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

Part of Orders of the Day – in the House of Commons at 5:15 pm on 27th October 2008.

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Photo of Angela Smith Angela Smith PPS (Rt Hon Yvette Cooper, Chief Secretary), HM Treasury 5:15 pm, 27th October 2008

I would recommend that to a future Conservative Government. They might start with Birmingham, where I understand that there is quite strong support for the Bill from Conservative councillors. Indeed, the Conservatives have some councillors in South Yorkshire, I understand, in Rotherham. I understand that they would join the consensus in South Yorkshire, among all political parties, that the Bill is absolutely necessary to the future of public bus services in the area. As I say, the Bill is all about giving more local control to bus users in areas outside London, so that bus services can be improved. The amendments put forward will make it a great deal easier for us to deliver the improvements that we want—the quality contracts.

The original points of difference between us have, for the most part, been ironed out. For example, there is now to be a consultation board, rather than an approvals board, thanks to Government amendments. The only point of difference that remains concerns the use of the Transport Tribunal for appeals. The Minister said earlier—I think that I understood him correctly—that the system for appeals, which will be prescribed in regulations, will be no more onerous than the current system. I would like to hear more from him on that point when he responds to the debate on this set of amendments. A new tiered system will come into effect as a result of the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007, but in the Transport Tribunal, we certainly do not want a number of tiers to come into operation in the appeals process, replacing the hoops and obstacles put in place by the Transport Act 2000. Those obstacles are what made it so very difficult to introduce the quality contracts that we are keen to see in our metropolitan areas. That issue needs exploring even now, and even more clarity is needed on the subject than was provided earlier in this debate.

I welcome the new amendments on the TUPE regulations. People often underestimate or forget how important drivers are to the delivery of a good bus service. They are not always that well-paid, and the status of their employment has not always been that well-protected. We need to make sure that we deliver the best deal possible, because they need to be happy in their work and sure about their pension scheme if they are to deliver the punctual, courteous service that we want. One reason why we have problems getting the kind of service that we want in south Yorkshire is the difficulties that bus operators have in recruiting bus drivers. Levels of sickness are high, too. The aspects of the Bill that relate to the TUPE regulations are therefore very important to Labour Members. We know that the issue is not just about the rights of workers and so on, important though they are; it is also about the quality of the service delivered. I am absolutely delighted that the TUPE regulations are now in place.

I share the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley and the hon. Member for Lewes about the operator of last resort. As I see it, the most likely scenario in which the operator of last resort power would be used is one in which a quality contract is awarded to an operator, and another operator who did not win the contract decides to walk away and deregister, leaving the service to flounder while the local authority or integrated transport authority establishes the new contracted service.

Of course, it should take no longer than nine months to put services run by the local authority on the road, and to replace them by means of a new quality contract. However, I welcome the extension to 12 months. We must think through the possibility of instances in which the new quality contracts are not delivered within nine months, and instead take up to 12 months to be put in place. It would be foolish of us to exclude the possibility of the process taking even a little while longer than that. It would be sensible to put clear provisions in the Bill, or perhaps in regulations, that would make it possible for the period to go beyond 12 months in exceptional circumstances. It would be really unfortunate if, despite the best attempts of local authorities and ITAs, things went wrong, and we were left with a crisis situation because the Bill's provisions meant that the local authority could no longer fill the gap while it was in the process of establishing an alternative service via a quality contract.

Overall, however, this is an excellent Bill, and the one for which we have been waiting for some time. It is not based on dogma. It is not based on a belief that we must run the system in one way and no other. It is based on the evidence that we have been hearing from our constituents, the bus users in our areas, over a period of 20 years. That voice has been rising from a whisper at first to a crescendo of dissent against the current arrangements for running bus services in areas such as Sheffield, Barnsley and Manchester. Our constituents demand change. They demand that local councils improve services and do something about those that people are no longer getting. Sometimes bus services are changed every three months, withdrawn or diverted. Buses do not turn up on a regular basis, letting people down as they try to get to work.

Recently there were two changes to bus services in my area. Within three weeks I had received 1,000 signatures from local people demanding that something be done about those withdrawals of service. The hon. Member for Wimbledon may look away. He may take no notice, but the evidence exists. The service must change, and the Bill is the way to change it.

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