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Local Transport Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:30 am on 6th May 2008.

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Inquiries by approvals boards for England

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport)

I beg to move amendment No. 73, in clause 24, page 22, line 23, at beginning insert ‘Subject to subsection (8),’.

Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton Conservative, Congleton

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 74, in clause 24, page 22, leave out line 25.

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport)

Welcome back to the Chair, Lady Winterton.

Clause 24 empowers the approvals board to hold inquiries. I envisage that those inquiries will be an important part of the work of the board. Members of the board will want to investigate the evidence provided to them by the local authority that is proposing the quality contracts scheme. They will want to examine any other representations made as part of the consultation process. They will also want to consult as widely as they consider necessary to reach an informed decision about whether to approve the scheme.

I hope, therefore, that my first substantive amendment to clause 24 will not prove controversial. Proposed new section 126C(4) provides that inquiries held by approval boards should be held in public. Proposed new subsections (8) and (9) provide that confidential commercial information should not be disclosed, which seems sensible to me. There is, however, a missing link, for it would be hard for the board to meet in public and discuss commercially sensitive information without disclosing such information.  There may therefore be certain circumstances when it would not be appropriate for the board to meet in public.

My amendment would add the words “ Subject to subsection (8)” to the end of the provision that reads:

“Any inquiry held by the board for the purposes of section 126 must be held in public.”

The intention of the amendment, which I trust is not contentious, is to enable confidential commercial information to remain just that—confidential. I do not think that the Bill will allow that to happen.

Amendment No. 74 also relates to the provision that any inquiries must be held in public. At the end of proposed new subsection (4), the Bill says:

“This subsection is subject to any provision made by regulations.”

I am concerned to probe exactly what sort of regulations might affect the board’s ability to conduct its inquiries in public, other than those that would be tackled by amendment No. 73. Therefore, I look for guidance from the Minister on what regulations she is thinking of.

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

Welcome back to the Chair, Lady Winterton. I hope that I can give the hon. Gentleman some reassurance here. The Bill already takes account of the need for commercial confidentiality in the circumstances he described. It allows for regulations to be made that might restrict public attendance at inquiries where appropriate. We have it in mind that that might be used to restrict members of the public from attending those parts of an inquiry that are concerned with confidential financial information. A similar provision to that which we envisage already exists in regulations on inquiries held by traffic commissioners.

The Bill will also make it a criminal offence to disclose protected information. We will be consulting on the draft regulations later in the year. I hope that that gives the hon. Gentleman some reassurance that the Bill covers his concerns and that he feels able to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport)

I think the Minister has just said that protected information will cover commercial and commercially confidential information. That being so, will she clarify another point before I withdraw the amendment? What other reason might there be for an inquiry not being held in public, other than information being commercially confidential? Are there any other reasons that the Minister anticipates?

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

I cannot think of many other reasons why there might be a need for confidentiality. However, no doubt when we consult, the experience that traffic commissioners already have of some inquiries that they have held might offer further enlightenment. At the moment, though, the main reason is commercially confidential information.

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport)

I am grateful for the Minister’s explanation, but I am still troubled by the fact that the subsection says

“subject to any provision made by regulations.”

However, I shall see what the Minister comes up with in the guidelines on this point. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport)

I beg to move amendment No. 75, in clause 24, page 22, line 28, at end insert

‘and shall supply a copy of that document to all the persons listed in section 125(1)’.

The purpose of the amendment is to explore exactly what “prescribed manner” might mean. When the approvals board plans to hold an inquiry, it will be required to publish a notice of inquiry in the prescribed manner. I want to ensure that the words “in the prescribed manner” ensure that all the people who are entitled to receive a copy of that notice receive it. It seems only logical that all people who are supplied with a consultation document should also be told about any inquiry relating to the proposed scheme. The list of people and operators includes local operators and various others, including the chief police officer.

I tabled an amendment, which I believe had some support from the Liberal Democrats, on extending the list of people to be consulted. Unfortunately, the Minister was not minded to accept it. The crux of the matter is that members of the approvals board must be given access to all the relevant information and the full spectrum of opinion before they come to their decision.

