[Sir Graham Brady in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered local bus drivers’ working hours.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham.
Back in February I brought forward my ten-minute rule Bill raising the issue of local bus drivers’ working hours. It asked for two things: a change to working hours and an increase in more robust, independent medical checks for bus drivers. I do not believe that our current laws around the working hours of bus drivers are keeping our public safe. The Bill that I put forward, to which this debate relates, simply seeks to limit bus drivers on local routes to driving for no more than 56 hours in any one week and 90 hours in any two consecutive weeks. Doing this would bring the hours worked into regulatory alignment with those for long-distance bus and coach drivers, and for heavy goods vehicle lorry drivers. Some would say that this is simple common sense. Let me put it like this: how can a packet of cornflakes have more chance of safe arrival at its destination than a child on a bus?
I proposed the Bill in response to the terrible tragedy in Coventry city centre in October 2015, and in particular in the memory of the two individuals who died in that accident: seven-year-old Rowan Fitzgerald and 76-year-old Dora Hancox. I pay tribute to Rowan’s family, Natasha, Barbara and Liam, who have joined us today. I thank them once more for their courage and encouragement, and before them I recommit myself to ensuring there is an important legacy from their terrible loss. That is why we are pushing for Rowan’s law—so that the rules around local bus driver working hours are made consistent with those of long-distance bus and coach drivers, and HGV drivers.
Many others were injured that day, including Rowan’s cousin Paige, but it could have been even worse. Were it not for the brave actions of Teil Portlock, who managed to disperse the pedestrians outside the Sainsbury’s, many others would have been killed or seriously injured. For the benefit of the Minister, may I describe what happened that day in Coventry? It was a busy Saturday afternoon. The video shown at the inquest revealed how the tragedy could have claimed more lives. In it, the bus careers across the main road, striking another bus and then a lamppost, before hurtling down a pavement and ploughing into a bus stop and the supermarket. As I have said repeatedly, it was an absolute inevitability that such a tragedy would happen.
The driver that day was Mr Chander, a 77-year-old male, of Leamington Spa. In the year leading up to the fatal accident, Mr Chander had worked an average of 47 hours per week. That statistic disguises the number of hours worked during busy periods, namely school term time. At those times, he was frequently working in excess of 56 hours a week and could drive school specials. These hours are long by any measure, particularly for a driver in his mid-70s. In the four weeks leading up to the crash, he had driven 62 hours, 76 hours, 76 hours and 72 hours respectively, which was an average of 72 hours a week over that period. That was despite his shocking safety record and some 16 written complaints from passengers, who, over the preceding couple of years, had contacted the company to register his erratic behaviour and innumerable incidents. Those hours are entirely legal under current UK law, and that is what many of us are seeking to address.
This issue is not new, and the crash in 2015 could have been prevented. Back in March that year, before the tragedy, my right hon. Friends the Members for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), and for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), proposed such changes through an early-day motion. That was four years ago. Currently, British laws limit bus drivers’ hours on local routes of less than 50 km to 10 hours of driving a day, with no weekly or fortnightly limit, except that in any two consecutive weeks there must be at least one period of 24 hours off duty. That means it is entirely legal for a local bus driver to drive 130 hours over two weeks. If you extrapolate that, a driver could work 260 hours in under four weeks, which would be extraordinary.
Under EU law, a long-distance bus or lorry driver cannot drive for more than 56 hours a week, or more than 90 hours over two consecutive weeks. I believe this tragedy could have been avoided if driving hours for local bus drivers had been capped at 56 hours a week, and no more than 90 hours over two consecutive weeks, as is already the case for long-distance bus and HGV drivers.
When the family and I met the Minister, just a month ago, she shared with us Department for Transport data that showed that bus drivers drive an average of 42 hours a week. I believe that hides the reality and what is happening at the extreme margins. It is reported that 10,000 bus or coach drivers are working in excess of 56 and a half hours per week, and that 42,000 drivers—some 40% of total drivers—are working in excess of 90 hours per fortnight on average.
Part of the issue is that drivers are seeking recompense for depressed earnings; they have seen their wages reduce, relative to other drivers, such as train or tube train drivers. That divergence, where there was once parity, is a great cause of the additional hours that have been worked. It means that on average bus drivers work nearly six hours per week more than average workers.
