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11.30 pm

Mr. Peter Snape (West Bromwich, East): I declare an interest: I am the chairman of a bus company--Travel West Midlands, part of the National Express group.

The hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) must forgive me for not following him down the interesting path that he took. The Standing Committee might have benefited from his expertise; our proceedings would have been considerably enlivened by a debate on the difference between a radial and a linear monopoly. The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) and I would have immediately bowed out of that discussion on the grounds of lack of technical knowledge.

However, the hon. Member for Eddisbury made a relevant point on a matter that gave rise to much debate in Committee--as the hon. Member for Bath pointed out. The fundamental problem is that competition and integration do not make easy bedfellows. Although we all applaud the Government's intention of trying to integrate transport services in general and bus services in particular, it would be all too easy--as the hon. Member for Eddisbury reminds us--for that intention to fall foul of the Competition Act 1998.

That point deserves the attention of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, and I know that he will approach it with his customary courtesy and diligence. We need to know exactly where bus companies and local authorities stand vis-a-vis the 1998 Act, if we are to achieve the genuine integration that the Government want.

I suspect that the Conservatives are quite relaxed about that matter these days. The hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms), who spoke for the Opposition, was certainly extremely relaxed on the matter in Committee--as he was this evening.

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When we discussed in Committee co-operation between local authorities and bus companies, I pointed out that we all want such voluntary agreements to be established and to work. The bus industry as a whole did not want fares and frequencies--for example--to become part of any statutory partnership. The industry feels that such fundamental matters, which have a direct, bottom-line impact, are best decided by the companies, although they--especially my own company--would seek agreement with the relevant local authority.

However, we need some reassurance that, having sought such agreement, we should not be hauled off to the authorities under the Competition Act. As the hon. Member for Eddisbury reminds us, the penalties faced by directors are--rightly--somewhat draconian. I declare another interest: I have no particular desire to be dragged off and arraigned if we came to a voluntary agreement with the local authorities and it fell foul of the Act. The question is relevant and well worth debate.

Furthermore, if my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary can answer that other question--on the difference between a linear and a radial monopoly--the House will be grateful to him. If we had held such a debate in Committee, not only might our deliberations have been enlivened, but our knowledge of such matters would have been considerably enhanced by the guidance of the hon. Member for Eddisbury on what is, I am sure, an enormously important difference--albeit one that I have never heard put to the test. From my long experience of working with my hon. Friend, I know that he is extraordinarily well educated, so he is in a better position than any other Member here to answer that vital question.

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire): I have no interest to declare except to say that, for three happy years from 1982 to 1985, I advised the Confederation of British Road Passenger Transport, which subsequently became known as the Bus and Coach Council. At that time, we agonised about many of the issues that have been debated tonight.

I shall speak to new schedule 1 and amendment No. 306. I listened carefully to the Minister's remarks, but I did not hear him address amendment No. 306. If he did and I missed it, I apologise to him. The amendment inevitably caught my eye because it would amend section 63(7) of the Transport Act 1985 by replacing the words from "so to conduct" to the end of the subsection with the words

I thought that our whole political lives were designed to have regard to

so the amendment is motherhood and apple pie written into statute law. I can think of many cliches with which one would wish to amend Acts of Parliament. Will the Minister explain exactly what the amendment will do? It looks splendid, impossible to argue with--and therefore, I am afraid, profoundly suspicious.

My hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) was charitable to the Government about new schedule 1. It is longer than many Acts of Parliament; it is a huge

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provision that contains many fascinating and surprising ideas. They are not necessarily wrong, but they are surprising.

Paragraph 16(1) of the new schedule states:

What are those fees and how much will they involve?

My hon. Friend's points were germane. What consultation has taken place? Why does paragraph 15 give the Director General of Fair Trading such an absolute defence on defamation? That provision appears to be very generous. Why does paragraph 9 exempt information

That is extraordinary enough, but why does paragraph 4 need to spell it out. It says:

I thought that he would always take into account such representations. It is a long and complex new schedule.

Mr. Peter Atkinson: Has my hon. Friend seen paragraph 13 of the new schedule, which gives the director general the extraordinary power to take an authority that fails to comply with his orders "without reasonable excuse"--whatever that may mean--to the High Court? Presumably, if the authority fails to appear, it could be in contempt of the High Court. That is draconian at the very least.

Mr. Luff: I agree strongly with my hon. Friend. The new schedule may meet with the approval of the industry, local authorities and all those involved, but it is an exceptionally long schedule to put into an exceptionally long Bill at this late stage. The Minister will need to reassure us that the consultations that I hope he has had with those who will be affected by the new schedule have produced a favourable result.

Mr. Hill: I take it that there are no more bidders in the debate.

I express my gratitude to the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) for his warm welcome for new clause 14 and to the official spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), for what was, I suspect, his slightly less warm welcome. All the offers made were appreciated.

The hon. Member for Poole asked two questions. First, he asked about consultation with bus operators and local authorities. The new clause and the amendments will do what we said in Committee that they would do. It goes without saying that we keep in touch with the bus industry and local government. I was careful to explain our intentions at some length in Committee, so that the industry and local authorities could make representations if they so wished. We have certainly explained our intentions to the bus industry.

The hon. Gentleman also pressed me on the issue of fees for applications for decisions on the new competition test. Paragraph 16 of the new schedule gives the director general a power to charge fees in connection with the exercise of any of his new powers. That would include,

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for example, a fee for an application made to him under paragraph 3 of the schedule about whether the new competition test was met in any given case. The schedule contains no special procedure for setting fees. Any fees charged will be at the director general's discretion, and it will be open to him to choose not to set a fee in particular cases if he considers it appropriate.

I turn now to the remarks of the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff). I nearly called him the hon. Member for Wyre Piddle because of his proper obsession with that place--I shall return to the issue of obsessions later. He also referred to fees set by the director general. I imagine that they would be set at a level that takes into account the resources involved in determining a particular case. He made one or two suggestions and complained about the length of the new schedule. We have tried to make it as comprehensive as possible, and we are being damned for its length, but I dare say that if it had been short, we would have been damned for its brevity. I shall, in due course, return to other points made by the hon. Gentleman.

The hon. Member for Bath raised the status of fare and frequency arrangements that are not included in the quality partnerships. In Committee, we took to describing those arrangements as non-statutory codicils to quality partnerships. This point was also raised by my hon. Friend, and guru, the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape). The hon. Member for Bath is correct: the new schedule does not apply to non-statutory agreements. The position is as I have stated it before, but I know that the Office of Fair Trading is always willing to talk constructively to anybody who wants to put proposals to it. It is not for me to speculate on particular cases.

I fear that the hon. Gentleman also mentioned quality partnership arrangements in connection with tour buses. I thought that we would be lucky if we got through the proceedings without a reference to tour buses or Eurocontrol. We have heard enough of both, particularly the latter, this evening. I say to the hon. Gentleman and his local authority of Bath and North East Somerset that we should remember that many non-statutory quality partnerships have already been successfully established, and the OFT has not objected. The track record is by no means completely unhappy. If Bath and North East Somerset council is in doubt, I offer it the advice, via the hon. Gentleman, that the OFT is always ready to talk.

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