House of Commons
Wednesday 1 March 2017
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business Before Questions
Middle Level Bill (By Order)
Second Reading opposed and deferred until Wednesday 8 March (Standing Order No. 20).
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
The Chief Secretary to the Treasury attended a Joint Exchequer Committee with the Scottish Government’s Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Constitution in November. They discussed the ongoing work between both Governments to implement these and other powers. There are, of course, regular and ongoing discussions between officials from both Governments.
Does my hon. Friend agree that these taxation powers, coupled with other powers that have been devolved to Holyrood, make it one of the most powerful devolved Parliaments in the world? Does she also agree that, quite rightly, they make the Scottish Government accountable for their actions in respect of taxation, and that the Scottish Government are responsible for making Scotland the most highly taxed part of the United Kingdom?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. The new devolution settlement does indeed deliver one of the most powerful and accountable devolved Parliaments in the world, and the people of Scotland will look to their Government to use those tax powers wisely to make Scotland as competitive and attractive a place as possible in which to do business. We obviously want the Scottish Government to use those powers to deliver that and it is for them to choose how they use them, but they do have to account for their use to the people of Scotland.
Does my hon. Friend share my confusion that the Scottish Government prefer the narrative of whinge, whine and waffle to using the powers that this Parliament has given them to prove their competence in running the country?
As I am sure many hon. Members also know, I am very aware from many of my conversations with businesses—particularly those thinking about their plans for the future, especially since the referendum last year—that they often see competitiveness through the prism of tax and that they want to know the Government are entirely focused on creating the conditions in which businesses can grow and thrive. I really think that all of us need to focus on pursuing our plans to make our respective countries very competitive. In Scotland, the Government have to understand that the decisions they take about using their powers are part of such a package for businesses.
The Tories at Westminster are facing rebellion on their Back Benches on business rates. What advice are they taking from the Government in Scotland, who have listened to local businesses and put on a cap of 12.5% for businesses in the hospitality sector and particularly those in Aberdeen that have been hard hit by the oil price?
I think that is just an attempt to make a political bragging point. My right hon. Friends the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government have made it quite clear that they will have more to say about that. They are listening carefully to the concerns of particularly the smallest businesses and of those hardest hit by business rates in England.
Will the Minister explain to me how, simultaneously, the Scottish Government can, first, be not using the taxation powers they have, and secondly, be the highest taxed part of the country, particularly when neither of those statements is in fact true?
It is for the Scottish Government to account to the Scottish people for their plans. These points might be interesting ones to bring to Westminster and knock about in this Chamber, but real people are looking at the impact of those plans on their family income and the Scottish Government will have to account to them for those plans. It is far more than just a debating point.
These are all very important points. It is for the Scottish Government to use the powers that have been devolved to them and to account to their people for using them, but there is no doubt that people look at the competitiveness of tax regimes, whether personal or business, and that those regimes are important in the key decisions that people make about competitiveness and other things.
Leaving the EU: Trade
Following the EU referendum, Scotland Office Ministers have regularly met representatives of Scottish industry and business. What comes out clearly is the appetite to seize and make a success of the opportunities afforded to us by leaving the EU, forging a new role for ourselves in the world to negotiate our own trade agreements and be a champion for free trade.
I am a bit scared to ask my supplementary question because I think my Scottish National party colleagues have had three Weetabix this morning. My question is about exports, of which Scotland has made a fantastic success, particularly in food and drink. How confident or worried should we be if we come out of Europe that those markets will be damaged, and what can the Government do to support them?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight food and drink as Scotland’s top manufacturing export, accounting for £8.9 billion in 2015. Leaving the EU offers us the opportunity to negotiate new trade deals across the globe and create even more opportunities for Scotland’s world-renowned food and drink.
Agriculture and fisheries are key parts of the Scottish economy and Scotland’s export sector. Powers for both are devolved to the Scottish Government. Under the Secretary of State’s Government’s plans, will all decisions on agriculture and fisheries be taken by the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government after Brexit?
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the Government have confirmed in the White Paper that all the powers that the Scottish Parliament currently exercises in relation to agriculture, fisheries and all other issues will continue. We wish to have a dialogue with the Scottish Government, the other devolved Administrations and stakeholders about what happens to powers that are currently held in Brussels and where they will rightly rest after the United Kingdom leaves the EU.
Anybody watching this will realise that the Secretary of State did not answer the question. During the Brexit referendum campaign, people were told that decisions currently taken in Brussels on agriculture and fisheries would revert to the Scottish Parliament. The Secretary of State has not given a clear answer to the question, which really matters to our rural industries, our rural economy and Scotland as a trading nation. Let me try the same question again, and I would be grateful if the Secretary of State answered it. Under his Government’s plans, will all decisions on agriculture and fisheries be taken by the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government after Brexit—yes or no?
This Government’s plan is to engage with the Scottish Government and with the other devolved Administrations to discuss those serious issues. It is not to go out and tell the people of Scotland that the devolved settlement is being undermined by Brexit, which will lead to the Scottish Parliament exercising more powers. I can give the right hon. Gentleman an absolute guarantee that, after the United Kingdom leaves the EU, the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Ministers will have more powers than they have today.
Before I ask a question, I take the opportunity to send my condolences to the family of my great comrade, Gerald Kaufman, a genuine parliamentarian.
On 12 October, the Secretary of State stood at the Dispatch Box and said
“whatever support is put in place for businesses in the north of England will apply to businesses in Scotland.”—[Official Report, 12 October 2016; Vol. 615, c.287.]
That was in relation to the deal struck with Nissan. Does he stand by that promise?
I associate myself with the hon. Gentleman’s comments about Gerald Kaufman. He was a near neighbour of mine in the previous Parliament and I always found him to be the perfect gentleman.
I made it clear in previous answers that the Government’s approach will be consistent across the United Kingdom.
While some businesses and workers are aware of that welcome reassurance, I have yet to meet any businesses in Scotland that know about the commitment to give them the same deal as was done with Nissan. Why has the Secretary of State not been more public about the commitment? Why is it the best kept secret in Scotland?
I have made it clear to the hon. Gentleman how the UK Government are approaching the Brexit negotiations and how we are fully engaged with businesses in Scotland to ensure that we understand their concerns. We can go forward on a basis that will ensure that Scotland and the whole United Kingdom get the best possible deal from the UK leaving the EU.
Scotland’s international exports have increased by 41% since the Scottish National party Government came into office in 2007, which is a fantastic success story for Scotland. Will the Secretary of State therefore explain why the UK Government failed to negotiate any geographical indications for Scottish produce in the EU-Canada CETA trade deal?
I hope the hon. Lady’s approach on the EU-CETA trade deal is more consistent than that of her parliamentary group. On the Monday of the week when the Canada deal was discussed, SNP Members voted in favour. By the Wednesday, they somehow found that they were against.
Scottish Government: Draft Budget
As I have mentioned, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury has regular engagement with the Scottish Government’s Finance Minister. They discussed matters relating to the Scottish Government’s budget for 2017-18 at a joint Exchequer committee in November, and at a Finance Ministers’ quadrilateral in February.
What does my hon. Friend believe will be the consequences of the Scottish Government using their new powers for the Scottish economy to make Scotland the most highly taxed part of the United Kingdom?
Colleagues are rightly focused on tax and competitiveness. The increased tax powers delivered through the Scotland Act 2016 mean that the Scottish Government have responsibility for raising more of what they spend. It is for them to decide how to use those tax powers to shape Scotland’s economy, growth and jobs. I might not like their plans to make Scotland a higher-tax nation—it is up to them—but they have to explain those plans to the people they represent.
The publication of this year’s draft Scottish budget had to be delayed because the Chancellor of the Exchequer did not make financial information available until the autumn statement. What impact will the move to the autumn Budget have on the Scottish Government’s ability to plan effectively for their budget process?
There are many good reasons for moving to a single fiscal event in the autumn—allowing for longer-term planning is one of them. On the subject of planning for the long term and increasing certainty, I would add that taking the threat of a second referendum off the table is the single biggest thing that the SNP and the Scottish Government could do for certainty and confidence among the business community.
Leaving the EU: EU Nationals in Scotland
I have regular conversations with the Secretary of State for Exiting the EU on a number of issues. The UK Government have made it absolutely clear in their White Paper that securing the rights of EU citizens in the UK and of UK citizens in the EU is one of our top priorities in the Brexit negotiations.
The Secretary of State’s answer is not very reassuring given the speculation about a potential cut-off date for EU nationals later this month. The other place will vote on an amendment today that will secure the residency rights of EU nationals. If that is passed, will the Secretary of State urge his colleagues to end this disgraceful uncertainty on residency rights for EU nationals, who contribute so much to the Scottish and UK economies? If he does not, he will send out a very strong message that he is willing to use the lives of EU nationals as a bargaining chip for a hard Tory Brexit.
I agree with one thing the hon. Gentleman says: EU citizens in Scotland, and indeed in the whole United Kingdom, make a significant contribution to civic life and the economy of our country. As the Prime Minister has repeatedly made clear, we want those people to stay. She has sent out a very clear message, and it is clearly set out in the White Paper. We do not believe that the Article 50 Bill is the place to set it out.
I call Mr Shailesh Vara.
I have No. 12, Mr Speaker.
The hon. Gentleman has a very similar question and I rather assumed he wanted to come in.
Order. This is on the importance of the rights of EU nationals. I am sure that that is what the hon. Gentleman meant.
I know that businesses across Scotland value the contribution that EU citizens make to their businesses, and I am clear with them that even when the UK leaves the EU, it will be important for EU citizens still to come to Scotland and play an important part in our economy.
A recent report from the British Medical Association shows that 40% of European doctors might leave the UK after Brexit because of the Government’s shameful inaction on giving a clear guarantee to EU nationals. Why will the UK Government not do the right thing and give a clear guarantee to EU nationals, who are a valued part of our society in Scotland, that they have the right to remain?
I am absolutely clear about the importance we place on the role of EU nationals in the economy and the health service, but I would take the hon. Lady’s comments about encouraging doctors and other medical professionals to come to Scotland a lot more seriously if her Government had not decided to tax them more than any other part of the UK.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that as well as safeguarding the role of EU citizens in the UK after we leave the EU, it is vital that we safeguard Scots people who have gone to live in other parts of the EU?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. It is vital that we secure the position of UK citizens in the EU, many of whom are Scots, and it is perfectly legitimate to take forward that issue in conjunction with securing the rights of EU citizens in Scotland and the rest of the UK. I am hopeful that that can be dealt with very early in the negotiations.
It is clear that the Government are happy to play political football with these people’s lives. It shows contempt for 12,000 people working in our health and social care service in Scotland and for 20,000 people working in the food industry, which the Secretary of State has just bragged is the most important part of Scottish industry. When will he stop treating these people this way and give them the guarantee they need to live a happy and secure life in Scotland?
I have made it absolutely clear, as has the Prime Minister, how much we value the contribution that EU nationals make in Scotland to both the economy and civic society. We want them to stay, but we also want UK nationals elsewhere in the EU to be able to stay where they are.
Joint Ministerial Committee
The Government are committed to getting the best deal for Scotland and the UK in the negotiations with the EU. The Joint Ministerial Committee on EU Negotiations was established to facilitate engagement between the UK Government and devolved Administrations and has had substantive and constructive discussions in monthly meetings since November.
At the last meeting of the JMC, the Prime Minister committed to an intensified engagement with the Scottish Government on their EU proposals. Can he update the House on that process?
When I appeared last week before the Scottish Parliament’s Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Relations Committee, I was able to tell it that in the two weeks since the plenary meeting of the JMC, six substantive meetings had taken place between senior officials so that both Governments could discuss the proposals set out in the document, “Scotland’s Place in Europe”. We regard this as a serious contribution to the debate and continue to engage with it.
May I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to the fact that the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee has been taking a great interest in the inter-institutional relationships within the UK, that we produced a report in December on this subject, which I commend to him, and that the main thrust of the recommendations are not about structures and institutions but about natural adversaries sitting down together and developing relationships and bonds of trust and understanding?
Obviously, I very much take my hon. Friend’s work seriously. Despite what often appears in the media, it is possible for the two Governments to engage in a constructive way. We are already in agreement on many issues in the Scottish Government’s document.
It is not just a matter of trying to keep the EU nationals who are currently in our health and social care service. The workforce is the biggest challenge that NHS Scotland faces, so will the Secretary of State support Scotland having the powers to attract EU nationals in future, not just keeping the ones who are here now?
I have said previously from this Dispatch Box that I do not support the devolution of immigration powers to the Scottish Parliament, but I do support arrangements that will ensure that the vital workers needed in depopulating areas, skilled areas and in areas that rely on seasonal workers can come to Scotland.
Earlier, the Secretary of State refused to confirm that Scottish fishing and Scottish agriculture would become the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament. When will his Department present to the Joint Ministerial Committee a list of powers that will be devolved to the Scottish Parliament after Brexit, or will he refuse to do so and simply follow instructions from No. 10?
What I want to do and what I have attempted to do is engage in a constructive discussion and dialogue with the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament about how we repatriate powers from Brussels. I do not try to make a serious and wrong political point that this is an attempt to destabilise the Scottish Parliament, because I know that when the process is complete, the Scottish Parliament will have more powers than it does today.
UK Single Market and Scotland’s Economy
Sales from Scotland to the rest of the UK are worth nearly £50 billion, a figure that has increased by over 70% since 2002 and that is four times greater than the value of exports from Scotland to the EU. There is no doubt that the United Kingdom is the vital Union for Scotland’s economy.
Does the Secretary of State agree that we must not create barriers or do anything to impede the functioning of the UK domestic market as we leave the EU, given its vital importance to the economy of Scotland?
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. I find it strange that those who make such a fuss about the EU single market seem to have a complete disregard for a market that is four times as large to Scotland’s economy.
Given that Scottish whisky is the largest net contributor to the UK’s balance of trade and goods, is the Secretary of State encouraged by the fact that if we move from the single market to World Trade Organisation arrangements, Scottish whisky will have a zero tariff?
It is important to note that there is a zero tariff for Scotch whisky under WTO rules. As to our future relationship with the EU, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made it absolutely clear that we want to negotiate a free trade agreement with the EU, which would be enormously to the benefit of the Scotch whisky industry.
All this UK single market business is quite interesting, but is the Secretary of State trying to suggest that a Brexitised isolated UK, desperate for friends and any trading partners, would not trade with an independent Scotland?
What I am suggesting is that if an independent Scotland were to put up tariffs and barriers with its vital largest trading partner, which provides four times as much economic development as the EU, that would be a disastrous series of events.
How is job creation in Scotland affecting the Scottish economy?
It is vital that both the UK and the Scottish Governments work together to maximise the number of jobs created, but it is clear that the one thing the Scottish Government could do to help job creation in Scotland most is take the suggestion of a divisive independence referendum off the table.
I also made it clear to that Committee that it was not appropriate to give a running commentary on the Government’s internal discussions on Brexit. What I am committed to do is delivering the best possible deal for Scotland in these Brexit negotiations.
The Prime Minister was asked—
I am sure that the whole House will want to join me in wishing people in the UK, and across the world, a happy St David’s day. I am also sure that the whole House will want to join me in paying tribute to our former colleague, Sir Gerald Kaufman, who died over the weekend. He was an outstanding parliamentarian and a committed MP who dedicated his life to the service of his constituents. As Father of the House, his wisdom and experience will be very much missed right across this House. I am sure that our thoughts are with his friends and family.
This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
I associate myself with the Prime Minister’s remarks, and assure the many relatives and friends of our former colleague that they are very much in our thoughts and prayers at this difficult time.
Does my right hon. Friend believe that last week’s historic by-election victory in Copeland was an endorsement of her Government’s plans to maintain a strong economy, bring our society together and ensure that we make a huge success of leaving the European Union?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. First, I wish to congratulate my hon. Friend, the new Member for Copeland, and look forward to welcoming her to this House very shortly. My hon. Friend the Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) is absolutely right that last week’s historic result in Copeland was an endorsement of our plans to keep the economy strong and to ensure that places such as Copeland share in the economic success after years of Labour neglect. It was also an endorsement of our plans to unite communities where Labour seeks to sow division and of offering strong, competent leadership in the face of Labour’s chaos.
May I join the Prime Minister in wishing everyone in Wales, and all Welsh people around the world, a very happy St David’s day? May I also express the hope that, today, the workers at the Ford plant in Bridgend get the assurances that they need about their job security and their futures?
I echo the Prime Minister’s tribute to Gerald Kaufman, who served in this House since 1970 and was the longest serving Member. He started in political life as an adviser to Harold Wilson in the 1960s. He was an iconic, irascible figure in the Labour party and in British politics. He was a champion for peace and justice in the middle east and around the world. Yesterday at his funeral, Mr Speaker, the rabbi who conducted the service conveyed your message on behalf of the House to his family, which was very much appreciated. Afterwards, I spoke to his family and to his great nephews and great nieces and asked them how they would describe Gerald, and they said that he was an “awesome uncle”. We should remember Gerald as that, and convey our condolences to all his family.
Just after the last Budget, the then Work and Pensions Secretary resigned, accusing the Government of
“balancing the books on the backs of the poor and vulnerable.”
Last week, the Government sneaked out a decision to overrule a court decision to extend personal independence payments to people with severe mental health conditions. A Government who found £1 billion in inheritance tax cuts to benefit 26,000 families seem unable to find the money to support 160,000 people with debilitating mental health conditions. Will the Prime Minister change her mind?
Let me be very clear about what is being proposed in relation to personal independence payments. This is not a policy change—[Interruption.] This is not a cut in the amount spent on disability benefits, and no one is going to see a reduction in their benefits from that previously awarded by the Department for Work and Pensions. What we are doing is restoring the original intention of the payment agreed by the coalition Government, and agreed by this Parliament after extensive consultation.
