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5.15 pm

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this debate.

I am in an unusual situation compared with most Members, in that I represent a constituency in a city where the vast majority of bus services are operated by a publicly owned bus company—Lothian Buses. It is not publicly owned because of any special legal dispensation that applies to the city, but because of chance factors, the nature of the city and, above all, good management, a good work force and a political determination by the local authorities that jointly own the company.

The bus company has been extremely successful in terms of what it has meant for the public in the Edinburgh area and some of the surrounding local authority areas. There is an extensive network and a reasonably priced fare structure. We have a flat fare of £1, which covers journeys not only within the city but on routes well out into the surroundings areas. We had buses on new year’s day and Christmas day, and we have an extensive night bus service. The fleet is modern, with an average age of less than seven years; that is partly why 75 per cent. of buses are accessible to people with disabilities.

The services are popular with the local community. Of course, there are always occasions when people want buses to go to places where bus companies do not want to run them. Lothian Buses is an arm’s length company, not a direct local authority company, and there are certainly occasions on which I have had interesting exchanges of views with it. Nevertheless, it is generally recognised by the public as running a service that is based in, and working in the interests of, the local community. The company is profitable. In the past couple of years, it has made substantial profits that have partly been repaid as dividends to the local authority, but it has also invested in bus services to provide further improvements. That has contributed to the 25 per cent. increase in bus passenger usage in the area over the past eight or nine years.

Many of the responsibilities for bus policy in my constituency are devolved to the Scottish Parliament, but there are a couple of areas where our experience is relevant to the wider debate in the rest of Great Britain and where UK-wide policy has an impact on what is possible in my constituency. My first point concerns quality contracts. Legislation in Scotland provides for quality contracts in bus services. I understand that it is slightly easier to take up that option in Scotland, but it has not happened in Scotland any more than it has in
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England. That shows that it is important that the structure of quality contracts that is set up is not so complex that no one can ever make use of them. Experience in my city suggests that that should be taken on board in relation to the measures that the Government are going to introduce.

My second point is that the whole concept of the quality contract rests on the theoretical foundation of a vibrant, competitive market in the bus industry, where different operators are waiting to seize the opportunity to compete in particular areas. However, that is a million miles from being the case in most parts of the country, where there is not, in any sense, a fully competitive bus industry. The Government must deal with the question of how we cope with a system that is based on a concept of franchising and contracts when there is not a fully competitive industry. One of the factors that I experienced in Edinburgh is that when a strong, publicly owned company and a major privately owned bus company operate in the city and some of the surrounding areas, there is mutually beneficial competition between the two. In such circumstances, a publicly owned bus company has to be on its toes because, if it is not, it faces the risk of competition from major private companies that operate outside the city and on some city routes. Similarly, private companies that operate outside the city know that they could face competition from a publicly owned company.

The Government have a great opportunity to promote community bus services or give publicly owned bus companies a role in providing competition in a local area where the market provides none. I do not suggest that municipally owned bus companies should be the only model or type of operator throughout the country. However, in places where the market does not provide genuine competition to the monopoly operators, we should consider ways to facilitate community operators and local authorities—not only to operate residual bus services, but to provide opportunities for good quality services. That would require consideration at UK level because it relates to competition law.

I want to raise two issues that are relevant to my constituency, but also relate to UK-wide policy. First, let us consider the cross-border arrangements for pensioners travel that will become national throughout England in 2008 and are currently national throughout Scotland. There is an anomaly, whereby a pensioner can travel from Newcastle to London, but cannot travel from Newcastle to Edinburgh under the new schemes because there is no link across the border. Some arrangements are in place for short journeys across the border but not for longer journeys. We should examine that. It is not simply a matter of journeys between cities and destinations near borders. As was said earlier, no one will take a bus from Cornwall to Orkney—for geographical reasons, if nothing else. However, pensioners from Orkney—or from Edinburgh—will come to London. They should be able to use the pensioners’ bus pass facility in London, and London pensioners who go to Edinburgh or Glasgow should be able to make use of the free national bus pass arrangement.

It would be a nice gesture in the third centenary of the Act of Union if the Government considered
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providing for the Scottish and English schemes to be interchangeable. I was delighted by the Minister’s public commitment in his opening remarks to considering such a measure. It is the first time that I have heard such a public and positive comment from the Government on the matter. I welcome the Minister’s statement, to which I shall revert in future—and I am sure that many of my colleagues on both sides of the border will also do that.

Secondly, I want to consider zonal or area cards, which allow passengers to use a range of bus services and possibly rail and ferry services, too. Such cards operate in few areas of the UK. We tried to establish a zonal card in Edinburgh and we hoped that it would involve the rail companies. However, the negotiations became so convoluted that we gave up and did what we could with the bus companies, although I understand that the rail companies are now involved to a certain extent.

The matter has Great Britain-wide implications because some of the rail services in my area are operated by companies that fall within the remit of the inter-city franchise, for which the Department for Transport is responsible. My experience in my area and current experience in London, where it is proving difficult to get some rail companies to take part in the Oyster card scheme, show the difficulty of achieving genuine interchangeability locally.

