§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 11.4 a.m.
§ Mr. David Hunt (Wirral)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
In rising to move the Second Reading I am conscious of the good fortune that I have enjoyed at an early stage of my parliamentary career in coming so high in the Ballot. I am equally conscious of the responsibility which the conferment of this privilege places upon me and, above all, the responsibility of seeking to uphold the high traditions of this House.
I shall not burden the House with the detailed reasons why I chose this particular subject for my Bill. The choice was not easy and I had to think long and hard before making it. The licensing of public service vehicles is an esoteric area of law. I say that with some feeling as one who has had a fair amount of contact with the law in my professional capacity.
What is more, PSV licensing pervades the rights of ordinary people in ways that few of them would recognise. Occasionally they can find themselves tripping over it in unexpected places. This has happened to a large number of head teachers and their staffs, to members of voluntary bodies serving a whole range of disadvantaged groups in the community, to youth leaders, parish priests and to many others who were trying to help people get about by providing informal transport facilities. They have begun to discover over the last year or so that what they are doing may well be illegal, for in the 1836 eyes of the law they may have brought themselves within the scope of an intricate and far-reaching licensing system for buses and coaches which, as likely as not, they did not realise existed, and that there are august bodies called the traffic commissioners who may feel obliged, if certain things come to their notice, to prosecute through the courts.
What was it all about? Where had those various groups gone wrong? To set the answer into proper perspective one has to go back about 50 years. Let me say straight away that I do not speak from personal knowledge but with the benefit of material supplied by various people with whom I have been discussing this subject.
Before 1930 public road passenger transport was chaotic and, frankly, a danger to life and limb. Motor-driven buses and coaches were suddenly operating on the roads in appreciable numbers. I believe that they were well known in some places as omnibuses and charabancs. Sometimes they were licensed by local authorities, sometimes not, rather in the same way as now happens with taxis.
Where they were licensed or not, there was no control over the routes at all. Competition was cut-throat. Buses raced down the street to be first to the bus stop to grab the available passengers. One group of passengers would be turned off a vehicle so that that vehicle could pick up a more profitable-looking group further down the street. Highly profitable routes were creamed off. With all this thrust and parry the not-so profitable routes were served after a fashion perhaps but for the rest no one bothered very much. There was no universal system of checks either on drivers of the vehicles with all the dangers with regard to safety.
Against this background the Road Traffic Act of 1930 set up a country-wide system of licensing to bring order out of this chaos. Any vehicle carrying members of the public against payment was to be classified as a public service vehicle and be subject to licensing. Its operator would have to show that he was a fit person to run the vehicle and the vehicle itself had to meet certain standards. If the operator wanted to pick up and set down passengers on a particular route. 1837 or run regular services between two points, he would have to justify his proposals and put in an application to implement them if they were accepted. As a quid pro quo he would be given protection against unlicensed competition.
So the PSV, the PSV driver's licence and the road service licence came into being—the PSV and PSV driver's licence to ensure that the operator, vehicle and driver were fit to offer a service to the public and the road service licence to ensure stability and continuity in regular and diverse services.
For the purposes of administering this system the country was divided into eleven traffic areas. For each area an independent body was created by statute to be known as the traffic commissioners. They would be the bodies to exercise licensing powers within a generally wide but closely specified series of criteria set out in the Act and they would be generally responsible for enforcement of the system.
The formula used to define a public service vehicle involved the concept of carrying passengers for hire or reward. The test whether a road service licence was needed turned on whether the passengers were carried at separate fares. Essentially, we still have embodied in Part III of the Road Traffic Act 1960 the exact system which the 1930 Act introduced. Thus, any vehicle which is adapted to carry eight or more passengers and is used to carry passengers for hire or reward is a PSV. If a smaller vehicle carries passengers at separate fares, it is likewise a PSV.
The definition in the 1960 Act of the key words "for hire or reward" and its interpretation give the licensing net a very fine mesh—certainly far finer than the layman would ever imagine at first sight. Operation for hire or reward occurs if any payment is made in consideration of someone's being given a right to be carried, even if the payment covers other things as well, even if the right is not exercised, and no matter who makes the payment or to whom it is made. To become liable to PSV licensing, therefore, one does not need to be a commercial bus operator.
It is not my intention to pass judgment on the system I have just described 1838 as a whole, nor to seek to do anything about changing its across-the-board impact. Such a complex structure covering such a wide field is essentially something for Government to review. In my view, any general changes should be initiated by Government.
I have identified a particular specialised area in which the effect of public service vehicle licensing law has unforeseen and inescapable consequences for people who are tapping voluntary effort in a worthwhile way. They do not seek to serve their own immediate interests or to offer services to the public at large. What they do benefits the community in ways that could not realistically be achieved by any other means. It is my conviction that these areas of activity—illustrated so well in the report "Fare Deal for Minibuses", published in December by three organisations, including the National Council for Social Service—should be lifted right out of the ambit of PSV licensing. It could not have been intendted to cover them. They did not exist when the law was framed or even when it was consolidated in the 1960 Act. They have developed o meet needs which have long been recognised but which could not be met to any significant extent because the resources to meet them did not exist. That they are now being met is due primarily to the arrival on the scene of the minibus as a relatively low-cost means of carrying small groups of more than family size.
So we reached the stage where there were thousands of minibuses throughout the country carrying specialised small groups of people for 101 different purposes, all involving voluntary effort applied for the benefit of the particular group and all probably on or over the boundary of legality. Yet no one seemed in the least concerned, until questions asked by the relative few who had some inkling at least of PSV licensing began to raise doubts. Perhaps it was a niggling worry about insurance—what did the policy mean by "hire and reward"; was it the same as "hire or reward"; was a contribution to costs a fare; surely it did not matter if no profit was being made; and so on?
By the end of 1975 concern about where they stood in relation to the law began to nag at many people using minibuses. The National Association of Youth Clubs 1839 called a one-day conference in London in January last year. Its attention was drawn to an Adjournment debate in this House about 10 days previously. In that debate, initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Mr. Emery), the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment had explained the background of PSV licensing and EEC regulations as they affected people using minibuses for social purposes. That answer helped, but it was not sufficient to allay the doubts.
My hon. Friend the Member for Shoreham (Mr. Luce) introduced a Bill part of which was designed to meet that situation. I have asked him to intervene towards the end of the debate to sum up various points, if he catches your eye, Mr. Speaker.
As a result of that conference, a working party was set up by the National Association of Youth Clubs, the National Council of Social Service and the National Council for Voluntary Youth Service. It investigated the problems and considered possible answers. The report I mentioned earlier, "Fare Deal for Minibuses", contained its findings and recommendations.
I have taken some time dealing with the problem and its background. I make no apology for that. I think that it will make it easier to understand what I am seeking to do in the Bill, with the invaluable help of my sponsors, and why I am tackling the matter along particular lines.
I took "Fare Deal for Minibuses" as my starting point. I found myself in general agreement with the intentions of its recommendations, but I thought that they needed development to provide a firm and effective base of law which would enable each organisation to see exactly where it stood.
The working party clearly knew the kind of bodies it felt should be covered by an exclusion from PSV licensing. Just as clearly, however, it was in difficulty in producing a water-tight definition which would make the scope just right. I thought, and I still think, that such a definition is unattainable. Therefore, I propose to work on the basis of a very broad definition of areas of activity eligible for consideration, but to limit the actual exemptions from licensing to those bodies which apply for and are granted a permit.
1840 The permitted uses would exclude carriage of the public at large and commercial operation. This would be prevented and have no place in any exclusions that I am seeking to bring about in the Bill. I believe that that would provide for the necessary flexibility, clarity and protection against abuse. There would be provision for standards to be laid down for the vehicles in the interests of safety.
Clause 1 provides the framework for a permit system covering vehicles which seat between eight and 14 passengers, which do not carry members of the public at large, and which are not being used with a view to profit. The permit would identify the vehicle to which it related and the body to which it had been issued.
The exemption from public service vehicle licensing would apply only so long as the minibus was being used by the body holding the permit, and in accordance with whatever conditions were attached to the permit. These would cover, for example, the passengers of the kind who could be carried in the vehicle. Permits would then be issued by the traffic commissioners for the area where the vehicle was ordinarily kept to bodies which in their view were concerned with education, Churches, social welfare or other activities for the benefit of the community.
The commissioners would have to have regard to any directions given by the Secretary of State. In addition, there would be provision for the Secretary of State to designate bodies coming within this general description, which could issue permits to their local member organisations, for example.
This would be done by means of an order subject to the negative resolution procedure in both Houses of Parliament, which would lay down detailed criteria within which the designated bodies would be able to carry out this function. Orders could be varied or revoked.
Clause 1 also incorporates a safeguard to ensure that vehicles released from PSV licensing through the permit system do not accidentally get caught up by hire car licensing.
§ Mr. Paul Dean (Somerset, North)
I support my hon. Friend's Bill, but have the tight conditions in Clause 1 caused 1841 any fears on the ground of unfair competition among existing minibus operators who have PSV licences?
§ Mr. Hunt
I know that my hon. Friend has considered this point carefully, and he has mentioned it to me on other occasions. I believe that the Bill contains the necessary safeguard, but it is an important point to which we shall return in Committee. I shall bear the matter in mind in the meantime.
Clause 2 lays down that the permit must identify the body to which it is issued and the vehicle to which it relates. It provides for the attachment of conditions defining the classes of passengers who may be carried and other matters which may be laid down by the Secretary of State in regulations.
