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Bus Industry

Volume 688: debated on Wednesday 17 January 2007

rose to ask Her Majesty’s Government how they propose to address the present problems facing the bus industry.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in considering the present situation in the bus industry, I will attempt to cover the way in which the industry is at present organised and run, and my noble friend Lady Scott will, in winding up, deal with the external environment within which buses are operated in this country. We will therefore attempt to be comprehensive and constructive in our approach.

We are both well aware of the Government’s proposals in the White Paper Putting Passengers First, and we hope to add to the debate begun in that document. We are well aware of the continuous decline in the use of buses throughout the country—with one or two notable exceptions—which has been affected only a little by deregulation, despite vigorous propaganda to the contrary. We are well aware that buses have to contend with a road network that is congested with traffic, parked cars and delivery vehicles. We are also aware of the advent of the impact of the UK’s adoption of the European Social Charter, which brought with it legislative change that, in the five years leading up to 2008, has taken up a vast amount of management time and unsustainable added costs.

I plead with the Minister to accept that officials who negotiate on behalf of the UK on drivers’ hours do not understand the impact on the bus sector. I ask him to ensure that in all future negotiations officials are accompanied by a professional who intimately understands the industry and what is involved in the details of bus operation. That is not much to ask and it would bring professionalism into the negotiations. We need to be represented at the table by people who really know and care about the outcomes. I would hazard a guess that of the typical 9 to 10 per cent per annum cost increases faced by the industry, about a third emanates from these regulations. That ought to be a matter of concern. Fuel costs, insurance costs, above-average wage rises and congestion account for the rest of the cost increases, but a pause or moratorium in new legislation and the inclusion of a professional input at the negotiation stage would be a great advance.

I turn next to competition. The White Paper stated that the objective of the deregulation of “on road” competition was to provide more attractive services. Generally speaking, that has not been realised. In many places, territorial monopolists are offering a service of old vehicles, high fares and poor and declining frequencies, while many smaller operators who would enter the market are cowed and afraid to enter because of the likelihood of competitive action by the bigger companies. That is a form of predation by reputation, a practice which should be outlawed by the competition authorities but is not. Indeed, it is actually supported and encouraged by the Office of Fair Trading because of its definition of the market in the economic appraisals that it sometimes—but always too slowly—puts into effect. I suggest that a proper test would be for the Office of Fair Trading to ask whether the reaction of an incumbent operator is consistent with its pattern of behaviour in the rest of the country. If that is not the case, the OFT should rule against any retaliatory action by them against a competitive threat.

The whole market needs to be opened up, and operators in all transport sectors need to realise that the real competition comes from the private car. Co-operation and co-ordination in the interest of passengers need to be the watchwords, and any proposals for joint services, ticketing, timetables and so on should be subject to the simple test of whether they are in the public interest. As the White Paper claims in its discussion of quality contract schemes, the public interest test is the best way of determining whether arrangements suit the bus user.

We then move to the subject of who should make the test of the public interest. In my view, it should be a reformed and invigorated version of the traffic commissioners. We must first ask whether the present stature, training and background of the commissioners are right. They also need sufficient locally based staff. I realise that the Government are currently advertising for a number of replacement commissioners. Perhaps that process should be suspended while we are discussing and, I hope, implementing fresh arrangements in the bus industry.

Perhaps traffic commissioners should in future sit with two deputies, one who may be versed in competition matters and the other an experienced and respected operator from elsewhere in the country. They would guide the commissioners in matters such as whether a quality contract is appropriate and the appropriateness of proposed changes in registrations and their competitive implications so that the interests of actual and potential passengers are given the most weight. That would include the right to vary proposed registrations that run immediately ahead of those of a competitor and other undesirable practices. I know that many good small operators would be willing to engage in the market to give a better service to customers if they could be sure there would be no predatory response from the big territorial monopolists. Such a response would lead very quickly to the small operator going bankrupt because the bus industry is largely a cash-flow business. We welcome the idea, put forward in Putting Passengers First, of empowering the traffic commissioners to summon before them the local authorities that fail to manage the road network to allow buses unhindered access.

