Bus Services (Provision of Information)

– in the House of Commons at 3:33 pm on 28 March 2001.

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Photo of Bill Rammell Bill Rammell Labour, Harlow 3:33, 28 March 2001

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require operators of bus services to record, compile and publish certain information on the quality of their services; and for connected purposes.

Buses are the work force of our local transport system, with two thirds of public transport journeys being made by bus. Crudely put, if bus services do not work, public transport does not work. Bus services are certainly essential in giving people choice in how they travel throughout the country, but for far too long, and certainly in the 12 years until 1997, their development has been a story of abject failure.

It is well known that the previous Government deregulated bus services outside London and, as a result, bus usage fell by a staggering 24 per cent. As a consequence, private operators cut less profitable routes and the public found buses less reliable as routes and timetables were chopped and changed. That process of decline became self-perpetuating: as services were cut, fewer people used them, so there was less revenue available to reinvest in them.

In Harlow, an acute form of that problem has developed. The quality of our local service, which is predominantly provided by the Arriva bus company, has varied between the barely acceptable and the frankly disgraceful. In the past year alone, 400 of my constituents have contacted me about the failings of the service, of which I shall provide details. Too often, services run late—in some cases by up to 45 minutes—and on some routes that is a persistent and regularly occurring problem. Arriva has found it difficult to recruit drivers, so services have often been cut without adequate local consultation.

People who rely on the bus service to get to work, such as the postmen who have contacted me, are forced to take taxis or use their own car because they know that they cannot count on the bus to get them to work on time. Children who once used the bus service to get to school can no longer do so, so their parents use cars during the rush hour and thereby add to problems of congestion. Pensioners, many of whom regard the bus service as a lifeline, feel greatly let down as they stand in the cold and the rain waiting for a bus. To give some scale to the local problems, in the run up to Christmas the lost mileage rate peaked at 13.5 per cent. Bus services are now the second most important issue in my constituency postbag.

I do not want to give a wholly negative impression. Positive changes are beginning to improve the position. There has never before been the long-term commitment to increase investment that is embodied in the 10-year transport plan, whereby £59 billion will go to local transport schemes, targeted to achieve a 10 per cent. increase in bus usage. That is a massive and welcome shot in the arm. The establishment of the quality partnerships between local authorities and private bus operators envisaged under the Transport Act 2000 will certainly improve services. Especially helpful is the permission for local authorities to contract out whole routes to a single operator if that is judged to be in the public interest. The national target that no more than 0.5 per cent. of scheduled mileage should be lost for reasons that lie within operators' control represents a clear step forward, as does the Government's insistence that they want improvements in reliability and punctuality to be achieved in conjunction with increased usage.

Although improvements are being made, we have to do more. I have been lobbying and pressing Arriva locally on those issues for more than 18 months. Sometimes, the response has not been all that I expected: for example, I was given a commitment that no further changes to the timetable would be made without full local consultation, but that commitment was unilaterally breached by Arriva. Latterly, however, I have been persuaded that Arriva, whose national management have become engaged in resolving local problems, is determined to improve services.

I understand the company's difficulty in recruiting drivers at a time of very low unemployment, but Arriva is now developing strategies to overcome that problem. The lost mileage performance indicator has improved significantly, from the pre-Christmas peak of 13.5 per cent. to low single figures now. Especially welcome is the company's senior management's agreement to meet every three months in my constituency representatives of the district council, the county council, pensioners and me to review progress.

That brings me to my main reason for introducing the Bill. At our first meeting some weeks ago, I was surprised and concerned by Arriva' s attitude to the publication of its performance information. We were given performance information, some of which I have quoted today, but when I made a request—a reasonable one, I think—for it to be made publicly available every three months, I was told that that was not possible because the information was commercially confidential. I believe that that is, quite simply, wrong—and that applies to all bus operators, not only Arriva, that are protected by commercial confidentiality in that way.

The issue has broader ramifications. When drawing up my Bill, I was told by colleagues that they could not get two operators in their constituencies to sit down and discuss local services with them because of issues of commercial confidentiality. If we were talking about companies that sell cars, I could understand the problem, but we are talking about a public service. Organisations providing public services widely accept that performance can be enhanced through benchmarking and publicising performance against agreed criteria. Such a process can shame poor performers into action and be used positively as a motivational tool to achieve organisational change and improvement, which is why we have legislation requiring schools, rail operators, the Civil Aviation Authority, local councils and many others to publish their performance indicators. There is no such requirement on bus companies, which can plead commercial confidentiality. That strikes me as a glaring omission. It is not as though the information is not already being compiled. On local authority subsidised routes, operators are contractually obliged to provide electronic ticket machine data to the local authority to justify the subsidy. For all routes—not just those subsidised by the local authority—the traffic commissioner is charged with inspecting and ensuring that 95 per cent. of bus services arrive within a specified time frame in accordance with the timetable. If they do not, the traffic commissioner can levy penalties. That is currently undertaken randomly, but clearly it could be developed.

I know that there will be a host of objections to what I am proposing. They include complexity; the time taken to compile the information in an understandable form; and the need to rely on the honesty of drivers when compiling information, to name but a few. In principle, those are the same objections that every organisation uses initially to argue against performance indicators when it has a vested interest in not letting the public know how well it is performing.

Those objections should be rejected. With good will, it must be possible to devise an acceptable, simple and fair system for measuring the performance of bus operators. That change—allied to the extra investment now being made in our public transport system and increased regulation—is the only sure way to restore confidence in our bus services, which are important to local communities.

I strongly believe that change is long overdue; it is a change whose time has come. I therefore commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Bill Rammell, Ms Hazel Blears, Ms Karen Buck, Mr. Ivor Caplin, Mr. Jeff Ennis, Dr. Ian Gibson, Mr. Alan Hurst, Mr. Bob Russell, Angela Smith, Mr. Ian Stewart, Mr. Brian White and Mr. Anthony D. Wright.