Clause 38

Local Transport Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:00 pm on 6 May 2008.

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Guidance about quality contracts schemes

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport)

I beg to move amendment No. 223, in clause 38, page 34, line 8, after ‘authority’, insert

‘, the Senior Traffic Commissioner, and the Public Transport Users’ Committee’.

I regard clause 38 as slightly ominous. It deals with the whole issue of guidance and what may or may not be in guidance, regulations and the Bill. Proposed new section 134A of the Transport Act 2000 states:

“The appropriate national authority may issue guidance concerning the performance by local transport authorities of their functions under this Part in relation to quality contracts schemes”.

Inevitably, it goes on to say:

“Those authorities must have regard to any such guidance”.

This morning, the Minister has been helpful to our understanding of the Bill and its language, and I am sure that she will be helpful again now. However, I am unsure that she will be able to satisfy us why only the “appropriate national authority” will be able to issue the guidance.

I am not suggesting that every body should be allowed to issue guidance to which local authorities must have regard. That would clearly be unsustainable. However, but two bodies in addition to the “appropriate national authority” are competent and qualified enough to issue guidance: first, the senior traffic commissioner, whose functions include the registration of bus services and the overview of bus services in local areas; and, secondly, the public transport users’ committee, which is the dedicated passenger watchdog.

We should remind ourselves that the guidance is about the performance of local authorities in respect of quality contracts. As has been discussed, the stated aim of quality contracts schemes is to bring about improvements for bus users. Who better to judge whether that aim is being achieved than bus users themselves, through the organisation set up to represent them? Another stated aim of the quality contract is to ensure that other bus services will not be adversely affected. Who better to pass judgment in relation to that criterion than the traffic commissioner?

Beyond the appropriate national authority, the senior traffic commissioner and the public transport users’ committee could offer useful, appropriate and constructive advice to local authorities when carrying out their function of regulating bus services, particularly in this part of the Bill. The thrust of the amendment is to say to local authorities that there are two other bodies beyond the appropriate national authority that could help them to formulate better policies.

I hope that the Minister will accept that the senior traffic commissioner and the public transport users’ committee are experts; they are independent and qualified and they should be able to issue guidance to local authorities on this matter, which rightly falls within their remit. That would help local authorities and ultimately, help passengers by encouraging local authorities to ensure, by having regard to what they have said, that the bus services for passengers will be better. I hope the Minister will accept the amendment.

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

I have a simple question. The Minister has been telling us throughout our discussion of the Bill that we do not need to have everything written into it and we should rely on regulations or  other informal means. I am struggling to understand why the clause needs to be included at all, given that the Minister or any national authority can issue guidance at any time it likes.

Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton Conservative, Congleton

As has been stated, the Bill confers a power on the Secretary of State and Welsh Ministers to issue statutory guidance to local authorities about quality contracts schemes. Local authorities would be obliged to have regard to such guidance. The amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Wimbledon would empower the senior traffic commissioner and the public transport users’ committee to issue such statutory guidance, as well.

The guidance is intended to assist local authorities in deciding whether a quality contracts scheme is a realistic option for their area and, if it is, how they might introduce it. The Department has produced draft guidance, which is available to the Committee and is also on the Department for Transport website. We will be issuing a revised draft for formal consultation later in the year.

As far as involving the public transport users’ committee is concerned, the hon. Gentleman will no doubt be aware that the Secretary of State announced on 8 April that we intend to widen the remit of Passenger Focus, the rail watchdog, to include functions relating to local bus and scheduled coach services in England. That followed public consultation on how to deliver strengthened bus passenger representation. Subject to working up the details of conferring these official functions on Passenger Focus and further consultation, that means that the powers to establish a public transport users’ committee for England would not be taken up immediately. Retaining the powers in the Bill, however, gives us the flexibility to establish such a multi-modal committee in the future.

As I have said, we have already issued draft guidance and will revise it later in the year. Waiting for the bus component of Passenger Focus to be established so that it could help to write the guidance would delay the process of making guidance available to local authorities. Passengers might be best served by their passenger representative groups offering comments on individual quality contracts schemes when consulted.

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport)

I hear the Minister’s point about the potential delay, but surely that can be covered by issuing additional guidance?

Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton Conservative, Congleton

Would that be different to the original guidance that has already been published? If we wanted to publish some guidance fairly quickly to be able to assist local authorities that wished to take up quality contracts, we would not like to then delay further. I will deal with the matter of consultation later.

It is not clear why the hon. Gentleman thinks that the relevant national authority—the Secretary of State in England and the Welsh Ministers in Wales—is not best placed to develop statutory guidance. The purpose of the guidance is to provide authorities with an overview of the legislation and to assist them in the  development of schemes to ensure that they can work up realistic and well structured proposals where that is the right thing for their area.

To answer the question put by the hon. Member for Lewes, the reason that this provision appears in the Bill is that the guidance is statutory guidance. Local authorities will be obliged to have regard to it, which gives the guidance more weight. In any appeal against a scheme, the local authority’s actions and decisions will be considered in the light of the guidance. That is why it is included in the Bill in this way.

The traffic commissioners and the passenger representative body will look at quality contracts from a particular perspective. The traffic commissioners will have a major role in the approvals board for schemes, and a separate power is introduced in the Bill for the Secretary of State to issue guidance to that board. One of the strengths of the approvals board structure is that it provides an independent and impartial assessment of proposals to make a quality contracts scheme. As I have said before, we believe that it is important to preserve that independent role; we do not want it to be compromised by the senior traffic commissioner having the power to issue statutory guidance to local authorities. That is why we believe that the best method of issuing guidance is to have it prepared by the Secretary of State and the Welsh Ministers.

We also have concerns about statutory guidance potentially emanating from three different sources: the relevant national authority—the Secretary of State or Welsh Ministers—the senior traffic commissioner and the passenger representative body. We think that that would be rather confusing for authorities, especially if they were expected to have regard to guidance that sought to represent the stance of very different bodies.

That said, we will, of course, consult the traffic commissioners and passenger groups on the guidance and will continue to seek their views, particularly those of the traffic commissioners as they gain approvals board experience. I hope that that explains why we have taken our stance and that the hon. Member for Wimbledon will consider withdrawing the amendment.

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport)

I listened very carefully to the Minister. I am not entirely satisfied with the explanation or the rationale behind the senior traffic commissioner not being involved in issuing guidance. I take the point that there may be some confusion, but I still think that that gentleman has a role to play. None the less, I wish to go back and have another look at this. I give notice to the Minister that I might raise this matter again on Report. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 38 ordered to stand part of the Bill.