Local Transport Bill [Lords]

– in a Public Bill Committee on 22nd April 2008.

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[Ann Winterton in the Chair]

LTB 01 Passenger Transport Executive Group

LTB 02 Guide Dogs for the Blind Association

LTB 03 Greater Manchester Momentum Group

Amendment proposed [this day]: No. 1, in clause 3, page 5, leave out lines 39 to 43 and insert—

‘4D Guidance to senior traffic commissioner by Secretary of State

(1) The Secretary of State may give the senior traffic commissioner guidance as to the exercise of any of the senior traffic commissioner’s functions.

(2) The senior traffic commissioner must have regard to any guidance given under subsection (1) above.”.’.—[Ms Rosie Winterton.]

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton Conservative, Congleton

I remind the Committee that with this we are discussing amendment No. 27, in clause 3, page 5, line 39, leave out subsections (6) and (7).

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Minister of State (Regional Affairs) (Yorkshire and the Humber), Minister of State (Department for Transport)

Thank you, Lady Winterton. It is a great pleasure to be serving under your chairmanship.

Earlier, I was in full flow explaining the difference between the general directions that the Secretary of State currently issues to the senior traffic commissioner and their replacement, the guidance that the Secretary of State will issue in future. Following that, the senior traffic commissioner will be able to issue guidance and general directions to other traffic commissioners. It is all perfectly clear. The idea is to increase the independence of the traffic commissioners as a whole, but also for the senior traffic commissioner to have greater powers to introduce consistency among other traffic commissioners, while at every step of the way not interfering with individual decisions, which will continue to be made on a quasi-judicial basis.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Chair, Procedure Committee

In essence, my point boils down to whether the Minister can tell the Committee where in the Bill it states that guidance issued by the Secretary of State cannot amount to an instruction in a specific case. If it is in the Bill, my argument falls and I will have nothing more to say about the matter. However, if it is not in the Bill, my point arises because the Minister’s amendment No. 1 gives the Secretary of State the power to issue guidance and directs that the senior traffic commissioner must  have regard to that guidance. It seems entirely reasonable that at the same time we should have a statement that the guidance will be only on the issue she mentioned and not in respect of a specific case.

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Minister of State (Regional Affairs) (Yorkshire and the Humber), Minister of State (Department for Transport)

As I understand it, we have not said that specifically in the Bill. Clearly, general principles would be in the guidance. The Secretary of State could not direct a particular case and say that a commissioner ought to find in a particular way. The guidance is not legally binding—it is guidance.

The type of issue that might be covered could be that bus punctuality should improve. The guidance would look to the traffic commissioners to do that. General guidance to traffic commissioners might be to look at how they can work to improve bus punctuality, but a traffic commissioner would not be breaking the law if he or she did not succeed in improving bus punctuality, because that would obviously be unreasonable. I assure the Committee that the guidance will be about general principles. From the senior traffic commissioner onwards to the other traffic commissioner it would be about how to achieve; for example there could be details about how other traffic commissioners might achieve bus punctuality. The guidance is only about the exercise of the senior traffic commissioner functions, not individual traffic commissioners.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Shadow Secretary of State for Transport

While we are on the subject, may I explore the meaning of the well-used phrase in legislation, “with regard”? Does it mean that the senior traffic commissioner is simply obliged to read the guidance from the Government and cogitate on it, or that they are obliged to attempt to implement those guidelines?

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Minister of State (Regional Affairs) (Yorkshire and the Humber), Minister of State (Department for Transport)

The traffic commissioner should have regard to the guidance, which means that they should take it into account in the exercise of their duties. What it does not mean, as I have said, is that they would be breaking the law if they did not manage to improve bus punctuality. It comes back to the issue of how to do things such as monitoring performance. The guidance would need to be about the principles relating to how the senior traffic commissioner carries out his functions.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Shadow Secretary of State for Transport

But if the Minister says to the senior traffic commissioner: “We want you to improve bus punctuality”—to take her example—is the senior traffic commissioner obliged to try to improve bus punctuality or are they free to conclude that there are other issues of more importance that ought to take priority?

