§ Lords amendment: No. 1, in page 3. line 27, leave out subsection (5).
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Richard Crawshaw)
With this we may take Lords amendments Nos. 5 and 6, the amendment to Lords amendment No. 6, Lords amendment No. 41, the amendments to Lords amendment No. 41, and Lords amendments Nos. 126, 127 and 130.
§ Mr. Fowler
It might be for the convenience of the House if I briefly recall the main theme of the bus licensing reforms introduced in the Bill. It is intended to widen choice and to increase the number of ways in which the needs of the travelling public can be met. It is directed essentially at the needs of the passengers. I remind the House that licences will no longer be needed for long distance services, and that they will be easier to obtain for stage carriage services. County councils will be given the option of choosing to have road service licensing abolished altogether. The 623 Bill also removes the remaining restrictions on the advertisement of car sharing.
These Lords amendments have the same theme. They open up one further way in which people's varied transport needs may be met. At present, buses provided on contract to education authorities may pick up adults and charge them fares, but in those cases where the authorities themselves own the vehicles they have no powers to carry fare-paying adults. These amendments provide the necessary power, and enable local education authorities to carry ordinary fare-paying passengers on school buses belonging to them.
There are a number of points that I wish to draw to the attention of the House. First, there will be maximum flexibility—it is not only on journeys to and from school that school buses will be able to carry other passengers, but at the tmes of the day and of the year at which they are not required for their primary purpose. Secondly, the existing duties of authorities to carry pupils free remains quite unaffected. Thirdly, road service licences will be required, and the traffic commissioners will adjudicate on proposals to provide services by school vehicles just as they will adjudicate on proposals by anybody else. It is for them to ensure that the proposals will not be against the interests of the public. Fourthly, the present status of vehicles owned by local education authorities in respect of public service vehicle licences will be maintained, and operators licensing will not be required of them. The Government have considered carefully, and rejected, the case of imposing restrictions on such vehicles that they do not suffer at present.
I do not believe that this will solve the rural public transport problem. Vehicles owned by education authorities are the exception rather than the rule. But the amendment will remove a quite unnecessary restriction on the use of those vehicles, and I hope that authorities will seize the opportunities it gives to provide services that would not otherwise be provided.
§ Mr. Albert Booth (Barrow-in-Furness)
Lords amendment No. 41, to which my hon. Friends have tabled amendments, has two purposes. It enables a local autho 624 rity to use its school buses to carry fare-paying passengers at the same time as it is carrying children to school. It also allows that same school bus to be used, at times when it is not carrying children to school on a school transport basis, to provide local bus services. Up to that point, we are not seeking to alter the amendment. The point at which we seek to amend it is where the amendment removes from those who operate buses in that way virtually every statutory safeguard on the condition of buses, and to allow them to run the buses in a way that we would not allow any other public service vehicle to be run—virtually to wipe out quality, safeguards and standards as required by law, and to do it with this one peculiar category of fare-paying bus. There will be no other fare-paying bus on the road, if the Bill goes through as amended by the Lords amendments, which will not require the series of statutory safety standards to which I have referred.
The Minister, by supporting the Lords amendment, totally discredited his declared intention when, on introducing the Bill on Second Reading, he said: "I intend in this legislation to provide for the maximum of competition in bus services compatible with having no reduction in safety standards." I have paraphrased the Minister's words, but I trust that he will accept that the paraphrase accurately reflects the intention he announced in the House.
What the Minister has done in this case is to maximise competition in a certain narrow area—the area in which he will make it possible for education authorities to run their school buses in competition with other local bus services. He will maximise the competition, but he will do it at the cost of wiping out completely a whole series of safety standards considered by the Opposition to be absolutely fundamental.
Under this provision, an education authority is enabled to run a fare-paying service with buses driven by men and women who have no public service vehicle driver's licence—a service run with buses which cannot be examined by the Department's inspectors to ascertain whether they comply with safety standards; a service run with buses which are not required to comply with initial design or construction standards which 625 apply to other public service vehicles. An authority can run a service in which no bus can be prohibited from running when it is unfit for the purpose of carrying passengers. It can run such buses and have them managed by people who could not qualify for public service vehicle operators' licences.
This is a total disgrace when set against the standards which have been built up carefully since about 1930, over a period of 50 years, to ensure that buses run on public bus services in this country are subject to good, high quality, independently tested safety standards, and to ensure that those who maintain the buses operate them and drive them are properly trained and qualified for the purpose.
