HL Deb 30 January 1985 vol 459 cc720-34

7.51 p.m.

Lord Belhaven and Stenton rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are satisfied with the results of the campaign, recently launched by London Transport and the Metropolitan Police, to step up the policing of London buses with the aim of counteracting violence and threats of violence to bus drivers and conductors; and whether they consider that in evaluating the nature of these assaults and devising counter-measures sufficient notice is taken of the views of drivers and conductors themselves.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, first, as I am not allowed to do it at the end, I should like to thank those noble Lords who have put their names down to speak. I do not see them all here. I am sorry to say that I have had a message from the noble Lord, Lord Grimond, that he is unable to speak although his name is on the speaker's list. That is a great pity because I enjoy listening to him and I enjoy reading his many articles.

The only interest I have to declare in this debate is as a fare-paying passenger on London Transport buses. I dare say that that must be an interest that all your Lordships have, unless indeed any of your Lordships present are multi-millionaires, which I doubt.

Baroness Trumpington

Or are old-age pensioners, my Lords.

Lord Belhaven and Stenton

My Lords, at the outset I should also like to pay tribute to the courtesy I have always met from bus-drivers, conductors and other people employed by London Transport. This is a fairly general experience and, considering the job they do, I think their good manners and friendliness deserve all credit. While on this subject I should like to pay tribute to bus drivers in particular who have always seemed to me to be the safest drivers on the roads of this city. If only car drivers, lorry drivers and, I would single out in particular, coach drivers could drive half as well as London bus drivers London would be a much safer place to go about in.

The rising incidence of assaults on bus crews cannot be separated from the increasing lawlessness of the times in which we live. That could be the answer which my noble friend might give to my question: "What is all this about? It is happening everywhere!" I have thought about this, but for the life of me I cannot see that it would make things any better. Try saying that to a bus conductor who has just been beaten up. In my view, we all have to think very hard about this violence. We have to think harder than we have been thinking. But that does not mean that I intend to attack the authorities who, so far as I can see, are doing their best in a difficult situation. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that so far they do not appear to have the answer. Here I would say that perhaps there is no solution, but I think that is too pessimistic an assumption and I do not subscribe to it.

My object in asking this Question is to call attention to a grave and scandalous situation and to elicit a reply from my noble friend, to which I look forward with interest. Also, with some humility, I shall put forward a few suggestions myself.

We should try to see what the situation is about and for that purpose I quote briefly from the London Weekly News of 14th July last. The quote states: This year up to 3,000 ticket collectors, bus drivers, conductors and station supervisors will be assaulted while going about their business. If you are a ticket collector on London Underground's Saturday night shift you have a one in fifty chance of being beaten up". I could quote more but that is enough. It shows a situation which is—or ought to be—beyond the bounds of public tolerance. I do not know how much more of this there has to be before our public transport system begins to break down, but it is clear enough to me that the public servants are carrying a burden of fear and stress which we have no right to impose upon them. There is a clear obligation on every one of us, not just on Her Majesty's Government and the police, to do everything we can to protect these people who are serving us and the public interest with courage and loyalty.

I now come to the second part of my Question, which is how much notice is being taken of the views of the drivers and the conductors. I expect that my noble friend will tell us that these views are being listened to. The unions are in close consultation and, as representatives of the workforce, they in turn talk to the management and listen to their members. I do not doubt any of that, but I enter a small caveat; that is that I am not sure that this is how unions are regarded by their members nowadays—that is, as representatives and tribunes of the people. I suspect that there is a growing tendency to lump unions and management together as "them". I am sure that this is so. It may be unfortunate; it may be yet one more example of the cussedness of human nature, but it is none the less something which should be taken into account when dealing with this problem.

I know that measures are being taken, and my noble friend will no doubt tell us what they are. Safety screens for drivers are one of the devices I have seen, but I have to say—not because I want to say it but no discussion of law and order at this time can be complete without its being mentioned—that there are people, happily not in your Lordships' House, who do not appear to be so well disposed as the Government, the police and the unions involved.

