With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 216, in clause 31, page 29, line 2, leave out from one to end of line 3.
No. 217, in clause 31, page 29, line 4, leave out subsection (2).
No. 218, in clause 31, page 29, line 14, leave out subsections (3) to (10).
Clause 31 provides the same approvals process that we have discussed previously. As I understand it, it is stating that the approvals process can apply to extensions as well unless they are deemed to be exempt extensions. That and the strong independent process of approval are vital and I am wary of circumstances in which they may be bypassed.
The clause sets out circumstances in which such an exemption would apply but the rules are somewhat complicated. If the Government believe that they are formulating an approvals process that does the job it is intended to do, can the Minister tell us why should there be exemptions from the process? It does not seem that there is any particular reason or benefit to the public validity of an approval or an extension that certain ones can suddenly become exempt from the process.
The approvals board is designed to be independent. It is a qualified group of individuals with the power to make decisions in the best interest of local people. That is the purpose of the board and that is what it should be allowed to do. I am, therefore, looking to the Minister to give us some clear indications of circumstances in which such exemptions might apply.
The amendments would move us back to the position where, in all circumstances when a local authority proposed to continue a quality contracts scheme beyond its initial period the scheme would have to be made again from scratch, with a full approvals process in every case.
We want to change the current legislation because it is not possible under that legislation for a quality contracts scheme to continue beyond its initial periodthe authority has to go back through the full process of making a new scheme. We want there to be a more flexible, lighter touch, which we are bringing in under the Bill.
Under the provisions, an authority that wanted to extend its quality contracts scheme would need to publish a consultation document reporting on the effectiveness of the scheme so far, as well as making the case for continuing it for up to a period of a further 10 years. The proposals would be subject to the same consultation procedure and approvals and appeals process as a new scheme, but with appropriate modifications and certain exemptions from the approvals process.
In particular, where it was proposed that the scheme should not be expanded to cover additional services, the scheme would not need to be submitted for approval. The new approvals process with certain modifications and exemptions would apply to any application to continue a quality contracts scheme beyond 10 years. We have set out the conditions that would need to be met if the scheme is to be exempt from this process and impose a requirement on the local authority to publicise any such proposal. Other than for exempt proposals the application would need the approval of the approvals board or Welsh Ministers. Only schemes that had achieved their stated objectives or were well on the way to doing so, and where there would be public benefit, would be likely to be approved.
We now come to the exemptions. Proposals in the draft Bill would have required every continuation scheme to go through the approvals process. However, one of the key functions of the approvals process is to ensure that the effect on deregulated services is properly taken into account. If a quality contracts scheme is already in force and will usually have been in force many years, as long as the scope of the scheme is not widened, there will be no such services to take into account. In those cases, there seems little point in submitting the continuation scheme to the approvals board or Welsh Ministers.
However, we accept that some authorities will want to modify the schemes when they continue them, either to adjust the boundaries to take account of road or planning developments since the existing scheme was approved or to vary the description of services that are excluded from the scheme or to bring in additional services. If any changes of that sort meant that services previously operating outside the scheme would be part of it, it seems appropriate for the approvals process to apply. That is a necessary safeguard because without it a local authority could greatly expand the scope of an existing scheme, making it virtually a new scheme, without going through the approval process.
In order for a continuation scheme to be exempt, two sets of conditions need to be satisfied. The first is that there is no increase in the geographical area, or only to such a minor extent that no existing bus services or additional local authority would be taken into the scheme. Any one of those conditions must be satisfied.
No, the scheme as a whole would be looked at in terms of the continuation process because in those instances it has reverted, and because it has changed it does not come under the continuation process.
As we said earlier, an approvals board is able to talk about modifications. I am sure that in those circumstances there would be a look at the scheme as it had been running and a look at the effect of the new geographical area in it. That would be quite reasonable. Otherwise, the current scheme would not be looked at all and it would simply be a new scheme starting. In those circumstances, where it was expanding, it would be quite reasonable to say that the approvals board looks at the scheme as a whole and at how it would continue as a whole. Otherwise, there would be two processesone the continuation scheme and one a new quality contracts scheme.
Would the approvals process be able to take into account comments people had fortuitously taken the opportunity to make about elements of the scheme that would not in fact be affected by a geographical extension?
Obviously, if the scheme went through the entire approvals board process again, people would be able to make comments about the existing scheme. The continuation scenario would be that if the local authority issued a consultation document, people could appeal against it. If the scheme reverted to going through the whole approvals board process because it had changed, people would be able to make representations to the approvals board in the same way as previously.
The point I am trying to get at is this: if it is deemed sensible to make a small geographical extension to the scheme and that triggers the process, I understand why it has to be looked at, but if the whole process or scheme can be looked at again, that is a disincentive to make that small geographical amendment.
Again, we have to strike the right balance between changing the current legislation, which requires any scheme to go through the approvals board process all over again, and having flexibility, so that if a scheme is extended outside the geographical area or there are additional services, the scheme can be considered as a whole. Frankly, the alternative is to have a continuation in one area and a new scheme in another area. It is obviously in a local authoritys remit to be able to do that.
The second set of criteria that come under the exemptions are that there should be no reduction in registered bus services previously excluded from the scheme. Both of those conditions must be satisfied for a continuation scheme to be exempt from the approval process. As I have said, that is the right way forward in striking a balance between the two processes. I hope that, in view of that, the amendment will be withdrawn.