HC Deb 20 May 1991 vol 191 cc755-62

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Neil Hamilton.]

10.53 pm
Ms. Kate Hoey (Vauxhall)

I am pleased to have the opportunity in a short debate to raise some important issues about buses in London. It is interesting that, all over the world, in almost any country, one of the most regularly used symbols of London is the London bus. Yet in this country the bus is sometimes considered the poor relation in public transport. There is no doubt that it has suffered from a lack of status in the eyes of many prospective users.

It is important to remind ourselves of the benefits that the bus brings to public transport in a major city such as London. Buses are extremely efficient users of road space. In peak periods, they carry in central London nearly one third of road passengers but account for only 1 per cent. of road vehicles. They carry 1 per cent. of road users in the whole of London on only 0.2 per cent. of vehicles. Nevertheless, buses receive less attention than almost any other form of transport. Certainly they have not been the subject of many debates in the House.

Because bus services do not require major new infrastructure, they are seldom the subject of lead news items. London buses carry 4 million passengers a day—about the same as Network South East and London Underground combined. They make far more efficient use of available road space than do private cars, and consume significantly less energy per passenger mile.

Encouraging greater use of existing capacity within the existing bus network, and enhancing it where required, would make it possible, at relatively low cost, to reduce pollution, lower the number of accidents, and make more road space available for other potential users. In the case of journeys that cannot be made by foot or by bicycle, the bus is the environmentally friendly option.

In the short term, no other policy is likely to bring such immediate and cost-effective results in increasing the total capacity of London's public transport system. The London Regional Passenger Committee policy document, "About Turn", comments that London's bus network is "a grossly under-utilised asset"— and that is borne out by the facts.

At present, there are 300,000 empty seats on London buses each rush-hour morning. One bus is the equivalent of 70 cars. If only we could entice those drivers off the road and on to those vacant seats, significant space would be created for the essential vehicles that are so necessary for London's economic well-being.

There are many reasons why the public are discouraged from using buses. I will not repeat the arguments relating to reliability or to the high fares—although we are continually reminded that London's public transport system has the highest fares in Europe. Instead, I will concentrate on the safety and security of both passengers and staff.

A few week ago, London Buses announced that there were almost 1,000 assaults on bus staff last year, and acknowledged that the figure has been climbing steadily for three years, with a 20 per cent. rise in the past two years. There were 524 attacks on driver-operators, 284 on conductors, 49 on drivers, 105 on officials, and four on other personnel.

The consequence of those attacks— apart from the obvious trauma suffered by the victims— has been a warning by some operators that they may have to withdraw evening services on certain routes. It is surely time that operators installed video cameras on all their vehicles. The effect will not be immediate, but once footage is obtained of assaults and acts of vandalism, it will be easier to achieve successful prosecutions. By co-operating with the media, the operators will be able to publicise mindless crimes and the subsequent successful convictions.

We do not know the number of assaults on passengers, or the number of times that buses have to stop because of an incident between passengers, because no separate statistics on them are kept— they are simply merged with the other London crime figures. I ask the Minister to find a way of separating those statistics, because the information available is not good enough.

What would help to make travellers more secure? At this stage, I pay tribute to Lambeth public transport group, and particularly to John Stewart and George Wright, who produced an extremely good document entitled "Caught Out: the Value of Video Cameras on Buses"— a copy of which the Minister, if he is well prepared, will have seen. Many of my remarks stem from the work done by John Stewart and George Wright.

When considering the need for video cameras, it is important to show where their use has been successful. West Midlands Travel began a campaign against crime on its buses way back in 1987. The vandalism bill at the time was £2.3 million per annum. It is currently £250,000 per year and continues to decline. That has been achieved directly as a result of the installation of video cameras on almost all of its buses, and of increased co-operation with the police and local magistrates. As a result the incidence of graffiti and slashed seats has been reduced by more than three quarters. The filmed evidence of culprits allows West Midlands Travel to take steps to recover the cost of repairing the damage or to prosecute. If necessary, evidence from video cameras can also be used to secure compensation. As prosecutions have increased, so the crimes have declined.

