Is my hon. Friend aware that the increases in fares which have been made this year by the National Bus Company are quite out of proportion to the general rate of inflation, and that these increases have imposed great hardship on the least-well-off sections of the community, and will inevitably lead to an accelerated decline in public transport? Does my hon. Friend believe that the present financial targets of the National Bus Company are consistent with achieving the pledge, in the Labour Party's manifesto, to expand public transport?
I am aware of the concern expressed by my hon. Friend. He will recall that the National Bus Company, along with other nationalised industries, has been very active in keeping prices down, as part of successive Governments' counter-inflationary policies. As to where the benefits of the revenue subsidies go, I am sure that my hon. Friend is also aware that more than half of them go to those enjoying more than the average industrial wage, and it is a matter for consideration whether or not that is the best use of what is essentially welfare money.
Does the Minister realise that in many parts of the country crisis point is rapidly being reached over bus services, and that many local authorities, quite rightly, are refusing to increase the level of subsidy because his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has told them that they must show restraint in local government expenditure? Is it not about time the Minister started to do something about what is becoming a very serious problem indeed, and a deteriorating situation for the National Bus Company?
As I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware, after the counties first submitted their transport policies and programmes this year the Department invited the counties to raise their bids for bus revenue support. I cannot give the House the details at the moment, because the transport supplementary grant letters have not yet gone out, but I can tell the House that in virtually every case the bids for increased support have been met.
Is my hon. Friend aware that among the fare increases imposed by the National Bus Company that bear most heavily on people are those in respect of schoolchildren? Will he consider instructing or advising traffic commissioners not to grant such fare increases in the next few months, until his and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education has finally made his decision on school transport?
Is the Minister aware that the crisis in the bus system is at its gravest in the rural areas, where the services have been deteriorating steadily as well as the fares going up sharply? What will the Minister do to break the State monopoly of the National Bus Company, to do away with the traffic commissioner system, and to enable private operators of all kinds to try to serve the community better than does the National Bus Company?
Let me say straight away that I think that the National Bus Company does an admirable job in extremely difficult circumstances.
There is a Question later on on the Order Paper dealing specifically with the problems of public transport in rural areas, but the hon. Gentleman will be aware that in allocating the transport supplementary grant this year we have made it quite clear that we propose to change the balance as between metropolitan and non-metropolitan areas in favour of the latter, so that the support can go principally to maintaining levels of service in country areas rather than holding down fares in metropolitan areas.
This point has been considered and is still being considered in great detail. There are very considerable difficulties involved. In the first place, some of the concessionary fare schemes are so wide-ranging that people can use them without charge even at peak hours, and to extend a scheme of that sort on a national basis would involve enormous cost to public funds. If one did that, one would face the alternative of cutting back on existing schemes or running two schemes in parallel, either of which courses would lead to severe administrative difficulties.