HC Deb 25 November 1999 vol 339 cc846-54

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

6.45 pm
Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

I need to declare an interest in the subject of the debate, in that I do not have a car—I cannot drive—and therefore I make use of bus services in north Derbyshire, as well as taxis, in order to get around my constituency. The focus of the debate is the area covered by north-east Derbyshire bus services, as defined in their timetable. The timetable shows that 60 per cent. of the routes are run by Stagecoach Holdings plc and 15 per cent. by First Mainline; the remaining 25 per cent. are run by eight other companies—most of which are very small.

That is reasonably typical of the national pattern for bus services. Since bus deregulation in 1985, a system has developed in which several big private players dominate the market, while smaller players tend to receive the bits and pieces—the scraps. In 1997, 53 per cent. of the national turnover in bus revenues went to three companies: Arriva plc, FirstGroup plc and Stagecoach Holdings plc. In a submission to the Transport Sub-Committee of the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs, Stagecoach Holdings pointed out that it is the UK's largest integrated transport company, with interests in bus, rail, tram, ferry, road tolling and airport services in eight countries. Stagecoach's UK bus operations stretch from the Scottish Highlands to the South Coast of England and account for 16 per cent of the UK bus market. Everyone is aware of the ruthless competitive techniques employed by Stagecoach in order to acquire its bus empire. In its report on tendered bus services of 28 July this year, the Transport Sub-Committee concluded: we are very concerned that the market dominance of the major transport groups and the existence of monopolies, possible cartels and other anti-competitive practices are diminishing competition and are also driving prices higher. Before deregulation, north-east Derbyshire was well served by publicly owned bus companies, Chesterfield Transport and the south Yorkshire passenger transport executive, with a policy of cheap fares that was a credit to the area, and which fed into the provision of services in my constituency. People who write to me look back to that time as halcyon days for bus transport in our area, compared with current provision.

I shall deal mainly with Stagecoach, although I shall mention other companies. Typical of past complaints that I have made to Stagecoach East Midlands is my letter of 23 September 1997, in which I stated: I have received complaints from constituents about the standard of your service on the number 51 bus route, between Danesmoor and Chesterfield. It is claimed that the service provided fails to match-up to timetable commitments and that at times a promised 20 minute service is lucky to operate hourly. Initially, I received a holding reply. An investigation was supposed to be taking place, but I believe that the company apologised for not fully completing it. On 3 February 1998, I received a final reply to my letter. Stagecoach said: in order to keep you up-dated on events I can report that several changes have now taken place on the service 51/52 and this has been mainly to do with the way in which we work a driver and a bus. The main change mentioned was as follows: In basic terms we have provided drivers with sufficient lay-over' time in Chesterfield at the end of each journey from Clay Cross such, that if they experience late operation due to traffic congestion then ample compensation exists (as much as 20-25 minutes in some cases) and thus the driver has enough time to operate 'his' next journey from Chesterfield on time. The drivers of Stagecoach buses would be astonished by that statement. Later I shall describe the problems that they have in meeting the times stipulated for their journeys.

I recently checked with one of the complainants who had prompted my original letter, to find out whether things had picked up in the two years since I had taken up the matter. She says: After your letters to Stagecoach the service did appear to improve for a while but soon returned to the poor service which we received before. I am totally dissatisfied with the lack of regular buses on this route. Spending many a moment waiting at the bus stop in the hope of a bus arriving on time or even at all I have spoken to many people about the service and it has replaced the weather as the general topic of conversation. She concludes: The general opinion seems to be that Stagecoach are so big that they can do what they like. I hope that that does not prove to be the case, and that this debate prevents it from becoming so.

In late August 1999, I received two detailed complaints from constituents—one about route 79, from a constituent who lives in Barlow, in a rural area, and the other about route 44, from a constituent in Coal Aston, which is at the end of a more urban area.

I decided that there would be little use in raising the issue again with Stagecoach East Midlands, so I started to complain to a wide body of people. I wrote to the Minister for Transport, to the traffic commissioners, to the National Federation of Bus Users, to Stagecoach's headquarters in Perth as well as its east midlands office, and to Derbyshire county council about the sponsored services that Stagecoach runs on its behalf. I had previously been in touch with the council many times in connection with such complaints.

I also issued a media release and wrote two articles in the local free newspapers, covering about 40 per cent. of my constituency. As a consequence, I received 76—often detailed—letters, complaining about specific Stagecoach services. They included two petitions, two complaints from parish councils, one from an estates committee and one from a school. It might be felt that if the MP issued a press release and engaged in publicity, he was engaging in stimulating complaints; but the thing that—apart from my own experiences—shows me that the complaints are genuine is the fact that they come from such a wide range of communities throughout north-eastern Derbyshire. There are hardly any collections of letters from specific areas. The complaints refer to different areas, different provisions and different routes, although in some cases they deal with long bus routes that pass through several communities.

