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10 Oct 2006 : Column 20WH—continued

10.43 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Gillian Merron): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Ian Stewart) on securing this debate and providing an opportunity to discuss the important issue of bus services and how we seek to improve them, particularly in respect of provisions for bus employees. As always, he was thoughtful and incisive.

I am glad to see such tremendous interest among Labour colleagues, who are enticing me down a celebrated road. They offer me beatification and heroism, to name just a couple of things. I particularly thank my hon. Friends the Members for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) and for Selby (Mr. Grogan) for their promises. Although I cannot accept their kind offers at this stage, I accept the importance of the debate and what stands behind it: the quality of bus services for the people of this country.

Like my colleagues, I am sorry to see such paucity of interest from Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members. I feel that they have missed the opportunity to set out their policies on bus services. We did not hear them, I am afraid, although I would be interested to do so, and I know that I am not alone.

Paul Rowen: Does the Minister not accept that I said that we wholeheartedly supported re-regulation and talked about how we could finance it? I hope that she will be able to do the same.

Gillian Merron: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that there are no surprises. We are not going back to re-regulation and the 1980s; I can deal with the comments from the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives in one go. I still feel that it shows a paucity of policy to say that a conference passed a resolution for re-regulation. We need rather better than that, and I would welcome constructive comments on the reality that we face.

I should like to give some context. Buses are Britain’s most used form of public transport. In England, nearly two thirds of all journeys on public transport are made by bus; there are more than 4 billion bus passenger journeys a year. As my hon. Friends have so clearly stated, buses play a key role in enabling people to access essential services, places and aspects of their lives. However, we need to raise our game. Those on buses should not be only those who rely on them; we
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must also ensure that those with an alternative—namely, the car—take buses because they find them an attractive, convenient and suitable option. If we are to tackle congestion and all the other challenges, of which we are all too well aware, we have to do that.

Buses are important, as the Government recognise through their support. They give £2 billion a year to help fund the operation of bus services around the country. That includes funding for the introduction, last April, of free local bus travel for those aged 60 and over and for disabled people. That will be extended still further nationally. I am sure that other hon. Members have heard from their constituents, as I have from mine in Lincoln, about how welcome that Government policy is.

In addition, last year we provided £1.6 billion to local authorities to finance capital spending on local transport schemes—including, for example, those aimed at improving the infrastructure for bus services, as well as related traffic management improvements. Hon. Members have rightly raised that matter as important to the future well-being of bus services.

As of this month, the bus industry outside London and Northern Ireland has been deregulated for 20 years. Those years have been challenging for it. My hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Donohoe) rightly talked about the growth in car ownership, the increasing cost of providing bus services and the declining cost of running a car. Outside London, there have been a number of cases of increasing fares, reductions in services and declining bus patronage. As my hon. Friend said, we must remember to be accurate: bus patronage in most places was falling even more rapidly before deregulation. If fares were not rising then, that was often because of high levels of subsidy from local taxation. Rose-tinted glasses are not the order of the day; regulation was not a golden age of smart, punctual, frequent, good-value buses. We must see it as something that happened then, but we need to be accurate about it and help where we are now.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eccles reported—in my view, somewhat surprisingly—that the Transport and General Workers Union regarded the Northern Ireland system as a model solution. In fact, Translink has had problems in maintaining patronage there, and there are inherent flaws in the Northern Ireland system of bus regulation. I am glad to say that colleagues in the Northern Ireland Office are addressing them.

Hon. Members made various references to London, and I would like to give my view. Comparisons with London bus services do indeed produce aspiration, and in many cases inspiration, and that is a good thing, but I resist the invitation to draw a direct comparison with London. As the capital city, it has a unique place in our country. Its range of functions and density of people are unparalleled. Its bus service does not have a history of deregulation, and there is low car ownership, as we heard from London Members. It is also important to note that the London transport system incorporates the underground, congestion charging, the Oyster card, bus priority measures and a range of other means of supporting bus services. Yes, there is much to learn from London, but there is no straight lift and fit to other areas. My hon. Friends are well informed, and I was glad to hear them say that no one size fits all.

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Meg Hillier: On one issue, though, does my hon. Friend agree that London is a great example? Pay, conditions and safety of bus drivers, in particular, have improved.

Gillian Merron: Indeed, I pay tribute to those improvements. I would always say that there are things to be learned from London, but we cannot lift from that experience and say that it is the only one.

For all its challenges, the deregulated market can be, and in some cases has been, a positive environment for bus services. Operators who understand the local market can respond quickly to changing travel demands, and many have made considerable investment in better-quality buses. Surveys show that the average age of local buses has fallen to 7.2 years, which is comfortably below the Government target of eight years, which the industry accepted in 2002.

I have seen how bus services massively improve when relations between local authorities and bus operators are good. As we know, more people are persuaded to use buses if they can expect faster journey times and more punctual and reliable services. However, bus operators cannot deliver such benefits on their own. I understand the necessity for and impact of better roads and traffic management. As has been discussed this morning, bus priorities are important, but they must be properly enforced.

