With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 25, in clause 11, page 7, line 12, leave out “Office of Rail Regulation” and insert “Office of Road and Rail Regulation”
Amendment 26, in clause 12, page 7, line 32, leave out “Office of Rail Regulation” and insert “Office of Road and Rail Regulation”
As well as a watchdog, which the Committee has just discussed, the Bill also establishes a monitor to scrutinise the company’s performance and efficiency in delivering the road investment strategy and meeting the requirements in the performance specification. This is the area of the Bill where I am pleased to say that Ministers have already moved some considerable way, for which I am grateful.
The monitor will now have the regulatory power to sanction the company, including through improvement notices and fines: the Transport Committee and many external stakeholders were calling for this and in the other place the Opposition Front Bench pushed for it too. For the credibility of the Office of Rail Regulation in its new role, it is critical that these changes happen and the role is expanded expansion. The amendments are about clarifying what that role should be, because there is still a degree of confusion about it at the moment.
We know that Passenger Focus has been renamed Transport Focus, to accommodate the roads remit, but the Department has said that it does not, so far, wish to rename the Office of Rail Regulation. After saying that additional powers had been given to the Office of Rail Regulation so that it can be much more a true monitor, the Minister in the other place was in danger of contradicting herself. [Interruption.] I would not suggest that the Minister here was contradictory: heaven forfend! The Minister in the other place contradicted herself on Report by stating that the Office of Rail Regulation will not be regulator of the roads and therefore it cannot be renamed. I thought about that and then thought about it again, and then I thought about it the other way round, and it still does not make any sense to me, because if the Office of Rail Regulation has regulatory powers over the company, it is a regulator of sorts. It may not be the only regulator—we have already talked about the importance of the clearest line of accountability: the biggest regulation of all will come from Ministers accountable to Parliament—but the Office of Rail Regulation must be a regulator of sorts, if it can issue some kind of regulatory sanction. Some legal definition of what an economic regulator is may be holding the Department back, but if there is such a definition, that is not of huge public concern.
I know that ORR flits off the tongue relatively quickly and ORRR may be a bit of a tongue-twister, so perhaps we need to think of a different name. The important thing is that the public know what we are talking about. There is something a bit weird when they are told that there is this brave new world, with a new strategic highways company with an eminently sensible name, Highways England, that is meant to do what it says on the tin, which is to look after—well, 2% of the roads in England, but we will let that pass. That makes sense. Transport Focus gives an idea that this is the watchdog for road users and, despite our arguments about whether it is local roads or strategic roads, or both, they would get the sense that Transport Focus probably includes something about roads. However, when they are told that the new system is going to work really well because there will be a statutory monitor in place to make sure that the delivery of roads is happening properly, and they ask, “What’s it called?”, they will be told that it is called the Office of Rail Regulation. I would find that a little strange, particularly as the body will have pretty similar powers to monitor roads as it does for rail.
Will the Minister provide us with further details about that? Can we start thinking about a name that actually means something to the public and to hon. Members as well? Could he provide a few more details about function and the relationship between the monitor—whatever it is called—and the National Audit Office, the Public Accounts Committee and the Transport Committee? Whatever he sets up, all those bodies will have important scrutiny roles in relation to the spending of public money on the strategic road network. I hope that he will be able to provide a few more details about what the relationship will be. He has made it clear today that he expects to appear before the Transport Committee to account for things that Highways England does, but it would be useful to know whether the Transport Committee could summon Highways England as well. What about the Public Accounts Committee and what will be the role of the National Audit Office?
Will the Minister also let us know whether he is satisfied that the new bodies—I include Transport Focus and the newly formed Office of Rail Regulation with responsibility for roads—will have the capacity and resource to fulfil their roles and duties to the high standard that is expected? Not only do they need to do that because the job needs doing, but, from a public confidence point of view, one of the worst things would be for problems to be identified, but the bodies that are meant to either raise issues around that from a watchdog point of view or to provide the economic regulation and report to Ministers, cannot do that properly simply because they have not got the organisational capacity to do so.
I think that there is a consensus about the need for rigorous scrutiny and some kind of body that regulates the new arm’s length company. I put it in those terms rather than “regulatory body” in case that has some kind of specific legal meaning. If there is that consensus, it is important that we get to the bottom of it in Committee and do what we can in this place to get it right. We must ensure that those bodies are in place, that they have the capacity to do their jobs in the way that they need to, that they have public confidence to do their jobs effectively and that they are called something that people understand.
I can deal with the specific questions that the shadow Minister raised quickly. The monitor, the ORR, does not replace any of the functions that the bodies deliver. Both Ministers and Highways England will continue to be called before the PAC or the Transport Committee. The new body will remain directly accountable in that way.
The issue of the name was the substantial point raised by the hon. Gentleman and that was reflected in his amendments, and I agree with him. It is not always true that names need to follow functions—think of the Lord Privy Seal, or the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, or the Postmaster General—but generally speaking, it is better when names suggest function. He is right that the Office of Rail Regulation does not really suggest the function of monitoring the new body, Highways England. Subject to discussions with the ORR, I will take steps to deal with that. This amendment is not the best way of doing that, because, in legislative terms, it does not achieve the objective that we both share. I will reflect further on that with a view to coming back with proposals on how we can do that. On that basis, I hope that he will withdraw the amendment.
Just to be clear about this, because amendments 24, 25 and 26 are effectively the same amendments, do I take it that the hon. Gentleman is satisfied with regard to those as well and that he does not want to rattle through the clauses?
Richard Burden indicated assent.
Mr Hood will be in the Chair on Thursday morning and the Committee is not sitting on Thursday afternoon, so I shall see you again on Tuesday 6 January next year. In the interim, have a wonderful Christmas and a happy new year.
Adjourned till Thursday 18 December at half-past Eleven o’clock.
Written evidence reported to the House
IB 01 Civil Engineering Contractors Association
IB 02 Woodland Trust
IB 03 TravelWatch Northwest
IB 04 Council of Property Search Organisations (CoPSO)
IB 05 Transport Planning Society (TPS)
IB 06 Living Streets
IB 07 Water UK