national legislation and why it is so patchy across the country. The hon. Gentleman may have a point; the franchise system may work in London, but the disability legislation is national and affects a large number of people.
Twice as many disabled people as non-disabled people have turned down a job interview, medical appointment or social engagement due to difficulty in using buses or other forms of public transport. That is a major problem for them. Fifty-two per cent. of disabled people have difficulty in getting to essential services such as a GP surgery or a hospital, so when will the legislation be implemented?
The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 required buses to be fully accessible to disabled people, including wheelchair users. It was proposed that new large single-deck buses and new double-deck buses would have to comply by January 2000 and that all single-deck buses would have to comply by 2015. There have subsequently been changes to the legislation. When and how will all those requirements be universally applied?
Another aspect that has been brought to my attention relates to audible and visible announcement equipment. The regulations for change include provisions on systems to make audible and visual announcements of stations, but it was not possible to include such provisions in the regulations for buses because the technology was not sufficiently well developed at the time. However, there have been improvements, based on global positioning systems, and Transport for London says that the information systems will be fitted for all London buses by 2009. In the Government’s view, what is a sensible timetable for the rest of the country? Without those systems, it can be difficult for people with visual impairments and for some people with learning difficulties to use buses, so I would be grateful for the Minister’s comments.
At the Labour party conference, we heard that the Government intended to give local authorities more control, and they set out their policy in “Putting Passengers First”—yet another document. We need to put it in context. It is 10 years since the Government came to power and we are entering the final quarter of their much vaunted 10-year plan for transport. We all remember the glorious words of the Deputy Prime Minister when he said that their goal was
“the integrated transport system this country needs and deserves. A system fit for the new millennium and of which we can be justly proud”.
There has been much activity by the Department for Transport. We have had the 10-year plan, White Papers, debates on transport Bills, numerous strategic plans and now we have “Putting Passengers First”. We have had multi-modal studies, setting out transport priorities, which have then been ignored—a fraught issue in my case, because the A5 is not going to be dualled. We have had a drive from the Government to improve the quality of local transport plans. We have blue skies thinking. We have had Lord Birt and Rod Eddington.
So, what about “Putting Passengers First”? There has been a lot of surface activity. Is “Putting Passengers First” going to go the way of the previous false starts, the changed directions and the worthless promises? It is full of pious, self-evident truisms, and some extraordinarily banal comments.
I have listened to the hon. Gentleman’s address to the House with considerable interest, but, apart from cutting public expenditure, I have not heard a single policy proposal from the Conservative party. What are his policy proposals on bus travel?
At no stage have I talked about cutting subsidies. I have talked about spending subsidies better and analysing whether existing subsidies are being well used. If the right hon. Gentleman will let me make a little progress I will touch on the Conservative party towards the end of my speech. Is he thrilled to support a Government who, after 10 years in power, bring out what is supposed to be a great new radical strategic paper, which says:
“An efficient transport system is an important ingredient of a strong and prosperous economy”?
“An efficient transport system contributes to stronger and deeper labour markets”
“A large bus has the potential to carry the equivalent of several fully-loaded cars”.
We are told:
“Buses must have the right environment in which to prosper.”
I mean, why write this stuff? What does it achieve after 10 years? I am astonished that that he stands up and says what he does when, after 10 years, we are still getting strategy papers with that sort of guff in them.
It is completely bland. There is not a single person who would disagree with it, but we do not progress. What we are looking for is some action. I would have thought that he would have been pressing his Government for that for 10 years. His Government set a target in their 10-year plan of increasing bus journeys by 10 per cent. by 2010. They also wanted to improve the punctuality of services nationally. Then they gave up. They recognised that the 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. We are changing again.
There are two key proposals in “Putting Passengers First”. We are concerned about quality contracts. There has been concern among passenger transport authorities that if they involve multiple operators in discussions, that might be decreed as anti-competitive. We are concerned about the test. We would not want to see re-regulation by the back door, throwing out some of the advantages that we have seen from deregulation. We are interested in discussing with the Government how the schedule 10 test will be made appropriate. We will be able to see that only when we see the draft Bill. We will have to examine in detail what is meant by a “significantly adverse effect” and a “substantial benefit”.
We are much more in favour of voluntary partnerships. I touched on some examples earlier from Eddington. We would want to look carefully at the tests imposed by the Government. Having looked at the examples abroad, we are not at all convinced that a huge increase in regulation would work. We are seriously concerned about what is being proposed in relation to quality contracts. We would look to see much more work done on voluntary partnerships.
I cited cases earlier where that worked with more than one operator. It might not work for 70 operators. That might involve the creation of a new idea of a partnership. What one has to have is control of the roads and the road network, and of decision making in the allocation of bus routes.
So, let me talk about our thinking. I am conscious of time moving on and I know that other Members want to speak. As the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown) knows, the Conservative party is reviewing its polices. As I have just said, we are convinced that we will be studying carefully the development of voluntary partnerships, rather than quality contracts. We would like to see the much wider use of modern technology such as transponders, and information technology. We accept that we must review what extra statutory powers beyond their current powers local authorities and PTAs need to make partnerships work. We will review the tools of demand management available to PTAs. We will also review the obligations on private operators within partnership arrangements. That includes the minimum duration of the operation of a service—that was touched on earlier in relation to bus wars—co-operative ticketing arrangements, and data storing. We would also look at the request from some local authorities for minimum acceptable standards of operation to be increased.
Not entirely, no. There was an attempt to misinterpret my comments on subsidies and to say that we were demanding a cut. What I think is interesting is that the Minister has had to defend his position against a wall of opinion behind him, which we will hear later. We probably have quite a lot in common. We believe that deregulation worked. He has quite clearly stated that he is not going to unwind deregulation. What we are both looking at is how we can use subsidies more sensibly and effectively, and how we can get local authorities working more effectively with private operators. There probably is not an enormous difference between us, but he has to think about why he is debating this matter after 10 years and whether he is really satisfied and convinced that the huge increase of £2.5 billion is being well spent in every case.
My final point relates to the environment, which the Minister did not really touch on. We would definitely look at targeting existing subsidies to see how we could promote more fuel efficiency and improved emission standards.
In conclusion, we believe that deregulation arrested the headlong decline in bus use. We would strongly oppose any re-regulation, but we are open to imaginative improvements to the current arrangements.
I welcome the Government’s White Paper, “Putting Passengers First”. Thinking about that title, one wonders where they have been for the last 20 years. But it is a good title and I trust that my hon. Friends on the Front Bench will put into practice some of the ideas and proposals in the document. I am not going to use the time available to me to go into why I think that the hurdles in the White Paper are too high to replace the only available alternative test, because the Minister has made it clear that he is open to detailed suggestions. I guess that other hon. Members will make those suggestions during the debate. I also agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) that the concessionary fare scheme looks as though, financially, it could run out of control. That is a great worry to all the passenger transport authorities in England. Again, the Minister has said that he will look at that and I am content that he will do so.
Before I get on to the meat of what I want to say, I want to make one or two statistical points in relation to some of the comments that have been made. We are all proud that passenger numbers are going up for the first time for some years, but, in looking at those statistics, we need to be careful that we are comparing like with like. The new concessionary fare scheme came into force from last year and obviously the comparison no longer involves the same scheme as before. People who need to get to a hospital or to work may well still not be getting buses, although the overall headline figures are improving considerably. I hope that my hon. Friends on the Front Bench will look at some way of taking the statistics apart so that we can make a real comparison between what happened before the start of concessionary scheme in 1986 and what is happening now.
I would also like to look at the comparisons that have been made by Members on both Front Benches in relation to areas where quality partnerships or the current deregulation system are said to work. I just want to point out two or three facts.
Although passenger numbers have increased, the route network has declined in almost all small towns. Some people do not have access to services, even though more people are using them. That statistical point is similar to the one that I made previously. As my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) said, those towns and small areas are often served by what are essentially monopoly providers, or municipal bus companies. It is difficult to understand how one can compare such areas with the great cities of Manchester, Birmingham, Sheffield, Leeds, Newcastle and Liverpool. However, those are not my main points.
I have great respect for the Minister and the Under-Secretary, who are tough debaters. By the end of the consultation process, I want to feel that they are up to the fight with the bus companies. Some of the debate over the past 10 to 20 years has lacked reality. We hear talk of a Panglossian world—a Jack and Jill world—in which if only the naughty children in the passenger transport authorities and the bus companies would get on a bit better, shake hands and make friends, everything would be nice. We hear phrases such as, “We want constructive partnerships; they are the key to delivery”, but if we look at what is happening we see that, in the case of the five biggest bus companies, we are dealing with avaricious, multinational companies that are public subsidy junkies. A terrific amount of public money goes into those companies and they are aggressively anti-PTAs and anti-county councils because they think that they are fighting for their lives—fighting to continue their main-lining of public subsidy. They operate not competitively, as the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) seems to hope is the case, but, essentially, in monopoly or near-monopoly situations. I thus want to test whether Ministers are up to the fight with those groups.
We have heard about, or read Committee reports outlining, the thinking in the Department for Transport. Although this might be unfair because the civil servant in question has retired, the former permanent secretary in the Department has said some extraordinary things. He was completely wrong when he appeared before the Public Accounts Committee on 23 January 2006 and said that the real difference between the system of public transport in London, which works, and that in the rest of the country arose from the fact that London had made different choices. That statement demonstrated his inadequate knowledge of the situation. While London uses the stream of money that it receives for its bus system well, authorities in metropolitan areas face all sorts of different issues, not least of which is the threat of council tax capping if their priorities are changed. It was worrying that the permanent secretary did not seem to understand the system. I will not bore the House by going into further detail, but if people want to read further analysis of the situation, it is in the excellent report by the Transport Committee, “Bus services across the UK”.
Even more worryingly, trade weeklies, such as Bus & Coach Buyer, contain boasts from ex-civil servants that they have more influence, by going to the Department for Transport and talking to their old pals about what they would like for the major companies, than us mere Back Benchers, by tabling early-day motions. I could supply the Ministers with quotes about that. When the Transport Committee quizzed the permanent secretary about that situation, he was complacent—that is the fairest comment that I can make. I hope that Ministers will examine the regular visits made to old chums in the Department by consultants who are paid large amounts by the bus companies. We need a greater understanding of why, over the past 20 years—certainly over the past 10 years of a Labour Government—there has been a steady stream of advice to Ministers that bringing some form of regulation back to the metropolitan areas would be a bad thing, despite the fact that that goes against most of the available evidence.
The hon. Member for North Shropshire said—this is always in the briefing notes that my hon. Friends and I receive—that we should not go back to the 1985 system. There might be a Labour Member who wants to go back to the situation in 1985, but I cannot honestly name him or her, or point to a relevant reference. I am fairly familiar with the views of the Labour Members in the Chamber. None of them wants that to happen, so the point is irrelevant. We want better services and better use of the public money that goes into public transport.
Let me say a few words about the financial structure of the industry itself. I was disappointed by the Government’s response to the Transport Committee’s report on buses. We asked a simple question, although we could perhaps have made its wording more elegant or comprehensive. We wanted the Government to tell us the level of profit at which buses become viable, or, to put it another way, the point at which bus companies start ripping off and exploiting the public sector. We received the response that that question was too difficult to answer—I am paraphrasing because I have not written it down—but that worries me a great deal. We are considering the viability of these companies. They know where the subsidy is going and understand completely how to manipulate the system, whether that is achieved through concessionary fares or by withdrawing from subsidised routes.
I will try to illustrate what is happening by citing some figures from Manchester. The national figures are very simple and round: the big five companies make about £400 million profit each year, while £2.5 billion of public subsidy goes into them. However, the local situation in Manchester shows significant evidence of monopoly behaviour. The number of supported services has increased by 25 per cent. for no obvious reason. When those services are put out to tender, only one bus company applies, which means that the cost for each mile travelled goes up by more than 30 per cent. above inflation.
A subsidy of about £100 million goes into the bus system in Greater Manchester, but that gives no control over what happens, except on subsidised routes. What percentage of the bus operators’ costs do Ministers think that that represents? I have done some calculations to demonstrate what is happening and to explain why there will be a very tough fight—we are not dealing with nice, chummy bus companies that have the public interest at heart. First Group runs a near-monopoly in my north Manchester constituency. I estimate—I can show the working figures to anyone who is interested—that 47 per cent. of its operating costs are paid for by the taxpayer. The taxpayer has thus paid about 50 per cent. of all costs before a bus gets out of the depot. As soon as First saw that it could get extra subsidy out of the concessionary fare system, it put up its fares by 10 per cent.—it would like a little more public subsidy, thanks very much.
I suspect that the hon. Member for North Shropshire has more faith in quality partnerships than I have. The prospect of the White Paper, which I welcome, led these rather unpleasant companies to threaten to withdraw their services and leave passengers high and dry if PTAs and councils did not get into partnerships with them at that time. Effectively, they are saying that they will leave the people we care about—who they do not care about—high and dry. That is the real fight that is going on. These people are fighting for their lives, as they are totally dependent on public subsidy.
Brian Souter, who runs Stagecoach, recently took out adverts in the Manchester Evening News attacking the passenger transport authority for not providing park-and-drive facilities. If he is such a great entrepreneur, why does he not do it himself? Why does he not buy the land to do it? He has huge profits in Stagecoach, as he is running more or less a monopoly in south Manchester, but that is not his attitude. He has the attitude of a 19th century mill owner, but one who wants some public subsidy as well. There were some pretty unpleasant cotton barons in 19th century Lancashire, but at least they did not ask the local authorities or the Government for money while they were grinding the faces of the workers into the ground. They did so without public subsidy, but not so in Souter’s case. He wants to be feather-bedded by public subsidy against real competition.
At the same time, Souter, along with UK North and GM Buses, which have now gone bankrupt, was prepared to destroy the economy of Manchester’s city centre by blocking it up unnecessarily. They knew exactly what they were doing. They were putting pressure on Manchester city council and the passenger transport authority to co-operate with them and give them more cash. In effect, they were saying that they could wreck the city centre by stopping people coming into hospitals or offices. That is their attitude.
To take a slight international diversion, I would like to provide a glimpse of the future. I am aware of the provenance of that phrase and that it is not usually a happy provenance when people say that they have seen the future. At the expense of the Service Employees International Union, the largest in the US, I went to look at the operations of First Group in America. I went to Jacksonville and Minneapolis-St. Paul and I also talked to drivers in Cincinnati. Together with the Transport and General Workers Union, we were extremely concerned that the practices that First Group was following in the US would soon be seen in this country.
What I saw was horrifying, although I do not have enough time to provide all the details. First Group, operating as First Student in the US, one of the three biggest bus companies, made me feel ashamed. People who were trying to organise and form trade unions were having the wheels changed on their buses so that they were unsafe in the deepest mid-winter around Minneapolis-St. Paul, where it is often minus 20° or minus 30°, making the roads dangerous. I spoke to many drivers and many people who were trying to organise unions and the response was always the same. First was anti-trade union activity; it acted aggressively and with hostility, showing itself willing to put children’s lives at risk. I spoke to the managing director over there and to the people back here. What was happening was completely unacceptable and I was ashamed that a British company was acting like that. I use that example to illustrate the fact that we are not dealing with people who have the public interest at heart.
I have two further points before finishing. The White Paper is part of a welcome general change in attitude to public transport. The Government are saying that the deregulated system has not worked in part, which I suppose is progress. They say that it has worked in other parts, but I disagree. The Government are going to look further into having quality contracts and a change of governance. They are saying that if people want the cash to improve public transport, they will in some cases have to have road pricing and congestion charging.
I can tell Ministers that I am not against road pricing in principle. I believe that a thoroughly sound intellectual case can be made for it at the right time, but forcing it into urban areas where it may not be appropriate—it could be a hindrance, barrier and hurdle even though it may be a good thing in its own terms—is quite wrong. I have looked into some of the details of schemes proposed for Greater Manchester—there remains more to be seen—and I do not understand why people in Manchester should pay a higher tax for using the roads there in order to get a bus, tram and possibly a rail system that should be available to them in any case. There may be a case for it, but if we ever get road pricing, I would expect either fuel duty or road tax to be decreased, which cannot happen if an experiment goes on only in one place. I therefore hope that Ministers will look further into that.
I would like to clarify the position. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we cannot go for national changes in the taxation of road use when we are just talking about pilot schemes. We need to talk in great detail to the local pilot partners about how they want the revenue to be used. We entirely agree that we will not be able to sell a package to motorists in a local area if they think that the money will be spent on some purpose that they may not support. That is very much one of the key issues that the pilot areas have to address and I have no doubt that Greater Manchester will address it, before proceeding with the proposal.
I am grateful for those comments, but my main point remains. In our current debate about quality contracts, in previous debates about improving tram systems and in future debates about improving metropolitan rail services, these issues stand on their own. Congestion road pricing is a national issue and I am unconvinced that an experiment that puts the economy and people of Manchester—or Birmingham or anywhere else that tries it—at a disadvantage in comparison with elsewhere will work.
I respect the Minister’s work and I agree with many things that he says on transport, but I must make this point. In a deregulated system or partially deregulated system—this is the key to understanding why deregulation has not worked in metropolitan areas—where car restraint and bus priority measures are in force, it becomes anti-public transport. What the private bus companies do is focus their resources on the radial routes where cars have been moved out of the way, because they make a better return on those routes, and they withdraw services from more marginal areas where many of my constituents and others live.
Although the proposals to target subsidy have not been widely discussed, I hope that they will work with the proposals on quality contracts. I hope that the Minister will be tough and will realise that he is in for a fight with some very tough multinational companies, which do not want this to happen. They are employing rooms full of lawyers to stop it happening, so it will not happen without a fight. I know that the Minister is tough and up to that sort of fight. I look forward to joining him in making public transport in our metropolitan areas and the rest of England a lot better. “Putting Passengers First” is a great title for a White Paper; I hope that we can make a reality of it.