In the light of what the Minister said in introducing the amendment, it is worth noting—
§ Mr. Fowler
Before the right hon. Gentleman absoutely takes off, will he tell the House why it is that for decades these buses have been carrying school children without PSV licensing, why that has been successful, and why his Government did nothing about the position to which he is objecting?
§ Mr. Booth
I have made it clear, as did my hon. Friends in Committee, that we have no brief for any legislation which enables any buses to be run in this way. We have never sought to defend that position in Committee. The Minister will recall that in Committee we sought to move an amendment to change the position, and my noble Friends in another place sought to move a similar amendment. It has been resisted by the Government. But, in any case, that does not deal with the matter arising under the amendment now before the House.
Under Labour legislation there was no provision for local education authorities to run local bus services on a fare-paying basis. This is a new category of vehicle, in statutory terms, that the Minister is seeking to create by the Lords amendment.
While all the objections which I have mentioned to the sweeping away of these safety standards would be true in all the areas of England and Wales in which they would apply, it is worth noting in passing that in trial areas the vehicles would not even require road service licences, so that at no stage would they 626 be subject to any check by a traffic commissioner.
It is difficult to judge which is the most serious lowering of safety standards in the clause. If I had to choose one, it would be waiving the requirement to have a driver qualified to drive a public service vehicle. To allow on our roads buses carrying fare-paying passengers driven by drivers without PSV licences puts at risk an important aspect of road transport.
The general principle is recognised in almost all spheres of public transport. Who would think of allowing a plane to take off from Heathrow without a qualified pilot? Who would think of allowing a liner to sail across the oceans without a qualified captain, engineer and navigator? Yet the Government think that it is all right to turn vehicles loose on the roads without qualified drivers. A man or woman who fails to obtain a PSV licence and cannot work for a private or public bus company will be able to work for an education authority as a bus driver. That is the situation which the Minister is creating under the clause.
§ Mr. Fowler
The right hon. Gentleman says that I am creating a situation, but it already applies. This is the position as it affects schoolchildren. He must address himself to that.
§ Mr. Booth
The Minister cannot expect us to be so naïve as to believe that, because the law has made a specific and narrow exemption, which we are not prepared to defend and which we sought to change by amendment to the Bill, that is a justification for extending a weakness in our law. If the Minister believes that it is right for local education authorities to run public service vehicles without safety standards, why did he stop at buses run by education authorities? Why does he not allow buses run by district councils and private bus companies to operate under the same rules? He cannot expect us to accept that the present anomaly should be extended.
I insist upon my point. The law has not, and does not, allow local education authorities to run local bus services, using school buses, for fare-paying passengers. It is argued that no education authority would run the risk of putting vehicles on the road without qualified drivers. If local education authorities do not want to run vehicles 627 without qualified PSV drivers the exemption is unnecessary. More seriously, there is reason to believe that some local authorities will take advantage of the amendment. They will run buses driven by people who have not obtained PSV licences.
The Minister is creating another category. Local education authorities will be able to balance safety requirements against costs. The Government are pressing local authorities to cut costs, and there is evidence that some are doing so at the expense of safety. For example, the local education authority for Cumbria, in which my constituency lies, has withdrawn "lollypop" men from many crossings. That is one simple but important example of an authority that has been prepared to balance safety against cost.
It is not merely a question whether local authorities are responsible. I believe that they are responsible bodies. However, even responsible people make mistakes. Responsible people can lack qualifications and judgment when faced with the technical issues involved in operating a safe bus service. The law relating to bus safety developed because the House made judgments that were based on experience of public service operations. That experience showed that safety required independent checks and tests. Safety also requires the uniform application of operational qualifications and standards if buses are to be run properly.
Certain Opposition amendments to Lords amendment No. 41 deal with the issues on an individual basis. One amendment relates to the powers and facilities for inspecting public service vehicles. The law gives officials of the Department of Transport who are qualified mechanical engineers access to public service vehicles at all times in order to evaluate their fitness to carry passengers. The Lords amendment makes sure that those qualified engineers, who are servants of the Minister, cannot examine local education authority buses.
Another Opposition amendment deals with the safety of public service vehicles and their initial design and construction. I admit that there is a weakness in the law, because the provision has never applied 628 to buses used by local authorities solely for the purpose of conveying schoolchildren. The Lords amendment covers buses that are run on local bus services. Since the introduction of design and construction legislation, such a provision has never existed.
Another Opposition amendment seeks to leave out '17'. That section of the Act deals with the power to prohibit driving unfit public service vehicles. Without that power, a vehicle that an inspector would put off the road, if he had the chance, because he thought it a danger to life and limb, would be able to run.
