HC Deb 22 June 1965 vol 714 cc1704-9

Question proposed, That the Clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Geoffrey Wilson (Truro)

I hesitate to delay the Committee at this time of the morning, but I do not think we should accept this Clause without some comment on the fact that the concession provided in it, for which bus operators are doubtless very grateful, does not appear to come up to what might have been expected. For a number of years all the bus operators, not merely the private enterprise ones or the owners of the B.E.T. group which is 50 per cent. privately owned and 50 per cent. publicly owned, but the municipal bus companies and London Transport also, have been complaining that the fuel tax was excessive, was having a bad effect on bus services and was leading to a spiral in which the price of tickets went up, and consequently more and more private cars were being used and there was more congestion iu the roads.

Bus operators were horrified when the present Chancellor added to the fuel tax rather than diminished it. They are very grateful for the concession, but the concession given is very limited in that it is only for stage carriages. The Committee will no doubt recollect that in the very recently published report of the holding company, in the section dealing with Scotland, it is pointed out that the small man who operates the private bus is a very essential part of the service in remote areas, and can probably do it better than others. He really has not benefited sufficiently by the rebate in this Clause as compared with the large operator, because the small bus operator maintains his service largely with the aid of express services which, of course, include tours, and also with contract services for school buses and so on.

I hope that perhaps this matter can be looked at again to see whether this concession which has been given for stage carriages cannot be somewhat extended to include express and contract carriages, because otherwise I do not think it will be of much benefit to the rural bus services, whether operated by individual owners or companies. It would be of great benefit to the bus industry generally if this concession could be extended.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. Stephen Swingler)

I cannot go beyond what is said in the Clause. This Clause implements the Chancellor's pledge that the extra 6d. on fuel duty would not be imposed on bus operators. It is not being imposed on bus operators who run stage services, and that covers some 80 per cent of all bus operations in the country. It relieves them of about£5 million of the tax burden which otherwise they would have to bear. This is a concession which has not been given before. Hon. Members may say that it does not go far enough, but discussion of that matter would be out of order. Nevertheless, we have done something to relieve public transport of its tax burden, which has not been done previously. We are arriving at satisfactory arrangements with the bus operators for the repayment of duty. I hope, therefore, that the Clause will receive the unanimous support of the Committee.

Mr. Geoffrey Wilson

Can the hon. Gentleman explain what was meant by the reference to "borderline cases" in the debate in December?

Mr. Swingler

There are always borderline cases. We have had considerable discussions with the bus operators as to the way in which this can be clearly defined. It is clearly defined here. The concession is given to bus operators who run stage services—and that amounts to over 80 per cent. of all the bus operations in the country. We feel that those are the operators who should benefit from this concession, which is worth£5 million. It is a concession which has not previously been given to assist public transport. We therefore feel that the Clause fully implements my right hon. Friend's pledge.

2.45 a.m.

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

I support what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Truro (Mr. Geoffrey Wilson), who said that in rural areas this concession is not sufficient. Events have overtaken it. I hope, therefore, that the Parliamentary Secretary will reconsider this proposal before Report. When the concession was made it was acceptable to the bus companies, but there have been rises in costs and therefore a greater concession is needed. This is due entirely to the policies of the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor. I hope that this question will be reconsidered before Report.

Secondly, in subsection (1) complete discretion is given to the Minister of Transport; he can impose certain conditions when giving this concession to the statutory bus operators. These provisions are solely within the right hon. Gentleman's discretion. If a bus operator fails to comply with these conditions he becomes liable to an onerous fine, which may amount to£100. Will the Committee be able to debate what these conditions will be? If not, I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will reconsider the terms of the subsection, to see whether it is possible to insert something to enable the Committee or the House to discuss these conditions. Even the Treasury seems to have no control over these conditions, although, according to subsection (2), the Treasury must be consulted before the method of paying the grant is arrived at.