I received 76 complaints about Stagecoach, six about First Mainline's services and one about the Trent bus service, which is one of the smaller operators in the area. On the other side of the coin, I received two letters praising Thompson bus services in Dronfield. Many of the letters complaining about Stagecoach and First Mainline point out that Thompson's services compare fantastically with those provided by Stagecoach. One letter has praised Aston Express services, and three other letters are of great interest in that they clearly point out that the drivers are not to blame for the problems. Those letters were not written by bus drivers, so they make an important point.

I met the Transport and General Workers Union branch of bus drivers at the Chesterfield depot and I met the RMT branch at Hollingwood. Although RMT is a rail union, it organises bus drivers and I attended a full and vigorous meeting with its members. They told me—and they showed me—that they have terribly unrealistic time sheets that do not allow them turn-round times and that they are under terrible pressure to meet their targets. One driver told me that the company expects him to be a racing driver, not a bus driver.

Complaints were made about the training at Stagecoach. Drivers have to pick up passengers on routes that they do not know. No other bus driver is present to show them the way and they are handed a sheet to tell them where they should turn. The drivers at the trade union branch meeting scathingly described those time sheets as "idiot sheets".

The problems have been described in a letter from a constituent who pointed out that, in rural areas, services are provided only at hourly or two-hourly intervals. This case involved an hourly service. One bus did not turn up, and people had to wait for the next one. The next driver was new and did not know the way. He took some wrong turns—passengers often have to tell drivers that they have gone the wrong way—and arrived 20 minutes late. That meant that the passengers had to wait one hour and 20 minutes. Their frustration was then taken out on the driver, who was himself frustrated because he did not know the route well and now had to face a group of angry people. It is little wonder that there is a great turnover of drivers.

I have met representatives of Stagecoach East Midlands and given them all the 76 complaints that I have received. To date, 73 replies have been received by my constituents and I have been given copies. I send each copy to the traffic commissioner who has already received copies of my constituents' original letters.

The complaints take three forms. First, on numerous occasions, buses do not turn up. It is common for a bus to be missing entirely. Secondly, buses arrive extremely late for some of the reasons that I have described. Thirdly, buses may miss out areas altogether, so people may be waiting for buses that are running but which have not turned up at a particular stop.

It being Seven o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Mr. Barnes

A driver may ask, "Is there anyone on the bus for Arkwright?" If no one replies, the bus will miss out Arkwright, and the people who are waiting at Arkwright will not be picked up.

Connections can be missed. Much of my constituency is rural, and in rural areas the waiting period for a bus may be up to two hours. If a connection is missed, the wait for the next bus will be an hour or two. In rural areas where there are no facilities, people can do nothing but stand at the bus stop, which may be uncovered, and wait for the next bus to arrive. Passengers have to resort to using expensive taxis to get to hospital appointments or to work. People fear that they will be late if they use the bus because it has made them late on other occasions and they have worried about keeping their job.

I am told that when people ring up Stagecoach, they receive poor responses to their complaints because there is no link to the buses and no feedback, so no one knows what is occurring or what the problem is. Some people receive apologies, especially if they write in, and they may be sent mega-tickets that allow them free rides over a day or a week. That does not impress my constituents because they want improved bus services, not free rides on buses that may not turn up or may be late. People complain also about the poor quality of the buses and about breakdowns, which account for some of the problems that I have mentioned.

I have touched on some of the drivers' complaints, but I shall restate them. They complain of unrealistic timetables, inadequate meal breaks, demands from the company for what they see as excessive hours, not enough rest from work and traffic regulations that are ignored by the company or dealt with inadequately. There is also the problem of inadequate training, which I have explained.

I have received responses to various representations. On Stagecoach, I have heard that the traffic commissioners are in the neighbouring area of Mansfield. Stagecoach has brought in extra drivers and buses from Scotland to try to handle the situation, which may be spilling over into Chesterfield and its surroundings, the area that I am concerned about.

Stagecoach at Perth has not yet responded to my request for a meeting. Initially, it suggested a meeting and I asked it to wait until passengers had complained in full, but I said that I would meet Stagecoach East Midlands in the meantime. When I wrote back a few weeks ago, requesting a meeting to be held in the Commons, perhaps involving MPs with neighbouring constituencies, Stagecoach did not respond.

The response of the traffic commissioners is that they have called Stagecoach for an interview. They have issued it with a formal warning in the Mansfield and Chesterfield area, and they will continue to pay attention to Stagecoach. That interest has been extended to First Mainline, to which a number of complaints have referred, although not in as much detail as the complaints about Stagecoach.