Another amendment seeks to leave out section 18 of the 1960 Act. That is slightly misleading since it means leaving out sections 18 to 25, which deal with all the qualifications for operator licensing. The House has an opportunity to choose what safety standards should apply to such buses. I urge the Minister not to put us to the test on the question whether the bus should have a properly qualified driver. I hope that he will accept that.
Finally, I make it absolutely clear that my hon. Friends and I are not saying that the law should not make provision for paying passengers on buses which carry schoolchildren if those buses are run by local education authorities. We are not saying that local authorities should not be allowed in certain circumstances, and subject to road service licensing qualifications, to use those school buses at other times to provide local services. We readily admit that by having those provisions within our law we may in some areas be able to build on existing bus services in a way which is helpful to the community. In other areas, we may be able to sustain existing services in a way which is more economic and efficient than at present.
However, where this is to be done, local education authorities must not be brought into this new area at the cost of abandoning safety standards. To do so is not only illogical but irresponsible. It would be a major setback for quality control on public transport. and as such it should be rejected by the House.
§ Mr. Peter Fry (Wellingborough)
I have in previous debates on Report declared my interest in this matter. My reason for making a contribution at this stage is to express publicly some of the concern that is felt in many sections of 629 the bus industry about this group of proposals for buses used by local education authorities.
I make it quite clear that I am far from opposed to the idea of using the vehicles that are available to supplement or increase the bus services in this country; I have advocated such an extension for many years. But we must consider these proposals in the light of the other proposals in the Bill, and in the light of the fact that we are hoping, despite the problems, that those who operate bus services at present will think of ways to develop new services where services do not exist.
Therefore, the Government have some obligation to bus operators, whether they be in the public or private sector, to ensure that they get fair treatment. This is why the Confederation of Passenger Transport, which represents all sections of the industry, and myself have some misgivings about the Government's proposals. I am slightly unhappy that this set of proposals appeared at such a late stage. We have known for many years that these vehicles were available, and we have known that the law would need amending if they were to be so used. Yet we had to wait until the Bill reached the other place before the proposals were put forward. Why did it take such a long time for the proposals to see the light of day? I accept that there might be a perfectly rational explanation, but, in view of some of the things that were said in another place, I think that an explanation is necessary.
As I have said, in no way do I oppose the principle that these vehicles should be used, but the question of safety is one which we often press when we are in opposition. We talk about the liberalisation of the licensing system. We stress all along that we want to see no reduction in the very high standards of safety shown throughout the industry. I suggest that there are certain risks attached to the proposals. They are not monumental, and they do not make a make-or-break difference to bus operators. None the less, this is the occasion when they should be mentioned.
First, there is the risk of these vehicles, with the new requirements or injunctions upon the traffic commissioners, actually causing competition with existing services, which, although not entirely parallel, may have the effect of causing a cut 630 back of these services. Because of the way that cross-subsidisation works, we may find that some services are withdrawn.
I am aware that there are only about 250 such vehicles throughout the country, but if, after the Bill becomes law, we find that there are thousands of them, we should need to amend the law again to return us to the present position.
It is not unknown for there to be antagonism between local authorities that are bus operators and county councils in charge of the areas where those services operate. Under the Government's proposals it will be possible for a county council to undermine the services of a bus undertaking. The fears of those undertakings need to be allayed.
There may be a county council that wants to undermine the services of a private bus operator. There would be an unfair degree of competition between vehicles operated by such an LEA and those operated by a private operator. These are not enormous problems, but dangers exist and I should have liked the Government to answer the industry's fears. Those fears have not been allayed.
My noble Friend Lord Bellwin said in another place:I have concluded that it would be wrong to subject the drivers of school buses belonging to local education authorities to public service vehicle driver licensing when they are carrying farepaying passengers.I was particularly concerned at his subsequent remarks:Having said all that, I hasten to add, in all fairness, that the present law is itself illogical.It is worth considering the anomaly that exists. My noble Friend referred to it:There is an anomaly here, and it is something which we should, and indeed shall, be looking at, though there may be no simple solution, since many people—such as fitters, for instance—have to drive buses in the course of their work.It may be some comfort … if I say that we intend to look at the whole area of large passenger vehicle driver licensing, but this is not a matter that can be dealt with in this Bill at this time."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 19 June 1980; Vol. 410, c. 1230–32.]Why not? The Bill is intended to liberalise the licensing system—a purpose which I commend—and it was known that buses used for school transport were to be included. Why was the question of removing the driving licence anomaly 631 not considered? We are making flesh of one and fowl of another.
