[Relevant documents: The Ninth Report from the Transport Committee, Session 2006-07, on the draft Local Transport Bill and the Transport Innovation Fund, HC 692, and the Government’s Response, HC 1053.]
Order for Second Reading read.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
May I give the apologies of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, who is unwell today?
Reliable, high-quality public transport makes a real difference to people in their everyday lives. We depend on it to get to work, to the shops, to essential services such as schools and hospitals, and to visit friends and family. It can help to promote social inclusion, particularly as the most vulnerable in our society often depend on public transport to the greatest extent. Good public transport also helps to tackle congestion, contributing to improved economic performance and the fight against climate change.
The bus has always been the workhorse of the transport system. Back in the 1950s, up to 13 billion journeys across the country were made by bus each year. Sadly, for the rest of the last century, the number of people using buses fell year on year. The previous Tory Government’s solution in the mid-1980s was to deregulate the bus market outside London. Too often, that led to services being cut back, and in some places aggressive competition in the form of bus wars gave the industry a bad name. That is why bus patronage fell from 5.8 billion journeys a year across the country in the mid-1980s to below 4.4 billion by the late 1990s.
We on the island are hopeful that the Office of Fair Trading will be persuaded to look into market failure regarding ferries. However, provision of free public transport for elderly people is outside its remit. Elderly people can travel by bus, free of charge, when visiting relatives in other parts of the mainland. Why are my elderly constituents penalised by being forced to pay for a ferry if they want to visit a relative outside their constituency? I hope that that is something that the Minister can look into.
I am not sure why the hon. Gentleman is bringing the OFT into this. I think he is referring to the national concessionary fares scheme, which we debated in the House last night and the Labour Government introduced. He is right: something like 11 million people over 60 and disabled people will benefit from it this year, but it is true that that is confined to buses. It is open to local authorities to extend the scheme if they wish to do so. He may like to approach his local authority to see whether it wishes to extend the scheme to the ferry service, which it is at liberty to do with the discretionary powers available to it.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating South Yorkshire and West Yorkshire on not just giving free bus travel to all people over 60, but giving free train and tram travel too across the boundaries of both metropolitan districts?
My hon. Friend is right to highlight South Yorkshire as an exemplar of good public transport provision. I am glad to say that it has continued—like, I have to say, some Conservative and Liberal Democrat councils—the concessionary fare schemes that were previously available. It obviously shows that Labour councils value older and disabled people and want to give them those extra services on top of the national concessionary fares scheme, in which the Government are investing something like £212 million this year.
My right hon. Friend will know that Merseytravel is now the most successful rail operator in the country, offering on-time delivery more often than any other provider. However, that has been brought about only by the significant investment that this Government have placed in public transport on Merseyside, an area with the least car ownership and where people are absolutely reliant on public transport—£13 million was spent in 1997; it is now well over £60 million. Merseytravel delivers the sort of services that people, quite frankly, have a right to.
My hon. Friend is right to point in particular to some of the integrated transport schemes that have been developed by some of our successful passenger transport executives. The idea of the Bill is to enable them to go even further in improving public transport, in contrast, as I said, to the Conservatives, who during their time in power deregulated the bus services, causing enormous problems for all our constituents.
As the Minister knows, the Liberal Democrats will probably support the Bill, but may I take up the point that she made earlier about concessionary bus fares? I do not wish to revisit last night’s debate, but it is simply not true that local authorities do not care about the extra discretionary services. All local authorities of all parties want to provide such services, but there is a genuine issue over funding. Will the Minister give me the assurance that she would not give me last night? Will she undertake to conduct a review after, say, a year to establish whether or not the formula that the Government have applied is fair to local authorities? She needs to do that.
Clearly we are revisiting last night’s debate. As I have said, about £1 billion will be invested in concessionary fares this year, including an extra £212 million. We believe that that is a generous settlement, and that there is no need for local authorities to cut the services that they provide for elderly and disabled people.
Will the Minister confirm that the Bill will allow local authorities such as Durham county council to draw up plans to improve public transport, particularly bus services, and to create better integration between commercial bus operations and, for instance, community transport initiatives so that they can start to deliver for their populations in a way that was not possible before because of the last Government’s lack of investment?
My hon. Friend has highlighted three points: the way in which the Bill will improve bus services, the integration of transport services that it will allow, and the fact that it will allow better planning so that our constituents can benefit from the improved public transport that we all want.
I know that what I am about to say will interest my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Mr. Hendrick), and I will give way to him in a second.
Under the deregulation introduced by the last Government, competition became very aggressive. That led to bus wars in some parts of the country, and gave the industry a bad name. We saw a fall in bus patronage across the country under the stewardship of the last Government, and the Bill is intended to put that right. In stark contrast to what the last Government did, this Government have been reversing the legacy of underinvestment that we inherited in 1997, and have made it a priority to get people back on to buses.
I thank my right hon. Friend for visiting Preston recently to observe and discuss its Civitas programme. She will be well aware of the current bus wars between the Stagecoach bus company and Preston Bus. How will the Bill facilitate improvement in services, given the problems that deregulation has caused in places such as Preston?
There are instances in which it has not been in the public interest to provide services that do not meet our constituents’ needs. I will not comment specifically on my hon. Friend’s area because I know that the traffic commissioner is undertaking an inquiry, but I am aware that he has followed developments closely and has been very concerned about the effect on his constituents. However, there are a number of ways in which the Bill allows local authorities to plan services more effectively and introduce better quality partnerships and, if necessary, quality contracts. I will say more about that shortly.
We shall be able to reassure our constituents that their real needs will be considered. It will be possible to sit down with bus operators in a spirit of co-operation, and discuss how it can best be ensured that services meet the needs of local people. The Bill provides a range of ways in which that can be achieved.
If the Minister is so strongly opposed to the deregulated system that the Government inherited from their predecessor, why is it that in 10 years all they have done is introduce two schemes, quality contracts and quality partnerships, that have been used by no local authority except one that has used a quality partnership? Clearly the Government’s concern about the present system has not motivated them to do anything to amend it.
That is an interesting comment, because I understand from it that the hon. Lady believes that the introduction of quality partnerships and contracts should be encouraged, so I am surprised that her reasoned amendment says her party will vote against the Bill because of the introduction of quality contracts.
I would be the first to say that we need to go further than the powers available in the Transport Act 2000. It has been recognised that the threshold was set too high, which is why we are changing the legislation, improving on the 2000 Act to make co-operation easier. I am astonished that the hon. Lady and her party do not recognise their constituents’ concerns, and wish to vote against the Bill because of the introduction of quality contracts.
The concessionary fares scheme for elderly people has been enormously successful and popular. Does the Minister agree that exactly the same arguments that supported the case for a national concessionary fares scheme for the over-60s also support the case for such a scheme for the under-18s? Will she keep her mind, and the collective mind of her officials, open to the possibility that when considering the next transport Act we should look seriously at introducing a national, standardised, basic minimum concessionary fares scheme for under-18s?
My hon. Friend reinforces the point that without a Labour Government there would not have been a national concessionary fares scheme at all; in particular, it would not have been possible without the extra investment that the Labour Government have put in. Of course, any extension of schemes requires extra investment. We are doing lots of things to encourage younger people to use public transport—and we also encourage other initiatives, such as cycling schemes to make sure that they get the benefits of exercise.
I take on board my hon. Friend’s point, but we must consider it in the context of the investment we are already putting into the bus industry. About £2.5 billion each year goes into bus services, up from just £1 billion a decade ago. It was this Government who introduced the rural bus subsidy grant, and since we came into office we have nearly doubled it to £55 million a year. That means that over the 10-year period we have spent about £450 million a year subsidising rural bus services.
As we debated in the House last night, the investment we are putting in through the national concessionary fares scheme gives about 11 million older and disabled people the freedom to travel free on any off-peak local bus in any part of England. That scheme has boosted the number of people using buses, and has brought people greater freedom and independence. As a result of all the changes and investment I have outlined, almost 500 million extra journeys are being made each year on local buses since 1998.
The Minister mentions rural areas, but what is her view of the EU driving times and rest periods directive of last April which bans drivers from covering more than 31 miles at any point in a single trip unless they have had a 45-hour period off in the same week? That is causing mayhem in counties such as Norfolk. A firm called Norfolk Green has contacted me about it, saying that it will have to cut a number of rural services. Is this not another example of crazy Euro-interference in our own business?
The hon. Gentleman would do well to remember that that measure was brought in on safety grounds. We should not underestimate the importance of that. However, I understand that the matter is being examined by the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency, and that the bus operators will shortly be meeting to discuss how the directive can be successfully implemented. It is important to remember that it was to do with safety issues about which we should all be concerned.
As I said, the 2000 Act created new opportunities for local authorities to work with bus operators towards real improvements for the benefit of passengers. It included measures to support voluntary partnership arrangements between local authorities and bus operators, and gave powers to local authorities to implement quality partnership and quality contracts schemes.
The Government have been getting it in the neck from both local government and the private sector, which may suggest to some that perhaps they are on the right track. Does the Minister agree that the Bill’s success will be tested in how the bus companies and local authorities come together to solve the problems that exist in providing services to communities that are not well served by bus companies? The real test of the Bill’s success when it is enacted will come when local authorities and the bus companies start seriously to talk together about improving services.
My hon. Friend is right, and I thank him for the work that he did in the Transport Committee, scrutinising the Bill. It allowed us to make amendments to the Bill to improve it, and I shall come to those later. He is right to say that the Bill’s success will depend on its practical implementation and the relationship that can be built up between local authorities and the bus operators in a positive way for the benefit of bus users.
As I was saying, the actions that we have taken during the 10 years of the Labour Government have made a real difference. They have meant the development of not only the partnerships to which reference has been made, but the partnership between central and local government. It has meant that we have managed to halt the decline in bus usage and delivered the first sustained year-on-year increase in patronage. About 500 million more journeys are made than was the case 10 years ago.
What the Minister says is right, and I have seen the improvement in my constituency. Some 10 days ago, a consultation document on subsidy was published, yet the Bill will go into Committee without our knowing what recommendations come out of that consultation. Is that not unfortunate timing? Surely subsidy is an important word in the context of the Bill.
How we deliver the bus service operators grant in future is important, and that is open to consultation. It would not have been right to delay the whole Bill until we had been through the consultation and then examine the Bill in that context; things can be done the other way round. We know that powers in the Bill will give local authorities and bus operators the ability to move forward together. If the hon. Gentleman were to examine the consultation document, he would see that it contains a few suggestions as to how the grant might be used to support the increased usage of bus services. So, it would not have been right to wait until the whole thing had been finished before considering the Bill.
My hon. Friends said it all. If the hon. Lady thinks that the current situation is perfect, I do not understand how she can be talking to her constituents or those of other hon. and right hon. Members in her party. Voluntary partnerships have worked in some cases. In cities such as York and Cambridge, and sometimes in rural areas such as Warwickshire and Cheshire, bus services have been transformed and are consequently attracting growing numbers of passengers. Such examples show that people will return to buses if services are improved through effective partnership working between bus operators and local authorities, but for each place where partnership is making a real difference, there are many others where that is not the case and where more still needs to be done to provide the services that people want. I find it astonishing that the Conservative party does not recognise that.
I agree with the Minister, and I want to see how we can move forward from this position. I have delivered petitions to this House from my constituents because bus services have been savagely cut in my constituency by First. I am looking forward to hearing her tell us more about how local authorities can move forward on the contracts and bus partnerships, because large parts of my constituency have no bus services any more.
My hon. Friend is right, and her comments show that she is in touch with the needs of her constituents. She recognises that although voluntary partnerships can work in some areas, in others they do not and more needs to be done. We know that more needs to be done, and that is what the Bill is all about.
Is the Minister aware of the existence of an inter-authority organisation called the Partnership for Urban South Hampshire—PUSH—which has undertaken considerable discussion on the question of integrated transport arrangements? It would be interested in the possibility of becoming an integrated transport authority under the terms of the Bill. Is she aware that the majority of PUSH’s members are Conservative-controlled authorities? Does she share my concern that the Conservative party appears to wish to vote against the entire Bill and thus to deny those authorities the opportunity to provide the sort of integrated transport system that I believe south Hampshire urgently needs?
Again, my hon. Friend makes an important point. I know from my visits around the country that politicians from all parties say that they would like to have greater powers in order to sit down with bus operators and make progress on schemes of exactly the type that he is talking about. He will know that the Bill gives areas the ability to examine their governance arrangements and to decide whether they want to establish integrated transport authorities. He rightly says that, again, the Conservative party does not seem to be in touch even with its own local councillors on this issue, because its approach does not reflect my experience when going around the country—all I can say is that perhaps Conservative Members need to get out a little bit more.
I shall come back to the hon. Gentleman in a minute.
The Bill is a direct response to what local authorities, transport users and, in some cases, transport operators have told us about the different challenges and circumstances faced in different parts of the country. In the summer of 2006, the Government launched a wide-ranging review of bus services across the country. In December 2006, we published our conclusions in “Putting Passengers First”, and in May 2007, we published the draft Local Transport Bill. That was followed by a period of consultation. As I said, I made a series of regional visits to listen to people’s views about how the draft Bill could help in their areas and to their suggestions about how it could be further improved.
As a result of our public consultation and scrutiny, including a report from the Transport Committee, we were able to make some very significant improvements to the Bill before it was introduced to Parliament, including the following: taking powers to set up a statutory body to represent bus passengers; ensuring that the provisions of the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations, following representations from the trade unions, apply where staff are affected by a quality contract scheme; and giving traffic commissioners the power to require operators to invest in improvements or compensate passengers where services are not operating properly. The Bill was introduced in the other place in November, where it benefited from further changes, including measures to boost community transport and to improve the accessibility of taxi buses.
Further to the comments by the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers), is it not the case that the voluntary agreements that she extols exist solely on the basis of terms dictated by the bus operators and tend to be concentrated on a minority of highly profitable corridors?
There are several instances in which voluntary agreements have been reached, but my hon. Friend is right to say that we need to look further at how we can increase the effectiveness of these agreements. That is what the Bill sets out to do. I know that he has been extremely concerned about local bus services in his area, and it is important that authorities are able to work with bus operators to reach an agreement. The Bill will give such agreements statutory force and I will describe later how that will make these partnerships more effective.
May I tempt my right hon. Friend to go a little further? Is there not a case for giving excellent transport authorities such as South Yorkshire passenger transport authority the ability to introduce quality contracts, without reference to external organisations, just as the Mayor of London can do? If she will not go that far, will she at least listen to the Transport Committee, which said that there should be a time limit on how long applications for quality contracts should be considered by the approvals board and the transport tribunal to prevent inordinate delays that would not be in the interests of bus passengers?
I share the Minister’s surprise that the Conservatives have apparently decided to vote against Second Reading. She has emphasised the importance of the quality contracts and the quality partnership agreements, but if they are so important why has there been such a dismally low take-up so far? What will the Government do about that?
As I said earlier, there were powers in the Transport Act 2000 to allow the making of quality contracts and some partnership schemes. The problem with the quality contracts was that the threshold was set too high. That is the feedback that we have received. In a sense, that is why we are replacing the test of the only practical way of delivering services with the public interest test. The intention was to be able to make the quality contracts possible, in a similar way to some of the arrangements in London, but unfortunately that did not happen in several areas and that is why we are changing the situation. It was a good attempt, but we recognise that it has shortcomings.
My right hon. Friend mentioned community transport. What estimate has she made of the potential impact of the welcome changes in the Bill, and does she share my surprise that the Opposition intend to vote against the Bill? That will upset the Opposition Chief Whip, my constituency neighbour, who has applauded the fact that these provisions will, with some adaptations, enable us to bring the dial-a-bus services in Derbyshire into the concessionary fare scheme.
It is rare that my speeches are greeted with standing ovations, but when I spoke to the Community Transport Association and announced the changes that we intended to make in this Bill, there was immediate applause. I was quite taken aback, but it showed that the changes we are making to community transport—especially the ability to pay drivers and a change made in the House of Lords to allow local authorities to lease vehicles to community transport organisations—have been widely welcomed by the community transport sector. It is astonishing that the Conservatives do not recognise the importance of the change, which will have a real effect in rural areas. Why they have taken the view that they have taken is very surprising, and I suspect that it will not be very welcome to the local voluntary organisations with which they work. What repayment for the work that people do is it to vote against such a Bill? Their stance will undermine community transport provision when we are trying to improve it.
I shall now turn to the Bill in a little more detail. Part 1 includes measures to strengthen the capacity of the traffic commissioners, who play an important role in the regulation of both the goods vehicle and bus sectors. This is important because, as I will explain shortly, other parts of the Bill will strengthen the commissioners’ role in relation to bus services.
Part 2 will reform the framework for local transport planning. It will enable integrated transport authorities to play a stronger role in planning local transport across local authority areas, by making them responsible for the preparation of local transport plans. That will help to ensure a consistent and coherent approach, for example in planning a network of bus lanes across a conurbation. Future local transport plans will also need to include proposals for implementing an area’s local transport policies, and authorities will be under a new duty to have regard to the Government’s environmental policies and guidance.
Part 3 of the Bill will ensure that local authorities have a variety of realistic options for working with the bus industry to provide the services that passengers want. The Bill will give local councils the flexibility to choose the approach that is best suited to their particular local needs.
Clauses 13 to 18 will enable quality partnership schemes—first introduced in the 2000 Act—to make more of a difference. Last year, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith) mentioned, we saw the first quality partnership scheme come into force in Sheffield. This is now delivering a package of improvements, combining new vehicles with measures to reduce the impact of congestion on bus services. Similar schemes are now being considered in other places. However, this Bill will now enable these schemes to cover frequencies, timings and maximum fares—matters that are of crucial importance to passengers. It will allow, for the first time, quality partnership schemes to include “registration restrictions”—the Conservatives say that they oppose this in their reasoned amendment—so that operators who have not signed up to the scheme cannot run along the route if their doing so would undermine the scheme. That is the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) made. The partnerships need strengthening so that they cannot be undermined by someone choosing to interfere in the agreement that bus operators and local authorities have reached.
Clauses 19 to 40 will make bus franchising a much more realistic option for local authorities where they believe it is the right thing to do in their area. We have listened to the concerns of local councillors of all political persuasions that the existing legislation is too restrictive, and this Bill will put that right. Of course, authorities will still need to be satisfied that quality contract schemes are in the public interest, but they will no longer have to prove that they are the “only practicable way”.
My hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) raised a point about the approvals board for quality contract schemes. Our proposals would make quality contracts a more realistic option for local authorities, while ensuring that the legitimate interests of all parties are taken into account. If we can do that, it will dramatically reduce the scope for challenge.
The proposals are in line with the recommendation of the Transport Committee that an independent approvals board should ensure that local authorities have undertaken the correct process for making a scheme. Of course, a local authority’s policy—I know that that is what my hon. Friend is getting at—is a matter for that authority and its electorate. The role of the approvals body is to provide a robust check on whether a proposed scheme is consistent with that policy, provides value for money, satisfies the criteria prescribed in legislation and is in the wider public interest, as well as whether due process has been approved.
The approvals process will provide a robust check and balance in the process but will also significantly reduce the risk of a scheme being taken through a costly and time-consuming judicial review. We agree that the process should not cause undue delay and the Bill includes a power to specify in regulations a time limit within which the approvals board should reach its decisions. We understand that the process needs to be efficient and quick. Regulations will include the ability to give an indication of that. However, if months are required to make a quality contract, we need to compare that time with the years it could take for a challenge under judicial review. This is a belt-and-braces approach for local authorities to ensure that they have that security when they make a contract scheme.
That point goes to the heart of an important issue. I listened very carefully to what my right hon. Friend just said about the processes for quality contracts, but is it not true that judicial review is essentially a challenge to a process that has not been carried out properly? That option will still be open to operators if they do not like the quality contracts and want the free-for-all that we have now. My right hon. Friend has just set out the fact that the approvals board will have the power to consider issues such as value for money and the wider public interest. Could there not be simply a difference of view between an approvals board and an elected passenger transport authority? The view of the approvals board would triumph in such circumstances, overriding the democratically elected body. Is that really acceptable?
We do not envisage that the process would involve a straight yes or no. It could be iterative. We would envisage that the approvals board would have, under the traffic commissioner, an economist and perhaps a transport expert to ensure that it could consider the economics of the scheme. Judicial review might not just be on the grounds of a process that was not followed. Other issues come into play, for example when a business can no longer operate in an area. Those are different grounds that could be used. We are trying to have a process that could be iterative at the same time—that is, that could involve discussions about maximum fares or the viability of routes. It is not an attempt to make it more difficult to get quality contracts, but to ensure that quality contracts can work and can be introduced effectively and efficiently without the huge delays caused by a judicial process.
