I am grateful to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham, and to have the opportunity to speak in this important debate. Today’s debate about bus safety is happening in response to the most terrible tragedy, when, as we have heard, Rowan died in a horrific accident at just seven years old. Dora Hancox also died, and many others were injured. I want to pass on my condolences to Rowan’s family: to his mother, Natasha; his grandmother, Barbara; and their relatives. They have been through the most unimaginable suffering and the loss of a much-loved young son.
No family should have to endure what these families have been through. It is essential that we now listen to the families and understand what they have suffered to help ensure that a tragedy like this never, ever happens again. That requires determined action and investment by the Government, working with the bus industry, trade unions and passengers to look again at the problem of excessive working hours.
Before I discuss how safety can be improved, I thank my hon. Friend Matt Western for his campaigning work on behalf of Dora and Rowan’s families and for securing this debate as part of the campaign to improve bus safety. I thank other hon. Members for speaking today, and I look forward to the Minister addressing the points I will raise.
Labour believes that safety should always come first, and we want to see a culture of improved safety across our entire transport system. That clearly means setting higher safety standards and investing more in road safety, in the safety of our bus services and in other modes of transport.
I want to address the importance of setting higher standards of safety first, before discussing the wider issue of investment. It is clear that there is a considerable difference between the regulation of coach drivers’ hours and the more limited regulation of local bus drivers’ hours. The regulations regarding bus drivers’ hours need to be reviewed in light of the tragedy, as was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington. I call on the Government to work with operators, unions and passengers, and to support his Bill.
There needs to be a thorough review, considering the issue from first principles, rather than merely tinkering with the problem. As part of that, it is important to consider the wide range of factors that could affect drivers and lead to a loss of concentration, including fatigue, their underlying health, their age, driver training and the use of any safety devices in cabs. It is important that those issues are considered thoroughly in response to this tragedy.
Turning to the wider issue of the need for investment in the bus industry to improve safety, there has been a 45% cut in Government funding for buses since 2010 and a fall in bus usage across the country. I am concerned that the decline in services and the pressure on drivers and operators contributed to the terrible accident in which Rowan tragically lost his life. Investment will save lives by reducing accidents in the short term and by cutting long-term damage from things such as air pollution, which can threaten health.
As a party, we see improvements to safety as integral to the wider package of investment. That is a proven approach, and there is a long history of investment in transport infrastructure, better pay, better training and improved regulation of services, which all lead to improvements in safety. As part of that, Labour would reinstate the services cut by the present Government. We would also allow all councils to regulate services and, indeed, to set up new municipal bus companies, which have a record of providing much better quality services than those run by private companies. Those measures for buses would be part of a much wider range of investments to improve our whole transport system.
Our party’s programme is in stark contrast to the current state of bus services, where there is declining bus use, endemic low pay among drivers and a shortage of drivers. If the Government want to improve safety, they need to reconsider their approach and acknowledge the deep and serious effects of the cuts that have led to this accident and other problems in the service.
I am conscious of time, and I will sum up my remarks by making the following points. Rowan and Dora’s families have suffered the most terrible tragedy, and I hope we can all agree that no family should have to suffer as they have. Urgent action is now quite clearly needed. A Government review of drivers’ hours, supporting my hon. Friend’s Bill and working with operators, unions and passengers are important ways of addressing the problem. There needs to be investment, not cuts, in bus services. All those measures together are vital for improvements in safety.