Thursday, 6 December 2007.
The Committee met at two o'clock.
[The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Viscount Allenby of Megiddo) in the Chair.]
Local Transport Bill [HL]
Clause 1 agreed to.
Clause 2 [Traffic commissioners]:
1: Clause 2, page 2, line 12, after “appropriate” insert “following consultation with the senior traffic commissioner and representatives from local transport authorities”
The noble Lord said: In moving these amendments my primary concern is that, despite the increased flexibility of the traffic commissioner network proposed in the Bill, it could remain out of touch with local transport authorities, rather than working alongside their needs. Not only will these three amendments increase involvement for local authorities; they also emphasise the network’s independence from central government. That is inconsistently applied throughout Section 1.
In Amendment No. 1, I raise the question of the role of the Secretary of State, who is the sole person able to choose the number of commissioners to be appointed. It is sensible that any number considered appropriate may be appointed to deal with problems that currently have insufficient resources applied to them. If the traffic commissioner system is to function as intended, surely there is a case for the local transport authorities to have input into the arrangements. Local transport authorities are best placed to ascertain the transport needs within their boundaries and with that can ensure the correct level of resource to be allocated. Further, I contend that as the Bill seeks to place the senior traffic commissioner on a statutory footing, he too should have a say in the matter. Presumably he or she would be best placed to appreciate the budgetary restrictions on the number of traffic commissioners to be appointed and ensure that the very best people are recruited for the roles. Indeed, exactly how the framework needs to be resourced also requires further clarification from the Minister.
For similar reasons I suggest that LTAs should additionally be consulted on the deployment of traffic commissioners. Amendment No. 2 would do just that.
I reiterate that local transport authorities are certainly the best placed bodies to understand needs within their boundaries. Consultation with those LTAs to be affected by a deployment will make certain that the resourcing is adequate and appropriate. There may be instances when LTAs possess local knowledge over and above that of the senior traffic commissioner and can thus ratify or make suggestions to his proposals affecting present or future transport needs.
In addition, the relationship between the traffic commissioner network and the LTAs in question will benefit and become stronger if they are consulted on such deployment, rather than having commissioners imposed on them. A co-operative relationship should be paramount.
I propose Amendment No. 3 for two reasons. As the clause stands, the senior traffic commissioner must consult a rather comprehensive list of people and bodies before giving guidance or direction to the traffic commissioners. Included in that list is a requirement to consult the other traffic commissioners themselves. I suggest that that will lead to a scenario where the senior traffic commissioner is obliged to consult the traffic commissioners on all that he intends to direct them or guide them to do. Given that earlier parts of this subsection place the authority of the position on a statutory footing, I can foresee that it will lead to unnecessary consultation. Of course, there may be occasions when the senior traffic commissioner can benefit greatly from consultation with his subordinates, but that does not necessarily have to feature in the Bill as a requirement.
Furthermore, subsection 3(e) gives the senior traffic commissioner the ability to direct commissioners as to circumstances in which a traffic commissioner must consult some or all of the other traffic commissioners before he exercises any particular function. Could the Minister provide some clarity about how that will work in practice? As I see it, and I have already become slightly confused when talking about all the consultation, the senior traffic commissioner will have to consult the other traffic commissioners when considering giving guidance about how the traffic commissioners might consult other traffic commissioners. The mind boggles.
The second effect of this amendment is to change consultation with traffic commissioners to consultation with local transport authorities affected by the guidance or direction. As the list given in subsection (4) is almost exhaustive, I presume that there is a case for LTAs to be involved in any guidance or directions to be exercised. I beg to move.
My Amendment No. 4 is in this group. It would ensure that when the senior traffic commissioner is consulting on guidance and directions that he plans to issue to the regional traffic commissioners, local transport authorities are statutory consultees. The Bill provides that the senior traffic commissioner must consult a number of persons. As has already been mentioned, it lists the Secretary of State, Scottish Ministers, Welsh Ministers, other traffic commissioners and,
“such organisations representative of passenger transport operators, and of road haulage operators, as the senior traffic commissioner thinks fit”.
Unless I have misunderstood it, there appears to be no requirement to ensure that the senior traffic commissioner also has the local transport authorities among the statutory consultees. As one can see from the Bill, it is intended that the traffic commissioners, to put it mildly, may have quite an influence on what a local transport authority may be seeking to do under the terms of the Bill. It seems entirely appropriate that there should at least be a requirement for the senior traffic commissioner to consult local transport authorities. That is the purpose of my amendment. I hope that my noble friend will feel able to take it on board.
I hope it would be convenient for the Committee for me to speak to my Amendment No. 1A with this group. It fits very closely with the other four amendments. I, too, feel a bit confused about the role of the senior traffic commissioner. He or she is appointed by the Secretary of State and deploys other commissioners. He has a deputy. He has only occasional interference possibilities with Scotland. I am sure the noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie, will tell us more about that. He has powers to give guidance and he must consult his other colleagues. He cannot give guidance in Scotland and he gets extra money for being the senior one. That is fine, but the one group of people whom he is not required to consult are the customers—those who use the buses. Presumably in this context they should be represented by the Public Transport Users Committee for England—it applies only to England. It seems to me that the customers should have a very strong voice in this, otherwise everyone else, including the bus operators and the freight operators, will be telling or advising him what to do, with nothing coming from the customers. Maybe my noble friend can say that that is covered in the long list of all the people he should consult in new Section 4C(4), as my noble friend Lord Rosser said, which covers,
“such other persons as the senior traffic commissioner thinks fit”.
I put it to the Minister that making a specific requirement somewhere to consult customers is a good idea.
I am grateful to the Minister for his reply that he sent to all of us, not only to me in particular. I asked at Second Reading whether the traffic commissioner for Scotland was barred from being the senior traffic commissioner. The answer was that such a person was not barred. When I hear words that do not mean anything in Scotland, such as “local transport authority” and the “Public Transport Users Committee for England”, I wonder how the senior traffic commissioner, who is wrestling with the partially devolved, partially reserved transport system in Scotland, will be an expert as well on these matters for England. Therefore, I continue to wonder whether the Bill really tackles the devolved/reserved issues and whether there was not a requirement for what used to be known as a Sewel motion, but is now known as a legislative consent motion, in the Scottish Parliament. Is this Bill fully up to speed? Is the Department for Transport ultimately one of those Anglo-UK departments which does not quite take devolution into account?
I welcome everyone to this all-embracing Committee with a whole range of interests. It seems to stretch from the consideration of matters Scottish from time to time through to the detailed workings of the statutory senior traffic commissioner. I am sure that given the breadth of interests already expressed we shall have long and fruitful sessions on this rather uncontroversial Bill.
Noble Lords have raised some useful points and issues in this first debate. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, for including his amendment in this group, because it is an adjacent issue.
The truth is that there will be a lot of consultation. The traffic commissioner will find him or herself very busy talking to a lot of people. I understand noble Lords’ disappointment that not every detail of who the commissioner might talk to—and how he might talk to them and when—is expressed clearly in the Bill. As anyone who has worked in local government—and there are a few of us in the Committee this afternoon—can confirm, how consultation should be carried out is probably not always best specified and set out in detail; it is something that one has to work away at and it becomes iterative. As we know, primary legislation, in particular, tends to be considered in a rather precise manner and for that reason can be very constraining. That is my first thought on the issue.
I listened carefully to the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, about the dangers of being out of touch. That is a very important point. However, the world of traffic commissioners will probably change a bit as a product of this Bill and they will have to develop different qualities and a range of relationships, but that should not obscure the fact that much will stay the same in terms of volumes of activity and particular areas of work that the Bill does not look at in detail.
Two factors influence our consideration of this amendment. The first is that traffic commissioners are under a statutory duty to discharge their obligations under domestic and, importantly, European law and the Secretary of State must, therefore, ensure that there are sufficient commissioners to fulfil those obligations. That is a specific statutory duty there for the Secretary of State. Those requirements can, of course, change over time—hence the need for flexibility—for example, in response to the changing needs of the industries or new European requirements.
The second factor is that Clause 2 would remove the statutory requirement for a commissioner to be appointed to each traffic area, with jurisdiction in that traffic area only. This would create a pool of commissioners able to act anywhere in England and Wales—that partly picks up the point made by the noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie, that the cross-boundary flexibility is needed, for very good reasons—with the additional prospect of individual commissioners working specifically in specialist areas, for example on bus service registration and punctuality. However, we must bear in mind that, for practical reasons, individual commissioners will still be allocated on an administrative basis to an individual traffic area.
In practical terms, given the responsibilities of the senior traffic commissioner to move resources around to meet workload peaks and troughs, it would be difficult, if not impossible, for the Secretary of State to make decisions on the number of commissioners required without consulting them. Therefore, we believe a statutory obligation to do so is unnecessary.
It also follows that the number of commissioners required is directly related to the workload. For example, the volume of licence applications and variations is determined by the demands of bus and lorry operators themselves. The resources required to deal with HGV impounding cases will depend on how many are impounded by VOSA. The volume of bus punctuality work will depend in part on the performance of local bus services and the outcome of the ongoing work that the Government are doing with stakeholders to devise a punctuality regime. That will not be uniform across the country. It will vary from time to time and from place to place.
As I have already made clear, the Secretary of State, guided for practical reasons by the senior traffic commissioner, must ensure that there are enough commissioners to deal with the workload. While local transport authorities may have views in particular about the bus work of the commissioners in their area, they may not be in a position to see the wider picture across the whole of a traffic area, and across the whole spectrum of the traffic commissioners’ functions. We therefore believe that the amendments offer little to influence resourcing decisions usefully, while potentially imposing additional administrative burdens.
I shall now deal in more detail with the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, which provides an opportunity to discuss how the interaction between the traffic commissioners and any new bus passenger watchdog might work. I am grateful to the noble Lord for raising that issue. Traffic commissioners have a key role in the Government’s drive to improve local bus services, particularly in relation to enforcing standards of punctuality and reliability. Any new bus passenger champion would rightly have an interest in such matters, and may want to influence key issues such as the setting of standards in this regard. However, it is also paramount that the traffic commissioners’ decision-making role must not be compromised in any way when deciding individual cases, and, in particular, in the exercise of their day-to-day duties.
On 4 December we published a consultation paper, Options for Strengthening Bus Passenger Representation. It was designed to create stronger passenger representation by enhancing the role of Bus Users UK, which is a non-statutory body. We are also including powers in the Bill which would enable the Secretary of State, if this option were chosen, to add functions to the statutory Rail Passengers’ Council, which is also known as Passenger Focus. If following the consultation it was decided to expand the remit of Passenger Focus, for example, the purpose of this amendment would be lost.
Any new statutory bus passenger champion would be able to make recommendations to the Secretary of State on matters in relation to prescribed public passenger transport. I am sure they would want to make recommendations about punctuality and reliability standards. The Secretary of State also has powers to issue guidance to the senior traffic commissioner on matters of generic process and policy, for which the senior traffic commissioner must have regard.
In my opinion this would be a far stronger avenue for the views and recommendations of any new bus passenger champion to be channelled through to the traffic commissioners.
Before my noble friend leaves that subject, if there is a proposal to merge Passenger Focus for railways and buses it sounds very good and well worth looking at. This probing amendment may be in the wrong place. The duties on the senior traffic commissioner to consult are on page 5 of the Bill, as my noble friend Lord Rosser said earlier. It worries me to hear that the number of traffic commissioners appointed will depend on the workload, including impounding of lorries. One of the groups the senior traffic commissioner is required to consult is the road haulage operators, who have a vested interest in not being impounded. I understand why they should be consulted, but, if the Bill specifies that road haulage operators and passenger transport operators should be consulted, I do not see why customers are not, whether it is Passenger Focus or somebody else. Alternatively, on Report perhaps we should consider deleting paragraph (e), leaving just the Secretary of State, Scottish Ministers, Welsh Ministers, other traffic commissioners and “such other persons”.
I was about to offer the commitment, picking up on the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, that we will make it clear in guidance that passenger interests have to be consulted. Similarly, we will want to ensure that all those in local government are consulted as well. There may well be a continuing need to ensure that we have iterative consultative forums. It is important to recognise the value of local consultation. We must ensure that there is effective strategic oversight. That is how we see this best working.
I totally agree that there should be strategic oversight, but I do not know whether that should necessarily happen in Whitehall. I can see that it could happen in local government regional offices. I am concerned because, although there is a lot in the Bill about traffic commissioners consulting other traffic commissioners—I got confused about that—there should be something a bit stronger about them consulting local government. The LTAs are paramount, as the Minister has admitted. I want to strengthen the role of LTAs, which are obviously the focal point. I am not asking for very much.
The noble Lord never asks for too much. I think it is best left to guidance. We are talking about several hundred LTAs, potentially. If we put it in the way that the noble Lord seeks, we could end up with consultation overload, as the noble Lord touched on.
As the noble Lord will know, we have an Eastern region now and many things are now done by it. For Essex—I hate going back to my Essex again—the issues of north Norfolk are not very relevant. Issues affecting London and the M25 are much more relevant for us. I want to make sure that our traffic commissioner is not the same one as for north Norfolk. We know the problems of transport and buses in our own areas. I want to make certain that we get the right sort of involvement.
Of course the traffic commissioners will have a local input. They will also have a regional input. Part of their role is to ensure that a reasoned and balanced view across the region is taken into account. The Secretary of State will need to reflect from time to time on that. I do not want to impose a burden in the legislation that so constrains how consultation might work at a local level that it becomes unworkable. I think that noble Lords will understand what I mean. As I said earlier, the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, seemed to understand that point in putting his own argument. As he said, he was a little confused about who might have to consult whom over what.
The way in which we have phrased the provision provides reasonable clarity. We have the flexibility to express in guidance how consultation would work and who will be consulted. We recognise the importance of consulting the LTAs because they will understand the things that are most local to them. There is no doubt that they will want to have input in determining the level of resource that is required from them.
Does the Minister accept that there are occasions, and this may be one of them, where it would probably be better either to mention no one in the Bill and leave it all to guidance or to put everyone in? I hope that the Minister will consider that, when it comes to implementing the provision, there may be people who say, “We’ll do what it says in the Bill, but because these bodies are not mentioned, we don’t have to”. The argument about local choice, flexibility and discretion is right, but it leads me to the conclusion that we would do better to have less in the Bill and more in guidance, rather than decide that one group of people or organisations should be outside.
Scottish and Welsh Ministers might feel a little aggrieved if no reference was made to them. The beauty of the clause is that new Section 4C(4)(e) states,
“and such other persons as the senior traffic commissioner thinks fit”.
If we were to state in guidance that a range of organisations was proper and fit to consult, and a flexible approach could be adopted to that, we would have the best of both: we would know where we were with a certain group and ensure that we made provision to pick up passenger transport interests and consumer interests.
If I pretended that this was a wildly controversial Bill in Scotland, that would be knocked on the head by the fact that this is the only issue extending to Scotland on which any amendments have been proposed. No one is furious about the Bill—at least no fury has been expressed to me. Will the senior traffic commissioner have a traffic area, or will he be set above it?
