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Westminster Hall

Thursday 1 December 2011

[Nadine Dorries in the Chair]

Transport Disruption (Winter 2010)

[Relevant document s : Fifth Report from the Transport Committee, “Keeping the UK Moving: The Impact on Transport of the Winter Weather in December 2010”, HC 794, and the Government Response, Sixth Special Report, HC 1467. ]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Norman Baker.)

2.30 pm

Mrs Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): A year ago today, the UK was in the midst of a very cold spell of weather. North-easterly winds had swept snow in from the Arctic and it fell throughout the country, adding to substantial falls during the last week of November. The temperature barely rose above freezing and was below minus 10° C all day in parts of Scotland.

There were two periods of intense cold weather last winter, from 30 November to 3 December, and from 16 to 22 December. The temperature in December 2010 was 5° C below the average for the month, and there were nine significant snow “events” bringing the most widespread snow in the UK for 30 years. Winter 2010-11 was the third cold winter in succession. We are still waiting to find out whether this winter will be another severe one or whether there will be a return to the milder conditions we had become used to.

The severe weather last December affected aviation severely. Heathrow airport was closed shortly before Christmas and other airports were also disrupted, as were our trains, particularly in Kent and Sussex. Eurostar services were disrupted, with long queues in the cold outside St Pancras station as people tried to get to Paris or Brussels just before Christmas. There were also problems on major and local roads, as well as complaints about pavements and minor roads being left under snow and ice for weeks at a time. The Transport Committee’s inquiry looked at all of these issues and we published our report in May. I am pleased to have the opportunity to debate the Government’s reply to our report just as winter 2011-12 begins.

First, I pay tribute to David Quarmby, who led a small review team during 2010 that looked at winter resilience in the transport sector. He also audited how transport coped with the first spell of adverse weather a year ago. His analysis has been extremely important: it was comprehensive, and his recommendations were accepted by the Government. Can the Minister confirm that all of the Quarmby recommendations have now been implemented in full? If we have further transport disruption this winter, will he commission an independent review, so that we can continue to learn lessons and improve transport’s resilience to bad weather?

Bad weather causes disruption to businesses and individuals and affects normal activities. Mr Quarmby tried to estimate how much the transport disruption due to bad weather last winter cost the UK, and concluded

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that increased spending on winter resilience by highways authorities could be cost-effective. Since then, the Office for National Statistics has estimated that the adverse weather last December knocked 0.5% off UK GDP during the third quarter of 2010-11, which reduced growth from 0.6% to 0.1% and cost about £1.6 billion, and the Secretary of State for Transport told us that transport disruption cost the nation £280 million per day.

Those are very big figures and they show why there are sound economic reasons for addressing the situation, as well as the inconvenience that transport breakdown in bad weather causes to daily life for most people. A day at home because of heavy snow might be seen by some as fun, but the implications for businesses can be substantial, and many people can be left isolated by bad weather when they cannot get out, cannot get basic provisions and cannot receive their usual visits from friends and relations. In addition to those implications, there are further social consequences: schools can be shut, and vulnerable people can be trapped in their homes, with higher heating bills as a result. Preparing our transport systems for winter is therefore absolutely essential.

One of the issues that our report examined was the importance of long-range weather forecasting. Although it is true to say that short-term forecasts are generally accurate, long-term forecasting is poor—indeed, it is discredited, particularly since the Met Office made its “barbecue summer” predictions a few years ago. The previous Secretary of State for Transport, the right hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr Hammond), suggested that for an investment of £10 million, the Met Office could achieve a big step forward in forecasting capability. We took up that suggestion and recommended that that investment be made. The Government’s reply to our report makes no specific comment on that issue, so I ask the Minister to set out the Government’s position on that today. Do they agree that there should be further investment in the Met Office or other appropriate organisations? If so, what do they think that investment should be and when will it be made? The Department for Transport told us that it is working across Government to review evidence on winter weather patterns and to test whether current levels of investment in winter resilience are optimised. Again, we would be interested to know the outcome of that work.

Aviation bore the brunt of the transport disruption last winter. Gatwick airport closed for 46 hours from 1 to 3 December, and Heathrow airport closed from 18 to 20 December after 7 cm of snow fell in one hour. At the height of the disruption, 10,000 passengers spent the night in the Heathrow terminals. Not only were the airports closed for a time and flights postponed or cancelled, but there was also the very important question of how passengers’ needs were dealt with when that situation arose.

I accept that heavy snow will close any airport in the world for a short period. I also accept that Heathrow is in a particularly difficult position because it operates at virtually full capacity; other airports can recover from disruption more quickly because they are neither as busy nor as full. However, there were problems with how the disruption was handled, which involved the airlines as well as the airports. There was ambiguity about whether or not the airport was closed. Passengers

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did not know whether to come to the airport or stay at home, and far too many ended up staying for long periods in terminals, worried that they might miss a flight if they left.

BAA was criticised for not implementing its snow plan, for inadequate communications with passengers and airlines and for not having adequate snow and ice-clearing equipment. To BAA’s credit, it appointed David Begg to review its winter resilience plans and their operation. He produced a strong report and did not pull any punches. He recommended that Heathrow should adopt

“an improved resilience target that the airport never closes as a result of circumstances beyond its control.”

He also recommended improvements to planning and communications. BAA accepted his report’s recommendations, which was a very positive move.

We must recognise that, as our hub airport, Heathrow plays a crucial role in maintaining the UK’s competitiveness. Is the Minister satisfied that the changes made at Heathrow will make the airport better prepared for winter weather this year? That question relates to its dealing with the initial impact of bad weather, the process and the speed of recovery from disruption, and how passengers’ needs are met during that time.

The Committee recommended that the Secretary of State for Transport should designate a senior official to have oversight of the snow plans of major airports. We proposed that idea because we thought that Parliament and the public needed reassurance that the plans put together by the airports were adequate, but the Government rejected that recommendation in its response. I would like the Minister to tell us why today.

One of the ironies was that the very severe airport disruption was not reflected in airport performance measures—indeed, they suggested that business had continued as normal. The Committee recommended that airport regulation should include a measure to assess air travel disruption. I am pleased that a draft airport regulation Bill, the Civil Aviation Bill, has now been published; the Transport Committee will start to scrutinise it next week and will look at the proposed new regulatory regime. We are told that winter resilience will be reflected in the Bill, and I would like to hear more from the Minister, hopefully today, about how that will be achieved. The Committee will pursue the issue in more detail in its pre-legislative scrutiny.

Airports and airlines must do more to look after passengers. It is striking that there seems to be no organisation that represents air passengers’ welfare. There was an organisation that dealt with air passengers’ needs, but the Government have abandoned their own proposal to move that responsibility to Passenger Focus and it is unclear exactly who is responsible for considering passengers’ needs. The responsibility does not lie solely with airports, although they do have very serious responsibilities; airlines, too, should help passengers during periods of disruption. Our Committee recommended that airports should do more to look after passengers at times of disruption, but should be able to reclaim the cost of doing that from the airlines. I am pleased that the Civil Aviation Authority is taking that proposal forward and I look forward to seeing how the idea

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develops. I am also pleased that, in the draft Bill, the CAA’s primary duty will be to passengers, but we need to see how that would operate in practice.

A problem with airport recovery after disruption is in managing flight landings and departures. The previous Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge, appeared before our Committee and was asked a lot of questions about this. He suggested that airports might be enabled to impose emergency timetables, with oversight by the Civil Aviation Authority. The Select Committee thought that that was a good idea, but the Government no longer seem as keen as they were to go ahead with it. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s views and the Government’s current thinking on that proposal.

Gatwick airport brought to our attention another issue: the importance of maintaining surface access to airports to keep them running. Although its runway was clear, staff and passengers struggled to reach Gatwick airport by rail or road. A more co-ordinated approach to managing the response to adverse weather is needed to ensure that such problems are avoided. The Committee felt that, if necessary, the Government should step in to resolve conflicting priorities, but that that should not be necessary and the matter should be dealt with locally. Whether it is passengers or staff who are affected, not being able to get to airports by road can be a serious impediment.

There were also problems with rail services last winter, particularly south of the Thames where the third-rail system was again unable to cope with the snow and ice. Network Rail was caught out by the early start to the winter, with its snow-clearing trains still in depots being converted from their autumn leaf-clearing role. That mistake was not repeated this year and Network Rail has invested £40 million in new snow equipment. A conference of network operators in the south-east was held in November to discuss what further action was taken, and there were a number of detailed discussions about actions taken by various operators. Is the Minister monitoring the outcome of that conference and staying abreast of the practical, preventive steps being taken by Network Rail and the train operating companies to deal with the problems?

The Chancellor announced in his autumn statement that there would be further investment in winter resilience equipment, but we do not have any detail about exactly what that means. Can the Minister explain what the resilience equipment is, how much will be spent and when, and what will happen to make a real difference? It has been accepted, I think, that the long-term answer to the specific problems in the south-east is the replacement of the third-rail system with a safer, more robust form of electrification. It will be expensive, which is perhaps why it has not yet been done, but surely it could be phased in, even if over a longer period. I understand that options are being studied, and I would like to hear more from the Minister about what is happening with the programme for the electrification of the third-rail system.

Passengers across all modes of transport were let down by inadequate information. At times of severe disruption transport delays and breakdowns are inevitable, but information systems must be ready to inform passengers and potential passengers about the situation. Although some breakdowns might occur without notice, others

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are known about and indeed can be predicted. Online timetables were not updated quickly enough to take cancellations into account, and many people ended up buying tickets for non-existent trains. Real-time information for passengers on trains and in stations was very poor. When we raised the issue with industry representatives in the Select Committee we were told that there were numerous information systems across the railway, that some of them were very old, and that pulling them together was one of the legacies of privatisation. We did not accept that argument: many years have passed since privatisation, so it cannot be used as an excuse not to have updated systems and not to deal with problems.

We agree with Passenger Focus that a culture of looking after passengers when things go wrong is not yet second nature across the rail industry. That needs to change. The Office of Rail Regulation has published proposals to clarify responsibilities for the provision of information, but in a very recent publication it is unclear whether ORR is talking about a consultation—if so, I would like to know how long it will take—or about making specific proposals. I am interested to hear what knowledge the Minister has of that and what he can do to progress it. The rail industry’s national taskforce has also been working on improving real-time information provision ahead of this winter, so is the Minister confident that we are in a better situation than we were last year?

There was major disruption on some motorways, but traffic on the UK’s main roads was generally kept moving during the bad weather. Credit should go to the Highways Agency and the local highways authorities, which rose to the challenge and worked hard to keep roads open, in co-ordination with the agency.

During the year before last, there was a great deal of concern about problems in providing sufficient salt to put on the roads to prevent ice from forming. As a result of David Quarmby’s review, many changes were made. The arrangements had considerable success and resulted in great improvement. We felt that the Government’s strategic salt arrangements worked well, generally speaking, although some local authorities did complain about transparency, distribution and the cost of the salt. However, improvement was made. Had last year’s bad weather continued for longer than it did, further issues might have been raised about the adequacy of salt provision. What are the Minister’s views on the salt situation for the current year and next year? Does he think that there is enough salt to deal with a long bad winter? Are we in a better position than last year? I repeat that last year was dealt with much better than the year before. Salt provision and co-ordination arrangements among the Government, regional organisations, local authorities and salt suppliers worked far better.

Public support is widespread for more action to clear pavements and minor roads during periods of disruption, particularly to maintain access to facilities such as schools and health centres. Often when we discuss disruption to transport networks in bad weather, there is a perhaps inevitable focus on major roads and major transport networks. They are clearly of economic importance and they matter for the country as a whole, but it is also a problem if somebody living in a local road cannot get out, is worried about falling or cannot get access to goods, services, basic amenities or friends. Sometimes, by concentrating on the big questions and challenges, we do not give sufficient attention to the local issues

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that matter so much to individuals. In particular, it is vital to maintain access to facilities such as schools and health centres.

Voluntary effort has a role to play. Some local authorities have been involved in organising it, some have taken steps such as providing grit bins at the ends of roads and some are considering what else they can do locally this year. Our Committee asked that the Government make available online more practical information about what people can do voluntarily, such as helping clear pavements outside their own premises, after the publication last year of the snow code, which provided reassurances about potential legal liabilities. Local problems such as side roads and access to local homes need addressing. Do the Government have any comments on that? I know that local authorities are considering it. Given their financial problems, they are restricted in what they can do, but it is important and should not be neglected.

