My Lords, it is very difficult to find anything to argue about with these amendments on consultation, particularly Amendment 48. As noble Lords have said, they are very much in the vein of ensuring that all those likely to be affected by either a franchise scheme or enhanced partnership scheme are consulted in a timely fashion and that the documentation—which I am sure will be quite lengthy—will be in accessible formats. It stands to reason that there is no point in consulting if you do not allow adequate time, or provide the material in a way that people can easily access it.
We have already debated similar amendments about passenger representation at an earlier stage. However, I can see one potential problem, which is how long the timescale should be for people to comment. I suspect it is impossible to answer: as human beings we always tend to leave things to the last minute—just look at the mad rush to register to vote in the recent referendum. No matter how much time you give people to do something, it will never be enough. I suspect that, like me, many noble Lords get briefings for Committee on the day it takes place, long after we have drafted our notes and determined our position.
Can my noble friend assure the Committee that there are strict guidelines that public authorities have to follow when it comes to the format et cetera of consultation documents? These amendments may not be necessary—although the point is desirable—and the issues that they seek to address may already be an established and well-known requirement, but it does no harm to reinforce the point.
I turn to Amendment 51. The bus industry was shocked and, quite frankly, appalled when the Chancellor first gave oxygen to the idea of local bus franchising some 18 months ago. Bus operators, from the large plcs to small family-run businesses, feared for their livelihoods. Time has moved on and the industry has, of course, regrouped—dare I even say, calmed down?—and engaged constructively and helpfully with the Government in developing the policy that we now see enshrined in this Bill. I sympathise with all bus operators and recognise their very real concerns. The large plcs have much to lose and need their eyes on market share and their corporate standing. They will be battered and bruised by the franchising process and we must not underestimate the effect this will have. However, small and medium-sized operators are in a different position. As I have already explained, if they lose a franchise, assuming they have the resources to bid in the first place, their business is gone. They will not be able to tread water for a few years and be in a position to bid when the franchise comes up for renewal. Their business will no longer exist, their depots and vehicles will be sold and their staff quite possibly lost to the industry or to competitors.
I know that the plight of SME operators has weighed heavily on the minds of Ministers. More than once I have heard the Secretary of State commend the work of the SME operators and say how he is keen to help protect their enterprises, so this amendment may well find favour with my noble friend. “Fairness” and “level playing field” are terms I hear used frequently in our deliberations and I am in no doubt that I will use them again before we send the Bill on its way. The processes put in place by the Bill must be fair to all operators regardless of their size.
I will raise one other issue, which relates to the wording of the Bill. There are a number of instances where the Bill refers to “small and medium-sized” bus operators. Is that defined in the same way as “SME”, which is recognised economic terminology? Also, what is a small and medium-sized operator? For example, Go-Ahead, one of the big five transport operators, actually has a very small share of the market in Cornwall. Go-Ahead is clearly not an SME but, in that instance, could be said to be a small operator in Cornwall. I apologise if this question comes a bit out of left field and would be happy for the Minister to write to me clarifying the position if he is unable to deal with it immediately this evening.