HC Deb 09 March 2004 vol 418 cc1359-60
1. Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West) (Lab)

What plans he has to allow more commercial freedom for municipally owned bus companies. [159429]

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

May I convey my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's apologies for his absence? He has written to the Opposition and your good self, Mr. Speaker. He is taking part in the Transport Council in Brussels.

The Government have no plans to make changes to municipally owned bus companies.

Kevin Brennan

I am glad that my right hon. Friend is in Brussels, which has an excellent municipally owned bus company, just as Cardiff has Is it not about time that we looked again at the commercial freedom of municipally owned bus companies, which are shackled by the regulations introduced under the Tories in the 1980s, when there was a fetish for privatisation? Is it not time to consider giving them the freedom to develop properly integrated public transport systems in our cities?

Mr. McNulty

My hon. Friend will know that municipally owned bus companies operate in a competitive market, alongside private sector buses, in some 17 towns and cities in this country. I am happy to share his comments about the efficacy of Cardiff's municipal bus company, but the; Government intend that those companies should continue to be free to get on with the business of running their buses, without any advantage or disadvantage because of their municipal status.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell) (Con)

Is not the problem with buses not the commercial freedoms of the municipal companies, but the way in which the subsidy provided by the public sector for bus services is so heavily skewed in favour of certain parts of the country?

In Surrey, bus services are disappearing while hundreds of buses are being put on to the roads every day, courtesy of the taxpayer, across the border in London. When will the Government provide a better balance between the funding allocated to London and the other major metropolitan areas and the surrounding rural and semi-rural areas that are losing bus services for want of money?

Mr. McNulty

I commend the hon. Gentleman on his ingenuity in asking about how poor Surrey's buses are during a question on municipally owned bus companies. In the first instance, he should take up the case with Surrey county council, which, I believe, is neither Labour nor Liberal Democrat-controlled.

Mr. George Stevenson (Stoke-on-Trent, South) (Lab)

Is not one of the problems with the better integration of bus services—whether municipal or privately owned—the attitude of the Competition Commission to matters such as the interchangeablility of fares and tickets? The Competition Commission seems to take the view that they may be anti-competitive, so bus companies and organisations cannot serve the public in the way that they want by making bus fares interchangeable.

Mr. McNulty

I can happily tell my hon. Friend that he is just a tad behind the times. Last week, I had the great pleasure of launching the Solent travelcard, which involves some 14 bus companies working together, with interchangeable fares, in Portsmouth, Southampton and Hampshire, so that people can travel throughout that area without worrying about the confusion of whether they have the right bus ticket for each bus company. I hope that that, rather than what my hon. Friend describes, is a portent for the future.

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