Clause 41

Local Transport Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:00 pm on 6 May 2008.

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Competition scrutiny of functions and agreements relating to buses

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

I beg to move amendment No. 258, in clause 41, page 36, line 20, after ‘area’, insert

“including actions to ease congestion on a highway network.”.

Good afternoon to you, Mr. Taylor. I am happy to move the amendment. Before the break, we heard about the enthusiasm for voluntary partnerships, which I am happy to tell the hon. Member for Wimbledon I share. They are indeed a useful way forward. If they can be made to work, they are preferable to quality contracts—although they too have a role. The amendment would make them as attractive as possible by making it explicitly clear that a voluntary partnership arrangement can cover

“actions to ease congestion on a highway network”.

The amendment would write that definition of a voluntary partnership agreement into clause 41(2). The Minister might say that such matters can certainly be taken into account by a voluntary partnership agreement. If she says that, I shall be happy to withdraw the amendment in due course. However, it is important to put on the record that a voluntary partnership agreement should cover such matters, not least because there is reluctance among some local highway or transport authorities to recognise that they too have a role to play in delivering better bus services. It is not simply a question of encouraging bus companies to put on more or better buses. If there is a problem with the highway network, it can lead to congestion and delays, which in turn is a significant disincentive for people who wish to travel by bus.

An example in my constituency is Brighton and Hove Bus and Coach Company, which has been successful with a voluntary agreement with the local councils. It has put on extra buses through Lewes to Ringmer and almost as far Tunbridge Wells, and to Brighton in the other direction. That has been successful, but there is a major problem with the junction at Earwig Corner, which is out of Lewes on the way to Ringmer. There has been complete inaction from the local county council in dealing with the junction, and the consequence has been a knock-on effect on punctuality all along the network from Brighton to Tunbridge Wells. Bus passengers all along that route are being severely disadvantaged. A voluntary partnership in that area, and more generally,  ought to pick up such problems. That should be a key part of dealing with any agreement between bus companies and local councils. I would welcome the Minister telling me whether that is the case. In parenthesis, if she can put any pressure on East Sussex county council to sort out that junction, it would be even more welcome.

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

Welcome back to the chair, Mr. Taylor.

As the hon. Member for Lewes has noted, the definition of a voluntary partnership agreement requires the local authority to undertake to provide facilities that might include bus lanes, new bus shelters and so on, or do anything else for the purpose of bringing benefits to bus passengers. We have deliberately cast that definition quite widely because of comments that we received during the consultation process from the Passenger Transport Executive Group and others.

Obviously, it seems likely that if a local authority agrees to take action to help address traffic congestion, it should deliver benefits to bus passengers in the form of reduced and more predictable journey times. As long as passengers are expected to benefit in that way, the existing definition of a voluntary partnership agreement in the Bill already delivers the effect that the hon. Gentleman’s amendment would have. I understand the point that he is making, but I think the matter is covered in the Bill. I hope that provides the reassurance that he is seeking and enables him to withdraw his amendment.

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

I am grateful to the Minister for confirming that those sorts of measure are included in the wider definition. I thought that they probably were, but it was useful to check. Accordingly, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport)

Good afternoon, Mr. Taylor. I want to register some other issues about competition and to get some comments from the Minister.

As the Minister said earlier, the Government are working closely on this part of the Bill with the Campaign for Better Transport and she has rightly acknowledged the input of that organisation. I would like to raise an issue that has not been tackled and which concerns the organisation—that the changes made by the clause and by schedule 2 affect the way in which agreements between operators and local authorities are deemed to be in the public interest or not. In effect, they allow competition law to be relaxed so that bus companies can discuss how best to work in partnership.

What has not yet been discussed is how that competition law might relate to the integration of other modes of transport. Although bus companies compete with one another, they also compete with other modes of transport, most commonly the car and the tram.

What can the Minister tell us about how the market might be defined? For example, a merger between two bus companies to create a dominant operator in a given area could be seen as anti-competitive if looking at the bus market alone and it might fall foul of competition  law while actually enhancing bus patronage. If the product of the merger were to improve the attractiveness of buses overall, there might be a switch from car to bus, something I am sure the Minister would seek to encourage. In what circumstances might she be prepared to look again at how we might define the market? What consultation has the Office of Fair Trading had with the Department about the bigger picture? Buses do not just compete with themselves, they compete with other modes of transport as well.

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

That is an interesting contribution from the hon. Member for Wimbledon. There is also the question of what happens when the bus competes with the train and whether that should be taken into account, particularly if the bus company and the train company are run by the same parent, which does happen. Companies such as First run buses and trains, sometimes in competition with each other. How do we deal with that situation?

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

The point is that what we are trying to achieve here is limited to the competition between bus services. We are talking about voluntary partnership agreements between local authorities and bus operators. I take the point that there might be times when it is important to take into account that a railway service might be running along the same route but we are talking about the specific situation where bus operators are allowed to run along particular routes as and when they want, if it is a commercial service. In other areas a subsidy can be given by the local authority.

We are trying to get over the fact that it has been difficult for one or more bus operators to sit down with the local authority and work out, for example, what might be appropriate in terms of the frequency of patterns of service—that is definitely between the bus operators themselves. We have discussed at other points in the Bill whether it would be a good idea, when considering overall integrated transport plans, to look at how bus services fitted in with rail services, for example. However, in this case, we are talking specifically about the issues of bus operators, because they would be talking about running along particular routes—the local authority would like to sit down with them and organise such things as the patterns of service. I take on board the comments made by the hon. Member for Wimbledon, but that would fit into another part of how the local authority or integrated transport authority would want to look at other services in its overall transport plan.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 41 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 2 agreed to.

Clause 42 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 3 agreed to.