The political attack on the police has been gathering momentum for the last few years. This is something quite new to our body politic and to me it is utterly deplorable. It does no service in this situation to equate criminal violence with the police violence necessary to contain it. Yet this is being done all the time. There has also been the fact that violence in the miners' strike has denuded police forces all over the country, and that must be to the detriment of our hard pressed public servants in this city.

There is an imperative obligation on all those in public positions to protect those who serve us. Politics should not enter into it and in the past they never did. Those who seek to challenge public order on questionable gounds of workers' solidarity or on any other grounds whatsoever bear a heavy burden of responsibility.

I do not pretend to be any sort of expert on counter measures. I can only make one suggestion which has occurred to me personally. I was in New York in 1979, which is some time ago but I imagine they still operate the same system on their buses. From memory the bus driver was in a sort of cage. I do not think anyone could have assaulted the driver even if he had wanted to. There was a machine beside him for coins and a turnstile. One had to put two quarter dollars into the machine and move through the turnstile into the bus. If one did not have two quarters in one's pocket one could not travel. Once on the bus, a passenger could travel two stops, 70 stops or as far as the bus went for those two quarter-dollars. No change was given, and to change buses one had to go through the whole procedure again, so it would cost one dollar to take two buses.

From what I have learnt of incidents in London a lot of trouble comes from the large variety of fares charged. I have seen a report from London Transport News relating to assaults on staff at Cricklewood and Willesden garages, where it is stated that in 1983 there were 61 assaults on staff at these two garages, more than half of which involved disputes about fares. This is a high proportion and I urge my noble friend to consider the possibility of charging flat rates with no change given. I have no doubt that this would be unpopular to start with, particularly with those going on long journeys, but it appears that the citizens of New York have got used to it and perhaps the citizens of London and other cities in this country might, too.

We have all the machinery of crime prevention, of creating systems which seek to avoid violent situations or confrontations, and on the police side there is the business of catching criminals and improving methods of doing so. However, I cannot avoid the problem of what happens when the criminals are caught and convicted. Only last Thursday in this House the matter was raised by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor and by the noble Baroness, Lady Phillips, in an excellent speech. To my mind, and I believe it is a view widely held, sentences on criminals, particularly on violent criminals, are not severe enough in this country. Noble and learned judges and magistrates in your Lordships' House told us last week that this is not so; but they are there in the courts. They are doing the sentencing, and they ought to know what they are talking about better than we do. I understand what they are saying. Come to think of it, it is exactly what they would say.

I realise that I am on rather dangerous ground here, but I might risk reminding our noble and learned judges that in this instance they are judges in their own cause. Of course, they think it is all right because they are the people who are doing it; they are honourable men and women, and they would not pursue a course if they did not think it was right. Nonetheless, it is the case, as I have said, that there is grave public concern about the leniency of sentences. The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor told the House on Thursday that complaints about this were reaching him in increasing volume. To paraphrase what he continued to say—and I hope that he will not mind if I put it as an implication—he implied that there was no smoke without at least some fire.

Noble and learned judges, and notably the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, blamed this concern on press reports of proceedings. But my experience is that it is not only that. I have heard people directly concerned, who have been involved in these barbarous incidents and in the court proceedings which followed them, saying exactly the same thing. They may not have access to confidential files on the accused, but they do have access to the victims and they know of their suffering. There is a gathering feeling—and I know this to be true—that innocent victims of crime are sentenced by their assailants far more severely than the criminals are sentenced by the courts.

But, of course, I am on a sticky wicket here because I am supposed to be asking my noble friend what he intends to do about it. Having listened to the debate last Thursday on Clause 22 of the Prosecution of Offences Bill, the answer seems to be, "Very little". Even when the Government come up with a mild and (one might say) half-baked proposal like that in Clause 22, they are instantly assailed in your Lordships' House by the whole weight of the legal establishment. Our legal procedures are so deeply engrained that it seems to me that nothing short of a revolution would change them—and from where I sit I certainly do not want a revolution.