Video cameras cost a great deal of money. There have been varying estimates of how much it would cost per vehicle, and there is no doubt that installation throughout an entire fleet, as would be the case in London, is not cheap. However, it will save money in the longer term. As the West Midlands Travel managing director, Don Colston said: We have put millions in, but much of it has been self-financing. More importantly, West Midlands Travel told the Lambeth public transport group: There is no doubt that our staff and customers appreciate the added security that the cameras provide. They have increased passenger confidence in the travelling environment on our buses. Evidence shows that what has happened in the west midlands could happen in London, with the same effect. The installation of video cameras not only saves money in the long term: it also makes the buses a safer and more attractive mode of travel, which is good for everybody.

The principal operator in London is London Buses, which has a fleet of just over 5,000 vehicles. It has estimated that it would cost £20 million to fit video cameras to all its buses. The Lambeth public transport group and other evidence shows that it could be done for . much less. London Buses has fitted some cameras to its vehicles, but it has said that, no matter how desirable, it does not have enough money to equip the entire fleet.

The cost-benefit analysis, even under my calculations, shows that it would actually save money in the long term. In 1989, London Buses spent £2 million repairing buses which had been vandalised or covered in graffiti. That is a very large sum of money, but the hidden cost increased that amount further. The £2 million bill does not take into account the loss of revenue when buses are taken out of service for cleaning or repair. Nor does it include the substantial loss of revenue and the way in which passengers are profoundly affected when crews take their buses off the road to express sympathy after a colleague is assaulted.

Video cameras could also be used as effective revenue protection, ensuring that people have paid their fares and stopping fare evasion, and could assist in the sort of survey work on which. London Buses and London Transport spend enormous sums of money every now and again to try to work out travel information. The video camera could be monitoring passengers who board, gathering useful information on travel patterns— how many people pay cash and who pays cash, for example. It would end up doing a job that we pay consultants large amounts of money to do.

There are no figures to show how many people do not use the bus because they feel that it is unsafe. However, there is no doubt— it is widely acknowledged— that a substantial number of people, especially women and the elderly, feel isolated and insecure when they are upstairs on a one-person operated bus. My Mini was recently stolen and for about five or six weeks I regularly used London buses. I felt very insecure sitting on the top of a bus going home from this place, especially at this hour of night. Passengers find graffiti and torn bus seats threatening. That is a further reason why many women choose not to use the bus.

The deterrent effect of video cameras would reduce attacks. It would make working on buses more attractive and might help to ease the difficulties of recruiting staff. In addition, it would reduce the number of days that bus crews take off work as a result of assaults.

Many other aspects of London buses could be improved. The Department of Transport's consultative document, "A Bus Strategy for London", accepts almost everything that bus users say about the bus. It says that buses are used most by people who do not have access to cars, by people on low incomes, more by women than by men and more by 11 to 19-year-olds and people over 60. For many of those people, there is no alternative, yet the document says that the future of buses depends on their ability to win and retain passengers in competition with other transport options.

The only solution offered by the Government is the deregulation of buses in London. I do not want to go into the details of that argument, as I do not have time, but I hope that the Minister will realise that deregulation is not the way to improve bus services in London. It would lead to more congestion and poorer reliability, but would not lead to more people using buses.

This year alone, London Buses has been asked by London Transport to lose £ 3 million Londonwide— not because the buses are not being used but because that is its share of the amount that London Transport must lose. That has led to fewer services in the evenings, which has affected people who have no alternative but to use the bus, such as shift workers and people who must travel to work early in the morning. In my area, the No. 159 has been cut drastically.

I should like the Government to take transport in London, especially buses, much more seriously. They have said what needs to be done and how essential the bus is but their only solution is deregulation. Several measures would make people feel that the bus is a better option. We must modernise its image. Many people regard buses as old-fashioned, smoky and dirty, even though smoking is not allowed. It need not be so, and London Buses has new vehicles.

Seats must be made more comfortable, good colour coding must be introduced, and the number on the front of a bus must be the same as the number on the back, so that people are not confused. However, operators would need access to capital to provide vehicles to match that image and to entice the customer. We could lower fares, increase reliability, speed up bus-priority measures and restore some conductors. I am not saying that every bus should have a conductor, but a case can be made for the wholesale return of bus conductors on certain routes.