The Bill proposes moving to EU regulations that cover total hours worked, but also includes proposals to bring changes to mandatory breaks that would ensure a break of no less than 45 minutes would be taken after no more than four and a half hours of driving. At present, the entitlement to a 30-minute break after five and a half hours behind the wheel often results in drivers taking smaller breaks or none at all due to congestion on the route or other factors beyond their control. Also, it is not realistic to think that a driver can obtain proper rest and refreshment in that timeframe, after five and a half hours of driving passengers on often complicated routes, with frequent stopping.
Importantly, the changes to hours in the Bill should be introduced by employers at no detriment to bus drivers’ pay. The culture of long hours amongst bus drivers is accompanied by low rates of pay, which places on drivers a dubious incentive to work overtime. Regulations must prevent this, but must also ensure that bus drivers are paid properly for the essential public service they provide. This is important at a time when operators are cutting unprofitable routes and local councils are cutting funding to bus services. This all sounds obvious, particularly when looking at the regulations that apply in other European countries, but it is why so many of us are calling for change. I applaud Rowan’s family for their petition doing just that. It already has 2,800 signatures, mostly local, but I am sure the number will build as this campaign makes further headway.
Since I spoke to my ten-minute rule Bill, the family and I met with the Minister responsible for buses, who disappointingly cannot be here today. It was an emotional meeting. The Minister said she would look into this; I appreciate her honesty and her commitment to doing that. I have met representatives of the relevant unions to garner their views. The TUC, GMB and National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers all back this change, as does the Mayor of Greater Manchester. I met those responsible at Transport for London to hear their concerns, and to try to better understand the reasons behind the 16 or 17 deaths per year, on average, involving buses on the capital’s streets.
The accident happened in my constituency; I thought it only right and proper to come along today to support my hon. Friend. The accident is a by-product of deregulation about 30 years ago. I am surprised that the Government have never adopted the EU regulations. I support my hon. Friend and I extend every sympathy to the families of those killed in the accident. I hope that the Government will, for a change, take action, rather than drag this out so that, at the end of the day, nothing changes. That would be no comfort to the families concerned. Earlier this year, I met my hon. Friend and members of the victims’ families right here in Westminster Hall. We support them all that we can. I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I agree with him entirely about the marketisation of the bus sector, and the pressures that that has put on bus drivers and the hours that they work, and the pay and working conditions that they suffer as a result. Of course, that does not apply to tube drivers, for whom that has not been allowed to happen. We have seen widening divergence in tube driver and bus driver pay in the capital; it is a good example of what has been allowed to happen through marketisation of local bus services. I thank my hon. Friend for coming today. I know that many others hoped to be here, and were it not for the by-election in Peterborough, I am sure a great many more would have been here. Unfortunately, that is just a scheduling problem.
When I met Brake, the road safety charity, it was extremely impressed by the campaign and put its full support behind it, as did London Bus Watch. Mr Brady, you will not be surprised to learn that many bus drivers have approached me to share their stories and the reality of what is happening under existing legislation. Across the country, their responses have been clear and consistent. For example, a bus driver in Cornwall drives on a route longer than 50 km, so it should come under strict EU rules for long-distance drivers, but the local company exploits a loophole and splits the route into three, so that the same driver can continue the route and they do not have to comply with EU working hours restrictions—a simple example of how companies work the system. In Liverpool, a driver who used to work for Stagecoach said that drivers were regularly forced to work 12-hour shifts day after day, which caused fatigue. There are many other examples, but time does not permit me to give them.
There is also concern about who enforces legislation. What are the roles, and how are the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency and the traffic commissioners resourced? It is disturbing, and may come as a surprise, that very few councils and local authorities have any bus safety data at all. Following a Freedom of Information Act application by one of the campaign groups, 46 of the 74 councils and local authorities approached said they had absolutely no bus safety data; eight said they did, and 24 are yet to respond. There is clearly much to do.
It is evident that what happened on that day in Coventry city centre could have happened anywhere, and it is unlikely to be the last such accident. In fact, what motivates me, and, I am sure, Rowan’s family, is our determination to ensure that there is no repeat of the Coventry crash, and that no worse tragedy ever occurs. I fear it is simply a matter of time unless the Government act.
