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Mr. Dalyell: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Timms: If I may, I will carry on, but I will be happy to discuss the matter further with my hon. Friend.

The hon. Member for Hazel Grove asked me to confirm that the Treasury, the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions are working together on environmental issues. I certainly can do so. The recent announcements by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor on the climate change levy are a good illustration of that and have been welcomed by environmental organisations and industry.

My hon. Friend the Member for Garston gave the House a rightly shocking account of the irregularities at Halton college. I am glad that she was pleased with the Government's response. A clear theme that runs through a number of the Committee's reports is that problems could have been avoided by compliance with sound financial and management controls. We are committed to matching best private sector practice on developing such systems.

In the case of the Public Trust Office, it has been acknowledged that the Committee's conclusions demand a fundamental programme for change and the Lord Chancellor will be making a statement in February on the reforms that he proposes. I am pleased with what the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden said about the response of the permanent secretary at the PTO, even if he is not the Committee's pin-up. It would be interesting to know who is that pin-up--we have heard about a number of people who it is not.

Several hon. Members mentioned information technology problems, about which I am also concerned, including the problems with NIRS2, with which I am very familiar. There has been no complacency. The system was supposed to be up and running by February 1997, before the general election, so it is a bit rich for the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford to attempt to blame the Labour Government for those problems. Like all of us, I regret the problems caused to many pensioners and others by NIRS2 delays. The difficulties are thankfully largely, although not entirely, behind us.

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Of course, there have been examples of IT projects that have gone well, but some have gone badly. The Government have established a review team to study how things can be improved, as has been mentioned. It is located in the Cabinet Office central IT unit so that it can work closely with officials developing the Government's corporate IT strategy. The team includes representatives from throughout Whitehall and the private sector. I am particularly pleased that it will include someone from the National Audit Office.

We have had an interesting debate, which has demonstrated the wide range and importance of audit and accountability issues. I very much look forward to dealing with those issues in the months to come. I can assure right hon. Members and hon. Members that I have taken careful note of all the points that have been made and will reflect further on all of them. I am sorry that I have not had an opportunity to respond to all the points that have been made as fully as I should have liked, but I am grateful to the House and to all those who have spoken in the debate and taken the opportunity to put their views forward.

Question put and agreed to.



Environmental Audit Committee

    That Chris McCafferty be discharged from the Procedure Committee and Mr. Tony Banks be added to the Committee.--[Mr. McNulty.]

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Bus Services (North Derbyshire)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. McNulty.]

6.45 pm

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): I need to declare an interest in the subject of the debate, in that I do not have a car--I cannot drive--and therefore I make use of bus services in north Derbyshire, as well as taxis, in order to get around my constituency. The focus of the debate is the area covered by north-east Derbyshire bus services, as defined in their timetable. The timetable shows that 60 per cent. of the routes are run by Stagecoach Holdings plc and 15 per cent. by First Mainline; the remaining 25 per cent. are run by eight other companies--most of which are very small.

That is reasonably typical of the national pattern for bus services. Since bus deregulation in 1985, a system has developed in which several big private players dominate the market, while smaller players tend to receive the bits and pieces--the scraps. In 1997, 53 per cent. of the national turnover in bus revenues went to three companies: Arriva plc, FirstGroup plc and Stagecoach Holdings plc. In a submission to the Transport Sub-Committee of the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs, Stagecoach Holdings pointed out that it

Everyone is aware of the ruthless competitive techniques employed by Stagecoach in order to acquire its bus empire. In its report on tendered bus services of 28 July this year, the Transport Sub-Committee concluded:

    "we are very concerned that the market dominance of the major transport groups and the existence of monopolies, possible cartels and other anti-competitive practices are diminishing competition and are also driving prices higher."

Before deregulation, north-east Derbyshire was well served by publicly owned bus companies, Chesterfield Transport and the south Yorkshire passenger transport executive, with a policy of cheap fares that was a credit to the area, and which fed into the provision of services in my constituency. People who write to me look back to that time as halcyon days for bus transport in our area, compared with current provision.

I shall deal mainly with Stagecoach, although I shall mention other companies. Typical of past complaints that I have made to Stagecoach East Midlands is my letter of 23 September 1997, in which I stated:

Initially, I received a holding reply. An investigation was supposed to be taking place, but I believe that the company apologised for not fully completing it. On 3 February 1998, I received a final reply to my letter. Stagecoach said:

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    "in order to keep you up-dated on events I can report that several changes have now taken place on the service 51/52 and this has been mainly to do with the way in which we work a driver and a bus."