The statistics prove that there has been no history of accidents in this area. But that is not the line that I am taking. The way that the amendments are framed is unfair to existing bus operators, including those who have difficulty in getting PSV drivers. Despite the unemployment situation, such drivers are in short supply in some parts of the country. The other difficulty, related to the safety of the vehicle, is that they have to buy a vehicle that is expensive and must conform with strict regulations. They will feel that they are being subjected to unfair competition.
I should like the Minister to answer the points that I have put forward. The industry feels that its representations have not been fully considered. It would not have felt so aggrieved if my right hon. Friend had accepted the point about the drivers. If vehicles that were to be used for stage carriage services were required to have drivers with PSV licences, the industry would have accepted the Government's proposals, even though it might not have liked all of them.
That sort of compromise is now required. If the noble Lord, in another place can say that the anomaly exists, it is up to my right hon. Friend to remove the anomaly and to remove the unfairness.
§ Mr. Paul Hawkins (Norfolk, South-West)
If there is an insistence on PSV licences, would my hon. Friend insist on those driving without them being sacked?
§ Mr. Fry
No. I do not consider such a move necessary. There could be a period during which people who are already driving would continue to drive. This would be a matter for my right hon. Friend. I accept that they can drive school buses now. On buses used for stage carriage services, some change would be needed. I hope that my right hon. Friend can reassure me on these points. Otherwise, I am not sure that I can support him in the Lobby on the issue.
§ Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras, South)
I regard the basic law that the House of Lords has amended as scandalous. It is wrong, as my right hon. and hon. Friends and I pointed out in 632 Committee, that safety regulations covering school buses should be less stringent than the regulations applying to other forms of bus transport.
§ Mr. Dobson
If the hon. Member for Meriden (Mr. Mills) represents the parents and children of Meriden, he will perhaps join with Opposition Members in getting through an amendment to change the law to provide such protection. I was not a Member of the House when previous transport legislation was passed. I am not suggesting that the Parliamentary Secretary or the Minister were aware of the anomaly before they considered the detail of the Bill. It is foolish for any Conservative Member to suggest that my right hon. Friend the Member for Barrow-in-Furness (Mr. Booth) should have known of it.
However, once an anomaly that acts to the disadvantage of schoolchildren came to the knowledge of the Minister, it should have been put right. It is a disgrace that it was not put right in Committee or on Report. I recall the Parliamentary Secretary saying:That is a very wide exemption indeed. It takes such vehicles outside the operators' licence requirements, vehicle inspections, and so on … it is, I believe, defensible. First, these are elected and responsible local authorities."—[Official Report, Standing Committee H, 22 January 1980; c. 431].So are many public transport operators. We have, nevertheless, insisted that those public transport operators, whether in private or public ownership, should comply with stringent regulations to ensure the safety of passengers carried in those vehicles. This Bill should have been used as an opportunity to provide the extra protection. It seems absurd for the Government, via amendments in the House of Lords, to extend this relaxation. That is what it is. It is not even maintaining the indefensible status quo. It is extending the indefensible reduction in safety standards on buses. Nothing that the Minister can say can justify this extension.
It seems possible that we shall get an extension of school bus services or of profit-making services which an education authority decides to operate so that it can bring in a bit of cash and, perhaps, 633 help to cross-subsidise its schoolchildren's use of the buses. As the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Fry) said, we may well reach the stage when there will be many more buses exempted from the regulations. One exempted bus is wrong, and we certainly should not be going in for an extension.
There is another aspect to this matter. I am not sure that I wholly accept the idea that it is wholly good and wholly beneficial to take fare-paying passengers on school buses. There are discernible advantages, in that there are spaces which may be filled, but, on the other hand, we could see a deterioration in school bus services as the operators of those services started shifting their routes about to maximise their income from the use of the school buses to raise money from fare-paying passengers rather than making sure—[Interruption.] I do not understand why Conservative Members do not follow my argument. [HON. MEMBERS: "We do.''] I shall have to start again. it is probably because they have never used buses themselves. They may own bus companies, but they do not use the buses.
At present school buses run to provide a bus service for schoolchildren. This provision is intended to make it easier for those buses also to conduct fare-paying operations.
§ Mr. Dobson
We are apparently united so far. After I have repeated it twice, Conservative Members apparently understand it.
The next stage in my argument is that, for the sake of getting in money, it is quite possible—it is certainly foreseeable with some of the penny-pinching evil showers who have run education authorities—to envisage the commencement of retractions of the school bus service so that buses are available to raise money instead of being used for school bus services. I hope that Conservative Members follow that argument.