Extensive consultation is an interesting idea, because the court made its decision last year, the Government did not consult the Social Security Advisory Committee and, at the last minute, sneaked out their decision.
The court ruled that the payments should be made because the people who were to benefit from them were suffering “overwhelming psychological distress”. Just a year ago, the then new Work and Pensions Secretary said:
“I can tell the House that we will not be going ahead with the changes to PIP that had been put forward.”—[Official Report, 21 March 2016; Vol. 607, c. 1268.]
The court has since made a ruling. The Prime Minister’s colleague, the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Heidi Allen), said:
“In my view, the courts are there for a reason. If they have come up with this ruling, which says that the criteria should be extended, then I believe we have a duty to honour that.”
Is she not right?
First, on the issue of these payments and those with mental health conditions, the personal independence payment is better for people with mental health conditions. The figures show that two thirds of people with mental health conditions who are claiming personal independence payments and in receipt of it are awarded the higher daily living rate allowance, compared with less than a quarter under the previous disability living allowance arrangements.
This is the second time that the right hon. Gentleman has suggested that somehow the change was sneaked out. It was in a written ministerial statement to Parliament. I might remind him that week after week he talks to me about the importance of Parliament; well, we accepted the importance of Parliament and made the statement to Parliament. He also referred to the Social Security Advisory Committee, and it can look at this matter. My right hon. Friend the Work and Pensions Secretary called the Chairman of the SSAC and spoke to him about the regulations on the day they were being introduced; he also called the Chairman of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions and spoke to him about the regulations that were being introduced; and he called both offices of the shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, but there was no answer and they did not come back to him for four days.
Calling—[Interruption.] Calling the Chairs of two Committees and making a written statement to the House does not add up to scrutiny, and as I understand it no call was made to the office of my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams), the shadow Secretary of State.
The reality is that this is a shameful decision that will affect people with dementia, those suffering cognitive disorders due to a stroke, military veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, and those with schizophrenia. Will the Prime Minister look at the effects of her decision to override what an independent court has decided, and think again?
The issues and conditions that the right hon. Gentleman raises are taken into account when decisions are made about personal independence payments. The court said that the regulations were unclear; that is why we are clarifying the regulations and ensuring that they respect and reflect the original intention that was agreed by this Parliament.
If the right hon. Gentleman wants to talk about the support being given to people with disabilities, I say to him that this Government are spending more than ever in support for people with disability and health conditions, and we are spending more than ever on people with mental health conditions. What we are doing with personal independence payments is ensuring that those who are most in need get most support.
The Government have overridden an independent court decision, and they should think long and hard about that. The Prime Minister’s hon. Friend, the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), said this week that the Government have to
“make it very clear that physical and mental health has the same priority”.
In 2002, the Prime Minister made a speech to the Conservative party conference. I remember it very well; I was watching it on television. She described her party as the “nasty party” and said:
“Some Tories have tried to make political capital by demonising minorities”.
This week, her policy chair suggested that people with debilitating conditions were those who were
“taking pills at home, who suffer from anxiety”
and were not “really disabled”. Is that not proof that the “nasty party” is still around?
My right hon. Friend has rightly apologised for the comments that he made, and I hope that the whole House will accept his apology. The right hon. Gentleman asks me about parity between mental health conditions and physical conditions. It is this Conservative Government who introduced parity of esteem in dealing with mental health in the national health service. How many years were Labour in government and did nothing about it? Thirteen years!
It was a Labour amendment to the Health and Social Care Bill that resulted in parity of esteem being put on the face of the Bill. I am surprised that the right hon. Lady has forgotten that; she could have taken this opportunity to thank the Labour party for putting it forward. The Prime Minister made a speech earlier this year supporting parity of esteem for mental health, and I am glad she did so. However, 40% of NHS mental health trusts are having their budgets cut, and there are 6,600 fewer mental health nurses and 160,000 people with severe mental health conditions who are about to lose out on support. Can she not recognise that parity of esteem means funding it properly and not overriding court decisions that would benefit people suffering from very difficult conditions? We should reach out to them, not deny them the support they need.
As I say, we are spending more than ever on mental health—£11.4 billion a year. More people each week are now receiving treatment in relation to mental health than previously. Is there more for us to do on mental health? Yes, there is. I have said that in this Chamber in answer to questions that I have received—
Well, do it!
The shadow Foreign Secretary shouts, “Well, do it” from her normal sedentary position—[Interruption.] We are doing it. That is why we are putting record amounts of money into mental health. That is why we are seeing more people being provided with mental health treatment every week under this Government. There is one thing that I know: if we are going to be able to provide that extra support for people with disabilities and health conditions and provide treatment for people with mental health conditions, we need a strong economy that enables us to pay for it. And the one thing we know about Labour is that they would bankrupt Britain.
That is rich, coming from a Government who, by 2020, will have borrowed more and increased the national debt by the total borrowing of all Labour Governments.
The mental health charity Rethink has said:
“The Government has spoken forcefully about the importance of parity esteem between physical and mental health, yet when presented with the chance to make this a reality...it has passed on the opportunity”.
As a society, we are judged by how we treat the most vulnerable. The respected mental health charity Mind has said:
“This misguided legislation must be reversed”.
Will the Prime Minister look again at the decision of the court and its consequences, withdraw this nasty decision, accept the court’s judgment and support those who are going through a very difficult time in their lives? That is how we will all be judged.
The way we are dealing with disability benefits is to ensure that payments are going to those who are most vulnerable. What we are doing in relation to personal independence payments is ensuring that the agreement of this Parliament is being put into practice. The right hon. Gentleman talks about funding and he talks about borrowing. I understand that today—[Interruption.]
Order. We cannot have a constant debate while the Prime Minister is answering the question. The question has been put and was heard, and the answer must be heard without a constant hubbub in the background.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about accepting the court’s decision and paying for that. When asked how Labour would pay for the increase if it was put in place, I understand that the Labour shadow Health Secretary said today, “Err, we’ve not outlined that yet.” That just sums up the Labour party and the Labour party leadership. After the result in Copeland last week, the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) summed up the by-election result by saying that it was an “incredible result” for the Labour party. I think that word describes the right hon. Gentleman’s leadership: incredible.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that important issue, which he is right to raise. We want the UK to be the go-to place for innovators and investors across the world, and we want to secure the best possible outcomes for the UK research base as we leave the European Union. Indeed, one of the objectives that I set out for our negotiations with the European Union relates to science and research. We already are a leading destination for science and innovation, and we would welcome an agreement to continue to collaborate with our European partners. I am interested in what my hon. Friend has said, and I am sure that that report will be looked at carefully by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union.
We on the SNP Benches join the Prime Minister and the leader of the Labour Party in extending our condolences to the family and friends of Sir Gerald Kaufman. We also extend our best wishes to the people of Wales on St David’s Day.
In Scottish questions just prior to PMQs today, Ministers were unable to answer basic questions about the Government’s plans for agriculture and for fisheries. Those are important industries for the rural economy and are devolved to the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament. With Brexit ending the role of Brussels in those areas, will all decisions about agriculture and fisheries be made at Holyrood—yes or no?
The right hon. Gentleman knows well that we are discussing with the devolved Administrations the whole question of the UK framework and devolution of issues as they come back from Brussels. The overriding aim for everything that we do when we make those decisions is to ensure that we do not damage the important single market of the United Kingdom, a market which I remind the right hon. Gentleman is more important to Scotland than the European Union is.
That is a very interesting answer because people in Scotland, including those working in the agriculture and fisheries sectors, were told during the Brexit referendum that farming and fisheries powers would be exercised fully by the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament. Judging by the Prime Minister’s answer, however, it seems that that will not be true. Will the Prime Minister confirm today—she has the opportunity—that it is her intention to ensure that UK Ministers will negotiate and regulate over large areas that impact on Scottish fisheries and agriculture post-Brexit?
The right hon. Gentleman seems not to have understood this point, so I will repeat it. We are in the process of discussing with the devolved Administrations the whole question of which of the powers that currently reside in Brussels will be returned and will remain at a UK level for decisions and which powers will be further devolved to the devolved Administrations. That is the discussion that is taking place at the moment. He asks about the Brexit negotiations with the European Union, and it will be the UK Government that will be negotiating with the European Union, taking full account of the interests and concerns of the devolved Administrations and, indeed, of all the regions of England.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that important issue, which I know he has been working on for some time. He is absolutely right to identify circumstances where websites are acting in that way and causing those problems for people who genuinely believe that they are able to buy tickets for what they wish to attend. I understand that he recently met my right hon. Friend the Minister for Digital and Culture to discuss the issue. As my hon. Friend will be aware, the Consumer Rights Act 2015 introduced new rules on ticketing and a review of online ticket sales. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport will shortly respond to the independent report by Professor Michael Waterson on this issue, but as a Government we are looking at the general issue of where markets are not working in the interest of consumers.
I am happy to welcome the new hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Gareth Snell) to this House.
It is precisely because of concern about how various people were being treated within our public services that last year I introduced a racial audit of the disparity of treatment within public services. As Home Secretary, I saw this when I looked at the way that people, particularly black people with mental health issues, were being dealt with by the police and in various forms of detention. That is exactly the sort of issue that we are looking at. I am very happy for the hon. Member for Croydon North (Mr Reed) to write to me with the details of the particular issue that he set out.
I am very happy to join my hon. Friend in congratulating West Suffolk College on being given that award for best teaching and learning initiative for its MARS initiative. The college has put in place a really interesting initiative, and I congratulate all its staff. This award is a sign of the dedication of the staff and students at West Suffolk College. All colleges across the country should be aspiring to reach these standards, and she is absolutely right that we need to ensure that young people have not just a skillset but an inquiring mind that enables them, as they look forward to what may be different careers throughout their life, to embrace new skills and change.
First, I am sure that Members from across the whole House will want to join me in offering our deepest sympathies to the family of this 16-year-old constituent—former constituent—of the hon. Lady. She raises an important issue, which is why the Government recognise the harm associated with the problem consumption of alcohol. We have taken action through the duty system, so that high-strength ciders and beers are taxed more than equivalent lower-strength products. We have also, of course, taken action on the very cheap alcohol by banning sales below duty plus VAT. But another element is involved, too, which is making sure that young people are aware of the dangers and harms of alcohol misuse. Public Health England and the NHS have run campaigns offering advice and support to young people, and they also work with charities and in schools to help to raise that awareness. I think that is an important part of this.
First, I want to assure my hon. Friend that higher education institutions have a responsibility to ensure that they provide a safe and inclusive environment for all students. We expect them to have robust policies and procedures in place to comply with the law, and to investigate and swiftly address hate crime, including any anti-Semitic incidents that are reported. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation has recently written to remind institutions of these expectations, and he has also urged them to follow the Government’s lead in adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism.
We have taken important steps to tackle money laundering, terrorist financing and other economic crimes; I oversaw the establishment of the economic crime command in the National Crime Agency. On the question the hon. Gentleman raises on SLPs, I understand that BEIS consulted last year on further transparency requirements for SLPs and will be publishing proposals soon, and that my right hon. Friend the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Secretary is gathering evidence which may lead to further reform.
As my hon. Friend will know, business rates are based on property value and it has been seven years since property values were last looked at, so I think it is absolutely right that we update them. But of course, as I recognised last week, there are different impacts on different businesses, and it is important that we have already put significant sums into transitional support for businesses so that we help the companies that are facing increased bills. As I said in this House last week, I have asked my right hon. Friends the Chancellor and the Communities and Local Government Secretary to make sure that the support that is provided is appropriate and is in place for the hardest cases. I would expect my right hon. Friend the Chancellor to say more about this next week in the Budget.
I am happy to say to the hon. Lady that we have, of course, protected the core schools budget in real terms. Yes, we have had free schools—I understand that she raises a concern about them—but we have seen the programme of free schools and academies continue under this Government to ensure that we are creating more good school places throughout the country. That is what we want to do and that is what our policy will continue to do.
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. He is absolutely right to raise the importance of Wales. My right hon. Friend the Wales Secretary is doing important work to remind the world that Wales is one of the best places in the UK to live, work and trade with. In the forthcoming negotiations we are committed to getting a deal that works for all parts of the UK, including Wales. The best way to achieve that is for the UK Government and the devolved Administrations to continue to work together. I am pleased to say that I am going to be hosting a St David’s day reception in Downing Street tonight to celebrate everything that Wales has to offer. I once again wish all Members of this House dydd Gwyl Dewi hapus.
I apologise to the hon. Lady, but I missed the first part of her question. I think she was talking about investment in infrastructure in her area. [Interruption.] HS3, right. The Government have obviously already set out the commitments we have made on infrastructure. As she will know, we believe infrastructure plays an important part in encouraging the growth of the economy and ensuring that we see increased productivity around the rest of the country. Over time, we will of course be looking at further projects that can do just that.
My hon. Friend makes an important point about local maternity services. As I have said, I am looking forward to welcoming the new Member for Copeland to this House very shortly. During the recent campaign, she made it very clear that she did not want to see any downgrading of the West Cumberland hospital services. She also did something else. She put forward a powerful case for what my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) has just suggested: a review to tackle the recruitment issues that affect the maternity services up there. A professionally led review seems very sensible, and I know that the Health Minister is looking into it.
I am sorry, but I obviously do not know the full details of the individual case raised by the hon. Gentleman. We are ensuring that more money is being—and will continue to be—put into mental health conditions over the year. I am sure that the Secretary of State for Health will look into that case, if the hon. Gentleman wants to write to him about it.
As a leader who wants to spread wealth and opportunity as widely as possible, will the Prime Minister ensure that we end the practice of developers buying freehold land on which they then sell new houses on a leasehold basis? Many first time buyers on Help to Buy feel that they are being ripped off by this practice and look to the Government for help.
I thank my hon. Friend for mentioning that issue, which he has raised with me previously. I know he is concerned about it and working on it. Our housing White Paper clearly sets out that developers should be building homes for people to live in. That means that we will act to promote fairness for the growing number of leaseholders, but we will consult on a range of measures to tackle unfair and unreasonable abuses of leasehold, as the Housing Minister has said. Other than in certain exceptional circumstances, I do not see why new homes should not be built and sold with the freehold interest at the point of sale.
We all recognise the important service that pharmacies provide, which is why spending on them has actually risen in recent years. There has been an increase of more than 18% in the number of pharmacies over the past decade. The system needs to reform so that NHS resources are spent efficiently and effectively. Let us look at some of the figures: two fifths of pharmacies are within 10 minutes’ walk of two or more other pharmacies; the average pharmacy receives roughly £220,000 a year in NHS funding; and most pharmacies receive the £25,000 establishment payment, regardless of size or quality. We looked at this concern when it was raised last summer, and made changes to ensure that greater support was available to pharmacies in particular areas.
One of David Cameron’s greatest legacies was his effort to fight human trafficking under the Modern Slavery Act 2015. Last year, this country looked after 800,000 children in Syria or the surrounding countries for the same investment as looking after 3,000 in this country. By doing that, we help to defeat human trafficking. Will the Prime Minister confirm that we will continue with that policy?
I am very happy to join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to David Cameron. I was pleased that he supported the Modern Slavery Act when I proposed introducing it. We are, indeed, committed to continuing our policy in this area. I have set up, and chair, a modern slavery taskforce at No. 10, bringing together various parties to ensure that we are doing what is necessary across Government to break the criminal gangs, deal with the perpetrators and provide the necessary support for victims.
May I, on behalf of my hon. and right hon. Friends, join the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition in expressing condolences to the family of the late Father of the House? He will be greatly missed.
The Prime Minister cannot fail to have noticed the recent intervention in the Brexit debate by two former Prime Ministers; I am sure they were very helpful. I am sure that she will know what they and everybody else mean by “hard Brexit” and by “soft Brexit”, but we are all now wondering what is meant by a “soft coup”, when it might be triggered, and when, indeed, we will know whether it has been triggered. Perhaps the Prime Minister will elucidate on that since she has been so helpful in many other ways. Will she take the opportunity today, however, to make it clear that, whatever former Prime Ministers or Members of the unelected upper House may say, the reality is that her plan to trigger article 50 by the end of March is now clearly on track?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that question. It is, indeed, my plan to trigger by the end of March, and when I refer to that, I refer, of course, to the triggering of article 50, rather than attempting to trigger any coup, soft or otherwise, that might take place. It is still our intention to do that. It is important; the article 50 Bill, of course, does respond to the judgment of the Supreme Court, but it also ensures that we are responding to the voice of the United Kingdom, when people voted to ensure that we do leave the European Union, and that is what we will do.
Mr Speaker, perhaps you, like many other hon. Members here today, took a shower this morning—[Laughter.] I am sure you were very careful to check whether the shower gel contained microbeads. [Hon. Members: “Ah!”]
Order. We must hear the thrust of this fascinating question. Mrs Pow, let’s hear it.
Shower gel products containing microbeads can result in 100,000 microbeads or microplastics being washed down the drain every time we use them—into the water system, and then into the marine environment, damaging these precious habitats. Would the Prime Minister join me in welcoming the steps this Government are taking to introduce a ban on microbeads used in cosmetics and personal care products, with the consultation ending just a few days ago?
I think I should say for clarity to Members of this House that I am not in a position to know whether or not you took a shower this morning, Mr Speaker.
My hon. Friend has raised a very important point. It is completely unnecessary to add plastics to products like face washes and body scrub, where harmless alternatives can be used. As she said at the end of her question, our consultation to ban microbeads in cosmetics and personal care products closed recently. We are aiming to change legislation by October 2017, and we also ask for evidence of what more can be done in future to prevent other sources of plastic from entering the marine environment, because we are committed to being the first generation ever to leave the environment in a better state than when it was inherited. I am sure that, together, we can all work to bring an end to these harmful plastics clogging up our oceans.