The commissioner will have a specific area, but he will also have an oversight role. For that purpose there has always been a senior administrative traffic commissioner. We are now making that much plainer and clearer. However, we want to have somebody in a position where, having looked at the field, he can deploy resources according to where the work pressures are.
On that subject, can my noble friend have a look at subsection (5), half way down page 4 of the Bill? If as the noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie, said, the senior traffic commissioner could be Scottish, might he not require the Scottish traffic commissioner, who is presumably the same person,
“to carry out as respects England and Wales such of the functions”,
and so on? What does that provision mean?
In that situation, having taken into account that he is the senior traffic commissioner, he would obviously have to talk to someone else within the organisation, who would then take on more of that role and its responsibility. That is how I think it would work in practice and I think that my noble friend knows that.
I think that the Minister has accepted one amendment in this group but I still hope that he will reflect on what the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, said. Perhaps we should take a lot of the consultation and put it in guidance as well, leaving some in the Bill and some not in the Bill. I am sure that we will all reflect on this matter before Report, as I hope the Minister will do. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 2 agreed to.
Clause 3 [The senior traffic commissioner]:
[Amendments Nos. 1A to 4 not moved.]
5: Clause 3, page 5, leave out lines 35 to 39
The noble Lord said: Subsection (6) of new Section 4C gives the Secretary of State the ability to guide the senior traffic commissioner on how to exercise his functions under this section. Further, subsection (7) states that the senior traffic commissioner must have regard to this guidance.
I question, as we all did at Second Reading, the involvement of the Secretary of State at all, given that the Bill ostensibly gives the traffic commissioners the autonomy that they need to operate effectively. What guidance does the Minister envisage that the senior traffic commissioner will be given, and how will the phrase “have regard to” work in practice? If the senior traffic commissioner is to make the decision to deploy other commissioners, will the Secretary of State provide guidance on how to do that? If so, this is hardly the bottom-up approach that takes into account the needs of areas that would work best. This is reminiscent of the first group of amendments but I should still like the Minister to pursue this matter.
Given that the budgetary implications of the modified traffic commissioner network are hardly spelled out in the Bill, will the Minister clarify whether the Secretary of State would give guidance based on financial restrictions, for example? If the network is to function, funding should not take precedence over need, otherwise the entire purpose of the network will be undermined.
I suggest that these subsections be removed as they are an unnecessary feature of this part of the Bill, whose tone is otherwise one of giving traffic commissioners more independence. If nothing else, they serve to confuse the situation. I beg to move.
Were my noble friend Lord Bradshaw here, I am certain that he would extol to the Grand Committee the virtue of the senior traffic commissioner being independent, and it strikes me that the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, would achieve that.
I managed to get hold of various documents from the Printed Paper Office this morning, including the outline guidance and governance. I have not had time to read them all this morning and I do not know whether this guidance is the guidance referred to here. If it is not, can the Minister, perhaps before the next stage, tell us when some draft guidance or other ideas on how the guidance will be developed will become available? If we are in the business of making the senior traffic commissioner similar to the independent rail regulator—I should have thought that independence and local accountability were a very good idea—then that is a major step. On the other hand, if he is just a sort of paid lackey of the Secretary of State, which I am sure he would not be, then we have to look at the issue in a different way. It would be good to hear in which direction the Government are thinking of going.
As has been explained, the amendment would remove the Secretary of State’s power to give guidance to the senior traffic commissioner on the directions and guidance that he or she may issue to the other traffic commissioners.
We should remember that the effect of the amendment on the Bill would be to remove the existing power under Section 4(4)(a) of the Public Passenger Vehicles Act 1981 and the corresponding power in the goods vehicles legislation for the Secretary of State to issue directions to the traffic commissioners over the exercise of all of their functions. This is a significant step which further reinforces the commissioner’s overall independence.
Given the Secretary of State’s responsibilities for the overall policy and work of the operator licensing system and the statutory functions of the traffic commissioners, as well as general responsibilities to Parliament and compliance with European legislation, there should be a statutory requirement for the senior commissioner to have regard to any guidance issued by the Secretary of State as to the exercise of powers under this new section. It is only a requirement to have regard to such guidance, not to obey directions. There is a difference.
Given that and the significant moves that we have already made in regard to the Secretary of State’s powers in this area, I would encourage the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment. I understand the desire that noble Lords may have to secure autonomy in this area of activity, but there is a necessity for some level of political accountability. We need to strike a balance between autonomy on the one hand and accountability on the other. Ultimately, the Secretary of State is politically responsible for this and, unless there are some levers and methods of accounting, we could reach a situation where the accountability route breaks down. I am not sure that the autonomy gained as a by-product of that would necessarily secure some of the advantages and improvements that we all want to make through this legislation.
I would like to explore that a little further. In my experience—I am sure in the Minister’s experience as well—under every Government, different Secretaries of State seem to get involved at different levels. That is why I am seeking to clarify whether this really is a bottom-up approach. Being professional people, the traffic commissioners should be allowed to sort out the problem without too much political interference. Perhaps the Minister will comment on that. He is nodding his head.
It is not that the Government require great interference; that is not the purpose of our approach. That is why we have been prepared to move some way in underwriting the independence of the traffic commissioners. I am sure the noble Lord will appreciate from his own work in government that there has to be a time when the leader of a council says, “I am ultimately responsible here. I have got to make clear our view, and the way to do that is through guidance”—on school admissions, catchment areas or whatever the subject happens to be. There has to be that line of accountability. Then, of course, the operational effect of the work that is done closer to the ground by officials has to be considered, and it is that balance that we are seeking to strike. We are at one in wanting to ensure that the service close to the ground works well and is in tune with what is required locally and by necessity.
5A: Clause 3, page 5, line 37, at end insert—
“(7) The Secretary of State shall give guidance to the traffic commissioners on appropriate minimum and maximum speeds and journey times for buses in urban and rural areas and the traffic commissioners shall have regard to this guidance when registering timetabled services.”
The noble Lord said: I feel comforted by what my noble friend said in responding on the previous amendment, and I shall reflect on it further. Perhaps there is baggage in my mind about some of the problems that traffic commissioners have had in the past. We shall have to see.
On the basis that the traffic commissioners will receive guidance, it is worth exploring whether that guidance should include the matter of bus service performance. Looking at public transport as a whole, we see that enormous efforts are made to make the trains run on time and that they are getting better. There is independent rail regulation, Network Rail, penalties and other things. I know that trains are different but it is remarkable how much the rail service has improved, possibly as a result of such incentives. My noble friend may say that that cannot be applied to buses because of traffic jams, but we could try to have a performance regime that addresses not only speeds and journey times but whether the bus runs at all. It seems reasonable to say that if the traffic commissioner is taking a greater role, which I welcome, there should be guidance on the performance of bus services so that customers—passengers—can be more confident that what they expect to occur will occur. I beg to move.
My noble friend’s amendment concerns the scope of the guidance, but the Government feel that it veers towards micromanagement rather than general guidance. I understand his concern about bus speeds and timings. Within the industry it is a matter of endless debate whether it is better to have a bus service that aims to be fast but is often late or to have one that is slow but always on time. The passenger’s point of view may depend on where on the route he is waiting for the bus. If he is getting on near the start and making a long journey, he will hope that it is as fast as possible and will accept that it will sometimes be a little late or very late, whereas someone waiting near the end of the route will be looking for the greatest certainty about when the bus will turn up. These are very local issues which are affected by local conditions. The ideal is that bus services are reasonably fast and reasonably punctual, and to achieve that there has to be co-operation. I agree with my noble friend that what is needed is the co-operation of the traffic authorities as well as better performance by the bus operator. We shall be looking at that in some detail when we turn to Part 4.
While recognising that this is a serious issue, the Government fail to be convinced by the mechanism which my noble friend proposes to address it. It is rather odd that after debating the degree of independence which a traffic commissioner should have from the Secretary of State, we are now considering an amendment to give the Secretary of State a very specific power—and this is why I mentioned micromanaging—to intervene in a matter which the traffic commissioners ought to be able to sort out for themselves. We do not see what the Secretary of State can add by having a power to give guidance on this matter. I therefore invite my noble friend to withdraw his amendment.
Perhaps while my noble friend is considering her answer I could help her a little. On the question of performance, when is a late bus a cancelled bus? I was in Cornwall a couple of years ago and waited an hour for a bus that did not come and got the next bus. The same thing happened on the way back. I wrote to the bus company chairman and said that his bus had not come either way. I asked whether, given that he received a six-figure subsidy from the county council to operate the service, he should not make his buses run. The answer was, “Well, the driver didn’t turn up”. If that was the case with a train, there would be questions here if it happened too often. The driver did not turn up so what do you do about it? Oh, dear—you wait an hour. This is the difference.
I accept my noble friend’s argument that this is probably the wrong place to put an amendment, but somehow we have to get this into a traffic commissioner’s remit that it actually matters if a bus does not turn up just because a driver did not turn up. What about a spare driver?
I should think that if that problem became a serious issue it would become part of a disciplinary role for the traffic commissioners. This whole discussion underlines the necessity to have a body for passengers that will have some teeth. On the question asked by the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, I understand that random surveys are commissioned by VOSA to keep a regular update of punctuality figures. If I receive more detail on that I shall write to him, but random surveys seem to be how it is done at the moment.
I am very grateful to my noble friend for the way in which she has answered the questions under this amendment. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 3 agreed to.
Clause 4 [Amendments of Schedule 2 to the PPVA 1981]:
5B: Clause 4, page 6, line 20, after “which” insert “both the senior traffic commissioners and”
The noble Earl said: In moving Amendment No. 5B I shall speak also to Amendment No. 5C. The amendment aims to give the senior traffic commissioner parity with the Secretary of State in having the ability to dismiss other traffic commissioners. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, that the commissioners’ positions should be substantial rather than retirement posts. The fact that they can be dismissed for misbehaviour, being unable or unwilling or unfit, is therefore entirely sensible and will help to ensure that the network is competent and respected.
The Secretary of State is the only person able to dismiss a traffic commissioner. Presumably the senior traffic commissioner will be more in touch with the performance and needs of the network and better able to make a judgment based on the criteria given. The Secretary of State will generally be away from the day-to-day operation of the traffic commissioner network and only informed of developments through the requirements of new Section 4C(4). Can the Secretary of State really make an informed judgment on the performance of the commissioners, given that the information will be supplied by the senior traffic commissioner anyway?
Does the Minister agree that giving the senior traffic commissioner that additional responsibility would emphasise the position’s role in overall responsibility for the network of the traffic commissioners? Of course, occasions may arise when the senior traffic commissioner misbehaves or is unwilling or unfit, but the proposed retention of the Secretary of State’s powers to dismiss covers that eventuality. I beg to move.
I feel a certain surprise at this amendment. As was elicited by noble Lords from Ministers this afternoon, the senior traffic commissioner is a traffic commissioner. He is asked to be the senior traffic commissioner with certain roles prescribed by the Minister, and that is what he is. It seems rather surprising that one traffic commissioner should have a power of dismissal—which in this field, as in so many others, is a very serious matter indeed—simply because for the moment he is the senior traffic commissioner. I would be surprised if the Minister felt that he was justified in accepting the amendment.
I thank both noble Lords who have taken part in this short debate. My noble friend Lord Borrie is right that we would not be able to accept the amendment tabled by the noble Earl, Lord Attlee. This is on the ground—two grounds, really—that the senior commissioner and other commissioners are employed by the Secretary of State and that the accountability to Parliament can happen only through the Secretary of State and not through the roles of the commissioners.
The amendment would allow the senior traffic commissioner a say in determining whether individual commissioners were performing to a satisfactory standard. All traffic commissioners are appointed by the Secretary of State under Section 4 of the Public Passenger Vehicles Act 1981. The senior traffic commissioner, who must be a serving traffic commissioner, would be similarly appointed by virtue of the new sections which would be inserted into that Act by Clause 3 of the Bill. We must also remember that responsibility to Parliament for the performance of the licensing system and the commissioners themselves rests solely with the Secretary of State, not with the senior traffic commissioner. The Government therefore believe that it is right that only their employer—that is, the Secretary of State—should have a statutory power to weigh up whether individual commissioners are performing to a satisfactory standard.
Of course, in practice, the Secretary of State would take all relevant factors into account, and, as the noble Earl, Lord Astor, said—I am sorry, the noble Earl, Lord Attlee; I am giving the noble Earl a new title—particularly the views of the senior traffic commissioner, who would have responsibility for the deployment of traffic commissioners, and the issuing of guidance and directions to them. But other views are also important, such as those of the bus and lorry industry itself. Therefore, in practical terms, we believe that it is the Secretary of State who is best placed in the end to weigh up all the views and factors put to him and decide what is necessary. I should add that the amendment would also have the unwelcome effect of allowing the senior traffic commissioner a say in determining his own competence, which would clearly be inappropriate. I hope therefore that I can persuade the noble Earl to withdraw his amendment.
The noble Lord, Lord Borrie, should not be surprised that I moved this amendment, because we will explore all aspects of the Bill that we need to look at. The Minister thanked us for a short debate—but of course it is not over yet. I wonder what would happen if the Secretary of State was unwilling to take action, perhaps for short-term political considerations. He may have some form of conflict of interest and may need a bit of persuasion from the senior traffic commissioner; he may be too busy running another department. However, I thank the Minister for her response and, subject to the usual caveats, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
[Amendment No. 5C not moved.]
[Amendment No. 6 had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.]
Clause 4 agreed to.
Clauses 5 to 7 agreed to.
Schedule 1 agreed to.
Clause 8 [ Nature of duty to develop transport policies]:
7: Clause 8, page 10, leave out lines 22 to 24
The noble Lord said: I propose that we remove the part of new subsection (2ZB) regarding the duty to take into account guidance issued from a Secretary of State on protection or improvement of the environment. Paragraph (a) of the same subsection mentions that LTAs are,
“to take into account any policies”,
issued on the subject. While it is understandable that local transport policies should take in environmental matters, I am uncertain why the Bill requires a separate mention of guidance issued by the Secretary of State. Surely taking into account government policy will suffice. Can the Minister envisage any circumstances in which policies might differ in these two areas from the guidance issued? I beg to move.
I am grateful to the noble Lord for explaining his amendment, which is presented with a strongly localist flavour. I am probably at one with him in seeking to ensure that we work very closely with the local authorities on the work that they undertake to guarantee that local transport plans consider the impact of their transportation policies and projects on the environment, whether it is the landscape, biodiversity, noise or air quality or climate change.
As the local government White Paper of 2006 made very clear, we are trying to ensure that local authorities are not overly burdened with guidance and targets from central government. However, we are committed to ensuring that transport contributes even more to reducing carbon emissions and improving the environment. It is vital that local authorities are fully aware of government policies on the protection and improvement of the environment as they develop and evolve over time. It is for that benign and important reason that we must be free to issue guidance from time to time, obviously at suitable intervals so as not to burden local authorities, to offer them support, encouragement and advice as they develop and implement their policies and plans in tackling issues such as climate change and in protecting the wider environment. So it is a benign feature of the relationship.
