With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 18, in clause 2, page 2, line 10, at end insert—
‘(za) at least one commissioner;’.
No. 149, in clause 2, page 2, line 12, after ‘appropriate;’, insert
‘but to be no fewer than seven’.
No. 28, in clause 4, page 6, line 33, at end insert—
‘(1A) For each traffic area constituted for the purposes of this Act there shall be at least one deputy traffic commissioner.’.
The first set of amendments, certainly amendments 17 and 18, fall into the probing category. We regard large parts of part 1 of the Bill as uncontroversial. It makes some changes to the current structure of the traffic commissioner network. Traffic commissioners do a good job and, within some constrictions, are generally perceived to be doing decent jobs—in some areas, very well, in others, not so—and any plans that will enhance the work they do has our support. At present there is one traffic commissioner for each of the eight traffic areas—western, north-eastern, north-western, west midlands, Wales, eastern, south-eastern and metropolitan, and Scotland—and the Bill seeks to change that arrangement.
The traffic areas, with the exception of Scotland, while existing in the sense that they are there, will cease to exist to the extent that the Secretary of State can, or will, appoint as many traffic commissioners as she sees fit and then it is up to the senior traffic commissioner, to whom we will come later in the debate, to tell them what to do and where to do it. The proposal does not link, as previously, traffic commissioners with traffic areas and I want to understand the thinking behind it. Most guidance and discussion about traffic commissioners has focused on the new powers they are to be granted under the Bill rather than on the new network of traffic commissioners. I want to hear from the Minister the rationale behind the changes and how, in practice, even if the Secretary of State wanted to appoint more traffic commissioners than there are areas—which in many ways would be a good thing—it would help by not aligning at least one traffic commissioner with an area.
In the opening remarks about consultation and representation, the issue of regional representation was mentioned. At the moment, each traffic area has one traffic commissioner and although that system may be far from ideal—in the north-west, I understand, from Liverpool all the way to Leeds, there is only one traffic commissioner and two staff—it at least ensures that there is some certainty of a dedicated traffic commissioner for a dedicated area. Under the new system, that seems no longer to be the case.
The relationship between a local authority, local passenger groups, the local bus operator and the regional traffic commissioner will be lost. Different traffic commissioners could be appointed by the senior traffic commissioner to deal with different cases in the area at different times, so yet again the benefit of local knowledge and experience would be lost.
The purpose of my amendment is to provide that each of the existing traffic areas will have at least one traffic commissioner. The Secretary of State would retain the flexibility to appoint as many traffic commissioners as she sees fit. Presumably, if I understand the later parts of the Bill, on the guidance of the senior traffic commissioner she can appoint as many traffic commissioners as she wants, but at least one of them should be dedicated to one of the current regions. That process has all sorts of merits that it would be disappointing to lose.
Amendment No. 28 is consequential on amendments Nos. 17 and 18 and needs to be seen in that context. If I understand amendment No. 149, it is about what is appropriate. We need a regional traffic commissioner for regional areas. My only concern about the amendment is that it could leave the Secretary of State too much discretion. The principle of “no fewer than” is correct, but I do not know whether seven is the right number. At least “no fewer than” gives the possibility that a senior traffic commissioner could direct to those areas in England and Wales a dedicated traffic commissioner.
It seems that there is an overriding and overwhelming benefit in the current system. The Bill will provide benefit by allowing the Secretary of State to appoint more traffic commissioners than there are areas, so I hope that the Minister will consider amendment No. 17 in the spirit that it would genuinely enhance local consultation, local representation and the effectiveness of the traffic network.
The thread of our amendments to clause 2 relates to the need for the increased accountability of the traffic commissioner. Amendment No. 149, which I shall explain in a moment, refers particularly to that. It is important to recognise that the Bill generally gives extra powers to traffic commissioners in significant ways. I am already concerned that few people know who the traffic commissioners are out there in the big wide world, and certainly my engagement with traffic commissioners in my constituency—limited though it has been—has not been such as to give me confidence that they have sufficient resources and local accountability to deliver what is asked of them already, let alone what will be asked of them in increasing areas of public importance as the Bill unwinds. As the Minister knows, the Bill will give them powers over bus services that are not currently in force. The issue of accountability is important.
One of the ways in which accountability can be achieved is by the assumption that there will be a specified traffic commissioner for a particular area—a point made by the hon. Member for Wimbledon. The Minister’s colleague in the House of Lords, Lord Bassam of Brighton, gave an assurance that, for practical purposes, individual commissioners will still be allocated on an administrative basis to individual traffic areas. We would welcome the right hon. Lady repeating that assurance today.
I understand the need for flexibility, so I would not wish the Minister to be hidebound in too constricted a way as to where the areas might be. As a general principle, a traffic commissioner for each specified area must be right. The clause 1 stand part debate is relevant to the point that there may be a case for a rejigging of the areas. Given the reasons stated by the right hon. Lady, there might be a better fit in terms of allocation per region and so on. It makes sense and, indeed, I would encourage her to look down those lines, because if there is an area of responsibility that is coterminous with some other public sector area, that too will increase accountability.
Our amendment No. 149 seeks to ensure that there is no reduction in the number of traffic commissioners, which is also a matter of accountability, because our regional government framework is imperfect in many ways. Much of it is unelected, as indeed are the traffic commissioners, but at least there is some coherence to a regional structure, which people are beginning to understand. That coherence will be lost if there were to be any reduction in the number of traffic commissioners, who would represent even wider areas than at present. The opportunity, therefore, for people to understand the local relationship with a traffic commissioner would be weakened. There is thus a strong case for ensuring that the number of traffic commissioners at least stays where it is, or increases—as in my judgment it should—along the lines stated by the Minister, to take account of the regional variations.