It seems to me that even the extension of the idea of such buses being used for people other than schoolchildren will not be wholly beneficial. It may be. But even if it were to be wholly beneficial, there is not one shred of justification for carrying over into this commercial 634 field the indefensibly low standards which we presently apply to school buses.
I hope, therefore, that the Minister will accept the Opposition amendments and give an undertaking to the House and to anyone whose children use school buses that at the next opportunity that he gets to introduce a Transport Bill he will wipe out this anomaly altogether.
§ Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, Central)
I do not intend to detain the House for long, because unfortunately—or fortunately—I was not a member of the Standing Committee which discussed the Bill. I declare an interest as a Member sponsored by the Transport and General Workers Union, whose membership, along with some members of the National Union of Railwaymen, form the bulk of the holders of PSV licences.
I am concerned about this amendment because of the points made partially by the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Fry) which I do not wish to reiterate, except to say that the provision to allow less well qualified drivers on certain routes and in certain circumstances seems to be a backward step.
I wish to raise some of the issues which arise from the amendment. They are issues of definition which should be pursued carefully.
§ Mr. Roger Moate (Faversham)
I take up the point that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, Central (Mr. McNamara) is a Member sponsored by the Transport and General Workers Union and note that he expressed support for the point made by my hon. Friend, which was basically that these drivers should have PSV licences. Is it not likely that the 250 drivers of the buses belonging to local authorities, or a large number of them, are also members of that union? Is he not saying that those drivers should have PSV licences and that if they fail to get them they could lose their jobs?
§ Mr. McNamara
It does not follow that because they work for local authorities they are members of a union, though I believe that they should be. They may well be members of other trade unions. I was pointing out that there was an identity of interest here between the members of my union and the 635 members of the NUR, who, by historical anachronism, also drive buses and the members of the General and Municipal Workers Union who drive buses. I was seeking to inform the House of my particular interest in my union, the TGWU.
I wish to examine some of the points made in the amendment which have not been properly explained to us. First, I wish to look at the definition of what is a school bus. In paragraph (a) of subsection (1) of new clause F we see the phrase "use a school bus". In paragraph (b) we seeuse a school bus belonging to the authority".It seems to me that there is a degree of distinction between a school bus as it is commonly known—in my constituency it would be a bus belonging to the Hull corporation transport authority—and a school bus belonging to an authority which, conceivably, would be a school bus allegedly belonging to the Humberside education authority.
That brings me to the question of the 250 drivers. When is a school bus not a school bus? Is a bus which is leased, licensed or used for a particular number of hours by a local education authority a school bus belonging to the authority according to the terms of subsection (1) (b) and the definition of school bus contained in subsection (3)?
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. Kenneth Clarke)
En case I forget that point in winding up on the general issues, let me say that a school bus is defined in subsection (3) as a bus belonging to the authority—that is, a bus owned by that authority. A contract bus which is owned by an outside body hired by the local authority to provide school transport at particular hours of the day is not covered by this. That is why my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Fry) pointed out that we are dealing with very few buses indeed. We are dealing with those owned by education authorites which are used as school buses for carrying non-fare-paying passengers.
§ Mr. McNamara
I come back to the point. I do not understand why we have the definition of school bus in paragraph (a)—use a school bus"—636 and in paragraph (b)use a school bus belonging to the authority".Either it is used as a school bus belonging to the authority when it is being used to provide free school transport or it is not. A clear definition is lacking. There is a point in the drafting which needs seriously to be examined.
The Minister said that under subsection (3) "belonging" means "belonging" only if the vehicle is wholly owned by the authority. What would happen, therefore, if one local authority rented or let out a bus on contract to another local education authority? That happens particularly in county areas. In those circumstances, to whom does the bus belong and in what circumstances would it be proper for fare-paying passengers to be carried on that bus with or without the pupils?
What will happen when a local education authority runs a service in competition with another transport organisation, be it private local authority or local passenger authority? In my area of the East Riding there imght be a bus picking up pupils from small isolated villages and picking up fare-paying passengers to take them to a small town such as Withernsea, Hornsea or Driffield. On that basis, the normal statutory undertaking might decide to cut its service. Is the Minister aware that that will leave a service on only five days a week and a much diminished service in school holidays? These are the problems that arise with this provision. They can have important consequences for life in rural areas.
