Will the Minister respond to the views expressed in that report, particularly from consumer bodies and others, who state that shortsighted cuts now in financial support are bound to lead to greater costs later, particularly in terms of health, social services, housing and so on? Is the Minister responding to the report?
The report, which is extremely welcome, is clear proof that the bus industry is thinking both positively and constructively about future services. It is interesting that the report cites the way in which bus services for non-commercial, non-shopping trips, such as for educational, health and social service purposes, can be brought together most effectively in rural areas to provide a service that can no longer be maintained by the existing services. However, we are well aware that the subsidy must be given direct to those rural area services that need it rather than being spread among those services that can cope without subsidies because of the volume of traffic.
Does the Minister agree that many rural areas adjacent to urban districts suffer badly from cuts in bus services? Is it not impossible to operate bus services at a profit in many such areas, particularly during off-peak hours? In those circumstances, do we not have a right to ask the Government to give more public support to ensure that more services are not lost?
The hon. Gentleman always talks about more public support, but the traditional forms of support are not necessarily the best way of coping with the changes that have occurred in the past 25 years, during which time bus patronage has fallen off dramatically. We have doubled expenditure on the bus industry since 1978 and it has enjoyed more than a ten fold increase over the past 10 years. Therefore, there is no question of resources not being available where they are being wisely spent. However, it is important that the resources should be directed to those services that need them and that maximum flexibility should be achieved in providing the right type of service, particularly in rural areas. I think that paragraph 4(10) of the report that I mentioned says that the off-peak periods can often be used most efficiently for other services.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the sight of half empty 32-seat buses on many rural runs tends to encourage the National Bus Company to discontinue its services and that that is not the solution? Those who live in rural areas and do not have their own transport have a real transport problem. Could not the bus company show a little more imagination by introducing mini-buses or midi-buses to meet the needs of those people?
I thoroughly agree with my hon. Friend. The introduction of mini and midi-buses that will serve the people in rural areas well is part of the flexibility allowed by the 1980 Act.
I welcome the important part that minibuses already play in enabling disabled people to get about in both urban and rural areas. I should like to see their role extended in a way that complements conventional public transport, and I am considering how the legislation might be simplified to help this.
Is it not true that a route structure of mini-buses in urban areas such as Greater London might well lead to a lessening of congestion and to a competitive pricing structure that would encourage commuters and others to leave their cars in the suburbs while in no way materially affecting the continuing role of such bodies as London Transport?
From his description of the service, I thought that my hon. Friend might be referring to the proposals of the Associated Mini-bus Operators. It would be for London Transport to decide whether to enter into an agreement to allow such services to run. However, as my hon. Friend knows, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has an appellant function which precludes my discussing the merits of that type of application.
Will the Minister and the Secretary of State have a look at what St. Helens transport department did with an old bus? It has made it possible for people in invalid carriages or chairs to travel on that bus, because a hydraulic platform has been fitted. Will the Government consider that at the first opportunity and recommend it to other transport authorities throughout the country?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for having cited that case, which I shall certainly examine. I am told that the Transport and Road Research Laboratory is also doing substantial research in that area. We are certainly willing to consider providing facilities that assist the disabled.
When considering the use of mini-buses in urban areas, will the Government set their face firmly against any possibility of individual mini-buses franchising operations that are directed by one operator? Will the Government bear in mind what happened in Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur and ensure that we do not have any Mafia-type operations in London?