It would not deliver quite the same result. I accept that the broad principle, the idea of linking a traffic commissioner to a specific area, is correct. However, I want to give the Minister a little flexibility, not least to increase the number of traffic commissioners. Between us we could have an arrangement that might work—with the two amendments combined.
I have made my point, but the Minister needs to recognise—as I hope she does—the general principle.
I think I understand the hon. Gentleman’s case, but where there are large concentrations of population, such as in the west midlands or Greater Manchester, would it not be sensible to have traffic commissioners based on those larger conurbations, rather than on an artificial region?
There is an issue running through the Bill about balance in its effects on urban and rural areas. It is easy when designing transport systems and administrative arrangements for transport to construct something that works well for urban areas, where it fits much more easily. Passenger transport executives, for example, fit more easily in urban areas. It is more difficult to factor in rural areas, which, if we are not careful, can be forgotten about. We need to be careful not to construct a system whereby rural areas are further disadvantaged in transport terms than at present. That is my concern about the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion.
In conclusion, I hope that the Minister will recognise that there is an issue about the accountability of traffic commissioners. If we are to give them even more powers than they already have, we need to make sure that they become known in the public radar and that there is some way of holding them to account. Having a minimum number and some sort of geographical location is a way of achieving that.
I shall start by explaining the thinking behind the clause. It would allow the Secretary of State to appoint as many traffic commissioners in England and Wales as are considered appropriate. By doing so, a pool of commissioners would be created, who could act in all traffic areas. However, as now, a single traffic commissioner would continue to be appointed for the Scottish traffic area. The clause also clarifies the powers that the traffic commissioners in England and Wales would be able to exercise in Scotland, and vice versa.
Certainly, traffic commissioner functions in Wales are not devolved to the same extent as in Scotland. The Bill does not change that.
It is certainly not something that Welsh Ministers have approached us about with regard to making any changes, so consequently we have no plans to do so. That would depend on Welsh Ministers coming forward and asking for a different situation.
During the debate on the previous clause, I said there are eight traffic areas in the UK. Under current legislation, one traffic commissioner must be appointed in each and a traffic commissioner has jurisdiction only in the area to which he or she is appointed. The problem is that that arrangement is very rigid and does not permit commissioners to be deployed flexibly to address fluctuations in work load between traffic areas. Traffic commissioners play an important role in regulating the goods vehicle and bus sectors. That is vital; we want them to exercise all their functions as efficiently as possible.
We are trying to address two issues. The first is work load pressures. It is true that under the Bill traffic commissioners will take on more responsibilities and functions: in certain areas at certain times there may be a greater work load, and we want that flexibility. Secondly, it is important to recognise that there may be areas in which traffic commissioners might specialise. I am thinking of issues such as bus punctuality or the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles and the hon. Member for Lewes on the particular needs of urban or rural areas. The changes will allow the flexibility for people to become specialists or experts in particular areas and that will add value when implementing some of the other changes that we want to make.
Norman Baker rose—
I will give way to the hon. Gentleman. I was going to address his other point, but will do so afterwards.
The Minister mentioned the work load of traffic commissioners. My limited experience on my own patch suggests that they are already under considerable pressure, which is why we need to balance their work load. This measure will put extra pressures on traffic commissioners. Will the Minister tell us what further resources she plans to make available for traffic commissioners across the country—extra staffing and budgets—to deal with the extra responsibilities that she envisages giving them?
We have made it clear that traffic commissioners will require an administrative support system capable of delivering an improved and much more robust method of, for example, capture and analysis in relation to bus performance data. Broadly, there are two options for paying for an increase in activity within the traffic commissioner system—through either the Department for Transport’s budget or existing or new fees relating to local service registrations.
Both those options bring advantages and disadvantages, but we will be working with stakeholders—the Bus Partnership Forum, for example—to look at detailed proposals for implementing some of those changes. Clause 47, which was inserted into the Bill in another place, would extend the range of fees that could be prescribed in relation to bus service registration. We are not unaware that we may need extra resources, and we will look at that.
I want to address the point raised by the hon. Member for Lewes about ensuring that there is still a relationship with a local area. While we want the new flexibility that I have mentioned, we will ensure that traffic commissioners can continue to use their local knowledge when considering cases. As I have said, the intention is that the existing traffic commissioners will continue to be administratively appointed to their home area. The point is that they will also be able to work in other areas if that is required and if it provides added value.
The amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Wimbledon would, as he said, require a traffic commissioner and at least one deputy traffic commissioner to be appointed to each of the eight traffic areas. That would revert to what is in existing legislation, under which the commissioner has jurisdiction only in the area to which he or she is appointed. Deputy traffic commissioners can also act only in their own traffic area. That is too rigid and does not permit commissioners or their deputies to be deployed flexibly to address changes in work load. Due to the changes that we want to make—the extra responsibilities—there will be that important new flexibility.
The amendment tabled by the hon. Members for Lewes and for Manchester, Withington would require at least seven commissioners to be appointed in England and Wales, but it is important to point out that, currently, only six people are appointed as commissioners in England and Wales, as a single commissioner acts in both Wales and the west midlands.
The Secretary of State has the responsibility for ensuring that enough traffic commissioners are appointed to fulfil all their statutory obligations. The proposal to pool the commissioners will not change that requirement. The Secretary of State will also continue to be responsible for ensuring that the pool contains enough traffic commissioners to do all the work. The problem with the proposal made by the hon. Member for Lewes is that, regardless of whether there was enough work for everyone to do, which I do not envisage, there would be inflexibility due to always having to have a certain number of traffic commissioners.
I understand the points that Opposition Members have made in trying to probe the thinking behind the clause, but I hope that the reassurances that I have given enable the Committee to reject the amendment.
I have listened carefully to what the Minister has said, to try to understand her thinking. Her comments take us some way in understanding, but they do not put across what my amendments or those proposed by the Liberal Democrats would do. They would enhance what is in place.
