§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Graham.]839
§ 4.1 p.m.
§ Mr. Richard Wainwright (Colne Valley)
The passenger transport authorities of the metropolitan county of West Yorkshire, and likewise the metropolitan county of Greater Manchester, have recently applied for massive increases in passenger fares throughout their metropolitan territories. These will come on top of horrific fare rises over the last two years, which have far outstripped the rise in wages and equally outstripped the rate of inflation.
At the outset of this brief debate I should like to stress two particular facts. First, I shall be dealing only and entirely with metropolitan areas—areas which never sought metropolitan status but which this House ordained by law should be metropolitan areas. Yet in fact, although their inhabitants suffer all the disadvantages of being in the metropolitan areas, when it comes to benefits of any kinds they are treated like the backwoods. It is a perversity of my constituency that whenever there are benefits to be had in rural backwoods they are denied to my people on the ground that we are metropolitan, but whenever there are benefits from metropolitan status we are told that we are outside the conurbation. This is particularly the case with this dreadful question of fare rises.
The policy of sharp fare rises is not in any way productive. There is nothing at the end of it. It is a negative, self-defeating and hopeless policy. Hard-headed Yorkshire and Lancashire people might conceivably, although very reluctantly, bite this bullet if there were the slightest evidence that these fare rises were preserving the services in the area, but this is certainly not so. The persistent clobbering of passengers, driving them off the buses, is creating a helterskelter return to horseback and the bicycle, which are not ideal in the Pennines.
Parliament is certainly the right place in which to raise the question of these aimless and reckless increases, because the fare situation is, for instance, a serious threat to phase 3 of the pay policy. There is nothing more credible and more reasonable as a basis for a pay claim than astronomical rises in the cost of travel to work, and it is about travel to work that I am speaking this afternoon.
840 These rises greatly hamper the fight against unemployment, for reasons to which I shall come shortly. They threaten price control. Indeed, they make a mockery of price control, which they totally evade. Above all, they threaten the personal and family plans which have led people diligently and conscientiously to decide where to live. They now find that their budgeting base has been totally overturned.
These rises will also, incidentally, destroy practically the whole of the town planning arrangements, on which such enormous bureaucratic cost has been incurred. These are largely based on travel-to-work patterns which are becoming impossible to maintain. In my constituency I find it quite impossible to raise enthusiasm, which I should rather like to do at the moment, for the Chancellor of the Exchequer's tax cuts, because my constituents, absolutely correctly, ask what is the joy in the Chancellor of the Exchequer putting a modest amount back into their pockets when the transport authority takes it all away—very often more than all of it—in fare rises.
I have a number of constituents—too many of them—who have recently lost jobs on their own doorstep, especially in textiles, through redundancy, and who ought to be given every possible encouragement to be able to travel considerable distances across the metropolitan area to new jobs. But where is the encouragement when the cost of travelling to work has not only risen in the past but seems to be on an uphill trend which cannot apparently at present be checked?
As to price control, housewives tell me that it is becoming futile for them to take all the trouble to shop around to save the odd few pence when the cost of getting to the shops in my area has risen at a rate which extinguishes any shopping bargains or any benefits of price control which they might manage to obtain.
There is a tragic number of houses for sale in my constituency, in areas such as Denby Dale and the Holme Valley around Holmfirth, partly because their owners, they tell me, can no longer afford the commuting costs, which now wildly exceed the prudent budgeting which they made when they carefully decided to buy their houses on mortgage.
841 The fare facts speak for themselves, because they are so appallingly dramatic. Since December 1974 up to the present date, the actual increases that have been levied in West Yorkshire amount to 99 per cent, on top of the December 1974 figure. This, of course, far exceeds the rate of inflation over that period. This horrific total arises from the following hammer blows, which are almost unbelievable: a 25 per cent, rise in January 1975, 22 per cent, in July 1975, 21 per cent, in October 1975 and 8 per cent, in October 1976. Now, on top of this 99 per cent., there is an application for a rise in August of this year of another 24 per cent.
If this application were granted—and I fear that it may be—this would mean that a typical journey to work, from, say, Marsden to central Huddersfield and back, which I know is undertaken by many of my constituents, will cost 52p. That is 52p a day for a journey that used to be regarded as costing peanuts.
