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26 Mar 2008 : Column 189

Points of Order

12.31 pm

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Would it be possible to know whether the appeal by the House of Commons Commission to the Appeal Court is limited to the question of addresses, or extends to the wider question of second homes? If it is the former, that would be perfectly understandable on grounds of security. If, however, the appeal against the information tribunal is on the wider question of expenditure on what are described as second homes, it should be noted that some Members, certainly myself, are very much opposed to the appeal being lodged. In my view, it is unfortunate that no way of voting—

Mr. Speaker: Order. This matter is before the court, and while I know that the media can talk about it, the rules are clear that it is sub judice for the House of Commons, and I cannot discuss it. In relation to many of the questions that the hon. Gentleman raises, there is nothing to stop him going to the court and finding out the grounds for the appeal.

bill presented

microgeneration (definition) amendment

Mr. David Drew presented a Bill to amend the definition of “microgeneration” in certain Acts: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 25 April, and to be printed [Bill 155].

26 Mar 2008 : Column 190

Orders of the Day

Local Transport Bill [ Lords]

[Relevant documents: The Ninth Report from the Tr ansport Committee, Session 2006- 07, on the draft Local Transport Bill and the Transport Innovation Fund, HC 692, and the Government’s Response, HC 1053.]

Order for Second Reading read.

Mr. Speaker: I inform the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers).

12.33 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Ms Rosie Winterton): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

May I give the apologies of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, who is unwell today?

Reliable, high-quality public transport makes a real difference to people in their everyday lives. We depend on it to get to work, to the shops, to essential services such as schools and hospitals, and to visit friends and family. It can help to promote social inclusion, particularly as the most vulnerable in our society often depend on public transport to the greatest extent. Good public transport also helps to tackle congestion, contributing to improved economic performance and the fight against climate change.

The bus has always been the workhorse of the transport system. Back in the 1950s, up to 13 billion journeys across the country were made by bus each year. Sadly, for the rest of the last century, the number of people using buses fell year on year. The previous Tory Government’s solution in the mid-1980s was to deregulate the bus market outside London. Too often, that led to services being cut back, and in some places aggressive competition in the form of bus wars gave the industry a bad name. That is why bus patronage fell from 5.8 billion journeys a year across the country in the mid-1980s to below 4.4 billion by the late 1990s.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): We on the island are hopeful that the Office of Fair Trading will be persuaded to look into market failure regarding ferries. However, provision of free public transport for elderly people is outside its remit. Elderly people can travel by bus, free of charge, when visiting relatives in other parts of the mainland. Why are my elderly constituents penalised by being forced to pay for a ferry if they want to visit a relative outside their constituency? I hope that that is something that the Minister can look into.

Ms Winterton: I am not sure why the hon. Gentleman is bringing the OFT into this. I think he is referring to the national concessionary fares scheme, which we debated in the House last night and the Labour Government introduced. He is right: something like 11 million people over 60 and disabled people will benefit from it this year, but it is true that that is confined to buses. It is open to local authorities to extend the scheme if they wish to do so. He may like to approach his local authority to see whether it wishes to extend the scheme to the ferry service, which it is at liberty to do with the discretionary powers available to it.

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Ms Angela C. Smith (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating South Yorkshire and West Yorkshire on not just giving free bus travel to all people over 60, but giving free train and tram travel too across the boundaries of both metropolitan districts?

Ms Winterton: My hon. Friend is right to highlight South Yorkshire as an exemplar of good public transport provision. I am glad to say that it has continued—like, I have to say, some Conservative and Liberal Democrat councils—the concessionary fare schemes that were previously available. It obviously shows that Labour councils value older and disabled people and want to give them those extra services on top of the national concessionary fares scheme, in which the Government are investing something like £212 million this year.

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will know that Merseytravel is now the most successful rail operator in the country, offering on-time delivery more often than any other provider. However, that has been brought about only by the significant investment that this Government have placed in public transport on Merseyside, an area with the least car ownership and where people are absolutely reliant on public transport—£13 million was spent in 1997; it is now well over £60 million. Merseytravel delivers the sort of services that people, quite frankly, have a right to.

