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Let me move on to voluntary partnership arrangements. Clause 41 and schedule 2 make some important changes to competition law as it applies to the bus market. The aim is to ensure that competition law does not prevent local authorities and bus operators from coming together at the partnership table. At the moment, if bus operators come together with local authorities under a voluntary partnership to discuss, for example, times when they might run complementary services, they risk falling foul
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of competition law. The Bill will mean that operators can sit down with local authorities and plan services more effectively.

Part 4 contains various further measures on passenger transport. For example, clauses 52 to 56 will help to create new opportunities for the community transport sector, which plays an important local role, often in the areas with the greatest social need. As I said, the Community Transport Association has given a warm welcome to measures in the Bill that will allow its members greater flexibility over the types of vehicles that they can use, and that allow drivers of community bus services to be paid.

Clauses 57 to 60 will help to ensure that action can be taken where, for whatever reason, bus services are consistently unreliable. Traffic commissioners will still be able to apply financial penalties when bus operators are at fault, but now in a way that directly benefits passengers, requiring the operator to invest in service improvements or to pay compensation to passengers.

The Bill will also enable the traffic commissioners to hold local authorities to account if their failure to meet their traffic management duties contributes to the poor reliability of bus services. They will be able to make recommendations to bus operators and local authorities alike about how things might be put right. We have done that to respond to the legitimate concerns of bus operators, who have sometimes said, “We’ve made improvements in local areas, but the local authority has not kept its side of the bargain.” Again, it is astonishing that the Opposition wish to vote against that.

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): My right hon. Friend makes a very important point that goes back to what she was saying about the new role for integrated transport authorities. Often, some local authorities in a metropolitan area are good at introducing quality bus measures, but others are appalling at it, which has a knock-on impact on the level of service. Does she agree that the changes proposed in the Bill will mean that across a whole metropolitan county there could be a proper network with proper quality bus measures? That will mean that the reliability of bus services, which she has mentioned, can better be guaranteed.

Ms Winterton: Absolutely. My hon. Friend is quite right. I should add again that when I have visited local areas and talked to people who are trying to deliver transport, councillors of all parties have said that they have sometimes come across that problem. They have said that they could do much more if the powers in the Bill were already in place. They say, “Please get these powers in place as soon as possible.” The Opposition Front-Bench team do not want them at all.

There is widespread agreement that at the same time as strengthening the traffic commissioners’ role, we need to give passengers a stronger voice about the services that they use. Talking to passengers makes it very clear what they want: buses that go where they want to go, when they want to travel, and are clean, comfortable and not overcrowded, and reliable services that get to their destinations quickly and efficiently.

We need to put passengers at the heart of our bus services, and give them the opportunity to hold those services to account. There are already well-established bodies that are helping to do just that, often operating
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at local or regional level. Many people have argued, however, and I agree, that there is a good case for establishing a statutory body, with statutory powers, to act as a champion of the needs of the bus passenger. We launched a full public consultation last December, and we are now carefully considering the many responses that we have received. There is a clear consensus about the need for a bigger passenger voice, and we will announce our conclusions shortly. Clauses 68 and 69 contain the primary powers that would enable us to take forward that important agenda in future secondary legislation.

Many of the transport challenges that our communities face require local areas to work closely in partnership with each other. That relates to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne). Those partnerships must have the powers and authority to make the decisions that are needed. Passenger transport authorities and passenger transport executives play a crucial role in delivering public transport in our major cities outside London, but the current arrangements have been in place for several decades and do not always lead to coherent transport planning across our major urban areas. We therefore want to support those urban areas that are now starting to explore the options for reform.

Instead of taking a prescriptive approach to local transport governance, part 5 of the Bill lays the foundations for local areas themselves to examine the strengths and weaknesses of their existing arrangements. They will be able to develop their own proposals for reforms to suit their local needs, which could then be implemented in secondary legislation tailored to the needs of the individual area. That process could lead to a stronger role for integrated transport authorities, perhaps with stronger powers on important matters such as bus lanes, leading to a more coherent and consistent approach such as my hon. Friend described.