Some of the organisations most interested in public transport have got together and called this the "Year of the Bus". The Association of Metropolitan Authorities has been promoting the bus. The Bus and Coach Council has launched its "Buses Mean Business" campaign. The Association of London Authorities has produced a report entitled "Room at the Top". The London Boroughs Association has produced "Scope for Bus Priorities in London" and has argued for more frequent services.

Much more could be done, with some effort and imagination. Only a properly funded public transport service in London can get London moving. If we want to establish such a service quickly, we should get our buses moving. In order to attract people back to the buses and to make them feel safe, we should come up with a little additional money. We should put video cameras on all our buses, which would make people feel safer and would save money in the long run.

11.9 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Patrick McLoughlin)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Miss Hoey) for raising the matter of public transport safety, which is of great importance to the Government. I agree with much of the hon. Lady's speech, but we have some differences on deregulation. She is aware that the Government are consulting on that matter. We have had a number of responses and we are now considering the likely course of progress. It would be inappropriate to refer to the matter further.

In those areas where bus deregulation has occurred, however, it has led to new customer services. In some areas buses are now serving districts that previously had no bus service. I accept, however, that London is in a different category from the other examples of deregulation, but I cannot allow the hon. Lady to dismiss the argument for deregulation.

Public transport safety is of great importance. The hon. Lady is right about the vast numbers of people who rely on public transport as their means of getting to and from work, particularly in the capital. The hon. Lady cited impressive figures on passengers. Whether one's journey is for work or leisure, a visit to friends or relations, or whether one is a resident or a visitor, public transport is the safe way to travel in and around London. Last week, Denis Tunnicliffe, the managing director of London Underground, said: "You are safer on the Tube than you are in your kitchen." It is important that we take every opportunity to convince people just how safe public transport is and how important it is to the capital.

Safety on London Transport is a top priority. In the wake of the Fennell report into the 1987 fire at King's Cross, LT implemented a major programme of expenditure and training to enhance safety matters that affect passengers, members of the public and staff.

London Transport has a comprehensive set of safety objectives that have been set by its board and endorsed by the Government. The board's safety audit committee monitors the safety of operations across all the subsidiary companies.

In road safety terms, bus travel scores high. In 1989 passenger and driver casualties accounted for less than 4 per cent. of casualties to all vehicle users while accounting for about 7 per cent. of passenger kilometres. When buses are involved in an accident, passengers and drivers also fare better in comparison to the occupants of other vehicles. Perhaps that is not something which we should like to shout about, but it is a fact.

London Buses recently demonstrated a new safety device that it intends to fit to the centre doors of nearly 3,000 buses. The new device will make the doors reopen automatically if they meet an obstruction. It is intended to prevent the small number of accidents that have occurred when passengers, mainly elderly, have been caught in the doors. I am aware that some people still prefer to use the old Routemaster buses with their open platform entry, but buses with doors are much safer. The chances of a passenger having a serious accident getting on or off a bus are roughly 11 times greater on an open-platform bus. The new safety device will mean that buses with doors will be safer still. We are all aware that, sometimes, devices that have been introduced for safety reasons are not wholly welcomed by the travelling public.

It is important to realise that a bus passenger's fear of assault, in common with the fear of the passenger on any form of public transport, is greater than the reality. Compared to 1989, crimes of violence on the underground are down by more than 23 per cent. Assaults on passengers have been reduced by almost 19 per cent. Although the figures for assaults on bus passengers are not readily available from the Metropolitan police—I accept the hon. Lady's concern about that and I shall follow up the issue to see whether more work is required— London Buses believes that many passengers find bus travel far safer than the street environment in which they live and work.

London Buses Ltd.—LBL—liaises closely with the Metropolitan police. Policemen and policewomen are allowed free travel on buses, both on and off duty. Where there are particular trouble spots, arrangements are made with the police to mount special surveillance exercises in order to catch the culprits.

We cannot and will not be complacent. One assault is one too many and we must address people's fears and apprehensions just as seriously as actual dangers to their safety. However, it is true that the vast majority of those using buses and trains do so in complete safety as the risk of attack remains very low.

As one example of our commitment to safety and security on public transport, the Government recently published—in conjunction with the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, transport operators and the transport police—a booklet entitled "Travel Safely on Public Transport", which gives practical advice to passengers on how to make their journeys safer. The production of the booklet was funded by the Department of Transport, which also took on the responsibility of distributing it.