I welcome the comments of the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) as I, too, welcome the White Paper, which came on the back of the excellent work of the Select Committee on buses and public transport.
I start by making it clear that Liberal Democrats, although not very happy with deregulation or how it is operating now, do not want to go back to 1985. We agree with the hon. Gentleman about that. One of the first campaigns I got involved in was trying to get GM Buses, as it was at the time, to alter the bus route. I well remember the way in which the public monopolies in existence then were extremely unresponsive to local and necessary changes that would not have cost a huge sum of money. That said, most hon. Members, with the possible exception of Conservative Members, accept that the current policy is not working.
We have seen a 50 per cent. collapse in bus usage. Fares have gone up 86 per cent. in real terms since deregulation in PTE areas. As the Minister has said, subsidies have risen from £1 billion to £2 billion. At the same time, 15 per cent. of all buses that are stopped by the Government’s Vehicle and Operator Services Agency are issued with prohibition notices, despite all the subsidy and all the talk about quality bus contracts. What would people think if something similar applied in the rail industry?
I agree entirely with the hon. Member for Eccles (Ian Stewart). Back in 2001, my party called for local authorities to be given much more control over quality contracts. The fact that the Minister today, after seven years, can announce only one quality bus contract is clearly testament to the fact that the policy has failed. In fact, a NERA report estimated in August 2006 that, if the current policies were allowed to continue for the next 20 years, there would be a further rise of 20 per cent. in fares and a further drop of 20 per cent. in ridership. Clearly, if congestion, air quality, climate change and all those issues are to be addressed, we must do something now.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that, and he will know that, when the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities leaders met two weeks ago, the two leaders from Liberal Democrat-controlled councils in that area insisted on the four tests that were buried in the report being made part of the deal that had to be done before that could be accepted.
We also said that, if the Greater Manchester passenger transport executive has got its plan, we need to see it within the next two months. Clearly, while we support the policy, we want Manchester to get the investment and we also want a proper debate about what is going into that plan. Hiding it away until after the local elections is not acceptable. We want to see the changes and the investment.
I want to put a couple of questions to the Under-Secretary about the quality bus contracts, and I hope that she will respond to them. I do not know whether she has seen the article on the front page of last week’s Transport Times. She probably attended the conference, where Jonathan Bracken, a partner at Bircham Dyson Bell, said that nothing suggests that quality contracts were
“a legal silver bullet to solve our problems”.
There is great concern about the length of time that it will take to conclude the quality contracts on the new framework, and I would be very interested to know, first, whether the Government have done any assessment of that and, secondly, whether they have looked at the process proposed in the White Paper of removing the Department for Transport and involving an appeal process. It seems to us that they are putting in place more hurdles and more stages.
I wonder why the hon. Gentleman quoted the only article in Transport Times that contained any lukewarm comments about the Government’s proposals, instead of the articles on almost every other page of that edition that said that the Government’s proposals could take the industry forward.
It is a fair point—[Interruption.] No, no. Like the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley, when I hear one of the people who runs a bus company say that it is wonderful, I am very cynical, having seen the operations of those bus companies at close hand. I have seen the way that they have manipulated our communities, as the hon. Gentleman said, in moving subsidy about. They have moved bus fleets into areas to crush competition. As soon as the competition has gone, they put up prices and bring back the old, clapped-out buses. In my view, that is the quality bus contract scheme, and I wonder why all those bus moguls are suddenly now interested in the scheme. In my view, they see it as yet another way in which they can tie the Government and local council’s hands.
I hope that we will have more of these discussions when the Bill is published. There is a need for regulation. There is a need to give local communities control over transport. There is also a role for urban PTEs and PTAs to take on more of the transport highway functions that currently reside with highway authorities.
No, I happen to believe that people must operate a scheme that is right for the purpose, and although I believe that local communities—[Interruption.] I was going to come to concessionary bus fares later, but let us look at the results that the current scheme has delivered. I am not criticising the Government’s decision to introduce the scheme—in fact, I welcomed it—but in a Statutory Instrument Committee, when we were discussing the introduction of concessionary fares, I warned the then Minister, the hon. Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck), who is not now in her place, about some of the consequences. Those consequences arise because of the way that the revenue support grant system operates: some authorities gained; other authorities, such as Tyne and Wear, lost out.
The big concern about the scheme is that, as the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley knows, the Greater Manchester passenger transport authority has just lost £3.4 million because the bus operators have played the game and the patronage has gone up, so they have put up the bus fare, and they are now claiming a greater proportion of the fare. That has cost Greater Manchester council £3.4 million this year, and concessionary bus fares for others have gone up from 50p to 70p. Therefore, I want the system to be regulated.
I want a smart card to be introduced that operates nationally, so that it does not matter in which authority it is used and so that accurate data can be collected. I want a system that does not allow bus operators to hold local authorities to ransom because so many people have gone on the bus in the past. If people are negotiating a contract, they should agree what they will spend in the coming 12 months.
A standard fare, very much as the Mayor of London has introduced for concessionary bus travel, will allow local authorities to take on the big bus operators. Otherwise, we have already seen what is happening: they are milking the system. There is a need for a national framework, not necessarily a totally national scheme, that has certain parameters that allows us to develop a truly national scheme. If that is good enough for the Scots or the Welsh, why is it not good enough for England?
To return to my main point, I believe that there is a need for regulation. I welcome the introduction of the statutory partnership and the removal of the public interest test that was used previously.
I also welcome the increased role of traffic commissioners, although my party would like that role to be extended. Earlier, the Office of Fair Trading was mentioned, but it has lamentably failed to do anything to regulate fares and competition for buses; in fact, it has gone completely the other way. We would like the OFT’s powers to be transferred to the traffic commissioners, but with an exemption, so that common fare schemes could be introduced, and so that there could be some control over prices. We would like the traffic commissioners to play a role in helping to control and regulate bus timetables and fares. That is the system under which the railways operated, before the Department for Transport decided to take all the powers back for itself. The only way forward is to give traffic commissioners that role, and to ensure free competition for buses; that is what is needed.
We need a commitment from the Government that road-user charging will not be used as a Revenue-funder, but will instead bring about greater investment. We have a long way to go in the next few months to make sure that changes are made, but we have finally made a start. We want statutory quality partnerships, and we want local authorities and passenger transport executives to have a say in setting them up. We want an enhanced role for traffic commissioners, and we want a national framework for concessionary fares. If we get all that, we can move forward and begin to experience benefits. It has taken the Government 10 years to reach this stage; the bus is late, but it has arrived at last.
I have a warm feeling of nostalgia, because I remember sitting through the proceedings on the Transport Bill in 1985 and watching the Conservative party explaining their views quite plainly. In their view, the public subsidy for buses was not only very large but indefensible. It could not be explained, and should be removed as far away as possible. All that we needed was to return to the high uplands of open competition, and all would be well. If I may say so without being unduly harsh to the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson), who is no longer in the Chamber, it was delightful to hear him struggling hard not to make plain the position that Conservatives still hold. It is comforting to know that some things never change.
May I tell the hon. Lady, who chairs the Select Committee on Transport, that when we come to my winding-up speech, she will hear about one of the most interesting schemes in bus development, which is being introduced by the largest Conservative authority and rural county?
I am delighted to hear that, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman’s speech will not undermine his position on the Front Bench; if he says something new, strong and policy-led, it will be such a departure that his position in the shadow transport team will not last long.
The Government should take a clear look at what is happening in the bus system. It is true that large sums of money are being spent, including on the concessionary fares scheme, which is a delight. It has opened up all sorts of vistas, and it is a real improvement in the quality of life for many people in my constituency. It is wholly to be applauded. Also, amounts are being spent on ensuring that services are provided by an ever smaller number of private companies. In his estimable speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) made it plain that five major companies are responsible for 90 per cent. of the bus services, and they not only wantonly dictate terms and conditions, but behave in a manner that cannot be defended. It is clear that many local authorities are faced with a series of faits accomplis, as companies simply remove services, without any justification, and then tell county councils or PTEs, “Fine; if you want that service to run, replace it with a subsidised service, and we will accept the extra money with thanks.”
If we are to consider doing more than stopping the decline of bus travel, and are instead to consider expanding bus travel, as the Government are doing under many of their schemes, we need to examine the behaviour of those who provide the services and those who accept the public subsidies, and they inevitably do not compete with one another. It is nonsense to say that the bus companies in this country compete, because the reality is very different. I believe that the Government are sincere in wanting not only to improve the situation in the bus industry but ensure that ever more people use buses, with all the environmental advantages that that would bring. It is no accident that large numbers of Labour Members want to debate the subject today, but that Conservative Members think that the matter is of no interest. That demonstrates clearly the difference between the two parties.
On the Government’s response to the Select Committee’s inquiry, the Committee looked into bus services across the United Kingdom because we were so concerned about what is happening, given not only the concessionary fares regime but all the recent changes that have come about. The Government said in their answer to the Committee that they
“would not want to see local authorities introducing a Quality Contracts scheme for the whole of an urban area at the same time under one contract”.
Why not? What is the advantage of letting contracts for smaller parts of the network? There is no justification for doing so. Part of the reason for introducing a quality contract is so that local authorities and passenger transport authorities can create a co-ordinated network in their area, and that is where the real benefit lies. To have several contracts within an area would complicate matters, raise costs and fail to ensure the co-ordination that the contracts are designed to provide.
I am convinced that there is a rather endearing commitment to the idea that bus companies somehow compete. The reality is that they do nothing of the kind. They take good care to make sure that if there is any question of competition, they deal with the matter any way that they can.
On that theme, may I ask the Minister the question to which I did not get an answer earlier? If PTAs are legally challenged by bus companies in the event of a quality contract being introduced, will the Department indemnify them from legal action? It is unacceptable that bus companies should, in effect, threaten locally elected authorities and say to them, “If you persist, even though what your are doing is in the interests of your constituents and the general public, we will challenge you in the courts.” I regard that as straightforward blackmail, and I should like to know whether the Government intend to make it clear that they will neither accept that nor allow local authorities or PTAs to cope with the matter on their own.
Does my hon. Friend agree that that is an extremely important issue? To a PTE, the cost of a legal case in the courts would be a significant part of its budget, whereas to the bus companies, compared with the amount of profit that they could lose if a quality contract was brought in, the cost of a legal case would be insignificant, and they would always have a vested interest in proceeding with such a case.
That is an essential difference, and one that we should be aware of. It is ratepayers who will have to foot the bill, and they who will suffer.
The Committee considered that traffic commissioners were an important part of the traffic system and should be given rather more powers and more resources. During the debate some Members have expressed worries about the role of the traffic commissioners if they were allowed to adjudicate on new schemes, but they are an independent service and they have responsibilities. Were they given greater powers, they would be able to extend what they do at present—make a valiant attempt, not always fully supported, to bring the bus companies into some kind of order and to provide a high quality service. Not only should they have more resources, but they should be consulted on extended powers.
We believe that the Government were wrong when they said that it was not intended that traffic commissioners would enforce any quality contract schemes, and that that would be the role of the contracting local authority. There is no justification for that. Independent enforcement of quality contracts, if operators are persuaded to join them, should be the responsibility not of the local authority that will be a party to the contract, but of an independent force such as traffic commissioners, who can not only be trusted, but can demonstrate why they reach particular conclusions.
The Government rejected our suggestion that they should undertake a study of operators’ excess profits, on the grounds that
“a general statement about the appropriate profit level would not be tenable.”
That is nonsense. The Government already do that in other fields, and I can give chapter and verse. There is absolutely no justification for allowing the five very powerful companies to escape proper surveillance.
The Government said that the amount that local authorities have to spend on subsidising routes was not acceptable. They pointed out that funding had increased under the Government. We agreed that that was good, but it is not the real point. Local authorities are having to make greater and greater subsidies because of the behaviour of the operators in surrendering the less profitable routes and rebidding for the same subsidised service.
Many hon. Members want to speak and they will undoubtedly lay out in considerable detail what is good and bad about the systems in their areas. I make a more general point to my hon. Friend the Minister. There is no great sophistication or glamour about the bus industry. It does not have those dearly loved fans who follow railway engines round the country, take their pictures and keep them carefully in books, but it can make a difference to the lives of women in particular, in a way that no other service can do. It is the difference, especially in rural areas, between being able to get to the doctor and to the local town to get the shopping done—between having any kind of social contact and being totally isolated. Yet for some reason the bus industry is regarded, perhaps not only by the Conservative party, as a service that has constantly to be justified because it is costing the ratepayers money.
Nobody demands better value for money than I or my Committee do, but before we remove from the powers of the local authorities the right to control the way that money is spent on behalf of the ratepayer and taxpayer, we should think very carefully indeed. We are already committed to providing good services. We are already committed to a most imaginative scheme that has made an enormous difference to many pensioners.
Let us not, for other reasons, undermine all the good things that have been done by allowing a small group of enormously greedy bus operators to dictate exactly what they want to do without any concern for the common good or the common purpose. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister will never allow that, but I want an undertaking from her that neither will the silly men whom she sometimes has to deal with.
I wish to speak as a London Member of Parliament who uses public transport on a regular basis. In fact, this morning I was very grateful for public transport, because without it I would not be here. I walked through the snow to the station, having been unable to use the No. 150 bus as I usually would, and the underground got me here, even if it was in conditions that we would not allow animals to travel in.
I want to speak in a way that is not party political.
I apologise to the hon. Gentleman in advance.
I want to talk about some ideas that I have come up with. I apologise to my Front-Bench colleagues for not sharing those ideas with them beforehand, but as I am on the Back Benches and will probably be staying here, I feel latitude in being able to do that.
One of the main reasons why people in my constituency do not wish to travel on buses is the safety factor. Recently, bus drivers in my area have refused to travel along certain routes because of antisocial behaviour by young people. We heard earlier about proposals made by a group in the London assembly. As that is a devolved assembly, I do not intend to give it advice on what it should or should not do, but it relates to the problem. When the Mayor introduced concessions for young people, he promised that there would be extra British Transport police on buses where there were problems and that anyone who abused the system would be stopped from using those buses. That has not happened. Constituents, particularly the elderly, regularly contact me to say that they are scared to travel, particularly late at night or in the winter when it gets dark early, because they do not feel safe due to the vandalism and irresponsibility of people who abuse the system. I recognise that the vast majority of young people do not abuse the system, but it is always the minority who spoil it for the majority. If such schemes are to be rolled out elsewhere, I ask the Minister to consider extra British Transport police coverage to protect people.
The hon. Gentleman served on the Transport Committee when we produced the buses report and will remember that when we investigated safety on buses one of our concerns was that the operator should take some responsibility for the security of passengers. Does he agree, and can he tell the House what measures bus operators in his area are taking to improve passenger security?
I thank the hon. Gentleman and agree with his comments.
Recently, when the police have tried to bring prosecutions they were told that the closed-circuit TV on the buses was not functioning because it had no film and therefore could not be used in evidence. Companies must be made to have that in motion all the time so that it can be used and prosecutions brought. The onus for that is on the bus companies. I have said that locally and will continue to do so. Equally, however, there needs to be British Transport police back-up.
Having mentioned my journey to the House this morning, I should like to refer to an incident that happened on the way, by which point I was on the tube. I recognise that that is not the subject of the debate, but it still has relevance. Two gentlemen decided to try to knock seven bells out of each other because one of them could not get off the train. We tried to separate them and were successful, and one of them, in good east end terms, legged it and got away. There was no one there to try to stop the fight. No staff were available. If we are to encourage greater use of public transport, it can be done only with better policing.
I said at the beginning of my speech that I would not be party political. I commend the Mayor of London for the fact that we have more buses. However, we need to go further. People in parts of my constituency and the nearby area cannot access the buses because they do not run to the places that are slightly further outside the town centre and the shopping areas. They cannot get into those areas to use facilities such as libraries and swimming pools.
There should be partnerships, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) said. Partnerships work in some parts of the country and they should be extended further, with pilots to ascertain how we can get smaller hopper buses to run to the main services that access the main hubs. If that is done, we will have a first class bus service, which I support.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire referred to disabled people who use buses. There is 100 per cent. coverage in London. Again, I congratulate the Mayor and Transport for London on that. However, many users tell me that they cannot access facilities because some of the staff are not trained to help them. I ask for training to be put in place and rolled out throughout the country so that disabled people who cannot currently access services can do so. I have heard reports of people missing interviews and appointments and being unable to go shopping because buses do not offer the necessary facilities.
When I was a child—my memory serves me well; that was a long time ago—I got the No.148 bus from the Green Man roundabout to Ilford every day to go to school. Was I ever told off for misbehaving on the bus? I was. In those days, you got a clip round the ear and you did not do it again. I got the clip and I did not do it again. However, I used the services all the time. I want a first-class service for the people of our country. I commend the work of our Committee and its Chairman and I shall continue to support it in every way I can.
The hon. Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Scott) made his initial point about the need for security on buses and other forms of public transport well. It applies equally to other parts of the country.
The hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) repeatedly made the point that London is unique. In many respects, it is. It is a capital city with a larger population than anywhere else in the country and it has some unique characteristics. However, there are similarities between London and other city regions that we should not overlook. We should not be seduced from the view that things that happen in London would be equally appropriate in other city regions.
My city region of Merseyside is a case in point. Indeed, my constituency makes the point well. City regions are not homogenous areas. They are not entirely urban—they have rural parts. In my constituency, Kirkby, Stockbridge village and North Huyton are classically urban areas, mainly consisting of estates and town centres. My hon. Friend the Minister, who opened the debate for the Government, knows the area well—indeed, he was brought up there. Aintree and Maghull are suburban areas, Knowsley village and Lydiate are semi-rural, and Sefton village and Ince Blundell are rural. So, although it is a city region, it has many different areas, even within one constituency.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way so early in his speech. Like a number of others, he has attacked my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) for suggesting that the London experience cannot easily be replicated. In fact, the Government’s own response to the Select Committee report states:
“The Government agrees that it is not clear that the London experience can be replicated wholesale in other metropolitan areas. London is unique on many counts and it is not easy to isolate the reasons for their success on increasing bus patronage.”