I entirely accept that if an approvals board agrees with the passenger transport authority that quality contracts are the way forward, that could be a stronger position to defend if a judicial review eventually happened. That goes without saying, but is it not possible that the approvals board, simply as a matter of opinion, could reach a different view on the right way forward for bus passenger services in an area from the passenger transport authority? In such a situation, is it not true that under the Bill the approvals board could overrule the decision of the passenger transport authority and decide on a way forward of which the authority did not approve?
It will not be for an approvals board to design a system for a local area. The board will consider the proposals and say whether it believes—this could be done through discussion—that they will stand up and deliver what the local authority thinks they will. It is not a question of a transport expert going to an area and saying, “We will have an entirely different approach in this matter.” We expect the boards to be a facility that will enable local authorities to introduce quality contracts, if that is in the public interest, as quickly and effectively as possible. It is important that we put in place a mechanism that means that local authorities are not constantly taken to judicial review. I am sure that we shall continue to discuss this subject in Committee, but I ought to move on.
I understand the Minister’s desire to ensure that there is a robust system in place to prevent unnecessary judicial review, but we also have the hurdle of the transport tribunal. If the approvals board is the external validation process that provides that rigour and defence, why is there further recourse to the transport tribunal? Why is that provision in the Bill as a further hurdle?
If we want to be absolutely sure that the route will mean that it will be more difficult to go to judicial review, there has to be an option of appeal against the approvals board. That is why we put that provision in the Bill. It is a belt-and-braces approach. Because one could if necessary judicially review the approvals board, there is a further appeal.
Let me move on to voluntary partnership arrangements. Clause 41 and schedule 2 make some important changes to competition law as it applies to the bus market. The aim is to ensure that competition law does not prevent local authorities and bus operators from coming together at the partnership table. At the moment, if bus operators come together with local authorities under a voluntary partnership to discuss, for example, times when they might run complementary services, they risk falling foul of competition law. The Bill will mean that operators can sit down with local authorities and plan services more effectively.
Part 4 contains various further measures on passenger transport. For example, clauses 52 to 56 will help to create new opportunities for the community transport sector, which plays an important local role, often in the areas with the greatest social need. As I said, the Community Transport Association has given a warm welcome to measures in the Bill that will allow its members greater flexibility over the types of vehicles that they can use, and that allow drivers of community bus services to be paid.
Clauses 57 to 60 will help to ensure that action can be taken where, for whatever reason, bus services are consistently unreliable. Traffic commissioners will still be able to apply financial penalties when bus operators are at fault, but now in a way that directly benefits passengers, requiring the operator to invest in service improvements or to pay compensation to passengers.
The Bill will also enable the traffic commissioners to hold local authorities to account if their failure to meet their traffic management duties contributes to the poor reliability of bus services. They will be able to make recommendations to bus operators and local authorities alike about how things might be put right. We have done that to respond to the legitimate concerns of bus operators, who have sometimes said, “We’ve made improvements in local areas, but the local authority has not kept its side of the bargain.” Again, it is astonishing that the Opposition wish to vote against that.
My right hon. Friend makes a very important point that goes back to what she was saying about the new role for integrated transport authorities. Often, some local authorities in a metropolitan area are good at introducing quality bus measures, but others are appalling at it, which has a knock-on impact on the level of service. Does she agree that the changes proposed in the Bill will mean that across a whole metropolitan county there could be a proper network with proper quality bus measures? That will mean that the reliability of bus services, which she has mentioned, can better be guaranteed.
Absolutely. My hon. Friend is quite right. I should add again that when I have visited local areas and talked to people who are trying to deliver transport, councillors of all parties have said that they have sometimes come across that problem. They have said that they could do much more if the powers in the Bill were already in place. They say, “Please get these powers in place as soon as possible.” The Opposition Front-Bench team do not want them at all.
There is widespread agreement that at the same time as strengthening the traffic commissioners’ role, we need to give passengers a stronger voice about the services that they use. Talking to passengers makes it very clear what they want: buses that go where they want to go, when they want to travel, and are clean, comfortable and not overcrowded, and reliable services that get to their destinations quickly and efficiently.
We need to put passengers at the heart of our bus services, and give them the opportunity to hold those services to account. There are already well-established bodies that are helping to do just that, often operating at local or regional level. Many people have argued, however, and I agree, that there is a good case for establishing a statutory body, with statutory powers, to act as a champion of the needs of the bus passenger. We launched a full public consultation last December, and we are now carefully considering the many responses that we have received. There is a clear consensus about the need for a bigger passenger voice, and we will announce our conclusions shortly. Clauses 68 and 69 contain the primary powers that would enable us to take forward that important agenda in future secondary legislation.
Many of the transport challenges that our communities face require local areas to work closely in partnership with each other. That relates to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne). Those partnerships must have the powers and authority to make the decisions that are needed. Passenger transport authorities and passenger transport executives play a crucial role in delivering public transport in our major cities outside London, but the current arrangements have been in place for several decades and do not always lead to coherent transport planning across our major urban areas. We therefore want to support those urban areas that are now starting to explore the options for reform.
Instead of taking a prescriptive approach to local transport governance, part 5 of the Bill lays the foundations for local areas themselves to examine the strengths and weaknesses of their existing arrangements. They will be able to develop their own proposals for reforms to suit their local needs, which could then be implemented in secondary legislation tailored to the needs of the individual area. That process could lead to a stronger role for integrated transport authorities, perhaps with stronger powers on important matters such as bus lanes, leading to a more coherent and consistent approach such as my hon. Friend described.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Minister, who is being very generous in giving way. Under the Bill, would it be possible for an integrated passenger authority to cover a whole region, for example the north-east of England, if proper consultation took place and authorities were prepared to buy into it?
What we have said is that we want local authorities themselves to consider what will work best. We would expect wide consensus in the setting up of new bodies, and my hon. Friend will know better than I whether such consensus is likely to be reached at regional level. Of course, other transport planning measures are possible under other legislation, such as multi-area agreements. It is quite possible for local authorities to get together much more effectively than was previously the case and to plan more widely, and we are already seeing that. I am sure my hon. Friend knows that the changes that are taking place in relation to the regional development agencies and so on are causing people to look closely at how to deal with transport.
Governance reforms could obviously be particularly beneficial in areas that are considering the role that road charging could play alongside investment in local public transport. The Bill makes it absolutely clear that it is for local authorities, not central Government, to decide whether local road charging is right for their areas. It confirms that scheme revenues are for the local authority involved to spend on local transport, even after the first 10 years of a scheme. It also ensures that the right powers are available to secure consistency and interoperability between schemes, helping to avoid confusion and complexity for road users.
In 2005, the Labour party manifesto stated that, if re-elected, the Labour Government would move away from
“the current system of motoring taxation towards a national system of road-pricing.”
If road pricing schemes get the go-ahead under the Bill, which existing motoring taxes will be reduced or abolished?
The Bill is not about a national road pricing scheme. It is about local road pricing schemes, if local areas want them. Frankly, the type of changes that the right hon. Gentleman is talking about would be impractical in a local area and a local scheme, and I am sure he knows that. What we have said, however, as I have just stated, is that any revenue raised will be ploughed back into public transport even after the first 10 years of any road pricing approach.
I thank the Minister for giving way; she continues to be very generous with her time. She says that decisions about road charging schemes will be taken locally and should be in the hands of local authorities. What is her view of the current situation in Greater Manchester, with which she will be familiar? Seven of the 10 boroughs are apparently in favour of such a scheme, but the other three are most definitely not. Does she intend that the Government will continue with their policy and effectively force the scheme on the rest of the conurbation of Greater Manchester, whether it likes it or not?
Obviously, the discussions about the Manchester transport innovation fund bid are still going on, and we will examine the proposals when they come to us.
As I hope is clear, the Bill has a strong focus on empowering local communities to address the transport challenges that they face today and will face in the years ahead. It does so by ensuring that the right powers are available at the right level to deliver the changes that are needed locally, by giving a stronger voice to transport users and by ensuring that the right governance arrangements can be put in place locally so that the decisions that are needed can be made. There is a great deal of support for the Bill, not least because transport users, local government and central Government agree that we need local communities to be empowered to secure services that are designed around the needs of passengers—local transport that genuinely puts the needs of the travelling public first.
This Labour Government have vastly improved the provision of bus services in this country, after the disastrous actions of the previous Tory Government. I hoped that all parties would support the Bill today, but the Opposition have apparently decided not to do so. That shows exactly how out of touch they are with the real concerns of people in this country. It will remind us of the real attitude of the Conservative Party, which goes back to Margaret Thatcher’s view that if a man was using a bus after the age of 30, he was a failure. What nonsense. Millions of people use our bus services, and if the Opposition do not support the Bill, they will be turning their back on those people. It will be frankly astonishing not to support these changes, and I am amazed that they are even considering that. I know it will be against the will of many of their representatives in local government. Without a Labour Government there would be no national concessionary travel scheme, nor the increase in bus use that has been evident over the past 10 years. This Bill is a further step on that journey of improvement, and I commend it to the House.
I beg to move,
That this House declines to give a Second Reading to the Local Transport Bill [Lords] because it encourages the introduction of Quality Contract schemes to reregulate bus networks, thus preventing free competition between bus operators, undermining service quality for passengers and jeopardising the partnerships between operators and local authorities that have helped to improve service quality; because it fails to give due weight to the importance of consultation and local consent when local congestion charging schemes are considered; and because it transfers revenue-raising powers to the National Assembly for Wales without proper constitutional justification and in doing so allows Wales to be used as a test bed for the Government’s untried, untested national road pricing scheme.
I want to start by emphasising one thing very clearly—buses matter. Any Conservative Government led by David Cameron will do all that they can to improve bus services for passengers. Two thirds of all journeys by public transport are made by bus every year. That is well above the combined total of journeys on both the London underground and the whole national rail network. For thousands of people across the country, the bus is the only option when it comes to local public transport.
So buses matter to our quality of life and to our economic prosperity. Critically, of course, they now also matter when it comes to tackling problems caused by climate change and worsening traffic congestion. Increasing bus ridership should play a significant part in a successful strategy to tackle both those vital issues for our country, so I welcome the fact that this Bill gives us time in Parliament to debate the future of the UK’s bus network.
We have tabled the amendment because we do not believe that the Bill is the best way to improve local bus services. As I shall explain, not all of the Bill is controversial. We agree with some elements, but we think that significant parts of it take our bus network in the wrong direction.
I do not doubt that the hon. Lady values buses, but unfortunately her hon. Friends do not. She could fit into a London taxi the Conservative MPs present for this debate; she would not need a bus. [Interruption.] I declare my interests. The hon. Lady said that bus deregulation had worked outside London. If that is so, why has overall bus ridership outside London fallen rather than risen?
There are many differences between the London example and the rest of the country. It is clear that the level of subsidy in London has a much more significant impact on ridership than matters to do with regulation or deregulation. It is simply not possible to make a causal link between the regulatory structure in London and levels of ridership. That equation does not add up.
I listened carefully to the answer given by the hon. Lady. The Select Committee on Transport has produced a number of reports on the question of subsidies, however, and if she has read them, she will know that virtually no subsidy was given to the regulated London bus system until the city got a Mayor. Even so, the passenger figures for London remained static, while those for metropolitan areas in the rest of the country fell. Does not that make the case for regulating the bus system outside London, or would she prefer to deregulate bus services in London, since they are so good?
I assure the hon. Gentleman that we have no plans to change the system in the capital, where special circumstances apply. However, he fails to make the case for a causal connection between the regulatory system in London and the recorded increases in ridership. The subsidy in London amounts to £638 million, and that clearly makes a significant difference. The disparity between ridership in London and the rest of the country is not due to the regulatory system in place in the capital.
I want to get this right. The hon. Lady has said that there is no causal relationship between the regulatory system that operates in London and bus ridership. However, she accepts that the capital has been very successful in increasing bus ridership. If there is no causal relationship between the two, why does she rule out the possibility of changing the regulatory environment in London?
As I said, we have no plans to change the regulatory system in London.
I turn now to the Bill itself. We welcome the provisions on community transport that the Minister outlined earlier, and those aimed at preventing competition law from getting in the way of sensible arrangements to co-ordinate and improve bus services. Of course it is vital to police anti-competitive practices effectively, but it makes no sense if competition law actively frustrates arrangements that benefit passengers.
Competition law, as some people currently interpret it, can put a very real barrier in the way of efforts to improve local bus services. Even a low-key discussion between bus operators to consider co-ordination measures aimed at benefiting passengers can potentially give rise to dawn raids by competition authorities and the police. It is a matter of serious concern that this problem remains unsolved so long after deregulation.
In that regard, I want to pay tribute to the work done by the Campaign for Better Transport. The Opposition can see some appealing arguments in favour of the call that that organisation makes in its briefing on the Bill for a wider remit for the revised competition test set out in schedule 2. The campaign’s ideas on taking into account the competition provided between car and bus, and not just between bus operators, is also something that we consider well worth exploring.
We are saying that some competition laws get in the way of the effective provision of better services for passengers. Those laws need to be reformed to ensure that they work more efficiently and do not get in the way of the provision of better services for passengers.
We also welcome efforts to strengthen the voice of bus passengers and to establish a “bus champion”, and we recognise the valuable work already done in that respect by Bus Users UK. We note the observations made by the National Consumer Council on this aspect of the Bill, and its call for the new organisation to be a strong national advocacy body with a clear remit to improve bus travel for the consumer. The NCC is correct to emphasise the importance of founding the work of the new body on sound ongoing qualitative and quantitative research. In that regard, we can learn from the precedent set by the high-quality research produced by Passenger Focus in the rail context.
I turn now to the Bill’s more controversial provisions, and specifically to clauses 13 to 18 on statutory quality partnerships. An invention of this Government, these statutory arrangements have lagged behind voluntary partnerships in delivering service improvements. According to the passenger transport executive group, only one statutory quality partnership has been implemented since the partnerships were introduced in the Transport Act 2000, and I understand that it is to be found on the A6135—the Barnsley road—in Sheffield.
I very much hope that that scheme is successful, but the fact that it appears to be the sole example of the use of this fundamental element of the Government’s bus policy must lead us to question the effectiveness of such arrangements. I have yet to hear from the Minister exactly what can be achieved using a statutory arrangement that cannot be delivered using the voluntary arrangements that already have a proven track record in many areas of the country.
I represent part of the city of Sheffield, and I draw the hon. Lady’s attention to the fact that it proved extremely difficult to put in place the contract for the Barnsley road quality partnership scheme. Does she agree that that underlines the need for this Bill, as it will make quality partnerships easier to use in future?
No. I believe that the Barnsley road example illustrates the fact that it is voluntary partnerships that are delivering around the country. There are many examples of that, some of which I shall come to in a moment.
We believe that the move in the Bill to include fares and frequencies in quality partnerships must be accompanied by measures to ensure that transport authorities take a reasonable approach to such arrangements. There must be proper safeguards in place to ensure that it is not possible for a local authority to put provisions in its quality partnership arrangements that would be uncommercial and impractical to implement. That is why we will scrutinise with great care what is meant by an “admissible objection” as set out in clause 18, and how the reasonableness test envisaged by the Bill will work in practice. It would clearly be wrong for local authorities to be able to impose regulation via the quality partnership system without putting in place the safeguards envisaged for quality contracts.
The concept of admissible objection will be pivotal in determining whether that risk materialises and whether the quality partnership provisions will be workable, so clear guidance on the meaning of the term is needed at the earliest opportunity. I therefore appeal to the Minister to publish the guidance—the Government tend to rely on guidance—on the clause as soon as possible, preferably before the Bill goes into Committee. That would be extremely helpful in establishing the meaning of that important term.
Clauses 19 to 40 are on quality contracts, which are another centrepiece of the Government’s bus policy, but which take us in the wrong direction. It is no surprise that they have sat on the statute book as a white elephant since their introduction, unused and irrelevant to effective attempts to improve bus services for passengers. I am the first to admit that the history of the deregulated bus network has not always lacked controversy, but I believe that the private sector has, in general, made a positive contribution when it comes to quality of service for passengers. There are undoubtedly some bus operators who underperform; that happens in all markets.
In one moment. I believe that, overall, the investment stimulus, innovation and entrepreneurial skills and expertise in product development and marketing that the bus companies have introduced have had a positive impact on services. It seems clear that private enterprise has facilitated a more rapid renewal of the bus fleet and a more efficient cost base than would ever have been possible under the old system.
I must confess that I am struggling to follow the logic of the argument. Quality contracts have often not worked because their structure has been too inflexible to meet local requirements. The point of the Bill is to free the system up a little, so that contracts can reflect local circumstances and services can be tailored to local needs. I do not know why the hon. Lady and her party do not support that as a way forward.
We are not supporting that because we do not believe that quality contracts will deliver the service improvements and increased ridership that we all want. I do not believe that those benefits will be delivered by winding back the clock to the 1980s and re-regulating the bus network. That is why we oppose moves in the Bill to make the quality contract route back towards regulation easier for local transport authorities to use.
Will the hon. Lady answer the simple question that has been asked several times by Labour Members: if she thinks that regulation in London is good and acceptable, why is it bad for my constituents, her constituents, and the vast majority of constituents represented in the House?
What I have said repeatedly is that the increase in ridership in London is not due to the regulatory system in use in London. It is due to the £638 million a year that is spent on subsidising the bus network. It is also partly due to Transport for London taking an aggressive approach to enforcing bus priority. Both those circumstances distinguish London from the rest of the country.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way; she is very generous with her time. Do I detect a change in Opposition policy? Are the Opposition actually in favour of subsidy, given that their argument is that it has worked in London? If so, does she recant Tory Bromley council’s judgment against the Greater London council in the early 1980s, which outlawed subsidy?
Did the hon. Lady not hear the intervention made by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer)? He pointed out that before there was subsidy in London, bus ridership was decreasing outside London, but stayed stable in London, and when there was subsidy, bus ridership further increased in London? Does she not agree that that proves the point? The figures show that regulation helped bus ridership in London, and those figures were given to her in an earlier intervention.
If the hon. Lady looks at the figures, she will see that the steepest fall in bus ridership occurred before deregulation, when there was an increase in car ownership across the country. The decrease in bus ridership started to level off in the years immediately after deregulation.
If I understand the hon. Lady’s argument on London and other metropolitan areas—I represent a seat in one such area, the west midlands—she is saying that the reason for the increased patronage in London is high levels of subsidy, rather than the regulatory regime. If that is her argument, is she telling the House that she would cut the subsidy in London? Or would she increase subsidies in metropolitan areas to encourage patronage?
What I am saying is that introducing the regulatory system applicable in London to the rest of the country would not deliver the service improvements that we want. In future, we would certainly look to remove quality contracts altogether as an option outside London; we think that they are neither necessary nor effective in improving bus services in the UK. The Opposition believe that successful partnerships between local transport authorities and bus companies are the best way to deliver improvements in reliability and service quality.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way again. Let us look at the issue in a slightly different way. My understanding is that the Opposition are now in favour of greater freedoms for local authorities. That is their policy. As I understand it, the Bill does not force local authorities to enter into quality contracts; it gives them the right to do so if they wish, because of local circumstances. The Conservative-controlled Local Government Association has actually called for councils to have
“stronger powers to deliver better bus services.”
Does that not conflict with the policy statement that the hon. Lady made to the House this afternoon?
It does not conflict. The hon. Gentleman misunderstands localism, which does not always mean devolving to local bureaucracies. It means vesting power in the customer and the consumer. We believe that a deregulated bus system is the best way to vest power in the consumer and the passenger.
I have had many representations on the Bill from a number of groups, including Conservative councillors.
The best examples around the country demonstrate what can be achieved when a transport authority is prepared to take difficult decisions on bus priority, and when bus operators respond with investment in better training, better vehicles and better facilities. Areas such as Brighton and Hove, and Telford and Wrekin, demonstrate that successful partnership working can produce better vehicles, more investment, better information, simplified fare structures and ticketing, higher-quality services and, most important of all, increased ridership.
No, I will make progress now. Close partnership working in Brighton delivered a 5 per cent. year-on-year growth in ridership and a 10 per cent. decrease in town centre traffic. The Government are wrong to see statutory quality partnerships and quality contracts as ends in themselves. The rarity of such partnerships and contracts is further proof that in many areas, voluntary partnerships can work well for local authorities and bus companies that have the mutual confidence to work together for the benefit of passengers, without the need for the local authority to resort to formal powers to control and regulate services.
