HC Deb 20 February 1989 vol 147 cc730-46

  1. '(1) There shall be established a body to be called the Scottish Bus Passengers' Consultative Committee,—
  2. (2) It shall be the duty of the Scottish Bus Passengers' Consultative Committee
    1. (a) to monitor the effects of this Act on bus passengers in Scotland; and
    2. (b) to make recommendations to bus operators and the Secretary of State regarding the effects of this Act on bus passengers in Scotland.
  3. (3) The Secretary of State shall have the power to direct bus operators operating undertakings disposed of under this Act to implement any recommendations of the Scottish Bus Passengers' Consultative Committee.
  4. (4) The Secretary of State shall lay before Parliament proposals for the establishment and composition of the Scottish Bus Passengers' Consultative Committee.'.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Wilson

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Speaker

With this, we may take the following amendments: No. 1, in clause 1, page 2, line 20 after 'Group', insert 'and representatives of consumer interests'. No. 2, in clause 2, page 2, line 24, at end insert 'in the interests of the transport user'. No. 12, in page 2, line 29, at end insert 'In so doing he shall give consideration to the interests of employees and the travelling public'. No. 14, in clause 3, page 3, line 11, after 'State', insert 'and to the interests of the Transport Users Consultative Committee'.

Mr. Wilson

The new clause and amendments are primarily concerned with consumer interests. They assert the rights of those who use bus services to some form of protection and a place to go if their interests are not properly safeguarded.

New clause 5 proposes the establishment of a body, to be called the Scottish bus passengers' consultative committee, to monitor the effects of the legislation on passengers and to make recommendations to bus operators and the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State would have power to direct operators who are the beneficiaries of disposals under the legislation to implement any of the committee's recommendations, and would lay before Parliament proposals for the establishment of composition of the committee. We are suggesting the establishment of what might be referred to in shorthand as "Ofbus", along the lines of Oftel and Ofgas. It is not short for "Come on, get off the bus"!

The proposal has a parallel in a new clause tabled in Committee by the hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) proposing that bus interests should come under the Scottish transport users consultative committee, as rail and ferry interests do at present.

I looked up just now to acknowledge the hon. Member for Dumfries, hut, of course, it was a futile gesture because, once again, there is not a solitary Conservative member of the Standing Committee present other than the Minister and the Whip. Perhaps it is not surprising that the hon. Members for Wimbledon (Dr. Goodson-Wickes) and for Battersea (Mr. Bowis) and those other hon. Members from other exotic places who served with us would not find it particularly attractive to participate in further debates on the Bill today. It is remarkable, however, that not a single Tory Member who represents Scotland has found it worthwhile to be here. We are sure that just as those Members' performance in the Committee will be noted, so their performance in the House today will be noted. Four English Tory Members were members of the Committee considering the Bill and we look forward with interest to see whether that number will rise to seven when we consider the Scottish education Bill because the fidelity of the hon. Member for Dumfries and the right hon. Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Buchanan-Smith) cannot he relied upon.

The concern about the privatisation of the Scottish Bus Group and its implications for its 10,000 workers felt on the Conservative Benches is demonstrated by the fact that no Back-Bench Conservative Member is present today. The hon. and learned Member for Perth and Kinross (Sir N. Fairbairn) took one look and retired whence he came. He made an important intervention when he counted the number of people present. It is perhaps surprising that he did not count and find that he had double the actual number present, but he, too, has departed.

The consumer interests that we wish to protect through the new clause and the associated amendments are many and varied. We have the support of every consumer body and of everyone who studied the bus privatisation and deregulation that took place in England and Wales. Those studies reached the conclusion that, whatever else is served by privatisation and deregulation, it is not the interests of the consumer. The Scottish Consumer Council commissioned a report on the impact of deregulation and, in passing, it commented on the implications once privatisation took place. That study clearly demonstrated that there were no proven benefits for consumers and that if such benefits were to be achieved they must be written into legislation. Similarly, the Transport 2000 group, which has done a great deal of work on this matter, has discovered beyond doubt that the interests of consumers in England and Wales have not been protected by privatisation.

The Scottish Consumer Council has criticised Scottish bus services generally for being unsatisfactory, particularly in providing timetables and other information, especially at bus stops. At the Consumer Congress conference held in July 1988 a resolution was passed calling for an enforceable code of good practice for the operation and provision of public transport. That code was to be developed to ensure that public transport met the needs of all passengers, including the disabled and that it worked efficiently in the consumers' interest.

The Consumer Congress called for a working party to draft a code of good practice and it was intended that that working party should make use of the information generated by the 1988 transport workshop, whose discussions were reported to the congress. The idea was that there should be a checklist of consumer interests. The Consumer Congress was anxious to introduce good practices to cover such things as access, choice, information, safety and redress. We would expect regulations to be drawn up under those headings in the hope that the privatised companies would be obliged to act upon them.