We think that local government can benefit from that sort of guidance and that it is valuable to establish benchmarks, quality thresholds and so on. Guidance is a useful and helpful way in which to do that, and guidance that is produced nationally has the benefit of drawing on the experience of many different local authorities and perhaps helping to illuminate and elucidate some of the better practices that local authorities such as Essex might develop. So we look at this in a positive sense rather than seeing it as over-centralising. It is there to assist and enable the better development of environment policies through the development of good-quality transportation planning.
What I was trying to get from the Minister was why it was, to a certain extent, mentioned almost twice. I accept his answer—that they are trying to reinforce those issues—as long as the local issues are taken into account in developing it. That is the important thing about it. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
7A: Clause 8, page 10, line 24, at end insert—
“(c) to have regard to relevant plans and strategies published by any relevant rail infrastructure manager.”
The noble Lord said: I shall speak also to the other amendments in this group. Amendment No. 7A is about integrating road and rail policies—or, as the former Deputy Prime Minister, my right honourable friend John Prescott, used to say, “integrated transport”, which I always thought was rather a good idea. The Bill requires each local transport authority to produce local transport policies,
“for the promotion and encouragement of safe, integrated, efficient and economic transport to, from and within their area”;
but it also puts a duty on local transport authorities to take into account any policies announced by government which relate to these things.
In the integration of road and rail transport, there is already good contact between Network Rail, which tends to lead these things, and many local authorities, but I am not sure that that is quite enough. The new integrated transport authorities have a duty to consult, and Network Rail’s new route utilisation strategies, which already cover much of the country, have been taken into account. It is, however, interesting to reflect on what the House of Commons Select Committee on Transport said about the Bill. It said that Clause 57, the relevant clause in the draft Bill,
“should be revised to place a duty on authorities to take account of the full range of national transport policies. Reducing the effects of climate change is only one of a number of vital policy objectives that should be observed in PTA decision-making, and one such objective should not be singled out on the face of the Bill”.
Local authorities are already consulted on these route utilisation strategies, but it would be good if the Bill provided for a formal requirement for consultation between road and rail operations; otherwise, some local authorities will undoubtedly decide not to do it. It is quite easy to change bus routes, bus stops and all the other things we will talk about when we reach the relevant part of the Bill, but it is sometimes difficult to change the rail side even with the route utilisation strategies—which are very good and have had lots of consultation. If local transport bodies are to develop safe, integrated, efficient and economic transport locally as the Bill requires, they must take into account the area’s current and future rail capacity as well as all the other things. I beg to move.
I speak to Amendments Nos. 9 and 10, which complement Amendment No. 7A. An authority's consultation requirements when producing a local transport plan are stated clearly in the subsection of the Bill to which this amendment applies. I suggest that there is a case to include two further points to the consultation requirements to ensure that local authorities are best informed when devising their plans. Having these on the face of the Bill will ensure that due consideration is given to the issues. As I say, such provision would also complement what the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, has just said.
First, an authority should have regard to plans and strategies published by any relevant rail infrastructure manager, such as Network Rail's route plans and route utilisation strategies. I know that Network Rail has close and regular contact with a number of local authorities. In order to build on these relationships and ensure consistency in the degree of regard given between authorities, both integrated transport authorities and local transport authorities would benefit from consulting such plans and strategies.
Route utilisation strategies are central to the forward planning activity of the rail industry. They set out the current capacity, passenger and freight demand, operational performance and cost projections going forward to address the future requirements of rail users, funders and key stakeholders. The rail utilisation strategies then perform the development and delivery of timetables, infrastructure, maintenance and renewals of the network. If local transport bodies are to adequately develop safe, integrated, efficient and economic transport within their area, as it says in the Bill, they should presumably take account of current and future rail capacity in that area and therefore provide the very best possible plans for transport users.
The second part of the amendment concerns consultation with transport users. It is vital that the Bill highlights the importance of consulting representatives of local transport users if a plan is to be successful and achieve transformational results. In particular, getting around is essential to children and young people meeting the five Every Child Matters outcomes, which include being healthy, staying safe and achieving economic well-being—everything we are aiming for. All too often the needs and views of children are neglected, which is why we are proposing an extra consultation. That is especially pertinent when considering the high rate of transport accidents and lower reported feeling of personal security on transport. Developing local transport plans is central to meeting people’s needs and expectations.
I support any moves that would seek to improve the relationship between highways planning authorities and the railways. I have a question about one aspect of the relationship between road and rail. Every year, at the point at which they physically meet—level crossings, in other words—some 1,800 pedestrians and motorists are reported as in some way abusing the level crossing. Not only do they put themselves in great danger, they also endanger the lives of the passengers. In broad planning terms they also cause havoc because bridges have to be closed, as do roads and rail lines. Will the Minister update the Committee on actions that the Government intend to take following the Road Safety Act 2006? My noble friend Lord Bradshaw, who cannot take part in this Grand Committee, was very keen to table amendments to that effect but was ruled out of order by the Public Bill Office. However, they are not able to stop me today.
I shall deal with the noble Baroness’s point first. We were intending to discuss a number of safety issues at Clause 9 stand part, but if she wants me to bring forward the level-crossing issue I am happy to do so.
I thank my noble friend Lord Berkeley for raising this issue and thank the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, and the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market, for their contributions. I reiterate the Government’s strong support for promoting integrated transport at every opportunity. My noble friend almost said this as an aside, but I shall pick up on it: if local authorities decided, for instance, not to consult rail users or operators, they would soon find themselves dragging behind their neighbours in the standards that are expected.
The Government agree that consultation on local transport plans with interested and affected parties and consideration of their plans and strategies is vital in securing transport policies and projects that best serve local people. We are grateful to the National Children’s Bureau for its input on this aspect of the Bill. It is important that the views of children and youth groups are taken into consideration when producing and implementing local transport plans.
We are also grateful to Network Rail, the Campaign for Better Transport and others for their proposals for railways and local transport plans. As my noble friend Lord Berkeley said, the integration of local railways with other local transport services already forms a key component of many plans, and we support that and will continue to encourage it. In many cases, it is right that organisations such as Network Rail and representatives of young people should be consulted on local transport plans. We believe that such groups are already likely to be covered by the duty the Bill places on local transport authorities to consult such other persons as the authority considers appropriate.
The Government consider that it is more appropriate for local authorities to decide which organisations they consult, taking account of local circumstances. Similarly, local transport authorities must take into account a wide range of plans and strategies when developing and implementing their local transport plans, including those of Network Rail, but also other relevant local, regional and national strategies—for instance, regional spatial strategies. It is for local transport authorities to decide which of these are most relevant to them. To aid them, the Government intend to publish guidance that will include, among other things, suggestions about the kinds of bodies that it would be appropriate for local authorities to consult and the kinds of plans and strategies that should be considered. We believe that that is preferable to the inclusion in the Bill of such a long list that it would over time become increasingly out of date.
The noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market, asked about the actions that are being taken to prevent level-crossing accidents. This matter was also considered during the passage of the then Road Safety Bill. Level crossings now represent the greatest risk to the overall safety of the railway. In the vast majority of cases, however, accidents are caused not by failure of the crossing equipment or the actions of the train driver but by motorists who ignore the warning lights and seek to get across as the barriers descend or to zigzag around half-barriers before the train arrives. Some accidents at level crossings are also as a result of deliberate acts, such as suicide attempts, rather than misunderstanding or deliberately ignoring the warning devices to avoid being delayed.
Local transport authorities have responsibilities to promote the safe operation of transport across their area. While one accident at a level crossing is one too many, we should not lose sight of the small number of accidents at level crossings compared with the number on the rest of the road network. Local transport authorities need to apply their resources across their area, and the noble Baroness will know that that always has to be a consideration. Local transport authorities already have a duty under Section 108 of the Transport Act 2000 to formulate transport policies that promote safe, integrated, efficient and economic transport and to carry out their functions so as to implement those policies. Local authorities have duties under Section 122 of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 to ensure the expeditious, convenient and safe movement of vehicular and other traffic, including pedestrians.
There are numerous other statutory powers that concern safety at level crossings. For example, Section 1 of the Highway (Railway Crossings) Act 1839 places a duty on Network Rail to maintain such crossings. We consider that sufficient protection is provided by Section 1 of the Level Crossings Act 1983, which enables the Secretary of State to make an order providing for the protection of those using the level crossing to take into account their safety or convenience. The Office of Rail Regulation, which, as noble Lords will know, is the health and safety regulator for the rail industry, can impose a duty on the operator of a level crossing to request that the Secretary of State make such an order. Therefore, we do not see the need to impose a duty on local authorities as existing statutory powers can be used to ensure safety at level crossings.
I listened with interest to what the Minister said about safety at level crossings. Will she write to me to explain why, on Monday, my partner found herself on a stationary bus on a level crossing? The bus was a replacement rail service from Cambridge to Bury St Edmunds. I shall give the Minister further details to assist her.
That is extremely serious. The noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market, has done the Committee a great service by raising this issue, since we have all failed to get an amendment accepted.
The Minister spoke about all the obligations and duties on different people in this respect, but, as she said, 99.9 per cent of accidents at level crossings are caused by motorists or drivers of some description. She said that the network operator had a duty to maintain the level crossing, and we all accept that technically, but it is odd that in the Government’s high-level output statement for the railways this summer, one of the requirements that they put on the industry was to improve safety. That is very commendable, except that my noble friend has just said that most of the accidents on the railways now are on level crossings.
The railway industry has no capability of improving safety at level crossings because it has no control over the drivers. When we were debating the transport safety Act, we failed to increase the penalties on drivers who do things that they should not do. Will the Government look favourably on increasing the penalties, as that seems the only way of stopping such drivers? You can have as many policies and white lines as you like, but unless somebody is severely fined, or has their licence taken away, they will take no notice. We failed on the previous occasion to increase the penalties. It would be nice to think that somebody could relent, and that an amendment could be tabled on Report to achieve it.
Given the amount of consultation and scrutiny that the Bill has undergone, I hope that it is not incompetent. However, noble Lords have made serious points about the opportunity for terrible accidents in this area. I understand that there are no plans at present to increase penalties, but if I receive any other information on that, I shall contact the noble Lord before Report.
I support all that has been said on level crossings. However, we have moved away from the original group of amendments put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, and myself, which was about much more co-operation in devising the road network and rail network. I go back to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley—that although you can change a bus route, once the railways or roads are built there is not much that can be done about them. There needs to be a firm relationship between what we do with rail and road. If one goes in for road charging, then perhaps some of that money could be spent on the railways. I would like to see a stronger relationship in this legislation between rail and road. I am not very happy with the comments. I am sure that no one would disagree, but I would like to strengthen that relationship and that part of the Bill.
I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, for his comments. I shall read the Minister’s responses on this issue. There is work to be done on combining amendments to see whether we can persuade the House that there needs to be provision in the Bill requiring a much greater integration of policies which are acceptable. For the time being, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 8 agreed to.
Clause 9 [Local transport plans]:
8: Clause 9, page 11, line 4, at end insert “having regard to changing transport need within their area.
(2ZA) The plan must have an initial specified length of operation.”
The noble Lord said: I welcome the Bill’s proposals for authorities to replace their local transport plans as they see fit. At present, the requirement to produce a new document every five years can prove rather arbitrary. True locally-driven reform should acknowledge that transport needs may change beyond such a rigid framework, and the ability for that to be determined at a local level will lead to better planning.
I have proposed that the line,
“having regard to changing transport need within their area”
be added after the requirement to replace plans as authorities see fit. I believe that the Bill needs to acknowledge that authorities may need to update their plans according to the manifold pressures they face. Explicitly providing that the production of plans is a requirement in major changes within authorities' boundaries will allow LTAs to demonstrate the implications of large decisions. As an illustration from Essex County Council, the building of a new runway at Stansted Airport would have major implications on the transport strategy for the whole county. I would like the fact that the authority would be compelled to produce a revised plan to be made known when such large decisions are considered. I am sure that all noble Lords will agree that transport planning should not be a secondary issue to be considered as an afterthought.
The local transport plan is presently used to secure funding. If nothing else, the five-year framework allows authorities to plan in that respect and allows the Department for Transport to allocate funding. As I read the Bill as it stands, authorities would be able to produce a plan until it is deemed necessary for that plan to be superseded. If that is the case, will the Minister please confirm how authorities are to plan their budgets accurately? Further, will there be a requirement to bid for a certain length of funding? The plan will very much affect the funding, as I said. The second part of the amendment seeks to make it clear that local transport plans are to be for an initial specified length of operation for that reason.
I would also like to raise the issue of the reporting of local transport plans. How are authorities expected to demonstrate that they have fulfilled their plans? Will this be a guidance item—the Bill contains lots of guidance—or will it be a requirement? In summary, although the extra flexibility is welcomed, clarification is needed on how that would work in practice. I beg to move.
On this matter, as on earlier ones, Her Majesty’s Opposition have very properly probed the Government’s reasons for particular provisions in the Bill. However, I question the point of this amendment. I am not sure whether it is meant to limit what is provided for in the Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, seemed to be glad that an authority may replace its plans as it thinks fit, as distinct from the five-year restriction that has existed until now. Is the phrase,
“having regard to changing transport need within their area”,
stating the obvious? Or perhaps it is meant to be restrictive of the phrase,
“replace their plan as they think fit”.
On the second part of the amendment—
“The plan must have an initial specified length of operation”—
what is the point of a provision that seems to restrict the Bill’s intention that the authority may replace the plan as it thinks fit? Several of the noble Lord’s amendments have been designed to provide greater flexibility from the bottom-up but this one seems to restrict flexibility.
Perhaps the noble Lord should have some experience of opposition. When one is in opposition, even if one supports parts of legislation, as I do in this case, it is still one’s job to get clarification, as I am seeking to do through these amendments. My amendment is not to change the gist of the Bill but to get clarification on how it will work, as I said at the end of my introduction. I want clarification on how this will work and how the five-year plans result in funding. If there are to be different types of five-year plans, they still have to relate to the funding of the highway infrastructure that is given to local authorities. I would like the Minister to clarify how that might work, or how it will work with funding requirements in the future. It is very important for local authorities to understand that.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, for his explanation and to the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, for teasing out more from the noble Lord. The Government agree that it is important that authorities regularly review their local transport plans. The delivery of transport projects requires very careful planning and project management, and plans need to be responsive to emerging risks, changing demands, new pressures and, importantly, local issues. That is why the duty to keep plans under review will continue to apply to all authorities.
However, the Government recognise that local transport need is not the only consideration for these authorities when it comes to considering the timing of the replacement of their plans. Different authorities will want to plan differently, using different timescales and linking with different spatial plans, from local development frameworks through to regional strategies. The noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, gave an example in his county of the particular impact and different pressures that an additional facility at Stansted might have. One has to respect that.