I have received a letter from the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill), pointing out that the traffic commissioners have been contacted by his Department and that operators have recently lost registrations and licences in Cambridge and Bristol. I believe that Stagecoach was involved in Cambridge.

The county council's public transport manager has met Stagecoach East Midlands and is pressing for reliable services. The National Federation of Bus Users cannot follow up collective complaints, but I have an option of pushing 83 individual complaints if things do not get better.

What am I after? In the short run, I want buses to meet their timetables in some reasonable way. I recognise that there are some serious traffic problems in the Chesterfield area. Transport moving through Chesterfield from east to west faces considerable problems, but timetables need to be realistic and take those problems into account. Drivers should have a fair and reasonable opportunity to meet them.

The traffic commissioner has powers to fine a company such as Stagecoach 20 per cent. of its eligible fuel rebate. The problem is that the provision applies to the entire company, so the situation is different for large and small companies. Given the seriousness of the problem, I hope that such a fine on Stagecoach will be considered.

The traffic commissioners can enforce the running of services according to registered specifications. Those powers must be fully used and they might need to be added to so that they operate properly. If Stagecoach cannot deliver, having been given a reasonable opportunity to adjust the standard of its services, it should cease to be a provider in our area. The county council needs to consider its contracts and decide whether rural areas are being properly served by the company.

In the long run, I should like strong legislative measures. I hope that the forthcoming transport legislation will introduce strong regulation and will give priority to buses through the establishment of bus lanes and other measures. I hope that we can return to publicly owned public transport provision in many areas. In 1985, 75 per cent. of the turnover was through public service bodies that were owned publicly. By 1997, that figure had dropped to 7 per cent.

I have two further points. We are moving towards a national concessionary fares scheme, provided for in the July 1998 White Paper. That cannot achieve its objectives unless buses turn up on time. Elderly, infirm or disabled people are placed in the greatest difficulties by the problems with bus services in my area, but young people are also affected. One of the complaints came from a school. I have been to three schools recently on a UNICEF initiative to enable children to tell their opinions to their Member of Parliament. The problems of bus services were raised each time, which shows that it is a common topic of conversation and worry for many people. For the elderly, the north-east Derbyshire experience shows the importance of national concessionary fare schemes and their delivery and operation.

Secondly, we need a better procedure for handling complaints. The National Consumer Council is pressing for this and makes that point in its document "Better Buses". The system should tackle the regulation of complaints. Members of Parliament should have an interest so that they can feed material in, but they should not have to mobilise a campaign, forward many letters from constituents to all the appropriate authorities, and get an Adjournment debate to set things right.

Parliament should pass legislation that enables such things to be done fairly automatically through a self-regulating system into which people feed their own ideas. The job of the MP should be to keep an eye on things to ensure that they function properly. I find too often that they have to be expert deliverers and office staff in connection with all sorts of problems apart from buses, such as the Child Support Agency and benefit provision. Legislation needs to set up the right systems so that things work well.

7.11 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill)

As is usual, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) on securing this debate. I also thank him for his courtesy in giving me notice of the main issues that he wished to raise. Finally, I express my solidarity with him as a fellow non-driver and regular bus user.

My hon. Friend described the north Derbyshire picture. It has urban centres in Chesterfield and other, smaller towns. Mansfield in neighbouring north Nottinghamshire is looked to for some facilities and there are extensive stretches of countryside. The uneven distribution of population, employment and facilities means that good planning is essential for the successful delivery of public transport services. It is disappointing if planning and delivery in the area are not adequate.

Most of my hon. Friend's concerns relate to Stagecoach East Midlands operations. He also referred to First Mainline, another operator in the area, but its services should improve as replacement of its vehicles is completed. Its routes have also been affected by redevelopment work in Chesterfield town centre that will not be completed for some time. I understand that, in the meantime, the company is doing what it can to minimise disruption.

Stagecoach East Midlands enjoys good relations with the local transport authority, Derbyshire county council. However, there have clearly been shortcomings in its performance in north Derbyshire. As my hon. Friend said, on 1 November, the traffic commissioner issued Stagecoach with a formal warning about failure to operate local bus services in accordance with registered particulars, and has told it that further formal monitoring of services will take place at Mansfield and Chesterfield in the near future. The commissioner has powers to impose fines on operators by repayment of fuel duty rebate, to place restrictions on running services and, ultimately, to revoke a company's operating licence. Those are powerful sanctions, so it is much in the company's interest to respond positively and comprehensively.

It is only fair to add that when my hon. Friend raised the company's performance, and before it attended its formal interview at the traffic commissioner's office, it was already carrying out its own review of local services and discussing proposals for improvements with Derbyshire county council. It had not yet implemented all the changes, but was at least responding positively to its own recognition of the need for better service. I welcome that fact as an indication of professionalism in the industry and in that particular company, but it has been salutary for my hon. Friend to raise the profile of this subject. I am sure that the company will welcome the fact that improvements that it makes will gain more effective local publicity as a result of my hon. Friend's keen interest.