Finally on this subject, there should be stronger powers if an operator fails to maintain his fleet well. I draw the Minister’s attention to what has gone on in Greater Manchester, where at last a company that entered the market with a thoroughly unsuitable fleet of vehicles has been put off the road, though not until a great deal of damage had been done. The stronger powers should include banning an operator from routes for long enough to allow a competitor to establish itself in the market. I suggest that the traffic commissioners should use their powers to the extent that operators who have had persistent maintenance failures are banned from routes for two years. A final appeal to the Transport Tribunal would have to be available, but only after clear guidance had been set down about some of these issues.

My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, who is well known for his knowledge of these matters. I draw your Lordships’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests, which is not entirely accurate. It refers to my employment with the National Express Group but I retired from that body in the past few weeks. However, I have a declarable shareholding in that company.

I was very interested in what the noble Lord had to say. He started off rather well but was inclined to undermine his own case as he went along. He referred to “territorial monopolies”. I used to chair the biggest bus company in Birmingham, so maybe I fell into that category. However, let me explain to him the reality of operating services alongside some of the smaller operators, which he started off by defending. He stopped defending them when he referred to Greater Manchester, where a smaller operator behaved in a way that, I am afraid, many of them do.

In Birmingham, route 50, on the south side of the city, was one of our busiest routes. Travel West Midlands, the company of which I was chairman at the time, ran a frequent service every six minutes for much of the day. One of the smaller operators came on to the route, as it was perfectly entitled to do under the legislation. It ran number 50 buses with the same destination blinds as our own buses, and tickets and passes were accepted on them perfectly legally and legitimately. But its buses could be described as coming from the bus equivalent to the railway museum. Unlike the drivers of Travel West Midlands, its drivers were not in uniform. Needless to say, union recognition was unheard of in that company; it was sweatshirts, tattoos and a fag in the mouth.

That is the kind of company that the noble Lord, inadvertently or not, is defending when he urges the free entry of such companies into the bus business. That is exactly the sort of company that caused so much damage that it had to be put off the road comparatively recently by the traffic commissioner in Greater Manchester. Last year’s Labour Party conference was held in Manchester, a city I know quite well. I served on the city’s passenger transport authority 30 or so years ago.

I was fascinated—horrified as well—by the operations of GM Buses, the private operator which the noble Lord started off by defending, on the Wilmslow corridor. Exactly the same kind of thing was occurring there. The buses, incidentally, were packed. With a maximum fare of one pound, they were full of students. They did not care that the buses were clapped-out old relics and that the driver was demonstrating his tattoos and his ability to smoke 20 cigarettes a day during the course of an eight-hour shift. They were interested only in getting into the bright lights of the city centre. It was no great advertisement for the bus industry, but that seemed to be the sort of thing that the noble Lord was advocating in the first part of his speech, no doubt inadvertently.

There are some perfectly legitimate and well-run small operations. North Birmingham Busways is run by many ex-employees of the company I used to chair. They obviously felt they could do better by starting up on their own. They ran rather elderly Leyland vehicles which were kept in tip-top condition, and their drivers were always smartly turned out. They developed some new routes which we had not been business-minded enough to develop as well as running alongside some of our vehicles. No one could have any complaint about that kind of operator. They are, alas, in my experience, in the minority.

I welcome the Government’s document Putting Passengers First. I do not think that any responsible bus operator could object to the proposals and changes that it sets out. I congratulate the department on managing to resist the hysterical—and I choose my words carefully—campaign waged by the passenger transport executive groups which have never forgiven politicians of any hue for not reverting to the pre-1986 situation in vehicle ownership and fleet ownership and in the setting of fares and services.

