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a legal silver bullet to solve our problems.
There is great concern about the length of time that it will take to conclude the quality contracts on the new framework, and I would be very interested to know, first, whether the Government have done any
assessment of that and, secondly, whether they have looked at the process proposed in the White Paper of removing the Department for Transport and involving an appeal process. It seems to us that they are putting in place more hurdles and more stages.
Dr. Ladyman: I wonder why the hon. Gentleman quoted the only article in Transport Times that contained any lukewarm comments about the Governments proposals, instead of the articles on almost every other page of that edition that said that the Governments proposals could take the industry forward.
Paul Rowen: It is a fair point [ Interruption. ] No, no. Like the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley, when I hear one of the people who runs a bus company say that it is wonderful, I am very cynical, having seen the operations of those bus companies at close hand. I have seen the way that they have manipulated our communities, as the hon. Gentleman said, in moving subsidy about. They have moved bus fleets into areas to crush competition. As soon as the competition has gone, they put up prices and bring back the old, clapped-out buses. In my view, that is the quality bus contract scheme, and I wonder why all those bus moguls are suddenly now interested in the scheme. In my view, they see it as yet another way in which they can tie the Government and local councils hands.
I hope that we will have more of these discussions when the Bill is published. There is a need for regulation. There is a need to give local communities control over transport. There is also a role for urban PTEs and PTAs to take on more of the transport highway functions that currently reside with highway authorities.
Mr. Kevan Jones: I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman, and in an intervention on my hon. Friend the Minister, he argued the contrarythat central Government should take more control. Has he changed his mind during the past hour?
Paul Rowen: No, I happen to believe that people must operate a scheme that is right for the purpose, and although I believe that local communities [ Interruption. ] I was going to come to concessionary bus fares later, but let us look at the results that the current scheme has delivered. I am not criticising the Governments decision to introduce the schemein fact, I welcomed itbut in a Statutory Instrument Committee, when we were discussing the introduction of concessionary fares, I warned the then Minister, the hon. Member for Regents Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck), who is not now in her place, about some of the consequences. Those consequences arise because of the way that the revenue support grant system operates: some authorities gained; other authorities, such as Tyne and Wear, lost out.
The big concern about the scheme is that, as the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley knows, the Greater Manchester passenger transport authority has just lost £3.4 million because the bus operators have played the game and the patronage has gone up, so they have put up the bus fare, and they are now claiming a greater
proportion of the fare. That has cost Greater Manchester council £3.4 million this year, and concessionary bus fares for others have gone up from 50p to 70p. Therefore, I want the system to be regulated.
I want a smart card to be introduced that operates nationally, so that it does not matter in which authority it is used and so that accurate data can be collected. I want a system that does not allow bus operators to hold local authorities to ransom because so many people have gone on the bus in the past. If people are negotiating a contract, they should agree what they will spend in the coming 12 months.
A standard fare, very much as the Mayor of London has introduced for concessionary bus travel, will allow local authorities to take on the big bus operators. Otherwise, we have already seen what is happening: they are milking the system. There is a need for a national framework, not necessarily a totally national scheme, that has certain parameters that allows us to develop a truly national scheme. If that is good enough for the Scots or the Welsh, why is it not good enough for England?
To return to my main point, I believe that there is a need for regulation. I welcome the introduction of the statutory partnership and the removal of the public interest test that was used previously.
I also welcome the increased role of traffic commissioners, although my party would like that role to be extended. Earlier, the Office of Fair Trading was mentioned, but it has lamentably failed to do anything to regulate fares and competition for buses; in fact, it has gone completely the other way. We would like the OFTs powers to be transferred to the traffic commissioners, but with an exemption, so that common fare schemes could be introduced, and so that there could be some control over prices. We would like the traffic commissioners to play a role in helping to control and regulate bus timetables and fares. That is the system under which the railways operated, before the Department for Transport decided to take all the powers back for itself. The only way forward is to give traffic commissioners that role, and to ensure free competition for buses; that is what is needed.
We need a commitment from the Government that road-user charging will not be used as a Revenue-funder, but will instead bring about greater investment. We have a long way to go in the next few months to make sure that changes are made, but we have finally made a start. We want statutory quality partnerships, and we want local authorities and passenger transport executives to have a say in setting them up. We want an enhanced role for traffic commissioners, and we want a national framework for concessionary fares. If we get all that, we can move forward and begin to experience benefits. It has taken the Government 10 years to reach this stage; the bus is late, but it has arrived at last.