There are provisions for the variation of conditions attached to a permit, and for its revocation by the traffic commissioners or the issuing body. Otherwise, the permit remains in force until the vehicle changes hands or, where issued by a body other than the traffic commissioners, that body ceases to be designated. The final part of Clause 2 caters for the situation where it seems appropriate to issue permits to named persons rather than to bodies.
The powers of the Secretary of State to make regulations are contained in Clause 3. They can cover the form of the permit and matters to be covered by the conditions, fees to be charged by the traffic commissioners, documents to be carried on the vehicle and conditions as to fitness which vehicles must fulfil. This is an important point which brings certain aspects to bear. Before any fitness regulations are made there must be consultation with a range of people, including representatives of vehicle owners, local authorities, the bus industry—operators and unions—and the motor vehicle manufacturers. Transitional provisions can be included in these fitness regulations to allow for a gradual changeover to the new standards.
Finally, the clause deals with the interpretation, commencement and extent of the Bill. There would be a period of three months after Royal Assent before the Act came into operation to allow time for the making of orders and regulations.
1842 I have sought to make the Bill as simple as possible, given the basic objectives that it must seek to achieve. First, I seek certainty for the bodies concerned about where they stand, secondly, safety of vehicles, and, thirdly, safeguards for the bus industry against possible abuse of these provisions. The scope of the Bill will make it possible to achieve all three objectives.
§ Mr. John Lee (Birmingham, Handsworth)
Will the hon. Gentleman say a few words about the question of possible revocation where operators fail to come up to fitness standards? Does he expect that such a matter will be dealt with by regulations?
§ Mr. Hunt
My hon. Friend is right to raise that matter. It will be dealt with by regulation. Such regulations will be drawn up only after fullest consultation with the various interests. I did not lay down those standards in the Bill because standards may vary, but I wish to leave it to the Secretary of State to make regulations following the fullest consultations with affected parties.
I have sought to avoid imposing any unreasonable burden on voluntary bodies or creating additional demands on the public sector. I was impressed by the emphasis, in many of the comments I have received, on the desirability of making use of the existing expertise and machinery of the traffic commissioners for the issue of permits. If this function were allotted to county councils—and I floated this idea as an alternative because some of my hon. Friends feel that it would be a better mechanism—they would have to create machinery which does not exist, with the inevitable public expenditure repercussions.
The same considerations led me to develop the idea that certain national bodies might be empowered to issue permits to their own offspring as it were. This would help to spread the load and keep down costs in the public sector. I know from discussions with some national bodies that they now see a good deal of merit in this approach.
I should like to saw a few words about the size of vehicle covered by the Bill. The document "Fare Deal for Minibuses" talked in terms of an upper dividing line of 18 seats, including the driver 1843 —that is, using the normal convention of our law, vehicles adapted to carry not more than 17 passengers. The Bill as drafted has a cut-off point of 14 passengers. In selecting that figures I was influenced very much by what I understood to be the probable outcome of negotiations in Brussels on various EEC regulations. At the same time I thought that it would be unfortunate to appear to be offering a special framework under domestic law for a certain size of vehicle when a proportion of them would become subject to fresh requirements under EEC rules.
Despite this, I have been urged strongly in a large number of replies to my consultation letter, to raise the upper limit to 17 passengers. This is a matter that can be usefully discussed in detail during the progress of the Bill. There is nothing that I can do directly to determine where EEC requirements bite, because that is entirely a matter for the Community. But I know that the Secretary of State has some sympathy with those who would like to have 17 passenger seats at the cutoff point. Perhaps the proceedings on this Bill may strengthen his hand in the negotiations in Brussels. At least, one can only hope that that will be the result.
I broached the idea in my consultation letter that larger vehicles, outside the immediate scope of my Bill, might for safety reasons be subject to PSV requirements, even though they were not being used for hire or reward. After some further research and in the light of responses to my letter, I have come to the conclusion that this is not something I could usefully seek to tackle in this Bill.
I should like to make some general comments on the outcome of my consultations.
§ Sir George Sinclair (Dorking)
What reaction has my hon. Friend had from the insurance companies over his proposals? I speak as a strong supporter of this Bill, because I come from a rural area that is suffering from the cutback of support for school transport, which is one of the urgent features lying behind this Bill. What is the view of the insurance companies about the safety factor, bearing in mind the size of these vehicles?
§ Mr. Hunt
I know that my hon. Friend is concerned about this area. Consulta- 1844 tions with the insurance industry are proceeding. I hope that what will come from these consultations will be a desire on the part of the insurance companies to have a permanent insurance which can readily be granted where safety standards are observed under regulations and under which the premium is comparatively low. That is a matter on which I shall continue to consult. I repeat that I have already had some consultations on the subject.
In addition to oral consultations, I wrote to a large number of representative organisations and I sent copies to constituent bodies. There was a good response to that effort. I have not had time to study all the replies in detail, but it is true to say that none of the organisations that commented raised any objections in principle to the approach described in my Bill. Certainly the voluntary bodies backed my Bill wholeheartedly. A significant number expressed concern about safety factors. The Confederation of British Road Passenger Transport indicated strong support for the traffic commissioners as the body to issue permits. It urged a high degree of precision in legislation and expressed concern about the threat of abstraction of passengers from existing services. The matter of vehicle safety standards was one on which it felt strongly. The confederation also suggested that driving ability might be coupled in some way with insurance requirements. I am awaiting its further comments after it has had an opportunity to study the Bill.
I have also been able to have consultations with some of the trade unions concerned. I welcome their acceptance of the principle of voluntary organisations being able to run their minibuses without inappropriate restrictions. They have raised a number of points which I am studying carefully.
I turn now to the response I have had from local authorities. The Association of Metropolitan Authorities welcomed the Bill and the Association of County Councils indicated its general support but stressed the need to avoid imposing additional expenditure on local government or causing loss of business to licensed bus operators. The Association of District Councils expressed concern lest exemptions from licensing ran too wide, but 1845 was otherwise sympathetic towards the objectives of the Bill. Responses are still coming in, and while I am grateful to the bodies which have replied, I do not want to create the impression that it is too late for anything else to be considered. I hope to continue consultations with my sponsors beyond Second Reading. There is still much to be mulled over.
I shall mention three matters which are likely to be raised in Committee. The first concerns drivers. No mention of drivers is made in the Bill. My view, as indicated in my consultation letter, was that the degree of skill needed to drive a minibus was not such as to call for a formal qualification. Some of the replies that I have received support my view, others question it and one or two people have opposed it. We shall certainly need to discuss that question further.
The second matter deals with whether the reference to Churches is wide enough to cover all the groups which clearly qualify for consideration. It is not my intention to exclude anyone connected with religious activities, but some concern has been expressed about the choice of words. I think that I already have an alternative formula which would meet any difficulty. We can discuss that in Committee.
The third matter is a specialised problem concerning the difficulties faced by bus preservation societies. It is a highly technical issue. I have been urged to do something about it in the Bill. There is nothing in the Bill at present to deal with it. Had we been dealing with larger vehicles, I would have wanted to do something about this problem, but because we are dealing with smaller vehicles, I doubt whether it is feasible even to try.
I have already taken up a fair amount of the House's time, and I am grateful for the indulgence that hon. Members have shown. I am confident that we shall have a constructive debate on this small but worthwhile measure. I have had encouraging responses from several Ministers to whom I have written. I hope that the Government will be able to indicate their full support and that the House will be disposed to support the Bill.
§ 11.33 a.m.
§ Mr. Arnold Shaw (Ilford, South)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Wirral (Mr. Hunt) on the way he has so ably explained the purposes of the Bill, and on his luck in obtaining a place in the Ballot. I recall that on a previous Friday I was sponsoring a Bill which was second on the list, but on that occasion the Bill was talked out. I am pleased to congratulate the hon. Member on a Bill which I am sure will be universally supported.
I know from my own experience that there are many organisations such as Churches, schools, youth organisations, old people's clubs and so on which use this type of vehicle to carry out their work. If the Bill reaches the statute book it will redress a situation which has for a long time harshly affected such bodies because of the effects of the Road Traffic Act 1960.
Many of these organisations already possess this type of vehicle or would hope to acquire one to help them in their work if the law were made much clearer. I am particularly thinking of a day centre for the elderly not far from my constituency, in which I have an interest. The people who attend the day centre are often taken to and from the centre by voluntary car drivers or by minibus. The minibus is essential for carrying the physically disabled and those who cannot travel easily in ordinary cars. It has enabled many people to enjoy new activities and has in many instances given them a new lease of life. I am not suggesting for a moment that the way in which the bus is being operated is strictly within the terms of the law. As for the hon. Member for Wirral has pointed out, there is uncertainty about the present legal position. This Bill can overcome that difficulty.
The Bill is widely supported. I am particularly aware of the support from the London Federation of Boys' Clubs. There is a voluntary club in my constituency which caters for young people and there is another club not far from where I live, and not far from my constituency, which also does a magnificent job among young people. Both clubs have written asking me to support the Bill because it would greatly assist their work.
1847 These organisations have tremendous difficulty in carrying out their work because of a lack of funds. Most of the money has to be raised through fundraising activities, which are becoming more and more difficult. Any help which can be given, either financial or by changing the law, will be greatly welcomed. We must also realise that, in these times of financial restraint, help from local authorities is becoming more and more difficult to obtain.
A letter from one of the clubs, which opened comparatively recently, pointed out that it was already being overwhelmed by the demands made on it for such things as rates and other overheads. Too little recognition is given to the valuable social work carried out by voluntary organisations. Part of a letter which was sent to me states:We are providing a very important service to youth in this part of the borough at very little cost to the borough.I am making this plea today because I think that we should help voluntary organisations in every possible way.
