HC Deb 20 April 2004 vol 420 cc147-9
8. Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD)

If he will make a statement on the relative changes in the cost of travelling by (a) car, (b) train and (c) bus since 1997. [166176]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tony McNulty)

Between 1997 and 2003, the real-terms cost of travelling by car fell by 4.8 per cent., the cost of travelling by train rose by 3.0 per cent. and the cost of travelling by bus rose by 8.2 per cent.

Norman Baker

Are not those figures an admission of failure in Government transport policy—not only undermining the Government's social inclusion agenda, but encouraging a modal shift from buses and trains to cars? What practical steps—I emphasise the word "practical"—other than hand wringing will the Government take to encourage a real cut in the fares charged by public transport operators? In particular, will the Minister consider the example in my constituency, where South Central, at my request, has cut season ticket fares between Eastbourne and Lewes and Seaford and Lewes by a third, which has led to a 35 per cent. increase in season ticket sales and a 30 per cent. increase in passenger traffic? Is not that the sort of example that he should be championing?

Mr. McNulty

I suppose that one should not be shocked by the typical mischievous Liberal distortion of statistics. Those figures far more readily reflect the decrease in the overall cost of motoring than the increases in fares. Whether to make deals on fares is entirely up to the franchisees in any area. Significant improvements in bus services throughout the country are plugged in directly to the social inclusion agenda. The hon. Gentleman knows that, overwhelmingly, the 10-year plan and the new review of it are rooted in an integrated transport programme with public transport at its core. However, I look forward to seeing punitively high taxation on motorists in the Liberals' next shadow Budget, which is the inexorable logic of the hon. Gentleman's posturing.

Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye) (Lab)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the secret is to get more people on the buses, and that the easiest way in which to do that would be to give free transport to pensioners countrywide? That would be good for the environment and for pensioners, and it would reduce bus losses.

Mr. McNulty

My hon. Friend knows that since 1997, because of what the Labour Government have done rather than posturing, pensioners throughout the country experience at least half fares. We have examined and will continue to examine, among other things, the cost of going further than that, but it is only because of what the Labour Government have done since 1997 that pensioners are now in a far better position in terms of public transport than they were under the previous, miserable Administration.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con)

Will the Minister deal with my question seriously, because it is genuinely of great concern to my constituency? Bus companies have dramatically increased the cost of the provision of services to Cheshire county council, which seeks to subsidise rural and other routes. As a result, and because of capping and the other problems facing councils, there has been a substantial reduction in the number of routes for which the council has been able to provide a subsidy. I am concerned that the bus companies have increased costs—the charges—by between 35 and 50 per cent. Will he look into the matter?

Mr. McNulty

I shall of course look at the case in some detail, and if the hon. Gentleman wants to discuss it, I shall be more than happy to meet him. I have two further things to say to him. First, I answer every question seriously. Secondly, if behind his question is a hint that there should be significantly higher public subsidies for buses, especially in shire areas, he should have a word with his Front Benchers about how that would fit in with a £600 million cut in transport provision, should the Conservatives ever get near the Government Dispatch Box.