HC Deb 17 May 1978 vol 950 cc707-26
Mr. Ronald Bell (Beaconsfield)

I beg to move Amendment No. 38, in page 8, line 20, leave out Clause 7.

This is an amendment necessary to correct a mistake made in Committee. Towards the end of the twentieth and last sitting, when faculties were blunted and in a few cases numbed, a proposal was put forward that conductors of buses should be allowed to charge penalty fares or, in fact, to fine passengers on the spot. In a fuddle of good intentions and mutual congratulation, there floated through on a wave of obtuse bonhomie one of the most flagitious proposals ever to befoul the human mind. That is what I seek to correct.

The mischief that crept into the clause was based upon an obsession with people doing what was described as cheating. I have come across this from some of the representative bodies which have lobbied Members in support of the clause.

The clause is not about cheating. It is designed to catch those who, "without reasonable excuse", travel beyond the stage for which they have paid. One does not need new legislation to deal with people who do that with intent to evade the fare. The clause exposes the passenger to the need for an argument with the conductor in front of other passengers whether he had a reasonable excuse.

I do not know about other hon. Members, but I not infrequently change my mind when travelling on a bus. I may be going to place one and, after that, to place two, but, if it is pouring with rain, I may cut out the first and decide to go on to the completion of my journey.

Mr. John Ellis

A likely story!

Mr. Bell

A likely story! That is just the trouble. The conductor may say "A likely story", and that is it. One may over-travel from mere inadvertence. I do not know whether that would be considered a reasonable excuse. One may do it intentionally because of a change of plan.

My hon. Friend the Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate), who is not in his place, usually sees things, especially things like the Treaty of Rome, with a hawk-like acuity. But he was a little less clear-sighted than usual when he discussed this matter in Committee, because he said that the excess fare should generally speaking, be very small—unless there is deliberate evasion when, of course, a fine becomes appropriate or, perhaps, a different course of action".—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 18th April 1978; c. 1053.] Is this aimed at evasion which is not deliberate—for example, inadvertent avoidance of the fare? If so, it is an extreme course to expose a passenger to unpleasantness with a conductor. One hears and reads about what bus staff have to put up with nowadays from passengers. It seems that this proposal will expose them to some very disagreeable confrontations.

A certain amount of money is lost by all undertakings, public or private, through dishonesty. We should all like to diminish that. But there is a price to be paid for every stiffening of the procedures and every turn of the screw. I suggest that the price to be paid for whatever saving resulted from the clause would be excessive. We do not need to take panic measures such as this.

I understand that this practice has been in operation in Cardiff for a long time. Having been born and brought up in that city, as I am a Scotsman—that is not as illogical as it sounds—I know that its citizens would handle a matter such as this with considerable discretion.

I have been told that there have been very few applications of the rule. Of course, that is one way of making it work, but it does not commend it to me. The fact that a certain amount of money has been collected in this way does not mean that all those who were charged 50p or five times the excess fare should have been charged those amounts. Many people would not like to argue in front of all the other passengers and in order to avoid embarrassment they would pay. I do not think that is fair. It is not the way we should run the country, and it is not the kind of law that should be slipped through at the last minute of a long Committee stage.

Although I understand the admirable intentions of my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler), whose child this proposal was, I felt that although he meant well, he did ill. After Committee stage comes consideration, and on this occasion Consideration like an angel came, And whipp'd the offending Adam out of him.

Mr. William Rodgers

It may be helpful if I say a few words about Amendment No. 38 tabled by the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Bell). As a Member of the Committee, I do not agree that at any time our faculties were blunted or numbed or that we were suffering from euphoria when we discussed this proposal at the twentieth sitting.

I think the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) made an important amendment to the Bill from a transport point of view, because, as he said in Committee, and as I confirmed, there are considerable losses being made at present through overriding. Those of us who are involved in public expenditure considerations—whether hon. Members on this side of the House who would like to spend more, or Members of the Opposition who would like to save money—cannot be indifferent to the sums lost through overriding. The figure for London Transport was put at £4 million, for Greater Manchester £1 million, and Merseyside £2½ million. They are very substantial sums. Other calculations indicate that losses in our major cities from overriding amount to between 2 per cent. and 4 per cent. of revenue. This is a serious problem which has concerned successive Governments. For those reasons it was right that the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield should draw the Committee's attention to this matter and seek to amend the Bill.