As in so many other instances, we, at least, are not prepared to rely upon hope. We want something written into the Bill that makes it likely that some of the consumer safeguards will become a reality. We should not have to rely on the private sector to assist in providing facilities, especially as currently in many cases it does not provide such facilities. If facilities were not provided or routes were withdrawn or changed at short notice consumers should have a statutory right to go to a statutory body to seek redress. That body should be created by the Bill.

4.45 pm

As I said in Committee, the lack of redress in terms of the activities of bus companies compared to the activities of rail or ferry operators represents a great anomaly. If British Rail wants to withdraw a service it must make an application to do so, which is considered, and the same thing applies to ferry services. Once again, I remind the Minister of the problems into which the Government ran when they first tried to dip their toes in the water of ferry privatisation with the Gourock-Dunoon service. That was a classic example of the consumers of transport services having their say and, as a result of the strength of public opinion—assisted by the process of a public inquiry carried out by the Scottish transport users consultative committee—forcing a reversal of Government policy. Consumers can have their say regarding ferry services, and, theoretically, regarding rail services, but the anomaly is that they have no say regarding bus services. There is no regulatory body to which people can go to subject the operators' proposals to the necessary scrutiny in the public interest, particularly in the consumers' interest.

Protection is needed for the disabled—their needs are a good reason for a code of conduct to exist—and it should be statutorily enforceable. In Committee, we discussed the report of the disabled persons transport advisory committee many times. There was general agreement that the recommendations put forward in that report were excellent, compassionate and necessary to protect the interests of the disabled. If those recommendations were sensitively applied they would greatly enhance the prospects and ability of disabled people to enjoy the benefits of public transport by travelling wherever bus routes may take them. Currently, physically disabled people—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

Order. I belive that the hon. Gentleman is talking about what might have been within the scope of new clause 6 had Mr. Speaker selected it. He has not done so and, therefore, it would be out of order for the hon. Gentleman to pursue his present line of argument under this new clause

Mr. Wilson

I am grateful for your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I assure you that I am talking about the disabled only in terms of the general need for consumer protection, which is encompassed in new clause 5.

The Scottish bus passengers consultative committee proposed in new clause 5 would consider the needs of the disabled if representations were made to it. Provisions for the disabled should also be contained in the code of conduct that we have asked to be drawn up. In view of what you have said, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall keep my remarks on this subject brief but I hope that other hon. Members will also refer to the disabled persons transport advisory committee report that I mentioned.

In Committee when we discussed the needs of the disabled and the need for a code of good practice, the Minister's response, as it was to everything else to do with consumer interest, was "It will be all right on the night". The Minister used such phrases as "We hope", "We will advise", or "We will suggest" that private operators should take account of the consumer interest. The Scottish Consumer Council, Transport 2000, BusWatch and so on have urged that consumer interests should be statutorily enforceable by the Bill, but the Minister has rejected such recommendations. On the basis of the English experience of privatisation, it is clear that unless such provisions are written into the Bill, consumer interests will not be considered by the bus companies. Currently, there is no source of redress to which the travelling public can go.

In Committee the alternative proposal advanced by the hon. Member for Dumfries was for the powers of the Scottish transport users consultative committee to be extended. At that time the hon. Gentleman expressed the hope that between then and Report his hon. Friend the Minister would look into the matter, talk to his right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State and decide that it was more logical to have one body looking after all transport issues in Scotland. As the hon. Member for Dumfries is not in the Chamber to press his point, I shall charitably do it for him. Will the Minister tell us whether any such discussions have taken place and, if so, what were the conclusions? Because of privatisation, a separate regulatory consumer body is desirable, but we certainly regard the extension of bus powers to the Scottish transport users consultative committee as better than nothing.

Mrs. Ray Michie (Argyll and Bute)

I support the new clause because it is essential for bus users to have their interests protected. I hope that the Minister will make clear what happened to the idea of his hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) about extending the remit of the Scottish transport users consultative committee to include buses. I am not sure why the Minister would not take that on board. Had that something to do with the traffic commissioners or with the Department of Trade and Industry? If so, it is deplorable because I should prefer the remit to be allocated, as it were, by the Secretary of State for Scotland or by the Minister.

I agree with the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson) that it is regrettable that there is no umbrella body to oversee all modes of transport in Scotland. Many journeys contain an element of bus travel and it is essential that bus, ferry, train and even air services should be co-ordinated to give the best possible connections to passengers whose journeys require the use of more than one form of transport.

Many of the remote areas of Scotland have aging populations and many such people do not have the use of cars. In Committee we talked about the needs of women returning home late at night and of the problems encountered by mothers with young children transferring from one mode of transport to another. As I say, we need an integrated service.

Mr. McAvoy

Does the hon. Lady agree that the Scottish Consumer Council's recommendations should apply to the movement of the management headquarters of a particular industry to another location?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I was listening carefully to the hon. Lady before the hon. Gentleman intervened. I draw to the attention of the House that the new clause deals with a Scottish bus passengers' consultative committee. I hope that hon. Members will confine themselves to talking about bus passengers.

Mrs. Michie

I note your ruling about sticking to the new clause, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I can assure you that I have no intention of straying into the question of the location of the headquarters of Caledonian MacBrayne.