LBL is concerned with the safety of its bus crews, as well as its passengers. As the hon. Lady said, some attacks on crews are despicable in the extreme. Indeed, assaults on bus crews are much more prevalent than assaults on passengers. It is unacceptable that men and women should be subjected to the risk of attack simply through doing their job, and I fully support the measures that LBL is taking to reduce that risk. I know that all hon. Members would support the management in that.

I am aware of the report produced by the Lambeth public transport group, which advocates the fitting of video cameras to vehicles operated by London Buses Ltd. The document makes some strong points, but it does not tell the whole story. It ignores some of the important steps that LBL has already taken to reduce the number of assaults. All LBL buses are now fitted with two-way radios and protective screens for the drivers. They also have an assault klaxon which starts a horn and sets the vehicle's direction indicators flashing. Those measures are of benefit for bus crews and passengers alike.

The Department of Transport has set up a standing panel on assaults on bus staff, which brings together representatives of the bus and taxi industry, the unions, the police and other Government Departments. The panel looks at violence affecting bus crews and taxi drivers, and also studies vandalism and graffiti. It provides a valuable forum for interested parties to exchange views and information about ways of protecting staff and passengers.

The Lambeth public transport group report argues that the installation of video cameras on buses owned by West Midlands Travel reduced vandalism by 75 per cent. That is welcome. However, the report offers no hard evidence of a reduction in assaults on passengers or staff. The scheme may well have followed from an experiment at the Mander centre in Wolverhampton, of which I know from my local experience. Indeed, you too, Madam Deputy Speaker, may well know of the experiment. When it was announced, it did not meet with universal approval, but its implementation has gone down exceptionally well. It has to be remembered that sometimes these projects are not welcomed by everyone.

I accept that the installation of video cameras can be a deterrent to vandalism and assault. Indeed, LBL itself recognises the benefits and has started on a programme to fit video cameras progressively to all its vehicles. But video cameras are not a panacea. It is a sad irony that one of the two assaults that the Lambeth public transport group describes in its report happened on a bus that had a video camera fitted. In that case, unfortunately, the presence of a video camera was no deterrent. In the other case, video evidence may well have helped the police, but because— —

Ms. Hoey

My point is that, because the media have not given enough attention to the fact that there are video cameras on some buses, people are not aware that they are installed. The more publicity given to that fact, and the more buses that contain video cameras, the more likely people are to be deterred.

Mr. McLoughlin

I wholly accept the hon. Lady's point. I hope that tonight's Adjournment debate and some of the publicity that the hon. Lady received today in the Evening Standard will go some way to highlighting the fact that there are already cameras on some buses, and that they will spread to more of them.

The video evidence may well have helped the police, but, because of the technical limitations of the video system currently available, there is no guarantee that the videotaped evidence would secure a conviction. However, I accept that we must deliver the message about the many steps being taken by LBL to try to improve security, make a safer environment and make the passenger feel safe—an important underlying factor.

The cost of installing video cameras on all LBL's buses would be about £20 million. I know that there is some dispute about the cost, but I have been given a figure of about £20 million. That is the approximate cost of 200 new buses.

I hope that the hon. Lady will appreciate that that is a considerable sum. LBL has many competing calls on its resources. It is for it to decide how best to allocate those resources. LBL is committed to increasing the number of video cameras installed on its buses. The decision on the rate at which cameras are installed on the bus fleet must be a matter for the company.

The Government grant to London Transport will be about £2.5 billion over the next three years. That is more than double the figure in real terms compared with the previous three years, so there need be no financial pressure on bus safety. As in other sectors, it is for London Transport to decide what its priorities are and to act accordingly.

I have every confidence in London Transport and its commitment to ensuring safe working conditions for its staff and a safe, secure and pleasant travelling environment for its passengers. That is in everybody's interests—of the bus operators and the bus users. I hope that, by securing this Adjournment debate, the hon. Lady will have moved one small step along the road of highlighting both how safe our buses are and the measures taken by management, with Government co-operation and agreement, to make the buses a safer form of public transport.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-one minutes past Eleven o'clock.