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Public Passenger Transport

Volume 677: debated on Tuesday 16 June 2020

I beg to move,

That the draft Public Service Vehicles (Open Data) (England) Regulations 2020, which were laid before this House on 13 May, be approved.

The draft regulations are being made in order to provide new legislation to require operators of local bus services across England outside London, including cross-border services, to openly publish data electronically about their services, including timetables, fares and location data.

This is open data that is published electronically. It is publicly discoverable and can be used by those who wish to do so without restrictions on its use and disclosure. Open data has transformed other sectors—for example, rail—with open data feeding customer-facing apps, such as Trainline and National Rail Enquiries, simplifying journey planning and ticket purchase. Bus open data will allow app developers to create applications, products and services for passengers so that they can plan journeys, find best-value tickets and receive real-time service updates. That is absolutely essential if we are to encourage the travelling public to use their local bus services and make the switch to public transport, which is vital to reducing congestion and improving air quality.

Since 2007, Transport for London has made all its bus and transport network data freely available through the London data store. Currently, more than half of these journeys—51%—are in London, with the remaining 49% across the rest of the country. Apps such as Citymapper and Bus Times are together found to be delivering economic benefits of between £90 million and £130 million a year.

Transport for West Midlands has also invested heavily to improve its public transport data in recent years and is one of the few areas to report year-on-year growth— of 7.8 million journeys—against a continuing backdrop of decline in bus passenger journeys elsewhere. Those statistics show that we can change how buses are perceived and attract new customers.

Currently, Citymapper only operates in Birmingham and London, but we need to enable the provision of such apps and services up and down the country. For example, the rules will mean that any operator of a local bus service across England must publish their timetable, fares and location data to the bus open data service before that service comes into operation. The rules will be enforced by the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency, which will be able to conduct checks to ensure that the operator is complying.

In domestic law, where a local bus service is being operated across England, operators will be legally required to make the information freely available to comply with the Public Service Vehicles (Open Data) (England) Regulations 2020. Punctuality data will also be legally required and local transport authorities will be legally responsible for maintaining data about bus stops and stations.

It is a civil offence for any operator of a service to be in breach of the requirements in the regulations and the regulations will be commenced in a phased manner, with timetables and stop data requirements being enforceable from 31 December 2020. Basic fares and location data will be enforceable from 7 January 2021, with complex fares being added from 7 January 2023. Breaches of the requirements by operators can be enforced under existing provisions in section 155 of the Transport Act 2000. The draft instrument ensures that operators who breach the new requirements may be faced with financial penalties or the removal of their licence. The fines can be up to £550, and that sum might be multiplied by the number of vehicles operating under all the PSV operator licences held. The policy area of public service vehicles open data is devolved, but Scotland and Wales are currently preparing equivalent legislation.

In summary, the regulations are essential for ensuring that the operators of local bus services are compelled to make essential information freely available to help passengers plan their journeys. The rules are at the heart of improving the public transport experience, digitally transforming the bus sector and the levelling-up agenda. I am sure that Members share my desire to ensure the rules can be fully enforced as soon as possible. I commend the regulations to the House.

It is a pleasure to respond in this debate on behalf of the Opposition. I am grateful to the Minister for the detailed technical briefing she offered me from the Department. We will not be calling for a vote on these proposals. I will respond to the specific measures and new powers set out in the SI, but I also want to comment on how the proposals help to address the wider issue of how we can improve our bus services, which outside London and a handful of other areas have faced deep cuts in recent years.

Before I respond, I put on record my support for our bus services and the workforce who have been on the frontline during the coronavirus crisis. I pay tribute to our bus drivers and other transport workers. They are key workers who have kept vital public services running during the most serious and sustained crisis this country has faced since the second world war. The public are immensely proud of our key workers, and I hope the House will agree that it is important that bus workers are recognised as key workers and receive the support that they deserve.

It is also important to remember that a number of bus workers and other transport workers have sadly died during the pandemic. I offer my deepest condolences to their families, and I hope Members from all parts of the House will join me in support of those and other key workers who have paid the ultimate price in our struggle with the coronavirus. I urge the Government to look again at health and safety on bus services and the financial support available for the families of those workers who have lost their lives. That will be vital in the coming weeks.

