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Mr. Don Foster: The Minister is being helpful, but the point is that in new schedule 1 the Government argue that it must be demonstrated that non-statutory partnerships would secure benefits to the service users, and reduce or limit congestion and noise or air pollution. If similar benefits accrue from a non-statutory quality partnership, does the Minister expect that the OFT will be likely to approve such an arrangement?
Mr. Hill: I understand the thrust of the hon. Gentleman's point, but I have to tell him that it is not appropriate for me to speculate at the Dispatch Box on a matter of that nature. It is a sensitive matter and Ministers have to be wary; it is certainly not a subject that I intend to explore, especially at this late stage in our proceedings.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether the special competition regime would apply to taxi services. The short answer is no; the new clause is solely about buses. The slightly longer answer is that in certain circumstances, a taxi can run as a bus service; however, I shall spare the hon. Gentleman an exposition of taxi law--a subject of immense complexity with which I have to wrestle constantly. The amendment is deliberately designed to address bus issues alone, and I make no apology for its exclusivity, even in respect of ready-mixed concrete. I do not accept that the proposals pose any threat to the Competition Act 1998.
My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East raised the question of agreements between companies. As I have said, the most important thing is to consult the OFT. The key issue is the consumer: in consumers' interests, the OFT--indeed, all of us--should be wary of cosy deals between operators, which might be to their advantage and not to that of passengers. I am sure that my hon. Friend would not countenance such deals, but we must not forget the possibility of their arising and we must always remember that the consumer has priority.
Mr. Snape: Will my hon. Friend not utter a word of encouragement? I understand the dilemma in which he finds himself: on the one hand, the Government want to encourage local authorities and bus operators to come to voluntary agreements; on the other hand, he appears to want to wash his hands of the consequences of such agreements. However, what about saying to the OFT that such agreements should be encouraged, if they are in the interests of the consumer? If no such action is taken, bus companies are likely not to bother with such agreements, lest they become mired in difficulties.
Mr. Hill: It is not unreasonable to suggest that the bus companies might take an initiative in the matter. Having said that, I am sure that those in the OFT will read very carefully my hon. Friend's remarks in Hansard and reflect on them.
Mr. Don Foster: The hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) has got the Minister on the ropes. The Minister must respond to him. It cannot be right for the Minister to ask the House to support him, please, in the amendments that get round the Competition Act because, by referring to statutory quality partnerships and quality contracts, they will ensure benefits for service users and will limit congestion, noise or air pollution, yet when people want to do so on a voluntary, non-statutory basis, for him to say, "It's nothing to do with me, Guv. That is dangerous territory; I shouldn't enter into it." Why should he not enter such territory?
We should not forget that the Competition Act has a public interest provision--if I can call it that--albeit in more general, less tailor-made terms than the proposed new schedule. Section 9 is an example.
Mr. Jenkin: I am most interested in these bus matters. I just wanted to inquire, on an entirely friendly basis, how happy the Minister's colleagues at the Department of Trade and Industry are with the proposed arrangements.
Mr. Hill: That is an easy one. I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for a genuinely friendly intervention. I assure him that these novel and important provisions have been drawn up in complete consultation and collaboration with the DTI, which is entirely happy with them.
I hasten on to deal with the points raised by the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire. He talked about special provisions in what he complained was a long and complex new schedule, but the powers in the new schedule are less dramatic than they seem. It is a matter simply of getting the procedures right; they have precedents. The OFT needs fall-back powers in the event of people obstructing it, but we very much doubt whether they will be needed. We hope that they will not, but it is right for legislation to cover a wide range of circumstances. There is protection, for example, for commercially sensitive information in paragraphs (8) and (9).
The hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire referred to amendment No. 306. Although I mentioned it in my opening remarks, I can imagine that the general interest in my speech was so intense that he did not entirely pick up my comments. Amendments Nos. 305 and 306 ensure consistency with clause 131(2). Amendment No. 306 introduces the best value test of economy, efficiency and effectiveness, which reads across to the generality of local government legislation. It offers alternative wording to the phrase "not to inhibit competition" in the Transport Act 1985, which is felt to be less helpful than the new formulation. It essentially links current thinking about the criteria that ought to be adopted by local authorities in their policies. With that very comprehensive response to the debate, I commend the new clause to the House
'.--(1) A local transport authority may, in connection with the exercise of any of its functions relating to public transport, require an operator of local services to provide it with any information relating to the matters specified in subsection (2) which is in his possession or control.
(2) The matters referred to in subsection (1) are--
(a) the total number of journeys undertaken by passengers on the local services operated by the operator in the authority's area or any part of its area,
The new clause was tabled in response to a matter that we discussed in Committee on 17 February on a Liberal Democrat amendment aimed at allowing access by local authorities to reasonable statistical information held by bus operators. We expressed sympathy with the aims of the amendment and undertook to introduce a suitably worded new clause, which I am happy to do.
The new clause should meet all the points raised in Committee. It will give a local transport authority, in the exercise of any of its public transport functions, power to require bus operators to supply information that they hold. The information may relate to passenger journeys, bus mileage and fare structures in respect of journeys throughout the area or part of the area. It may be requested in any form, subject to a test of reasonableness, and it may not be disclosed, other than with consent or in connection with civil or criminal proceedings, contravention being subject to a fine of up to level 5 on the standard scale.
I hope that the House will agree that the new clause is a welcome improvement to the Bill. It will ensure that authorities, in support of their functions relating to local transport plans and bus strategies, but also more generally--for example, in the context of reporting on bus services under the local government best value regime--have access to appropriate statistical information held by bus operators. It will also safeguard matters of commercial confidentiality.