“(1) The Secretary of State must, within 12 months of the day on which this Act is passed, publish a national strategy for local bus services setting out the objectives, targets and funding provisions for rural, urban and inter-urban local bus services in the ten years after Royal Assent is given to this Act.
(2) The national strategy must include a consideration of a reduced fare concessionary scheme for young people aged 16 to 19.” —(Andy McDonald.)
This new clause would require the Secretary of State to publish a national strategy for buses.
Brought up, and read the First time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
New clause 2—Report on the provision of concessionary bus travel to apprentices aged 16 to 18—
‘(1) The Secretary of State must, within 12 months of the day on which this Act is passed, lay a report before each House of Parliament setting out possible steps to support local transport authorities in providing concessionary bus travel to persons aged 16 to 18 who are participating in statutory apprenticeships.
(2) Any report under subsection (1) shall include, but will not be limited to, an evaluation of whether section 93(7) of the Transport Act 1985 should be amended to enable local transport authorities to provide concessionary bus travel to persons aged 16 to 18 who are participating in statutory apprenticeships on the same terms as that which may be provided to persons aged 16 to 18 receiving full-time education.
(3) In this section—
(a) “local transport authorities” has the meaning given in section 108(4) of the Transport Act 2000; and
(b) “statutory apprenticeships” has the meaning given in section A11 of the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act 2009.’
This new clause would require the Secretary of State to publish a report setting out possible steps to support local transport authorities to provide concessionary bus travel to apprentices aged 16 to 18.
New clause 3—Assessment of possible concessionary travel schemes: impact on use of bus services—
‘(1) A local transport authority that does not provide travel concessions under a scheme established under section 93 of the Transport Act 1985 to persons specified in subsection (7)(c) of that section shall be required to prepare an assessment of the impact of establishing such a scheme on the use of bus services by persons specified in that subsection.
(2) Any assessment under subsection (1) shall consider, but will not be limited to, the impact of establishing such a scheme on—
(a) the ability of persons aged 16 to 18 to attend schools and further education institutions by means of bus travel,
(b) the cost of bus travel to persons aged 16 to 18 receiving full-time education, and
(c) traffic congestion and emissions at peak times in the local transport authority’s area.
(3) In this section—
(a) “travel concessions” has the meaning given in section 112 (1)(f) of the Transport Act 1985; and
(b) “local transport authority” has the meaning given in section 108(4) of the Transport Act 2000.’
This new clause would require local transport authorities to assess how creating an authority-wide travel concession scheme for 16 to 18-year-olds in full-time education would affect how these students use bus services.
New clause 1 stands in my name and those of my hon. Friends the Members for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald), for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) and for North West Durham (Pat Glass). It would require that the Secretary of State for Transport publish a national strategy for local bus services within 12 months of the day on which the Act is passed, setting out the objectives, targets and funding provisions for buses over the next 10 years. It would also require that the national funding strategy include a consideration of a reduced fare concessionary scheme for young people aged 16 to 19.
New clauses 2 and 3, in the name of John Pugh, also relate to bus funding generally, and to young people’s concessionary fares specifically. New clause 2 would require the Secretary of State to lay a report before Parliament setting out possible steps to support local transport authorities in providing concessionary bus travel to apprentices aged 16 to 18, and new clause 3 would require local transport authorities to assess how creating an authority-wide travel concession scheme for 16 to 18-year-olds in full-time education would affect the way in which students use bus services.
It is clear that a long-term national discussion from central Government on the funding of the bus industry is long overdue. Since the bus market in England outside London was disastrously deregulated in the 1980s by a Conservative Government, public support for bus services has been provided in a far from transparent way. The effects of deregulation have been stark.
I very much agree with my hon. Friend, and I will return to other examples of the failure of deregulation in a moment. It is not just about the number of services. Fares have risen faster than inflation, and patronage overall has fallen by more than a third. Bus market monopolies have become the norm in far too many places.
Back in October, we noted the 30th anniversary of bus deregulation, but it was far from a cause for celebration. It meant 30 years of bus users being ripped off by a handful of big bus operators, which have carved the market into chunks and which go largely unchallenged in their own territories.
