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Mr. Hain: The Welsh Assembly Government, especially under the new provisions setting out the distinction between the Assembly as a legislature and the Executive, as proposed in yesterday's White Paper, will continue to consider local transport plans all the time. The Bill gives it additional leverage in doing so. I think that the hon. Gentleman is asking how many times the plans will go to the Floor of the Assembly, if the arrangement remains in place after 2007. I cannot foresee the number. The power is a deterrent. If a local authority does not take account of its regional context, the backstop power will be used. That will encourage authorities to look ahead, open their eyes around their boundaries and introduce transport plans that do not face the prospect of effectively being vetoed by the Assembly. The short answer is that I hope that such things will not happen at all, for the reason that I have given, but if they do, the power will be in place.
We face a daunting challenge, given the ever-increasing demand for travel. A world-class transport system for Wales is vital to our future economic and social development. We are determined to ensure that the Assembly has the powers that it needs to respond effectively to that challenge. The Bill provides a balanced package of measures that, taken together with existing powers, will enable the Assembly to deliver integrated transport for the whole of Wales.
I commend the Bill to the House.
Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): May I begin by apologising to the House, as I shall not be able to remain for the closing speeches? That is a great shame, as this debate gives me the opportunity to welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Wales to his new role. I am sure that he will conduct himself as admirably as his predecessor. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker), who will be standing in for me.
Bill Wiggin: I have a pressing engagement in my constituency, but I shall not share the full details of my diary with the hon. Gentlemanand I certainly will not publish pictures of what I am doing on the internet.
There is nothing wrong with the Bill's aim to create a safe, integrated, sustainable, efficient and economic transport facility and services, although I suspect that it was slotted into the Government's legislative programme and that the White Paper on rail transport gutted the aims of the Bill, which would have allowed the Assembly to have places on the Strategic Rail Authority. However, in order to achieve what the Bill seeks to do, improvements can be made and questions need to be answered.
The Bill leaves many uncertainties and several gaps. The proposal for the transport commissioner to be relocated to Wales has been ignored, despite the recommendations of the Select Committee on Welsh
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Affairs that that should happen. Such a move was agreed to be a positive step by a great many of those consulted about the Bill, but despite its obvious potential for increasing the local knowledge of the commissioner, that move and any possibility of further powers for the commissioner have been discarded.
We must execute due diligence in ensuring that the way in which the Bill is interpreted and enacted is as positive and beneficial as it can be. In order to achieve that, we must have clarification and assurances on a number of issues. We must have a great deal of detail on the ways in which the Assembly will implement the Bill. Although we welcome the move to grant the Assembly more responsibilities and duties to deliver services, rather than greater powers as such, we must have assurances that the Bill will work in practice.
It makes sense to develop a national strategy for Welsh transport. From reading the evidence of companies such as Network Rail, however, it is clear that there is a definite feeling that, in developing the transport strategy, certain bodies should be statutory consultees. Currently, clause 2(5) provides for Assembly consultation with local authorities and
That seems to leave open the possibility for no other consultation, despite the fact that the companies that are likely to be affected by policy should be consulted. There should be a list of possible bodies for consultation, and it should probably be a prescribed list. Transport companies, businesses and professional and community bodies that are likely to be affected should all be consulted, and there should be a duty on the Assembly to consult them.
As with the rest of the proposals in the Bill, we must be certain that schemes featured in the Wales transport strategy are developed with the certainty of sufficient resources. Similarly, several cross-border issues need to be addressed. What impact will the development of the Wales transport strategy have on services that cross the border regularly? Will the bus and train services that move through both England and Wales face control and regulation from the Assembly alone under the strategy? We must be sure that the procedure for consultation with both English and Welsh local authorities is sufficient and accountable. In a case of impasse with English local authorities, adjudication should be carried out by the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs or another senior Minister in this Parliament.
We must also be careful to consider the position on concessionary fares in Wales. Will such Assembly measures be included in the Wales transport strategy? If so, we must be assured that the issue has been tackled thoroughly enough. There must be discussions on that issue in drawing up the Wales transport plan. Could those from England who regularly use Welsh public transport be entitled to concessionary fares? If so, where will we draw the line and what extra funding will be required to carry out such a move? We must be certain that the impact and implications have been properly considered.
The development of local transport plans is important, but the Bill seems to make it possible for a great deal of time to be wasted in developing them. The
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Bill states that if an authority fails to submit its replacement plan within five years, it must do so "as soon as practicable" after that five-year period. No mention is made of what length of time is reasonable in that regard, what incentives there will be or what action local authorities can expect to be taken if they do not provide a plan as soon as is practicable. The situation is similarly woolly in respect of the publication of local transport plans, which must again take place "as soon as practicable" after alteration of the plan. Will the Minister explain the procedures?
We must also be sure that the development of such plans and any changes that have to be made by local authorities will not affect schemes that are already in place. The Bill provides for the Assembly to direct local authorities to work together in the joint discharge of transport functions. That raises several questions, not least about the cost involved in such a move. The Welsh Local Government Association has expressed concerns that the Bill will result in costly administrative reform with no benefit to the travelling public.
