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Mr. Barnes: A driver may ask, "Is there anyone on the bus for Arkwright?" If no one replies, the bus will miss out Arkwright, and the people who are waiting at Arkwright will not be picked up.

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Connections can be missed. Much of my constituency is rural, and in rural areas the waiting period for a bus may be up to two hours. If a connection is missed, the wait for the next bus will be an hour or two. In rural areas where there are no facilities, people can do nothing but stand at the bus stop, which may be uncovered, and wait for the next bus to arrive. Passengers have to resort to using expensive taxis to get to hospital appointments or to work. People fear that they will be late if they use the bus because it has made them late on other occasions and they have worried about keeping their job.

I am told that when people ring up Stagecoach, they receive poor responses to their complaints because there is no link to the buses and no feedback, so no one knows what is occurring or what the problem is. Some people receive apologies, especially if they write in, and they may be sent mega-tickets that allow them free rides over a day or a week. That does not impress my constituents because they want improved bus services, not free rides on buses that may not turn up or may be late. People complain also about the poor quality of the buses and about breakdowns, which account for some of the problems that I have mentioned.

I have touched on some of the drivers' complaints, but I shall restate them. They complain of unrealistic timetables, inadequate meal breaks, demands from the company for what they see as excessive hours, not enough rest from work and traffic regulations that are ignored by the company or dealt with inadequately. There is also the problem of inadequate training, which I have explained.

I have received responses to various representations. On Stagecoach, I have heard that the traffic commissioners are in the neighbouring area of Mansfield. Stagecoach has brought in extra drivers and buses from Scotland to try to handle the situation, which may be spilling over into Chesterfield and its surroundings, the area that I am concerned about.

Stagecoach at Perth has not yet responded to my request for a meeting. Initially, it suggested a meeting and I asked it to wait until passengers had complained in full, but I said that I would meet Stagecoach East Midlands in the meantime. When I wrote back a few weeks ago, requesting a meeting to be held in the Commons, perhaps involving MPs with neighbouring constituencies, Stagecoach did not respond.

The response of the traffic commissioners is that they have called Stagecoach for an interview. They have issued it with a formal warning in the Mansfield and Chesterfield area, and they will continue to pay attention to Stagecoach. That interest has been extended to First Mainline, to which a number of complaints have referred, although not in as much detail as the complaints about Stagecoach.

I have received a letter from the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill), pointing out that the traffic commissioners have been contacted by his Department and that operators have recently lost registrations and licences in Cambridge and Bristol. I believe that Stagecoach was involved in Cambridge.

The county council's public transport manager has met Stagecoach East Midlands and is pressing for reliable services. The National Federation of Bus Users cannot

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follow up collective complaints, but I have an option of pushing 83 individual complaints if things do not get better.

What am I after? In the short run, I want buses to meet their timetables in some reasonable way. I recognise that there are some serious traffic problems in the Chesterfield area. Transport moving through Chesterfield from east to west faces considerable problems, but timetables need to be realistic and take those problems into account. Drivers should have a fair and reasonable opportunity to meet them.

The traffic commissioner has powers to fine a company such as Stagecoach 20 per cent. of its eligible fuel rebate. The problem is that the provision applies to the entire company, so the situation is different for large and small companies. Given the seriousness of the problem, I hope that such a fine on Stagecoach will be considered.

The traffic commissioners can enforce the running of services according to registered specifications. Those powers must be fully used and they might need to be added to so that they operate properly. If Stagecoach cannot deliver, having been given a reasonable opportunity to adjust the standard of its services, it should cease to be a provider in our area. The county council needs to consider its contracts and decide whether rural areas are being properly served by the company.

In the long run, I should like strong legislative measures. I hope that the forthcoming transport legislation will introduce strong regulation and will give priority to buses through the establishment of bus lanes and other measures. I hope that we can return to publicly owned public transport provision in many areas. In 1985, 75 per cent. of the turnover was through public service bodies that were owned publicly. By 1997, that figure had dropped to 7 per cent.