As always, there is another side to the coin. Local authorities need assurances that operators will make use of the facilities and raise their game. In many places, assurances on both sides have been successfully achieved through quality bus partnership agreements between local authorities and bus operators. By improving both the infrastructure for buses and the standard of service, a virtuous circle of increased patronage and higher frequencies can be promoted.

I will overcome my nervousness about giving examples and try not to inflame my hon. Friends by those to which I refer. It is certainly the case that there have been tremendous benefits from partnership in places such as Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire. Again, we can learn from such examples. I agree that we should not put down Brighton and Hove, but we should note that there has also been significant growth in bus use in Northamptonshire, Bedfordshire and South Gloucestershire. As my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles said, there is not one solution for everyone. He generously admitted that he spoke from his own experience and that we must take account of other experiences throughout the country.

I am well aware that there are places where real partnership is not a feature. I recently experienced at first hand the unacceptable chaotic situation in central Manchester. My hon. Friend referred to bus wars. Let us put the situation in context: bus wars are a problem in Manchester, but they were more common in the early days of deregulation. In practice, they are quite rare today, because sensible operators know that they cause difficulties and do them no good in the long term. The traffic commissioner has taken steps to bring some discipline to bear by imposing traffic regulation conditions on the Manchester operators involved, and I hope that the situation can soon be resolved.

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I endorse the comments of my hon. Friend, who painted a complimentary picture of what the Greater Manchester passenger transport executive has done. I was pleased to have an opportunity to meet with the PTE recently. In addition to my hon. Friend’s comments, I compliment it on the Metro shuttle and night bus network, both of which I experienced for myself, and the yellow school buses, which I have not yet had the chance to experience. Also, GMPTE has been successful in securing Government investment through urban and rural bus challenge awards and through Kickstart, and should be congratulated in that respect.

There has been much talk about the announcement made recently by the Secretary of State. It is important to put on the record his references to empowering local communities and to giving real powers to local transport authorities that need them to make a difference. That means local solutions designed for local needs.

Mr. Betts: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Gillian Merron: I will not take my hon. Friend’s intervention, as I have only a few minutes.

Hon. Members can take from the Secretary of State’s announcement the direction of travel. I know that many hon. Members have been on the edge of their seat, waiting for an early and private announcement. I regret that I shall not give in to that great temptation this morning, but I assure people in local authorities, PTEs, passenger transport authorities, the bus industry, environmental groups, business and other communities,
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and bus users as well as colleagues in Parliament, that all the talks and visits are contributing and moving us towards the decision that we shall make in the very near future. I hope that hon. Members will be able to wait until then.

Whatever the service delivery arrangements, we should acknowledge that it is the whole staff team—drivers, administrative staff, engineers, managers and others who work at the sharp end—who are a key factor in the delivery of good services. I pay tribute to them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) eloquently described what can be done to improve services, and I hope that many others will learn from what she said. The fact is, of course, that the working conditions of drivers and other staff are of primary importance, but they are matters for the industry itself. I know from my experience as a full-time Unison official who represented members in the transport sector that a well-motivated, well-trained and well-rewarded work force is paramount. As my hon. Friend said, working conditions, including suitable toilets and decent places where employees can eat a meal, are of significant importance in attracting and keeping staff.

Pay is a factor. I accept that wage rates traditionally have not been what they should, but average earnings of bus drivers rose by 3 per cent. in real terms in the past year: more than the national average for all occupations.

In summary, I pay tribute to those who provide bus services. We must acknowledge their worth, and we must work together to improve bus services and the conditions of those who provide them for all of us.

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Independence of the Judiciary

10.59 am

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise an important constitutional subject—the independence of the judiciary. I welcome the Conservative spokesman, the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald), and the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs, speaking on behalf of the Government, to what I hope is considered an important debate. I shall be firm but constructive about where I believe that we as a country need to go.

I have always taken the view that one of the fundamental characteristics of the United Kingdom is that although it has never been written down in one clear document there has always been a clear separation between the legislature, the Executive and the judiciary. In other places at other times there are debates about how much the Executive are or should be Cabinet-led as opposed to being a one-man band. That is a perfectly proper debate and many of us believe that it is important that the Executive are led by a Cabinet that collects opinions.

There is a separate debate to be had about how we ensure that the legislature is properly representative of the United Kingdom. The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire and I, and others, are involved in discussions with the Leader of the House about how the second Chamber should become more representative and we welcome those discussions.

One immutable element of the debate has been that judges should be independent. My fear is that in spite of the Government’s good intentions when they came to office in 1997 and some clear statements of principle, that has not happened in terms of the view that has been taken by Ministers, including Cabinet Ministers. On occasions, such a view has been taken by Cabinet Ministers as important as the Home Secretary, other Ministers in relevant Departments and, indeed, the Prime Minister. My contention is that fine words and occasional statements of support for the principle are not sufficient if there are regular lapses when the wrath of politicians, particularly Ministers, is turned on judges.

