Clause 54

Local Transport Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:45 pm on 6 May 2008.

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relaxation of rules relating to community bus services

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport)

I beg to move amendment No. 243, in clause 54, page 47, line 33, at end insert—

‘(4A) In subsection (2)(b) after “permit”, insert “or has undertaken such training for drivers of vehicles for the purpose of community transport as the Secretary of State shall by order define.”.

(4B) In subsection (2) after paragraph (c) insert—

“(d) the driver is not employed by, nor is the vehicle owned by, an operator whose annual turnover is more than £150,000 per annum, or such higher amount as the Secretary of State may by order define.”’.

As I said on Second Reading, any proposals with the consequence of helping community transport will certainly enjoy my support, and the clause will do that by allowing larger vehicles to be used for community transport and by removing the prohibition on paying drivers of community transport vehicles.

The clause is very welcome, but not perfect. I have two major concerns, which are reflected in my proposals. The first proposal is important, because it goes to the question of safety. We want to introduce words that would ensure that community transport drivers were adequately trained. Later this year, a new certificate of professional competence will be introduced for drivers of other buses and coaches. The CPC will be issued on behalf of the Department for Transport, in accordance with the law, and will be a requirement for all professional bus drivers, in addition to a driving licence.

Rightly in my opinion, the CPC is not a requirement for drivers of community vehicles—we want to establish greater community transport. However, there is specialist community transport training available in the form of MIDAS—the minibus driver awareness scheme. Therefore, although community transport drivers do not face the higher test, the lower test would help to ensure safety. MIDAS addresses issues such as driver confidence and passenger safety and comfort. That is a useful way forward and something that the Secretary of State could define by order: community transport drivers would get the specialist training required for their vehicles, giving reassurance to those using that transport but without having to fulfil the much higher test.

Another proposal looks at what we might call the social businesses or the not-for-dividend sector. A number of community transport schemes provide an excellent service, but I am concerned at the scope for some non-professional bus operators to take advantage  of a loophole in the legislation. There are a number of operators who turn over large amounts and who, potentially, would not require a licence.

I want to ensure that cowboy operations do not take advantage of the rules for community transport providers. The amendment relates to those community transport organisations, which are clearly focused on being not for dividend, although they follow some commercial strictures. For example, we all know that Ealing Community Transport provides an excellent service across the country and it decidedly could not be called a cowboy. However, unless there is a turnover test—I am not sure that I have got the turnover level right—the clause could become a loophole for cowboys to provide a service under the guise of community transport, which is a term that should describe organisations that provide transport in communities for those who have difficulty getting around or that provide a service in excess of the norm. Perhaps a number of charities and others would use it.

These proposals are important. Will the Minister give reassurance that the turnover test is not necessary? If it is not necessary, will she explain how cowboy bus operators will be prevented from using the clause? Will she also us why the lower level of driver training cannot be put in place relatively cheaply to provide some reassurance to those people who will use community transport?

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

The measure is extremely popular and it has been widely welcomed by the community transport sector for two reasons: it will allow community bus services to use larger buses and remove the restriction that prevents drivers of those services from being paid. That welcome from the community transport sector is one reason why I was surprised that Opposition Front Benchers voted against the Bill on Second Reading. We will all have received representations from our constituents who have tried to run those excellent services but have been constrained in how they can do so.

The clause relates to the section 22 permits that are available to the operators of community bus services. The services we discussed before were the section 19 aspect of community service. Section 22 permits allow a non-profit-making voluntary body that is concerned with the social and welfare needs of a community to provide local bus services for the general public. Unlike section 19 permits, they can be issued only by the traffic commissioners, who must be satisfied that the body using the permit has adequate maintenance arrangements.

As I said, operators who provide services under the permits are restricted to using vehicles that can carry between nine and 16 passengers. The clause will enable buses with more than 16 passenger seats to be used to provide community transport services under section 22 permits.

Also under current legislation, drivers of such services cannot be paid, as I said. However, many people, particularly from the community transport sector, told the Government that that places an unnecessary restriction on the provision of the services, because it is often not possible for community groups to find enough volunteer drivers to run them. The clause will remove that restriction.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Manchester, Blackley

I hope that the answer to this question, which my right hon. Friend might send in a letter, will allow us not to have a debate on new clause 1. Will these drivers be subject to the same vetting procedures as drivers of hackney carriages and private hire vehicles? Will they have to be a fit and proper person? Preferably, they will be vetted in relation to whether they are on the sex offenders register.

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

The clause will require operators of community transport services to check that every person driving a vehicle on their behalf is not on the sex offenders register.

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

I want to address the point on the public sex offenders register, which is what I think the—

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

On resuming—

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

I refer back to the point that I made in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley, which referenced his new clause, which would require operators of community transport services to check that everybody driving a vehicle on their behalf is not registered on the sex offenders register. I want to make it clear that the Bill does not provide for that, but I emphasise the existing safeguards and checks on community transport drivers. Much of the work of community transport organisations will be done under a contract to a local authority or other public body, which can make it a condition of contract that the drivers used have all been subject to a criminal record check. Where necessary, that check can be to the enhanced level of enclosure to provide all the information to the Criminal Records Bureau.