That is why we believe it is right that authorities should have the flexibility and adaptability to replace their local transport plans in ways that best suit their local and regional strategies and circumstances. That flexibility will not only serve the needs of diverse authorities; it will also be welcome to those authorities that choose to produce their local transport plans as a long-term strategy and one or more shorter-term implementation plans. For example, the implementation plan might need to be reviewed more frequently. It is the Government’s intention to include provision on the suitable timing of replacement of local transport plans, including longer-term strategies and shorter-term implementation plans in guidance, rather than in the Bill.
The noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, is right to ask for assurance that local transport plans will continue to be updated according to local transport need. I hope he is reassured that the approach we propose will ensure that local transport plans are reviewed regularly and replaced as appropriate, and that they continue to remain relevant. I hope he feels reassured by our approach to these issues.
On the back of that, the noble Lord asked how plans would be funded. Current funding runs until 2011, when the present phase of plans ends. Funding may well depend on plans but we have not yet reached the stage where we can make a decision. Of course, there will be a continuing need for funding for transportation plans, although we have not finalised exactly how that will happen, as I am sure the noble Lord will understand.
I am grateful to the noble Lord. I am not sure that he will be able to give an answer now but I should be happy for him to write to me. I should like a better understanding of how local transport plans will work in tandem with the new local area agreement framework, which was agreed in the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007.
To pick up the point of the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, it seems to me that if a local authority chooses not to update its local transport plan regularly, that is one thing, but if on the other hand the local strategic partnership develops policies which rely on a transport element, how will its aspirations be reflected in transport planning? I recognise that this is a complex area and I am happy for the Minister to write to me, but I think that the Government need to think carefully about how the two will interact.
I should like to reinforce that point. I should have raised it because it is important, and I am very grateful to the noble Baroness. I am thinking in terms of a very big local area agreement being constructed. Initially the Government said that the local transport plan could be included in the LAA. However, we have not had any clarity on that and so we are not absolutely sure where it is going. In Essex, for example, the LAA will cover an amount in the region of £5 billion with health authorities and everything else. There is some logic to the local transport plan being included but at the moment we are not aware that that is the case. Therefore, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for raising this issue because it is very important. I am sure that the noble Lord will not be able to give us an answer today but perhaps he could help us on where we are going as we need some clarity on this issue. I am sorry to come back again but this is very important.
It may be useful if I set out our thoughts at greater length in correspondence—perhaps by a compendium letter, as we have already made a number of commitments to clarify particular issues. It is fair to say that local transport plans are very important core plans for local authorities, either singularly or working in co-operation with others, and we certainly understand the overall impact that local area agreements have on strategic thinking in local authorities. They are significant and, as the noble Lord said, they sometimes involve many millions of pounds of expenditure. It is right that local area agreements reflect local transport planning and that the local authorities involved in constructing LAAs and LTPs work carefully with each other. It is hard to prescribe how that should work but clearly we have some thoughts on it and I should like to review it before I give a definitive answer. However, we understand the point, which has been well made.
11: Clause 9, page 11, line 34, at end insert—
“(2C) In preparing their local transport plan, the authority may create a bus partnership scheme.
(2D) Under a bus partnership scheme guidelines shall be agreed and consensus sought on bus routes, frequencies, fares and other matters for the period of the local transport plan.
(2E) In constructing a bus partnership scheme, the authority shall consult all operators of registered services in the specified area.
(2F) In exercising their statutory functions under the Town and Country Planning Acts, the local planning authority shall have regard to the bus partnership scheme and guidance contained therein.”.”
The noble Lord said: The local transport plan is a useful exercise for local authorities in planning their future transport requirements, as we have just been discussing. It allows a full appraisal of all concerns to take place within a local transport area. As the Bill is principally enabling and seeks to encourage authorities to take up quality partnership approaches, I am certain that noble Lords will agree that having a discussion about such schemes with stakeholders in advance of implementation will prove beneficial.
The amendment would allow a local authority, if it so wished, to produce a bus partnership scheme. Such a document could prove very useful in gaining a consensus on the best way to approach a quality partnership network and agree preliminary information on bus routes, frequencies, fares and other matters. I am certain that the transparency this could bring would well serve the implementation of an agreed scheme. It would enable long-term planning without the need for quality contracts. The role of the Bus Passenger Committee proposed elsewhere in the Bill could be substantiated by its involvement in producing a bus partnership scheme. I beg to move.
I apologise to the Committee. Amendment No. 11A is a mistake. It is a duplication.
I support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield. I agree with everything he has said about the desirability of the longer-term idea. We all know that we suffer from short-termism. When it comes to investing in new facilities, be they buses or other types of transport or the infrastructure that goes with them, the experience is that you get a much better service and investment if there is a longer-term assurance that the services and the partnership will continue. The same applies on the railways. Ten to 15 years is enough time to get a really good structure going. That is one of the many options for operating buses, and it could be a major benefit in attracting new investment and new services and therefore increasing the volume of passengers.
Clauses 12 to 17 contain provisions for quality partnership schemes for bus services. There is already provision in the Transport Act 2000 and in amendments made by the Bill requiring consultation on these quality partnership schemes, and their coverage already includes routes, frequencies and fares. Provision is therefore made elsewhere for some of what the amendment proposes.
In our view, a specific duty for local planning authorities to have regard to bus partnership schemes would create a precedent for having a similar express duty relating to many other areas of policy interest. In transport there are other schemes that might carry similar weight with local planning authorities; for example, freight quality partnerships and road safety proposals. There will also be similar examples in other sectors. Local planning authorities already have an administrative duty to have regard to all such schemes where they are relevant to their functions.
The quality bus partnership schemes, made under the Transport Act 2000 and by virtue of Clauses 12 to 17 of the Bill, can be made when local transport plans have been prepared or at any other stage in their life cycle. Bus partnership schemes as proposed in this amendment would be restricted to being created merely during the preparation of a local transport plan.
I hope the noble Lord will agree that the approach we propose elsewhere in the Bill would enable much of what is in this amendment to be achieved, and the clauses in the Bill would also provide for more flexibility about when it could be achieved. Perhaps, having heard that reassurance, the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
I am rather disappointed that the Minister was so negative about this amendment. If it created a precedent for other partnerships, it would probably be a good precedent. I totally support the partnership working that local authorities and others should do these days. In future most services will have to be delivered by partnerships in some way. The partnership with bus providers that is proposed here could be a very good thing, and it would complement the rest of the Bill. I have heard what the Minister has said today, but we might come back on this one. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
[Amendment No. 11A not moved.]
On Question, Whether Clause 9 shall stand part of the Bill?
I gave notice of my objection to Clause 9 standing part of the Bill as a way of reflecting further on some issues that were raised by the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, at Second Reading. This concerns the thorny issue of boundaries. Wherever there are administrative boundaries, cross-boundary issues always emerge. I wish to reflect further on that because local transport plans are drawn up by local authorities and therefore reflect local authority boundaries. Clause 9 continues in that vein by amending the Transport Act 2000 but retains transport planning within discrete local authority boundaries.
However, there are areas where local authority boundaries do not reflect what happens in real life, particularly in regard to transport. For example, in Suffolk, where I live, people in the south-east of the county live in Suffolk but work and shop in Colchester, in Essex; people in the north go over to Diss and so on. The noble Lord, Lord Cameron, referred to Yeovil in Somerset, which is right on the Dorset border. The point he made was that Somerset County Council cannot sponsor a bus service in Dorset even though it might be to the economic advantage of Yeovil to encourage people from Dorset to come into what is their nearest town.
I have given notice of my intention to oppose the clause as a way of urging the Government to think about how one might deal with these kinds of cross-border issues. Indeed, there is not even a requirement in the clause for the local authority drawing up a local transport plan to consult the neighbouring authority; it merely states,
“such other persons as the local transport authority consider appropriate”.
So it would not even have to go next door. It would be interesting to hear how the Government think this ought to be dealt with.
I am grateful to the noble Baroness for raising this point. The question of local government boundaries so far as it concerns public transport— and particularly bus networks—is highly relevant. It is quite often not political differences between one local authority and another that causes problems when bus services cross boundaries, it is personal prejudices or whatever. When these difficulties arise, the Government seem to be of the opinion that they should be resolved locally, and yet at the same time Ministers express the opinion that there should be a comprehensive public transport policy.
I cannot claim any expertise in the area mentioned by the noble Baroness but I can claim some experience in the West Midlands, both from a political and a bus industry point of view. I draw the Committee’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests. I act at the moment for FirstGroup but I spent about 15 years working for the National Express Group and chaired a major bus subsidiary based in Birmingham.
On this vexed question of bus services that cross boundaries, most local authorities are fairly artificial entities; people cross them on a regular basis without thinking twice about it, as do bus services. One of the most famous bus services in Birmingham is the 11C, which meanders around the Birmingham conurbation crossing every trunk road into the city. Its punctuality led to me and other members of the board regularly receiving angry letters from understandably concerned passengers. It crossed many local authority boundaries—all of them being highway authorities as they were district councils—and we had to negotiate with, I think, eight local authorities. I am speaking from memory now about trying to make proper bus provision for this particular route. The fact that it had to cross eight local authority boundaries in 28 miles, which was the total mileage of the service, indicates the difficulty.
I hesitate to cause any grief to the noble Baroness or to the Liberal Democrats generally, but I had an exchange with her about this route on the Floor of the House some time ago. I pointed out that one local authority, Birmingham City Council—it was Conservative-controlled but with the Liberal Democrats as junior partners—took the view that bus lanes penalised motorists and took them out. I asked the noble Baroness at the time whether that was in accordance with Liberal Democrat Party policy. Her reply certainly was, because she said—and I paraphrase her—“Well, it doesn’t really matter what we say here, because people at local level actually decide”.
That rather confirmed our prejudices, if the noble Baroness will forgive me for saying so. These are genuine difficulties. I am not sure that my noble friend the Minister, in replying, can do anything about them during the passage of the Bill, but I am sure that what happens in the wilds of Norfolk and the conurbation of the West Midlands can be repeated in other parts of the country. A coherent approach from district councils anywhere in the United Kingdom appears to be pretty difficult. Will the Minister offer me and the noble Baroness any words of comfort that such an approach will be attempted during the passage of the Bill?
I thank the noble Baroness and my noble friend for their contributions. The noble Lord, Lord Snape, and I share some political experience in the West Midlands, which goes back some way. I appreciate the difficulties in the West Midlands conurbation that he mentioned and the problems of joint working. We take travel-to-work areas seriously. We recognise that there have been significant changes in recent years in the distance which people are prepared, or have, to travel to work, especially around our major urban areas. This means that the boundaries of the existing passenger transport authority areas may not always accurately reflect people’s actual travel patterns. Increasingly, as the noble Baroness and my noble friend Lord Snape will know, journeys may start or end outside PTA areas. Clause 77 recognises this, and allows the Secretary of State to make an order to expand the existing boundaries of an integrated transport authority where the relevant authorities have given their consent. That opportunity exists.
Outside the existing PTA areas, there are already six joint local transport plans involving more than one top tier or unitary authority, reflecting wider travel-to-work areas.
Clause 68, which relates to reviews and creating new integrated transport areas, states that the reviews have to be undertaken by the whole of the district. We may be discussing travel-to-work areas, but if we are still talking about whole districts as entities, the problem may not be dealt with.
As part of the consultation process which was conducted between July and October 2007 and entitled, “Local Transport Planning: The Next Steps”, the department consulted on proposals for a sharper focus in future local transport plans, covering both longer-term strategies and shorter-term implementation. One objective was to facilitate more joint working where appropriate, to have a wide-area, longer-term strategy alongside authority-area based implementation plans. The Government are also facilitating joint working across local authority boundaries through multi-area agreements. These are agreements between two or more top-tier unitary local authorities. The authorities are partners, including districts, in two-tier areas and governments. They are voluntarily entered into by the authorities.
The Government are committed to agreeing sub-regional enabling measures and potentially greater flexibility over funding. Thirteen sub-regions are candidates for the first set of these multi-area agreements, which should start mid-2008. The agreements will tend to have an economic core and transport is one of the subjects to be considered for inclusion in most of the possible area agreements.
On the issue of joint working, local authorities have powers to work together in Section 101 of the Local Government Act 1972, the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007, which covers the local agreements, and the multi-area agreements that I have mentioned.
Part 5 of the Bill creates possibilities for new transport governance arrangements with integrated transport authorities. As I said, much greater flexibility in joint working is being encouraged.
Clause 9 agreed to.
Clauses 10 and 11 agreed to.
11B: Before Clause 12, insert the following new Clause—
“Tendered Network Zones
After section 113 on the TA 2000 insert—
“Tendered Network Zones
(1) Where the majority of route miles are subject to tender by the local transport authority, the authority may designate the area covered by these routes a “Tendered Network Zone”.
(2) In designating an area as a “Tendered Network Zone” the authority shall propose a network of bus services encompassing commercial, tendered and deminimis local bus services.
(3) If an authority or authorities propose to designate a “Tendered Network Zone” they must give notice of the proposed network scheme in at least one newspaper circulating in the area to which it relates.
(4) The notice must either contain full details of any registration restrictions and registration criteria, or state where such details may be inspected.
(5) After giving notice of the proposed network scheme, the authority or authorities must consult—
(a) all operators of local services who would, in the opinion of the authority or authorities, be affected by it,(b) such organisations appearing to the authority or authorities to be representative of users of local services as they think fit,(c) any other relevant local authority any part of whose area would, in the opinion of the authority or authorities, be affected by it,(d) the traffic commissioner for each traffic area covering the whole or part of the area to which it relates,(e) the chief officer of police for each police area covering the whole or part of that area, and such other persons as the authority or authorities think fit.(6) For the purposes of subsection (5) the following are relevant local authorities—
(a) local transport authorities(b) metropolitan district councils(c) London transport authorities, and(d) councils in Scotland(7) In designating the “Tendered Network Zone” the authority shall define the registration restrictions and registration criteria for local bus services in that area.
(8) If the authority or authorities consider that it is necessary or expedient for any restrictions to be imposed on the registration of—
(a) any local services, or(b) any local services of a particular description, they may impose those restrictions (“registration restrictions”) by specifying or describing them in the scheme.
(9) Any restrictions so imposed must be for the purpose of preventing or restricting—
(a) the provision of local services(b) the variation of withdrawal of local services,in cases where the authority or authorities consider that any such provision, or (as the case may be) variation or withdrawal, of services might be detrimental to the provision of services under the scheme.
(10) Where a scheme includes any registration restrictions by virtue of subsection (8), it must also specify the criteria (“registration criteria”) by reference to which the traffic commissioners are to decide whether or not to accept an application for registration.