Does my hon. Friend agree that for people on low incomes in rural areas, and in some urban areas as well, it is almost impossible to job hunt without a decent bus service?
Once again, I agree with my hon. Friend. In too many parts of the country, it has become very difficult for people to get to and from work. Throughout the 30 years since deregulation, fares have shot up even at times when fuel prices have been falling. For 30 years, while patronage in the still-regulated capital increased, passenger numbers declined in the rest of England.
This month, the Campaign for Better Transport published its latest “Buses in Crisis” report. The organisation made more than 100 freedom of information requests to local councils to get a full picture of recent bus cuts, and it found that funding for buses across England and Wales has been cut by 33% since 2010, and by nearly £30 million in just the last year. Last week I was in Somerset, where support from the county council will fall by another 19% next year. Across the country, more than 500 routes were reduced or completely withdrawn in 2016-17.
Despite the seemingly endless rounds of bus cuts, the Government seem reluctant to look at whether anything can be done in the round to improve the current system of bus funding. The Government’s argument is well rehearsed: the bus industry is a private industry and thus has nothing to do with central Government or central Government’s money. But that is just not the case. Around half of bus industry funding comes from the public purse. In 2014-15, total public support for buses accounted for 41% of overall industry funding. In the past, the figure has been higher; in 2010-11 it was more than 46%.
I do not think that asking the Government to publish their strategy regarding such funding for buses in a single document is really asking that much. We just want a little clarity in a system that has become convoluted and confusing. The strategy would set out the plan and objectives for the public money that goes towards local authority-supported bus services, the reimbursement of bus operators for trips made by concessionary pass-holders and the payment of the bus service operators grant to bus operators. Public money is being spent on buses, but the Government lack a strategy regarding how that money is spent. We believe that that needs to change.
I have previously raised the fact that operators are being reimbursed by public money for trips made by concessionary pass holders, but those operators can cut services and routes; the public have no say. That leads to the bizarre situation in which someone may have a concessionary bus pass, but no bus on which to use it. That is not a good deal for anybody.
We already have national strategies for roads and rail, and we are told that the cycling and walking investment strategy is imminent. Buses are being singled out within the transport family. Our new clause 1 would redress that imbalance and bring buses into line with other modes of transport.
We believe the Government need to do far more to help young people to afford the cost of bus travel. That is why we are asking the Government to include consideration of a young person’s concessionary fare scheme in the national bus strategy. Young people rightly have to stay in school, further education or training until they are 18, and many of them use the bus to get there. It is quite right that the Government should look at how they can reduce the financial burden on young people who are only trying to get to their school, job or apprenticeship.
Although some local authorities still provide concessionary fares for young people, many do not. Local government is already under huge financial pressure—hence the cuts to supported bus routes and services that the Campaign for Better Transport has identified. Unfortunately, the number of local authorities able to provide a discretionary young person’s pass has dropped from 29 to just 16 since 2010. That is why we want the Government to publish a national strategy for buses, and to include proper consideration of a concessionary scheme for young people.
Ultimately, there is not a word about funding in the Bill as it stands, yet cuts to local authority budgets mean that thousands of routes and services have been withdrawn since 2010, and young person’s concessionary fare schemes have been cut, while large operators have experienced generous profit margins.
Young people in Greater Manchester have told me that it is sometimes cheaper for four of them to get a Uber than to travel on buses in Greater Manchester. How on earth can that possibly make sense, and how on earth can that lead to anything other than complete gridlock on our roads?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. On Second Reading, we heard a number of cases from across the country about the excessive costs of travelling locally, particularly for families. Such a cost is bad for congestion, it is certainly bad for employment and it is bad for social justice.
The way in which buses are funded in this country is clearly not working. We need a proper governmental strategy to address these funding issues and enable the country to have the national conversation about buses that is long overdue and much needed. I therefore urge the Government to accept our new clause 1. It may help the House if I suggest that we will press it to a Division.
New clause 1 calls for a national strategy that sets out various targets and objectives. I feel sure that the Opposition spokesman, Daniel Zeichner, sees one of the targets as the need to have accessibility for all who use the buses. I understand that the Government have already considered that issue after it was raised in Committee, and that they have very valid reasons for not going forward with a national strategy. However, by tabling the new clause, the hon. Gentleman has raised several important issues, and I want to mention some of them briefly.