In Greater Manchester, taking the same pattern, since December 1974 the increase to the present day amounts to 97 per cent, on the 1974 base. This is made up of the following increases: 27 per cent, in February 1975, 45 per cent, in August 1975, and 7 per cent, in October 1976. Now, on top of that 97 per cent., there is an application for an increase in September of this year of between 15 per cent, and 20 per cent. That would mean that a typical journey to work for my constituents on the Greater Manchester side from, for instance, Dobcross to central Oldham, which is a popular route to work and back, would cost no less than 70p.
What is the effect of all this on the viability of the services? The fact is that the numbers of passengers have fallen off like autumn leaves. In Greater Manchester, in 1974–75 the services carried 540 million passengers. In the year 1975–76, after the first of these rises, the figure fell dramatically to 482 million, and in 1976–77 it fell again to 462 million. This aimless policy in passenger transport is jettisoning passengers rather like a leaking hulk throwing cargo over-board in a desperate endeavour to reach the haven of some desert island. The revenue, in real terms, has also fallen.
842 This is not winning the battle against inflation. That is why I say that it is a hopeless spiral which has no productive end whatsoever. It is a mindless policy.
What is the effect on the structure of the services? I have a close acquaintance who had to decide a few years ago where to live, somewhere on the border between Huddersfield and Calderdale, which used to be known as Halifax. In November 1972, at the particular place he had in mind there were 19 buses available during the day, so it looked a good "spec". With a precise and perfectly fair comparison, today that same area has five buses a day, and goodness knows how few the number will be if the West Yorkshire application for a 24 per cent, rise is granted.
In my constituency the service from Diggle, Oldham and Scouthead has been reduced from a half-hourly to an hourly service. It has given rise to many complaints. For most of the day the important route in Greater Manchester between Uppermill and Mossley has been reduced from a 90-minute to a two-hourly service.
In the Huddersfield area, the frequency of service at Meltham has been reduced from 20-minute to 24-minute intervals. People who have been deprived of these services cannot afford private cars. The justifiable claims of developing areas to a reasonable service are severely prejudiced. For example, the situation at Cinderhills is difficult because the transport authority is in a financial mess.
Alarm in West Yorkshire has been increased by the persistent secrecy of the passenger transport executive of that authority. The town council of Otley this week protested that the passenger transport executive refused to disclose route costings. Passengers are not only clobbered and thrown off buses, but they are not even given a chance to discover whether the increases are being equitably applied. Will the Minister say whether he is prepared to tolerate secrecy of this kind?
There are serious doubts about the efficiency of the West Yorkshire Transport Executive. That body is in trouble with its auditors and it is said to have kept even West Yorkshire county councillors in the dark over detailed costings and financial results. I am told by members of the 843 unions there that suggestions for improvements or economies are often cold-shouldered. Is the Minister content to tolerate apparent symptoms of inefficiency when he is granting subsidies?
As a consequence of this downhill situation there is an enormous waste of petrol, a tremendous drain on nervous energy and the distraction of hardpressed police from important duties which result from people feeling obliged to use private cars rather than public transport.
The private car is no real answer to the situation. Cars are not necessarily available to many of my constituents. In Kirklees the alternative of the private car is available to only about 22 per cent, of the population. I speak of the availability of transport rather than of ownership in any one household. It is difficult when there are four or five wage earners in a household having to use the same car when they all travel to work in different directions. I repeat that only 22 per cent, of the population in that area have cars available to them.
It is well known that Government contributions to bus fare support have been sharply reduced in the last three years—from £123 million in 1975–76 to £82 million in 1977–78. I am taking November 1974 values. In the light of this evidence, will the Minister say whether the Government will continue to tolerate the sabotaging of bus travel by a policy which seems to have no plan behind it or whether there will be a change of tack?
I believe that the Government should aim at limiting bus fare increases to the general rate of inflation and should not allow them to occur more than once a year. Unless we have an announcement on these lines, I believe that the Government's price controls which are to be debated next week will lose the credibility of the long-suffering public and that the sound economic strategy of the Government will be sabotaged.
§ 4.14 p.m.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. John Horam)
The hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Wainwright) has raised an important topic this afternoon and dealt with it in hi6 normal graphic and feeling way. I take 844 this opportunity to reassure him, his constituents and others who have the well-being of public transport at heart that we take this matter extremely seriously. I can do this without lifting the wraps that still surround our transport White Paper, which is due fairly soon.