I sum up by repeating that it is simply common sense to align the working hours legislation for local bus drivers with that for long-distance bus, coach and lorry drivers to bring safety to our streets, and to avoid an even more serious tragedy, but that must not impact on drivers’ pay. That is sensible, pragmatic and certainly not radical. We need only look at the legislation and what happens in Germany and the Netherlands, where daily driving cannot exceed nine hours, with an exemption twice a week, when it can be increased to 10 hours. Total driving time is limited to 56 hours a week, with a total fortnightly limit of 90 hours, and drivers have 45-minute breaks after four and a half hours of driving time. That is what happens in other European countries.
We must also introduce independent, regular health checks. Coventry was an example of an individual being suspected of being in ill health, but for some reason, that was not exposed, though it should have been. Through the Bill, I urge the Minister to provide for more regular, independent health checks to ensure the safety of all our passengers and other road users. That could be introduced via a simple statutory instrument, if the Government so wished. I urge the Minister to review the matter with his colleague and the Secretary of State. In the meantime, the family and I will continue to press for the introduction of Rowan’s law. We have come a long way, but we will continue until Rowan’s legacy is fulfilled.
It is a pleasure to see you presiding in the Chair this afternoon, Sir Graham. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) on securing this important debate. I commend him not only for his excellent contribution, but for his campaigning on this issue, including his ten-minute rule Bill, which he introduced on 13 February, as he mentioned in his remarks.
I had hoped to welcome the new Minister of State, Department for Transport, the hon. Member for Northampton North (Michael Ellis), who has responsibility for road safety, to his place. I am never unhappy to see the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), but it would have been nice to have been able to firmly welcome the new road safety Minister. As chair of the all-party group for transport safety, I was hoping to get an assurance from him that he would engage with the all-party group as much as his predecessor did, so I hope the Minister will take that message back to the hon. Member for Northampton North.
Will the Minister also pass on a message about the updated road safety statement, which he knows has been long awaited? I hope the reshuffle will not delay it, given the concern about how the road safety casualty figures on those who have been killed or seriously injured have stagnated over the past few years. It would be an impetus to getting those figures on a downward trend again, which we all want to see.
My hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington highlighted the crystal clear anomaly between the permitted hours of driving for HGV drivers, long-distance bus drivers and local bus drivers—a point also made by the RMT trade union in its briefing. I thank the union, the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety and the Library for their information and briefings for this debate.
The Rowan Fitzgerald case cited by my hon. Friend graphically and tragically portrays the problem, and I offer my sincere condolences to the family. Long driving hours were a key cause of the death of seven-year-old Rowan. It is well documented that fatigue causes crashes. According to the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety’s most recent figures, 62 people died in collisions where fatigue was recorded as a contributory factor and a further 509 were seriously injured, so fatigue is a major problem. Public sector staff have a responsibility for public safety. It is for local government and the Government to monitor how best to protect the public in these situations.
When one is driving a vehicle the size of a local bus, whether single or double-decker, regulations should protect passengers, other road users, pedestrians and the driver himself or herself. My hon. Friend put two cases: first, local bus drivers’ hours should be capped at 56 hours per week or 90 in a fortnight; and secondly, we should match European Union employment regulations. The fact that drivers are expected to drive for up to five and a half hours without a break under the existing regulations is absurd in this day and age.
I will not detail the specifics of the Coventry crash that killed Rowan and Mrs Dora Hancox; they have been well documented and the court has pronounced its verdict. Cause, effect, responsibility and blame are all indisputable. The financial penalty is significant, but, given the loss of life and serious injury caused, I am sure the victims and the families were not happy with just that outcome. A more significant conclusion would be for the Government to recognise that fatigue for that class of driver can be addressed and reduced so that we can prevent more deaths and serious injuries. It is within the gift of the Government to introduce the type of regulations that my hon. Friend mentioned.
The statistics on bus crashes, especially in London, my city, are very worrying. Fatigue is not responsible for every crash, but it is responsible for some, and it can be addressed and such instances reduced. I look forward to the Front-Bench responses, but especially the Minister’s, and hopefully we will see some progress in better protecting those who are at risk.
To conclude, a spokesperson for London Bus Watch, Tom Kearney, having spoken to many bus drivers across the country, said:
“Fatigue is their single biggest worry.”
