Clause 68

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

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The Public Transport Users’ Committee for England

Photo of John Leech John Leech Shadow Minister (Transport)

I beg to move amendment No. 232, in clause 68, page 57, line 22, leave out ‘by sub-committees with members’ and insert

‘on a regional basis by persons’.

Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour, North West Leicestershire

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 233, in clause 68, page 57, line 39, after ‘policies’, insert ‘, including regional transport policies,’.

Photo of John Leech John Leech Shadow Minister (Transport)

Amendment No. 232 would enable the functions of the new watchdog to be carried out on a regional basis. Although we would not favour the establishment of a large regional structure or a regional committee structure for the new watchdog, it should have a regional dimension.

Bus travel is local in character, and multiple operators are involved in its provision, including a host of very small local operators. It is far less easy for a single national organisation to have a good grasp of all the local variations than it is in the case of rail, where there are a limited number of players, and information on them and their performance is readily available and easily assimilated. In addition, key changes to services, for instance fares and frequencies, do not happen at the same time and with ample warning, as they do in rail. Again unlike rail, there is no guiding hand in Whitehall that influences the extent and quality of service provision, other than by indirect measures such as grant and subsidy regimes, vehicle regulations and so on.

Most of the key decision makers on the quality of service that bus passengers receive are regionally based, and thus the influence and credibility of a purely national watchdog—especially if it is London based—is arguable. Given that, there is a strong case for the bus watchdog to have a limited regional dimension, especially if it will eventually take on an appeals role for complaints, liaise effectively with the main actors on bus services in each region, and act as a credible voice for passengers in the deregulated regions, whenever major problems or issues arise.

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Minister of State (Regional Affairs) (Yorkshire and the Humber), Minister of State (Department for Transport) 7:00 pm, 6th May 2008

The amendments are directed at the powers included in the Bill to establish a Public Transport Users’ Committee for England. However, on 8 April, the Secretary of State announced that subject to further consultation on the details, it is proposed to confer additional functions on the Rail Passengers Council, Passenger Focus, to enable it to represent the interests of bus passengers. Amendments to the clause will not, therefore, have any immediate effect. I assure the hon. Gentleman that were we to set up a committee in that way, the powers in the Bill would be wide enough to enable a regional sub-committee network to be established if that was thought desirable. As I have indicated, those are matters for the future, and I hope that my reassurances will enable the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of John Leech John Leech Shadow Minister (Transport)

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. 267, in clause 68, page 57, line 23, at end insert—

‘(ea) about the making of an annual report on the discharge of functions and financial situation of the Committee to—

(i) the Secretary of State,

(ii) all local transport authorities,

(iii) both Houses of Parliament, and

(iv) such other person, if any, as the Secretary of State may determine.’.

The Committee will not be surprised to learn that the amendment does not require much in the way of introduction. It continues the theme that I have followed throughout about consultation and accountability. The new bus passenger watchdog should make an annual report in which it describes its activities during the year and the state of its finances. We should state in the Bill exactly where that report should go. It should go to the Secretary of State and all local transport authorities and it should be available to both Houses of Parliament and—in the usual exhaustive provision—

“such other person...as the Secretary of State may determine.”.

The amendment would effectively give the Secretary of State power to include a provision about such a report in the order that she makes, for the purpose of establishing the Public Transport Users’ Committee for England. It should not be controversial. If we are to create that body and put it on a statutory basis, we must ensure that it is accountable and does the job it was set up to do. All other organisations produce similar annual reports, which generally prove a relatively effective way of reviewing their work. I hope that the Minister will be persuaded to accept my entirely sensible amendment.

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

The amendment would add to the list of provisions that could be covered in any order made by the Secretary of State to establish a public transport users’ committee. Again, as the Secretary of State announced on 8 April, it is now proposed to confer additional functions on the Rail Passengers Council, Passenger Focus, to represent the interests of passengers, so in a sense the amendment is not relevant to the body that we will establish. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we probably will require the new body to publish some kind of annual report, but we do not want to put that requirement in the Bill. I therefore ask him to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport)

Obviously, I think that the requirement would benefit from being included in the Bill. None the less, I am persuaded by the Minister’s reassurance that she will put it in guidance that the body must produce an annual report. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of John Leech John Leech Shadow Minister (Transport)

I beg to move amendment No. 234, in clause 68, page 58, line 25, at end insert—

‘(1A) The Committee may consider representations (including complaints) made by or on behalf of users of any public passenger transport services or facilities in England and, where it appears to the Committee to be desirable, make and publish recommendations or representations in respect of those services or facilities.’.

