Clause 4

Local Transport Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:30 pm on 22 April 2008.

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Amendments of Schedule 2 to the PPVA 1981

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport)

I beg to move amendment No. 33, in clause 4, page 7, line 15, at end insert—

‘(7) Paragraph 1 of Schedule 2 to the PPVA 1981 (grounds for dismissal), as amended by this section, shall apply to deputy traffic commissioners.’.

I apologise, Lady Winterton. When I intervened earlier, I failed to welcome you to the Chair. I remember that you chaired the Standing Committee on the Crossrail Bill last year. I enjoyed it immensely, and I am sure that we will enjoy this Committee immensely under your chairmanship as well.

This is a sensible amendment that I am sure the Minister will want to accept. It concerns deputy traffic commissioners, and in particular their dismissal. I genuinely hope that it will not prove controversial, because it appears to me that there is a loose end in the Bill. As things stand, the Secretary of State has the power to appoint traffic commissioners and to dismiss a traffic commissioner who

“(a) has misbehaved; or

(b) is unable, unfit or unwilling to perform the functions of traffic commissioner to a standard which the Secretary of State considers satisfactory”.

I do not think that anyone has a problem with that provision.

The Secretary of State has the power to appoint deputy traffic commissioners, who have a number of set functions. They carry out many if not all the functions of regular traffic commissioners. However, as I read them, the measures and their parent Act contain no provisions for dealing with a deputy traffic commissioner who misbehaves or is unwilling or unable to carry out his duties. If both traffic commissioners and deputy traffic commissioners are appointed by the Secretary of State and have the same functions, and if there are provisions for the dismissal of the former, should there not also be provisions for the dismissal of the latter?

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Chair, Procedure Committee

I can see why my hon. Friend might want that point in the Bill, but would not his concerns be covered by proposed new paragraph (3)? It states:

“Appointment as a deputy traffic commissioner for England and Wales shall be upon such terms and conditions, including conditions as to the time to be devoted to the duties of the office, as the Secretary of State may determine.”

It seems that the Secretary of State could quite easily put into the contract identical disciplinary and dismissal provisions to those for full-time commissioners.

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport)

I dispute that. It might well be possible, but the proposed new measures contain set conditions for the dismissal of traffic commissioners. As the Bill states the set conditions for appointments, it seems normal to put in an amendment such as mine. As far as I can see, my right hon. Friend’s comment refers to conditions that may apply but would not necessarily do so, whereas my amendment would cover the eventuality and give the Secretary of State the power necessary to dismiss deputy traffic commissioners. I hope that the Minister can either give me some reassurance that I missed the point altogether or accept my amendment.

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

I would not like to imply that the hon. Gentleman had missed the point altogether, but I hope to give a little clarification that might assist him. The amendment, as he said, would extend to the 17 current deputy traffic commissioners the clearer powers under clause 4 to dismiss poorly performing traffic commissioners. As we discussed earlier, the competence with which  traffic commissioners exercise their statutory duties can have a dramatic effect on individual operators. Delays in processing licensing applications or granting variations to existing licences can mean that new businesses cannot start, existing ones cannot expand or that business is lost perhaps with disastrous consequences for the livelihood of operators and their employees.

Currently, as we have discussed, and which will continue under the Bill, a traffic commissioner is appointed until retirement and can be removed from office only by the Secretary of State on the grounds of inability or misbehaviour. As I said earlier, the Government believe that such power is not explicit enough. For example, it does not make clear what inability means. It does not state whether it refers to those who do not have the professional expertise to perform their functions in a competent and proper fashion, whether it means someone who does not work efficiently or someone who is just unwilling to perform their functions to an acceptable standard. The Government believe that the power should encompass all such situations and that all commissioners must have the professional competence to carry out their functions and be properly accountable for ensuring that they do so in as efficient and effective way as possible. That is why we want clearer powers.

However, deputy traffic commissioners work on a part-time and pro rata basis. They are paid only for the work that they do, and they work only at the request of the full-time traffic commissioners usually when they have an enormous amount of work and need helping out with particular cases. Unlike the traffic commissioners, the deputies are appointed on fixed three-year contracts. In the case of poor performance, it is true that the Secretary of State can decide not to renew their contract or that another new deputy could be recruited to the area. It would be possible simply not to use the deputy traffic commissioner if it were felt by the traffic commissioner that they were not competent. That would not be at a cost to the public purse because deputy traffic commissioners are paid only when they work.

Under the other powers in the Bill, the senior traffic commissioner would have the power, for example, to use deputies from other areas to cover short-term needs until, if necessary, a replacement was found. We do not consider it necessary to have within the role of the deputy traffic commissioner the same powers and the same need to go through the dismissal process that applies to a full-time traffic commissioner. That would complicate matters. The position, as it rests at the moment, provides the necessary mechanisms to take appropriate action in respect of poorly performing deputy traffic commissioners. I hope that I have been helpful, have clarified the position and given the hon. Member for Wimbledon the reassurance that I expect he seeks.

