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Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. In this House tonight, there was a vote, but the voice of the people whom I and the majority of Unionists represent could not be heard because of the way in which the business was ordered. Surely, it is a sad commentary on this House when the voice of one section of this United Kingdom cannot be heard in the debate. I appeal to you to think of the minority from Northern Ireland in this House in future and to see to it that their voices will be heard and that at least one of their amendments will be selected and voted on.
Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): That is not really a point of order for the Chair, but I say to the hon. Gentleman that Mr. Speaker's selection of amendments was published and that the House had agreed to the programme motion and the time set aside to debate the Bill.
That, in respect of Questions to the Advocate General and the Secretary of State for Scotland for oral answer on Tuesday 30th November in the next Session of Parliament, paragraph (5)(a) of Standing Order No. 22 (Notices of Questions, Motions and Amendments) shall apply with the substitution of 'three days' for 'four days'.[Margaret Moran.]
Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): I wish to present to the House a petition signed by more than 13,000 people who live in the vicinity of Epping Forest. Epping forest is an ancient forest, substantially located within the green belt. The biosphere of the forest is in danger of being damaged by the Government's plan to build large numbers of new houses in the green belt. The petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Government to review the research on which plans for new housing in the Epping Forest district are based and to confirm that the principle of protecting the green belt will be upheld.
Declares that Epping Forest is an ancient forest which is protected by an Act of Parliament that it lies substantially within the Metropolitan Green Belt which is also protected by an Act of Parliament and that plans for development of land in the Epping Forest District must take into account not only the land on which the Forest stands but also the "biosphere" of the Forest.
The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urge the Government to review the research on which plans for new houses in the Epping Forest District are based, and to confirm that the principle of protecting the Green Belt will be upheld.
Angela Eagle (Wallasey) (Lab): In 1985, the Conservative Government completely deregulated all bus services outside London. That policy failed to achieve all its stated objectives, which were to reverse the decline in passenger numbers, to reduce fares and to reduce public subsidy. In fact, the opposite has happened in the past 18 years.
Bus deregulation in Wallasey has caused poorer quality and less reliability, higher fares and a worse service. Three years ago, just as the Labour Government were calling for a more integrated transport system and providing generous amounts of public money to pay for it, Arriva Merseyside, the main bus operator in my constituency, decided that it would not integrate bus services, but that it would disintegrate them instead. It prevented all the buses taking my constituents, who are often elderly, through the Mersey tunnels to Lime Street station or the inter-city bus station from actually running to the stations themselves. Arriva stopped the buses before they got to Queens square in Liverpool, which meant that those wishing to make major transport connections had to get off and struggle up a hill with their luggage to get to the inter-city connections.
Three hundred people turned up to an evening meeting that I called to protest against that. Arriva managers explained that they had taken the decision in order to prevent the traffic commissioners from fining them for late running. Buses were getting delayed in traffic around Queens square, so they decided to minimise their liability to fines by stopping the tunnel buses short of all mainline stations. Those attending the meeting said that twice as many people would have attended if they had been confident that they could get a bus home afterwards. I will never forget one man at the meeting, who was a wheelchair user. He had travelled in his electric wheelchair across the docks from Birkenhead to attend and had been refused access to several buses on the way because the drivers would not get out in order to operate the lift mechanismhe had no idea how he would get home again that night.
More recently, Arriva has been at it again. It has just ceased running the 405, the 406, and 407 and the 408, which ran between Birkenhead and New Brighton via Leasowe and Moreton. That completely cut the direct bus links between two parts of my constituency and caused an outcry that was taken up by the Wallasey News on its front page. Both the newspaper and I were inundated with complaints about the decision, as were local councillors, especially Ron Abbey, who is Wirral council's representative on the passenger transport authority.
On 9 October, we held a meeting at the town hall, attended by close to 100 angry passengers, at which Arriva once more emphasised that it was a commercial operator whose main motive was to make a profit. It was not considering the viability of the network or people's need to be able to shop or to go to work on public transportit was concerned only about its own profitability. The outcry was so great, however, that it
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reinstated a small single-decker bus on a trial basis to replace the four services. However, that runs only once an hour and does not operate in the evenings or on Sundays, and given such a restricted timetable there is very little chance that it will be used enough to survive.
In making these arbitrary changes, Arriva has ensured that there is now no direct bus service from Moreton and Leasowe to the Asda store in Liscard, which is the only major supermarket in the constituency. As a result, those wishing to shop at the store face a 20-minute walk from the centre of Liscard with a much harder return journey carrying the shopping. Those of my constituents who live on the Millhouse estate in Moreton now have to walk a mile even to get to the nearest bus stop.
Arriva's disgraceful decision to break the established link between Moreton, Leasowe and New Brighton has also meant that Merseytravel has had to find an extra £135,000 every year to enable some of my younger constituents to get to school. At the other end of the age spectrum, we have an above-average number of pensioners in Wallasey and access to private cars is below average, yet the bus service is costing us all more and getting worse.