The amendment would create a complaints role for the passenger transport users’ committee. The consultation document did not envisage the watchdog having any complaints role; instead, it argued that operators should be the primary complaints bodies with the industry-funded bus appeals body taking on the appeals role. That contrasts with existing arrangements for rail passengers  everywhere and for all transport users in London. For rail passengers, the system is that complaints are made first to operators and can then be appealed to the statutory watchdog, Passenger Focus. In London, the user of any transport mode complains first to Transport for London and can appeal to the statutory watchdog, London TravelWatch. We would like to see the same system for bus travel outside London.

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport)

I support the amendment, which has a lot of merit. It concerns the functions of the new body. If that body is to be effective, it must have powers of representation and complaint. It is worth putting those things explicitly in the Bill.

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

As I have said, instead of setting up a public transport users’ committee, we intend to confer additional functions on the Rail Passengers Council, Passenger Focus, so that it can represent bus passenger interests. The amendment applies to a public transport users’ committee and so would not have an immediate effect on what we are doing. If we set up a committee, the Bill will allow the Secretary of State to confer complaint and representation functions to it, should that be required.

In the meantime, I hope that it will reassure the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington to learn that we will be working with Passenger Focus over the coming months on future arrangements and on whether it should have a direct complaints-handling role. That work will feed into any secondary legislation, on which we shill consult before bringing it to the House for the affirmative resolution procedure. The point that he is making about Passenger Focus, which is where I assume he meant the amendment to be directed, will be taken into account in the consultation. I hope that reassures him and that he will withdraw the amendment.

Photo of John Leech John Leech Shadow Minister (Transport)

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. 268, in clause 68, page 58, line 30, leave out paragraph (a).

Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour, North West Leicestershire

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 269, in clause 68, page 58, line 33, leave out paragraph (d).

No. 272, in clause 68, page 59, line 13, leave out subsection (9).

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport)

The amendments are designed to probe the powers and functions of the committee and the powers of the Secretary of State in relation to the committee. First, I am slightly confused by subsection (3)(a) to proposed new section 125B, which will be inserted in the Transport Act 1985. It states that the Secretary of State may

“confer further functions on the Committee”.

Given that the committee already has the power by virtue of the preceding subsection to consider and make recommendations on

“any such matter if asked to do so by the Secretary of State”,

I am left wondering what further functions the Secretary of State might want the committee to have. The Minster will need to clarify that for hon. Members.

The same subsection states that the Secretary of State may

“transfer any functions of the Committee to another person (including the Secretary of State).”

I would be interested to know in exactly what circumstances the Minster thinks that that is likely to occur. I cannot think of any circumstances in which it would be appropriate for the Secretary of State to transfer the functions of the committee to themselves and thereby act as the bus passenger champion. For instance, does the same provision exist when the committee acts as the rail passenger watchdog and, if so, has it ever been used?

Finally, I would like to probe subsection 9 of proposed new section 125B, which states:

The Committee may do anything which is calculated to facilitate, or is conducive or incidental to, the discharge of any of its functions.”

That seems like a wide remit, and I wonder what the committee might do in practice. There are well-stated powers, obligations and responsibilities, so what is the “anything” that the committee may do? We are obviously in favour of giving powers to Passenger Focus to become the bus passenger watchdog, but I am looking for reassurance that the body will have the appropriate powers.

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

As I have said before, and as I think the hon. Gentleman understands, it has now been decided that Passenger Focus will be the new bus passenger champion, so we have no immediate plans to use the powers to establish a new Public Transport Users’ Committee for England. However, if we decided to use the provisions in the future, we would want the flexibility to confer additional functions on that body and perhaps transfer functions to another body.