Our report reflected our concern about how many drivers appear unprepared for winter weather. According to an AA survey, nearly half are unprepared. Has the Department done anything to encourage drivers to be better prepared this year? Last year, drivers were warned that they should make only essential journeys in bad weather. It is often difficult to define what essential journeys are. Many people think that their journey is essential if they want to go out, but there is no further clarity about what that means. We thought that the police and the Department should develop a set of travel warnings to provide clearer guidance to the public about what sorts of journey they should not undertake during particular types of bad weather. The Highways Agency agreed to consider that recommendation. It would be helpful to know whether any progress has been made.

At our inquiry, we heard from the Freight Transport Association, which asked for specific snow and ice warnings for HGVs, similar to current warnings about high winds. I understand that that recommendation has been accepted. Will the Minister confirm that? If that has been done, it will be helpful. Parts of the major road network, such as certain hills or junctions in exposed areas, are particularly prone to disruption in severe winter weather. We suggested that the Highways Agency should deploy its traffic officers in such areas during bad weather to help clear blockages and deal with problems as quickly as possible. Some of the public reaction during the bad weather came from people trapped in vehicles behind blockages on the road. They were concerned that the blockages had not been removed and felt that more warnings should have been given or more urgent action taken. The Government agreed with our concern, but it would be helpful to know whether specific action is being taken to address the problem.

Our report covered a great deal of ground. I have referred to most of the areas involved, but there were many concerns involving all modes of transport. It was also essential to consider the needs of the non-travelling public. Our report asked for better information at all levels and more co-ordination to secure effective action, as well as more investment targeted at the most appropriate places. With more accurate information about weather and road conditions, train services and flights, people can make better informed judgments about whether to travel, and transport providers can plan better.

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I hope that our work has helped the Government respond to the policy challenges highlighted by last December’s bad weather, and I hope that it has shown our main transport providers that they should be doing more to put passenger welfare first. Our report considered how effective co-ordination of information and action—including preventive action, action to deal with problems and recovery—can mitigate the impact of bad weather in an ongoing process. I hope that our report contributes to enabling transportation links to operate in the interests of the public despite bad weather.

2.57 pm

Simon Wright (Norwich South) (LD): I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this debate. I congratulate the Select Committee on Transport on its report, which made numerous recommendations that many of us can support. I will speak briefly about the recommendations relating to better weather forecasting and the provision of improved warnings and travel information to drivers.

Achieving better medium and long-term forecasting would allow transport operators to plan better for problems ahead. We start in a good position. The Met Office is widely recognised as one of the best weather predictors in the world, providing accurate and reliable forecasts over various time scales. The Met Office relies increasingly on supercomputing to carry out its work. Developing capacity and capability is vital if it is to undertake more detailed forecasting in future.

The science is available now to predict weather better, but computing power is required to realise that science. In the past, meteorology applied to weather forecasting had the most cutting-edge computing power available. Today, that is no longer the case, but last winter showed us that it is still needed. Better computing power means that the science can be applied in ever higher degrees of resolution.

The investment required to ensure that the Met Office has adequate computing power is probably about £15 million a year. That is a little more than the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) suggested, but it is in the same ballpark. That investment would bring tangible benefits to the UK through improved short-range weather forecasts, long-term predictions and climate change projections.

The economic case for better forecasting is clear in relation to advance planning for extreme weather events affecting transport infrastructure, but other opportunities would arise from better flooding, snowstorm and high wind forecasting. The insurance industry, which has a strong presence in my constituency, also stands to benefit, given that two thirds of the world’s insured losses are related to natural events. Getting information out early means that businesses and communities can plan their activities and, in extreme events, possibly save lives, too. For long-term planning, the improvements in climate modelling from improved computing power would help significantly to inform investment in and delivery of major transport infrastructure projects. The Met Office’s public weather service at present is already worth more than £500 million to the economy. Increasing computing power would increase that even more. The sooner we

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invest in improving the supercomputing capacity of the Met Office, the sooner the UK will see the social and economic benefits.

I also want to say a few words about how best to communicate the impact of weather on driving conditions. At present, the Met Office-issued warnings are to be interpreted by drivers based on The Highway Code, with advice provided through the media by the Highways Agency and police. Last winter, drivers were advised at the height of the extreme weather conditions not to use the roads unless they had to. However, the interpretation by drivers of this advice is not clear. Do people who hear this message ask themselves, “Do I need to use my car to make this journey?”—the answer to which is often yes—or do they ask themselves, “Will there be serious implications to not making this journey at all?”, in which case the answer might be no?

It needs to be noted by Ministers that the Highways Agency research on driving behaviour in the winter before last shows that there had been little change in behaviour, despite the severity of the weather and the warnings issued. I strongly support the Committee’s recommendation for research into travel messages and how they influence behaviour, or fail to. The nature of language used, consistency of message and clarity for the recipients are all vital. If we are to tell people not to travel unless necessary, they need to be clear about what circumstances are and are not necessary. Perhaps advice needs to be more direct—“Do not travel unless there is a medical need to do so.” Perhaps different levels of alert could be devised, but let us support proper research into the issue so that we can know what makes a difference and what does not, rather than simply tweak existing practices that have not always delivered results.

Websites can also play an important role to help drivers plan their journeys. The Highways Agency’s Traffic England website, for example, provides real-time information on any problems on the motorway and A-road network. We need to make sure that drivers are aware of such tools, but we also need to recognise that at times of high demand some websites simply cannot cope. There were reports on some days of extreme weather last winter that traffic information websites were going down. For those drivers who are already out on the roads, it is vital that every effort is made to ensure that there is access to real, in-time information about the conditions on particular routes, and that drivers are able to adjust their routes as necessary, including before joining, and therefore adding to, existing problems on roads.

The AA’s survey of drivers has already been mentioned. It highlighted that drivers most wanted to be actively directed away from motorways if there were problems, and that they supported the use of the police to carry out that function. Roadside assistance could also be delivered through improved information and signage. I support efforts by the Highways Agency to develop the use of variable message signs and the expanded use of similar technologies across the road network where appropriate.

The ever-increasing availability and use of in-car technologies, such as sat-nav and smart phones, mean that new opportunities are available for providing real-time data specific to the interest of the individual driver following a specific route. Again, I think that the Highways Agency has an important role to play, working with

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providers of data-based services, to ensure that the data that it provides are as complete and as usable as they can be. There is even a role for the agency to help develop data applications of its own where needed.

We need to get weather forecasting as good as it can be, and we need people who are both planning journeys and driving on our roads to have access to the most up to date and accurate information about the weather and the condition of particular routes, and a system of warnings that are proven to be effective in changing driver behaviour when the conditions require it.

3.4 pm

Julie Hilling (Bolton West) (Lab): We have been so lucky so far this winter, but that seems to me to be part of the problem in this country with winter resilience. We have winter after winter with very little snow and ice, but then have winters like the previous three. At a time of dreadful cuts to budgets across the piece, it can be easy to make winter preparedness a lower priority, especially for weather events that do not happen every year. A few years ago, one of my local authorities sold one of its snow ploughs, because if felt that our winters had warmed. I think that, last year, it might have regretted that decision.

I want to focus on the people end of the problem with winter weather. Colleagues already have talked and, I am sure, will talk about airports, major roads and rail. I have quite a large constituency, the ground of which varies from being quite high to quite low. The highest parts are the west Pennine moors and, like any high ground, there can be snow there when there is none lower down in the constituency. In fact, I have sat in a constituent’s house in Horwich in absolute panic, because the snow had started to lie heavily, wondering how on earth I was going to get home, but by the time I got home at the other end of the constituency I ran into only a little drizzle. As they say in Lancashire, it is an overcoat colder up at one end. That illustrates graphically the need for accurate, localised information.

I am sure that all colleagues present would share my frustration at seeing a sign at the start of the M1 that says that the M6 is closed at junction 16, because a driver does not know whether it will still be closed when they get there in three hours’ time. I recognise the limitation of roadside signs—it is not possible to put a huge amount of information on them—but we need that localised information, and we need it on local radio, websites, sat-navs and other electronic devices. It is hugely important that that information is regularly updated, because, too often, information is left on those sites long after the obstruction or the problem has been cleared, which leads to an absolute lack of trust in the information when the driver gets there and the road is no longer closed.

This is not just a bad-weather issue, because we need that information all year round, whether it relates to accidents, roadworks or other incidents on our highways. As I have said, the information needs to be localised. In my experience of my locality, certain main thoroughfares are cleared as quickly as possible. I have no complaints whatsoever about the speed with which that is done, bearing in mind the weather conditions over the past couple of years. However, one would expect other roads that one considers to be main thoroughfares to be

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cleared, but they are not because they are not in the local authority’s plan. I am concerned about some of those routes. They can be quite major roads and side roads on which, in parts of my constituency, cars can be trapped for many days.

The then Transport Secretary, the current Defence Secretary, told the Transport Committee that the issue of snow clearance is one for local authorities, but I do not think it is enough to leave it to local authorities. More should be done to set expectations and to support them with funding allocations, taking those areas that are prone to severe weather conditions into particular account.

There is also an issue with particular parts of local authority areas. Johnson Fold, a council estate in my constituency, has some of the highest housing in the borough, on the edge of the moors. Two winters ago, when the rest of the borough had defrosted, Johnson Fold was still snow and ice-bound. I came across elderly people who had been trapped in their homes for three weeks. The vast majority of residents, particularly on this estate, are of limited means, so they cannot purchase additional help to clear roads and paths. There are fewer cars on the roads, because they do not have as many cars as those in the more affluent areas, so the traffic flow does not get rid of snow and ice, either.

I appreciate the then Secretary of State’s suggestion of voluntary snow wardens. What has happened to them, and how much progress has been made? Standards should be set whereby resources that are no longer needed on major networks are used in the more remote areas, so that they are not disproportionately affected, and I think that that advice and those standards should be led by the Government.

That leads me to another concern of mine about pavements, which we seem to leave entirely to local authority discretion. I accept that pavements might not be their first priority, but we need to get our thoroughfares going, because they are part of our transport system; people need to walk to and from trains and buses, and they walk to work and other places. Again, it seems that some standards should be set. I know that different things happen in different local authorities, and when the bins could not be collected in two local authorities in my area, staff were transferred to clearing the pavements, but more standards should be set.

I say that because these problems lead to costs in other areas. They lead to increased costs in the health service because accidents occur and people have slips and falls. They also lead to costs in the economy at large when people cannot get to and from work or to shops to trade with people who are trying to run their businesses. Should those additional costs, which lie outside transport in the smallest sense, be factored into the economic costs of severe whether?

The hon. Member for Norwich South (Simon Wright) talked about people being given information, but do the cuts to what the Government call their marketing budget—I would call it their information service—mean that less information is being provided to people through traditional means, such as television adverts and literature? Does that mean that people are less prepared? Do they have shovels and blankets in their cars? Should the Government review their expenditure on advertising safety measures? I do not think we are giving people some of the public information advice they need, particularly on safety.

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Finally, how will the cuts and potential cuts to the BBC and local radio services affect the travel services on which we all rely? Those services give very localised information about hold-ups and blockages, but will that information be affected by cuts at the BBC?

3.12 pm

John Woodcock (Barrow and Furness) (Lab/Co-op): It is a pleasure to serve under you as Chair, Ms Dorries. This is an important and timely debate, and I congratulate the members of the Transport Committee on their valuable and constructive report and on securing this slot. I also congratulate the Committee Chair, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman), on her excellent opening speech. She will be delighted to know that I will reinforce many of the points she made.

A year ago this week, Britain was hit hard by extreme winter weather and experienced the earliest snowfall for 17 years. Temperatures fell as low as minus 21°C—temperatures not normally associated with the UK. The snow and cold were extremely prolonged, extending right through to Christmas and the new year, and we are well aware of the impact they had on Britain’s transport networks: thousands of flights were cancelled at major airports; passengers were trapped overnight on stranded trains; motorways were closed for hours on end after accidents; and people were trapped in their houses as councils ran low on salt to treat roads.

It was an exceptional winter, and it would be unrealistic to claim that Britain could have got through it without some disruption to our transport networks. No one blames the Government for the thickness of the snow, but it is right to ask how prepared and resilient they enabled the country to be. The 2009 winter under the Labour Government was also harsh and caused transport disruption, leading to the establishment of the Quarmby review. The following year, it became clear that the new Government had not gone far enough in putting David Quarmby’s recommendations in place, despite having received the interim report in July.