Dr. Blackman-Woods: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Minister, who is being very generous in giving way. Under the Bill, would it be possible for an integrated passenger authority to cover a whole region, for example the north-east of England, if proper consultation took place and authorities were prepared to buy into it?

Ms Winterton: What we have said is that we want local authorities themselves to consider what will work best. We would expect wide consensus in the setting up of new bodies, and my hon. Friend will know better than I whether such consensus is likely to be reached at regional level. Of course, other transport planning measures are possible under other legislation, such as multi-area agreements. It is quite possible for local authorities to get together much more effectively than was previously the case and to plan more widely, and we are already seeing that. I am sure my hon. Friend knows that the changes that are taking place in relation to the regional development agencies and so on are causing people to look closely at how to deal with transport.

Governance reforms could obviously be particularly beneficial in areas that are considering the role that road charging could play alongside investment in local public transport. The Bill makes it absolutely clear that
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it is for local authorities, not central Government, to decide whether local road charging is right for their areas. It confirms that scheme revenues are for the local authority involved to spend on local transport, even after the first 10 years of a scheme. It also ensures that the right powers are available to secure consistency and interoperability between schemes, helping to avoid confusion and complexity for road users.

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): In 2005, the Labour party manifesto stated that, if re-elected, the Labour Government would move away from

If road pricing schemes get the go-ahead under the Bill, which existing motoring taxes will be reduced or abolished?

Ms Winterton: The Bill is not about a national road pricing scheme. It is about local road pricing schemes, if local areas want them. Frankly, the type of changes that the right hon. Gentleman is talking about would be impractical in a local area and a local scheme, and I am sure he knows that. What we have said, however, as I have just stated, is that any revenue raised will be ploughed back into public transport even after the first 10 years of any road pricing approach.

Mark Hunter: I thank the Minister for giving way; she continues to be very generous with her time. She says that decisions about road charging schemes will be taken locally and should be in the hands of local authorities. What is her view of the current situation in Greater Manchester, with which she will be familiar? Seven of the 10 boroughs are apparently in favour of such a scheme, but the other three are most definitely not. Does she intend that the Government will continue with their policy and effectively force the scheme on the rest of the conurbation of Greater Manchester, whether it likes it or not?

Ms Winterton: Obviously, the discussions about the Manchester transport innovation fund bid are still going on, and we will examine the proposals when they come to us.

As I hope is clear, the Bill has a strong focus on empowering local communities to address the transport challenges that they face today and will face in the years ahead. It does so by ensuring that the right powers are available at the right level to deliver the changes that are needed locally, by giving a stronger voice to transport users and by ensuring that the right governance arrangements can be put in place locally so that the decisions that are needed can be made. There is a great deal of support for the Bill, not least because transport users, local government and central Government agree that we need local communities to be empowered to secure services that are designed around the needs of passengers—local transport that genuinely puts the needs of the travelling public first.

This Labour Government have vastly improved the provision of bus services in this country, after the disastrous actions of the previous Tory Government. I hoped that all parties would support the Bill today, but
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the Opposition have apparently decided not to do so. That shows exactly how out of touch they are with the real concerns of people in this country. It will remind us of the real attitude of the Conservative Party, which goes back to Margaret Thatcher’s view that if a man was using a bus after the age of 30, he was a failure. What nonsense. Millions of people use our bus services, and if the Opposition do not support the Bill, they will be turning their back on those people. It will be frankly astonishing not to support these changes, and I am amazed that they are even considering that. I know it will be against the will of many of their representatives in local government. Without a Labour Government there would be no national concessionary travel scheme, nor the increase in bus use that has been evident over the past 10 years. This Bill is a further step on that journey of improvement, and I commend it to the House.

1.29 pm

Mrs. Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con): I beg to move,

I want to start by emphasising one thing very clearly—buses matter. Any Conservative Government led by David Cameron will do all that they can to improve bus services for passengers. Two thirds of all journeys by public transport are made by bus every year. That is well above the combined total of journeys on both the London underground and the whole national rail network. For thousands of people across the country, the bus is the only option when it comes to local public transport.

So buses matter to our quality of life and to our economic prosperity. Critically, of course, they now also matter when it comes to tackling problems caused by climate change and worsening traffic congestion. Increasing bus ridership should play a significant part in a successful strategy to tackle both those vital issues for our country, so I welcome the fact that this Bill gives us time in Parliament to debate the future of the UK’s bus network.

