New Clause 9 — Power of authorities to provide services in exceptional circumstances

Part of Orders of the Day – in the House of Commons at 3:43 pm on 27th October 2008.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Paul Clark Paul Clark PPS (Rt Hon Ed Balls, Secretary of State), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport 3:43 pm, 27th October 2008

I thank the hon. Gentleman for welcoming me and the amendments; I am sure that if we had not introduced them we would have been accused of not listening and of failing to take due account of the deep discussions in Committee, which I have read about and spoken about with the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend Ms Winterton, who took the Bill through Committee.

We appreciate that there are many amendments in this group, but they can conveniently be discussed under four separate headings: first, the Government's proposal to replace quality contracts scheme approval boards in England so as to place the decision making squarely in the hands of local authorities; secondly, proposals to strengthen further the employment protections already contained in the Bill for bus company workers; thirdly, provisions to enable local authorities to operate bus services as the operator of last resort in certain very limited circumstances; and fourthly, some technical amendments to clause 44, which enables additional non-quality contract bus services to be registered within a quality contracts scheme area in certain specific circumstances. It might be helpful if I take the time to go through the amendments that stem from those four areas.

There was healthy debate in Committee about the Bill's provisions for proposed quality contracts schemes in England to be approved by independent approval boards rather than the Secretary of State. Several hon. Friends, as well as the hon. Members for Lewes (Norman Baker) and for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech), raised questions about the proposed new approval process, and the Government agreed to consider them further. Members will be aware that we are very much in favour of devolution to local authorities; indeed, much of the Bill is aimed at achieving precisely that. However, it is also important to recognise that quality contracts schemes could have substantial impact on bus operators—particularly smaller operators—in an area and the drivers, maintenance staff and others whom they employ. The Government have consistently made it clear that we see a crucial role for independent scrutiny of local authority proposals for quality contracts schemes, and I stand by that commitment that we clearly outlined in Committee. At the same time, the Government have carefully listened to Members and local authorities who have argued with some passion that the final decision about quality contracts schemes should be placed squarely in the hands of locally elected members.

In the light of those arguments, the Government have tabled new clauses 13 to 19 and amendments Nos. 163 to 265. The amendments would ensure that local authorities took the final decision on whether a quality contracts scheme should be made in their area, but they would also preserve an important role for independent scrutiny to ensure that the legitimate interests of bus operators remain protected. First and foremost, the amendments would replace the proposed approvals boards for England with quality contracts scheme boards, which are called QCS boards in the amendments. Instead of making the final decision as to whether a scheme should go ahead, the role of a QCS board would be to provide an opinion and, where appropriate, to make recommendations to the local authority. The scrutiny would take place at the end of the consultation process, so that the QCS board could form its opinion in light of the comments made by consultees, but it would be for the local authority to take the final decision having considered the QCS board's opinion and recommendations.

I have taken careful note of the points raised in Committee about the remit of those boards, and the amendments now spell out much more clearly their precise role. There are two aspects to that role. First, the boards are to consider whether the local authority has satisfied the statutory requirements to give notice of their proposed scheme and to consult on it. Secondly, they are to consider whether the proposed scheme meets the public interest criteria set out in the Bill. Those criteria are whether it is likely to benefit passengers, increase patronage and contribute to the authority's local transport policies in an economic, efficient and effective way, and whether any adverse effects of the scheme on operators are proportionate to the benefits that will result from it. That makes it clear that the QCS boards will be focused on considering the proposed scheme. They will not be delivering opinions or recommendations on wider matters such as the authority's local transport policies, which are rightly a matter for the authority itself in consultation with the electorate.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, Central, set out clearly in Committee why it is important for the Transport Tribunal to have a role in the QCS process. In particular, the intention is to provide a quicker, more accessible and less costly alternative to judicial review. The role of the Transport Tribunal is equally important under the Government's latest proposals, but at the same time we have listened carefully to the point made by Labour Members that we need to avoid needlessly creating a two-stage process for local authorities.

Embed this video

Copy and paste this code on your website