HL Deb 28 February 1996 vol 569 cc1449-52

2.58 p.m.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are aware of the current practice of recruiting in Australia bus drivers to drive buses in the United Kingdom.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Transport (Viscount Goschen)

My Lords, we are aware that one company has been recruiting drivers in Australia to meet the needs of its business. Provided that the immigration and driver licensing requirements are fulfilled, this is a matter for the company.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. In view of the fact that it costs £2,500 to train a lorry driver, is he able to tell me how much it costs to keep one of our own unemployed people on benefit for the year?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I am sure that it costs more than training a driver. The issue at stake is that the company must remain free to recruit people where it wishes provided that it complies with the immigration rules and provided that those people are properly licensed. My information is that the drivers who have been brought over are British born and hold British passports.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, if those drivers have to hold work permits, will my noble friend say how long they will be allowed to stay in this country? After how long would they become eligible to play cricket for England? That might be very helpful, but it might involve driving of another kind—on the on and the off.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I think it highly unlikely that work permits would be issued to bus drivers. These people are coming over on the basis that they are British born, British passport holders, or one of their parents or grandparents was British born.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, is it possible that the company involved confused the abilities of our own home-trained bus drivers who are unemployed with the abilities of the English cricket team?

However, is it not a serious matter that that bus company has been a major contributor to the congestion and dangerous driving that occurs in Oxford where, in particular, it operates, and that it has a particularly bad record? Can it really be the case that there is an insufficiency of unemployed, well-trained bus drivers in this country?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, the bus industry has been extremely successful after bus deregulation. There is a thriving industry. There are now more operators on routes driving more miles at lower cost.

The party opposite continually champions public transport. The fact is that the bus industry is thriving; unemployment is coming down in the region; and there is a skills shortage. That company has decided to address that issue in an innovative way.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that, as a frequent visitor to Oxford, I have noticed the enormous improvement in bus services in that city since I was a resident there? It is largely due to the efforts of that company. To suggest that it voluntarily takes less efficient drivers than are available in this country seems to me to be quite absurd. This is again a matter of the strong prejudice against the improvement in bus services which competition in Oxford and on the Oxford-London route has brought about.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, of course I welcome my noble friend's first-hand experience of the bus market in Oxford. Clearly there is now competition which has led to more services being put on, and there are more operators of bus services. Like any other company, this company must be free to make its own employment decisions, provided they coincide with the licensing and immigration rules.

Baroness Faithfull

My Lords, what are the employment laws? In Oxford, as of yesterday, there were 9,345 unemployed people in the city and villages around. Surely, among that number there must be people who can drive or be helped to drive well. Therefore, should not they apply and be given jobs rather than companies having to bring people over from Australia?

Viscount Goschen

Yes, my Lords, I quite agree that such people should be applying. However, the company has advertised extensively in the UK, working closely with the local jobcentres. I understand that at the moment positions are advertised both for qualified drivers and for trainee drivers. In the growing market, there is a shortage of drivers and the company is having real difficulty in filling places. That is why it looked overseas.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, some weeks ago the Minister told us that a number of heavy goods vehicle drivers might no longer be able to drive if they wore glasses. Under a new European directive they would lose their jobs. Could he tell me whether it would be possible to make some fast-track training available for those people who are already experienced drivers and who drive heavy goods vehicles? They would have to convert to a public vehicle licence. Would it be possible to consider that, even if the Minister cannot give an answer on it immediately? It seems, according to the answer we were given, that there might be 3,000 drivers of heavy goods vehicles out of work.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, my noble friend is not entirely accurate as regards what I said about the new driver licence directive. Bus drivers will be caught by the directive, as will heavy goods vehicle drivers. However, it is not the case that all those with glasses will not be able to continue to drive; it will be those who have very bad sight indeed in one eye, without the use of glasses, and who cannot see even the biggest letter on the optician's chart. Therefore, there is no difference between those who drive passenger carrying vehicles and those who drive heavy goods vehicles in that regard.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, if the Minister seeks to dismiss what I say—as he is entitled to—will be take more notice of an article that appeared in the Sunday Telegraph? It usually subscribes to his party's forlorn case. I quote in regard to Oxford: The city centre is clogged and polluted, passengers are confused and irate. But such is life in Oxford, where two companies have been battling for supremacy since bus deregulation was introduced 10 years ago". That is a far cry from the Minister's representation of the facts.

Viscount Goschen

No, my Lords, that equals competition, which equals benefits for passengers, which equals more service. It is exactly what people have been calling for for a long time.

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, after the comments of the Opposition on the congestion caused by buses, are we to assume that they are not in favour of public transport? Alternatively, can we assume that they have no more idea of what they want than yesterday when they did not know what their policy was on the subject under discussion?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that clear question. It appears that the Opposition refuse to recognise the benefits that come from companies operating public transport services. Over and over again we see those benefits in the bus industry, and we will see the same benefits with railway privatisation.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, on the threshold of St. David's Day, will the Minister give an assurance the drivers will not be allowed into Wales unless they speak Welsh?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, much of the concern is that the drivers should speak English in the first place. According to the programme "Neighbours", Australians speak a version of English.

Lord Brougham and Vaux

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the subject was covered on the programme "Today" a few days ago? It is not a matter of bringing bus drivers over from Australia but of getting them trained fast enough in England.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, it is extremely important that people should be trained properly, but it takes time and there is a cost involved. A balance must be made. It is important that the bus industry here should be served by people who are properly trained and who have the right qualifications. However, there is a time lag involved.