I think both Philip and Sally are very reassured by what the Prime Minister has just said.
Along the M4 corridor in south Wales, over 1,000 families woke up this morning deeply worried about potential job losses at Ford in Bridgend. Families in Ogmore and Bridgend are particularly frightened—frightened that Ford is not going to be able to bring new contracts into the factory, with the uncertainty of Brexit ahead. Can I have an assurance from the Prime Minister that she will arrange for her Ministers to meet Ford and Unite the union to see what can be done to support Ford to ensure continuity of engine production in the Bridgend plant?
Can I reassure the hon. Lady that our automotive sector is one of the most productive in the world? We want to see it going from strength to strength. That is why Ministers in this Government have been engaging with various companies within the automotive sector, including Ford and other companies. Ford is an important investor here; it has been established here for over 100 years. We now account for around a third of Ford’s global engine production, and Bridgend continues to be an important part of that. We have had, as I said, dialogue with Ford; we will continue to have a regular dialogue with Ford about the ways in which Government can help to make sure that this success continues.
The following Member took and subscribed the Oath required by law:
Trudy Lynne Harrison, for Copeland.
Points of Order
May I associate myself and Liberal Democrat colleagues with the tributes paid to Sir Gerald Kaufman and express our condolences to his family?
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I seek your guidance. I am concerned that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and, indeed, the Prime Minister may have inadvertently misled the House in relation to claims that they have made about the changes to the personal independence payment. I have checked the Government’s response to the PIP consultation dated 13 December 2012, sections 6.13 and 6.14 of which make it clear that the Government were going to award points to those whose mobility was impaired by their mental health. How can I set the record straight to make it clear that the policy change to restrict PIP is a wholly unacceptable policy change for which this Conservative Government are solely responsible?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the warmth and courtesy of his remarks in respect of the late Sir Gerald Kaufman.
The right hon. Gentleman raises an important matter, but it is a matter of debate. I would say two things to him. First, as he will probably have noticed, this matter was treated of by the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) and others yesterday, although that does not preclude further consideration of it today. Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman is a wily old hand in this House, and he knows that by raising the matter in this way on the Floor of the House in front of Members on the Treasury Bench, he has found his own salvation. I cannot help but think that on this occasion he is more interested, as I often observe, in what he has to say to me than in anything I have to say to him.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Could you give guidance to the House? Is it not more appropriate that these matters are raised in departmental questions, and is it not a fact that no Liberal Democrat was present during Work and Pensions questions?
It is better for these matters to be raised in the relevant Question Time session. The hon. Gentleman is well seized of that age-old principle of campaigning, namely quantity, persistence and, above all, repetition. I think my short-term memory serves me well. His observation about the absence of members of a particular political party was made the other day, but he has opportunistically seized his chance to repeat it this afternoon. He has made his own point in his own inimitable way.
I will come to the hon. Gentleman—I am saving him up.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. May I thank you for responding to my point of order yesterday, which had the immediate effect of securing answers to overdue parliamentary questions from the Department for Communities and Local Government? One question that was due for answer last Friday has still not been answered and you, Mr Speaker, may think that it is very exacting. It asked the Secretary of State when he intends to respond to the letter from the mayor of Christchurch. I cannot understand why we cannot get an answer to that question and I hope that this point of order will embarrass the Department into giving an immediate response.
As I advised the hon. Gentleman yesterday, it is the normal expectation that responses from Ministers to written parliamentary questions are both timely and substantive. Moreover, I suggested to the hon. Gentleman that there was a growing spectre of potential embarrassment for Ministers from the relevant Department, the Department for Communities and Local Government—namely, if they did not respond speedily to his question, he might feel inclined to raise points of order over and over and over again about the matter. That would be gravely embarrassing to Ministers and I was sure that they would not want that to happen.
Ministers will have heard, or will hear very soon, of the hon. Gentleman’s perfectly reasonable question last week and of his point of order about it today and I am sure that they will not want the embarrassment of his coming back to the Floor and raising further points of order about the non-answer. The hon. Gentleman is starting to copy the tactic that has long been followed by the hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) and that was followed regularly by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton, the late Sir Gerald Kaufman, of raising in the form of either a further written question or a point of order the fact of a non-answer. That is gravely embarrassing and I feel sure that Ministers will not want it to continue for any length of time. I know the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope)—I have known him for 30 years—and he is a very persistent fellow.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. May I be the first to take the opportunity to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Trudy Harrison), who is from a part of the country I know well from when I lived in Cumbria?
I was fortunate, Mr Speaker, to be selected for the 90-minute debate this morning in Westminster Hall on Iran’s influence in the middle east, but I was unfortunate in taking the Northern line from my Hendon constituency to the Houses of Parliament. The Northern line was suspended, meaning that I and many of my constituents were unable to get here. First, on that basis, may I ask whether a mechanism can be introduced so that if a Member is physically prevented from attending a debate or any other business of the House, someone else can take their place? Secondly, will you look favourably on having an Adjournment debate or another Westminster Hall debate on this issue before the festival of Nowruz on 21 March?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order and, first, thank him for his courteous tribute to the new Member for Copeland, which will be warmly received and appreciated by her and a great many other colleagues to boot.
Secondly, I am sure that the delay on the Northern line, which is not an uncommon phenomenon—a fact of which I am well aware, hailing from that part of the world myself—was not deliberately contrived to disadvantage the hon. Gentleman in pursuit of his Adjournment debate, but it is nevertheless a very considerable inconvenience.
Thirdly, I would say to him that hard cases make bad law and I am cautious about the idea—I hope that he will forgive me—that on the basis of his bad experience a new rule should suddenly be introduced. That is something that the Procedure Committee could consider and I would be advised by the House, but I would be reluctant to make any precipitate judgment in his favour on that point.
Fourthly and finally, seeing as the hon. Gentleman raises his concern with me, I would simply say that the track record shows that on the very rare occasions—two spring to mind, but I will not name the Members for obvious reasons—on which Members unavoidably missed their Adjournment debates, their applications for another such debate soon in substitution were met favourably. I have heard what the hon. Gentleman has said and recognise the importance and urgency of the matter. Perhaps we can leave it there for now.
Companies Documentation (Transgender Persons)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to enable transgender persons to apply to the registrar of companies for England and Wales for documentation relating to their change of name to be treated as protected information under the Gender Recognition Act 2004; and for connected purposes.
May I, too, welcome my hon. Friend the new Member for Copeland (Trudy Harrison) and wish her every success in her tenure?
One of the privileges of being a Minister is having the opportunity to find out more about other people’s lives and concerns. In July last year, I was pleased to be able to publish the Government’s response to the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee’s report on transgender equality. I am sure that the response did not satisfy all the Committee’s demands, but I believe that it was another step to acknowledging that although we have the Gender Recognition Act 2004 and although the coalition Government published the world’s first transgender action plan in 2011, there is more that could be done by the Government, among others, to address the remaining inequalities, unfairness, violence and discrimination faced by trans people.
I am sorry that I did not have the opportunity to steer the Government’s continued response on these matters, but I know that my successor as Minister for Women and Equalities, my right hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Justine Greening), and the Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities, my hon. Friend the excellent Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage), are continuing that important work.
We were aware that many loopholes remained, and that for every loophole a trans person can worry that something will inadvertently reveal their transition. In my experience, some trans people are quite comfortable telling their own stories. In fact, many trans people are doing inspirational advocacy work in our schools and across our society to break down barriers and to tackle stigma and discrimination about transgender issues. However, for some trans people, their transition and history are very personal and something that they want to choose to share, rather than being forced to do so by someone else. That is the situation that my Bill aims to address.
In September 2016, I received a letter from Alex, who wrote:
“I am the sole director of a company I set up some years back to manage a small property portfolio…When I changed my name and title the process to inform Companies House was actually very easy and my name was updated quickly…I noticed afterwards however, that this change of name and title was recorded in the company filings that are freely available for public inspection on the Companies House website. The document in question is a…Change of Particulars for Director form and clearly states my original name and title and subsequently my new name and title. This very obviously discloses my change of gender to anyone who happens to look at the filing history of my company, publically outing me without my consent. The main issue I take with this is that of safety. In future there will be many people I meet and interact with who will have no idea of my transgender status because I simply will not tell them. If someone later finds out, this could potentially lead to violence, which is a reality that you are already aware the trans community faces.”
The potential for inadvertent disclosure comes about because of a conflict between section 22(4)(j) of the Gender Recognition Act 2004 and section 1087(1)(k) of the Companies Act 2006. In her letter to me dated November 2016, the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Margot James)—the Minister responsible for small business, consumers and corporate responsibility—makes it clear that the companies registrar must make available to the public all information held on the public register unless he is specifically forbidden to do so by section 1087 of the Companies Act.
Section 22 of the Gender Recognition Act generally prohibits the publication of protected information held on a transgender person. However, section 22(4) details the circumstances under which it is not an offence to disclose protected information, which are if
“the disclosure is in accordance with any provision of, or made by virtue of, an enactment other than this section.”
The Minister’s letter states:
“The Government is satisfied that this applies to the disclosure of a director’s former name as this is required to be placed on the public record by enactments in the Companies Act. In conclusion the data is not considered to be material excluded from public inspection by the Gender Recognition Act for the purposes of section 1087 of the Companies Act.”
I do not disagree with this interpretation, but I think that this is an unintended loophole that needs to be closed. That is what my Bill would do.
Alex also told me:
“In 2004 the GRA came in to place with the clear main goal of protecting people who were at risk of being vulnerable, and it was a world-leading piece of legislation which frankly I’m proud to say came out of the UK. What is happening now with Companies House is an entirely accidental and unfortunate flaw in the way that the GRA 2004 and CA 2006 interact with each other. This flaw is entirely against the spirit of the GRA 2004, and I think that anyone would be hard pushed to argue against that...I’m currently able to protect myself when it comes to my credit profile, my tax profile at HMRC, the FCA register, Government Gateway. I just personally think it is the right thing to do to force Companies House to be held to the same standard.”
The Bill would close the loophole by amending the 2004 Act in a way that would allow transgender persons to apply to Companies House to withhold from public inspection information about a director’s former name and for that information to be treated as protected information under section 22 of the 2004 Act.
Hon. Members and people outside this House might ask why such a disclosure matters. I argue that, as a country, we have provided a legal mechanism for people to change their gender. In my experience, this is not a decision that anyone enters into lightly, and nor does it happen quickly. Again, in my experience, once that decision is made, transgender people want to be able to move on with their lives, to be treated with respect, and to live without the fear of being inadvertently outed or subject to violence.
I am afraid to say that violence and discrimination do still occur. Home Office figures show that, in England and Wales in 2015-16, there were 858 transgender hate crimes, a 41% increase from the previous year. Living in fear because of who you are is unacceptable in the modern United Kingdom. Can hon. Members imagine what it must like for someone to live in fear of violence because of official documents that they have filed in compliance with a particular Act of Parliament?
Amending the law can be, even for lawyers, a rather dry topic. As always, however, behind the law lie real lives. In spite of such a fear, I thank those who have contacted me, including Alex. For example, in the course of preparing for these proceedings, I was contacted by another trans person who said to me:
“My current position is that I am unable to start my business without running the very real risk of outing myself as a transgender woman. Presently I want to start a business to provide technology and web development services. However as I cannot yet transition I am in the unfortunate position where if I started a business now and then transitioned this information would be publicly available.”
I thank the accountant who told me that the advice that they were given was to resign as an existing director and register a new director’s appointment in the new name, although clearly details such as their date of birth would be the same; or to close the company down, have it struck off and then set up a new company, with all the administrative expenses entailed in that course of action.
Just to illustrate the point, let me quote another message that I received:
“I used to do IT contracting and did so via a limited company. I changed my name and title by deed poll in 2012 and also need to change my details at Companies House as a director of my company. I’ve now had gender reassignment surgery and will be applying for my gender recognition certificate as soon as I receive the necessary report from the Gender Identity Clinic. Whilst this will give me a lot of protection in law it will still be possible for people to find out my deadname by interrogating the records of my company at Companies House which could possibly put me at risk if someone found out those details for malicious purposes.”
This small legal change would send out a big signal. Altering the Gender Recognition Act would be a simple change to make, yet it would mean a great deal to the many trans people who suffer this problem in silence. The House has an opportunity, by giving me leave to bring in this Bill, to close this inadvertent loophole and to show that we will tackle unfairnesses wherever we find them. I hope that hon. Members will support the motion.
Question put and agreed to.
That Nicky Morgan, Mrs Maria Miller, Ben Howlett, Mike Freer, Mrs Flick Drummond, Norman Lamb, Angela Crawley, Jess Phillips, Peter Kyle and Anna Turley present the Bill.
Nicky Morgan accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 24 March, and to be printed (Bill 149).
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The next item on the agenda is Second and Third Reading of the Supply and Appropriation (Anticipation and Adjustments) Bill. Standing Order No. 56 states that we shall not have a debate and that both Questions will be put forthwith. The Bill says that we will spend £254,713,662,000, but we will be agreeing to it without any debate or scrutiny. We have had the estimates days, but on those days we are not supposed to talk about the estimates and the budget lines provided. Will you give me some guidance, Mr Speaker? At what stage is this House able to scrutinise properly the departmental estimates that come before it, and is there any place in which we can do so adequately?
I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for her point of order. Now is not the occasion for me to dilate on the procedure for such matters. I can tell her that her hon. Friend sitting immediately behind her, the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), is very familiar with this procedure; he is certainly very familiar with his own discontent with it, upon which he briefly expatiated earlier in the week.
The way in which we treat of these matters is based on decisions that the House has made, and on the relationship between the House as a collective entity on the one hand, and our Committees on the other. If the hon. Lady is dissatisfied with the procedure—she has every right to be—that is a matter she should properly pursue through the appropriate channels in the House. For example, she could legitimately raise her concern with the Procedure Committee. My responsibility as the occupant of the Chair is to give effect to the procedure that is extant and has been approved by the House. If she wishes to change it, she can seek to do so, and if it were changed, I would operate the changed procedure. I think we had better leave it there for today.
Supply and Appropriation (Anticipation and Adjustments) Bill
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 56), That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Question agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time.
Question put forthwith, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
Question agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.
Bus Services Bill [Lords]
[Eighth Report of the Transport Committee, Bus Services Bill, HC 611, and the Government’s response, HC 918.]
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Buses are England’s most used form of public transport. With over 4.65 billion passenger journeys a year, they account for over 60% of all public transport trips. Buses support our economy, and they connect our communities to the workplace and vital public services, such as healthcare and education. They help to reduce congestion, and cleaner bus technologies also contribute significantly to improving air quality. The Government continue to regard this as a priority, and we are helping to drive it forward through investing in schemes such as the £30 million low emission bus scheme and the £7 million in the clean bus technology fund.
Across England, the bus industry is delivering excellent services for passengers. According to the most recent bus passenger survey by Transport Focus, 86% of passengers were satisfied with their services. Buses today are very different from the buses of 30 years ago: over 90% are accessible; many have free wi-fi, CCTV and USB charging points; and nine out of 10 have smart ticketing equipment. That is all thanks to significant private sector investment in the industry. I am particularly pleased that the five largest operators are continuing to invest in better services and that they will bring contactless payment to every bus outside London during the next five years. We have an industry of large and small firms, with large firms doing a good job and small firms doing a good job.
Will the Secretary of State congratulate our municipal transport company, Blackpool Transport, on not only introducing a new fleet of accessible buses, but making a profit last year of £1.38 million, £1 million of which was returned as a dividend to the council? Does not that make the case for extending rather than stifling municipal bus companies?
There is no doubt that in a small number of places, municipal bus companies have survived and that, in a place such as Blackpool, they play an important role in the local transport system. However, the Government do not believe that extending the provision of bus services to council after council is the right approach. It will stifle the private sector investment that has made such a significant difference. However, I pay tribute to Blackpool, which has also done excellent work on the tram system. Those of us who look back to the days of taking “The Ship” and the other historic trams up and down the seafront are slightly disappointed that that can now happen only at illumination time.
The Secretary of State has talked about the bus service 30 years ago. Of course, the biggest difference is that buses are now genuinely accessible. Does he agree that it is welcome to see provision for audio-visual information, which my constituents have regularly raised with me?
My hon. Friend is right. It is of paramount importance that we look after people with disabilities on our buses. An important part of that is ensuring that the right information is available and that we have the most accessible possible bus fleet. I am particularly pleased about the number of our newest buses that are manufactured in this country by some excellent firms.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm my understanding that the Bill is an enabling measure, and that there will be no compulsion on local authorities to change bus services when the arrangements between the council and the bus operators mean that a good service is already provided?
As I go on to talk about the Government’s approach to the Bill, I absolutely assure my right hon. Friend that it is not about forcing anybody down a route to change. No local areas should countenance asking or pushing for change unless they have a clear plan for delivering improvements for passengers. The Bill is not and should not be simply about moving deckchairs around.
I am listening carefully to the Secretary of State. Bus passengers in many parts of England will think that he is living in a different world from them. In the 30 years since the deregulation of buses, fares have gone up and services have been withdrawn from poorer, often isolated communities. The picture that the Secretary of State paints would not be recognised in Greater Manchester. If the policy has been a success, would not bus patronage have increased? Will he confirm that, in those 30 years, it has gone down, down and down throughout England?
If people step on to a bus today, it is a wholly different experience from doing so in the past. We have a relatively new fleet and much better buses, and the purpose of the Bill is to ensure that we have the best possible services for passengers in future. I made the point to my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight) that any change that arises out of the Bill should happen only if it will benefit passengers. My expectation and belief is that mayoral authorities and others will pursue change only if it will obviously improve things.