I have read those words as well. It might have escaped the hon. Gentleman’s attention that I am making a speech from the Back Benches rather than from the Front Bench. Although I shall express my support for some of the Government’s proposals in a moment, I hope that he will allow me to make my speech in my own way, using my own words.
As I was saying, there is a mixture of areas even within a single city region, and my constituency illustrates that point well. One thing that all those areas have in common, whether they are urban, rural, semi-rural or suburban, is that they all have problems with bus services. Moreover, the problems are not that different from one area to another. We sometimes make too much of the differences between areas, when, in my experience, the problems are more common to most of them than we acknowledge. With £2 billion of subsidy going into the system, we should not have so many problems. That point was well made by my hon. Friends the Members for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) and for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) in relation to difficulties with certain bus companies, and I shall not repeat those arguments.
Successful city regions need many things but, above all, they need an efficient and reliable transport system, and buses are an essential part of that mix. May I also say, as I never miss an opportunity to raise the subject in the House, that the people of Merseyside would be really pleased if we could have a light rail system? The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris), who is responsible for these matters, is in discussion with us to see whether we can revive the Merseytram Line 1, and I hope that we shall be able to do so. Every city region needs a mix of different kinds of transport.
The transport system in my constituency, particularly the bus system, is not as good as it should be. That applies to urban and rural areas alike—the same problems exist throughout the area. The bus companies are able to change the timetables and the frequency of the services almost without interference. They certainly do so without any consultation and often without giving any proper notice. It is common for a bus service to be changed and for no one to know anything about it until after it has happened. All too often, people do not know about the change until their bus does not turn up at the expected time. Some services have been entirely withdrawn, which has left places such as Melling in my constituency totally isolated. Other services have stopped running in the evenings. This has happened in some parts of Kirkby, which is an urban area, and in Knowsley village, which is semi-rural. After a certain time in the evening there are either no buses at all, or a very limited service.
So, there are problems. I do not say that in order to criticise the Government. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will accept that that is the reality of the situation. I welcome the consultation document “Putting Passengers First”. As others have said, it is a well-named document: putting passengers first ought to be our objective. The document provides a reasonable and reasoned approach to the problems that have been described in the debate today.
I would, however, like to raise some concerns, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will be able to address them when she winds up the debate. I should say, Mr. Deputy Speaker, by way of an apology, that owing to the difficulties of travelling on the west coast main line today, I might not be able to stay here long enough to hear my hon. Friend’s wind-up speech. However, I shall read it avidly on the intranet tomorrow.
I am glad that quality contracts, which have been mentioned a number of times, form part of the Government’s mixed approach, but I hope that my hon. Friend will ensure that the administrative tests are not so onerous as to put off local authorities— indeed, no more onerous than the tests that already exist. It is important to be flexible and allow PTAs to be imaginative about how they enter into partnerships.
As we have heard, the costs of concessionary travel are causing concern, but there is also concern about the potential for fraud. I believe that smart cards will help to deal with that. Although municipal bus services were not always perfect, I think that in an ideal world they would be the best option, but it is probably impossible to get to where we would like to be from a standing start. However, I have a suggestion.
My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich will be familiar with Merseyrail Electrics. It has a 25-year contract with Merseytravel allowing it to provide what is known as a publicly specified and privately operated electric rail service. The long contract period gives time for any necessary improvements to be measured and introduced over time. The contract also gives the passenger transport authority a good deal of control. According to all the national measurements that have been taken, the service is efficient and reliable. I think that that model could prove very successful if applied to buses, and I hope my hon. Friend will consider it. Certainly my constituents who use the Northern line appreciate the service.
Before I entered the House, I spent 14 years as a member of a local authority, Knowsley council, and of its predecessor, Huyton urban district council. I continue to believe strongly that the more control we give to local authorities, the more likely they are to administer services in a way that meets local needs. I was pleased to note from his speech that my hon. Friend the Minister was taken with that idea.
Merseytravel, my local PTA, is a very good authority. Its chair, Councillor Mark Dowd, is a great political leader and a great advocate for public transport for Merseyside, and for the whole country in respect of some of the bodies on which he serves. Its chief executive, Neil Scales—I think that his full title is chief executive and director general—is well regarded by the Department for Transport, in transport circles and by those of us who regularly deal with Merseytravel. People like that represent the future of public transport, and people like that are the right people to deal with bus services. I hope that through the measures in the consultation document, we can transfer more power and control to such people because I trust them to deal with bus services—and although I trust my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, I am not entirely convinced that I trust her Department in its entirety instead of a local authority.
It is a rare pleasure to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) in debate, as it is unusual for a Labour Member to speak immediately after another Labour Member. It is worth pausing to reflect on why that has happened. In fairness to the Conservative party, it is being consistent. Conservatives do not like bus travel, they are not wedded to public transport and they have not turned up for this debate. They are at least being consistent in not being present. However, the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) is the only Liberal Democrat who has attended this debate. When I think of all the “Fib Dem” “Focus” leaflets that have been shoved through my letter box—I am sure other Members have had the same experience—saying how much they care about where the bus stop is, the frequency of the bus service, how wrong it is that somebody else, either the Labour Government or the Labour-controlled passenger transport authority, has not done this, that or the other, I would have thought that their parliamentary representatives might have found time to have attended the debate.
I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman is not surprised that a Member rises to respond to that comment. He is right that the debate is on an important issue, but let us look at the timetable for it. On what day is the debate taking place? This is the last day before recess and we are having a discussion about buses. Why was the subject of the debate not expanded? Does the right hon. Gentleman not agree that we should have a wider debate—one that is not only on buses, but on transport? If that were the case, we would find that not only Opposition Members but Labour Members would be more inclined to join in the debate.
Order. I think that we ought to debate the matter that we are in the Chamber to debate.
I fully accept that, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I wish to observe that the conditions that pertain to today’s debate pertain for all Members equally. It is not easier for Labour Members to get to the House than Conservative Members—or easier even than Liberal Democrats. However, I shall follow your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and return to the subject of buses.
The case for public bus transport has never been stronger. The arguments for it have been well rehearsed in the House. Bus transport is liberating for those who do not have access to other means of transportation. It is socially inclusive for those on low incomes, including pensioners and those who do not receive a wage. The economic case for bus transportation in broadening the range of jobs that are available to people has an important part to play in the Government’s “making work pay” strategy. There is, and always has been, a strong case for bus transportation in terms of the impact that it has on relieving traffic congestion. Perhaps the most important argument in favour of bus transportation is the environmental case; a bus journey produces far less carbon dioxide per person than individual car travel for the same journey.
I want to pay tribute and give due credit to individual Government Departments for their recognition of the role of bus transportation in achieving their departmental objectives. For example, the Department for Work and Pensions has provided financial support for bus transportation defined specifically to link rural communities with larger neighbouring labour markets. Through its agencies, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and its predecessor, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, have supported rural bus schemes, including minibus schemes, to mitigate the isolation of those in rural communities who do not have access to their own transport. Some of those schemes have been highly imaginative, taking careful account of people’s preferred journey patterns. The Chancellor has provided funding for concessionary bus travel for older and disabled people in his last two Budget statements, and the latest proposal from the Department for Transport is to take forward the quality contract idea in the Transport Act 2000, which I think has so far found only one taker. So if there is merit in the idea—I think that there is—it needs revisiting.
Having said all that, the question that the House ought to be considering is why the use of buses outside London has been in sharp decline since bus deregulation in the 1980s. Bus use in Tyne and Wear has declined by 48 per cent. in the past 20 years, and part of the explanation might be found in the level of expenditure on transport. Public spending on transport in London stands at £631 per head. The equivalent figure for the four English regions of the north-east, Yorkshire and Humberside, the north-west and the west midlands is £239 per head. That is a substantial difference. Deregulation of the bus industry outside London has not brought the benefits claimed for it, and it seems that the application of competition policy in this area has turned out to be more of a hindrance than a help.
With declining passenger numbers, bus companies are slow in investing and short-termist in their decision making, and there has been little innovation from the private sector. Now that the private sector bus market has settled down following initial deregulation, there has been a marked tendency toward the establishment of effective private sector monopolies area by area. That is exacerbated by the fact that the cost of entry into the market for new competition is high, so it is rarely attempted. Whatever this is, it is not competition policy. Bus companies are also not slow in coming forward to demand public subsidies for every social element of the service that they provide—a point that my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) made very effectively. The most obvious example is concessionary travel. Bus companies seek to reclaim from public authorities the full cost of pensioners’ and older people’s travel. If a real private market were operating, surely all bus companies would introduce concessionary travel arrangements of their own. However, because the state is paying, those private companies want to charge full fare.
I am pleased that the right hon. Gentleman has moved on to concessionary fares. What is his view of the Government’s revenue support grant settlement for Tyne and Wear, which resulted in massive cuts in bus services and an increase in concessionary fares? Does he think that the Government got it right?
It will come as no surprise whatsoever to the hon. Gentleman to learn that I will have quite a lot to say about that issue later. Indeed, I have asked questions of the Minister about it, met various Ministers to discuss it, had an Adjournment debate on it and introduced a ten-minute Bill in an attempt to remedy the problem. So it is not as if I have been silent on the matter, and nor will I be silent this time. I should add one cautionary note, however. The difficult situation in which Tyne and Wear finds itself is not the responsibility of the Ministers opening and responding to today’s debate. Indeed, the previous Secretary of State for Transport went out of his way to be as helpful as he could to Tyne and Wear; the blame lies elsewhere.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way a second time. On his substantive point, he has made an intricate, detailed and effective attack on the way in which the subsidy is being applied. Surely that bears out the point made earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson), who said that one does not have to disagree with the level of subsidy in order to argue that it is none the less being extremely ineffectively applied.
The hon. Gentleman—I hope that I do not do him any harm in saying this—is absolutely right. An appropriate sum of money was allocated to the policy; it is the way in which it has been distributed to individual authorities that has given rise to the problem. Some authorities were given too much money and were reluctant to give it back. That is understandable, but the area that I represent was not given enough money. It says that it needs more, and it does, as I shall point out.
I suspect that the hon. Gentleman will also agree with me about the dangers before privatisation. Unresponsive, complacent, inflexible and inefficient public monopolies are no more acceptable than their under-funded private sector equivalents. Many of my hon. Friends have said that they do not want to go back to the situation of the early 1980s. I endorse that sentiment and I shall propose a better way forward.
The issue is important for the whole country, and especially for English conurbations outside London. It is especially important to the community in Tyne and Wear that I represent, partly because car ownership is substantially lower than the national average and partly because the usage of public transport is substantially higher than the national average. It is those facts that, as well as underpinning the importance of public transport, have got us into the budgetary difficulty that the PTA, Nexus, faces. For those who do not know the area, Nexus covers the five metropolitan district authorities in Tyne and Wear. The funding arrangements for the Government-inspired concessionary travel scheme have left the authority with a shortfall of £5.4 million.
I have raised the issue in an Adjournment debate and in a ten-minute Bill. The Tyne and Wear MPs have had meetings with Ministers and even with the Prime Minister to try to resolve the issue, but it remains unresolved. It is completely unacceptable that the injustice has remained unresolved for 18 months.
No, I have made my point about unfairness, and other hon. Members, at least on this side of the House, wish to speak in the debate. I do not want to use up their time.
Nexus has tried to deal with the problem by drawing down its reserves to bridge the funding gap. That might be a reasonable short-term strategy, but it can only do it once. The reserves cannot be drawn down again, so some other means will have to be found to meet the budget shortfall. That inevitably means cuts in services and the withdrawal of other concessions that do not have the statutory underpinning of the arrangements for pensioners and persons with disabilities. That is desperately unfair—and even more so because the pressure to cut other arrangements is not being put on other passenger transport authorities. In any event, such pressure is contrary to the public interest.
I wish to conclude my short contribution to today’s debate by suggesting a way forward. The debate about city regions offers in its analysis some very important points on economic development and public transport, although it is unwise to draw more general conclusions about political structures from it. What is needed is a combination of the ideas proposed by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport for taking forward the quality contract proposals, which have much merit, combined with an empowering of passenger transport authorities.
I took great heart from the Minister’s comments on the issue. I shall await the details of the proposals, but it sounds as if they are on the right lines. I strongly believe that passenger transport authorities should be able to make strategic alliances across their existing boundaries with neighbouring communities. They should be led, as they are now, by elected local representatives. However, I am not taken with the idea that they should comprise the leaders of the district authorities in the area. Council leaders are very busy people: a mixture of other councillors, in proportion to party representation in the area, would be able to specialise in transport matters, and make that their main contribution to local public service.
The PTAs need to have the power to assert specific bus routes. They do not have it at present, but instead must allow routes to be chosen by the bus companies. They should be able to impose bus-only lanes and make arrangements with the police for their enforcement. They should be able to assert the frequency of service on specific routes, and they need to be adequately funded so that they can support innovative public transport projects.
A strong case can be made for funding short or environmentally friendly journeys, such as school bus journeys in urban areas that might replace the car trips that parents make when taking their children to school. That idea has much to commend it on environmental and congestion-reduction grounds, but the obvious objection is that parents pay for their journeys by car to school, whereas the public purse would end up paying for the bus. Nevertheless, the time has come for such ideas, and the PTAs should be able to innovate in that way.
If bus travel is to make the contribution that many Ministers want it to make, we have to believe in it and create enthusiastic public authorities to champion it. The new proposals from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport will have their greatest impact if local PTAs are empowered to act as strong advocates for them.
I am honoured to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown), who remarked on the sequence of speakers in the debate and made many of the points that I want to make about the importance of buses in public transport.
To whom are bus services important? My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) mentioned the large number of female bus users, but many older people use them too. We are moving from the perception that to be pro-bus is to be anti-car, and a consensus is forming about the need to deal with climate change and reduce carbon dioxide. To that end, we need coherence and consistency in the public transport initiatives adopted by all parties, at both national and local levels.
Buses play a crucial role in the provision of quality choices for modal shifting. I was a county council leader between 1993 and 2001, and introduced various public transport initiatives. A number of park-and-ride schemes were deployed around Ipswich, and it was interesting to hear what people said about buses when they had not been on one for years. They were pleased to see innovations such as double glazing, which showed that their resistance to public omnibuses was based on entirely outdated perceptions about what it was like to use them regularly.
If this debate had been held last month, I might have been tempted to say that Ipswich could provide some glimpses into the future of bus services. Buses provide an alternative to private car use on some journeys, and they are very useful for getting people to work or to the shops. Indeed, as the leader of the county council I used to look forward to receiving a letter from someone who wrote annually when the county council re-approved a rural bus route subsidy, saying, “Thank you very much for doing this again. It means that I can continue in my employment for another 12 months.”
If this debate had been last month I would have liked to invite hon. Members to come to Ipswich to see a glimpse of the future. I would never have thought to claim that we were in any way leading the pack on every possible initiative. Obviously, when we hear of the achievements in London, we recognise that some of the best practice is already in our capital. I would have said that over the years, particularly when Suffolk county council had a Labour leadership, we had a Labour borough council and a Labour Government, bus services were beginning to motor. We saw the introduction of a guided bus way, giving buses priority in avoiding congestion on one of our busiest radial routes out of town. We had bus priority and gating measures at traffic lights that, unfortunately, were opposed by local Conservatives at every turn. Since 2004 when they took over leadership of Ipswich borough council they have messed about with bus lane priorities and bus gating measures annually. That is hugely regrettable given the evident advantage that that gave to buses in reducing journey times and increasing reliability and adherence to timetables.
To those infrastructure measures introduced by the local authority, I would add real time passenger information. On the few routes into which we have managed to tiptoe with RTPI, the public have shown an appetite for it. One route used a satellite space technology, so bus users could monitor buses over the internet. That was developed in co-operation with local business. I should have liked to see that develop into a local texting-based bus alerting system.
Investment in frequency is critical in passenger psychology. Services should be frequent and reliable. Some of the methods around RTPI are an attempt to bolster passenger confidence that when they go to the bus stop, the bus will turn up. The more frequent the service, the more confident are passengers that if they turn up, the service will be along shortly and if they have just missed the bus, they will not have to wait too long for the next. That is critical to ensuring that services are financially viable and have a high level of ridership. Tinkering with service frequencies is a dangerous game.
Park-and-ride schemes have been an enormously successful element of the central Ipswich transport system. The first two schemes were introduced without Government subsidy and the third was supported through local transport plan arrangements. Their success is measured by a monthly increase in passenger usage of between 2 and 3 per cent., and they are the mainstay of the increase in bus ridership to and from Ipswich. The schemes are operated under parking regulations rather than the bus service regime, but they have taken 1.5 million car journeys off the roads in Ipswich over the past few years.
Another feature of a sustainable future will be a co-operative—partnership—approach between local authorities and bus companies to meet the needs of new developments. Ravenswood in Ipswich is a major development on a former airfield, where we secured support from the developers for the introduction of an up-front bus route. The service is one of the fastest growing in the town in terms of usage. People moving into the development have had the option of quality public transport from day one, so they have not got into the habit of using cars.
That example shows that we have a forward-looking bus company. There have been many claims of uniqueness in this debate, but Ipswich is the only non-metropolitan district that still has a corporately owned bus company. Ipswich borough council is the sole shareholder in Ipswich Buses and has provided proactive partnership in the initiatives that I have described.
Last month, I was pleased to be invited by Ipswich Buses to the launch of its new fleet of six Scania buses for service 13, which shows the company’s forward thinking on how best to meet the needs of passengers. For me, the most pleasant surprise was that the new buses had leather seating. It had been fitted in the confidence that if the quality of the environment was high, people would respect the buses and they would be less subject to damage. However, there are also eight CCTV cameras on every bus, which are linked to the borough’s safety system.
