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22 Oct 2002 : Column 25WHcontinued
Ian Stewart (Eccles): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am pleased finally to have secured this debate, which I first requested after the Whitsun recess in June. I was beginning to think that I had fallen foul of Mr. Speaker for some unknown misdemeanour.
I have a particular interest in transport and health and safety issues, which I shall concentrate on. Wider social and community issues are interrelated with the issue of violence on and the provision of public transport, but, with Mr. Speaker's permission, I intend to address that in future Adjournment debates.
I am a lifelong member of the Transport and General Workers Union and I spent 20 years working as a full-time official for it, so I have seen at first hand the devastating effect that violence at work can have on bus drivers and their families. I am, therefore, grateful for the opportunity to raise some issues that are of legitimate concern to TGWU members and other workers in the bus industry.
Two thirds of public transport journeys are made by bus, and the Government give £1 billion a year to the bus network. Increased investment in buses is vital to the promotion of social inclusion for groups such as the elderly, to which the Government and the Labour party are committed, and to achieving the environmental improvements that we all wish to see. The public rightly put reliability top of their list for bus services, but buses will not become more reliable if intimidation and violence against bus crew is not tackled and reduced.
I appreciate the fears that the travelling public, especially women, have about their safety when waiting for or using bus services, although travellers say that they feel safe when they are on the bus and their journey is under way. Others may address those issues today, and they are as important as the one that I am considering, but I want to focus my remarks narrowly on the effects of violence on public transport workers in the bus industry.
I fully support the recent Transport, Local Government and the Regions Committee report on the bus industry, which concludes that attacks on public transport users and staff are as serious as any other form of antisocial behaviour. The effect on staff is insidious. Harassment and physical violence lead to sickness and absence for those employees affected. Common problems after an attack include nightmares, sleeping difficulties, lethargy and depression. Violence against bus workers also deters staff recruitment and retention. The Health and Safety Executive-Home Office report "Violence at Work" found that 45 per cent. of public transport workers are worried about threats or actual assaults at work, the highest reported level of any occupational group.
Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon): My hon. Friend talks about the great concern among bus drivers, but does he have any data on incidents? In Swindon, there is an increasing number of reports of incidents of violence towards bus drivers, which is a real cause for concern.
Ian Stewart : I hope to come on to that very point.
It is a sad truth that 44 per cent. of assaults on drivers are serious enough to result in days off work, and that a further 13 per cent. are unable to finish their shift. No wonder drivers' families are sometimes fearful when drivers are working weekend night shifts. A dossier produced by the TGWU documents a horrifying range of physical attacks against drivers and buses, involving knives, bricks, stones, syringes, beer bottles, baseball bats and air rifles. Mercifully, such attacks are rare, so, as the man from "Crimewatch" would say, "Please don't have nightmares."
There is an argument that one should not highlight isolated attacks for fear of copycat attacks. Many people's fear of crime is disproportionate to the likelihood that they will be a victim of crime, and I do not want to make people fearful of using public transport, which is generally safe. However, we cannot solve a problem by hiding it. Serious attacks are uncommon, but menacing comments, threats and spitting are more widespread. They are an affront to workers in our transport services and to our local communities, and they must not be tolerated.
The public has recently shown overwhelming support for a teacher who was threatened with violence by pupils at his school and who has been absent from work because of stress. The majority of the public think that the pupils should not be allowed to return to the school. Of course, individual transport operators can ban those convicted of violence from public transport and can prevent them from using public transport by civil injunction, but that affects only those who are caught and convicted. By the very nature of bus travel, it is easy for an assailant to make a quick escape, and I am sure that most cases of verbal abuse go unreported. Rightly, we condemn attacks on our teachers and health service workers, but we must show the same indignation and concern about our transport workers.
I welcome the new guidance issued in April by the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, as it was then called, on personal security and travel. It covers a broad range of issues from a call for better lighting at bus stops to effective surveillance systems, better procedures for reporting incidents and partnership initiatives with the police, schools and young people. We must have further investment in all those areas.
I also welcome the announcement, which the Minister for Transport made in August, on the safer travel on buses and coaches panelit has the snappy acronym STOP. The panel brings together the unions, bus operators, local authorities, the police and others to discuss how best to consider assaults, antisocial behaviour and vandalism on vehicles and property, as well as spreading the word on good practices. I hope that the Minister can tell us something about the panel's work.
What are the flashpoints for conflict on our buses? An incident may start with a fares dispute, a driver telling passengers that a bus is full, a bus getting stuck in traffic or on a school run, or an opportunistic grab for cash. Those are different issues and there are several different solutions. We can get our buses moving more efficiently with dedicated bus lanes and bus priority schemes adequately enforced, such as we have in my area under the jurisdiction of the Greater Manchester passenger transport authority. People have differing views over
I was interested to hear the Secretary of State for Transport say at Question Time last week that three pilots in England and Wales are trying out the yellow buses that are used in the United States to take children to school. The objective is to move children out of their parents' cars and into dedicated and safe buses. If such buses prove successful, they could play a role in improving congestion problems and freeing up regular, scheduled buses for other travellers.
How do we help the driver to prevent or deal with an incident on the bus?
Mr. Harold Best (Leeds, North-West): Does my hon. Friend agree that an investigation of the possible benefits of a bus transport police might help to defend workers and the travelling public?
Ian Stewart : I have to say honestly that I have not considered that option, but I am sure that it is worth thinking about its wider implications. I am mindful of the fact that there is a transport policea very small force that covers railways and other modes of transport. Nevertheless, I am sure that what my hon. Friend suggests could be a worthwhile facility.