My hon. Friend has detailed a wide range of problems voiced by the Stagecoach work force. Clearly these give serious cause for concern. The company itself will be the party most concerned of all, and I trust that it will want to do all it can to address the problems, working closely with all employees.

In the Government's view, Derbyshire county council has played a constructive part in attempting to sort out the recent problems. The authority takes its transport responsibilities seriously and expects to spend about £2 million this financial year on loss-making bus services that are socially necessary. Derbyshire has built positive working relationships with the bus operators and appreciates their co-operation in providing services in rural areas, even though that may have led some companies to overstretch themselves. That may be a factor behind some of the recent difficulties.

Serious efforts are under way to improve bus services, but ultimately, only if the current failings are fully addressed will we have any reason to consider the job well done. This is not a time for complacency. We all want an improvement in bus services in north Derbyshire, not least because of their importance for the integrated transport approach that the county council wants to pursue through its local transport plan. Local transport plans have been introduced this year as the basis for Government funding for local transport priorities. The extra £700 million, provided over three years through local transport plans, is enabling the Government to redress the underfunding of transport that the previous Government permitted.

The Derbyshire local transport plan, like those from the other local transport authorities in England, was submitted to my Department some weeks ago and is under detailed consideration. When that consideration is completed, we shall announce the Government's transport funding allocations to authorities. Until then, it would be premature to comment on the Derbyshire plan in any way that might pre-empt that process. However, I can say that the plan envisages significant improvements to bus services through the development of bus quality partnerships, of which there are now 130 across the country. The Government endorse the concept of bus quality partnerships and have been pleased with the encouraging results that they have produced in areas where they have already been developed. They are typically increasing bus patronage by between 10 and 20 per cent., and in some cases by more.

I see no reason why similarly good results should not be achievable in north Derbyshire, and I am sure that Stagecoach East Midlands and other operators, together with the county council, will want to give the concept careful consideration. Bus companies in other areas can affirm from experience that bus quality partnerships bring benefits to operators as well as to passengers. A statutory basis for bus quality partnerships will be established in the forthcoming transport Bill.

There are unparalleled opportunities for public transport in the positive climate that the Government have fostered. Awareness of the benefits of using public transport has risen sharply over the past couple of years, with the Government responding to the trend and stimulating it further through proactive policies to develop an integrated transport system that is safe, efficient, clean and fair.

Government support for rural buses—an extra £170 million over three years—has already resulted in 1,500 new or enhanced services across the country. Derbyshire county council has been awarded £714,000 a year for each of the three years, and is using that on provision of new services. That is in addition to the county council's success in the rural bus challenge 1998, through which £800,000 was made available to develop public and community transport provision in the south of Derbyshire. The outcome of this year's rural bus challenge bids will be announced by the end of the year.

The bus is a particularly flexible and accessible mode of transport. Buses are a lifeline for many people, who, without them, would experience limited and disadvantaged lives. I am glad that, after 50 years of decline, bus patronage is now increasing. When I speak to bus operators, I find that they are generally optimistic about the future of their industry.

Last week, at the first ever bus summit, my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister acknowledged that most of the industry was rising to the challenges involved in modernising British bus travel. The follow-up to last year's transport White Paper—the first White Paper on that subject for 20 years—included a document devoted to buses. Its title, "From Workhorse to Thoroughbred", employs a metaphor drawn from another mode of transport, but it sends a clear signal in regard to how the bus industry is transforming both its operations and its image.

That does not mean that there are no problems. Fifty years of decline cannot be reversed overnight. The bus industry has seen many lean years of underinvestment by both the public and the private sector; passenger confidence has declined, as has the public image of bus transport. Pressure on resources has presented local authorities with hard choices about which bus services to support, and the resulting decisions have meant a reduction or withdrawal of services in some areas.

The problems are being solved, however. Private investment in the bus industry is now 80 per cent. higher than it was five years ago. In the last financial year it reached £300 million, much of which was spent on new vehicles with improved passenger access. Local authority investment in bus lanes and other priority measures is increasing, because my Department's support for local transport packages is almost 60 per cent. more this year than it was last year. At the bus summit last week, we announced new national targets for bus reliability and investment, and new arrangements to make operators more accountable to passengers. The transport Bill will contain further measures to help deliver the service that bus passengers deserve, thus meeting the commitments in our manifesto and our White Paper.

This improving climate is widely welcomed by local authorities, transport operators, user groups and many sections of the public. It provides a good basis for resolving the current difficulties and enhancing services further to benefit the north Derbyshire travelling public.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-three minutes past Seven o'clock.