Mr. Martin Caton (Gower) (Lab): Like my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen), I was a member of the Select Committee that, in the last Parliament, undertook pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill in its original draft form, in partnership with the Assembly's Economic Development and Transport Committee. It was the first time that a Committee of the House had worked formally with a Committee in a devolved Administration, but I am sure that it will not be the last. It proved to be a happy and successful collaboration, although it was not without its problems.
The tightness of the timetable prevented our evidence collection from being as comprehensive as we would have liked, and the Government's announcement of the demise of the Strategic Rail Authority made major clauses in the draft Bill, and recommendations in the respective Committee reports, redundant by the time we debated the draft legislation in the Welsh Grand Committee last July. I am pleased, however, that the Railways Act 2005 picked up provisions relating to railway services that were originally part of the draft Wales Bill, and, indeed, the spirit of the Select Committee's recommendationscontrary to what the hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) suggested in his opening remarks.
The National Assembly now has a clear role in any franchise that is Wales-only or includes Welsh services. It is responsible for determining priorities for local and regional services and setting fares for them, and it has a greater role in developing stations and local lives. I welcome that legislation and its contribution to the integration of transport policy in Wales. That is, in fact, very much the subject of the Bill: empowering the National Assembly to develop and implement policies that will contribute to a safe, integrated, sustainable, efficient, economic transport system to, from and within Wales.
I want to concentrate on the issues on which the Select Committee focused. I congratulate the Government on their positive response to many of our recommendations. The improvements to what was actually a pretty good draft Bill demonstrate again the value of pre-legislative scrutiny by Select Committees. Of the 14 recommendations that were relevant after the SRA announcement, eight have been accepted by the Government and included in the Bill.
The original draft Bill left the rail passengers committee and the National Federation of Bus Users in Wales as the separate representative voices of users of most public transport in Wales. As a key objective of both bodies has for some time been the better integration of transport modes, it seemed logical to us to call for a provision to empower the Assembly to create a single, joined-up public transport passengers committee. Apart from the common-sense integration
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argument in its favour, the establishment of such a body will eliminate the historic disparity between funding for bus users' representatives and funding for rail users' champions. The Government agreed with us, and included the necessary provision in the Bill. As the Secretary of State has pointed out, the new committee will also embrace other public transport modes.
The report drew attention to the fact that, although facilities and services for pedestrians had been given a specific mention, there was nothing about cycling in the Bill. Again, the Government have rectified the omission. We also drew attention to the absence of any reference to environmental sustainability, and the Government have included that in a general transport duty for Wales. I know that that has not completely satisfied environmental and wildlife groups. Like, I suspect, the Liberal Democrats, I received a briefing from RSPB Cymru, which called for the reference to be strengthened, perhaps by direct reference to the Assembly's statutory duty under the Government of Wales Act 1998 to "promote sustainable development". It also called for further references to that duty in clause 4, for better discharge of transport functions, and on clause 7, which relates to direct agreements between the Assembly and providers of public transport services. I have some sympathy for those calls, but they are clearly a matter for consideration in Committee. In any case, I warmly welcome the Government's inclusion of sustainability in the Bill.
The Select Committee also made recommendations to try to deal with concerns raised by local authorities and the Welsh Local Government Association about their future role under the Bill. They were worried about Assembly involvement in the production of local transport plans and the fact that councils were not specifically mentioned for consultation on the Wales transport strategy. We recommended alterations to try to address these concerns. Again, the Government have responded positively and the Bill includes an explicit duty on the Assembly to consult Welsh local authorities, and English local authorities with boundaries on the Welsh borders, in preparing for the Welsh transport strategy. They have also amended the draft Bill so that any decision to refuse a local transport plan for any reason would have to be taken by the National Assembly in plenary session. The Bill has been redrafted to make clear the central role of local authorities in the appointment of a majority of members of joint transport authorities. Those changes will help to ensure that the Assembly and local government work hand in hand to improve transport provision in Wales in the years ahead.
I now turn to issues where we failed to convince the Government and issues where I hope there might be scope for further movement. The Government have rejected our call to move the transport commissioner who has responsibility for Wales, from Birmingham to Wales. I urge that, at least, further consideration is given in the weeks ahead to establishing an office in Wales, with staff, for the transport commissioner. But my main appeal to the Government at this stage is on the Select Committee's recommendation on provision for bus franchising along the lines that we have here in London. We believe that the Assembly should be empowered to take up that option if it so chooses.
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From my observations in Swansea and south-west Wales, I have to say that the bus deregulation and privatisation measures introduced by the Conservative party in the early to mid-1980s were not an entirely beneficial experience, to say the least. It certainly did not take us forward to the better, more comprehensive bus networks that we needed. However, the Tories' completely free-market approach has been modified and the situation considerably improved with the Transport Act 2000 and the introduction of bus quality partnerships and quality contracts. The partnerships allow a deal between the local authority and the bus contractor whereby the operator invests in high-quality services, more environmentally friendly vehicles and staff training. In return, the local authority invests in traffic management schemes, bus priority lanes, bus stations and shelters, other facilities and timetable information. Moving still further away from deregulation, quality contracts provide for a licensing regime whereby operators bid for exclusive rights to run services on a route or group of routes on the basis that the local authority sets the service specification and performance targets.
The Select Committee's proposal was to introduce a further option to be available to the Assemblyfranchising. That would allow for a fully regulated regime when appropriate. As with London, it would mean that all services were secured by a transport authority from private operators following competitive tendering. The authority would determine the level and structure of fares to be charged, the structure of bus routes and the frequency of operation. It would be responsible for providing and maintaining infrastructure, promoting customer information and developing technology to ensure that operators deliver safe, reliable and clean buses. That is an alternative model that we are increasingly likely to need as we recognise that competition between bus operators cannot always deliver the services that we require. In particular, that very competition can stand in the way of our dealing with the more pressing competition between continued growth in the use of the private motor car and the alternative of public transport.
The approach advocated by the Select Committee of giving the National Assembly the widest choice of transport tools possible to achieve its objectives, including bus franchising, fits in with our approach to the governance of Wales. If, as the Secretary of State indicated in yesterday's statement, we are looking to empower the National Assembly as far as possible in the legislation that we pass in this Parliament that affects Wales, the power to introduce bus franchising would send a very positive message, as well as being a sensible practical measure.
My belief in empowerment of the Assembly leads me to urge the Government to resist calls from admirable organisations such as Transport 2000 and the RSPB, who oppose the provision of subsidy for air transport and therefore want clause 11 to be removed. As we have heard, that clause empowers the Assembly to give financial assistance for air transport services or airport facilities in certain circumstances. I believe that we should stick with the clause as worded, although I do have sympathy with the arguments against subsidising aviation: that it tends to benefit the better off, that air transport is a high and rising contributor to greenhouse
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gas emissions and that any subsidy would be more cost-effective if directed to rail and buses. I hate to agree with the hon. Member for Leominster, especially in his absence, but those are genuine arguments. The counter-casethat using this power will bring real economic and social benefitswas strongly and effectively argued by my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn and the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik). For me, though, what is important is that that argument can take place on a case-by-case basis and where it shouldin Wales and, ultimately, in the National Assembly. If we mean what we say about empowerment, we must provide the Assembly with the widest range of choices possible.