I reiterate that we should have a Scottish bus passengers' consultative committee and I am trying to relate the new clause to my belief that we should have an overall consultative committee. It would be much more sensible to have a body responsible for surveying all transport activity in Scotland because there is no organisation with responsibility for doing that. We shall have the Scottish TUCC and if the Minister accepts the new clause we shall have another body responsible for the buses. The users of Scotland's buses should be able to turn to one body which oversees the other modes of transport. Perhaps that role for the Scottish TUCC is being rejected because on many occasions it has been reactive rather than taking the initiative.

Will the Minister explain why we do not have an overall monitoring system to ensure that transport users get value for money and that there is a proper service, especially for those in rural areas? If the Minister cannot answer that, I shall support the clause.

Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

I fully support the new clause and the related amendments. The changes that are taking place, especially in relation to bus passengers, are wide and varied and are becoming more important as each week goes by. The deregulation of buses has led to a great diminution in the service, especially at weekends and at night when people in rural and city areas feel isolated.

The use of buses is becoming even more important in relation to rail transport. No doubt, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you will wonder how rail transport could relate to the Scottish bus passengers' consultative committee. It is precisely because of Government policy. It will be within the memory of the House—although the memories of Conservative Membes are probably as blank as Conservative Benches—that about five and a half years ago the right hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley), when he was the Secretary of State for Transport, implemented a very novel idea. It was about the relationship between the Government and the transport industries and the Government and the rail industry in particular.

The right hon. Gentleman started the process of the three-year letters of intent in which the relationship between the Government and British Rail was clearly set out. It is well known that I disliked what was in the first three-year letter of intent, but I wholly approved of the principle. It is worth repeating that it stripped for ever from folklore the idea that British Rail was wholly independent and could do what it liked, that the Government had no connection with it and were not concerned in the day-to-day running of its affairs, and that there was a chasm between British Rail and the Government. The right hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury made clear that British Rail did what it was told. Certainly there is much discussion and bargaining about how much money is available, hut, essentially, British Rail does what it is told.

The second three-year letter of intent was provided by the right hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Moore) who is now the Secretary of State for Social Security. An important part of that letter which impinges directly on new clause 5, and makes it essential that the new clause is accepted, was that the right hon. Gentleman said that before British Rail made any investment plans for rural areas it should consider bus substitution. It is perfectly clear what that meant. There was to be no investment in lines to help rural passengers, many of whom were denied easy access to hospitals, doctors' surgeries, pharmacies, dental facilities and leisure and recreation. Many of them were also completely cut off from the normal trading conditions that enable people to exercise choice. The Government are keen on people exercising choice when buying the weekly groceries, but such choice is removed from people who live in rural areas and depend on public transport.

The role of the bus becomes much more important if rail services disappear and are to be replaced by bus services. Part of the three-year letter of intent went so far as to say—this is quite astonishing—that for an initial period, which as far as I can recollect was never defined, British Rail should subsidise bus services because buses were being subsitituted for trains. That was a novel concept for the Government to put forward. In some circumstances I would have welcomed such a discussion. If British Rail is under pressure to increase the frequency of its service, there is a case for a co-ordinated transport system operating bus and rail services. If there is a need for transport when it is not convenient to run rail services, or if only a certain number of trains can run on a line because goods trains and passenger services cannot operate at the same time—although perhaps British Rail should be more innovative in its mix of passenger and freight services—perhaps it is a good idea for British Rail and the bus services—as they are today, not as they will be affected by the Bill—to get together.

5 pm

There are many examples of how different services should work together and how passengers' interests would be better served if there were a body to decide whether the bus companies are carrying out their responsibilities. In the village of Portlethen, some 15 miles outside Aberdeen, the main line station was closed many years ago as it was said to be uneconomic. The nearest main road is three or four miles away, but the buses would not leave the main road to drop passengers at Portlethen village because the bus companies said that it was uneconomic. As the years went by, the village of Portlethen grew, partly due to the oil industry, and became a greater commuter catchment area, and better transport links became vital. After all the years in which we pressed British Rail to open the station and the bus company to allow buses to come down into Portlethen village, when the station was reopened, the bus companies suddenly decided that buses would come down off the main road and start a service to compete with British Rail. That seemed to be nonsense. There were difficulties for British Rail passengers and bus passengers.

While all that agitation was going on a dual carriageway had been built between Aberdeen and Stonehaven. Instead of providing a service when it was most needed, the bus companies and British Rail were persuaded to provide services only when the road network made it less attractive for people to use public transport if private transport was available. In such a situation we would expect the Scottish bus passengers' consultative committee to step in and examine the proposals.