On salt supplies, in particular, although the distribution method may have improved, as the Committee’s report noted, the Government gave the impression of being asleep on the job. In its April report on the winter disruption, the Committee identified criticism from the Local Government Association, which said that recommendations on reducing salt spreading rates came far too late in the planning process. The AA and the Royal Automobile Club had concerns about the resilience of the UK’s salt supply arrangements, while the Institute of Highway Engineers said that the strategic salt supply was inadequate.

The Committee noted that Ministers claimed credit for having a stockpile of salt left at the end of the winter, but the truth is that we got lucky. The UK went into the winter with less salt than recommended by David Quarmby’s report. From parliamentary questions I have tabled, we know that 60% of Britain’s stock of salt was used up by the end of December. Had milder weather not prevailed in the new year, we would have faced much more widespread road closures. Last winter, Britain’s salt stocks and distribution systems came close to being inadequate to meet the challenge we faced. We

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are fortunate that we have not faced early snow this year, but we need to know that stocks and systems are in place to respond if and when severe weather strikes.

I would be grateful if the Minister answered a number of questions on road issues. Is he confident that, as of today, the UK has a large enough stockpile to cope with a prolonged period of extreme weather? What measures are in place to ensure that stocks can be replenished, from domestic or international resources, over the winter? As an aside, let me say that I was grateful that the Leader of the Opposition sent me down the salt mine at Winsford last year. It was an excellent experience, and I recommend that the Minister takes the opportunity to visit it.

What measures has the Minister taken to ensure that the salt distribution network is robust, even in severe weather? Are his officials in a position to provide more timely information and advice to local authorities on the availability of strategic salt stocks and on recommended salt spreading rates? During last year’s severe weather, the Highways Agency phone line for providing information on road conditions and reporting hazards missed its targets for response times in three separate weeks. What measures have been put in place to ensure the phone line has the capacity to function properly this year?

Just as we cannot afford Britain’s road network to seize up, so we must avoid a repeat of the disruption, delays, distress and economic damage caused by the failure of airports and parts of the rail network to function as well as they should have during the severe weather. The Select Committee report acknowledges that decisions on investment in both sectors are often rightly in the hands of private sector bodies, but that cannot mean that the Government wash their hands of responsibility.

Our major airports are an essential part of our strategic transport system and our economic competitiveness. The Begg report clearly gave the impression that provisions at Heathrow for dealing with severe weather and recovering from a period of enforced closure were woefully inadequate. Heathrow’s status as a global hub airport faces intense competition, and an inability to cope well with severe weather will not help it in any way. Let me therefore reinforce the importance of the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside by asking whether sufficient runway clearing equipment is now in place at Heathrow and other airports. What involvement have Transport Ministers had in signing off revised snow plans for those airports?

The major problems on the railways last year revolved around the third-rail electrified network in the south-east. I was pleased to note from a written answer I received that some de-icing vehicles were made available for that network earlier this year. In October I was informed that 16 anti-icing multi-purpose vehicles and six snow and ice treatment trains would be available from today, 1 December. Are those indeed in place? Can the Minister also confirm whether locomotives are available on the third-rail network to rescue stalled trains? In the longer term, as my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside alluded to, the Quarmby review recommended that Ministers should look seriously at whether the time had come to replace the top contact system of third-rail electrification. No one should underestimate the scale of the cost of such a proposal, but it has warranted no mention in the national infrastructure plan, which was published on Tuesday. Has there been any work on the recommendation, and what conclusions have been reached?

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Last year, as has been mentioned extensively, one of rail travellers’ key complaints was the failure of information systems. Often, station information screens were blank, because contingency timetables had not been uploaded to the national computer system. What measures are in place to prevent a reoccurrence of that problem? Some train operators provided a good standard of information, through both traditional and social media methods, throughout the disruption. Others seemed at times to give up. What discussions has the Minister had with the Association of Train Operating Companies and individual companies to ensure that best practice will be spread across the industry and that poor performers can be penalised?

On several occasions last year, passengers were trapped on powerless, stalled trains, without emergency blankets or emergency supplies of food or drink. On 27 October this year at column 285W I asked a written question on whether provision had been made for such supplies to be carried on trains during severe weather. I was concerned to receive a response that stated simply that the matter was the concern of the operating companies. We need Ministers to take a more hands-on approach than that. If necessary, they should consider instructing companies to make such provision. Will the Minister make a commitment to consider the issue and carry out a full analysis of which operating companies have made arrangements to carry blankets, water and food?

Following three severe winters, questions are rightly being asked about whether we have the right balance of investment for winter resilience. Governments of all shades, in recent decades, have perceived a decline in instances of severe winter weather, and have made investment decisions accordingly. It is possible, whether as a result of climate change or not, that we may need to revise our approach. After last winter, the then Secretary of State made a commitment to studying whether there was evidence that the cost-benefit analysis of investment in winter resilience had shifted. I would be grateful if the Minister would update us on any such work that is taking place.

When the Minister answers the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside about the announcement of funding in the autumn statement, will he make it clear whether the investment that is being made will ensure that all the additional capacity that is being bought will be available this winter?

3.23 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Norman Baker): A huge range of questions were asked in the debate, and I will do my best to get through them. I thank the Select Committee on Transport for initiating the study and for producing a helpful and balanced report—indeed, its Chair, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman), made a helpful and balanced contribution today. The Committee is doing its job and the Government have found its comments useful in focusing our attention on the important issues.

As the hon. Lady and the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock), said, last winter was extraordinarily cold. The hon. Gentleman referred to the fact that the temperature reached its lowest for 17 years; it was indeed exceptional. I am grateful that he did not seek to blame the Government

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for the weather—he almost did, but not quite.




If he wants to, that is fine. We were collectively—not just the Government, but local authorities and transport providers—better prepared in 2010 than in 2009, which also saw serious weather. I think that we are better prepared in 2011 than we were in 2010.

The availability of salt stocks has been mentioned. The hon. Member for Barrow and Furness said his leader sent him down a salt mine; my leader has not sent me down one yet, but perhaps that will come if I do not perform well this afternoon. I am happy to say that salt stocks are healthy: in October there were 2,755,000 tonnes of salt stocks, which compares favourably with—indeed, it is considerably more than—what we had last year. There were no problems with salt stocks either this year or last year. Had we had a Siberian winter, no doubt we might have had a problem, but even with an exceptional winter the salt stocks were perfectly adequate. We now have more stocks than last year, and having undertaken a survey of all local authorities, and all councils bar two have responded, we are confident about the figures we quote. In addition, we have published guidance on salt spread rates, which is available on the UK Roads Liaison Group website and through the Highways Agency. We are well prepared this year.

The hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside asked whether all the Quarmby recommendations had been implemented in full. She will know that some of them were not for the Department for Transport, so I cannot definitively say whether all the local authorities have implemented all the measures identified for them. However, all the recommendations that relate to the Department for Transport have either been completely implemented, or have made significant progress toward implementation. If the hon. Lady wants to pursue a particular point, I shall be happy subsequently to provide her with information in recommendation-by-recommendation form; that is perfectly possible.

The hon. Lady asked whether we would have an independent review this winter. I hope that that will not be necessary. We are better prepared—I shall explain why I think so in a moment—and so are transport providers. If something were to go awry we would want to examine what happened—as would the Committee, I am sure—but I hope that will not happen.

The hon. Lady and my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich South (Simon Wright) highlighted the importance of preparations by the Met Office and the capacity to identify future weather patterns—at least beyond a few days. I believe that last winter the Met Office forecasts broadly reflected what occurred, which was useful, but it remains the case that severity can vary over relatively small distances, so an element of operational judgment on how reliable the information is will always be required by transport providers and, indeed—to pick up the point made by the hon. Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling)—by those who make their own judgments about whether to venture out. Weather in this country can change markedly within five or 10 miles, so it is difficult to get even local radio forecasts very accurate. Incidentally, I am not responsible for BBC local radio cuts, and nor are the Government: it is a matter for the BBC what it does. I simply hope that the BBC can protect local radio, which is a valuable service and information source for the country.

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The hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside and my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich South both rightly asked about a potential £10 million investment in supercomputing capability for weather forecasting. We are considering that suggestion sympathetically. There is a need to understand the benefits of more detailed forecasting and its role alongside other measures designed to increase the resilience of transport infrastructure to disruption from extreme winter weather. We are working with economic and scientific colleagues across Government to review the evidence about winter weather patterns and to test whether current levels of investment in winter resilience are being optimised. The Met Office raised the idea of supercomputing capability. Perhaps the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside, as Committee Chair, knows that the previous Transport Secretary commissioned a review by the chief economist and chief scientist at the Department for Transport to establish whether there was a case for greater investment in measures to improve winter resilience. That review is also formally assessing the business case, and, if it is viable, the potential funding options for such an investment. The present Secretary of State has the report on her desk and will publish it shortly.

The response of aviation was rightly raised. It is undoubtedly true that there were significant problems at Heathrow last year, to which hon. Members rightly drew attention. The Committee referred to the criticism that major airports were under-investing in winter resilience equipment, and thought that that was borne out. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside also mentioned the David Begg report in her opening remarks and the useful work that he has done. As she knows, we broadly agree with the thrust of the Committee’s observation on the level of airports’ investment in winter resilience. However, Heathrow and Gatwick have taken on board the need to do rather better than last year. They have put in place revised arrangements and made new investment to reduce the risk of disruption as a result of future severe winter events.

I can confirm that both airports have made significant investment in additional snow and ice clearance capacity and that Heathrow has committed more than £30 million to date, including on tripling its snow and ice clearance vehicle fleet and quadrupling staff numbers available for snow clearance. Gatwick has invested £8 million in further snow and ice clearance equipment, including the acquisition of snow clearance vehicles from Switzerland and the subsequent acquisition of 30 additional vehicles. Both airports have revised their operational command and control procedures to improve their response to severe weather.

At Heathrow airport, operators and others who use the airport have agreed capacity contingency plans that are enforceable through the airport’s local rules. Those plans will be initiated during periods of temporarily reduced capacity to deliver an effective schedule for passengers. Heathrow has tripled the number of vehicles available for snow clearance compared with December 2010—there are now 185 vehicles at the airport. It has increased the number of staff available for snow clearance from 117 to 468 per shift and it has a new reservist role, so that 950 non-operational staff can be deployed. It has agreed with industry on a new process for managing

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the necessary flight cancellations during disruption, which was mentioned, so that passengers have more timely and accurate information about whether their flight is operating. I entirely agree that it is important to do that given what happened last year at the airport. In answer to the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness, yes, I am confident that Heathrow and Gatwick are much better prepared this year than they were last year. There was, indeed, an ambiguity about whether Heathrow was closed. That was not helpful and I am hopeful—confident, even—that that will not occur this year.

The issue of emergency timetables was also mentioned in relation to Heathrow. As the hon. Lady rightly said, the former Secretary of State for Transport raised that possibility, and it is worth considering the matter. In principle, the Committee said that it can see the benefits to passengers of imposing an emergency timetable at busy airports. The Civil Aviation Authority will continue its work on improving airports’ resilience, including by monitoring the progress made by airports to improve their performance through the implementation of agreed capacity reduction plans in relation to an emergency timetable where appropriate. The operators and others at Heathrow airport unanimously agreed to capacity contingency plans being enforceable through the airport local rules. They will be introducing such plans if necessary as a result of the requirements that the winter imposes on them.

The Chair of the Select Committee referred to future plans for the CAA. Let me just find the relevant note on that. The hon. Lady was concerned about the draft Civil Aviation Bill and the plans for passenger representation. As I have already mentioned, the Civil Aviation Authority will continue to monitor the progress made by airports to improve their performance. There will be enforcement through the CAA through licensed conditions to facilitate greater airport resilience and a better passenger experience during any disruption. The CAA is taking an active interest in that matter, as I think the hon. Lady recognises.

There has also been an attempt to ensure better surface access to airports during disruption, which the hon. Lady mentioned. I can assure her that the Department for Transport will be monitoring future events, including access to airports, to ensure that there is co-ordination between modes of transport. That was recommendation 14 of the Committee’s report. We are engaging and have engaged with transport operators already to ensure that contingency plans are in place to deal with any events this year. However, although we and the operators can make the best plans possible, we are dependent on the weather. We cannot prepare for every single eventuality; we can simply do our best under the circumstances and ensure that we respond as best we can.