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Minister of State (Regional Affairs) (Yorkshire and the Humber), Minister of State (Department for Transport)

Like any guidance in such circumstances, if there were good reasons for divergence from the letter of the guidance in a particular case, the senior traffic commissioner may be able to do so. The idea of guidance is to guide, not to force in unreasonable circumstances. That is why we have tried to make a distinction from the previous situation where there were general directions that could have been more specific. What we want to achieve in the Bill, to assist with the issues of independence, is for the Secretary of State to be able to set parameters  for how the senior traffic commissioner should operate, but not to direct them. The senior traffic commissioner would then have greater powers to achieve a consistent approach and to be able to direct the work of other traffic commissioners, which at present can be done only by consent and agreement.

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport)

I want to tease a little bit more from the Minister. We have talked about the Secretary of State issuing guidance about improving bus punctuality, which is general guidance. My right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire might ask whether the intention is that the Secretary of State can say to the senior traffic commissioner: “You must improve bus punctuality in Manchester, Southampton and other places”. Is there to be instruction about a specific point? That is the concern.

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Minister of State (Regional Affairs) (Yorkshire and the Humber), Minister of State (Department for Transport)

I thought the right hon. Gentleman’s concern was that if the traffic commissioner was sitting on a case involving a disciplinary matter, the Secretary of State would somehow direct the traffic commissioner on how to find in the case. That is the point that the right hon. Gentleman made and I confirmed that it was not the case because in those circumstances the traffic commissioner would be sitting in the quasi-judicial capacity that we have talked about. The idea behind issuing guidance to the senior traffic commissioner is that it would generally be what the Secretary of State would like to see the traffic commissioners do in carrying out their duties. I used the example of bus punctuality because I think it is appropriate to the Bill, given the discussions that we will be having on the operation of bus companies. It is not about how to find in individual cases when we are talking about a quasi-judicial function.

Amendment No. 27 would remove the power that the Bill would give the Secretary of State to issue guidance to the senior traffic commissioner about the exercise of his or her functions. Because the whole point of the Bill is to give the Secretary of State power to issue guidance, rather than the general directions that exist at present, I am afraid that we wish the Committee to reject the amendment. The point of the changes is to enable the issuing of guidance and as the proposal remove that provision it rather undermines the purpose of our changes.

Amendment agreed to.

Question proposed, That the clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Chair, Procedure Committee

Can the Minister give us an idea of the sort of salary that a senior traffic commissioner will receive? How does that compare with the current salary of a basic traffic commissioner? I shall quite understand if she needs to consult about that question.

On the power to give guidance and directions, on page 5, subsection (4) states:

“The senior traffic commissioner must consult each of the following persons before giving any guidance or directions under subsection (1).”

It then lists a number of people who were referred to in our previous debate. Can the Minister confirm that in practice it will be “consult as appropriate”? For example, why would the senior traffic commissioner want to consult Scottish Ministers about an issue or concern  that relates only to England? Does the subsection mean that in practice the senior traffic commissioner must consult all those people when it applies to them, or must he consult them even if they have no locus standi in the particular problem?

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Minister of State (Regional Affairs) (Yorkshire and the Humber), Minister of State (Department for Transport)

As I understand it—I will correct this if it is wrong—an ordinary traffic commissioner receives a salary of approximately £90,000 per year, while a senior traffic commissioner receives £100,000. On the right hon. Gentleman’s point about consultation, if we refer back to the Bill, it reads “subsection (1) above”. I believe that is because it is about the exercise of the traffic commissioners’ functions under any enactment. The key may be in “enactment”. However, I confess that I would be more than happy to come back with further information about the meaning of enactment. I suspect that it is not about every single decision taken, but that in particular instances relating to an enactment, the commissioner would have to consult with the appropriate people.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Shadow Secretary of State for Transport

Perhaps I can help the Minister. Subsection (5) includes a specific reference to a situation whereby a Scottish traffic commissioner is consulted.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Manchester, Blackley

Although I said that I wanted to take part in the debate on clause 4 stand part, with your permission, Lady Winterton, I think that my comments are more appropriate to clause 3.

