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10 Oct 2006 : Column 7WH—continued

I can give a number of examples from my constituency of where deregulation has failed to provide a decent local service. I am sure that such examples can be reflected by almost every Member present. Superstores outside the centre of Pudsey have effectively caused the closure of small supermarkets and other businesses. Somerfield recently announced the closure of a store in the centre of Pudsey, yet bus links to the superstores are limited or non-existent, which causes a particular problem for older people and those who do not have access to their own transport. Communities such as Hough Side were suddenly cut off from work, shops and other facilities by the simple stroke of an operator’s pen. Direct access to Wharfedale hospital—rebuilt under this Labour Government—is not available to patients from my constituency. The links to neighbouring Bradford, which is a city in its own right, are pathetic during the evenings and at weekends. Changes to services such as the Nos. 97, 647 and 651 in the Guiseley and Yeadon areas have resulted in significant reductions in the links to nearby Bradford, which has caused tremendous hardship
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for a large number of people. At this point, I was going to quote extensively from letters that I have received from constituents, but because of time constraints, I shall spare the Minister those comments. I am sure that she can guess just how wise and trenchant they are.

I appreciate that partnership is the Government’s preferred way forward. As my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles said, it is true that it sometimes works in smaller, often historic, cities where road space is restricted, local economies are strong and parking spaces are expensive and their number limited. There are even examples in metropolitan areas, such as Leeds, where such partnerships work, but they are few and far between.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) said, on profitable routes along major transport corridors buses can be seen queuing up for passengers. However, off the beaten track the picture is completely different. We should not use the few good examples that can be quoted to mask or dismiss the widespread deficiencies of which we are all aware. Currently, PTEs are totally dependent on local monopoly providers and whether they choose to act responsibly and take a long-term view. The experience of all hon. Members is that such situations are unfortunately not the norm.

What needs to change? I need not reiterate the points so cogently made by my hon. Friends. There needs to be a change to the Transport Act 2000. We need to be able to use its teeth—quality contracts—and remove the “only practicable” test, which effectively muzzles it and makes it unworkable.

As has been said, franchises can currently run for five years. That needs to be extended to a longer period, because doing so would reduce the net costs of franchises and act as an incentive to operators to invest. I believe, as does the Passenger Transport Executive Group—I make no apology for speaking on its behalf—that the result would be multifold. It would lead to more reliable services; poor performance being penalised; integrated networks; clear and comprehensive information at bus stops; buses connecting rather than competing; less pollution with operators required to provide newer, cleaner buses and to maintain them properly; more stable networks with less frequent changes to fares, times and frequencies; and networks that keep pace with the economic and social needs of the areas they serve.

If the Minister is prepared to go down that particular route, she, like my hon. Friends and I, will be vilified by bus operators. She will be told that the clock cannot be turned back, and predictions will be made of some sort of bus Armageddon. I ask her not to listen. It is time to listen to passengers, to us as their representatives and to PTEs, and to give back some powers to the communities to have bus services that meet their needs.

9.59 am

Meg Hillier (Hackney, South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op): It gives me great pleasure to speak in the debate and, in particular, to welcome the announcement about changes to bus services made by the Secretary of State for Transport just a couple of weeks ago.

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I first started looking into bus workers’ conditions in 1999-2000. In 2000-01, I chaired an inquiry by the London assembly into affordable housing, which we called “Key issues for key workers: affordable housing in London”. We concluded that bus drivers in London were not earning enough money to pay even council or housing association rents. Bus drivers were coming from cities such as Leeds, living four days a week in houses of multiple occupation provided by the bus companies, driving London buses and then going back home again. It was no surprise that with that level of income there was a shortage of drivers, a high turnover of drivers without local knowledge of London streets and a great deal of passenger dissatisfaction.

Shortly after our report, the Mayor of London—I like to think that we had some influence on his decision—decided in 2001 to increase bus drivers’ pay by £20 a week. In addition, Transport for London introduced a training programme for bus drivers and other benefits to improve their working conditions. During our inquiry, we heard clear evidence from bus drivers who found that at the end of a journey there was nowhere for them to use a toilet—they would have to beg the indulgence of a local publican—and often there was nowhere for them to have hot food.

Mr. Iain Wright (Hartlepool) (Lab): Like my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Ian Stewart), my hon. Friend talks about pay, pensions and general conditions. Bus drivers in my constituency are worried about the nature and pattern of shifts, in particular the length of time they spend behind the wheel, which can be a maximum of five and half hours. That is obviously a great concern because with increasing traffic and road rage, a tired bus driver is a dangerous bus driver. Would my hon. Friend care to comment on reducing bus drivers’ hours?

Meg Hillier: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention and I shall go into the matter later. There are good examples in London of how bus drivers’ shifts have altered and been made safer and better. That has also aided the retention of drivers.