Put simply, we believe that public transport plays and must continue to play a vital role in the economic and social life of our country. Equally, we have no doubt that there are serious problems— particularly in such geographical areas as the hon. Gentleman represents. The Government have every intention of continuing to give high priority to the journey-to-work problems that the hon. Gentleman outlined whether in urban areas where there is congestion or in rural areas —whether these rural areas are technically part of a metropolitan districts or counties or deeply rural areas in shire counties.
I wish to say something about the general level of Government expenditure. It seems rather remote in many ways when one talks about blocks of money while ordinary people are worrying about 50p or 72p return fare increases. However, this must be the basis of the Government's policy, because we cannot tune things so finely and because, when dealing with national expenditure, we must talk about large blocks of money.
In examining the disposition of public expenditure among different forms of public transport one finds that in 1973–74 about 42 per cent, of transport expenditure went on road construction and only 19 per cent, on public transport. By 1976-77 about 31 per cent, was going to roads and 36 per cent, to public transport. Within the allocation to public transport, bus revenue support shot up from £25 million in 1973–74 to about £180 million in 1976–77 at November 1975 prices.
That is the level of the support that we have had to give, although I agree that there has been a recent reduction— although the trend has been rising dramatically during the last few years—as part of transport's contribution to the general restraint that we have all had to face. The general trend is clear, and it shows the importance that we attach to public transport support, although I agree that there are many problems that a high level subsidy cannot solve.
845 I wish to say something about the disposition of support between the metropolitan areas and the shire areas. I know that the hon. Gentleman is particularly troubled about this. In 1975–76 about 93 per cent, of bus revenue support accepted for transport supplementary grant was for the metropolitan counties and the GLC, and only 7 per cent, for theshire counties. Obviously, such a vast disproportion could hardly do justice to the real needs of shire counties and the Government have there-fore been concerned to give priority to expenditure proposals aimed at preserving minimum levels of bus services in less densely populated shire counties.
As a result, in 1976–77 the balance shifted to 64 per cent, for metropolitan areas and 36 per cent, for shire counties. This distribution has been broadly maintained for the current financial year. The hon. Gentleman might say that this was a mistaken trend in view of the need to help the rural areas that are technically inside metropolitan counties but, in spite of the fact that there has been a shift towards the shire counties, the metropolitan counties do better in terms of support from the Government.
If one examines the way that the per capita support is split between the metropolitan counties and the shire counties one finds that in 1977–78, the current financial year, the support given by the Government for buses in metropolitan counties was £404 per head and only just over £1 per head in the shire counties. The ratio is roughly four to one in the distribution of money between the metropolitan counties and the shire counties. If it is broken down by the number of buses instead of per head of population, the result is much the same. The metropolitan counties and the GLC received £4,000 per bus in the current financial year while in the shires the figure is £1,685 and the metropolitan counties, excluding the GLC, received £2,703 per bus. The hon. Gentleman may feel, because of his knowledge of his own area, that the rural areas inside metropolitan counties have few advantages in terms of bus support, but according to those figures, they are doing better than the rural areas in the shire counties.
To some extent, given that there are common fare policies in areas such as West Yorkshire, the urban areas, with their higher density of use, will be cross- 846 subsidising the more thinly populated areas. That has traditionally been the situation. On the whole, urban areas have subsidised the thinner services in rural areas. The hon. Gentleman will benefit from both those trends.
What has probably disturbed the hon. Gentleman has been the big fare increases of the last two or three years. They have led to marked changes in the pattern of services. Those changes have been without parallel during the last 15 to 20 years, as those who have regularly commuted to and from work during that time will confirm.
The reason has partly been the economic history of the last five years. In 1973–74 the introduction of the incomes policy by the Conservative Government, which had a large price restraint element in it, was a deliberate attempt to hold down fares and prices charged by nationalised industries. As a result, huge deficits built up. The National Bus Company was one such organisation which built up huge deficits. Because of the policies that we have pursued, there has been a marked period of catching up in the prices of nationalised industry products, whether they be gas, electricity, or anything else, including fare increases.
§ Mr. Richard Wainwright
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is some scope for the consumer to economise in the use of gas and electricity but that, with travel to work, normally there is no scope or room for manoeuvre? People have to pay to get to work or not go.
§ Mr. Horam
The hon. Gentleman has made a fair point. I agree that there is little opportunity for many people to change their patterns of work, given the other factors in that decision, such as the availability of jobs and where they live. Sometimes those factors cannot be changed, or only with great difficulty.