If the drivers are worried, so should we be.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. I am delighted to take part in this interesting debate, introduced by the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western). I pay tribute to his work on this issue, and I wish him every success with his private Member’s Bill.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his account of the tragedy that took place in Coventry. The hours worked in that case were truly shocking. Perhaps even more shocking is that those hours are perfectly legal. I also thank him for raising the splitting of routes to avoid the 50 km long-distance requirements. That is unacceptable, and I am grateful to him for mentioning that today. The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) highlighted how fatigue causes crashes, and I could not agree more. I am grateful to him for the statistics he used to illustrate that point.
The Scottish National party has been a powerful advocate for fair working hours and working practices, so it will come as absolutely no surprise that I fully support the change being sought. A limit of 56 hours in a week or 90 hours over two weeks seems perfectly reasonable. In fact, I would not want to be driving for that many hours. I certainly would not want to see someone driving the hours they are driving now on local routes. I fail to see why any difference between the working hours of local bus drivers, long-distance bus drivers and HGV drivers should exist, other than it being an accidental mismatch from historical pieces of legislation. The average driver’s hours are 42 a week, which suggests that there would not be insurmountable problems for bus companies in facilitating a more respectable number of hours. It certainly would not put people out of work.
In saying that, I should point out that the SNP supports the full devolution of employment law to the Scottish Parliament. We do not have control over that, so the debate is particularly relevant for me, as it allows me to make these points. In Scotland, we have control over transport policy, and we have tried to prioritise the provision of quality bus services. In general, we believe that the current model for providing bus services, where public authorities have the power to intervene, including through subsidies, is generally the right one. However, we need to do more. That is why we are trying to strengthen the powers through our Transport (Scotland) Bill to allow transport authorities to run their own services in some cases, or to take over whole networks or parts of areas. In that melting pot, it would make great sense for Scotland to have control over the hours drivers may work. That would assist us in boosting public confidence in the safety of the service, which is a point I am happy to make here, as this Parliament has that power just now.
Another area of concern is that many of the protections and rights secured for our workers have flowed directly from our membership of the European Union. It is imperative that those are not put at risk by any Brexit race to the bottom. It is worth pointing out that the UK rules on drivers’ hours are slightly different from the EU’s. Under UK rules, after 5.5 hours of driving, a break of 30 minutes must be taken. Under the equivalent EU rules, a driving period of no more than 4.5 hours gives drivers a break of 45 minutes. I am not a professional driver or a professional transport person, but on the few occasions when I have had the misfortune of having to drive from my constituency to London—a journey that took me longer than 5.5 hours—I needed a considerably longer break. I say that as someone who is not regularly driving every day. While I may not be a professional driver, starting from a more relaxed position and coming out severely fatigued would worry me from my personal experience.
I just want to make the point that we would not go five and a half hours in this place without having a break, a cup of tea and a chat, and we are not driving vehicles the size of a bus.
Absolutely. I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that excellent point. I could not agree more.
In conclusion, I hope the Minister will look favourably at addressing drivers’ hours and breaks. The hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington has highlighted a good issue. I support him and wish him every success. Can the Minister tell me what the rationale is for continuing to have different working hours for local and long-distance drivers? It certainly is not safety, and I fail to see any logic for it.
I am grateful to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham, and to have the opportunity to speak in this important debate. Today’s debate about bus safety is happening in response to the most terrible tragedy, when, as we have heard, Rowan died in a horrific accident at just seven years old. Dora Hancox also died, and many others were injured. I want to pass on my condolences to Rowan’s family: to his mother, Natasha; his grandmother, Barbara; and their relatives. They have been through the most unimaginable suffering and the loss of a much-loved young son.
No family should have to endure what these families have been through. It is essential that we now listen to the families and understand what they have suffered to help ensure that a tragedy like this never, ever happens again. That requires determined action and investment by the Government, working with the bus industry, trade unions and passengers to look again at the problem of excessive working hours.
Before I discuss how safety can be improved, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) for his campaigning work on behalf of Dora and Rowan’s families and for securing this debate as part of the campaign to improve bus safety. I thank other hon. Members for speaking today, and I look forward to the Minister addressing the points I will raise.
Labour believes that safety should always come first, and we want to see a culture of improved safety across our entire transport system. That clearly means setting higher safety standards and investing more in road safety, in the safety of our bus services and in other modes of transport.