Some Members asked about security on buses. Bus companies are frequently subject to ill-founded claims for damages that people say were sustained on buses, in the hope of reaching an out-of-court settlement because the company will not want the cost of an expensive court hearing. There is some early evidence from Ipswich Buses that, when people discover that what has happened on every bus journey has been recorded, quite often some of those unfounded claims for compensation are withdrawn and the bus company saves the expense that it might otherwise have been put to.
I was pleased that a bus company that is as forward looking as Ipswich Buses was introducing six excellent new buses on one of its services and that those buses were going to be fully accessible and compatible with the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee—DPTAC—standard, as is true of 100 per cent. of the existing fleet. Had we had this debate last month, I might have told Members that they should come to Ipswich for a glimpse of the future.
The public have a simple perspective. It is all well and fine to talk about the regulatory regimes, but the public’s perspective is clear. If a service is withdrawn by a private operator or the frequency of buses is reduced, they think that the local authority is responsible. They think that services should be frequent, that buses should be clean and smart, and that fares should be reasonable. The public do not think that there should be the absurd complexities associated with through-ticketing. I urge my hon. Friends on the Front Bench to look closely at what they can do to work with their colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry to look at the application of competition law to through-ticketing. It does appear to create some nonsenses that I know we would have overcome in Ipswich.
Although we would certainly have overcome those difficulties last month, this month is a different story. Not a week after I was pleased to be involved in the launch of the six new buses, I discovered that the shareholder—the now Conservative and Liberal Democrat-run Ipswich borough council—had told the bus company directors that it wanted to withdraw £975,000 of share dividends and that it required a dividend of £162,000 every year until 2009, when it was going to introduce a £500,000 annual rental on the depot.
That will have a huge impact on services. The proposals are enormously regrettable and there has been much hostile reaction from my constituents. They will mean that—whereas we were able to launch six new vehicles last month—there will be no investment in new vehicles for the period of the plan. They will mean the withdrawal of the present day-rover ticket, which has been a boon to many, and a reduction in evening and Sunday services on many routes. Buses on routes 5, 7, 11 and 15 would be reduced by the Tory and Liberal council from four per hour to three per hour. Buses on the No. 2 route would go from half hourly to hourly, on the No. 12 route from three per hour to two per day, and on the No. 16 route from three per hour to two per hour. The No. 14 service would be cut entirely.
I said earlier that the public have a very simple view of these things. They expect a good standard of frequency. There is a huge danger that the proposal made by the Conservative and Liberal-controlled council will lead to some of the four routes with reduced frequencies that I identified becoming less patronised because people will be less confident that if they turn up at a bus stop, they will be able to get a bus and go. There is a risk that profitability will thus decrease and that the routes will become subject to more financial scrutiny.
I would have liked to have been able to say that if hon. Members came to Ipswich, they might have a glimpse of an aspect of the future of bus services. However, despite the fine words about the environment of the Conservatives and Liberals who run our council, they plan to do something else. It is time to put an end to that, so I hope that the good people of Ipswich will put every pressure on Ipswich borough council to reverse the proposal because it would be enormously damaging to all people who use buses for leisure, to get to work and in every aspect of their daily lives.
I have spoken in and secured several debates on buses in recent years because buses are one of my constituents’ highest priorities. We need to look at transport in a new light: we need to see it in relation to health, education, employment and the environment, and look at it in an integrated way across all those public interests.
I welcome the publication of “Putting Passengers First”. As one of my constituents, Mrs. Connor, wrote:
“it is now some time since the meeting at Swinton Town Hall was held to discuss the problems caused by the cancellation of local bus services. I am hoping that there will soon be some good news.”
My constituents, like others, hold local politicians and the transport authorities responsible when their bus disappears, but we know that that is not the case. We have a problem that all Governments face: how do we reconcile competition with co-operation, or, as I put it, how do we achieve “co-opetition”? That might not be achievable, but we must try to work towards it. As we do so, we need to try to achieve a negotiated partnership-approach settlement. However, achieving that will depend on the balance of power. I think that that lies too much with the bus operators, rather than with local government and local transport authorities. I hope that the forthcoming Bill will go some way towards redressing that balance so that effective action can be taken in the interests of the public.
As we all know, good, reliable, affordable and safe bus services are vital for social inclusion, economic renewal, the reduction of congestion and the improvement of our environment. Bus services are now predominantly provided by five large companies. We have heard that buses account for 31 per cent. of the turnover of the big five, but for 47 per cent. of their profits. Taxpayer subsidy to the industry continues to rise; in 2004-05, it was estimated at £1.86 billion. We all want value for money, and passengers expect their elected representatives, be they MPs or councillors, to deliver the services that they want and need. Like other Greater Manchester Members, I am proud of the Greater Manchester passenger transport authority. I know that PTAs are working hard to deliver high-quality services for local people.
With 20 years’ experience of deregulation, we can say with some certainty that voluntary co-operation does not work and that further initiatives are needed. The quality contracts for which the Transport Act 2000 provided have not materialised, as some of us predicted. The Passenger Transport Executive Group has proposed that only minor changes to the 2000 Act are needed to solve our present difficulties. Local authority franchises or quality contracts can be introduced only if it can be demonstrated to be the only practicable way to achieve a local bus strategy. That is too high a hurdle. The PTEG says that the practicable test should be removed, leaving the existing tests of economy, efficiency and effectiveness. It also believes that the current five-year time limit on such franchises should be extended to act as an incentive for operators to invest. I agree with those two things.
The key changes that the Government are considering include improving arrangements for public performance controls across the network and giving local authorities a say over frequencies, timetables and fares. I would welcome such initiatives. The Greater Manchester passenger transport authority is committed to the principle of local transport authorities being given greater control over the bus network.
I want the final legislation to include powers to enable local transport authorities to act as the procurer of local bus services through a franchising process. There should be powers that enable PTAs to stipulate networks and frequencies so as appropriately to marry capacity and demand; powers to direct capacity where and when it is required, including to integrate rather than compete with other modes; and powers to enable the specification of minimum quality standards across the network. There should be mechanisms to guarantee network stability, potentially by all operators being required to register services with the GMPTA and executive. There should also be powers to require compliance with the specific integrated multi-modal ticketing arrangements and powers to enable PTAs to set the level and structure of bus fares.
I also want provisions to override existing competition law to enable PTAs and executives to invite individual operators either individually or jointly to bid for services against set frequencies—fully integrated with existing modes across the network. There should be powers to enable competition between bus operators off road; powers to devise, enforce and operate an incentive regime; powers to allocate slots for services passing through congested centres; and powers to ensure that customer and commercial data are shared in the interest of the public.
“Putting Passengers First” strengthens the arrangements for voluntary and statutory partnerships by allowing the inclusion of fares and service levels. It also seeks to make it easier to achieve options for improving bus services through quality contracts. It says that franchising and quality contracts should be made a more realistic option via a new approval process. However, the process set out in PPF has the potential to be lengthy and convoluted. The traffic commissioners and transport tribunals—currently the regulators of vehicle safety and performance—are earmarked to determine a quality contract proposal. I hope that the Minister will reassure us today that, whatever changes are made, the introduction of quality contracts will be a speedy process.
There are also concerns about the continuing influence of the competition authorities over local bus services. It is not clear from the Government document to what extent the Office of Fair Trading has agreed to step back from its stance that on-street competition is in the passengers’ interests. The Government need to ensure that the OFT does not undermine the Government’s bus policy and, by extension, their wider transport policy by continuing to obstruct sensible co-ordination and co-operation between operators. That is where co-opetition is really needed.
I have some questions for the Under-Secretary, which I hope she will take away for serious consideration. I apologise to her as I will not be here for the summing-up. I would have liked to be, but some pressing matters at home mean that I will have to leave. Have the Government made any assessment of how long it would take for a quality contract to go from proposal to implementation under the process set out in “Putting Passengers First”?
Will the new process for quality contracts set out in “Putting Passengers First” make quality contracts a more realistic option than the process set out in the Transport Act 2000, when the new process appears to have more stages to go through and a longer time scale? The new process could entail agreeing a plan with the Government on funding for associated bus priority measures, an inquiry by the traffic commissioners, an inquiry by a transport tribunal and the possibility of a judicial review.
In addition, do the Government consider it appropriate for the traffic commissioners and transport tribunals to sit in judgment on the merits of a quality contract, when that proposal is central to wider transport strategies, including traffic management strategies and even road-user charging pilots?
How will the Government ensure that traffic commissioners and transport tribunals have the necessary resources, skills and capacity, which would be relevant in determining the wider planning, social exclusion and regeneration implications of a quality contract proposal?
Why do not the Government seek block exemption from competition legislation for local bus services, when that legislation is clearly hampering sensible co-operation on fares and timetables between operators against the interests of the public? What evidence do the Government have that schedule 10 to the Transport Act 2000 has encouraged operators to co-operate with one another on fares and timetables without fear of prosecution by the competition authorities?
We have problems in the city of Salford. Buses have been withdrawn on the three main radial routes—from Little Hulton through Swinton to Manchester; from Worsley and Boothstown, through Eccles to Manchester; and from Cadishead and Irlam through Eccles to Manchester—and on other routes. Why cannot we allow PTEs and PTAs to buy and run buses where no private operator wishes to do so? I have no problem with the concept of competition, where appropriate; but where competition means that our constituents on the social routes are not serviced, that cannot be in their interests. I seriously ask the Government again to consider allowing the PTEs and PTAs the power and the resources to fill that public interest need.
In conclusion, I ask the Government to ensure that the White Paper gives local government the power to get the balance right and to deliver the service in the interest of local people. That is what my constituents in Eccles want, and it would benefit not only my constituents or those in Greater Manchester, but those throughout England, too. The Government have taken a good step forward with the White Paper, and I hope that we can convince them that there are ways to improve their proposals even further.
There is always a danger in making regular contributions in the House about buses of being categorised, or even caricatured, as being something of an anorak, and I should like to make it clear from the outset that I do not collect bus numbers or bus ephemera, but I do collect hundreds of constituents’ letters complaining about the quality of bus services and cuts in them.
As I looked around the Chamber earlier today, I saw a lot of familiar faces—some of them have now gone—including my hon. Friends the Members for Eccles (Ian Stewart), for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) and for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) and my right hon. Friends the Members for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) and for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown), who has got form as a lobbyist on PTEs and quality contracts.
For years, we few, we happy few, we band of brothers and sisters have banged the drum in favour of having more local powers for bus services, and we have continually banged our heads against a brick wall. That is why the debate, initiated in Government time, is such a massive watershed for us, and the Minister is smiling in acknowledgement. As my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles said, we have made our case in numerous Adjournment debates. Successive Ministers have read their briefings from civil servants, and they have dead batted our demands. In fact, it has been like facing a procession of Geoff Boycotts, quite frankly.
At the Labour conference in autumn, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport 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 difference.”
Amen and alleluia to that! At the time, I did not believe that such comment was possible; I had to pinch myself, and I even scoured the internet for reports of it, but I have confirmed that the Secretary of State did indeed say that.
However, to echo a point made by previous speakers, including my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles, there is a “but”. As is often the case, Old Nick lurks in the thicket, and the devil is in the detail, to use the cliché usually employed in the Chamber. Talking of Old Nick, I noted that the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) paid overt and eulogistic tribute to Nicholas Ridley. I submit that, when it came to bus policy, and several other areas of policy, Nicholas Ridley approached with his bow doors well and truly open, because bus deregulation has been an absolute disaster. The hon. Gentleman paid tacit and implicit tribute to Margaret Thatcher, too, because it was she who said, when in office, that any man who travelled on buses at the age of 26 had to regard himself as a failure. That characterised Tory policy then, and, despite all the embellishments to it that we have heard today, it characterises Tory policy now.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that extremely helpful intervention. The point was made well by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley that we do not want to go back to the deregulated days, although that has its attractions. We want a system of regulation. The Conservative spokesman, the hon. Member for North Shropshire, said that if we tightened up the way in which we use the subsidy system, everything would be okay. The reason that the subsidy system does not work is that we do not have any way of regulating it, as there are no contracts to which to keep people. In many areas, there is, in practice, a monopoly, and bus operators virtually get away with murder, as has always been said.
As I was saying before I was interrupted, though not rudely, I cannot stress how important it is that quality contracts are made a more realistic option, as is suggested in the Select Committee report. We cannot have another false dawn, which is what a number of us predicted when quality contracts were introduced in the Transport Act 2000. Since deregulation, quality and standards have undoubtedly fallen, irrespective of what has been said by Conservative Members. In west Yorkshire, fares have gone up by over 50 per cent. in real terms, and that is a disincentive for people to travel by bus. The number of passengers has fallen by almost 40 per cent., which, in round figures, is some 100 million passenger journeys. Declines in other PTE areas have been even more precipitous.
As has been said, bus companies can pick and choose what services they provide and where they provide them, and they can continue to make profits even when they are providing a poor service—services that are chopped, changed, missing or late. Passengers simply feel powerless in the face of that, and many people are denied a reliable and affordable service to work, school, college, the shops, health centres and hospitals.
We heard some pious comments about the needs of people with disabilities. People with disabilities in my constituency plead for one thing: stability. They want services that they can trust, so that when they go out, they have a fair chance of the bus actually turning up. That is something that the deregulated system has simply failed to provide.
When services are trimmed or cut, people understandably, as we have heard, turn to their MPs, their councillors or the passenger transport executive, only to find that there is precious little that they can do. What we get from the operators when they cut services is what I call the two-finger response. First, they say that the services are not profitable, and secondly, they suggest that we ask the PTE to give the operators even more subsidy to continue to run them.
Passenger transport executives such as Metro in west Yorkshire currently subsidise about 13 per cent. of services. The rest are out of their control. In its own terms, deregulation has been an abject failure because it is impossible to gauge whether the taxpayer is getting value for money in a monopoly situation where only one company tenders for each contract.
The network in my area is pretty typical of comparable areas. I cannot speak for urban areas. There are high frequency routes, such as the No. 4 to Pudsey, No. 16 to Farsley and No. 42 to Old Farnley, together with a combination of routes on the Leeds-Bradford corridor. The reason why those services are so frequent is that it is in the interests of the bus operators to maximise their profit by concentrating on routes with a captive market. Off that beaten track, in areas where there is a social need, such as council estates, the picture is dramatically different. The Opposition need to recognise that.
The area has been subject to successive service changes, which have led to a concentration of resources and a move away from the unprofitable but socially desirable services. Last year, for example, a whole community was cut off a route without notice, leaving many residents, especially older people, stranded.
Great play has been made of the use of partnerships. In the civil service briefs and speeches that we used to get from the Minister until recently there was a strong emphasis on partnerships. It must be accepted, even by people like me, that they work in certain circumstances, but only in locations such as those described by the hon. Member for North Shropshire and where the partnership is established entirely at the behest of the bus operator. If there is a profit in it for them, they will do it. If not, there is no prospect of a voluntary partnership arrangement.
Changes have been made in my area to services such as the No. 97, No. 647 and No. 651 in the Guiseley and Yeadon areas. We could all recite a litany of problems, and a number of us have done so. The changes cause tremendous problems for regular travellers who depend on those services, quite apart from those who might be attracted out of their cars to use them if they were available and reliable. Frequency has been reduced on services that penetrate local housing estates and provide links to important shopping centres like Pudsey and the Owlcotes centre in my constituency.
Links to facilities such as health centres, post offices and supermarkets are often ignored because the operator has no interest in meeting the public need, only in making a profit. Notable examples are the fact that there is no public transport link from my constituency to the newly rebuilt Wharfedale hospital in Otley or to the primary health care facilities at Eccleshill in Bradford, which are extremely important to many of my constituents who do not have ready access to alternative forms of transport.
The decline in bus services, as has been said repeatedly, affects everyone, not just those who depend on buses or those who would like to use buses more. Poor services lead to increased car use, which creates even more congestion, pollution and road safety hazards in all our communities. On carbon emissions, we know from research carried out by the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research that per passenger mile, coach and bus travel produces only 30 per cent. of the CO2 created by petrol fuelled cars and 40 per cent. of that created by diesels.
Over the years, bus operators have won two important public relations battles. The first is to suggest that deregulation has worked; they clearly have dupes on the Opposition Benches to support that notion. The second is that local authorities and passenger transport authorities are not fit for purpose as regards commissioning bus services. That will continue to be a major bone of contention between certain Labour Members and our Front-Bench colleagues.
Replacement of the “only practicable way test” is extremely welcome, but concerns have been expressed about the new process. If there is one message that I would like to convey to my hon. Friends on the Front Bench, it is that we do not want an insuperable legal high jump to be replaced by an interminable bureaucratic marathon, nor do we want a period of instability and uncertainty to be created by unnecessary tinkering with local structures.
It would be interesting to know whether Ministers have carried out any assessment of how long it would take for quality contracts to go through to implementation under the process set out in the document “Putting Passengers First”. It is a convoluted process that, if traced through step by step, could take an incredibly long time. PTAs and PTEs may have to negotiate with civil servants, especially as part of the QC approach requires Government funding. There may then be intervention by the traffic commissioners, an appeal to the transport tribunal, and almost inevitably, given that bus operators will fight this tooth and nail, a judicial review. That is why the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), to whom we all genuflect on these issues, are absolutely right and require a response. I hope that Ministers understand why my hon. Friends and I do not think that the process sits squarely with what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said at the party conference about giving
“local transport authorities that need them real powers to make a difference”.
My hon. Friend the Member for Eccles asked several questions that are of interest to those of us who represent areas with PTEs, and I do not intend to reiterate those.
Turning to concessionary fares, I know from a recent meeting that my hon. Friend the Minister is fully aware of my personal concerns regarding the concessionary fare scheme. At the moment, the system appears to be giving a blank cheque to operators, who are in some areas jacking up their off-peak cash fares to up the ante in terms of raking in more and more public money by way of subsidy. This firm message needs to go out from my colleagues on the Front Bench: “If you continue to operate those sorts of manipulative and profiteering approaches to fares in order to milk the public purse for money, that will be held in the balance when we come to look at issues relating to regulation and quality contracts.”
