Matt Western (Warwick and Leamington) (Lab)
13 Feb 2019, 2:29 p.m.
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to limit bus drivers on local routes to driving for no more than 56 hours in any one week and 90 hours in any two consecutive weeks; and for connected purposes.
The Bill seeks to harmonise UK legislation on bus driving and working hours. It is supported by the road safety pressure group, Brake, and the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, as well as by many Members in this place. Its origins are to be found in the terrible tragedy that was the bus crash in Coventry in 2015, in which two members of the public lost their lives: seven-year-old Rowan Fitzgerald and 76-year-old Dora Hancox. Such a tragedy is unimaginable for any family. May I start by welcoming Rowan’s mother, Natasha, and his grandmother, Barbara, who are here with us today? I thank them for their courage and encouragement, as I know this will be hard for them. The Bill has their absolute support.
I am not a specialist in transport legislation, nor on the working time directive, but avoidable tragedies such as the one that occurred on that fateful day in October 2015 must lead to the review of and changes to legislation. On that day, the bus driver was incapable of stopping his vehicle. His foot was pressed on the accelerator. Ultimately, it was the front of the Sainsbury’s store in Coventry city centre that brought the bus to a standstill. Rowan Fitzgerald, who was a pupil at St Antony’s school in Sydenham, Leamington, and 76-year-old Dora Hancox of Nuneaton were killed. Rowan was on his way home from watching his beloved Sky Blues—Coventry City. Dora was walking through the city centre on a shopping visit from Nuneaton. Several others, including Rowan’s cousin Paige Wilson, were seriously injured.
It was a busy Saturday afternoon in Coventry city centre. A video that was shown at the inquest revealed that the tragedy could have claimed even more lives. In it, the bus careers across the main road, striking another bus and lamp posts, before hurtling down a pavement and ploughing into a bus stop and then the supermarket. Were it not for the brave actions of Teil Portlock, who managed to disperse the pedestrians outside the Sainsbury’s, many others would have been killed or seriously injured.
What is most concerning is that it was an absolute inevitability that such a tragedy would happen. The driver that day was Mr Chander and the bus operator was Midland Red, which is part of Stagecoach Group. Mr Chander had been driving for the companies for several years and was retained as a relief driver on a casual contract. However, his hours were anything but casual. Although aged 77 years at the time, Mr Chander worked most days and had worked every day in the seven days leading to the accident. In the evidence given in court, it was confirmed that the company did not place any restriction on the number of hours he could work. As one of the controllers based at the Leamington depot put it:
“If there was a shift available and he wanted it, then he was given it.”
In consequence, he worked long hours and often worked five or six days a week. In addition, in the year leading up to the fatal accident, Mr Chander worked an average of 47 hours a week. That statistic disguises the number of hours worked during busy periods, namely school term-time. At those times, he would frequently work an excess of 56 hours a week and could drive school specials.
In the four weeks leading up to the crash he had driven 62 hours, 76 hours, 76 hours and 72 hours respectively, an average of 72 hours a week over that period—this, despite his shocking driving record. Between 2012 and 2014, the company received 16 written complaints from passengers about his erratic behaviour and the innumerable incidents. By Stagecoach’s own measures he should have been banned. The judge’s report provides more insight into those failings and the level of corporate ignorance stating:
“On Saturday 3 October, Mr Chander agree to swap shifts with another driver, meaning that he was now due to work an 11-hour shift”—
what is termed a spreadover.
“He agreed to do that having just completed a working week of 75 hours. In the morning he was driving a single-decker bus and, significantly, the CCTV shows him repeatedly rubbing his eyes as if tired. At approximately 5 pm, Mr Chander was waiting to take charge of a double-decker bus. Another driver told him he looked knackered and that he should say no. Mr Chander ignored that advice and set off, eventually coming to a bus stop on Hales street in Coventry city centre. At no point during the 11-second journey that followed did the driver engage the foot brake, pressing instead only the accelerator.”
In passing sentence, the judge concluded that the company was “highly culpable” and fined it £2.3 million.