Under the definition, a school bus isa motor vehicle belonging to that authority which is used by that authority to provide free school transport".It could be a mini-bus, a two-seater, a charabanc or anything which is propelled by an internal combustion engine. If that is the case, what sort of service will be provided? The hon. Member for Wellingborough has raised the question of the quality, training and experience of the drivers involved, and he and my right hon. Friend the Member for Barrow-in-Furness (Mr. Booth) raised the question of the safety of construction. What responsibilities will have to be carried by local education authorites in terms of 637 insurance and other additional costs if they accept this particular and peculiar power of operating without PSV licences? What protection will a passenger who is carried in these circumstances have?
The Lords amendment contains a hornets' nest of legal difficulties, social consequences and financial implications which have not been properly considered. I urge the House to reject the amendment. It will be impossible in the circumstances under which we are operating to get a proper and careful examination of the full implications of the clause which is unnecessary, can be dangerous to the public and could result in no improvement in passenger services.
§ Mr. John Prescott (Kingston-upon-Hull, East)
The issue has become clear during this debate, and it seems to be a matter between the two sides of the House. We are dealing with buses owned by the education authorities. At present there are only a few such buses, but we cannot be convinced that there will continue to be only a few. These buses can carry fare-paying passengers provided that it is agreed by the commissioner and provided that the journeys are associated with educational activities. The Bill proposes to make the conditions and standards for those buses similar to those for public service buses carrying fare-paying passengers. The point has been made by the Minister that the present standards for the buses and drivers are similar to those required in the Bill. That is a fair point, but there is an essential difference. The Government are radically changing the transport industry, and the checks and controls on that industry.
We are concerned about how we should deal with the buses that are presently owned by the education authorities which, under this clause, will be able to enter into business with other bus operators. The Minister may argue that if the buses were safe enough for children some years ago, they will be safe enough for adults now. But that is not reasonable when we consider the present provisions of the Bill and the present philosophy of the Government in regard to public service vehicles. We do not require the same standard for public service vehicles. We would impose a far more stringent standard for public service vehicles carrying fare-paying passengers. 638 It is proposed that these buses which have essentially been used to carry schoolchildren will now be able to follow routes and offer a service to fare-paying passengers. Should not we raise the standards of the present education buses to those that we require of public service vehicles, rather than lower the standards of buses carrying fare-paying passengers to those of education authority buses?
In Committee and in another place we moved an amendment stating that there should not be a distinction. It may be an anomaly of the past, and it may be illogical in present legislation, but, as we are in the process of radically changing the legislation, is not this the time to examine the changes and level up rather than level down—a view that is often expressed by the Government in other areas of policy?
We say that the standards for education authority buses should be the same as those for public service vehicles. How can the Government justify giving special privileges to the education authorities? The majority of authorities issue contracts for education bus services. In Humberside, the Hull corporation is the major contractor for the education services in the area. The buses which are used are public service vehicles, and the same standards apply for our children on both types of bus as apply for fare-paying passengers. The question, therefore, is why we should allow a bus, albeit owned by the education authority, to pick up fare-paying passengers when it is of a lower standard than we expect of other major bus operators. That is the crux of the argument.
Ministers both in another place and here have argued that an education authority is a public authority, and that it therefore sets standards which we can accept. It has already been argued that 95 per cent. of bus services in this country are provided by the National Bus Company and other municipal operators. There is a case for saying that the standards should be the same, but Parliament has not done that. We have said that there should be better standards on public service vehicles, because we lay down quality controls and safety standards and require a higher standard of driving capability. In those circumstances, we cannot accept anything less for buses which are owned by the education authority.
639 It has been said that only a few buses are involved. However, one should bear in mind the pressures which local authorities are under at present because of public expenditure cuts. That is particularly so in education, where massive cuts have been implemented by various education authorities which looked forward to reducing their transport bill as a result of an amendment to the Education (No. 2) Bill. That was thrown out by another place. It was intended primarily to reduce expenditure on bussing children. As the local authorities have now been denied that economy, they may look to other means of making their reductions in public expenditure. It may well be that some of those authorities feel that they can run an education bus service much cheaper than the present system, which is mainly operated by public service vehicles.
Indeed, if the standards required of public service vehicles are higher in respect of quality and safety controls, inspections and higher standards of driving, it is reasonable to assume that in the main it will be cheaper to operate a service which requires a lower standard of the operator, the bus and the service. Our fear is that local authorities will begin to purchase buses which are not of the same standard as other fare-paying public service vehicles. As an inducement, they may allow them to be used for fare-paying passengers when the schools are not in use, such as at holiday times.
