BUS companies were labelled "subsidy junkies", "avaricious", and "unpleasant" by MPs yesterday.

In a House of Commons debate, one MP said the "big five" companies behaved in a way that "cannot be defended".

The criticism came as an investigation by The Northern Echo revealed bus subsidies in Darlington had risen by 150 per cent in the past five years.

The figures, revealed under the Freedom of Information Act, show Green Bus, a company that existed for only 18 months, received £881,979 in subsidy - nearly £50,000 a month.

In England, bus companies receive £2.5bn a year in subsidies.

They are paid by councils to support services, usually in rural areas, that are not commercially viable.

There is no evidence to suggest that any of the bus companies at the centre of The Northern Echo investigation in Darlington were involved in any underhand activities.

But one MP said some companies deliberately remove services that are viable, then charge councils to reinstate them.

Gwyneth Dunwoody, Labour MP for Crewe and Nantwich and chairwoman of the Transport Select Committee, said five bus companies ran 90 per cent of services.

"They are not only wantonly dictating the terms and conditions but they are behaving in a manner that cannot be defended," she said.

"Many local authorities are faced with a series of fait accompli with companies who simply, without any justification, remove services then in effect say to county councils: 'Well fine, if you want that service to run, replace it as a subsidised service and we will accept the extra money, thanks'."

Graham Stringer, Labour MP for Manchester Blackley and a member of the select committee, asked ministers if they were "up for the fight" with bus companies.

"You are dealing with avaricious, multi-national companies that are public subsidy junkies," he said.

"These rather unpleasant companies are threatening to withdraw their services and leave passengers high and dry if PTAs (Passenger Transport Authorities) and counties don't get into partnership with them."

David Drew, Labour MP for Stroud, said some companies received subsidy for bus stops that do not exist.

"I am still told bus companies receive payment for going past bus stops that haven't been used for donkey's years. Is this not something that needs to be brought into the open and dealt with?"

Transport Minister Stephen Ladyman said malpractice should be reported to local authorities.

"In some areas of the country, provision is good with bus operators and authorities working in partnership," he said. "But in others it's poor and we want to see bus services work in every community and in every part of the community."

A spokesman for Arriva, which runs services across the North-East, refuted the MPs' claims.

"The only bus stops we operate on council contracts are the ones we are told to by the council," he said.

"All we do is work completely in relation to the contract with local authorities."

ä Scale of subsidies - Page 7