HC Deb 14 January 1985 vol 71 cc7-9
7. Mr. Cowans

asked the Secretary of State for Transport what recent representations he has received about the effect on rural bus services of bus deregulation.

8. Mr. Parry

asked the Secretary of State for Transport what recent representations he has received about his White Paper on buses.

9. Mr. Gareth Wardell

asked the Secretary of State for Transport what recent representations he has received about the buses White Paper and its effect on rural services.

Mr. Ridley

I have received about 7,000 responses so far to the White Paper on buses and the consultation documents which were issued subsequently. A substantial proportion of the responses have speculated about the effects of the proposals on rural bus services.

Mr. Cowans

I assume that the Minister has read all the representations and taken due consideration of them. I say that because when the Under-Secretary of State answered question 4 he led the House to believe that the Association of County Councils supported the White Paper on buses, yet when it gave evidence to the Select Committee its view was somewhat different. I do not know whether it has had a remarkable change of opinion in the past 48 hours.

Assuming that the right hon. Gentleman does read the representations—I am sure that he does—does he realise that there is wide and growing concern, not only in the industry, but among passengers, that his proposals will decimate rural transport and isolate entire communities? Will he, even at this late stage, go back to the drawing board and return with some workable and realistic proposals which many within the industry and the passengers may find able to support?

Mr. Ridley

I am surprised to hear the hon. Gentleman, so early in the day, prejudging the inquiry into these matters by the Select Committee of which he is Chairman. I have read the written representations of the Association of County Councils, which were broadly supportive of the proposals, though querying some of the detailed provisions. The hon. Gentleman would be mistaken to try to frighten rural passengers about these proposals. He may be interested to learn that in Hereford and Worcester 38 per cent, of the total revenue subsidy cost was saved, which would have been available had the county council wished to buy more rural services. Instead, it preferred to leave the present pattern of rural services and make the saving for the ratepayers.

Mr. Maclean

Is my right hon. Friend aware that my constituents welcome the proposals because they realise that rural bus services are practically non-existent and that our proposals are the only hope of increasing those that exist? Does he think it significant that in recent months the Liberal party in my constituency, which likes to believe that it is the champion of rural services, has been trying to hype up a campaign against the proposals but has had to abandon it because last weekend it found not one supporter?

Mr. Ridley

My hon. Friend is the true voice in this House of rural dwellers, unlike the hon. Members for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Cowans), for Liverpool, Riverside (Mr. Parry) and for Gower (Mr. Wardell), who have asked the question. I agree that nobody can be satisfied with the present position of rural services and that the radical plan that the Government are putting forward to provide more and better services should be supported, even by hon. Members who represent urban constituencies.

Mr. Cartwright

In view of the support which expert bodies, such as the Bus and Coach Council, have given to the idea of introducing competition through the franchising of bus routes rather than having a free-for-all on the roads, may we be told whether the changes that the Secretary of State has made to his original proposals embrace that kind of approach?

Mr. Ridley

I do not believe that franchising would achieve anything like the scale of benefits that the proposals in the White Paper for full competition will bring, for two reasons. The first is that county councils would, under the franchising proposals, use their judgment as to what was the right pattern of supply to meet the market, rather than allow the market to determine the pattern of supply of services. The second is that once a franchise was obtained it would be protected from competition, and that would have the effect of not allowing the full benefit from increased productivity and reduced costs, which we believe will come from allowing full competition, to be developed.

Mr. Canavan

Will the Secretary of State confirm reports that he has had to delay publication of the Bill because of strong opposition from Members of Parliament, including some Tory Members who represent rural areas? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that unless he wants to see public transport reduced to a mere skeleton service run by cowboys, he will have to scrap the Bill completely in view of the devastating effect that it will have on bus services, particularly in rural areas, and on jobs in the coach-building industry; for example at Walter Alexanders in my constituency?

Mr. Ridley

There has been an enormous number of representations and it has been important to take great care to design the detailed provisions of the Bill to facilitate the transitional period leading to the deregulated regime. That is why we are running slightly late. However, the hon. Gentleman will be pleasantly surprised by how soon the Bill will be in the Vote Office. If he has the interests of his rural passenger constituents at heart, I look forward to him joining my right hon. and hon. Friends in voting to support the proposals that are set out in the Bill.

Mr. Pike

Does the Secretary of State accept that while a small minority might have better services as a result of the Government's proposals, the cost will have to be paid for by those living in rural areas? Those living in rural areas and those who are dependent on off-peak services and Sunday services, and the elderly and the disabled. About 3,000 of my constituents have written to me on this issue, as they are concerned about the Government's proposals. They hope that the Government will decide to withdraw them.

Mr. Ridley

Those who are paying the high levels of cross subsidy are those living in the cities, especially those in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. They live on bus routes on which there are many passengers. They are being taxed, as it were, to subsidise those who live in leafy suburbs in rural areas. As a Socialist, which I assume the hon. Gentleman to be, is he satisfied with that pattern of cross subsidy?

Mr. Beith

Does the Secretary of State realise that in Northumberland there will be commercial pressure for the operators to compete for the routes on the fringes of Tyneside, leaving local authorities with insufficient moneys to provide revenue subsidies to the operators, who are left to make an attempt to provide a service for the large and thinly populated rural areas?

Mr. Ridley

The hon. Gentleman knows that I am not a stranger to Northumberland. I can confirm that the bus service in rural Northumberland leaves a great deal to be desired. I believe he will find that a greater service is able to be provided for the same amount of money by receiving tenders for rural routes.

Mrs. Dunwoody

Will the Secretary of State make it clear that in areas such as Hertfordshire the cutting of a £1 million subsidy will result in the county spending £2.4 million on replacing school buses alone? Why does he not have the honesty to say that in the trial areas, expecially in Hereford, a number of buses were so dangerous that they had to be taken off the roads? It will be the passengers who will pay for the mad Bill that the Government propose.

Mr. Ridley

The hon. Lady has it wrong, again. I think that she read an article about Hertfordshire and the transport supplementary grant. That had nothing to do with the bus Bill. Secondly, the percentage of buses passing initial inspection in 1983–84 was as follows: National Bus Company vehicles 60 per cent., private bus operators' vehicles 56 per cent., passenger transport executive operators' vehicles 49 per cent., and London Transport vehicles 47 per cent. That shows that the private sector has an extremely good safety record.