Perhaps a little humility might help here, my Lords. I wish we could stop hearing noble Lords and others saying that we have the best legal system in the world. That may or may not be so: but all I would say here is that if that is so, and judging from my personal experience of our legal system, God help the rest of the world! As things are, and in relation to the widespread view that sentences on violent criminals are not severe enough, it seems to me that the only answer, if we agree that we do not think that sentences on violent criminals are severe enough, is to go on saying so. I would ask my noble friend this one question: Does he agree with this; and, if he does agree with it, will he go on saying so?

I shall finish where I started. This matter of assaults on public transport employees is a most serious one, and it will not just go away. At its worst—and we may come to this, though I hope we do not—it could result in the breakdown of our system of public transport. After all, a man or woman employed in the public service on a bus or a railway should not feel every day that he is "going over the top". This is not, and cannot be allowed to become, a war situation. Yet the stress imposed at the present time on many of these people is such that it is a very close imitation of war. I realise that the Government and the authorities involved are taking the situation seriously, and I await with great interest, and indeed with hope, the reply of my noble friend.

8.5 p.m.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, I am certainly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Belhaven and Stenton, for putting down this Unstarred Question. I hope that it will not only draw attention to the seriousness of the problem but I hope also that it will give some reassurance as to the steps that are being taken to deal with the situation. I was particularly pleased to note the tributes that the noble Lord paid to the staff of London Transport buses, and I think that that will be very much appreciated. The Question deals with London. Although the problem exists throughout the country, the severity of the assaults and the number of incidents are greater in the London area.

On this matter, I am advised, and have been advised, by the Transport and General Workers' Union, and I had a helpful consultation the other day with two of their most responsible officials who deal with the transport crews in the London area. I was particularly pleased that they were not only concerned with the situation as it affects bus crews but also as it affects passengers. I understand that assaults on London buses have exceeded 1,000 every year over the past six years. In fact, in 1982, the figure was 1,240; and in 1983 it was 1,157. They have analysed the assaults for the first six months of 1984 which amounted to 455, and as the noble Lord implied the largest number were disputes over fares, over passes, and so on.

However, of particular concern is that 109 of the 455 assaults in the first six months of last year were muggings and hooliganism—the hooliganism particularly of groups refusing to pay. The issue is raised, I am assured, regularly at union branch meetings. All the assaults are monitored by the union, and the union's four divisional officers meet the management of London Regional Transport every fortnight to discuss the question of assaults. This is proper representation and they are very appreciative of this opportunity to discuss the matter regularly with the management of London Regional Transport. But the issue affects recruitment and also affects the retention of staff. I am told that the turnover of bus staff is 10 per cent. a year. When one considers the training that is given, particularly for drivers, a turnover of 10 per cent. is a bad waste. Not only do we have the problem of unsocial hours which affects bus crews but we have the problem of the increasing severity of assaults.

An interesting point was given to me that over the past five years, 90 per cent. of the unofficial strikes on London buses have been occasioned as a result of assaults and only 1 per cent. because of schedules. I can assure noble Lords that it used to be the problem of schedules, of timekeeping, on which there were always short unofficial strikes.

I was pleased to note that the union officials—and these are responsible officials in the London Region—paid a tribute to what they said was the enormous assistance given to them by the Metropolitan Police. Every garage has a Metropolitan Police inspector allocated for liaison purposes and the garage can contact that inspector at any time. It was particularly emphasised by the union officials—and they welcome this—that when new constables are enrolled part of their training is going down to the local bus garage to talk to the crews and to the union representatives. Also they are asked to take a look at what they refer to as the "moving beat"; in other words, to get on the buses and talk to the crew. I think this is excellent. It builds up confidence, and I hope that that can be encouraged.

London Transport introduced emergency radio links and alarms. I was pleased to see that in the business plan, which was published in December, of London Regional Transport (which has now taken over from London Transport) they confirm that all buses are now equipped with emergency radio links and alarms. I am assured that there is what they call the "red code" where the driver can contact directly the control at Baker Street and, at the same time, another inspector is alerted at Scotland Yard.