In accepting the clause, I said that the principle of the amendment was a good one because there was a serious problem of evasion. I said: In those circumstances, rather than delay the progress of the Committee or cause unnecessary further consultation, I am prepared to accept New Clause No. 8, subject only to the fact that I shall want to discuss it with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary because of the implications under the law generally."—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 18th April 1978; cs. 1055–6.] I have only one regret about the formulation which I used at that time and that was when I said: subject only to the fact that I shall want to discuss it with my right hon. Friend". Very properly, my right hon. Friend has drawn my attention to the fact that this amendment raises very large issues of public policy. I would not agree with the rendering chosen by the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield, but there are issues which perhaps we should discuss more fully. Therefore, although I hope we shall return to overriding, because this problem cannot be left, I think that the right course for us to take on this occasion is to accept the hon. and learned Gentleman's amendment.

3.45 a.m.

Mr. Norman Fowler

No voice was raised in Committee against the new clause which I introduced on this subject. It was supported by both the Labour Party and the Liberal Party. It had the support of the Confederation of British Road Passenger Transport and most local authorities, including the GLC. Not only did the Government accept the clause, but in consultation with the CPT, the Department helped to draft it. I do not say that contentiously: it shows how wide was the agreement.

I follow the arguments of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Bell). There is no justification for failing to act against fares evasion, which costs the public millions of pounds a year. Neither the taxpayer nor honest passengers should have to pick up the bill for the dishonest.

One newspaper said that this proposal was against the rule of law. The rule of law means tackling dishonesty and not ducking the issue. To accept it is to abdicate responsibility. It is foolish to pretend that it does not happen. London Transport estimates that it loses £7 million on fares evasion on buses, as well as £8 million on the Underground. Of the £7 million, £4 million is the result of overriding. London Transport and the Conservative leaders of the GLC, like Horace Cutler and Shelagh Roberts, supported, I understand, by their Labour counterparts, are concerned by this problem. Other reports suggest that the same is true in the rest of the country.

The purpose of the new clause was to make the legal position clear. The House has to make a choice. In 1976, an application to introduce an excess fares system in Cardiff was approved by the South Wales traffic commissioners under Section 135 of the Road Traffic Act. A similar application in the North-West was turned down, so there is doubt about the law.

There is now evidence that such a scheme can work because it has worked for the last 18 months in Cardiff. That is a scheme of standard or excess fares similar to the proposal in the amendment. In that period about 700 standard fares have been charged and there have been only seven complaints from the public. The scheme has worked to the satisfaction of the police and there has been no evidence of any increase in assaults upon staff. It is eyewash to say that this proposal will lead to violence. The only evidence suggests the contrary.

Mr. Loyden

One-man buses are operated on Merseyside, so the responsibility there would be on one person. How would that person cope at 11.30 at night when taking home people who might have been celebrating? My union, the TGWU, would be very much opposed to its members being responsible for collecting excess fares.

I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman's arguments. It may well be that this is a problem. But there are different ways of dealing with it. Those ways ought to be explored. There are methods, such as the zoning of fares, which would not take outside the the normal procedure of law the question of fining people in the way suggested in the Bill.

Mr. Fowler

I do not disagree with everything that the hon. Gentleman has said, but I would point out that the position in Cardiff is not much dissimilar from the position which he has described in Merseyside, particularly when it comes to one-man operations. The one-man operations percentage in Cardiff is as high as, if not higher than, anywhere else in England and Wales. The fact is that this scheme has worked. Clearly, discretion has to be exercised, but hon. Members must understand that even if we exercise the discretion under the present law, difficult situations will still arise. Therefore, one cannot abdicate from the situation altogether. There is no easy, neat answer which one will be able to use in every situation.

I believe that the Cardiff scheme has worked. What we were proposing was a more modest and moderate scheme even than was in operation in Cardiff. We used only one aspect of the Cardiff scheme itself, and that was overriding, and we also made it clear that it would have been possible to amend the scheme. For example, one possibility was that the power should be confined only to inspectors.