In particular, there is a need for consistency. I welcome the change the Government have made with regards to information for bus passengers, which will help all our constituents. Some of my constituents have contacted me about the importance of having information available on the routes that they are taking. That is important not only for partially sighted or blind passengers, but for one constituent with autism and special needs who contacted me. This will help that individual, as well as a broader group.
As my noble Friend Baroness Campbell pointed out in the other place, other issues of national importance for people who use buses would fall within the national strategy proposed by the hon. Gentleman, such as wheelchair priority and access policies more generally. The Minister’s comments in Committee on wheelchair priority are very heartening. Following the Paulley case, it is important that an advisory committee will be set up. I hope that the Minister will confirm that he has given further thought to the composition of the group’s membership. Does he intend to involve the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee? He should consider that carefully. The Minister did not touch on that detail in Committee—perhaps it had not been all worked through at that stage—but perhaps he could take this opportunity to assure the House that, subsequent to our debate in Committee, the discussions as part of that advisory group will be acted on quickly and that all relevant people will be involved.
Does the right hon. Lady agree that these measures in the national strategy would give bus services the status they deserve and recognise the fact that so many more people travel on buses, and make more bus journeys, than they do on trains, which are much more widely recognised in national policy making?
The hon. Lady makes an interesting point about the difference in the way trains and buses are treated. I do not necessarily agree that there is a need for the national strategy to ensure parity, but she makes an important point. There should not be undue differences in how we treat bus operators and train operators, in particular on disability issues. I will take that point one stage further before I finish.
When the Bill was discussed in the other place, my noble Friend Baroness Campbell said that there is a need for an accessibility policy with teeth to ensure that it is effective. As the hon. Lady said, there is a real contrast between how the Government treat buses and trains in respect of disability access and on the conditions for licences for those who operate these important public services. It is a condition of a train operator’s licence that they comply with disabled people’s protections policy and state how they will protect the interests of disabled customers. That is enforceable by the regulator, with fines associated with lack of compliance. Why, therefore, is that not the case for bus operators? Perhaps in the absence of a national strategy, a condition could be put in place to ensure that such provisions exist for bus operators. Buses are an important way for disabled passengers to get to work and to social engagements, and to be a part of the community. Such provisions for bus operators would ensure parity between train operators and bus operators in how they support disabled people.
My right hon. Friend makes an interesting distinction between buses and trains. Surely the point is that there are policy initiatives the Government could take, for example on access for disabled people, but that does not mean that a national strategy will take away from the requirements of a local strategy, which is what the buses are based on.
I am not arguing against having local strategies, but a number of issues to do with the provision of services have a national resonance. The Government have identified this problem in the provisions on information that is available to bus passengers when they are on buses. That is nationally applicable. I am simply asking the Minister whether he will confirm what further thoughts he has given to ensuring that what is good enough for train operators is good enough for bus operators in respect of disability access.
I support the amendment and want to reflect the huge consensus in Committee on this issue. We divided on a number of matters, but it was a relaxed Committee and the Minister gave reasoned answers. The Bill represents a first step towards a change in attitude to buses. It was brought about following negotiations between the then Chancellor of the Exchequer and different metropolitan areas. A deal was reached whereby elected mayors could re-regulate bus services. I hope that this is just the first step.
I ask the Minister to reflect on this issue in a developing situation. The new Prime Minister has brought in an industrial strategy, and there is a strategy for the railways, as has been mentioned, as well as a strategy for aviation. It is rightly difficult to think of areas where large amounts of public money are spent where it is not the responsibility and the right of the Government and elected representatives to define the objectives that that public money should provide.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned a connection between directly elected mayors and bus deregulation. Does he see any logical or sensible connection between the two? Is there any reason why the two should go hand in hand?
It was a pragmatic decision taken by the then Chancellor and the combined authorities in metropolitan areas. There is obviously no rational basis for deciding to have a different bus system in Greater Manchester than in Southampton, for example. What would be the rationale for that? Clearly, there is none.