I return to how we can help drivers to prevent or deal with incidents on buses. We can ensure that measures such as two-way radios, vandal alarms, digital video systems and optional screens are available. I must acknowledge that some bus operators have implemented some of those protections on some services, but it is clear that they should be implemented much more widely. That means increased investment in our bus stock.
Every incident should be logged rather than only those that require a driver to take time off work. That should include verbal abuse, threats and racial or sexual harassment. The TGWU is concerned that some bus companies consistently under-report the number of assaults, so I hope that reporting systems are improved. In addition, confidential freephone facilities and numbers should be established to encourage public reporting.
It is equally important to ensure that culprits are caught. Drivers are frustrated at what they see as the low priority that police appear to give to staff who have just been assaulted. When culprits are successfully prosecuted, we must ensure that they are punished with appropriate penalties, not just a derisory fine.
When a driver is attacked at work, he is a victim of crime. As such, the bus operating companies should ensure access to professional counselling, and there should be no loss of earnings for bus workers subjected to assault. That means guaranteed full earnings, not just sick pay.
The effects of an attack on an individual driver or his bus are deplorable, and they can also hurt communities if a service is reduced or withdrawn. That happened in my constituency, where persistent vandalism led to the withdrawal of services to a local estate. After discussion
I am concerned that all too many bus operators may run what I call a main road policy, under which they progressively tender only for profit-making routes. Indeed, during one of my regular round-table meetings on a local estate in Eccles, one bus manager admitted that he had recommended that his company withdraw from estates in general, not only because of isolated incidents of violence, but for financial reasons.
If that is the case and private operators do not want to provide the much-needed service to estates and remote areas, I call on the Government to allow local transport authorities such as Greater Manchester PTA to buy buses and provide a service to local residents when no private operator will do so.
Before I conclude, I want to pay tribute to a friend and former colleague, Mr. Fred Greer, who is the passenger transport regional trade group secretary for the TGWU in north-west England. He is without doubt one of the experts on criminal injuries compensation claims. Sadly, that expertise, which was gained over many years serving TGWU passenger transport members, has built up because of the attacks on bus drivers and crew. Such expertise results from a needa need brought about by violence against bus crew. That violence must be stopped.
I welcome the Government's initiatives to improve the safety of buses, crew and passengers. Security measures do not come cheap, however. Investment in safety not only meets our moral obligation to safeguard the health and safety of transport workers, but plays a key role in securing the reliability of our transport services, which the public have a right to expect.
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Nicholas Winterton): Order. There are a number of MembersI am not sure whether they are all standingwho want to catch my eye. I hope that a little self-discipline will be exercised.
Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe): I want to put it on record that I am also a lifelong member of the Transport and General Workers Union, and a vice-chair of the TGWU parliamentary group.
The group of workers that we are discussing are engaged in an important public service, which they perform while they are alone. Often they are alone in deserted areas at night in a confined spacea small cabwith cash. They are sitting targets for anyone who wants to attack them.
The attacks in my constituency have been cowardly and malicious. Sometimes robbery has been involved and sometimes gratuitous violence, such as that from drunken louts who, at night, refuse to pay their fares and
I supported the Home Secretary a few months ago when he called for tougher penalties against yobs who engage in mobile phone theft and assault people in doing so. There should be equally tough sanctions, penalties and action against the mindless yobs who carry out the violence that we are discussing against public servants who drive buses in our communities.
The issue does not solely concern employees, however, as passengers are affected too. Shortly, I will describe a particularly horrific incident in which one of my constituents was involved. Passengers can experience the full force of appalling attacks in which bricks and stones are thrown, and the community and the public are also affected when a service is withdrawn because it is under persistent threat. I am sure that we all support the promotion of public transport, though that is undermined and people are deterred once such violence is known to happen regularly.
Ms Drown : I am reminded that I, too, should declare that I am a member of the T&G, though not a lifelong member. My hon. Friend mentions bricks and stones, and the danger to passengers and drivers. In Swindon there have been incidents in which airgun pellets have been fired at buses. Has he heard of such incidents? They would clearly be a danger not only to the passengers and the driver, but to everyone around the bus, should pellets hit the driver and send the bus out of control. That is a real concern for bus drivers in my constituency.
Mr. Betts : Absolutely. I mentioned bricks and stones because they were involved in some of the most recent incidents in my constituency, but a couple of years ago a driver in Sheffield was shot by an airgun pellet. That can have horrific consequences, and not only for the driverif the driver is so affected that the vehicle goes out of control, all the passengers on the bus and other members of the public are put at risk.
Incidents in my constituency, which occurred earlier this year, involved me in the matter. Throughout, I have kept in close touch with the local bus branch and its secretary, Martin Mayer. I give the branch praise and credit for its positive and constructive response, working with the police, the local authority and the bus company owners to try to find ways forward that will cause the least inconvenience to the public. On at least one occasion, however, several services were withdrawn, as the union and the management recognised that some Saturday evening services could not continue due to vandalism.
One of the most horrific incidents earlier in the year involved a group of youths in Handsworth in my constituency, who switched the bus's engine off by hitting the outside control mechanism. When the driver got out to switch the engine on again, he was subjected to a barrage of stones. When one of the passengers went to assist him, he got a brick in the face, which caused him to lose an eye. That was an absolutely appalling incident and, fortunately, the culprit was swiftly apprehended by the police.
A short time after that, a driver at Halfway, which is also in my constituency, was slashed across the face with a Stanley knife. Fortunately, he was wearing glasses, which deflected the blow so that it caused cuts to his forehead, not the loss of sight that could easily have resulted. He was also slashed in the stomach. On the same night, a passenger punched a driver in the face. Two days later, two youths beat a driver with a baseball bat for the sake of trying to steal his £70 takings. All that happened in Sheffield in a weekan appalling number of incidents in a very short time.