All this is encouraging; but I was concerned to note from the London Transport report for 1983—which I re-read—when they were commenting on the move to install radio links (and they had already been fitted at that time in quite a number of buses) that although the number of assaults in 1983 fell by 7 per cent., the severity, as measured by the number of cases resulting in absence from work, worsened significantly.

I am assured that the fear of conductors about the actions of passengers started to develop in the early 1960s, but the problem has now transferred to passengers themselves, who are being assaulted, and not just the crews of the buses. Assaults most frequently arise from questions involving fares collection. The union tell me that in 1982 47 per cent. of cases arose from various aspects of the collection of fares. In 1983 the figure was 49.5 per cent.

Obviously, the development of travel cards is of great help, because it means that there are less cash transactions. I do not know whether the noble Lord the Minister can tell me whether consideration is now being given—because he will recall that in the 1984 Act, we approved an amendment (and the GLC wanted this inserted)—to cover the problem of collecting penalty fares. Regarding collecting penalty fares—when already we have the terrific problem over the collection of ordinary fares—the noble Lord would be a very brave man in the circumstances to attempt to deal with that.

Many incidents occur at night as the public houses and other licensed establishments close. I think that is fairly understandable. They also occur when discos close. I do not know what arrangements there may be to find out when these discos are closing or what plans can be made to deal with the problem.

Many of the worst assaults in terms of seriousness of the injuries, take place at that time of night. However, what is also of great concern is that very substantial numbers of incidents take place between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. as the schools and colleges are closing. The union has suggested that ways and means ought to be considered of getting schools involved. Visits could be made to schools to try to get a community attitude to their own local routes and efforts could be made to encourage pupils to visit the local garage and talk to the crews. Other ways ought to be considered of tackling these problems, in view of the growing number of incidents involving students taking place between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. when the educational establishments close.

Muggings are increasing, and in the past two years the staffs have been greatly worried about the increasing use of knives—not just being used physically, but being used as threats. Statistics show that the incidents are highest against conductors—and I think we can understand that—it becomes a particular problem with double-decker buses. There are still many double-decker buses with conductors on them, and there is a need for some form of quick communication between the conductor and the driver to indicate when there is trouble. I do not believe there is such an arrangement at the moment and perhaps this is a matter which could be considered.

I am told that there are now 5,000 buses within London Regional Transport, of which some 3,000 are one-man operated. These buses are on 63 per cent of the routes; but that does not mean that they represent necessarily 63 per cent. of all buses. The problem is that two thirds of the one-man operated buses are double-deckers, and generally the driver is safer. However, I am told that on many routes even the driver will think very carefully before he challenges people who come to him to pay fares, or he will avoid getting involved in arguments.

Obviously, on all double-decker buses, the passengers are increasingly at risk, whether the buses are one-man operated or not. It may be thought that the one-man operated buses provide the most safety because the doors are operated by the driver; but there has to be an emergency switch fitted to the doors and it has to be one that can be seen and it must be accessible. Some of the villains know this. Therefore, groups will antagonise passengers and there will be attempts to mug them. The emergency switch is operated by the gangs and they are off the bus before anybody can do anything about them. I understand the problem is that, despite the close liaison with the police and all the measures that are now being taken, only some 20 per cent. (or one in five) of the persons involved in the assaults are apprehended.

The Question does not deal with the Underground, but I should like to raise one point in this connection, because I believe that the Minister and London Transport will have to give serious consideration to the development of unmanned Underground stations and the problem of developing one-man operated trains without guards—because we could find ourselves really inviting the same sort of thing which exists on many of the New York underground routes. There will be the problem of the unmanned station, with only three or four persons getting off the train, and muggers will be about.