According to Transport for London, in 2000 bus drivers received an average of £18,000 to £19,000, but from my direct experience and contact with bus drivers during the key workers inquiry, I know that in many cases it was lower than that. Pay of £15,000 to £16,000 was normal, and that involved some creative accounting. In 2006, as we stand here today, bus drivers in London earn around £23,000 to £24,000 a year depending on their shifts and overtime. In addition, all bus drivers in London with at least one year’s experience have passed a BTEC diploma in passenger relations and disability awareness. All bus drivers throughout the country will have to do that under the European Union’s driver training directive, and we should encourage that to happen more quickly outside London because we have seen a huge difference. Transport for London is also introducing further training for garage staff and a higher level of disability awareness training for drivers. That has already made a difference in London. The level of service now lost in London because of staffing problems is 0.17 per cent. That is an all-time low and I suspect—I do not have the figures for other areas—that it is considerably lower than in other parts of the country.

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There is always more to do. Transport for London and the Transport and General Workers Union—my trade union—are considering flexible working practices, and I want to highlight an example that is local to my constituency. They are also pressing for basic improvements, including toilets and other facilities in those bus stations that still do not have them, better working times, which my hon. Friend mentioned, and no rest-day working, which I feel passionate about.

In my youth, I worked in the merchant navy and back then, in the late 1980s and the 1990s, rest-day working was never sanctioned on board ship. As privatisation crept in, with the use of agency workers, rest-day working became the norm. I saw closely the effect that that had on people. I do not want to be on a bus with a driver who has worked on a rest day and is too tired to drive safely.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): On conditions for bus drivers, does my hon. Friend agree that the bus service, warts and all, is one industry that has not sought to exploit migrant workers, in particular people from eastern Europe, such as Polish workers? Companies such as First bus have a proud record of paying and guaranteeing the same wages and conditions for migrant workers as exist for indigenous workers.

Meg Hillier: As a trade unionist I believe in equal pay for equal work, and my hon. Friend made a fair point. In London, we do not now have to have migrants from northern cities to do our work, which shows what good pay can do to maintain local jobs in cities.

I want to highlight briefly one example in my constituency of an extremely good transport provider. Hackney Community Transport is a social enterprise that runs transport services in Hackney. It has been so successful in reinvesting in the transport service and in being a good operator that it now operates two local Transport for London routes—394 and 153. The 394 is particularly close to my heart because it was an initiative from local people which was taken up by Transport for London and provided by a local provider. I helped to launch that bus route.

The bus route had a low turnover of staff before that was the case for other London bus companies because it worked hard to make its working conditions family friendly. In doing so, it has managed to have an above average number of women working for it not just as bus drivers, but at all levels in the company. That is partly because of flexible working patterns. Drivers who are also carers can opt to work early or late, but never both. They do not have ridiculous split shifts, which exist in too many other bus companies. It is not surprising that Hackney Community Transport was named social enterprise of the year last year and its chief executive, Dai Powell, was named in the honours list.

The Transport and General Workers Union has launched a London bus workers charter—I was a veteran of the London bus engineers charter some years ago—which shows that there is still work to be done. One essential is to maintain the level of pay increases. The difficulty in London is that many key workers cannot afford to buy housing and to live in the inner city. We must ensure that pay keeps up with inflation and house prices.

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We need greater safety. I have touched on working times, which is a key issue, but safety for drivers going about their business and ensuring that there are intercoms on buses and so on are also important.

Another key issue is pensions, but I shall not reiterate the points made by my hon. Friends, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Ian Stewart). Pensions are critical and too many bus drivers and bus workers are second-rate citizens in that respect. Providing good pension rights is a way of keeping good staff and maintaining a low turnover. We must also ensure that bus workers have rights to affordable housing alongside other key workers in our city. We saw what happened in London before the changes were introduced and there are lessons for the Government to learn.

As a member of the Transport and General Workers Union, I am proud of the work that it is doing. In London, there has been a 32 per cent. increase in bus journeys, in contrast with a 7 per cent. decrease in the rest of the country, as my hon. Friend said. We have improved bus services and seen huge improvements to the environment, to our health and in congestion. In London, control has gone to a local transport body, with sensitive services run by good local providers, such as Hackney Community Transport, with better pay and conditions, which are critical to ensuring good bus services, family-friendly working—there is still more to do on that—training and investment. In short, we have seen the future in London and we have seen that it works. I commend the model to my hon. Friend the Minister.

10.8 am

Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Central Ayrshire) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Ian Stewart) on securing the debate. Again, it is October, which seems to be his lucky month.

I go back some time in the bus industry. I was joint secretary of the negotiating machinery in Scotland and was involved in the whole matter of deregulation as a trade union official in 1985. I sat in a room here for almost six months listening to the good reasons that the Tory Government at the time gave for deregulation. All that was promised for bus usage has not come to fruition.

I am a realist, and I understand and respect that even in the Government’s 2000 White Paper on the 10-year plan they concede that bus patronage has been in decline for almost half a century. With my experience and knowledge of the industry, having represented the workers at that time, I know it was not all rosy before deregulation. On bus quality, the average bus in 1986 was 20 years old; today, the average bus throughout the country is about seven years old, so there has been improvement. I say that from a Scottish perspective, because Falkirk has one of the best bus building operations in the UK, and it supplies those buses and is a good employer.