The point I was making is that, having taken the first step—not necessarily consistently, but in a sensible way in the metropolitan areas—it is right to look for a strategy that would help us to get rid of a relic of ideological Thatcherism from the early 1980s, which was seen in the Transport Act 1985 that deregulated buses. What the absence of strategy says is that we do not care how many millions of pounds have gone into the bus industry since 1986 when the 1985 Act came into force. I do not know, but I would have thought that over 31 years we are talking about a large chunk out of £100 billion being spent without any policy direction at all over that spending.
What we have been left with is a rather sterile debate. On the one side it is said that buses are declining and they would have declined in any case over this period. On the other side, there are those who think that that decline was not necessary. They say that without on-road competition, which has failed, with better competition at the tender stage and with a clearer decision on what bus services were needed and what fares should be charged, we would not have lost so many bus routes and bus passengers as we have. Not having a strategy over the last 31 years is saying that it does not matter that two thirds of bus passengers have disappeared in Greater Manchester and that bus fares have gone up considerably more than the rate of inflation. But these things do matter.
As both Mrs Miller and my hon. Friend Daniel Zeichner have said, the vast majority of the people we represent, particularly the poorer people who do not have access to a car, rely on buses to get to work, to get to a hospital and to see relatives at weekends, but after deregulation, many of those bus routes no longer existed. How could we not have a strategy in view of that? How could we abandon those people?
Following on from what the hon. Gentleman says about a strategy, it is important to ensure that we have better records on bus safety. I ask the Minister to look again at what record keeping we have on this issue. Of course we publish the number of people killed or seriously injured, known as the KSI, but many other injuries are caused by buses. I can speak only about the London experience, but it would be really helpful if, as we put into place our overall plans for transport, we think of some way of recording minor as well as major incidents, so that we can provide everyone with assurances about the safety of buses.
That is a pertinent point. However, a bus strategy would cover all the issues: personal safety, disabled access, fares, and where buses were running. It is clear from the interventions and the speeches that we have heard from Conservative Members, both today and in Committee, that that is where the central view of the House lies, and I think that that will be the direction of travel even if the new clause is not accepted on this occasion.
There will, of course, be a bare-knuckle fight. This is not just about having a rational look at how best to provide bus services. Because there has been no accountability, a small number of people who have set up what are more or less monopolies in our great conurbations have made a huge amount of money. The Souter family, the owners of Stagecoach, have become billionaires. I am not against people who make a profit, and I do not suggest that people who innovate should not be rewarded for that, but I am against people who game the system and are parasitic on public money while those whose responsibility is to look after that public money do not say what should happen.
The new clause may well not be accepted today, but I think that in the fairly near future, when the Bill becomes an Act and the benefits of re-regulation are seen, we will move towards regulation throughout the country.
My hon. Friend is making some important points. Does he recall that, over three Parliaments, the Transport Committee has investigated bus deregulation on five occasions, and does he agree that that reinforces the case that he is making for fundamental reform, starting with this Bill?
I do indeed recall the time and effort spent on the Committee’s reports with my hon. Friend. They show that competition does not take place on the road—that is a myth—and that we have left the public purse vulnerable to parasites like Brian Souter who have taken money out of it while putting up prices and reducing the service.
There will be a rearguard resistance from people who have benefited from the system, but we, as parliamentarians who have a duty to look after raised taxes, should support the consensus in favour of a bus strategy that I believe exists in the House. After all, there are strategies throughout the rest of our transport system.
Like Graham Stringer, I was a member of the Bill Committee, and was pleased to contribute to what was, as the hon. Gentleman said, a consensual discussion. It was very well piloted by the Minister, to whom I was grateful for sending a Double Decker chocolate bar through the internal mail. Sadly, owing to the internal mail system, it looked more like a bendy bus by the time it was opened, but I was grateful none the less.
There is much in new clause 1 that is attractive, but I think that, given the improved local data requirements in the Bill, it should be perfectly possible to fix the strategy on a local basis rather than needing some form of Government top-down approach. The essential aim of the Bill is surely to bring about more localism.
