My Lords, it is the aim of the Department of Regional Development that Translink should replace vehicles as they reach their target replacement age of 12 years for coaches and 18 years for buses. Over a period of time this would give average fleet ages of six years for coaches and nine years for buses. The extent of the Ulsterbus requirement for public funding to help to meet this aim is being considered as part of the current spending review. Like the noble Lord, we recognise that a modern bus fleet will encourage the use of public transport.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that reply. I declare an interest as a past chairman of the public sector bus companies in Northern Ireland. Is the Minister content with the fact that moneys from bus fares--which are of course paid by the poorer section of the community--which were prudently set aside by the bus companies in order to replace the fleet, have been taken away and used to subvent other government expenditure programmes, including road building? Does the Minister agree that this is a most unfortunate example of regressive taxation?
My Lords, I recognise the noble Lord's commitment to public service, which he demonstrated in the early 1990s as chairman of Ulsterbus and Citybus, and I compliment him on it. The Northern Ireland Transport Holding Company is a public corporation; its reserves are public money and its expenditure is only possible within the overall Northern Ireland public expenditure control total. However, in May 1998, the Chancellor of the Exchequer agreed that £25 million of those funds should be used for Northern Ireland, providing a significant boost to the local economy. The boost to public expenditure provided by the Chancellor's initiative was a major factor in enabling an additional £21 million to be spent on public transport over the years 1999-00 and 2001-02, and we still have this year's spending review in which spending on public transport is being given serious consideration.
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the Northern Ireland Transport Holding Company is desperately short of money to modernise its fleet of buses and, indeed, Northern Ireland Railways, and to improve standards of safety? Can she comment on why the Northern Ireland Transport Holding Company has not so far achieved any significant relationship with the private sector, through either PFI, PPP or leasing, as a way of improving public transport in Northern Ireland?
My Lords, I agree with the basic premise behind my noble friend's question, but would add that additional expenditure also assists improvement of access for those with disabilities. We are actively looking at the prospects for public/private partnerships for public transport in Northern Ireland. It is clear that the Northern Ireland Transport Act 1967 would need to be amended to enable PPPs to be introduced. Work would also have to take place on contract specification and negotiation. However, PPPs offer the prospect both of introducing greater efficiencies into public transport and making the phasing of public expenditure requirements easier to cope with.
My Lords, if the Government's policy, as outlined by the Deputy Prime Minister, that the average age of a bus fleet should be only eight years does not apply to Northern Ireland, the purpose of that policy being access for disabled people, does not that show a case of discrimination against disabled people in Northern Ireland who use public transport?
My Lords, the noble Lord's interest in and knowledge of transport issues in Northern Ireland are well known. In the report From Exclusion to Inclusion, which was published last December, the Disability Rights Task--Force recommended that the exemption for transport operators from the first and October 1999 phases of DDA--access to services duties--should be removed in civil rights legislation. We are considering how to achieve that. I accept that replacing old buses with new buses that make access easier is desirable. However, the decisions that have been taken by successive Secretaries of State with regard to public expenditure in Northern Ireland have been made on the basis of careful judgment. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Laird, will join all other noble Lairds--
My Lords, I am aware that there is only one noble Lord, Lord Laird. I am sure the noble Lord will join all other noble Lords in hoping that the Assembly and the Executive will be making these vital judgments in Northern Ireland as soon as possible.
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that quality bus driving is as important as quality buses? Do the Government have any plans to improve the quality of the training of bus drivers so that travelling on a bus becomes a pleasure rather than a "hanging on like grim death" experience, as is so often the case at the moment?
My Lords, I have not received any specific complaints about the driving of vehicles in Belfast or other parts of Northern Ireland. Maintaining high quality in terms of driver training and retraining, and monitoring that quality are extremely important. I shall look to see whether any further initiatives are taking place.
My Lords, I support the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Laird. Is there any way in which the Minister can bring pressure to bear so that Northern Ireland is not discriminated against in terms of disabled people's access to public transport? From my knowledge of the Province, I would say that there is probably a greater need in that part of the United Kingdom than there is in the rest of it.
My Lords, I accept the point made by the noble Baroness and repeat my earlier comment. The Government are presently considering the recommendation on the right of access and other recommendations which need primary legislation in order to go forward. The point is very well made.
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that if we are to reduce pollution and congestion in this country and in Northern Ireland as well, there has to be provision of personal services? A bus cannot provide that because it is bound by law to go on fixed routes at certain times. Does she further agree that the time has come to change the legislative structure in which public transport operates?
My Lords, my noble friend makes an important point, but I am at a disadvantage, not having detailed knowledge of public transport legislation. I cannot foresee a day when buses are not required to go on a predetermined route and stop in predetermined places. However, having made that point, I understand that the former Prime Minister, Mr Macmillan, is reputed to have assumed that it was possible to get a bus to go wherever one wanted to go. My noble friend raises an important point with regard to access to transport and the possibility of providing a variety of community services, including services such as Dial-a-Ride.