I want to address the importance of setting higher standards of safety first, before discussing the wider issue of investment. It is clear that there is a considerable difference between the regulation of coach drivers’ hours and the more limited regulation of local bus drivers’ hours. The regulations regarding bus drivers’ hours need to be reviewed in light of the tragedy, as was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington. I call on the Government to work with operators, unions and passengers, and to support his Bill.
There needs to be a thorough review, considering the issue from first principles, rather than merely tinkering with the problem. As part of that, it is important to consider the wide range of factors that could affect drivers and lead to a loss of concentration, including fatigue, their underlying health, their age, driver training and the use of any safety devices in cabs. It is important that those issues are considered thoroughly in response to this tragedy.
Turning to the wider issue of the need for investment in the bus industry to improve safety, there has been a 45% cut in Government funding for buses since 2010 and a fall in bus usage across the country. I am concerned that the decline in services and the pressure on drivers and operators contributed to the terrible accident in which Rowan tragically lost his life. Investment will save lives by reducing accidents in the short term and by cutting long-term damage from things such as air pollution, which can threaten health.
As a party, we see improvements to safety as integral to the wider package of investment. That is a proven approach, and there is a long history of investment in transport infrastructure, better pay, better training and improved regulation of services, which all lead to improvements in safety. As part of that, Labour would reinstate the services cut by the present Government. We would also allow all councils to regulate services and, indeed, to set up new municipal bus companies, which have a record of providing much better quality services than those run by private companies. Those measures for buses would be part of a much wider range of investments to improve our whole transport system.
Our party’s programme is in stark contrast to the current state of bus services, where there is declining bus use, endemic low pay among drivers and a shortage of drivers. If the Government want to improve safety, they need to reconsider their approach and acknowledge the deep and serious effects of the cuts that have led to this accident and other problems in the service.
I am conscious of time, and I will sum up my remarks by making the following points. Rowan and Dora’s families have suffered the most terrible tragedy, and I hope we can all agree that no family should have to suffer as they have. Urgent action is now quite clearly needed. A Government review of drivers’ hours, supporting my hon. Friend’s Bill and working with operators, unions and passengers are important ways of addressing the problem. There needs to be investment, not cuts, in bus services. All those measures together are vital for improvements in safety.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) on having secured this debate about local bus drivers’ working hours. I should probably also start with an apology: I am not the bus Minister. My hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani) is away on an overseas ministerial visit, which is why I am covering for her in today’s debate. However, I understand that she has been very engaged with this issue and met the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington, together with the family of Rowan, to discuss it on, I believe, 7 May. She has promised to look into the concerns raised; she is doing so, and she will write back to the family through the hon. Gentleman very shortly.
Before turning to some of the issues, let me join colleagues in paying tribute to Rowan’s family for their work. I must say that it is astonishingly brave, when something must be acutely painful, to draw something so positive from it by campaigning to see that other families do not have to suffer as they have suffered. That is noble and brave work, and we as a House should recognise it.
The Government are committed to ensuring that the bus industry complies with the current law, including its duty of care to passengers. As promised, my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden will press that with the industry at every opportunity. We all agree that the tragic accident that occurred in 2015 in Coventry should never have happened and must never be allowed to happen again.
However, the Government are not convinced that amending the local drivers’ hours legislation is the answer. A number of pieces of legislation already exist to regulate the bus industry, which together should have stopped this tragic accident happening. It might be helpful if I detail some of those.
There is a general duty of care under the Public Service Vehicles (Conduct of Drivers, Inspectors, Conductors and Passengers) Regulations 1990, which sets standards for bus companies and their drivers, to ensure safety for their passengers. The GB domestic driver’s hours rules in the Transport Act 1968 limit bus drivers to 10 hours daily, with 30 minutes’ break after five and a half hours and a daily rest of 10 consecutive hours.
There are the general Working Time Regulations 1998, which limit the working week to an average of 48 hours—although I am aware that of course individuals can opt out of that requirement if they choose to—and provide an entitlement to adequate rest. There is also health and safety at work legislation, which places a duty on employers to ensure the health and safety of their employees and others who may be put at risk by their work activities. That includes a duty on employers to manage the risks from fatigue, irrespective of any individual’s willingness to work extra hours.