The comprehensive spending review process that is moving towards a conclusion is an opportunity not only to meet some of the broader investment requirements of city regions such as Leeds but to deal with issues relating to concessionary fares. It is crucial, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown) said, that local authorities are reimbursed for running the concessionary fare system. At the moment, unless we get a grip on the matter and bring some control to bear, more and more services and concessionary schemes for other bus users will be cut to fuel the monster that we have created.
I am most familiar with Leeds because I am one of its Members of Parliament. In the past 20 years, Leeds has created more jobs than any other major city apart from London. Between 1981 and 2002, it added 86,000 new jobs to its work force and is expected to provide approximately 46 per cent. of the region’s additional 60,000 jobs between 2004 and 2014. Although jobs have been created in Leeds, many of the people who take them up live outside the city boundary.
Passenger transport executive areas have some of the worst concentrations of deprivation in the country, with 84 out of the 100 most deprived neighbourhoods located in metropolitan areas. Investment to boost transport, especially buses, because of the proportion of public transport journeys for which they account, is essential to our areas.
As I have said previously, even in Leeds, where there are sceptics like me, we have examples of effective partnership working. We have quality bus corridors, guided bus lanes and the free city bus service that links key points in the city with the main rail station. Welcome though those schemes are, it is clear that the resources available to PTEs are not enough to keep pace with the needs of the growing economies of our major cities or to boost the initiatives that make a genuine difference to bus travel.
I make no bones about reiterating the point that was made about transport spending. In 2001, spending in London was £233 per head. By 2005-06, it had increased to £631 per head. London is our capital and needs a decent transport system, so no one begrudges priority being given to it. However, in Yorkshire and Humber, spending on transport in 2001 was £117 per head. By 2005-06, that had increased to £197 per head. The increase is welcome, but compared with what is happening in London—and other parts of the country—it is grossly inadequate.
“Putting Passengers First”, the Bill that will emanate from the discussions and the comprehensive spending review provide enormous opportunities for improving bus services in Leeds, west Yorkshire and the United Kingdom. I hope that my hon. Friends will seize them.
It is a genuine pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell). I intervened in the Westminster Hall debate on bus services in October that my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Ian Stewart) initiated. My hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey was present, and he should be commended for his good work on bus services. I also agree with him that it is good that the subject is being debated in Government time.
Bus provision is an important feature of our country and, with concerns about access to services for all sections of society, growing congestion on our roads and the effects of transport on the environment, it is appropriate that the House should discuss the subject, which is rightly rising up the political agenda, in Government time.
If there is anywhere in the country outside London and major metropolitan areas where bus services, as part of a co-ordinated public transport system, should work, it is Hartlepool and the wider sub-region. My town is a very centralised community, concentrated to a large extent on an urban core. I understand from research carried out as part of Hartlepool borough council’s second local transport plan that some 99 per cent. of the borough’s residents could access Hartlepool town centre in half an hour by public transport, even at peak times.
The vast majority of journeys in Hartlepool are in the constituency itself. Unlike the experience of my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey, 72 per cent. of all travel to employment takes place in the borough of Hartlepool. Those two factors—the centralised population, together with journeys being concentrated within the town—should mean that Hartlepool is ripe for a successful bus transport system.
In addition, more than two in five households in Hartlepool do not have access to a car. That is almost double the national average. That fact, combined with high levels of deprivation and economic inactivity, means that a high-quality bus service would allow access to a range of provisions for my constituents, including employment, education, health care and leisure. Yet access to—and take-up of—good bus services is simply not happening. In the period from 2001 to 2005, bus passenger numbers in Hartlepool declined by 3 per cent. year on year—a compound fall of about 9 per cent. This is consistent with the 10 per cent. drop in the use of buses and light rail in the north-east region in that period—the biggest fall anywhere in the country. Although car ownership in Hartlepool is about half the national average, as I mentioned earlier, the number of people who use a car to travel to and from work is higher than the country’s average. There is no need for that, given the circumstances that I outlined earlier.
Hartlepool is part of the Tees valley, a relatively small and self-contained sub-region. Travel within the Tees valley by public transport should be easy, cheap and reliable. Clearly, however, it is not. Bus patronage has fallen by 1.5 million passengers between 2001 and 2005. The existing bus network is largely based on patterns planned about half a century ago, which no longer reflect the employment, education and health needs of the population.
Although I commend the five local authorities in the Tees valley for working together to pull services up—they are working to ensure that the concessionary fare for older people is co-ordinated on a Tees valley-wide basis, for example—clearly more needs to be done. The Tees valley has the potential to enjoy high economic growth in the next 20 years, but that will be hampered if there is too much congestion on the main roads. Even now, the A19—the major road through the Tees valley linking the sub-region with Tyne and Wear to the north and Yorkshire to the south—is heavily congested at most times. Equally, the potential for economic growth will not be realised if, as now, people cannot access education and employment because of inadequate public transport.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is important for people to have better transport links to hospitals, as many people in Hartlepool are worried about the distance that they have to travel to access health care?
I might have to take the hon. Gentleman to the Standards Board over that intervention; he has obviously been reading my speech. My next paragraph is about access to health services, and nowhere are these problems more apparent.
North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Trust is currently a two-hospital site, with some services at the University hospital of Hartlepool and some at the University hospital of North Tees. Bus provision between the two hospitals is extremely poor. Anyone attending an appointment in a hospital outside their town, whether it be Hartlepool or Stockton, will find it time-consuming and stressful, and attending the appointment will probably require two or three changes of bus, which can take hours and cause stress. There is also the prospect of access to health services getting worse without active and imaginative intervention.
A review of acute services in the area by the independent reconfiguration panel concluded that a single-site hospital should be built between Hartlepool and Stockton. Because of the poor level of bus provision, I suppose that that option would be ideal because, at present, any location will be equally inaccessible to both communities. Any planning with regard to changes in acute services will need to adopt accessibility and the provision of bus transport to the new hospital as fundamental principles. I am concerned that that might not happen, however, based on current experience and on what my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey said on this issue earlier.
One of the most modern, high-quality hospitals in the country is James Cook hospital in the south of the Tees valley. However, the bus service that allows Hartlepool people to travel to James Cook is due to be withdrawn soon because the private bus operator wants a greater level of subsidy to continue running the service. There must be a reason for that. There must also be a reason why, despite all the ingredients in my constituency and the surrounding area being in place for a co-ordinated and accessible first-class bus service, it is not happening.
I think that the reason is deregulation. I agree with the Transport Committee’s observation that the deregulated regime has exacerbated the decline in bus usage over the past 20 years. Deregulation has meant that bus operators are free to pick and choose which services they operate. They are free to concentrate on the more lucrative routes in an area, at the expense of the routes that could improve accessibility for more passengers, particularly the more vulnerable and disadvantaged in society.
With deregulation we have the worst of all possible worlds. Either there is fierce competition among bus companies for the profitable services, with operators racing—quite often literally—to compete for the same customers on the same routes, causing chaos and confusion among passengers, or more commonly, certainly in my area, a single operator has a monopoly and therefore has the local authority and passengers over a barrel. Services can be chopped, changed or stopped with very little notice or consultation. The threat of cancelled services can extract extra subsidies from the local authority, or services are merely stopped abruptly, as happened recently in my constituency. Coupled with the GP surgery’s move from West View to the Headland, the cancellation of the No. 5 service in the north of the town, which served the West View and Headland areas, means that hundreds of people in one of the most deprived parts of the country and suffering from appalling health inequalities no longer have access to health care.
I fear that, to maintain profitability, bus operators may concentrate on cost reduction rather than trying to raise revenue. That means cuts and reduced investment. It means, for instance, that older buses are not renovated. Some bus drivers in my constituency are worried about increasing working hours, which are part of the same problem. It is all about worsening terms and conditions and cutting services, and it results in a vicious circle. Cuts impair the quality and reliability of the service, which in turn leads to a reduction in the number of passengers. Passengers who are unhappy with the service will want to go elsewhere. In the context of confusing service provision, it is little wonder that potential passengers vote with their feet or their cars—if they have cars—or by reducing the quality of their own and their families’ lives by not taking up employment, training, health or leisure opportunities.
It is essential for the Government to intervene to resolve those problems. I agree with my hon. Friend the Minister, who wrote in her foreword to the Confederation of Passenger Transport’s 2006 document “On The Move”:
“buses can only deliver their full potential if they are given the right conditions. Frankly, the creation of the best conditions cannot be left to chance. Active participation by operators and authorities working together is the way forward”.
That is why I think the proposals in "Putting Passengers First", the Department’s 2006 document, are so important. The statutory quality partnership and quality contract schemes are important principles that will raise the quality of bus service.
Quality contract partnerships should be explored in more detail in Hartlepool. The local authority should be given a clear responsibility for developing and supporting the infrastructure that is necessary to provide a first-class bus network in the area. The authority should be responsible for high-quality bus stops, real-time timetable information, bus priority lanes and signalling priority for buses. My hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Chris Mole), who is no longer in the Chamber, made some interesting suggestions about the possibility of texting passengers information about when buses would arrive. I think that we need to be innovative in that way, and the local authority could provide the necessary infrastructure.
In return, a single operator or group of operators should have responsibility for providing a comprehensive and socially inclusive bus service, incorporating not just lucrative routes, but routes that are considered to be socially important. There should be modern, environmentally friendly, accessible buses that all members of society can use. All the research I have seen suggests that the impact of every £1 spent by local authorities on bus priority schemes is equivalent to that of £3 of direct bus subsidy for private companies.
Partnerships can be effective and efficient and provide a way of improving bus services, but they need extra teeth. I welcome the changes that the Department proposed in December, including the proposal to replace the “only practicable way” test in the terms of quality contract schemes with a public-interest test. As my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey said, the devil will be in the detail, but I am pleased that the bar has been lowered. I hope that the change will bring an end to deregulation for local authorities and their communities, and revised and modern regulation for the benefit of passengers.
I want to say a little about the terms and conditions of bus drivers. Although I am not part of the Transport and General Workers Union, I welcome its campaign on the subject. I am concerned, as are bus drivers in my constituency, that the drive for cost cutting by bus operators has led to longer bus driver hours, without breaks. Driving on increasingly busy streets for periods such as five and a half hours or six hours at a time, with increasing road rage from fellow drivers, is not conducive to safe and alert driving. I am worried that longer hours put at risk the safety of drivers, their passengers and other road users.
I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister recalls that I have tabled written parliamentary questions to her on the matter under discussion, and I hope that she will address that in her winding-up speech, as well as the TGWU campaign to drive down driver hours and for there to be more frequent breaks. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say and, more importantly, to seeing that there is a better regime of regulation for the benefit of existing and future passengers and for the country as a whole.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright) on his speech. He spoke with passion, knowledge and concern about the issues affecting his constituency. I certainly agree with his concluding comments about bus drivers and their requirements, and I hope that the Minister will address them in her winding-up speech.
I made an intervention on the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown), who is no longer in his place, about the timing of the debate. That was prompted by his comment about the number of Members of all parties who were present to participate in the debate. It is interesting that the debate has fallen on the last day before recess, and also that the subject is limited to buses alone. I would have preferred a more general debate on transport, because the subject of buses cannot be isolated from transport in general. I do not think that any Member who has contributed so far has spoken solely about buses; they have all talked about a transport system or an integrated network, and about the role of cars and trains as well as buses—and, importantly, about the use of different forms of transport by passengers.
Will the hon. Gentleman accept from me, as one of the usual suspects who turns up religiously for debates on such subjects, that we have had many debates on transport, encompassing rail, bus and other forms of transport, many of which were initiated by the Front-Bench team of his own party, but that they have all shared the characteristic that little has been said in them about buses?
The hon. Gentleman will not be surprised to learn that I do not agree with what he says. What I am emphasising is that if you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, had been strict, many contributors to the debate would have been ruled out of order for straying from talking simply about buses. I, too, am likely to stray.
There is a certain irony in that we are having this debate on a day when there is a lot of snow outside and much of our transport system in Britain has ground to a halt. I cycled into work this morning, as I do on most mornings, and I was amazed at how few cars were on the roads—and at how few buses there were, as well. That might have been because many people decided to stay at home.
The backdrop to this debate—on buses, transport, or however else we might address it—is the Transport Act 1985. Following that, we have had the various Transport Committee reports, which the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) has been involved in and spoken about. Most recently, the Eddington transport study was produced in December last year.
However, I want to focus on an aspect of the Stern review. It addresses climate change and the role that public transport can play in cutting emissions. We must not forget that emphasis if we are to take global warming seriously. Increasing the use of public transport is pivotal to achieving our aims in that regard.
It has been said that problems have been caused as a result of the privatisation that stems from the 1985 Act, and they must be looked at. Currently, just five companies manage 95 per cent. of our bus network. That raises questions about competition and diversity of use. It is also worth noting that there has been a net decline in the use of buses outside London. Members of all parties must address that.
I have heard many times that the Labour party thinks that the Conservatives are in love with the motor car. No doubt that observation will be met with nods approval. In fact, there are many Members in all parts of the House—
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for saying this, but I am probably not as old—and probably not as wise—as him. I was not a Member of the House when that comment was made, but I can speak for the party as it stands today and update the hon. Gentleman on our position, which is very clear. There is a role for the motor car in our lives, but there is also a role for public transport. People’s reliance on the motor car is often based simply on the lack of faith in public transport. If we improved the standard and efficiency of public transport, there would be a huge shift toward being passengers instead of drivers. I hope that that clarifies the Conservative party’s position, in contrast with the more archaic view that the hon. Gentleman tried to tease out of me.
We face a huge dilemma in trying to get more people to use their cars less. As has been said, we need timely and continuing investment in our bus services, and legislation that provides reliable, safe, affordable and—most importantly—accessible travel. Unfortunately, that is not the situation in my constituency. As many Members will be aware, their having attended party conferences over the years, Bournemouth is renowned for having an elderly population and a student population, and a large service industry because of the tourists whom it attracts. Many of the people in those groupings do not own cars, so they rely on public transport. However, last year the Liberal Democrat council decided to sell off the “yellow” bus company, as it was known. In fact, it was part-owned by the council, which was allowed not total but a little control, in order to ensure that the system covered the whole town. The council gained £13 million from that sale, but I have not seen where the money has been invested. It has also sold all sorts of other things, but that is a separate road that I will not wander down.
As a result of that full privatisation, commercial interests have overtaken the need to provide a responsible service for the people of Bournemouth. Routes have been cut and commercial priorities have prevailed, and as a result, profit is winning over diversity of service. A good example is to be found just down the road from where I live, in Boscombe. Boscombe pier is one of the big tourist attractions, but for some five months there was no public transport to take people to it from the main bus depot. There used to be the No. 27 bus, but the service was simply withdrawn. When I, along with many others, wrote to the company, it said that the service simply was not viable as not enough people were using it. Only after a huge campaign by the good local newspaper the Daily Echo and many local representatives, including me, was a service finally reinstalled. As Members will be aware, where there is a social need, local authorities are required to provide such services. However, I am afraid to say that the Lib Dem council has been very slow in meeting its obligations in this regard. Consequently, Bournemouth has a bus service that leaves much to be desired.
The hon. Member for Hartlepool spoke passionately about the problems that the elderly—or, indeed, anyone else with health needs—experience when visiting hospitals and so forth. Public transport services play a huge part in that regard, but in Bournemouth it is now very difficult to get to the hospital or to get across town to the university; indeed, it is even very difficult for children to get to school during the school run, simply because there are now so few bus routes.
I turn to infrastructure, on which the Eddington report places great emphasis. Bournemouth’s infrastructure has changed little in the last 20 years. However, following the Kate Barker review, some 20,000 new houses have been built in Bournemouth, and about 1,000 houses are being built there every single year. That means an increased population, with more people living in a confined area. The increase in the number of cars and buses causes all the roads to become very congested. We need investment in infrastructure if we are to have a transport network that actually works. There are bottlenecks across Bournemouth because buses do not have access from one side of the town to the other.
I would like the Government to consider ways of introducing monorail systems in various towns. Places such as Miami, Sydney and Vienna have introduced light railway systems that whisk people from one side of town to the other with ease. We will not be able to solve our transport problems unless we have massive investment in infrastructure. I cannot envisage that investment being made, but that solution would enable people in Bournemouth to travel from the airport to the hospital, on to the football club—which has huge attendances, involving many people travelling back and forth—and then to the main railway station and the sea front. Those places are practically in a straight line, and a monorail would solve much of the congestion in Bournemouth overnight. Where the money would come from is another question, but from an economic perspective the investment of that money would save Bournemouth huge sums, increase investment in the area and make it more attractive to businesses. Therefore, in the long run, it would cover the costs of improving Bournemouth’s transport and help to meet our climate change obligations.
In his endearingly unlikely speech, the hon. Gentleman is inducing a state of near panic in his Front-Bench colleagues. Is he seriously suggesting that his monorail scheme, which is not the cheapest form of transport, should be subsidised by the ratepayer or the taxpayer?
The tone of the hon. Lady’s question makes me regret giving way to her. If she had listened to my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson)—no doubt it will be repeated when my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) winds up—she would have heard about the local initiatives and solutions. That is not a top-down approach or an attempt to say that the Government in London should tell local authorities what to do. I am advocating the idea for Bournemouth and there is huge support for it. The question is where the funding comes from—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich suggests from a sedentary position that it would cost money. My point is that heading towards gridlock is already costing Bournemouth a huge amount of money. It is one of the most popular seaside towns in Britain, but it is losing its attractiveness because we cannot solve our transport problems.
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is aware that the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond)—I believe that he is an Opposition transport spokesman—has proposed a 10 per cent. cut in the rate of corporation tax, which equates to £20 billion. Does the hon. Gentleman think that is consistent with the call for greater investment that he has made?