As I have said, uncertainty will be swept away by the Bill, and this will be of great help particularly to clubs for the elderly. Such people do not completely appreciate the ramifications of the law. I do not wish to develop the point about whether the minibus to which I have referred is being operated strictly within the law. From what I have heard from the hon. Member for Wirral, I should think that such difficulties as the competence of drivers and the fitness of vehicles will be attended to in Committee.
I have great pleasure in commending and supporting the Bill, and I hope that it will shortly reach the statute book.
§ 11.41 a.m.
§ Mr. Norman Miscampbell (Blackpool, North)
No one who has had anything to do with road accidents and their results can doubt the essential requirement that the strongest and most sustained laws should govern the use of public service vehicles to ensure that they are safe on the road. The appalling results when a bus load of people is involved in an accident and the question of compensation which follows, quite apart from the family misery caused, make it essential for us to maintain the strictest rules and regulations in connection with public 1848 service vehicles. In no instance is that more important than in that of smaller vehicles, the use of which is becoming so prevalent. Many minibuses and small vans converted to carry passengers are using the roads and the control of them is just as important as it is in the case of larger vehicles.
Such control implies cost and, as my hon. Friend the Member for the Wirral (Mr. Hunt) has properly said, because of that cost we have given protection to the users of such vehicles, just as we give protection, although sometimes I wonder whether it is very good, to taxi drivers, who must maintain their vehicles at a much higher standard than the standard required for other vehicles. Perhaps that standard has been eroded with the advent of minicabs, but it is important to make clear that the Bill—which I strongly support—is not a means simply of opening up competition or of subjecting those who, naturally and properly, must spend a lot of money on their vehicles to unfair competition.
I therefore welcome the approach of dealing with the matter flexibly so that the commissioners may consider the question of a broad definition and then go a stage further and say not only that the vehicles which we are discussing come within the definition but that, for example, school masters and school mistresses may be carried in them.
Will there be any necessity for prior publicity to be given to any applications which are made so that other people who may feel that they will be affected may have the opportunity of making representations? Also, will there be a right of appeal—I presume that there will be—if an application is turned down by the commissioners? I hope that if the application of a person or organisation is rejected there will be a right of appeal and that there will be advance notice of applications so that people who may be affected by them may have the chance to make representations.
The Bill will be of great benefit to my constituency. It is difficult to think of a town in which there are more organisations which would wish to run community service vehicles. With the exception, I think, of a ward in Bournemouth, we have the greatest proportion of retired people in the country. We have 1849 clubs, churches and schools which would wish to run community service vehicles. Such vehicles are costly. A Rotary club, for example, may donate a vehicle worth £2,000, £3,000 or £4,000 but the cost of running it amounts to £20 or £30 a week.
Members of Parliament receive 12p a mile when driving their vehicles on parliamentary duties. When I said to my accountant that that seemed quite generous, he laughed. He said "You are not paying your way". The minimum amount with which any vehicle can be kept on the road is 12p a mile. When translated into terms of running a minibus for community service, one can understand the cost involved after the initial capital provision has been made. For that reason, I welcome the possibility of making a realistic charge so that the vehicles which we are discussing may not only be purchased but kept on the road and used by as wide a section of the population as possible.
§ 11.46 a.m.
§ Mr. Peter Hardy (Rother Valley)
The hon. Member for Wirral (Mr. Hunt) spoke extremely cogently and most persuasively on his most commendable Bill. As he properly said, the details of the Bill can be argued in Committee, but it is right that some of us should say a few words in support of it.
I wrote to the Minister's predecessor about this problem some time ago when the matter was brought to my attention by a number of constituents, among them headmasters of the large, successful comprehensive schools in my constituency. I received a helpful and reassuring reply from the Minister and that helpful attitude was maintained. However, the Minister realised, as the headmasters in my constituency and myself realised, that such helpfulness could be only temporary since there was no adequate statutory base. The Minister was helpful in the short term, and I hope that the present Minister will be equally helpful when the question of the solution to the problem presented in the Bill arises for his consideration in Committee.
One reason for my support of the Bill is the activities of schools in my constituency. In the eighteenth century it was customary for a few sprigs of the British aristocracy to be taken on grand 1850 tours, while the majority of people never left their home localities.
The schools in my constituency engage in extensive overseas travel. Some of the youngsters travel long distances. Parties went to Greece and Yugoslavia only a few months ago, not because the parents of the children cannot afford the air fare or the cost of package tours, which is almost prohibitive, but because the schools possess buses. Such travel makes a useful contribution to the education of the young people in my constituency. For that reason, my constituents and I are grateful to the hon. Member for Wirral for introducing the Bill and to those who have worked so hard on it.
I marvelled at the request of the hon. Member for Wirral for further mail. Those of us who have been involved with Private Members' legislation—I have had the good fortune, or misfortune, to take three Bills through the House—hesitated to applaud the hon. Member's request because, unfortunately, people write to Members in large numbers when Bills of this sort are before the House. I am not sure that it is good parliamentary practice for the hon. Gentleman to be seeking to increase our burdens in that way. However, I hope that the mail which has descended or will descend upon him will not prove too burdensome.
The hon. Gentleman has referred to the National Council of Social Service and the other bodies that were involved in the working party. It is right that tribute should be paid to them.
One headmaster from my constituency, the headmaster of Wales Comprehensive School, which has a great interest in this matter, shares the hon. Gentleman's view that ideally the seats on the minibuses should number 17, rather than the figure proposed in the Bill. I recognise the reason for the number in the Bill but I am a little concerned about the temporary arrangement for existing minibuses. I hope that in Committee, if not today, the Minister can offer reassurance and explain that the Government will seek to ensure that when the Community next considers the detailed regulations in this matter it will take steps to satisfy the United Kingdom need.
The headmaster to whom I have referred did not mention Clause 3, which includes the provision that fees may be 1851 charged by the authority. The hon. and learned Member for Blackpool, North (Mr. Miscampbell) referred to the very expensive nature of road traffic today. Although under the Bill minibuses may not be run for profit-making purposes, they will be inevitably expensive to run. Schools very often have difficulty in carrying out their activities, particularly if they have in mind the children from poorer families who are equally entitled to join in school excursions. As they are not out for profit, I hope that the Minister will ensure that no excessive fee is charged by the licensing authority.
I do not wish to say more, except that the hon. and learned Member for Blackpool, North was quite right to say that the Bill must not be and is not a measure that will in any way weaken the standards of road safety, which must be maintained at a high level. I know that such a weakening is not in the mind of the hon. Member for Wirral and that he seeks, without lowering standards, to resolve a problem that has continued for some time. I hope that the Bill will resolve the problem and that the House will give to the Bill the support that it deserves.
§ 11.53 a.m.
§ Mrs. Winifred Ewing (Moray and Nairn)
I rise to support the Bill. I have a constituency interest in this matter, and I must disclose it straightaway. I have an area where we once had trains. The trains were taken away on the promise that we would have buses instead. I am afraid that the buses do not service the community.
In my constituency there are many villages in which people are virtually prisoners, with no possibility of going anywhere—including housewives with children. In this situation, naturally many societies of the kind envisaged by the Bill have arisen. Good minded people have created a possibility for the elderly or for disabled people, and indeed, even for housewives to go shopping, of travelling elsewhere. All these things have come into being.
I just wonder, although there is obviously a great desire on the part of the hon. Member for Wirral (Mr. Hunt) to help all categories, whether the Bill goes far enough. In areas such as mine we have the problem that a person might 1852 not fit into any of the proposed categories yet there is a need to benefit the community simply by enabling people to move from one place to another when otherwise there is no possibility of their doing to.
The minibus in my constituency is also the norm for children to get to school. It is an area in which there is much snow in winter. Without the minibus being protected, many things would come to a total stop. The minibus is almost our safety valve for communication of all kinds.
Therefore, I support the hon. Gentleman's Bill. I congratulate him on the very thorough way in which he has put it forward.
I should like to add another constituency interest. It goes beyond the Bill, but it may be of interest to the House. In a region in which public transport virtually does not exist, and in whch we have the problem of a lack of sufficient jobs for males, there is the area called Ardersier. Many people will travel a long way to get jobs there. I am afraid that we could not form the Ardersier Historical Buildings Society, because it is an area that was reclaimed from the sea by the oil companies. We might be able to form an Ardersier bird watching society, because the pond where the famous ducks go has been kept. We must do something about this transport problem.
From surrounding villages men bought minibuses so that other men could get to work. That was done by community self-help. It was done so that men could get to their work, because public transpirt would not go and collect them. That situation is not covered by the Bill.
I ask the House to consider this matter, because I am not lucky in getting my name pulled out of the hat to promote a Bill. It is not the EEC idea of minibuses that counts. It is, perhaps the Moray and Nairn idea of minibuses that should count.
Two good men in my constituency who bought minibuses to take their mates to work, in a co-operative, will be coming before the criminal courts as criminals in a month's time. I really wonder whether the Government could not lean on the Lord Advocate in this matter and say to him, "Why should men such as 1853 these, who are just trying to get to work when there is no public transport to take them, be penalised?"
In a way, I should like the Bill to go further. However, we all know how difficult it is to get a Bill through the House. This Bill will do so much good in so many fields, and I am already indebted to the hon. Gentleman, on behalf of my constituents.
§ 11.57 a.m.
§ Mr. Bryan Davies (Enfield, North)
I rise to support the Bill and to congratulate the hon. Member for Wirral (Mr. Hunt) on the introduction of such a constructive measure.
