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Bus Services

Volume 459: debated on Tuesday 17 April 2007

Public funding of bus services now totals £2.5 billion annually. Decisions on the allocation of departmental funding in future years will be taken later this year as part of the current comprehensive spending review.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Will she confirm that some of the money will support local authorities such as County Durham, which is developing plans to improve bus services in the area? Following the publication of “Putting Passengers First”, how quickly is her Department likely to respond to restructuring bids?

My hon. Friend’s support—and that of her local authority—for “Putting Passengers First” is extremely welcome. I am glad to hear that County Durham is working with operators to improve punctuality and services. It can also start to prepare the ground for community transport being given a greater role. I encourage my hon. Friend to support the authority in responding to the consultation on the draft road transport Bill. I look forward to meeting a delegation and would be happy to discuss my hon. Friend’s points.

Is the Minister aware that my constituents in Newport, Shropshire have to take up to three buses to visit Princess Royal hospital as out-patients? Does she agree that that is unacceptable, and will she undertake to meet me and a delegation from the hospital to discuss public transport to and from the Princess Royal so that elderly people in particular do not suffer from having to make such long journeys?

I am happy to agree to such a meeting, as the hon. Gentleman has requested. Of course, “Putting Passengers First” is all about providing the biggest shake-up of buses for some 20 years since deregulation under the Conservatives. It is rewarding to see that the Opposition now admit that they got it wrong, but I would indeed be delighted to meet the hon. Gentleman.

First Group, Stagecoach, Arriva and other bus companies are increasingly ripping off the public purse. They withdraw from ordinary routes in order to get subsidy on routes that are perfectly viable and they put up fares to get extra money out of the concessionary fare system. In that context, I welcome “Putting Passengers First” as a way of tackling that problem. The passenger transport executive group has estimated that the proposals would take—

It appears that the question, if not the process, was too long. If my hon. Friend is referring to “Quality Contracts”, the estimate is some 14 to 20 months, but we are working closely on that with stakeholders, including PTEs. We will publish a draft timetable alongside the road transport Bill.

Why will the Minister not support direct Government payments to bus companies to cover the cost of free bus journeys for the elderly to ensure that no local authority or PTE area is short-changed?

The extension of concessionary fares to cover 11 million people who are able to have free national off-peak travel is a very welcome Government policy. I am keen to ensure, as are all parties, that we have the right system of reimbursement. We are working with all the relevant people to find the right way forward. My interest is in ensuring that those 11 million people all benefit from the £1 billion of Government investment and free off-peak travel and that they can get out and about.

The bus pass scheme has transformed the situation for many elderly people in my constituency, who are delighted with their ability to roam. Would my hon. Friend please make a special effort to ensure that new powers are given to traffic commissioners so that they can insist that the companies getting large subsidies actually deliver value for money? That would be a nice change, and we would all be delighted by it.

I am, as always, delighted by my hon. Friend’s informed support of Government policy to help older and disabled people up and down the country. I agree about traffic commissioners, who will have a greater opportunity to bring local authorities as well as bus operators to account on issues of punctuality, which are of great importance.