There has in a sense been a once-for-all catching up in the public industries about which we are talking. I hope that such catching up will not continue in future. Certainly the National Bus Company is now able to meet its costs without a deficit. That was not so two years ago. I hope that this situation will not recur with quite the ferocity which I recognise has affected many people, whether they be bus users in Colne Valley or commuters in London, who have had to 847 experience fare increases of more than 100 per cent, over the last three years, with all that means for them.
We must try to ensure that this rapid increase in fares does not occur again. The hon. Gentleman said that one way would be to have a careful phasing of any increases which might be necessary. Clearly, no responsible Government could say that there would be no further fare increases, because the taxpayer would have to pay for them by another route. Nevertheless, increases, if any, should be phased in a defined way so as to avoid the jumps which have been so pronounced in the past.
I think that the Greater Manchester Council, which incorporates part of the hon. Gentleman's constituency, will do that if it follows its present policy of moderate fare increases. West Yorkshire appears to be somewhat more erratic in its policies. It last fare increase was 8 per cent. I understand that the next fare increase will be much higher.
§ Mr. Horam
Yes, 24 per cent. I hope that as many local authorities as possible will adopt the policy being pursued by the Greater Manchester Council, which is to phase fare increases.
We must recognise that, in a period of rapid inflation, a high proportion of the bus industry's costs is comprised of wages. It is an economic problem that is as old as the hills and one that is extremely difficult to solve.
There has been a high degree of acceptance of reductions in services, and there has been an increase in productivity. The unions have accepted the changeover to one-man buses. Despite all that, because of the labour intensity of the service it has been difficult to achieve big enough productivity increases to offset increases in wages.
§ Mr. Richard Wainwright
I take the hon. Gentleman's point about labour intensity, but does he agree that the application by West Yorkshire for a 24 per cent, increase since last October does not tally with the fact that it has scrupulously accepted the phase 2 limit on wage increases? It is difficult to justify to my 848 constituents a 24 per cent, rise in fares when we know how modest has been the increase in labour costs under phase 2.
§ Mr. Horam
I recognise that. I am not sufficiently familiar with the situation in West Yorkshire to be able to give a more detailed reply now, but perhaps I can write to the hon. Gentleman if there is anything further that can usefully be said. In the final analysis, however, this is a matter for the local authority, and I believe that we must accept that.
I think that we must try to tackle these problems in the way that I have indicated. First, the Government must have the right priorities in making their financial allocations. I assure the hon. Gentleman that public transport, and buses in particular, will continue to enjoy a high priority. Secondly, we are anxious to get the right balance between metropolitan areas and shire counties. Within the metropolitan areas there is a fair distribution of the money. It is essentially a matter for the local authority to do the fine tuning that will take into account problems such as the hon. Gentleman faces in the more rural parts of an essentially urban area such as West Yorkshire. It is difficult for the Government to take that matter precisely into account in distributing blocks of financial support.
The hon. Gentleman asked about information provided by the transport executive in his county and spoke about the difficulties that people have experienced in trying to get information to justify increases that are announced or to understand what is going on. This is a common complaint. Many unions complain to us that they are not given satisfactory answers to eminently sensible suggestions that they put forward as a result of their operating experience. They say that their suggestions are turned down without any reason being given for that being done.
I assure the hon. Gentleman that this is a matter that we take seriously. The Government have tried in their relations with the nationalised industries—with the bus company and with British Railways —to improve the level of information that is available to the House as the guardian of taxpayers' money. We have made improvements. Both my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have been 849 as forthcoming as possible on this matter, and we intend to continue in that way.
We shall have something to say in the White Paper about the provision of information. This will go considerably further than we have gone before in this House. I recognise the importance of people being able to understand the problems even though they cannot accept the solution. They should have a better understanding of why things happen and why, sometimes, fare increases are unavoidable.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether there could be any change in the revenue support approach. I cannot anticipate what the White Paper will say, but the priority that we have given over the years to buses—I accept that there has been a temporary hiccup during the past financial year because of the restraint policies— will, broadly, be carried on, and we want 850 everyone to know how strongly we feel about these problems.
We must accept that the problem of fare increases will not easily be solved. Increases above the rate of inflation are likely to feature in future policy whatever we do, for the economic reasons that I gave earlier. It is difficult to get increases down to even the rate of inflation because of the labour intensity of these industries, but I think that we should give them as much financial support as we can within the policy of restraint.
§ The Question having been proposed after Four o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.
§ Adjourned at twenty-nine minutes to Five o'clock.