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Bus Services (Competition Commission Report)

Volume 543: debated on Thursday 19 April 2012

3. If she will ensure that her response to the Competition Commission's recommendations on the market for local buses is published by May 2012. (103766)

You wait ages for a question on buses, and then three come along at the same time.

The Government’s response to the recommendations from the Competition Commission’s report on the supply of local bus services in the UK—excluding Northern Ireland and London—was published on 26 March.

I must explain that I tabled my question three days before the Minister responded to the report.

I am mainly interested in rural bus services. As the Minister knows, there are bus wars on the lucrative routes between towns, and greatly reduced or no services in the more isolated rural communities where elderly and young people depend on buses. What is he doing to ensure that services are more balanced in rural constituencies such as mine—and, when he talks to the commission, will he refer it to the Plain English Campaign, which would help the average bus user to understand what is in its excellent report?

There were a lot of questions there.

I entirely accept that buses provide a lifeline for people in rural areas. That is why we intend to devolve funding for the bus service operators grant to local authorities for tendered services, which will give them more control over those services, and why we have taken steps to fund community transport with two tranches of £10 million to help rural areas. Following the commission’s recommendations, we are taking steps to deal with bus wars by ensuring that there is a code of conduct for operators, enforced by the traffic commissioner.

The commission’s report highlights various ways in which local bus markets are not working well enough throughout the United Kingdom and should be improved, but bus operators must be given enough time to prepare for the necessary changes. May I encourage my hon. Friend not to make the same mistake as the Scottish National party Government in Scotland, who have given operators just three months in which to prepare for major structural changes in funding and a 17.5% cut in the bus service operators grant? That is causing chaos in bus services in East Dunbartonshire and elsewhere.

The industry tells me that it is very concerned about what is happening in Scotland and Wales. It is concerned about the short notice given by the Scottish Government, and about the even shorter notice given by the Welsh Assembly Government. We, on the other hand, gave 18 months’ notice of changes in the bus service operators grant. Representatives of the industry said at the time that, in view of the notice given and the type of BSOG changes involved, they expected to be able to deal with those changes without affecting services markedly.

Statements made by the hon. Gentleman before he was a Minister suggest that he must have been constrained in his enthusiasm for quality contracts by his Conservative colleagues in Government. If he cannot help local authorities to pursue such contracts, will he consider introducing a new bus regulator to deal with market failure—an Ofbus?

The option for councils to pursue quality contracts remains on the statute book, although I think that any pragmatic council would choose to try to deal with bus companies in a collaborative way before reaching for the nuclear option. Some of the problems mentioned by the hon. Gentleman will be dealt with by our responses to the Competition Commission’s recommendations, which pick up some of the unsatisfactory behaviour of bus companies.