I am not familiar with those proposals, so I cannot comment on them now. I am surprised by the reluctance to consider such ideas, as we must think outside the box when it comes to meeting future transport needs. Simply suggesting a bus lane when there is no space for one will not work or solve the huge problems that we have identified in Bournemouth. In 15 or 20 years, we will see such schemes in many towns across Europe, given the need to move people swiftly from one side of town to the other by public transport.
We have an environmental and economic obligation to improve public transport, but as more and more passengers are dissatisfied with bus services, they are using the buses less and less. I hope that in the little time that the Government have left in office we will see some serious initiatives that will turn around our bus services and make them work for Britain.
I welcome the Government’s consultation document, “Putting Passengers First”, and this debate in Government time. I also welcome the Minister’s clear commitment to further and wide consultation on the proposals, which is the right way to approach making legislation.
For some time, it has been fairly obvious to bus passengers and would-be bus passengers in Sheffield and south Yorkshire—and to the PTA, local councils and local MPs—that the current arrangements do not work. I welcome the Select Committee report that supports that conclusion, and it is nice to see that Ministers now agree that there has to be a change.
I listened with some amazement to the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson), who opened the debate for the Opposition by saying that deregulation had arrested the decline of bus usage in this country. What has happened in south Yorkshire since 1986 has been a complete disaster.
It is probably not surprising that the number of bus passengers is only one third of what it used to be, nor that the total mileage covered by the bus companies is only two thirds of what it was formerly. Since 1986, fares have risen by 1,300 per cent., compared with an increase in the retail prices index of 100 per cent. in the same period. Buses have become a very expensive form of transport, especially for people on low incomes.
The arrangements in south Yorkshire and Sheffield mean that, effectively, there is no comprehensive bus service or network. Because there is no through-ticketing to speak of, there is no integration of service. The original idea behind Sheffield’s Supertram was that local bus services would feed into its route, thus achieving co-ordinated local transport provision. As soon as the tram was built, however, the bus companies altered their routes to compete with it. The result was that they were less user friendly for the local population.
Some of my constituents do not have well paid jobs, but they have to get up early to get to work by 7 am. Having no car, they have to rely on their local bus; yet the bus companies need give only 42 days notice before taking a service away: when that happens, they effectively take away people’s jobs as well. The people who have suffered most in south Yorkshire since 1986 are those who are socially and economically excluded, and that exclusion is often due to the fact that local public transport provision and bus services are so poor.
I accept that Ministers are right to say that local PTAs should be able to choose from a range of options. The partnership arrangements that exist in some parts of the country can work well, although only in certain very particular circumstances. I remember very well the proposals a few years ago for a transport partnership in Sheffield, which promised improved services in the north of the city. We soon realised that those improvements were being achieved by transferring buses from the south of Sheffield. That was how the partnership was being delivered, and the approach displayed by bus companies in general renders many of us highly sceptical about their intentions when they talk about improving services.
Many of us believe that quality contracts represent the best way forward for our localities. We do not want to go back to 1986, with municipal bus companies and full regulation; instead, we want to draw on the London experience, because we recognise that the capital has certain unique features. I welcome the proposals in the document to remove the “only practicable way” test, as it is clearly a major obstacle to the introduction of quality contracts, and to remove the role of Secretary of State in second-guessing what local transport authorities do. Both proposals are eminently sensible.
Are Ministers sure that they have got right the process for instituting quality contracts in the future? The governance of local transport authorities—that is, whether members are directly or indirectly elected—has yet to be finally determined but, ultimately, those members will be accountable. If an authority decides that a quality contract is the best way to deliver services for bus passengers, and would-be passengers, there needs to be a simple and effective way to introduce such a contract.
What must not happen is that, in five or six years’ time, we find ourselves asking, “Why haven’t quality contracts happened? We know that they are the right way to deliver bus services in many parts of the country, but why haven’t they happened for technical reasons?” Those are the questions that the current legislation has forced us to ask.
Last night I asked the director-general of South Yorkshire PTE about extra resources. A lot of extra money has been spent on delivering bus franchising in London, but he said that he believed there is competition out there if we can tap into it. The steps that South Yorkshire has taken down the quality contract route have shown that a number of bus companies, some of which do not currently operate in this country, are interested in tendering for franchises. He believes that if we move to quality contracts now, an enormous range of benefits will result: a single network, integration between bus services and other forms of transport such as trains and trams, through- ticketing, removal of the oldest buses, removal of congestion on some routes where there is competition and buses are falling over themselves, diversion of buses on to routes to communities that are currently not served at all and smoothed out timetables, such as the one for the route from Mosborough in my constituency, from where four buses an hour run into town but where there is a 25-minute wait twice an hour because the buses run close together and are from different companies between which there is no co-operation. Franchising would provide stability of service for the passenger, thereby avoiding the 42-day change, which costs people their jobs, and ensuring that operators know where they stand.
The director-general also believes that by increasing services we would get better value than we are currently getting from our tendered service, whereby bus operators increase the price every year and fewer routes are run at an increased cost to the PTE. All those benefits could be delivered with no extra funding. If we had more funding, we could do even better. All those improvements—an integrated network, newer buses, better dispersal of buses, better co-ordination of timetables and greater stability—could be delivered for the same sum. We must, therefore, look seriously at that and, if there are obstacles in the way, we must remove them.
I have already expressed concerns, as have others, about the way in which bus operators are using the concessionary fares scheme. We want a really good scheme that is valued by pensioners throughout the whole country. Bus operators are increasing fares cleverly. They are not increasing fares on weekly tickets as much as one-off fares because they know that those who pay for weekly tickets use the bus regularly. They are increasing the one-off ticket fares, knowing that they will get compensation for concessionary travel. They have increased fares by 10 per cent. We know that the PTE will get only a 4 per cent. increase in its grant, so the gap has to be filled by cuts in tendered services. That is what will happen unless we change the scheme.
There is not the same problem in London because the concessionary scheme is part of the package and operators have to tender for the whole package, including the concessions. There is an element of competition for the pricing of concessionary fares, which does not happen outside London, where operators are simply handed a sum of money. They then go to appeal, so it is not even within the control of the PTE to come to an arrangement with operators. It would greatly benefit local bus users, PTEs and the Government in the proper use of public money if we made different arrangements for funding concessionary fares through a quality contract arrangement.
Let us make sure that we get it right. Let us make sure that we do not simply have a good idea that could deliver enormous improvements in bus services for our constituents and could get people who do not currently use buses to use them, but then, for all our good intentions, fail to deliver a workable practicable system.
As I say, I was talking to directors-general of PTEs last night, including Roy Wicks for South Yorkshire. He has been progressive in looking at these issues and I commend him for the initiative that South Yorkshire PTE has taken so far on quality contracts. As professional technical officers, they believe that the process to put passengers first could take even longer than the current arrangements. The best guess is that it would take at least 21 months to implement current arrangements, considering what a PTE and executive would have to go through—probably rightly—followed by the traffic commissioner, followed by an appeal to a tribunal, followed by a potential court appeal and a potential judicial review. That could take much longer than 21 months. If the process even takes 21 months, it will not happen. Other Members have spoken about timetables and it is important for Ministers to address those points.
Before a transport executive decides whether to recommend a quality contract to the transport authority, it should fully assess the transport needs in the area. It should consult the public and local authorities and reach agreement on bus priority measures. It should assess the financial implications, which are important. It is absolutely right to do all that before recommending that the authority go ahead with a quality contract. My concerns are about the next two steps, however.
First, I shall deal with the appeal mechanism. I understand the Minister’s view that appeal by judicial review is a messy, time-consuming business, but will appeals to a transport tribunal be made on the same basis as a judicial review, in that they will not second-guess the policy reasons why the PTE and the PTA came to a view, or will they be held on the same grounds as judicial review? In that case, the appeal would simply determine whether the PTE and the PTA had gone through the right processes to reach their decision. That is a crucial question in terms of democratic accountability, so it is important that Ministers give a more thorough explanation.
Secondly, if there is a mechanism for appeal to a transport tribunal, will there still be the possibility of judicial review, too? I take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) about the expense involved. The transport tribunal appeal process will not reduce costs for PTEs—if that is what Ministers intend—but will add to them if there is still the option of judicial review, because bus operators will use every possible stage of the process to delay something that could cost them profits. We need clarity about the role of the transport tribunal in the appeal process. Will it be on the same basis as judicial review? Will it be in addition to judicial review, and will it also be possible to take the case to the Court of Appeal?
I listened carefully to my hon. Friend the Minister’s comments about the role of the traffic commissioner. He used the word “appeal”, but according to “Putting Passengers First”, there is no appeal as such—it is simply a required stage in the process—and he used the word “review”, whereas according to the document, the word is “approve”. After all the appropriate consultations and considerations, a scheme decided on by the PTE and the PTA has to go before a traffic commissioner, who, sitting with expert assessors, decides whether to approve it.
The Government are legislating on local government devolution so that powers can be transferred back to elected local representatives. Local councillors on the four South Yorkshire councils were elected on a manifesto that supports the introduction of quality contracts. They formed a passenger transport authority, which instructed the passenger transport executive to go through all the necessary procedures to decide whether quality contracts were right. At the end of the process, having obtained local support, they decided in favour of quality contracts, yet a non-elected, appointed traffic commissioner could overturn that decision and refuse to approve it. After 10 years in office, is that a feasible approach for a Labour Government who believe in more devolution of power to local representatives and local councils?
I have no problem with giving traffic commissioners extra enforcement powers, but I question their role in approving the policy decisions of elected members. No one is against expert advice, so if Ministers want to keep a role for the traffic commissioner and the independent panel of advisers, the PTE could be asked to consult them as part of the consultation and assessment process. The PTE could take account of those expert views before making a recommendation to the PTA. If the transport commissioner were brought in at that stage—so that they are not second-guessing a democratic decision, but are asked for their advice, which has to be part of the democratic process—that would be eminently sensible and would shorten the process, because it would take place in parallel rather than as an after stage.
I hope that the Minister will take on board those comments not as criticism of the Government’s ultimate intentions, but as helpful suggestions as to how they might better get towards the ultimate objective. In five years’ time, we could come back and look at a piece of legislation and say that Ministers had many good intentions, but the legislation has had no practical effect, or we could find that we have passed legislation that has dramatically improved the quality of life of some of the most socially and economically excluded people in our community. That is the opportunity that we have. I hope that we are going to take it.
It is a pleasure to follow the speeches of my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) and the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood). It was good to have at least some interest in this important subject from the Opposition Benches. Perhaps it was standing in Worsley in the 2001 general election that first ignited the hon. Gentleman’s interest in the subject.
When we start to plan ahead, it is important that we reflect on the day-to-day reality of the bus services that people are living with. The Transport Committee report says that there is a perception
“that bus services are generally unreliable and of a poor quality; that vehicles are old and inaccessible; that drivers are rude; and that passengers are … uncomfortable.”
My constituents’ current and recent experiences of their local services bears out the Committee’s view. In fact, our services have recently become much worse than that.
Like most MPs, I had a regular low level of grumbling from my constituents about bus services. Bus timings were unreliable and some drivers were rude, particularly when they refused to pick up parents with buggies because they already had one buggy on board. Commuters into Manchester said that they found bus vehicles dirty and cold on many morning journeys. However, that all became much worse when the main provider, First, decided to reorganise the routes and timetables of bus services to and from my constituency. First labelled its reorganisation of bus services an attempt to reach a service that “better matches” user demands. The result turned out to be completely the opposite.
The extensive remodelling of services has had a profound effect on the way in which many of my constituents are able to carry on their daily lives, because in many cases it has proved to be both restrictive and extremely disruptive. A group of hundreds of my constituents were so unhappy about the changes and so dissatisfied with the services that they presented me with a petition, which I presented to the Minister a few months ago.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Chris Mole) said earlier, older people are among those who most rely on bus services. Many of my older constituents need public transport to complete basic, everyday tasks such as going to the shops and picking up prescriptions or their pensions. I have been contacted by many elderly constituents who have been adversely affected by the remodelling of bus services. They are finding it harder, if not impossible, to continue with their essential, regular local bus journeys.
I will give just one example. The 553 service from Leigh to Bolton has undergone major route and timetable changes. It started as a half-hourly service. It is now only hourly. Furthermore, the service used to travel from Walkden, at the centre of my constituency, to Bolton via Farnworth, a local centre for work and shopping. Since the bus service remodelling, Farnworth has been cut out of the route altogether, thus removing the only means of direct public transport between Boothstown in my constituency and Farnworth. An elderly constituent informed me that many pensioners that she knows travelled from Boothstown to Farnworth because it has the only Asda store locally. However, to get there now, pensioners would have to change buses in the middle of Walkden, cross a busy dual carriageway, and walk 500 m uphill to a different bus stop. As my constituent made clear to me, many elderly people are now simply unable to make that journey to do their shopping, because that changed route is too difficult.
Talking to constituents, I have found that alterations to their bus services are debilitating and that they are effectively chipping away at older people’s independence, leaving many of them feeling isolated and frustrated. Many hon. Members have referred to the welcome concessionary fares, but elderly constituents have been telling me that it is absolutely no good having concessionary fares that allow them to travel for free if there are no suitable services.
The changes are also having a severe impact on people with families, especially those with caring responsibilities. Such people often rely on commuter bus services to get them to work and back home again quickly and reliably. I was recently contacted by a constituent who found that the changes to the services were making it difficult for her to ensure that she could get home from work in time to be there for her children. She is a single parent living in Tyldesley and relies on the bus to travel 10 miles into central Manchester, where she works. She has arranged her working hours completely around the 32 bus service so that she can care for her children herself, which is important to her. The 32 was the only bus that she could take to work following the removal of the 35 late last year. Indeed, it is the only means of public transport from Tyldesley to Manchester—there is no train or tram service.
It now appears that that service, which my constituent tells me is packed full with commuters every morning, is to be withdrawn, due, the bus company says, to falling numbers. With no other way of getting to and from work, my constituent, like many others, is left with the undesirable choice of buying a car, or changing work location—if she can find a more local job. The Wigan area, which my constituency covers in part, is the part of the north-west with the fasting growing car ownership—it is not difficult to see why. My constituent said to me:
“First’s policy in Worsley is an absolute contradiction to the policies of the Government and the Local Authority. What we’ve got needs improving, yet First Bus seem intent on abandoning us altogether”.
It is, of course, unacceptable that families are being forced to make such large changes to their lives entirely because of poorly scheduled or re-routed bus services. It is unfair that hard-working people who are trying to provide for their families are having that task made harder. They should not be put in a position in which being able to travel to work means compromising their family life.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe said, there is an important economic argument to be made because inadequate public transport provision is becoming a major barrier to people’s ability to work. First has recently withdrawn the Little Hulton stop from its 37 and 554 buses to Manchester and the Trafford centre respectively. Little Hulton is in the top 10 per cent. of the most deprived wards nationally. It has the lowest car ownership figures in my constituency, with only 53 per cent. of people having access to a car. There are very few local sources of employment, so my constituents from Little Hulton have to travel to get to work.
Those two bus routes allowed people in that deprived part of my constituency to travel to work. However, their withdrawal leaves many workers with no alternative but to leave their jobs. Additionally, changes made to our local services by the bus companies are tying the hands of people searching for jobs by restricting their options to those few destinations that have a bus link to where they live.
The only substantial supermarket in the Salford wards of my constituency is in Walkden, a once thriving town that used to have a market and a wide range of local shops. Walkden centre is in need of regeneration and I am determined that that will happen. However, people in three areas in my constituency are unable to travel to Walkden by bus, which is a possible contributor to the further decline of the town’s life as a retail and commercial centre. All that completes the picture that has been painted so often in the debate: bus deregulation did not work.
A further serious aspect of the parlous state of bus services in Worsley is the fact that a major service reconfiguration in the NHS will require constituents to travel further—this is similar to the point that was touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright). The planned reconfiguration of in-patient services affecting women, babies and children in my constituency would require many to travel to hospitals in either Bolton or central Manchester. Salford has a higher than average proportion of people without a car—about 40 per cent. As I mentioned earlier, the figure is about 50 per cent. in wards such as Little Hulton.
As Salford council’s overview and scrutiny committee commented, the removal of obstetric services from the local Hope hospital would have a “significant detrimental impact” on our pregnant women and families wanting to visit them in hospital. Indeed, the joint committee of PCTs, which has considered the reconfiguration, was told:
“during the peak period for travel times, the journey to Central Manchester is likely to take longer … it is not known to what extent this would change patient flows”.
The hon. Lady is making an interesting point. When they closed some of the facilities at my local hospital—at one point, they were threatening to close the whole hospital—we made those same points. We were told that they were running a national health service not a bus company, so the matter could not be taken into account in health planning.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that contribution. This is a new aspect and it is interesting to note that it appeared in our more recent reconfiguration discussions. As I mentioned, there was a report to the joint committee of PCTs. One or two of my hon. Friends have mentioned it and it seems that, in view of the reconfigurations, planning for further travel to hospitals will have to take place.
As I mentioned earlier, services to Bolton from parts of my constituency have been either cut or axed altogether. Council members commented in a recent submission to the Secretary of State for Health that travelling to Bolton would be very difficult from the western wards of Salford. Although NHS clinicians favoured moving services to Bolton or central Manchester, our current hospital, the Hope hospital in Salford, is much more accessible for many people living in Salford and other areas such as Trafford and Bury. It has excellent motorway and trunk road links and it can be reached by Metrolink trams.
I very much hope that those considerations, together with concerns about clinical issues, will mean that different recommendations emerge when the hospital reconfiguration is reviewed by the independent reconfiguration panel. However, as I touched on, the thrust of changes to NHS acute services is now becoming clear. In-patients and their families will undoubtedly have to travel further in future to use specialist hospital services and planning for public transport will now have to take that into account.