Ms Winterton: My hon. Friend is right to point in particular to some of the integrated transport schemes that have been developed by some of our successful passenger transport executives. The idea of the Bill is to enable them to go even further in improving public transport, in contrast, as I said, to the Conservatives, who during their time in power deregulated the bus services, causing enormous problems for all our constituents.

Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD) rose—

Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab) rose—

Ms Winterton: I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman first and come back to my hon. Friend.

Norman Baker: As the Minister knows, the Liberal Democrats will probably support the Bill, but may I take up the point that she made earlier about concessionary bus fares? I do not wish to revisit last night’s debate, but it is simply not true that local authorities do not care about the extra discretionary services. All local authorities of all parties want to provide such services, but there is a genuine issue over funding. Will the Minister give me the assurance that she would not give me last night? Will she undertake to conduct a review after, say, a year to establish whether or not the formula that the Government have applied is fair to local authorities? She needs to do that.

Ms Winterton: Clearly we are revisiting last night’s debate. As I have said, about £1 billion will be invested in concessionary fares this year, including an extra £212 million. We believe that that is a generous settlement, and that there is no need for local authorities to cut the services that they provide for elderly and disabled people.

26 Mar 2008 : Column 192

Several hon. Members rose

Ms Winterton: I must give way first to my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods).

Dr. Blackman-Woods: Will the Minister confirm that the Bill will allow local authorities such as Durham county council to draw up plans to improve public transport, particularly bus services, and to create better integration between commercial bus operations and, for instance, community transport initiatives so that they can start to deliver for their populations in a way that was not possible before because of the last Government’s lack of investment?

Ms Winterton: My hon. Friend has highlighted three points: the way in which the Bill will improve bus services, the integration of transport services that it will allow, and the fact that it will allow better planning so that our constituents can benefit from the improved public transport that we all want.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC) rose—

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab) rose—

Mr. Mark Hendrick (Preston) (Lab/Co-op) rose—

Ms Winterton: I know that what I am about to say will interest my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Mr. Hendrick), and I will give way to him in a second.

Under the deregulation introduced by the last Government, competition became very aggressive. That led to bus wars in some parts of the country, and gave the industry a bad name. We saw a fall in bus patronage across the country under the stewardship of the last Government, and the Bill is intended to put that right. In stark contrast to what the last Government did, this Government have been reversing the legacy of underinvestment that we inherited in 1997, and have made it a priority to get people back on to buses.

Mr. Hendrick: I thank my right hon. Friend for visiting Preston recently to observe and discuss its Civitas programme. She will be well aware of the current bus wars between the Stagecoach bus company and Preston Bus. How will the Bill facilitate improvement in services, given the problems that deregulation has caused in places such as Preston?

Ms Winterton: There are instances in which it has not been in the public interest to provide services that do not meet our constituents’ needs. I will not comment specifically on my hon. Friend’s area because I know that the traffic commissioner is undertaking an inquiry, but I am aware that he has followed developments closely and has been very concerned about the effect on his constituents. However, there are a number of ways in which the Bill allows local authorities to plan services more effectively and introduce better quality partnerships and, if necessary, quality contracts. I will say more about that shortly.

We shall be able to reassure our constituents that their real needs will be considered. It will be possible to sit down with bus operators in a spirit of co-operation, and discuss how it can best be ensured that services meet the needs of local people. The Bill provides a range of ways in which that can be achieved.

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Mrs. Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con): If the Minister is so strongly opposed to the deregulated system that the Government inherited from their predecessor, why is it that in 10 years all they have done is introduce two schemes, quality contracts and quality partnerships, that have been used by no local authority except one that has used a quality partnership? Clearly the Government’s concern about the present system has not motivated them to do anything to amend it.

Ms Winterton: That is an interesting comment, because I understand from it that the hon. Lady believes that the introduction of quality partnerships and contracts should be encouraged, so I am surprised that her reasoned amendment says her party will vote against the Bill because of the introduction of quality contracts.