It may be surprising that a Member for a North London constituency should regard minibuses as a matter of great import. I am all too well aware that some of the benefits that obtain in rural areas obviously do not apply in an area such as Enfield. Nevertheless, one should recognise that even in an area such as London, which is comparatively well served by public transport, there is the problem that although radial roads are well served, local lateral routes are much more difficult. For many local organisations, it is getting about the borough that presents the problem, and not the advantages of getting into and out of the city.
This public transport problem presents great difficulties for a number of organisations in my constituency that are concerned to run minibuses firmly within the framework of the law. As has been mentioned today, a number of organisations have found to their horror that in carrying out their voluntary work on behalf of the community they have often strayed somewhat from the literal position of the law with regard to the use of these vehicles.
I hope that I shall not be accused in any way of supporting a measure that might detract from the rôle, value and importance of public transport. I should certainly like to disavow myself of that position, having in the past had the honour of helping London Transport with certain private measures that have been introduced in the House, and being concerned with the development of things such as bus lanes, and so on, which have greatly improved and added to the effi- 1854 ciency of London Transport—although many motorists take a rather different perspective on the matter.
Having said that, however, I believe that minibuses for voluntary organisations play an important rôle. When a previous measure proposed by the hon. Member for Shoreham (Mr. Luce) was about to be introduced, I received several letters from schools and organisations urging my support for it.
Although I am enthusiastic about the measure, I have one or two minor reservations about it. We ought to pay a great deal of attention to safety. I do not regard driving minibuses in the same way as driving a private car. It is not right to suggest that it is an easy transfer from one to the other. Even if it were, the fact that a minibus carries passengers raises the issue of responsibility, which we ought to look at closely.
Many years ago, I had the hair-raising experience of driving a small minibus over the Simplon Pass when the brakes failed. I hasten to add that it was in the lower reaches, otherwise I would not be here to tell the tale. A frightening experience of that kind raises the importance of safety with regard to the servicing of the vehicle and safeguards in that respect, and the competence of the driver.
I recognise that the hon. Member for Wirral has introduced into the Bill some provision for the certification of drivers but it looks a fairly loose concept. Although I recognise that the spirit of the Bill would be lost if we insisted that all drivers of minibuses should hold public service vehicle licences, we ought to consider who should be entitled to drive these vehicles and what level of competence should be expected of them.
During the last 18 months or so there has been a number of accidents involving motor coaches, in which highly skilled and professioal drivers have been unable to avoid mechanical or road difficulties. There has been much public concern about the safety of large coaches and that they should operate under the strict provisions laid down for public service vehicles. I fear that, if we pass this measure, we might witness a minibus disaster involving many people, especially if we yield to the pressure, against which I can see little argument, calling for buses which will hold as many as 17 1855 rather than the restrictive number provided in the Bill. I recognise some of the issues which will arise from EEC regulations but I have had difficulties with EEC regulations from time to time. But it seems that, for example, the Bill will discriminate against rugby clubs but not against soccer clubs. I am opposed to that kind of discrimination.
We should recognise the development of the use of minibuses in educational institutions. For one institution which has written to me—St. Ignatius School, in my constituency, where the lower school is some distance away from the upper school—the minibus performs a service for the sports team on Saturdays and for other school outings, and is also a means of communication between two fairly distant sites.
There has been a lot of activity by parent-teacher associations to help to provide minibuses. That is to be welcomed. I look forward to the day when parent-teacher associations do more than raise funds for schools. I see a more important part for them in the development of education for our children. Nevertheless, a great deal of attention has been given to this.
One of the worries these organisations face is that having worked hard to provide the money to buy a minibus, the high costs of running it are becoming a great barrier. Unless we try to help to cover the running costs by some form of charge, much of this work will be greatly hampered.
I do not wish to detain the House further. I commend the Bill, and I hope that the reservations I have adduced will be considered seriously and carefully in Committee.
§ 12.5 p.m.
§ Sir George Sinclair (Dorking)
I fully support the Bill and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for the Wirral (Mr. Hunt) on the pains he has taken to consult all the interests. He has brought out some of the limiting factors in a pioneering Bill which has its hazards as well as its advantages. All of us are grateful to have had the issue put so plainly before us.
I was a sponsor of an earlier Bill with a similar purpose, presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Shoreham 1856 (Mr. Luce). I sponsored it, because, like him, I found a tremendous demand in my constituency to remove doubt and to bring in certainty about rights to operate transport of this kind. I had strong support recently from Surrey County Council for this Bill. Its anxiety was that there should be delay. It felt that legislation on these lines would help mobility within the county. Equally, I have had strong support from the Surrey Voluntary Services Council, which is involved with many groups which organise their own activities and will be greatly helped when this Bill becomes law.
I represent a rural constituency. It is made up of a number of villages, which can become fairly isolated, especially for those who do not have cars or who are getting too old to want to drive any more. This isolation is becoming worse as rural bus services are being limited by rising costs to themselves and their passengers.
Surrey County Council has recognised the problem and in recent years has spent a good deal of money on subsidising rural bus services. But it is now being forced by central Government and its own financial problems to reduce public expenditure and to reduce its support to the rural bus services. The reduction of services is increasing the isolation of the villages. It is having not only that general effect but also the particular effect of cutting down the bus services available for school children. These bus services are particularly important at this time when village schools are tending to be removed to central locations.
I am concerned about the very young who now will have to travel away from their villages to their schools and who are not yet old enough to ride bicycles on the road, which their elder brothers and sisters can do, provided the journeys are not too far. This is a real problem and an anxiety for parents who are trying to get their children to school.
This is the urgency behind the Bill in our part of the country. Parent after parent, and groups of parents, have written to ask me to protest about the cutting of subsidies for bus services and to ask whether we cannot do something to hurry the passage of a Bill of this kind. I am all in favour of getting on with this and helping the Bill to become law as soon as possible.
1857 But there is the real problem of safety, which has been mentioned before in the debate. We have a responsibility, when we support a new advance in community enterprise, to help people to stand on their own feet. We also have a strong responsibility to the drivers of minibuses and the people they carry and to the rest of the travelling public to see that safety standards are as high as is reasonable to ask.
I am especially impressed by the care which my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral has taken to see that standards of vehicle maintenance and driving skill shall be strict and shall give confidence to the public. The attitudes of insurance companies will be important. I hope that the close support which the Government have given in the latter stages of this movement towards licensing minibuses will result in good safety standards.
I end with a plea to the Government to get on with it. Many people look forward to the day when some mobility will be restored to those groups of people who are determined that they shall not be isolated and who are prepared to stand on their own feet and go to the expense of helping themselves.
I wish all good fortune to the Bill.
§ 12.10 p.m.
§ Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne)
There is insufficent understanding in this House and certainly in the Department of Transport about the need for radical innovation in the provision of transport services in both urban and rural areas. That need for innovation and for radical reform has come about because of dramatic changes in the price of oil and in the cost of providing transport in urban and rural areas, to say nothing of a rate of inflation hitherto unknown in the country. These factors have led to many people, who in the past were able to afford bus services no longer being able to afford them today.
This is bad news, of course, for the bus companies. It is bad news for the National Bus Company which in 1975 made an unprecedented loss of £19 million. The reason why the National Bus Company made that record loss of £19 million was the twin evils of the dramatic increase in the cost of operating buses and the extent to which there was passenger re- 1858 sistance to an increase in fares which the Minister and I agree was inevitable.
In urban and rural areas today, the buses are providing less and less frequent services at higher and higher cost. In my constituency—and I suspect that the same is true of those of other hon. Members, especially those representing constituencies like my own which are partly rural—it is possible to see single-decker or double-decker buses driving round the countryside with one or two passengers on board and sometimes with only two people on board—the driver and the conductor. It is those large buses, which are often superfluous to the needs of the people whom they are supposed to serve, which are draining the National Bus Company and its subsidiaries of resources and whose charges are so great that very many people can no longer afford to travel by bus.
Who are the people most hit by this state of affairs? They are not the comparatively rich who still have motor cars. they are not those who can afford to take taxis. The people most hit are the elderly, the young and those who wish to participate in sporting and social activities.
Who are the people who will benefit most from my hon. Friend's excellent Bill? They are precisely the people whom the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) wish to help.
The Bill should be warmly welcomed. It recognises the need for innovation. It recognises that the National Bus Company and its subsidiaries, which have been so resistant to change, need to be spurred on. Happily, my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral (Mr. Hunt) is pioneering a measure which I believe will be one of the significant features of the development of transport over the next two decades, namely, the advance of the minibus. This is right. Over the coming two decades and more, we shall see the development and expansion of the minibus because it is the minibus which is more likely to meet the needs of the public over the next 20 years than those large South Down buses which trundle three-quarters empty between Polegate and Willingdon, Eastdean and Jevington and between Pevensey and Pevensey Bay in my constituency.