I am pleased that the Government have listened to calls from Labour and the unions for passengers to have to wear masks on public transport. I should say I was one of those passengers today. There is more to do to improve health and safety, such as tackling the risk of infection from drivers having to handle cash on buses and providing improved facilities for hand washing, which I know the Minister’s colleague in the Lords, Baroness Vere, is interested in supporting. I am also pleased that at a time of national crisis, we have been able, as the official Opposition, to work with the Government, trade unions and bus operators to consider these important problems, and I look forward to Ministers coming forward with further urgent improvements to health and safety.

Before turning to the regulations, I will mention the significant economic effects of the crisis on bus operators and workers. We welcome the Government’s financial support for bus services during the coronavirus crisis and as lockdown eases. However, I underline the importance of that being applied fairly. Support needs to be maintained while demand for bus travel returns to normal, which could take some months.

The current funding package is welcome, but it is offered to bus companies on a flat rate per mile, which is then multiplied by the distance of the routes that they travel. That inadvertently favours some rural routes and areas with lower wage costs, while disadvantaging urban or suburban operators, particularly those in areas where housing costs and costs of living are higher. I hope Ministers will look again at that and offer a fair deal to the whole country. Will the Minister meet me and MPs from all parts of the House who have concerns about this important issue? I note that she is nodding, and I am grateful for her support.

It is also important that the Government review the length of time that support is available to reassure operators about the future of their businesses, as we have seen for other sectors of the economy, and to help them to plan for a gradual increase in passenger numbers. I understand that some operators are now experiencing around 20% of normal demand, up from just 10% during the height of the crisis. However, it is unclear how long it will take for passenger numbers to return to normal, and the current funding package ends during the summer. A further guarantee of funding would be welcome for the industry.

Turning to the substance of the regulations, which are intended to help the bus sector, it is positive to see the Government’s interest in our bus services. That has not always been the case in recent years, despite buses being the most common mode of transport for commuters and, indeed, a lifeline for older and vulnerable people. Since 2010, Government funding for bus services has fallen by 45% and hundreds of routes have been lost, largely because of Government cuts to subsidies for socially vital services, as many Members will know. This policy has led to a steep decline in bus use and, I am afraid, increasing isolation, other social problems and, indeed, greater damage to the environment. I should add that things have got so bad that two major bus operators have thought about selling off large parts of their business.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the best way for the Government to address those matters is urgently to introduce a national bus strategy, which would put in place a hydrogen technology programme that would allow the development of a new bus building programme that would be totally free of a carbon footprint?

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I am going to try to cover the environment and other forms of innovation later in my speech.

Ministers are now trying to find ways to address the need to grow bus use, and the regulations address one small aspect of that, which is to allow greater sharing of bus data on timetables, fares, reliability and, indeed, the location of buses in real time. The Department hopes that making more information available to app developers will lead to more information about bus services being made available to the public, which in turn will increase passenger numbers. There are hopes that those measures could lead to a growth of about 2% in bus use, based on the effect of the policy in London.

I would, however, add a note of caution. First, I would ask the Minister to reassure the House that the Government’s intention is not to allow disruptive businesses like Uber to try unfairly to entice passengers away from bus services, which could risk undermining some routes, including those that are a lifeline for older people and many who are vulnerable. I hope that she will address that point when she sums up and offer specific reassurance. Secondly, I urge her to regard the measure as one in a series which, I hope, will support our bus services and allow them to grow, both now and in future.

Going forward, I hope that the Government will offer the same level of interest and support for a series of measures that have been shown to increase bus use and improve services. One of the best known is allowing councils to regulate services, which has been associated with much greater bus use in London, where there is a dramatically different picture of bus patronage. Will the Minister look at that again and allow all councils to explore that option, not just those with elected Mayors?

Another measure that is strongly associated with growing bus use is allowing councils to run their own bus companies, which used to be common in both Labour and Conservative-controlled local authorities. Council-owned companies in my own town of Reading and in Nottingham have experienced strong growth in bus use for many years—something that, outside London, is almost unique in England. Municipal buses offer low fares, frequent services and modern vehicles that are popular in those communities, and I invite the Minister to come to Reading. [Interruption.] I understand, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I will proceed rapidly through the rest of my speech.

I will come back to them. This is part of the wider picture of the need for investment as a whole.

There are a range of other measures that I hope Ministers will reconsider, along with the regulations. For example, that could include more bus lanes and other bus priority measures to ensure more reliable services on busy roads and smarter support for innovation, which the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) mentioned, including electrification of buses. The Government’s current scheme is welcome, but it could be improved, and I look forward to speaking to the Minister about that.