There is a difference between your perfectly proper right, Mr. Gale, and that of any of us and of the press to criticise judgments—we are entitled to say that we think that a judgment was wrong—and what has happened. Such criticism has turned into antagonism towards and criticism of judges and the judiciary. For example, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), as Home Secretary, regularly attacked the judiciary as clearly going beyond what we had asked them to do.

My colleagues and I have for many years argued the case for a written constitution. We think that the best way to guarantee our traditional values as set down in Magna Carta, the Declaration of Rights and elsewhere and modern issues of principle—for us those would include the right to jury trial for the most serious offences and the right not to be over-beholden to the state, which would permit resistance to and the prevention of the Big Brother identity card system—would be to write all those things down.

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It is encouraging that in recent weeks and months there appears to be growing support for such a document from across the main political parties. In that time the leader of the Conservative party has expressed an interest in a written Bill of Rights. There are debates to be had about its content and what it should comprise but at least we have the assertion that he thinks it would be a good and valuable thing. The Attorney-General is on record as saying that he believes there ought to be a written constitution. I come to the debate with an unexpected fair wind from the comments made over the summer by the other two main parties and I hope that the Minister can be positive about my final proposition.

In addition to the current statutory obligation on the Lord Chancellor and Ministers to defend the independence of the judiciary, which is a recent innovation set down in the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, we ought to have it written in our constitution—a written document that overrides other statutes—that the judiciary should be independent of political influence and of personal political attack. I hope that I can persuade colleagues by the end of the debate and in the months ahead that as we work together to see whether we can agree across the parties on a written constitution, we should see whether we can also agree that judicial independence should be part of that. I sense a rising tide of support for that idea, which is welcome, and if we did so we would be following the tradition of most other Anglo-Saxon, former empire and old Commonwealth democracies where they have both a written constitution and a constitutional guarantee of judicial independence. In many cases, not only in the old Commonwealth and the new Commonwealth but in the rest of mainland Europe, a constitutional court rules on matters where there is a dispute between the public or an individual and the Executive of the day.

I want to say one other thing in sympathy and understanding of how we can reach a position where the Government can be so critical so often. What has come to be called administrative law, where people can apply for judicial review in order to have a government decision considered—whether it is made by local government, an agency of government, a Minister or a Department—is obviously a relatively recent development. That has become well-established as a perfectly proper way in which the citizen can check that an authority has not exceeded the power given to it by Parliament.

We set down the law and the judges interpret it, and if someone thinks that there has been an excess of power used they are entitled to challenge that. I am talking about administrative law in general, and if the judges find that there has been an Executive excess there is a remedy, which is that Ministers can come back to Parliament and seek to have the law changed to deal with that. The most controversial of such cases in recent years took place in December of the year before last when the House of Lords, in two cases brought by unnamed individuals against the Home Secretary, held in favour of those people and said that their detention in Belmarsh was illegal.

My colleagues and I had always argued that it would be illegal to detain people without trial and that that would apply whether they were British or not, and we were vindicated in our view. It seemed to us entirely proper that the Law Lords should then say that that
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was an excess of Executive power beyond what was intended by Parliament and beyond the normal rights to which people are entitled under the European convention on human rights, which has been part of British law for many years and has been incorporated into it since 1998. There were no grounds for criticism from Ministers of the judges for making that decision because it was made in accordance with a convention that the British Government had signed and an Act that Parliament had passed, which was brought to Parliament by the Government in 1998.

A more recent example was the decision of Mr. Justice Sullivan that control orders exceeded the intention of Parliament by taking away more liberty from an individual than was justified by the process. It is possible in this country to take away anybody’s liberty but there must be a proper judicial process to do so, and the judge made it clear that the control order system was not that proper process. Again, that was an argument that my colleagues and I had made.

The third type of controversial case was most obviously illustrated by the furore that followed the sentencing of a man called Craig Sweeney by the Recorder of Cardiff on 12 June this year. Mr. John Griffiths Williams QC, the senior criminal judge in Wales, passed a sentence that was then attacked specifically by people who included a junior Minister in the Department for Constitutional Affairs. She subsequently apologised and was rebuked by her seniors.

All the commentary after the Craig Sweeney case made clear that the judge had acted absolutely properly and according to the rules within which he was required to work. I have been a Member of the House through all those years during which Parliament has passed laws setting out sentencing guidance—a process that gives advice, with a body of people setting down the sentencing rules. Parliament has become explicit in the rules that it sets out.

The result is that judges are far more constrained than they used to be. They now have to discount time served in custody before the trial; and they have to discount a further period—they have to say when the person will be eligible for parole. In fact, Craig Sweeney might well be in prison for a very long time because although an initial date has been given when he might be eligible for parole, the judge made it clear that he should not be released until it was safe to the public to do so. But that decision was misinterpreted—it was greatly recast—to suggest that Sweeney would be released within a short time.

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