Improvements have been made, but the Government recognise that more can and must be done. In 2012, our “Green Light for Better Buses” document set out the Government’s plans for the bus industry. The proposals included reforming the bus subsidy, improving competition, incentivising partnership working, looking at multi-operator

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ticketing, and making access to bus information and ticketing easier for all. We should not underestimate the importance of the ability to access information about services and their regularity as a driver for the continued use of bus services.

There is no doubt that we are in challenging economic times. Government and local authorities have had to make difficult decisions, but the Government want to ensure that the bus market is still attractive to all operators, large and small, urban and rural. The funding that I have mentioned helps to ensure that the market is still attractive. We want to ensure that funding is allocated in a way that is perceptibly fair, while giving the best value for the taxpayer.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset mentioned the bus service operators grant, or BSOG. I would describe it not as a warthog, but as something rather more positive. It is not quite the fatted cow, but it certainly has been paid directly to bus operators in a fairly blunt and untargeted way that relates to fuel consumption. None the less, BSOG was a help in ensuring that services continued to be provided. Some local authorities have told us that they can make the bus subsidy deliver better value for money by working in partnership with operators to grow the bus market. The characteristics of local bus markets vary, so different solutions will be appropriate in different areas, which is why the Government believe that it is for local authorities to decide which route to pursue. This year, £43 million of BSOG funding will be paid directly to local authorities, rather than to bus operators, in relation to the services that councils fund. That will give communities much more control over how that money is spent. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset noted, funding has been ring-fenced until the end of 2016-17, which provides three years of stability and certainty for operators.

My hon. Friend tempted me down the line of committing the Government to reinstate the full value of BSOG in years gone by, and he tempted me down the line of ring-fencing funding post-2017. Although I have heard his entreaty, he will not be surprised to learn that I will not be tempted or, rather, I shall resist that temptation this evening, as it would prejudice the work that we are doing on partnership working, where we are moving forward to deliver better services. It would be wrong, too, to ring-fence any expenditure, and I am sure that the Chancellor would not allow me to do so post-2017. None the less, the funding that has been ring-fenced until the end of 2016-17 provides a period of stability and certainty for operators.

The Government are committed to protecting the national bus travel concession, which is of huge benefit to about 11 million people, allowing free off-peak local travel anywhere in England. The concession provides older and disabled people with greater freedom and independence, as well as a lifeline to their community. It enables access to facilities in the local area, and it helps them to keep in touch with their families. It also provides access to employment for many people who might not otherwise have that opportunity. A number of my hon. Friends have discussed the way in which the Government allocate funding. The Department has set out in clear guidance how local authorities should remunerate local operators, taking account of local circumstances, but my hon. Friends will note that operators can appeal.

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The hon. Member for Wells spoke about young people’s travel, which is a complex issue. There is no statutory obligation to provide discounted-price travel to young people, but many commercial and publicly funded reductions are available. It is for local authorities to judge whether that is good value when considering the services they provide for young people in their area. Doubtless, she has made entreaties to her local authority along those lines.

Bus services in rural areas are not just concerned with levels of public funding. Commercial operators provide services in those areas where there are enough passengers, and overall commercial mileage in some rural areas of England has increased. The Government accept that where that is not feasible local authorities have a vital role in supporting rural bus services. About 28% of bus mileage in predominantly rural authorities is operated under contract to local authorities. It is local authorities that are best placed to decide what support to provide in response to local views and need, and in the light of their overall funding priorities, particularly with regard to transport.

Richard Drax: While I have heard every word that the Minister has said—it is all wonderful stuff, and I welcome what the Government are doing—the key issue, certainly for us, is that although councils are trying to provide a bus service, they are so pushed for money that they cannot provide sufficient services at the appropriate times. That means getting people to work at 7 am and back home at 6 pm. The buses leave at 9 am and return at 3 pm: that is one of our major problems.

Stephen Hammond: I understand that problem and have set out the extensive amount of finance and will shortly set out some other solutions for rural areas. I hear what my hon. Friend says, but it is obviously for local authorities to establish demand and to decide how to use Government support. It is vital that authorities maximise the return on every penny of funding, which is why my Department met its commitment to publish revised guidance on best practice when procuring local bus services and other types of road transport for rural passengers, taking into account some of the challenges he mentions. As a result of the guidance, there has been a lot of innovation from councils up and down the country, but there is scope for more. Authorities should highlight and draw upon the good practice to help rural users. Much of what tonight’s speeches have demanded, such as providing a whole range of solutions, is for local authorities. The Government offer support and leadership, but I urge local authorities to consider the best practice.

We have been discussing fixed-route bus services tonight, but there are also community buses, dial-a-ride and other types of demand-responsive transport, such as taxis or the postal taxi mentioned earlier. My Department is undertaking further work to consider how to remove the barriers that prevent such services from operating more effectively. The Minister of State, Department for Transport, my hon. Friend Baroness Kramer, was right to emphasise that while there may be multiple solutions, it will be for local authorities to determine which is the best for them.

In conclusion, the Government believe in buses. Our vision is for a better bus with more of what passengers want, which, whether they are urban or rural, is a

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punctual, interconnected, greener and more accessible service with greater availability of smart ticketing. We will be considering next year the results of a pilot project in Norfolk that will potentially overcome some of the other ticketing issues that rural people experience. I absolutely accept that there is more to do, but the Government have shown that they accept that there is

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an onus on them, through the extensive support that they provide, to try to ensure a more competitive and greener bus network that will encourage more passengers, be they urban or rural.

Question put and agreed to.

6.43 pm

House adjourned.