HL Deb 18 July 1986 vol 478 cc1092-4

11.29 a.m.

Lord Underbill

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows: To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they have any comments on the annual report for 1985 of the National Bus Company, laid before Parliament on 20th May 1986.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Transport (The Earl of Caithness)

My Lords, the Government are pleased that in 1985 the National Bus Company made a healthy operating profit and, for the first time since it was formed, carried more passengers than in the previous year. This suggests that the company is already anticipating the deregulation of bus services in October, by providing the type of services that passengers want.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, I appreciate the two points that the noble Earl has mentioned as success stories in the 1985 report of the National Bus Company. Is he also aware that the report showed increased mileage, increased productivity, improved vehicle maintenance and the introduction of a number of innovations? In the light of this most successful report of a progressive enterprise, although it is appreciated that the Transport Act 1985 provides for the disposal of the National Bus Company, why are the Government insisting that there should be a break-up of the network into 70 separate units, including the destruction of some of the regional undertakings?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, we firmly believe that we are undertaking this action for the benefit of the consumer and the passenger. As the House will be aware, passenger bus services have declined consecutively for many years and we are now offering real opportunities to small businesses and to individ-uals to own their own buses and fulfil a market need.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, we welcome what the noble Earl has said concerning the interests of passengers being foremost in the Government's mind. However, is the Minister aware that one of the reasons that the Government lost the Ryedale by-election was the anxiety of people in a rural area about what might happen to their services? In the light of the humiliating defeat of the Conservative candidate in last night's by-election in Newcastle-under-Lyme, are we going to have less of this doctrinaire privatisation in the future?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I heard quite a lot of the propaganda that the Alliance Party put out, which was totally erroneous and has been proved to be so. As I reported to the House, the Highland region of Scotland in its tendering saved £179,000. Since then we have heard that Lancashire tendering is virtually completed and that it will save about £5.8 million, which is 70 per cent. of its budget. Cumbria expects to spend about £0.24 million compared with a budgeted £0.7 million for the seven months from 26th October to 31st March 1987. Therefore, my Lords, the scare stories of the Alliance are totally unfounded.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

My Lords, the House will welcome the note of optimism in the report and especially in the chairman's report on the enthusiasm of employees generally for privatisation. However, can the Minister say what the prospect is of local authorities providing the necessary subsidies which will be needed for many local services?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I am indeed grateful for that question. It follows from my last answer. With the savings that local authorities are already beginning to show, it will be up to them to spend that money on those routes that have not been tendered for on a commercial basis. The results so far are very encouraging and lead us to believe that the local authorities will have more money to spend on bus services, should they wish to do so, for the benefit of the consumer. It is, however, up to them and not up to the Government.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, is the noble Earl able to give comparable figures for the reduction in bus services, compared with savings in cost in relation particularly to bus services at late or awkward hours and on Sundays?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I am happy to tell the noble Lord and the House that the services are broadly the same as before.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the report to which the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, has been good enough to invite the attention of the House is a clear indication of the stimulating effect on an organisation of even the prospect of the changes being introduced by Her Majesty's Government?

Lord Graham of Edmonton

The noble Lord must be joking!

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I entirely agree with my noble friend.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, reference has been made to the chairman's preface. Will the noble Earl take it that the only bad feature of the report is the preface of the comparatively new chairman, which readily accepts the break-up of a successful national network? Will he also appreciate that I was not asking questions about tendering? I was concerned with the break-up of a national network, which everyone agrees has been successful, into 70 units because the Government wish that to be done.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I come back to a point made by my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter on the Airports Bill. If something is successful, there is nothing to stop us making it more successful in the future.