I have two further points. We are moving towards a national concessionary fares scheme, provided for in the July 1998 White Paper. That cannot achieve its objectives unless buses turn up on time. Elderly, infirm or disabled people are placed in the greatest difficulties by the problems with bus services in my area, but young people are also affected. One of the complaints came from a school. I have been to three schools recently on a UNICEF initiative to enable children to tell their opinions to their Member of Parliament. The problems of bus services were raised each time, which shows that it is a common topic of conversation and worry for many people. For the elderly, the north-east Derbyshire experience shows the importance of national concessionary fare schemes and their delivery and operation.

Secondly, we need a better procedure for handling complaints. The National Consumer Council is pressing for this and makes that point in its document "Better Buses". The system should tackle the regulation of complaints. Members of Parliament should have an interest so that they can feed material in, but they should not have to mobilise a campaign, forward many letters from constituents to all the appropriate authorities, and get an Adjournment debate to set things right.

Parliament should pass legislation that enables such things to be done fairly automatically through a self-regulating system into which people feed their own ideas. The job of the MP should be to keep an eye on things to ensure that they function properly. I find too

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often that they have to be expert deliverers and office staff in connection with all sorts of problems apart from buses, such as the Child Support Agency and benefit provision. Legislation needs to set up the right systems so that things work well.

7.11 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill): As is usual, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) on securing this debate. I also thank him for his courtesy in giving me notice of the main issues that he wished to raise. Finally, I express my solidarity with him as a fellow non-driver and regular bus user.

My hon. Friend described the north Derbyshire picture. It has urban centres in Chesterfield and other, smaller towns. Mansfield in neighbouring north Nottinghamshire is looked to for some facilities and there are extensive stretches of countryside. The uneven distribution of population, employment and facilities means that good planning is essential for the successful delivery of public transport services. It is disappointing if planning and delivery in the area are not adequate.

Most of my hon. Friend's concerns relate to Stagecoach East Midlands operations. He also referred to First Mainline, another operator in the area, but its services should improve as replacement of its vehicles is completed. Its routes have also been affected by redevelopment work in Chesterfield town centre that will not be completed for some time. I understand that, in the meantime, the company is doing what it can to minimise disruption.

Stagecoach East Midlands enjoys good relations with the local transport authority, Derbyshire county council. However, there have clearly been shortcomings in its performance in north Derbyshire. As my hon. Friend said, on 1 November, the traffic commissioner issued Stagecoach with a formal warning about failure to operate local bus services in accordance with registered particulars, and has told it that further formal monitoring of services will take place at Mansfield and Chesterfield in the near future. The commissioner has powers to impose fines on operators by repayment of fuel duty rebate, to place restrictions on running services and, ultimately, to revoke a company's operating licence. Those are powerful sanctions, so it is much in the company's interest to respond positively and comprehensively.

It is only fair to add that when my hon. Friend raised the company's performance, and before it attended its formal interview at the traffic commissioner's office, it was already carrying out its own review of local services and discussing proposals for improvements with Derbyshire county council. It had not yet implemented all the changes, but was at least responding positively to its own recognition of the need for better service. I welcome that fact as an indication of professionalism in the industry and in that particular company, but it has been salutary for my hon. Friend to raise the profile of this subject. I am sure that the company will welcome the fact that improvements that it makes will gain more effective local publicity as a result of my hon. Friend's keen interest.

My hon. Friend has detailed a wide range of problems voiced by the Stagecoach work force. Clearly these give serious cause for concern. The company itself will be the

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party most concerned of all, and I trust that it will want to do all it can to address the problems, working closely with all employees.

In the Government's view, Derbyshire county council has played a constructive part in attempting to sort out the recent problems. The authority takes its transport responsibilities seriously and expects to spend about £2 million this financial year on loss-making bus services that are socially necessary. Derbyshire has built positive working relationships with the bus operators and appreciates their co-operation in providing services in rural areas, even though that may have led some companies to overstretch themselves. That may be a factor behind some of the recent difficulties.

