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

Part of Orders of the Day – in the House of Commons at 5:00 pm on 27th October 2008.

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Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Shadow Secretary of State for Transport 5:00 pm, 27th October 2008

I welcome the Minister to his new role. I am not sure whether he or his predecessor is responsible for the amendments that the Government have tabled, but either way they are sensible and take the Bill forward productively, and I thank Ministers for listening. Stephen Hammond is a very affable chap, but the idea that Ministers should not listen during debates, and that if they do they should disregard what is being said no matter its validity, seems a rather curious proposition. If the Government had accepted amendments tabled by the Conservatives in Committee, heaven forbid, I wonder whether the same argument would have been forthcoming. I suspect not.

My criticism is the point on which I intervened—the time at which the Government amendments were tabled. It was very close to Report, a gap of some months from the termination of the Committee stage. There may well have been detailed discussions going on that were so complicated that no earlier date was possible, or it might be the Machiavellian reason that the Government wanted to give bus operators little notice of the amendments. Be that as it may, we have had to absorb a number of amendments in very little time. However, that is a small point if the amendments are broadly right, which I think they are. No doubt if I read the small print afterwards I might find something slightly wrong with them, but that seems to be the case at the moment.

I wish first to pick up on the issue of quality contracts, which are at the heart of the Bill in many regards. In my view they are certainly the most important proposal in it. I think that the hon. Member for Wimbledon might agree about that even though he objects to them somewhat, because he recognises the importance of the proposal. Many of us are concerned that although the original arrangements in the Transport Act 2000 went in the right direction, they did not work in encouraging local authorities to bring forward quality contracts. I made that point in Committee, as did Labour Members. Above all, we did not want a repetition of the Government bringing forward powers that no local authorities actually wanted to take up.

I felt, and I think other members of the Committee agreed, that the hurdles that were in place—the quality contracts boards, the Transport Tribunal and the possibility of judicial review—were one hurdle too many for local authorities that wanted to go down this road. Therefore, the move towards the arrangements that the Minister has set out today was right. He neglected to mention that the proposal introduced today to make the quality contracts board a consultee was one that I made in Committee—I am sure that was an oversight on his part, so I put it on the record for his benefit—and it is an eminently workable solution.

For the benefit of the hon. Member for Wimbledon, I should make the comparison with a planning authority that is receiving a planning application in respect of a flood area, because the quality contracts arrangements in the Bill are similar. Such an authority would have to consult the Environment Agency, which may recommend refusal or approval. The local authority still has the right to approve, against the recommendations of the Environment Agency, but it would have to make its decision stand up if an appeal was made to the Government inspector—the Transport Tribunal is the equivalent in this case. The arrangements in the Bill have a direct parallel with those in respect of planning in flood areas—those arrangements work, as will the ones being placed in the Bill today.

I am also pleased that the Minister has sought to define more closely the role that the, now advisory, body may have in picking up points of law, being satisfied that statutory requirements have been met and analysing the closely defined public-interest criteria. A concern was expressed in Committee that the quality contracts board, as it then was, was far reaching and might have adopted powers outwith its responsibility—or outwith that for which we thought it should be responsible—even though that was not closely defined. In particular, it might have had a view on the democratic decisions that a local council or transport authority had reached on its local transport plan. To be fair, the Minister has tied that matter down. I, for one, no longer have a concern about it, because the Bill has been improved significantly.

Improvements have been made to the quality contracts process, and I hope that local authorities will have the confidence to take the quality contracts route in a way that they would not have done had the amendments not been introduced. That is a significant step forward, because over the past 20 years the cost of travelling by bus has increased significantly, particularly outside London; the increase has been far higher than inflation. Even in the past 10 years, the cost of travelling by bus has increased by 13 per cent. above inflation, whereas the cost of motoring has reduced—we must remember that. In addition, bus usage has decreased, except in London and in one or two other isolated examples; services have dropped off, particularly in some rural areas, where it is almost impossible to get a bus unless it is 3 pm on a Tuesday, and then one is given only half an hour to go to the bank and come back again, if one is lucky; and bus company profits have rocketed. If those four factors are put together, they do not add up to a success story for public transport or for public administration.

Something has to be done to correct that situation, and I believe that the quality contract route is one such way forward. It provides the opportunity for local authorities to have responsibility for transport in their areas—why should they not have that responsibility? Graham Stringer is right about that, because local authorities are elected, they have their own mandate and they should be responsible for transport. Equally, there needs to be an external check to ensure that statutory requirements are being followed, and that is provided by the mechanism being put in the Bill now. We must also bear in mind the possible effect on small bus operators, who could be disadvantaged. I think that the balance will now be right in the Bill, so I have nothing but approval for the amendments that the Government have tabled in that regard.

It is also right that tendering should be allowed to begin while appeals are under way. Local authorities will take their chances on that. If they wish to take a chance and incur some expenditure with the possibility that they might lose in the end, that is their problem. They should have the right to take that course of action if they believe it is the correct one. I suspect that, on most occasions, authorities will weigh up the matter carefully and all they will do is to ensure, in line with their intention, that a hiatus is not created. That will be the right course of action, but if they want to take a risk, that is up to them.

The same point applies in respect of judicial review, which has been mentioned. A successful judicial review is no more likely as a consequence of these amendments. Judicial review may be more likely, but it is unlikely to be successful. However, that is a matter for local authorities to judge in the circumstances, as democratically elected bodies. It is a local responsibility, so they should make that judgment. If they get it wrong, they should be held to account for that, but it is not for us to second-guess them, or to impose unelected bodies to regulate what is properly a local function.

The Minister also mentioned the TUPE regulations. I welcome the fact that Ministers have considered the points made in Committee. I have not had much time to look at the amendments, given how many have been tabled in the last week, but they appear to be sensible ones that meet the concerns expressed in Committee.

It is also important to close the loophole relating to operators of last resort, even though those provisions may never be used. Indeed, their very existence makes their use less likely, and that is welcome. I concur with the concern expressed by the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley about what happens when the nine-month period begins to run out. According to the arrangements set out in the amendments, the last three months of the 12-month period will be subject to approval by the traffic commissioner. Obviously they will consider the matter at that point, but they will also need to be involved at some time before the nine months is up. They may be persuaded to grant an extension for three months, but it is not clear what would happen if no solution had been found at the end of that time. When the Minister winds up, he must tell us what would happen then. If that is not made clear, individuals who have an interest in a lack of clarity at the end of the 12 months may be encouraged to drag matters out and ensure that clarity is not achieved. We need an answer on what would happen if the matter were still unresolved at the end of the 12-month period.

The technical amendments sensibly address points raised in Committee, and I have no quibble with that. I do not wish to make a Third Reading speech now, so suffice it to say that we broadly welcomed the Bill on its introduction, although we identified room for improvement. To be fair to the Government, many of those improvements have been made, so if the points identified by the hon. Member for Wimbledon are pressed to a vote, we will support the Government.

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