I welcome, and I know the union welcomes, the committee that has been established by the Home Office to look into these matters, I understand on a national basis. While we do not want undue haste so that the thing is skimped, I would urge the need for speed and would echo what I believe the union has pressed for—that the Department of Education should be involved in the Home Office committee. That ought to be done, in view of the problem that we have of students being involved in many of the incidents. I understand that the union has submitted a memorandum, but I will not go into the details of it tonight.

One point, however, I am concerned about and the noble Lord, Lord Belhaven and Stenton, raised this point—the point of having a physical barrier between the driver and the passengers so that the driver can deal with a cash transaction but there is a barrier of some kind. Many drivers do not want this segregation from the passengers and I think it is a matter that will have to be considered with great care. I hope too that the Home Office committee will seriously consider what sort of publicity campaign can be conducted in the radio, television and other media. A lot of care will have to be taken over this, but I believe it is a matter which ought to be considered.

There is one last point, my Lords. The cost of equipment and all these other matters, as well as the cost of sick pay and compensation falls on London Regional Transport. I understand that the figure is approaching £2 million a year, when everything is taken into consideration. Should this fall upon LRT, or should the Government make an additional grant of some kind?—for this is, after all, a social problem and while London Regional Transport are attempting to cope with it, with the assistance of the police and other bodies, it seems to me that this is something which ought to be done. I think everyone will agree that everything possible should be done. We cannot expect men and women to have to accept assaults as part of their normal job. Somehow, we must encourage a situation where passengers can use buses and, I hope, Tubes, without the fear of assaults and attacks.

8.19 p.m.

Lord Mountevans

; My Lords, I, too, should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Belhaven and Stenton, for the lucid way in which he has introduced his Question this evening. I share his interest in the fare-paying passenger and heartily join him in paying tribute to the London Regional Transport staff. I am no less grateful, as I am sure many of your Lordships will be, to the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, for pre-empting many of my thoughts this evening.

My first approach to the topic is made against a number of preconceptions—the behaviour of the drunk after closing time, which has been touched on; robbery as a motive; gangs of youth out for an evening in pursuit of what they conceive to be fun. We have all read and heard of such violence. We have heard of the Kilburn Triangle. But as both the noble Lords, Lord Belhaven and Lord Underhill, have demonstrated, the facts are really very much different.

The problem arises not only out of over-consumption and the licensing laws, not only out of fare disputes nor even out of intent to rob. As has been said, it has two peaks, schools finishing and pubs closing, but it goes on all day long. In terms of schools closing, I wonder whether it is not violence in response to what, perhaps, should not in this Chamber be called peer-group pressure, but violence in reaction to the disciplines of the classroom or perhaps, sadly, to the lack of such disciplines.

Is the violence a reflection of frustration—the frustration brought about by having somewhere to go and something to do, but no means of achieving one's objective because there are no means of getting to the point that one is trying to reach? The bus is a long time coming and when it does come the assailant takes out his anger on the first LRT employee he sees, and thus one has another instance of the violence that we are discussing this evening. Better policing can counteract this threat, but does not the answer lie to no small extent in a better service?

I should like to ask the noble Lord the Minister whether he can shed any light on the motives which underlie the attacks which we are discussing tonight, and also whether he can confirm or amplify the contention of the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, that although this problem is not unique to London it is very much more frequent in London. If this is so, does one reason not perhaps lie in the fact that services outside London are often very much more reliable than those which we enjoy in the capital? While a recent campaign to step up policing is to be welcomed, I wonder whether it is not a palliative for a regrettable situation rather than an attempt to get at the underlying problem. I am convinced that a more efficient and reliable service would make a similar contribution to reducing the frustrations of travel in London and would thus serve to give our bus crews a safer working environment.

8.23 p.m.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, I am very glad that the noble Lord raised this Question this evening and I am also very glad that we shall shortly hear from the Minister about the progress of this campaign described in the Question and about what they propose to do to make travel by bus less risky and to clear it of violence. We are concerned in the main with the bus staff but I should not like to say that we can distinguish the staff from the public and from the passengers, who are all concerned with the same problem although the question is more precisely drafted.

