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My Lords, many of the amendments to the Bill have dealt with issues of detail and degree, but not so with this amendment, which is appropriately numbered 111. It involves a fundamental principle. I am bewildered why the Government are clinging to this nasty and mean-spirited clause which is totally at odds with the purpose of the Bill as a whole. Indeed, earlier today the Minister reaffirmed to us that this is a devolutionary Bill.
We on these Benches strongly support the principles behind the Bill. They will give local authorities more control over local bus services after three decades of decline since the deregulation of bus services in the 1980s. We have been fully supportive of the Government’s attempts to strengthen the role of local authorities in setting up both partnerships and franchise agreements. We believe that the structure being created through the Bill should raise the game of bus operators and at the same time should encourage local authorities to be much more proactive in recognising and supporting the role of bus services in their communities—local authorities will thus be able to raise their game as well to ensure that they are all as proactive as the best now are. We will have more Readings and fewer Oxfordshires, for example. So it is truly amazing and counterintuitive for the Minister to cling to this clause which takes away powers from local authorities in a Bill that is designed overall to give them more powers.
I am not convinced by the Minister’s arguments so far on why the clause needs to be in the Bill. I have listened carefully to him and read Hansard to analyse the thinking behind the clause. As the noble Lord has just pointed out, municipal bus services actually do rather well. I say to the Minister: go with the evidence. Municipal bus services, of which there are approximately a dozen, consistently feature in among the 10 best-performing bus companies in Britain—I give him just two examples: Nottingham and Reading. There are also very good examples of municipal bus services which work in partnership with commercial operators, bestriding the divide between local authorities and commercial operators. Such municipal operators are the remnants of the system that existed prior to deregulation. I remind noble Lords that, despite still having the power to set up bus companies, local authorities have not rushed out in the past 30 years to set them up. Rarely has there been anything other than a gradual dwindling in the number of such companies. Why are the Government determined to intervene now?
We have to bear in mind that bus services might need the intervention of local authorities in the future. Local authorities might want to set up new bus companies. For example, a rural authority, faced with the collapse of its local bus company, might want to run its own limited service, integrating specialist transport for schools and social services with regular bus services.
What part of Conservative dogma does this clause serve? There is no doubt that we are legislating here for decades ahead—the previous Act was 30 years ago. The Government need to be flexible and far-sighted. On these Benches, we are certainly not in favour of large-scale renationalisation of bus services, but we are a devolutionary party which believes that local authorities should have ultimate responsibility for ensuring that local bus services are provided where they are needed. For that, they need all the powers in their armoury, so I ask the Minister to let them retain them by deleting Clause 21.