It is difficult enough to persuade publicly owned companies to provide bus services to replace rail services when an element of public subsidy is available, at least in theory if not in practice. As hon. Members who are present know, the way in which transport subsidies and grants are provided in Scotland is quite different from the system in the rest of the country. Transport does not appear as a separate item, but as part of the overall block grant to regional authorities. Therefore, it is difficult to know how much money is being provided, and whether a regional authority is using the money allocated for transport in the block grant for transport matters. That is difficult enough for a publicly owned company with a social responsibility. Whatever anyone might say about private companies, they do not have a social responsilbility. Their responsibility is to make the maximum profit for their owners. Therefore, they will be ruthless in cutting services that do not pay. If they have come to an arrangement with British Rail under the bus substitution programme and they consider that they are not getting enough money, there will be no cosy chats or friendly discussions in the board room; they will be absolutely ruthless and cut the services.

It is fashionable to say that transport has changed dramatically over the past decade or so, and no one would deny that. Of course modes of transport have changed and people's personal choices have widened. There is no doubt that the advent of the motor car and the provision of bet ter roads—although in my part of the world we would argue strongly for road improvement—mean that people exercise greater personal choice. Therefore, it is fair to ask why we are so keen on public transport if all experience over the past decade or so shows a fall in rail and bus passenger services and traffic in rural areas and in cities. Things have changed and unemployment has hit people extremely hard and reduced their ability to buy cars. The Scottish bus passengers' consultative committee would be an excellent way of examining what happens.

In response to the noises we make about services disappearing, cuts in services and increased fares, the Minister might say that we are speculating. He might say, as he constantly says, "Don't worry, the market will provide. It will be taken care of. If there are enough passengers there will be enough buses, and if there are enough buses there will be enough passengers." That is a nice simple equation, but it does not work. I know that the Minister is a fair-minded man and I fear very much for his future. If the Prime Minister reads the debate in Committee and sees the praise that I heaped on the Minister during those 12 sittings, the Minister will be next for the chop in the reshuffle, and I would not want that to happen to him.

The Minister is a fair-minded man, so he is bound to accept that there are genuine worries. We are not scaremongering. It is too easy to say that the Opposition are just scaremongering and making it all up, and it will not be as bad as we fear. I hope that it will not be as bad as I fear, but experience of the National Bus Company in England and Wales shows that it was worse than we feared. The services were cut so drastically that at the time no one in their right mind would have forecast that they would become so bad.

Without scaremongering, we fear very much for the needs of bus passengers. Not knowing which companies will take over, and not knowing whether they will simply speculate on the available properties, it is essential that there is a back stop. It can do no harm; it can do only good. I do not know why the Minister, having listened to the arguments of my hon. Friends, has not leapt to his feet to say that he accepts the new clause. We could save a lot of time and move on to other things. The Minister ought to accept the new clause. We would be delighted, and I expect that would blight his future even more, but it is essential that we have a mechanism to check on what is happening so that there is information and a body to which people can bring their grievances so that matters are properly set out and, more important, rectified before damage is done.

Mr. Andrew Welsh (Angus, East)

The Government are taking us into unknown waters with the changes in the legislation. Who knows what the exact situation will be and what problems will arise as those changes are forced upon the Scottish people who did not want them in the first place? However, it is quite clear that there will be major difficulties for travellers in Scotland. Certainly the first signs from other areas in which the Government have been allowed to carry out such schemes show that there will be considerable problems for transport users when the changes are introduced.

We are entitled to ask who will look after the public interest and consider the problems for individual travellers. The new clause seeks to address that specific problem. A Scottish bus passengers' consultative committee would be one mechanism by which any problems caused by the changes could be examined from the point of view of the users of the transport system in Scotland. At least there would be an assured mechanism which could be guaranteed to represent the interests and needs of travellers. The new clause seeks to give the Committee reasonable duties, and surely seeking to monitor the effects of the legislation is a necessary and useful function for such a committee. We are entitled to ask who will perform that task if there is no consultative committee. What assurances can the Minister give the Scottish travelling public? Who will make the necessary recommendations if problems arise—as they surely will?

A consultative committee would be an assured way of helping the travelling public, but without it the problem will be passed to the Government. In that event, how would they expect to protect the consumer? Before the afternoon is out, I hope that we shall hear from the Minister how the Government propose to do that and how effective his alternative—if it exists—will be.

The new clause will allow a consultative committee to make recommendations to bus operators and to the Secretary of State about the effect of the Act on bus passengers in Scotland. If no such committee is formed, who or what will make those recommendations?

The new clause also seeks to create a fair and reasonble assured mechanism to protect the rights of travellers under the new system. If the Minister cannot reassure us and explain how he intends to achieve those objectives, he should accept our proposals.

Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill)

When this legislation was presented to the Chamber some weeks ago, I inquired of the Secretary of State for Scotland when he last attempted to board a bus whilst trying to fold a pushchair, with an infant in one arm and a toddler held by the other hand. I am still waiting for an answer. Since the Ministers presenting this legislation hardly ever travel by bus, the least they can do is to listen to those who do so daily.

I would go further—I am not sure whether my hon. Friends presented such an amendment but it was not called—and ask that such a consultative committee comprise a large number of women bus users. I am sure that the proposers of the new clause would agree with that because women tend to use buses more than men, for two main reasons. First, even if a household owns a car, typically, the car is used by the husband going to work in the morning. The wife, presumably looking after the children, gets about by bus with whatever inconvenience that entails, such as the lack of public transport at less busy periods.