1859 Despite the welcome which I give to the Bill, I have one or two reservations about it. Why was my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral not sufficiently bold to make it a pioneering exercise in favour of the minibus? Why has he called the measure the Passenger Vehicles (Educational and Other Purposes) Bill? It would be difficult to think of a more forbidding and less exciting title. I hope to serve on the Standing Committee which considers this Bill and, although it will be taken very late in the Committee stage, I shall propose an amendment to the Title. Let us be bold and call it "The Minibus Bill". After all, it is about minibuses. In this place, we become accustomed to all the jargon of the day which is usually cooked up by the bureacracy represented by Ministers. We all become extremely perplexed by this bureaucratic nonsense. Let us call this measure "The Minibus Bill". If I am fortunate enough to serve on the Committee, that is the first change that I shall propose.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral said that, if a minibus could take more than 14 passengers, it would not come within the scope of his Bill. Again, let us be bold. Let us extend and liberalise these laws as much as we can. My hon. Friend hinted that he might seek to amend this provision to 17. But why stop at 17? What is there so magic about that number? The single-decker buses which trundle around his constituency and mine can take between 40 and 50 passengers. The double-deckers can take 80—
§ Mr. Gow
Yes, they are. But I am saying that we should extend the carrying capacity of the minibus a bit above 17 passengers.
In the Bill, under my hon. Friend's very splendid proposals for relaxation, still we have the traffic commissioners. We must not be unkind to traffic commissioners, of course, I could almost become the founder president of a society for being kind to traffic commissioners. But we have to remember whose creatures they are. Traffic commissioners are appointed by the Secretary of State, by county councils and by district councils. It is not the fault of the traffic commissioners that they have to administer the 1860 licensing system. But, because they are the creatures of the bureaucracy, they are not given to great innovation. Let us take away from the Traffic Commissioners the powers which the Bill confers upon them. It would be much better if the powers my hon. Friend seeks to confer upon the traffic commissioners were conferred on certain selected Tory Members. That would ensure that we had a more original and more dynamic approach to the granting of permits.
I would like the Bill to go a lot further. In the development of a transport policy we need far more operation of the free market and far fewer restrictions, subject to one key element which was referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Dorking (Sir G. Sinclair)—that is, the overriding need for safety. Provided there are proper safety provisions we should liberalise still further the licensing laws which so often operate against the public interest. But even one step forward in this vale of tears is to be welcomed. I congratulate my hon. Friend on his Bill.
§ 12.21 p.m.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. John Horam)
It may be for the convenience of the House if I intervene in the debate at this stage to give the Government's view of the problem we are considering this morning, and of the Bill sponsored by the hon. Member for Wirral (Mr. Hunt).
If it is any comfort to the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow), my brief for this debate is headed "Minibus Bill" From the trend of his speech I should think that the title should be "Minibus, Traffic Commissioners and Tory MPs Bill." But perhaps we can talk about the measure in a less formal fashion by referring to it as the Minibus Bill.
I would like to say straight away that the Government are seriously concerned at the problems facing voluntary bodies and schools in this regard. The hon. Member for Wirral has described these vividly and fully, and I do not want to add to what he has said. However, I would like to congratulate him on choosing this issue to bring before the House, and also to congratulate the voluntary bodies on the serendipity of publishing their report—hardly by chance—on the very day of the Ballot.
1861 My congratulations are made all the more valid by the fact that I was third in the Ballot last year, and I introduced a Bill which probably would not have appealed to many hon. Members in the House today—the North of England Development Agency Bill—which was blocked by the Administration of which I am now a member, even though it received a Second Reading.
The problem has a complex background, because anything concerning bus licensing is complex. The Government are tackling current problems pragmatically, with the intention of seeing what actually happens on the ground with modified licensing arrangements in experimental areas before deciding how to proceed for the country as a whole. To facilitate this we have prepared a short Experimental Areas Bill, which was introduced in another place last week and will have its Second Reading there on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, as the hon. Member has amply demonstrated, the problem of voluntary body and school minibuses is separate and urgent, and can and should be tackled by separate legislation, without damage to public services or in any way prejudging the position on bus licensing and bus services as a whole.
This is not because of the vehicles. There is nothing particularly magical about minibuses, although they are extremely useful vehicles. The reason why this issue can be treated separately is the use to which the vehicles are put, carrying pupils of the school, or the client group of the charity or voluntary body.
For this reason I think that the provision excluding carriage of the public at large from arrangements under the Bill is a key one. This is not because I disapprove of volunteer services for the general public, such as the Norfolk Village Bus Service. These are very valuable initiatives. I wish there were more. There are plenty of opportunities for them. But they need to be considered in the same way as commercial bus services. Indeed they have already been relieved of the need to go through the full procedures of the licensing system by the streamlining provision in Section 30 of the Transport Act 1968, and this 1862 simplified procedure was the one used by the Norfolk village Bus Service in particular.
But even that simplified procedure is not appropriate for the kind of operations we are considering this morning, and I am convinced that it is right to tackle this problem separately, and to tackle it now. The hon. Member's Bill and our own Experimental Areas Bill do not in any way conflict, and there is room for both of them—indeed a need for both—in the present situation. I think it particularly appropriate for them to be going through Parliament at the same time.
I would now like to make some general comments on the content of the Bill, without straying into Committee points. A Bill on this subject needs to meet the three basic considerations set out by the hon. Member. First, it must give simplicity and certainty to the people operating these minibuses. One of the worst evils of the present situation is that they are often in doubt whether what they are doing is within or without the law. It would have been attractive if the beneficiaries of the Bill could have been simply defined in the measure and left to get on with it. But they are so diverse that this is not possible, so that kind of approach would have replaced one uncertainty with another. The hon. Member has therefore gone for a permit system. It think this is unavoidable, and agree with this part of his proposals.
The second requirement is that the Bill should protect the legitimate interests of commercial operators, particularly by preventing abuse by bogus voluntary bodies. For this purpose the arrangements need to be assimilated to the general enforcement arrangements of the law. The use of permits also facilitates this, and the assignment to the traffic commissioners of the task of issuing permits for the great variety of local bodies, where the risk of bogus organisations arises, clinches the argument. For clearly identified bodies such as scouts and guides, Age Concern, and other bodies of that kind, the same problems do not arise. Here I think the proposal for the Secretary of State to designate major bodies to issue permits, subject to necessary safeguards, is right. No doubt we shall be returning to the question of safeguards in Committee, but the general approach is correct.
1863 The third general requirement concerns safety. This was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North (Mr. Davies) and the hon. Member for Dorking (Sir G. Sinclair). It is a particularly difficult issue because instinctively one feels special safety requirements are necessary, but in fact what we are concerned about here is clarifying the law about the financial arrangements that are permissible for operations that have already been undertaken for years. This is not a change that affects the safety of the vehicles or their drivers.
When considering the safety record of these bodies we find that the national accident statistics do not differentiate minibuses at all, much less those operated by charities and voluntary bodies. For the future we are putting this right—at least in collecting separate figures for minibuses as a whole, of which these minibuses for charities are a substantial proportion. Meanwhile all I would say is that we have no indication that any particular hazards have arisen in the operation of these vehicles.
I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Hardy), who made a welcome speech, that of course we all take account of his remarks about the number of passengers. A number of hon. Members mentioned this aspect.
Finally there is the question of costs. I see that the hon. Member proposes that the Secretary of State be given a power to fix fees for permits issued by the traffic commissioners. I would expect him to exercise this power to fix a fee designed to cover the administrative costs. This would avoid expense falling on public funds, whilst requiring only a modest fee from the voluntary body receiving the permit.
I would like on behalf of the Government to commend the hon. Member's Bill to the House and wish it a quick passage to Royal Assent.
§ 12.30 p.m.
§ Mr. Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield)
May I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral (Mr. Hunt) on this Bill and on the exceptional way in which he presented it to the House? May I also congratulate him on the speed of response to the working party's report on the voluntary organisations which appeared last year? My hon. Friend's 1864 progress has exceeded the hopes even of that working party, which proposed a 12-month consultation period. My hon. Friend has shown that a private Member, given the luck of the draw, can cut through the delays of Government legislative timetables, and he has had the advantage of some extremely valuable preparatory work done not only by the working party but by my hon. Friend the Member for Shoreham (Mr. Luce).
This is an uncontroversial Bill which will be welcomed by voluntary organisations and schools alike. Before coming to the particular points of the Bill, I wish to make a few general remarks. The difficulties that voluntary organisations are encountering stem from the public service vehicles licensing provisions as laid down not by an Act of 1960 or 1950, but by the Road Traffic Act 1930. It must be a source of wonderment to many of us that the provisions of that Act, relevant to a bygone age, figure so prominently in our discussions of bus and coach services in the late 1970s. Yet the position is that that Act has remained largely unreformed through decade after decade.
Anyone who really doubts that the provisions of the Act were designed for a bygone age should read the Second Reading debate of the Bill on 18th February 1930. Mr. Herbert Morrison was then the Minister of Transport, and then, as now, speed limits were being discussed. Dealing with the options open to the Government he said:Supposing we indicate that the speed limit should be increased to 30, 35 or even 40 m.p.h., what are we saying? We are saying that in the ordinary run of driving a motor car it is reasonable to run at 30, 35 or 40 m.p.h. I venture to say"—said Mr. Morrison—that that is an exceedingly dangerous thing to say and that it is dangerous to get it into the motorist's head." [Official Report, 18th February 1930; Vol. 235, c. 1209.]It so happens that the Under-Secretary is probably one of the few Members of this House who still agrees with Mr. Morrison, but for the rest of us the quotation gives some indication of just how outdated is the 1930 model of legislation that the hon. Gentleman seeks to preserve.
§ Mr. Bryan Davies
The hon. Member has raised the question of Herbert Morrison's enormously prescient statement in 1930. I would have thought that 1865 his prophecy of carnage on the roads had been amply fulfilled, so I do not see why the hon. Member should draw consolation from criticising what he said.
§ Mr. Fowler
If the hon. Member wishes to advocate speed limits of 30 m.p.h. or thereabouts, that is his option, and he will have the opportunity in later discussions to do so. I was giving the example, however, to illustrate that most of us would consider that the attitudes of the 1930 Act are slightly dated by this stage.