The police say that, unfortunatelymy hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Ian Stewart) mentioned thiscopycat incidents happen. When some of the idiots in our communities see one incident such as a robbery, they spot an easy way to make gain, perhaps for drug expenditure, and go ahead and repeat it. We have not had as many such incidents recently, but the stoning of buses in my constituency and other parts of Sheffield has continued. Local TGWU officials tell me that they are due to meet the police and the local authority again in the next few days to try to find a way forward.
The problem is not only the physical damage to bus drivers that such incidents cause, but the long-term psychological impact on those drivers. Many will never return to work because they are simply too traumatised to go back and sit in that cab, facing the prospect of the same thing happening to them again. We are trying to widen bus driver recruitment and to encourage women to become bus drivers, but there is press publicity for such attacks and that simply will not happen. The approach that bus companies and the unions want to take is being damaged.
I note the comments of my hon. Friend on the increase in such incidents. We have certainly never seen anything like this before in Sheffield, although in the past few months there have been fewer very serious incidents. There have still been some, however, and mindless attacks on buses in which bottles, bricks and stones are thrown, have continued. Union members tell me that although the newer buses are better at attracting peoplethey have larger windows and are the sort of vehicle that passengers want to ride intheir design acts as an incentive to the mindless yobs who target them for brick throwing.
I listened with interest to the points made by my hon. Friend about how we could hope to deal with the problems. He is right that, although the most serious incidents are reported, many, such as verbal abuse and threats that do not lead to physical violence, are not. There should be a proper reporting system. Bus drivers are rightly trained in customer services, and today we accept that most are friendly, will pull up between stops, say "Hello" or "Good morning" and treat people civilly. However, they unfortunately need training to deal with difficult circumstances and aggressive people. That is also important.
A joint plan must be drawn up among police operators, trade unions and local authorities, and a risk assessment should be made of difficult situations and where they are likely to occur. We should consider the possibility of mandatory police response times to such incidents, bearing in mind that they are unlikely to catch people, or act as a deterrent, unless they are on the scene quickly. I am told that in Sheffield the police have not
Local authorities have a role. Some incidents have occurred at terminuses that are badly lit, so we need to improve lighting to make it more likely that people will be seen and to make them think twice before engaging in such incidents.
My hon. Friend referred to what can be provided on buses to improve safety: digital cameras, alarm systems, two-way radios and security arrangements for cash. Many of the best bus operators are already taking action, but we all know that in these days of free-for-all public transport some cheapskate operators try to put on poor-quality buses that have no such facilities; they are happy to send drivers out with no protection whatever. We must consider making some requirements mandatory. The Department for Transport has issued guidance on those matters, which perhaps it should now update and reinforce, as well as naming and shaming those operators that refuse to take proper actions to ensure the safety of their employees.
As my hon. Friend said, we also need other measures. From time to time, incidents will unfortunately occur. When they cause drivers to be off sick, those drivers must be on full earnings, not partial sick pay, and they must not be left to bear the consequences. We must ensure that proper counselling is available, because of the trauma involved in such incidents, and have far tougher sentences to punish those involved and to act as a deterrent to others.
The very nature of the job means that employees are vulnerable; they are extremely vulnerable public servants who provide a valuable public service. As representatives of the public, we must offer protection to drivers and to the public who travel on those vehicles, and ensure that services are not withdrawn because of mindless vandalism. We will then be able to promote public transport as the right way to travel in our towns and citiesthis issue has consequences for the whole community as well as for individual employees.
It is time to act. The T&G nationally, and locally in Sheffield, has behaved extremely responsibly by making sensible and proper proposals. I hope that the Government support them and ensure that bus operators act on them.
Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Cunninghame, South): I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to participate in the debate. I, too, am a member of the Transport and General Workers Union, and exceptionally proud of that fact.
My interest in transport began when I was an official of the National and Local Government Officers Association. The T&G allowed me to become joint secretary of the negotiating committees of the Scottish bus group in 1981, so I have a wealth of experience of the problems that drivers faced in that period.
My colleagues are right that the situation has clearly been worsening. At the centre of it all is the driver who has become a victim of a changing society. Examples
Those are just a few examples of the attacks that happen regularly in Scotland. A recent TGWU survey north of the border shows that some 57 per cent. of drivers expect to be attacked in their career. That is a frightening statistic and a clear demonstration that the matter must be addressed more urgently. Staff believe that more effort should be made to apprehend and seriously punish attackers. Short-term measures such as safety screens, CCTV, personal alarms and two-way radios are all very well, but I must emphasise that they alone are not the answer to the problem. We must consider the underlying causes of attacks.
How can we address the situation? We must consider positively how to improve drivers' health and safety at work. Bus drivers face ongoing problems with long hours and poor cab design, leading to increased stress, fatigue and injuries. I participated in and, indeed, started the process of regular bus inspections in my constituency and the whole of the west of Scotland. Some horror stories of buses that drivers are expected to drive are immensely interesting. I shall give one example.
A bus in my constituency had an open gas fire for a heater. The same bus had its axle held on with one screw. The driver, who was paid £5 an hour, was expected to drive that bus. If he did not, he would not have been employed. That shows the appalling circumstances in which some cowboy employers ask their drivers to work. If such employers are asked to fit screens and so on to their buses, it will not happen.