Secondly, since women are generally lower paid than men—earning on average about three-quarters of men's pay—they are less likely to be able to afford cars. This is obviously well known, because car advertisements in glossy magazines are clearly, on the whole, addressed to men, not women, car buyers.

The least that the Government should do when designing the legislation is to address the needs of women bus users. They should think not only of convenience, especially for women who have young children to look after, but of safety. The Government cannot be unaware that women are frightened to travel alone at night in isolated places, to wait in bus depots where no staff are present, or to be dropped off at bus-rail links at isolated railway stations where there is no one to guard them against possible danger.

The point is frequently made that if bus fares were set at a reasonable level, buses would be used more often and public safety would be greater. Conservative Members tend to ignore the dangers for women bus users because there are so few women amongst them—at the moment there are no women at all on the Government Benches. The Government perhaps ignore the need for safety, but many women take it very seriously. Surveys demonstrate that 88 per cent. of women feel that it is unsafe to walk alone on the streets at night, which shows that a great public need is being ignored.

5.15 pm

My hon. Friend the Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson) mentioned the needs of disabled passengers, and clearly the Bill should represent the needs of bus users who suffer from any form of physical disability. Those needs are largely ignored. Disabled people find that they have to put a great deal of effort into making various authorities meet their ordinary everyday needs. At this stage, we have an opportunity to ensure that the legislation will allow their voices to be heard through formal channels so that they do not have to resort to the usual practice of writing to the appropriate organisations. Such methods do not give their cause sufficient weight, but a consultative committee would ensure that disabled people have a strong voice in these matters. That should not be a matter of controversy and I hope that the Minister will consider it.

Mr. Thomas Graham (Renfrew, West and Inverclyde)

The new clause offers Scottish people the opportunity to have at least some confidence in the Government's attitude to the privatisation of the bus service. We know that the recent privatisation of bus services has led to escalating prices, a lowering of standards and customers' complaints being ignored. That was all in aid of the companies' desperate need to make massive profits.

I hope that the Minister will listen carefully to the call from the Opposition and ensure that when privatisation takes place, the golden opportunity will not be missed to set up the Scottish bus passenger consultative committee, which, we hope, will examine customers' complaints and safeguard their interests. It is obvious that the Government have a chance to consider what they are proposing. If they really mean to improve transport in Scotland, why are they frightened of agreeing to the new clause?

At present, many bus companies operate routes that are subsidised by local authorities. They also run timetables that attempt to meet the needs of the local people. The fare structures have also been closely examined.

I believe that the consultative committee will be able to ensure that bus routes serve local areas and communities. It can also examine timetables to ensure that bus companies operate not only at peak times but at midday or at other times when people wish to travel to doctors, hospitals or services that may be situated in the centres of population in cities and towns.

As the Minister knows, I live in a rural area and if I want to go to hospital I first have to go to Paisley. What a disaster it would be if the local bus company decided not to run bus services after about 3 o'clock in the afternoon. What would happen to the elderly and the disabled who are invariably given appointments at off-peak times? Most doctors and consultants in hospitals try to make appointments for people in work at a time when they will not lose too much money.

Correct timetabling in rural areas is essential to ensure that people get to work on time, and the consultative committee could examine such matters. The fare structure is also extremely important. The Government talk about competition, but what chance is there for competition in rural areas where there is perhaps only one bus every hour, or every two or three hours? Passengers have a gun at their head and are told they must pay a certain amount. If they do not, they cannot travel. Such a system punishes the elderly and the unemployed who are on fixed incomes, and the disabled who, we all know, live well below the poverty level.

A consultative committee could also investigate the quality of the buses. I hope that privatisation will not lead to the kind of things that happened after deregulation. Some buses are hardly fit for the road. I am not alleging that they are mechanically unsafe, but when people go to parties or dances they find that some of the buses are not clean and up to the standard that they had come to expect when buses were under local authority control. Some buses are absolutely filthy. They are not kept thoroughly clean, as they were when they were looked after by the local authorities. Since deregulation, buses are only trying to get from A to B as fast as possible in order to make as much profit as possible. The Bill could lead to exactly the same kind of problem. A consultative committee could investigate the quality of buses.

The Minister knows of my concern about the attitude of this Government and previous Governments and that of the people of Britain towards the disabled. We treat them lamentably. The new clause would provide a golden opportunity for the consultative committee to ensure that bus companies carry out recommendations that would ensure that the elderly and the disabled can travel on buses in Scotland in comparative safety. It could also consider what type of adaptations and timetables should be introduced to meet the needs of the disabled.

The Minister has been praised in the debate. He has been described as a caring individual. I believe that he is. The new clause provides him with an opportunity to prove that he is a caring individual. It is clear, however, that the Minister has been browbeaten by his superiors who have said to him, "No, Minister, you will not look after the needs of the elderly, the disabled and the unemployed. You will look after the fast buck merchants who are waiting to come in to steal and cheat and to deal in a shoddy, grasping way with bus companies that have been made successful by the local authorities."