As I was saying, even worse than that was that the 1930 Act was based upon the 1928 Royal Commission on Transport. In other words, the Commission's conclusions were based on the transport conditions of the mid-1920s, and there is little doubt that some of the conclusions it reached then would send a collective shiver through the Department of Transport and might even worry the hon. Gentleman. One of its unanimous conclusions at that time was that driving tests were totally unnecessary and that we should not take the slightest notice of the experience of those curious Americans across the Atlantic who had introduced it.
It is easy enough to take examples of this kind that sound quaint and perhaps amusing. But they are amusing only up to a point because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) said, the shadow of the 1930 legislation still hangs over much of passenger transport today, and, frankly, I think that reform there is long overdue. It is overdue because the present laws stifle innovation, because they prevent services developing naturally to serve public needs, and because they are based on transport conditions which have changed out of all recognition.
When pressed on this question the Under-Secretary invariably resorts to defending his position by saying that we should not throw out the baby with the bath water. It is about time he came to realise that the baby he is so fond of protecting is now almost half a century old. I shall be fair to the Minister: today he gave a welcome to the Bill, and we were very grateful for his reasonable attitude and his reasonable speech; perhaps we may hope at some later stage for a total conversion on this question.
1866 The position which has been created for voluntary organisations with this Bill is one further example of the defects of the 1930 legislation. Few in 1930 could have envisaged the kind of minibuses we have today, let alone that voluntary organisations would have been making use of them to the extent that they are. The minibus is an ideal form of transport for voluntary organisations. Some idea of the number of organisations that use them is given by the last two reports on the one-day conference organised last year by the National Association of Youth Clubs, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral referred.
First, let me deal with voluntary organisations. But for their efforts there would be gaping holes in our social service provision. There is not the slightest doubt of that, and I think that the point was put extremely well by the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Shaw). One of the tragedies of inflation is that it has struck a double blow at these voluntary organisations. It has sent up their costs and it has caused their incomes to level out or fall because the public cannot give as generously as they would like. This has affected the whole range of voluntary organisations, those which deal with children, those which deal with the elderly and those which deal with the disabled. Many such organisations face major crises and are being forced to curtail their activities.
There is today, therefore, a particular duty on the House to look with great attention at the needs of voluntary organisations. The Government have a role to encourage the voluntary effort and the work of these bodies, and they have a part to play in reducing the burden of restrictions upon them.
Similar factors apply to schools, and I know from my own constituency how concerned are the headmasters and parent-teacher associations at the position. Again, the position is that voluntary contributions have supplemented the State's provision, and once again the context is one in which the educational budget is being cut.
However, here we come to a problem. At present the strict letter of the law would appear to prevent voluntary organisations from making individual charges to cover their running costs. Yet, 1867 according to the joint survey which has been referred to today, more than half the voluntary organisations need to make charges if services are to continue. In other words, they cannot cover their costs from their general funds and it is, of course, no wonder.
On the other hand, if they make charges, according to the strict letter of the law it would seem that they come within the scope of the licensing laws, and that brings more problems and more expense. That will often mean that it will be prohibitively expensive to adapt existing vehicles to meet the requirements of public service vehicles. The voluntary organisations estimate that the large majority of these vehicles could not be made to comply with the PSV requirements without structural alterations of such a radical nature that the cost would exceed the value of the vehicles concerned.
It is those sorts of problems that are now causing great concern both to the voluntary organisations and to schools. There is confusion about what is expected of them, and about how the law should be interpreted. Twenty per cent. of the inquiries coming into the legal department of the boy scout organisation now concern the licensing of minibuses.
I understand that two county councils have issued circulars to voluntary organisations stating that, in view of the confusion over the legal position, voluntary organisations should not make charges for services. Other organisations have reluctantly sought ways round the law. I gather that in one case a youth club offered its members a journey costing 50p by charging 55p for a bag of crisps immediately before departure. The bag of crisps was, in fact, the price of the ticket for the journey. By any measure that is an unsatisfactory situation and it cries out for a commonsense solution. It is precisely that kind of commonsense solution that my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral has provided.
The details of the legislation can be discussed in Committee, but I want to point out now that it will contain safety requirements. That point was well made by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Blackpool, North (Mr. Miscampbell). One of the criticisms made against those who advocate delicensing 1868 is that it will lead to unsafe vehicles being on the road. The Bill answers that by enabling the Secretary of State to make regulations, after consultation with interested bodies, while protecting the interests of organisations owning vehicles. There will be safety standards. That is of particular importance since many of these vehicles are used for carrying children.
Another point that we shall want to examine in Committee is that the Bill imposes limits of eight to 14 passengers. A point has already been made about the upper limit but I want to refer to the lower. It means that car sharing schemes will not be included. I should have thought that car sharing would be of value to voluntary organisations, particularly for the transport of the elderly. That point was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Dorking (Sir G. Sinclair).
We should remember that 55 per cent. of households now have cars, and 70 per cent. of households in rural areas have them, but the group most frequently without cars is the over-65s. There is a well defined need here. Sometimes public transport does not exist, and when it does it is often difficult for an old person to manage with a shopping bag or trolley. There is great potential for voluntary organisations to organise trips making use of volunteers' cars, and I am reluctant to see excluded from the Bill an opportunity for such voluntary work. But we can return to that point in Committee.
It is possible that some people believe that the Bill goes too far and that it liberalises the position too much. I hope that those people realise that many Opposition Members would like to see the Bill go much further than it does. We question the whole basis of the licensing laws and would like to see experiments in such services as the commuter coach service.
But this is not the Bill to enable such reforms. We are here presented with an important and specific area of concern. This is a compromise measure to help the position of organisations that the House has a duty to help. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral on his initiative and I hope that the Bill will be speedily placed on the statute book.
§ 12.44 p.m.
§ Mr. John MacGregor (Norfolk, South)
As a sponsor of the Bill and as a sponsor 1869 of the earlier Private Member's Bill presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Shoreham (Mr. Luce), I am delighted to welcome the Bill. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral (Mr. Hunt) on choosing this subject for his Bill and on the excellent way that he has prepared it. I was pleased to hear the Minister's generous response.
My interest in the problem was aroused by my general interest in the problems of transport in rural areas, to which other hon. Members have already referred. My constituency is a large one of 550 square miles. The population is fairly large but widely scattered, and the constituency has 160 towns and small villages. Some of the towns have large populations which have only some transport problems because they are on major networks.
But there are many small isolated villages and it has become clear that the ordinary National Bus system is usually not the answer to the transport problems of those areas. Such a bus system requires a large subsidy that we are increasingly unable to afford and, with the best will in the world, a reasonable service cannot be given to isolated villages.
This is a difficult problem to solve. Hon. Members, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler), have referred to this. They hit the nail on the head in identifying flexibility as the way in which the problem should be tackled, especially flexibility in relation to our licensing system, which is ossified, obsolete and a major obstacle to solving rural transport difficulties.
It was through my wider interest in the matter that the problems experienced by voluntary bodies and schools over their minibuses were drawn to my attention. Eighteen months ago a youth centre in Diss in my constituency wrote to me to say that it had considerable misgivings about the use of its minibus and about whether the bus could be used to its full potential. Other organisations in my constituency then wrote to me, including a secondary school in a rural area that was forunate enough to have two minibuses. Teachers were worried that they were incurring risks and using subterfuge to make the best use of the buses for not only school purpose but theatre trips and 1870 long journeys at high cost for camping and holidays abroad. Since then, the Scouts and the St. Raphael Club have been in touch with me.
I have checked with some of these organisations during the last 24 hours and I find that they still have the gravest doubts about their present position and that they feel inhibited in their use of minibuses. The Bill would make an important contribution to their operations. It will make only a small but important contribution to solving wider rural transport problems. I am sure that my constituents are eager that we should agree to the Second Reading of the Bill today and it looks as though, with the general good will of the House, the Bill will be put on the statute book shortly.
There are one or two points that I hope the Minister will reply to in Committee. Some of these points have already been raised by other hon. Members, but I want to refer to them again to indicate that there is an area of serious concern.
The upper limit for the number of passengers laid down in the Bill is 14. A minibus owned by a youth centre in my constituency and a company minibus that the centre uses accommodate 17 passengers—or maybe 16 passengers plus a driver. I imagine that it would cost a fair amount to adapt the minibuses and I do not know whether the owners are willing or able to do that. I am not sure that we should be persuaded by possible threats from the European Community into fixing the limits laid down in the Bill. This is a point that we ought to look at again, particularly—as has been said earlier—since the working party referred to 17 as the limit. There is worry about this figure and it may be possible to get it amended in Committee.
I also want to ask the Minister whether other bodies—that is, bodies other than the school or voluntary body owning a bus—will be able to hire such a minibus for their own purposes. For example, will the Women's Institute in a town such as Long Stratton—which is a small town in my constituency—be able to hire the minibuses belonging to the school there? They are probably the only minibuses in the area. I can see the possible difficulties in this and we must be careful not to be unfair to commercial operators, 1871 But there are advantages in terms of covering the costs, and high overheads of the minibuses that the voluntary organisations have to pay. When large amounts of money from public funds go into school facilities, we ought to make sure that the widest possible use is made of those facilities. I hope that that matter will be looked at in Committee. I am not sure what the position is under the Bill but, subject to safeguards, there would be an advantage in enabling voluntary bodies to make use of the one minibus which may exist in their own area.