I agree with the Secretary of State—change should be made if will improve benefits to passengers. That will certainly be the case for my constituents, as I am sure he will agree. Currently, one company serves the route in one direction, a different company serves the journey back and my constituents have to buy two tickets. Does he agree that that is nonsense?
Having parties on both sides for several years has led to partnership agreements and now the Bill will ensure that we have the best possible arrangements for passengers. It is indisputable that the investment from the private sector over a long period has led to the improvements that I described in the bus fleet.
I have a note from the chief executive of one of the main bus operators in South Dorset. Although, as private bus operator, he welcomes the Bill, believing that working together is a good idea, he thinks that franchising is a slightly perverse route for a Conservative Government to follow. He states:
“If a franchise model was adopted, this could lead to a future layer of bureaucracy being introduced, and the local authority would be designing the bus network and setting prices.”
Will my right hon. Friend comment on that point?
The essence of the Bill is that franchising will be available to mayoral authorities automatically, but to deliver change, they will still have to demonstrate that it would benefit passengers. They will have a legal duty to do that, otherwise their decision will be subject to judicial review. Other authorities will have a duty to demonstrate to the Secretary of State that they will transform services to get permission to make a change. Ultimately, the Bill is about the passenger, who has to come first.
Bus networks in England’s six metropolitan areas are estimated to generate £2.5 billion of economic benefits every year. They are a lifeline for many rural communities, which I will talk about shortly.
Let me make it very clear: the Bill does not introduce wholesale re-regulation of the bus market. It is not a return to a pre-1986 world of local councils running bus services. Private operators will continue to dominate the bus market. They will still deliver services, whether through the current arrangements, improved partnerships or franchising. The aim of the Bill is to increase bus passenger numbers and to improve bus services by giving local authorities and operators new options. The Bill builds on existing partnership powers, making them more attractive and easier to use, and introduces new, enhanced partnership scheme powers, which will enable local authorities to work with bus operators and introduce a set of standards for bus services in their areas. They both operate in a deregulated environment where commercial operators can make decisions about where and when buses run.
The Bill also refreshes bus franchising powers, honours our devolution deal commitments and recognises the successes of the franchising model that was introduced for London in 1984. One of those successes is the easy access that London bus passengers have to information about their bus services, with over 500 smartphone apps available. The Bill will make it easier for passengers throughout England to get such information on timetables, fares and routes. That is particularly valuable in rural areas where bus services may be less frequent.
In 1986, South Yorkshire had a renowned bus service. It was cheap, frequent and comprehensive and 268 million passenger journeys were made. Since deregulation, that figure has fallen by 62% to 102 million. I welcome the regulatory powers in the Bill, but if the Secretary of State does not extend them beyond mayoral combined authorities, what criteria will he use to judge other requests for franchising from areas that do not automatically get it under the Bill?
As I said earlier, there has to be a point of accountability. That is the mayor in a mayoral authority and the Secretary of State in other areas. Any change must deliver benefits to passengers. Since 1986, this country is more prosperous, with broader car use. We want improved public transport, particularly in cities, where there is congestion and better bus services can make a real difference. We will offer those cities the opportunities to develop schemes that they believe will work for them locally, but we are clear that any change should deliver benefits to the public.
On data, in London, Transport for London owns the data and was able to make them freely available to all the creative web developers out there who wanted to make interesting apps. The problem outside London is that the data are owned by private sector companies, which hoard them in the hope of monetising them in some way. The powers in the Bill to force those companies to make the data open source and stimulate innovation in the app market are important.
The hon. Lady is right. There is no reason in today’s world for such information to be anything but widely available to the public. We believe in open data and the best possible passenger information right across our transport system. The Bill will make a significant difference in that respect.
That point is important. The focus of every option in the Bill should be on what delivers for the passenger. I want and expect the industry and local authorities to use the powers in the Bill, whether on franchising or enhanced partnership, to work together to put the travelling public first.
I make it absolutely clear that the Bill in its current form is not the Act that the Government wish or intend to pass. A number of changes were made to the Bill and the proposals we tabled that we believe are not in the interests of passengers, and that we will seek the consent of the House to reverse. The changes are also not in the spirit of the devolution deals we have reached. After I have given way a couple more times, I will describe what the Government intend each of the main parts of the Bill to achieve.
I remember you, Mr Speaker, warning me that making remarks about bus companies is one of the most dangerous things any MP can ever do. Nevertheless, like my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax), I have had representations from my local bus company, Bluestar, which welcomes the provisions of the Bill in so far as they enhance partnership schemes, but which worries about the potential of franchising arrangements to introduce rigidity into the system and lessen the circumstances in which an enterprising bus company will introduce, for example, new routes at its own risk, unlike a cautious local authority that would be unprepared to take that risk. Will the Secretary of State comment on that?
I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend. I make it clear again that, while we are extending the kind of franchising powers we see in London to other big cities and mayoral areas, it is not the Government’s intention to offer automatic franchising powers to other areas. Other areas that want to make franchising proposals will have to demonstrate clearly that they can provide an improved service for passengers. When making those decisions, we should bear in mind the flexibility and rapid innovation he describes.
As my right hon. Friend will be aware, the Government signed a devolution deal with Cornwall in 2015 to give Cornwall Council bus franchising powers. Does he agree that, in a county that has historically suffered from poor public transport, that will enable more buses to be on the road and more routes, and make Cornish communities more resilient and connected?
My hon. Friend is right, but the interesting thing about Cornwall is that it is proceeding without seeking to use those powers, precisely because it has forged a better and stronger partnership with the local bus companies, which are already enhancing those services. That is my point. We are not seeking particular structures in particular places. We are seeking to ensure that we provide the best possible services for passengers around the country. Cornwall is already doing a very good job of that.
I will give way one more time and then make a good deal of progress, because other hon. Members wish to speak.
The Bill will do all sorts of good things, but it conspicuously fails to do anything for young people’s travel or mandate local authorities to consider it. Why not?
It is somewhat ironic that the hon. Gentleman, whose party has always argued for localism, argues for centralisation of something that I believe should be a local decision. That is a matter for local decision making and local priorities. I have no doubt that Southport Council will take wise decisions about what is best for that town, as will others around the country.
As I said, the franchising powers are not entirely new—they have been available in London for many years—but are being refreshed. Franchising enables local authorities to specify the services that should be provided to local communities, with bus companies competing for contracts to provide those services. Local authorities that implement franchising will have more influence on where and when services run, but they will remain commercial operations, with the private sector providing those services.
That is what happens in London. The deregulation of the London bus market took place in the 1980s, but took a path different from the market outside London. Competitive tendering in London was introduced in 1985, and privatisation of the bus companies took place in the mid-1990s. That has evolved into a network with almost 2.3 billion passenger journeys a year. Those powers are being extended to other Mayors in other parts of the country, to give them the opportunity to operate in the same way as London. The Bill therefore provides for the Government’s intention for all combined authorities with elected Mayors to have automatic access to franchising powers.
I am listening carefully to the Secretary of State. He praises the London model. Is he therefore saying that the model and experiment inflicted on the rest of the country has, as Labour Members believe, been a total disaster? Is he saying that deregulation as introduced in 1985 was, in hindsight, a major mistake?
I do not believe it was a major mistake, because we have seen substantial investment from the private sector that would not otherwise have happened. The interesting test for the right hon. Gentleman if he is successful in his mayoral bid in Greater Manchester—I say “if” because he has issues to deal with, such as the reputation of his party leader and the strength of other candidates—is whether he manages to use those powers to deliver the better bus services for which he argues. I will watch with interest if he is successful.
I welcome the Bill, but the Secretary of State is on a very thin point when he justifies what has happened over the past 31 years with investment in new buses. Does he realise that that investment has come from the extreme exploitation of bus passengers, particularly in metropolitan areas, where bus companies exploiting monopoly positions have been able to get a rate of return on capital that is much higher than they would get from real competition, and much higher than companies get in the franchised London area?
In a sense, the hon. Gentleman argues against himself. He complains about competition in those areas, but at the same time says that bus companies have been able to exploit monopoly positions. That is inconsistent. We will see whether the next Mayor of Manchester manages to demonstrate that he or she can do a better job than the private sector. That is the test. Let us see whether they can deliver that. If the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) is successful in his campaign, we will watch with interest.
This is not just about mayoral authorities but about authorities elsewhere. I want to be clear that, while we are open to plans from other authorities to take franchising powers, we will give them only if they can demonstrate that they can do a better job than the current one. A compelling case needs to be made before any other authority receives consent. The key point is that we have the point of accountability with the Mayor, who will have a legal duty to demonstrate an enhanced service, or a point of accountability in the Government, who likewise will judge whether a proposal will deliver that enhanced service.
One of the great successes in London was the introduction of smartcard ticketing, which increased the number of passengers on public transport. Will our excellent Conservative candidate for the West of England Mayor, Tim Bowles, be able to introduce smartcard ticketing using the Bill?
Smartcard ticketing is important, and the Bill should give the powers and flexibility to introduce it. I want not smartcard ticketing that links simply to one mode of transport, but integrated ticketing on a common platform, so people do not have to have a different card for every city. One of the good things we see is bus companies almost entirely using ITSO technology. The same technology is now used for smartcards on most of our railways, so we have the potential for interoperability and to make our transport system properly integrated.
Ninety per cent. of buses operating local services in England are fitted with smart ticketing. Major operators have committed to introducing contactless payment on all their buses by 2022, but the vast majority of bus fares are still payed in cash. Some operators even require exactly the right change. In response to my hon. Friend’s point, we are updating in the Bill the existing powers to establish multi-operator ticketing schemes to recognise that latest technology. The Bill will allow a local authority to require all operators within its area to sell and accept a particular multi-operator smartcard. Under the powers, local authorities will not be able to set the price of the products—they cannot fix the fares, but will be able to determine the technology, which is important in ensuring that we get integration locally.
That might be enough to improve services for passengers in some areas, but if not, the Bill offers further options. For example, new enhanced partnership schemes enable greater integration of ticketing. They allow authorities and operators not only to agree the price of multi-operator tickets, but to set common ticket zones or concessions and to join other modes, with their agreement, to offer an integrated ticket.
I will pick up briefly on the open data point made by the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh). I want to make it simpler for passengers to plan their journey and to know when their bus will arrive and how much it will cost. She is absolutely right that there is enormous variability across England, and it is essential that that changes. Where the service is good, passengers have access to real-time information, but where it is not good, they do not, and it is important that the former becomes universal. The open data provisions in the Bill are designed to allow public transport app providers, such as Citymapper and Traveline, among others, to develop a new generation of products that will do precisely that.
The Bill will also introduce new arrangements for local authorities and bus operators to work together in partnership. Partnerships between bus operators and local authorities appear to be working well in some areas and passengers are happy. Liverpool, for example, the city of origin of the right hon. Member for Leigh, the Labour mayoral candidate in Manchester—an unusual achievement, if I might say so—has developed strong partnerships with the private sector. It might be something that the next Mayor of Manchester, Conservative Councillor—[Interruption]—Sean Anstee, will decide to introduce when he beats the right hon. Gentleman to the post. [Hon. Members: “He didn’t know his name!”] The note is about something completely different.
Now that the Secretary of State has found out the name of the Conservative mayoral candidate for Greater Manchester, and given that the Labour candidate has said what his policies are, can he name one policy on transport from the Conservative candidate in Greater Manchester?
The note is actually about my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis).
I will tell the House what my colleague in Manchester will do. He will deliver an efficient system, end some of the failures of Labour administrations of Greater Manchester and build on the excellent work done by Conservatives in councils such as Trafford. We will work together to deliver improvements on the Northern rail franchise that will benefit Greater Manchester and the rest of the north and we will discuss ways to improve further the Metrolink, in which the Government have invested. I am proud of the work the Government are doing in Greater Manchester. The Ordsall Chord, the construction of which, funded by the Government, has already begun, will deliver trains between Manchester Piccadilly and Manchester Victoria for the first time, creating a wholly different experience from the days when I commuted into Manchester city centre by bus from the other side of Salford.
I had not wanted to divert the House from buses to trains, but happily the Secretary of State has already done it. He is right that the Ordsall Chord is incredibly important for transport links in Greater Manchester. Will he confirm that the Government will also ensure investment in platforms 15 and 16 at Piccadilly station, because without it the investment in the Ordsall Chord will be wasted?
I am committed to ensuring that we enhance Manchester suburban rail networks and have the capacity we need to deliver it. Going back to buses, I remember what the buses in Manchester were like back in the early 1980s. I used to commute from Worsley into the centre of Manchester on a bus through Salford, and believe me the quality of bus today is better than it was then.
In reflecting upon regional mayors, will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming the policy focus from Andy Street, the West Midlands Mayor, on east-to-west connectivity across rail and bus networks? Is this not in the sharp contrast to Sion Simon, the Labour Mayor—
Order. I have two problems: they cannot both be Mayor—they are both candidates—and I do not want us to get into electioneering.
Who is the Lib Dem candidate?
I suspect that none of us knows the name of any Lib Dem mayoral candidate in any part of the country. That certainly unites us today. On Andy Street and Birmingham, I would say that Birmingham is a great city that would really benefit from the wisdom and expertise of an experienced business leader, rather than a failed Labour MP.
I thank the Secretary of State for giving way to me one more time, and I hope he will forgive me for butting in on his eloquent address, but I have to go to a Committee in 10 minutes. My bus operator is concerned that, if in the franchise modelling the revenue is reduced, there is a risk that the shortfall will be made up from other means that will affect the local taxpayer and business rates payer.
This is the essential point. We have to ensure both public and private funding for buses. Those who seek to make a change need to understand the impact and be certain that they will bring improvements to passengers. There is sometimes a dogma and ideology that assumes that greater state control means a better service, but often a lack of private sector investment means nothing happens at all—so it is the other way around.
I wonder whether the Secretary of State is as familiar with the bus services in Newcastle as he is with those in other parts of the country. In Newcastle in the ’80s, we had a bus service where someone could travel across the region, on Nexus, and use the metro and the buses on one ticket using a transfer. He says that it is not likely that the state will be as innovative as the private sector. Will he acknowledge that in Newcastle we have been innovative, and hope to be again when we have proper control of our buses?
We have never argued, and I do not seek to argue, that the state has no role to play. Indeed, one of my Department’s priorities is to drive forward with smart ticketing across the country on our rail networks in a way that integrates with our bus networks, given the widespread use of the ITSO system on our buses. I do not disagree with the hon. Lady about the desirability of integration, although we might differ over the role of the private sector, which I think adds value that the public sector cannot add.
It is interesting to hear colleagues representing metropolitan areas talk about the hundreds of routes they have available. Will the Secretary of State comment on the effect of the Bill in rural areas where there are no routes? I welcome the flexibility and focus on community transport it will bring, but will he say how it might lead to a greater provision of bus services in rural areas?
I was about to come to that. The essence of the Bill is partnership. In the public transport arena, partnership between the state and private sector is really important. Through the provision of greater flexibility, the Bill will allow for enhanced partnerships that take forward existing partnership arrangements. In a rural area—where it is not always about building bus lanes, for example, but about other ways of improving services—the Bill will give local authorities greater flexibility to work with a private operator in a new and enhanced partnership that delivers improvements without some of the straitjackets in the previous arrangements. And of course we will continue to fund community transport, which plays an important role in many parts of the country, particularly rural areas. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), who will speak later, plays an active role in making sure we do the right thing by community transport.
I will wrap up now to give others time to speak. I want to make clear what the Government do not want the Bill to do. As I said, this is not the Bill the Government originally introduced or the Bill we intend to deliver on to the statute book, subject to the consent of the House. The amendments in the other place on opening up the automatic access to franchising powers to all local authorities would reduce certainty in the bus market and reduce investment and the attractiveness of bus services being offered. It would not be good news for bus passengers and certainly not for bus manufacturers and the people who work in those factories right across the UK, from Ballymena to Stirling and Yorkshire. We will therefore bring forward an amendment to reinstate the two-step process for non-mayoral combined authorities wishing to access franchising powers.
We shall also seek to reinstate the ban on local authorities setting up new municipal bus companies. My view is that local authorities have other priorities today, and this is about partnership between the private sector and the public sector. That is the big difference between the Government and the Opposition. They do not want the private sector investment that comes in and delivers better and newer buses, providing jobs in Ballymena. They want to go back to the days of the past, but we are not going there as well.
Will the Secretary of State give way?
No, I am going to conclude, I am afraid. I have given way extensively already.
The Government strongly believe that striking a balance between local authority influence and the role that private sector bus operators can play will help to ensure that both are incentivised to deliver the best services for passengers. We are not going back to the 1970s world of local authority-planned and delivered bus services. That was not a golden era, but one of indifferent services that cost the taxpayer. As far as possible, we want the commissioning and provision of bus services to be kept separate, and to ensure that we retain the strengths of the private sector.
We will therefore seek to return this Bill to what was tabled in the first place. We welcome and accept the thoughts of the other place on some amendments—on accessibility, for example—but not the broad principles of change that were written in the House of Lords.
I will give way one last time to both sides of the House, but then finish.
I shall take up that opportunity. I was seeking to understand the Secretary of State’s approach to municipal bus operators. If we look at the UK bus awards, we find that they have been won by a municipal bus operator in four out of the last five years. I do not believe that municipals are the answer to everything, and I certainly would not expect every local authority to want to set one up. Why will the right hon. Gentleman not let local authorities decide what is best for them?
That is the point of difference between us. We do not want to go back to the situation in which every Labour council is trying to set up its own bus company. We think that will absorb public sector capital that could be more wisely used elsewhere, take up essential time that should be devoted to other services and not deliver a good deal for passengers.