The Minister has an opportunity to stand up and be counted by the travelling, suffering public in Scotland. The new clause provides him with an opportunity to ensure that Scottish people are provided with a consultative committee of men and women who will look after the public's interests and recommend to bus operators what they ought to do to improve services. If the bus operators do not accept its recommendations, the consultative committee should be able to ask the Secretary of State for Scotland to take action. I ask the Minister to support the new clause. It would provide the people of Scotland with at least the hope that after privatisation they will have decent bus services. Otherwise, I am convinced that bus services in Scotland will continue to deteriorate.

Mr. McAllion

I support the establishment of the kind of body that is outlined in new clause 5. I am sure that all 62 Opposition Members with Scottish constituencies support the establishment of a Scottish bus passengers' consultative committee. I suspect that a number of Conservative Members support the establishment of such a committee—most likely the right hon. Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Buchanan-Smith) and the hon. Members for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) and for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Lang). If they were here, I am sure that they would support new clause 5. The reason that they are not here is that they feel that they would have to vote for new clause 5 if they were here, so they have absented themselves from the debate.

The heart of new clause 5 is subsection (2). It refers to the duty being placed on the new committee

  1. "(a) to monitor the effects of this Act on bus passengers in Scotland; and
  2. (b) to make recommendations to bus operators and the Secretary of State regarding the effects of this Act on bus passengers in Scotland."
If we examine the provisions of the Bill, we realise that there is a great need for such a committee to protect the interests of bus users.

Clause 2 sets out the objectives of disposal. They are to promote competition, to bring private sector bus operators into the market and put them in charge of what are now public sector subsidiaries. The changes would have a detrimental effect on bus passengers. Control of subsidiary companies could pass into the hands of an owner who is outwith the local area. Nothing in the Bill guarantees that management and employee bids will be successful. Somebody could come along from outwith the region, or even from outwith Scotland or the United Kingdom, and take over a bus company.

If that happened, there could be a number of consequences. There could be asset stripping, with the new owner selling bus stations for a quick profit. The result would be a deterioration of services in all the ways that my hon. Friends have pointed out—the cleanliness of the buses, the regularity of services and the kind of facilities that are made available to the unemployed, women, the elderly and the disabled.

It is important to establish a committee to monitor these matters, because of what has happened since the deregulation of bus services in Scotland in 1985. Under the Act, regional councils no longer have the power to co-ordinate bus services in their area, with the result that gaps have begun to open up in the bus network throughout Scotland. For example, in Dundee the Tayside Public Transport Company, which is still owned by the regional council, has been forced, under the provisions of the 1985 Act, to alter some of the services and make them commercial. The No. 17 service to Whitfield in Dundee used to operate a two-way pattern which suited everyone; because of cross-subsidy, the public transport company was able to maintain that service. However, the pattern of service has had to be changed to make the service commercial and profitable. The bus, therefore, no longer goes along Summerfield terrace, with the result that 50 old-age pensioners have had to draw up a petition to try to persuade the public transport company to reinstate the two-way pattern.

However, the company's hands are tied because the Government insist that the main consideration must be that bus services are commercially profitable. Consequently, the 50 old-age pensioners have a 10-minute walk to catch the local bus, whereas previously they could catch it near their front door. That is the reality of Government interference in the way that bus networks are run in Scotland. It is important, therefore, that there should be a committee, with consumer representatives on it, that can give advice to, and be consulted by, the Government. It is important that it should also have teeth.

Subsection (3) of the new clause says: The Secretary of State shall have the power to direct bus operators operating undertakings disposed of under this Act to implement any recommendations of the Scottish Bus Passengers' Consultative Committee. That is a very important subsection, because the Scottish transport users consultative committee and the disabled persons transport advisory committee have no such powers. The Government promised to consult the disabled persons transport advisory committee on the introduction of new regulations that would result in better standards of accessibility to buses for the handicapped and the disabled. The Government consult that committee and specifications for both new and existing buses are laid down, but nobody is under any obligation to do anything about them.

Under the Transport Act 1985, local authorities had a duty to pay regard to the transport needs of the elderly and the disabled, but merely having to pay regard to those needs does not mean that anything has to be done about the specifications that have been laid down by the disabled persons transport advisory committee. No duty is laid on the majority of commercial operators to pay any attention to the specifications. The recommended specification published by the disabled persons transport advisory committee says: The implementation of this Specification rests on the goodwill that is needed towards those passengers for whom these features cater". That refers to features such as route numbers, destination displays and entrance and exit steps for the disabled. They have to rely on the Government's goodwill.

In Committee, the Government said nothing that suggested that such a change will be made. The hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis) trapped the Minister on that point. He asked him whether the bus specification, as laid down by the disabled persons transport advisory committee, would be a requirement in the disposal programme and whether the bus companies that tender will need to give the Minister an answer. The hon. Member said that he welcomed the Minister's positive response. In fact, what the Minister said was that it would be the general policy under the disposal programme.