I shall explain a little more about that. First, the Bill specifies only two functions for any future PTUC—it is important to distinguish it from Passenger Focus, which we propose to establish as the bus passenger champion. The first function is to consider and make recommendations or representations to the Secretary of State about public transport services. The second function is to consider and make recommendations about matters that are referred to the committee by the Secretary of State. It is possible that the PTUC might usefully undertake other functions as well. It might want to make representations to someone other than the Secretary of State, such as bus operators, local authorities or traffic commissioners. If amendment No. 268 were accepted, it would not be possible to give the committee such functions.

Secondly, one might decide after a period of time that a function being carried out by the PTUC could usefully be performed in the future by someone else. Had the PTUC been given a remit to consider bus passengers’ complaints, for example, in the light of experience one might conclude that in the area of quality contracts schemes it would be better for the local authority to take on that remit. Again, if amendment No. 269 were accepted, there would be no power to transfer that function.

Thirdly, there are many actions that the PTUC might wish to take in order to carry out its functions, but it would not be sensible to list them on the face of the legislation. That is why we have included the catch-all power that commits the committee to undertake tasks that allow it to do its job of representing passengers. For example, the PTUC might be asked by the Secretary of State to consider and make recommendations about bus performance in a particular area. The committee might feel that without outside help it would not have the right expertise to do that. It might want to hire a team of people to carry out a survey of passengers or distribute questionnaires to households and then employ consultants to analyse them. Amendment No. 272 would prevent it from doing so.

As I have said, at present, we are looking to Passenger Focus to take on those powers, but if we wanted to establish a PTUC in the future, we would want to have the flexibility that the amendments would remove. I hope that, with that explanation, the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport) 7:15 pm, 6th May 2008

I understand exactly what the Minister is saying, but she did not answer my question, certainly in respect of amendment No. 268. I understand about further functions, but she did not address my point. The future PTUC can

“consider and make recommendations...about any such matter if asked to do so by the Secretary of State.”

I cannot see the difference between “any such matter” and why it would need the further function. I remain somewhat surprised by that.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport)

I was saying that I am slightly perplexed by the Minister’s arguments about further functions and the phrase “any such matter”, but 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. 270, in clause 68, page 58, line 43, after ‘body’, insert

‘representative of the users of public transport’.

Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour, North West Leicestershire

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 271, in clause 68, page 59, line 1, after ‘body’, insert

‘representative of the users of public transport’.

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport)

According to subsection (5) of proposed new section 125B of the Transport Act 1985, the committee will have the power to arrange for other bodies to discharge its functions on its behalf. Will the Minister explain exactly in what circumstances she would expect the committee to ask some other body or individual to discharge those functions? It is not  absolutely clear why that would be necessary or to whom it would ask functions to be discharged. Will the Minister guide us through that matter?

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

As I have explained, although there are powers in the Bill to set up the committee, the Government announced on 8 April that, in fact, we would use Passenger Focus as the bus passenger champion, so we do not have any immediate plans to use the powers, although we propose to retain them.

To answer the hon. Gentleman’s question, when we consulted on the draft Bill last year, many people told us that passengers needed better representation nationally by a body with statutory powers, which is why we are introducing them. In crafting the powers, we recognise that future consultation will be necessary to ensure that we set up the type of body that meets the actual needs of passengers. At the same time, we want to ensure that we do not create duplication between different bodies. We wanted the maximum flexibility for the passenger transport users committee to take on functions that are currently carried out by another body, and vice versa.

It is likely that any such transfer of functions would be between bodies with an interest in consumer representation, but they might not be directly representative of public transport users. If the PTUC were established, we might want to transfer functions to it from the National Consumer Council or vice versa. That group represents consumers, including those of transport services, but it is not directly representative of public transport users.

The amendment would reduce the flexibility of the committee to take on, or to give to another body, functions that, with hindsight, might have been best carried out elsewhere. It is therefore contrary to the idea behind the clause, and I hope that what I have said gives the hon. Member for Wimbledon the clarification that he was looking for.

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport)

Yet again, the Minister’s powers of persuasion overwhelm me. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 68 ordered to stand part of the Bill.