I think the situation at present is deeply unsatisfactory. It is not enough for this House simply to sweep this problem under the carpet. The Home Office has clearly overridden the Secretary of State for Transport on this issue. So be it. Clearly we are in no position to put that to a vote tonight. But we do have a serious problem in this regard and it would be very wrong if, simply because this moderate scheme is now being abandoned, we abandoned any serious attempt to tackle this problem. That is the danger. As the Secretary of State well knows, many people in local government and the passenger transport industry will be deeply disappointed by his reply.

Mr. John Ellis

The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) is rather sensitive on this issue, for proper reasons. From time to time all of us get advice from outside this House. I am always pleased to receive such advice about the amendment that I might table. Certainly, when I put them down, I always accept responsibility for them. However, I felt that the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Bell) was a little unkind when he described the hon. Gentleman as being numb at the time this amendment was put down.

When the proposition of the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield came up in Committee, some of us were aghast at the speed with which my hon. Friend accepted it. I went across to the Transport and General Workers' Union to inquire what its attitude would be. After all, they are the people concerned. They, too, are very worried about it.

There is no doubt about the seriousness of the situation. Regrettably, there is an increase in violence on buses, and we all deplore it. With one-man buses in operation, I shudder to think how staff manage at all. But, even on buses where there are conductors, it is frequently the case that late on a Saturday night there is an increase in violence, and TGWU members have expressed their concern about it.

Unions are often charged with being irresponsible and with condoning all sorts of wrongful practices, but T&GWU members have their future in the industry, because that is their job. They want to see it run economically. They want to see their buses well and efficiently run and making a proper return. They accept that there is a problem. But they have made it clear that they expect the fullest consultation before any kind of scheme is implemented, and they are well aware of the position in Cardiff.

What has been done in Cardiff is extremely interesting. I understand from the union that it is the practice for two or three or even four or five inspectors to go round at a time. Though I have not been into it in any detail, presumably consultations were held with the TGWU. But if this scheme is working now—and presumably there is no illegality about it, otherwise it would not be in operation—why do we need this proposal?

I am glad that the House is having second thoughts about this proposal. We think that probably there are other ways of dealing with this problem, and it may be that we are well advised to have second thoughts about it, even at this late hour. Perhaps we ought to look at our buses in general.

I am not speaking from any brief supplied to me by the TGWU now. I merely give the House the observations made to me by union representatives, and what I am about to say is not part of those observations. But in the old days, when there was a conductor who went round the bus and talked to passengers, there was often a different attitude on buses. This is only my personal view, but at busy times one sees a bus pull up at a stopping place, the door clangs open, the driver take on his fares, and then he drives the bus on. It appears to be a very onerous job, and in view of what we have been discussing it will become even more so if we do not reject this amendment, as I hope we shall.

Mr. Ian Grist (Cardiff, North)

Since Cardiff has been mentioned so often in this debate, it may be helpful if I intervene because I cannot understand the attitude of some hon. Members. In particular, I cannot understand the attitude of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Bell). I regret also that he appears to deny his birthright as a native-born Welshman who attended a secondary school in what is now my division and who first entered this House as a Welsh Member.

Mr. Ronald Bell

I am very happy to have that connection, but I must point out that, when I represented Newport, it was in England.

Mr. Grist

I am afraid that my hon. and learned Friend's sense of history fails him. Newport was also the home of W. H. Davies, the well-known Welsh poet of the last century, and I do not think that anyone will deny his nationality.

My hon. and learned Friend began by painting a most vivid picture of what would happen if the proposals in Clause 7 were put into operation. Of course, none of them has happened. It is not a matter of prediction but a matter of observation.

4.0 a.m.

Since October 1976, only 700 people in Cardiff, a city of 300,000 people which serves many more in the course of its daily work as a transport authority, have been charged for overriding. Only seven have complained. Two were children who were charged on the first day and that proved to be a mistake. None went further than the transport manager and no one went to the traffic commissioners or tried to appeal to the courts. It has worked perfectly. The incidence of overriding has fallen and the number of passengers carried in that period has risen.

The experience of a major authority covering a population that includes immigrants, and port, residential, Civil Service and industrial populations—a fairly good cross-section of the country—is that this system works. It is accepted by those who drive the buses, the one-man operators and the trade unions.