Far from encouraging that kind of partnership working, the Government recently lobbed a hand-grenade into the relationship between transport authorities and bus operators. I am referring, of course, to the way in which they are introducing concessionary fares. Of course, the goals of the scheme are entirely laudable, but the way it is being put into practice is damaging the relationships that are vital to making bus partnerships work. It is clear that the scheme is leaving local authorities with a huge funding headache and council tax payers with a large bill.
Ironically, in some cases, as a result of the local authority funding crisis caused by the concessionary fares scheme, bus routes are under threat, either because the local authority is concerned that it can no longer afford to subsidise routes, or because the bus company finds routes uneconomic as a result of the financial pressures of the scheme. In a further ironic twist, Brighton and Hove—a striking bus success story in recent years—is one of the areas hardest hit by the problems with the concessionary fares scheme. That scheme has all the hallmarks of a proposal rushed through on Budget day without proper thought about how it would be set up or funded. That was playing politics with the bus network in a way that is simply unacceptable.
A moment ago the hon. Lady spoke about transport authorities that had taken tough decisions to get quality bus measures on the ground. The example that she gives, Brighton and Hove, is a unitary transport authority. How does she reconcile what she is saying with the measures in the Bill that she opposes? In the metropolitan areas, the transport authorities are the passenger transport authorities, which will become integrated transport authorities. In Greater Manchester, where there are 10 highways authorities, getting them to agree to a single standard for quality bus measures is difficult. The measures in the Bill will give those powers to the integrated transport authority. How does she reconcile that—
That takes me on to my next point. Some of the changes proposed in the Bill in relation to the structure of transport authorities and the Government’s arrangements could be useful. We would not oppose every single one of those governance changes. I particularly welcome the representations on the issue that I have received from the PTE group.
The Opposition share the PTE group’s view that there should be no scope for imposition by the Secretary of State of non-elected members on the renamed integrated transport authorities. There will be consensus across the House with the PTE group’s point that we should not seek to impose uniformity on passenger transport authority areas or PTE areas or their governance arrangements, as no single model will be right for every area. With reference to the example given by the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne), the arrangements clearly worked in that context. It is not necessarily the right model for other parts of the country, which is why it is important to ensure flexibility in the Government’s arrangements.
Does my hon. Friend agree that not for the first time, one of the key problems with the policy is that there is no robust methodological analysis of the likely take-up of the scheme? That has significant financial implications for local authorities. It is all very well for the Government to announce it, but the fact that they have not done the detailed work to assess the likely take-up will impact on council tax payers across the country, including those in my constituency.
I take it that my hon. Friend is referring to the concessionary fares scheme. It is a particular concern that the cost of the scheme is extremely unpredictable. That is one of the key problems. Local authorities do not feel that they know how much the liability will ultimately be. That makes it difficult for them to plan, and they are not getting adequate guidance from the Government on how to deal with that uncertainty.
I return to the governance issues. The proposals in the Bill to give increased flexibility to allow individual non-metropolitan districts to join a PTA or integrated transport authority, without the need for a whole county to join, seem broadly sensible, as are powers to enable the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency to share with local authorities information about foreign registered vehicles.
One of the most controversial elements of the Bill is the provisions in part 6 on local congestion charging schemes. The Opposition believe that congestion charging should not be used to seek to price people off the road altogether, and nor must it become just another stealth tax. We must not ignore the fact that there is a social justice angle to the debate on road pricing and congestion charging. The freedom to travel is an important element of people’s quality of life.
Will the hon. Lady explain to me why she uses the term “stealth tax”? Nobody could say that a scheme such as the congestion charge in London was introduced by stealth. Does she agree that her choice of words is based on pure political dogma, rather than proper analysis?
Given that so much of the revenue from the London congestion charge is generated by fines, there probably is a fairly stealthy element to it.
I return to the point that I was making. A key part of reconciling local congestion charging projects with social justice is to ensure that where they operate, they are accompanied by viable alternative travel arrangements open to those on lower incomes. We hope that before embarking on the schemes envisaged in part 6, local authorities will make the greatest efforts to ensure that they are accompanied by measures to improve local public transport. That is why we are seeking the clearest of guarantees from the Government that the funds raised by these schemes will stay local and will be used for improvements to local public transport and local roads. Yes, there are safeguards in clauses 97 and 98, but we all know that ways can be found to squeeze budgets and grants in the expectation that the local authority can make up the shortfall with revenue from congestion charges. We will test these clauses strongly in Committee to do all we can to ensure that no such circumvention is possible and that the funds stay local and remain devoted to transport.
We will scrutinise the provisions on interoperability carefully to seek to ensure that we will not end up with a patchwork of different requirements across the country requiring multiple equipment for drivers.
I do not see this as an instance of hypothecation. The charges are about transport. They should be devoted to transport.
A central concern for the Opposition on this part of the Bill is that on local charging schemes, the Government are trying to have it both ways. On the one hand, the Government clearly want the charging schemes to go ahead, or they would not have made transport innovation fund bids conditional on the introduction of congestion charging. On the other, they do not want bear the political risk that goes with those schemes. The Secretary of State wants to keep her head below the parapet and let local transport authorities take the flack for introducing new charges. That is wrong.
Is not my hon. Friend fully justified in using the phrase “stealth taxes” in relation to congestion charging, because in the Bill the word “congestion” does not appear? The reference is to road charging schemes. Such a scheme would not necessarily have to have reducing congestion as its main aim. It could be used for raising taxes.
My right hon. Friend raises an important point. As ever, he has studied the Bill carefully.
The transport innovation fund should not be used to bully or coerce local communities into introducing charging schemes. The decision on those schemes should be taken locally, not in Whitehall, so TIF bids should be judged on the merits of the transport ideas that they propose, regardless of whether they include congestion charging.
The point of the way in which the Bill is framed in the context of the Welsh Assembly, for example, is for the Assembly to decide whether or not road charging is appropriate. Instead of being dictated from this place, the matter should be devolved to Wales to be decided locally.
I shall come to that clause in a moment. I am astounded that the Bill seeks to water down the requirements to consult local communities on charging schemes. The Opposition will strongly oppose clause 104, which contains the same text as the much-criticised clause 73 of the draft Bill, which downgrades the importance of consultation. We note the concerns expressed on the clause by organisations such as the Select Committee on Transport, the RAC Foundation for Motoring and the Association of British Drivers.
As the Bill passes through the Commons, we want consultation requirements strengthened, not weakened. For example, given the impact that congestion charging can have on rail services, it is vital that the consultation process includes rail and freight operators. I note the useful representations received from Network Rail on that point, emphasising how important it is that local authorities take into account relevant rail plans, such as route utilisation strategies in a range of activities touched on by the Bill, including the local transport plans covered by clause 9.
We have said time and again that these schemes should go ahead only if they are locally led—if they have the consent and support of local people. That is why we will table amendments to empower and encourage local authorities to hold referendums either before introducing such schemes or once they have been up and running for a trial period. We do not seek to mandate this approach, but we wish to send the signal that a referendum should always be seriously considered as an option, and we will seek to clarify the legal status of local referendums. It is a concern in Bolton, for example, that should the referendum that the local authority is contemplating in that area go ahead, it would have no legal status at all.
During the passage of the Bill, we will do all we can to ensure that it cannot be used as a Trojan horse for the introduction of the Government’s untried, untested spy-in-the-sky national road pricing scheme. Our steadfast opposition to such a scheme is just one of the reasons why we shall oppose clause 115, which could make Wales a potential test bed for the Government’s national scheme by giving the Welsh Assembly power to introduce charging on all Welsh trunk roads. No such power for equivalent English roads is included in the Bill. Why should the Welsh have to put up with unpopular policies that the Government are, as yet, not quite foolhardy enough to put into practice elsewhere in the UK?
It is a matter of huge concern that that significant revenue-raising power is being introduced by the back door in a transport Bill without the high-level debate on the constitutional implications of the change proposed. As the noble Lord Glentoran pointed out in the other place, the clause effectively gives the Assembly the power to levy taxation in Wales, despite the fact that it has no such power within the current constitutional settlement. There is, of course, every danger that the provision could be used as a stalking horse for a UK-wide scheme.
Labour’s deeply unpopular spy-in-the-sky national road pricing policy just will not seem to die; just when we think we have nailed it, it returns to grab us by the throat again. The national scheme was announced with a fanfare by the now Chancellor during his tenure at the Department for Transport, but the Government seemed to signal a retreat on it after 1.8 million people signed the Downing street petition opposing it. Given the shift in emphasis to local projects, it began to look as if the Secretary of State had recognised how misguided the Government’s plans for a national scheme were. Yet sadly it transpires that, just as happened with home information packs, her voice is not heard very loudly in the Government—lo and behold, the Chancellor suddenly announced plans to revive national road pricing in his Budget.
The truth is that such a scheme is fraught with risks. In the hands of the Government, an IT system to track every one of the 33 million vehicles on every road in Britain, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, is simply a public procurement disaster waiting to happen. There is no reason to believe that the DVLA has the quality of data needed to make such a system operate smoothly in practice, given its inadequate performance on rogue drivers and tax evasion. Even the Government’s own figures suggest that details for as many as 7.5 million drivers may be wrong. Above all, how could we possibly trust this Government—the people who lost in the post the personal details of every family in the country—with sensitive data on where every vehicle is on every road on every day of every year?
There might have been technical ways in which to tackle those privacy issues, but the catastrophic breaches of data security in recent months show clearly that the Government simply could not be trusted to put them into practice in a competent way. The series of data disasters show that the Government have failed in their basic duty to safeguard the interests of the people whom they were elected to serve. The Government have well and truly forfeited the right to be trusted in running the national road pricing scheme that they propose. That is one of the reasons why we shall oppose giving the Bill a Second Reading.
In conclusion, we believe that in their 10 years in office, the Government have wholly failed to tackle congestion. We have the most overcrowded roads in Europe. The Government have abandoned their targets for cutting congestion, broken their promises and left many local communities waiting years for much-needed bypasses. Their quality contract proposals were always a retrograde step, and it is no wonder they have lain unused, gathering dust on the legislative shelf, since the Government introduced them. We have seen the Government running for cover on their flagship roads policy, and 1.8 million people expressing their strong opposition. The Bill fails to make up for the 10 years of Labour failure on local transport. That is why we have tabled the amendment.
I rise to support the Bill and oppose the amendment. My contribution will be brief, but I want to welcome the Bill. This Second Reading follows last night’s approval of the financial regime for the new national concessionary fares scheme; together with this Bill, that spells a good week for public transport.
The Bill is long overdue, of course; as the Minister pointed out, the privatisation of bus services has led to a 20-year decline in bus ridership. Conversely, that has been accompanied by 20 years of healthy profits for the big five bus companies, which have cherry-picked the profitable routes, leaving thousands of our citizens with an inferior, and in some cases non-existent, bus service.
The privatisation took control from elected local authorities and left local councils with little power to protect local services, except at considerable public cost. Given that public subsidy to the bus industry provides 33 per cent. of bus operator profits and that every bus is subsidised to the tune of £35,000, the public have a right to demand a say in how and where services are provided.
The Bill begins to address the anomaly, and has the potential to reverse the decline in bus ridership. I say “the potential” because, good as this measure is, there could, as the Bill stands, be opportunities for bus operators to frustrate the desire of local transport authorities to provide better services to their communities. The system of approvals boards, appeals tribunals and possible judicial review, which is open to exploitation by bus operators, could delay the implementation of quality partnerships or quality contracts for years, during which operators would be able to continue to run unsatisfactory services or, in some areas, not to provide services at all.
Given that there is an urgency to improve public transport, attract motorists out of their cars, reduce congestion, improve local economies and clean up the environment, we cannot afford for progress to be unreasonably or unnecessarily frustrated in the interests of bigger profits for the bus companies.
I do not oppose private businesses making profits; on the contrary, I worked for a private business for more than 20 years, and I never thought it a good idea that my employer should make a loss. However, the profits in the bus business are very healthy—healthy enough for the bus companies to co-operate with the local authorities as the Bill intends without causing shareholders too much concern. The era of “take, take” by the bus companies has to be replaced by a system of sensible and responsible co-operation in the interests of all. I hope that during its consideration in Committee and on Report, the Bill can be strengthened to reflect the legitimate public interest that stems from the public subsidy to which I referred earlier.
My hon. Friend’s point is incredibly valuable. I know of bus services that are cancelled, delayed, taken off—nobody knows about it and nobody answers when we ask why. Is he suggesting that a system of penalties should be included in the Bill so that operators know that if they do not deliver, we will?
I agree. The Bill does include penalties. The important point is that the penalties should be real, not ones that could be passed on to the bus customer or the local authorities.
The Bill also makes provision for the creation of integrated transport authorities that would replace metropolitan passenger authorities such as the Tyne and Wear passenger transport authority. It is vital that the new authorities be made up of locally elected councillors with the statutory power to ensure the provision of good-quality, comprehensive, integrated, public transport systems. They should not be frustrated in that task by bus operators or unelected quangos. If Ministers mean what they say when they talk about giving more power to local people and enhancing local decision making, they have the opportunity to make actions follow words by ensuring that the provisions of the Bill bring that about.
This morning, I welcomed to the House a group of students from Gateshead college, which is in my constituency. One of the issues that they raised with me was the lack of convenient public transport to get them to the magnificent new college premises on Gateshead quayside, and the cost of such buses as there are. I hope that the new ITAs will have the power to deal with the provision of such services and that, even now, the PTAs in the region can, in consultation with bus operators and other stakeholders, make progress towards the introduction of a new concessionary fare system across the north-east for young people in full-time education. That would do much for the young people themselves; it would also help close the skills gap and do much for the local economy.
The Minister is indicating that she has met Bus Buddies members, and I am sure that she is as impressed as we in the region are by the work that they have done.
The Bill also deals with local congestion charging or road charging, which, while it may have its place and may even be inevitable in some areas, must be preceded by the provision of much improved, widely available, good-quality, efficient and affordable public transport. The provision of the latter may well, to some extent, negate the need for the former. However, we have to face reality. Many people will still use their cars, and road transport will still be the major form of transport in the United Kingdom for the foreseeable future. A properly linked-up, well maintained road network is an important part of local transport planning and provision—indeed, buses themselves need such provision—so roads will still need to be improved and, in some cases, new roads built. That, too, must be part of efficient transport planning.
I welcome the Bill and congratulate the Government on introducing it. I hope that during its passage through the House it can be fine-tuned so that it can bring about the revolution in public transport provision that is so badly needed, and needed now, by our local communities.
Let me begin by welcoming the Bill and indicating clearly that my colleagues and I will support its Second Reading. That is not to say that we do not have problems with it—naturally, we do—and we will seek to raise some of those this afternoon and again in Committee. However, the Bill undoubtedly takes us in the right direction.
Before I come to those concerns, I must say something about the speech by the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers), which was the apex of incoherence as regards putting forward any sort of argument. She said that the statutory quality partnerships and contracts that had already been introduced were not working. That is quite true, and Bill has now been introduced to ensure that they do work by making it easier for local authorities to take part. She then said that certain issues in the Bill are worth exploring and acknowledged that it has some good points, but she then reached the conclusion that we should vote against Second Reading and abandon the Bill entirely. But that would mean that we would be unable to discuss those good points as they come up in Committee, unable to reform the current quality partnerships and contracts that she recognises are not working, and that we would be forced to carry on in some sort of Neverland where buses do not work properly, bus fares are going up and passengers are unable to get the service that they require. I do not know what kind of transport policy that is. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mark Hunter) says, it shows the strategic understanding of Olive from “On the Buses”. We deserve rather better than that. The hon. Lady said that she did not want to wind things back to the 1980s, but that is precisely what she is doing. She may not look like Mrs. Thatcher, but she certainly sounds like her at times.
The Minister was kind enough to nick my line from last night about Mrs. Thatcher saying that that nobody over 30 uses a bus unless they are a failure in life. That is part of the problem. Buses have not been seen as a sensible transport alternative; instead, people have been driven on to the roads, and the consequence is that congestion is worsening, climate change is worsening as result of increased emissions from transport overall, and bus usage is declining. The Bill does not offer the perfect answer to that problem, but it goes some way towards resolving it.
The Conservatives’ alternative, in so far as there is one, is to go back to the days of unrestricted deregulation in the 1980s, but that has failed us. Hon. Members may remember Nicholas Ridley—the person who wanted councils to meet once a year to hand out contracts and who said, when he was Transport Secretary, that the aim of deregulation was
“to halt the decline that has afflicted the bus industry for more than 20 years.”—[Official Report, 12 February 1985; Vol. 73, c. 192.]
Since then, there has been a catastrophic decrease in bus usage, which has halved from nearly 9 billion journeys in the 1970s to 4.7 billion. However, there has been an increase in bus journeys in London—20 years ago one in five journeys were made by bus in London, and now it is almost two in five. London has been a rip-roaring success and the fantastic deregulation-world presented by the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet has been a total failure.
I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman about that. There has been a decline in both periods. However, the objective of deregulation, according to Nicholas Ridley, was to halt the decline, but it has not done so—the decline has got much worse over that period. That is not simply to do with the number of buses running and the passengers using them—there is also the cost aspect. Any analysis of the cost of travelling by bus shows that in recent years—I regret to say that it is also true under this Government—it has gone up significantly, while the cost of going by car has gone down. All the wrong signals are being sent. Since 1997, the cost of going by bus has gone up, in real terms, by 13 per cent. above inflation, while the cost of going by car has gone down by 10 per cent. We need to address that—or are we content that people who make green choices pay more than those who make un-green choices?
The hon. Gentleman is delivering a masterclass in ideological myopia, which we are used to from the Liberal Democrats. He is surely being disingenuous in not seeing a causal link between bus usage and the demographic changes that have happened across this country over the past 20 years, particularly in respect of real incomes and car usage. This is not just an ideological political issue.
Demographic changes have occurred in other countries as well. There are fantastic successes in bus usage in other European countries. As a matter of fact, demographic changes have occurred in Brighton and Hove, as the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet said, and we are seeing success there. Demographic changes have occurred in London, and there are increases in ridership there. The implication of the hon. Gentleman’s intervention is that when people get rich, they stop using buses. That is not true at all—or at least it should not be. I can tell him that I certainly use buses, as are more and more people. He seems to be repeating Mrs. Thatcher’s view that people who are successful do not use buses and people who do use buses are failures.
That is a gross distortion of anything that Mrs. Thatcher ever allegedly said. I merely invited the hon. Gentleman, for whom I have a great deal of respect, to comment on the fact that this is not solely an issue of dogma and political theory. It is not that rich people do not want to use buses but that people who have opportunities to use cars in their local neighbourhood and beyond will choose to do so if the bus service is not clean, efficient and priced correctly.
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman’s last point. We need to achieve a standard whereby buses are reliable, have a good regular services, are clean and reasonably cheap, and people feel safe using them. If we get all those things lined up together—as in most of London—we will find that people do use buses. Those are the key aims to hit, but that is not happening under the current system. The regulatory regime across the country is not delivering, except in sporadic locations. I am afraid that my own local authority in East Sussex has had a system of cutting bus support continually over 20 years. It has not been able to cross-subsidise unprofitable services from profitable services because that option was taken away in 1986, and the consequence has been that large numbers of my constituents are now without buses.
Is it not a simple fact that deregulation has failed even on its own narrow, dogmatic terms? In most areas, certainly in my own, services are usually provided by a monopoly provider, and when subsidised services are put out for tender, there tends to be just one bidder, so the notion in the Tory amendment about free competition nonsense in practice.
I am afraid that it is, because that is exactly what does happen. It is sometimes even worse than that when the operator says that it wishes to withdraw from a subsidised service. In those circumstances, there is a tender process, the tender price has to increase, and the same operator then bids again and gets the contract. I do not wish to castigate all bus companies, but the fact is that some of them are making a great deal of money. Bus prices are going up and bus ridership is going down, and that is not a combination that I wish to see.
Yes. I would not want to say that Transport for London is perfect in all aspects, because it certainly is not, but there is a coherence to the London network that does not apply elsewhere. I have constituents who have got a job somewhere because there is an early-morning bus to get from their village to the nearest town, but the company running the service then notifies the traffic commissioner that it is going to withdraw the service. Where does that leave that person and their job? Such unpredictability means that people cannot rely on buses, which is why people who are failures, in Mrs. Thatcher’s words, use buses. They have no alternative. I want buses to be the best they can be, which they are in many towns, so that we can get people using buses because they are good. Buses can be good, and can make a real contribution to our public transport system—far more so than at present. We need to move towards such a situation, and the loosening up of the regime for quality partnerships and contracts gets us some way towards it.
