§ The Minister for Public Transport (Mr. Roger Freeman)
I apologise for the absence of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport. He is chairing the Transport Council in Luxembourg today.
The Transport Research Laboratory has published several reports on the changing pattern of bus services, including one recently on rural bus services.
§ Mr. Pike
Does the Minister accept that, as we forecast when the Transport Act 1985 went through, because local authorities do not have enough money for subsidised services there is a rapidly declining off-peak service on some days and in rural areas? The same will happen on the railways because of privatisation unless the Government recognise the social need for a public transport service.
§ Mr. Freeman
The hon. Gentleman asks about railway privatisation. I can confirm that central funding will be applied to the subsidisation of socially necessary rail services. Through the franchising authority, the state will provide sufficient funding to ensure the running of socially necessary services.
§ Mr. Donald Anderson
As the Minister well knows, the deterioration in off-peak services was predicted, was bound to happen, and has happened. Has the Minister attempted to monitor the mergers in the bus industry and is he anxious about increasing monopolisation in the industry?
§ Mr. Freeman
It is the responsibility of the Director General of Fair Trading to monitor the bus industry and, where appropriate, action is taken by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. It is not the responsibility of the Department of Transport to take action, but the Department monitors the performance of the industry. The recent Transport Research Laboratory report about which I spoke refers to service patterns in four rural areas and concludes that in recent years there has been no significant change in the provision of services.
§ Ms. Walley
I am stunned at the lack of concern among Conservative Members about the effects of bus 758 deregulation on rural transport. In view of what the Minister has said, why is he not prepared to recommend that subsidies for standard spending assessments should be ring fenced? We are worried about the way in which bus journeys have decreased by as much as 18 per cent. since bus deregulation. As my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) has said, no matter what assurances the Minister gives about central funding for British Rail privatisation, there will not be the same concern to ring fence rural services following rail privatisation.
§ Mr. Freeman
The Government have no proposals to ring fence specific provision through the revenue support grant and standard spending assessments, either for subsidising socially necessary bus services or for concessionary bus fares. It is for local authorities to determine their own priorities. I accept that those choices are difficult, but local authorities must make them.