I am pleased that the Government resisted much of that campaign, because the campaign was based on a false premise. As the noble Lord indicated, the decline in bus usage started a long time before 1986, for reasons that had nothing to do with the ownership and condition of the vehicles or whether the driver was in a smart uniform. Since the 1950s, congestion and the private car—the two of course go together—have led to the steep decline in bus usage. I am glad to say that this decline has been stemmed in recent years in various parts of the country, although not always with the assistance of some local authority people who profess to be in favour of greater regulation of our bus services and object vociferously to the 1986 Act.

I must here inject a slightly political note. The noble Lord and his distinguished party, together with the Conservative Party, run the city of Birmingham. I wish he would pop up occasionally to Birmingham and tell some of his colleagues in the so-called “progressive alliance” that removing bus lanes and playing along with the private car network is not a sensible way to run transport in that city. But the progressive alliance is behaving in such a way and—in the opinion of many from that city, regardless of whether they are involved in the bus business—it is about as progressive as the Monday Club. But, no matter, that is the situation in the city of Birmingham. I would be grateful if the noble Lord would use his undoubted talents to change the situation.

Reverting back to the document, I think it eminently sensible that the voluntary agreements between the operators and the local authorities should be strengthened. I welcome the way in which the Government are attempting to do this. There is a very successful bus priority scheme in Coventry involving PrimeLines Travel Coventry. I mention that because I was the chairman when it was introduced—it is pure vanity on my part—but the scheme has worked very well. Not only did we change the livery of the buses—Coventry City play in sky blue and we thought that would be a good idea—but also, in partnership with Coventry City Council and the passenger transport authority, a very successful prime line service was introduced. However, because of the competition rules we were unable to talk to another operator—a perfectly legitimate operator—which wanted to introduce equivalently modern buses on that scheme. I am glad that there will be provision for sensible arrangements to be made, not to rig fares but to ensure that buses do not leave within two minutes of each other with a gap following.

I give an unreserved welcome to the changes. I am pleased that the Government have seen sense and are advocating proper partnerships. If passenger transport authorities want to fight a campaign that they can win and that will be supported by the bus industry, they should become highway authorities and stop the kind of nonsense that is taking place under the so-called progressive alliance in the city of Birmingham.

My Lords, as this is my maiden speech, please indulge me for a moment and allow me to thank the staff of the House of Lords for the very courteous and helpful support that they have given me in the past few months. I have made a few faux pas and I shall almost certainly make a few more, probably during this speech. I am grateful for everyone’s help and support. I also thank my sponsors for providing me with this great opportunity to sit here in this magnificent House. I hope that I can make a modest contribution effectively.

Twenty-five per cent of all European buses are based in the UK—105,000 buses in total—and they are 35 per cent less efficient than they were 20 years ago. These are staggering statistics which demonstrate gross oversupply and almost certainly a badly managed infrastructure. The Government, I fear, have not begun to address the legislation on the salient issues that need to be considered and, sadly, have not yet learnt that government is not a good business manager or long-term strategic planner.

Regulated enterprise is needed, where investment and commitment by operators are rewarded by long-term contracts or strategic quality partnership contracts, with local authorities operating within guidelines overseen and performance-managed by a government-designated watchdog, which could be traffic commissioners, not nationalisation by stealth.

Bus operators have carried out substantial investment in the past few years under tightly regulated controls, which, however, are about to be thrown out of the window because of concern over falling passenger numbers. London passenger numbers, though, are increasing. So what will the Government do? They propose to set up a franchising system like that in London and change existing contractual obligations. That is remarkably unfair. London has bus lanes, substantial subsidies from the mayor and, of course, the congestion charge. If the mayor cannot provide services as a result of that and a huge increase in passengers, he should be ashamed of himself. Talking of investment, he should certainly be ashamed of himself. It is quite remarkable that he has purchased a large fleet of bendy buses that he is now about to get rid of. That is a huge cost to the London taxpayer.