If one looks at my area of Humberside, one will see how much it is saving by not implementing a concessionary cheap fare system and by refusing to give to Hull anything like the amount of money required from the transport supplementary grant and revenue support. It may well be attracted to such an idea. Indeed, only yesterday the industry sent me an advertisement put out by the Humberside education authority advertising for drivers for a 45-seater coach. They will be required to work approximately 10 hours part-time a week, and the normal full driving licence will be sufficient. Frankly, we shall see that sort of thing develop, because it is already happening in advance of this Bill. The authority is advertising for part-time drivers at a lesser rate of pay, although there is also a full-time rate.
The point is that that is an indication of how a number of authorities will begin 640 to develop a service, ostensibly for education, but sweetened by the possibility that they may be able to raise income by offering a fare-paying system. That is a matter about which bus operators will normally be concerned. The corporation in my area, for example, operates a network system and the school service contract income is an important source of revenue, enabling it to maintain peak hour services. If that contract income is affected, it will mean a reduction in services, an increase in fares and less efficient services.
The Bill is supposed to increase competition, on a fair basis presumably, without reducing safety standards. This provision will reduce safety standards. I hope that the Minister will say why there should be lower standards, why an education authority should be allowed to function in this way without having imposed upon it the normal operating requirements imposed upon other transport undertakings. Such a provision will mean a reduction in standards and will undermine competition, which the Government claim to support. Accordingly, we reject the proposal.
§ Mr. Kenneth Clarke
I hope. briefly, to persuade the House of the most important point, namely, that the Government are not in any way intending to jeopardise the safety of schoolchildren or anyone else. We are sensitive to the need to maintain the highest possible standards of safety for those who travel in buses. We have not embarked upon any policy changes in the Bill which endanger public safety, in our opinion. It is against that background that I would like to explain the modest policy change which has been made by these amendments and which, I suggest, is perfectly consistent with the safety of passengers and everyone else.
The change is modest because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Fry) accurately pointed out, we are concerned with comparatively few vehicles, although the numbers may grow. The few vehicles we are concerned with are those owned by local education authorities and used as school buses. Lords amendment No. 41, the key amendment, makes it clear that it is only those buses which are school buses with which we are concerned.
641 The policy change we are seeking to achieve, at the request of some of the local education authorities, is aimed at making slightly more sensible use of these few buses owned by the authorities.
§ Mr. McNamara
To whom do the buses belong? If they are used by a school, do they belong to the school or to the local education authority?
§ Mr. Clarke
It depends whether it is a local authority school or a private school. Here we are talking about buses owned by the local authorities. We are particularly talking about those owned by a local authority when it comes to the possibility of using them on stage carriage services, which is what is providing the source of concern and the anxiety in this debate.
§ Mr. Dobson
Can we clear up the question of numbers? The hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Fry) talked in terms of over 200 buses being affected. In the debate in Committee, the Parliamentary Secretary referred to 900. That seems to be a substantial discrepancy.
§ Mr. Clarke
The hon. Member interrupted too soon. I was about to refer to 600. I shall explain the reason for the difference. It is that no one has ever bothered to count—because they are not subject to controls—exactly how many local authority buses are owned by local authorities. Not many local education authorities own their own buses to provide school services. The bulk of the school transport is contract. I say that we are uncertain, but the figure is in the hundreds—perhaps 600 to 900, I do not mind. That is the number actually owned by local education authorities. The Inner London Education Authority, if it owns buses—and it may well do—is not, as far as I am aware, contemplating setting up stage carriage services in London in competition with London Transport.
What we are talking about are a few shire counties serving rural areas. Those counties have put to us the sensible proposition that in areas at the moment somewhat under-served by passenger services of all kinds they own a few school 642 buses which can be used for only a few hours in the morning and evening but which otherwise sit around all day, and they could be used to provide a modest addition to the passenger transport services in the villages from which at the moment they are allowed to take only schoolchildren to and from the town school.
Those are the few buses with which we are concerned and, as the amendment makes clear, any further relaxation would apply only to buses belonging to local education authorities. The buses with which we are concerned are used to provide free school transport for schoolchildren and also, by a relaxation allowed by the House in 1953, to carry fare-paying schoolchildren to fill the empty places.
At the moment those buses are not subject to restrictions of the kind that are being demanded by those who have spoken in this debate. For decades they have run without PSV drivers and without all the restrictions of PSV licensing; because essentially they are run by reputable bodies. They are not run by get-rich-quick, fly-by-night operators. They are run by county councils, without the constraints of PSV licensing, to take children to school, and no one has complained about that.
The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South (Mr. Dobson) pleads that he has only just become a Member of the House so he cannot be blamed for it, but the fact is that for decades the system has gone on and nobody has dreamt of claiming that these buses have to be driven by PSV drivers or be subject to the various controls that are described.