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab):
I have a warm feeling of nostalgia, because I remember sitting through the proceedings on the Transport Bill in 1985 and watching the Conservative party explaining their views quite plainly. In their view, the public subsidy for buses was not only very large but
indefensible. It could not be explained, and should be removed as far away as possible. All that we needed was to return to the high uplands of open competition, and all would be well. If I may say so without being unduly harsh to the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson), who is no longer in the Chamber, it was delightful to hear him struggling hard not to make plain the position that Conservatives still hold. It is comforting to know that some things never change.
Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): May I tell the hon. Lady, who chairs the Select Committee on Transport, that when we come to my winding-up speech, she will hear about one of the most interesting schemes in bus development, which is being introduced by the largest Conservative authority and rural county?
Mrs. Dunwoody: I am delighted to hear that, and I hope that the hon. Gentlemans speech will not undermine his position on the Front Bench; if he says something new, strong and policy-led, it will be such a departure that his position in the shadow transport team will not last long.
The Government should take a clear look at what is happening in the bus system. It is true that large sums of money are being spent, including on the concessionary fares scheme, which is a delight. It has opened up all sorts of vistas, and it is a real improvement in the quality of life for many people in my constituency. It is wholly to be applauded. Also, amounts are being spent on ensuring that services are provided by an ever smaller number of private companies. In his estimable speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) made it plain that five major companies are responsible for 90 per cent. of the bus services, and they not only wantonly dictate terms and conditions, but behave in a manner that cannot be defended. It is clear that many local authorities are faced with a series of faits accomplis, as companies simply remove services, without any justification, and then tell county councils or PTEs, Fine; if you want that service to run, replace it with a subsidised service, and we will accept the extra money with thanks.
If we are to consider doing more than stopping the decline of bus travel, and are instead to consider expanding bus travel, as the Government are doing under many of their schemes, we need to examine the behaviour of those who provide the services and those who accept the public subsidies, and they inevitably do not compete with one another. It is nonsense to say that the bus companies in this country compete, because the reality is very different. I believe that the Government are sincere in wanting not only to improve the situation in the bus industry but ensure that ever more people use buses, with all the environmental advantages that that would bring. It is no accident that large numbers of Labour Members want to debate the subject today, but that Conservative Members think that the matter is of no interest. That demonstrates clearly the difference between the two parties.
On the Governments response to the Select Committees inquiry, the Committee looked into bus services across the United Kingdom because we were so concerned about what is happening, given not only the concessionary fares regime but all the recent
changes that have come about. The Government said in their answer to the Committee that they
would not want to see local authorities introducing a Quality Contracts scheme for the whole of an urban area at the same time under one contract.
Why not? What is the advantage of letting contracts for smaller parts of the network? There is no justification for doing so. Part of the reason for introducing a quality contract is so that local authorities and passenger transport authorities can create a co-ordinated network in their area, and that is where the real benefit lies. To have several contracts within an area would complicate matters, raise costs and fail to ensure the co-ordination that the contracts are designed to provide.
Mr. Kevan Jones: Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government have taken that attitude possibly because, in the dark recesses of the Department for Transport, the idea of competition has not completely gone out of the window?
Mrs. Dunwoody: I am convinced that there is a rather endearing commitment to the idea that bus companies somehow compete. The reality is that they do nothing of the kind. They take good care to make sure that if there is any question of competition, they deal with the matter any way that they can.
On that theme, may I ask the Minister the question to which I did not get an answer earlier? If PTAs are legally challenged by bus companies in the event of a quality contract being introduced, will the Department indemnify them from legal action? It is unacceptable that bus companies should, in effect, threaten locally elected authorities and say to them, If you persist, even though what your are doing is in the interests of your constituents and the general public, we will challenge you in the courts. I regard that as straightforward blackmail, and I should like to know whether the Government intend to make it clear that they will neither accept that nor allow local authorities or PTAs to cope with the matter on their own.
Mr. Betts: Does my hon. Friend agree that that is an extremely important issue? To a PTE, the cost of a legal case in the courts would be a significant part of its budget, whereas to the bus companies, compared with the amount of profit that they could lose if a quality contract was brought in, the cost of a legal case would be insignificant, and they would always have a vested interest in proceeding with such a case.