I want to talk about the mixed picture in the country because the situation is not uniform. The London system works well, but there is a subsidy involved. I take the point made by the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer); even before the Mayor’s subsidy, there had been a stabilisation in ridership—the word we are expected to use this afternoon. Nevertheless, a heavy subsidy is involved, so that is a downside. In Brighton and Hove, Roger French is the managing director of a very good and innovative bus company that is not necessarily supported by the local authority. He certainly has not been supported in the way he ought to be by East Sussex county council.
Other passenger transport executives and local authorities are forward looking—I include Manchester in that. Manchester PTE has a very forward-looking collection of people, who are not necessarily well served by the bus companies. I would categorise Norfolk Green, the Norfolk bus company, as a good one that has the support of the local authority. The patchwork arrangement throughout the country means things can be very different, meaning that different solutions are required for different areas. Deregulation was a mistake, but absolute re-regulation is not necessarily the right policy, given the position we are starting from and some of the successes in the country.
The trick is to get more people on buses, which means hitting those targets to which I and the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) referred to a moment ago. Getting people on to buses would also help in dealing with climate change because that is better than having lots of different road vehicles all following each other.
The key to the Bill, and its heart, is the relationship between the bus operator and the local public transport body. Getting that balance right is the difficult bit. I am not sure that the Government have got it right yet, but they have had a stab at it. We need to explore the matter in Committee to ensure that the balance is just right. We do not want to give bus operators too much power or we would have a continuation of bad practice, but we do not want to give local authorities too much power because they might eliminate—perhaps by default or by accident—some of the good practice that exists. Getting that balance right is the difficult part.
The concept of having partnerships and contracts is right. The concept of cross-subsidy is right; we can now have socially provided services subsidised by profitable services. That is a good idea, and the fact that we lost that opportunity during the past 20 years is part of the problem, particularly in rural areas. We must not remove what works well, and we do not want successful routes diverted to serve odd roads because some constituents want those roads served; that would minimise the success of the main route bus service. We do not want the livelihood of small successful operators to be removed, which theoretically could happen under the quality contract regime. I have some sympathy for the Conservative position on that, if I understood it correctly.
I referred to Norfolk Green earlier, and the Minister is familiar with its case. It has a well-patronised coastal route service between Fakenham and Norwich. It is a small company, which has established that route and patronage of it through its own efforts. It is possible, if a quality contract zone were established, that that route would be taken away from the company. The employees would be protected, thanks to amendments to the Bill passed in the Lords, but the company would not be. That is a genuine issue. We must ensure that individuals who have done well in a deregulated world and have provided a decent service do not lose out as a consequence of moves to make a more coherent stance in local government for bus contracts. We have to be careful how we frame the legislation.
The hon. Gentleman makes a number of interesting points. Would he accept, however, that the Bill allows local authorities to introduce plans for their area that can include a combination of commercial routes, community transport and subsidised services? That should enable greater flexibility and, hopefully, a greater meeting of local needs as a result.
I accept that the Bill does that, and that would be an ideal solution. Clearly, it is not in the interests of a local authority to run Norfolk Green or a similar company out of town. It ought to use such a company’s expertise in part of the contract. Nor would it be sensible for the authority to put all of its eggs in one basket and have only one bus company for a big area, leaving it vulnerable the next time the contract is up for renewal. I think that the Minister made that point to me when we had a conversation about it. Nevertheless, the arrangements theoretically allow the Norfolk Greens of this world to lose business, and we have to be careful about that when framing the legislation.
Can the hon. Gentleman be a bit more precise about what could be done to amend the Bill to cover that point? Surely it would not be possible to amend the Bill to allow a situation where such a small company could be protected and possibly compensated without opening the doorway to compensating Stagecoach, FirstGroup or other companies for routes that they may lose.
That is a fair point and leads me to the approvals board and the arrangements that the Minister described in her opening comments. She made a sustainable case that there should be external validation of such contracts. That is right. If there were no external validation, I am persuaded that it would be easier for bus operators to take legal action, which would cost local authorities a lot of money, and the operators might be successful in that action. The idea of some sort of external validation is probably right. I do not like it much as a concept, but it is a logical step.
To return to the intervention of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts), what sort of external validation process would pick up the points I have raised? How can we get a process that is legally sensible and protects local authorities without making it so cumbersome that the inadequacies of the Transport Act 2000, which the Minister recognised in her opening comments, are repeated? We do not want a system of hurdles that is merely a different set from the one in the 2000 Act. We want to ensure that this Bill achieves something. If we come back in five years’ time with yet another Bill, we will have collectively failed.
What balance should be struck? I am uncomfortable with the idea that there should be an approvals board and a referral to the transport tribunal—and, in theory, the High Court beyond that. There will be three levels of hurdles that can stop a local authority—which is democratically elected, after all—from pursuing a policy. It would be more sensible if there were an arrangement where the approvals board came up with a conclusion and made a recommendation to the PTE, so it could have the final say. Such a system would resemble what happens when the Environment Agency makes recommendations to a local council on flood defences. The planning authority still makes the final decision, but the Environment Agency makes the recommendation, and woe betide the local authority should it ignore it. Most local authorities will pay attention to such advice, but the elected members still have the final say. It would then be possible to have an appeal to the transport tribunal thereafter. One of the hurdles would be cut out.
Alternatively, the approvals board could make the decision, as the Minister suggested, and the transport tribunal could be cut out with appeals going directly to the High Court. Either of those scenarios would ensure two hurdles rather than three. That would be more helpful in getting the balance right between local authority power and the operator’s right to appeal. It would still have the proper right of appeal, and such a state of affairs would be legal-proof. I will be considering amendments along those lines in Committee and I hope that the Minister will sympathetically consider the points I raise.
A number of objections have been made about the present arrangements by the Passenger Transport Executive Group, as the Minister will know. It makes the point that there are no limits on the grounds of appeal to the transport tribunal, and an appeal can be made by any consultee to the original quality contract application. That dangerous situation leaves the door wide open. We do not want a situation where local authorities face more risks, hurdles and delays.
I am concerned that the traffic commissioners, good though they are at dealing with overweight lorries, do not yet have expertise in the area in question. There is a training function to deal with. They are being given substantial new powers that are important in the Bill, and I am not necessarily convinced—I mean no disrespect to the individuals concerned—that they have the necessary training to undertake such a role. We need to understand what the Government have in mind to ensure that the traffic commissioners are able to undertake the role allocated to them in the Bill.
Secondly, the traffic commissioners say that they are underfunded and that there is not enough money for their current functions. If we load more functions on the traffic commissioners without allocating more funds to them, I fear that a lot of decisions will be made rather quickly and not very well, which would be in no one’s interests. By the way, I would like to add in passing that it is good that we have an arrangement whereby traffic commissioners can deal with unsafe buses more robustly than previously.
I do not have a problem with unelected persons being members of integrated transport authorities—I am old enough to think that ITA means “independent television authority”—but I feel strongly that it is inappropriate for them to have voting rights. By all means let us bring in expertise, but the danger of having unelected people with voting rights is that there will be a temptation for those who appoint them to load up the ITA with those sympathetic to their views. That might undermine a democratic local election result that had produced a majority for one party, which could be transformed by the appointment of unelected people of a different political persuasion. I therefore hope that unelected members will not have votes.
I welcome the proposals on community transport, which both the Minister and the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet mentioned. It is sensible that we can have drivers who are paid when bigger vehicles are used. I also welcome the amendments in the Lords, which will enable passenger transport executives to provide vehicles to community transport operators. I am concerned about the bus users’ arrangements, however. We need to make them more robust and ensure that they are more independent of bus operators and more accurately reflect bus passengers requirements than they appear to.
Lastly, I listened with interest to the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet on road pricing, just as I have listened with interest to Ministers on road pricing over the past few months. A variety of policies have emerged, none of which is particularly consistent with the others, so let me make plain where my colleagues and I stand on road pricing—we do not mind saying so. We think that the answer is a national road pricing scheme, which would give the necessary coherence to transport planning and would allow, for example, road tax to be abolished entirely, which cannot be done if we have only local schemes. We also think that a national scheme would enable us to price transport movements by carbon emission across the country. A national scheme would also be potentially much fairer—it would also be revenue-neutral, by the way—to those in rural areas, who currently pay far more for petrol than those in central London, which cannot be sensible.
When the opportunity arises, therefore, we will be arguing for a national road pricing scheme, albeit probably not in this Bill, because it is outside its scope—at least I suspect that it will be, if I try to move amendments to that effect. In so far as we have local road pricing schemes, I welcome them. Local authorities should have the opportunity to innovate and experiment as they wish. I do not regard that as a restriction on local authorities, but a power for them to take forward if they choose to do so.
My only hesitation, if I am honest, is that the Government are running a bit shy of road pricing. They are happy for local authorities to take a couple of hits and to see how schemes bed down, before they take forward a policy themselves. That is an abdication of the Government’s responsibilities, so I was pleased that the Chancellor mentioned national road pricing in the Budget. We need to move towards that, both for the good use of the road network and for environmental reasons.
The Conservatives are hostile towards road pricing, but perhaps they ought to talk to their friends in the CBI, which is quite in favour of road pricing when it talks to me, as are many environmental groups. Once again, I fear that the Conservatives are showing themselves to be completely out of touch with business, the environment and bus passengers, just as they have done throughout this Second Reading debate.
I conclude by welcoming the Bill. We shall be moving amendments in Committee in respect of some of the issues that I have mentioned, but I assure the Minister that we, at least, shall approach the Bill in a constructive manner.
I intend to be fairly brief, because I fully expected a 10-minute limit on speeches, given the importance of the debate. However, the lack of Opposition Members in the Chamber has given us an unexpected amount of time in which to make our speeches.
Obviously I welcome the Bill. It represents a great opportunity to create the powers necessary to enable integrated transport authorities to put passengers first. The Bill is long overdue. For too long, many bus passengers outside London have suffered from unreliable services, reductions in services and, on occasion, even the withdrawal of services, all at the behest of the bus operators, who, as things stand, have to give only 56 days’ notice before a service is withdrawn.
Every three months in Sheffield and across South Yorkshire, services are withdrawn, changed or reduced. That can no longer continue. Where services to deprived or isolated areas have suffered, the passenger transport authority has had to plug the gap with publicly funded subsidies. However, other areas have not been so lucky, suffering from patchy provision that fails to meet the needs of local people. The statistics speak for themselves. In the major urban areas outside London, bus use has halved in the 20 years since bus services were deregulated. In the past year, the use of light rail services has increased by 9 per cent., but the use of bus services has increased by only 4 per cent. That is a welcome upturn, but in the context of increased usage of light rail and trams, bus services are still lagging behind.
People are voting with their feet. In London, the use of bus services last year increased by 6 per cent., but outside London it increased by only 3 per cent. I would suggest that London has got something right—something that the rest of the country needs to follow. The Bill offers the metropolitan areas and every other area outside London the opportunity to catch up.
Patchy service quality is evident throughout the country, with around 16 per cent. of all buses spot checked by the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency issued with prohibition notices. Nearly 12 per cent. of bus services by mileage have disappeared altogether in the metropolitan areas in the past eight years alone. We also have poorly co-ordinated services. One of the biggest complaints from my constituents is that buses, trams and trains in South Yorkshire are not integrated. There are examples of passengers boarding buses at stops near their homes, but having to get off and use services run by other operators and having to buy more tickets. That is crackers and, in the interests of the passenger, it must change.
No wonder complaints about bus services form by far the largest part of my correspondence with my constituents. I have called a number of public meetings since I became an MP three years ago, including two public meetings over the withdrawal of bus services. With little notice and little effort, the rooms were packed with local people complaining about the withdrawal of services. Given South Yorkshire’s past, it is no wonder that bus users in the area are so disgruntled. Most people who talk about the glory days of South Yorkshire transport refer to the cheap fares policy, with a 12p maximum fare for adults and a 2p fare for children. London is now emulating that, with its free bus rides for children, but those days have gone.
One of the best aspects of the service in the ’70s and ’80s, which is often not remembered, is how well it worked in terms of routes and frequencies, how it got people to work and leisure activities, and how it got children to school. For instance, it was no problem getting from Rotherham, on one side of the Don valley, to Sheffield, on the other, by bus. Even on a Sunday, it was relatively easy to get a bus from one part of South Yorkshire to another. It was not difficult for pensioners to enjoy market days across South Yorkshire—Barnsley one day and Doncaster the next, as well as Sheffield, for its then renowned Castle and Sheaf markets.
The ability to get around and make the best use of leisure and shopping services across the area is important to pensioners. However, pensioners in particular complain that their buses do not turn up. They complain of frequent changes to the routes that they use regularly. Indeed, not very long ago I was a local authority councillor in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts). Down in the south-east of Sheffield, the complaints were about the withdrawal of services and about services to local shops and hospitals not turning up. Now that I represent the north of Sheffield, I hear exactly the same complaints from constituents in High Green, Chapeltown and Ecclesfield.
My constituents complain not just about being unable to get to Sheffield for work or Meadowhall for shopping, but about being unable to get to Barnsley. For those who live in the north of Sheffield, Barnsley is just as likely a destination for work or leisure as Sheffield city centre. The key point for most of my constituents is that their local bus service does not meet their needs, and does not connect them to essential services such as local hospitals and shops.
Workers are also giving up using the bus to get to work. When the bus on which they rely fails to turn up not once, not twice but three times and more, making them late and embarrassed when they finally get to work, it is no wonder that they give up using the bus and take to their cars. If they cannot rely on the bus service to get them to work on time, of course they will turn to their cars. However, if they have no car because they cannot afford to buy or run one, what option do they have? Their employment and their relationship with their employer are put at risk. That is why the Bill is so important.
I want to talk briefly about the quality of the experience. At long last, buses in Sheffield are improving, but for too long they were unacceptably old, unkempt and dirty. Too many of them are still inaccessible to the elderly, the disabled and women with young children in pushchairs. Indeed, many of my constituents still hold on to the romantic notion of a return to the old days of conductors on buses. Conductors were able to help people with heavy shopping or pushchairs to get on to the buses. Indeed, one of the reasons that the supertram service in Sheffield is so successful is that it has reintroduced conductors. The reintroduction of that service has made an unbelievable difference to the usage of that network.
Bus drivers are often under intense pressure to deliver to timetable, with the consequence that journeys are often uncomfortable, with buses swinging round corners and moving off from bus stops before passengers have had a chance to sit themselves down. That point was made strongly by Help the Aged, and the problem could be resolved by quality contracts and quality partnerships, which would give local authorities some control over frequencies and routes.
For all those reasons, the Bill is really welcome. The proposal to establish a new passenger watchdog has widespread support, but the work that it is expected to do will have to be fully funded if it is to be effective. The strengthening of the role of the traffic commissioner in enforcing better punctuality is also welcome. The suggested relaxation in the regulation of community transport provision is welcome, as that will incentivise greater use of the service. I am pleased that that subject has been mentioned today by every speaker so far, because I believe that community transport matters have been overlooked in the general debate so far. In the long term, they could prove to be one of the most effective means of connecting the elderly and people who live in hard-to-reach communities to mainstream transport services.
An area in the north of Sheffield, Stocksbridge, is an incredibly hilly community, built on the steep sides of the Don valley. It is very difficult for the elderly people there to use the mainstream bus service, because they simply cannot get from the bus stops to their homes. The local community transport service, the Stocksbridge Flyer, has proved invaluable in providing a service to help the elderly and disabled people in Stocksbridge to get about and to get to the shops at least twice a week. I attended the anniversary of the establishment of the Stocksbridge Flyer last year, and I know just how valued that service is.
The proposals to make quality partnerships and quality contracts easier to use look promising. At long last, a range of options is to be made available that will allow decisions to be made locally about how bus services should be delivered. I am frankly astonished that the Opposition should suggest that it is somehow wrong to give local authorities more power to decide how to run their bus services. I am astonished that the party that pretends to be in favour of the devolution of services has made a commitment in the Chamber today that it would revoke quality contracts and quality partnerships if it came to power. I am confident that, when my constituents hear the Tory views on re-regulation and on the proposals before us today, they will decide that the Tory party will not be the party of government for them when we get to the next general election.
The Bill offers a promising way forward for local bus services, but that does not mean that it cannot be improved. It contains provisions that will require careful scrutiny and thorough discussion if we are to get the legislation that we know we need to transform our bus services. For example, quality partnerships are to be enhanced in order to allow the specification of timings, frequencies and maximum fares, which makes sense if local transport authorities are to invest in bus priority lanes and improve bus shelter provision. However, the Bill as it stands gives operators a wide-ranging right of objection to proposed timings, frequencies and maximum fares. This aspect of the Bill must be thoroughly aired in Committee because, while it is reasonable to assume that bus operators entering into quality partnerships will want to be assured that it is worth their while to do so, such concerns could be raised during the negotiation of the agreement itself. If a local transport authority proved to be intransigent in its approach, the bus operator could, and surely would, just walk away.
Sheffield has initiated the one and only quality partnership in operation in this country, and the city fully supports the extension of partnership rights to cover timings, frequencies and fares. At the end of the day, if the right of objection in the Bill is intended to calm the nerves of the operators about the extension of partnership powers, that is surely not a sufficient reason for its inclusion in the Bill. I reiterate the key point that it is right that bus operators’ expertise and concerns should be properly reflected in any partnership agreement, but that right does not need to be included in the Bill.
I particularly welcome the measures on franchising. They will probably have the greatest application in the metropolitan areas, where quality contracts will be substantial enough to secure operator interest. Franchising offers a real opportunity to think through routes, frequencies and fares in a strategic manner, with the public interest at the heart of the process. It offers a real opportunity to put passengers first. However, the Bill proposes a process for securing franchising that could involve not only an approvals board—as the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) mentioned—but a transport tribunal. And, at the end of that process, there would still be the option of a legal challenge. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that that process appears cumbersome. Those of us who have waited so long for this legislation are feeling nervous that we might stall at one of these hurdles in the Bill, while we are in the process of putting the quality contracts in place.
I entirely understand that the referral of a franchising application to an approvals board might well offer a degree of protection to integrated transport authorities against legal challenge by bus operators. I agree with the hon. Gentleman and the Minister on that point. We must be careful, however, not to compromise the right of local people to determine the shape of their services for themselves. As the Bill stands, there is a danger that that could happen. In other words, while it is probably helpful that the process of franchising be tested, especially in the context of a possible legal challenge, it is not helpful to include in the remit of the approvals board the decision to franchise. This is an important point on which I would appreciate clarification when the Minister winds up the debate. By all means, let us have an independent voice involved in the scrutiny of franchising agreements, to ensure that the interests of all parties involved have been met, as far as that is possible. At the end of the day, however, bus operators will continue to engage in the provision of services on a commercial basis, and that reality will have to be reconciled with the need to meet the interests of passengers.
Let us not forget that bus operators will benefit from franchising. Long-term contracts will allow them to plan provision and rationalise costs. In return, therefore, they should recognise the need to shape services in a way that puts passengers first. It should be possible for franchising to reconcile the interests of all parties involved and the Bill needs to reflect that fact. I repeat, however, that it does not need legally to bind decisions to franchise to the approvals board.
As the Minister mentioned earlier, in looking at proposals for quality contracts, the approvals board would make an interpretation of the term “public interest”. What worries me—and I am sure, as the Minister should know, it worries many other Labour Members—is the degree of nervousness among us about how that term “public interest” will be interpreted by the approvals board. The Bill needs to be tightened up to ensure that we do not fall into the trap of using the interpretation of public interest views to turn down applications for quality contracts, which are demanded by the vast majority of passengers in areas like South Yorkshire, Greater Manchester, Tyneside and so forth—
And, of course, Merseyside.
Mr. Deputy Speaker, the Bill offers a more rational approach to the delivery of bus services. It offers potential social and economic benefits to areas like South Yorkshire, which needs to improve its transport provision if it is to develop economically. Although provisions for road pricing, which I support, are in the Bill, it sensibly refrains from forcing those provisions on localities.
I have to say once again that I was dumbfounded by the earlier comments of the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers), which seemed to suggest that we were talking about national road pricing by the back door. If we are in favour of devolving power, surely we should all support giving local authorities or integrated transport authorities the right to introduce road pricing, particularly if road pricing is right in itself. Road pricing may be required in any case, as and when congestion acts increasingly as a brake on economic development, which is why the CBI supports the Bill.