What is being suggested is that using these buses, which have been operated in this way for decades—it may be right that many hon. Members were not aware that they were not subject to these controls—is wrong. The reason for the practice is that there is no accident record and no history of pressure to change the system. No one has suggested that anybody has been jeopardised by the arrangements under which the buses have been run for just about the full extent of living memory.
What is now suggested is that in the spare time during the day they should be allowed to engage in stage carriage services if there are a few local education authorities which would like to do so. 643 The result would be to make more sensible use of those buses, to extend the facility to a few villages which otherwise they lack, and perhaps—and I do not apologise too much for this—do something to reduce the cost of the school transport budget for some of those rural county councils providing buses for free school travel into the town schools.
There are some protections. It is not true that they will be devoid of any protection at all. Fear has been expressed about possible competition. This was referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough, by the hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) and by others who have spoken in the debate. They will still require road service licences. The moment they go into stage carriage service they will have to go to the traffic commissioners, and they will have to obtain road service licences on the same basis as any other operator. The protections that arise from that arrangement will be there.
The answer to the question of safety checks is that we shall not fire the present drivers and hire new PSV licensed drivers, and we shall not have the full rigmarole of full PSV controls, but they will, nevertheless, be subject to the annual roadworthiness check. We see no case for exempting them from the need to go for an annual roadworthiness check, which is the check to which all vehicles owned by PSV operators will be subjected. There will be that safety check.
We are dealing with a modest number of vehicles run by reputable bodies—local education authorities. The concession is confined. It is only school buses that they can use. They are subject to the road service licensing system, and it seems to us that there is no reason to bring in new restrictions. That is the point of these amendments. They do not introduce any new exemptions. We are not removing any restrictions on these buses. We are allowing these buses to operate in exactly the same way as they do now.
The Opposition amendments seek to introduce new restrictions and controls—even operator licensing. Before any local authority was allowed to run half a dozen buses, it would require some member of the authority to acquire a certificate of professional competence and 644 to go through all the procedures of operator licensing. That is quite unacceptable. The present system has worked quite satisfactorily for schoolchildren, and it can stand a modest extension to fare-paying adults.
If there was any danger, I should have thought that the House would be most sensitive about the danger to children. I cannot understand why the Opposition say that the present system is all right for free children, for fare-paying children and for non-fare-paying adults. The dramatic change that we are introducing—the threat to public safety—is that those buses should be allowed to carry fare-paying adults. What sort of argument is it which says that the system is good enough for children and adults who do not pay fares but that when a passenger pays 5p it is a different matter and is a threat to public safety?
The right hon. Member for Barrow-in-Furness (Mr. Booth) exploded with indignation and claimed that we were threatening public confidence in public service vehicles. That is the most arrant nonsense. This is a common sense proposal, which will be welcomed in rural areas.
§ Mr. Prescott
This is a travesty of what happened in Committee. We moved an amendment proposing that children on school buses should not be treated differently. We tried to correct the anomaly. An ordinary operator with six buses is required to hold an operator's licence before he applies to the commissioner to operate on the same route. Therefore, we are treating the two operators differently, although they serve the same route. If the Government wish to leave that anomaly, so be it. We cannot accept that lesser standard.
§ Mr. Clarke
I agree that an amendment was moved in Committee, so I shall rephrase my arguments. Apart from the amendment moved in Committee—which was not pressed strenuously—the position is that the system for many years has been as I have described. That system, under the previous Labour Government, and under every Government, has provided no restrictions for free children, fare-paying children or non-fare-paying adults. All that we are intending is that the existing system should 645 be extended to fare-paying adults. It is a minor extension, about which there should be no concern.
I do not wish to extend the argument, but it is not only school buses that are not subjected to the licensing rigmarole. One of the anomalies of the present law is that only buses for hire and reward have to be subjected to the licensing procedures. Many companies own buses which do not carry passengers for hire and reward. Contractors carry bus loads of men without any licensing restrictions. That has been the practice for many years. The Opposition did not spot that, and did not move amendments about it. We are arguing about an attempt by the Opposition to introduce licensing controls in an area where they are quite unnecessary. It is not possible to build on these amendments the sort of substantial arguments that the Opposition are adducing.
All that we are suggesting is a modest change, with no threat to passenger safety, which will be of great benefit to county councils that provide school transport in rural areas. They will be able to use the buses for the benefit of the population at large in the middle of the day when they are not carrying schoolchildren.
§ Question put and agreed to.