The Government are committed to cutting unnecessary regulatory burdens on business wherever possible, including on the bus industry. However, that must be balanced with the passenger’s right to a safe and reliable service.
But can the Minister do nothing about the daily occurrence of what can only be described as a sketch from a “Carry on” movie taking place across rural areas? Passengers are forced to get off buses and get back on buses and repurchase tickets every 30 miles because the Government failed to secure a common-sense derogation from EU regulation 561/2006, which sets maximum targets in respect of bus drivers. Does this not simply play into the hands of certifiable ranters in other political parties, who—rightly, on this occasion—decry the rather bizarre micro-management that such regulations present?
I remind the hon. Gentleman that the new EU rules do not limit the length of a bus route, but introduce improved safety requirements to do with the length of a driver’s working week, to ensure proper weekly rest periods. We should support that, because of the huge safety implications. However, I know that concerns have been expressed about some of the ways in which that has been operated, and that is why the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), met representatives of the Confederation of Passenger Transport, the trade association for the bus and coach industry, to explore the industry’s concerns and consider possible solutions within the constraints of the EU drivers’ hours regulations. This is a safety issue, but we are considering the problems with interpreting the practical application of the regulations.
Is not there at least one respect in which the regulatory framework for bus companies should be tighter? I refer to the lack of an obligation to retrofit older buses to enable disabled access. In rural parts of Leicestershire, where traffic on buses is low, the economic pressure on the company to provide disabled access is much lower. Should we not aim for an earlier implementation date of these important regulations?
My hon. Friend makes an important point about the accessibility of buses for disabled people. As he says, there is a programme of improvement. I am heartened when I see the many new buses that are being introduced with proper disabled access. The requirements will change, and another important factor will be the Local Transport Bill, which is making progress through Parliament at the moment. The Bill will enable local authorities to work with bus operators much more closely on such issues, and it is very disappointing that Conservative Front Benchers oppose it and all the improvements that it will bring.
Does the Minister agree that the driving times and rest periods directive, which sets out the so-called 50 km rule, is completely unsuitable for and irrelevant to rural areas? Is she aware that a young dynamic company in my constituency, Norfolk Green, has told me that if the directive is implemented as it stands, the company will have to axe various new rural services? Will she not stand up for rural bus routes and companies?
It was this Government who introduced the rural bus subsidy—now some £55 million a year—so we will not take any lectures from the Opposition about supporting rural bus services. As I have said, the EU rules are about safety and drivers’ rest periods, but my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has met representatives of the industry to discuss their concerns and will look at possible solutions.