In addition, the Government are now implementing the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006, which obtained Royal Assent in November 2006, and which was introduced specifically in response to recommendation 19 of the Bichard inquiry report. The Act provides the legal framework for the new independent safeguarding authority scheme. Under the SVG Act, those who exclusively transport children and/or vulnerable adults are subject to the requirements of the new scheme. The ISA’s role will be to consider all relevant information relating to the risk of harm posed by persons seeking to work with children or vulnerable adults in either a paid or voluntary capacity, and to bar those considered unsuitable for such work. The scheme will be launched in October 2009; that will allow systems to be developed and legislation laid, and it will give organisations time to prepare for the introduction of the most robust and thorough vetting and barring scheme.

I will ensure that the Home Office is aware of the concerns raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley about drivers of community  transport. As I said, new clause 1 is not included in our debate, but I shall ensure that the Home Office is aware of what has been said.

As for amendment No. 243, moved by the hon. Member for Wimbledon, I can tell him that safety is obviously an important consideration in the operation of community transport. However, we have to consider whether there is a problem and if so whether what he proposes is the right solution. Section 22 operators are a relatively rare breed, and we obviously cannot draw many conclusions about their safety record from that small sample. When we consider the much larger body of community transport that operates under section 19 permits, which includes both paid and unpaid volunteer drivers, there is no evidence that volunteer drivers are unsafe compared to those driving similar vehicles commercially.

Road accident statistics are generally based on vehicle type rather than usage. The minibus category is split three ways—between purely private use, the voluntary sector and the commercial sector. The safety record is pretty high across the board. Only recently did it become a legal requirement for commercial bus drivers to undergo formal training, as distinct from passing the appropriate driving test, although the requirement does not come into force until September. At the moment, therefore, we do not have much evidence about its effect on road safety.

I accept that the amendment would not require the full rigours of the commercial training regime to be imposed on voluntary drivers, although that would be the logical outcome of the arguments being put forward. The voluntary sector itself provides a great deal of training. For good reasons, it has always done so. Apart from the question of public safety, it would not be sensible to put rather expensive vehicles into the hands of incompetent drivers.

I am not opposed to training, but the question is one of proportionality. We have to bear in mind that if we were to require the community transport sector to undertake what could be fairly rigorous training, it would place quite a burden on it. We must put that in the context of the later part of the amendment, which is about a scheme being not for profit.

The existing regulation-making power could be used to impose a training requirement on the drivers of vehicles used under section 22 permits. That is already in the Bill, so that part of the hon. Gentleman’s amendment is unnecessary for technical reasons. Although I am rejecting the amendment, I assure him that I do not rule out the introduction of a driver training requirement if a real need for it is identified in future.

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport)

The Minister says that the amendment is technically unnecessary because there is something else about training in the Bill. Will she tell us where in the Bill it is?

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

I turn to the second part of the amendment, which would place a limit on the annual turnover of a community bus operator. It has always been a requirement of the permit regimes for the voluntary sector that buses are not operated with a view to profit, either directly or indirectly. I understand that the bodies that currently operate under section 22 permits are very small, and that the services that they operate are, almost by definition, ones that would not be of interest to a commercial operator.

We hope that such services will expand; members of the Committee have already made points about the rural bus sector. Such services provide the community transport sector with a lot of opportunities to expand, but I do not imagine that it will be in a position to compete with commercial operators, nor do I believe that it would want to. That part of the amendment is, therefore, not necessary either, because it is already covered in the permit regime. I hope that has answered the questions asked by the hon. Member for Wimbledon.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about cowboys, and I draw his attention to section 22(3) of the 1985 Act, which states:

“A traffic commissioner shall not grant a community bus permit unless he is satisfied that there will be adequate facilities or arrangements for maintaining in a fit and serviceable condition any vehicle used under the permit.”

I hope that I have illustrated that although I understand the hon. Gentleman’s points about safety and not-for-profit restrictions, those matters are adequately covered under the current system.

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport)

The Minister has come a long way towards my position. In 1985, the Conservative Administration obviously had the foresight to bring in measures that she believes I do not need to insert into the Bill. I think that she would none the less agree—this is one reason why I wished to explore the matter—that the clause potentially allows a larger number of drivers in the community transport field, in some cases driving bigger vehicles than they have driven before. The whole matter of safety must be considered, and I hope that the Minister will think again. My amendment does not specify what has to be done, but it gives the Secretary of State the chance to define safety training by order at some stage. That is extremely important, as my concern is that the Bill will widen the field of people who operate the vehicles in question.

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

It is my understanding that drivers who want to drive public vehicles with more than 16 seats have to acquire public service vehicle approval. Far more training would be required to drive a vehicle with 16 seats so, in a sense, although I am sympathetic to the hon. Gentleman’s point, I assume that the extra training is already in place to some degree.

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport) 5:45, 6 May 2008

The hon. Gentleman may be right. Some of that training might be in place. None the less, specialist training is available for community transport under MIDAS, which is why I hoped that the Minister would mention it.

I come now to my point about cowboys. The Conservative Administration again showed great foresight in 1985. I was talking not about vehicles and safety requirements, but those operating them as a commercial route and not following all the necessary requirements, when the route was intended to be a community transport route. I hear what the Minister had to say, but that is not the representation I have received from various parts of the industry. There is real concern that rogue—rather than cowboy—operators might try to use the community transport clause that we all support and want to work as a means of getting round some of the provisions that would usually be set, which is why the test is in place.

I have listened carefully to the Minister and to her reassurances that my amendment is technically not necessary. I shall be watching matters closely. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 54 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 55 ordered to stand part of the Bill.