So the Minister has to be very clear, when he comes to the Dispatch Box, on whether any company applying to take over STG subsidiaries will be required to take on board the specifications laid down by the disabled persons transport advisory committee. If he says yes, he will have to go further. It is not just a question of the disabled; all the other bus users have to be taken into account. Also, the Minister must take these powers not just for the privatised subsidiaries but for all the bus operators currently providing services in Scotland. The only means he has of doing that is by accepting new clause 5. He will have to come up with very convincing arguments to persuade any hon. Member that he cannot accept it, but it is framed in the most uncontentious way anyone could imagine.

5.30 pm
Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

A considerable number of points have been raised. The hon. Members for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson), for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) and for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe) raised the question of the procedures to be adopted if a bus service is withdrawn. Obviously, if a bus service is withdrawn the local authority can replace it with a subsidised service and thus fill any gap. I should make it absolutely clear that since deregulation there has been a very considerable increase in mileage served by buses both north and south of the border. In Scotland the increase in vehicle kilometres has followed a pattern very similar to that which resulted from deregulation in England. The figures for Scotland were 285 million vehicle kilometres in 1985–86, 302 million vehicle kilometres, in 1986–87, and 329 million vehicle kilometres in 1987–88.

Of course, as hon. Members have suggested, travel for the elderly and disabled is extremely important. The hon. Member for Renfrew, West and Inverclyde (Mr. Graham) made a particular point to which I should like to respond. Local authorities do have the power to subsidise services at times when the provision of a service might not be a commercial proposition. This obviously includes late-night services, which were also a concern of the hon. Member for Maryhill. I have every reason to believe that authorities have made use of these powers. Local authorities also have the power to set up concessionary fare schemes, and all authorities, except one island authority, have concessionary fare schemes covering the elderly and the disabled.

The hon. Member for Maryhill raised various points in relation to the disabled. I am glad to confirm that the disabled persons transport advisory committee, which was set up under the Transport Act 1985, exists to provide exactly the voice for which the hon. Member called.

The hon. Member for Renfrew, West and Inverclyde was concerned about safety conditions. I stress that any person wishing to operate buses must have a PSV operator's licence issued by the traffic commissioner, who has to be satisfied that the person is of good repute and financial standing and has adequate facilities to maintain the vehicles in a roadworthy condition. These vehicles are subject to an initial fitness test by the Department of Transport vehicle inspectors and are then tested annually to a higher standard than cars. They are also subject to spot-checks on the roads. I have to say that since deregulation there is no evidence to suggest that safety standards have been significantly affected, and there is no reason to expect that privatisation of the Scottish Bus Group would affect safety.

We dealt quite fully in Committee with the question of sanctions. However, I should like to repeat that sanctions do exist. The person principally concerned with the general supervision of standards is, of course, the traffic commissioner. If there is a flagrant abuse of procedures, the traffic commissioner can stop the operator from running the services and can require him to repay part of his fuel duty rebate. Although these sanctions are not used often, they are undoubtedly there. Of course, it goes without saying that any operator will wish to run a reliable and satisfactory service if he is to attract custom.

Mr. Robert Hughes

The Minister has said that the sanctions are seldom used. Can he tell the House how often they have been used?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

I shall seek to find out the exact number of times and shall write to the hon. Member, but I think that what I said was absolutely correct: that the sanctions are severe and are rarely used. But they do exist to deal with operators who fail, without reasonable excuse, to provide in a satisfactory manner the services registered. The real test is whether they have been used in all the cases where there has been flagrant abuse, and I have reason to believe that the traffic commissioners are doing their job competently in that connection. As I have said, the inspectors are responsible for ensuring that all vehicles are safe and roadworthy.

The question of the disabled was discussed at length in Standing Committee. I shall not go over all that ground again, but I want to mention one point. The specification recommended in the document which has been issued, and which was praised in Standing Committee, has been acted upon by the Scottish Bus Group. The group has revised its own specification to require most of the recommended items to be incorporated in any new vehicles that are purchased.

Mr. Wilson

I do not want to pre-empt anything that the Minister is going to say. We have heard that the Scottish Bus Group has incorporated the recommendation of the Committee. Can he tell us how many private operators in Scotland have done so?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

It is considerably more difficult to say. The answer is, of course, that the new clause does not relate to all the private operators. but it does relate to the subsidiaries being set up in the Bill. That is one of the anomalies of the new clause.

I have agreed with the hon. Member for Cunningha:me, North that there have been criticisms by the Scottish Consumer Council as to information about bus services. I shall certainly be following up this matter with the council when I meet it shortly. Of course, local authorities have power to make information available if they choose to do so, and they have a very important part to play. I shall take advantage of the discussions to consider what improvements can be made.

The new clause, to which the hon. Member addressed himself particularly, provides that there should be a new body called the Scottish bus passengers consultative committee, whose job would be to monitor the effects of the Bill on bus passengers in Scotland. The committee would make recommendations to bus operators—

Mr. Robert Hughes

Will the Minister give way?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

These are factual matters, so perhaps the hon. Member can come back in a minute when I have developed the point.