The information provided to passengers was raised by a couple of hon. Members. It is certainly true that the information on airlines and trains provided to passengers was not at its best. Some train companies are better than others, but we are concerned that accurate information needs to be provided on a timely basis, including on whether or not to travel. That needs to be clear. The hon. Member for Barrow and Furness asked what discussions I have had on either winter preparedness or passenger information during disruption. I have had extensive discussions with the train companies and with Network Rail. I have met them regularly on a monthly basis. During those meetings, we have considered passenger

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information during disruption and winter preparedness to try to ensure that, first, the trains are able to run—I will come on to the infrastructure points in a moment—and, secondly, that when something does occur, passengers are properly informed about what is happening and what action they should take.

That includes, as I mentioned in a debate yesterday or the day before, ensuring that when a train is stranded, appropriate steps are taken to ensure that passengers can get to a station as soon as possible, rather than potentially being stranded for a long time on a train. However, it is not appropriate to micro-manage train companies and for Department for Transport officials to count how many blankets are on trains. We have a responsibility to indicate to train companies that they should be prepared, but it is for them to take that forward on their own basis and to ensure they are properly prepared. Ultimately, the buck stops with them. We do not own the train companies, but we have a right to say to them that they should be prepared, and we have done that. However, it is up to them to ensure that they take that forward in their own way and they will be held accountable for any shortcomings that occur as a consequence.

Two or three hon. Members raised the matter of pavements. I entirely agree about the lack of attention that some local authorities have sometimes given to pavements. It is wrong simply to assume that people in vehicles are the only ones who matter. Many people have to get from A to B on foot and they deserve proper consideration, too. On a purely practical basis, there is no point keeping a bus route clear if the whole pavement around the bus stop is a sheet of ice, which I saw in my town of Lewes last winter. There needs to be some joined-up thinking. There also needs to be some thinking from local authorities to identify important passenger routes, such as doctors’ surgeries, to ensure that essential journeys carried out by foot can take place. I hope that the hon. Member for Bolton West will appreciate that, again, it is not for us to tell local authorities which roads and pavements should be clear, but as I have made plain to the Local Government Association and others, it is incumbent on them to think about the needs of those who are on foot, as well as those who are in vehicles.

I hope that we have made it easier for individuals who want to help to take action themselves by removing the suggestion that they will be subject to legal action if they clear their path or help in any other way. It was unhelpful that that suggestion got around and we have knocked it on the head. We have made it clear that we welcome people taking sensible steps to keep pavements clear both for themselves and for other people. We are also grateful to the farming community for the steps it has taken to ensure that it can help with vehicles that, for example, are stranded in country lanes and that would otherwise be there for some time. The idea that people should help each other is not new, but it does not do any harm to reiterate it today.

I have dealt with emergency timetables, the CAA and the surface access. On the Highways Agency and crisis response, I am happy to say that the agency has developed and implemented a revised crisis management policy to co-ordinate its services better during a severe winter incident. That policy ensures that an appropriate level of Highways Agency command is in place to take over all strategic management. Its aim is improved co-ordination,

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thereby mitigating the impact of severe weather in the first instance and, if necessary, helping to speed up the recovery of the network. As the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside said, the Highways Agency did a pretty good job last year, but obviously there is still room for improvement and we are keen to see that.

John Woodcock: Does that include extra capacity on the emergency telephone line, if needed? If the Minister is not sure of the answer, will he write to me?

Norman Baker: I will mull that over and provide an answer before the end of the debate.

The hon. Gentleman asked about snow wardens. The Local Government Group has set up a website for local authorities to share best practice, including what to do about snow wardens and encouraging that process. I understand that many authorities already have snow warden schemes in place.

The hon. Member for Bolton West suggested that we might do more to lean on local authorities. We try to resist the temptation to suggest that Whitehall knows best—that we can always run what happens in Kettering better than people in Kettering can. We do not want to do that. I draw the hon. Lady’s attention to the fact that a local authority has a general duty under section 41 of the Highways Act 1980 to ensure, as far as is reasonably practical, that safe passage along a highway is not threatened by snow or ice. If she or anyone else thinks that local authorities are failing in that duty, they can of course pursue them appropriately, but that is the general duty that I hope gives some reassurance and cover.

I was asked about variable message signs on highways to improve the information that can be displayed. I take the point that sometimes messages are first seen from a long way away and may not be current when they are reached. I also take the point—I referred to it earlier—that localised weather conditions can be such that the message actually gives inaccurate information. However, the Highways Agency is widening the use of variable message signs to improve the messages that can be displayed during severe weather. They will now be able to be used to provide severe weather-related incident information and warnings of forecasts of severe weather, as well as messages saying that weather will be particularly bad in any particular area. The agency is trying to provide that information in a more localised and more up-to-date fashion, bearing in mind the constraints that I mentioned.

As was mentioned, the Highways Agency is developing a comprehensive publicity campaign for this winter, which is aimed at encouraging road users to take more responsibility for their actions during severe weather through focused messages. Road users are being encouraged to plan their journeys ahead of severe weather, to check weather forecasts before setting out, and to prepare their car and carry an emergency kit with them. Variable messages will be used to make that point to drivers. The campaign is called “Make time for winter”. I am happy to tell the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside that that partnership marketing campaign takes on board the comments made by her Committee and responds directly to them. The campaign was launched on 24 October, in unison with the Cabinet Office’s “Get Ready for Winter” and Scotland’s “Ready Scotland” campaigns. I hope that they will be useful in making drivers consider their actions carefully throughout the winter period.

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It is difficult to be specific about whether drivers should go out. Ultimately, people have to make their own judgments based on common sense. It is common for the Government to tell individuals not to fly to a particular country because of the political situation unless they have to. We have to rely on individuals to make those judgments for themselves. All we can do is put a flag up and say, “Hang on a minute, look at the facts in this particular case.” That is what we will try to do.

The information about Highways Agency telephone lines has now come to me. I am told that the agency has a wide range of channels for members of the public to contact it and is not aware of any particular problems with the telephone line systems. However, as the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness raised the matter, I will look into it and write to him with any further information.

The Highways Agency carried out a complete review of its performance last winter, taking into account the recommendations of both the Transport Committee and the Quarmby audit. It has worked with a number of key stakeholders to develop measures to improve preparedness for severe weather this winter. I have referred to some of those measures, but it is also carrying out a series of winter snow desk exercises and stakeholder briefing sessions to test its preparedness for the coming winter, and issuing guidance to service providers to confirm elements of the winter service that need to be exercised in advance of winter. It has taken other steps, including better liaison with the Met Office.

I mentioned that I regularly raise passenger information during disruption with train companies. It may be useful for hon. Members to know that the Office of Rail Regulation has been consulting on making good passenger information a licence condition for train operating companies. I understand that it is likely to announce its conclusions shortly, after consultation, and I will be interested to hear what it says—it is, of course, independent of Government.

It may be useful to comment on the train companies’ preparation in terms of both trains and the network, so that we can be more confident than perhaps some people have been in the resilience of the rail network for the coming winter. I think that it is fair to say that both the train companies and Network Rail have taken significant steps to improve their preparedness compared with last year—and, indeed, last year was better than the year before. Network Rail now has key route strategies for each route, which set out arrangements for keeping route lines and critical junctions open and which facilities can be expected to be provided.

On the routes that are electrified with third-rail current—a point raised by the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness—which are by and large south of London, Network Rail has introduced conductor rail heating in critical locations, which will keep it clear of snow and ice. The pilot projects so far have been successful and we are considering further roll-out. Network Rail has also introduced a new and improved snow and ice clearance train, including a snow plough and equipment to keep the conductor rail free of ice and snow. The hon. Gentleman also asked whether the commitment to meet certain deadlines by 1 December had been met. I am assured that the answer is yes, it has been met.

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Extra point heaters have been installed in some locations to ensure that points remain operational—as hon. Members will know, points are particularly vulnerable to freezing, which can then cause a major problem in either direction for quite some distance—and maintenance has been carried out on existing point heaters to ensure that they remain reliable. The train companies have already undertaken maintenance work on their train fleets to improve reliability during winter operation, including action to minimise problems with frozen sliding doors and frozen couplings. Some fleets on the third-rail network have been equipped to spray de-icing fluid to keep the conductor rail clear of ice and snow. They have also ensured that supplies of salt and de-icing products are available at stations and depots, to keep platforms and other areas clear of snow and ice for the benefit of passenger safety.

The train companies are also being encouraged by us to liaise with local highway authorities to ensure that roads leading to stations and depots are kept clear of snow and ice—the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside talked about co-ordination across modes—and staffing arrangements have been reviewed to ensure that staff are available to operate the service. A number of train companies have made arrangements to accommodate staff who are unable to get home.

Several train companies have produced contingency timetables that will be introduced in the event of severe winter weather. They have been validated by Network Rail to ensure that they are capable of being operated robustly. Improvements in timetabling software mean that they can be uploaded to industry journey-planning systems overnight. Steps have been taken—sometimes high-tech, sometimes low—to improve trains and keep them resilient, including, according to my crude understanding, stuffing a sock into the horn to ensure that it does not fail, because if the horn fails, the train cannot go out. Every possibility, therefore, is being covered by the train companies to ensure that trains run.

My experience last year was that the train companies tried hard to ensure that trains ran—for example, Virgin ran trains to get people home, although they had to run slowly. One of the points I make to officials and others in the rail industry is that it would not be right to penalise companies through their performance measures if they were doing the right thing and getting passengers home rather than meeting some abstract performance measure. Southern also performed well by running diesel stock down the Brighton main line, which enabled passengers to get home under diesel traction when the third rail was not available; other companies took similarly helpful measures. The information from one or two companies was clearly inadequate, which caused a great deal of unhappiness among passengers, but I am confident that those companies will be much better prepared to deal with passenger disruption this year.

I hope that I have covered most of the points made today. If I have missed any out, I will pick up on them and write to Members accordingly.

3.50 pm

Mrs Ellman: With the leave of the House, I will conclude the debate. We have had an interesting and helpful discussion. Individual hon. Members have raised key points, and I thank the Minister for his comprehensive

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reply, which indicates that the subject is being treated seriously and action is being taken. It is an ongoing issue to which we may well return, but I have been encouraged to hear how the Government are dealing with it.

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Bus Services

[Relevant document s : Eighth Report from the Transport Committee, “Bus Services after the Spending Review”, HC 750, and the Government Response, Ninth Special Report, HC 1550. ]

3.51 pm

Mrs Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): Buses are the most popular form of public transport in this country. There were 4.6 billion bus passenger journeys in England in 2009-10, compared with 1.3 billion rail journeys, yet buses rarely attract high-profile attention. In part that is because central Government do not take as close an interest in buses as they do in rail travel, but I suspect another reason. Outside London, buses are disproportionately used by older and less well-off people who, regrettably, do not attract the same attention as rail travellers. However, buses are vital, connecting people with town centres, jobs, colleges, shopping, family and friends, and when bus services are cut, people’s lives are badly affected.

Last year’s spending review included three decisions with significant implications for bus services in England; nearly half of bus operating revenue comes from public sources, so any reductions from such sources are highly relevant. First, support for local authorities overall was cut by 28% and funding for local buses was no longer ring-fenced. That affects those services paid for by local authorities for social reasons, or about 20% of services overall, although that figure varies from place to place. The TAS Partnership estimated that that will eventually reduce the subsidies available to bus services by £125 million. By February, local authorities had confirmed an overall reduction of £44 million for 2011-12.

Secondly, changes in the formula for concessionary travel reimbursement have taken about £100 million away from local authorities. Concessionary travel reimbursement is claimed to be provided on a “no better off, no worse off” basis, and the formula changes are intended to iron out teething problems found during the introduction of the scheme under the previous Government.

Thirdly, the Government announced a 20% reduction in the bus service operators grant, a form of fuel duty rebate, to take effect from April 2012. That will affect all bus services, commercial as well as subsidised, and is estimated to remove around £60 million from the industry. I should add that the increased cost of diesel has also put up bus operators’ costs and, inevitably, will have put pressure on services.