Does any new regulation help to get to grips with long-term problems? Has an emissions programme been established legislating for cleaner and environmentally friendly engines? Has the safety of buses been reviewed? Why is it that not all buses have seat belts, when they are compulsory in cars?

Is a strategy being developed to incentivise greater use of school buses? Currently we have serious congestion twice a day caused by people collecting children from school. In many parts of the country, parents are reluctant to send their children by school bus because of bullying, a lack of convenient stops and sporadic service. We have to ensure that school buses fulfil obligations to prevent those elements, and that there is a method of incentives to encourage parents to make use of the buses. What thinking has been done to work out what happens to those buses when they are not doing the school run? They currently sit idle in bus parks for the remainder of the day. They should be used for greater community benefits, particularly in rural areas.

I am grateful to your Lordships and to the Minister for generously allowing me to make these points, which I hope will encourage the Government to develop a long-term strategic plan for the benefit of communities, passengers and bus operators.

My Lords, it gives me great pleasure to follow the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Marland, and to congratulate him on what I think were some very perceptive remarks about transport. He clearly has wide-ranging business experience, which is always welcome in this House, but the knowledge of buses and the transport industry that he has displayed in his modest contribution today is particularly welcome. It is my view that we have very good debates on transport in your Lordships’ House. In fact, we have three others this week, as noble Lords will be aware. I am sure that the opposition Front-Bench spokesperson, the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, will welcome some support on transport from the Back Benches. We look forward to many more contributions on transport generally from the noble Lord, Lord Marland.

Was it not interesting how the House emptied as soon as buses were mentioned? That is not the first time it has happened, and I am afraid that it will not be the last. As other noble Lords have said, we have had a disaster with bus deregulation. I have a theory that part of the problem is that, with a few notable exceptions, very few politicians use buses outside London. That is a great shame. I am sure that the Government said in their White Paper that they had an obligation to make provision for the transport of those who cannot drive or afford trains, or who live where there are no trains. Buses can meet change in transport demand much more quickly and cheaply than rail, but, as other noble Lords have said, they have to be reliable, on time, convenient, cheap, comfortable and safe—without too many free-for-alls or an absence of buses, both of which are bad.

The noble Lord, Lord Marland, mentioned the success of London, which I do not see just as a result of the franchising process. It is linked to the control of traffic lights and bus lanes under one body—this House has debated this topic many times before—and with the information that goes with that. There is a vicious circle. If you have information about the services, that is good, as you know when the next bus is going to come. The new digital displays are great. The congestion charge has helped, too. All those advances could be achieved in other metropolitan areas—and I mean all of them, including congestion charging. They should all be the responsibility of one organisation, as they are here in London under the mayor. That system is extremely successful, and I hope that we can expect legislation soon that will put it forward as an option, certainly for metropolitan areas. I am not suggesting that we go back to the 1980s or 1990s when the councils ran all the services, but local authorities, PTEs or, in the countryside, county councils probably have a much greater knowledge of what services are wanted than has been seen in the delivery of services recently outside London.

The noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, mentioned the working time directive, complaining that it adds to the cost to bus companies of drivers. He will know that exactly the same thing has happened on the railways. They seem to have managed to get by, although at considerable cost. We all lobbied at the time to try to get that changed, ditto with the hospitals—there is a school of thought that a significant proportion of the additional costs of healthcare is caused by the directive—but we are where we are. We all have to comply. Frankly, if it is not safe for a train driver to drive trains for more than so many hours a week, it is certainly not safe for a bus driver to do so. We just have to deal with that. If it puts the charges up slightly, people will have to pay them, or perhaps there will have to be a greater subsidy. I do not know.

I also support the idea of traffic commissioners having greater involvement outside London. There has to be some kind of planning regime in encouraging bus companies to use new routes, avoiding the competition issues that other noble Lords have mentioned and having an appeal mechanism for when things go wrong. The traffic commissioners are underutilised at the moment; they could do a great deal more in the enforcement of road freight legislation. However, we are not talking about that this evening. That is for another day.