The key, in my view, must be policing at its best. People need not think that you can solve any problem of this sort just by thinking, "more men, more power". That is not enough. It has to be a wiser plan than that. Buses which are on difficult roads are notorious to police everywhere and policing such routes is very difficult in manpower. Those concerned have to decide how much money they are prepared to spend on those services in comparison with other services.

For example, men cannot do the same job at the same time. Men in uniform may be necessary, to appear in popular streets where there is a lot of traffic, shopping and people walking. They want to see men in uniform. On the other hand, in plain clothes they will not catch thieves. They may drive certain thieves away but they will not catch thieves, and this is not a job for one man alone. Very often a police constable does not know how many men there are kicking up a fuss on a bus. And, lastly, we have to think of the poor staff.

Think of the problems that a police constable in plain clothes may find when he gets on to a bus because there is trouble. You can just imagine the situation when there is one woman conductor who does not know what to do when she has identified a thief or has two drunken men on top. It is a problem which has to be met by instant policing.

Over the last few years we have heard that the position has been transformed by the two-way radio. I think that I heard a noble Lord say that the whole fleet is now equipped with these radios. I thought that the scheme was only part of the way through. But it is very important and it must be of enormous advantage to the morale of the staff, who feel that they can rely on it.

I am not being critical. I never was, but until recently the British transport police were just not strong enough to do the whole job everywhere in London. It was not expected that they would do because the job would be shared with the Metropolitan Police on many of these busy routes. It was just the same when I went to Washington DC two years ago and found two forces both policing in the same streets; one was the City of Washington Police and the other was what they called the Metro Transit Police. The system is simpler than ours but I think it is a better solution than just having one main force responsible for the buses on main streets—not that that prevents any constable who notices what is going on from doing what he considers is his duty.

I want to make just one suggestion. We ought to make more use of special constables. I have seen them used of an evening in our Midland cities wearing uniform and in pairs on the popular streets when there are a lot of people around. I think that they could be of very great help to morale because the public complain that they never see a blue uniform. I am sure that if they are properly looked after and given adequate training they will be very happy doing that job and will be extremely useful, so I hope that that suggestion will not be forgotten.

This whole business of policing is very costly and we are all inclined to underrate the difficulties and the costs of solving the problems, which will take some time. But this is something on which we have clearly made progress this evening and we are grateful to the noble Lord. I hope that it will not be too long before we have another occasion like this when it will be possible for us to hear again of further steps forward and to hear that improved figures are very much on the way.

8.28 p.m.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Belhaven for raising this important topic and for giving us the opportunity to respond to the points that he and other noble Lords have raised. First, I should like to express the Government's very deep concern about the incidence of assaults and violence on public servants of all types, and I shall be explaining later the action being taken to assess the problem more generally and to consider what action might be taken to alleviate it.

However, the Question asked by my noble friend relates particularly to London Regional Transport bus staff, and it is an unfortunate fact that they are among the front line as regards assaults and violence to public servants. This is a matter which the Government and London Regional Transport take very seriously indeed. I should say at the outset that there is no simple solution—if there were, it would have been adopted long ago. The fact is that assaults and violence reflect the society in which we live, and it is an unfortunate fact that violence against the person has been on the increase in recent years. As regards London Regional Transport, I was appalled to learn that there are nearly 1,200 reported assaults a year on buses in London and that about 800 result in time off work. The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, gave us some more detailed figures which I must admit I did not have. I can assure the House that the Government support London Regional Transport in taking any measures it feels appropriate to deal with this problem.

I come now to the first part of my noble friend's Question about whether the Government are satisfied with the actions of London Regional Transport and the Metropolitan Police as regards the policing of London buses with the aim of counteracting violence to drivers and conductors. I should explain that prior to 1984 the formal responsibility for policing the buses rested with the London Regional Transport section of the British Transport Police, who were responsible for policing both the Underground and the buses. I understand that in 1983 in the region of 20 officers were allocated to policing the buses. However, with effect from 1st January 1984 responsibility for policing the buses was transferred wholly to the Metropolitan Police and, since that time, a number of actions have been taken to help combat the problem of assaults to bus crews.