There are many good employersStagecoach, the First Group and others operating in my constituency, such as Docherty Busesthat offer professional counselling facilities to their employees and, in conjunction with trade unions, assess progress on health and safety matters. They put quality partnerships in place and local authorities, such as Strathclyde passenger transport authority, demand quality contracts with bus operators that are legally enforceable. We must regulate and address health and safety matters for transport workers. We also need local authorities to address the problem of attacks on drivers when they draft agreements.
Drivers provide a vital public service, and they deserve to be able to do their jobs without fear of being attacked or assaulted. One of the main changes that I have seen during my 20-year involvement with the industry is the introduction of one-man-operated buses, or OMOs, which have dispensed with conductors. I was involved in the negotiations. However, when buses are
My final and perhaps most important point, which is an example of what can be done, is that there is a responsibility on the public and the parents of the children and youths who go on the rampage. In my constituency, there was a threat to withdraw an important service to the main town. People relied on that service to travel to the shops and their entertainment, but it was withdrawn after hoodlums broke every pane of glass on the bus.
As in the case mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts), hoodlums used the emergency switch when the bus was at a stop and let down its tyres. That issue had to be addressed and, given the circumstances, the bus company had absolutely no option but to withdraw the service from that bus-only route.
When the company withdrew the service, the public rose up and complained. They blamed the bus company; they blamed the drivers; they blamed everybody but themselves. When they came to see me, I said, "It's your responsibility to make darn sure that those hoodlums are not anywhere near the bus route and that they do not interfere with the service." The situation was resolved only when that issue was addressed, and parents kept their children in and knew where they were. The bus service has been reintroduced and has been running for eight months, fortunately without incident.
We can consider other options such as new technology, but the public need to stand up and pay attention to what is going on in society. We will be in a position to safeguard such bus routes only when the public have made darn sure that they have changed the situation.
Ian Stewart : My hon. Friend will remember that I said that it would be appropriate to debate the other issues that affect communities. I instituted round-table meetings two years ago on a particular estate in my constituency because the bus company had withdrawn a service. Initially, we all thought that we were meeting to discuss a transport problem with social implications, but it became clear that we were discussing a social problem with transport implications. There should be a series of Adjournment debates on those issues.
Mr. Donohoe : I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is spot on. We should be discussing those issues, and my hon. Friends and I will help him to apply for a further Adjournment debate to consider social problemswe need to press the Minister to address the situation. Perhaps he will bring along a ministerial colleague from the Home Office who could introduce legislation.
I am glad to have taken part in the debate. I am also glad that at least some of my hon. Friends recognise that there is a need for further discussion, and I look forward to that with interest.
Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West): I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was not sure whether I was going to speak in the debate, but I have been driven to do so.
First, I declare my interests: like my hon. Friends, I am member of the Transport and General Workers Union, and the law firm Thompson's, which works for the TGWU and for which I used to work, gives money to my constituency party. Hon. Members will perhaps be more interested to learn that I am in a unique position in the House, because although my curriculum vitae makes it appear that I should be an authorI am not an authorI have done many jobs, one of which was driving a bus. After doing that for several years, I became a trade union lawyer, and part of that work involved acting for bus drivers who had been assaulted, which means that I have an interest in and knowledge of the subject.
Earlier, some hon. Members referred to designing out problems. My hon. Friend the Member for Cunninghame, South (Mr. Donohoe) finished his speech by talking about social problems, which are important. I hope that they are the subject of another Adjournment debate. However, I want briefly to focus on designing out problems by, for example, introducing bus lanes, which can speed up services. On daytime servicesthis is obviously less of a problem at nightpassengers can become frustrated by full vehicles, slow vehicles and services running late, and that can boil over into incidents that all too often are not only verbal but violent, which is unacceptable.
As regards night services, we must consider simple matters such as the location of bus stops, how well lit they are and the frequency of services. The problem often boils down to two factors: the frustration of passengers, which, of course, should never be expressed through verbal abuse, let alone physical action, and people who cause vandalism. Those are separate issues, although they can overlap when frustration leads to vandalism.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) mentioned driver training in relation to customer service matterscharm school, as it used to be called. Drivers also need to be taught, as I was, how to try to defuse a situation. Social workers, who often face such circumstances, receive training in so-called breakaway techniques.
The perceived status of bus drivers can be a factor. Undeservedly, they are often regarded as having low status and as acceptable targets. Of course, they should not be accorded that low status and they are never acceptable targets, but that influences some of the little hellions who commit acts of vandalism or who physically or verbally abuse a driver.
We could address the problem by increasing bus drivers' pay and improving their training. As well as having been a driver, I am a regular bus user, so I know that some driversa minoritydrive in a way that is not conducive to passenger comfort. That is not to say that it is acceptable for a passenger who has had an uncomfortable ride to take it out on the driver. Training is a management issue, and it can assist in designing out problems, as can CCTV, two-way radios and prompt police attendance when an incident is called in.
I hope that the Government are considering the role of the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority scheme in cases where, sadly, a bus driver is off work owing to an incident of violence. Under the changes that have been introduced, that body does not reinstate sick
The west midlands metro, some of which runs through my constituency, has been bedevilled by acts of vandalism that create huge problems. When a brick breaks the front windscreen of a metro tram, replacing it costs about £3,000. However, the question involves not only finance, but trauma to the driver and passengers and the impact on the transport network caused by suspended services and so on.
Travel West Midlands, which runs the west midlands metro, has taken the step of introducing clippiesmentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Cunninghame, Southwho provide a second person on the vehicle. That should be considered for buses, especially half-empty late-night services to estates with poor lighting, because such services are more likely to suffer acts of vandalism. Do the Government intend to consider changing how subsidies are offered to operators of routes that run infrequently and late at night to dark estates so that they can rejig them to provide a second member of staff?