I do not want my right hon. Friend to look backwards; I want him to look forwards in this Bill, particularly with respect to the provisions on accessibility, which are most welcome. Could he ask his excellent ministerial colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), who will be winding up the debate later—I know that my right hon. Friend is wrapping up his contribution now—to respond on the issue of the sense of timing for when the regulations will require operators to provide the bus services? If that could be clarified to a certain extent today, it would be very helpful.
The simple answer is that once the Bill is passed, we shall seek to move ahead as quickly as possible. It cannot be done overnight. We cannot simply wave a wand and bring in new systems immediately. As the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman rightly said, shortly.
The Bill seeks to do one thing; our goal is to do one thing; my Department’s work is all about one thing—to improve services for passengers. The Bill offers a balanced set of tools for local authorities and operators to use to make bus services even better than they are today. The Bill as originally drafted—I stress that proviso—provides an opportunity to make a real difference to passengers in all parts of the country. Through franchising and enhanced partnerships, this Bill provides councils with new ways to co-operate with bus operators to improve journeys for passengers. Open data provisions will allow passengers to plan their journeys better, while on-board information will help all passengers to get where they need to be and will reinforce the message of accessibility that is so important to all Members. Together, all these measures will put passengers at the heart of improvements to bus services. That is the simple and only goal of this Bill, which I commend to the House.
I begin by placing on the record my relief that the Bus Services Bill is finally having its day in the House of Commons. We have been waiting for this piece of legislation for some time—and you know what happens, Mr Deputy Speaker, you wait an age for a Bill and then another one comes along in a minute, namely the Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill.
I would like to thank all those involved in the passage of this Bill so far—the noble Lords on both the Government and Opposition Benches, members of staff and Clerks of the House, as well as my Labour colleagues, of course, both Front and Back Benchers, who have campaigned relentlessly for better bus services and have paved the way for the Government’s change in policy and this Bill.
The original Bus Services Bill has been expertly scrutinised and amended, leaving us with a much improved piece of legislation. Labour supports the Bus Services Bill, and we welcome the changes made in the Lords, which we hope to retain as the Bill goes forward.
Buses are an integral part of the UK’s economy and social life. Sometimes, a disproportionate amount of attention is paid to our railways and to aviation, but it is buses that play by far the most important public transport role for the greatest number of people. This is clear when looking at the number of passenger journeys alone. For example, there were 1.7 billion passenger journeys on our railways last year, a figure dwarfed by the 5.2 billion passenger journeys made by bus. Whether people are travelling to work or school, visiting family or attending a hospital appointment, it is more likely that they will do so by bus than by any other form of public transport. Buses provide a vital service to people in all areas of the country, supporting local economies, tackling congestion, combating social exclusion, and lessening environmental and climate change impacts.
This is why we want to see local authorities empowered and enabled to support thriving bus services, and to reverse the long-term decline of bus services that was brought about by the disastrous deregulation of bus services in England outside London by the Conservative Government in 1986. This Bill is an acknowledgment that the deregulation of bus services has not worked.
I apologise to my hon. Friend for being late for the debate. Members will know that I have other duties on a Wednesday. Does he agree that the Bill and its related secondary legislation and guidance should enable a simple and straightforward process for metro mayors to introduce bus franchising in their area if that is what they and their combined authorities wish to do?
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. If this is to mean anything, making this happen in reality must be a smooth and quick process rather than a long and protracted one.
The rationale behind deregulation was that turning services over to the market would give the customer the final say; companies would compete and, as a consequence, would better cater their services to passengers. In theory, it is a competitive market, but in reality most bus services are provided by five large companies that avoid competing against each other. Since deregulation, bus use in metropolitan areas has decreased by a half and in non-metropolitan areas by a fifth. Meanwhile, in London, where buses were not deregulated, bus journeys have increased by 227%, mileage has increased by 74% and London journeys now outnumber bus journeys in the rest of England, while fare increases have been lower than in the city regions.
In London, a lot more schoolchildren use buses. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that more could be done in the context of this Bill to encourage youth to use buses?
I would always want to see our young people encouraged to use our bus services. I was somewhat disappointed when I heard what the Secretary of State said about young people and their access to buses. He might want to reflect on that as the Bill proceeds.
As my hon. Friend will know, the background behind the inability of local authorities to subsidise travel schemes for young people is the huge cuts to local authority funding over the whole period of this Government and the previous one. Is it not scandalous that this Government have brought nothing forward in any shape or form to permit major improvements, particularly for young people, students and apprentices, in this area?
Indeed. I could not agree more. One of the critical issues facing our young people today is getting from A to B—to get to their further education colleges or to go after job opportunities, especially when they have to work with the Department for Work and Pensions in trying to find work and are then penalised if they do not get there. It is critical to have a properly integrated transport system across the country so that young people can benefit from it.
If I am successful, I would be looking to give young people in Greater Manchester, particularly 16 to 18-year-olds, concessionary or free bus travel. In my view, that could be a replacement for the education maintenance allowance, which was so wrongly scrapped by the Conservatives. Does my hon. Friend believe that that policy could be worth looking at as a Labour policy for the next general election, using the powers granted by this Bill?
I wholeheartedly agree with my right hon. Friend. If that initiative, which tries to redress the imbalance that has been visited on our young people, is to be put in place in areas such as Manchester, I am convinced that it will completely appeal to people and that it will be the right measure to address the deficit that he so accurately described.
Has the hon. Gentleman costed Labour’s new policy of giving free concessionary travel to 16 and 17-year-olds?
Suggesting that we will not extend assistance to 16 to 18-year-olds says more about the hon. Gentleman’s attitude towards young people than it does about Opposition Members.
Under the current system, bus companies determine their routes and provision of services on a commercial basis, which means that commercially unprofitable but socially valuable services are left for local authorities to support. Since 2010, more than 2,400 routes have been downgraded or withdrawn. A combination of Government cuts and commercial operators deciding provision on a commercial basis means that individuals or communities become isolated, cut off from employment, education, healthcare, and friends and family.
The Secretary of State derided what was happening before deregulation when, in fact, bus services were affordable and available. My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Under the current arrangements, we often see bus companies over-competing on the main routes, but providing no services at all to the wider-spread communities. With regulation, we can use the same resources and the same number of buses to provide a better service to those currently disenfranchised communities.
My hon. Friend makes an entirely proper point. That problem is repeated throughout this country. People on our outlying estates do not even have access to bus services, because those services are run on narrow channels. Operators exploit those narrow routes for the singular purpose of maximising commercial profit, and they do not give a hang about the socially important things such as ensuring that people are connected in their communities.
Let me disabuse the hon. Gentleman. On this variety of choice and the duplication and triplication of routes to which he refers, he can come to Dorset, Somerset or anywhere in the south-west and he will not find such issues. That is a metropolitan problem from which we would love to suffer.
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for highlighting the fact that there are vast swathes of towns and cities that are not served by a comprehensive bus network. They are left isolated for considerable lengths of time. Some inner-urban areas have no services whatsoever on a Sunday. That is the reality of the bus services in this country at the moment.
I am delighted that we have an opportunity to put buses front and centre of the national conversation about transport. This Bill is to be welcomed, as is the historic U-turn of the Conservative party towards re-regulation of our bus services, which is something that Labour has consistently fought for.
Although this Bill appears to be an acknowledgment by the Government of the failure of the deregulation of buses, the Bill as originally drafted did not go as far as we would have wished in remedying the underlying problems in the current model. In its current form, the Bill gives local authorities a number of options to improve bus services, allowing authorities to work in partnership with private operators, to plan and run their own network of bus services, or, if they wish, to keep things as they are. The recognition that local authorities can best judge what services they require and should be allowed to select the model that best meets their particular needs is welcome, but, if changes made in the other place are reversed, the freedom to deliver the best services will be taken away.
Powers to re-regulate local bus services should be available to all areas that want them, not just to combined authorities with an elected mayor. Not all areas want a combined authority, and the Government do not intend that every area of the country should be covered by a combined authority. That does not mean that the Government should prevent those non-combined authority areas from improving bus services solely on the basis that they are not combined authorities.
The point that my hon. Friend makes is particularly appreciated in Newcastle and Tyne and Wear where we do not yet have a combined authority and where we do not seek to have a mayor, but where we have long sought to have better control of our bus services. Our bus services are critical in Newcastle, as they are how we get to work. I have received so many complaints and concerns about the bus services. Will he urge the Secretary of State to ensure that Newcastle and Tyne and Wear can finally control their own services?
I have no hesitation whatsoever in urging the Secretary of State to do exactly that. Newcastle has a proud history of focusing on trying to deliver the best possible services for its people. To be prevented and excluded simply because it does not fit the devolution model currently on offer is basically to deny localism to huge swathes of our country, which cannot be the intention of any sensible Government.
Has the hon. Gentleman made an assessment of which local authorities would want to take up these opportunities? In 2000, the Labour Government introduced a contract scheme, which they described as similar to franchising, yet not a single authority has used it. Where is the evidence that more authorities want these powers?
The hon. Gentleman is referring to the quality partnership schemes that Labour brought in. Interestingly, what he says makes my point. It is up to local authorities to make the decision for themselves. It is not a question of people on the Labour Benches telling local authorities what they should or should not do; local authorities should have those options made available to them. From the way this Bill might be amended, it looks very much as if that choice will be denied to them.
Having agreed to insert free bus passes for 16 and 17-year-olds in our manifesto in the run-up to the next general election, will my hon. Friend also agree to insert some words saying that we will allow local authorities, if appropriate, to set up their own municipal bus companies? It is purely a matter of ideology, which is why we had deregulation of buses in the first place. The Government are refusing to allow, from a localism point of view, local authorities that wish to establish their own municipal bus companies to do so. Why should they not be allowed to do so?
My hon. Friend makes a hugely important point. It is absolutely right that local authorities should have that freedom. To restrict them in this way, as the Government purport to do, is basically to say, “You can have devolution in England, but you will have it only on the terms that we decide are available to you.” In other words, authorities can do what they want as long as the Government agree with what they are doing—[Interruption.] Yes, any colour as long as it is black.
As one of the few MPs who made their living for several years as a bus driver, I do welcome this Bill. My hon. Friend is extolling the virtues of localism, but may I caution him that localism is all well and good as long as there is the money to go with it? At the moment, we see a huge imbalance in England between the money spent on London for public transport and the money spent elsewhere. He pointed out that the reason why public transport works better in London is partly due to the fact that there is non-deregulation, but it is also due to the fact that funding is far better. Will Labour commit itself to adequate funding for this localism of bus services?
I think that I am being invited to write a manifesto at the Dispatch Box. I am quite happy to do so, Mr Deputy Speaker, if you could just give me a few minutes. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the gross imbalance in spending in this country. In the north-east of England, we spend £229 per head of the population on transport, compared with £1,900 per head in London, so there is an imbalance. Undoubtedly, that must be corrected if we are to rebalance our economy in the UK.
It is interesting that this denial of opportunities to start up a new municipal company flies in the face of some of the more successful companies in the country. Why on earth would people not want to have a look at that as an option? There is no suggestion for a single second that there will be a mad rush of local authorities wanting to do this. They will want to weigh up and do what is best for their localities. Why on earth a Conservative Government would want to deprive them of making that choice is beyond me—or perhaps it is not.
I warmly welcome the shadow Minister’s announcement that he supports the view of many rural Conservative MPs that transport infrastructure spending should be redistributed to the regions, away from London. Too much has been spent there for too long, while too little has been spent in rural areas in particular. Does the Mayor of London agree with him?
I am sure the Mayor of London well and truly acknowledges that other parts of the country outside London need to have the benefit of investment, but this does not have to be an either/or. It is a question of priorities and making sure that we do not ignore vast swathes of the country.
We won on an amendment on Report in the other place to extend powers to re-regulate bus services to all areas. I hope that the Government’s stated commitment to devolution and improving bus services is not restricted to those areas that have struck deals for combined authorities with elected mayors. Labour was successful in removing clause 21, which would ban local authorities from forming their own bus companies and replicating the success of existing municipal companies. As the Minister is surely aware, municipal bus companies often outperform their rivals. Nottingham City Transport, for example, achieved a 97% overall satisfaction score in the most recent Transport Focus survey, while none of the big five bus operators broke 90%.
Removing the incentive to profit from operations can allow a greater focus on the social and economic purpose of bus services, meaning that buses can better cater for the social or business needs of a particular geography. Labour did not introduce a clause mandating municipal operators, but simply removed a clause prohibiting them, because we believe that there is not a one-size-fits-all model for running bus services. Indeed, there are a number of solutions for different areas, and it follows that, given the success of existing municipal bus companies, localities may judge that the municipal model is best suited for their area and may wish to attempt to replicate that success. If the Secretary of State is committed to devolution and believes that devolved authorities should be allowed to choose the best model to meet their needs, I hope that the Government will accept that the option of municipal operation should be preserved and that clause 21 should not be reintroduced.
We have an opportunity with this Bill to make significant improvements to bus services and, as a consequence, the social and economic life of much of our country, but Labour wishes these opportunities to be available across England, not just in some areas, and to be available to the fullest extent possible. We are happy to support this Bill, but ask that the Secretary of State listens to the forthcoming arguments—on both sides of the House, no doubt—and commits to transforming bus services in England for the better.
I warmly welcome this opportunity to debate bus services in the Chamber; we too seldom have an opportunity to reflect on the importance of the bus network for millions of people and to acknowledge the crucial role bus services play in our public transport system.
As has been acknowledged already from both Front Benches, buses provide a crucially important lifeline for millions of people, including people who choose not to drive a car and those who cannot afford to drive a car. We should also recognise the importance of buses for the elderly, many of whom feel that they no longer want to deal with the risk of driving a car or can no longer afford to do so. For all sorts of reasons, therefore, we in this House need to do all we can to support our bus networks around the country. I pay tribute to all the people involved in delivering bus services and helping us get to where we need to be.
I am enthusiastic about much of this Bill, but I do have worries about clause 4 and the changes made to the Bill in the other place. I warmly support the provisions in clauses 7 and 8 to facilitate the delivery of smarter ticketing technologies, which, as has already been acknowledged, can do so much to make bus travel an easier and more convenient and attractive option.
I also welcome clauses 1 to 3 and 9 to 15 on partnerships. Partnership-working between local authorities and private sector bus operators can be a highly effective way to improve bus services for passengers. There is a long list of successful examples from around the country, including places such as Sheffield and Bristol. The extension of the statutory partnership structure beyond the provision of infrastructure to include general bus improvement measures makes sense, and is an important part of the Bill. It is also a welcome step forward to enable statutory partnerships more easily to cover larger areas and have a more joined-up approach between different operators.
It is also helpful to make the Competition and Markets Authority a statutory consultee. Its current status as a powerful but somewhat unpredictable presence outside the partnership process can be a barrier to ambitious measures that both the operator and the local authority might sincerely believe are the right way forward. Giving it a more formal role internal to the process can help generate the certainty needed to support investment in measures to improve bus services for passengers.
As I have said, I am worried about the effect of clause 4 and the proposals to grant local authorities the right to specify bus services. We have heard a lot about the comparison between London and the rest of England, and it is true that in London bus routes, timetables and fares are specified by Transport for London and then tendered out to the private sector bus companies for delivery under contract, but London has unique circumstances.
There is a range of factors in London that contribute to comparatively high levels of bus usage, which are simply not present in most of the rest of the country: the scale and density of the population; relatively low rates of car ownership compared with other areas; millions of visitors; very high costs for parking in central London; a pretty aggressive approach by successive Mayors to bus priority measures; and a congestion charge that generates very significant sums to support the bus network. So while I do not see any need to change the regulatory system that operates in London, I do not accept that expanding that system to other parts of England would deliver the same high levels of ridership in places where the circumstances are very different. Indeed, the regulated bus network in England before privatisation in ’86 was simply not delivering great quality services for the customer, nor a thriving a bus industry, and it would be a mistake to look back on it with too much nostalgia.
Is the right hon. Lady aware of the experience on the island of Jersey? It franchised its bus services to a social enterprise just two years ago, and has achieved savings of £800,000 a year, introduced new routes, and increased passenger numbers by a third. What does she think that shows about the opportunity for franchising to perhaps work in other places?
I have not looked at the Jersey example, but my anxiety is that rolling back the clock, essentially, and renationalising and re-regulating the bus network could ultimately mean that we lose the investment we have received from the private sector into bus services over the last decades. My key worry here is that the effect of the provisions introduced by clause 4 would be to enable local authorities, who perhaps 30 years ago sold their bus operations at a commercial price, now effectively to confiscate those self-same businesses.
The inevitable impact of this clause is that companies large and small, who might have spent many years and a great deal of money, energy, effort and innovation building up their business, might be barred from operating in the event that they lose the franchise contest. They could see their operations in a particular town or city disappear overnight, leaving them with buses, staff, depots and equipment that they cannot use.
I am particularly worried about the impact on smaller bus operators, who provide important services in many parts of the country. Those with a successful business serving a relatively small area and small range of routes might find it very difficult to tender for a big local authority contract. They might also find the tender process for running services to be complex and expensive, and require costly professional advice. If the process is anything like rail franchising, complexity can be truly daunting.
I think that people would struggle to agree with the London-centric point that the right hon. Lady was making a moment ago, when she suggested that London was somehow completely different from the rest of the country. My constituents would not accept that. Nor would they accept the point about the poor companies that she is talking about. She is making an argument for them rather than for the travelling public. Does she not accept that, for the past 30 years, bus companies have made considerable, and in some cases excessive, profits at the same time as receiving a public subsidy?
My goal is to improve services for passengers, and I believe that private sector investment in our bus networks has had a positive impact on passengers. I do not believe that reversing that would produce better outcomes for passengers. One has only to look back at the pre-1986 position to see that the ridership on buses before that date had plummeted. It is not the case that there was a golden era for bus services before 1986.