The committee would make representations to bus operators and to the Secretary of State, who could then direct any of the privatised Scottish Bus Group subsidiaries to implement any such recommendation. These powers of direction go well beyond the powers of the Scottish transport users' consultative committee in relation to rail and ferry services in Scotland. They would apply only to the privatised bus companies; they would not apply to their competitors. There would, therefore, be the anomalous situation that half of the Scottish Bus Group would be subject to a statutory form of supervision which did not apply to the other half, and that would be unsatisfactory.

Mr. Robert Hughes

I think that the Minister intended some slight criticism of the new clause on the ground that it refers only to the companies covered by the Bill. If my memory serves me well, a broader new clause which was tabled in Standing Committee was ruled out of order on the ground that it was outwith the scope of the Bill. The Minister cannot have it both ways. If he wishes to accept the principle of the Bill, surely it is within his powers, when it reaches another place, to have either the long title or the short title amended and to bring in an amendment on a broader basis within the Bill's scope.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

The hon. Gentleman is touching on the other matter about the STUCC and its remit—a matter that was mentioned by the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North. If the hon. Member will give me just a moment to finish the point that I am making I shall come to that.

The powers in the new clause are very wide. It appears that the committee could make recommendations about any aspect of bus operations, presumably including fares, and the Secretary of State would be able to direct that such recommendations be implemented. However, one of the objectives of the Bill is to free the STG subsidiaries from central and governmental control. This would not merely perpetuate such control but would allow the Secretary of State to interfere in the activities of Scottish Bus Group subsidiaries to a greater extent than at present.

With regard to the remit of the STUCC, which was referred to by the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North, by my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro), and, several times, including today, by the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie), there have been suggestions that the Scottish transport users' consultative committee should have responsibility in relation to bus services and involvement in the privatisation of the Scottish Bus Group.

It might be helpful if I were to outline briefly the history of the STUCC and of the Government's thinking on this matter. The transport users' consultative committees number eight in all, and cover Scotland, England and Wales. They were set up under section 56 of the Transport Act 1962. The chairmen and members of the TUCCs are appointed by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, who also funds their activities.

Overall responsibility for policy matters that affect the committees therefore lies with the Department of Trade and Industry. I have, of course, spoken to my hon. Friend the Minister for Trade on this subject and my officials have been in touch with his Department concerning comments that were made in Committee.

The main function of consultative committees is to help users who have complaints about rail services and other facilities provided by British Rail and, in the case of the Scottish committee, about ferry services provided by the Scottish Transport Group. There is also the London area committee which, exceptionally, is empowered to look after consumer interests in London Regional Transport services. Road transport was excluded from its remit by legislation.

The Transport Act 1968 applied that exclusion to road transport services provided by the newly created STG. Bus services were excluded from the committee's remit as, even before deregulation, buses operated in a much more competitive and diversified environment than the public sector monopolies over whose transport services TUCCs were designed to act as watchdogs. It was felt that the TUCCs would not have the time or resources necessary to look after the wide range of services and operators, many of them locally based, in the bus sector. That argument will apply even more strongly after privatisation.

Mrs. Ray Michie

Is the Minister aware that, in its evidence to the Scottish Affairs Select Committee, which studied rural transport in 1980–82, the STUCC asked the Committee to consider the need for it to have a remit to examine bus services so that there could be an integrated service in Scotland?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

I sat on that Select Committee, so I am aware of the circumstances which the hon. Member describes. The bodies were set up to deal with consumers who travel using nationalised industries, not private bus companies. New legislation and changes to other legislation would be necessary to make the new clause effective. I do not think that it would be helpful to create an additional role for the STUCC at this stage.

Mr. Wilson

I shall not prolong the debate, but the Minister's reply was a litany of excuses for doing nothing.

The Minister's latter point was especially interesting. It was not a defence of his stance but a further argument against denationalisation. He told us that, as long as there are nationalised travel facilities, the consumer has a double benefit. He said that, as soon as we privatise—thus putting the service at the mercy of the market—consumers will have poorer services and be deprived of the redress offered by a consultative committee or some parallel consumer body.

The Minister was engaged in nothing more or less than casuistry. I do him the credit of suggesting that it was not of his invention. He opposed the new clause because it would cover only half of the Scottish bus industry—that half which the Bill will privatise. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) said that when an attempt was made in Committee to create a consumer body with a wider remit, the Chairman ruled it out of order on the ground that it went beyond the scope of the Bill. There is nothing in new clause 5 which would prevent the Government from expanding the proposed consultative committee's remit to include the entire Scottish bus industry.

The Minister wasted everybody's time by using that 50 per cent. argument because the real reason for opposing the new clause is that the Government do not believe that private sector operations should be reviewed by any consumer body or consultative committee. That decision is at odds with the fact that consumer organisations have been established to monitor larger privatised industries. Scottish bus users are clearly not regarded as a category of citizenry who must be bought off with window dressing of that type. Privatisation is to be pushed through without even the safeguard of a consultative body.

Question put and negatived.

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