I hope that the working parties that have been set up as a result of the White Paper, which Ministers have recently publicised, will enable there to be a significant change—not all noble Lords are agreed on this, although we are getting quite close—in the use, quality and reliability of bus services outside London. I conclude by asking my noble friend when we can expect legislation to implement all these wonderful changes.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Bradshaw for tabling this topic for debate this evening, not least because it has enabled us to hear the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Marland, who I hope will become a regular member of the small but perfectly formed transport mafia in your Lordships’ House. I assure him that he need not worry about making faux pas; we make them all the time. Genuine mistakes are always treated in this House with patience and courtesy.

Any consideration of transport policy must include some serious thought about buses. Of all the journeys that take place by public transport, 65 per cent will take place by bus—although you would not know that if you simply went by media coverage, which is almost entirely focused on the railways. If one is looking to change travel behaviour and transport patterns in an area, the bus provides a far cheaper and quicker solution to the problems than more expensive longer-term alternatives such as rail or metro systems.

In his introduction, my noble friend touched on some of the structural reforms necessary to make the bus industry work better, but I have other points to make. Buses still suffer entrenched negative attitudes and we need to work very hard to change that. On that topic, the noble Lord, Lord Snape, rather mischievously misrepresented my noble friend Lord Bradshaw, who, in this House, has consistently pointed out that the failure of deregulation has been that it has not provided the competitive provision of high-quality bus services. No one on these Benches will argue that there is any place for emission-belching buses, driven by nicotine-emitting drivers, with or without tattoos.

One of the most visible forms of that negative attitude is the relative scarcity of a proper network of bus lanes outside London and a handful of towns and cities. As road space becomes more congested, it makes sense to use it in the most efficient way, and buses, when fully utilised, are the most efficient way of using road space. Reallocating road space will make its use more efficient, will speed up journey times and will send out the message that the bus is the favoured means of travel within urban areas. However, in this country, we do not see much priority for buses. As other noble Lords have mentioned, that is largely because of the division of transport responsibilities that exists in many areas. In London, as we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, the mayor has control of most of the transport policy levers. He was able to introduce congestion charging because he was in a position to deliver the improvements to the bus network that were needed.

Bus use is increasing in towns and cities where there is investment in bus priority because the unitary council has control over the whole package or, in areas such as Nottingham, because the city and county councils have worked together and have a set of shared objectives. Together they have been able to give bus operators confidence in investing in the fleet. PTAs have been slow to develop quality partnerships, for which they have been criticised. However, to a large extent they are not able to deliver their side of the bargain because they do not have control over the highway network, which remains in the hands of the constituent local authorities. Certainly, if road-user charging is to happen anywhere outside London, the relationship between bus provision and the highway powers must be addressed.

Government must play their part, too. They have been very slow in implementing bus lane enforcement regimes. How often do we see bus lanes, which have been created in the teeth of much local opposition, rendered virtually useless by the constant presence of parked vehicles?

My Lords, I agree that perhaps the Government should do more, but could the noble Baroness address the issue of Birmingham, where the bus lanes are being rendered useless as they are being taken away by the Liberal/Conservative council?

My Lords, in our party we have a policy of localism and, if that is what the local party seeks to do, that is up to it. However, my message, which is entirely consistent wherever I go, is that bus priority is important. Equally important is the fare structure. The Concessionary Bus Travel Bill, currently going through your Lordships’ House, deals with some issues that will have a profound effect on the future development of the bus industry.

There is much evidence that the method chosen for distributing the concessionary fares grant is dangerously inefficient because it is based on local government grant assessments, which are very complicated, and not on the use of buses. That means that many authorities that have worked particularly hard to increase patronage are likely to face higher costs and will not be reimbursed. Therefore, they face a perverse incentive.