We should consider the trend during that period. It is not all doom and gloom. I am glad to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), who described the position in London, because similarly in Scotland, bus use has increased. Throughout Scotland, it is up by about 1 to 2 per cent.
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My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) has left the Chamber, but in Lothian, bus patronage has increased by about 26 per cent. since 1986.

North of the border, many of the terms of the Transport and General Workers Union bus workers charter have been achieved. The average salary for Lothian Buses workers is £21,500, and they have maintained their final salary pension scheme. Throughout the industry, the two big players, First group and Stagecoach, have also maintained those schemes, so the picture is not all doom and gloom. We must consider the industry as a whole to work out the best direction to take. We are considering re-regulation, but we cannot do that in isolation. We must consider the reality of modern life.

In 1986, when I worked in Parliament for six months, about 30 per cent. of households did not have a car. The figure is down to 18 per cent. That reflects some of the reasons why the bus industry has problems. As a past member of the Select Committee on Transport, I suggested that we should consider the modern household and a modern housewife with two children, one four years old and the other six. In one morning, the mother has to take one child to nursery and the other to school, go on to a dental appointment and then go shopping. Even in urban areas of Scotland, the task is impossible. In a constituency with rural areas, the task is well nigh impossible on buses. If the Government are serious, and I am told that they are, they must explain how it is possible for that woman to operate with the bus as her main source of transport, because I do not think that it is. Enormous investment will be required if it is to be achieved, and that is what I am interested in learning about from my hon. Friend the Minister.

10.13 am

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): I do not see the impact of deregulation on services in south Yorkshire since 1986 from the perspective of my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Donohoe). By and large, the measures have been bad for passengers and workers. They have been an unmitigated disaster. Bus services are one of the few public services that have worsened since 1997.

I shall quote some stark figures. The network mileage in south Yorkshire has declined by 34 per cent. since 1986. For every 3 miles that buses ran then, they run for 2 miles now. Compared with the retail prices index, which has increased by about 100 per cent. since 1986, bus fares in south Yorkshire have increased by more than 1,000 per cent. The contrast is enormous: the increase is 10 times more than inflation. It is therefore unsurprising that ridership, which has increased by 55 per cent. in London, has decreased by 48 per cent. in the passenger transport executive areas outside London. In south Yorkshire, ridership has decreased by 68 per cent. For every three passengers on a bus in 1986, there is one left. That public service provision in my constituency is an unmitigated disaster.

Deregulation was supposed to bring in competition, but only two operators provide 91 per cent. of the services in south Yorkshire, and they do not compete with each other. It is unsurprising that the major bus operators make a 21 per cent. return on capital on their investments in the PTE areas.

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The reality is that quality contracts have failed. They are non-existent. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Ian Stewart) on securing the debate. For the reasons he gave, quality partnerships are ineffective. Through-ticketing is the subject of one row after another between operators that will not co-operate. South Yorkshire has an excellent super-tram system, which was built to link in with the bus services. However it does not, because they try to compete with it. There is no integrated public transport system; deregulation has destroyed that concept, too.

Those measures hit the poorest hardest because they have no access to a car. However, I accept that more people have access to a car, and that re-regulation alone is not the answer. As well as improving public transport, we must consider some restraints on car use. The withdrawal of a bus service can cut the pensioner off from their post office and the child off from their school. Somebody with a job, starting a shift at 6 o’clock in the morning, who finds that the bus service that gets them to work is being withdrawn, effectively has 42 days’ notice in which to find another job. That is unacceptable in the modern age.

The solution exists: re-regulation works in London. Whether we opt for the precise London model or the PTEG proposal, it is crucial that we get the details right. In order to get right the re-introduction of regulated services in our major towns and cities outside London, I say to my hon. Friend the Minister, for heaven’s sake, please do not simply listen to the interests of the major bus operators. Their interests are in retaining profits. She should listen to the PTEs, because they have one vested interest, which is to improve the public services to which we are also committed. Their vested interest is our vested interest. It is the vested interest of our constituents. It is important that we get the details right so that we can bring back regulation and make our bus services work once again for the people whom we represent.

10.17 am

Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to follow a passionate speech from a Yorkshire MP. It is one of several that we have heard from Yorkshire and Lancashire, and I intend to add to them. I also want to add a rural perspective, which we have not heard so far.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Ian Stewart) on securing the debate. He referred to the speech of the Secretary of State for Transport. It was the most radical speech about buses from a Transport Minister for several generations. The hall in Manchester filled up as he made his speech, although he had the grace to admit that that may have been in part because President Clinton was following him. Nevertheless, my right hon. Friend’s speech was witnessed by people who, when they see the improvements that we hope will follow, will look back to that critical moment.

Ministers in the Department for Transport are becoming bolder by the day. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron), told me in a written answer only in early September that

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