This was a terrible tragedy, but of course there are many accidents every day. The data shows that there is a fundamental issue here. The fact that the driver had been driving so many long hours leading up to the crash was undoubtedly the critical factor that led to the accident. Currently, however, this is entirely legal under British law, as local bus drivers are not subject to the same working hour regulations as long-distance bus drivers or lorry drivers. Nor do the laws equate to those in the EU. Hours are clearly detrimental to passenger safety. British laws regulate bus drivers’ hours on local routes—that is, less than the 50 km limit—to just 10 hours a day, with no weekly or fortnightly limit except that in any two consecutive weeks there must be at least one period of 24 hours off duty. This means that it is entirely legal for a local bus driver to drive 130 hours over a period of two weeks. Under EU law, however, a long-distance bus driver or lorry driver cannot drive more than 56 hours a week or more than 90 hours over two consecutive weeks.
I believe this tragedy could have been avoided if driving hours for local bus drivers were capped at 56 hours a week and no more than 90 hours over any two consecutive weeks, as they are already for long-distance bus drivers and HGV drivers. That is the primary purpose of the Bill. However, the Bill also includes proposals for a move to EU regulations including bus drivers’ mandatory breaks, which would ensure a break of no less than 45 minutes be taken after no more than four and a half hours of driving. The break could be divided into two periods, the first at least 15 minutes and the second at least 30 minutes, taken over the four and a half hours. At present, the entitlement to a 30-minute break after five and a half hours behind the wheel often results in drivers taking smaller breaks or none at all due to congestion or other factors beyond their control. Additionally, the changes should be introduced by employers at no detriment to bus drivers’ pay.
The culture of long hours among bus drivers is accompanied by low wage rates, which places a dubious incentive on overtime. Over the past two decades, wages have fallen relative to average incomes. This is causing bus drivers to work nearly six hours a week more than average workers to sustain their incomes at a reasonable level. Regulations must prevent that, but must also ensure that bus drivers are paid properly for the essential public service they provide. This is important at a time when operators are cutting unprofitable routes and local councils are cutting funding to bus services.
There is also the need for regular independent health checks, beyond a driver’s GP, to ensure fitness for work. I am not the first to propose that. Back in 2015, some months before the Coventry crash, my right hon. Friends the Members for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) and for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) proposed such changes in an early-day motion. Coincidentally, earlier that same year a report was published by the London Assembly Transport Committee, which looked into the reasons for bus crashes in London. It concluded that Transport for London should commission comprehensive and independent research into bus drivers’ working conditions. There were reports that bus drivers could be doing 16-hour shifts without adequate breaks. This was followed up in its 2017 report, “Driven to Distraction”, which noted high levels of stress reported among bus drivers caused by long shifts, inadequate breaks and irregular shift patterns. There have been up to 25 fatalities a year and thousands injured in bus incidents in London. It is now the time to legislate.
Way back in 2009, the Department for Transport conducted an extensive review of the effectiveness of the British domestic drivers’ hours rules. Following that review, it was decided not to make any changes, concluding that any additional restrictions would risk imposing unreasonable burdens on the industry. Ten years on and the burdens now lie with the drivers, not the operators. A reduction in routes served and buses has led to a reduction of 8,000 bus drivers since 2010. At the same time, their wages have fallen behind their peers, resulting in drivers working longer hours and more days to try to maintain their monthly earnings.
It is clear that this issue affects drivers across the country. I received comments from far and wide about this. By way of example, one convenor reported that about a third of drivers were working more than 50 hours a week. Elsewhere, a bus driver in Cornwall drives on a route which is longer than the 50 km limit, so it should come under strict EU rules for long distance drivers. However, the company splits the route into three, so that the same driver can continue the route and does not have to comply with the EU working hours restrictions. In Liverpool, a driver who used to work for Stagecoach said that they were regularly forced to work 12-hour shifts day after day, which caused fatigue.
The Bill proposes to limit the working hours of bus drivers and seeks simply to harmonise UK legislation by bringing consistency of working hours and restrictions between drivers on local and long distance bus routes and lorry drivers. It cannot be right that we have different regulation for freight vehicles and passenger vehicles. We must harmonise. We must legislate. I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That Matt Western, Mr Jim Cunningham, Alan Brown, Grahame Morris, Ian Mearns, Mr Marcus Jones, Mike Amesbury, Jo Platt, Anna McMorrin, Sir Peter Bottomley and Wera Hobhouse present the Bill.
Matt Western accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 22 March, and to be printed (Bill 336).