A further problem is that central government have, in effect, put a cap on the amount of extra grant that a single authority can receive from the Government. That means that, if a council receives a grant for a social services project, it will receive less for the concessionary fares. That is the net effect of the Government’s policy. It might save time at Report stage of that Bill if the Minister could say now how the Government will address those funding problems. Is he prepared to consider a system that would reward output—for example, the number of journeys made?

One final point on concessionary fares is that last week the Government announced an increase in the school leaving age to 18, which we on these Benches welcomed. However, that leaves the anomaly that half fares stop at age 14 or 16, depending on the operator. Given that young people, by definition, will not be in full-time employment, would it not be a good idea to include them in the scope of the concessionary fares regime? Not only would that be fair, but it makes absolute sense to encourage bus use among young people at a time when travel patterns, which might last a lifetime, could be established.

The bus remains the most ready weapon at our disposal to combat the problems of congestion, emissions and global warming, and to improve social inclusion. It does not involve far-distant technology and we could see dramatic improvements at a very modest cost to the public purse.

My Lords, before I begin my remarks I too congratulate my noble friend Lord Marland on his maiden speech and on his insightful and eloquent remarks. We should all be suitably honoured that he decided to make his opening remarks in this House on the subject of bus transportation. I have no doubt that he will make constructive and thoughtful contributions to your Lordships' House over the coming years. On behalf of his Front Bench, I wish him the best of luck.

I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, on securing this debate. Buses are a lifeline to many people. Buses are not just vital now, they are also a key way in which we can tackle congestion and improve the environment in the future. Therefore, it is indeed timely that we are having this debate today, given the announcement the Government made just last month regarding the future of the bus industry. I hope that in the limited time available today, I will be able to tease from the Minister a few more details of how these proposals will work in practice and what they will mean for the wider bus industry—operators and passengers alike.

I declare an interest as leader of Essex County Council. We have increased the provision of buses and the use of them rather more than the average council in the past few years. I also agree with the remark made by the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, on the funding from local authorities. No doubt we shall return to that during debates on the Concessionary Bus Travel Bill in the coming weeks.

Before I discuss these proposals, I should like to take a moment to remind ourselves exactly where we are on this issue. The Government produced a 10-year plan back in 2000, in which they set themselves the relatively ambitious target of increasing bus journeys by 10 per cent. That target was to be fulfilled by 2010. They also wished to improve the punctuality of services nationally, but against that they recognised the increasing decline of bus usage over many years, increased prosperity and car ownership, as we have heard during the debate, and the increased cost of travel on buses. I am guided also by a National Audit Office report published in December 2005. It highlighted the fact that, on either method, the Government were unlikely to meet their revised targets of increasing bus usage. The NAO reported on the problems of the administrative costs of procuring bus services, commenting that,

“if authorities currently tendering for individual routes or small packages of routes adopted a more strategic approach ... they could achieve ... savings”.

The Government recognised that that target was unattainable and it has been revised twice since 2000. We now have a combined target of increasing bus and light rail usage by 12 per cent and of increasing growth in every region. Clearly, something had to give. I am pleased that the new proposals published last month by the Government have at least shown that they are willing to bite the bullet, admit that the Government are failing in this area and bring forward some fresh thinking.

On the whole, we on these Benches give the proposals a guarded welcome. As ever, the devil will be in the detail. Indeed, I hope that the proposals do not herald a return to the days before 1986, as I think was said from all sides of the House. Indeed, the previous Secretary of State said the same in another place. I hope the present incumbent also shares those views.

However, we have some reservations about the proposals, particularly any moves to make quality contracts easier to achieve, as we believe a partnership approach is the better way to serve our passengers in the long term. I am pleased that the Government recognised in the past the value of good partnership between local authorities and bus operators. We welcome the fact that there will still be strict tests and that the legitimate interests of bus operators will be safeguarded before any scheme can be approved.