The Minister talks about work pressure; clearly, there is already work load pressure, and I cited the example of the north-west region. There is going to be greater work load pressure, and as the Minister has just conceded that she does not expect the work load to go down, it is highly likely that the Secretary of State might choose to use the powers to appoint more traffic commissioners.
The Minister also talked about specialisation of function. It is not unknown for people to have not only specialisation of function, but geographic responsibility. A report on any major corporate company would show that that is quite often the case. To take the Minister’s argument, it would be perfectly possible for a traffic commissioner based in the south-west to carry out their function and to specialise on, for instance, bus timings. That is a normal arrangement in the corporate world.
But that is exactly why we want to change the Bill—traffic commissioners cannot function outside their own areas. A traffic commissioner in the south-west specialising in punctuality can talk about punctuality only in the south-west, not elsewhere, and we want to remove that inflexibility.
Basically, there is no reason why a person in the south-west would have to go to another area, if that is the Minister’s objection. Such a person could give advice or be consulted.
On the intervention from the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley, my amendment would overcome his concerns. It would not only give a traffic commissioner to a traffic area, but still allow the Secretary of State the flexibility that the Minister requires. Putting both in the Bill would certainly allow the Secretary of State and the Minister that flexibility, so I must confess that the Minister is failing to convince me in her argument.
Perhaps I can clarify the point. The difficulty is that a commissioner could not determine cases outside their area. The ability to act outside their area is not within their power, which is exactly what we are trying to change. I hope that is helpful.
‘, following consultation with the Senior Traffic Commissioner and such organisations representative of local government as the Secretary of State thinks fit,’.
We have already said that the duty of appointing traffic commissioners lies with the Secretary of State and I do not think anybody is going to dispute the fact that the Secretary of State has the seniority to carry out that task, but it would be no bad thing if, in the interests of local accountability, she were placed under an obligation to consult with the person in charge of the traffic commissioner network, who would ultimately be managing that appointee.
I also think it would be no bad thing if the Secretary of State were to consult local government representatives for the area in which the commissioner might—or, as we now see, might not—be primarily active.
We know from the previous debate that traffic commissioners will not necessarily be attached to local areas, but none the less I do not think that that negates the purpose of the amendment. Consultation with representatives of local government would be valid.
The Secretary of State will need local guidance in ensuring that appropriate resources are allocated to the specific areas that are required when she appoints traffic commissioners. It therefore seems that local authorities are best placed to give at least some guidance as to the transport needs within their boundaries and to provide some assistance to the Secretary of State in ensuring that the correct resources are allocated. The benefit of consultation in the process of appointing traffic commissioners therefore seems to be clear.
A consequential benefit would be linkage between the traffic commissioner and an area to which—if we are to accept the reassurances from the Minister in another place, which we do—such a person will primarily be appointed. The relationship between the traffic commissioner for an area and the local authority would no doubt be stronger if the authority were to have at least some input to the appointment process.
The senior traffic commissioner should also be included in the process. Under the Bill, the senior traffic commissioner is being put on a statutory footing, so his or her involvement in appointing traffic commissioners seems to be essential. He or she will be tasked with managing the appointee, deploying them and assessing which geographical or functional responsibilities they should have. He or she will be the person who looks at the budgetary restrictions in place and knows the number of traffic commissioners that need to be appointed. Therefore, a post-appointment relationship between the traffic commissioner and the senior traffic commissioner is likely to be improved if the senior traffic commissioner has at least some role in that consultation process.
Nothing in the amendment would take away from the power of the Secretary of State to consult any other body. It merely states that two of the bodies should be statutory consultees. Nothing in the amendment would take away from the Secretary of State the fact that the sole power of appointment lies with him or her. It would merely place in the Bill a minor obligation to consult two bodies, which would undoubtedly improve the post-performance arrangements.
As I understand it, a near-identical amendment was discussed in the Grand Committee in the other place. The Minister there said that he agreed with the principle behind it. His argument, as we have heard quite often, was that we do not need the amendment in the Bill because the Secretary of State will naturally consult those people anyway. That may or may not be so, and I am sure that this Secretary of State would consult those people, but there may well be Secretaries of State who choose not to do so. Therefore, there is always a benefit of putting in the Bill things that one intends, or believes, will happen.
While the amendment would not restrict or place a burden on the Secretary of State, it would clarify what the Secretary of State is obliged to do. It would also take away the possibility of mistake and misinterpretation. I hope to hear from the Minister that that Government have considered what the Minister said in the other place and agree with him that the principle behind the amendment is sound and that the Secretary of State—even if this Secretary of State would consult those people—should place a minor obligation on future Secretaries of State in that that this proposal should be in the Bill. It is not controversial, nor does it represent a sizeable or onerous burden on the Secretary of State. However, it seems to me that it would have an extraordinary beneficial impact on the relationship of traffic commissioners with the future senior traffic commissioner and with local traffic areas.
I support the amendment. The traffic commissioners that I mentioned in the previous string of amendments are not particularly accountable to the local areas. Therefore, the idea that there can be some involvement with elected representatives at an earlier stage before an appointment is made is desirable in increasing accountability. I am not suggesting that local authorities should have a say in whether it is person A or person B, but it is important that, before an appointment is made, there is an opportunity for the Secretary of State, or his or her representatives, to discuss with the local authorities in the area the issues arising and therefore the skills set that would be important for any appointee.
To pick up the Minister’s earlier point, there might be an issue with punctuality, so it would be useful to appoint a commissioner with expertise—one who shows promise—in that area. That information can come from a local area more easily than from Whitehall, so the amendment is entirely sensible and I hope the Minister will support it.