The experience of many of our European partners is that if we want to encourage people to use public transport, one of the best ways of achieving that is to give them an opportunity to use different modes of travel through a genuine zonal card in their cities, towns and communities. If the Government could act to make that easier, it would be a major achievement that did much to encourage even greater use of public transport.

5.25 pm

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): We have had a broad debate, informed by an interesting Select Committee report and a thinnish Government White Paper. I want to start by dealing with the various comments made about the Conservative Greater London Authority members’ alleged policy to abolish the schemes for under-18s and for pensioners. The allegation about under-18s is misleading. Yes, it is true that they are considering abolishing the scheme, not least for reasons that two of my hon. Friends mentioned earlier, namely, problems with vandalism and antisocial behaviour. However, they want to replace it with a scheme that is tailored specifically towards schoolchildren. The allegation about pensioners is simply untrue. These matters are devolved in our party, so it is a matter for the GLA to decide what it does or does not do. None the less, it is worth putting those facts on record.

One extraordinary feature that permeated the first part of our discussion today was the endless debate about the amount of subsidy. My party is in a policy formulation process at the moment, and I am not going to give any hard and fast answers on that issue. However, as the debate developed, it became clear that
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the issue of how that money is being spent—and whether it could be better spent—was of considerable concern to people on both sides of the House.

The hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) made some really vicious remarks about private operators, many of which might be well justified. He talked about subsidy junkies. The hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) said that the past should not be viewed through rose-coloured spectacles, pointing out that public monopolies had been very unresponsive beforehand. The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) made a number of important points about the possible role of quality contracts, and the fact that there had been no applications for them either south or north of the border. The Government have now acknowledged that they appear to have set up the system to fail. Some of their proposed changes appear sensible—for example, removing the requirement for the Secretary of State to approve the applications. As there have not been any such applications, however, that seems fairly academic.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Scott) made an interesting speech in which he made several crucial points about people feeling safe on buses. The fact that they do not do so is one of the prime reasons why they are reluctant to use them. That applies particularly to women travelling at night. He also pointed out that more prosecutions could be brought if the CCTV cameras that are now being installed on a growing number of buses had film in them and worked properly.

The right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown) gave a characteristically robust performance, in which he pointed out that there were many problems before deregulation. He also made some shrewd comments about the problems with the way in which the existing subsidy works.

We have heard a litany of complaints today, including those from the hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell). The hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright) took us back to the problems of deregulation. He also had one or two imaginative ideas on how partnerships could be made to work better. My party is strongly in favour of locally driven partnerships, and we welcome some of his suggestions. He also made some important points on driver safety and drivers’ hours.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) made some thoughtful points about his local situation, and dared to dream about monorails. There is no way that I, from this Dispatch Box, can make any promises on central Government money for such a project, but if a local authority has imaginative ideas and a number of players around who might be willing to put some serious money into them, good luck to them.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) was willing to admit that there are merits in competition, and asked some more difficult questions. I am looking forward to the Minister’s winding-up speech! The hon. Member for Worsley (Barbara Keeley) made a very concerned speech about her constituents. Towards the end, the hon. Member for Falkirk (Mr. Joyce) and my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill) made some interesting points about the supply of buses.
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Britain is still a strong player in that regard. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) reminded us, as had a couple of earlier speakers, that it is rather anomalous to introduce concessionary schemes in England, Wales and Scotland, but no cross-border scheme.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of the bus service to millions of people across the country. Buses are the most used form of public transport, and a lifeline for those who cannot afford a car or, in a few cases, choose to live without one. The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich rightly made that point at the start of her speech. The bus service is also an important potential tool with which to cope with congestion, and in that context park-and-ride schemes are playing an important role in the city of Canterbury.

Despite the noxious fumes that sadly emanate from the exhausts of most of our older buses, persuading more people to use the bus and other forms of public transport would be a key way of reducing carbon dioxide emissions. The Library tells me that the average bus journey produces, per person, roughly half the carbon dioxide emissions produced by a car journey. There are many reasons why buses are a good thing, from the very personal to the local to the global.

One or two Members, although not as many as I expected, put the case for re-regulating the bus network. Many came very close to saying that they would like it to be re-regulated, and we look forward to hearing the Minister’s responses. But a number of Members gave sensible reasons why we could not return to regulation. It is worth remembering a crucial fact that the Government have acknowledged: the use of buses was in continuous decline from the 1950s onwards. We had reached a point in the 1980s when they could not go on as they were, and although we can argue about the next route, I do not think there is any point in spending more time doing that. The buses were old, dirty, increasingly empty, becoming more and more expensive to run, and a burden on local authorities and ratepayers. Given rising prosperity and car ownership, a decline in bus patronage was almost inevitable. Since deregulation, the bus fleet has become steadily younger. The Library tells me that the average bus is now just over seven years old; a decade ago, it was nearly 10 years old. Fares have risen more slowly than council taxes, which used to pay for them.