I hope that Ministers will look at the link between transport and new housing, and do more to develop brownfield sites and other ways of bringing housing close to public transport routes, which will increase bus patronage and protect the environment. Allowing more investment and such innovation measures would offer the prospect of significant growth in bus use, leading to real environmental and social benefits, far beyond the potential benefits of the app.

To sum up, we are not calling for a vote on these regulations for the reasons I stated earlier. I thank colleagues across the House for their support for bus workers and bus services. I hope the Minister will respond to the risk that these measures could be misused and that the Government will now carry out a wider review of their support for buses, to allow councils more powers to regulate and to provide better services, which have the potential to allow far greater bus use in the future.

Order. I just want to emphasise again that it is important when looking at regulations that we actually address the regulations, rather than having a wider debate—and I am sure Tim Farron will do just that.

I am very grateful, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I support the spirit of these regulations. We must have equity of access to public transport across the country, and the collection of data to build an accurate picture of services is an essential part of that. However, I must warn the Minister that she will have a hard task collecting data on bus services in many towns and villages in Cumbria, because on most days there aren’t any, or at least it is so far that it will be a very short job and hardly worth the journey—which, in case I have not already made myself clear, she would not be able to make by bus.

I acknowledge that the Government have gone some way towards recognising the crisis in bus services, such as by laying these regulations, and indeed earlier this year there was an announcement of additional funding and the unveiling of a national bus strategy, of which I am sure this forms a key part. But the new funding turned out to be peanuts, and while having a strategy is definitely better than not having a strategy, it was still a far cry from the claims of the press release and light years off providing the solutions needed in communities like ours, where we would like these regulations to apply in practice.

So, to be clear, the whole of Cumbria received a total of £383,887, which, split roughly six ways between six constituencies, means about £65,000 for my constituency. My constituency could contain geographically every single one of the 73 constituencies in Greater London, and London—where these regulations will definitely apply —sees an annual subsidy to its public transport of around £700 million a year. And we must not forget that our £65,000—just less than a thousandth of 1% of the London subsidy—is just a one-off, and a one-off will not do.

Ministers surely know that research shows that in order for a community to trust a bus service enough to rely on it as part of their regular routines—enough to use it, basically—that service needs to be functioning reliably and affordably for two to three years. I am sure that the data collected as a consequence of this regulation will show that and prove it, but we know it already.

So this short-term puddle of cash does not even wet the feet of the problem. We will find a way of spending it wisely, and we are not ungrateful, but as we dare to hope for a time beyond the covid crisis, people in my communities want to believe that we have not sacrificed so much, endured such hardship and suffered such shattering loss just to go back to how things were beforehand.

The mission must be to build back better, and that must include a refusal to leave communities behind. Rural, more isolated communities such as ours in Cumbria are at risk. Those communities are also often older, and while the majority of people, even in their 80s and beyond, will make some use of the technology we are talking about here, a higher proportion than in other age groups will not, and they are the people I am most concerned about in terms of the application of these regulations.

The average age of the population in South Lakeland is 10 years above the national average. It cannot be right that we forget the generation that has borne the brunt of this virus, yet we will do that if we acquiesce in the isolation that so many of them endure. Many I know have found themselves alone and disconnected in their later years, with the loss of bus services leaving them stranded in places that are utterly beautiful but utterly isolated. Many in these towns and villages rely on buses for the basic tasks of daily life—shopping, going to the doctor, making appointments, seeing friends or getting to work. Buses, when they exist, provide those people with the ability to look after themselves, be independent, protect their physical and mental health, and stave off the loneliness that isolation can bring. Technology can help to underpin that, but only if there is a service that it can be underpinned by.

There is no doubt that more of us have become acquainted with isolation over the last few months, but what is someone who lives in a small village and is unable to drive supposed to do if their one transport link is removed? At the same time, they witness the closure of accessible services as a consequence of the technology that is available in other parts of the economy. With few neighbours and fewer local services, the loss of buses constitutes the loss of connection, which risks leaving many more people even more isolated and vulnerable.

Building back better must mean that we learn from the improvement in air quality and the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions throughout this time, and public transport is key to preventing a return to pre-covid carbon emissions. Bus services will be central to that, as part of an integrated public transport system. That is why I continue to urge the Minister to double the capacity of the Lakes line by introducing a passing loop, as well as electrifying the line to significantly reduce its carbon footprint.