All these matters have become more controversial in Worsley, Salford and across Greater Manchester since the passenger transport authority and the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities submitted proposals to pilot road pricing as part of a transport innovation fund bid. Many thousands of words have been written about those proposals in our local and regional press. Perhaps the main feeling is summed up in a quote from the Manchester Evening News:
“Before a penny is taken on any given corridor, there must be efficient public transport options, not just unreliable buses or sardine-like commuter trains”.
There were also comments on the need to develop park-and-ride schemes to serve those areas because drivers would be leaving their cars on the outskirts—something that was not done, I have to say, in many places when the Metrolink tram service was initially developed.
As MP for Worsley, I am very concerned that our local authorities are planning for road pricing when our public transport, particularly bus services, is still in such a state. Not only do we have the poor service that I have already described, but passengers have faced bus fare increases of 42 per cent. above inflation. On the future of our bus services, a poll in the Manchester Evening News found that 75 per cent. of people locally supported re-regulation, though as other hon. Members have made clear, none of us is arguing for a return to the 1980s-style regulation of buses.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport in a recent speech said:
“If we’re to tackle congestion, we need better bus services. If we’re to cut overall vehicle emissions, we need better bus services. And if we’re to develop road pricing schemes… we need better bus services.”
My Worsley constituents need to see better bus services in place and working well long before any consideration of road pricing is made. The level of controversy generated by the idea of piloting road pricing brought to a head how people felt about that.
The Transport Committee stated that in all major metropolitan areas outside London the present regime is not working and, indeed, that current arrangements cannot be made to work. I have highlighted the example of a constituency in Greater Manchester where arrangements have caused such a decline in services that they are impacting on people’s family lives, their jobs and career options and the vitality of local shopping in town centres. We still have a mountain to climb to improve services for my constituents in the way that I would like.
My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) described our providers as avaricious public-subsidy junkies operating near-monopolies. I would not have put it quite that way, but I believe that some of my constituents who are trying to use local bus services may well agree with it.
On behalf of my constituents, I hope that the Government’s proposals in “Putting Passengers First”, the quality contracts, the quality partnerships and the role of traffic commissioners lead to better services. But I further hope that the Government and local authorities will continue to develop and innovate to achieve a bus policy framework that works.
I rise to speak briefly in the debate, and I do so hesitantly because the document “Putting Passengers First”, from which the debate extends, essentially applies to England and Wales. I have listened to hon. Members speaking with great authority on these issues, with which hon. Members south of the border will deal on a daily or weekly basis. In Scotland, Members of the Scottish Parliament will tend to deal with the quality of bus services and so on, so I intend to stay out of that side of the debate.
I should like to introduce an aspect that I have not heard any hon. Member mention and that is quite close to my heart: the manufacturing of buses, which should be included under the banner headline of a debate on buses. My constituency contains the leading bus manufacturer probably in Europe, certainly in the UK: Alexander Dennis Ltd—ADL. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary met the chief executive and other board members of ADL quite recently in Birmingham. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has visited the site—his surname is the same as part of company’s name, which is an additional link, I like to think, but perhaps I am just dreaming about that.
ADL, in its previous incarnation, was almost bust about three years ago. It was in administration, and there was a serious threat that all 1,000 workers would lose their jobs, as they did in some other sites across the UK. When ADL came in, some of the management were already involved with the company in its previous incarnation and some of them were new. The chairman has previously been the chief executive. They have made a remarkable success, and 900 workers are now employed on the site. They have quadrupled their output in the past three years. They are exporting to north America and to the far east and Hong Kong. They employ 300 additional people in Guildford and another 200 in after-sales service across the world in the places where they sell their buses.
When I take my children on the bus to school on Monday and Tuesday mornings, and if we can get the seats upstairs at the front, it is quite exciting, and I am always proud of the fact that there is a good chance that the bus was built in my constituency. ADL is at the very forefront of all the environmental improvements and modern developments, such as those for access, on buses. I am led to understand that it is the only company that has a double-decker product output that conforms to all the requirements of the new European legislation and the more stringent requirements of TFL. So ADL is doing fantastically well locally.
I spoke to ADL’s representatives briefly about the debate, and they have a great interest in the legislation, of course. Their interest is that a very large part of their market is in the domestic market of the UK. Although I understand that the manufacturers are very comfortable with the general principles that underpin “Putting Passengers First”, there is a concern that the new arrangements—I will not go into the detail, as that is not really for me, given that the arrangements are different in Scotland—might perhaps lead to some uncertainly among the five major operators and one or two smaller ones and therefore to a delay in orders.
It is estimated that between 4,000 and 5,000 jobs were lost in the industry in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I understand that, on the back of the legislation that was passed then, there was hesitation, uncertainty and delays in ordering by the main operators for several years. That obviously led to job losses in the industry. There is no question of that happening on this occasion, but when any policy is reformed, there will always be some ambiguity and uncertainty.
It is very important for the 900 of my constituents who work at ADL and, indeed, constituents who work for bus manufacturers across the UK, that the new arrangements are proposed and executed by the Government and then by the local commissioners and local authorities in a way that removes, as far as possible, the concerns and ambiguities that operators might have, so that there is no hesitation in ordering. The future order book is what keeps so many of my constituents in jobs. Indeed, 900 people in my constituency are employed by ADL directly, but as hon. Members will know, there is also the knock-on effect on many jobs elsewhere in the supply chain to consider. Many components are sourced locally, and other local services are affected, too; for example, the workers buy their chips at the local chip shop, so the company has a big effect. When my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown) mentioned the effect of buses on local economies, I think that he was referring to services, but I am thinking of the big effect that the manufacturing plant in my constituency has on the local economy.
To conclude, I hope that when my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary sums up she will allay the apprehension that is felt, as far as she can. It is not a fear or deep worry, but there is apprehension among manufacturers such as ADL that there may be transitional difficulties with local authorities and traffic commissioners. There are concerns about whether those bodies will have sufficient capacity to process the change, and whether there will be delays in the system, which would lead operators to fear that new investment might be wasted, as they could lose routes. Investment in the bus industry is the easiest tap to turn off. If a company wants to reduce costs in the short term, it stops buying new buses, and we have heard hon. Members speak about old stock today. There has been much investment in recent years, and that is a consequence of the partnership between the Government and the major operators. I ask my hon. Friend to allay manufacturers’ slight apprehensions about the new systems, if she can, and to assure us that the transition will be fairly smooth.
When I was elected to Parliament, I was delighted to be asked to serve on the Transport Committee. I had heard much about the chairmanship of the formidable hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) and about the hard time she gave those giving evidence, even Ministers, when they refused to answer the question. I very much enjoyed the evidence sessions that we held when preparing our report on bus services. I did not have much personal experience of buses, as I lived in a village that had one bus to our local market town, and it came at a very inconvenient time because it worked around the school bus, which took the same route. There was also a weekly bus to York.
The Committee heard that London’s success in promoting the greater use of buses had not been replicated across the country, and we heard how, following deregulation, problems arose from the fact that buses chased each other on busy routes, whereas on other routes, bus services were withdrawn because they were not profitable. In some cases, less profitable routes were changed and followed other routes in the same town. We also heard how cuts made at short notice affected people’s working lives, their recreation activities and their shopping duties.
There are a number of problems in encouraging people to use buses, and one of them is access to information. When people come to London from Yorkshire, they use the tube because it is fairly user-friendly. We have more to do in helping people to use the bus services in a strange town—for example, there should be better information at bus stops. More electronic information is being provided to let people know how long it will be before the next bus comes, because people do not want to wait at a bus stop in the rain not knowing when a bus will arrive.
A move to quality contracts may well answer some of the problems, but the Government need to be careful to ensure that we do not feel the dead hand of regulation instead of enjoying the freedom of competition, which has in many ways led to improvements in certain bus services. It will be a challenge for the Government to address that problem, and it will be interesting to see how things develop in the areas where quality contracts are first introduced.
It is particularly important to improve the bus services in some of our large towns. Ten years ago, we were told that the answer to our transport problems was better light rail systems. However, in Leeds the supertram has been scrapped, in Liverpool the Merseytram scheme is not going ahead, and the Metrolink extensions to Rochdale and Manchester airport have not attracted investment. Buses will have to fill those gaps. We must also consider the role of the traffic commissioners. I agree with the points made by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts), who is no longer in the Chamber; he was concerned that local decisions might be overruled by unelected traffic commissioners. If traffic commissioners are a benign and positive force in the process, all will be well and good, but it would not be such a good thing if they were considered to be holding back the wishes of local people.
The UK has a long history of bus and coach manufacturing. Sadly, names such as Leyland and Duple are no longer with us, but we still have bus and coach manufacturing businesses running in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Scarborough. Plaxton was one of the main names in the post-war boom in bus and coach building, and its history dates back 100 years to 1907. It was traditionally a family firm that has been a major employer in Scarborough.
Frederick William Plaxton opened a joinery workshop in Bar street in Scarborough in 1907. He later moved to Marlborough street and took over premises that were known as Castle works and began building bodywork for private cars and charabancs. During the first world war, Mr. Plaxton took over the former skating rink in Foreshore road to manufacture shell boxes and wooden aircraft parts. In 1936, a large new works was built in Seamer road and soon Plaxton coaches were on the road all over the country. Production was halted at the Seamer road works during the second world war and the site was turned into a munitions factory.
Bigger and better coaches began to roll out of the works following the end of the war, and Plaxton began to attract big orders from companies like Wallace Arnold. In 1957 FW Plaxton died and was succeeded by his son, who took a big interest in the Plaxton building services side of the business. By 1970, the coachbuilding company had contracts all over the world and was producing 1,000 vehicles a year. Three years later the number had risen to 1,300 a year, accounting for a third of the entire UK bus force, but recession followed a few years later, bringing problems similar to those at ADL in Falkirk. In 1987 Plaxton closed down its Seamer road works and moved its site to Cayton Low road, which had gradually expanded over the previous 20 years.
Plaxton later became part of the Henlys conglomerate. The Henlys group, which not only manufactured buses but was involved in motor retailing, ran into financial problems towards the end of 2000—problems largely related to its operation manufacturing yellow school buses in the United States of America. It was announced in the summer of 2001 that Plaxton was to shut in August that year with the loss of 700 jobs. That is a large number of jobs in a small place like Scarborough.
The shock was compounded when it later emerged that many former and current Plaxton workers were told that their pension scheme had been wound up and they would receive only 30 or 35 per cent. of the value of their deferred pensions in the scheme. Plaxton’s former owners, Henlys, had gone into liquidation and the pension scheme had an £80 million shortfall. Some workers had transferred from Plaxton pension schemes into the Henlys scheme, and those already drawing a fixed sum Henlys pension would not get the expected increases.
A £20 million rescue package was put together aimed at saving 200 jobs, but the company that bought the firm, Mayflower, then went into administration and all its staff again faced redundancy. However, the firm’s management stepped in to save the firm and completed a buy-out. Since then, the firm has gone from strength to strength and is now almost back to 500 employees. Its chief executive, Brian Davidson, was named 2005 director of the year for manufacturing by the Institute of Directors Yorkshire and Humberside division.
I have been impressed by the enthusiasm, innovation and dedication shown by the whole team at Plaxton in pulling the market together. Despite heavy pressure in the early days from Spanish manufacturers who were receiving European subsidies, the customers have come back to the product made in Scarborough because of the quality of the fittings and of the product in general. It has led the way in innovation, producing coaches with lifts that can be used by disabled people, and the new Plaxton Primo smaller bus can take 27 seated passengers and 15 standing. It meets all the modern Euro 3 emissions standards.
I hope that when the Minister comes to Scarborough, possibly to open the new Scarborough integrated transport scheme and to enjoy the pleasure of driving down the still single carriageway A64, she will find time to visit the Plaxton coach works to see how a phoenix has risen from the ashes of the previous disastrous business. I hope that as it celebrates its 100th anniversary, Plaxton will continue to go from strength to strength and bus manufacturing will continue in Scarborough.
Finally, I should like to say a few words about heritage buses. I am sure that the Minister is aware that many local authorities, including London, are considering imposing punitive levies to prevent heritage vehicles that do not meet modern emission standards from coming into places such as central London. I hope that there will be exemptions for those buses, because it is important that people who travel in the modern, eco-friendly, clean and easy-to-use buses can still enjoy the experiences of yesteryear in travelling in our heritage vehicles, which many enthusiasts still keep on the road.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this debate.
I am in an unusual situation compared with most Members, in that I represent a constituency in a city where the vast majority of bus services are operated by a publicly owned bus company—Lothian Buses. It is not publicly owned because of any special legal dispensation that applies to the city, but because of chance factors, the nature of the city and, above all, good management, a good work force and a political determination by the local authorities that jointly own the company.
The bus company has been extremely successful in terms of what it has meant for the public in the Edinburgh area and some of the surrounding local authority areas. There is an extensive network and a reasonably priced fare structure. We have a flat fare of £1, which covers journeys not only within the city but on routes well out into the surroundings areas. We had buses on new year’s day and Christmas day, and we have an extensive night bus service. The fleet is modern, with an average age of less than seven years; that is partly why 75 per cent. of buses are accessible to people with disabilities.
The services are popular with the local community. Of course, there are always occasions when people want buses to go to places where bus companies do not want to run them. Lothian Buses is an arm’s length company, not a direct local authority company, and there are certainly occasions on which I have had interesting exchanges of views with it. Nevertheless, it is generally recognised by the public as running a service that is based in, and working in the interests of, the local community. The company is profitable. In the past couple of years, it has made substantial profits that have partly been repaid as dividends to the local authority, but it has also invested in bus services to provide further improvements. That has contributed to the 25 per cent. increase in bus passenger usage in the area over the past eight or nine years.
Many of the responsibilities for bus policy in my constituency are devolved to the Scottish Parliament, but there are a couple of areas where our experience is relevant to the wider debate in the rest of Great Britain and where UK-wide policy has an impact on what is possible in my constituency. My first point concerns quality contracts. Legislation in Scotland provides for quality contracts in bus services. I understand that it is slightly easier to take up that option in Scotland, but it has not happened in Scotland any more than it has in England. That shows that it is important that the structure of quality contracts that is set up is not so complex that no one can ever make use of them. Experience in my city suggests that that should be taken on board in relation to the measures that the Government are going to introduce.
My second point is that the whole concept of the quality contract rests on the theoretical foundation of a vibrant, competitive market in the bus industry, where different operators are waiting to seize the opportunity to compete in particular areas. However, that is a million miles from being the case in most parts of the country, where there is not, in any sense, a fully competitive bus industry. The Government must deal with the question of how we cope with a system that is based on a concept of franchising and contracts when there is not a fully competitive industry. One of the factors that I experienced in Edinburgh is that when a strong, publicly owned company and a major privately owned bus company operate in the city and some of the surrounding areas, there is mutually beneficial competition between the two. In such circumstances, a publicly owned bus company has to be on its toes because, if it is not, it faces the risk of competition from major private companies that operate outside the city and on some city routes. Similarly, private companies that operate outside the city know that they could face competition from a publicly owned company.
The Government have a great opportunity to promote community bus services or give publicly owned bus companies a role in providing competition in a local area where the market provides none. I do not suggest that municipally owned bus companies should be the only model or type of operator throughout the country. However, in places where the market does not provide genuine competition to the monopoly operators, we should consider ways to facilitate community operators and local authorities—not only to operate residual bus services, but to provide opportunities for good quality services. That would require consideration at UK level because it relates to competition law.
I want to raise two issues that are relevant to my constituency, but also relate to UK-wide policy. First, let us consider the cross-border arrangements for pensioners travel that will become national throughout England in 2008 and are currently national throughout Scotland. There is an anomaly, whereby a pensioner can travel from Newcastle to London, but cannot travel from Newcastle to Edinburgh under the new schemes because there is no link across the border. Some arrangements are in place for short journeys across the border but not for longer journeys. We should examine that. It is not simply a matter of journeys between cities and destinations near borders. As was said earlier, no one will take a bus from Cornwall to Orkney—for geographical reasons, if nothing else. However, pensioners from Orkney—or from Edinburgh—will come to London. They should be able to use the pensioners’ bus pass facility in London, and London pensioners who go to Edinburgh or Glasgow should be able to make use of the free national bus pass arrangement.
It would be a nice gesture in the third centenary of the Act of Union if the Government considered providing for the Scottish and English schemes to be interchangeable. I was delighted by the Minister’s public commitment in his opening remarks to considering such a measure. It is the first time that I have heard such a public and positive comment from the Government on the matter. I welcome the Minister’s statement, to which I shall revert in future—and I am sure that many of my colleagues on both sides of the border will also do that.
Secondly, I want to consider zonal or area cards, which allow passengers to use a range of bus services and possibly rail and ferry services, too. Such cards operate in few areas of the UK. We tried to establish a zonal card in Edinburgh and we hoped that it would involve the rail companies. However, the negotiations became so convoluted that we gave up and did what we could with the bus companies, although I understand that the rail companies are now involved to a certain extent.
The matter has Great Britain-wide implications because some of the rail services in my area are operated by companies that fall within the remit of the inter-city franchise, for which the Department for Transport is responsible. My experience in my area and current experience in London, where it is proving difficult to get some rail companies to take part in the Oyster card scheme, show the difficulty of achieving genuine interchangeability locally.
The experience of many of our European partners is that if we want to encourage people to use public transport, one of the best ways of achieving that is to give them an opportunity to use different modes of travel through a genuine zonal card in their cities, towns and communities. If the Government could act to make that easier, it would be a major achievement that did much to encourage even greater use of public transport.
We have had a broad debate, informed by an interesting Select Committee report and a thinnish Government White Paper. I want to start by dealing with the various comments made about the Conservative Greater London Authority members’ alleged policy to abolish the schemes for under-18s and for pensioners. The allegation about under-18s is misleading. Yes, it is true that they are considering abolishing the scheme, not least for reasons that two of my hon. Friends mentioned earlier, namely, problems with vandalism and antisocial behaviour. However, they want to replace it with a scheme that is tailored specifically towards schoolchildren. The allegation about pensioners is simply untrue. These matters are devolved in our party, so it is a matter for the GLA to decide what it does or does not do. None the less, it is worth putting those facts on record.