In the first place, following a successful experiment in North-west London the Metropolitan Police now encourage their officers to "hop on a bus" during the normal course of their duties. This is a complete reversal of previous policy and has had the effect of considerably increasing the police presence on buses during 1984. In addition, the Metropolitan Police have regular liaison meetings with LRT at all levels; all assaults on bus crews are monitored, as the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, mentioned; policemen are encouraged to visit local bus garages; the training of the Metropolitan Police includes developing an understanding of the problems relating to assaults on bus crews; and LRT training staff have visited the Metropolitan Police training establishment to discuss the problem. I should also mention that the Metropolitan Police enjoy free travel on the buses during their off-duty periods, which is also of some benefit in providing moral support to the crews.

I think it is clear from what I have said that the responsible bodies directly involved with this issue, London Regional Transport and the Metropolitan Police, are doing all they can to ensure that, in so far as policing can help alleviate the problem, relevant action is being taken. I understand that as a result of this activity a number of arrests have been made which would not otherwise have been made. It would be misleading, however, were I to suggest that this action has had a dramatic effect by way of a reduction in assaults on bus crews. It is too soon to know what the long-term effect will be. The fact is that the incidence of these assaults cannot be predicted, and, as I am sure your Lordships will recognise, it is just not physically possible to maintain full police surveillance of all buses.

What I can say, however is that from the point of view of the morale and confidence of London Regional Transport staff the campaign has shown considerable success. London Regional Transport and the police hope that the campaign will result in more tangible benefits in the future. As I indicated at the start of my speech, however, there is no simple solution and increased policing is only one aspect of trying to alleviate the problem. There are many other steps which are being taken by London Regional Transport, or which are currently being evaluated, which it is hoped will bring about a reduction in assaults.

In the first place, as the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, mentioned—and I can assure my noble friend Lord Inglewood on this point—all London Regional Transport's buses are now fitted with two-way radios which enable assistance to be called if needed. They also have an alarm sysem involving flashing lights and a klaxon horn which can be operated by the driver. Secondly, all new entrants undergo a special course in public relations attitudes to prepare them for the potentially violent situation and to suggest means by which such situations could be defused.

As was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, London Regional Transport is experimenting with the use of screens to protect the drivers of one-person operated buses from assault. There are obvious advantages of such screens in respect of assault protection although reservations have been expressed about possible safety hazards from the driving viewpoint. The design and use of such screens is being carefully evaluated by London Regional Transport.

A further measure which can help reduce assaults is the introduction of more one-person operated vehicles. The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, quoted some statistics. I have some statistics, but I am not sure whether they entirely tally with what was said by the noble Lord. My statistics show that while conductors currently form only 30 per cent. of operating staff they experience about 71 per cent. of assaults, with little distinction being shown between men and women. A comparison carried out by LRT of conductor buses with one-person operated buses showed that conductors were more than four times more liable to assault than driver operators. London Regional Transport currently has 54 per cent. of its buses under one-person operation and aims to increase this proportion to 66 per cent. by the spring of 1986. Consideration is being given to extending that proportion further, but only where it is suitable for the particular routes.

The statistics also show that by far the largest area of dispute leading to assaults and violence is the issue of fares and change. Clearly, therefore, a fares structure which is as simple as possible will help considerably in reducing the opportunity for disagreement. As your Lordships will be aware, London Regional Transport has introduced a simple zonal fare system which, together with a considerable increase in off-sales of bus tickets and the introduction of photocards for children between the ages of 14 and 16, should help considerably in reducing the areas of potential conflict. My noble friend Lord Belhaven and Stenton suggested that a flat fare, as in New York, with no change given, may help to alleviate the problem. I am grateful to him for that suggestion. I believe, however, that there are a number of difficulties in the way of adopting it. The problem with London is its geographical spread and the fact that many of the routes are very lengthy. In order to have a flat rate, it would be necessary to increase the minimum fare considerably. This, in turn, would discourage short-hop journeys, which at present make up the majority. The implementation of such a proposal would require a very considerable increase in subsidy. I understand that LRT has experimented with my noble friend's other suggestion about accepting only exact fares on the buses. It found, however, that this can cause great annoyance to the public and is likely to increase the likelihood of assaults.