The trouble is that if we create a system in which we discourage private sector investment in the bus network, we will create uncertainty in the bus industry. Discouraging such investment will have a negative impact on passengers. That is what I am worried about.
Will the right hon. Lady give way?
No, I have already given way.
We need to bear it in mind that, in competing for bus contracts, local operators might be up against large transport groups owned by overseas Governments with deep pockets. I am particularly concerned that the amendment that was approved in the other place will mean that bus operators could even find themselves having to contest for contracts alongside a company owned by the franchising authority that is making the decision to award the contract, giving rise to an obvious and unacceptable conflict of interest. I fear that clause 4 would inevitably result in a number of bus companies going out of business, which would be bad for passengers. I am also concerned that local authorities that are keen to take over the provision of bus services will find that taking on revenue risk could be a very costly exercise that would deplete the funding available to support those crucial non-commercial routes that do not generate enough passengers to cover their costs.
No local authority has introduced a quality contract to re-regulate bus services, despite their having been on the statute book since the early years of this century. I acknowledge that there are different reasons for that, but one of them is that taking over bus operations is inevitably a very expensive project for local authorities. To those who think that passing greater financial responsibility for investing in the bus network from the private sector to local councils is a great idea, I would point out that it involves investment in buses and bus services having to compete with pressing priorities such as social care, libraries, waste collection and all the rest, and that that investment—and bus passengers—are likely to suffer as a result.
Ever since 1986, there has been a vigorous and lively debate about the effect of deregulating bus services outside London. It cannot be denied that many millions of pounds of investment have been made by private sector bus operators in the years since privatisation. That brings me to a key problem with the franchising proposals—namely, the uncertainty that they will cause. If bus operators are unsure about whether their businesses could end up being taken off the road, they will be reluctant to invest in new buses or to improve passenger facilities such as ticketing systems.
I have listened with some frustration to what the right hon. Lady is saying. I fail to grasp why something that works in London and no doubt delivers very well for the people she represents cannot be done in other parts of the country. The insecurity that she talks about could have the reverse effect in large parts of the north-east, where the insecurity at the moment rests with the travelling public, who do not know whether there will be a bus to get them to hospital on a regular basis.
There seems to be an assumption that if the London model of regulation were to be applied everywhere else, it would suddenly deliver London standards of bus services, but a causal link between the two has not been established. A whole range of factors in London contributes to the high levels of ridership and the success of the bus network. Simply reproducing that regulatory system elsewhere would not deliver the same end result, not least because Londoners pay several million pounds in congestion charges every year that are recycled into bus services. That larger level of subsidy makes a difference to the quality of the services.
Will the right hon. Lady give way?
No, I will not give way.
In my previous role as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, I was contacted by Wrightbus of Ballymena. The company was concerned about the chilling effect that even the proposals leading to the Bill were having on orders for new buses from operators in England. Wrightbus is a hugely successful company that exports buses to many places around the world, as far afield as China. It delivers the highest quality engineering and provides training and opportunities for hundreds of young people. It is a great asset to Northern Ireland and to the UK as a whole. Its concerns demonstrate that the re-regulation of bus services outside London is not a step to be undertaken lightly. It is not a cost-free option. If we get this wrong, it will be the passenger who suffers. I therefore appeal to the Minister to table amendments that would remove clause 4. At the very least, it is important to amend the Bill to reverse the changes made in the other place, which extend franchising powers beyond mayoral combined authorities and which would allow all local authorities to set up their own bus companies.
Will the right hon. Lady give way?
No, I am just concluding my speech.
Reverting to the Bill’s original drafting would not deal with all the issues that I have highlighted today, but it would certainly mitigate the problems caused and the uncertainty that is likely to damage the interests of passengers by undermining the viability of bus operations and investment in those services. I therefore very much welcome the intention expressed by the Secretary of State to amend clause 4 as it stands, and I give the Government my support in their endeavour. As the Bill progresses, I hope that they will consider going a step further and remove clause 4 altogether.
I now have to announce the result of a Division deferred from a previous day. On the motion relating to unaccompanied children in Greece and Italy, the Ayes were 254 and the Noes were 1, so the Question was agreed to.
[The Division list is published at the end of today’s debates.]
I rise to say a few words on clause 17, which is the only UK-wide provision in the Bill. I am going to start by doing something that I have not done before, which is to commend the Government and the other place for agreeing to amendments that brought in clause 17 and the provisions on accessibility. This is a victory for common sense as well as for equality. It makes no sense that train operators have had to provide audio-visual information for years, yet bus companies are under no such obligation. By default it is clear that more people use buses and that people with visionary or sensory impairment are likely to require access to buses far more frequently than to trains.
As part of the Talking Buses campaign, I wrote to the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), and also used my first question to the Prime Minister to raise awareness of the campaign, so I am well aware that at that point the Government were not for moving on this matter. The Transport Minister’s response stated:
“Such systems are expensive to install, potentially creating a disproportionate financial burden to bus companies”.
He also stated:
“We propose that franchising schemes could require the installation of equipment to provide accessible information on buses where the local authority feel this is appropriate”.
We cannot have the Government putting out the message that these provisions would be too expensive for them, only to ask local authorities to deal with them instead.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that some of the concerns about the cost of these proposed measures are entirely misplaced? When I drove a bus, it was a requirement of my job that I announced every stop as it was upcoming. Most bus drivers have a voice and can announce these things as part of an audio-visual information package for people with disabilities without spending any more money at all.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for passing on his experience. That makes sense. In fact, the Department for Transport’s own figures suggest that the provision of audio-visual information would cost less than £6 million a year, which in terms of its overall expenditure is absolutely nothing.
The Government have previously suggested that phone apps might be the way forward. While apps have benefits, they cannot be the only solution. I was contacted by a company that gave me a phone to trial, so I handed it over to a constituent with a visual impairment. They told me that the app was fine as far as it went, but it could not be relied upon 100%.The app’s functionality also depends on the type of phone being used, so the Government cannot use that sort of technology as a way around the problem. We need audio-visual technology on buses.
Will the hon. Gentleman join me in congratulating the Government on the change? When the Royal National Institute of Blind People gave its thoughts to the Transport Committee, the situation was that such technology would only be for new buses. This measure goes further, so will the hon. Gentleman give some credit where it is due?
I think I have the usual problem here of people not understanding my Scottish accent, because I said in my opening remarks that I commend the Government and the House of Lords for bringing this measure in. I do commend the Government; I was just saying some “buts” as usual to put the message out that they must go forward and fully implement the proposal. That is why I was making some minor criticisms.
As part of the campaign that I was involved in, I also participated in a Guide Dogs for the Blind Association blindfold walk through Kilmarnock—my constituency’s main town. The drivers were excellent, but my experience reinforced the need for new technology. When I went on the bus, there was absolutely no way of telling where I was on the journey or where I could get off. Buses clearly do not call at every bus stop, so if there is no information, people have to rely on help from drivers or other passengers.
I did a similar thing to the hon. Gentleman’s blindfold walk and know how important audio-visual announcements are to people with visual impairments. However, such announcements help everybody who uses the bus. One thing that puts people off using buses is not being quite sure where the stops will be and where to get off, which is why they like trams and rail systems. Audio-visual technology is important for increasing everybody’s bus use.
I absolutely agree. It gives everybody the confidence to go on the buses, particularly the elderly and tourists and other people who are not familiar with different cities and towns. There are benefits for all passengers.
Returning to people with a visual impairment, a Guide Dogs report states that seven out of 10 passengers on buses that do not have audio-visual information have missed their stop because they did not know where to get off or were not assisted in getting off. I cannot imagine how distressing that must be. People who feel uncomfortable in using public transport would be reluctant to go back on a bus after an experience like that. I was pleased to hear that the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) has also participated in a blindfold walk. If any pressure comes up during the consultation about costs, I urge the Government to resist it. If anyone has any doubts, they should do what I and other Members have done and go on a blindfold walk to see what it is like.
In conclusion, I commend the Government again—as long as they follow through in the consultation and implement the proposal within an appropriate timescale. I also commend Guide Dogs, and the 30 organisations that supported it, for running a successful campaign, the many constituents who have contacted me, and the 30,000 people who signed the petition.
I rise to support this enabling Bill, which has the potential to reinvigorate bus services across the UK and in Greater Manchester. Bus use has changed over the past 30 years. Since 1985, usage has fallen by half in metropolitan areas and by 30% in Greater Manchester. Meanwhile in London, where the franchising of routes was introduced, the number of bus journeys has increased by well over 200%. For almost a generation, service provision has been based on commercial profit-making routes, with local authorities being able to subsidise loss-making but socially critical routes. However, such services are increasingly under threat. In Cheadle, the X57—a vital service for my constituents that runs from the centre of Manchester to the small rural village of Woodford—has been all but lost. Various reasons have been cited, including falling passenger numbers on a service that is bedevilled by congestion along its route, which causes problems for the timetable.
When people move from buses to cars, congestion increases and services ultimately suffer. It is therefore imperative that we take the opportunity afforded by the Bill to reinvigorate our bus services. The Bill will enable local authorities—particularly Greater Manchester, with its devolved powers—to address current service shortfalls, to tackle congestion on our roads, and to provide a vital link for people to access work and town centre facilities. All that will further support our local economies.
Work is ongoing throughout the Greater Manchester area to encourage greater public transport usage. While I look forward to an extended Metrolink in the long term, I welcome the recent opening of the £165 million Second City Crossing, which is part of the Government’s £1.5 billion expansion plan for bus, cycle, rail and tram. In the short-term, however, introducing a smarter, cheaper, and more extensive bus service could have real benefits for constituents such as mine.
The hon. Lady makes an extremely good point about the Second City Crossing. We talk about buses and improved public transport across the conurbation, but is it not time for orbital tram routes, which would particularly help constituencies such as ours?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that what we really need is an integrated transport system that works for passengers, invigorates the area, and enables people to get to work and to enjoy their towns and cities.
While orbital routes for the tram network are a good idea, does my hon. Friend agree that they are not always possible? For Greater Manchester’s future, we must ensure that good bus routes go where orbital routes cannot.
It is important to look for ways to improve all services, even those in the most difficult of areas, and buses play a significant part in that.
As a Greater Manchester MP, I look at the Bill in the context of the ongoing devolution of powers to the area and the commitment to economic growth fuelled by the northern powerhouse. I do not underestimate the importance of an effective public transport network that supports jobs and underpins our local communities. Bus services are a critical part of our transport network, accounting for almost 80% of public transport journeys across Greater Manchester. More frequent and better-quality services are essential for Greater Manchester’s growth and would help local residents to contribute to and benefit from future economic prosperity.
Franchising presents an opportunity to introduce simple and integrated smart ticketing across Greater Manchester. It could also alleviate some of the problems in the current system of multiple providers. Some 22 different bus operators provide services across Greater Manchester. Each has its own fares and branding, which gives rise to inconsistency. Compare that with the single, unified brand that operates successfully across London. A change to the current system will allow seamless travel through joint-ticketing and a more stable service. It could also end injustices such as passengers having to pay a 10% premium for a ticket that can be used across different operators.
Furthermore, the Bill is an opportunity to improve disability access and, importantly, disability training, so that drivers know the importance of where to pull into at bus stops and how to provide the best service for people with disabilities. The Bill will encourage a joined-up approach between local authorities, and it is important that disability access issues are properly considered, whether through audio-visual announcements or just by giving people with disabilities the time and space to access services.
Franchising—I would say that there are four ways to provide a service without franchising in the area—can also cover emission standards, which is particularly important in metropolitan areas.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that important point, which I will discuss later.
People want passenger-friendly bus services, which is about not only how information is delivered, but having good-quality information available in the first place. I echo the comments of the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh), who is no longer in the Chamber, about the importance of open data. Open data can allow passengers more easily to compare offers from various providers, thereby increasing their confidence in the service they can expect and when they can expect it. At present, bus operators have no obligation to provide information about fares, except at the point of boarding, or how routes are performing. Live information via information screens at waiting stops and smartphone apps is key to empowering passengers, encouraging the use of services, and allowing operators to understand local needs better so that services can be improved.
Addressing air quality is a key aspect of the Bill. Poor air quality contributes to an estimated 1,000 early mortalities a year across Greater Manchester. The increased use of public transport will clearly help to address the problem, so I welcome its being part of the Greater Manchester 2040 strategy. Air quality is particularly important in Cheadle, where the local pinch point at the Gatley-Kingsway junction causes a great deal of congestion and misery for local road users and commuters. More people using buses, and combined authorities having the ability to set minimum standards for bus fleets across the region, have the potential to reduce dangerous emissions.
I strongly agree with the hon. Lady. Members on both sides of the House have been far too complacent about the growing public health crisis that is due to air quality. The Government have issued a list of six places that they will designate as clean air zones, but Greater Manchester is currently not one of them. Will she support my call for Ministers to include Greater Manchester on the list of places that can introduce clean air zones?
It is important that the next Mayor of Greater Manchester makes a point of improving our air quality and decreasing congestion on our roads. I look forward to that happening.
The A34 is the bane of many of my constituents’ journeys to and from work. I have spoken about the A34 and the Gatley junction on a number of occasions in this House, and our most congested road would significantly benefit from a reduction in single-occupant car journeys and an increase in people making journeys by bus.
It is vital that the Bill works for my constituents by changing attitudes towards public transport, and improving services through increased reliability and allowing the introduction of a more seamless smart ticketing system. For Greater Manchester, it is important that no obstacles are placed in the way of our enacting the Bill ahead of the mayoral election in May so that the Conservative candidate, Sean Anstee, may continue the improvements already instigated by this Conservative Government.
The Bill is a revolutionary step for Greater Manchester, its population and its further growth. Regionally, we need a better, more integrated bus service to encourage a more user-friendly public transport system, and I am pleased to support the Bill.
The Transport Committee was pleased to have the opportunity to scrutinise the Bill after its consideration in the other place. Indeed, that was the fifth occasion in this Parliament and the previous one that the Committee had considered the state of our bus services, which indicates the level of dissatisfaction with the problems of the current system and the need for change.
Nobody should doubt the importance of buses to our local communities. About five times as many public transport journeys are made by bus than by train, yet little attention is given to buses. Overall, across Great Britain, buses account for 62% of passenger journeys, but the figure reaches over 80% in Manchester, Merseyside and the west midlands. We are therefore talking about a lot of people. I have always found it totally incomprehensible that there is so little national interest in bus services when so many people across the country are affected by them.
Good local bus networks open up new education opportunities for young people, provide routes to work—64% of jobseekers cannot drive or have no access to a vehicle—and ensure that people have proper access to healthcare and social facilities. The converse is also true. If bus services are inadequate or, indeed, do not exist at all, many people lose out on opportunities to develop their abilities or even to get a job, and the economy loses out, too. Interesting new analysis that was recently published by the University of Leeds suggests that a 10% improvement in local bus service connectivity is associated with a 3.6% reduction in social deprivation. Simply put, we cannot afford to neglect our bus networks.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the difficulties with buses can be the huge cost? My home is less than a mile and a half from the centre of the city, yet a one-way ticket is £2.40. That is absolutely ridiculous, and the situation is replicated across the country.
I agree with my hon. Friend that the cost of bus services often deters people from using them, which indicates that the promise of deregulation has not materialised. We were told that competition would bring down costs and fares, but that simply has not happened.
In England, outside London, we have seen a long-term decline in bus passenger numbers since the deregulation of the bus services market in 1986. Since then, operators have been able to run bus services on the routes of their choosing, with the frequency and fares that they feel appropriate. The result is that we now have a two-tier system outside London. Commercial operators, especially the big five companies that dominate the market, run profitable routes and, as the previous Transport Committee found, a lack of competition means that they are failing to provide an adequate service in many areas. Routes in those other areas have often been funded by local authorities, which have often stepped into the breach if socially important services are not commercially viable.
Local authority budgets have been cut in recent years, which has taken its toll on the provision of local bus services. Indeed, since 2010, funding for supported bus services in England and Wales has been reduced by 25%. Our inquiry heard that, in practice, whole villages and towns have been cut off from their neighbours, but this is not always about villages and towns because estates or whole areas of a city or town can be cut off. That prevents people living in those areas from having reasonable access to jobs and training, or being able to get on with their life.
One problem with the current system, as hon. Members have said, is a lack of integration and proper information. Passengers are offered a confusing variety of tickets covering different operators. Different fares are set and various technologies are used, and timetables are not always properly accessible to people who want to use buses. Accessibility is an important aspect of making bus services attractive. People will use buses if the services are there, if they feel that those services are reliable and if they have proper information about what is available, but too often that simply does not happen. The fact that timetables are not integrated with those for other modes of transport is another problem.
Integrating different modes of public transport is important for reducing congestion and addressing the important issue of air quality. We need more integration of our public transport services—that is what most people want—but the current system does not facilitate that. There are alternative models to the two-tier system of deregulation, and London is the most prominent one. Patronage across the capital has doubled since 1986 and, on average, fares there have been lower than in other city regions. The system that is operated in London might not be suitable for all parts of the country, and certainly not all local authorities would want to take it up, but the situation there shows that when appropriate powers are given to local authorities to work with the private sector, which provides the actual buses, the system can work.
Some attempts to reform the system that began operating in 1986 have brought about improvements, albeit limited ones. Our inquiry was given examples of innovative partnerships operating around the country. For example, the west midlands bus alliance has benefited passengers through integrated timetabling and joint ticketing, and FirstGroup told us about a successful partnership in Bristol. I am sure that there are many other examples of partnerships on offer under the current system that have made things better and been able to address some of the problems.