I received a letter this morning from the transport manager for Cardiff. It was posted on 9th May, which says something about the postal system. He explained that, as part of the cutting down of expenses, he sent the letter second class, but the delivery time opens up another debate. He says: It was as a result of the Cardiff experience that the Confederation of British Road Passenger Transport pursued the matter with the Department of Transport. I can say that our scheme in Cardiff has been completely successful, with no adverse reaction. Those hon. Members who predict bad reactions must explain why one of the major cities of this United Kingdom has operated the scheme so successfully for so long and has saved so much money and court time. Why are those hon. Members so opposed to it?

Mr. Philip Whitehead (Derby, North)

The House has waited with eager anticipation for this debate, although the hour is late, not merely in anticipation of the exquisite, if somewhat feline, courtesies being exchanged by hon. Members opposite, as they trade blows over the amendment, but because we all know how embarrassed the Opposition Front Bench is that the amendment has been brought forward at all. Hopes rose earlier when it was reported that there had been no sighting of the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Bell) for several hours, but he surfaced in his place and I congratulate him. He has done a service in bringing forward the amendment and I was pleased to hear the remarks of the Secretary of State in his reply, because there is another point of view and it is not that put by the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Mr. Grist). It is the view of many other authorities who have misgivings, though some, like my own in Derby, have loyally, but with conspicuously faint praise, fallen in line behind the lobbying of the Confederation of British Road Passenger Transport.

The document sent by that organisation to all local authorities urging them to write to their Members, as most have dutifully done, makes clear that the Confederation regards this as its pet amendment and as the prelude to other measures that will form a blitz on cheating. But I do not want to see a lever put into the Bill that will open up other areas where relationships between the public and those who serve them on the buses may be exacerbated.

In a letter to me my local authority says: The officers of the City Council have misgivings about the effectiveness of the penalty fare when it has to be administered by transport staff, but having made this point it must be stated that if a provision of this nature is enacted then at least it has a deterrent value. I am not sure whether it has a deterrent value upon the staff who have to carry it out or upon the public. Many of us feel that those who drafted the amendment and the pretty-well organised lobby that worked for it have little idea of what it is like to be a clippie on a late-night bus in an urban area. The problem of loss of revenue through various forms of cheating is worse in urban areas than in rural areas.

I will take issue with some of my own hon. Friends as well as with hon Members opposite. I think we might emphasise much more the need in urban areas to move towards flat-rate structures which exist in many Continental cities and which are far better at cutting out the waste and incompetence that comes from the many fare stages and endless bickering over how these fare stages operate.

What happens when the argument begins between some ill-tempered member of the public who has decided to go one extra fare stage, and an already harassed conductor trying to work out whether he can charge an extra 50p or whether the excess is one or two fare stages?

Mr. Grist

Does the hon. Member not imagine that in Cardiff this already happens and that conductors and conductor-drivers cannot make up their own minds whether a person is being reasonable, in the terms of this Bill. I cannot understand why he thinks that there will be all this trouble if the unions, the drivers and conductors in Cardiff have not protested since 1976.

Mr. Whitehead

I accept that the hon. Member is putting forward the Cardiff City Council's case. The council is very keen to see this scheme further extended. I am putting forward the misgivings that many of us have. The hon. Member should look at the rising figures for assaults on bus crews in London alone. If he does, he will see an area in which we want to eliminate tensions between but crews and members of the public.

We have, very reasonably, always withheld from other agents of local authorities the right to charge one-the-spot fines. We do not allow traffic wardens to do this, for very proper reasons. I do not believe that we should allow bus conductors to do it either. If this is a power that has been given to inspectors, at least inspectors have the right to check whether the ticket held is valid for the whole journey. If not, they can take appropriate action. I do not think we need this legislation. It opens the way to other dangers, so I think the House would be right to throw out the clause and accept the amendment.

Mr. Stephen Ross

I am astonished by the remarks coming from the other side of the House. People who deliberately break the law will apparently get away with it.

I am reminded of the East Cowes-Cowes chain ferry which, when the County Council of the Isle of Wight took it over from Cowes Urban District Council, was losing vast sums of money. It was found that the people who went on the ferry in the early hours of the morning were refusing to pay their fares.

The county treasurer on the island had the guts to go down there with a couple of colleagues at 7 o'clock one morning and found out what was going on. After that the ferry's receipts went up by several thousand pounds a year.

Labour Members are actually saying that because people get on buses at 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. they should be allowed to go free. The Secretary of State—

Mr. Whitehead

Will the hon. Member not accept that there is a difference between not paying the fare at all, as happened on the ferry, and having paid a fare, but not the correct one by the time the check is made?