As I listened to the debate about senior traffic commissioners and traffic commissioners, their terms and conditions and how long they are appointed for, a number of issues and questions arose, not least whether members of the Committee have ever met a traffic commissioner or senior traffic commissioner. There is a sense in which this debate has taken place—as in one sense it should—in a theoretical vacuum, without really understanding the terms and conditions, what traffic commissioners have done in the past and how they have been appointed. We must remember that if the Bill goes through unamended, it will give traffic commissioners considerably more powers than they have had in the past.

I am worried about some of these things. My experience of traffic commissioners is that some of them have been extremely hostile to local government and that some of them have known more about the regulations of Her Majesty’s services than they have about traffic regulations.

I shall put that into the context of what I am about to say, because at the heart of the Government’s decisions about independence and accountability and whether or not there should be long or short-term contracts for senior traffic commissioners is the real tension between independence and accountability. I think that they are contradictory, and that the hon. Member for Lewes was getting to that point. If a senior traffic commissioner is independent, however one tries to surround that commissioner with regulations and contracts, he is still independent. If, however, the strength of the regulations is such and the period of the contracts is so short that they are very constrained in what they are doing, they are not independent.

My core question for the Government is whether they really mean independent, or whether they mean what a Conservative Minister once said to me when we were asking for lottery money to be applied to the Commonwealth games—it could have applied to anything. She said that what was wanted was for the Government to “breathe” on the lottery funding bodies. I get the impression that these rules and regulations and short-term contracts are about “breathing” on the traffic commissioners. Will all these people be independent? If so, they need long-term contracts, fixed or otherwise, because when I have employed people and wanted to control them—apart from their expertise—I have had them on a very short leash and a very short contract. If one wants them to be genuinely independent and come to independent views, they should either be given long fixed-term contracts, or be made permanent. I would like an answer to that question.

Given my experience of traffic commissioners and their expertise in other areas— not necessarily the problems of transport in Manchester—I would like to know what sort of training and qualifications will be proposed as entrance requirements for what are important positions. I suggest—I am interested in my right hon. Friend’s reaction either now or in the future—that the senior transport commissioner should be subject to interview and interrogation by the Transport Committee. In the Prime Minister’s proposals for constitutional change he listed a number of posts for which people should be interviewed by Select Committees before appointment. The new post of senior transport commissioner is important, and if this Bill is passed as it is, that person will have immense influence over any quality contracts scheme and over the bus network in this country. It seems to me—my right hon. Friend the Minister may not have thought about this—that that is exactly the kind of person who should be subject to interrogation and interview by the appropriate Select Committee. I would be pleased to hear her response on that point.

I may have spoken too harshly about the influence that the Government tend to want over independent people. I know that the Government were badly burned by the actions of the rail regulator after the Hatfield crash, when the rail system effectively came to a halt. The rail regulator, who was independent, was responsible for billions of pounds, but the Government would not necessarily have endorsed the expenditure. The debt now carried by Network Rail is the result of that person’s actions. The Railways Act 2005 abolished that position.

I recast my question. I want to know whether the position of senior traffic commissioner is proposed simply to avoid independence and to keep some sort of control—as I said earlier, either through guidelines or short-term contracts—so that we do not suffer a repetition of that problem, although it would be at a lower level because that sort of money is not now available. I should be grateful if my right hon. Friend would clarify those points.

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Minister of State (Regional Affairs) (Yorkshire and the Humber), Minister of State (Department for Transport) 4:15 pm, 22nd April 2008

My hon. Friend was in Committee this morning, and that is exactly the point that I made when explaining why we rejected the idea of short-term contracts. Amendment No. 152, tabled by the hon. Member for Lewes, would have introduced a short-term contract, and my hon. Friend may even have voted on  it, but the Government’s response was that that is not the right approach. It is important for the traffic commissioner to be able to build up experience, particularly given the quasi-judicial role, and it is important that he should not always need to keep an eye on what might happen a year down the line. To ensure independence, it is important that the commissioner does not feel that his job will be up for renewal every three years; it should be a full-time appointment.