The amendment would require the Secretary of State to consult the senior traffic commissioner and such representatives of local government as the Secretary of State thinks fit when appointing traffic commissioners. I have listened carefully to Opposition Members, but I do not think the requirement that their amendment would impose would sit well with the independence of traffic commissioners.
It is one of the great strengths of traffic commissioners that they have independence from other stakeholders—Government, local authorities and the bus and lorry industries. The decisions that they reach when exercising their statutory functions are based purely on the circumstances of the individual case, as the law requires, and the Government believe it important, in the light of all the stakeholders who may be involved in the decisions that they take, that their independence be preserved so that they can carry out their functions without being seen to be beholden to any stakeholder.
That is not exactly what the amendment says and it would not be the effect of that amendment. Traffic commissioners are recruited by open competition and assessed purely on their ability to undertake a commissioner’s statutory functions.
To address the point about consulting the senior traffic commissioner, the position is that the administrative senior traffic commissioner is an integral part of the process. For example, earlier this year, during the last recruitment campaign to fill a vacancy for a traffic commissioner in the eastern region and six deputy commissioner vacancies across the country, the senior commissioner was a member of all the sift and final interview panels. He also set and graded a case-study examination that tested each candidate’s ability to produce written decisions on a range of hypothetical cases that mirrored those faced by real commissioners.
The Government believe that that input is vital if the Secretary of State is to select the best candidate for the job, which is why we believe that a hands-on role should continue—not simply consultation, but involvement in the process itself. We believe that it is important that that role continues. A requirement for the Secretary of State to consult only the senior traffic commissioner when making appointments would erode the role that the senior traffic commissioner has. It is not appropriate to provide in legislation a role that is necessary on practical grounds anyway.
A requirement to consult does not preclude the involvement of the senior traffic commissioner in the appointment process. However, with respect to the Minister, two issues are involved. She is addressing one, but not the other. I agree that it would be inappropriate for local authorities to be involved in the specific appointment process, for the reasons of independence that she gave. However, I and other members of the Committee were talking about a process that should take place much earlier to identify the skills set required by the applicants to enable the appointment panel to choose the most appropriate person.
When the Secretary of State issues guidance on the role of the senior traffic commissioner, it might be right, if appropriate, to consult a range of stakeholders on the general principles of the job that a traffic commissioner should be doing. That is different from what is proposed in the amendment.
The traffic commissioners are quasi-judicial office holders and it is important for them to have that independence in their appointment. That should be done in terms of their ability, and certainly not by saying what would be the preference of particular local authorities. In general terms, a balance will be struck when holding discussions and issuing guidance on the roles of traffic commissioners by consulting a variety of stakeholders. I wish to stress that, because it is important. However, we must not compromise the quasi-judicial function of traffic commissioners and their independence must be quite transparent in that process.
I hope that I have clarified the position and reassured the Committee on the general principles of consultation. However, the amendment is not appropriate and I urge the Committee not to support it.
I am scratching my head a bit. The Minister’s logic started off on one track and then jumped to another. The second track seemed to negate the first completely. Nothing in the amendment would undermine the independence of the traffic commissioners. Nothing in the amendment would preclude the senior traffic commissioner from taking part in the process. Nothing in the amendment would do anything other than place a minor obligation on the Secretary of State to consult representatives of local authorities and the senior traffic commissioner.
There has clearly been a move in the Government’s thinking, but the Minister has not explained it. An almost identical amendment was discussed in the other place. If Lord Bassam was minded to accept it and thought the principle behind it sound and good, I am not sure why the Government are moving in such a way as to say that such a proposal is wholly unnecessary.
Despite the fact that this Minister says that the Secretary of State might consult such people, she is not convincing me that there is any reason why the amendment should not be accepted. I am therefore again minded to test the will of the Committee.
We return to the theme of accountability. I encourage the Minister to mention accountability when she answers me. As I understand it, the situation in the Bill and under the Public Passenger Vehicles Act 1981 is that traffic commissioners are appointed by the Secretary of State for an indefinite period until they retire, resign or, indeed, are dismissed. Being dismissed is a control factor, but rather a nuclear option in dealing with a traffic commissioner who is not performing his or her duties to an acceptable standard. It is, effectively, a lifetime appointment.
The Minister will be aware that the public sector generally—the private sector as well—is moving away from lifetime appointments and more towards fixed-term contracts. There are many advantages to fixed-term contracts, not least that it sharpens the mind of those occupying particular posts if, to be reappointed, they effectively have to reapply for their jobs after a fixed term. The other side of the coin with individuals with lifetime appointments is that sometimes, those consequences are not entirely desirable—I am thinking of Sir John Bourn, if I am allowed to refer to him, who presented the Government and all of us with a difficult problem.
The idea of fixed-term contracts used to be an entirely desirable one. Nothing prevents a traffic commissioner from being reappointed after three years; indeed, it may be entirely appropriate for such a person to be reappointed. I imagine that that would be the normal process. However, if a person is on a fixed-term contract, then at each three-year stage there will be an opportunity to assess that person’s performance. If a person was not up to scratch, that would be an easier way of dealing with the matter than the heavy-handed use of schedule 2 to the Public Passenger Vehicles Act 1981 and the amendments in clause 4 of the Bill on the dismissal of traffic commissioners generally. Amendment No. 151 applies the same argument to senior traffic commissioners.
It might well be. I am not fixing a particular time. If we want to debate the merits of three years or five, I am open to argument. What is important is that there be some constraint and control in the interests of public accountability on those individuals, who are delivering increasing amounts of important duties for the public sector, the Government and, indirectly, local authorities. We need to find some way, collectively, to ensure that the traffic commissioners are more accountable than they presently are. The arrangement whereby they are hidden people—unknown to the local area, in shadowy offices no one has heard of, answerable only to the Secretary of State, without proper local authority involvement—is not acceptable. If we are going to give them more powers, we have to find some way of placing on them constraints that increase and enhance accountability. Fixed-term contracts is one way to do that, and I hope that the Minister will look at it sympathetically.