Mrs Miller made the important point that a national strategy, or consistency, would really help disabled people, who may travel to a different part of the country and not know what to expect from the public transport system. Can the hon. Gentleman not see that basic minimum standards for disability access or ticketing, for instance, would be very helpful to those who travel across the country using different public transport systems?
I can certainly see the attraction of that, but I also think there is a danger that if local authorities think that Government will deliver the strategy, they might then not put anything in place themselves.
Another mechanism in the Bill will make it easier for local authorities to get more involved in the actual policy of how the Bill is implemented and how partnership should operate. Rather than talking of a national strategy, I would state that the Bill has some excellent points that should assist strategy at a local level.
I understand the point my hon. Friend is making and have a huge amount of sympathy with his wanting to make sure that we have a local approach to our bus services. Does he not then agree with me that we need to make sure that our law, through the Equality Act 2010, has more teeth, so that individuals are able to make the law work for them when they encounter problems, such as discrimination against them because they are disabled?
Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that we are discussing only new clauses 1, 2 and 3 in this group. The amendments that I think he wants to speak to—amendments 16 and onwards—are in the next group. If he wishes to speak to them, he can do so when the next group comes up.
Thank you. I have no desire to talk on other proposed measures.
On new clause 1, I agree with Daniel Zeichner, and see the advantages of this scheme. I serve a rural constituency where it is incredibly difficult for young people in particular to travel by bus. I would also extend his point: in my view, this relates to our desire to increase social mobility. If our young people cannot access work, perhaps at weekends, because it is too far for them to travel, and they cannot afford motor insurance premiums—which we all know, and have debated, are incredibly expensive—then there is something to be said for the argument about lack of social mobility. I am therefore attracted to the idea that this should be looked at.
We on the Conservative Benches would point out that we need to make sure that we cost those measures up, however, and that is the matter that would give me concern. If we increase the national debt through policies such as this one, that will have a negative impact on young people, because it is them and future generations that will have to repay it.
Perhaps we could consider the overall cost of concessionary travel, and whether it is time for concessionary travel, perhaps for the over-65s, to be given only to those who cannot afford it. We would therefore be looking more at means testing than giving concessionary travel to those who can well afford it and perhaps would therefore like to share that benefit with 16 to 19-year-olds, who, after all, we are requiring to stay in education and training and so need some assistance.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that it may not be necessary to throw money at this? The powers in this Bill could be used cleverly to extract value. For instance, if longer term franchises were given to the bus operators on condition that they could then give free travel to 16 to 18-year-olds, they might then become more regular bus users in their 20s, in which case the bus operators would capture the upside of that. Does the hon. Gentleman therefore accept that this could be done cleverly if more areas were given the ability to use these powers?
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Anything that can be done to get young people on to the buses so that they stay on the buses has much to recommend it. I am also conscious that subsection (2) of new clause 1 refers to “consideration” of a reduced fare scheme, as, indeed, do the points I am talking to. So perhaps a mission for Government should be that money that can be saved, or perhaps reinvested, could go towards this measure, which I believe would help young people and social mobility.
I rise to speak in support of new clauses 2 and 3 in my name and also new clause 1.
Both my new clauses are basically about coherence; neither is about dictating to local authorities, as was mischievously suggested by the Secretary of State on Second Reading. I am not trying to dictate to local authorities what they should do. Both of them are also obviously about concessionary travel for young people, which has been a thorny issue throughout the passage of this Bill.
Support for young people’s transport is variable, as Huw Merriman said, and worsening. Since 2008, 50,000 16 to 18-year-olds have had free transport withdrawn—a 42% drop, I believe. Two thirds of local authorities no longer provide free transport to 16 to 18-year-olds, and the price of bus passes for 16 to 18-year-olds varies incredibly across the country, ranging from £230 to more than £1,000. The number of transport authorities offering concessions right across their area has dropped since 2010 from 29 to 16, and 10 authorities have no arrangements that benefit the older age groups. The roll of shame of authorities that do not offer any concessionary fares for young people comprises Cheshire West and Chester, Halton, Warrington, Lincolnshire, Nottingham, Peterborough, Bracknell Forest, Oxfordshire, Portsmouth and Slough.