On the Government's proposals for a new punctuality regime, it is important that bus operators and, for the first time, local authorities are held to account if passengers' services are failing. I have no problem with this. We in local government have a duty to provide the very best local services that we can. Serving our customers must be the watchword in all our future decisions.

On the review of the bus service operators’ grant arrangements, it is again right that the Government look to ensure the best use of public funds. We will have several debates on these issues in the next month or two. We look forward to the Government introducing legislation. Like the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, I would like to know what the Government’s timetable is. I look forward to participating in the debates and seeing how we can together improve bus provision in this country. I welcome today’s debate.

My Lords, I express my gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, who introduced this debate with his customary insight and provided a framework for what has been a lively, although short, discussion on bus issues. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Marland, on his contribution and thank him for it. He came to the House with a reputation before him. He spoke trenchantly. He mentioned the words faux pas in the plural; I am not quite sure what the plural of faux pas is—he did not commit any anyway. In any case, we speak Norman French in this House, so the issue probably does not arise. I very much enjoyed his contribution and I hope that he will join in these transport debates, because there is no doubt that we gain a great deal from the exchange of views in the Chamber on these important issues.

I shall address the significant issues which the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, raised, but he was partly engaged by my noble friend Lord Snape, who indicated that it is all too easy to criticise existing operators from the perspective of the difficulties of getting into the market. He also said that a pretty heavy investment in buses is needed for regular and punctual services in urban areas. The disagreement between the noble Lords was more imagined than real. I rather thought that my noble friend was emphasising the urban dimension. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, has a great interest in the problems in rural areas, which in many places can be even more dependent on the bus than urban areas. Nevertheless, my noble friend Lord Snape extracted that which we are used to hearing; namely; that whenever the Liberal Democrat Party is under any challenge to its national policy, it states: “Well, of course, locally, we do things differently”. However, that is all part of the exchanges in our debates.

I was glad that my noble friend Lord Berkeley emphasised information about bus services and new technology. We are on the brink of enormous opportunities in being able to communicate with individuals in all circumstances where they wish to be engaged. Certainly, I cannot think of a situation in which people want more to be in the know than when they are at a bus stop and wanting to know when their local bus is going to appear. Those days when people would have to stand at the bus stop and hope and pray that the bus would arrive in the next hour, although it was timed to arrive in the next five minutes, ought to be behind us. We ought to reach a position in due course where not only are we able to communicate at the bus stop through screens and so on, but where people are able through their mobile phones to pick up signals of just where the bus is and arrange to meet it at a convenient time.

Punctuality is of the greatest significance for all forms of public transport. Nothing is more frustrating than the waste of time when one is expecting a service and then learns that it is not available, although it is advertised. Punctuality is especially important for buses because people often wait in rather more hostile environments than our railway stations or our airports might provide. Moreover, people who use buses are more inconvenienced by unpunctuality. If mothers with children or elderly people are standing at bus stops in unfriendly weather, punctuality is crucial. My noble friend Lord Berkeley said that we can, and ought to, improve punctuality through the structures which we impose on bus operators to improve performance. I accept his point, and the Government put a great deal of emphasis on it. However, I want to introduce the technological dimension, which will assist us in this area.

I was very pleased that the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, emphasised the significance of the bus for a large number of our fellow citizens, whose interests we need to put very much to the fore. I heard what she said about bus lanes, but my noble friend Lord Snape indicated how Liberal Democrats can be pretty cavalier in their approach to them in certain circumstances. As the person who introduced the Bill that created bus lanes in London, I can stand here with a good conscience when it comes to bus lanes. I agree that if we are to see regular, punctual and effective services, we need to protect the bus. That means an increase in bus lanes and attaching priority to them. I hope and expect that we will see big metropolitan areas putting greater emphasis on this. Certain areas have introduced light-rail systems, which also use up considerable amounts of road space, but to the benefit of people who live on those routes. However, bus lanes have a role to play. I am glad that that was emphasised by the noble Baroness, Lady Scott.