There are many public offices in our country, and the balance between fixed-term and non-fixed-term appointments is uneven. For instance, there are non-executive directors of NHS trusts on fixed terms, but judges tend to enjoy their office during good behaviour. Even if it is a quasi-judicial function, there could be a case for saying that traffic commissioners could be appointed and remain during good behaviour, or, indeed, for the retention of essential competencies. That is essentially what the Bill leaves us with.
I listened to the hon. Gentleman make the case for a fixed term, and his point about public accountability is strong. We will come later to the grounds for dismissal, but the argument for a fixed-term appointment—nothing in that would preclude reappointment—is interesting. However and as my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire pointed out, there is the contentious question of whether three years is the right term. That could involve one year getting into the job, one year doing it, and one year lobbying for reappointment. My concern is the consequential amendment, but having listened to the hon. Member for Lewes, there is a powerful case for a fixed term. I hope that the Minister will accept that, and that the Government will table an amendment on Report that deals with the length of term and perhaps with reappointment, even if they are not prepared to accept the hon. Gentleman’s amendment at this stage.
As the hon. Members for Lewes and for Wimbledon said, traffic commissioners are currently appointed by the Secretary of State until retirement. The only exception to that rule is the appointment of a traffic commissioner as the senior traffic commissioner, which is fixed by the Secretary of State for a renewable period, currently 12 months. That should cover the transition to a statutorily appointed senior commissioner under the provisions in clause 3. That post will be for a fixed term as determined by the Secretary of State. The amendment proposed by the hon. Member for Lewes would require all traffic commissioners to move from their current position to fixed-term renewable appointments of three years’ duration.
The Government and, I believe, the industries and stakeholders whom they serve hold commissioners in high regard. However, it is true that time has moved on since traffic commissioners were first appointed 77 years ago—obviously not the existing ones—and in preparing the Bill I looked closely at the issue of moving to fixed-term appointments, but I felt that it was not appropriate in these circumstances. The hon. Member for Wimbledon highlighted some of the issues associated with fixed-term three-year appointments that might be applicable in this case.
I also felt that there was a strong case, which I discussed with traffic commissioners to gauge their views, for saying that a build-up of experience, particularly on the quasi-judicial side, is important in maintaining a good system for the service that traffic commissioners deliver. That is why in other parts of the Bill there are clauses, particularly clause 4, to clarify the terms under which commissioners who are systematically underperforming can be dismissed. I accept that parliamentarians and the public want to know that if there are problems with particular commissioners, there are relevant powers to ensure that such people can be dismissed.
In addition, under provisions in clause 3 the senior traffic commissioner will have the power to issue directions and guidance to other commissioners about the exercising of their functions. At the moment, that has to be done by consensus. The senior traffic commissioner will have greater powers to do this, which will improve accountability and consistency of decision making. I have tried to get the balance right between ensuring that we have independence and experience, and ensuring that there is accountability and the ability to dismiss those who are not performing well.
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman added “the last 77 years” because that makes it easy for me to say that I do not know how many have been dismissed in the last 77 years. I suggest that we might narrow down the matter, unless he really wants to know about the last 77 years.
Important issues are at stake here. I take into account the points that have been made about ensuring that the system functions well, and about dismissal if a commissioner is underperforming, but I have tried to strike the balance between a fixed-term appointment and the ability to build up independence and expertise.
Will the Minister clarify the position so far as the senior traffic commissioner is concerned? Is she saying that the senior traffic commissioner is on a fixed-term contract of one year and that if that contract is not renewed, they are then unemployed, or do they default back to being a general traffic commissioner?
First, the transition is allowed for in the Bill, and it is a fixed 12-month period. The actual period of the fixed term from then on has yet to be determined by the Secretary of State and will be decided after consultation. If a fixed-term period comes to an end, the senior traffic commissioner will revert to being an ordinary traffic commissioner, as is the case at the moment.
I understand what the Minister is saying, but given what she has already said about the Government’s intention regarding traffic commissioners who have specialisms and knowledge of particular subjects within the field of transport policy, and given that transport policy moves on and the specialism requirements may change, would it not be sensible for the Secretary of State to retain the opportunity at the end of a fixed-term contract to replace a traffic commissioner with a different commissioner who has another specialism?
That goes slightly against the points that were being made by the hon. Member for Wimbledon about traffic commissioners having to be tied to a particular region. The point that I made in response was that it is important to look at whether there are issues associated with specialism. The Bill would not prevent more traffic commissioners from being appointed in specialist areas if that were appropriate; that is exactly the point about the flexibility of the Bill. As I said, I did think very carefully about this and decided that, on balance, it was better to have a robust system of monitoring and reviewing the performance of individual commissioners than a system in which people are on very short term contracts. I did not consider that the right approach in these circumstances.
I ask the Minister to think again. She has been honest enough to say she regarded this as an “on balance” judgment. All we want is a little more from her—to say that between now and consideration on Report she will reflect on the issue again. I do not know what attitude my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon would take about that, but I hope that we would not then push the proposal to a vote. It is an important issue and the Minister will know that, under employment law, there is a world of difference between mounting a campaign to get rid of someone who is useless in the job and simply not renewing their contract.
The threshold one has to achieve to get rid of someone who is mediocre and second rate is quite high. The process often leads to claims for unfair dismissal if the person is being disposed of in a shorter period than stated in their contract. If their contract is indefinite one has to go through that process to get rid of them if they are under retirement age, whereas if the Minister were willing to move to fixed-term contracts, it would be far easier for a Secretary of State to say “This man has not been outrageously bad, but he is second rate, mediocre and not a good traffic commissioner: I do not think I will reappoint him”. There would then be no question of public money having to be used to fight a case of unfair dismissal. It seems to me that the case for a fixed term contract is overwhelming, and I hope that the Minister will think again.
