I could not agree more with what my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) has said, but I wanted to bring one or two other aspects of life in Somerset to the Minister’s attention. This subject is one of the most vexing that comes up in casework and in my surgeries, as people complain because they are not able to get to work or to hospital appointments. In my part of mid-Somerset, someone wanting to attend an acute hospital has to go to Taunton, Yeovil, Bath or Bristol. Nobody complains about that because that is just a fact of life and people have to travel 20 or 25 miles to get to any appointment. We have the opportunity to do something pretty standard; that does not mean we have to have bus services once an hour through the villages, but it does mean we have to consider people’s needs. When their needs cross local authority boundaries, things becomes increasingly difficult for them when the authorities do not work together.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), who has left the Chamber, was talking about different technologies and making sure that we have some form of co-ordination. A lot of modern practices in London and in other cities around the country allow people to see where their cards have been used when they are using a bus or train service. There should be some way of ensuring that we have co-ordination in gaining information on the activities of passengers, so that the bus companies are aware of, for example, exactly how many tickets are used by older members of the population at no cost to themselves. We should be able to allocate those to services and then take action in areas such as mine, which have a large number of tourists and a lot of people using their free bus passes to travel around my beautiful constituency. That would allow for a more accurate reflection of what is actually happening.
We should also probably examine some of the alternatives. As a child, I lived for a while in a part of the country where there were post buses, whereby the Royal Mail provided a minibus that had about 17 seats. The back part of it was a cage and the postmaster or postmistress would call at villages on a particular route to collect the post or deliver it to the point where people could collect their own post. The post in all the mail boxes was collected on that trip, and people had to sit on the bus and wait for two minutes while people jumped in and out to put the parcels and envelopes into the back of the minibus. The Royal Mail needed to collect the post and there was a civilised, co-ordinated and fantastic service, which was reliable because it ran to outlying villages regularly at certain times every day and fitted in entirely with the postal collections. I wonder why government cannot consider co-ordinating services with those of other organisations that have to go into the villages—the Royal Mail is exactly one such organisation.
I am sure we can find some way of ensuring that smaller buses are used for core services. Large areas of my constituency, such as Brean and Berrow, attract a huge number of visitors who want to be able to access the bus service, particularly on changeover days when they need to go to Weston-super-Mare station or down to Taunton station. Those bus services need to be provided, particularly in the summer months, but perhaps
even from March to October. A much more basic service is needed for local people, however, so perhaps it might be worth considering an extended service during the summer months and a basic service during the winter months. That might mean having smaller buses, but having more of them during the summer months.
One of my passions is ensuring that younger people use bus services. In my area, if someone wants to move out of their village or the most local town, they invariably need access to a car. It seems to me that modern technology should allow us to give some sort of restricted access to a free bus pass. That was one issue on which I crossed swords with Bob Crow here in Parliament, because he expressed his desire that only older people should be able to enjoy free bus passes. I do not think that is right. We should at least be able to allow young people up to the age of 19 a card that gives them free travel within a 25 or 30-mile radius of their home. That could be done using the technology used on some of our buses and would reduce the need for young people to use cars and it would set good habits for the future.
I also want briefly to mention a point on which I hope the Minister can give us absolute clarity. When alternatives such as car sharing are used, what is the insurance situation for those who drive other people? Is that considered to be work in some way and is the act of offering lifts absolutely excluded from one’s normal social, domestic and pleasure use of a vehicle? If someone is effectively charging 40p or 25p a mile, I believe they can get into difficulties over the insurance cover they need and there is the question of whether that becomes business use or whether it is covered by social, domestic and pleasure use.
I hope that something can be done to give more assurance to people in rural areas about their bus services. Buses provide vital links to the local town. Someone living in a village might often have to make a journey of five, six or seven miles to reach any services whatsoever given the reduction in the number of post offices, garages and so on. Although one might formerly have been able to buy some small services, a lot of our village shops are no longer around and people might have to cover significant distances that are far too far to walk, and in places where there are no footpaths, it is extremely difficult for people to access services. I hope that the Minister might be able to address some of the points that I have raised.
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