The total reduction in revenue for the English bus industry, outside London which has rather different arrangements and which we did not consider in our investigation, is likely to be between £200 million and £300 million per annum. By June 2011, 70% of English local authorities had decided to reduce funding for supported bus services, which affected some urban as well as rural services. Some authorities, such as those of Hartlepool and Cambridgeshire announced that they would cut some of their subsidised services altogether.

Our inquiry took place in the first half of this year, and we published our report in August. We wanted to find out what the effect of the spending review changes was likely to be and to consider how it could be ameliorated. We were particularly keen to hear the views of bus users

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and took specific measures to find out exactly what was happening to them. Working with the excellent parliamentary outreach service, we distributed leaflets about our inquiry in libraries and citizens advice bureaux in areas that we knew to be most affected by cuts in services. We used parliamentary petitions to identify bus service campaigners in particular areas. We also took oral evidence from a panel of bus users, and that evidence brought home to the Committee and to the public the practical implications of cuts in essential services. We received a great deal of correspondence and evidence about the impact of bus cuts on people’s lives, from all sources, including letters from disabled people and senior citizens, telling us about their experiences and how cuts in services meant that they could no longer socialise with friends and families. We heard from students who had had to leave their college courses because they could no longer get to college on time and, after we had published our report, I met members of the Liverpool Schools’ Parliament who reinforced that point. They spoke about the impact of cuts in local bus services on the accessibility of school and college to them. Time and again, the letters and all the correspondence, petitions and personal representations showed why bus services matter and should not be left to market forces.

Our main conclusion was that the combined impact of the three spending review changes to bus funding posed the greatest financial challenge to the industry for a generation. We were not convinced that the Government had a full understanding of the impact of the funding changes on subsidised and commercial services, and we recommended that they should co-ordinate the collation of information about changes to subsidised services. I am pleased that the Government agreed with that recommendation, and they are now working on it with the Association of Transport Coordinating Officers. Can the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), tell us when that information will be ready, so that we can monitor how the provision of subsidised bus services is changing throughout the country? Has the Minister been in touch with local authorities about their plans for subsidised services in 2012-13? It is not solely about local authorities, however; how is the commercial sector responding? What information has been received about the likelihood of further cuts? Many hon. Members know from their constituency work that local bus services, commercial as well as subsidised, are being reduced.

The Government have stated that they hope that communities, operators and local authorities can work together to improve local bus services. I certainly agree with that aim, but will it actually happen? The Committee recommended that the Government should identify the barriers to co-ordinating different types of transport services. Does the Minister agree that the Department should do so, and report on what progress has been made?

We looked at the possibility of community transport schemes playing a greater role in delivering local bus services. The Government are considering ways of making such services more commercially viable, but it is unclear how that consideration is progressing. I was disappointed that one option for expanding community transport, by allowing people to use their concessionary fare passes

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on community transport, was rejected. The Government clearly want to see community transport expand, and the Committee welcomed their new fund in support of that, in particular in rural areas, but they do not seem to be resolving what is a mounting problem. Perhaps the Minister could clarify the Government strategy.

I am also worried that the changes to the bus service operators grant, which are due to be introduced next spring, will hit both subsidised and commercial bus services hard. At the time of our inquiry, the Minister’s view was that operators would be able to absorb most of the changes. The bus industry has challenged that view, and I would be interested to hear the Government’s assessment of the impact of reducing BSOG to bus services next year.

[Mr Hugh Bayley in the Chair]

The Government are reviewing BSOG to see whether it can be delivered in a different way—for example, by paying it to local authorities instead of to bus operators. I would be interested to hear the Government’s thinking on that. It is important that the money provided by the Government is earmarked for local bus services. That must be achieved, whatever means are adopted.

One theme that emerged from the public’s evidence was that consultation on changes to bus services is often inadequate. There were examples of good practice, but passengers were sometimes not asked about changes, or were consulted on only one option. That is not good enough, especially when considering how important bus services are to their users. The Committee recommended that Passenger Focus should develop a consultation toolkit for local authorities to use when proposing changes to subsidised services, and the Government agreed. What progress has been made? Is the toolkit ready, and will the Department monitor how it is used, and encourage local authorities to follow best practice?

The need for proper consultation does not rest solely with local authorities and the integrated transport authorities. Private bus operators also have responsibilities, and they should encourage customer feedback about services, and consult on changes before they are registered with the traffic commissioners. Hon. Members will know from their constituency work how worried people become about abrupt changes to service provision, including those from commercial operators. We need better notice, better consultation, and more involvement from bus users. If there are financial difficulties—the public are certainly aware that there are financial difficulties in almost every public service—the users of the service often have ideas for how to make best use of available resources. It would be good to see more consultation with local people before decisions are made.

In their response to our report, the Government seemed to be sympathetic to that argument, but said that they wanted to reflect on the Competition Commission’s proposals before reaching a view. The commission’s role in looking at the future pattern of bus services will be extremely important. It has been examining the competitiveness of the bus market since the beginning of last year. Consequently, we did not examine that issue, or consider in depth how legislation on quality partnerships and contracts has been used. However, we recommended that local authorities and integrated transport authorities should use the provisions in the Local Transport Act 2008 to achieve better partnership working, and I am pleased that the Government agreed.

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The Competition Commission’s findings are due to be published this month, but there has already been a lot of discussion about whether they will make a significant difference to the transport market, and specifically the bus market. Some of the information published about bus companies’ strategies in places such as the north-east does not suggest that competition is working effectively. There seems to be a reluctance to tackle that by using quality contracts, or franchising. I note that Tyne and Wear transport authority is actively considering a quality contract approach. It would be helpful to know whether the Government are taking an interest in that, and examining barriers in authorities that want to agree quality contracts. If there are barriers, they should be addressed, and I hope that the Government are taking an interest in that. The Select Committee will consider the Competition Commission’s report when it is published, and I expect that we will return to this issue in the new year.

I want to finish by referring to the concessionary fare scheme, which enables free local transport throughout the country. It was one of the biggest successes of the previous Government’s transport policy. I congratulate the Minister on ensuring that it was not a victim of the spending review, which was significant. Passenger Focus found that 39% of older bus pass holders made a greater number of local journeys by bus than before they obtained their passes. That resulted in more social inclusion, and enabled them to be more active than would otherwise have been the case. The importance of transport includes health implications, and one area that health authorities have identified is that it is important for older people to maintain an active life for good health. The concessionary free pass is a major factor in achieving that.

When we examined how the concessionary pass scheme was working, we concluded that to inform development of future policy, data are required on how it is working, who uses it most, and who finds it most beneficial. In their response, the Government did not seem to accept that, and perhaps the Minister will reconsider. The scheme is highly valued, and we think there may be scope for smart ticketing to reduce its cost.

Our inquiry shone a light on how the spending review is affecting a crucial but often under-appreciated and under-reported part of our transport network. We engaged with the public in innovative ways to publicise why buses matter, and to ensure that we have the best possible information from people who are dependent on buses. We are worried about the impact of the cuts that have taken place and those to come. The outcome of the Competition Commission’s work, and how the Government respond to it, will be crucial to development of the bus industry—bus services for passengers—over the next few years. The Committee will continue to pay close attention to bus services, and I anticipate questioning the Minister on that in the Committee in the not-too-distant future.

4.7 pm

Paul Maynard (Blackpool North and Cleveleys) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bayley. The Committee’s inquiry has been one of the more enlightening and intriguing it has embarked upon since I joined it after the election. It certainly brought home to me the fact that buses should be part

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of total services, and that many people depend on them. In a relatively deprived constituency such as mine, where many people cannot afford a motor car or are not well enough or active enough to drive one, buses are essential. Extracting a definition of a socially necessary journey from some of the commercial operators who appeared before us was frustrating. They squirmed but could not provide an answer. They won the award for worst witnesses of the year so far.

The inquiry enabled me to mull over the Government’s role in bus services. Is it appropriate to expect a Minister in Whitehall to pull a lever, and to raise the quality of services throughout the country? It is an unavoidable truth that local bus services are best controlled by local councils, or some locally accountable body. Ever since the Committee’s first inquiry on economic growth in transport, we have heard talk of new regional bodies that will allow transport decision making closer to the ground. However, we have yet to see anything beyond potential names emerging from the Department, and I would welcome more guidance from the Government on when there might be progress.

The Government’s other role is to set a good example. As the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) said, we had some truly lamentable examples of consultation, and calling some of them consultation was a joke. It was a case of “We’re removing the service, and if the passengers don’t like it, hard luck because we’re doing it anyway.” That is not consultation; that is “get lost” or “get knotted”. Nevertheless, central Government have a role to play.

I was bored one Sunday afternoon, so I started looking at the Government’s official response to the report. I sat at my computer trying to open complicated Excel spreadsheets of statistical data. I am sure it is a marvellous resource if someone has a spare lifetime to get to grips with it. I was intrigued to note that a review is being conducted of what data are being collected. I hope that most of them do not disappear as part of some review. I was struck by a few statistics. I wondered why 77% of Scottish buses have ITSO card readers, but only 18% of buses in English non-metropolitan areas have them. I thought that that was an interesting difference.

I also noted that English non-metropolitan areas have now seen the third annual decline in a row in the number of overall passengers. For the first time, concessionary fare journeys dipped in English non-metropolitan areas over the past year. I know that statistics are not everything. I noted that in Blackpool, passenger journeys had dropped from 16 million five years ago to just 14.5 million in the past year. I know why: we have had major civil engineering works and it has been impossible to get anywhere in the town centre. Statistics can be a little misleading at times and do not always paint the whole picture, but they struck me as interesting examples of some of the trends in bus ridership.

I raise those statistics, but I do not want the Minister to think I oppose what he is doing. I think that what the Government are doing is fair and balanced and reflects where we are as an economy and as a nation within the global economy. There is a healthy dose of localism in what the Minister proposes. I also recognise the Minister’s own deep, personal commitment to buses and to public transport more generally, and I praise him for it. I echo the comments of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside on the importance of the Competition Commission’s

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report, which is continually forthcoming. If I believe what I read in my newspapers, I hope it will criticise what seems to be an utterly dysfunctional market in certain parts of the country.

The Minister will not be surprised to learn that I wish to devote the bulk of my remarks to community transport. Rather than re-rehearse my ten-minute rule Bill, which called for the extension of the concessionary fares scheme to community transport, I want to reflect on some of the Government’s responses in the ninth special report. Like the Minister, I share the desire to put community transport on a more sustainable footing, requiring less public subsidy and building on the social enterprise model. In the long-term, that has to be the way ahead.

I welcome the dedicated £10 million fund for community transport. I welcome, too, the efforts of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs with the rural social enterprise fund. However, we must also acknowledge that community transport is not just a rural phenomenon —it matters greatly in urban areas, too. In some ways, for more vulnerable, marginal groups, it matters more in urban areas.

I certainly take the Minister’s point—I assume it is the Minister’s, because it sounded as though he had drafted it—in response to recommendation 13 and the creative imagination that local authorities must apply to circumstances in which they withdraw supported services. Where that is occurring, it makes immense sense for community transport to step in and fill a hole for a relatively small amount of money. I agree with the Minister that that is a sensible and useful way forward for community transport. None the less, I am concerned at the complexity of some of the legislation, which represents a barrier to many volunteers, who get terribly confused, as I continue to do, over section 19 and section 22 services—over who to pay and what to do. It is a technical and complex minefield. I recognise that the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency and traffic commissioners put a lot of effort into trying to guide providers through that minefield, but it is still deeply complex.

At the Community Transport Association’s conference this morning, I heard the Minister’s comments about why he was reluctant to extend concessionary fares to section 19 services. For those who were not there, I will paraphrase his point: it would cause a policy issue to allow those in what is essentially a private members’ organisation, club or society—whatever we want to call it—to have access to a wider concessionary fares scheme. I thought about that over lunch. It strikes me that that is coming at it from the wrong way. Many of those people have to join a dial-a-ride scheme because they cannot access mainstream public transport in the first place. This is perhaps part of a dialogue rather than a direct challenge, but I wonder whether the problem lies more with the Transport Act 1985 and the higher threshold it sets for accessing section 19 services, rather than the reason given not to extend concessionary fare schemes to section 19 services.

I am intrigued—I think that is the correct word—by the Government’s response to the wider issue of concessionary fares. The Department rightly points out that community transport will usually offer a

“more flexible, personal service”,

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which could become

“the mode of choice for concessionary pass holders.”

