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My Lords, I certainly agree with the noble Baroness that local bus services act as a lifeline to many and have a real community worth, as we have said previously.
The amendment would, in effect, require operators who are planning to cancel a service to continue to operate that service for a period of six months. As I have said previously, this is likely to be to the financial detriment of the operator or the local transport authority. It would also require a traffic commissioner, whose primary role concerns road safety, to take a decision on the value of a service to the local community. A six-month moratorium on cancelling a service would apply only where a service is stopped rather than varied. An operator who wished to avoid the moratorium could reduce a regular bus service to one that operated very infrequently. Operators of registered bus services are already obliged to give at least 56 days’ notice of their intention to cancel or vary a bus service to a traffic commissioner.
Clause 18 gives the Secretary of State the power to make regulations which will enable local transport authorities to require certain information about a service from an operator who intends to vary or cancel the service. It is designed to enable local transport authorities to obtain information which they require and which will allow them to respond more effectively to the needs of bus passengers. The information they will be able to obtain can be used, for example, to inform the procurement of a replacement service by the authority or to assist community transport operators in designing new alternative services.
It is the responsibility of a local transport authority—not a traffic commissioner—to determine what bus services a local community needs. That is why the Government cannot support the amendment.
I appreciate that many local authorities are facing funding issues and have difficult decisions to make about the services they may be able to subsidise. However, there is more than one option open to them. The community transport sector already plays a vital role, as we have all recognised previously, in the provision of local bus services, often with little or no government funding. Community transport operators will be well placed to serve more isolated communities and my department continues to be extremely supportive of that sector.
As noble Lords may be aware, we recently launched a second round of the community minibus fund to provide new vehicles for community groups. The first round of this initiative is providing new minibuses now to more than 300 local groups across England. I also remind noble Lords of the Total Transport initiative, which supports the integration of services commissioned by different agencies, allowing funding to be used more efficiently and better services to be provided to passengers.
I hope it is clear from the case I have outlined that the Government believe in and understand the importance and value of community local bus services and are keen to find ways to ensure that vital bus links continue to be provided. Given the practical examples I have illustrated and the reassurance I have provided, I hope the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment.