Local Transport Bill [Lords]

Part of the debate – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:00 pm on 22nd April 2008.

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Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Manchester, Blackley 4:00 pm, 22nd April 2008

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.