I simply want to add that I think we should we should base our discussions on how to create a good system, with people building up expertise over a long period of time, rather than on the best way to get rid of people, which is the thinking in the Opposition amendment. That is the wrong way to approach the matter, so I ask the Committee not to support the amendments.
I am disappointed by the Minister’s response, because we are making a sensible point. All she had to do was accept that there was a case, agree to reflect on it and see whether better wording could be offered on Report. If she wants to argue that a period of five or 10 years is better than one of three years, that is fine. Unfortunately, however, she is not arguing that case; she said that the amendment is about trying to get rid of people who are not very good. It is partly about that, but it is also about ensuring that the expertise of traffic commissioners is of the highest possible standard. That is how I put it, and as the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire rightly says, the reality is that if someone is mediocre, they may be in a position where they cannot be dismissed under the “nuclear option” in the Bill, but they are nevertheless occupying an important and unique role in their area, and what they do affects hundreds of thousands of people.
In those circumstances, we need a different rule for such people, particularly as they are not elected. Let us face it, we in this place are held to account; we are on fixed terms and can be dismissed by our electorates when the election comes around. The commissioners cannot be dismissed. The Minister talks about them as being quasi-judicial. She is right, but that makes it even more important that they are appointed on fixed terms.
The Minister said that traffic commissioners should be exempt from improper influence from local authorities and so on, and I accept that on a day-to-day basis. However, when people are in independent positions, as in the case of Sir John Bourn—I am sorry to pick on him again—particularly if they have been protected from involvement with democratic politicians either locally or nationally because it is important that they should not be subject to influence, where is the accountability for them? There is a tenuous thread back to the Secretary of State with a nuclear option.
We can make a comparison with the European Commission. If Members of the European Parliament are unhappy with the European Commission, the whole lot have to be sacked. That is the nuclear option in those circumstances. Some might think that it is a good idea—indeed, it might be in respect of some Commissioners. However, it would be much more sensible if there was something other than the nuclear option to deal with problems that arise in the European Parliament, rather than such an unwieldy and rather ridiculous all-or-nothing process. We are being given all or nothing in the Bill.
The Minister says that she does not want to compromise the building-up of expertise. I understand that. It is right to encourage the build-up of expertise. As she will have noticed from the previous amendment, I am not against some of the specialisms that she wants to encourage. In reality, there is nothing to stop people being appointed after three or five years, or whatever the period may be. I imagine that the presumption would be that in most cases they would be reappointed, but the provision allows an escape clause, which would not otherwise exist, for an important job. It also concentrates the mind of the post holder on whether they are doing the job to the best of their ability.
I am not advancing such an argument as a general principle, but some post holders might say, “This is a nice job that I’ve got for life. I don’t have to be reappointed by anyone. I am not elected by anybody. Nobody knows who I am and this is how I am going to do my job. It doesn’t matter particularly if the job changes. If the skills set required is altered, I shall just carry on because they can’t get rid of me because those were the terms on which I was appointed.” That is not serving the population of the country or the population of the area to which the traffic commissioner is, by and large, appointed.
It is true that we can get rid of people, but do we want to go through that process with all the angst involved—the negotiations and the unsatisfactory behaviour of the person who is in post—knowing that the intention is to move that person out when he or she would be there for some time? It is much better to have a fixed-term arrangement, which is cleaner, more satisfactory and becoming more the norm. To come back to Sir John Bourn, we recognise the mistake and that post will now be fixed term. The amendment would ensure that we do not make the same mistake in respect of the traffic commissioners.
The Minister has so far rejected the idea of town local areas. She has rejected a number of our suggestions about minimum numbers. She has rejected local government consultation and she now appears to be rejecting fixed-term contracts. We need to know what she will do to improve the accountability of traffic commissioners. We have heard no suggestions so far because they are mainly unaccountable.
That is exactly what I did explain. I said that we were making changes, particularly in clause 4 and clause 3, to improve the accountability process and to give the senior traffic commissioner the ability to issue directions to other traffic commissioners. At the moment, they have to reach agreement by consensus. The Bill changes that. It also changes the process of monitoring and reviewing performance to address the very points that the hon. Gentleman has raised.
With respect to the Minister, she is confusing managerial competence and managerial process with public accountability. Nothing that she has said increases public accountability one iota. It may improve the management of individual traffic commissioners, but it does not improve public accountability. I do not know whether we will have votes on every string of amendments. We seem to be doing so today. I did not start my remarks with the intention of voting on the amendment, but the Minister has driven me to demand a Division.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 21, in clause 2, page 2, line 28, leave out from ‘Area’ to end of line 31.
No. 22, in clause 3, page 3, line 43, leave out from ‘Wales’ to end of line 44.
No. 23, in clause 3, page 4, line 4, leave out from ‘Wales’ to end of line 6.
No. 24, in clause 3, page 4, line 13, leave out from ‘out’ to ‘as’ in line 15 and insert
‘such of the functions of traffic commissioner for the Scottish Traffic Area’.
No. 25, in clause 3, page 4, line 19, leave out ‘England and Wales’ and insert ‘Scotland’.
No. 29, in clause 4, page 6, line 36, leave out from ‘Wales’ to end of line 39.
No. 30, in clause 4, page 7, line 4, leave out from ‘Wales’ to end of line 5.
No. 31, in clause 4, page 7, line 10, leave out from ‘Wales’ to end of line 11.
No. 32, in clause 4, page 7, line 14, leave out subsection (6).
Members of the Committee are well aware that one of the effects of devolution has been to complicate a number of arrangements and existing legislation—some provisions are applicable to England only, some to England and Wales, and some to the whole of the United Kingdom. At times I have difficulty in following what exactly will refer to what. Some of the changes in respect of traffic commissioners seem to be especially complicated and confusing, and the amendments would bring some clarity.