At the moment, it is possible to conceive a scenario where a person or a group of persons or an organisation that had made a representation to the local authority objecting to the authority’s proposal to bring forward a quality contracts scheme might have done so as part of the consultation process. However, for whatever reason, the authority might dismiss that objection, push ahead with its process and pass it to the board for approval. There is nothing to ensure that the approvals board will necessarily know of the objectors. It seems to me that the board must be made aware of the objectors to the scheme, as well as the reasons for it. Therefore, those affected must be made aware of the inquiry.

My amendment, therefore, says that the board, in addition to publishing a notice of the inquiry in the prescribed manner,

“shall supply a copy of that document to all the persons listed in section 125(1)”, which is the provision detailing to whom the local authority must send a copy of the document.

I look to the Minister either to accept the amendment or to reassure me that all persons to whom representations are made as a result of the consultation procedure automatically get a right of hearing at the approvals board.

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

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. It is obviously right that people, particularly someone who has objected to a scheme, should be informed of the fact that there will be a public inquiry.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that we want to cover that in regulations, rather than in the Bill. Given that assurance, I hope he will withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport)

I am grateful to the Minister for her assurance. Subject to seeing the regulations and ensuring that they specify that point, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport)

I beg to move amendment No. 76, in clause 24, page 22, line 31, leave out from ‘to’ to ‘as’ in line 32 and insert

‘such person or organisation as the board thinks fit,

‘(b) by such person or organisation’.

Proposed new section 126C(6) will empower the approvals board to ensure that any costs incurred by the Secretary of State or by the board in connection with holding the inquiry are reimbursed. That seems to me to be well and proper. Oddly, however, such payments are limited in that the only person to whom they can be made is the Secretary of State. Given that costs may be incurred by the traffic commissioner chairing the board, other members of the board or, indeed, a third party organising the inquiry, why does only the Secretary of State stand to be reimbursed?

When a public inquiry is being organised by an independent approvals board, is it right that the Secretary of State should be the one reimbursed? In what circumstances does the Minister foresee the Secretary of State incurring costs in helping the board to arrange an inquiry in a particular area or case? Is that appropriate? Why is the Secretary of State incurring the costs? Those costs are more likely to be incurred by others. The board will organise and hold the inquiry; therefore, the board will incur the costs. The Secretary of State is not a member of that board.

The amendment is probing and it seeks to find out why the Bill is so worded. Why should other people not be entitled to reimbursement should they incur costs in the organisation of the inquiry?

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

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for clarifying the purpose of the amendment, as we were slightly confused about what it is trying to achieve.

The purpose of the provision that the hon. Gentleman seeks to amend is to enable an approvals board to require one or more parties to contribute to the costs incurred by the Secretary of State or the approvals board itself as a result of holding the inquiry. Costs incurred by an approvals board will ultimately be funded by the taxpayer, which is why the Bill says that the costs will be paid back to the Secretary of State.

I will set out my objections to the amendment. First, as the Bill is drafted, an approvals board can require a person to contribute to the costs of the inquiry only if they are a party to the inquiry. It is unclear to me why the hon. Gentleman wants to widen that provision. Under his amendment, people not even involved in the inquiry would be required to contribute to the cost of it.

Secondly, the Bill states that parties to the inquiry might be asked to make a payment to the Secretary of State in respect of the costs incurred by the Secretary of State or an approvals board. Under the amendment, the costs incurred by the Secretary of State or the approvals board could be reimbursed to other parties. I  am not sure why costs that are ultimately borne by the taxpayer should be reimbursed to anyone other than the Secretary of State.

Over and above that, there are objections in policy terms to the amendment. Its effect would be that one party—either a bus operator or a local authority—could be required to contribute to the costs incurred by the other party during an inquiry.

The problem with that would be that if, say, a bus operator knows that a local authority would have to reimburse his costs there is no incentive for the operator to keep those costs to a sensible level. Indeed, a disruptive operator might deliberately spend a great deal of money simply in the hope of frustrating the local authority which would ultimately have to meet those costs.

With that explanation, particularly in terms of why it says the costs would be repaid to the Secretary of State, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport) 10:45 am, 6th May 2008

If I heard the Minister correctly, she is saying that the Bill as drafted uses the Secretary of State as the collecting point for costs whether they are incurred by the Secretary of State or the board of inquiry. My concern was that costs would be payable to the Secretary of State and not necessarily to the approvals board. However, given what the Minister has said—that the Secretary of State is acting as the collection point which was my concern—I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 24 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 25 ordered to stand part of the Bill.