In Sheffield, there is only 15 per cent. capacity left on our roads. At some point, road pricing will have to be seriously discussed, but I agree with the CBI that it should be introduced only in the context of an adequate public transport infrastructure—a critical point. That is why the introduction of road pricing measures has to be voluntary; it has to be down to local authorities to decide when to do it. As far as South Yorkshire is concerned, better buses, integrated with local tram and train networks, provide the right context for road pricing, but the carrot should not precede the stick—and I am sure that that will apply across the country.
I support the Bill, despite its few shortcomings, and hope that it comes back to us on Report and Third Reading as an even better Bill than it is now.
The debate has been interesting so far, but I do not buy the synthetic surprise of either the Minister of State, Department for Transport, the right hon. Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton), or the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), who made a big thing of expressing amazement that the Conservative party intends to vote against the Bill. The Bill is something of a curate’s egg in that, irrespective of what view one takes, the proposals are not entirely satisfactory. We have heard that from the mouth of the hon. Member for Lewes himself and indeed from that of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith). They are clearly not entirely happy with the Bill as it stands. Surely if it is perfectly legitimate to vote for the Bill and seek to amend it in Committee, which is the Liberal Democrat position, it is perfectly legitimate for the Conservatives to say that they do not like the Bill and want it taken away in favour of something else. That is the essence of the Opposition’s reasoned amendment.
If I understand the right hon. Gentleman correctly from his intervention, his main interest is in road pricing. Are he and the Conservative party being straight with the House on that matter? Is their objection to road pricing an “in principle” or ideological objection to what he terms “stealth taxes”?
I hope that I am always straight with the House. I oppose road pricing, but my opposition is not necessarily one that cannot be overcome. I shall explain that more fully in my remarks, if I may. The point I was making earlier is that it is quite legitimate to say that the Bill has some good parts, but that we do not want to support it. I know what would happen if the Conservative party did not oppose the Bill. If road pricing ran into serious trouble further down the line and became hugely unpopular, both the Minister and the hon. Member for Wirral, West (Stephen Hesford) would say, “Well, the Conservative party did not oppose it”, so I believe we are right to oppose the Bill at this stage.
I suppose I should start by declaring an interest as a motorist and as the owner of a number of motor vehicles, although I have to say that I currently do not own a bus. The Greater London Authority Act 1999 and the Transport Act 2000 established the legal framework for local road pricing schemes in England and Wales. Those two Acts provide the basis of the existing schemes in London and Durham. The crucial change in the Bill for local road pricing is the removal of the requirement to get the Secretary of State’s approval before introducing such a scheme.
In the draft Bill, the Government set out the case for that change, saying:
“Removing Ministers from the decision-making process would make clear that local areas are themselves responsible for decisions on local schemes”.
That is what we were told, but it seems to many of us that that device is simply a way of moving responsibility for a potentially unpopular policy from the Government and on to local politicians.
I notice that the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) is not in her place and I have heard a rumour that she is poorly. I am sure that the whole House will join me in wishing her a speedy recovery to robust rude health. During the Transport Committee’s work on the draft Bill, it heard evidence from motoring organisations that opposed the move to introduce local road pricing schemes. The main area of concern of those motoring groups was what they view as the lack of proper consultation before such schemes can be implemented.
The Association of British Drivers said that
“there is to be less democratic control over charging. The Minister is giving up the power to require that there is public consultation, and charging authorities will no longer need approval of the Minister before introducing a charging scheme. The Bill seems to make it even easier for authorities to implement anti-car measures. There is no requirement for a referendum on road pricing/congestion charging. People must be given the chance to vote on road pricing/congestion charging. The main thrust seems to be to try and force people to use the bus regardless of whether or not it is appropriate or practical”.
I totally agree with that assessment.
Back in 2004, the Government commissioned a feasibility study of road pricing in the UK, which concluded that, with technological improvements, a national road pricing scheme could be feasible within 10 to 15 years. The study also concluded that a national road pricing scheme could, if properly implemented, reduce congestion by up to half the estimated levels in 2020. However, against that background, as I mentioned in an intervention on the Minister, the Labour party’s 2005 election manifesto stated:
“Because of the long-term nature of transport planning, we will seek political consensus in tackling congestion, including examining the potential of moving away from the current system of motoring taxation towards a national system of road-pricing.”
The pledge was quite clear: if we were going to have road pricing, motoring taxes would be reduced or cut elsewhere. I think that most of us would be willing to consider a road pricing scheme if that pledge was kept, but the Bill does no such thing. It seeks to introduce local road pricing without any commitment to reduce motorists’ taxes elsewhere. In 2006, the then Transport Secretary, now Secretary of State for International Development, said that the Local Transport Bill would
“help to pave the way for a national road-pricing scheme in the medium to long term”.
He made it clear that he saw the Bill as a test bed for a national scheme. In February last year, however, an e-petition appeared on the Downing street website calling for the scrapping of the Government’s plans—I think it still holds the record for the number of signatures on any petition, at more than 1.7 million. The Minister of State said that she was happy to talk to passengers, and that it was clear what they wanted. She also ought to listen to motorists, because it is clear that they do not want another stealth tax, which is how they regard national road pricing, given the lack of a concrete commitment by the Government to abolish or reduce taxes elsewhere.
The right hon. Gentleman is making a sensible contribution. Does he agree that the Government failed to get the message across? Had they presented national road pricing as a revenue-neutral arrangement, in the context of other road taxes being reduced, they might have had a different response.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The Government should also have made more of their pledge to seek consensus by opening up discussions with all the major political parties before bringing forward a scheme.
In the immediate aftermath of the petition, the Government announced an abandonment of the proposals. A few months later, abandonment changed to distancing themselves from road pricing. They stated:
“It is not the department’s intention, at this stage, to take the separate powers needed to price the national road network...We agree that there are congestion problems on parts of the strategic road network, but 88 per cent. of congestion is in urban areas. Therefore it is sensible to prioritise the assessment of road pricing in those areas.”
Asked to comment on where that left the national road pricing policy, the Transport Secretary said:
“The debate about national road pricing has become increasingly sterile”.—[Official Report, 4 March 2008; Vol. 472, c. 1589.]
We heard nothing more about the matter until the Budget earlier this month, when the Chancellor put it firmly back on the agenda and announced funding for pilot scheme projects to develop road pricing technology.
The Government have continually stressed that if they choose to introduce a national road pricing scheme, they will have to introduce a separate piece of primary legislation. So why are they bothering with the local schemes in this Bill? If they want road pricing, they should bring forward a national scheme and engage in a national debate on the issue, not bring forward such piecemeal local proposals. I have concerns that the Government intend to use such local schemes to test public opposition to road pricing.
The Transport Committee has rightly criticised the Government for forcing councils to adopt local road pricing:
“In the face of severe funding pressure we do not accept that Congestion Transport Innovation Fund guidance should, in effect, restrict the availability of funds for much needed improvements in transport infrastructure to only those authorities that will consider local road pricing schemes. This risks blackmailing local authorities to conduct road pricing trials on behalf of Government in advance of a possible national scheme.”
That is the answer to the question asked by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough—it will not be a genuine choice. Blackmailing local authorities is not a new phenomenon for the Government—the Department for Transport is already doing it.
My local authority, the East Riding of Yorkshire council, is excellent. Ministers have admitted that it has been excellent in many areas in comments made not only in this Chamber but in Westminster Hall. Recently, it wished to introduce some traffic management improvement schemes for the town of Bridlington. The Government agreed to provide funds only if it included a park-and-ride scheme. Blackmail was used to force the local authority, against the wishes of the local population, to include a park-and-ride scheme for the town. In case the Minister of State does not know, Bridlington is a seaside town and tourist resort. I have yet to hear of any family with young children, with buckets and spades and lilos, who wish to get to the beach using a park-and-ride scheme. Bridlington needs not a park-and-ride scheme but an inner-town multi-storey car park. However, it has been forced to adopt the park-and-ride scheme because of arm twisting by the Minister and her Department.
The same thing happened in Birmingham. When the city council decided to remove some unpopular bus lanes, which were causing congestion, the then Transport Secretary, now the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in my hearing threatened to remove funding from Birmingham unless it reinstated the bus lanes. I say to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough that the Department for Transport is already blackmailing—
Order. I am aware that the right hon. Gentleman is not referring to anyone in particular, but I am not too happy about the use of the word “blackmail”.
Let us say “under coercion”—the Department for Transport, no doubt with the approval of Ministers, is telling local authorities that they cannot exercise their free local decision-making process. If they want Government funding, they must make certain decisions.
Although the Bill sounds innocuous enough, it will be a coercion tool to force local authorities, against their better judgment, to introduce road pricing. They will be told that unless they comply they will not receive money. They will be told to comply as a way of dealing with underfunding from central Government. All that is from a Government who have made great play of connecting politicians and Parliament with the people. The claim that people are somehow distant from politicians when they should not be seems hollow when the Government pursue if not blackmail, then coercion policies against local authorities.
Why is there no prerequisite for widespread and proper consultation? What is wrong with testing local opinion and then listening to it? The removal of the Secretary of State’s approval for local schemes is an attempt to distance the Government from potentially controversial decisions, while forcing local authorities to gauge the acceptability of charging schemes. As the hon. Member for Lewes said, that is hardly leading from the front.
The use of the transport innovation fund to coerce local authorities to adopt road pricing schemes demonstrates that the Government do not believe in genuine devolution. The removal of the absolute requirement to consult the public before introducing a scheme, as the Bill proposes, is totally unacceptable.
The right hon. Gentleman is making an interesting case, but can he outline precisely what coercion the Conservative opposition group on Tameside council was under when, in the only debate that has taken place, it voted in favour, in a named vote, of the Greater Manchester transport innovation fund bid?
This might surprise the hon. Gentleman, but I am not privy to the policy group meetings of Tameside council Conservative group. I will make inquiries and get back to him on the matter.
As the hon. Member for Lewes has acknowledged, polling shows that the primary concern of British motorists is the cost of motoring. The public will not support a scheme, local or otherwise, that seeks to increase significantly the cost of motoring. Will the Minister tell us the status of the 2005 Labour manifesto pledge that promised to move away—move away—from the current motoring taxation system and towards a national road pricing system? Like the manifesto pledge to hold a referendum on the Lisbon treaty, it seems to have been ditched.
If road pricing schemes are implemented, many of us have genuine concerns about those who live in rural areas. How will they be affected as they go about their business? Evidence shows that residents of rural villages travel nearly twice as far by car as their urban counterparts. Although many in rural areas do not have personal access to a car, many of them seek to obtain a lift to and from town centres by asking friends to take them in their motor vehicle. Road charging schemes in rural areas could have a severe downside in terms of social effects unless other motoring taxes are reduced concurrently with the introduction of such a scheme.
It is already hard for deprived rural people to get a full range of services in their local market town. Many of them have to travel further afield to the bigger cities. There is rarely a suitable bus service in many villages and a car is often the only possible solution. A badly thought out charging scheme could have a devastating effect on those communities, and now without their having any say in the matter.
Although there are no specific proposals yet for a national road pricing scheme, one concern that many people in rural areas have expressed is that if it were introduced even on a local basis, it could encourage motorists to divert on to adjacent rural roads that are not designed to carry a high volume of traffic. That could add to road safety concerns.
The RAC Foundation for Motoring has also expressed its concern. It said:
“It is clear from research we have commissioned as well as from other sources such as the No 10 e-petition that there is widespread opposition to road pricing. In the light of this we are concerned at the proposal that the requirement in the Transport Act 2000 that promoters of the schemes consult all interested parties is to be dropped. We recognise that the associated guidance recommends consultation but remain concerned that the importance of comprehensive consultation is in effect downgraded by the change. We would press that the statutory requirement to consult be retained.”
Why has the Minister not listened to that quite sensible request and allowed the statutory requirement to consult to be retained? The Association of British Drivers said:
“The main change is that there is less democratic control over charging. The Minister is giving up the power to require that there is public consultation, and charging authorities will no longer need approval of the Minister before introducing a charging scheme. This bill seems to make it even easier for local authorities to implement anti-car measures”—
I have quoted some of that already.
The Bill would also allow the Welsh Assembly to make its own legislation on the making, operating and enforcing of charging schemes in respect of trunk roads in Wales. Trunk roads comprise the network of strategic through routes that are managed by Welsh Ministers. Obviously, it would be for the Welsh Assembly to consider whether, and if so how, it would be appropriate to exercise those powers. However, as I think the Minister acknowledged in response to my intervention, how can such a scheme be introduced in Wales which conforms to Labour’s 2005 election manifesto pledge to move
“away from the current system of motoring taxation towards…road-pricing”?
If the Welsh Assembly decides to implement road charging on all trunk roads in Wales, will vehicle excise duty be reduced for Welsh drivers? I doubt it. Will fuel duty be reduced for those motorists who fill up in Wales? I doubt it. I do not see how it would be possible to introduce such a scheme.
No, that does not answer the question. The hon. Gentleman has missed the point completely. The cost to the motorist would be higher. It may well be that the money raised would go on making local transport improvements, but in addition to paying fuel duty of 60 or 65 per cent., vehicle excise duty and for any permit for parking his vehicle, the motorist travelling through Wales would have to pay for using the trunk roads. That does not comply with Labour’s 2005 manifesto promise to move
“away from the current system of motoring taxation”.
It would be an additional tax wherever the money was spent, whatever it was spent on. If the Welsh Assembly is misguided enough to introduce such a proposal, my message to all holidaymakers is, “Forget Wales; come to East Yorkshire and enjoy Bridlington, even if you don’t use the park-and-ride scheme that is being foisted on it.”
I was asked whether I was against a national road pricing scheme in principle: would I object to any national road pricing scheme? The answer is no. Any politician who is serious and wants to be constructive in this place should be open to argument, even if the argument is for a proposition that initially he is minded not to support. I would be happy to review the terms of a national road pricing scheme because it might have merits.
The other day I came across a speech by the Minister of Transport speaking in the House on 2 December 1920 when he was introducing vehicle excise duty. The argument Sir Eric Geddes adduced for introducing vehicle excise duty was that
“the whole essence of the new taxation is that it shall be one tax, and that all the other taxes shall be merged in it or otherwise wiped out.”
Referring to the motorist, he said that
“his payments will be in one tax, without irritating additions.”—[Official Report, 2 December 1920; Vol. 135, c. 1489.]
Does that not hold true today? If there was a national road pricing scheme and it was the only fee that a motorist had to pay—if vehicle excise duty were abolished and the duty on fuel largely abolished—it might be acceptable, provided that there were exemptions for the disabled and other groups, and provided also that there were times of the day when the fee paid was less, perhaps even zero. If that were the scheme, it could make better use of our road space. A zero rating during non-rush hour periods would encourage motorists whose journey was not time-sensitive to drive outside usual motoring hours, thereby freeing up road space for those who were obliged to travel during the busiest time of the day.
It could do to a point. There is a difficulty the further back we go. I think that before 2001, manufacturers did not reveal what the emissions of the vehicles they manufactured amounted to. If we go back even further, to historic vehicles, there is no way of measuring their output unless they are brought into a testing station. I do not think we would want to go there for the gain that we would get. We could, if we wished, differentiate the charge for those vehicles if we had a rule that linked the scheme from the time when manufacturers made the information public. I am not convinced that I would want to support such a scheme, but it could be done.
A national scheme in the form of one tax replacing all others would have some attraction. I have not set my judgment in stone against supporting such a scheme. I would like to see the proposals first, but it might benefit many motorists. Certainly, it would be more logical than the London congestion charge scheme, which was introduced by a Mayor at the same as he phased out double-decker buses and introduced buses that take up double the road space. If the Mayor is against congestion, why on earth is he doubling the space occupied by buses?
I have a couple of specific questions for the Minister. The first concerns clause 50, which applies the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and is entitled “Carrying of passengers in wheelchairs in vehicles providing local services”. Admittedly this is a fairly small point, and I do not want to suggest that too much hinges on it.
Many tourist areas, such as the one that I represent, use historic vehicles to transport the public because they increase tourist interest. I believe that the local authority area represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill), who is not in the Chamber at present, is the only one in the country to use a Sentinel steam bus to carry passengers. Part of the attraction and appeal of a historic vehicle is its period authenticity. Will such vehicles be exempt from the requirement for alterations enabling them to accommodate wheelchairs, which might completely destroy their character? I should not have thought that there were more than 20 in the country, but where they are used they are valued by the public, and I think disabled people accept that they are vehicles from a bygone age when their interests were not properly considered. I am certainly not aware that any disabled group in my constituency has campaigned for the right to board one of those historic vehicles with a wheelchair.
My second question concerns clause 120, which relates to foreign-registered vehicles. According to the explanatory notes that the Minister has kindly published to accompany the Bill, one of the purposes of requiring information about them is
“to promote compliance with test certificates under section 47 or 53 of the Road Traffic Act 1988”.
I am a little puzzled about why a foreign-registered vehicle need comply with a British Road Traffic Act if it has a valid test certificate issued in the country where the driver lives and the vehicle is registered. Surely if a Spanish tourist, for instance, visits the United Kingdom for a holiday with a Spanish-registered car that has been tested in accordance with the rules in Spain, a fellow European Union country, he need not take any further measures in order to drive his vehicle on our roads.
I do not think that Conservative Front Benchers need apologise for deciding to vote against the Bill. There are some good bits in it, but in the main it represents a missed opportunity. I should have liked it to contain, for example, a moratorium on the construction of speed humps, which are a complete menace. They increase pollution in the form of both airborne particles and noise. We now have far more effective LED-operated flashing signs, and I think local authorities should be told to introduce more of those and stop constructing speed humps.
The Bill could have been used to trial a number of innovations apart from road charging. It could have provided for motorists to be allowed to turn left at a red light, as they are allowed to in America—although because Americans drive on the other side of the road, they turn right at red lights. It could have provided for trials of traffic lights during non-busy periods being switched to amber in all directions to allow motorists to cross junctions with care. It could have provided for more use of flexible speed limits. Why should a 20-mph limit outside a school continue to be enforced when the school is on holiday, rather than being changed back to 30 mph? I understand that regulations introduced by the Minister’s Department allow that to happen only if the sign is electronic, and that because electronic signs cost more, most local authorities retain the 20-mph limit when schools are not open because it is cheaper to do so.
There should be financial assessments of park-and-ride schemes so that we can find out how much they are costing local authorities—which would probably mean the cancellation of the scheme in Bridlington, for instance. There should also be speed-limit audits, and speed camera partnerships should be abolished. All those provisions would have been welcome.
I certainly think that that should be debated, and we may be given an opportunity to do so if the Bill is given a Committee stage—although I regret to say that owing to his elevated position on the Chairmen’s Panel, my hon. Friend will not be able to serve on the Committee. That will be the House’s loss.
This is a curate’s egg of a Bill. It is bad in parts. We should therefore not swallow it whole, as my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) says in her amendment. We should say to the Government “Take it away, and give us something else.”
That may well be the case, but it may also be due to the fact that Conservative Members have a long and undistinguished record of being uninterested in bus services.
The fundamental point made by the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire about the Opposition’s right to oppose is clearly right, and I do not blame the Conservatives for that. What raised eyebrows and prompted comments from Labour Members were the terms in which the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) opposed the Bill. According to the amendment, the Conservatives oppose it
“because it encourages the introduction of Quality Contract schemes to reregulate bus networks”.
Surprisingly, however, the hon. Lady proceeded to say how jolly good what are, in effect, compulsory quality contracts in London were.
Throughout my speech, when challenged on this point—as I was on a number of occasions—I made it clear that in my view a range of factors were at work in relation to increasing bus ridership in London which had nothing to do with the regulatory structure and operation in the capital.
The hon. Lady fails to recognise that when factors such as subsidy and density of population are disaggregated, all the indications are that regulation in London has led to a better transport system and more passengers than can be found elsewhere in the country. What she fails to understand, and what I think every Labour Member does understand, is that with the good investment, good subsidy and real political leadership from which London has benefited, a regulated transport system will be a good system.
The hon. Lady also failed to explain why, given a system that works in London on those grounds—she did not attempt to specify which of them should be removed—we should have two systems in England as a whole. She did not explain why England should have such an apartheid system of transport, whereby London gets political leadership because it has an elected body, so it gets subsidy and regulation, and therefore a better transport system. Those are the horns of the dilemma on which the hon. Lady was caught—and I must say that over the years I have seen one or two of my Front-Bench colleagues caught on the same horns and have similar problems in respect of why there are two different systems in the country.