The Secretary of State will now be able to appoint a pool of commissioners to serve England and Wales—in essence, disbanding the previous regional relationship—but there will still be a single commissioner for the Scottish traffic area. Clearly, given my previous logic, I am happy about that. However, as we read further into the Bill—here I am looking for the Minister’s help—the Scottish traffic commissioner will have powers in England and Wales, and the English and Welsh traffic commissioners will have powers in Scotland. Given that there will still be a traffic commissioner specific to Scotland, when does the Minister anticipate those powers being deployed?
I am in favour of granting the Secretary of State the flexibility to ensure the best allocation of resources—that is what my previous amendment did—but why make provision for a single commissioner in Scotland if there is to be such a porous border? Why have a dedicated Scottish commissioner on any given day, but then find them registering a local bus service in Manchester, Lewes or Wimbledon on another day? Why have an English commissioner? The Minister explained why she wants the English traffic commissioner, but there is a whole issue about where England and Wales are and indeed where the whole United Kingdom is. Traffic commissioners should be given adequate resources to carry out their important duties. Why does the Minister want no allocation in one area, yet for allocation to remain in another area? Why has the Minister left Scotland as a discrete area? It argues against all her previous logic. The Minister needs to explain why she wants to go down that road in this part of the Bill, even though she was arguing vociferously against it a few minutes ago.
My amendments Nos. 21 to 25 and 29 to 32 are merely consequential upon amendment No. 20.
The hon. Gentleman’s amendments would prevent the Scottish traffic commissioner and any of that person’s deputies from working on cases involving English and Welsh operators. They would also prevent traffic commissioners in England and Wales, and any deputies, from considering Scottish cases. Again, that would reduce the flexibility of the senior traffic commissioner to deploy traffic commissioners to reflect work pressures in different parts of the country.
I am sorry to intervene on the Minister so early, and I am grateful to her for giving way. Why does there need to be a Scottish traffic commissioner at all, if she is taking them away from everywhere else and not dedicating them to a particular area? That seems to go against the whole of her previous argument.
There needs to be a particular Scottish traffic commissioner because a number of functions are devolved in Scotland. English and Welsh traffic commissioners will have only reserved powers in Scotland. A number of discrete functions can only be carried out by a Scottish commissioner because of the devolution of powers. However, in some cases it may be possible, if necessary because of work load issues, for an English or Welsh traffic commissioner to help out. That could work the other way around where there were work load problems.
The majority of the traffic commissioner’s functions in Scotland—dealing with licence applications, variations and disciplinary matters, for example—are not devolved or even region-specific. In relation to those functions, it would be possible for a Scottish commissioner to work elsewhere and vice versa, if required, giving the flexibility that I explained earlier.
To be clear, is the Minister saying that the English traffic commissioners who might be operating in Scotland will be legally barred from undertaking particular functions? Or is she saying that it is a matter of good practice because they are not trained to discharge those functions and therefore will not be able to do so? Which one is it?
Certain issues are devolved and therefore only a Scottish commissioner could work on those. Others are not devolved, so it would therefore be possible for any commissioner from England and Wales to carry out that work—it also applies the other way around.
It is certainly to do with the devolution of powers so there are certain areas that could be dealt with only by the Scottish commissioner, but in other matters it would be possible for other traffic commissioners to do so. We are trying to achieve a balance by saying, “Yes, there are certain issues that can only be dealt with by a Scottish commissioner, but there are others where it would be possible to have flexibility if required”. This is a probing amendment. I hope that those remarks help to explain our position.
I see the Minister nodding assent and that therefore explains where I was probing with the amendment. It would be helpful if at some stage the Minister could provide us with a list of those things that it is legally necessary to have done by a Scottish traffic commissioner only. I am grateful for her assurance on that. Much as I have enjoyed the Divisions this morning, the Minister has reassured me on this point and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
‘(3C) The Traffic Commissioners shall jointly publish—
(a) an annual report detailing their activities in the previous financial year, and
(b) information relating to expenses incurred by the Traffic Commissioners in the previous financial year on an annual basis, no later than three months after the end of the financial year to which the information relates.’.
I return to the theme of accountability. The Minister mentioned accountability in her last answer so we are making progress. Her colleague in another place recognised that there is a need to balance the autonomy of the traffic commissioners on the one hand with public accountability on the other. The amendment is yet another attempt to find a way of doing so.
The amendment would require an annual report to be published jointly by the traffic commissioners detailing their activities in the previous financial year and indicating how much they have spent on expenses. Such a report should be published no later than three months after the end of the financial year to which the information relates.
The concept of an annual report is well established. It has been adopted by the Government in a number of different regards. It seems to be well understood by the public and provides a means of accountability for various Departments and public bodies. Bodies that are not elected and not in the public eye have even more reason to publish an annual report than bodies that are subject to endorsement or otherwise at the ballot box and are regularly in the public spotlight. Traffic commissioners cannot, of course, be elected in that sense—I am not suggesting that they should be as it would be rather difficult if they were—but it is important to understand the work they have done.
As ever-increasing functions are devolved to the traffic commissioners, which increasingly impinge on the activities and lifestyles of individuals—such as how buses operate, for example—it is important to understand how they have undertaken their work for the year. An annual report would be another useful way of measuring what they have done and of contrasting and comparing the work of individual traffic commissioners, thereby setting standards to which others could rise and encouraging better performance by traffic commissioners in a non-threatening way.
Is the hon. Gentleman saying that each traffic commissioner should produce an annual report, or that the body of traffic commissioners should produce a report?
The amendment says—I hope that it does—that there should be a joint report produced by the traffic commissioners. I am open-minded about whether there should be one per traffic commissioner, or a joint one. In the interests of not creating bureaucracy, a joint one is a sensible way forward. I hope that the Minister will be sympathetic to the concept.