I would be the first to say that we need to go further than the powers available in the Transport Act 2000. It has been recognised that the threshold was set too high, which is why we are changing the legislation, improving on the 2000 Act to make co-operation easier. I am astonished that the hon. Lady and her party do not recognise their constituents’ concerns, and wish to vote against the Bill because of the introduction of quality contracts.

Mr. Chaytor: The concessionary fares scheme for elderly people has been enormously successful and popular. Does the Minister agree that exactly the same arguments that supported the case for a national concessionary fares scheme for the over-60s also support the case for such a scheme for the under-18s? Will she keep her mind, and the collective mind of her officials, open to the possibility that when considering the next transport Act we should look seriously at introducing a national, standardised, basic minimum concessionary fares scheme for under-18s?

Ms Winterton: My hon. Friend reinforces the point that without a Labour Government there would not have been a national concessionary fares scheme at all; in particular, it would not have been possible without the extra investment that the Labour Government have put in. Of course, any extension of schemes requires extra investment. We are doing lots of things to encourage younger people to use public transport—and we also encourage other initiatives, such as cycling schemes to make sure that they get the benefits of exercise.

I take on board my hon. Friend’s point, but we must consider it in the context of the investment we are already putting into the bus industry. About £2.5 billion each year goes into bus services, up from just £1 billion a decade ago. It was this Government who introduced the rural bus subsidy grant, and since we came into office we have nearly doubled it to £55 million a year. That means that over the 10-year period we have spent about £450 million a year subsidising rural bus services.

As we debated in the House last night, the investment we are putting in through the national concessionary fares scheme gives about 11 million older and disabled people the freedom to travel free on any off-peak local bus in any part of England. That scheme has boosted the number of people using buses, and has brought people greater freedom and independence. As a result of all the changes and investment I have outlined, almost 500 million extra journeys are being made each year on local buses since 1998.

26 Mar 2008 : Column 194

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): The Minister mentions rural areas, but what is her view of the EU driving times and rest periods directive of last April which bans drivers from covering more than 31 miles at any point in a single trip unless they have had a 45-hour period off in the same week? That is causing mayhem in counties such as Norfolk. A firm called Norfolk Green has contacted me about it, saying that it will have to cut a number of rural services. Is this not another example of crazy Euro-interference in our own business?

Ms Winterton: The hon. Gentleman would do well to remember that that measure was brought in on safety grounds. We should not underestimate the importance of that. However, I understand that the matter is being examined by the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency, and that the bus operators will shortly be meeting to discuss how the directive can be successfully implemented. It is important to remember that it was to do with safety issues about which we should all be concerned.

As I said, the 2000 Act created new opportunities for local authorities to work with bus operators towards real improvements for the benefit of passengers. It included measures to support voluntary partnership arrangements between local authorities and bus operators, and gave powers to local authorities to implement quality partnership and quality contracts schemes.

Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): The Government have been getting it in the neck from both local government and the private sector, which may suggest to some that perhaps they are on the right track. Does the Minister agree that the Bill’s success will be tested in how the bus companies and local authorities come together to solve the problems that exist in providing services to communities that are not well served by bus companies? The real test of the Bill’s success when it is enacted will come when local authorities and the bus companies start seriously to talk together about improving services.

Ms Winterton: My hon. Friend is right, and I thank him for the work that he did in the Transport Committee, scrutinising the Bill. It allowed us to make amendments to the Bill to improve it, and I shall come to those later. He is right to say that the Bill’s success will depend on its practical implementation and the relationship that can be built up between local authorities and the bus operators in a positive way for the benefit of bus users.

As I was saying, the actions that we have taken during the 10 years of the Labour Government have made a real difference. They have meant the development of not only the partnerships to which reference has been made, but the partnership between central and local government. It has meant that we have managed to halt the decline in bus usage and delivered the first sustained year-on-year increase in patronage. About 500 million more journeys are made than was the case 10 years ago.

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