Colleagues have made some comments about the legislation in other countries, so I should perhaps just clarify that. A point was made about not adopting EU regulations, but the EU regulations do not apply to local bus drivers. No EU regulation of local bus driver hours exists. Is fatigue covered? Yes, most certainly it is; it is right at the heart of health and safety legislation, which includes a duty on operators to manage fatigue. The safeguards we have in place should have prevented the tragedy of that terrible crash in Coventry, had they been properly followed. The point, of course, is that they were not.
On that point, it is my understanding that this is a derogation and every country can derogate from the EU directive on local bus driving hours. However, in the two examples I gave, Germany and the Netherlands, they abide by the 56 hours and the 90 hours for a fortnightly period. My simple premise is, why can we not have consistency between the hours worked by a long-distance bus driver or HGV driver and those worked by a local bus driver? As I said, is it not bizarre that it is probably safer for a box of cornflakes to arrive at its destination than for a seven-year-old child?
I remind the hon. Gentleman that, as I understand it, there are no EU regulations that apply directly, so the read-across is not absolute, and we have other legislation in place. However, as with all the comments from colleagues here, I will, of course, make sure that I go back and discuss that with my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden, who is the bus Minister and is taking this case forward, to ensure that they are all absolutely understood. The key point, I think, is that a difference has been seen in the style of driving and the recognition of driving, with different stoppage patterns, but the point about fatigue is correct and that is why it is built into health and safety legislation.
I will press on to talk about the incident. We have a legislative framework in place and it should have been followed. It was not followed. While the driver in question was within the working hours limits—a point made by the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington—there had been multiple warnings that he should not have been behind the wheel that day, including numerous passenger complaints, which were not acted upon.
Although I am sure this is of no comfort at all to Rowan and Dora’s families, the bus driver was found guilty in his absence of causing death by dangerous driving, and the bus company was found guilty under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 of putting members of the public and its own staff at risk and was fined £2.3 million. Following the bus operator’s conviction, the traffic commissioner held a public inquiry on 30 January this year to consider the operator’s good repute.
As part of the inquiry, the operator listed the actions taken since the October 2015 accident with a view to preventing it from happening again. Those include medical reviews of drivers over 70, which now take place every six months rather than the statutory requirement of every 12 months. Any driving instructor’s report highlighting a need to restrict a driver’s hours must now be brought to the attention of the company’s operations director and managing director. Instructions and advice about such restrictions must now be issued in writing. The company has limited casual drivers to 40 hours work per week since the incident and, since 5 January this year, has ceased using casual drivers altogether.
The traffic commissioner published his decision in March this year. On top of the £2.3 million fine imposed by the courts, the traffic commissioner took the regulatory action of varying the company’s licence to reduce the number of vehicles it could operate for a 28-day period. That regulatory action was a strong warning to the company, and through the company to the entire industry, that it had failed to come up to expectations in ensuring the safety of its staff and other road users, and that if such a failure was ever repeated, the complete loss of its right to operate would be the likely consequence.
It is important that we look at every opportunity to raise awareness of the lessons learnt from this tragic accident and the importance of continuing to improve safety. The hon. Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) spoke about how safety should be at the heart of our transport networks. That point was also made by the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick). We have discussed it on countless occasions, and he knows that we are in exactly the same place in placing great priority on road safety.
Does the Minister sense that there is possibly under-resourcing or under-capacity in the enforcement of what should be going on with these bus companies and through their depots? How much random independent checking is going on to ensure that they are conforming to existing legislation?
That is an important point. The traffic commissioner is the regulator and responsible for the licensing and regulation of public service vehicles, which includes enforcement and prosecution where appropriate. We also have the DVSA—the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency—which carries out monitoring and compliance checks. Those can include not only routine checks, but reactive or proactive checks where there is evidence that an operator is non-compliant or an issue has been reported.
There are methods in place, with checks and balances, to be both reactive in response to information or proactive if necessary. Those checks can include looking at the logs of drivers’ rosters and consider the health and wellbeing of drivers. Those are the two methods through which the regulations can be enforced.
I am grateful to the Minister for that further explanation of the checks and balances in the system. Given the numbers of complaints that he catalogued that were recorded against this driver in the days, weeks and months preceding the tragic crash that happened, is he reassured by the traffic commissioner and the other authorities that cases of drivers such as the one responsible, who got away with so much for so long, will not be able to be repeated because of the example of this case, where clearly the system did not work?