Serious efforts are under way to improve bus services, but ultimately, only if the current failings are fully addressed will we have any reason to consider the job well done. This is not a time for complacency. We all want an improvement in bus services in north Derbyshire, not least because of their importance for the integrated transport approach that the county council wants to pursue through its local transport plan. Local transport plans have been introduced this year as the basis for Government funding for local transport priorities. The extra £700 million, provided over three years through local transport plans, is enabling the Government to redress the underfunding of transport that the previous Government permitted.

The Derbyshire local transport plan, like those from the other local transport authorities in England, was submitted to my Department some weeks ago and is under detailed consideration. When that consideration is completed, we shall announce the Government's transport funding allocations to authorities. Until then, it would be premature to comment on the Derbyshire plan in any way that might pre-empt that process. However, I can say that the plan envisages significant improvements to bus services through the development of bus quality partnerships, of which there are now 130 across the country. The Government endorse the concept of bus quality partnerships and have been pleased with the encouraging results that they have produced in areas where they have already been developed. They are typically increasing bus patronage by between 10 and 20 per cent., and in some cases by more.

I see no reason why similarly good results should not be achievable in north Derbyshire, and I am sure that Stagecoach East Midlands and other operators, together with the county council, will want to give the concept careful consideration. Bus companies in other areas can affirm from experience that bus quality partnerships bring benefits to operators as well as to passengers. A statutory basis for bus quality partnerships will be established in the forthcoming transport Bill.

There are unparalleled opportunities for public transport in the positive climate that the Government have fostered. Awareness of the benefits of using public transport has risen sharply over the past couple of years, with the Government responding to the trend and stimulating it further through proactive policies to develop an integrated transport system that is safe, efficient, clean and fair.

Government support for rural buses--an extra£170 million over three years--has already resulted in 1,500 new or enhanced services across the country.

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Derbyshire county council has been awarded £714,000 a year for each of the three years, and is using that on provision of new services. That is in addition to the county council's success in the rural bus challenge 1998, through which £800,000 was made available to develop public and community transport provision in the south of Derbyshire. The outcome of this year's rural bus challenge bids will be announced by the end of the year.

The bus is a particularly flexible and accessible mode of transport. Buses are a lifeline for many people,who, without them, would experience limited and disadvantaged lives. I am glad that, after 50 years of decline, bus patronage is now increasing. When I speak to bus operators, I find that they are generally optimistic about the future of their industry.

Last week, at the first ever bus summit, my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister acknowledged that most of the industry was rising to the challenges involved in modernising British bus travel. The follow-up to last year's transport White Paper--the first White Paper on that subject for 20 years--included a document devoted to buses. Its title, "From Workhorse to Thoroughbred", employs a metaphor drawn from another mode of transport, but it sends a clear signal in regard to how the bus industry is transforming both its operations and its image.

That does not mean that there are no problems. Fifty years of decline cannot be reversed overnight. The bus industry has seen many lean years of underinvestment by

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both the public and the private sector; passenger confidence has declined, as has the public image of bus transport. Pressure on resources has presented local authorities with hard choices about which bus services to support, and the resulting decisions have meant a reduction or withdrawal of services in some areas.

The problems are being solved, however. Private investment in the bus industry is now 80 per cent. higher than it was five years ago. In the last financial year it reached £300 million, much of which was spent on new vehicles with improved passenger access. Local authority investment in bus lanes and other priority measures is increasing, because my Department's support for local transport packages is almost 60 per cent. more this year than it was last year. At the bus summit last week, we announced new national targets for bus reliability and investment, and new arrangements to make operators more accountable to passengers. The transport Bill will contain further measures to help deliver the service that bus passengers deserve, thus meeting the commitments in our manifesto and our White Paper.

This improving climate is widely welcomed by local authorities, transport operators, user groups and many sections of the public. It provides a good basis for resolving the current difficulties and enhancing services further to benefit the north Derbyshire travelling public.

Question put and agreed to.

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