(11) In subsections (8) to (10), “registration”, in relation to any service—
(a) means registration of prescribed particulars of the service under section 6 of the Transport Act 1985 (registration of local services), and(b) includes a reference to the variation or cancellation of any such registration.(12) The standard of services which may be specified in a scheme includes requirements as to frequency or timing of the services.””
The noble Lord said: The amendment may represent one solution to the problems raised by the noble Baroness and my noble friend Lord Snape about the boundaries. Notwithstanding what my noble friend has said, there always will be boundary problems, and it is a question of how one deals with them.
This proposal, which is supported by ATCO—the Association of Transport Co-ordinating Officers—is for tendered network zones, a new structure which would enable a local transport authority to co-ordinate one clearly identified network of bus services, what one might call the commercial or tendered side, and the small local bus services. It would cover more than one route and there would clearly be a lot of synergy between the services included in this and in the other networks and services. As drafted, existing local bus services would not be affected by the tendered network zone designation, except that they would not be able to make changes except on the dates agreed by the local transport authority and those changes would be expected to be in accordance with the supporting criteria. This may be a solution to enabling local authorities in areas where most services are tendered to provide better co-ordination by integrating all the bus services in an overall network. I beg to move.
I do not often disagree with my noble friend Lord Berkeley on these matters, but I fear that I must on this one. I am not sure who inspired this proposal, but it appears to be an attempt to introduce quality contracts for bus service throughout the rest of the country, let alone some of the areas that we have discussed. I do not wish to pre-empt the discussion on quality contracts—and I hope that we do not come to that or we may be here a long time—but I suspect that it will prove to be the most controversial part of the Bill.
Speaking to an earlier amendment, my noble friend Lord Berkeley referred to the need for new investment in new services, yet he has just moved, as ably as he can, an amendment that would stifle any new investment in new services. Are we really going to create a tendered network zone in which,
“the authority shall propose a network of bus services encompassing commercial, tendered and deminimis local bus services”?
I took exception to the word “deminimis”. My Latin is fairly sketchy and is based on my very short experience as an altar boy more than 50 years ago, so if we are to use words such as de minimis, they should be explained better for simple former bus and rail men such as me. This new clause does not appear to make any sense at all if the hope is that the industry in general will see an influx of new services in certain areas. It is a bureaucratic nightmare.
I have two questions that I hope my noble friend will be able to answer when he speaks at the end of this debate. They relate to the amount of backing that would be needed to enforce such a tendered network zone. How many people would be involved and how much would it all cost? How many new services does he think would come about, particularly as a result of proposed subsection (2) in his amendment?
My noble friend Lord Snape and I are at one on this issue. I certainly recognise the novelty of the proposition put forward by my noble friend Lord Berkeley. I can see that it is an interesting concept and that it would be an option in some rural areas in particular. However, sympathetic though one might be in those terms, I am sceptical about whether it can work. My noble friend Lord Snape put his finger on the matter very well. Enforcement would certainly be an issue, as would cost, and I question whether the scheme would deliver new services.
However, one should not be entirely dismissive, and I certainly recognise the warm spirit in which the amendment has been moved. In describing it, one could characterise it as being neither a partnership between the local authority and the local transport authority nor a quality contracts scheme; it seems to be a bit of one and a bit of the other but not really something that, in practical terms, appears to be workable. It is not a partnership because it does not require the authority to do anything other than play its part in advising the traffic commissioner on whether to allow services to be registered; nor is it a true quality contracts scheme because, although a majority of the services in the zone have to be tendered, the network will include some that are provided entirely on a commercial basis. Therefore, it is hard to see the proposal being operable.
There would be some restriction of competition, too, as in a quality partnership scheme, but no indication of what competition test, if any, would have to be met. Without such an indication, the provisions of the Competition Act 1998 would apply.
Although I do not want to appear entirely negative about the proposal, the real questions are whether any bus operator would be willing to sign up to such a scheme and whether it could possibly go ahead without the support of operators. I wonder whether those campaigning for this option have consulted bus operators extensively on the issue. I suspect that bus operators would not be too happy about it. So, before even getting into the question of whether the scheme was workable, we would certainly need to have discussions about it with bus operators.
Although my mind is not entirely closed, this is not an amendment that I can commend to the Committee, so I hope that my noble friend will go away and think about it.
I am very grateful for the responses of both my noble friends. This is clearly a probing amendment and my noble friend Lord Snape, with his expertise in the bus industry, has told me that I have it completely wrong and that I should think again. That may be the case; on the other hand, we have already discussed so many different concerns, options and possible solutions this afternoon, in addition to what is in the existing legislation, that it is probably worth at least floating ideas such as this to see whether a gem comes out of it in the end. Perhaps it will and perhaps it will not.
In responding to me, my noble friend mentioned the competition issue. Having been given this extensive guidance on the competition issue today—and I have tried to read a little of it—I shall have to return to the matter later. There are some serious problems with it, but I am sure that we will have good fun talking about it in the future. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 12 [Quality partnership schemes]:
12: Clause 12, page 13, line 22, at end insert—
“( ) Restrictions can include the specification of a minimum period of operation for new services.”
The noble Earl said: I shall speak also to Amendment No. 14. The quality partnership approach has much potential in producing positive outcomes for passengers. As I and other noble Lords mentioned at Second Reading, the public interest should be paramount when considering bus services. The introduction of fares, frequencies and timings is therefore to be broadly welcomed. However, for a partnership to function properly, there is a need for the arrangement to be fair for both the authority and the operator. I hope to raise some points to develop this argument.
We read with interest Clause 12(4) on the proposed new registration restrictions. I should not like to see the use of quality partnerships unjustly restrict access to the market. The introduction of a quality partnership along a route does indeed raise some points when proposed new services alongside the partnership are considered. Under the clause, the Bill will allow local authorities to specify restrictions on the registration of any local services where they consider it necessary or expedient in cases where such services would be detrimental to the scheme.
The proposals under the clause have potential but I have some concerns. It must be remembered that a low-quality operator by definition would not be able to use the facilities and services provided by the local authority under some of the arrangements. Certainly in regard to the provision of bus shelters, the existence of a quality partnership would preclude the operator from using the corridor anyway as the bus would not be able to pick up passengers from the shelters unless operating in a “hail and ride” manner.
There may be legitimate reasons for certain services running close to each other rather than at an even headway—for example, buses with vastly different routes may converge coincidentally on a quality partnership corridor at a similar time. In this case, timings at other points in the network or scheduling efficiencies may be the main concern—for instance, meeting a rail service. Does the Minister agree that these factors should be borne in mind when devising registration restrictions?
On the local transport authority side, Amendment No. 12 would allow local authorities to specify minimum periods of operation on services within a quality partnership area. If the minimum term was, say, a year, that would discourage a bogus operator from deliberately disrupting the market and undermining the quality partnership approach. Frequent changes to the arrangements of bus services factor into the public perception of unreliability.
For similar reasons, Amendment No. 14 seeks to place restrictions on the number of times an operator can change its service per year and to increase the notification period required for each change. At present, 56 days’ notice is required in England before changing a service; in Scotland, it is 70 days. My amendment proposes that under a quality partnership scheme this would increase to 90 days to discourage services being changed too frequently. As I have mentioned, alongside punctuality, one of the main determinants of the public’s perception of reliability is how consistent a service remains over time. Overly frequent changes can serve to undermine the benefits that a collaborative approach would bring.
The amendment has been included in the quality partnership section as it could have real potential in encouraging local transport authorities to take up a quality partnership arrangement. This would prove an additional benefit in setting up a scheme and would further differentiate the quality partnership approach from the voluntary scheme. I beg to move.
The noble Earl has set out an interesting proposal. I certainly agree that there is often merit in ensuring that services in a quality partnership scheme are not varied too frequently, as that could undermine the objectives of the scheme. Thinking of my own experience, I expect a local operator to change its services in the spring and the autumn to reflect different patterns of movement and perhaps also to time with school and college terms and so on. This is not a precise science. The noble Lord is right that the public like to have certainty and knowledge of frequency. I have been particularly pleased in our locality about the use of real-time information, which certainly seems to encourage more passengers; they seem more reassured. Of course, technology means that people can expect to get localised bus timings downloaded to their mobile phones. All those things help to encourage the use of buses and encourage people back on to them.
Moving away from that, I do not think that Amendment No. 12 is necessary because of the provisions which would be inserted into Section 114 of the Transport Act 2000 by Clause 12(4). Taken with Clause 42 of this Bill, that would enable a local authority making a quality partnership scheme to place appropriate restrictions on registrations, or variations or cancellations of registrations. Where these registration restrictions applied, the traffic commissioner could not accept an application from an operator to register a service, or to vary or cancel a registration, without first consulting the local authority that made the scheme and any operator that might be affected by the application.
If a scheme includes registration restrictions, it must also specify criteria for the traffic commissioner to apply in deciding whether or not an application will be detrimental to the provision of local services under the scheme. Having considered any representations made in response to the consultation and having applied the registration criteria, the commissioner must then decide whether to accept the application, disallow it or require it to be modified in some way.
In the case of variation or cancellation, it would be possible for one of the criteria to be that the service must have been operated, without variation, for a minimum length of time. Even if that is not a criterion as such, there may be other reasons why, by applying other criteria, a variation or cancellation might be refused. There may also be cases where within a comparatively short term a variation might be beneficial and should not be ruled out; for example, if a service connects with a local train and the train timetable has changed. We would need flexibility for that. I am sure the noble Earl would accept that one would not want to disallow such a variation simply because six months, or whatever time was specified, had not elapsed since the previous variation.
I hope that the noble Earl will accept that there are ways of dealing with this matter under the Bill as it stands, and that he will feel able to withdraw that amendment.
Amendment No. 14 covers the same subject and I fully understand the purpose behind it. A longer period of notice of registrations, variations or cancellations would certainly make it easier for the local transport authority and other operators to plan ahead. There have been similar suggestions from various consultees, with various periods proposed. However, we argue that the amendment is unnecessary because the 56-day period which normally applies to local service registrations is not specified in primary legislation but in regulations made under Section 6 of the Transport Act 1985. Any change to the prescribed period could also be specified in regulations. The notice period has already been amended once—originally it was only 42 days and in 2002 it was increased to the current 56 days. The regulation-making power is sufficiently broad to allow different periods to be prescribed in different circumstances, so it would certainly be possible to prescribe 56 days for services wholly outside the area of a quality partnership scheme, and 90 days, or any other period for that matter, for services wholly or partly inside the area.
The Department for Transport is intending to review a number of aspects of the existing regulations on local service registration in the light of the new provisions of this Bill and the related policies. One option may be to provide for different registration periods in particular circumstances, but this would be done only following detailed consultation with stakeholders, and there would certainly be plenty of opportunities to set out the case for longer periods of notice for bus registrations, whether in a quality partnership area or more generally. All this can already be done under existing primary legislation and without the need for a specific amendment to the Bill. I think that that addresses the issue that the noble Earl has raised and I therefore hope that he will withdraw his amendment.
I am grateful for the Minister’s careful and detailed reply. He mentioned seasonal changes. They are of course necessary but they are also predictable and can be promulgated a long time in advance. I shall have to check that my amendment covers that point.
I hope that train timetables are also promulgated, thought out and planned a long way in advance. I shall read the Minister’s comments very carefully and, in the mean time, subject to the usual caveats, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
13: Clause 12, page 14, line 1, at end insert “and
(c) requirements as to annual skills targets for passenger carrying vehicle staff agreed between the authority or authorities and operators,”
The noble Lord said: The amendments in this group provide for words to be written into the Bill to enable local transport authorities to agree with operators annual skills targets for drivers and other customer-facing and engineering staff as part of quality partnerships and contracts. The amendments have the support of the sector skills council for the passenger transport industry.
Many bus operators have a strong commitment to improving their workforces and local transport authorities have an interest in a strong quality dimension to bus operations. For example, new buses, bus lanes, video cameras, imaginative ticketing promotions and accessibility measures all have a part to play but the skills dimension is often overlooked in various initiatives to get greater quality into bus travel. For example, increased driving skills provide a better ride for passengers and reduce accidents; more attention to customer service should mean fewer complaints and more satisfied passengers; and disability awareness is part of good customer service, as is good communication with passengers.
The development of skills has been given significant backing through the recent Leitch review, which in particular proposed an employer pledge on basic skills and a first level 2 qualification. It also proposed increasing to in excess of 90 per cent the number of people with a level 2 qualification by 2020. The Leitch report called for a more demand-led approach to skills. That means that employer skills needs are at the forefront of the provision, and that differs from what has sometimes been the previous approach of trying to supply a blanket amount of skilled provision.
The bus industry has had voluntary skills and qualifications and progress has been made. As I said, GoSkills, the sector skills council for the passenger transport industry, works with employers and operators in the passenger transport sector to address problems such as recruitment and retention, skills shortages and sourcing training solutions. Now that we have enhanced national targets and a skills pledge as a vehicle, and we have also had the Leitch report with a renewed emphasis on progress, it would seem appropriate to embed that process of skills development and provide for it to be vested in the close local transport authority/operator relationship set out in the Bill.
Amendment No. 13 would amend Clause 12, on quality partnership schemes, and would add the skills target as part of the standard of service that could be in the scheme. Amendment No. 33, to Clause 18, would insert a new subsection into the relevant provision of the Transport Act 2000 which would enable the skills target to form part of the quality contract scheme. I hope that my noble friend will respond positively. These clauses facilitate an agreement between relevant local authorities and the bus industry; they write requirements into the Bill. Clause 12, relating to the quality partnership schemes, already contains other requirements which may be specified in a scheme, including,
“requirements which the vehicles being used to provide services must meet”
“requirements as to frequency or timing of the services”.
The amendment would add to those requirements,
“requirements as to annual skills targets for passenger carrying vehicle staff agreed between the authority or authorities and operators”.
I hope that my noble friend will respond positively. The Government have committed themselves to the Leitch report, and acceptance of the amendments would show that the Government were serious in what they had to say about it. I beg to move.
I have listened carefully to what my noble friend Lord Rosser said. Two questions immediately come to mind: how many and how much? If we are to give local authorities these powers and write them into the Bill, it is incumbent on my noble friend to tell us the cost of such a scheme and from where local authorities will get the expertise that he demands in his amendment. The bus industry does not—and never has, as far as I can see—throw the keys to a £250,000 vehicle to someone who walks in off the street. Many companies have specific training schemes for their drivers.
On seeing the amendment, I consulted the Confederation of Passenger Transport on whether there is a general consensus throughout the bus industry. It told me that new drivers undergo at least a three-week training programme prior to passing their PCV test, followed by a further two-week training programme before being allowed to drive on their own. The initial training programme covers topics such as company and depot health and safety procedures, carrying out safety checks on vehicles before leaving the depot, defensive driving, fuel-efficient driving, Highway Code knowledge, hazard-perception training, customer care training, including dealing with the requirements of disabled and elderly people, children and difficult customers—as anybody who rides on buses late at night knows, there are plenty of those around. Post-test training is not forgotten either. It includes vehicle familiarisation, route learning and potential hazards on each route, how to issue tickets and cash handling, drivers’ hours and working time directive, PCV legislation generally, on-road experience with a senior driver, and obtaining NVQ level 2 or BTEC qualifications. Many companies in the industry also offer access to key skill training in English and maths through local courses. From September of next year, much of this training will be incorporated into driver CPC when they are engaged by the company. My noble friend should tell me what the local authorities would do in excess of what the industry already does now.
