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Volume 457: debated on Tuesday 6 March 2007

5. what assessment he has made of responses to his “putting passengers first” proposals on buses. (125114)

The Government's proposals for a modernised framework for improving bus services have been widely welcomed by bus operators, passengers and local authorities alike. We are working closely with stakeholders to take forward our proposals, in preparation for a draft road transport Bill.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. If we are to persuade people in Greater Manchester and Stockport to make better use of public transport, we need to improve bus services. Will she confirm that in the forthcoming review of the bus service operating grants she will look at ways of tying that grant more into improved bus performance, including better reliability?

I am glad that my hon. Friend, who is a longstanding champion of better bus services for local people, welcomes the Government improvements to bus services. I can indeed confirm that we are talking to key stakeholders about how we can better focus bus subsidy money, which has just about doubled in England since 1997, so that we can see improvements in performance as well as in the environment.

Local authorities such as Salisbury district council are keen to put passengers first, but the present regime militates against that. The council does not have sufficient money to subsidise deserving routes on behalf of scattered rural communities and at the same time pay for the free transport by bus service that has been ordained by central Government. It simply does not add up. Will the Minister please make sure that the Treasury understands that, if it is sincere about putting passengers first, it has to put its money where its mouth is?

Over the past 10 years we have indeed been putting our money where our mouth is: some £2.5 billion of revenue funding goes to support the bus industry through a wide variety of measures. As for the quality of local bus services, “Putting Passengers First” will enable it to get better. In the meantime, it is down to bus operators and local authorities to work closely together.

As my hon. Friend moves towards 2008 and offers a free bus service throughout England for people who are retired, will she have discussions with those in Wales and Scotland to ensure a transport service that allows free travel throughout the United Kingdom?

The point is well made. The Concessionary Bus Travel Bill includes the power to allow, via regulations, for mutual recognition of concessionary bus passes across the UK.

What extra help will the Minister be giving to areas such as Kettering borough, which will see the number of houses increase by a third in the next 14 years? What extra help can the Minister provide to increase bus services in areas such as Kettering?

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the provisions in “Putting Passengers First”, which give local authorities a far greater say and a greater ability to work closely with local operators to get the right schemes. We are looking for local solutions to local needs. Of course, innovative funding such as the transport innovation fund is also available for congestion-beating plans.

Although I welcome much in “Putting Passengers First”, does the Minister plan to use those ideas as a stepping stone to a fully regulated system that really would put passengers first?

May I say to my hon. Friend the Minister, echoing my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Riordan), that the relationship at the moment is wrong? The power is with the monopoly supplier, certainly in my county of Durham, and more power needs to be given to the local authorities. What is happening in Durham is an absolute disgrace. Go North East, formerly Go-Ahead Northern, is stripping out routes and concentrating on the profitable routes in anticipation of powers coming forward.

I understand that the situation that my hon. Friend describes is the case in certain places up and down the country. That is why we have talked to all the key people involved and we have received such a good response from all the main stakeholders, who are keen to put passengers first and achieve the right bus services. I emphasise that in the meantime, before the legislation comes in, I am aware that already bus operators, local communities and local authorities are coming together to serve people better.