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Mr. Paul Truswell (Pudsey) (Lab): I am pleased to hear what my hon. Friend has just said, but does he accept that the only practicable way of introducing quality contracts would involve a virtually insurmountable hurdle that would ultimately have to be tested in the courts? Will he reconsider whether that test could be reduced, so that there could be a better balance between the interests of passengers and the interests of the operators in making profits?

Mr. McNulty: In all candour, I have to say no, I do not accept that. As the Minister with responsibility for buses last year and this year, I have said that I do not believe that local authorities have pushed the regulatory framework in the Transport Act 2000 to its limits, with or without taking into account what we said in the July White Paper. They have not been dilatory, but they have been slow in coming forward with imaginative ways of moving towards a bus quality contract. There are many ways, under the 2000 Act and the proposals in the July White Paper, in which local authorities can move towards affording their communities the required regulatory framework and subsequent bus provision. We stand ready to work with any local authority to push things in that direction, not least in the context of what we said in July. So I do not accept the thrust of what my hon. Friend has just said, although he will know that his view is shared by many of our colleagues, and almost certainly by many people in the passenger transport executives.

Mr. Stringer: We are familiar with both sides of this argument. The implication of what my hon. Friend the Minister is saying is that the Secretary of State for Transport can take the decision to agree quality contracts. The strength of the argument put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) and I is that, while section 124 of the 2000 Act remains, that decision is with the courts, not with the Secretary of
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State. It is therefore very difficult for any local transport authority to show that its proposals are the only practical way available.

Mr. McNulty: There are certainly clear and exacting criteria in the Transport Act 2000. They need to be seen in the light of changes that we have made to the regulatory framework since then, and of the way in which we shall take forward the announcements that we made in July. We are starting to talk seriously with a range of authorities about how all these elements can be brought together, and I do not doubt that my hon. Friends the Members for Manchester, Blackley and for Pudsey and I will have further deliberations on it with a whole range of other colleagues as well. It is time to talk far more readily about how all the assorted modes can work together and, in that context, whether quality contracts have a role.

In terms of network modification, it is appropriate to have such measures in the Bill, although I accept the concerns that have been expressed about what prevailed post-Beeching. I do not accept that we are seeking to do something similar. This was debated at length in Committee. Where a local community's transport needs result in a requirement for a quality contract so that buses can replace lines and services that have been discontinued, it makes perfect sense to have one. We discussed the assorted elements involved, and we need to look at the issue in much more detail and do much more work on the substance of how the provisions will work. They could well form part of a broader quality contract that could be brought in for a particular area.

It is important that the provisions should be in the Bill, but not to facilitate closing another third of the rail network, as Beeching did, while promising to replace the services with buses and then not doing so, or doing so only for the short term. It makes sense that the provisions relating to facilities for bus substitution—I shall not use the horrendous word "bustitution"—be included in the Bill. In this context, it has already been pointed out that amendment No. 30 does not make a whole lot of sense without amendment No. 29, and I agree with that. On its own, amendment No. 30 does not fit with the rest of the Bill, although it would have gone alongside the other one. I understand the attraction for passenger transport authorities of including light rail in the provisions, but, given the way in which amendment No. 30 would sit with the rest of the Bill, we do not think that it is appropriate to pursue this matter.

2.15 pm

Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge) (Lab): The Minister sounds as though he is saying that he would have some sympathy with amendment No. 30 if it were put in the right context. Would he be prepared to consider this issue again in another place?

Mr. McNulty: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, because if that is the impression that I gave, it was entirely illusory. I was merely expressing sympathy with my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley because amendments Nos. 29 and 30 sat together, and it was a shame that we could discuss only one and not the other. The two should have come as a package. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the
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Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland) for allowing me the opportunity to clarify my position on that; I would not want to mislead him in any way.

Of the Government amendments at the end of this group, the main one is Government amendment No. 11, which is required to give Scottish Ministers certain powers in relation to rail services, networks and stations that are wholly in Scotland, as well as to certain cross-border services. As clause 44 is currently drafted, only the Secretary of State has those powers. The amendment adds the Scottish dimension in terms of giving the powers to Scottish Ministers. The other two Government amendments are consequential on the thrust of Government amendment No.11.

Much of our discussion has been on serious issues, and I would ask the House to reject the amendments, other than the Government amendments.

Mr. Chope: I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) and to the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) for their comments in support of new clause 1. I would simply say to the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) that the circumstances of the average railway passenger on a rural line in Wales are very different from the hustle and bustle involved in commuting into London. My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster and the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross raised the kind of pertinent questions that would have to be answered if there were a proper consultation process on any proposal to remove a first-class service.

The Minister resorted to the last desperate line of defence when he said that the problem was that the new clause did not define first-class passenger accommodation. I do not think that there is anyone in the House who does not understand what we mean by that term. To suggest that the new clause is defective because the term is not defined is absurd. The Minister also tried to argue that the withdrawal of first-class accommodation would affect fewer people and be less significant than the closure of a rural station or the withdrawal of a rarely used rural service. Again, I disagree with him, because I believe that the withdrawal of first-class accommodation could, in certain circumstances, affect much larger numbers of people. That is why any such proposals should be subject to consultation, as the new clause suggests.

What I found most worrying about the Minister's response was his suggestion that the new clause would impose constraints on the freedom of operators. He then conceded, however, that the whole system of the route utilisation strategy will be controlled from the centre by the Government. That in itself will inhibit the freedom of operators to decide what is the best mix of first and standard-class accommodation. So I remain suspicious about the Government's agenda, and the best way forward is to ensure that, if they pursue these proposals, they are forced to consult on them.

Mr. McNulty: The hon. Gentleman is entirely wrong. That is not the function of the route utilisation strategy. Its function is to come up with strategies to use the route and eventually feed that into the franchise templates against which all operators will bid.
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Mr. Chope: The Minister has done nothing to allay my concerns. He says that route utilisation strategies will feed into the specification that is used for the franchisees to bid against. I submit that, if one is a potential franchisee, and one does not bid against the specification laid down by the centre, one's chances of success in that franchise bidding are very small.

The only way to allay the increasing concerns of those who travel first class occasionally or frequently, particularly on main routes into London, is to ensure that they would be given proper notice and have the chance to express their views through consultation. I therefore hope that the House will support new clause 1.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 123, Noes 220.

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