HC Deb 09 February 1977 vol 925 cc1407-9
1. Mr. Luce

asked the Secretary of State for Transport whether he will reform the Traffic Commissioners' licensing system.

The Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. John Horam)

The general question of the need for changes in the licensing system is among the matters on which we have been consulting prior to the issue of the forthcoming transport White Paper. The Government's rural transport experiments, with the Experimental Areas Bill that has now been introduced in another place, will test the case for general amendment of some aspects of bus licensing law.

Mr. Luce

Does the Minister accept that this system was introduced nearly 47 years ago, and has become both bureaucratic and cumbersome, and inhibiting to innovation? In the light of this, will the Government undertake an urgent and major review of the system with a view to facilitating the provision of mini-bus transport for rural areas by voluntary bodies?

Mr. Horam

On the contrary, I think that the system is a good deal more subtle than the thinking of many of its critics. But obviously there is a case for looking at the system, which was introduced a very long time ago. We are doing precisely that, and doing so urgently in our consultations prior to the issue of the White Paper.

Mrs. Bain

Will the Minister give particular attention to licensing that affects school transportation? Where controversy arises, will he see that the dates of appeals are brought forward at the earliest possible opportunity?

Mr. Horam

I think that the dates of appeal should be given priority. If the hon. Lady has any particular instances in mind I shall look into them. The Traffic Commissioners do their best in this respect. School transport should be looked at in consultation with the Department of Education. I am very conscious of the problems that exist in that area.

Mr. MacFarquhar

Many of my constituents—both local authorities and private citizens—regard the Traffic Commissioners as something like Marie Antoinette; they seem to think that the answer to higher fares is "Let them drive cars". Will the Minister undertake, in his directives to the Traffic Commissioners, to insist that they take account of social problems in the rural areas?

Mr. Horam

I understand my hon. Friend's feeling about the system, but I must point out that there is a great deal of flexibility within it, which is not always fully brought out by local authorities. Local authorities now have responsibility for devising good transport systems that take account of social needs in rural areas, but many authorities do not take full advantage of the existing licensing system. I wish that they would do so to a greater extent.

Mr. Paul Dean

Does the Minister recognise that private operators could do a great deal to supplement the services of public operators? Will he give an assurance that his proposed legislation will allow experiments in all parts of the country—bearing in mind that conditions vary—to ensure that there is an improvement in services, rather than the decline that has been going on in country areas for far too long?

Mr. Horam

I accept that there is a need for unconventional experiments, including the use of private as well as public operators. We have always accepted that. We have tried, given the limits of resources, to concentrate on experiments in four particular areas. These experiments will be very thorough and we shall draw general lessons from them. Circumstances vary from area to area, and the Bill is an enabling measure which will allow other areas to follow on if this is necessary. We are concentrating on the rural areas in the first instance because these are the worst hit.

Mr. John Ellis

Is the Minister aware of the impact of the opening of the Severn Bridge—[Interruption]—I am sorry, the Humber Bridge, on transport in my constituency? The county council has been doing an immense planning exercise on this and it has not been helped by British Rail pre-empting the situation and announcing, without studying the proposals, that when the bridge opens British Rail's ferry will close. This has not been at all helpful.

Mr. Horam

I am glad that my hon. Friend has found the right estuary. I understand his concern about the British Rail ferry, but to my knowledge there are no proposals at the moment to close the ferry. Any such proposal would have to go through a long series of consultations beforehand, as laid down in the law.

Mr. Norman Fowler

Returning to licensing, is not the essential argument against the system the fact that the delay and bureaucracy within it prevent new services for the public from being developed? An example of this is the proposal for commuter coach services. Will the Minister tell the House whether he supports such an experiment to help commuters, and, if not, why not?

Mr. Horam

On the first point, about the existing system, I agree that in some circumstances it may inhibit unconventional services, but it also protects the existing conventional services. Unconventional services are not entirely necessary to transport needs, whether we are talking about commuters or about rural areas. But we shall always need conventional services, and my Department is determined to protect these.