I have already indicated that my noble friend wants to give them powers for which they have no expertise at the present time. I do not want to sound over-critical of the passenger transport executive in the area where I used to work, but there are more than 300 people working there now. They are not running buses and not running trains—they are always complaining that they are not doing either—and demanding greater powers. How many additional staff would local authorities need? Where would they recruit staff with the vast expertise that my noble friend demands?
Again perhaps my noble friend will answer this question: how much will this extra expenditure benefit the passenger, the customer or the person who rides on the bus, however you want to describe them? If this amendment were accepted it would create another vast local authority bureaucracy which would in no way benefit the passenger.
The point I pick up from the noble Lord, Lord Snape, is that many bus companies do this at present but they do not have to. I reflect on the fact that it is a lot more difficult to be allowed to drive a train than to drive a bus. There may be some pointers in that.
I think the noble Earl’s remarks were addressed to me as a former railwayman. I do not want to pre-empt the Minister’s reply. So it should be: driving a train is a bit more complicated than driving a bus. That is not to undermine the skills necessary to drive buses. I was always full of admiration for our drivers for coping as well as they did with the present-day traffic conditions, not to mention the present-day drunks late at night. These drivers are enormously talented.
I hesitate to stir up problems between the T&G section of Unite and ASLEF or the RMT, but there is a considerable disparity in wages for driving a bus when compared to driving a train. Although that is not strictly relevant to the passage of the Bill, it is possible, within six months, to start on the railways and then drive a Pendolino train at 125 miles an hour between Euston and Manchester. I do not want to undermine in any way the skills necessary to drive modern trains, but the railway is a vastly different place from what it was in the days of steam. These are dangerous waters—I might get letters from ASLEF about this—but it is a lot easier to drive a train these days. Conversely, given present day traffic conditions and modern society, it is a lot more difficult to drive a bus.
Bus companies are as keen to see proper standards of training for their drivers as the railway industry or anyone else. I realise it would create many more opportunities in local government, but I have yet to hear how incorporating the amendment into the Bill will in any way benefit bus passengers as a whole.
I have listened with interest to my noble friend and, on the basis of what he said—which was an extremely complacent and smug contribution on behalf of the bus industry about how it trains its staff—there would not be any problem in agreeing these annual skills targets because the bus industry does not need any improvement at all. It has already reached the highest possible level and therefore there would not be any costs.
But I do not believe that. I do not believe, for example, that every time you go on a bus you can be guaranteed that it is always going to be driven to the highest standard from a passenger’s point of view. I do not believe that the bus companies do not get complaints about customer service; that they have 100 per cent satisfied customers; that disability awareness is not an issue; and I do not believe that the communications are always as good as they might be.
As I mentioned in my opening contribution, there has been a new emphasis on skills in the light of the Leitch report and the Government are urging a raising of skills standards. These amendments simply seek to assume—I accept what my noble friend said—that the bus industry is not perfect, which I think is the basis behind his contribution. They seek to insert a reference to a requirement for annual skills targets to be agreed between the authorities and the operators. Certainly in the clause on the quality partnership schemes there is a reference to the standards of services which may be specified in a scheme. It is a facilitating amendment to enable the spirit of the Leitch report, with its emphasis on improving skills, to be incorporated into quality partnership schemes.
No, I shall not forget that. I thank noble Lords for their very important and lively contributions. There are always two views, if not more, on important issues such as this. My noble friend Lord Rosser asked me to respond positively to his amendments. I hope he will believe that I am responding positively, but perhaps not quite in the way that he anticipated.
My noble friend Lord Snape also raised some very important issues concerning the scope and possible consequences of the amendments. My noble friend Lord Rosser has enormous experience in this area. He rightly set his amendments in the context of the national importance of skills and improving skills and referred to the ground-breaking Leitch report. I, for one, am proud of the Government’s record on encouraging skills throughout our country.
My noble friend raised some very important points about driver skills. We certainly recognise the importance to the bus industry of having a skilled workforce and of the industry being able to recruit and retain in sufficient numbers skilled drivers, mechanics and other essential staff. In this regard, I take the opportunity to welcome the work of GoSkills, the sector skills council for the passenger transport industry, in raising the profile of skills and training in the industry, building on much existing good work by the industry. The Department of Transport works closely with GoSkills and has given it financial support over the past two years.
I agree that local authorities and the industry should work together on these issues, and I want that to be more than a platitude, as I hope will be recognised throughout our deliberations on the Bill. Indeed, one product of them working together closely has been the publication by the Bus Partnership Forum—on which local government, the industry and the department are represented—of a best-practice guide on staff recruitment and retention in the bus industry. The guide shows what can be done on this issue and I commend it to all those involved with this aspect of the industry’s performance. A copy is on the Department for Transport website.
It is also important to note that in the autumn of 2008 the requirements of the EU training directive with regard to a certificate of professional competence for bus drivers will be introduced in this country. Introduction of this new requirement, on which the Driving Standards Agency is in the lead, presents a significant opportunity to ensure that skills and training standards across the industry meet modern needs and that they continue to do so with the requirement for ongoing periodic training.
Against that background, the two amendments are not necessary or appropriate. The legislation on quality partnership schemes in the Transport Act 2000 is drafted in broad terms. Operators must undertake to provide services to a particular standard. The definition of “standard” is not exclusive, and there is no reason to think an authority could not, in appropriate circumstances, specify driving standards.
The Bill, as my noble friend Lord Rosser has said, makes a great deal of detailed provision about frequencies, timings and maximum fares which are outside the current scope of a standard of service as part of the quality partnership scheme. That is because there are particular difficulties and sensitivities that need to be addressed—one of the reasons, no doubt, why they were not dealt with in the 2000 Act. However, there is no similar problem about making provision for drivers’ skills or a host of other issues that contribute to the standard of a bus service. If we start to specify that, we shall end up having to specify everything that a scheme could possibly include, and inevitably we will forget one or two. The amendment, while very well intentioned, would not improve the Bill.
My noble friend’s second amendment would add a provision to the definition of a quality contract. As drafted, the amendment would make that not an option but rather a mandatory feature of every contract let under a quality contract scheme. Among other things, it implies that there is always a driver skill deficiency that needs to be improved and that one cannot get satisfactory driver standards without a quality contract scheme or a quality partnership scheme. As I have said, evidence suggests that that is simply not the case. The driving test for passenger-carrying vehicles, PCVs, is itself very stringent, as many Members of the Committee will know. There are training requirements to be met, including regular refresher training. The accident rate for buses is extremely low compared to any other form of travel by road. With a response that I hope is positive, but which may not go so far as my noble friend would like, I hope I can persuade him to withdraw the amendment.
Before he does so—if he is about to do so—I have a specific question.
It is regrettable when words like “smugness” and “complacency” are thrown around. Members, including my noble friend, might not agree with the views I have expressed but they are based on 15 years of experience as either director or chairman of a bus company—in fact, the biggest municipal bus company at the time in the United Kingdom. I took the trouble to consult the main body for bus and coach operators, the Confederation of Passenger Transport UK, about this specific amendment. That might be smug and complacent, but at least it is based on some degree of experience. I did not read out a brief provided by a third party.
Incidentally, GoSkills, which the Minister mentioned, wrote to all of us who took part at Second Reading asking for support for this amendment. Is it not true that GoSkills is largely funded by the bus industry? A considerable amount of GoSkills’s income comes from it. I say that not out of any desire to prod my noble friend into further action, because the brief he read out earlier might not mention that. But it indicates, as I hope the Minister would agree, not only that the bus industry is concerned to see proper safety and driving standards maintained, but that it is prepared to fund an outside body like GoSkills to bring about the happy situation that my noble friend—erroneously, in my view—believes can be brought about by local authorities.
Of course there are complaints about people with disabilities and their poor treatment on some bus services. Of course there are some drivers out of the many thousands in the United Kingdom who, despite the amount of training they have had, do not do their jobs properly. The same thing applies to local authorities, I am afraid. Unlike my noble friend, who spent most of his years as a general secretary or an officer of a trade union, I had considerable experience as a Member of Parliament in the other place dealing with local authorities. The same specific complaints that my noble friend evidently believes apply only to the bus industry were frequently used about local authorities—the very bodies to which he wants to give powers which, I repeat, they are in no way qualified either to administer or to enforce.
I do not particularly wish to prolong proceedings with a lengthy response to my noble friend. I have had my say; I have put my point of view and he has put his. One key aspect of the leaked report was setting goals for improvements in skills development. That is basically what the two amendments to which my noble friend objects so strongly were seeking to achieve. I will leave it at that. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
[Amendment No. 14 not moved.]
15: Clause 12, page 14, line 7, after “descriptions,” insert “or for tickets or travel permits of a particular type,”
The noble Lord said: The amendment also relates to Clause 12. New subsection (6A) states:
“The standard of services which may be specified in a scheme may also include requirements as to the maximum fares that may be charged for particular journeys, or for journeys of particular descriptions”.
The amendment proposes to add the words,
“or for tickets or travel permits of a particular type”.
Unless my noble friend is going to tell me otherwise, the current wording seems to specify maximum single and return fares, but only, it seems, in statutory quality partnership schemes as that is the part of the Bill in which it appears. The amendment would allow a much broader range of tickets to be specified, including, for example, period tickets such as day, weekly or monthly tickets. Such tickets are increasingly popular and in their multi-modal forms certainly help to promote integrated public transport.
The amendment seeks to extend the range of fares and tickets covered by this subsection. If my noble friend is not able to go along with the amendment—and I await with interest what he has to say—I hope he will explain fully the reasons for that and why the Government believe that what is in the clause is adequate. I beg to move.
I am grateful to my noble friend for raising this issue. I assure him that there is no problem legislatively about the meaning of “fare” in the clause. The wording would be inserted in Part 2 of the Transport Act 2000. Section 162 of that Act applies the definition of “fares” used in the Public Passenger Vehicles Act 1981. That definition reads as follows:
“‘fares’ include sums payable in respect of a contract ticket or a season ticket”.
Although the term “contract ticket” is no longer in common use, we all understand what a season ticket is. Anything like a weekend travelcard or even a day rover ticket would be included in the term. It is therefore safe to say that any payment for a ticket that entitles a passenger to one or more journeys is constructed as a “fare”. The term covers all eventualities. I hope that having heard that brief explanation my noble friend will withdraw his amendment.
16: Clause 12, page 14, leave out lines 9 to 13
The noble Lord said: This amendment is tabled in my name and that of the noble Lord, Lord Rosser. I have tabled a number of amendments to the Bill which are designed to “disability-proof” it. I hope we shall reach Amendment No. 38 tonight, which is my next amendment, but I think we are unlikely to reach Amendments Nos. 69A, 70 or 82 which are also tabled in my name. I am unfortunately not able to be here on Wednesday as I have to go to Brussels, but the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, has kindly agreed to take them over for me and I hope the Committee will allow him to do that. In moving Amendment No. 16, I shall speak also to the other amendments in this group.
Amendment No. 16 is a probing amendment. Its effect would be that the proposed new subsection (6B) would not be inserted into the Transport Act 2000 and operators would not be able to veto the requirements falling within proposed new subsection (6A) and subsection (6)(b), which cover maximum fares, frequency and timing, from being included in quality partnership schemes by making admissible objections. It would remove the ability of bus operators to submit admissible objections to the inclusion of such requirements—that is, requirements on frequency, timings and maximum fares in quality partnership schemes.
The removal of the obstacles that have prevented the setting up of quality partnership schemes and quality contracts has been welcomed by disabled people’s organisations, which believe that it will encourage bus operators to provide buses and bus services that are more accessible to blind and other disabled people. The Government have indicated that quality partnerships can be used to facilitate the introduction of a key accessibility feature for blind and partially sighted people; namely, visual and audible announcements. The proposal to remove the bar on quality partnership schemes specifying minimum standards relating to frequencies, timings and maximum fares is also welcome. Difficulties with frequencies, timings and the bus timetable can make using the bus difficult for disabled people, particularly blind and partially sighted people.
However, Clause 12 provides that quality partnership schemes will be able to include requirements on frequency, timing and maximum fares only if there are no admissible objections from operators. We are concerned that objections may be admissible that would jeopardise the ability of quality partnership schemes to provide for the needs of disabled people. That is the purpose of Amendment No. 16.
As I have explained, Amendment No. 16 seeks to remove the words,
“Section 122(3) to (5)”—
of the Transport Act 2000—
“makes further provision with respect to such schemes”.
Those subsections are inserted by Clause 17(3) and so, if Amendment No. 16 removes the reference to Section 122(3) to (5), it would seem logical to remove Clause 17(3) which puts those subsections into the Transport Act 2000. Amendment No. 18 is largely consequential on Amendment No. 16.
However, in case these provisions are not removed, I shall say a word or two about Section 122(3). Clause 17(3) inserts Section 122(3) to (5) into the Transport Act 2000 and provides for regulations about schemes that specify frequencies, timings or fares. Section 122(3)(e) provides that regulations may make provision as to the meaning of “admissible objection”. I do not necessarily object to the idea of admissible objections, but they ought to be scrutinised carefully. I am therefore not quite sure about Amendment No. 16A, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, which would leave the meaning of “admissible objection” as a matter for guidance from the Secretary of State and thus almost entirely outside parliamentary scrutiny. I would prefer to see draft regulations. I would be grateful if the Minister will commit to publishing draft regulations for the Committee stage so that we can have a good look at them. Will he make available the equality impact assessment on the Bill?
Draft guidance on the meaning of “admissible objection” has been published this morning. It states:
“The Government also considers, again subject to consultation, that an objection should be an ‘admissible objection’”—
if it satisfies a number of conditions, the first and third of which are procedural. The first is:
“It is made in writing to the local transport authority proposing to make the QPS, within a specified time period”.
The third condition is:
“The traffic commissioner has certified that the evidence submitted by the relevant operator is sufficient to substantiate the objection”.
The second qualifying condition, however, is more substantive. It states:
“The grounds of the objection are either that it would not be reasonably practicable for relevant operators to meet the standards of service specified at the time they would come into effect (e.g. because relevant operators would need more time to procure more vehicles, or to take on more staff), or that the likely demand for the services would not be sufficient to enable operators to provide services, to the standard specified, on a commercial basis”.
That guidance goes in the right direction but it would be helpful to see the regulations that will provide the basis for the guidance. I would be grateful if the Minister would commit to bringing them forward during the passage of the Bill so that we can scrutinise them.