Mr. Ross

I accept that there are points which the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Bell) has put forward concerning the innocent person who may become involved in a controversy because he has accidentally gone beyond the stage he has paid for. The clause may not be particularly well-worded, but the Minister's reply was a virtual admission that he wished to see it withdrawn. He said that we have to do something about the problem. We need something much stronger than that. If the system works in Cardiff we should at least follow its example.

Let us have something stronger than Labour Members talking about the problems which conductors who are members of the TGWU experience with drunken people getting on the 11 p.m. bus. Bus crews have to be protected because they have a nasty job. For the single-decker buses operating between London railway stations there may be a case for the 10p-in-the-slot system. We need a much clearer explanation from the Government, telling us what they intend to do. We cannot meekly allow this proposal to be withdrawn.

Mr. Ron. Thomas

I am tempted to suggest that not many people would override in Cardiff because I am not quite sure where they would go to. I do not believe that the case for the Cardiff system has been proved. We have been told that X number of people have been charged an excess fare. We have not been given any detail to show that the problem has been lessened. I question the statistics put forward by the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Mr. Grist) saying that authorities were losing millions of pounds. I would like to know how they arrived at such figures.

I often get off the bus before the end of the stage for which I have paid. I do not know whether that would be included as a profit to be set against these costs. Often, when I travel by bus from the London Park Hotel, where I stay when in London, I get off at the other side of Westminster Bridge and walk across if it is a nice morning. I do not know whether that would be included in such calculations.

What distresses me is that it would seem that the Government Front Bench and the Department of Transport were involved in the drafting of the clause. It must have been written by people who have not travelled by bus for a long time.

I am not convinced by what is said to be happening in Cardiff. My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe (Mr. Ellis) tells me that a number of inspectors are dealing with the problem in Cardiff. If Cardiff can adopt this scheme, so, too, can Birmingham. London or Bristol if they wish. They do not need legislation. Hon. Members should tell us why the legislation is necessary.

Mr. Norman Fowler

I sought to tell the hon. Gentleman in my opening speech why legislation was necessary. Cardiff went to the South-West Traffic Commissioners and was given permission to operate the system. A similar application was made in front of the North-West traffic commissioners and it was turned down. At the moment the law is unclear on the subject. The House has to decide which way it wants to go.

Mr. Thomas

It very much depends on the reasons for turning the scheme down—whether it was turned down for legal or other reasons.

Mr. Ronald Bell

Another point the hon. Member may care to think about is that the effect of the clause is to deprive the traffic commissioners of a discretion which at present they have and can exercise as they think appropriate.

4.15 a.m.

Mr. Thomas

I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman. The implication of his intervention is that if the commissioners felt that in a certain area the problem were not serious enough, or that the scheme would produce confrontations, that would outweigh any disadvantage to be gained by its introduction.

There is nothing to tell us what happens when the individual does not have with him five times the excess fare or 50p. There are many situations in which either the conductor or the driver misunderstands what the passenger has said about his or her destination. At a later stage it is said "Are you still on the bus? I thought you got off four stops ago." All manner of problems may arise. If those who proposed this measure travelled on some of our buses at 11 o'clock or 12 o'clock at night and saw what some of the drivers and conductors have to put up with, they would not come forward with the sort of nonsense that is included in the clause.

Mr. Temple-Morris

With respect to the hon. Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Thomas), Opposition Members know just as well as Labour Members what drivers and conductors have to put up with in the course of their duty.

The problems that have been described have been dealt with in Cardiff. The situation has been outlined extremely well by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Mr. Grist). It is not good enough for the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead) to go on about violence on London buses. There have been developments in Cardiff that have led to bus drivers refusing to drive even school buses because of violence. However, at no time have they declined to execute the scheme.

As the hon. Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe (Mr. Ellis) said, unions and drivers must be consulted. The scheme can work only if there is co-operation. That is the central point. It is not good enough for hon. Member after hon. Member to harp on about what this man or that man has to put up with when we are dealing with enormous sums and what amounts to an offence that we all know takes place.

I echo the words of the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) that the contribution of the Secretary of State at the beginning of the debate was insufficient. The interest that the debate has aroused on both sides of the Chamber and on each side of the argument is significant. There is a great problem. We are dealing with a loss of revenue of about £20 million suffered by bus operators throughout the country. It is an enormous sum. It is a high proportion of the total of £150 million that is provided in the form of bus subsidies.