These conditions might gravely affect bus operators. I hope that the Committee will agree that they may have a considerable bearing on a man's livelihood, especially if he does not comply with them. Basically, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Truro. I am glad that we have discussed the Clause. It does not go far enough, and I hope that the Government will have second thoughts about it.

Mr. Swingler

I am surprised that the hon. Member, who did nothing for rural bus operators when he was a member of the Government, should complain that we are not doing enough. We are making a start to relieve them of their tax burden. The Clause authorises my right hon. Friend to negotiate with the bus operators about the payment of this concession. He is arriving at satisfactory arrangements with the operators for this purpose. Any hon. Member can question my right hon. Friend about the nature of the agreements, but I can tell the Committee that they are in the interests of the bus operators. The arrangements must be made in a flexible way so that they will be acceptable to the small operators and the very large concerns.

Our negotiations we think have been satisfactory up to now, but we will report to the House what the outcome is. At the moment, hon. Members know from this Clause that we intend to repay the 6d. increase in the fuel tax.

Mr. Peter Bessell (Bodmin)

This Clause will be received with some degree of disappointment on the part of some operators. I am as disappointed as the hon. Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Scott-Hopkins) and the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Geoffrey Wilson) with the reply which we have had. The Parliamentary Secretary has said that the benefit will apply to 80 per cent. of all operators, but it is the remaining 20 per cent. who have the greatest difficulties in terms of economics.

Like the hon. Member for Truro, I am concerned for the small operator in rural areas. There may not be a very large number of them, but they perform an extremely useful service and rely for a lot of their business on the special outing type of hiring; that type of facility which is so very important in scattered areas and which includes school services, old age pensioners' outings, girl guide and boy scout outings, and so on. Such activities are of very special importance where populations are small and scattered and people have consequently to travel long distances for recreation and entertainment.

The fuel tax increase imposed last year has been a matter of serious concern to the small bus operators, but there is also the other side to be considered. It has had its effect on those people who have been forced to pay the increased charges in terms of higher fares and I ask that our case should be given much more close and careful attention. The need is urgent.

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

I am glad that the Parliamentary Secretary mentioned the conditions, because subsections (3), (4) and (5) show that the conditions are very onerous. If the contractor does not agree with the conditions, it is no use the Parliamentary Secretary saying that we should put down a Question in order to see what they are, because we have it here that if the operator fails to comply with some of the conditions he will be liable on summary conviction to a fine of£100, or three months' imprisonment and on indictment to as much as two years' imprisonment. This is no light matter. These are very considerable penalties and a burden on the small operators.

The Parliamentary Secretary has said that the agreements must be flexible, but where we are dealing with conditions where the burden is so great and the punishment is so severe, then it is surely only right that the House should hear at a later stage what are the conditions. They could be tabled by way of the negative procedure so that hon. Members could examine what are the conditions under which these hard-working people will have to operate. I ask the Parliamentary Secretary, even at this late hour, to see if he cannot bring forward something before Report stage which will satisfy the operators who will have to labour under this Clause so that we may know what are the conditions to which they will be subjected.

Mr. Swingler

This is in the interests of the bus operators themselves. In order to be able to claim their concession, they must give to my right hon. Friend information about their mileage, petrol consumption and so on. There may be some differences in the records which are kept. The reason, therefore, that all these things are not specified is so that my right hon. Friend may be able to negotiate with the bus operators—whether big or small—flexible arrangements to gain the information on which to assess their entitlement to concession. When I referred to the opportunity of hon. Members to ask Questions of my right hon. Friend, I was referring to the arrangements which my right hon. Friend has been negotiating with the bus operators. If it were a question of making regulations, we should have to lay down rigid standards for all types of operators. We do not wish to do that, because of the differences and variations in conditions.

We hope, therefore, that the Committee will approve the authority of my right hon. Friend to make the most flexible arrangements in the interests of the bus operators themselves.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.