HC Deb 24 April 2001 vol 367 cc159-61
7. Mr. John Grogan (Selby)

What plans he has to encourage travel by bus. [157187]

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

We are encouraging bus travel by a combination of policy and fiscal measures. They include: strengthened powers for local authorities under the Transport Act 2000 to improve the quality of bus services; statutory requirements to ensure that buses are fully accessible; guaranteed half-fare reductions for elderly and disabled people; a major boost to capital investment through local transport plans; and enhanced funding for rural and urban buses. That accounts for some £230 million over the next 3 years—a 35 per cent. increase on the subsidy paid by local authorities in 1997.

Mr. Grogan

Will the Minister congratulate all those in Selby district who are involved in implementing the half-fare bus pass scheme, which comes into force there, as in the rest of the country, on 1 June? More than 6,000 pensioners have applied for it already. The pass is valid not only in Selby but for destinations throughout North Yorkshire and parts of West Yorkshire. Given the huge success and popularity of the scheme in rural areas, is there not a case for considering whether such bus passes should be valid not only in pensioners' home areas but throughout the country?

Mr. Hill

I am delighted to hear of the welcome for the concessionary fares scheme in Selby; it is reflected throughout the country. Indeed, 7 million elderly and disabled people stand to benefit from the introduction of the guaranteed statutory half-fare travel concessions.

My hon. Friend's second point was about the interchangeability of concessionary passes. That subject has frequently been raised with the Government, and we have asked the Confederation of Passenger Transport UK to consider it. We look forward to receiving its recommendations in due course.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath)

Does the Minister agree that if we are to encourage bus travel, it must be reliable, and decent travel information should be provided? Will he therefore explain why, since November 1999, when the Secretary of State set a target for reducing bus cancellations, they have rocketed to four times the target figure? Why has the Department published only a summary of the report that it commissioned about its plans for improving travel information? Is it because the full report points out that many of the proposals are unrealistic? Will the Government publish the full report, with realistic proposals to reduce bus cancellations and improve transport information?

Mr. Hill

Obviously, the report is available to the hon. Gentleman; he has his own arcane means of acquiring such documents. I do not dispute that some cancellation figures have worsened, hut they need to be set in the context of overall growth in the use of buses, especially in south-east England. All the signs are that the long decline in bus use which resulted from privatisation and deregulation under the previous Administration is coming to an end. We are confident of achieving our 10-year transport plan target of 10 per cent. growth and more passenger journeys.

Mr. Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford)

Does my hon. Friend know that later this year, pensioners in Medway will be able to travel for a 20p flat rate fare? Will he join me in welcoming that? It is not surprising that, while Liberal Democrat councillors were able to support Labour councillors in Medway, the Tories voted against the proposal.

Mr. Hill

I am not in the least surprised to hear of that Conservative opposition to an extremely positive measure. One of the great satisfactions of the half-fare concessionary scheme is that, for the first time, senior citizens and disabled people in Conservative-run local authorities will be able to benefit from half-fare concessionary schemes. Because of the rural bus grant, some rural bus services—2,000 nationwide—are running for the first time in Conservative-controlled areas. That is a commitment to the countryside that the Opposition never contemplated in their 18 years of misrule.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

However attractive concessionary fares are—and I support concessionary fares for the disabled and the elderly—does the Minister accept that, whatever resources the Government put in to bus services, they will be inadequate to provide an acceptable quality of service in the more remote rural areas, and that the people who live in those areas will have to rely on their own cars? Does he accept that in many areas of the country, sufficient buses are not available to provide people with the quality of life that we all expect?

Mr. Hill

I certainly accept that bus services are not extant in many areas of the country. That is why recently, in Cornwall, I was delighted to announce the parish transport fund initiative, which will provide £15 million for parishes to originate their own transport schemes. Those could take the form of shared car schemes, of hiring in bus services for villages that have heretofore not been served by them, or of new taxi schemes in those localities. The announcement has been widely welcomed by the parishes, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take the message about this opportunity back to his own locality.

Ms Rosie Winterton (Doncaster, Central)

I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware that many companies are considering ways of persuading their employees to make more use of public transport, especially buses, for getting to and from work. Will he support those companies, and will he discuss with Treasury Ministers whether financial incentives could be made available—for example, to enable companies to make season ticket loans to their employees?

Mr. Hill

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that suggestion. The Government are, of course, open to any proposal that serves to enhance the provision of public transport services. I know that many companies run their own coach services, which play an important role in a public transport context, although they are run specifically for the companies' own employees. The Commission for Integrated Transport has considered the issue of fuel duty rebates in connection with coach services, and I know that it will certainly take such matters into its future remit.