Other queries have arisen as a result of correspondence that I have had with the Norfolk County Surveyor. I have not sought the wide representations that my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral has, but I have done some research locally. The county surveyor, who has wide experience of these problems but is also deeply interested in the Scout movement in Norfolk, has drawn attention to two additional problems.
First, he asks whether those who drive vehicles carrying up to 16 passengers—if the maximum is adjusted—should have a more severe driving test. Perhaps the Institute of Advanced Motorists or some other body could assist. Obviously, we do not want to go anything like as far as the PSV licence test.
Second, there will be a problem for some voluntary bodies in adapting their vehicles to come within the terms of the Bill. That is why I welcome the provision for a transitional period. I hope that that period can be used to help in this area—although I share the general concern that safety standards should not be relaxed.
I give the Bill the warmest possible welcome in the context of the wider problems of rural transport. It makes some difference to a deteriorating situation, although in some respects it may make the position worse. I have been in correspondence with those concerned with the National Norfolk Community Bus Service, to which the Minister referred. The secretary says that at present a teacher living in his village may regularly drive 40 children up a motorway at night with no licence but an ordinary car licence simply because the children do not pay fares. But he cannot drive the secretary's minibus one mile between two 1872 villages with 12 children on board because they do pay fares. Under the Bill, the voluntary body's minibus will be able to be driven between the villages whereas his own minibus will not.
So there is a problem there. We must move as quickly as possible to greater relaxation in other directions—for example, in car sharing, which would make one of the biggest contributions to the most isolated villages.
The Minister has often expressed his anxiety about these matters and he is at present encouraging experiments. I wish much more power to his elbow. If he shows a greater sense of urgency, he will find ready support on this side of the House.
§ 12.53 p.m.
§ Mr. Charles Morrison (Devizes)
My hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South (Mr. MacGregor) referred to the limit on numbers. It never fails to amaze me how often we run into petty-mindedness in the EEC. I did not support the grand concept of membership of the EEC simply to run into petty difficulties like this. It is much more important that the Common Market should concentrate on the important matters of life and not this sort of thing.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral (Mr. Hunt) on introducing his Bill so well and on his good fortune in the Ballot. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Shoreham (Mr. Luce) on his initiative in this respect in the last Session.
This is an excellent Bill on a subject well suited to a Private Member's Bill. If my hon. Friend had not been so fortunate in the Ballot and no one else had taken up this subject, we might have waited many years for a Government to introduce such a reform.
The Bill deals with a limited area which has involved increasing difficulty for schools and voluntary organisations which the House will normally want to go out of its way to assist. It corrects a situation in which many of the schools and voluntary organisations previously assumed, until not many months ago, that the law more or less accorded with what the Bill proposes. Therefore, incidentally, the Bill legalises what was previously assumed by many people who, 1873 are now horrified to discover that they were, unwittingly, probably breaking the law.
Of course, many people would like the Bill to go much further. I would welcome the sort of reforms to which my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) referred. Not least, The Wiltshire Association of Parish Councils is deeply concerned about what it regards as the "deteriorating public transport situation." It has pointed out that recent steep rises in fares make a mockery of the licensing system in so far it was devised to stop some private bus companies creaming off the profit and leaving the loss-making services for other companies.
The association goes on to say that it has become increasingly convinced in the light of changing needsof the essential role of the local entrepreneur in his ability to work up economic servicesfor local people in a variety of forms of contract.
At the moment the licensing system inhibits progress in that direction. Meanwhile, many loss-making services are being withdrawn and many bus services which were profitable are becoming less so. In consequence there is much less money available to subsidise the marginal bus services, which in any case become steadily more marginal, if not unprofitable.
There is therefore a strong case for reform. I was pleased to hear what my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Cold-field said. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral was entirely right to limit the scope of the Bill. It is only in that way that a Private Member's Bill has a chance to success.
I don't know whether this will be of any help to my hon. Friend the Member for Dorking (Sir G. Sinclair), who mentioned insurance, but when I was first approached eight months ago about this problem by a school in my constituency, the headmaster said that he had had "a reassuring paragraph" inserted into the minibus certificate of insurance.to the effect that the company will not regard contributions towards petrol as 'plying for hire'.He said that this did not alter the legal position, but it allayed his qualms about the insurance company ducking respon- 1874 sibility in the event of an accident because the school was technically breaking the law. After the passage of the Bill it will not be breaking the law. Meantime, this point might be of help to my hon. Friend the Member for Dorking and others.
I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for the Wirral on introducing the Bill. I hope that it will pass into law very quickly.
§ 1.1 p.m.
§ Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)
I join the chorus of praise to my hon. Friend the Member for the Wirral (Mr. Hunt) on introducing a Bill so skilfully and modestly drawn that even this Government, with all the fetters placed upon them by the corporate sector, could not find it in their hearts—if it is possible that they should have such a thing—to opposed it.
As a lawyer, when I see a Bill, I look first not for what it does, but for its flaws. I confess that I can find none. It threatens no trade union interests; it lowers no standards of road safety; it deprives no State or municipal body of income; and, above all, it adds nothing to public expenditure.
The Bill certainly satisfies some important social needs: first, by making a modest contribution to halting the decline of pleasure in our rural life; secondly, by giving some heart to local charities which are facing crisis, by removing a serious obstacle to the functions of so many of them; thirdly, by preventing the making of criminals out of local Church leaders and the organisers of parent-teacher associations and old people's societies.
Those who represent rural areas know what current misery is caused by the sheer inadequacies of public transport today. Trains no longer run or stop; bus companies can no longer afford to run their buses, even with vast public subsidies; and local authorities feel that they can make no further demands on the ratepayers. Many people in rural areas who have left the towns because there was not the availability of good housing or because it was too expensive are therefore the poorer people who cannot afford cars. Indeed, the proportion of car owners in some country areas is extremely low. As a result, the elderly and disabled are not only physically cut off, but are mentally 1875 and psychologically extremely distressed by the lack of contact with the centres of society in any area.
The psychological distress is also felt by children. We sometimes forget that they suffer from the emotional and psychological disturbance which is occasioned when their parents cannot easily get them to school or when the whole business of travelling to school is so fraught with difficulties and takes so long that when they arrive they are not in the frame of mind to absorb the teaching that they should receive. The psychological distress to local communities by being cut off from the centres of towns and cities is an important factor which should not be overlooked.
It is astonishing that, however intractable transport problems in general may be, the problems of rural transport are probably the easiest to solve. Yet this Government—indeed, not only this Government, but previous Governments—have not got round to doing very much about it. A Conservative Bill, which would have had far more radical effects than this Bill, unhappily fell because of the February 1974 General Election.
In this area there is a vast amount of waste of existing public resources. Post Office vans and vehicles sit empty for long periods of the day. Emergency ambulances and other vehicles lie unused in municipal garages. There is far too much red tape and conflict between local licence concessions affecting school transport.
I received a letter this week from a constituent saying that she has difficulty getting her children to school and that other residents in the area have the same difficulty. Apparently there is a municipal bus which comes so far and no further because some other municipal road transport concession has been given to another bus company. A private bus cannot pick up her friends and relations because of the restrictions on its licence. There is another transport restriction for another school bus which does not allow it to pick up children from another area. Therefore, although there are a number of buses with empty seats going to and from this fringe part of the town into the centre where the schools are, nothing can be done. That is pure red tape. It is bureaucracy gone mad.
1876 I commend the Bill not only for what it patently will do for children, the old, the disabled, and the charitable and religious institutions, and for the modest restraint with which it avoids all the pitfalls, but because it will break through the incredible inertia which has grown into the activities of Governmental and bureaucratic control of transport. Once the dead hand of State control has been lifted, be it ever so little, I know that the fresh air will rush into the subject and that the result will in the end be a more sensible and flexible approach to transport as a whole, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler), in a characteristically dynamic and powerful contribution, told the House.
This may be a small first step, but its effect may well be great. It is high time that transport policy again became the servant of the people and ceased from being the gaoler, tormentor or, in so many cases, the destroyer of community life.
§ 1.7 p.m.
§ Mr. Tony Newton (Braintree)
I join in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for the Wirral (Mr. Hunt) on his good fortune in the Ballot, his assiduity in consulting people and his appetite for work by soliciting still further correspondence about the matters which he has brought before us in the Bill.
I should think that most hon. Members have had representations from organisations, schools and others about the problems underlying the Bill. I shall not attempt to recite the representations which I have received as we have already had a good run for this debate. I join in welcoming and giving the Bill support.
Apart from the representations which have been made to me, I should mention that a fortnight ago today I had my regular meeting with social workers at the Essex County Council Social Services Department in Braintree. They had indicated to me in advance that the subject in the forefront of their minds—I had expected that it might be some aspect of social benefits—was rural transport. That was the subject about which they wanted to talk to their Member of Parliament.
Social workers have become increasingly aware over the last few years that 1877 the lack of transport for many groups—particularly the disadvantaged, whether disadvantaged by reason of being old, mentally handicapped or disabled—is one of the main problems facing them. Therefore, in an area which has many villages and small towns they are concerned about transport problems, some of which are tackled in the Bill. The Bill will not resolve all those problems, but it will go some way to alleviating them. I hope that, together with the Minister's proposed legislation on experimental areas, we shall now begin to make progress along these lines.
I should like to make one general observation and one plea about the Minister's approach to the Bill. The general observation will be clear from the debate, perhaps not least from the fact that the hon. Member for Enfield, North (Mr. Davies) took the trouble to take part. This is an important matter. It is not just a question of the Tory villages. There is increasing difficulty about transport not only in villages, but in suburbs of major towns and on estates which are quite close to the centres of major towns, particularly for old people and mothers with young children who do not have access to the family car because the husband uses it for work. It is a myth to believe that it is only in remote isolated rural spots that these problems exist.