Can the Minister clarify whether this guidance implies that every bus service must be profitable as a whole, rather than requiring each individual bus service to be profitable? Obviously the services mandated by the quality partnership scheme as a whole must be commercially viable, but I presume that it cannot be the Minister’s intention that an operator can object to running any unprofitable services.
Operators are able to exercise a veto power by lodging admissible objections, so these must be carefully limited. Disabled people may depend on services that, taken on their own, are not profitable and it would be very helpful to have the Minister’s assurance that it will not be a requirement that each individual bus route or service should be profitable.
Amendments Nos. 19, 20 and 21 make less drastic changes to Clause 17(3) than Amendment No. 18, which would strike it out altogether. I do not need to say any more about those amendments; they merely restrict the regulation-making power in different ways. I am happy to leave it to the noble Lords who have tabled them to explain their effect. I beg to move.
I support the amendment. Do the lines that the amendment seeks to leave out represent a change from the draft Bill? I had an impression that in the draft Bill PTEs and local authorities would be allowed to set frequencies, timings and maximum fares as part of quality partnership schemes without being vetoed in the way they are now. I may be wrong in thinking that, but has there been a change in that regard from the draft Bill? If, and only if, that is case, what was the reason for the Government deciding to alter the terms of the draft Bill? As it is currently worded, it appears to allow operators to veto the fares, the frequencies and the timing provisions in a statutory quality partnership scheme on the grounds of admissible objections.
Reference has already been made to the guidance documents that have appeared but I have had no chance to look at this one; I do not know whether my noble friend knows it from back to front; no doubt he will tell us. I notice in the top right-hand corner it has the words “Office of Fair Trading”. It would be helpful if my noble friend explained what the role of the Office of Fair Trading will be, if any, in the determination of, or challenge to, quality partnership schemes. Presumably it has a role as its name appears on the cover of the guidance.
For example, is it possible that there could be agreement on a quality partnership scheme between a local transport authority or authorities and a bus operator or operators, and a third bus operator could make a challenge to the Office of Fair Trading on the basis that an uncompetitive or non-competitive practice had been put in place by the agreement of the quality partnership scheme between the local transport authorities and two bus operators rather than three, the third bus operator being the one that is complaining? For example, a quality partnership scheme might provide four buses an hour on a particular route, and a third operator wants to come in because he believes that the market could stand six buses an hour. Could he be denied the right, perhaps by traffic commissioners—I do not know who—to run those two additional services? Could he then go to the Office of Fair Trading on the basis that the quality partnership scheme was affecting the ability to compete? It would be helpful to hear from my noble friend what the role is or is not of the Office of Fair Trading with regard to quality partnership schemes.
The issue of admissible objections is a weakness in the Bill’s proposals. If a local transport authority is investing significantly in new facilities, it should be able to specify standards on fares, frequencies and timings. As I mentioned in the example that I used in relation to the Office of Fair Trading, a quality partnership may specify that there should be four buses per hour on a particular corridor and that those services should be evenly distributed for the benefit of passengers and to try to avoid bus war scenarios, one of which is still going on in Preston. Under this provision, you could find that, although this had been done to assist passengers and stop bus wars, it could then be thrown out under admissible objections.
As I understand it, there is no compulsion on operators to provide a service where a quality partnership scheme is in operation but, if they do, they should comply with the standards specified in the scheme. The Bill as it stands appears to allow an operator to object to the standards relating to frequency and timings even though such standards may have been specified following consultation and the full process. Objections are allowed by “relevant operators”. The definition of who might be a relevant operator seems wide-ranging; it might be any operator who operates or has operated services in the area covered by the quality partnership scheme. I am sure that my noble friend will correct me if I am wrong, but that presumably means that operators not involved in the quality partnership scheme might be able to raise objections to it.
One admissible objection from a bus operator might be on the basis that the levels of services provided or proposed in the quality partnership scheme were such that at least some of them could not be operated on a commercial basis. To reiterate what has already been said, where does the issue or the role of subsidy come into quality partnership schemes? Where does it come into it in such a way as to negate any admissible objection by a bus operator seeking to argue that services provided for within the quality partnership scheme were not necessarily all commercially viable?
I am not particularly optimistic that my noble friend will accept the amendment, but I hope that he will give a full explanation as to how he sees it working and that he will be able to respond to some of the questions that I have sought to raise.
I do not wish to get involved in the emerging division between local authority and PTE-type people on the one hand and bus operator-type people on the other. I simply make the point that, whichever side of the divide you are on, the need for clarity and certainty in this area is absolutely paramount. One cannot expect bus operators to make the sort of investment that they might make unless they can be clear that the agreement will stick and that, as the noble Lord has just said, the Office of Fair Trading cannot suddenly intervene and pull the rug from under their feet.
Equally, from the point of view of local authorities, it is not just the amount of money that they invest in a quality partnership but the political capital that they invest when they do it. There is now a consensus that tackling congestion is the key to tackling a range of problems. Whether they are economic growth or environmental issues, tackling congestion is essential. Local authorities that are prepared to allocate road space in a different way take a huge amount of grief; indeed, they lose elections because of it. That is why many of them are so reluctant to do it. Where they do it and it is part of a quality partnership arrangement, they need to be sure that the arrangements will stick.
The existing quality partnership arrangement has been a waste of time. Without fares, frequencies and timings, there is nothing in a current statutory quality partnership that cannot be achieved by a voluntary route. Indeed, I was involved in putting together one of the very first ones in Suffolk in 1993 where, incidentally, the quality of driver training formed part of our voluntary quality partnership. If quality partnerships are to move on to the next level, they need to include these issues, but that means that we need to build in certainty for both sides. If the guidance is clearly understood and debated before the Bill completes its passage, that will provide clarity for everyone as we move forward.
I have Amendment No. 19 in this group. I am grateful to other Members of the Committee who managed to restrain my enthusiasm for speaking to it prematurely.
The Bill amends the Transport Act 2000 to allow frequencies, timings and maximum fares to be included in the partnerships. That seems sensible, and many noble Lords have commented that any proposed scheme should principally take the public interest into account. I was interested to see that the Bill lifts the Transport Act provision that schemes can include requirements as to frequency and timing of services only,
“in such circumstances as may be prescribed”.
What does that mean in practice? Why are some schemes that provide frequencies, timings or maximum fares acceptable while others are not?
It is clear that all authorities should have the ability to set requirements. This is particularly important in rural and remote areas. Where 16 per cent of rural houses are without a car, the lack of mobility causes significant difficulties, including isolation and social exclusion. For people who live in rural areas, bus services are an essential, not a luxury. The ability of authorities to help remote and rural communities with the problems they face depends fundamentally on minimum frequencies at a cost that is not prohibitive. However, it is almost as important that such services are linked up and co-ordinated with the essential services intended by the journey. This argument applies equally to non-rural areas, which is why there are no circumstances in which this should not be the case. I look forward to the Minister’s explanation of what,
“in such circumstances may be prescribed”,
I apologise for being slightly late for this group. I shall speak briefly to Amendment No. 16A, which is tabled in my name. It covers the issue of frequencies, timings and fares within statutory quality partnerships. The noble Lord, Lord Low, was braver than me when he said that instead of guidance we should have regulations. He is quite right about that. I suggested that the guidance needs to be redefined every five years but, as other noble Lords have said, the key issue is what is included in it. Perhaps the 148-page document from the Department for Transport and the OFT will give us the answers. Like other noble Lords, I have not read it all in the space of a day, but we need clarity, which I hope it gives, about whether it allows bus operators to know whether they are forming a cartel and whether they are allowed to charge the same fares. I live in Oxford and two companies run a bus up my road every few minutes. They both charge the same fare, which seems quite high, but the tickets are not interchangeable, which is crazy. That needs clarification. However, you will have to be pretty keen to do these things if you are to go through this document and ensure that you will not be looked into by the Office of Fair Trading for running a cartel or whatever. Perhaps my noble friend can clarify some of these issues.
I, too, apologise to noble Lords for missing parts of this debate. I shall be extremely brief in what I have to say. It is fascinating that one of my noble friends thought that partnerships included fares and services. There have been demands for them to do so but partnerships mean just that, and you cannot call it a partnership if you lay down detail to that extent. We will come in due course to the debate on quality contracts and their value or otherwise, but if you are in a partnership, fares and services should be discussed. The view in the bus industry is overwhelmingly that if you are spending £750,000 a time on a double-decker bus, you want some say in the fares charged to passengers on that bus and in where and at what time of the day you operate it. That is not unreasonable.
I welcome the proposal to ease the present restrictions. Again, at the risk of boring noble Lords, during my time as chairman of Travel West Midlands, we introduced a new service in Coventry known as Prime Line in partnership with the city council. I emphasise that the city council provided the infrastructure. The service was quite successful and the number of passenger carriers increased dramatically. Along came another operator who wished to operate on the same route. Despite the view that the private sector is full of wicked capitalists and pirateers, TWM could make no objection to that. In fairness to the other operator, he too provided new vehicles to a satisfactory standard, which is not always the case. The problem was that, under the existing legislation, we could not co-ordinate fares or timetable services because of the danger of the OFT saying that we were colluding unnecessarily. It is impossible to talk about integration of various modes of transport when, under the existing law, directors are likely to find themselves getting their collars felt if they try to integrate one mode of transport—that is, the bus. I hope that the Minister will offer us some comfort on that point. We will return to the vexed question of fares and services under a later clause.
We have had a fairly wide-ranging discussion around this group of amendments. That is no great surprise because they are fairly broad in their extent and in the range of concerns that they cover. I should offer an early admission, particularly to the noble Lord, Lord Low of Dalston: in framing our response to this group of amendments, we had not anticipated that he would raise issues particularly relating to equalities and to bus users who have a particular disability. That is an oversight on our part because we had not anticipated that admissible objections would be abused in that way. I apologise for that as it is clearly an important subject. We shall have to think carefully about what the noble Lord said. He made some important observations and comments.
We have addressed equality issues. Chapter 3 of the impact assessment, which looks at the Local Transport Bill, covers some of them. I found the document helpful. It provides an interesting background on the nature of bus users, breaking them down by race, gender and so on. Part of the Government’s overall drift is to improve transport provision for people with disabilities. We have made some considerable progress in that regard. In framing legislation, we have to take very careful account of some of the general principles involved in the Disability Discrimination Act 2005, which in many ways is landmark legislation.
We take particular care and concern of those issues. I am very mindful that we shall need to study carefully the observations of the noble Lord, Lord Low of Dalston, on the Bill. We do not anticipate that the admissible objections process would be used or abused in the way in which the noble Lord thought might be the case. I take his point that frequency of service and timing are very important. In Government, we feel that we have an obligation to raise standards on provision, which is part of the Bill. Raising standards on bus provision means that we have to take account and ensure that others, on our behalf, take account—that is how this works—of people’s disabilities and what they bring as passengers.
I live in an area where bus services are very good and we have a modern fleet. I know that the company that provides the service is very mindful of people with disabilities and provision is sensibly made to ensure that a wide range of customers find the service easily accessible. It is probably a model of good practice. I know other areas are moving in the same direction, if they have not already got there.
That said, the issue of admissible objections is important. I am grateful to all Members of the Committee who have addressed it, even though the purpose of the amendment is to strike away the provision. Perhaps I should explain how we arrived at our position on this concept. In the draft Bill, published last May, the provisions on quality partnership schemes included a requirement that, if a local authority wanted to specify maximum fares as a standard of service, the scheme must include a procedure for reaching agreement with operators on the initial determination or subsequent revision of such fares. The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, picked up on the point that the draft Bill included no such provision for requirements about minimum frequencies or the timing of services.
In consultation, operators argued—we thought not unreasonably—that they could be put at very grave financial risk if provisions on any of these matters were imposed by local authorities without their agreement. In fact, any sensible local authority would take care to consult operators, even before consulting the public, to ensure that its proposals were practicable and cost-effective. It seems highly unlikely that a requirement would be imposed over the heads of operators.
The Transport Committee in another place commented that it is not right that one party to a partnership—the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Snape—can set bus frequencies, timings or anything else without the consent of the other parties. It recommended that the Bill should include provision to guarantee that partnership criteria such as frequencies and timings are set by agreement between the authority and the bus operators. The Government accepted the committee's view that the spirit of partnership needs to be maintained as far as possible.
At the same time, we do not want to enable operators simply to veto any proposal to include frequency, timing or maximum fare provisions in a quality partnership scheme. In particular, we would not want a single operator to be able to block a scheme that had good support from other operators in the area. In short, operators should have a right to object, but not all objections should be of sufficient weight to rule out frequency, timing or maximum fare provisions being included in a quality partnership scheme.
The provisions in Clause 12 are supplemented by those in Clause 17, which enable the Secretary of State, or Welsh Ministers, to specify in regulations the meaning of “admissible objections” and “relevant operator”. The regulations would also describe how questions as to whether particular objections and operators fell within those categories would be determined.
If this amendment and the related amendments to Clause 17—that is, Amendments Nos. 16, 18, 20 and 21—were accepted, operators would have no redress if a local authority imposed a totally unrealistic frequency or timing requirement or a maximum fare that was totally inadequate to cover the cost of providing a service, particularly one of the quality required. Rather, they would have one option left open, which would be to withdraw services entirely from the area covered by the quality partnership scheme—in other words, the exercise of a veto. We can argue that that would render the scheme worse than useless, and it would obviously have a seriously detrimental effect on the interests of passengers. Indeed, if the Government accepted these amendments, the potential effect would be contrary to one of the stated aims of the Bill, which is to improve the provision of public transport.
Therefore, we need to strike a reasonable balance. We are aware that these are sensitive issues requiring further consultation with all involved—in particular, the local authorities and the bus industry—before any regulations are made. I make the commitment that that careful further consultation will take place, and we will work closely with stakeholders on the development of the regulations, so there will be an iterative process.
Meanwhile, the draft guidance, which has been made available in the Library of the House, gives a clear indication of the Government’s intentions in this provision. They are set out in box 1 of volume 3, which deals with quality partnership schemes. I stress that this is only a preliminary view, and the Department for Transport will no doubt develop its thinking further in the light of the views of interested parties and, of course, in the light of the comments made today in Committee.
To summarise the description in that box, the Government consider that an objection should be “admissible” if, first, it is made in writing within a specified time by an operator of services directly affected by the proposals; secondly, it is made either on the grounds that it would not be reasonably practicable for operators to meet the standards of service specified at the time they would come into effect or that the likely demand for the services would not be sufficient to enable operators to provide services to the standard specified on a commercial basis; and, thirdly, the traffic commissioner has certified that the evidence submitted by the relevant operator is sufficient to substantiate the objection.
Although that represents the Government’s current thinking on this matter, we do not wish to set it in stone in the Bill when we clearly need to consult the parties further and ensure that we have the balance right. Even after consultation, we may find that we need to refine the definition from time to time, and that is the advantage of putting the detail in regulations rather than in primary legislation.
I hope that my noble friend Lord Rosser and the noble Lord, Lord Low, now understand the purpose of the “admissible objections” provision—I am sure that they did before—and, in view of what I have said, that they will not press their amendments.