To understand why there are two different systems, we have to go back just over 20 years to when the then Conservative Government and Prime Minister launched a huge political onslaught on local democracy and local services. It went wider than transport, but for the purposes of this debate we should note that six metropolitan counties and the Greater London council were abolished, and we got a deregulated system. Although the Bill can be improved, one reason why I welcome it is that it attempts to deal with both sides of the problem—with the problems caused by deregulation and with those caused by the abolition of the metropolitan counties.
The hon. Gentleman seems to be stuck in a time warp. He is a Labour Member with a Labour-controlled city council in a disproportionately Labour area, and we have a Labour Government. After 11 years of that Government, who does he think is responsible for the lack of authority and autonomy in transport policy, and the discrepancy between Greater London and the area he represents? How can that be the fault of the Opposition?
The hon. Gentleman thinks he has made a clever intervention, but it is clear that the Conservative Government put us in the situation in which we find ourselves now. If he had listened to me—and some other Labour Members—he would have heard that we have been less than satisfied with the progress that our Government have made in reversing certain measures. My Front-Bench colleagues have heard from me at length both in private and in public on these matters.
My hon. Friend makes an acute observation about how the Conservatives behave.
What happened when those counties were abolished? The links between local democracy, local choice, local taxation and control of local bus services were broken. They were broken on the basis that although the people involved—Nicholas Ridley, who was Secretary of State, and some officials and outside advisers—did not know what would happen when deregulation of bus services was introduced, they believed that private, commercially operated bus companies would respond to the requirements of the travelling public by providing a better service. Indeed, in a small number of cases services did improve, but in the vast majority of cases they declined. We have already heard of the statistics, such as doubled bus fares, half the passenger numbers and reduced mileage, and they are well known in respect of areas outside London. What is less often expressed about the experience is that the bus companies did not respond as flexible, competing businesses serving the travelling public, but instead they became subsidy junkies. They responded to the amount of subsidy that was available, and they catered their services not for the travelling public, but for how much grant they could get. The Brian Souters of this world—he is from Stagecoach—go around saying how good they are at providing a service, but in fact they are always asking for huge subsidies.
Unless hon. Members know of the parliamentary question I asked last week, I would be surprised if they are aware that the Government believe that the subsidy outside the London area in the deregulated system is £3,500 per year per bus. The PTE group believes that for tendered services the subsidy per bus per year is £53,500—£1,000 per week per bus travelling in the system outside London. That is incredible. When there was local democracy, local taxation and control of services, for that amount of money we would have expected to be able to say what would be the frequency of service and where the buses went. Of course, that sum does not include investment in bus lanes and bus shelters and other parts of the transport infrastructure, which the Brian Souters of this world are always asking for while forgetting that they are being hugely subsidised. As a percentage of their overall businesses, they make more money and get a better return on their investment—although their buses are older—in the deregulated area than in other parts of the system. Overall, the bus industry is left with fewer passengers and we have twice the average bus fare of France, Germany and elsewhere in the EU before its recent enlargement. Therefore it is unsurprising if there has been a decline in bus fares.
Let me swiftly address the proposals, and some of the problems that I envisage and that I hope can be dealt with in Committee. I welcome the fact that the Government will leave the creation of integrated transport authorities up to local initiative; it will be for a local passenger transport authority to come forward and say, “We have a better scheme.” What lies behind that is the belief, for which there is supporting evidence, that if we transfer highways powers to a transport authority, and the transport authority can put in bus lanes and change traffic management orders for the whole of an urban conurbation, there is likely to be increased usage of buses and more bus priority measures.
It is understood that that is what is behind this proposal, but I have concerns about the process by which we get there, and at what levels Members and the electorate will be involved. On the process, in terms of addressing a medium-sized local government reorganisation—in the case of Greater Manchester it would involve 11 authorities and a number of functions—how adequate would the affirmative procedure and a one-and-a-half hour debate on the Floor of the House be? That does not seem adequate; we do not normally deal with local government reorganisation in that way.
I would not go the whole hog by saying that we should have primary legislation to make such changes, but I ask my Front-Bench colleagues seriously to consider making them by a regulatory reform order. Such an order would, as part of its nature, give people directly affected by the scheme the right to make direct representations to the appropriate Committee of this House. If that Committee thought the matter controversial or worthy of a debate, it could ensure that a three-hour debate took place on the Floor of the House. Anybody who witnessed what happened recently in Cheshire over the creation of two authorities will know that the reorganisation of functions and powers of local authorities is controversial, and that hon. Members and the public have views on such things.
That is the position as far as the House changing the law and the powers of local authorities is concerned, but what about the people? Although the concern of transport Bills and the Transport Committee is to improve transport, there are competing issues as to whether an area has bus lanes or not. The right hon. Member for East Yorkshire mentioned the appropriate example of the debate in Birmingham about bus lanes. We would be saying to the local electorate that they can no longer vote directly for the person who will makes choices on those functions. One obvious solution is to have a directly elected transport body, some other form of election or a serious form of consultation before those decisions are made. In terms of filling the gap left following the abolition of the Greater Manchester authority and the other metropolitan authorities, the Bill is democratically inadequate; there is a democratic deficit in dealing with those matters.
I come to local authorities, because if those powers are transferred, this will not be just about the electorate. Bury metropolitan borough council or Trafford council, which oppose a congestion charge in Greater Manchester, can say individually, “We are a unitary local authority. We do not have to agree with what everybody else says. These are our highways. We are not going ahead with it.” If the powers are transferred by a simple process in the Bill, both Bury metropolitan borough council and the Bury electorate would have no direct say in what is happening. The case needs to be thought through a great deal more than it has been.
No, I intend to vote for the Bill, because as I said in my opening remarks, it contains many good things and it is moving in the right direction. However, I hope that by argument and discussion in Committee we can improve it by the time it comes back to the Floor of the House on Report and on Third Reading. I take the exact opposite view to that of the right hon. Gentleman, but that is not surprising, because he is in opposition and we are in government.
I have listened to what the hon. Gentleman said, and I am grateful for what he has done. Does he not accept that Bury will have representation on the local transport authority and will therefore be able to argue its case? It is not that the views of Bury will not be listened to, but it will have to take its chance, along with everybody else, in terms of developing an integrated transport policy.
I accept the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. Of course, Bury would have representation and would be able to make its case. The difference would be, first, that its electorate would be excluded. Secondly, whereas Bury currently has a veto—it can say no—it could in future be oppressed by a majority of nine to one. Such oppression could happen in other ways. At some time in the future the political complexion might mean that the inner authorities are in a minority compared with the outer authorities—that has not happened for a long time, but it has happened—and I would not want Manchester or Salford oppressed in that way.
What is behind these proposals is the fact that the Government are keen to try out congestion charging in Manchester—again, the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire touched on this issue. The chairperson of the passenger transport authority has referred to the pressure put on it as the Government blackmailing it into having a congestion charging scheme, and I just want to say two or three things about that long debate, which it is part of this discussion, although not the main part. The reason why that is happening is that Manchester wanted to extend its tram system. We have got £500 million towards a £1.5 billion tram scheme and the Government have said, “If you want the extra £1 billion and, incidentally, some more for buses and trains, you will, in practice, have to have a congestion charge.”
I do not think that that is fair when one looks at the investment that is being made in London. The case for investing in the tram and train systems in Greater Manchester stands on its own, and a separate case would have to be made for introducing a congestion charge. Surprisingly, the figures produced by the urban traffic control unit in Manchester show that congestion in 11 of the 14 centres of Greater Manchester has fallen since 2001. I suspect that that is mainly because of the opening of the M60. The number of journeys into that area has also fallen, and the Government statistics on speed in those areas show that, with some exceptions, traffic is speeding up.
So congestion is not getting worse. In fact, the Government have agreed with Greater Manchester authorities in a public service agreement that congestion will not increase by 2012 and, on that basis, have agreed to invest in a new traffic-light system. In the foreseeable future, there is no prediction that congestion will increase, and the Government’s figures—I am grateful to Ministers for written answers on the issue—assume that the price of oil will fall to $50 a barrel. That is highly unlikely to happen, so the case for congestion charging in Greater Manchester has not been made.
Congestion charging is not an experiment that can be introduced and then removed. It is an investment for 30 years, and on the basis of what we know about traffic, the case has not been made. However, we do need investment in public transport.
I find myself agreeing with the hon. Gentleman, because he is making a plausible and persuasive case for local autonomy and for decision making in transport and other areas to be devolved as far down as possible. Is the conclusion of his argument that there should be a disentanglement between financial inducements that have been offered to local authorities, such as has been offered in Cambridgeshire to introduce congestion charging in Cambridge, and bespoke, discrete transport schemes? If that is his argument, I would probably agree with him.
This is worrying progress that we are making. If the hon. Gentleman reads the Transport Committee’s report on local transport plans, he will see that we found a lot of evidence—it is similar to the evidence that the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire found—of unnecessary interference from the centre. I am strongly in favour of local democracy and having the right to tax locally and take decisions locally in line with what is appropriate for local areas. That principle is behind much of what I am saying. I am not against congestion charging in principle, either locally or nationally, but it has to be appropriate to the area and not introduced because the Government are pressing for it.
In five or six years of my asking, no Minister has answered my question to my satisfaction. Although I accept that London is a special case that has historically had investment in transport of 80 per cent. more per capita than the English regions, I have tried to find out why that 80 per cent. difference has gone up to 150 per cent. difference. There has been no answer to that question. At the same time as we in Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool and Southampton are desperate for investment in tram systems, the investment in London is increasing and much of it, such as the £2 billion spent on the Metronet fiasco, is being wasted. That money could have bought us tram sets in at least three major urban conurbations.
I want to finish with two points. First, I thank the Minister for allowing me time and access to the Bill team. I had a long discussion with her and the Bill team about quality partnership schemes. I do not have time to go into the detail, but at the end of that discussion I was convinced that quality partnerships would not work. Let us start to think about what a quality partnership is: frequencies, fares and timing are controlled in the partnership but there is access for others. It will be extremely difficult to get an agreement between the bus companies and the authorities about who will run the prime service at 8.30 or 9 in the morning—the most profitable routes. Anyone who is running a bus service will want to run those routes, not the 11.30 off-peak route.
Let us consider how access is organised. I understand, although I do not have quite enough interest to read it all, that the Minister has issued 70 pages of guidance on how to deal with that. That shows that quality partnerships—[Interruption.] I am happy to give way to the Minister, if she wants. She was just agreeing with me, I think.
On quality partnerships, does the hon. Gentleman not accept that the Government have made two stabs through previous legislation at making quality partnerships work? They have not worked. Does he not agree that the complicated procedures in the Bill are likely to have the same result?
Yes, I do. That is the point that I am coming to. It will be difficult to make quality partnerships work because of access to the routes. Integrated transport authorities and passenger transport authorities will have to grasp the nettle and bring in quality contracts.
I just want a bit of clarification. As I said in my speech, the important thing about the Bill is that it allows registration restrictions so that if someone else tries to get access to the route and that undermines the partnership, the traffic commissioners have the power not to allow them to run along that route. I do not quite understand my hon. Friend’s point that others would still be allowed to run along it and that the quality partnership would therefore not work.
As I understand it, the registration restrictions are part of the answer to the problem that I outlined. I accept that my right hon. Friend has made attempts to deal with that problem, both by allowing traffic commissioners not to allow more registrations and by giving guidance on how such issues should be dealt with. However, when the different companies challenge the issue it becomes so complicated that the arrangement is unworkable. It is in the interests of the travelling public to move to quality contracts.
To answer one point made by the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet, let me say that the quality contracts are not anti-competitive. They transfer competition away from the road, where it is wasteful and causes congestion, to a tendering process. That is exactly what happens in London. Incidentally, as those who participated in the debate on concessionary fares last night will know, the contracts deal with that problem. If the concessionary fares are put into a quality contract, there is no need to deal with all the complicated calculations about what would have happened on a bus before the people with concessionary fares got on to it.
The real answer for transport in metropolitan areas, and in most of the rest of the country, is to move to quality contracts, which are close to the system in London. Many hon. Members have made points about the complications that might be caused by the approvals boards and by traffic commissioners making decisions. I cannot see any reason why traffic commissioners should be able to put themselves into a better position than elected councillors to make decisions about the quality of bus services. That simply offends against local democracy. Placing a statutory duty on the integrated transport authorities to consult interested parties, and to get the process checked by an independent body, would provide as much security against judicial challenge as anything else.
This is a fight against avaricious bus companies that have made hay while the sun has shone over the past 20 years. They have used a system that, to give it the benefit of the doubt, was set up to allow bus companies to respond to passengers, whereas in fact they have responded to subsidy. As all junkies will—these people are subsidy junkies—they will fight to keep what they want: their subsidies. I shall finish with a quotation from Brian Souter, cited in the Sheffield Star on 30 October 2006. He said:
“If franchising or Quality Contracts are brought in we will put all our depots up for sale in South Yorkshire. That is not a threat”—
it clearly is—
“it’s just that we don’t think it is the way to make the system work”.
I think that it is the way to make the system work, and that the travelling public will benefit from it. I hope that Ministers and elected councillors on passenger transport authorities or integrated transport authorities have the stomach for a fight to get a better transport system in metropolitan areas and elsewhere.
First, I wish to say how much I enjoyed the speech of the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer), who is obviously an expert on the subject. I am not, alas, but I want to make a few points. I declare an interest: I am, by nature, a bus enthusiast. I actually enjoy travelling by bus. On the No. 148 and the No. 12 in the mornings, I have my best ideas—they are few and far between, but I do have them occasionally.
The buzz word nowadays is “integration”. I remember spending a family holiday in central France and southern Brittany back in the mid-1980s. The brand new car that I had bought a month before going on holiday broke down irreparably. I had to leave it there and travel back, with a baby and a young girl of three, by train from central France. We were in a rural setting, and I was absolutely dreading the journey. We went from one village to the next by train and then stopped, occasionally changing to a bus that was waiting to take us to the next railway station. Even now, I think that that is the benchmark for integration, even though it was back in the mid-1980s. I would love to see that situation mirrored in rural Wales, and I hope that one day it will be. It behoves us all to do what we can to ensure that public transport is available, reasonable and convenient.
I made an intervention on the Minister earlier about consultation on subsidies. There are members of the Select Committee on Transport in the Chamber, and I understand that it suggested until about eight months ago that the issue of subsidy should be part of the Bill. Although I had a full reply from the Minister, it would appear to fly in the face of advice given by the Select Committee.
Local authorities are obviously in a good position to play a major role in transport—that is quite clear. Like many people in this Chamber, a frequent complaint that I hear in advice surgeries is of a lack of co-ordination in the provision of public transport. That brings me back to the idea of integration. Sometimes a bus service where I live arrives at a town, allowing less than 30 minutes before the last return service from that town. At other times, an unduly long wait is in prospect, which is also quite hopeless. Travel to work is also an important issue.
The situation is made more confusing by the existence of the cross-border factors that are common in rural Wales. My constituency of Meirionnydd Nant Conwy is covered by two county councils. They do their best to provide good bus services, but the area also has two train operators running two separate lines. I welcome the parts of the Bill that deal with integrated transport schemes, and I hope that they lead to an improvement in due course.
The regulations under clause 18 will give Welsh Ministers responsibility for ensuring that services are properly timed, with reasonable fares, frequencies and so on. The quality contract schemes were discussed earlier, and I accept the contention from the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley that they will be complex. In Wales, however, they will be a matter for Welsh Ministers, and clause 18 sets out the criteria—frequencies, timings, fares, as well as maximum and minimum intervals between services and so on—that must be taken into consideration. If those criteria are implemented properly, the bad examples to which I have referred will become less frequent—in the area that I represent, throughout Wales and, of course, beyond.
I hope that the Bill will ensure better co-ordination of bus and train services in the future; otherwise, the offer of free travel to senior citizens will be something of an empty promise.
Furthermore, it is plain that the co-ordination of good services is an economic imperative. A growing number of people—although perhaps still too few—would prefer to use public transport if it were reliable, timely, safe, clean and relatively inexpensive. It should also meet all the other criteria that we all take for granted, and there is no doubt that those criteria will weigh heavily on the minds of those who, under the legislation, will approve transport schemes.
There is nothing new about subsidies. Clause 64 amends the Transport (Wales) Act 2006 and extends the powers to subsidise public passenger transport services to cover standards of service—the frequency or the timing of a service, the days or times of day when it is provided, and the vehicles used to provide it. The latter condition, of course, has to do with the quality-safety issue that we discussed earlier.
I hope that another criterion can be inserted into clause 64, as there needs to be a requirement for co-ordination with other local services. Integration of that sort is very important, especially given that we do not have passenger integration authorities in Wales.
The clauses dealing with road charging have led to fierce debate, even though they have been included in previous legislation. It is an understatement to say that the proposals have caused an argument, as the question of road charging seems to be one of the main reasons why the official Opposition will vote against giving the Bill a Second Reading.
The amendment uses rather extravagant language. It states that the House should decline to give the Bill a Second Reading
“because it transfers revenue-raising powers to the National Assembly for Wales without proper constitutional justification and in doing so allows Wales to be used as a test bed for the Government’s untried, untested national road pricing scheme.”
Is that hyperbole, or what? If the Conservatives are serious, they should tell us when any such scheme has ever been set up. To give Ken Livingstone his due, my journey every morning on the No. 12 bus is 10 minutes shorter than it was before he brought in his reforms. It is all very well to say that Wales could be a test-bed, but London has been used in that fashion anyway and, by and large, the operation has been very successful. It is disingenuous to hide behind the idea that we in Wales are suddenly to becoming guinea pigs.
The hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) asked why we in Wales should have to be subjected to the road pricing scheme. With respect, the answer is that the National Assembly for Wales said that it wanted it, because it wants to think about the environment, as it wants to set an example. Cardiff is a conurbation, albeit a smaller conurbation than many others, and it could be a beacon of good practice. We could start something new. We could show that such a scheme can work not only in London, but elsewhere. However, I take her point about the need for an alternative public transport strategy to be made available as soon as possible after the introduction of the scheme, or even when the scheme is introduced. That point is well made.
With regard to the Conservative view, a gentleman by the name of Andrew R.T. Davies, an Assembly Member in Cardiff, actually pleaded with the First Minister for the power to be brought to Wales. I shall quote from the Hansard of 11 March, just a few days ago. He said:
“One power that the Assembly Government is trying to seek from Westminster is over road charging, via the Local Transport Bill. Do you think that any of these schemes”—
schemes to which he had referred—
“merit road charging, given that the Deputy First Minister said that only new projects would be considered for road charging?”
He was pleading for road charging in his constituency, and said that it was high time that road charging was introduced.
I hoped that the Conservatives would have a settled view on a matter as important as road charging, but I do not for one moment accept that road charging is any kind of stealth tax. It is rather too obvious to be a stealth anything, really. If it works properly, its benefits will be equally obvious. To go back to a point that I tried to make earlier, any moneys recovered under a road charging scheme would be hypothecated for further road improvements, so in that respect we are not talking about a levy, with money being put into the general pot. There are safeguards that come into play.
Clause 115 allows for the creation of trunk road charging schemes in Wales, giving the National Assembly for Wales additional powers to pass Assembly measures under fields 5 and 10 of schedule 5 to the Government of Wales Act 2006. In other words, the clause allows the Assembly to impose charges on vehicles on Welsh trunk roads, in cases where Welsh Ministers are the traffic authority. One such trunk road is the A470, which runs the length of Wales from my constituency all the way to Cardiff. I do not think that Welsh Ministers are getting ready to impose charges on the entirety of that road. I hope that they will be thinking of roads near built-up areas—perhaps those areas where new bypasses are required—roads that carry large volumes of traffic, and certainly areas where there is an alternative public transport option. Common sense dictates that the areas should be those with viable public transport. The rather extravagant language of the reasoned amendment would make one think that we in Wales are suddenly to be crushed by an almighty shock in the next few months. Frankly, I do not foresee that, having read the Bill fairly carefully.
Clause 114 is important because it states that any moneys derived from road pricing would go straight back into schemes. Again, there will be a requirement on Welsh Ministers to consider asking the local charging authority to consult on, or allow a Welsh Minister to hold an inquiry into, a local charging scheme. That is appropriate. If a local charging scheme is to be imposed, a Welsh Minister will decide whether there will be a public inquiry, and I think that that is absolutely right, to go back to the point made by the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley. Meaningful consultation must be a core part of the Bill, and appears to be so in relation to the Welsh clauses.