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport)

The Minister was certainly extremely helpful. It was interesting to learn that deputy traffic commissioners are on a fixed term of office. I certainly understand her point that, given that it is a short three-year term of office, it might just be easier to leave someone on the list who would otherwise fall into the category of unwilling to perform functions to the standard required without going through all the dismissal procedures. I assume that that is what the Government would  prefer, rather than taking the power to dismiss them. I assume that the Government are saying that because people are only appointed for such a short period, we do not have to use them. We can have them on the list of deputy traffic commissioners, not renew their contract after three years and not go through the disciplinary procedures that would be associated with getting rid of them. I think that is what the Minister is effectively saying to us. My amendment was offering the Government powers to get rid of people who are incompetent. I understand that exercising such powers may be too difficult.

I have listened to the Minister and am reassured that there are means of, if not getting rid of, at least sidelining deputy traffic commissioners who are not performing their functions. The key is being able to perform to the standards we are all concerned about so, with that reassurance, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Chair, Procedure Committee

I still have concerns from our earlier debate about the question of guidance issued by the Secretary of State. When one looks at clause 4, a ground for dismissing a commissioner is that that commissioner has misbehaved. Will the Minister give an assurance to this Committee that misbehaviour will never be deemed to have to taken place where a traffic commissioner ignores guidance that, in effect, emanates from the Secretary of State? Unless she is able to give that assurance, it seems to me that the Secretary of State could, by issuing specific guidance, interfere with the quasi-judicial functions of a traffic commissioner.

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

I understand the point the right hon. Gentleman is making, but I would be more concerned, pursuant to his argument, about subsection 2 (b) which allows a dismissal on the basis that the traffic commissioner has not performed to a standard which the Secretary of State considers satisfactory. That is more of an open goal than misbehaviour.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Chair, Procedure Committee

The hon. Gentleman anticipates my journey, which I do not criticise him for. In addition to my concerns over this phrase “has misbehaved”, as the hon. Member for Lewes has rightly said, it may well be that a traffic commissioner feels his duty to a particular area is to make, or not to make, a certain decision and that it could be argued under this clause that he was unwilling—not unable, not unfit, but unwilling—to perform the functions of a traffic commissioner. It goes to the heart of how independent these commissioners will be in practice in the light of the wording of this clause.

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

What we need to consider is the fact that traffic commissioners are appointed and employed to carry out a public service on behalf of Government, through Parliament. Whatever Government were in power, if the Secretary of State wished to issue guidance as to how, for example, a senior traffic commissioner should operate their service, Parliament would expect that there should be some appropriate action if somebody  wilfully ignored any direction or guidance that was issued through the Secretary of State, because these powers are given in an Act. It is important that we preserve that principle, because many people carry out public service duties and Parliament and the Secretary of State have a role in ensuring they are carried out in line with the will of the Government and of Parliament through particular Acts that are passed. That is an important principle to bear in mind.

I emphasise the fact that the Government hold traffic commissioners in high regard. We would only be talking about going through an entire dismissal process in extreme circumstances, for example, if a traffic commissioner consistently refused to comply with directions issued by the statutory senior traffic commissioner appointed under clause 3, or if there was clear evidence that a commissioner had acted improperly, such as acting for personal gain. I emphasise, however, that if one is talking about an appointment lasting until retirement, as opposed to a fixed-term contract, all of the processes would be open to an individual if they alleged that they were being dismissed for having made a particular decision.

It is quite clear that the Government do not want to use this power to erode the commissioner’s independence. We have come forward with the power because it was felt that there was a decision to be made about going down a line of short, fixed-term contracts. As I replied to my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley, we did not want to do that because we did not want to erode that independence and perhaps be faced with somebody coming to the end of their three-year contract. How would a person feel in those circumstances? Would their decisions be influenced? One would hope not. My judgment was that it is better to have a normal process of recruitment and dismissal to overcome the feeling that people might be coming to decisions because they are reaching the end of their contract.

The powers that we are taking will extend only to the administrative competence of the commissioner. Their judicial competence, the decisions they make about individual operators, will remain a matter for the existing appeal mechanisms, the transport tribunal and the court of appeal. I emphasise that this goes hand in hand with the belief that not having short, fixed-term contracts is a more appropriate way to ensure traffic commissioners’ independence. However, we want to reflect some of the concerns that have been raised about the fact that it is not possible to take action if an individual consistently refuses to comply with directions issued from the senior traffic commissioner. We have tried to get the balance right and we believe that we have done so, but I reassure the right hon. Gentleman that we are not talking about interference with quasi-judicial decisions.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Chair, Procedure Committee 4:45, 22 April 2008

I thank the Minister for that comprehensive reply. I would like to reflect on the points she has made; I am not entirely convinced that more does not need to be done, but that can be left for another day and I shall not seek to divide the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.