The main change mentioned was as follows:

    "In basic terms we have provided drivers with sufficient 'lay-over' time in Chesterfield at the end of each journey from Clay Cross such, that if they experience late operation due to traffic congestion then ample compensation exists (as much as20-25 minutes in some cases) and thus the driver has enough time to operate 'his' next journey from Chesterfield on time."

The drivers of Stagecoach buses would be astonished by that statement. Later I shall describe the problems that they have in meeting the times stipulated for their journeys.

I recently checked with one of the complainants who had prompted my original letter, to find out whether things had picked up in the two years since I had taken up the matter. She says:

She concludes:

    "The general opinion seems to be that Stagecoach are so big that they can do what they like."

I hope that that does not prove to be the case, and that this debate prevents it from becoming so.

In late August 1999, I received two detailed complaints from constituents--one about route 79, from a constituent who lives in Barlow, in a rural area, and the other about route 44, from a constituent in Coal Aston, which is at the end of a more urban area.

I decided that there would be little use in raising the issue again with Stagecoach East Midlands, so I started to complain to a wide body of people. I wrote to the Minister for Transport, to the traffic commissioners, to the National Federation of Bus Users, to Stagecoach's headquarters in Perth as well as its east midlands office, and to Derbyshire county council about the sponsored services that Stagecoach runs on its behalf. I had previously been in touch with the council many times in connection with such complaints.

I also issued a media release and wrote two articles in the local free newspapers, covering about 40 per cent. of my constituency. As a consequence, I received 76--often detailed--letters, complaining about specific Stagecoach services. They included two petitions, two complaints from parish councils, one from an estates committee and one from a school. It might be felt that if the MP issued a press release and engaged in publicity, he was engaging in stimulating complaints; but the thing that--apart from my own experiences--shows me that the complaints are genuine is the fact that they come from such a wide range of communities throughout north-eastern Derbyshire. There are hardly any collections of letters from specific areas. The complaints refer to different areas, different provisions and different routes, although in some cases they deal with long bus routes that pass through several communities.

25 Nov 1999 : Column 848

I received 76 complaints about Stagecoach, six about First Mainline's services and one about the Trent bus service, which is one of the smaller operators in the area. On the other side of the coin, I received two letters praising Thompson bus services in Dronfield. Many of the letters complaining about Stagecoach and First Mainline point out that Thompson's services compare fantastically with those provided by Stagecoach. One letter has praised Aston Express services, and three other letters are of great interest in that they clearly point out that the drivers are not to blame for the problems. Those letters were not written by bus drivers, so they make an important point.

I met the Transport and General Workers Union branch of bus drivers at the Chesterfield depot and I met the RMT branch at Hollingwood. Although RMT is a rail union, it organises bus drivers and I attended a full and vigorous meeting with its members. They told me--and they showed me--that they have terribly unrealistic time sheets that do not allow them turn-round times and that they are under terrible pressure to meet their targets. One driver told me that the company expects him to be a racing driver, not a bus driver.

Complaints were made about the training at Stagecoach. Drivers have to pick up passengers on routes that they do not know. No other bus driver is present to show them the way and they are handed a sheet to tell them where they should turn. The drivers at the trade union branch meeting scathingly described those time sheets as "idiot sheets".

The problems have been described in a letter from a constituent who pointed out that, in rural areas, services are provided only at hourly or two-hourly intervals. This case involved an hourly service. One bus did not turn up, and people had to wait for the next one. The next driver was new and did not know the way. He took some wrong turns--passengers often have to tell drivers that they have gone the wrong way--and arrived 20 minutes late. That meant that the passengers had to wait one hour and 20 minutes. Their frustration was then taken out on the driver, who was himself frustrated because he did not know the route well and now had to face a group of angry people. It is little wonder that there is a great turnover of drivers.

I have met representatives of Stagecoach East Midlands and given them all the 76 complaints that I have received. To date, 73 replies have been received by my constituents and I have been given copies. I send each copy to the traffic commissioner who has already received copies of my constituents' original letters.

The complaints take three forms. First, on numerous occasions, buses do not turn up. It is common for a bus to be missing entirely. Secondly, buses arrive extremely late for some of the reasons that I have described. Thirdly, buses may miss out areas altogether, so people may be waiting for buses that are running but which have not turned up at a particular stop.

It being Seven o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. McNulty.]

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