Many of us are excited for a time when lockdown has eased and we are able to see friends and family and visit the shops without unnecessary restrictions and caution. But the Government must recognise that the end of the lockdown will not bring that relief to everyone. In fact, for many isolated people in Cumbria, the official lockdown has not looked very different from the growing isolation that they have suffered due to a lack of services and transport links. In the 10 years between 2008 and 2018, the north-west lost 888 separate, distinct services, and that does not include the services we have lost in the last couple of years. We have not taken this lying down. We would love those services to be traced by an app and part of a technological solution, but as I say, there is no point having the technological solution if there is no bus service to underpin it.

It is not only the elderly in our communities who suffer from reduced bus services. Young people’s access to public transport is also under threat. Free school transport is provided for young people up to sixth-form age, but after that, the support is not available. It makes no sense for the Government to demand that young people carry on in education until they are 18 and then deny them the ability to afford to do so—a generation that clearly is technologically competent and able to make use of the apps we are talking about. In places like Sedbergh and Coniston, it is often impossible to gain access to sixth-form provision at schools or colleges by public transport. That is why, alongside these regulations, there needs to be a statutory responsibility for local authorities to guarantee home-to-school transport for 16 to 18-year-old students, in the same way as there is for under-16s.

There must also be buses available to deliver that transport in the first place. In many of our towns and villages, if the Minister did agree to subsidise sixth-form bus travel alongside this technological innovation, there just are not any services to be subsidised. That has been emphasised during the covid crisis, as many families with free school meal vouchers have not been able to use them because the vouchers are not for the local supermarket in their town—

Order. The hon. Gentleman is going way off the scope of the regulations. If we are discussing regulations, that is what we are discussing. We cannot not have a general speech about everything that is happening in his constituency, important as that is. This debate is about the regulations, and I urge him to return to them ASAP.

I will do so instantly. I make the point, though, that the whole point of having the technology that is rightly rolled out through this statutory instrument is that it should apply to services that exist, not imaginary ones that we wish existed. My community is suffering under covid like anywhere else, but the hospitality and tourism industry is vital to us. We are the second biggest visitor destination after London, and yet our public transport infrastructure means that this instrument might as well not exist for many of the communities that I represent. While I support the regulations and will not oppose them, I want to send the Government the message that they should ensure that there are sufficient services in rural communities like mine, so that these applications actually have some application in a county like Cumbria.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I am delighted to abide by your guidance.

First, I very much thank the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda), for his support for the regulations. I associate myself wholeheartedly with his comments thanking all our transport workers and sending our sincere condolences to all the families he spoke of. I assure him that the Government take health and safety on the public transport system incredibly seriously. I remind him that we provided £397 million at the beginning of the crisis to ensure that bus services continued to operate, with a further £254 million as the crisis continued. I would be delighted to meet him to discuss more of these issues either here or in Reading, and I thank him for his kind invitation.

I want to respond specifically to the point the hon. Gentleman made about taxi operators. The purpose of these regulations is to provide better services for people, enabling them to plan their journeys from end to end, and enabling people who rely on technology or who rely on public transport as a lifeline to use public transport better. We believe that that will have the benefit, as we have already seen in London and Birmingham, of driving up the use of buses and enabling people to benefit from better fares and better flexibility. It is part of a modern transport system, and we believe it will be of great benefit to passengers and bus operators. It definitely is not the case that we expect it to entice people away. In fact, I draw his attention to our transport decarbonisation plan, which we released a few short weeks ago, expressly setting out our intention to support a shift to active travel and public transport.

That brings me on to the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron). I congratulate him on expressing all his concerns and getting them all on the record. I can assure him that they have all been heard in the right quarters. I would like to mention to him that we have provided £220 million to improve rural bus services for constituencies such as his, and this Government are committed to buses. We have started the Parliament with a £5 billion commitment to buses, including funding for an all-electric bus town and many other innovations to improve public transport up and down this country, as well as more money for cycling and walking. I believe that we are absolutely backing the bus industry and going into the future with a dynamic and modern bus industry.

On that note, I thank all Members of the House for their consideration of the regulations. I am certain that, through them, we will ensure the sustainability of the bus industry, helping it to thrive and survive in a new digital era.

Question put and agreed to.