§ 16. Mr. Peter Mills
asked the Minister of Transport what further steps he will take to help rural bus operators in their present financial difficulties.
§ Mr. Tom Fraser
I would refer the hon. Member to my reply of 16th November to my hon. Friend the Member for the Western Isles (Mr. Malcolm MacMillan). Rural bus operators will share in the relief from the recent fuel tax increase announced in my reply of 25th November to my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham, North (Mr. Arthur Lewis).
§ Mr. Mills
Does the Minister realise that this is a very real problem in the countryside? Costs have increased so much that many small bus operators are going out of business. What they want is some real help now. This is an urgent problem, and I ask the right hon. Gentleman to look at the matter again in order to see what he can do to help these bus operators.
§ Mr. Fraser
This is quite a serious matter. It was known to be a serious matter when the Jack Committee was set up, and that Committee reported upon the matter more than three years ago, in 1961. Since then, neither the previous Government nor this one have been able to find a solution, but my predecessor instituted local inquiries in England and Wales last year. These are going on and experiments are being tried, and I am hoping to have the results of those experiments in two or three months at the most, 178 so that I can see whether there is anything further that the Government can properly do to help to maintain an adequate public transport service in rural areas.
§ Mr. Powell
When does the Minister expect to take the steps necessary to implement his undertaking concerning the increased fuel duty? It is really unsatisfactory that this undertaking should remain on the record for week after week without the necessary legislative authority being given.
§ Mr. Fraser
I do not quite follow the right hon. Gentleman. We made our promise to the stage coach operators at once, the discussions were entered into at once, and those discussions are going on. I understand that the operators themselves are satisfied with the discussions as they are going on, and when they are brought to a conclusion it will be for the Government to bring forward the necessary measure to put this undertaking into effect. Quite clearly, the bus operators expect us to complete our discussions or negotiations with them before we take our next step.
§ Mr. Loughlin
When my right hon. Friend is considering this question, in considering the degree of assistance which can be given, will he ensure that some of this assistance will be used to reduce the cost per mile of transport to users in the rural areas? Is he aware that in many instances the cost per mile to the user is far in excess of that in industrial towns and cities?
§ Mr. Fraser
I am not sure that I can go all the way with my hon. Friend, because I have been answering a Question about the increased fuel duty from which the operators will be relieved. They cannot expect to receive this relief with a view to reducing fares because, after all, they are getting this relief to avoid having to put up their fares and to remain viable. If my hon. Friend is going back to earlier supplementary questions and to the Question on the Order Paper, I can tell him that our greatest concern is to ensure the continuation of a public transport service rather than that the fares of existing services should be reduced.
§ Mr. More
Will the Minister pay particular attention to the problem of rural bus operators as it affects the Clun Valley in my constituency, about which he will shortly be getting a letter from me? Will he also give special attention to the question whether he can influence local education authorities so that an intelligent and practical contribution can be made towards solving this problem by using school buses to help the local population?
§ Mr. Fraser
In some areas school buses are being used to help in this matter. That is another aspect of the experiments which are being conducted in certain parts of the country. This may be a way in which we can help out in some areas.