I would not deny that a sudden, rapid overnight expansion of community transport would undoubtedly cause problems for commercially provided and supported services, but I struggle to understand why the provision of a high quality, excellent service that responds to people’s needs should be seen as a problem. I have never been one to believe in levelling down to the lowest common denominator. That is one reason I find myself on the Conservative Benches. I would like other mainstream providers to be encouraged to raise their game rather than be told, “Don’t worry, we are not going to make it too uncomfortable for you. We are going to make sure the community transport lot stay in their box and do not put you to shame.” That would not be terribly helpful.

I understand the Minister’s point about the possible dangers to supported rural bus services, but we must realise, as the report did, that although more people may have concessionary fare cards, they actually have fewer buses on which to use them. That is my underlying concern.

I am thoroughly pleased that the Government have lived up to the pre-election pledges of both parties to protect the concessionary fares scheme. That is entirely right and proper, but we now have to ensure that vulnerable citizens in my and other Members’ constituencies have the services that they need to ensure that they can get to where they need to go. I am not convinced that the mindset of local councils or local commercial providers is such that they understand that vulnerable people need to get to GP surgeries, hospitals and libraries, and that that is where the bus network should go. At the moment, it is a patchwork quilt of constantly changing routes and services that confuses passengers, providers and even Members of Parliament. I ask the Minister to do one thing: hurry up with his consultation toolkit and make sure that passengers are meaningfully involved when local authorities consult on service changes.

4.18 pm

Mr Iain Wright (Hartlepool) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bayley. It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), who, like me, represents a coastal town.

Before I begin my comments, may I pay tribute to Mr Thomas Bunce, who was a resident of Burbank in my constituency? He worked hard to secure adequate bus provision—particularly the 516 service—for the community. Sadly, he died suddenly in September after a journalist had been to see him to discuss bus services. Hartlepool and Burbank are poorer for Mr Bunce’s passing. I hope the House will join me in paying tribute to him and extending our gratitude and sympathy to his family. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]

I am grateful for this opportunity to debate an important issue that is important to my constituency, and I thank the Chair of the Transport Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman), and her Committee for raising this topic, and for encouraging members of the public who are affected by cuts to services to contribute to the inquiry. After seven years in the House, I cannot think of another Select

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Committee inquiry in which the Chair and members of the Committee actively encouraged members of the public to contribute to its findings. It is a fantastic model that we should use in future in the House.

Hartlepool has one of the worst bus services anywhere in the country—a situation that has worsened as a result of the comprehensive spending review. Due to the worst local government financial settlement for a generation, the local authority has withdrawn all public subsidy to private bus operators. In March, I raised the issue of bus services in Hartlepool on the Floor of the House through a petition of residents, and I encouraged Hartlepool residents to get in touch with the inquiry and express their feelings. Together with the Committee’s active encouragement of public participation, it meant that—as usual—Hartlepudlians did not disappoint. The Committee’s report features heavily the opinions of Hartlepool residents on the loss of their bus services; pages 12 and 13 contain quotes from nine people, five of whom are my constituents. Their views have had a big impact on the Committee and on the shadow spokesman, my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock), with whom I have discussed this issue.

Mrs Olly, 80 years old, stated:

“I appreciate that spending reviews were needed and accept a reduced service but to discontinue the service altogether is appalling.”

Mrs Robinson said:

“I am a carer for my 85 year old father who has just undergone an operation for bowel cancer and also has heart problems. I used to get the 516 bus service (this has now been completely withdrawn). It now costs me £11 per day by taxi so am only visiting my father three days a week which is leaving him alone four days in each week.”

Miss Raw declared:

“The bus service from Elwick to Hartlepool has been withdrawn leaving the village completely cut off from Hartlepool. I do not drive and therefore am finding it very difficult to shop for essentials, visit doctors, dentists, opticians, banks, hospital visits etc. Also I no longer visit friends, go to the theatre, or cinema, especially in the evening. In fact we are completely isolated.”

Finally, Mrs Power stated:

“Since the removal of the bus service my daughter now has no way of getting to and from college. Is she surely not entitled to the education she deserves? My daughter works very hard and gets excellent grades and I feel appalled that her future education is being jeopardised in this way!”

On publication of the report, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside kindly gave an interview to my local paper, the Hartlepool Mail:

“We received a lot of information from people in Hartlepool which demonstrated the problems caused by the withdrawal of local bus services…The information was very dramatic, which showed the impact it had… Hopefully this will make the Government think again about planned cuts… I would like to thank the people of Hartlepool who gave us the information.”

I echo that thanks.

As I said, Hartlepool has a poor bus service. That results from a number of factors, not least, as the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys pointed out, that in many areas—and in my area in particular—the market for bus services does not operate effectively. Passengers do not have the choice that a market should provide, and they are forced to endure poor and inadequate provision from a monopolistic provider—Stagecoach. That company’s disdain for passengers was demonstrated a few weeks ago when, with Councillor Allan Barclay, I met about 40 residents from Ryehill Gardens. They are

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mostly elderly, cannot afford taxis and are effectively isolated as a result of changes to and withdrawals of bus provision. They do not want an extra bus service; they want the number 3 service to be diverted—perhaps just once or twice a day—so that it goes into town and comes back via Ryehill Gardens, allowing them to travel to and from town, get groceries, attend appointments or meet friends. On average, that diversion would add about seven minutes twice a day to the existing bus service. Stagecoach rejected that suggestion and—perhaps even worse—it did not give residents the courtesy of a meeting to explain its decision. Members will agree that that is not good enough, and it demonstrates all too vividly the contempt—that is not too strong a word—shown by Stagecoach, and why people in England need a complete change in the provision and regulation of bus services.

The Committee reported on bus services after the comprehensive spending review, but in the week of the autumn statement perhaps we should bring it forward and talk about future financial arrangements. The report stated:

“The combination of the reduction in local authorities’ revenue expenditure and changes to the Department for Transport’s concessionary fares reimbursement guidance in 2011-12, with the 20% reduction in Bus Service Operators’ Grant (BSOG) due to be implemented in 2012-13, has created the greatest financial challenge for the English bus industry for a generation. The combined impact of these funding changes will, in some parts of the country—”

Hartlepool, for example—

“have a disproportionately adverse impact on the provision of local bus services and the level of bus fares.”

That is one of the report’s central paragraphs.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside said, local government was hit hard in the CSR. Revenue expenditure will be cut by 28% over four years, with central Government assistance going from about £38.5 billion in 2010-11 to £22.9 billion in 2014-15. As a result of this week’s autumn statement, however, it will get a lot worse. This week, the Chancellor confirmed that his deficit reduction targets will not be met in this Parliament, and that he will have to extend them over a further two years. That will mean more pain over a longer period, and it will be concentrated not on capital expenditure but current spending. The autumn statement confirmed that current spending will be cut by an additional £910 million in 2012-13, £1.175 billion in 2013-14, and £1.735 billion in 2014-15. After this Parliament, the figures become unsustainable and economically dangerous—£8 billion and £15 billion in 2015-16 and 2016-17 respectively.

Local government and transport will bear the brunt of many of those changes, and I predict that the cut to BSOG in 2012-13 will be much worse than the 20% predicted. Will the Minister indicate how he intends to combat what the Chancellor laid out in the autumn statement, and say how he expects England to have a functioning bus transport service, given the astonishing budget cuts currently planned that are only going to get worse?

As the Committee pointed out, bus passengers are facing their biggest challenge since the second world war. On behalf of my constituents, I thank the Committee for its work in highlighting the issue and putting pressure on the Government. As the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys said, the current model in which

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monopolistic bus providers are able to cherry-pick services and make excessive profits cannot be sustained, especially at the expense of important social routes, and cuts to Government budgets tip that model over the edge. Communities such as mine would welcome and encourage a co-ordinated and sufficiently funded public transport service, but that can happen only if a strong Transport Minister backs this important issue in Whitehall against the Chancellor, and takes steps to remove power from monopolistic providers, thereby re-regulating bus provision in England.

4.28 pm

Iain Stewart (Milton Keynes South) (Con): It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bayley, and I add my thanks and congratulations to the Chair of the Transport Committee, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman). She comprehensively set out the evidence taken by the Committee and the conclusions that it reached, and I was proud to be part of that investigation.

I wish to pick up on one or two points in the report, add some experiences from my local area and give one or two international examples that I have researched. I was struck by the variation in the ways that local authorities around the country responded to the admittedly challenging economic circumstances in which we now operate. Some authorities have taken a hatchet to bus services. The hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) gave evidence of that from his area. Other authorities have responded innovatively and positively and worked hard to protect local bus services.

I shall give an example from my own local authority in Milton Keynes. It predates the comprehensive spending review. Just after I was elected, in May 2010, the local bus operator, Arriva, completely reorganised its network and timetables. It said that it had had a consultation on that. As my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) said, it was anything but a consultation. Indeed, some people turned up on the first Monday of the new system, expecting their usual bus to turn up, but it was not there. In the first chaotic few weeks of being a new Member of the House, my mailbag and e-mail inbox were flooded with complaints from patients who could not get to their GP surgery, from students who had missed exams and from shoppers who could not get to their local shops. There were all sorts of problems. That was one of the first big local issues that I had to deal with. I was lucky enough to be able to secure an Adjournment debate in the Chamber in the first few weeks after the election. The Minister may recall responding to it.

I am happy to report that many of the problems have now been remedied. The situation is not perfect, but through work with the local council, with Arriva and with the new bus users group that was set up, many of the problems have been solved. I raise that as an example because consultation is vital. Bus services need to be responsive to the needs of the local area, and those needs may change as time goes on. It is important to talk to the users—the bus passengers—but also to the local service providers, such as the GP surgeries, local colleges and schools and retailers, so that a local bus service is provided that people want to use and that generates additional traffic.

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Another issue in relation to which good local consultation is vital is concessionary fares. We have talked about the concession card. I am glad that that has been preserved, but of course it applies only to off-peak services, and one problem identified to me locally is that pensioners want to use buses in the peak time. Some still wish to work; we are all being encouraged to work for longer and longer. They also have to get to some services before the 9.30 am cut-off. The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock), indicates from a sedentary position a financial issue. I am happy to report that in Milton Keynes we have come to a deal. This relates to the point about consultation. The local authority and Arriva have worked together to provide not free bus travel for pensioners before 9.30, but a concessionary fare of 50p a journey. During consultation, people who would be using the buses said that they would be happy to pay a fare at that level. That was found out through a very effective form of local consultation.

As other hon. Members have said, it is important to share that good practice throughout the country, because some local authorities clearly have not taken that approach. The evidence from my area is that the local authority has done that. I strongly urge the Minister to take up the recommendations that the Select Committee made about a consultation toolkit and a mechanism for disseminating good practice throughout the country. I have a fairly open mind about what the best forum for that is. It may be the Department itself, the Local Government Association or another forum. Clearly, there are examples of good and bad practice, and we need to ensure that the good practice is rolled out as far as possible.

I want to touch on not just current bus services, but the planning for future bus services. Milton Keynes is a fast-growing area, so what applies to us may not be relevant in other areas, but with house building forecast to grow quite significantly in future years, I think that such planning will be an important issue in many areas. I am talking about planning properly for new bus services. I want to highlight the Oxley Park area of my constituency. That is a new-build housing estate on the western edge of Milton Keynes. The good part was that there was a plan for a new bus route going through it, with stops all the way along so that people could easily get to the centre of Milton Keynes and to other key destinations in the authority area. That was all well and good, and it was financed by some section 106 money and through other agreements with the house builders to put in that facility.

The problem has arisen because the design of the estate had to meet density targets. The houses are crammed in; the main road through the estate is quite narrow; and there is not sufficient car parking space. That means that the bus drivers have to go through a chicane of parked cars. Sometimes they cannot get through at all. There are issues of road safety: there are many young families in the area, and kids naturally want to play outside. There is also a noise problem because the houses have been built right up to the pavement. The buses, with diesel engines, make a noise, and the service runs until quite late, so I have had many complaints from residents saying that they cannot get to sleep because of it. That is providing a disincentive to bus use—people are campaigning for the bus route to be removed.

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However, with proper planning—I welcome the provisions of the Localism Act 2011 on better community involvement in designing new housing areas—we should be able to plan new housing areas with bus routes in a way that does not cause problems and in such a way that people want to use them. I hope that the Minister will liaise with his colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government and take that suggestion forward.