By and large, the Bill will be useful. It will empower the National Assembly to do far more to provide good, sustainable, affordable public transport in Wales, but some legitimate concerns have been expressed about omissions from the Bill. The Freight Transport Association sent us all, I am sure, a briefing which refers to civil parking enforcement. The FTA says that that has led to a meteoric rise in the number of penalty charges issued in London to companies making legitimate and essential deliveries in the capital. It goes on to say that evidence from FTA members suggests that that effect is spreading well outside London as civil parking enforcement is adopted. The Bill might have been an appropriate means for changes to be made. The concern seems to be genuine. The FTA states:
“Penalties are often given for legitimate unloading—the maximum time may be exceeded because deliveries are consolidated”.
Further elucidation of those views might be forthcoming in Committee. The point is well made by the FTA that there is nothing in the Bill to promote the delivery and movement of freight. Perhaps that will also be considered in Committee.
The right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) called the Bill a curate’s egg and said that we should not swallow it whole. Swallowing eggs whole is best not done because there is the risk of indigestion and it is not good manners. I have one or two misgivings about the Bill. I do not suggest that it should be given carte blanche, but there are far more good things than bad in this curate’s egg. My colleagues and I will therefore vote against the reasoned amendment. On the admission of the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet earlier, there are several good things in the Bill. I agree. A policy of throwing the baby out with the bath water would be rather unwise.
It is a pleasure to follow most of the contributions to the debate, and particularly pleasurable eventually to follow the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight)—I apologise for mentioning him when he is not in his seat—who admirably performed the role of the parliamentary equivalent of a speed hump.
I am delighted that the Bill has come before the House. My comments are intended to be supportive. Like some of my hon. Friends, I shall suggest ways in which it might be improved. For years, various Labour colleagues and I have striven to make the case for bus operators to be made more accountable to the communities and passengers whom they serve. Indeed, on occasions I have referred to myself and my hon. Friends the Members for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) and for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts), among others, as
“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers”.
Now, we are joined by some energetic sisters in the shape of our hon. Friends the Members for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods) and for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith) and my right hon. Friend the Minister.
During at least nine years of debates in the Chamber, Westminster Hall and elsewhere, it sometimes felt as though we had fired off all the ammunition supplied to us by constituents and our own personal experiences, only for it to bounce off the rather thick-skinned responses from Ministers suitably briefed by their civil servants. That is one point on which I agree with the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers); beyond that, however, I cease to agree with anything that she said at all. While I am mentioning the hon. Lady, I should say that I displayed geographical ignorance earlier by not identifying the fact that she is herself a London MP. Given that, I wish to change what I said earlier and say that it is a pity that, if her party has its way, the benefits of regulation in London, which her constituents enjoy, will continue to be denied to my and most other Members’ constituents.
I accept that it is desirable for us to move forward on a voluntary basis if we can; one voluntary agreement is probably worth 10 pressed ones. I also accept that we need not necessarily always go down the road of quality contracts and that a range of measures could be deployed. Indeed, there might not be a quality contract for the whole area of regions such as West Yorkshire—not even for the whole of Leeds, where my seat is located; the contract might apply only to parts where it has been impossible to provide decent services by any other means.
The hon. Lady painted a rather rosy, Elysian-fields picture of the products of bus deregulation, but it in no way conforms with my or my constituents’ experiences. I wish I could say that it did and that the Bill was unnecessary. I cannot remember a time during my 11 years as an MP, or the years that I served as a councillor, when I have not been involved in taking up constituents’ concerns about the removal of, or damaging changes to, services provided to local communities.
Since deregulation, quality and standards have fallen dramatically and fares have gone up by almost 50 per cent. in real terms in West Yorkshire. The number of passengers has fallen by almost 40 per cent.—in round figures, that represents about 100 million passenger journeys. The declines in most other passenger transport executive areas have been even more precipitous; I understand that in PTE areas overall, patronage has fallen by about 50 per cent.
The problem with the deregulated system is that bus companies can pick and choose what services they provide and make profits even when they provide a poor service. Services are chopped and changed and are missing or late. Passengers feel powerless and vote with their feet, if they can, by using their cars. Many people in my constituency—and I am sure that this picture is replicated the length and breadth of this country—are being denied a reliable and affordable service to work, schools, colleges, shops, health centres and hospitals. As a result, they turn to councillors, MPs and the passenger transport executives, but they find that nothing can be done to resolve the problems.
While my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough was talking about having held public meetings, a Conservative Member shouted, “What next?” My hon. Friend did not rise to the bait, but we all know what is next—nothing at all. Communities, passengers, MPs and councillors can bring no power to bear on bus operators to ensure that they address the needs of passengers and communities.
The hon. Member for Chipping Barnet talked about empowering customers, yet her party’s amendment would deprive communities and their elected representatives of the ability to bring to bear powers that would provide the exact empowerment for which she purported to argue.
Passenger transport executives subsidise about 13 per cent. of services, and the rest are simply out of their control. There is little or no competition for contracts, so it is absolutely impossible to gauge whether there is value for money. I intervened earlier to drive home the point that even in its own dogmatic, market-driven terms, deregulation has been a failure.
The local network in my area comprises high-frequency routes such as service 4 into Pudsey, the 16 to Farsley and the 42 to Old Farnley, together with a combination of other routes on the Leeds-Bradford corridor. Services that serve local communities have been subject to successive changes that tend to have concentrated bus resources on high-frequency major routes, which are obviously primarily focused on generating profit. We talk about voluntary partnerships, but partnerships always exist on the basis of what bus operators are prepared to do; there are very few concessions to meet community needs.
I will not run through the roll-call of services that have been lost in my constituency over the past 11 years, because it would take up far too much time. For example, changes to services in Guiseley and Yeadon have resulted in the loss of significant links with nearby Bradford, which has caused tremendous hardship for regular travellers who depend on those services. Frequency has been reduced on services that penetrate local housing estates and provide links to Pudsey town centre, to the Owlcotes shopping centre and to Bramley. There is a frequent service through the centre of Farsley, one of the small villages in my constituency, yet half a mile away older people living in sheltered accommodation have lost their vital bus link into the Farfield estate. Links to local facilities such as health centres, post offices and supermarkets are often ignored as part of the operator’s service planning process. Another notable example in my constituency of the lack of bus links is the lack of any services to the recently rebuilt Wharfedale hospital and to primary health care facilities at Eccleshill in Bradford. I cannot remember a time when I have not been taking up bus service-related issues, and the present time is no exception. At the moment, my constituents and I are pursuing issues surrounding the removal of the 81 service, which serves several communities, and the 966 service that serves Yeadon.
As other hon. Members have pointed out, the decline in bus services and patronage affects not only passengers but everyone, whether they use buses or not. Poor services lead to increased car use, which creates even more congestion, pollution and road safety hazards in our communities. The message in the Conservatives’ amendment is, “We’ll just have more of the same; we’ll do nothing.” They said that the Bill could have been introduced in various guises of which they might have been more supportive, but we have not been given any examples of what those approaches could have been.
It is absolutely crucial that we get quality contracts right. We cannot have another false dawn such as that which many of us predicted in discussions relating to what eventually became the Transport Act 2000. It has taken us many years of cajoling and debate to get the message across that we needed to replace the “only practicable way” test. Like many of my colleagues who have this issue engraved into our very hearts and souls, I have some reservations about the process that is being proposed for the introduction of quality contracts. It feels as though having achieved the long-sought breakthrough, we are beginning to bend ever so slightly to the will of bus operators and, dare I say, the advice of civil servants. Quality contracts should be the last chance saloon; they should not be resorted to glibly or mischievously. Far from being in the last chance saloon, bus operators, through the process laid down in the Bill, will be able to engage in a quasi-legal pub crawl in the taprooms of the traffic commissioners and the transport tribunal before going for a big judicial booze-up in the courts. That will unnecessarily delay the process that is laid down. To move on to another analogy, I do not want an insuperable legal high-jump to be replaced by an interminable bureaucratic marathon. We do not need a long period of instability and uncertainty created by unnecessary tinkering with the structures and processes.
It seems to me, especially in discussion with those responsible at the sharp end for delivering the measures in the Bill, that the new process could involve agreeing a plan with the Government on funding for associated bus priority measures, an inquiry by the traffic commissioners, an inquiry or appeal by the transport tribunal and, potentially, a judicial review. My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley made it absolutely clear that whatever safeguards are built in, we will still find ourselves subjected to judicial review by bus companies that fight tooth and nail to prevent the introduction of quality contracts.
My right hon. Friend the Minister referred to the approach as being belt and braces, but to my mind, it is not only belt and braces, but safety pins and keeping our hands in our pockets as well—it really over-eggs the process. Try as I may—hon. Members with more experience may be able to correct me—I have not been able to find a parallel in local government decision making for this two-stage appeal process followed by an opportunity to go to court. In planning, major decisions are made that affect individuals, companies and commercial interests through applications, enforcement notices and structure plans, but we do not have a three-tier, or two-tier—call it what you will—appeal process. We do not have such a process in environmental health enforcement, licensing appeals or the allocation of school places, so why do we need it in this case?
Quality contracts in places such as Leeds and West Yorkshire will ultimately prove to be the only mechanism available to deliver the sort of services that communities need and passengers deserve. They should provide greater reliability because services will be thoroughly monitored and good performance incentivised. If we get them right, they will provide more stability with fewer changes to fares, times and frequencies. There will be better integration—a point made time and time again in this debate—and an ability to make services cleaner and greener, as the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) rightly said.
Implicit in the Bill is the assumption that local authorities and passenger transport authorities, or whatever their successors are called, will somehow engage glibly and mischievously in the pursuit of quality contracts, but nothing could be further from the truth. There are so many risks and complex issues that have to be taken into account before anyone embarks on this process. The transition to quality contracts and the associated legal process would be difficult enough, even if the Bill were straightforward.
Those who want to introduce such contracts will have to address issues such as the location of depots, bus fleets, or what to do if there is currently a monopoly, as referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley. All sorts of approaches could be implemented, such as the closing down of depots. No local authority or passenger transport executive in its right mind will engage in the process unless it can be confident that it will achieve value for money, that resources will be better spent than under the status quo and that it will find operators to run the services laid down in the contract. To suggest otherwise is to fly in the face of reality, experience and logic.
The point has been made about the extra measures introduced on statutory quality partnerships. To echo the views expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough, if operators are not happy with what has been suggested, they can simply walk away. I have still to hear a cogent argument that explains why the measures are necessary in such situations.
I close by saying that I welcome other measures referred to, such as the establishment of a bus champion. I hope that it will not be a half-hearted measure, but a rigorous proposal that has teeth and that is sufficiently regional or local for us to understand what the challenges facing passengers and communities might be.
In conclusion, it came as no surprise that the Opposition oppose the Bill, and specifically the quality contract measures that it contains. Change must come. Those of us who have any affinity with our constituencies and any sympathy with those who depend on buses know that change must come. The status quo simply cannot be allowed to continue. The case is overwhelming. I, along with a number of my hon. Friends who have spoken, want to ensure that the Bill puts into effect practical proposals for ending the long nightmare for bus passengers that has followed from bus deregulation.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell), who always makes an interesting contribution to our debates.
I beg your indulgence, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in allowing me to talk about quite a narrow issue relating to part 7 of the Bill, entitled “Miscellaneous provisions”. The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), who is no longer in his place, said that there had been some missed opportunities and, in the case of clauses 117 and 118, he was absolutely right.
I am indebted to the SPARKS programme, which is the cross-border civil traffic enforcement group, for its assistance to me in, I hope, putting the case to the House this afternoon. I commend to hon. Members its report of July 2007 entitled “Foreign registered vehicles on UK roads”. To put the issue in context, the expansion of the European Union’s borders has seen increased international trade and greater freedom of movement across borders. It is now estimated that 3 million foreign-registered vehicles enter the United Kingdom each year. The number of foreign goods vehicles visiting the UK has trebled over the past 10 years, while the number of European nationals employed in the UK has trebled in the past five years and the number of European visitors has increased by 50 per cent. The by-product of that has been a surge of foreign-registered vehicles on our roads, with estimates suggesting 142,000 such vehicles in the United Kingdom at any one time.
Such vehicles are difficult to trace, and it is often impractical to impose penalties for traffic or parking violations, or tax evasion, for example. There is a concern that some—not all—drivers of foreign-registered vehicles are aware of the loopholes in the system, particularly the inability to enforce penalties, and are therefore more likely to drive dangerously and take risks. The Department for Transport does not collate data relating to foreign-registered vehicles, however. Indeed, I have been informed that
“the enforcement of decriminalised contraventions is a matter for the relevant local authority; they are not required to provide such information to the Government.”
With no means of tracing, tracking or recording the number of foreign-registered vehicles in the United Kingdom, and with little idea of the patterns of movement, mileage or, of course, traffic contraventions, considerable strain is being put on local police forces, local authorities and enforcement agencies, which are being required to address the increasing incidence of foreign-registered vehicles violating traffic regulations ad hoc.
I should like to refer to a freedom of information request by the Peterborough Evening Telegraph this month—I am mindful of “Erskine May” and your advice, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so I will not wave a copy of the article. Suffice it to say that the response to the request revealed that between September 2003 and January 2008, 1,748 of 1,886 penalty charge notices issued to foreign-registered vehicles had been written off and remain unpaid, costing Peterborough city council—the local authority in my constituency—more than £86,000. Some reports nationally indicate that untaxed foreign-registered vehicles have cost the taxpayer £214 million in lost revenue in the past five years.
There are no robust data on the volume and mix of foreign-registered vehicle activity, or on how it is distributed across the UK. We can only conjecture with regard to the regional distribution of foreign-registered vehicles, but with migrant workers being accountable for 28 per cent. of all foreign-registered vehicles in the UK, we can speculate that many areas will have encountered the problems associated with having these vehicles on UK roads. This is no longer a problem facing only London and the south-east, and there have been recent examples of this issue as far away as Coventry and Loughborough. Tourist and goods vehicles also account for a significant proportion of foreign-registered vehicles on the UK roads, but the problems largely associated with those categories of vehicle are perhaps regarded as the lesser of two evils, so to speak.
Speeding and illegal parking are two examples of the contraventions that these drivers might be accountable for. In fairness, the incidence of persistent offending is relatively rare, but the problem has a significant impact on local communities, which are subjected to disturbance and dangers on their roads as a result of the irresponsible driving of foreign-registered vehicles. I mentioned earlier the cost of unpaid parking fines in Peterborough. As well as lost revenue, parking regulation infringements are responsible for disturbing and annoying local residents, who largely abide by the parking regulations. Furthermore, trying to recoup payment for the offences wastes the valuable time and resources of local authorities.
There is also a real concern that if penalties cannot be enforced, higher levels of violation will inevitably occur. This is making our roads more dangerous and more expensive for the law-abiding citizen, who must ultimately bear the burden of unpaid fines and penalties. Reports have suggested that foreign-registered vehicles are 30 per cent. more likely to be involved in an accident and 20 per cent. more likely to fail roadside tests, as their drivers are less likely to observe vehicle safety and maintenance regulations. In London, the drivers of foreign-registered vehicles are twice as likely as UK drivers to avoid paying the congestion charge. That said, we should draw a distinction between foreign-registered vehicles and illegal foreign-registered vehicles.
The significant increase in the number of foreign-registered vehicles on our roads is a direct result of the increase in the number of migrant workers in the UK, many of whom have failed to register their vehicles after the specified six months. Peterborough has experienced the considerable impact of a migrant population and the burden that that has placed on local resources. Reports from local constabularies and local authorities suggest that these drivers are more likely to contravene traffic regulations. That has certainly been the case in the Peterborough city council area.
There also appears to be a core group to whom the apparent weaknesses in the system have become clear. Those involved have now become repeat abusers of the system. Their reckless disregard for UK traffic laws and for the safety of the communities in which they live is being allowed to continue because of the Government’s failure—not necessarily a wilful failure—to tackle this issue.
As these vehicles have not been registered, they are unlikely to have car tax or insurance, or to have undergone any vehicle safety checks, which means that they pose a considerable risk. Perhaps most worrying is the apparent number of drivers of foreign-registered vehicles who, despite being aware of the regulations on vehicle registration, are now choosing to ignore their responsibility to get a legitimate licence or number plate, because they wish to stay outside the law and to benefit from the avoidance of fines and penalties.
SPARKS has stated that we need a “holistic”, equal and fair system for all drivers, because the present system is breeding a culture of complacency that leads some foreign residents to ignore our traffic laws. Indeed, the system appears actively to encourage some drivers of foreign-registered vehicles to avoid registration.
I accept that provision has been made in clauses 117 and 118 to deal with this issue, but that provision is limited. Without further powers, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency will be unable to provide local authorities with the addresses to which penalty charge notices should be sent when a foreign-registered vehicle has committed a road traffic contravention.
At present, the general situation is opaque and confused for local authorities, which has major resource implications, as I shall explain more fully later. One of the sanctions available is to clamp foreign-registered vehicles that persistently flout parking regulations, but Government guidance in respect of and under the auspices of the Traffic Management Act 2004 is that clamping should be discouraged and used only in the case of “serial repeat offenders”.
I have received a number of representations, particularly from the Millfield and New England areas of the city of Peterborough, from the city council, SPARKS and a number of other key stakeholders. It is an important issue. I concede that it may not be a pertinent issue to every Member in the House, but it certainly is to me, given that over the last four years 20,000 EU migrants have moved into my constituency and surrounding areas. That is why I am speaking on behalf of my constituents about this key issue.
On 26 April 2007, the then Transport Minister, the hon. Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman), answered a written question as follows:
“There is no current legislation available to the Agency, which allows for the prosecution of keepers of foreign vehicles who have failed to register their vehicles within the required timescales. However, if the Agency receives a report recording the sighting of an unlicensed vehicle on the road, the Agency is able to prosecute under the legislation provided by Section 29 VERA”—
vehicle enforcement for road authorities. The answer continued:
“There are practical difficulties with this and unless a name and address of the keeper of the foreign vehicle is provided the Agency is unable to pursue these cases. The Agency is able to utilise other enforcement action such as the wheel clamping and impounding of a vehicle.”
However, as so often in these cases, and as the Minister continued:
“The number of prosecutions of foreign vehicles under this legislation in each of the last five years is not collated.”—[Official Report, 26 April 2007; Vol. 459, c. 1205W.]
More recently, in a written answer of 14 March at column 694W, the present Minister prayed in aid the European Commission draft directive on cross-border enforcement of road traffic matters, which was published on 20 March last week. The weakness of the draft directive is that it includes criminal offences such as drink-driving, speeding issues related to seat belt compliance and so forth, but not parking or other civil traffic offences. It thus specifically fails to address the wider issue of unfair and unequal treatment of all drivers. Neither the draft directive nor, indeed, the Bill will level the playing field or equalise the treatment of resident and non-resident drivers. Furthermore, both the Bill and directive address only the issue of data exchange rather than penalty enforcement, which is, in fact, reliant on Council framework decision 2005/214/JHA, known as COPEN 24.
In conclusion, I fully accept that I have focused on a very narrow aspect of the Bill, but it is nevertheless an important issue that impacts significantly on my constituency. My plea to the Government is that it is now imperative further to examine these particular provisions in Committee with a view to tabling amendments. If the Government themselves do not table them, I hope that they will see fit to support other amendments when the Bill comes back on Report. As I say, the issue is important. I concede that the Government are considering amendments, and I implore those who are fortunate enough to serve on the Committee to support them. My principal concern is that the Bill does not go far enough in tackling repeat offenders and those who avoid registering their vehicles. On behalf of my constituents and others across the country, I strongly urge the Minister to consider this extremely serious issue carefully.
I will concentrate my remarks on the contents of the Bill with regard to local bus services, and briefly mention integrated transport authorities and congestion charging at the end.
Coming from South Yorkshire, as does my right hon. Friend the Minister, it is easy for me to lapse into thinking about the golden age of bus services in the late ’70s and early ’80s. We can have a bit of nostalgia for that, because when fares were 10p and 12p for adult passengers, tuppence for children and free for pensioners, people actually used their local buses. It was not uncommon to see in the same bus queue the steelworker in his overalls and the bank manager with his umbrella and bowler hat, because the bus services were for everyone. As a result, even motorists who used to complain about having to pay towards the costs of local bus services in their rates benefited, because they drove their car on relatively congestion-free roads.