I have mentioned only a few examples of the type of measures which are being taken or are under consideration by London Regional Transport in trying to alleviate the problem. In evaluating these measures, to return to my noble friend's Question, I understand that full and regular consultation takes place between LRT management and staff. Apart from formal negotiations with the unions, there is a London Bus Committee consisting of full-time union officials as well as lay representatives of the drivers and conductors who are directly elected by the platform staff. This committee meets LRT bus management at district and head-office levels monthly, and more often if need be, to discuss any matters affecting the buses. There is therefore full opportunity for the views of drivers and conductors to be represented, and these are taken fully into account by London Regional Transport.

My noble friend Lord Belhaven raised the question of tougher penalties. I can tell my noble friend that persons convicted of serious offences of assault are already, liable to a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. It is also now the case that prisoners serving sentences of more than five years for offences are unlikely to be granted parole. It is sometimes difficult for courts to take account of the long-term effects of injuries when deciding the appropriate penalty. Victims should therefore give the best infomation possible at the time of the hearing. I hope my noble friend will forgive me if I do not comment on the progress of the Prosecution of Offences Bill through your Lordships' House, particularly of Clause 22.

The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, raised a number of points. Penalty fares and the question of the implementation of penalty fares is still under consideration by LRT; as he said, it was in the 1984 Act. As the noble Lord indicated, it will need to be handled with great care and LRT is taking into account all the very difficult considerations that go with it.

The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, mentioned visits to schools. LRT has from time to time sent representatives to schools either at the request of the school or where problems were being experienced in particular areas. There is no continuing programme but this is one of the matters which will be considered by the working group. On the proposals for unmanned Underground stations, again I can say that LRT will carefully consider the question of possible violence in any proposals relating to bringing these in.

I cannot give the noble Lord much encouragement with regard to special grants to LRT: we have no plans to do that, as the noble Lord no doubt expected me to say. The trouble with special grants is that they too easily develop into general grants under another name. The Government feel that the planned level of grant is adequate for all LRT's functions.

The noble Lord, Lord Mountevans, mentioned discipline in the classroom and the frustrations resulting from that. I have covered the question of visits to schools, but when the noble Lord says that a better service might perhaps help, it is LRT's objective to provide as good a service as they can and that is one of the features in the plan—to improve the service and reduce waiting times at stops. We hope that will be achieved.

My responses have been concentrated on London Transport because the Question was directed to the action being taken by LRT and the Metropolitan Police. As I mentioned at the start of my speech, however, this problem is wider than London. In these days, it is wider than the problem of assaults on transport workers. In response to a request from the TUC for an inquiry into the problems of assaults on public employees, the Government have set up an inter-departmental committee under the chairmanship of the Health and Safety Executive to consider the problems, and in particular to stimulate joint consideration by managements and unions in the sectors affected of measures taken so far and likely to be effective in the future.

As part of that exercise, the problem of violence to staff on railways is being examined by an advisory committee on railway health and safety. In the case of bus staff, the Department of Transport has set up a working group with representatives from trade unions, bus operators (including LRT), the police, and relevant government departments. I can confirm to the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, that the Department of Education is among them.

I understand that it is the intention that the final report of the working group will examine the best practices currently in use by bus operators to combat violence and perhaps offer some new suggestions which individual operators, including LRT, may wish to consider adopting in the light of their particular problems, organisations and resources.

I will say again to my noble friend who raised this Question, and to noble Lords who have taken part, that I am most grateful. We have heard some very useful suggestions and I can assure noble Lords that consideration will be given to all the views expressed.

House adjourned at seventeen minutes before nine o'clock.