It should not be thought that the debate has arisen merely as a result of a lobby by the Confederation of British Road Passenger Transport. There are many more bodies that are interested. We have heard that there is union interest and knowledge of the scheme. That applies to the various local authority associations and the Greater London Council. It is no State secret that British Rail is interested in the debate and will follow it closely.

The ramifications are far greater than my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Bell) suggests. Might my hon. and learned Friend stay on a bus through forgetfulness? Who could dream of anyone in any way apprehending him? What would happen if the hon. Member for Bristol, North-West happened to go to the other side of Westminster Bridge through inadvertence? These examples are not good enough—

Several Hon. Membersrose

Mr. Temple-Morris

I give way to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield.

Mr. Ronald Bell

How on earth can the loss of £20 million, or whatever it is, be calculated? How can any survey, sample or no sample, ascertain how much money is being lost by overriding? Are passengers stopped and asked "How much money have you deprived the company of by overriding?" In the very nature of things no such survey can be made. The figure must be plucked out of the air, however much that is denied.

Mr. Temple-Morris

The answer is very simple, certainly so far as the Greater London Council is concerned. The specific figure for overriding is £4 million. That was ascertained during specific checks in 1977, carried out on over 24,000 passenger journeys. As a result, the loss was assessed at £3.97 million in that year. That is the situation. It was specific. My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler), myself and certain other of my hon. Friends checked out that matter carefully before we reached the Committee stage.

Having dealt with the seriousness of the problem, which has gone way beyond most of the contributions of Labour Members, with the exception of that of the hon. Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe I should like to deal with the Secretary of State. In Committee, he co-operated very much with the spirit in which this amendment was moved then. It was not a question of bonhomie and all the rest of it. That came later, at the end, the grand finale. This was but the hors d'oeuvre to that. At that particular stage, I and other hon. Members on both sides were hoping that we had got something, that we had established at least the first stage, the beginning of an answer to a very serious problem. Anything to do with such an enormous waste of public money is a very serious problem, which we must try to get over together.

In dealing with it, the Secretary of State said various things. I shall not quote them all, but they were very much in agreement. All that he has done now is just to reiterate a few of these things, so as not to say anything different, and then, in effect, to surrender. As the hon. Member for the Isle of Wight has drawn to the attention of the House, the Secretary of State has not gone on to suggest anything at all. He is not living up to his Press.

The Secretary of State gave a most specific assurance that if necessary, after consultations with his right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, a new clause would be introduced. Indeed, he was quite definite about his agreement. Lo and behold, only a matter of half an hour ago I happened to open today's edition of the Financial Times and to read an article under the echoing title of "Eyes on the stratosphere and feet in the mud" by the transport correspondent of the Financial Times. The article describes our Secretary of State in terms that are most unlike the activities of which he is guilty with respect to the amendment. It describes him as An intellectual with a passionate antipathy towards disorganised thinking or disorganised administration, he has a Benthamite political mind schooled in the debating traditions of the House of Commons. 'Always ask the question Why,' he tends to say. I am afraid that the Secretary of State did not ask the question "Why"? very thoroughly this time. Having been guilty of that—and I use that word quite deliberately—he has not done justice to the various arguments that have been advanced on both sides in regard to this matter.

What I had hoped—and I hope that I speak for other hon. Members who agree with my point of view—is that the Secretary of State might have continued his consultations with his right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and the Law Officers, and perhaps let the matter ride for the time being and put it right in another place. Then we could have dealt with it in a proper and organised way.

But with due respect to the professional qualifications of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield, for the Secretary of State to give way to an amendment which has to do with my hon. and learned Friend's travel on a bus is not good enough. I always understood—and indeed, my hon. and learned Friend said this quite clearly to the Confederation of British Road Passenger Transport—that he tended to travel by tube train and not by bus. Be that as it may, he bases the amendment on the very occasional times when he travels by bus. This attitude is not good enough.

Mr. Fry

I have deliberately translated myself back a Bench because I wanted to contribute to this debate.