However, those achievements have been few and have come too slowly, and some parts of the current framework are clearly not fit for purpose. Members have mentioned quality contract schemes. They were introduced to give local authorities the opportunity to implement a system similar to franchising if they wanted to do so, but no such scheme has ever been implemented. As has been indicated, it might be that no authority wanted to do so, but I do not think that that is the case. The system that was set up—not by this Government but by a previous one—was so complicated, complex and convoluted that in practice it was difficult to implement, so authorities simply did not attempt it.
I am glad that the Bill has had such widespread general support. It is the latest in a series of attempts to address the problems created by bus deregulation—I believe it is the third such Bill to be presented to Parliament since that time. The Transport Committee looked at the Bill in general and examined its details, including the changes made by the other place. We support the Bill and most of what is in it. We support the general principle of local authorities deciding the structure of bus services that is most appropriate for their communities. That structure might be a deregulated market left as it is, or it might be about partnerships, franchising or setting up a municipal operation. Our report on the Bill states clearly that we would encourage local authorities to look at each of the possibilities sequentially to see which is the most appropriate to address problems in their area. The question we should be asking now is: how will the Bill improve the situation? How will this Bill put in place something different from what has gone before? How will it make things better? Let me say at the outset that this Bill is a much more comprehensive approach to improving bus services than either of the previous Bills because it looks at the system as a whole and the improvements it suggests are much more substantial and comprehensive than before.
The Committee heard powerful testimony about the difficulties faced by people with visual impairments when using the bus, and we commend the Government’s commitment to introduce regulations on improving audio-visual provisions. In particular, we heard evidence from Jacqueline Juden, a guide dog user, who described graphically the problems experienced by visually impaired people when using buses. The latest information shows that only 19% of buses provide reliable next-stop audio-visual information, with most of those being in London. I was appalled to read evidence from Guide Dogs saying that its survey found that 32% of visually impaired people using buses had missed a stop because they were too worried to inquire about where they were. It provided the equally horrendous and surprising statistic that 28% of drivers had refused to tell these people that information. Hon. Members have talked about problems when people do not have enough access to information and data. We wholeheartedly welcome the Bill’s provisions to make those much more available, as that is very important.
Let me turn to the structural changes proposed in the Bill, as amended in the other place and as the Secretary of State intends to take it through this House. Will those changes make a substantial difference? The provisions as amended—even before that—will make a welcome, positive change. The Bill offers stronger powers for local authorities to work with private operators and for new forms of partnership—advanced quality contracts, enhanced partnerships and franchising. We were very concerned about the Department’s failure to publish regulations and guidance when we considered the Bill, as that impeded scrutiny. It was very wrong that that was the situation, but since that time changes have been made, and guidance and some regulations have been published. However, it appears from that guidance that even authorities with a directly elected mayor, which are eligible for franchising—the Secretary of State confirmed that again this afternoon, as the Government do not propose to change that proposition—would have to make what the regulations call a “compelling case” for franchising to the Minister.
May I ask for clarification about the position? The Committee did not have that information when we considered the Bill, and we were concerned that we did not know what the regulations and guidance would be. I must ask the Minister what that provision means. Does it in any way cut across the commitment, which was repeated today, that areas with directly elected mayors would be able to opt for a franchising system if they want to do that?
We are still unclear about whether transport authorities without a directly elected mayor will be able to have franchising if they feel that that is suitable for their area. I sense some ambivalence in the Secretary of State’s comments. It is clear that he does not want franchising powers to be held in areas outside those with directly elected mayors, although I understand that a separate agreement has been made in relation to Cornwall. However, the guidance is still in place, so what exactly does it mean? What kind of application could be made by local transport authorities outside areas with directly elected mayors? Would the process be complicated, meaning in effect that these areas would not get authorisation? What is going on, and will this be very confusing?
Our inquiry also heard about the deep frustration that communities feel when bus services are cancelled without proper notice being given. We therefore very much welcome the provision in the Bill that will allow the designation of bus routes as community assets. That would mean that the cancellation of a route could be delayed while alternatives were considered, which we think is a very good idea. We also looked at the question of whether municipal operators should be set up, and we felt that, in general, local transport authorities should be able to have the system they think appropriate for their areas. We certainly recognised that there could be conflicts of interest, but we felt there were ways in which those could be addressed. We did not think it was right—we felt it was disproportionate—to say that no new municipal operators could be set up.
I wonder whether my hon. Friend can offer me some advice. Local authorities that currently have a municipal operator will already tender for a supported service. In my local authority, those supported services are provided not by the municipal operator, but by our community transport organisation. Does that not demonstrate that it is possible to have a municipal operator but still operate a competitive tendering process?
My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. She represents an area in which a successful municipal operator has been functioning very effectively for a long time, and gives us a clear example of how possible conflicts of interest can be addressed. Even at this late stage, I urge Ministers to look again at that issue.
Traffic management has not yet been mentioned. Buses are important not only for mobility, but in addressing environmental issues, and making transport around our cities and towns easier. Running buses cannot be dissociated from effective traffic management. While there are some relevant provisions in the Bill, I call on Ministers to consider activating the provisions in part 6 of the Traffic Management Act 2004 that would give local authorities powers to act on moving traffic offences. The Act is in statute, but the relevant section has not been activated. Local authorities repeatedly ask for it to be activated as it would be important in helping bus services.
Does the hon. Lady agree about the importance of bus priority measures to make bus travel more reliable and therefore more attractive to passengers? Many local authorities are not prepared to make the quite courageous decisions required to deliver priority measures.
The right hon. Lady makes an important point. Bus priority measures are indeed important; they are part of the range of measures available to local authorities when they are looking at how buses can be facilitated in their area and how to work with other traffic to make the best and most efficient use of road space.
The case for the Bill is clear, and the Select Committee welcomes it. We are pleased that it has come forward and very much welcome its comprehensive nature. Many of our communities suffer inadequate bus services. The existing regulatory framework is not fit for purpose, and previous efforts to restore it have not been comprehensive enough and have not been successful. The Bill makes important strides towards supporting bus networks throughout England, but more must be done to ensure that local communities and transport authorities have the information and powers that they need to provide effective bus services. This time, we must get it right. It is clear that we cannot afford another squandered opportunity for reform. I support the Bill, and it is supported by the Transport Committee.
I welcome the main aims of the Bill, which are to increase passenger numbers and give local authorities and operators new tools to improve services. With that in mind, I wish to make a brief contribution on rural bus services, which are of huge interest to my constituents, particularly those in the more rural and isolated parts, because I am keen to hear from the Minister how the Bill can help them. Without a shadow of a doubt, the biggest turnouts at the public meetings I have held have been at those at which bus services are being discussed. At a recent event in Kingsbury, where a route was being cut—I will return to that later—such was the strength of feeling that we had to shut people out of the room because capacity was quickly reached.
Obviously, many people rely on public transport. At a time when we are encouraging more people to use it, it is important that we do not forget the areas that need services, so that people have the opportunity to get good jobs and to shop and socialise, and so that they can choose where they are educated. Sadly, that is not currently happening in North Warwickshire and Bedworth. I hear regularly from constituents that there are not enough buses, that they do not go at the right times, and that they do not go where people need them to go. I have to admit that there is a stark contrast between my time spent in London, when I think of using nothing other than public transport because of how excellently it works, and my time spent back in the constituency, where it is just not viable to use it.
My hon. Friend makes an important point about the difference between cities, which are so well provided for, and rural areas such as North Warwickshire and, indeed, west Oxfordshire. I suspect his constituents are in the same position as many of mine. Does he agree that for our constituents—such as the elderly in rural villages who need to get to clinics, the children who need to get to school, or the young people who need get to employment opportunities—the provision of regular, effective and far-reaching rural bus services is a real concern?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I shall discuss the elderly a little more later, because we need not only to ensure they can get to clinics, but to address issues such as isolation and loneliness, which have a big impact on health services.
The contrast between public transport in London and in my constituency is demonstrated by the fact that if I wanted to get a bus from my home in Shuttington to my constituency office in Atherstone, which is around 7 miles and takes around 15 minutes by car, it would take me an hour and a half to get there by bus. Similarly, if I wanted to get into the nearest town, Tamworth, which is 3 miles away, the bus journey would take around one hour and 40 minutes. That is not a good service for anyone wanting to get to a 9-to-5 job or to their doctor, or to use other local amenities.
I am sure the Minister is aware that HS2, which also falls under his remit, is a huge concern for the residents of North Warwickshire—arguably the most affected area outside London. At a time when much is being made of the speed with which people can access other areas of the country, my constituents currently feel let down by the speed of access to their local towns and cities. The promise of the supposed employment and benefits that HS2 could bring to the area are negated by the fact that many of my constituents simply will not be able to access them. For a resident living in Kingsbury, a community with a population of more than 7,000 that is heavily affected by HS2, it currently takes two hours and 10 minutes on public transport to get the 15 miles into Birmingham city centre, with only one bus getting there before 9 am.
We recently saw the loss of a vital lifeline link, when the 116 bus route was withdrawn with very little notice, leaving people from areas such as Kingsbury and Curdworth unable to get to work, again. The operator complied with the guidelines, but they were not robust enough to enable sufficient notice or consultation to allow people the opportunity to engage or make alternative arrangements, even though for many that would not have been possible in any event because it was their only method of transport. I appreciate that there is a Catch-22 situation, whereby although there needs to be a degree of commercial viability for companies, if they do not run the services when people want them or get people there in a reasonable time, they are simply not going to be used.
I recently ran an event on the impacts of loneliness and isolation, which have far-reaching consequences for our blue-light services and the NHS. It is clear that access to great public transport could have a huge effect on rural communities and afford people, particularly the elderly, who often need our support most, the ability to enjoy the opportunities that less remote areas enjoy as a matter of course. The benefits to the overall public purse could be very significant, not to mention the health benefits that a more active lifestyle would offer.
The hon. Gentleman is making a really important point about how buses can help with social exclusion. Has he considered the potential to create in rural areas what are called total transport networks, whereby social services buses, non-emergency patient transport, and school and college transport are pulled together to provide the sort of services he would like to see for this constituents?
The hon. Lady makes a good point. That is something I have been looking at as part of my work on isolation. We need to take the opportunity offered by the Bill to look not only at solutions from the past but at the innovative opportunities out there.
We need to consider how rural bus services are run, and the passage of the Bill seems like an opportune time to do so. As I have said, I welcome the measures set out in the Bill, but would like the Minster to look at how we can ensure that our rural communities are not cut off and left behind. With an ageing population and the likelihood that people will become more isolated if more is not done soon, as well as the pressures that increased building will put on our already struggling infrastructure in North Warwickshire and Bedworth, better service provision is an absolute must. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments on how the Bill can make that happen.
It is worth going through a little history to put the Bill into perspective. Although I support this Bill, there is one real sense in which I, as Labour MP, think it is not necessary. The fact is that since the Transport Act 1985 was implemented in 1986, virtually every Labour Member has seen it as a catastrophic failure for people who use buses. It saddens me that a Labour Government did not bring forward a better Act than the Bill before us now. However, the Government have brought this Bill before us, and it is worth supporting.
Given what the Secretary of State said about reversing the Lords amendments, it is worth remembering why we have this Bill at all. It came about because the then Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Tatton (Mr Osborne), had discussions with the chief executive of Manchester City Council, Sir Howard Bernstein, who retires this month and to whom we should all pay tribute for progressing this item, which will undoubtedly improve buses. The then Chancellor recognised what many of us had been saying for some time—that this country would be much better off economically if we made our major cities work, rather than depriving them of resources and of allowing them to run their transport system in favour of the economy and people who live in the area. Sir Howard Bernstein and Sir Richard Leese persuaded the then Chancellor, and we now have this Bill before us.
It was always an ideological position of the Conservative party, as we heard from the right hon. Member for Chipping Norton, that it wanted a complete free-market approach to buses. However, the Government conceded that they would allow reregulation if combined local authorities agreed to have an elected mayor. That negotiation was entered into and agreed. One has to bear that in mind when the Government say that they will reverse the Lords amendments. I agree with that in principle, but I would not like to lose the Bill, given that a negotiation happened and an agreement was put in place between local authorities and the Government that will improve life for many people I represent and for many in mayoral combined authority areas.
I will go through two major issues. First, the right hon. Member for Chipping Norton gave the argument for the exceptionalism of London or, to put it another way, “It’s okay for us in London. You lot can get on with it.” [Hon. Members: “ Chipping Barnet.”] I am sorry; if the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs Villiers) were in her place, I would apologise to her. She put forward three arguments as to why London should have something that the rest of us cannot. One was that it would bring uncertainty to the bus companies. Well, there would probably be a bit of uncertainty for the bus companies, as they will have to compete in a different way to run services, but my prime interest and concern is for the passengers who, for the past 31 years under the deregulation Act, have only had six weeks’ notice—in practice, sometimes less—of bus services being withdrawn. Part of the Bill takes some of that uncertainty away from passengers, so that argument does not stand up, particularly if our priority is the passengers.
To be completely straightforward, I did not understand the right hon. Lady’s second point, which was about the renationalisation of the buses. The Bill is not about renationalising the buses. It is primarily about reregulation in metropolitan areas. Although I accept the deal, and allowing local authorities to set up municipal bus companies was not part of that deal, I do not think it would do any harm for local authorities that saw the need for it to have the right to set up municipal bus companies, particularly if the private sector moves out, as it has threatened to do on a number of occasions if the Bill goes through.
The right hon. Lady’s third point was about the finance that goes into London from the congestion charge. The really important thing is that there was a period between 1986 and 2000, when Ken Livingstone won the London mayoralty, when there was effectively no subsidy. There was certainly no congestion charge for there to have been subsidy. There was no loss of bus passengers in Greater London over that period, whereas the number of bus passengers plummeted in the west midlands, Merseyside, Tyne and Wear, and Bristol. The figures fell by two thirds in South Yorkshire and by half in Manchester, but without the subsidy from the congestion charge, the passenger figures in London remained the same. The arguments of the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet against this Bill do not stack up.
It is worth taking a deeper look at how the deregulation has worked, why it does not work and the flaw in the arguments in support of it, for those who still support deregulation. When the legislation was introduced—incidentally, I have sadly been around long enough to have campaigned against the introduction of the 1985 Act—the argument was that competition would improve the bus services because bus services were run by municipal authorities that had monopolies and were not providing the best possible service. I do not believe, as the Opposition have been accused of believing, that that was a completely utopian, golden age. It was not; there were flaws. Many bus routes in South Yorkshire, which my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) talked about, and in Greater Manchester and Merseyside, were still running on the schedules and timetables of the old tram system. They did not respond quickly enough to the changes in population after slum clearance. There were faults, but there were night services, people could get across the conurbations to see their parents on Saturdays and Sundays because there were bus services, and people could get to work early in the morning or home late at night after shifts. All that has disappeared. So, no, it was not a golden age, but it was a much better service than is being provided by the private sector.
It is important to understand why the competition that was supposed to deliver has not worked, and it has not worked for two reasons. Where there was severe competition, as there was in south Manchester, Preston, Edinburgh and other places, bus companies went head to head and really had a go at trying to run the other bus company off the road. Those places got not a better service, but terrible congestion. City centres were blocked up. The system did not work where there was severe competition, but that was very rare. The Competition Commission did a study in 2011, finding that there was virtually no on-the-road competition. Supplementary evidence shows that there was very little competition because companies in the London system—as much as the bus companies’ accounts can be understood—were getting a much lower rate of return on their capital than companies elsewhere, although it still enabled them to invest in new buses.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is also a myth about deregulation meaning the introduction of the private sector? There were many splendid private sector operators in Liverpool prior to deregulation, such as Crosville and Ribble, which existed alongside the municipal sector.
The hon. Gentleman is quite right about Merseyside. In Manchester, Mayne Coaches ran a service in the private sector, but it was regulated; it could not just—as happens under the deregulated system—decide to run a bus service one day and take it off six weeks later, or vice versa. So the issue is not privatisation but the lack of regulation.
The point I was getting to is that there is supplementary evidence that competition did not work. The rate of return in London was much lower, and FirstGroup moved out of the London market because it could make a much higher return in South Yorkshire and Greater Manchester.
My hon. Friend may be aware that, of the major metropolitan urban areas outside London, the west midlands had the least competition, with over 85% of services run by Travel West Midlands and then by National Express. The ridership dropped less in the urban west midlands than in any other metropolitan areas, but, literally, at a price, with some of the highest fares and some of the highest returns on capital. So the competition was not there, and we had the high prices, but at least we had the continued ridership.
Indeed. It was often the change that led to the loss of ridership. When companies such as FirstGroup and Stagecoach operated their services, they were certainly, whether by tacit agreement or not—I doubt whether there was a written agreement—operating semi-monopolies, which enabled them to charge much higher fares. It is not only that the ridership has gone down, but fares have gone up by about 43%.
The question I was coming to in terms of supplementary evidence is this: in terms of the way the legislation has worked so far, does anybody think that we, as the taxpayer, have had our return from Brian Souter and his sister, who have become billionaires out of this—I do not mind people being creative, being entrepreneurs and making money—pocketing money by gaming the system, running semi-monopolies and putting buses out, when every single bus that goes out of the depot has, on average, a 50% public subsidy? Certainly, Brian Souter and his sister have made money out of gaming the way the subsidy works. The system has not worked; it has not been competitive. Moving to a system where there is competition, not on the road, but by tender by private bus companies, will be better for the travelling public. I agree with competition by and large, because monopolies tend towards inefficiency, but the competition is better off the road, not on it.
I have one question about reliability, which my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) asked about. We are often told that congestion makes the buses unreliable, and it does. However, when the Transport Committee took evidence, we found that, in the majority of cases where buses did not turn up, that was not because of congestion, but because of mechanical failures in the buses, which had not been properly maintained, or because drivers had not turned up. That is an important point to bear in mind.