I receive an increasing number of complaints about the reliability of the bus services that are still running. All too regularly, timetabled services simply do not show up, leaving people stranded and late for work. The 423, which runs from Seacombe, Liscard, Leasowe and Moreton to Arrowe Parkthe acute hospital that serves Wallaseyis notoriously unreliable. Its unpredictability leaves patients late for their appointments and staff late for their shifts. Scheduled services that are not full often sail past a queue of passengers without even bothering to stop. The 433 is a particular culprit in that respect. That is presumably because they are running late and need to avoid those fines from the traffic commissioners. What on earth is the point of a bus service that fails to pick up its passengers simply to minimise the operator's liability to fines?
Little wonder that the latest figures show that bus passenger usage in Merseyside is falling. However, the cost to the public purse of paying for this worsening service is rising. Unsurprisingly, Arriva's profits, which seem to be all that it really cares about, are rising too. Last year, on a turnover of £58.5 million Arriva Merseyside made a tidy operating profit of 8.4 per cent. As well as significant capital inputs through the local transport plan, Merseytravel contributed £66.3 million from its revenue budget to the bus operators last year. In the past few years, supported network costs have increased from 15 to 20 per cent. of the total cost. While last year saw a fall in commercial patronage of 1.6 per cent., there was a rise of 7.3 per cent. in supported usage. There is no clearer indication that providing a public service does not feature in the calculations of the bus operators, but making big profits does.
Merseytravel now spends £19.2 million a year on maintaining an inadequate bus network rather than on improving it because it has to keep reintroducing socially vital routes, which Arriva has abandoned as unprofitable. Fares have been going up, too. Rises three times the level of inflation have led to the unacceptable result that bus passengers living on modest incomes in Merseyside pay between 8 and 9 per cent. of their
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disposable income towards travel each month, compared with a United Kingdom average of 5.6 per cent. There is increasing evidence that those unacceptably high costs prevent people from taking up education and training opportunities and even jobs.
That cuts across the Government's central and increasingly successful efforts to increase job opportunities for all. Merseytravel has tried to help by introducing its Job Link services from pathways areas to key employment sites at unsocial hours for a low fare. However, the Tory Transport Act 1985 means that no strategic planning of bus networks to ensure social objectives and to meet people's needs is possible.
High fares impact most on those who are least able to afford them and have no choice but to try to use buses because they do not have access to a private car. Outside peak hours or at weekends, their options are now severely limited. The behaviour of the bus operators in Merseyside has constantly undermined all Merseytravel's attempts to put its bus strategy into operation.
In the public consultation on its bus strategy for Merseyside, Merseytravel asked passengers what they wished to see. Three quarters wanted reliability to be improved. Half the respondents felt that cheaper fares, through-ticketing and longer hours of operation were vital. Ninety per cent. believed that deregulation of services must be reversed and that Merseytravel should have a much greater role in planning and controlling the network and the timetable.
What should be done? In the short term, I recognise that the disastrous Tory deregulation of bus services cannot be reversed without primary legislation, though I believe that it should be a Labour priority in a third term. I also recognise that Labour's Transport Act 2000 created the possibility of quality partnerships between passenger transport executives and bus operators in an effort to improve the quality of services. Unfortunately, those have largely failed. While the public sector has fulfilled its side of the bargain, often investing a great deal of money in improving local road infrastructure, the Audit Commission has pointed out that bus operators have given little back in return. According to the Audit Commission, passenger transport executives and local authorities have typically contributed four times the investment that bus operators have put in. Only half those involved in quality partnerships thought that they had worked well.
I believe that the time is right to pilot quality contracts, for which section 124 of the Transport Act 2000 allows. That can be done only if passenger transport executives are satisfied that it is the only practical way to implement their bus strategies. The recent behaviour of local bus operators has convinced Merseytravel that a quality contract is the only way forward.
I ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to consider piloting a quality contract in Merseyside. It would allow Merseytravel to decide what bus services should be provided and to what standards, including fare levels, frequencies and timetables. It would grant operators exclusive rights to provide services to Merseytravel's specification and standards and it would secure that by tender with operators.
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Merseytravel is a well-organised and well-run passenger transport executive. I might even say that it is the best in the country. It is strategic, forward thinking and proactive. I believe that Merseytravel could demonstrate that, even under current legislation, there is a way of achieving much better value for money and a much better bus service for my constituents, who desperately need it.
I am pleased to see my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary on the Front BenchI know that she is doing a great job. I urge her to make it even greater by granting Merseytravel's wish to pilot quality bus contracts. Labour's national policy forum recently endorsed the introduction of quality contracts as the way forward. Such a contract would give Merseytravel a chance to show the way and allow it to create a high-quality, reliable bus network fit for the 21st century. My long-suffering constituents deserve nothing less.
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