The Committee considered that traffic commissioners were an important part of the traffic system and should be given rather more powers and more resources. During the debate some Members have expressed worries about the role of the traffic commissioners if they were allowed to adjudicate on new schemes, but they are an independent service and they have responsibilities. Were they given greater powers, they would be able to extend what they do at presentmake a valiant attempt, not always fully supported, to bring the bus companies into some kind
of order and to provide a high quality service. Not only should they have more resources, but they should be consulted on extended powers.
We believe that the Government were wrong when they said that it was not intended that traffic commissioners would enforce any quality contract schemes, and that that would be the role of the contracting local authority. There is no justification for that. Independent enforcement of quality contracts, if operators are persuaded to join them, should be the responsibility not of the local authority that will be a party to the contract, but of an independent force such as traffic commissioners, who can not only be trusted, but can demonstrate why they reach particular conclusions.
a general statement about the appropriate profit level would not be tenable.
That is nonsense. The Government already do that in other fields, and I can give chapter and verse. There is absolutely no justification for allowing the five very powerful companies to escape proper surveillance.
The Government said that the amount that local authorities have to spend on subsidising routes was not acceptable. They pointed out that funding had increased under the Government. We agreed that that was good, but it is not the real point. Local authorities are having to make greater and greater subsidies because of the behaviour of the operators in surrendering the less profitable routes and rebidding for the same subsidised service.
Many hon. Members want to speak and they will undoubtedly lay out in considerable detail what is good and bad about the systems in their areas. I make a more general point to my hon. Friend the Minister. There is no great sophistication or glamour about the bus industry. It does not have those dearly loved fans who follow railway engines round the country, take their pictures and keep them carefully in books, but it can make a difference to the lives of women in particular, in a way that no other service can do. It is the difference, especially in rural areas, between being able to get to the doctor and to the local town to get the shopping donebetween having any kind of social contact and being totally isolated. Yet for some reason the bus industry is regarded, perhaps not only by the Conservative party, as a service that has constantly to be justified because it is costing the ratepayers money.
Nobody demands better value for money than I or my Committee do, but before we remove from the powers of the local authorities the right to control the way that money is spent on behalf of the ratepayer and taxpayer, we should think very carefully indeed. We are already committed to providing good services. We are already committed to a most imaginative scheme that has made an enormous difference to many pensioners.
Let us not, for other reasons, undermine all the good things that have been done by allowing a small group of enormously greedy bus operators to dictate exactly what they want to do without any concern for the common good or the common purpose. I know that my
hon. Friend the Minister will never allow that, but I want an undertaking from her that neither will the silly men whom she sometimes has to deal with.
Mr. Lee Scott (Ilford, North) (Con): I wish to speak as a London Member of Parliament who uses public transport on a regular basis. In fact, this morning I was very grateful for public transport, because without it I would not be here. I walked through the snow to the station, having been unable to use the No. 150 bus as I usually would, and the underground got me here, even if it was in conditions that we would not allow animals to travel in.
I want to talk about some ideas that I have come up with. I apologise to my Front-Bench colleagues for not sharing those ideas with them beforehand, but as I am on the Back Benches and will probably be staying here, I feel latitude in being able to do that.
One of the main reasons why people in my constituency do not wish to travel on buses is the safety factor. Recently, bus drivers in my area have refused to travel along certain routes because of antisocial behaviour by young people. We heard earlier about proposals made by a group in the London assembly. As that is a devolved assembly, I do not intend to give it advice on what it should or should not do, but it relates to the problem. When the Mayor introduced concessions for young people, he promised that there would be extra British Transport police on buses where there were problems and that anyone who abused the system would be stopped from using those buses. That has not happened. Constituents, particularly the elderly, regularly contact me to say that they are scared to travel, particularly late at night or in the winter when it gets dark early, because they do not feel safe due to the vandalism and irresponsibility of people who abuse the system. I recognise that the vast majority of young people do not abuse the system, but it is always the minority who spoil it for the majority. If such schemes are to be rolled out elsewhere, I ask the Minister to consider extra British Transport police coverage to protect people.
Graham Stringer: The hon. Gentleman served on the Transport Committee when we produced the buses report and will remember that when we investigated safety on buses one of our concerns was that the operator should take some responsibility for the security of passengers. Does he agree, and can he tell the House what measures bus operators in his area are taking to improve passenger security?
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