I think that Labour Members were wrong to focus on the late Nicholas Ridley as someone who was supposedly anti-public transport. In fact, the last thing Nicholas Ridley did, nine days before he died of excruciating cancer, was pen an article for The Times—a very articulate, well-argued article, although I did not agree with it—explaining why he disagreed with the then Conservative Government’s plan to privatise the railways. He was a thinking politician to the very end, and a man of colossal political courage.

What is conspicuously absent from the White Paper is any clear commitment to making buses more environmentally friendly. As I said earlier, many buses continue to pump out the most noxious gases. There appear to be no incentives for bus companies to use cleaner buses, or to upgrade old buses to make them cleaner. That was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) and by
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others, including the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane).

Chris Mole: Opposition Front-Bench Members have been ambiguous in respect of their enthusiasm for the arrangements in London, but London has, of course, been the primary area for the use of hydrogen buses. The Mayor has been able to test them out there, and the use of such buses is a long-term ambition of everybody involved in the industry. Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that the Mayor has probably gone further than anyone else in achieving the use of hydrogen buses?

Mr. Brazier: The person who has gone furthest in respect of the development of fuel cells across a range of vehicles is President Bush; he is light years ahead of everybody else. The key current difficulty in the development of hydrogen-based fuel cells is that they are impossibly expensive. The hon. Gentleman’s point therefore provides one more example of why London is so different from the rest of the country, as the Government acknowledge in their paper: he mentioned a very expensive project that only London could have trialled. In the very long run fuel cells have much to offer, but at present they are far too expensive.

My party recognises that there have been some cases of serious bad practice on the part of some operators; we know that some companies fail to provide an acceptable quality of service. If the buses are dirty and not cleaned overnight, if the seats are ripped and not repaired, if it is barely possible to see out of the windows, and if no information is provided either on board or at the stop—a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby—then travel by bus is a confusing and unpleasant experience. More importantly, such bad practice causes potential users to be driven away and a vicious circle develops. It is not unreasonable to allow that a minimum standard of service and bus quality should be demanded.

We know that in some towns and cities popular routes have been flooded with buses as operators attempt to bankrupt the competition on a handful of paying routes; Manchester has been mentioned in that regard several times. The conditions relating to the operation of a particular route could be made more stringent—the local authority could have such powers—perhaps by forcing operators to commit to the route for a specific length of time at a specific price to prevent them from simply dipping in and out of the market in a predatory fashion to kill the competition.

We also know that where local authorities and bus operators work together, real success has been achieved. Several places were mentioned. We have a particularly exciting idea in Kent, which has a model Conservative authority. Starting in June of this year, Kent county council will offer cheap bus travel in two districts, Canterbury and Tunbridge Wells. There will be £50 a year cards for all 11 to 16-year-olds; that will be done in partnership with local bus companies. Canterbury is a bus service hub; it is also an educational hub for east Kent. The travel cards would allow 11 to 16-year-olds to use buses for a range of services, not only for education. If the scheme is a success, it is hoped that it can be extended across the county, and eventually to primary school pupils, too.

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Dr. Ladyman: The hon. Gentleman is right that that is an exciting trial, but, given the usual criticisms of the Conservative party, will he also comment on why it was not decided to trial it in any of the Labour constituencies in Kent?

Mr. Brazier: I cannot comment on west Kent, but I can say that the fact that Canterbury is the bus hub of east Kent—that point figured heavily in the discussions on the health service that came up an hour or so ago in the debate—makes it an ideal place to conduct a first trial. As the Minister knows, there is considerable poverty in the area I represent; for a long time, Whitstable and Herne Bay in the Canterbury area had an assisted designation.

We hope that measures such as that which I have described will prove that partnerships can work as long as the local transport authority and the bus operators are prepared to have a constructive relationship. We also think that where local authorities agree to make improvements, such as putting in bus lanes and other priority measures that the operator will benefit from, it is reasonable for local authorities to insist that the operator makes some contribution to the public good.

Mr. Betts: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I listened earlier to the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) and tried to find one clear statement of Conservative party policy. Can the hon. Gentleman tell the House in simple terms what two things he would do differently from Labour Ministers if he were sat on the Government side of the Chamber?

Mr. Brazier: I am coming to a couple of things that we would do, if the hon. Gentleman will wait just a moment.

As a matter of good practice, partnership is likely to work more effectively where partners share information and data. The Concessionary Bus Travel Bill, which was touched on briefly, will fill in some existing gaps in the scheme. We hope that the scheme will be fully funded. Given the demands that the Government have placed on local authorities, the funding should match the demands. However, it is clear that partnerships are a better vehicle for achieving improved services than so-called quality contracts, although there is room for those, too.

I will end by mentioning two areas of disagreement with the Government, one of which the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe touched on in his speech. We believe that local authorities should be the dominant figure, rather than the unelected bodies that could overrule their proposals. Secondly, local authorities should be given a greater say in fixing the concessions and arrangements that they want to make. In common with Members in all parts of the House, we see the bus as one of the best ways of people reducing their carbon footprint, as well as being a vital resource for less well-off families. We have heard a number of examples of initiatives being taken by local authorities, and I particularly welcome the imaginative initiative in Kent. Any measures that seek to get bus companies and local authorities working together will get a clear ride from us.

5.42 pm

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