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Ian Stewart) on securing the debate and hope that we can hold another.
Mr. David Marshall (Glasgow, Shettleston): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me to make a brief contribution. First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Ian Stewart) on securing this worthwhile Adjournment debate. He is lucky to have done so this quickly, because many hon. Members have been trying for much longer to secure debates on other subjects. That shows how popular and worthwhile such debates are.
Like my hon. Friends, I must declare that I am a member of the Transport and General Workers Union. I have been a member since the age of 19, and a continuous member for the past 42 years. From 1960 to 1969, I worked for the Glasgow corporation transport departmenttwo years as a tram car conductor and seven as a bus conductor when the trams were withdrawn from service. Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris), I never reached the giddy heights of driver, as I could not pass the eye test, nor was I a clippie.
For the last five of those nine years, I was a shop steward in Partick bus garage, and tragically one of my members was stabbed to death while collecting fares on his bus on a Saturday night. For two successive weekends, we took every single corporation vehicle off the streets of Glasgow on Fridays and Saturdays at 7 pm. That resulted in the fitting of two-way radios and alarm systems to the vehicles in 1968. I think that we were the first city in the UK to get those, although that has become standard practice in most transport operations, as has the installation of protective shields
Sadly, in recent years, threats of assault and actual assaults aboard vehicles have increased. Equally sad and worrying is the huge increase in off-vehicle incidents, and acts of vandalism and violence against public service vehicles and those travelling in them. That also applies to trains. Mindless thugs drop bricks and other missiles from overhead bridges and hooligans throw bottles, or whatever they can get their hands on, at windows. I think that we are seeing the tip of the iceberg. There are many more such incidents than we are aware of, and perhaps injuries. It is only a matter of time before there is a major tragedy involving several people being killed, losing eyes or being crippled. We must do something about that.
The public have been deprived of services in many areas, especially cities, and at times when they need them. Women, children and elderly, vulnerable people are put in danger if they have to wait at bus stops only for vehicles that normally come along at a particular time not to turn up because the driver has had to report sick, or the vehicle has been taken out of commission because of broken windows or some other damage. It is common in many citiesGlasgow is one of the worst at the momentfor 20 or 30 vehicles to be out of service on a particular night, usually at weekends. That does not give the public the service that they desire. It puts them at risk, and it deprives crews of many aspects of their life. It can deprive them of earnings, make them feel insecure and make them look for alternative employment.
The cost of training drivers and then losing them to other occupations must be quite substantial, and their quality of life has decreased in many ways, through fear and the loss of earnings. People stay at home because they are afraid to go out, and the loss to businesses and to the quality of life of many citizens is growing as a result of that ever-increasing spiral of vandalism.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cunninghame, South (Mr. Donohoe) mentioned poor working conditions for many drivers. He could have added antisocial hours, as well as the worry that they suffer. Many drivers have to start at four in the morning. They are up long before most other people, but sometimes are not finished until midnight. They also work when everyone else has gone home from work, or after they have been enjoying themselves. Many have to work seven days a week, or certainly six days spread over seven, to earn a decent living. They also have to work many hours of overtime, which is essential if they want a living wage.
The poor pay and poor working conditions result in high staff turnover. That results in stresses and strains for the drivers and their families. Drivers give an excellent service in all kinds of weather. In fact, they have to take people out in conditions when the AA may say, "Do not travel unless your journey is absolutely necessary. Leave your car at home." However, the buses and trains are expected to run, and we tend to take our public services for granted. We really should do more to help them.
My hon. Friend the Member for Eccles referred to the practice of avoiding publicity and keeping quiet about problems because of the danger of copycats. Frankly,
My hon. Friends have made many good points, and I welcome the joint initiatives by trade unions, employers, police and the Government. I look forward to the Minister's response, but again I make the point that the courts must play the major role in dealing with the problem. Severe sentences for the thugs are the greatest deterrent regarding stamping out vandalism and acts of violence.
Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge): I thank the hon. Member for Eccles (Ian Stewart) and congratulate him on introducing the debate. I am sorry that I missed the first five minutes of his contribution.
I am not a member of the Transport and General Workers Union. My closest interest is a bus stop outside my house, which I regard as a bonus rather than anything else. I have some experience, however, to which I shall allude briefly. In discussing violence against drivers and bus crews, the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) referred to their lack of status. I spent a large part of my life behind a shop counter, and I believe that shop workers also suffer from violence and abuse. In a way, they are seen not as human beings, but as part of a service. Frustration and all sorts of things may play a part, but it is totally unacceptable that public workers in nearly every sector suffer violence.
I am appalled to hear of some of the acts that have been committed. I thought that we had serious problems in parts of my Uxbridge constituency, but I am relieved that, although our problems are significant, they are not on the scale that we have heard about today. It is right to discuss such difficulties.
I know many bus drivers, and I asked one who had worked for a company for several years why he was leaving his job. He said that the conditions were driving him out. When I asked what was the worst aspect of the conditions, thinking that it would be the antisocial hours and late-night shifts, he said that it was working after school. Although the incredibly violent incidents that we have heard about are not mirrored after school, one wonders whether the children who are responsible for the mindless vandalism and aggressive behaviour that happens during that period will grow up to be ever more violent against bus crews.
Ms Drown : Did the hon. Gentleman's discussion include the differences between single and double-decker buses? My local bus drivers worry about driving double-deckers with school children on board. That is regrettable, because it results in more buses on the
Mr. Randall : I thank the hon. Lady, who is absolutely right that that is a problem. We have single and double-deckers in my constituency. I am not sure whether the introduction of conductors would necessarily help greatly, however. The lack of respect shown by some kids towards adults of any status is such that I am not sure whether a conductor would achieve any improvement. Indeed, I have wondered whether Metropolitan police officers could sit on buses in uniform to get the message across.
