Local Transport Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:30 am on 6 May 2008.

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Continuation of scheme for further period

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport)

I beg to move amendment No. 214, in clause 30, page 27, line 48, at end insert—

‘(i) a list of—

(i) those people who have declared an objection to the continuation of the scheme, and

(ii) the objections declared by those people mentioned in (i).’.

The amendment looks at the whole concern about extending quality contracts beyond their initial period. We have discussed the consultation process that a local authority must engage in if it wants to introduce a quality contracts scheme. I have argued that the consultation document should contain certain additional elements and be made available to a wider range of individuals and organisations.

I am glad to see that where a local authority wishes to extend a quality contract scheme, it must engage in a similar process of consultation: that seems only logical. My intention with the amendment is, as with my previous set of amendments, to ensure that the consultation procedure is robust and effective. Those who receive the consultation document, and are invited to respond to it, must be aware of all the facts about the proposed extension of the scheme. That is probably already adequately covered.

However, the consultation document is produced by the local authority, and the very production of the document is evidence that the authority thinks the extension would be a good thing. I am concerned, too, that the document should also contain the evidence or views of people who think that the extension would not be a good thing. They should be entitled to have their points of view expressed and understood by those who are consulted, so those points of view should be in the document. In that way, people reading the document would be able properly to assess and analyse the successes and failures of any schemes in place, and members of the Committee will know from what I have already said that I think there will be more concerns than successes. Nevertheless, unless the consultation document includes the views both of those in favour of an extension and of those opposed to it, the consultation process cannot be as fair and open as possible. I hope the Minister will reassure us that the document will be balanced, even-handed and able to contain the views of both sides.

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

The clause and these amendments will introduce a new process to be used where a local transport authority wants to continue a quality contracts scheme beyond its initial approval period. This process would allow it to do so without having to make a new scheme. Under the current legislation, it is not possible to continue a quality contracts scheme in that way, and the authority would have to go through the full process of making a new scheme if it wanted to do so. The Bill would introduce a more flexible system, which will enable a lighter-touch approvals process to be applied depending on the extent of the changes. Under these provisions, if an authority wanted to extend a quality contracts scheme, it would be required to publish a consultation document reporting on the effectiveness of the scheme so far, as well as making a case for continuing it for a further period of up to 10 years. Where it is proposed that the scheme should not be expanded to cover additional services, the scheme will not need to be submitted for approval. This is, as I have said, a much lighter touch than exists under current legislation, which requires in such circumstances a whole new scheme to be made.

In my view, a consultation document should be drafted in impartial, neutral terms with the objective of seeking open views from any stakeholders with an interest in the proposal being considered. To include details about objections to the proposal in the consultation, including the identities of those who have objected, would cloud neutrality and, as a result, could unfairly influence responses to the consultation. I do not think that should be the objective of any consultation, whatever the issue being discussed.

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

Will the Minister confirm that under the Freedom of Information Act 2000, any comments made in support of or against any particular proposal  of the consultation document will in fact be available for public inspection?

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

I gather that certain exceptions are applied. As I have said, however, the consultation is not supposed to be a summary of everybody’s views. It is supposed to gather those views. Until the consultation process has been carried out, it would not be possible to have the objections, unless the hon. Gentleman means to go back 10 years to when the scheme was originally made. Again, I do not think that would make sense. The idea of the consultation document is to say, “This is the view of what has happened in terms of the scheme, and this is why we want to take it forward.” If there were an objection to its being taken forward, it could go through an appeal process. However, if the local authority wants to continue with the scheme, and if it is the same, with no new proposals for different services, it should be able to go ahead. The process gives the opportunity to set down why the authority thinks it should continue, and what has been achieved so far.

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

On the consultation point, the image I had in my head was akin to a planning application where, if a planning application is made, it is possible for individuals to write in to say they are for or against the application. Those letters are on a public file and can be inspected by the public at large. I hope the Minister will tell me a similar sort of process will apply in this case.

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

There would be a consultation document. If the scheme was coming to the end of its 10-year period, the local authority would set out why it believed it should go ahead with the scheme. If there are no new proposals in the scheme, and it is roughly the same as it was before, it does not need to go through the approvals process. It can be appealed against, but it does not need to go through the approvals board.

If somebody reading the document said, “Well, I do not agree with that, I do not want the scheme to go ahead, I am going to appeal against it going ahead”, it would go through that appeals process. That is the system that would be adopted. If the scheme was changing entirely it would need to go to the approvals board and through a similar process whereby individuals would write in saying, “We do not believe that the scheme should go ahead, will you take our views into consideration?”. The approvals board would see all those cases. That would be more of a consultation exercise but there could be appeals against it.

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport) 11:45, 6 May 2008

I think I heard the Minister say earlier that her wish for consultation and the documents that set it out should be open, fair and balanced. I take the Minister at her word and look forward to that being the direction in the guidance, when it is set out, as to how the procedure might work. With that acceptance and reassurance from the Minister, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 30 ordered to stand part of the Bill.