One extraordinary feature that permeated the first part of our discussion today was the endless debate about the amount of subsidy. My party is in a policy formulation process at the moment, and I am not going to give any hard and fast answers on that issue. However, as the debate developed, it became clear that the issue of how that money is being spent—and whether it could be better spent—was of considerable concern to people on both sides of the House.
The hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) made some really vicious remarks about private operators, many of which might be well justified. He talked about subsidy junkies. The hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) said that the past should not be viewed through rose-coloured spectacles, pointing out that public monopolies had been very unresponsive beforehand. The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) made a number of important points about the possible role of quality contracts, and the fact that there had been no applications for them either south or north of the border. The Government have now acknowledged that they appear to have set up the system to fail. Some of their proposed changes appear sensible—for example, removing the requirement for the Secretary of State to approve the applications. As there have not been any such applications, however, that seems fairly academic.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Scott) made an interesting speech in which he made several crucial points about people feeling safe on buses. The fact that they do not do so is one of the prime reasons why they are reluctant to use them. That applies particularly to women travelling at night. He also pointed out that more prosecutions could be brought if the CCTV cameras that are now being installed on a growing number of buses had film in them and worked properly.
The right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown) gave a characteristically robust performance, in which he pointed out that there were many problems before deregulation. He also made some shrewd comments about the problems with the way in which the existing subsidy works.
We have heard a litany of complaints today, including those from the hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell). The hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright) took us back to the problems of deregulation. He also had one or two imaginative ideas on how partnerships could be made to work better. My party is strongly in favour of locally driven partnerships, and we welcome some of his suggestions. He also made some important points on driver safety and drivers’ hours.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) made some thoughtful points about his local situation, and dared to dream about monorails. There is no way that I, from this Dispatch Box, can make any promises on central Government money for such a project, but if a local authority has imaginative ideas and a number of players around who might be willing to put some serious money into them, good luck to them.
The hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) was willing to admit that there are merits in competition, and asked some more difficult questions. I am looking forward to the Minister’s winding-up speech! The hon. Member for Worsley (Barbara Keeley) made a very concerned speech about her constituents. Towards the end, the hon. Member for Falkirk (Mr. Joyce) and my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill) made some interesting points about the supply of buses. Britain is still a strong player in that regard. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) reminded us, as had a couple of earlier speakers, that it is rather anomalous to introduce concessionary schemes in England, Wales and Scotland, but no cross-border scheme.
It is difficult to overstate the importance of the bus service to millions of people across the country. Buses are the most used form of public transport, and a lifeline for those who cannot afford a car or, in a few cases, choose to live without one. The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich rightly made that point at the start of her speech. The bus service is also an important potential tool with which to cope with congestion, and in that context park-and-ride schemes are playing an important role in the city of Canterbury.
Despite the noxious fumes that sadly emanate from the exhausts of most of our older buses, persuading more people to use the bus and other forms of public transport would be a key way of reducing carbon dioxide emissions. The Library tells me that the average bus journey produces, per person, roughly half the carbon dioxide emissions produced by a car journey. There are many reasons why buses are a good thing, from the very personal to the local to the global.
One or two Members, although not as many as I expected, put the case for re-regulating the bus network. Many came very close to saying that they would like it to be re-regulated, and we look forward to hearing the Minister’s responses. But a number of Members gave sensible reasons why we could not return to regulation. It is worth remembering a crucial fact that the Government have acknowledged: the use of buses was in continuous decline from the 1950s onwards. We had reached a point in the 1980s when they could not go on as they were, and although we can argue about the next route, I do not think there is any point in spending more time doing that. The buses were old, dirty, increasingly empty, becoming more and more expensive to run, and a burden on local authorities and ratepayers. Given rising prosperity and car ownership, a decline in bus patronage was almost inevitable. Since deregulation, the bus fleet has become steadily younger. The Library tells me that the average bus is now just over seven years old; a decade ago, it was nearly 10 years old. Fares have risen more slowly than council taxes, which used to pay for them.
I think that Labour Members were wrong to focus on the late Nicholas Ridley as someone who was supposedly anti-public transport. In fact, the last thing Nicholas Ridley did, nine days before he died of excruciating cancer, was pen an article for The Times—a very articulate, well-argued article, although I did not agree with it—explaining why he disagreed with the then Conservative Government’s plan to privatise the railways. He was a thinking politician to the very end, and a man of colossal political courage.
What is conspicuously absent from the White Paper is any clear commitment to making buses more environmentally friendly. As I said earlier, many buses continue to pump out the most noxious gases. There appear to be no incentives for bus companies to use cleaner buses, or to upgrade old buses to make them cleaner. That was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) and by others, including the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane).
Opposition Front-Bench Members have been ambiguous in respect of their enthusiasm for the arrangements in London, but London has, of course, been the primary area for the use of hydrogen buses. The Mayor has been able to test them out there, and the use of such buses is a long-term ambition of everybody involved in the industry. Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that the Mayor has probably gone further than anyone else in achieving the use of hydrogen buses?
The person who has gone furthest in respect of the development of fuel cells across a range of vehicles is President Bush; he is light years ahead of everybody else. The key current difficulty in the development of hydrogen-based fuel cells is that they are impossibly expensive. The hon. Gentleman’s point therefore provides one more example of why London is so different from the rest of the country, as the Government acknowledge in their paper: he mentioned a very expensive project that only London could have trialled. In the very long run fuel cells have much to offer, but at present they are far too expensive.
My party recognises that there have been some cases of serious bad practice on the part of some operators; we know that some companies fail to provide an acceptable quality of service. If the buses are dirty and not cleaned overnight, if the seats are ripped and not repaired, if it is barely possible to see out of the windows, and if no information is provided either on board or at the stop—a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby—then travel by bus is a confusing and unpleasant experience. More importantly, such bad practice causes potential users to be driven away and a vicious circle develops. It is not unreasonable to allow that a minimum standard of service and bus quality should be demanded.
We know that in some towns and cities popular routes have been flooded with buses as operators attempt to bankrupt the competition on a handful of paying routes; Manchester has been mentioned in that regard several times. The conditions relating to the operation of a particular route could be made more stringent—the local authority could have such powers—perhaps by forcing operators to commit to the route for a specific length of time at a specific price to prevent them from simply dipping in and out of the market in a predatory fashion to kill the competition.
We also know that where local authorities and bus operators work together, real success has been achieved. Several places were mentioned. We have a particularly exciting idea in Kent, which has a model Conservative authority. Starting in June of this year, Kent county council will offer cheap bus travel in two districts, Canterbury and Tunbridge Wells. There will be £50 a year cards for all 11 to 16-year-olds; that will be done in partnership with local bus companies. Canterbury is a bus service hub; it is also an educational hub for east Kent. The travel cards would allow 11 to 16-year-olds to use buses for a range of services, not only for education. If the scheme is a success, it is hoped that it can be extended across the county, and eventually to primary school pupils, too.
I cannot comment on west Kent, but I can say that the fact that Canterbury is the bus hub of east Kent—that point figured heavily in the discussions on the health service that came up an hour or so ago in the debate—makes it an ideal place to conduct a first trial. As the Minister knows, there is considerable poverty in the area I represent; for a long time, Whitstable and Herne Bay in the Canterbury area had an assisted designation.
We hope that measures such as that which I have described will prove that partnerships can work as long as the local transport authority and the bus operators are prepared to have a constructive relationship. We also think that where local authorities agree to make improvements, such as putting in bus lanes and other priority measures that the operator will benefit from, it is reasonable for local authorities to insist that the operator makes some contribution to the public good.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I listened earlier to the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) and tried to find one clear statement of Conservative party policy. Can the hon. Gentleman tell the House in simple terms what two things he would do differently from Labour Ministers if he were sat on the Government side of the Chamber?
I am coming to a couple of things that we would do, if the hon. Gentleman will wait just a moment.
As a matter of good practice, partnership is likely to work more effectively where partners share information and data. The Concessionary Bus Travel Bill, which was touched on briefly, will fill in some existing gaps in the scheme. We hope that the scheme will be fully funded. Given the demands that the Government have placed on local authorities, the funding should match the demands. However, it is clear that partnerships are a better vehicle for achieving improved services than so-called quality contracts, although there is room for those, too.
I will end by mentioning two areas of disagreement with the Government, one of which the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe touched on in his speech. We believe that local authorities should be the dominant figure, rather than the unelected bodies that could overrule their proposals. Secondly, local authorities should be given a greater say in fixing the concessions and arrangements that they want to make. In common with Members in all parts of the House, we see the bus as one of the best ways of people reducing their carbon footprint, as well as being a vital resource for less well-off families. We have heard a number of examples of initiatives being taken by local authorities, and I particularly welcome the imaginative initiative in Kent. Any measures that seek to get bus companies and local authorities working together will get a clear ride from us.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to respond to this very important debate. The future of buses is a subject close to the hearts of my Lincoln constituents, and to the hearts of constituents throughout the country. I shall begin by making some general points, and then deal with the specific issues that Members raised.
It is the future role that buses will play in our communities, in the lives of our constituents for the better, and in our determination to tackle congestion and to contribute to a cleaner, greener Britain that led this Government to conduct an extensive review of the bus service and bus sector across England. As many Members know, in the past few months I have travelled around the country to see for myself and hear about the real issues that bus passengers, operators and local authorities face. I have been very pleased to see and hear about the real improvements that have been achieved. I congratulate all those involved on their hard work and on the intelligent partnerships that are making a real difference to the lives of people throughout the country.
On the manufacturing front, I saw at Expo 06 in Birmingham impressive new British-built buses that break new ground—something that we can all celebrate. My hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk (Mr. Joyce) asked about opportunities for industry, and there are indeed tremendous opportunities as bus patronage improves and increases in future. I can tell him that I did indeed see the new hybrid buses from Alexander Dennis, as well as the Wrightbus hybrid double-decker, the Euro 4-engined buses from East Lancs Coachbuilders and—last but not least—the Optare Essex Pullman. That is another example of a bus that is no longer called a bus, but which provides an excellent service.
Of course, we in central Government also have a strong part to play, which is why we are spending £2.5 billion a year on bus subsidy. Following the introduction of the new national bus concession in 2008, the Government will spend some £1 billion a year on concessionary travel for older and disabled people.
In considering the welcome extension of concessionary fares nationwide, will my hon. Friend pay particular attention to counties such as Derbyshire, where we have an excellent gold card scheme covering discounts and many other concessions? As an attractive county, it has many tourists, but we will have to pay back the bus companies for concessionary fares and will not necessarily receive the funding to cover that. Will she take that into account?
My hon. Friend represents an attractive county that attracts many visitors and I can assure her that we are considering that very point in dealing with concessionary fares.
Concessionary travel benefits some 11 million older and disabled people. Despite year on year difficulties in some areas with bus patronage, many communities want a better standard of bus services. Hon. Members have reported many difficulties, and that is why we published “Putting Passengers First” in December. It is important to re-endorse our key proposals as we move towards legislation, because the changes that will arise from the document will enable us to deal more effectively with the issues that cause particular concern to our constituents.
The key proposals include making quality contract schemes a realistic option; working with stakeholders to develop a new performance regime; giving more opportunity to the community transport sector; providing enhancements to the existing arrangements for partnership schemes between local authorities and bus operators; and considering the scope for refocusing the current bus subsidy regime. Those are definite responses to the concerns that have been described to the House today.
The proposals will modernise bus services for the better and mean a long-term, sustainable future for bus services. They have been formulated following discussions with operators and local authorities, and I wish to take this opportunity to acknowledge the support that we have received from all our key stakeholders. I am also grateful to the Transport Committee and its members for their work on the Committee’s report on bus services. The Government’s response to the report has been published today.
We are in the process of further developing our proposals for an overall package of reforms with the transport industry, local authorities and other key interested parties. This debate will greatly inform the work that we are doing and the proposals will be included in the draft road transport Bill. We have heard today some of the reasons such legislation is important.
Opposition Members made spirited, if somewhat rose-tinted, contributions to the debate. I know that the Opposition have apologised for the privatisation of the rail industry, and I wondered whether we might hear an apology for bus deregulation from the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson), but that was not to be. I am sure that many of my hon. Friends will be disappointed about that. I was delighted, however, that the hon. Gentleman acknowledged the increasing prosperity in this country under this Labour Government, and it is true that that has led to an increase in car ownership. The competition is between the car and the bus. Labour Members are committed to addressing that because many of the more vulnerable in our society have no choice and we have a duty to them. I confirm that the Government see a clear role for public expenditure on buses, but that must work hand in hand with the changes that we seek to make.
The hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) made an interesting remark about young people on buses in London. I was somewhat confused, as I thought Conservative policy was to hug yobs and love them: now it seems that we must turf off them off the buses and snatch their passes away.
It is important to get some perspective on the matter. Not all the young people getting free travel in London cause difficulties on buses, and we must not forget that many young people are themselves the victims of crime. I am worried that Conservative plans to abolish free travel for children and young people in London is disguised as an effort to save the rest of us. In fact, buses are one of the safest ways to travel, and the monthly figures for incidents show only small fluctuations year on year. I consider the Conservative approach to be a complete misrepresentation of the facts.
The Minister said that we proposed to remove travel passes from children, but I thought that I had made it clear that the intention of our GLA team was to replace the existing scheme with one aimed at schoolchildren. There have been many complaints about vandalism and yobbery on the buses by older teenagers, who can now travel on them free. That is why our GLA team is talking about introducing a pass for children.
A cut is a cut, as far as I am concerned. The matter is clear—the young people who have access to free travel under Labour would lose it under the Conservatives.
I was rather disturbed when the hon. Member for North Shropshire described the contents of “Putting Passengers First” as “guff”. The LGA hailed the bus reforms contained in the report as a “victory for common sense”, and the passenger transport executive group welcomed the review as a “fresh start for buses”. Moreover, the Confederation of Passenger Transport said that it welcomed the Government’s recognition of effective partnerships as the key to better bus services, and considered that “a clear way forward” had been set. None of that suggests to me that the report is “guff”.
In addition, there is no evidence that deregulation arrested the decline in patronage. The hon. Member for North Shropshire may wish to look at “Putting Passengers First” again from that perspective.
The hon. Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Scott) mentioned the No. 148 bus. I know that route well as, when younger, I spent many hours travelling through his constituency between my home in Dagenham and school. I was grateful for his support of Labour policies. I noted his wish not to be political, but whether one supports buses or not is clearly a political question.
The hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) was another to cause me some confusion. First he said that he wanted regulation, and then that he did not want to return to re-regulation. However, I remember him saying in a Westminster Hall debate:
“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.”—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 10 October 2006; Vol. 450, c. 16WH.]
That seems clear, but people in the House and outside it will want to know what the Liberal Democrat proposals are.
I turn now to some of the points raised by Labour Members. My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) asked for confirmation that the Government were up for the fight. I confirm that we are certainly up to do what it takes to improve buses for passengers.
My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), whose enthusiasm for the Government’s concessionary fares scheme is much appreciated, as is her understanding of the reality of people’s lives and the effect that a good bus service can have, asked whether the Government would indemnify local authorities’ transport authorities, should they be subject to legal challenge. Under the current system we cannot do so because the Secretary of State has a legal role in the process and has to give final approval. For future proposals, we cannot indemnify, but the system will be robust and fair and will allow operators to challenge decisions, as is right. That will mean that operators will have to bear the cost of irresponsible challenges and justify that to their shareholders.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) was characteristically generous and gracious in his welcome of “Putting Passengers First”. He asked about smart cards. The Department entirely supports the use of smart cards. We have done a great deal and will continue to work hard to promote the use of smart ticketing. He mentioned light rail. We have always recognised that trams can be effective in attracting people from their cars. We will continue to support light rail schemes where they are the best solution for local circumstances. It is important to say that bus options are likely to offer the most cost effective solutions on many corridors.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown) asked about concessionary fare funding for Tyne and Wear. I have been very involved with that. The Department for Communities and Local Government continues to talk to the relevant local authorities, including Tyne and Wear, about the matter. It is important to note that local authorities have long argued in favour of unhypothecated single pot funding and, indeed, wanted us to make it available through the revenue support grant. The existence of winners and losers, as has been illustrated today, is not unique to concessionary fares.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Chris Mole) described local circumstances arising from the actions of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat council. I regret the council’s decision, but I commend my hon. Friend for being a strong voice for his constituents. I hope that the good people of Ipswich will express themselves, as I am sure they will, in the appropriate manner at the appropriate time.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright) raised the issue of trade unions and concerns about recognition for the work of bus drivers. I confirm that I am aware of the valuable contribution that bus drivers and all the staff who work in the industry make in providing services to millions of bus passengers. I have had talks with unions as part of the bus review and I am keen to see their continuing involvement.
My hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) asked me to send a firm message from Government about operators who may in some way be fixing the reimbursement they receive. I am happy to send such a firm message. If there is evidence of operators abusing a system, local authorities are at liberty to reduce their funding accordingly. I would also wish to know of any such abuse.
My hon. Friends the Members for Pudsey and for the Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) and others asked about quality contracts and how long it would take to get one through. That is an important question. The direct answer is that the estimate, if there was no appeal, is 14 months and, if there was an appeal, 20 months. It could be longer if there was a judicial review, although that would be unlikely. The time is the minimum to allow proper safeguards, such as those that my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe mentioned. There must be a public interest case made for removing any commercial freedoms. That is why we are proposing clearer criteria that will provide the right balance and allow for the public interest case to be made. I am sure Members understand that we must have a proper appraisal system for schemes.
The basis for concessionary fare reimbursement—
It being Six o’clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.