It is a problem not only of the availability of conventional public transport, but of its growing cost. Although it is an expensive business my family is lucky enough to be able to run two cars otherwise my wife—although she lives only four miles outside Chelmsford—would have a more difficult life. I use the other car for other activities, and when one of the cars is being serviced my wife and children are forced to use public transport. What surprised me was the sheer cost of it and the staggering amount that now has to be paid even for quite short journeys. Indeed, I wonder how people who do not happen to be as fortunate as my wife and I manage to get about at all. It is a very important social problem.
If I have one criticism of the Minister and of the existing and previous Governments it is that the motion that we should now be having experiments in this area 1878 instead of actually doing something is an indictment of the whole governmental system. This is not a problem that has just appeared. It has long passed the experimental stage. If we have to wait another two or three years before action is taken about the growing erosion of public transport in suburbs and rural villages, a great deal more damage will be done.
I come finally to my appeal to the Minister. Although I am doubtful after the tone of his speech, I hope that he will not be too defensive in his approach to the Bill and in the use of the regulations and powers that are given him. I accept the reasons that led my hon. Friend to limit the scope of his Bill and I understand the difficulties and possible controversies that he could have got into had he taken it any wider.
I equally well understand the objections that, for example, some bodies, such as the Transport and General Workers' Union, have to some aspects of the proposals for taking de-licensing further. I can understand their worries about the safety of jobs. The busmen in my constituency put these points to me in another context. I take them well and I in no way want to undermine their jobs or livelihoods or the existing conventional public transport services.
I sometimes wonder whether this defensive frame of mind—it is something that we must accept and take into account—is not becoming self-defeating. Because the absence of innovation in our transport services while the conventional services have been declining has produced a vicious circle. This has forced more and more people who cannot afford it to have cars bcause that is the only possible way in which they can be mobile. It is forcing more and more elderly people who would like to live in rural communities and use public transport actually to ask to be moved into the towns, because that is the only way in which they can solve their problems.
Propping up public transport by this defensive mentality gets us into a vicious circle in which defensive attitudes themselves are undermining the concept of public transport and making it more and more difficulty for people to use it. It also makes it difficult for many people to get to a major centre where they would 1879 use the normal conventional public transport services.
I hope that the Minister will use the Bill adventurously rather than in a restrictive way. I am not clear about how large the scope of the Bill can be. Clause (3) refers to bodies concerned with:other activities for the benefit of the community.That is apart from education, Churches and social welfare. Potentially the scope can go very far indeed. So far as I can judge from a hasty reading of the Bill it could cover a community association or a residents' association on an estate. If that is the case, I hope the Minister will not seek to prevent that simply because they may run a bus partly to help people travel to their jobs.
I am not saying that the Minister should use this Bill to solve all the prolems and undermine what he is trying to do with the experimental areas legislation. I hope that he will make the maximum use of the powers in the Bill rather than the minimum use.
I strongly support the suggestion about car sharing. That is an important point and I hope that it will be possible to look at it in Committee. I hope that the Minister will not be defensive in his approach to the size of the buses. Obviously 40 seats, which is the size of a normal bus, would be too high. Whether it should be 14, 15 or 16, or any number up to 25, I do not know. But I hope that the Minister will make it as high as possible to ensure that the Bill gives the maximum flexibility possible and makes the biggest possible contribution so that it is capable of solving a problem that is very serious.
§ 1.18 p.m.
§ Mr. Richard Luce (Shoreham)
I am pleased to have the opportunity of speaking briefly in the debate, especially since I am a sponsor of this excellent Bill and because it follows from the Bill that I introduced in the last parliamentary Session.
I join with other hon. Members in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral (Mr. Hunt) on the magnificent way in which he presented the Bill and on the fact that he has decided to introduce it. This is the kind of occasion that sees the House of Commons at its 1880 best when both sides of the House support a measure that offers a practical form of help for people who need it. Unlike so much of the legislation that we pass, the Bill will lead to a simplification of the law, rather than further complications. That in itself is a reason for giving it strong support.
The Bill deals with part of a much wider general transport problem, referred to by many hon. Members, including my hon. Friends the Members for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) and Eastbourne (Mr. Gow). It is a growing problem which arises from outdated, complicated and bureaucratic laws, the 1930 Act setting up the traffic commissioners and the Road Traffic Act 1960. Many complications have arisen in modern circumstances. In addition, in recent years there has been a substantial growth in the use of minibuses for certain purposes, or the desire to use them.
There are urgent transport problems in rural areas, where there has been a decline in public transport services and fares are becoming more and more expensive. There is growing social isolation in many villages, where the evidence of the consultative document is that about 30 per cent. of all households in rural areas are without cars. There are great difficulties over school transport particularly for those outside the statutory limit. We know the problems of travelling to work and the question of sharing private cars.
The most urgent problem is that of the voluntary bodies. The Bill that I introduced last Session sought to deal with three issues—relaxing the law with regard to the use of private cars and with regard to rural transport and relaxing the licensing regulations with regard to voluntary bodies. That Bill was designed to deal with some of the wider problems. It would be churlish of me on this occasion to indulge in strong criticism of the Government over those wider problems, having just heard the Minister willingly accept this Bill. I warmly welcome his doing so. We can deal with the wider problems on another occasion.
There have been experiments in places such as Norfolk and Oxfordshire. We have seen the use of post buses in various parts of the country and experiments with community buses. In my constituency the Community Minibus 1881 Association for West Sussex covers 15 villages in the Pulborough area. With a membership of about 300, it helps the elderly and disabled in the area to go shopping, see their doctors, go to libraries, visit the chemist and collect their pensions from the post office. The association discovered that one man had not been outside his house for seven years, until transport was made available. That kind of effort undoubtedly meets a great social need, but such bodies may find themselves unknowingly breaking one regulation or another. The Bill will remedy that.
When I introduced my Bill the overwhelming support from all parts of the country was for that part dealing with voluntary bodies. Organisations that gave their support and urged immediate action included Age Concern, the National Consumer Council, the National Federation of Consumer Councils, the National Association of Youth Clubs, the Youth Hostels Association, the National Federation of Women's Institutes, many county councils, bodies to do with the handicapped, private coach operators, the AA, many schools, the National Association of Local Councils and a whole mass of local voluntary bodies.
This Bill will meet an urgent social need by helping the handicapped, the elderely, schoolchildren and a whole range of other people. I think that the National Council of Social Service did a great job in the working party document that it produced. "Fare Deal for Minibuses". The key question that is posed was how voluntary bodies could operate their minibuses on an economic basis and within the law. It revealed the enormous complications of the present regulations, the inhibitions to innovation and experiment, and the fact that a number of organisations might unknowingly be breaking the law, and it sought to find answers.
The voluntary bodies at present have only two options. One is to try to obtain a public service vehicle licence from the traffic commissioners, which means enormous expense, and even then they may not obtain it. Secondly, they can have an enormous fund-raising operation, which is very difficult to sustain, even if they succeed in raising enough money to pay for the vehicle. The Bill will allow 1882 voluntary bodies running minibuses to change an economic cost for the service.
I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral will agree that the Committee stage is the time to deal with a number of important points raised by many hon. Members. The most important of those points concern safety. I am glad that Clause 3 empowers the Secretary of State first to consult all the interested parties and then to draw up regulations which are satisfactory in terms of standards. There is a great deal of concern that safety standards should be adequate, but it is right that there should be a degree of flexibility. If the present regulations were implemented, they would be totally inhibiting to many people who run a minibus today, or who want to run one, because, for example, their seating arrangements do not meet the requirements. I am glad that the Bill also allows a transitional period so that there is time for voluntary bodies adjust to the new situation.
Concern about insurance was expressed by, among others, my hon. Friend the Member for Dorking (Sir G. Sinclair), who has given great support to the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral is in close consultation with the insurance industry, as I am sure the Minister is. I hope that the industry will be able to make arrangements which are favourable to those who are exempted from the PSV licensing system.
Great concern was also expressed about the question of the number of seats in minibuses. I join those who hope that in Committee we shall consider extending the regulations to cover vehicles with 17 seats. The survey by the National Council of Social Service revealed that a considerable number of voluntary organisations ran minibuses with more than 14 seats. Nearly 30 per cent. of all those who answered the survey's questions had minibuses with 15 seats and 3 per cent. or 4 per cent. had minibuses with 17. As my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Morrison) rightly said, we must consider the discussion in Brussels, but we must act in the interests of those people who matter very much, the disabled and the handicapped. They must come first.
My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Blackpool, North (Mr. Miscampbell) referred to the need to publicise 1883 applications and to consider an appeal system. The purpose of the Bill is to make the procedure as simple as possible and to avoid too many appeals. I do not know how much of an open mind my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral will have on this matter in Committee, because the one thing we must avoid is too much complication.
My hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South (Mr. MacGregor) raised a significant and valid point about the possible hiring of a minibus by a voluntary body or the sharing of a minibus by a number of voluntary bodies. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral has an open mind on that matter, which we should consider in Committee, and I hope that the Government will also have an open mind.
I am pleased to be able to give my warm support to the Bill. I am convinced that with the support of both sides of the House it will reach the statute book. My hon. Friends will have done a great service, because he will have helped those in need and he will have helped to relax and simplify some of our laws.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read a Second time.
§ Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 40 (Committal of Bills).