The situation is hardly good and the impacts are fairly obvious. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the impact on educational progress. According to the Association of Colleges, a fifth of students consider dropping out during their course, and often the reason is transport costs or, if the cost is not foremost in their mind, transport difficulties. There is an impact on students: a survey by the National Union of Students shows that two thirds of further education students pay more than £30 a week for transport—a lot of money for a young person. There is a clear impact on traffic congestion and pollution—the hon. Gentleman mentioned that, too—as more young people get a car, perhaps sooner than they should, or rely on parental transport, which affects congestion at all the wrong times in most towns. There is also an impact on educational choice—I emphasise the hon. Gentleman’s point that the worst affected are probably residents of rural areas and poorer students generally.
Within the system are clear anomalies that need to be resolved. We raised the age of compulsory education, but local authority transport obligations remain very much as they were.
I agree with everything the hon. Gentleman says about the withdrawal of concessionary support for young people, but does he concede that the withdrawal of the education maintenance allowance under the coalition Government made the problems for young people much worse?
The right hon. Gentleman might be surprised to learn that EMA was mentioned in my notes, but for some reason I omitted to mention it just then. He has drawn attention to it, and I dare say it was a factor.
Another anomaly in the system—this is where new clause 2 comes into its own—is that while we all accord parity of esteem between the academic route and the technical route, and the apprenticeship route is now being sold fervently by almost all Government Members, apprentices do not really get a look in: an apprentice aged 16 to 18 gets a bare £4 minimum wage. We want to make the apprenticeship route more attractive, and there is some evidence that where schemes are introduced, they are highly successful. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the MyTicket scheme in Liverpool city region improved attendance quite appreciably. Developing transport in line with the apprenticeship system is very much a part of the city region agenda, which Graham Stringer touched.
The aim of my new clauses is relatively modest. They would not change the character of the Bill, which I broadly support. Essentially, they oblige local authorities to take a broader view of the environmental and educational impacts of transport policy.
Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that while the Government make huge cuts to local authority funding, even where authorities want to provide concessionary fares they are in many cases being forced to withdraw them? We heard evidence to that effect from Nexus, which said that, as much as it would like to support young people, the point was being reached in the north-east where it would no longer be able to do so.
Desperate times call for desperate remedies, and the financial situation in most local authorities at this moment is desperate, as is evident from the Audit Commission’s recent study of local authorities’ financial sustainability. Whether the Government accept that point or not, I think they will accept that there is a case for joined-up policy. The Government need to link the apprenticeship opportunity agenda with real-time transport problems and impacts. That is where new clause 2 comes into its own, and if I am supported, I will happily press it to a vote unless the Minister can assure me that all these things are within his frame of reference for the moment.
It will be useful for me to cover all the amendments in one, hopefully fairly detailed, set of replies.
New clause 1 would require the Secretary of State to develop and publish a national bus strategy—which we discussed at some length in Committee, where I am glad the discussions were considered, reasonable and helpful—and to consider a reduced fare concessionary scheme for young people aged 16 to 19 as part of the strategy. New clause 2 would require the Secretary of State to publish a report setting out the possible steps to support local transport authorities to provide concessionary bus travel to apprentices aged 16 to 18.
While the Government fully appreciate the importance of public transport for young people, particularly those living in more isolated areas, we also recognise that the cost of transport can be an issue for some young people, including those who are participating in apprenticeships. One reason for the introduction of the 16-to-19 bursary fund was to help with transport costs. Funding is allocated to schools and colleges and is used to support disadvantaged young people who need the most help with education and training costs, and the 2015 evaluation showed that nearly 400,000 young people were being supported. However, the statutory responsibility for transport to education and training for 16 to 19-year-olds rests with local authorities, enabling them to make decisions that best match local needs and circumstances. Many authorities and operators already offer discounts for passengers in that age group.
Both issues relate to funding. In Committee, I made it clear that the Bill is not about funding; it is about providing authorities with new tools to help them improve local services in a way that best suits their areas. As part of the 2015 spending review, my Department is protecting the bus service operators grant at current funding levels until 2020-21, already providing significant certainty of funding for bus services without the strategy proposed by Daniel Zeichner. The funding is provided directly to local authorities and to bus operators and is not broken down into categories of service or by route. Attempting to do so would be a burdensome exercise that could risk embroiling central Government in the fine detail of local bus service provision.
