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House of Commons Hansard
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06 March 2007
Volume 457
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1. What plans he has to hold operators and local authorities to account for the performance of local bus services. [125109]

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The Government plan to introduce a new performance regime to improve the reliability and punctuality of bus services. Our proposals, set out last December, will require both operators and local authorities to account for the performance of local bus services, and will include strengthened penalties where performance fails to improve.

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I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply and I welcome the increased powers, which will enable a better service for passengers following what was a disastrous privatisation. How will he ensure, however, that operators and local authorities perform effectively in the delivery of free national bus travel for pensioners?

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I can assure my hon. Friend that a great deal of work is under way with local authorities, as the concessionary bodies, and with bus operators to ensure an effective start to the national concessionary bus travel system, which I am sure will be welcomed by many in the House.

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The Secretary of State knows that the real way to hold authorities and operators to account is via traffic commissioners. However, in the north-west, for instance, from Liverpool all the way through to Leeds there is one traffic commissioner and two staff. The Government are not funding traffic commissioners. Will they pledge to do so today, so that there can be real accountability?

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We are looking at traffic commissioners’ powers in the context of the “Putting Passengers First” document, which we published in December. One other principal inhibitor to their ability to do the job that we would wish has been the lack of effective performance data. Through addressing that issue, we are seeking to strengthen traffic commissioners’ ability to get a grip on these problems.

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Owing to low car ownership, most of the constituents in the rural part of my constituency rely on the bus service. However, there is a single dominant operator that decides to make changes to the service as it sees fit, which causes a great deal of distress to my constituents. How will the changes that my right hon. Friend has introduced ensure that my constituents get a reliable service and do not experience the distress that they have suffered so far?

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Having declined in the decade after 1986, bus subsidy in England has almost doubled in real terms since 1997-98. The “Putting Passengers First” document that we published in December recognised that, alongside the additional subsidy that has been put into bus services in constituencies such as my hon. Friend’s, there needs to be a strengthened governance regime, which is why we will introduce proposals in due course.

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Does the Secretary of State accept, however, that if local authorities and passenger transport executives are to be accountable for the performance of local bus services, they will require not just extra powers but resources? To that end, will he, as part of his consultation, consider giving some or even all of the money that goes to operators through the fuel duty rebate to local authorities and PTEs?

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We obviously keep such matters under review, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are in discussions with the PTEs and the passenger transport authorities in the light of the document that we published. However, as I said, the strength of our commitment to subsidising the bus industry has been manifested by the scale of increase in recent years. The challenge is to make sure that that money is used effectively, and we are certainly giving consideration to that.

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Does my right hon. Friend share my concern at the fact that the leader of Chorley council is claiming that he, not the Government, is introducing free national bus travel? Will my right hon. Friend confirm who is funding and introducing it?

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My hon. Friend brings to my attention something that I was not aware of before this Question Time. If the gentleman whom he describes is also willing to stump up the extra £250 million that the Government are putting into a national concessionary travel scheme, I should certainly be very happy to take forward that discussion.

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What role will competition play in delivering better services and lower fares, and how will the Secretary of State avoid the regulators becoming anti-competitive and pro-monopoly?

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If one looks back at the experience of far too many communities since the deregulation of bus services in 1986, one sees that the somewhat fundamentalist views of competition, which have been more prevalent among Opposition Members than Labour ones, have been defied by experience. We recognise that competitive bus services can be effective, but that is not being manifested in enough communities today. To judge by the bus services that are operating effectively—for example, in communities such as Nottingham, York and Brighton—such a service involves not simply the fresh gusts of competition but an effective partnership with local authorities. We are keen to make sure that the architecture for that partnership is extended across the country.