On some transport matters I find myself often in agreement with my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Bell), particularly on the subject of seat belts, but I do not find myself in agreement with him tonight. I found the proposition that he put forward rather strange. He proposed that, if he changed his mind and went on further than intended on a bus, in some mysterious way he should be allowed to do that. Presumably, if he borrows a book from a library and it is overdue, he objects to having to pay a fine when he has to return it. If he does object to that, I understand the basis of his argument.

Mr. Ronald Bellrose

Mr. Fry

I do not want to pursue that matter too much further.

I have been listening with great interest to some of the comments of Labour Members. I say quite bluntly that I have a good regard for the hon. Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe. (Mr. Ellis), but his performance tonight, after his nonperformance at the last sitting of the Committee, was quite reprehensible. I do not believe that as diligent a person as the hon. Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe would not have known the implications of this. The most charitable thing I can say about him is that he had not received his instructions from Transport House on that morning but that he has since had them and he has given the message to us. That can be the only possible explanation for his behaviour.

The second incredible speech came from the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead). The implication of his speech is that the only way to deal with these terrible people is not to charge them any fares and that the more bloody-minded and difficult people are, the more impossible it is to deal with them and, therefore, everybody should travel free. I do not accept that, and I am sure that the hon. Member does not really accept it.

Spurious opposition has been made to the proposition. What are the real objections to the clause? The first objection that it will not work has been destroyed adequately by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Mr. Grist). The second objection is that people could be persecuted or unjustly accused. If anyone feels that he is being accused unjustly he can say "Here are my name and address, prosecute me." He does not have to pay the excess fare. He can either refuse to pay the fare, and be prosecuted, or—this is more likely—he will not be prosecuted because it does not pay bus companies to follow up such cases. If they did, even more of the honest people's money which pays fares would be used for legal fees to catch people. The option still exists. The genuine person would not be convicted in the courts. All that he would have to do would be to say "Prosecute me."

The third objection concerns attacks upon bus crews. Of course we deplore that. I used to live in Liverpool and catch a bus late at night. If there was a crowd of rowdy people on board, few conductors would bother to collect the fares. Any bus conductor or driver who believes that he will have a difficult time will think hard before taking action. We all know that this situation exists. It is not an answer to say that there cannot be overriding because of the difficulty of collecting the money. Let us be practical and honest. The situation will not arise in the majority of cases.

Mr. Loyden

Our argument does not involve only the question of overriding and excess fares. I should have thought that Opposition Members would be conscious of the need to allow the courts to deal with matters which are thought to be in breach of the law. In the area that I represent, I have seen more and more under-occupied buses travelling from the outer areas to the city. Fare scales are badly balanced. If such buses were full, perhaps we would not have this problem.

We are saying that there are alternative ways of dealing with the problem. Hon. Members have raised the question of zoning and have referred to making public transport attractive for the travelling public. It is nonsense to say that the problem can be tackled—

4.30 a.m.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman. He is supposed to be making an intervention, but it is developing into a long speech at the wrong time.

Mr. Loyden

Will the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Fry) state clearly the alternatives to approaching the problem on the basis of the narrow question of fines?

Mr. Fry

I am not sure to what problem the hon. Gentleman wants an answer. I thought that we were dealing with the problem of overriding, and I thought that that was dealt with by the amendment. If the hon. Member wants to raise issues on this matter, it is a pity he did not join us in Standing Committee and give us the benefit of his views there.

At the moment, it is the honest and law-abiding travellers who pay. The more overriding and dishonesty there are, the more the honest will have to pay. It is strange that the Secretary of State is apparently prepared to continue using taxpayers' and ratepayers' money to subsidise the bus industry but is not prepared to take steps to take money off the people who are deliberately trying to defraud the bus companies. They are ultimately defrauding the millions of decent, honest people who pay their fares. They are the ones that the Secretary of State is letting down.

I find this change of face uncharacteristic of the right hon. Gentleman. I have a high regard for him. He does not come out of this affair with much credit. Over the last few months there has been a wink here and a nudge there from the Department. The general feeling was that if we put the amendment down we would be pushing at an open door. Who shut the door? Who shot the bolt? One wonders what has happened in the Department and the Cabinet. If the Secretary of State is determined to support my hon. and learned Friend's amendment, he should have the courage to say what has changed since the twentieth sitting of the Committee. I hope that before we end this debate we shall have a few additional words of explanation from the Secretary of State.

Amendment agreed to.

Back to
Forward to