At the heart of the question about a national strategy is the fact that the Bill relates to local bus services. It is not about a top-down, national plan. Buses are local by definition and play a key role in local transport planning. That is why we are seeking to support local councils with more powers. A national plan is not the answer. More powers for local authorities are part of the answer, and they are what the Bill provides.
One of our few disagreements in Committee was about what should be determined locally and what should be determined nationally. When the Government are spending billions a year on bus services, does the Minister not think that they should take an interest in there being more bus passengers and more bus miles and in what the fares should be? That could be stated as part of a strategy. In that respect, what is the fundamental difference between buses and trains?
I am happy to agree entirely that buses are a critical part of any local transport mix. I am a great champion of bus travel, which has been made clear in all my work as a Minister and in Committee. However, this is about a local issue, not a national solution. I made a joke in Committee that one of the great truths of business is, “I’m from head office, and I’m here to help.” I often was that person from head office, and I was not always quite so welcome.
This should be about local transport needs, not about a national top-down strategy. Are the Government neutral? Of course we are not, which is why we introduced the Bus Services Bill and protected the bus service operators grant, but ultimately this is about local authorities working in partnership with local bus operators to deliver the right services for their area.
Some of the grant is already devolved to bus operators, but the key reason not to devolve it further is that it goes direct to bus operators, which very frequently operate routes that cross council boundaries. Council boundaries and bus routes are not the same thing. Transport to work has nothing to do with a local authority’s geography, so it would potentially be a bureaucratic nightmare to change the system.
Having said that, we are considering how to reform the BSOG operation. The grant pays a flat 34.57p a litre in subsidy, which is why it used to be called the fuel duty rebate. We are considering how to incentivise better practice, rather than just rewarding bus operators for using fuel, which is not good practice.
It feels as if the Minister is trying to devolve all responsibility for the state of our bus services. It was announced in the 2015 local government settlement that core central Government funding to local authorities would fall by 24% in real terms, which is partly why local authority support for buses is falling. Does he not take any responsibility for the impact that is having on bus services and on people’s ability to use the buses?
Of course I recognise that the pressures on local government finance are quite acute. In fact, I was in charge of my local council’s financial affairs throughout the financial crash in 2008-09, so I am fully aware of that. At the same time, it does not change the requirement to recognise that buses are a local service and should be determined locally.
Has my hon. Friend Graham Stringer not just exposed a major contradiction at the heart of the Government’s position? The Minister says that he wants local delivery but, when it comes to cross-border issues, he says that Whitehall knows best. Surely the Government’s position on bus services should be for maximum devolution, including of the budget.
I am not saying that Whitehall knows best; I am saying that the grant is best delivered to bus operators that are running cross-border services, and then to take it from there. It is not a question of Whitehall knows best. We are not determining the routes that operators should be operating. We are keen to see more support for buses and more routes available, but the way to achieve long-term sustainable bus growth is to have more passengers on the buses.
My right hon. Friend Mrs Miller mentioned the Paulley case, which went through our legal system for five years and reached the High Court. Specifically, we will be inviting the Equality and Human Rights Commission to attend the meetings of our working group, on which progress has been made. We seek to have a small working group that will look at the practical implications of the Paulley case. Among the members invited so far is the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee, because we want the voice of disabled groups. We also want the voice of the bus operators, so we have invited the Confederation of Passenger Transport and the Association of Local Bus Company Managers. We also want the voice of passengers, so Transport Focus has been invited. I hope we will see the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which has been invited to attend but not as a formal member. I hope to get things under way with our first meeting next month.
I apologise to the Minister, but may I take him back to the cross-border issue? Even in areas that do not have a landscape drawn out for elected mayors, local authorities have for the past three decades worked in partnership with one another where bus routes go across their local authority boundaries. I do not understand his point about devolving the grant to the bus company and not to groups of local authorities in travel-to-work areas.