Lembit Öpik: I return to the hon. Gentleman's point about the phrase "as soon as practicable", which looks like a get-out clause. Does he agree that it seems that the Government have not made up their mind about whether the provisions will be compulsory or advisory? If there is no compulsion, let us be honest and say that they are advisory. It would be helpful if the Minister clarified that either now or in his winding-up speech.
Bill Wiggin: The hon. Gentleman has made his point to the Minister. We will seek to tease out the details in Committee. The hon. Gentleman is right to draw the point to the Government's attention. The wording suggests that there is compulsion without any compulsory obligation, so we will seek clarification.
The director of the Welsh Local Government Association said:
"Reorganisation with no substantial additional investment is not a recipe for service delivery success."
What reassurance can the Government give that appropriate and adequate funding will be available for changes proposed to local authorities' responsibilities? The Bill states:
"The Assembly may give financial assistance to . . . joint transport authorities, and . . . local authorities in Wales".
Can the Minister confirm more precisely whether joint transport authorities will be funded from local authority funds or whether the money will come from the Assembly? Would there be a process for applying for grants by the joint transport authorities? If so, what would determine funding allocations? We must have further information on the procedure that will be involved in implementing the provisions. If the Assembly can choose whether to give funds, surely the likelihood is that many local authorities will be left to foot an increased transport bill without assistance.
Bus Users UK reports that many authorities are currently
on providing public transport services, which will further increase the cost of improvements. Local authorities are already struggling against the Assembly's habit of changing their responsibilities without providing extra funds.
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The running costs of a JTA are assumed to be approximately £1 million per annum in addition to the £100,000 to £200,000 of set-up costs. What impact will that have on the taxpayers of Wales and what assurance do we have that Welsh taxpayers' money will be spent wisely? Much of the £1 million running costs will be spent on the authority's senior management and accommodation, which sounds like an opportunity to create costly administration and support teams, new quangos and more bureaucracy. The attempt better to co-ordinate policy and delivery is admirable, but it threatens to create another costly tier of administration, which is a risk that must be monitored closely.
The wider co-ordination of transport strategy clearly has some merits, not least in attracting the highest quality staff and projects. Nevertheless, JTAs open up the possibility of accountability being taken away from the Assembly and the Welsh Transport Minister. If those developments are to work for the benefit of the people of Wales, the implementation and management of JTAs must be monitored closely. We must also know those bodies' precise powers, which responsibilities will be left in the hands of the Assembly and which responsibilities will be transferred. How will the JTAs and the Assembly be held accountable for their actions?
Does the Minister know which powers the Assembly is likely to confer on JTAs under the provision in clause 5 on discharging "specified transport functions" to regions of Wales? We must be certain that the opportunity to make positive changes to the delivery of transport in Wales is taken. The Confederation of Passenger Transport Wales has suggested increasing enforcement powers for bus priority schemes. Bus lanes in Wales would be much more effective if they were better monitored and if the law were enforced, and giving a local authorities the power to control aspects of public transport could be very successful
In the development of public transport as a feasible alternative to cars, it is essential that every possible move is taken to assist the delivery of those services. We hope that JTAs will help the delivery of Welsh public transport services, but we have many reservations. It is not clear whether the Assembly will have the power to direct JTAs to work together in providing services that cross each other's boundaries, which is clearly a must in delivering integrated transport, especially in areas such as national parks where public transport provision is often specialised and where there is no one owner of responsibility. That point is also important with regard to cross-border transport services.
The Minister must clarify the situation for not only Welsh transport providers, but those from across the border. Can English and Welsh local authorities form JTAs, and if so, how will they work? Do we face the possibility of an all-Wales body here? If so, we must scrutinise that move very carefully because it would risk unnecessary remoteness and expense and should be strongly opposed.
Many unanswered questions remain on the provision of public passenger transport services. What extra funding will be required for that provision? What conditions will the Assembly use to determine the necessity of transport requirements? Furthermore, any power that the Assembly intends to grant must be
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exercised with regard to its effect on other transport services and strategies across the UK and the ability of the infrastructure to provide an effective network.
We broadly support the idea of a public transport users committee for Wales, but we must carefully monitor its development. That idea has the potential to progress into another example of waste and bureaucracy by this Government, especially given that the Bill grants the Assembly powers to
"make payments to the committee of such amounts, at such times, and on such conditions as it considers appropriate",
as well as controlling officers, staff, proceedings and the committee's functions. The regulatory impact assessment estimated that setting up such a committee would cost £305,000 per annum, plus £50,000 in setting-up costs. Those are substantial sums for the Welsh taxpayer to bear, and the Assembly's new responsibilities will be carried out with no extra funding from Westminster.
The Bill seems to grant the Assembly powers for the transport users committee without any provision for the review of such a body. Surely some opportunity must be provided to review the usefulness and effectiveness of this committee. We must also consider the cross-border implications: will those who use Welsh transport regularly, yet live on the other side of the border, have a voice? A minority of people will potentially be left without the ability to air their views on the transport that they use on a daily basis.
The provision to deliver financial assistance to air transport services in Wales again raises the question of funding. The financial implications are hugegranting the Assembly the power of financial assistance for air transport with no transferral of funds means that support will have to be found within the Assembly's current budget. It looks as though significant amounts of Welsh taxpayers' money, which some might argue could be better spent elsewhere, will be spent on the additional costs of this Bill's proposals.
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