Hon. Members need to bear in mind that we believe that the Secretary of State should issue guidance rather than general directions, which is the position now, because it will improve the independence of the traffic commissioner. We have clarified why we want to change the position.

My hon. Friend asked about the issuing of guidance. It is important that traffic commissioners should be independent when making quasi-judicial decisions. It is important also that they should be accountable for the way in which they use public money and for their overall efficiency in carrying out their duties; and there should be accountability to Parliament, as the Secretary of State can issue guidance on some of the principles of operation. The traffic commissioner’s work will involve decisions about large sums of public money. In future he may also have to make decisions about bus services. It is important to ensure that the Secretary of State has the ability to issue guidance in that way. I would have thought that right hon. and hon. Members would think it rather odd if that were not the case given that the implementation of any Government’s transport policies depend on them being able to consider what guidance they want to put out.

With regard to training and experience, the main criteria is the ability to run a tribunal and have experience or knowledge of road transport law and practice. Those are the main qualifications for a traffic commissioner. I am not sure that I can see the Transport Committee as some kind of interviewing panel for the position of senior traffic commissioner. I do not know whether that would be appropriate if we want to ensure independence. It is a matter for the Select Committee to decide who it invites to give evidence. During the draft Local Transport Bill, I recall the traffic commissioners being summoned before the Transport Committee. I know that the Committee commented on the traffic commissioner proposals, particularly pointing out that it wanted to ensure that there was adequate funding. Therefore, it is up to the Transport Committee to be able to summon whoever it wants as witnesses. I hope that that is helpful.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Manchester, Blackley

Of course the Select Committee can invite anybody it wishes to attend. The point that I was making is that the Prime Minister has suggested that Select Committees should look at important public appointments, and that before a person takes up a post, they should discuss with them their attitude to the job. I was asking my right hon. Friend whether she thought that this important position should be one of those posts in which the applicant is automatically interviewed by the Select Committee.

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Minister of State (Regional Affairs) (Yorkshire and the Humber), Minister of State (Department for Transport)

If those are general criteria that are decided on a cross-Government basis—I have not seen the detail of those proposals to know exactly who they are thinking about in those circumstances—then they should be taken into consideration. I am sure that we  would all like to see more detail of that proposal to assess whether this was an appropriate appointment to bring before the Committee.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Shadow Secretary of State for Transport

I shall be brief because we have gone around the houses on this. The contribution of the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley has been extremely helpful in crystallising some of the issues that we have been discussing. He is right to say that they are to some degree a trade-off between independence and accountability. He is also right to draw attention to Tom Winsor and the history of the rail industry. If in doubt, we should come down on the side of accountability because we are talking about public funds and the discharge of important public functions. There is considerable potential for an individual, with or without Government guidance, to behave in a way that is not sympathetic to Government policy, to the local authority in the area that they look after or to the needs of bus passengers and others.

I hope that the Minister will accept that we need to improve accountability procedures. She has already given one or two hints that she might be willing to look at matters such as annual reports and so on. Without over-egging the pudding, it is important that we have some answers. With the best will in the world, the Government want to see bus services improved. They may try to adapt the Transport Act 2000 to bring about those improvements and they will have support from many people in the country and in this House. However, there is a danger that they could be thwarted by the actions of individual traffic commissioners who will be beyond control from the systems put in place by the Government. When the Minister reflects on those matters, I hope that she will consider whether we need further controls. I do not mean day-to-day controls on the traffic commissioners—no one is suggesting that they be micro-managed or that their individual decisions be regulated on a day-to-day basis—but there should be regular checks to ensure that they are doing their job properly and are in line with public policy. I do not think that there are mechanisms for doing so. I have suggested a fixed-term contract as one way to do it. If the Minister does not like that, we must find a different way, but we cannot just allow people to be appointed—I agree with the point about the Select Committee, by the way; it is a useful suggestion—and then run off to do their own thing irrespective of what the public at large need or what local authorities or indeed Ministers want them to do.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 3, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.