The devolution of the funding goes straight to local bus companies. We are looking at how we can reform BSOG and I will take the hon. Gentleman’s points as a contributory suggestion. I do not want to change the system unless we are clear that it will keep more routes operational. We would have no guarantee, unless we ring-fenced the funding, that if we granted the devolution of BSOG to a local authority it would be used to support buses. It could go towards other forms of local transport. I want to keep it focused on buses. That is why it is with operators. However, I will take his point on board as we think about how to take this matter forward.
To answer my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke a little more fully, the working group needs to be very action-oriented. The High Court encountered practical challenges in dealing with the issue of disabled access. We need to get the balance right. The space that is used for wheelchairs may also be used for parents with disabled children, the owners of assistance dogs and people who use walking frames. I want to protect everyone’s needs.
Disabled transport plans such as DPPPs are important in providing confidence and consistency for disabled people when using transport. I have much sympathy with the reason underlying my right hon. Friend’s suggestion. We will take forward a recommendation in the guidance supporting the Bill that authorities ensure that information is made available to passengers. That might be in a form that is provided by the authority or by individual operators. Again, we have been working on this issue with DPTAC, which has developed a template. I am keen to publish that with the guidance and encourage bus companies to use it. I therefore expect us to make progress in this area, which I hope will assist my right hon. Friend.
I welcome the Minister’s clarification with regard to the guidance being made available to passengers, but I gently remind him that when it comes to rail passengers, not only is there a regulator breathing down the neck of providers, but there are fines for non-compliance. How can he give this real teeth?
My right hon. Friend makes an interesting point, but I am not sure that there is a straightforward read-across from rail to buses. There are 30 or so rail companies in this country and 1,000-plus bus companies. We need to have something that is proportionate. For the very largest groups, what she suggests might be appropriate. For the smallest companies, which might be operating a single route, what we are suggesting would clearly be more appropriate to provide information to disabled passengers, which is ultimately our joint objective.
New clause 3, which was tabled by John Pugh, would require local authorities that do not provide a concessionary scheme for 16 to 18-year-olds in full-time education to produce a report, setting out the impact on that group of young people and on local traffic of not providing such a scheme. As I have said, the legal responsibility for transport to education and training for 16 to 19-year-olds rests with local authorities, which are free to put in place appropriate arrangements. Those arrangements do not have to be free, but we expect local authorities to make reasonable decisions based on the needs of their population, the local transport infrastructure and the available resources.
Local authorities already have a duty under the Education Act 1996 to publish a transport policy statement each year, specifying the travel arrangements they will make to support young people to access further education and training. New clause 3 would simply replicate that duty.
In short, I do not believe that new clauses 1, 2 and 3 would add anything of value to the delivery of a bus service on a local basis or directly benefit passengers. I therefore hope that hon. Members will not press them.
Once again, we have had a constructive exchange; the points made about disabled access are welcome and will be pursued. As in Committee, much of the discussion has hinged on issues of localism. My hon. Friend Graham Stringer and my right hon. Friend Andy Burnham described well what we and many others see as the failures of the systems over the past 30 years. We discussed at length in Committee the value of a national framework, and I did not hear a huge amount of opposition to that in the contributions from Government Members, with many seeming to suggest that they, too, could see the benefits. The Minister heroically stuck to the script and clearly does not wish to go down that route just at the moment, but as we consider in future the way we fund bus services, be it the concessionary fares schemes or the bus service operators grant, there will clearly be a debate to be had.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be helpful to have that national discussion, involving not only passengers, but the industry and the local authorities, about the most sustainable way to fund buses? As local authorities develop different emissions standards as part of their own partnership and franchising schemes—the Campaign for Better Transport has said this—would a national strategy not provide some certainty for the UK’s bus vehicle manufacturers as well? There are many advantages to doing this, are there not?
As always, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. She has raised the important issue of air quality, which is clearly becoming more important in many of our cities across the country. I just suggest to the Government that having a national framework within which to discuss these things might be extremely helpful, for a whole range of reasons. I fear that we are not going resolve or agree on this issue, so we will press new clause 1 to a Division.
Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.
The House divided:
Ayes 193, Noes 278.