At a presentation by our local branch of the Federation of Small Businesses, I saw a piece on covert surveillance and discovered that a small camera can be implanted in the strap of an ordinary-looking bag, such as a school bag. Sometimes when I visit schools and say that I have heard complaints about the pupils, they deny that it could possibly be theirs causing the problem and claim that people will have seen just a child in uniform. I would like to be able to present such head teachers with evidence of their pupils causing trouble. Brent has been quite successful with surveillance on the buses, and I shall recommend to my local authority that it take note of what is happening there.
Another important point, especially later at night, concerns bus shelters. Like the travelling public, we all welcome the arrival of more bus shelters, but in the evenings they tend to become a honey pot, especially in poor weather. Local youths gather around them and launch into abuse when a bus arrives. I am not sure what can be done about that, but, some years ago, the hon. Member for Cunninghame, South (Mr. Donohoe) and I served on a Select Committee that examined the problems of parks and open spacesthe introduction of youth shelters elsewhere could help.
I found the comments of the hon. Member for Eccles on the minibus night link scheme, particularly interesting and relevant. Many universities including Brunel in my constituency, are examining a similar scheme, which is considering one because the buses normally stop too early for people coming out of clubs. Despite legislation, many people are wary of minicabs late at night. Local authorities, together with bus companies and universities, could consider such schemes, which should be extended not only to students but to law-abiding members of the public.
I echo what all Members have said about the need for tougher measures, as the authorities do not perhaps treat such incidences of violence with the severity that they deserve. The message must be sent out that they are totally unacceptable. We are trying to get more people to use public transport, so it is essential that the travelling public and all public transport services employees feel absolutely safe. I support any measures to stamp out violence, particularly on our public transport.
Mr. Don Foster (Bath): I congratulate the hon. Member for Eccles (Ian Stewart) on securing this important debate. Like the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall), I must admit that I am not a member of
In the main part of his contribution, the hon. Member for Eccles rightly drew our attention to the violence suffered by public transport workers, especially bus drivers. He urged us, as other Members have done, to take the issue far more seriously, and I fully support his comments. It was frightening to hear other hon. Members' experiences of the violence suffered by drivers in their constituencies. As the hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out, that affects not only those drivers' lives, but the rest of us. If a driver is injured or suffers from stress as a result of an attack, or the threat of an attack, and cannot therefore provide a service, bus reliability declines and we all lose out.
The hon. Gentleman also rightly touched on several issues, from the potential use of smart cards to reduce cash carried on vehicles, to the yellow bus experiment, which I shall mention shortly. He spoke for all of us when he said that he wanted the use of public transport, not least the buses, to increase to reduce pollution and congestionand, I would add, to reduce social exclusion.
I note with concern that, under Conservative Governments from 1979 to 1997, bus passenger journeys fell by one third and car traffic increased by 82 per cent. Although in the past few months there has been a welcome increase in bus ridership, nevertheless, under the new Labour Administration overall ridership remains lower than it was when the Government came to power, so there is an urgent need to take action.
If we are to get people back on to the buses we must ensure that they are safe, reliable and affordable. Those features are linked, as reliability can have an impact on safety. As the hon. Member for Eccles said, if a bus is late or does not turn up at all, the passenger waiting at the bus stop is potentially at risk. It is therefore crucial to improve buses' reliability. I hope that the Minister will acknowledge that sadly, so far the targets set by the Deputy Prime Minister in 1999 for improving the reliability of buses, are not being metand reliability is crucial to safety.
In their secure station initiative, the Government highlighted the importance of safety while people are waiting for a train. Although I was critical of the way in which that initiative was pursued, as far too few stations have so far been accredited, nevertheless it shows that the Government see the matter as crucial. I hope that the Minister will undertake to give safety while people are waiting at a bus stop or bus station an equally high priority, not least because more people use buses than use trains.
Safety when people are on buses is also important. However the statistics are analysed they show that buses and coaches are, on the whole, very safe forms of public transport. For example, bus passenger deaths are only 3 per cent. of all road casualties. None the less, a worrying number of people are injured while travelling by bus. Every year about 1,000 people are injured while seated on buses and a further 600 standing passengers are injured. Clearly, there is more to be done.
Hon. Members mentioned additional work; driver training was raised, not least by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts). Improvements could be made to enhance vehicles' structural integrityin the seat-to-floor mountings, for example. There is still a great deal more to be done with the interior design of buses; for example, the design should stop seated passengers falling to the floor when there is emergency braking, and the injury potential of vertical grab rails on some buses, seat backs and other interior features should be reduced. The average age of the bus fleet is eight and a half years, so many buses still in use do not benefit from recent research on interior design. We must find ways of modernising the fleet, especially older vehicles.
Many injuries occur when vehicles stop suddenly, which is often caused by pedestrians and other vehicles on the road. The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) made an important reference to the great benefits of introducing more bus lanes, more priority left and right turns and other measures that give buses higher priority on our roads, for the sake not only of reliability but of safety.
The hon. Member for Eccles referred to the need for a wide range of different debates. He and the Minister will know about the continuing conflict between legislation to allow local authorities to introduce priority lanes and priority left and right turns through quality partnerships, and the competition legislation that tends to prohibit it. That would be an appropriate subject for a separate debate. The subject of improving bus ridership by giving the public more information about how to use buses and about the services that are available is relevant to this debate, but it would also be appropriate for a separate debate. In Perth, Australia, when a small amount was spent on promoting and explaining the bus service, bus ridership increased by 14 per cent.