That is at the heart of what is happening. The system has not worked here, and the points about how we take that forward and improve the enforcement and vigour of the regulation are central to where we need to go. That is a point that I will be taking from this debate and taking to my hon. Friend the bus Minister in our meetings next week, when she is back from overseas.
It might be helpful if I updated the House on some of the data involving buses. We all need to see a continuation of the long-term trend of improving road safety in the UK. Colleagues in the House have made a significant contribution to that over a sustained period, and we all owe them a duty of thanks. It has led to the UK—along with, I think, Sweden—having the safest roads in the world. There are still significant areas where we need to make more progress, but we should look at that sustained cross-party initiative with some pride, although we recognise that there is no room for any complacency anywhere at all.
On that point, the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse asked about the new Minister with responsibility for road safety. My hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department for Transport, is not here and I should be a little cautious about putting things in his diary, but I am absolutely confident that he will wish to engage strongly with the all-party group. I will also pass on to him the comments made about the updated road safety statement.
Fatal road accidents involving buses have been falling over time. The number of buses involved in fatal road accidents, per billion vehicle miles, has fallen by 36% in the last 10 years, so there is a positive downward trend and we want it to continue. It needs to be kept in mind that the GB domestic drivers’ hours rules set maximum limits, to give some flexibility to the bus industry, and do not reflect drivers’ normal working patterns. Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that, on average, in 2017 bus drivers worked 42 hours a week, which is within the 48 hours average limit allowed in the general working time rules. The bus Minister has promised to look into the robustness of these figures, and it is of course some of the outlying figures, rather than the average, that we need to focus on here. The average is perhaps not showing the entire picture, which is why that further work needs to be done.
I thank the Minister for his detailed exploration of the figures. Perhaps he would agree to ask his ministerial colleague to write to me and to my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western), detailing, as he said, some of the outlying figures and giving a much fuller picture of the statistics on this aspect of bus safety, and perhaps also indicating the level of resources for the traffic commissioners’ office at present.
I will certainly pass that request on. I know that my hon. Friend is already planning to write to the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington, but I will pass that request on very happily.
Following its inquiry, the Select Committee on Transport published its report entitled “Bus services in England outside London” on 22 May. One recommendation in the report is that the Government consult on whether legislation governing GB drivers’ hours is still fit for purpose or should be amended. The Government are currently considering the recommendations in the report and will of course publish a response in due course.
The Department for Transport did conduct an extensive review of the effectiveness of the GB domestic drivers’ hours rules in 2009-10. That looked at whether these vehicles should fall under any of the provisions in the EU drivers’ hours rules. At that time, the Government decided not to make any changes, concluding that the existing rules are both important and appropriate in ensuring the safety of drivers and others on the road and that any further restrictions could risk placing further burdens on the sector, but it is clearly appropriate to keep monitoring this. As new data becomes available, it should obviously inform our decision making.
I understand from the Confederation of Passenger Transport UK, the main trade association representing the bus industry, that the accident that we have been discussing and the resulting court case have already had an impact on the sector. The public inquiry illustrated that a complex chain of organisational and management factors or unsafe acts contributed to this terrible incident.
As the hon. Member for Reading East highlighted, buses are a vital industry. It is important that we support the bus industry to thrive, while ensuring that safety is at its heart. I absolutely agree with that. It is why we have the Bus Services Act 2017. We of course need to have a transport sector that has safety at its heart.
The hon. Gentleman talked about the decline in passenger numbers since 2010. I should perhaps point out that we have actually had a decline in passenger numbers for several decades. It did not start in 2010—frankly, it probably started long before I was born.
The hon. Gentleman also talked about investment in the sector. We have obviously seen pressures on local government finance in particular, but the national support for buses, through the bus service operators grant, has been protected at a quarter of a billion pounds, and that has been in place for many years.
The Bus Services Act is all about giving greater powers to local authorities. At the heart of those is partnership, but there could be franchising as well. We want to see a thriving bus industry, with safety at its heart and passengers at its heart, providing for the sustainable, secure movement of people around our country. That new set of powers, which are still being worked through by local authorities up and down the country, is at the heart of how we are seeking to take that forward.