I turn to Amendment No. 16A in the name of my noble friend Lord Berkeley. My noble friend has come at this from a different angle, suggesting that the definition of “admissible objections” should be dealt with in guidance from the Secretary of State—and presumably from Welsh Ministers—rather than in regulations. It is a matter of judgment which form of rule-making is preferable in which case; one fits in one set of circumstances and another fits in a different set of circumstances. Regulations have the force of law, whereas guidance, even statutory, is generally something which people must have regard to, take account of, think about, reflect on and so on. They are made by statutory instrument and laid before Parliament and are therefore subject to greater scrutiny and consideration. That is not the case with guidance, unless special statutory provision is made. Introducing a parliamentary procedure for guidance may remove some of the necessary flexibility achieved by setting our provisions in guidance in the first place. Guidance is helpful as it is more easily amended over time to reflect different trends, pressures and even different sorts of services.
I am not attracted to the idea that guidance should be reviewed every five years, which seems arbitrary. It may be better to review it after shorter periods—it depends on the need of the time. It might need to be reviewed more quickly in the light of experience, or it may be so robust that it lasts for longer, but we would know only once it was in place and properly tested. Regulations can be amended at any time. I do not see how the amendment would improve the Bill. For the reasons that I have given, I hope that the noble Lord will withdraw it.
The amendment of the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, is interesting, too, because it comes at “admissible objections” from a slightly different direction. If I understand the amendment properly, it would not delete the provisions on admissible objections as they would apply to quality partnership schemes which make requirements as to frequency, timing or maximum fares. Rather, it would provide a power to disapply those provisions by regulations, and, I presume, a further set of regulations could reapply them by revoking the first set. We could, at least in theory, try out both approaches and see which worked better.
I am not persuaded that anything is wrong with the provision as drafted. It would allow regulations to provide that new Section 114(6B), the admissible objections rule, would not apply,
“in such circumstances as may be prescribed”.
The phraseology has that benefit. The rule could then apply in some circumstances, but not in others. Virtually every circumstance could be prescribed, although it would be an unusual use of the power to disapply the rule in all circumstances. I am not sure that much is to be gained by the amendment, and a great deal could be lost because the power to disapply the rule in some circumstances would be lost.
I shall respond to one or two of the questions and points that were made in addition to those that I have covered. The noble Lord, Lord Low of Dalston, mentioned services in a partnership having to be profitable. Nothing is specified on that issue, but companies clearly seek to make an overall operating profit from their commercial services. Not each specified service has to make a profit from that perspective; companies operating across the piece will seek to ensure that those services are profitably run. Quality partnership schemes do not rule out some services being subsidised; they cover subsidised services. Local authorities would be able to subsidise socially necessary services which would not otherwise be provided, as they do at present.
The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, referred to the draft Bill and the quality partnership scheme including maximum fares with the agreement of operators. We have extended the scheme also to frequency and timings, as I have made clear, simply to ensure that authorities cannot impose unrealistic requirements on operators. We have introduced the idea of admissible objections to ensure that operators do not have a carte blanche veto. Instead, they would have to demonstrate to the satisfaction of the traffic commissioners that the requirements in the scheme were not deliverable or viable. That is an important test.
The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, raised the question of the role of the OFT in quality partnership schemes. The local authority function of making quality partnership schemes must satisfy the competition test. That is why the OFT is involved in this issue. In Part 1 of Schedule 10 it is made clear that any registration restrictions would also have to satisfy that test. The OFT is the enforcement agency and could require changes to a scheme if it were found not to meet the competition test.
The noble Lord asked about the general role of the OFT and why it is on the front page of the guidance. It largely drafted volume 5 of the guidance, as agreed through the Bus Partnership Forum. The OFT has a role under Schedule 10 to the Transport Act 2000 to adjudicate on whether quality partnership schemes satisfy the competition test.
I think I have covered most of the issues that were raised during the debate. I cannot see that I have a note on anything else. This is an important part of the Bill. The admissible objection process is clearly an area of concern and one on which there are strong views. We see it as a way of ensuring that we can make partnerships work so that operators can work with local authorities, transport authorities and so on to ensure that we have genuine partnerships that operate to the benefit of all. It is right that issues such as frequency, timing and maximum fares are part of that debate so that we can try to get consensus and an understanding of each others’ problems in providing services.
I would expect an intelligent and sensitive operator to work to resolve the problem rather than to be heavy handed. In the end, we are here to provide services and to ensure that we get greater participation—more people involved in public transport and taking up the service. Later on, we will have an opportunity to debate some of the OFT issues. I am sure that the noble Lord will make his fair and trenchant views well known at that stage.
I recall that when I was managing the transport portfolio in Suffolk, the bus operators would not meet together with us because they were convinced that if they were to do so it would leave them open to a charge of collusion for which the penalties are so severe. I agree with the noble Lord’s comment. The danger is that in recent years the operations of the Office of Fair Trading have related to competition in an intellectual sense. It has lost track of its original purpose, which was to ensure benefits to the consumer. I am not confident that we have progressed that issue much further from when I first came across it in the mid-1990s or from when the Transport Act 2000 passed through your Lordships’ House. I do not believe we have advanced this debate much further since then.
I understand the issue the noble Baroness raises. In my locality we do not have a benign monopoly, but there is provision on most routes by one company. That is not to say that there is no competition; there is a degree of it. The system works well.
We have to focus people’s attention on providing a good quality service that expands, takes on more passengers, provides a better reach, gets cars off the roads where congestion is an issue and so on. The potential environmental impact of providing a more throughgoing bus service and using a lot of unused capacity is there for all to see. Making sure that people understand the importance of that is critical to ensuring that these measures work well. I am grateful to everyone for their contributions. This has been a useful debate.
Before my noble friend sits down, I will try once more. If the situation is, as the noble Baroness and my noble friend have said, that the operators feel they cannot even sit in the same room together, or with a local authority, for fear of being hauled in by the Office of Fair Trading, that situation is not helpful. I do not know what is in this 150-page document because I have not read it yet, but surely it is right that the Government should give the operators some guidance or comfort so that they will sit down together, otherwise we will not make any progress.
Before my noble friend replies to that specific point, perhaps I can help him out. Subsequent to the Transport Act 2000, the very same questions were put repeatedly to transport Ministers. I shall provide him with a trapdoor now by saying that the reply was inevitably, “These are not matters for the Department for Transport. You should take your concerns elsewhere”.
I understand from what my noble friend said about admissible objections that an operator can raise the issue that its objection is based on the non-viability of the services. If I have understood him correctly, the operator would then provide the information to the third party, which I believe would be the traffic commissioner, to substantiate that. Would that information be made available to the local transport authority, or—since it presumably related to the finances of the bus company—would it be information made available only to the third party and not also to the local transport authority whose quality partnership scheme was faced with an admissible objection?
On the question of viability, would an admissible objection by a bus operator be that although the services in the quality partnership were still viable, the return to the bus operator was less, in its view, than if it had been allowed to continue as it was at the moment and the quality partnership scheme had not come into operation? In other words, as a result of the changes in the quality partnership scheme, although the services were still, strictly speaking, viable, the returns to the bus operator would be reduced. Is that an admissible objection?
The second question is easier to answer than the first. We do not believe that the fact that there had been a reduction in the bus operator’s takings would be an admissible objection. That would not be captured, so it would be disapplied.
The issue of commercial information and whether that would then be entered into the public domain by being supplied to the local authority is rather more complicated. It would depend on what was submitted. I am thinking back to my time on local authorities. The noble Baroness, Lady Scott, and the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, both have experience of that. We always had to respect commercial confidentiality, and had what were described as part 1 and part 2 papers. That process is well understood, for very good reasons. Particularly when dealing with sensitive issues like contracts, one has to be very careful. It is not easy to answer that question precisely, and I as a Minister am certainly not going to adjudicate the point today. That would be quite wrong.
Going back to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Snape, and the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, about the involvement of the OFT and the issue of competition, it is perhaps worth asking colleagues to read the guidance, which I would argue has a more positive tone. It enables more of what needs to happen—namely, those sensible discussions—than is currently seen as being the case. The competition test in Part 2 of Schedule 10, which is introduced by Schedule 2, means that operators will not risk fines from the OFT by co-operating with local authorities. That is its effect, and it is what we want to happen.
The Minister has asked that I withdraw the amendment and I am prepared to do so. This has been a wide-ranging debate, as he has said. I am grateful to him for the full and thoughtful reply he has given to the points that I and other noble Lords have made. I am sorry if I took him by surprise by coming out of left field with disability issues. I hope he did not feel that I had shanghaied this worthy piece of bus transport legislation to make some points on disability access.
I thank the Minister for that. I was a bit worried that other noble Lords who obviously know a great deal more about the bus industry than I do might feel that I had commandeered the Bill for some purpose that did not properly belong there. As the Minister has appreciated, though, access to transport is an important issue for disabled people. Access to information about transport is an important part of that—timetable information in particular. I am grateful that he has been so ready to take those issues on board and will give further consideration to the points made. He may well want to come back with other safeguards rather than trying to attack the admissible objections wording in the legislation. If he wanted to give consideration to some other way of disability-proofing the legislation or providing for access for disabled people, that would be welcome. Perhaps there could be a provision about operators having to have regard to the needs of disabled people.
I am grateful for that. If I can assist at all in discussions with the Minister between now and Report, I will be happy to do so. I will not labour the point any more, since the Minister has been very gracious in acknowledging the points and indicating his willingness to think further about them.
I will make two quick supplementary points. I was grateful for the assurance that the Minister gave that viability does not require that every individual service should be viable but that the important criterion is that partnership schemes should be viable as a whole. That fully meets the point I was making on that issue.
I take it that in saying to the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, that in this case the Minister feels that regulations are a better route than guidance—one does not always hear that from government Ministers—he is indicating that he will be prepared to bring forward the regulations so that we can look at them before Committee.
I hesitate to interrupt the noble Lord’s calm response, but I cannot give that undertaking. It would not be fair of me to commit to something that I cannot 100 per cent guarantee to deliver. I would like to be able to do that but I do not think that I can, and it is only fair that I say that to the Committee.
That is probably about as far as one can take that point this afternoon. With those observations and, again, an expression of appreciation to the Minister for the very full way in which he responded not only to my points but to points made by other noble Lords, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
[Amendment No. 16A not moved.]
17: Clause 12, page 14, line 24, at end insert—
“(3) In subsection (3)(c) (authorities to consult etc) after “affected by it” insert “and neighbouring Local Transport Authorities”.”
The noble Lord said: The Bill does not seek to amend the people and organisations required to be consulted when setting up a quality partnership scheme. In addition, the consultation requirements when proposing a quality contract remain unmodified. Therefore, the Transport Act 2000 applies, as has possibly been said before. In that document is a comprehensive list of organisations for both schemes. Included among others is the requirement to consult,
“any other relevant local authority, any part of whose area would, in the opinion of the authority or authorities, be affected by it”.
Amendments Nos. 17 and 43 would make it a requirement for authorities to consult neighbouring local transport authorities. While that already may be the case in the majority of proposals, such as when bus routes cross LTA boundaries, there is a need for the consultation of neighbouring authorities to be more explicit. This should be the case especially for quality contracts.
Consultation will allow authorities to have their view on any proposed scheme and raise any concerns. Conversely, taking a more positive outlook, consultation would allow neighbouring transport authorities to collaborate and make provision in their own transport plans for proposed changes in their neighbour’s area. Either way, consultation would surely prove a beneficial exercise.
In addition, the right to appeal against a quality contract, given on page 23, line 23, is based on whether a person has been consulted during the consultation stage. Assuming neighbouring authorities have this right will ensure that schemes are properly thought out and implemented.
Amendment No. 44 would ensure that Network Rail and local train companies are consulted when a quality contract scheme is proposed. For similar reasons to those on the other amendments, I would argue that bodies to do with rail infrastructure should be explicitly mentioned on the list to be consulted. That is relevant to some previous amendments that we moved today about comprehensive transport arrangements. This will enable local transport authorities and the local rail industry to ensure good connections between local road and rail services and rail stations, and co-ordination of bus and rail timetables. That joint working is particularly important given the powers in the Bill to enable local authorities to introduce road-charging schemes—something that we shall get on to later. Such charging schemes will inevitably displace drivers and freight from roads and place extra pressure on rail and bus services, which makes co-ordination all the more important.
Especially when considering the role of new integrated transport authorities to consider integration between all modes of transport, it makes good sense that local transport authorities should consult Network Rail and local train companies on any plans produced when specifying the extent and quality of bus services through quality contract schemes. Requiring local transport authorities to consult Network Rail and local train companies on the provision of local bus services will help to ensure that local areas develop a comprehensive, integrated public transport system across all modes that is able to cope with the added pressure of road-charging schemes. Would the Minister agree that the amendment is justified given the overall tone of the Bill to improving public transport in the broadest sense? I beg to move.
I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, that neighbouring authorities should be consulted by a local transport authority that proposes to make either a quality partnership scheme or a quality contract scheme. However, I do not agree that the two amendments are necessary, because adequate provision is already in the Transport Act 2000 that the noble Lord quoted.
Both Section 115 of the Act, for quality partnership schemes, and Section 125, for quality contract schemes, require the authority promoting the scheme to consult any relevant local authority that might be affected by it. These include other local transport authorities, district councils and authorities in London and Scotland that by definition cannot be directly affected by a scheme under the 2000 Act.
Any local authority, in determining whom it should consult, must act rationally and reasonably in carrying out any of its functions. As the noble Lord will know from his vast experience in local government, any failure to do that could be challenged in the courts. On that basis, I do not believe that any more than that is needed, and I hope that the noble Lord will withdraw his amendment.
On Amendment No. 44, I am not persuaded by the noble Lord that the introduction of a quality contract scheme would be likely to have a significant effect on rail infrastructure. It can never do any harm to consult—the noble Lord raised integrated transport, on which we agree consultation would be important. Local transport authorities are not confined to the list of statutory consultees in Section 125 of the Transport Act 2000. If it is appropriate to consult a manager in Network Rail, they should do so. It may be as helpful to them as it is to Network Rail to have a dialogue of this kind. However, I do not see any merit in making this a statutory requirement which must always be complied with. I hope that the noble Lord will withdraw his amendment.
I thank the noble Baroness for her answer. She certainly sympathised with my view that these people need to be consulted. We would have liked them to have been mentioned. One could say that while local authorities are sufficiently covered, there is no requirement for the rail side of things. Road, rail and buses will increasingly be drawn together. I know that proposals exist to create new stations, which will affect bus and other modes of transport. It would therefore be sensible to include rail among the statutory consultees. However, I was reassured by what the noble Baroness said on the local government side. We will reflect on the rail issue. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 12 agreed to.
Clauses 13 to 16 agreed to.
The Committee stands adjourned until Wednesday 12 December at 3.45 pm.
The Committee adjourned at 5.49 pm.