Finally, I would like to ask the Minister, who is in his place, the same question my hon. Friend asked: is saying that mayoral combined authorities have to have a compelling case before they re-regulate the buses trying to bring back the very high hurdle—the very high benchmark—that was in the Transport Act 2000, which effectively prevented those authorities that wanted to re-regulate the buses from doing so? Is it there to undermine what is essentially a good Bill? I hope the Minister will answer that in summing up.
The Bill presents a unique opportunity to improve bus services, tackle congestion, support local economies and boost regional growth in my constituency and in Greater Manchester more widely.
The benefits of franchising mean that Greater Manchester will have the ability to decide the routes, frequencies, timetables and quality standards for buses, as well as a Mayor to hold to account should the service falter—all things that London has and takes for granted. That will particularly benefit people living in areas—especially rural areas—where current bus services are unreliable. Providing these franchising powers only to local authorities with directly elected mayors will ensure that there is a decision maker to hold to account, although other authorities without mayors will not necessarily be excluded and will be considered on a case-by-case basis.
The Conservative devolution agenda has the potential to be hugely beneficial to those areas included, especially because of the ability to apply joined-up thinking to planning and other areas of governance. Unfortunately, I am not convinced at the moment that the leadership in Greater Manchester is taking the opportunities presented. The Greater Manchester spatial framework has recently been published, and it seems to have been done in complete ignorance of the needs of public transport and of people right across Greater Manchester. It seems designed to optimise urban sprawl and the consumption of our green spaces so that councils can gain the maximum council tax receipts, but it shows little to no evidence of how best to use public transport infrastructure. Bus companies cannot economically operate frequent services from early morning till late at night if their passengers are spread thinly over large areas. We just have to look at where public transport works best, which is in areas of high population density, to know that. The authors of the GMSF need to take the opportunity of the Bus Services Bill to reflect on the needs of public transport and to take serious account of the contributions to the GMSF consultation. Essentially, the current proposals need to be shredded and the whole process started again.
Good public transport infrastructure has many benefits in relation not just to housing and planning but to improving jobs and employment, including supporting young people to get into work. When I recently chaired the all-party group on youth employment, many young people compared the opportunities and transport links in London and the north of England. Poor public transport in the north is a barrier to their getting into work. With an ageing population, many of whom reach a time in their lives when they are no longer able to drive, it is more important than ever to ensure that vital services are connected to good public transport and, because of their comprehensive nature, especially to buses.
I met the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association in my constituency, and I note that the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) took the blind walk, where you are blindfolded and follow the guide dog. That is a disorientating experience for anyone, although, after a few minutes, you get some idea of what you are doing and you get that trust and confidence in the guide dog. I am really pleased that we have now made progress on audio-visual provision, and hearing about it certainly had an impact on me, as it does on anyone else who has spoken with the association. The association briefed me on the importance of visual aids for not just blind people but those with partial sight loss. This is about giving people far more independence than they have at the moment. Sight loss is a significant barrier in daily life, in daily experiences, and in getting and retaining a job.
I am pleased that the Bill allows enhanced partnership schemes between local authorities and bus operators, to require all buses in a local area to provide audio and visual next-stop information. Authorities using the new bus franchising powers will also be able to place similar requirements on affected operators. It is particularly welcome that the Government have, in clause 17, amended the Bill to enable the Secretary of State to require service operators to make such information about audio-visual aids available to passengers. However, I want the new Mayor of Greater Manchester to use these powers to ensure that all users have an improved service—not just people with difficulties with sight but those who may not use the bus services regularly. I will be lobbying the new Mayor to make sure that all buses in Greater Manchester use AV—no matter who the Mayor might be, whether Sean Anstee or one of the many other candidates.
The provisions on joint ticketing make it much easier to introduce multi-operator and multi-modal smartcards and e-ticketing, making bus travel easier and more convenient—the starting point for wider application across the whole of the public transport network. Colleagues may be interested to know that the benefits of integrated multi-modal smart ticketing was the subject of the Science and Technology Committee’s evidence check web forum on smart cities. From its introduction—from the very beginning—it is necessary to collect and interpret travel data so that further improvements can be made to Greater Manchester’s public transport system. Again, I intend to raise this with the new Mayor of Greater Manchester and Transport for Greater Manchester.
The Bill’s requirements for open data on fares and real-time running means that passengers will be able to access details of timetables, fares and routes in a much simpler format, putting an end to the frustration of not knowing when the next service will turn up. This has the potential to be further developed into passenger information apps or websites giving door-to-door real-time travel information and live updates on the status of bus routes, as Transport for London currently does through one of the largest automatic vehicle location systems in existence. AVL allows real-time passenger information, service control, and performance management. I would like to see this and smart ticketing used in Greater Manchester in future, following bus franchising.
However, I do have some concerns about the Bill. The Government must ensure that small and medium-sized bus operators are able to compete in a franchised environment. It is encouraging that the Bill includes a requirement to ensure that franchising authorities consider in their procurement strategy how to facilitate smaller operators. I hope that as well as considering this in their strategy, local authorities will ensure that there is a wide range of service providers—often innovators coming in with new ideas for new routes, who ought not to be excluded from franchising.
The hon. Gentleman may be aware that that is already allowed under clause 4 on franchising. Franchising does not provide a monopoly. Clause 4 provides four different ways in which bus operators can provide a bus service within an area but outside the franchise regime, including additionality—that is, the innovative new routes that he mentioned.
It is also incumbent on the new mayors and the new systems that we have in place locally not just to allow that to happen but to encourage it to happen.
The Conservative party has often led the way on public transport. In Greater Manchester, we need only look back to our reintroduction of the tram network in the early ’90s after an absence of decades, and only this week we have seen the completion of the latest expansion of Greater Manchester’s Metrolink. We need a better integrated and thought through service on buses, as we have on our trams. These improvements to Greater Manchester’s public transport network have not always, unfortunately, been matched with great ideas from Labour, which wanted to impose a congestion charge on people travelling in Greater Manchester—a burden that would have disproportionately affected people in the Bolton, Wigan, Bury, Oldham, Rochdale, Salford, Stockport Tameside and Trafford boroughs.
Absolutely—and parts of Manchester outside the two rings. I am pleased to say that Labour bowed to pressure to have a referendum on the damaging congestion charge proposals, and the people of Greater Manchester in all 10 boroughs rejected that idea.
Currently across Greater Manchester, bus services are not fulfilling their potential in a desired integrated transport system. This Bill provides the tools to achieve that, and we must ensure that it does so. We have to think about buses large and small—not just the larger and double-decker buses but the increasingly used smaller buses—in getting this increased connectivity. Buses must be linked together with all the other forms of transport—with trams and rail, and with car drivers by having more park-and-rides. I will do all I can as a Member of Parliament to ensure that the new Mayor and administration take advantage of every opportunity given by this Government.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bolton West (Chris Green). It is noticeable how many Greater Manchester MPs are in the Chamber today. That is an indication of how important this Bill is to us.
It is funny how sometimes conversations stick in one’s mind. I have a very vivid memory of a conversation in, I think, 1997. I was sitting in Café Renoir in Fallowfield on Wilmslow Road—
As you do.
As you do. This being south Manchester, Eric Cantona was playing chess at a nearby table. I was sitting with my girlfriend watching empty bus after empty bus go past the window along Wilmslow Road. I was a recently elected councillor, and enthusiastic, and I began to hold forth to my girlfriend about how we really needed regulated buses like they had in London because deregulation was not working. [Interruption.] The relationship did not last, people will not be surprised to hear. Twenty years later, Café Renoir is no longer there, sadly; Eric Cantona is now, bizarrely, a movie actor; my girlfriend, I am glad to say, is happily married to someone else, with four fine children; and we still do not have bus franchising in Greater Manchester.
I am very proud of the achievements of the Blair-Brown Government. We should never forget, particularly people in my party, how we rebuilt public services in cities and towns across the UK after 18 years of neglect. I am very proud of that record. However, we did not get everything quite right, and that includes public transport management.
In Greater Manchester, we have been asking for London-style bus franchising powers for many years. That is why I am very pleased today to welcome this Bill, and most especially the bus franchising powers, because, as we have heard, deregulation has not worked for Greater Manchester. Since deregulation, bus use has fallen from 355 million passenger journeys a year to about 210 million passenger journeys a year. The system is confusing for passengers. We have 22 different bus operators running about 440 general bus services, and each of those operators has its own branding. The quality standards of the buses are inconsistent. The variety of fares and the pricing structure is confusing. We have 140 types of bus tickets across the Greater Manchester region, and passengers have to pay a premium for a ticket to use across different operators.
It does not work in serving our communities, either. In my constituency—at the end of my road—we have what is often claimed to be the busiest bus route in western Europe. I have never been able to verify whether that is the case, but what is not in doubt is that it is a busy and profitable arterial route through to the university and the city centre. Because of that, bus companies are competing for passengers and, as we have already heard, that competition is not always a good thing. Bus companies are running dozens of buses every hour—sometimes full, sometimes empty, but it is always chaotic and always congested.
At the same time in my constituency we have had cuts to services such as the 44 bus, which served Didsbury, and the 84, which served Chorlton. That leaves communities isolated. The Broad Oak estate in Didsbury and the Arrowfield estate in Chorlton are no longer served, cutting those communities off from access to their local hospitals and to local services. That is no way to run a public service. I am pleased that proper bus franchising will give us the opportunity to design a system that serves our communities properly.
I mentioned confused pricing, and I am also looking forward to our being able to simplify ticketing and introduce an Oyster-style system. Since I have come to this place, I have realised that one of the great things about London is the Oyster system. A similar system would be fantastic for Greater Manchester because it would integrate our buses with our other great transport, such as our fantastic Metrolink system.
We have been asking for these measures for some time and we are ready to implement them. We welcome the Government’s clear commitment to introduce them. I agree with the House of Lords and my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State for Transport that these powers should not only be available to mayoral authorities; they should be available to others as well. However, if the Government are going to reverse the Lords amendments, which would be unfortunate, I urge them not to delay giving powers to the mayoral authorities and not to water down those powers.
We need the powers proposed in the Bill and we need to get on with improving the transport system in Greater Manchester, because we have a willingness to prove the model. We can make it work. We have the capacity and willingness to deliver. We can make public services better for the people of Greater Manchester if we are given the opportunity.
Transport for Greater Manchester is concerned about the recently published guidance on how the system will work, which appears to be pretty opaque and confusing. On Transport for Greater Manchester’s behalf, may I repeat the calls from my hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) and for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer)? Once the consultation on the guidance is complete, we need greater transparency and clarity, particularly on the question of the compelling powers that my hon. Friends mentioned—I will not repeat their points.
Finally, I welcome the opportunity to make our bus fleets more environmentally friendly. We know that 40,000 people die in this country prematurely every year as a result of poor air quality. It is a silent killer and vehicle emissions undoubtedly contribute a great deal to that problem. Air quality on bus routes is often a problem, so if we can set better minimum standards for buses, we can help to tackle those dangerous emissions and prevent those early deaths.
We have a growing population in Greater Manchester and we need a transport system that can cater for that growth without leaving our communities too reliant on private vehicles, both to support the economic growth that we are successfully generating and to safeguard the environment. This is a welcome Bill and an important step in putting right some of the problems we have had for the past 30 years. I look forward to working with my right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) when he is elected as the Labour Mayor to design a system that works for all the people of Greater Manchester.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith). I feel I should apologise for not talking more about Manchester. Fabulous place though it is, I think that it has been well-represented in the Chamber today so, instead, I will talk briefly about the importance of buses to rural communities, which has been mentioned by my hon. Friends the Members for North Warwickshire (Craig Tracey), who is no longer in his place, and for Witney (Robert Courts), among others.
Just last week I met the Frome and villages bus users group, chaired by the indefatigable Peter Travis. Like many such groups, it faces the challenges of rural areas—thinly distributed populations, some routes with little use at certain times that are busy at other times, and buses that are empty for much of the day—but the bus is a vital amenity for many people for work, school, or health care visits and to combat rural isolation.
Buses may not appear to be the most glamorous form of transport—they are perhaps more functional than glamorous—but they make a tangible difference to the quality of life in rural and other areas every day. One constituent, whom I know very well, lives on the outskirts of Frome and relies on the bus to see her husband in the Royal United hospital in Bath. In her case—there are endless examples of this—without the bus service, it would be quite impossible for her to function properly. Despite the relative importance of one or two other Bills going through Parliament at the moment, I must say that the Bus Services Bill has every right to stand up against them as a keenly anticipated piece of legislation.
I joined colleagues last year in asking for the £250 million bus service operators grant to be protected, and I was pleased that that commitment was made. Some 42% of bus operators’ income comes from public funds, and although those funds are extremely welcome, the rural west country in particular still faces enormous and continuing challenges. Ministers both in this House and in another place have emphasised the latent economic potential that can be unlocked by better bus services. The key point is that, on top of the issues of rural isolation and the need for people to travel for school or healthcare, there are also economic benefits for a whole host of reasons in specific areas.
As I see it, three key areas are particularly vital for rural bus services. The first is co-ordination between operators, passengers and local authorities. The new powers in relation to franchising and partnerships are very welcome, but it is important to note that places where there is no trend of declining bus usage are often areas where there is much more and much closer co-ordination in such relationships. The Government are absolutely right to reflect that reality in their approach to the Bill, which represents a real advance in pushing forward and in pushing for a more coherent strategy. It seems, however, that many of the franchising powers are available only to mayoral combined authorities. That is a real worry for Somerset, in large parts of which the desire for a directly elected mayor has been conspicuous by its absence. I will come back to this point later.
Secondly, clear communication is very much at the heart of the Bill. The democratising of information will allow people to make informed choices about their travel and to make travel choices using real-time information. We are giving rural communities the same access to information, so that they are armed with the same tools as passengers in London. That can only be positive.
In the course of making many important points, my hon. Friend has touched on something of relevance to my area of west Oxfordshire, where there is an absence of rural bus services. As I have mentioned, that causes many difficulties for people in hard-to-reach areas, but in many places the local communities are stepping in. For example, the Our Bus Bartons bus company, in the council ward that I still have the honour of representing, and the Villager Community Bus have volunteers who step in to provide some services. However, an absence of information in many cases makes it difficult for them to know whether it is practicable to set up such a service. Such freedom of information, as it were—my hon. Friend mentioned that it is referenced in the Bill—will make that very much easier. Does he agree?
Absolutely. I thank my hon. Friend for making that point, and he must be reading my mind, because that leads on very neatly to my third point, which is about increasing choices in the chain of provision—passenger choice and supplier choice.
I am conscious that the franchising measure will ensure, as the Government have made clear, that
“only authorities with the ability, powers and funding necessary to make a success of franchising…will be granted access to franchising powers.”
However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) said, I think it is absolutely vital to ensure that this positive framework is available to all who wish to access it. I am therefore keen to hear what the Minister can say to reassure areas that may decide not to adopt that particular model of devolution. What will happen to them and what might, therefore, happen to us? That is even more crucial, given the potential for cross-pollinating and subsidising less profitable routes from more profitable routes, which would help the less-used services in rural areas that we have all been trying so hard to save.
Those mechanisms and the fresh focus on enabling bus services are long overdue. From a rural standpoint, the Bill should go some distance towards allowing communities to maintain and build on the services that they need.
I am pleased to speak in support of the Bill. As several hon. Members have said, it is all too rare to have a whole afternoon in the Chamber devoted to discussing buses, even though they account for many more journeys on public transport than our railways. Buses rarely get the attention they deserve in Parliament or, indeed, in the media, yet for many of our constituents, they are vital, linking them to jobs, services, amenities and, just as important, family, friends and a social life.
There are few places in the country where buses are more important than Nottingham. Our city has the highest bus use per person of any city outside London, and patronage is still rising. That did not happen by accident; it is the result of sustained political commitment and leadership over decades. I am incredibly proud of our city council’s work, often in partnership with local bus operators, to encourage and increase walking, cycling and public transport use. I will say more about the lessons that can be learned from Nottingham’s experience shortly.
I admit that it came as a surprise when the Government announced that they would provide the option for combined authority areas to be responsible for running their local bus services, because Ministers had long opposed such powers as unnecessary. The change of heart is welcome. Giving local authorities more powers to plan and manage local bus services will bring real benefits to local communities. We have heard from Government and Opposition Members about their aspirations for that.
As many Members have noted, it is more than 30 years since the Transport Act 1985 deregulated bus services in England outside London. On Second Reading, the then Secretary of State for Transport said that the purpose of the Bill was
“to halt the decline that has afflicted the bus industry for more than 20 years.”
He argued that competition would deliver the improvements that passengers wanted, including lower fares. Competition was to be the key to improvements and to increasing patronage. He said that the Government would not sit idly by while the industry was sinking, leaving more people isolated. Instead, they offered
“a full-scale rescue plan for the bus industry.”—[Official Report, 12 February 1985; Vol. 73, c. 192 and 199.]
If only the outcome had been as grand as his claims.
Competition did not deliver the improvements that the then Ministers promised. Across the country, buses continue to receive very high levels of public support, with 41% of the industry’s costs met by subsidy. As the Competition Commission found, genuine competition between bus companies is rare beyond occasional and disruptive “bus wars”. In too many areas, the market does not provide comprehensive networks, forcing councils to fund additional services where they can still afford to do so.
Thanks to strong campaigning, London was protected from the 1985 Act, and could therefore build a planned, integrated network, with competitive tendering for routes. That, combined with other factors, some of which are unique to the capital, meant that bus use increased dramatically—by some 227%—since 1985-86, in contrast to the decline in patronage nationally. In 1985, one in five British bus journeys took place in London. Today, the figure is one in two. That is great for Londoners, but not for passengers in towns, cities and villages where services have be