Perhaps I may say without appearing evasive that we will discuss funding very shortly. At least two more sessions on the Concessionary Bus Travel Bill remain, at the heart of which is funding for local authorities. We will have time to develop those arguments then. The noble Baroness said that concessions may need to be extended to 16 to 18 year-olds. That is already a given for those who are in full-time education, but the noble Baroness rightly said that if we are to look forward to a day when young people stay in some form of education and training up to the age of 18 and are therefore in a non-earning capacity, concessionary fares will be important for them. So it will, but noble Lords will forgive me if I try to walk before I run. We are some way off making effective the introduction of an age up to which education and training will be compulsory. The question of concessionary travel may be attached as a corollary to it, but the costs involved in the main proposition are substantial. We intend to bring these proposals to fruition in due course, but the noble Baroness will not expect me to produce a time scale just at the moment.

I was grateful also for the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, who adopts a uniformly constructive approach in these debates. He always looks for ways in which he can add to, and develop, government proposals in ways which will make them more effective. I am grateful to him for that approach, which he has adopted on many occasions, and, characteristically, he did so again today. However, he, too, will forgive me if I do not go too far into the funding of local authorities: we will exchange views on that in the fairly near future.

We all know that the deregulation of buses did not produce the anticipated expansion of bus traffic and usage. We have made some progress since what was a period of very steady decline until the 1990s. We have slowed down the decline since we have been in office, but we have not slowed it down enough. There are areas to which we can point with great pride. The noble Lord, Lord Marland, being reasonably controversial in his maiden speech, referred to London in not always glowing terms, although he will recognise that the increase in bus usage is an important and impressive development. However, progress has been made not just in London: York, Cambridge and Brighton are all showing real increases in bus usage, and local authorities can learn a lot from the successes of those towns. It is clear that if we are going to improve local bus services, passengers want them to be regular, punctual, affordable and reliable. We recognise, particularly but not just in our cities, that they have to be safe. There is no doubt that one element of anxiety about using buses is whether there are sufficient safety measures. That is why all modern bus fleets have better communication between the driver and the bases to guarantee some safety, but we need to ensure that happens right across the bus fleets.

Several constructive points were made about the Government’s conclusions published in the document, Putting Passengers First. There is a realisation on our part that our attempts at increasing bus usage did not reap rewards as quickly as we would want; that is why within the framework of the document we considered measures to address poor punctuality and create better partnership working, including, when appropriate, through quality contracts. I think that we can do that. The noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, has berated me many times in the past that we could be more constructive and imaginative about our quality contracts, and I think that we can. We need to look at that somewhat along the lines of how he has suggested in the past that those contracts could be improved.

As emerged from many speeches this evening, we also need to give community transport a bigger role. We need the flexibility of that sort of transport. It may be that, as the noble Lord, Lord Marland, hinted, school buses could be used more extensively than they are, certainly in those areas where school buses are being developed on the American system. Yellow buses have been introduced in Surrey and a part of Yorkshire, which is a declaration of commitment to the successful transport of young people—but we may also be able to use those buses more extensively than just on the school run. I know that this day is a long way off, but there is no doubt that we would benefit enormously if our communities depended on, respected and used the school bus as the Americans do. It is such a feature of their localities and such an important part of the successful and safe conveyance of children to school that it gets past a great deal of what is a nightmare for all our citizens, and not just bus users—the congestion of the school run. I quoted the other day in the House the figure that 70 per cent of all British vehicles are on the road at 10 minutes to nine in the morning, which happens to be the peak of the school run.

I am restricted on time. This has been a short but enormously encouraging debate. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Marland, will recognise how much we benefit from the exchange of views across the Chamber on these issues. We are a fairly select group, and we could do with a few additions.

I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until 8.40 pm.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 8.33 to 8.40 pm.]