I have one other point about local consultation, and it relates to finding innovative new ways of delivering services. Milton Keynes is largely an urban area—85% of the population of the local authority area lives in the urban centre of it—but it covers quite a wide rural hinterland as well. There are quite a number of small villages on the outskirts with very small populations. Most of those people drive, but there are a few people for whom a bus service is a lifeline, although it is not commercially viable to provide a regular bus service that one person uses every other day. As far as I am aware, the council has not come to any conclusions, but it is exploring innovative new ways of not having a bus service but helping people to use a local taxi service at no additional cost over what the bus fare would be. I am talking about a more responsive service, which they will want to use, as opposed to a static timetable that may be inconvenient for them. Again, that is where local innovation can come to the fore. There will be plenty of other examples across the country, and those good ideas can be shared.

I want to move on to a more general point about strategic planning in relation to buses. Buses have always been the poor cousin of the transport system. Having to use a bus is almost looked down on, but that need not be the position. I shall give an international example. In the summer recess, I was invited to go to Switzerland by Swiss Federal Railways. That was primarily to look at its railway system, but as part of the visit, we looked at its transport system and planning as a whole. On one of the days, we went to visit the small city of Zug, just south of Zürich. It has put in a new commuter railway line from the city centre to the outskirts. We travelled on that and got to the suburban station. We then watched what happened. A train arrived from the centre of town. Everyone got off and went to the adjacent bus station, where six buses were waiting. Five minutes later, they all dispersed to the housing areas around the station. Fifteen minutes later, they all came back in, and the passengers had five minutes to cross to the railway platform. The next train then went back into the centre of Zurich. The system was integrated, with some public and some private operators, who worked together to provide a reliable and regular service.

Another thing that struck me from that example was the sheer range of passengers using the system. There was everyone, from smartly suited business men to students and shoppers. Everyone was using it—it was a good cross-section of the local community. The system was so well regarded that people wanted to use it. No one was thinking of driving into the centre of town, because they knew that they had a reliable system. We in this country have been poor at that. I am not going to make a party political point—I think Governments of all colours have failed to grasp the option of having a much more integrated across-the-zones transport system. I hope we can have more of that.

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I will again cite a local example—the welcome announcement in the autumn statement that the east-west railway line will be built from Bedford, through Milton Keynes, to Oxford and further south-west. I campaigned for that in this Chamber two weeks ago—I had secured a Westminster Hall debate to call for it—and I am delighted that it has been delivered within two weeks. I might have to be careful in what I wish for.

In developing that line, which has a strong case in increasing rail use and encouraging people off the roads and on to rail, how much better would it be if, as part of the planning, the services were integrated with the bus systems in Milton Keynes, Oxford and other places along the route? People who live elsewhere in Milton Keynes who want to travel to Oxford will therefore be able to decide that they can get bus x to Bletchley station and then straight on to a train, rather than say, “I am not sure when I will get there if I get a taxi to Bletchley. I will be better off using the car.” With proper planning, the new transport infrastructure projects can be even more successful than they will be.

Such optimism needs to be part of the bus industry. I was slightly perturbed, when we were taking evidence from some bus operators, that they were not seeing the opportunities in the current climate. I cannot predict what fuel prices will be like in the future—I am not a betting man, but if I were, I would suspect that they will remain high for some time. That surely is an incentive and opportunity for bus companies to say to people, “You do not have pay £1.35 for a litre all the time. You would be much better off getting a bus to your destination.” If bus companies think innovatively and work with local authorities and others to provide new services, there is an opportunity to grow the market.

I am optimistic about the future of bus transport in this country, but we must seize the opportunity. The economic circumstances are challenging—I am not going to get into a debate about how we got here and what the future will be. We have to accept the reality that economic circumstances will be challenging. However, there are opportunities to grow the system and the usage of buses. The Select Committee’s recommendations are helpful in nudging that forward, and there are good international examples that we can follow. I hope that our contribution in the report will help persuade the Minister to take those arguments forward.

4.43 pm

Julie Hilling (Bolton West) (Lab): I apologise for having been somewhat remiss at the start of my speech in the first debate, first, in not congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) on securing the debate and on her work and leadership as Chair of the Select Committee on Transport, and secondly, in not saying that it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bayley. I hope that I have put things right and that I will be forgiven.

Bus services are a classic example of the private sector making profit but the taxpayer picking up the tab when things go a bit wrong, particularly when a route is not profitable. Although it is not profitable to enter into a debate here on whether buses should have been deregulated, there is a debate to be had, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) said, on how bus services can best meet the needs of our communities in the future.

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There is a huge difference between buses inside and outside London. Buses outside London are predominantly used by the less affluent and are a lifeline for many in our communities. As the hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) said, perhaps because of poverty, disability or age, many cannot drive. We all start too young to be able to drive, and I hope that we all end up too old to be able to drive. Our bus services can be woefully inadequate, particularly if someone wants to go between communities rather than to the centre.

There is a reasonably good service in my constituency if people want to go into Bolton, but please do not try to go between Blackrod and Horwich, or between Westhoughton and Smithills. Someone living in the student area of Manchester has a bus going into the centre of Manchester every minute, right around the clock, but someone living in Hag Fold in my constituency cannot get off the estate on a Sunday morning, and people dare not stay out too late at night, because the buses stop running at a ridiculously early hour.

Perhaps we should ask why everyone sees the bus as a good form of transport in London but not elsewhere. In London, buses are still regulated. Private companies are contracted to run the services, but control is in the hands of Transport for London. The previous Government introduced quality contracts, under which local authorities and integrated transport authorities can commission a bundle of services rather than have bus providers just bid for various routes. Currently, a provider can decide that a route is not commercially viable and leave a local authority the choice of either paying for the service or leaving passengers stranded with no bus service. The consequences of that are enormous—kids not being able to get to school, young people having to give up college because they cannot get there, and people giving up part-time or full-time work because they cannot get to their place of work. My hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool described the isolation of people who are stuck in their communities and have no way to leave to visit the doctor or friends—they are trapped. It does not seem right that a provider can say, “This route is not profitable,” and ask the local authority to pick up the tab.

Quality contracts mean that profitable and non-profitable routes can be bundled together as a package, with the expectation that a provider will provide services on all those routes until the end of a contract. That seems much fairer. Rather than have the taxpayer pick up the pieces, there can be a balanced approach between the taxpayer and the operator. Unfortunately, operators do not seem keen on quality contracts. What will the Government do to assist local government to get bus services that are fairer to the taxpayer?

I have several concerns about the general cuts to bus services. As we have said, for many people there is no alternative to the bus. Buses are a fundamental part of integrated transport. We do not want people to drive to a station to catch a train; we want them to be able to use buses on part of their journey. Most of us do not live next door to a railway station, and we have to find some way to get there. Buses have to be a fundamental part of the transport system, not just the bit that poor people use. We need to look at greater integration, but services are diminishing as we speak. As the hon. Member for

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Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) was saying, the integration of our services is not improving. I am also deeply concerned about rising prices. The cost of bus journeys outside London can be extremely high. What are the Government going to do to improve the affordability of bus fares? Are they monitoring the effects of cuts to concessionary fares and school transport?

I will finish by saying that, as with so many of the cuts that are happening at the moment, the cuts to public transport are having a disproportionate impact on less affluent and vulnerable people. I hope that the Minister can give us some reassurance that he will take action on the concerns that we have raised.

4.50 pm

John Woodcock (Barrow and Furness) (Lab/Co-op): Thank you for calling me to speak, Mr Bayley. It is good to be serving under your chairmanship for the first time.

I congratulate the Transport Committee on securing this hugely important debate and on its excellent report, which shows just how much damage is being done to bus services up and down the country. The Committee’s words have been quoted already, but they are very important. According to the Committee, the current situation is

“the greatest financial challenge for the English bus industry for a generation”


“some of the most vulnerable people in society, including the elderly, will be most affected by these changes.”

It is not hard to see why the Committee had to use such strong language. Its Chair, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman), set out the key decisions by this Government that have led to half a billion pounds being cut from local transport funding in this year alone. First, the 28% cut in direct funding to councils has removed £95 million from local transport. Secondly, £223 million has been taken from funding for the concessionary fares scheme for pensioners, which threatens services that are viable only because of that subsidy; as a result, many pensioners are finding time restrictions placed on their bus pass. Thirdly, a further £254 million will be taken out of support for buses next January, when support for bus fuel costs is reduced by a fifth.

Unfortunately, in their formal response to the Committee’s warnings about the damage being done to bus services, Ministers have displayed just how out of touch they are about the impact of the cuts to local transport and buses, which are being made too far and too fast. In their response to the Committee’s report—and, let us remember, after half a billion pounds has been cut from bus services funding in this year alone—the Government claimed that the bus industry was

“able to absorb this reduction without raising fares or cutting services”,

even though the Committee report is clear that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) flagged up, the cuts will lead to

“a disproportionately adverse impact on the provision of local bus services and the level of bus fares”.

The scale of service reduction and fare rises was reinforced by a report from the Passenger Transport Executive Group on the impact of the spending review

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on bus services, which found that by 2014 bus use will fall by a fifth and fares will rise by 24% in real terms. In addition, the Campaign for Better Transport has found that the cuts have already led to huge reductions in services across the country, with one in five supported services being reduced and three quarters of local transport authorities planning to cut back on their bus services.

Behind those figures lies the real damage that is being done by cutting our bus services so heavily. The cuts are hurting young people, who are already struggling as a result of this Government’s decisions to cut the education maintenance allowance, treble tuition fees and end the future jobs fund. A million young people are out of work, and trying to get to places of education or to start working is made even harder for them when their local bus service is taken away. The cuts are also hurting older people, who find themselves isolated and cut off from family and friends because the bus service on which they rely has been taken away. During the general election, all political parties promised to protect free bus passes, but many older people are now asking what is the point of their free bus pass if there is no bus for them to travel on.

Perhaps the most striking part of the Select Committee’s excellent report is the evidence gathered from bus users around the country about the impact of the Government’s cuts on their quality of life. My hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool rightly raised the plight of people in his constituency. I will add the case of Mr Turpin, a 65-year-old in Somerset who had a quadruple heart bypass but who now has to cycle every week up a steep and busy A road because his bus service has been withdrawn. These are not statistics that we are discussing; they are real people who are suffering real hardship as a result of this Government’s decisions. Unfortunately, their stories are being repeated in towns and villages up and down England. In my constituency, the No. 60 bus in Ulverston is the latest service to come under threat, after just seven months of running unsubsidised. The hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) made a good point about the paucity of the so-called consultation processes carried out by the private sector.

Bus services are being cut, communities are being left isolated and where buses remain the fares are soaring well above inflation. If the Minister wants to avoid being labelled the modern-day Beeching of the buses, he must tell us what he proposes to do about the damage that is being done to bus services. Can he say when the consultation toolkit being created by Passenger Focus for local authorities will be completed and rolled out? Has he started work with the Local Government Association to help community transport associations?

Finally, will the Minister accept the recommendation made by the Transport Committee and by my own party’s transport policy review that local communities and the transport authorities that represent them should be given a greater say in how their bus services are funded and provided? My party’s policy review is clear about that. It is not good enough for Ministers simply to devolve the blame for their cuts to local transport funding without giving local transport authorities the power to manage their own transport services. The answer is not simply to enhance the voice that communities have, important though that may be; it is to put them directly in charge of the local decision making on transport. That is what we are calling for the Government to do.

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4.57 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Norman Baker): Thank you, Mr Bayley, for calling me to speak. As always, I will do my best to respond to the various points that have been made.

Let me begin by congratulating and thanking the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman), the Chairman of the Transport Committee, both for her Committee’s report into this very important subject and the measured way in which she presented the report’s findings. Buses are the predominant form of public transport and they are used disproportionately highly by those on lower incomes, so it is quite right that the Committee should look at them seriously, as it has, and come forward with its thoughts and recommendations.

As we set out in our response to the Committee’s report, “Bus Services after the Spending Review”, the Government place a great deal of value on local bus services. We recognise the important role they play in people’s lives and in the wider economy. We have put significant funds into ensuring that services can continue to operate across the country, whether that is by retaining the bus service operators’ grant in full for this financial year, or by reiterating and maintaining our commitment to the concessionary travel entitlement for older and disabled people. In addition, the local sustainable transport fund was established, providing more funds for sustainable transport over a four-year period than the previous Government provided. In tranche 1, £155 million was handed out and 35 of the 39 successful bids included bus-related elements.