On the issue of expenses, we have heard a lot about MPs’ expenses, but at least that has been in the public domain. We have had to respond to that as MPs and we now have a process that I hope will lead to improvements in public confidence. The problems with expenses are far worse with other bodies that we have not heard of. For example, the chairman of the South East England Development Agency spent over £50,000 on taxis last year and I am afraid that the instances of excessive expenditure by individuals who are not elected but have access to public moneys is quite worrying. We should find some way of dealing with that.
I undertook a random survey of 23 public bodies to see which published a breakdown of board members’ expenses—only one of the 23 did so. I have no reason to think that traffic commissioners are running up gigantic bills—perhaps they are not— but the great safeguards for the public purse are always openness, transparency and accountability. Amendment No. 150 seeks to enshrine that by requiring an annual report including information relating to expenses.
As the hon. Gentleman has said, this amendment seeks to require the traffic commissioners to publish an annual report on their activities during that year within three months of the end of the financial year and requires them to publish information on their expenses. Under section 55 of the Public Passenger Vehicles Act 1981, each of the traffic commissioners is already required to submit an annual report of their activities during the past year to the Secretary of State. Although the Government are under no legal obligation to publish them, they have always done so in the interests of transparency. They have been published alongside an overview by the administrative senior traffic commissioner and detailed statistical information on, for example, the number of applications processed. These reports are available for download from the Department for Transport website.
Historically, those annual reports are published approximately a year after initial drafting and, while I accept that there is an inevitable delay in the reports moving to final draft and publication, I agree that the process is unnecessarily lengthy. Therefore, we have included a new power under clause 3 for the Secretary of State to issue guidance to the statutory senior traffic commissioner and I hope that I can reassure the Committee by putting on record that it is our intention to use this power, among other things, to tighten the framework for drafting and publishing annual reports.
The hon. Gentleman’s talked about the expenses of traffic commissioners. It is important that the activities of the traffic commissioners are as open and accountable as possible—I hope it will reassure the Committee to know that we want the Secretary of State to issue statutory guidance under clause 3—and that should be considered along with other budgetary data to be consulted upon at the time of publication. We would like to consider the issue when we consult on the kind of data that should be included in this guidance—whether it is personal expenses or other budgetary data—but we do not want to put it in primary legislation. We want to consult properly on all types of information that might be published during that time. When we are considering those issues, I hope that the Committee will accept that it is right to have a full public consultation on the matter. I can reassure the Committee that we will return to those issues when we publish the guidance.
I am a little bit disappointed and puzzled by that response. Here we have a Government who are committed to openness and who introduced the Freedom of Information Act 2000. The Prime Minister has said that those in public life should be transparent with their expenses, and yet the Minister has given us the pledge that they will consider consulting on these matters. I find it difficult to understand why she cannot accept the principle and say, “Yes, we will publish those items. We will consult on the precise scope, but the actual publication is not something that we will consult on because we will do it.” If that is what she meant to say, I am happy to give way to her. As I understand it, she is going to consult on whether or not the information should be released. I have to say that I do not think that that is good enough. The details should be published. Of course, one must have discussions about how it is done and what the scope is, but I would have thought that she could have given a pledge on the principle to the Committee today. She has failed to do that, and because of that I am minded to support the amendment of the hon. Member for Lewes.
Hon. Members are often criticised for deciding the minute detail of what we intend to do before any consultation. I can assure the Committee that we will be consulting on these issues. It is important that we maintain the principle that when we set the parameters of guidance and give a commitment that we will be consulting on it, we stick to it. If we end up going through every single bit of the guidance and removing any right of public consultation, we are not fulfilling our principles.
I was trying to be helpful, but the Minister had already sat down. What a shame. There is nothing wrong with consultation. If it is carried out genuinely, it is a useful process. I tend to support the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire when he says that the consultation here should be about the how rather than the whether.
Another principle that the Minister has not elucidated on entirely is that of accountability of public finances. There is an absolute duty on those who have access to the public cheque book and on those who can write cheques, not just in their job but for themselves, to ensure that such moneys are publicly recorded and accounted for. I hope that the Minister will accept that principle—it is not one that can be negated by consultation. Does she accept the principle that when people have access to public money, particularly when they can spend it to their own benefit, it must be open and transparent? There is another principle, one of consultation, which I hope that the Minister accepts. If she says that she does—I am looking to see whether she nods, as opposed to nodding off—that would be very welcome. [Interruption.] She has neither nodded nor nodded off, so I am no further forward.
The Minister talks about tightening the framework and that is useful. She has hinted that a time scale of 12 months for the production of reports is too long, so I assume she agrees that it should be reduced. I hope she also agrees that we need a more user-friendly report than has been the case hitherto. It ought to be given greater prominence, and as the role of the traffic commissioners is increased, so too should be the prominence of their reports in the public domain. For example, one report per year could be provided as a written ministerial statement from the Secretary of State for Transport, so that people were aware that the report had been published. It is not a great burden on the Secretary of State, but it requires a ministerial statement to say, “Here it is.” At the moment, things are put on the website but that depends on whether someone can find the website and is looking in the right place; it is not a sufficient way of making the information public. I am in some doubt as to whether to push the point, but I think I will not because the Minister has sort of been helpful.
If it helps the hon. Gentleman in his deliberations, let me say that of course I accept the principle that he mentioned about publishing details where public funds are concerned—we will consult on the detail of the publication, including other budgetary issues on which we will consult. That is important.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
The Chairman, being of the opinion that the principle of the clause and any matters arising thereon had been adequately discussed in the course of the debate on the amendments proposed thereto, forthwith put the Question, pursuant to Standing Orders Nos. 68 and 89, That the clause stand part of the Bill.