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

Part of Orders of the Day – in the House of Commons at 4:15 pm on 27th October 2008.

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Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport) 4:15 pm, 27th October 2008

The hon. Gentleman might think so, but I do not agree. Several local authorities have formed a response on this basis. Would we have had these amendments if this Report stage and Third Reading had been on 8 July, as they were due to be? I do not think so. We have been given just a week to examine these proposals. What is the point of having long consultations if the goalposts are to be shifted at the 11th hour? The Government's conduct over the summer beggars belief. We are all prisoners of their whims, but not, I hope, for much longer.

Let us consider some of the detail that the new Minister described. In his letter to the Chairman of the Public Bill Committee, he said that the amendments would replace existing provisions about quality contracts and put in place quality contracts schemes scrutiny boards. We have not even had a chance to see whether the approvals boards will work, but we are replacing them with scrutiny boards. If approvals boards were so necessary in May, why are they now redundant? The Minister seems to be making a fool out of the previous Minister: his amendments wreck her "much needed protection" of May. The amendments undermine the credibility of his Department. If a Department is thinking one thing in May, why would it suddenly be thinking another thing in October? It has listened to one set of legal advice in May, and is now contradicting itself after listening to another set of legal advice in October.

The assertion that new quality scrutiny boards

"respond to concerns raised in Public Bill Committee" may or may not be true, but it does not seem very true. If the Government wanted to respond, they could have done so in any of the numerous sittings of the Committee, but they did not. It simply will not do. If the approvals board would have reduced the risk of a judicial review, it seems only logical—and the new Minister did not answer this point—that quality contracts scrutiny boards will increase that risk. A quality contracts scrutiny board offers only a non-binding opinion, potentially allowing the will of local authorities to prevail whatever happens. It brings into serious doubt the Minister's comments in his letter about

"preserving safeguards for legitimate operators".

The boards clearly do not do that, and there is a clear prospect of many more costly judicial reviews.

The Minister claims that if a quality contracts scrutiny board provides an opinion that the authority's proposals meet the statutory public interest criteria, the rights of appeal will be restricted to points of law, but he forgets the law that his Government passed. There is considerable legal opinion suggesting that the Human Rights Act 1998 will simply not allow that, and legal opinion has been given saying that that point will be tested time and again in the courts. If operators can appeal on points of fact at any stage, is it not likely that each new quality contract will be different, and challengeable on each point of fact?

It seems fairly clear that the Government's change of heart on this matter is nothing to do with ensuring that the much needed protection the previous Minister described is in place, but is more designed to appease and pacify those who still live under the illusion that re-regulation is the golden ticket to increased bus patronage. I cannot help but suspect that the new clauses will not have the impact the new Minister desires, and will lead to a huge number of costly judicial reviews for operators, and more importantly, for local authorities.

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