However, we recognise that more needs to be done, which is why I announced at the UK bus awards on Tuesday a further £25 million of capital funding for buses. The previous two tranches of the green bus fund have been a success story, paying for more than 500 new low-carbon buses. The Government are now committing another £20 million for the third tranche of the green bus fund, to ensure that carbon emissions from buses continue to fall. I am sure that the industry will confirm, as it has to me, that when people are presented with new clean buses they find them more attractive, which means there are more people who want to use them. I announced earlier this week that, with the Mayor of London, we are committing £10 million to reducing emissions from London’s buses and improving air quality in the capital. We continue to support bus manufacturers and operators, to promote jobs across the UK in companies that can supply clean vehicle technology. I was pleased to be able recently to open the new Optare factory, which is a vote of confidence by British bus manufacturers in the future of bus use in this country.

The issue of community transport was raised by the Chairman of the Select Committee and by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), and I shall deal in particular with the point about where it fits in the system. As the hon. Lady will have heard this morning, community transport has a viable role in a number of ways. It helps to provide door-to-door transport for people who would otherwise not have any transport at all, and it helps with moving groups around in a way that commercial services would not be able to deal with—for example, children or young adults who want to go from A to B when there is no bus running, or old people who want to get to the cinema for a day out. It also provides bus services where

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there is no case for a commercial service, and probably no case for a supported service either. The community transport sector is very important and I want it to prosper and grow, which is one of the reasons why in March I announced £10 million to kick-start growth in the sector. The evidence is that local councils have welcomed the funding and are using it, by and large, productively. I accept that there is more to be done, and I hope to be able to say something even more positive in the next few days.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys has put an interesting case, promoting his view of life with section 19 and the concessionary fare arrangements, and the report’s recommendations show that the Committee shares that view. There are three issues about section 19 and about why it would not be right at this point to extend the concessionary fare arrangements. One issue is simply cost. We have protected in its entirety the entitlement element of the concessionary fare arrangements. We have not gone back at all from the previous Government’s legislation. To extend the arrangements further would incur extra cost, at a time of financial difficulties for local government and the Government nationally.

Secondly, I know that my hon. Friend wants to approach the matter from the other end, but there is a point of principle about whether a concessionary fares system should be provided for services that are essentially available only to members of a group, and I am not sure that it should.

The third issue is that there is a consequence for existing bus services, particularly supported ones in rural areas, which are probably among those nearest the mark on viability, even when supported by local councils. If we were to see a significant number of people changing to community transport because of the incentive provided, existing bus services could be fatally undermined and the situation made worse. I am hesitant, therefore, to extend the arrangements as my hon. Friend has suggested, but he has made some fair points to forward his case.

The Committee has asked that we monitor the impacts of any changes made by local authorities or operators. We will do that, in conjunction with our partners in industry and with local government. The Campaign for Better Transport has recently collated figures on reductions in budgets and services, which has been useful. We recognise the importance of monitoring trends over time, and that is why we publish annual bus statistics and run a national travel survey, which will continue. But this has to be done properly. Robust data take time to collate, corroborate, clean up and publish. We continue to receive information, which we use as it comes in, but we want an accurate picture once a year.

The Department for Transport recently published the 2010-11 annual bus statistics, which show that compared with the previous year the number of bus passenger journeys in England rose slightly, bus vehicle mileage increased by a similar amount, and bus fares remained the same in real terms. That is a slightly different picture from the one presented to us this afternoon. Figures for 2011-12 will be available next year, but in the meantime there is no doubt that in some areas of the country a combination of the difficult macro-economic climate, local authority bus cuts, and operator decisions is making

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life more difficult for people who need to travel by bus. I do not want to shy away from that, but the national picture is more mixed. As my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) mentioned, in many places local councils are taking positive steps to ensure that better services are provided more cost-effectively and more efficiently, and I would like to give some examples of that.

The first comes from Dorset, which I have mentioned in previous debates. Dorset is one of England’s most rural counties, so commercial services are limited to the main towns, and for non-commercial services contract prices have been rising. A further problem the council faced was that there were more than 700 different contracts for passenger transport services with, including taxi firms, about 300 operators. The contracts covered the full range of council services, from adult social care to school transport. By combining budgets and staff in a single integrated transport unit, and by working in partnership with local operators, the county council has managed to make significant savings while introducing new, longer-term contracts that offer stability for operators, and secure patronage and revenue information for the council. There were some teething problems, and people who pay attention to such matters will have seen mention of them in the local transport press, but the council has saved large amounts of money and managed significantly to minimise cuts. There are lessons to be learned from Dorset. The council has made annual savings of up to £1 million on contracts for school and tendered bus services, and it has opened up the local bus market to new operators, which has the potential to kick-start competition for commercial services.

The second example comes from Bedford. Despite financial constraints, Bedford borough council has been able to improve bus service provision in rural areas. This has included new and restored routes, increased frequencies and free travel for under-16s at weekends and during school holidays. This was made possible simply by negotiating closely with local bus operators and consulting extensively with local communities, the sort of measures that my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South advocated in his contribution. In both these examples, new approaches to procuring bus service contracts have resulted in new entrants into local bus markets, which the Competition Commission identified in its provisional findings as vital to making the markets more competitive and providing a better deal for passengers and local taxpayers.

A third example comes from the Isle of Wight. In September, Isle of Wight council and the local bus operator, Southern Vectis, developed an innovative community transport scheme. Local groups provide volunteer drivers to operate rural routes that feed into the main bus network on the island. The drivers are fully trained by the operator, which also provides the vehicles and fulfils the regulatory and maintenance requirements. This partnership has brought community transport and the resources of a private sector bus company together for the first time. It is a very interesting model. I am greatly encouraged that councils, operators and residents can come together when budgets are tight to develop a rural bus network that suits their local needs. It is exactly the sort of scheme that the community transport fund I announced in March is designed to encourage.

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Paul Maynard: Will the Minister confirm that it is interesting to note that the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers was fully behind the scheme in the Isle of Wight?

Norman Baker: It is important to note that. That is a very relevant point and it leads me on, perhaps, to the points made by the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright). I am sorry that, unlike the Chairman of the Committee, who presented matters fairly and equitably, albeit in a challenging way, he sought to present matters as something of a party political rant. He was keen to say that this was the Government’s fault, but the Government have not cut bus services in Hartlepool—his local council has. Councils up and down the country have not been cutting bus services, and if all the services in Hartlepool have disappeared he needs to take the matter up with his local operator and council.

The picture varies enormously across the country. I am not pretending that it is easy for local councils; it is perfectly true that there are challenges as a consequence of the local government settlement. Cuts have been made across the country in local bus services, particularly in supported ones. The Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) said, I think, that the Campaign for Better Transport had found that three quarters of local authorities were cutting back on buses. That is unwelcome, but the fact remains that a quarter are not cutting back at all. Perhaps we should look at them for lessons on how they have managed to maintain their bus services rather than cutting everything in sight, which appears to have happened in Hartlepool.

Julie Hilling: Perhaps one of the things that should be considered is the level of cuts made to those local authorities. We know that the same cuts have not been made everywhere, and that some local authorities, particularly those in the north-west, north-east and other areas, have had far greater cuts than some authorities in the south, which have had much less stringent budgetary cuts.

Norman Baker: The hon. Lady will appreciate that I am not responsible for how the Department for Communities and Local Government has distributed its money, and I cannot comment on that in detail. What I would say, having looked at bus patterns across the country, is that it is not the case that southern counties have maintained their bus services while northern ones have not. The picture is much more mixed. The east riding of Yorkshire, for example, has done well on maintaining bus services. A north-south split is not reflected in the way she suggests.

John Woodcock: What the Minister has said is potentially important and will be listened to by councils throughout the country. Is he actually saying that if any council cuts bus services, it is the council’s fault and not a result of the drastic reductions in local funding imposed on councils by the Government?

Norman Baker: What I am saying—I hope that I have said it fairly—is that it is a challenging position for local authorities. They have received reductions in funding, which has meant difficult decisions for them, and I can understand why some of them have looked to their bus

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services. However, within the framework in which they operate, some have managed to protect their services, and, as in the case of Bedford, even enhance them. Others have made limited cuts. Others have taken an axe to services. Those who live in Hartlepool and elsewhere need to ask their councils why they have taken an axe to services when other councils have not.

Mr Wright: If the Minister will let me continue with my rant, that Pontius Pilate approach to decision making will not wash if he wants to be a champion of local bus services. Will he comment on the second part of my remarks, which concerned future financial arrangements and possible cuts to bus services as a result of the announcements in the autumn statement?

Norman Baker: I will. I always try to respond to all points made by hon. Members, as those who have heard me respond to debates will know. I will deal with those points, but first I will deal with the points that the hon. Gentleman made during his speech. He said—I think that I am quoting him accurately—that we need a complete change in how buses are regulated. I point out that at the moment, the regulation of buses is a consequence not just of deregulation in 1996 but of 13 years of his Government between 1997 and 2010. The record will show that when the Local Transport Bill was before the Commons and I was on the Committee considering it, I wanted to go much further in the direction that he is now advocating than did the party of which he is a member in 2008.

Mr Wright: Will the Minister give way on that point?

Norman Baker: I will, but I need to make progress.

Mr Wright: The Minister has had 18 months in office. He has just set out his approach. When will he enact it?

Norman Baker: I will not give way again, as I am trying to answer the hon. Gentleman’s points, and he is anticipating me all the time. The fact is that we now have a regulatory framework that his Government put in place in the Local Transport Act, and the record will show that it would have gone more in the direction that the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness wanted if his Government had accepted the amendments that I tabled at the time.

Our position has been set out clearly. The Government await the results of the Competition Commission’s inquiry. It would be premature to make judgments about the landscape of the bus market until it has reported. We will read the Competition Commission report carefully, consider the arrangements for the bus service operators grant at the same time and in parallel and make it clear where we are going as soon as we have had a chance to digest the final report. That is the responsible course of action, given where the Competition Commission is at present.

Julie Hilling: Will the Minister give way?

Norman Baker: Yes, but for the last time, as I need to make some progress.

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Julie Hilling: I thank the Minister for giving way; he is being generous with his time. My question is simple: have we any idea when the commission is likely to report?

Norman Baker: Yes. We will have clarity from the commission, and clarity from the Government on BSOG, in the early part of next year. We will then be able to answer questions in more detail based on what the commission has said.

I think that it is unfair to paint the autumn statement in the negative way the hon. Member for Hartlepool did. He said that things would get worse. I do not want to have a debate about the finances, as this is not the place to do it, but I will give one statistic. The day after the general election, our interest rates were higher than Italy’s. They are now lower than Germany’s, which suggests that the Government are handling the economic position rather better than he gives us credit for.

In addition to the money for green buses announced this week and for retrofitting existing buses, the Chancellor gave transport authorities another £50 million this week in his statement. I hardly think that this has been a bad week for transport, or for local authorities as far as transport is concerned. It seems to be a good week in terms of what has been handed out.

I mentioned that the Competition Commission’s report would be published shortly. The Department has submitted its formal written response to the provisional remedies, which is available to view on the Competition Commission’s website. In the response, I broadly welcomed the provisional remedies. I believe that they have potential to improve multi-operator bus ticketing in particular, and I welcome the commission’s focus on that issue in its recent inquiry into the bus market. There is no question but that better integrated ticketing can help by enabling passengers to make more seamless journeys. Smart ticketing can also play an important role. That is why I have committed to delivering, with operators and public sector bodies, the infrastructure to enable most public transport journeys to be undertaken using smart ticketing by December 2014, to answer the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys.

I mentioned the Local Transport Act 2008. There has been some concern that the provisional remedies have been ambiguous in terms of the tools in the Act that can enable authorities to increase the quality of services, so let me be clear. Statutory quality partnership schemes, quality contract schemes and voluntary and qualifying agreements remain useful tools for local transport authorities to deliver their public transport policies. That is the present position. The Government have taken no action to undermine quality partnerships or quality contracts. We will consider where we are after the Competition Commission has reported. In the meantime, it is perfectly open to local authorities to use the terms of the 2008 Act. It is available on the statute book for them to use if they decide that that is what they want to do.