Many other things can be done. The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West referred not only to driver training, but to the way in which bus drivers sometimes drive. There is no doubt that several drivers could be given better advice about how to improve their driving, to make journeys safer and more comfortable for their passengers.
I pay tribute to First Group in my area. There were huge worries about drivers who set off quickly from bus stops when elderly and disabled passengers were not seated, causing several injuries. I discussed the matter with First Group, and Mr. Brian Noton, the managing director, agreed to put notices in all buses in my area to remind drivers of the importance of waiting for passengers to be seated to ensure that they were safe. The seated and safe campaign was a great success, for which I thank First Group.
Hon. Members have mentioned yellow buses, and I am sure that we are all aware of the benefits of those buses, which pick up school pupils at or near their homes, thus reducing safety problems. Hon. Members will also know about the benefits of specially designed ultra-safe vehicles. The hon. Member for Uxbridge spoke about the benefits of supervising passengers on the buses. I hope that the Government will take the experiments more seriously. The Deputy Prime Minister
I am delighted that the hon. Member for Eccles has raised these important issues. The points that he has made, especially about violence toward bus drivers, deserve more attention.
Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): I am delighted to participate in this excellent debate. I join my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) in declaring that I am not a member of the Transport and General Workers Union, but I admit to using buses frequently, especially in London. I declare a small interest in First Group. When I was a Member of the European Parliament, I sat on that august body's Committee on Transport and Tourism from 1989 to1999.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Eccles (Ian Stewart) on securing this important and timely debate. I pay tribute to the huge contribution that bus transport makes to our way of life. It is a greatly appreciated and central public service, and the extent to which buses run later in this country than in many continental countries is often not recognised. My experiences in Strasbourg, and during a recent weekend in Cannes, demonstrate that it is easier to catch a bus at night in a British city than in a French city.
Many hon. Members have had the opportunity to describe their truly frightening experiences this morning. A recent edition of the Manchester Evening News said that in Manchester
One of the main rail companies says its annual bill is about £2.5m."
Before I list some truly shocking statistics from the Library about bus transport over the past five years, I should say, as background, that bus use since privatisation and deregulation has been a success. There have been more services, increased investment and much reduced subsidies. Privatisation slowed the decline in bus passenger usagea remarkable fact, given the growth in car ownership and the hostility of several urban local authorities to the private bus industry. It is of concern that bus passenger usage is apparently declining in rural areas. What specific measures will the Government take to increase bus
Between 1997 and 2001 there was a 19 per cent. increase in the number of bus drivers killed or injured, and the number of bus passengers killed or injured on Britain's roads rose by 3 per cent. in the same period. There was also a 27 per cent. increase in the number of fatal accidents involving buses or coaches, and a 43 per cent. increase in the number of fatal accidents involving collisions between buses or coaches and pedestrians. Those figures speak for themselves; they have the authority of the Library, and they are deeply disturbing.
Many hon. Members will have received briefings from local bus operators. Stagecoach says:
First Group saysthis supports what my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge saidthat most bus crime occurs between 3 pm and 7 pm and involves youths, presumably as they are coming out of school. First Group in central Manchester says that it is involved with Crucial Crew. I should like to pay tribute to Crucial Crew for the work that it does across the country. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House have been involved locally with informing youngsters.
That welcome measure helps youths to adopt a positive approach to busesto see that they are to be used, not abused.
I have the distinction of having served, with the hon. Member for Cunninghame, South (Mr. Donohoe), among others, for a couple of years on the Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions, and I pay tribute to its report published on 12 September. That report identified an increase in passengers travelling by bus in urban areas and recognised that there had been a slight decline in passenger numbers in rural areas. The Committee's analysis of safety and security in part 3 of the report says that
these are the Department's own predictions
The Select Committee report continues:
That issue has come through strongly in the tone of the debate.
That part of the report concludes:
I commend the report, with its horrific statistics, to the House and the Minister. The cost of vandalism and attacks, both for those who work for bus companies and for the companies themselves, is unacceptable, as are the threats to passengers. We have heard in graphic detail about some ghastly experiences.
I recognise that the Government have taken some action by setting out their guidance on safety and by creating the safer travel on buses and coaches panel. Have they done enough? From what we have heard this morning, the answer is: probably not.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Jamieson) : This is the first time that I have spoken under your watchful and careful eye, Mr. Griffiths, and I look forward to many more such occasions.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Ian Stewart) on securing the debate. He presented his well argued points powerfully, as is his custom. He speaks with considerable authority on several transport issues and we are always pleased to hear from him. Had you been in the Chamber earlier, Mr. Griffiths, you would have noticed that at times the debate began to resemble an address to the parliamentary branch of the Transport and General Workers Union. I have to declare that I am not a member of the TGWUbut after today's debate I will give it some careful consideration.
Miss McIntosh : Will the Minister give way?
Mr. Jamieson : No, I will not give way. I am coming to the hon. Lady's point.
There is widespread agreement on both sides about the subject of this debate, despite the fact that the hon. Lady finished her speech on rather a sour note. She asked whether bus provision in rural areas would be increased, and I have to respond that, after many years of decline in bus services in rural areas before the present Government came into office, we have turned the situation round.
The hon. Lady might want to consider her own local authority area. The local transport plan funding has increased two and a half times in her area in the past two years. That is funding that the local authority can use to assist in bus planning for urban and rural areas. Other grants, such as the rural bus grants, are also available for her area. None of those funds were available five years ago.