Within a couple of years of deregulation, bus fares were rising, passengers were disappearing and congestion was on the roads in the centre of Sheffield, where it has remained ever since. We can have too much nostalgia for the past—we must recognise that life has moved on, living standards have changed, and the ways in which people conduct their lives have altered. It is therefore unlikely that we would have kept the same degree of bus use, even within a regulated environment. We must also accept that there were questions about value for money at the time, and about the restrictive nature of some of the services offered. We would want to move on from that, so I do not argue for a return to those days. But many of my constituents, particularly the elderly, are nostalgic, because their daily experience of local public transport is that services have got a lot worse.
Recently, passenger numbers have recovered slightly due to the elderly using their welcome free passes, for which the Government deserve great credit. Even so, for every person who rode a bus in Sheffield in 2006, there were three who rode a bus 20 years before. After deregulation, therefore, a third of the passengers are left. It is impossible to justify calling that a success; it is simply not working. The Conservative party’s claim that no change in the system is needed for areas such as South Yorkshire is completely unsupported by the facts, the reality on the ground and the daily experience of my constituents. Local bus fares have gone through the roof—from 10p to £2. Has any public or other essential service risen as much in price over the same period? I cannot think of anything that has, but perhaps somebody else can.
Congestion has arrived, with Sheffield becoming gridlocked on occasions over the past few years. The Government’s welcome extra investment in the inner ring road has helped to address that, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith) said, roads in the centre of Sheffield now have about 15 per cent. spare capacity at peak times. Traffic is growing at 2 to 3 per cent. a year, and it may slow slightly with the rise in fuel costs, but at some point gridlock will again be reached, unless something changes. I will deal with more such issues later.
The reality for individuals is that they cannot plan their lives. At 42 days’ notice, their lifeline—the local bus on which they rely—can be taken away. That lifeline might take someone to an early shift in a job across town, starting at 6 or 7 am. If the bus goes, their chance of that job goes. That lifeline might be needed by an elderly person to go to the home where their elderly spouse is. If that is taken away, that person may face either a journey of an hour and a half or two hours on several buses to get to that location or the prospect of moving their loved one. The service might be needed by an elderly person who can no longer get to a post office, or an elderly couple who cannot get to see their grandchildren because their residential situation has been based on the ability to get buses to do that and they do not have a car. It might be needed by young people who want to meet their friends in the centre of town at night and suddenly find that the bus does not run any more, which means that they either have to rely on their parents and lose their independence or not go out to their normal place of entertainment.
All those things are essential parts of people’s lives and they can be removed at 42 days’ notice. As my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) said, when the complaints come, the services can be removed with virtually no chance of redress or there is virtually no chance of any change being made in response. It is a policy of social and economic exclusion because it hits most the young, the elderly and those on low incomes—the people who do not have ready access to a car. It discriminates against them more than any other group in society.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough mentioned the nonsense that for years the passenger transport executive in South Yorkshire has been trying to get through-ticketing among the various bus operators, but they will not have it. They want to concentrate on their own narrow interests and on making profits for their company. If people happen to live in an area where First runs the buses and they want to get on the tram, which is run by Stagecoach, it is hard luck. They will end up paying more because the through-ticketing simply does not work.
We have the tram in South Yorkshire. I shall be a bit critical of my right hon. Friend the Minister because it should be extended. It is a great system. It works. It is popular. The Youth Parliament did an excellent survey in Sheffield which assessed young people’s attitude towards public transport. It was generally positive, but most positive about the tram, which it saw as a quality service because it was safe and reliable. It should run to Rotherham.
The tram was a top concern when the regional assembly looked at its list of transport priorities, but the Government said that it was not worth the money. I am a bit critical of that, and we might return to it at another time. However, the tram was designed as part of an integrated public transport service. Bus services linked in to it so that people could get on the bus, get a feeder service on to the tram and get quickly into town. As soon as the tram came in, we got a deregulated environment and the bus companies saw it as their job not to co-ordinate with the tram, but to compete with it. They designed their bus routes to run parallel with the tram instead of linking into it. That is a policy of nonsense. It undermines and undervalues all the public investment that went into it.
The hon. Gentleman clearly sees regulation as the solution to those problems, but we had the problem of buses competing with trams in Croydon, in the capital city. Transport for London ended up in court because it was deliberately scheduling buses in a way that was very competitive with the Croydon Tramlink. On that point, and I think on a number of others, simply regulating will not deliver the solution to the problems that concern him.
I would be interested to hear what solution the hon. Lady proposes if regulation is not the answer, because deregulation has proved an unmitigated disaster in terms of integrating transport. I challenge her on the point about London. She said that the situation is down to the subsidies rather than the regulation. My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) pointed out that prior to the extra subsidy, passenger numbers were holding steady in London while they were falling in the rest of the country. If the element of subsidy in London is so important, would she advocate, as a policy, putting that subsidy into a deregulated environment? How could a subsidy of that kind and amount operate in any scheme except a regulated one?
To pick up on just one point about subsidy and deregulation, one of the problems—hon. Members have expressed this at various times—of dealing with subsidies for the concessionary fare scheme in a deregulated environment is how to calculate that a bus company should not lose or gain as a result of its being introduced. It is a difficult and complicated calculation, which will always end up in an appeal or in the courts. The concessionary fare scheme is part of the tendered arrangement in the regulated environment in London. There are no arguments about calculation because each bus company that tenders for the arrangements makes its calculation about the concessionary fares along with its calculation about the overall tender. I would argue that that is a much better system in that sense as well, but again perhaps the hon. Lady does not see it that way.
As other Labour Members have pointed out, parts of our constituencies are not served at all. I could cite a number of examples, but recently the treasurer of Woodhouse Mill working men’s club came to see me. He lives in Woodhouse, at one end of the enlarged village, and Woodhouse Mill is at the other end. Because he lives at the wrong end and the bus service now stops at 7 pm, he cannot go to the club unless he drives. He has a car, but he should not really drive and encourage others to drive when they are going for a drink at a working men’s club.
Between those two areas is a magnificent new retirement village, Brunswick Gardens, which has proved to be a great success and a great improvement on other facilities in the environment. The people who live there, however, cannot go to the shops in Woodhouse at night. The removal of the bus service has taken away their lifeline. That is nonsensical, but the bus companies will not respond to complaints because they do not understand the wider issue.
South Yorkshire council was so concerned about the position that a couple of years ago it embarked on the process of adopting quality contracts, but it hit the high barrier of a quality contract being the only practical way of delivering services. I accept that ultimately more subsidy may be needed to make the scheme work more successfully, but at that time the council was faced with the reality of, in some cases, up to 20 buses an hour running on a single route while a neighbouring estate had no bus services at all. If the whole arrangement were put out to tender, it would probably be possible to manage with 15 buses rather than 20 on the main route with no loss of service or passenger numbers; but it would be possible to increase revenue and passenger numbers by using the other five buses—no more resources, just the buses—to serve the areas that are currently not served at all, and give people an incentive to travel to them.
Quality contracts make it possible to increase passenger numbers and improve services with the same amount of money that is being spent now. That will be a challenge for passenger transport authorities, but it is something that they will have to consider. As I have said, ultimately even more subsidy may be needed, and I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley that there is too great a disparity between subsidy levels in London and outside. That too will have to be considered.
I welcome the principle of allowing passenger transport authorities to adopt quality contracts if they wish. As the Local Government Association has pointed out, it is a matter of choice for authorities—something that I thought the Conservatives now supported. Although during their 18 years in government they did not give local authorities much choice, I thought we had seen a conversion, but we seem to be back with the same old Tory party. “We at the centre know best, and there should be no freedom for local transport authorities to decide”: that is their policy, and they should come out and admit it. I do not think that every transport authority should have to adopt a quality contract, but there should be a range of options of which that should be one.
I am listening to the hon. Gentleman’s speech with great interest. He is obviously passionate about the issue, and, like the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer), something of an expert on it. However, it ill behoves him to lecture Conservative Members on central control when his Government are using blackmail, monetary blackmail, to force on—
Order. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman was in the Chamber earlier when I said that I was not very happy with that particular word. Perhaps he will use a different term.
Forgive me, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was engaged in other duties involving a statutory instrument, so I missed that exciting part of the debate.
The Government are using coercion, financial coercion, to force on local transport authorities schemes that their electors have not chosen to pursue.
I do not believe that any authority has been forced to adopt any particular scheme, although there is money for which authorities can bid if they wish to introduce innovations in their areas. I shall deal later with the issue of congestion charging.
As I was saying, quality contracts empower local transport authorities and give them choice, and I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Minister and her colleagues for finally moving in that direction. Some of us had been arguing for some time that the present arrangements were not working, and that we needed to do something about them. However, I still have reservations about the procedure. I fear that, ultimately, it could allow an unelected approvals board to second-guess and override the decision of an elected transport authority.
I take on board the point—I shall want to pursue it further if I am involved in the Committee stage—that there might be dialogue with the approvals board; it might want to make some suggestions for the transport authority to look at to improve the scheme. I have no problem with that. My problem is that if the approvals board says it does not believe that it is in the public interest or represents value for money for a quality contract scheme to be adopted in an area, will that mean that it cannot be adopted, because that would override the view of a local, elected, accountable body?
To refer to an interesting point made by the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), before he spoke I had already written down in my notes the idea of having a statutory consultee. In considering whether to move to a quality contract or what the best approach is for local transport in an area, if a transport authority were required to take on board comments from statutory consultees, of which an approvals board could be one, that would enable input from such a board, but in the end it would be up to the transport authority to make the decision. If the authority overrode the advice of the approvals board, that could be taken into account in any challenge in a future court case. Appeals could still be made to the transport tribunal to ensure that the transport authority had followed the procedure laid down in coming to its decision.
The idea is that the transport authority has to go through a certain procedure, then the approvals board has to go through one as well and almost second-guess the process—I welcome the fact that it has to do it within the time frame that the Minister laid down—and then there is a tribunal that is meant to be held instead of judicial review, although there can be a judicial review as well. My hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey said that that was like replacing the high jump with a marathon; I think it replaces it with a series of high hurdles. It is possible that the democratically elected transport authority might fall before it crosses the finishing line. I feel uncomfortable with the amount of second-guessing going on and the fact that the approvals board can override purely in terms of its views about value for money or public interest. I would want to explore that further in later stages of the Bill’s passage. I agree with hon. Friends who have said that some of the bus operators are so determined to prevent this from happening that they will go to judicial review whatever consideration is given by whatever body before a quality contractor is brought into place.
I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Minister has recognised the issue of the potential threat of withdrawal of services by operators and will allow powers for the PTAs to run or purchase buses in the meantime as an interim measure; that is helpful. If we are to have real competition in moving towards quality contracts, she might also have to address the issue that South Yorkshire looked at concerning the provision of depots and of the PTE owning them in future, instead of an existing monopoly supplier being in a position to dictate terms and conditions. These are details, however, and the Government’s general approach of allowing choice locally is in principle welcome, and can move us forward from the current poor situation that many of my constituents find themselves in.
On integrated transport authorities, I welcome the Government approach of allowing local arrangements to be formulated at local level. We get ourselves in an awful mess if we are prescriptive about how things should operate, when there are many different local circumstances in different parts of the country. The Government should be congratulated on their hands-off approach. There are reservations, however, about the possibility of non-elected members being able to have a vote on transport authorities. In Sheffield, the city region is partly in South Yorkshire and partly in north Derbyshire, north Nottinghamshire and north Lincolnshire. A lot of people who come to Sheffield to work or for entertainment or other reasons live outside not only the city or county, but the region. There must therefore be possibilities for expanding the local passenger transport authority boundaries with the consent of, and after consultation with, the authorities and population in other areas, if we are to have a sensible long-term approach to passenger transport in the area. Again, the Government’s flexible approach allows for such local arrangements to be introduced if they are thought appropriate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough and I are probably two of the few people in Sheffield who have put their heads over the parapet and said that we support, in principle, the idea of a congestion charge scheme in the city. Such a scheme is probably inevitable in the medium term, let alone in the longer term. I am pleased that the Government now recognise that the decisions about such schemes in cities should be made at local level. I shall draw a contrast: if local authorities can be trusted to get this right, cannot they be trusted to get quality contracts right too? In one case an unfettered power is being given—although there must be consultation, ultimately the decisions lie with the local authority—but the same thing is not quite being offered on quality contracts.
One thing rightly pointed out by hon. Members—my hon. Friend the Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland) has mentioned this—is the need to improve public transport before congestion charge schemes are introduced, because there must be that alternative. I accept that getting the money up front is difficult, but the New Local Government Network has come up with an idea on tax, income and funding as a general principle for local government, and central Government ought to examine it. It suggests that local government should be able to anticipate the projected future revenues of a congestion charge scheme and borrow against those so that it can fund up front the capital improvements necessary in public transport before the scheme is fully introduced and motorists have to pay. Ideas have been proposed in this area, and I hope that Ministers will examine them.
One of the things that makes my heart sink is when someone walks into my surgery to complain about a local bus service, because I know that, in reality, I will probably not be able to do anything about a legitimate grievance. Other hon. Members have touched on that point. I have been in this House since 1992, and I have argued strongly on many occasions for a change in the legislation on passenger transport, because the bus service provision substantially disadvantages many of my constituents. The Bill offers the opportunity for many of my constituents who do not have it to get the bus services that they need and deserve. I welcome and support the Bill.
May I apologise for missing the start of the debate, Madam Deputy Speaker? I had another meeting to attend, which was tied in with my Front-Bench responsibilities.
I join other hon. Members in welcoming the broad provisions in the Bill, particularly the end to deregulation. All who represent urban areas have seen the devastating effect that deregulation has had on our communities and on the bus services on which many of them rely so heavily. If one looks outside the urban areas and visits rural areas, one will see that the bus network has virtually disappeared; as hon. Members have said, buses are infrequent.
Perhaps with one or two exceptions—places such as York, Cambridge and Brighton—deregulation has not worked, primarily because, as the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) said, we replaced what was largely a public monopoly—most bus companies were run by local councils—with a private monopoly; in most areas, it was replaced by five major bus companies operating in the conurbations. As he rightly said, the interests of those bus companies are about profit and maximising the amount of subsidy that they can get, rather than about providing a public service.
I served on a passenger transport authority, where I saw what happens each year as it prepares its budget. I have seen how the bus companies juggle which services they will deregister to maximise the subsidy and how the PTA is then forced to make cuts in its regular subsidised service or to increase costs to students and, in the past, to pensioners. Such a system does not have a good effect in terms of enabling proper planning and ensuring that the bus service and bus network meets the needs of the local community.
Deregulation has served those five major bus companies, especially when one compares the profits that those bus companies make with the return that they get in London, where there is a regulated network. In London, the return is 7, 8 or 9 per cent., but in Greater Manchester and Yorkshire, it is double that. In those urban areas, the private bus companies have profiteered at the expense of passengers and they are not providing the services that we want them to provide.
I do not accept the claim by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) that the past was a golden age. I remember one of my first actions as a local councillor was trying to get GM Bus, as it was at the time, to change a bus route, which proved impossible. When deregulation was introduced, we were promised that it would enable that responsiveness to passenger demand. That has not happened, and instead we have seen the withdrawal of bus services. An area such as Rochdale is primarily served by one company—FirstGroup—which provides a poor quality of service that does not meet local needs. Meeting local needs is not the company’s aim, because its aim is maximising profit.
I welcome the proposals in the Bill to introduce regulation, whether through quality contracts or quality partnerships. We have talked a lot about the ills of the past 20 years this afternoon, but we must start to consider what will happen now. As the price of oil increases—I am shocked that the Department for Transport works on an oil price of only $50 a barrel, when the reality is that it is already double that and likely to increase—and people are increasingly unable to use their cars, they will want to rely on public transport, so we need to develop those services. They need to be integrated and, at the same time, we need to address the environmental issues.
Some of the problems that affect urban areas outside London are that our buses are less environmentally friendly, much older and do not deliver a very good service. That is why they are not attractive to people and why light rail is so much more attractive. One of the disappointments of the Bill is the fact that the total bus subsidy that is paid to the operators as well as to the passenger transport authorities has not been put together. I am talking about the vehicle excise duty rebate, which at the moment is going straight back to the bus companies. I know that the Government are consulting on that point, but it would make much greater sense if, during the passage of the Bill, we could include the VED rebate as a part of the subsidy and forming part of the quality contract. If we want to encourage bus operators to run buses that are full, modern and environmentally efficient, we should grant the subsidy to those operators that can deliver those benefits. That would be a powerful incentive.
Other hon. Members have talked about the hurdles that are in place for quality contracts. We have had two Transport Acts now, but only one quality partnership contract has been signed. The problem is not, as the Minister suggested earlier, stopping other bus operators muscling in, because that is a problem only in a limited number of areas. In fact, such contracts are missing because the bus operators do not want to play ball and allow their frequencies and their fares to be controlled. At the moment, the operators have the whip hand.
We have seen two failed attempts at introducing quality partnerships and quality contracts, and the Government need seriously to consider the proposals that are being made. I have always taken it as a fundamental principle that the best people to decide on which services there should be in an area are directly elected local people, whether they are councillors, MPs or whatever. The problem with the quality contract legislation is that although there are two stages beyond the transport authority’s making a decision, I know what will happen with the likes of FirstGroup, Stagecoach and so on. They will prevaricate, delay, hold out and make it impossible for local authorities and transport authorities to get contracts up and running.
My hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) had the right idea— although the transport commissioners or the transport tribunal ought to be consulted, the decision ought ultimately to rest with the transport authority. That puts the responsibility where it should be, but it does not take away bus operators’ ability to go to the High Court if they are not happy with the decision. Let us be clear that when we are talking about quality contracts or quality partnerships, the system is the same as that which operates so successfully with the railways. We are talking about a franchise that people bid for.
There need to be safeguards for small operators. Two in my local authority, Bu-Val and Rossendale, provided a service when First Bus refused to do so. I hope that when the quality contract for Rochdale is decided, those two operators will be properly included. Let us make it clear: if we are setting a quality contract, we do not have to set every route and give every route to one operator. There needs to be a dialogue. The problem at the moment is that it all goes one way. If the bus operators cannot get their way, they walk away from the service.
The Bill gives those powers to transport authorities, and I welcome that. I hope that in Committee Ministers will consider how we can simplify the process as well as speed it up and put the responsibility back where it belongs, with local authorities.
Finally, I want to talk about road user pricing. I am disappointed that the Government have bottled out of introducing national road user pricing. I remember coming into the House when the Chancellor was Secretary of State for Transport; at that time the Government were talking about running a pricing pilot for freight and lorries. The idea was to make it cost-neutral for British lorries but to introduce a system that ensured that the foreign lorries that use our roads and pay nothing would have to contribute. Such systems operate in Austria and the Czech Republic. When a driver gets to the border, they have to buy a beacon. They register it and they are then charged for the miles that they use on that road.
Such a scheme would have brought in an additional £250 million in revenue for the Government that could have been used to improve transport. It would have involved no extra tax for anybody in this country, because we would want to make it cost-neutral for British lorries. It would have removed the unfair disadvantage that many of our hauliers face when foreign lorries come over the border from Ireland or wherever. The hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) spoke earlier about the traffic offences that such drivers commit. If they had a beacon, they would be registered and easy to chase up.
The scheme would have given us extra resources, and the Government ought to go back to it. Opening the hard shoulder on our motorways at times of peak traffic is not a solution. As I said earlier, we do not merely need solutions for what has happened in the past 20 years; we need to talk about future problems and what needs to be done. A national road user pricing scheme needs to be introduced, and I think that launching it for lorries would have been non-controversial and allowed the Government to evaluate the pilot and put the scheme into operation.
I support the power of local transport authorities to introduce their own schemes. I have supported Greater Manchester passenger transport authority in putting forward its scheme, but I have always made it clear that we must have investment up front. As I said earlier, we should be talking about dealing with the problems of the future, not those of the past. If we are to move people from cars to public transport and get that modal switch, public transport must be cheap, clean, efficient, environmentally friendly and readily available. In far too many of our conurbations, that is not currently the case and there is no choice.
There must be an integrated transport system, with rail, light rail and buses working together. I am disappointed that the Government have not approved the Greater Manchester scheme yet, and I hope that they do. I hope that in Greater Manchester we can demonstrate that such schemes can deliver the sort of service that is not being delivered elsewhere. It is essential that we do so nationally, and I am disappointed that the Government have bottled out of any discussion of, or meaningful move towards, a national system of road user pricing.
Notwithstanding that, the Bill is welcome and represents a vast improvement on the situation that we faced in the past. The bus has arrived late—11 years too late, in my view—but thank goodness that the Government have listened and that in future, we will perhaps have buses that are regulated and on time, and fares set by democratically elected politicians.