In addition to the Bus Services Act, the industry is currently considering a bus safety strategy. As a Department, we welcome the bus safety strategy. Industry groups such as the Urban Transport Group have been considering what a strategy might include and delivering research into other sectors, such as rail and aviation, that have effective near-miss reporting systems in order to understand how near misses are reported and acted on. If there are lessons to be learned from other sectors, we should seek to learn them. The aviation sector has a very good track record, and interestingly that has been used as a template for how we can do reporting and for changing the culture in areas of public life such as our health service.
The public inquiry illustrated that in this case there were multiple reports of unsafe acts or near misses, and the failure to act contributed to this terrible incident. Department for Transport officials are working with the Urban Transport Group as it develops the strategy, and I know that the lessons learned from this incident will be fed in to the development of the strategy. It is important to know that. I hope that it will be of some comfort to the families of Rowan and Dora that the lessons from this incident are being fed in to the development of safety strategies.
Both the industry and the Government are determined to minimise the chances of this crash ever being repeated. There is strong consensus across the industry that there is no substitute for a closely managed culture in which safety is paramount. As a Government, we take this issue very seriously and will continue to press the bus industry at every opportunity to continue to improve its policies and procedures and ensure that it complies with all its legal duties, so that no driver gets behind the wheel of a bus who is not safe to drive that bus.
As I have said, I will be meeting the bus Minister next week so that she knows the content of our debate. I will ensure that all the points made by colleagues here are taken forward and she is fully sighted on them, and that we maintain the progress that is being made on road safety in general and bus safety in particular. I would like to finish by paying tribute once more to Rowan’s family for their bravery and dignity in handling what must be so difficult an issue and seeking to draw something so positive from it.
I call Matt Western to wind up the debate.
I thank the Minister and, indeed, everyone who has participated in the debate. I also thank the Minister for standing in for his ministerial colleague, because clearly this is not his direct brief.
Where I differ from the Minister is on his point that the bus industry’s focus is on sustainability and safety. I am not convinced by that; I think that the focus of any private sector company is really profitability and sustainability. Safety seems to be a little further down the list of priorities.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) so eloquently put it, the fundamental issue here is driver fatigue, and the need for us to legislate to ensure that passengers, and the driver, have every chance of arriving at a destination safely, and to ensure that the driver is not put in the difficult position of having to work excessive hours simply to survive and bring enough money home, which is what has happened as a result of the depression of drivers’ wages over recent decades.
The point about health checks is important, and I welcome the moves being made in that regard. Health checks have to be independent and regular. I do not believe that 70 is the right threshold—I think it should be an earlier age—but that is for independent authorities to review and consider.
It is important to look at European legislation. The Government claim that our legislation is generally stronger or better than that of Europe, but that is clearly not the case in this instance. The legislation in Germany and the Netherlands is much stronger, and would, I believe, result in much safer road conditions for passengers and other road users here.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) for his remarks. He is quite right about safety devices: they should be fitted to all vehicles. I do not believe they were operating at the time of this incident. Certainly, on many of that particular bus company’s vehicles, many of the devices were found not to be operable. These are the sorts of things that require greater enforcement, and the relevant agencies should check for compliance. I ask the Minister to refer this to his colleague, and to commit to publishing the data on what checks are done and how frequently. I am not convinced that we have that reassurance from the various authorities that are supposed to do that on behalf of the public.
To return to the point I made at the outset, the simple truth is that there is more chance of a box of cornflakes arriving safely at its destination than of a child or any other passenger on a local bus route doing so. That cannot be right. That is why so many of us here are calling for these changes, and have done so in other forums. I am disappointed that more people were not here today, but it is understandable, given how important the by-election in Peterborough is.
I am calling for the introduction of a maximum of 56 driving hours per week, and of 90 hours per fortnight, with a 45 minute break over a work period of four and a half hours. We have to avoid a race to the bottom. Many of us in this House fear that post Brexit, whatever happens, there will be a race to the bottom, and legislation will become ever weaker and more diluted. That point was well made by the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day). I welcome the inclusion of this issue in the Transport Committee’s report. It is important that it be given more prominence and urgency, and I hope that we can bring the changes to realisation soon.
Finally, I thank Rowan’s family for coming along today, for their courage, and for their encouragement. I assure them that I will continue to fight on their behalf to bring about this change.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered local bus drivers’ working hours.