The Government are concerned about the fear of crime; we do not want that to inhibit people from using public transport. I shall take this opportunity to endorse many of the comments that have been made in the debate, and to make it clear that criminal and antisocial behaviour against bus staff and passengers is unacceptable. We are committed to reducing crime and the fear of crime in our transport system. I pay tribute to the campaign to highlight the issue that the Transport and General Workers Union successfully conducted earlier this year, which led to some positive outcomes.
Antisocial behaviour directed against buses or the people on board them is at best unpleasant, and at worst deeply dangerous to the people who use and operate them. As the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) pointed out, some of those problems occur during school run time, which is disturbing. I reinforce the point that people who serve the public, such as teachers, nurses and bus drivers, have the right to carry out their work without suffering abuse, assault or violence. As a society, we should do everything to ensure that that right is upheld.
One good point was made by several hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts). When such violence occurs it often leads to the buses being withdrawn, and the communities where it occurs are almost invariably those most in need of a bus service, the areas with the lowest car ownership statistics, where people are most vulnerable when buses are withdrawn. I liked the approach of my hon. Friend the Member for Cunninghame, South (Mr. Donohoe), which I have not heard applied to this subject before. It is not only the bus operators, the police and others who have to deal with such violence; the communities that are affected must take responsibility, too. If they are losing their bus service, or its quality is deteriorating, because of the behaviour of some people, it is up to the community to take action and ensure that those people are reported.
I would say the same about the point that the hon. Member for Uxbridge made about schools. Where there is poor behaviour on buses, the bus companies should liaise with the schools and the local education authorities, and get the minorityit is often a tiny minorityof children who are causing problems off the buses, so that perhaps they have to walk in the rain.
Mr. Donohoe : Will the Minister see one of his colleagues in the Department for Education and Skills and try to convince him or her that they could solve that problem by putting a teacher on the bus? I understand that teachers currently refuse to perform that duty.
Mr. Jamieson : Sadly, that would put more pressure on teachers, who will frequently have had to deal with the same children for six hours during the day; the further imposition of having to go on the bus could present them with yet another problem. However, there have been some innovative ideas, such as appointing a responsible older pupilwho may be granted free transport on the busto act as the eyes and ears, and report back any difficulties with specific children. That scheme has been working successfully in my area and in others. I take my hon. Friend's point on board, but I do not wish to put more pressure on teachers.
Mr. Don Foster : Today in particular, when the Government are stressing the benefits of classroom
Mr. Jamieson : That is correct.
Ian Stewart : What we must not do is examine such things in a unitary way. They are clearly all interrelated, which is why I have called for a series of Adjournment debates to try to link all the different aspects.
Mr. Jamieson : I am delighted to hear that my hon. Friend wants a series of Adjournment debates, and I look forward to joining him here on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings. I liked his comments when, in an intervention, he described the difficulties that we have been discussing as "social problems with transport implications". That is a useful way of looking at them
Despite the low recorded crime on public transport, we recognise the fear of crime and the impact that that has on the lives of ordinary people. For example, 44 per cent. of women and 19 per cent. of men feel unsafe waiting at bus stops at night. In April, my predecessor launched fresh guidance to help tackle crime on buses. The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) will find the answers to some of his questions in that guidance, "Get on board: an agenda for improving personal security in bus travel". It set out safety measures that can be taken by bus companies working with local authorities to improve the personal safety of both bus staff and passengers. Better lighting at bus stops, effective surveillance and better procedures for reporting incidents were all recommended by the guidance, as well as sharing examples of good practice and partnership initiatives.
My hon. Friend the Member for Eccles asked about STOP, the safer travel on buses and coaches panel. We have now launched that group at official level, which will deal specifically with security on buses and coaches, and will work to bring together those involved in dealing with safety. The STOP group is due to meet for the first time very soon, and is charged with the important task of facilitating the exchange of ideas and spreading best practice. My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown) asked about the quality of our statistics: the panel will also commission regular data collection so that we can determine the size of the problem and find a solution.
I am pleased to say that my hon. Friend the Minister for Transport met members and representatives of the Transport and General Workers Union earlier this year to discuss what could be done to reduce crime on buses. That meeting followed the highly successful campaign by the TGWU on behalf not only of its members but of bus passengers. My hon. Friend the Member for Eccles has taken a great interest in the matter and is taking the issue forward.
My hon. Friend also asked about the possibility of local authorities buying buses. I believe that it would be perfectly possible using local transport plan moneymy hon. Friend is smiling at me now; perhaps he is going to ask me to renationalise the whole system. Although one could go down that avenue and purchase buses, that would have to be consistent with the objectives and priorities in the local transport plan, and must also satisfy the district auditor and the best value appraisal. The service would also have to be contracted out in some way through competitive tendering. I hope that that explanation is helpful to my hon. Friend.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe graphically described some of the appalling things that have happened on buses in his area, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Cunninghame, South. I assure my hon. Friend that if he passes on to the vehicle inspectorate any reports of open gas fires on buses, or parts of buses being held on with one screw, it will take urgent action and ensure that those buses are taken off the road.
Some hon. Members asked about the possibility of having buses operated by more than one person. That is an attractive idea, and it is open to the operator to make such a decision. Again, however, there would be huge cost implications. Every pound spent on putting an extra person on the bus to inhibit crime is a pound not spent on delivering other services. We need to find the balance.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) made a studied and carefully argued contribution. I was interested in his valuable comments on designing out problems.
Time is against me, but this morning's debate has been most helpful, with some very good contributions. If my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles, or anyone else, is successful in securing a future debate, there will be more time to discuss such matters further and more fully.
Mr. Win Griffiths (in the Chair): We now come to the debate on the closure of West Freugh airfield and bombing range.