Ms Angela C. Smith: Given what the hon. Lady has just said, and given that her party leader is in favour of improving bus services, why are the Opposition not voting for the Bill today?

Mrs. Villiers: We have tabled the amendment because we do not believe that the Bill is the best way to improve local bus services. As I shall explain, not all of the Bill is controversial. We agree with some elements, but we think that significant parts of it take our bus network in the wrong direction.

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Clive Efford: I do not doubt that the hon. Lady values buses, but unfortunately her hon. Friends do not. She could fit into a London taxi the Conservative MPs present for this debate; she would not need a bus. [ Interruption. ] I declare my interests. The hon. Lady said that bus deregulation had worked outside London. If that is so, why has overall bus ridership outside London fallen rather than risen?

Mrs. Villiers: There are many differences between the London example and the rest of the country. It is clear that the level of subsidy in London has a much more significant impact on ridership than matters to do with regulation or deregulation. It is simply not possible to make a causal link between the regulatory structure in London and levels of ridership. That equation does not add up.

Graham Stringer (Manchester, Blackley) (Lab): I listened carefully to the answer given by the hon. Lady. The Select Committee on Transport has produced a number of reports on the question of subsidies, however, and if she has read them, she will know that virtually no subsidy was given to the regulated London bus system until the city got a Mayor. Even so, the passenger figures for London remained static, while those for metropolitan areas in the rest of the country fell. Does not that make the case for regulating the bus system outside London, or would she prefer to deregulate bus services in London, since they are so good?

Mrs. Villiers: I assure the hon. Gentleman that we have no plans to change the system in the capital, where special circumstances apply. However, he fails to make the case for a causal connection between the regulatory system in London and the recorded increases in ridership. The subsidy in London amounts to £638 million, and that clearly makes a significant difference. The disparity between ridership in London and the rest of the country is not due to the regulatory system in place in the capital.

Mr. Betts: I want to get this right. The hon. Lady has said that there is no causal relationship between the regulatory system that operates in London and bus ridership. However, she accepts that the capital has been very successful in increasing bus ridership. If there is no causal relationship between the two, why does she rule out the possibility of changing the regulatory environment in London?

Mrs. Villiers: As I said, we have no plans to change the regulatory system in London.

I turn now to the Bill itself. We welcome the provisions on community transport that the Minister outlined earlier, and those aimed at preventing competition law from getting in the way of sensible arrangements to co-ordinate and improve bus services. Of course it is vital to police anti-competitive practices effectively, but it makes no sense if competition law actively frustrates arrangements that benefit passengers.

Competition law, as some people currently interpret it, can put a very real barrier in the way of efforts to improve local bus services. Even a low-key discussion between bus operators to consider co-ordination measures aimed at benefiting passengers can potentially give rise
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to dawn raids by competition authorities and the police. It is a matter of serious concern that this problem remains unsolved so long after deregulation.

In that regard, I want to pay tribute to the work done by the Campaign for Better Transport. The Opposition can see some appealing arguments in favour of the call that that organisation makes in its briefing on the Bill for a wider remit for the revised competition test set out in schedule 2. The campaign’s ideas on taking into account the competition provided between car and bus, and not just between bus operators, is also something that we consider well worth exploring.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): The hon. Lady seemed to suggest that competition needs to be somewhat regulated in the interests of users. Will she explain why the amendment proposes free competition between bus operators?

Mrs. Villiers: We are saying that some competition laws get in the way of the effective provision of better services for passengers. Those laws need to be reformed to ensure that they work more efficiently and do not get in the way of the provision of better services for passengers.

We also welcome efforts to strengthen the voice of bus passengers and to establish a “bus champion”, and we recognise the valuable work already done in that respect by Bus Users UK. We note the observations made by the National Consumer Council on this aspect of the Bill, and its call for the new organisation to be a strong national advocacy body with a clear remit to improve bus travel for the consumer. The NCC is correct to emphasise the importance of founding the work of the new body on sound ongoing qualitative and quantitative research. In that regard, we can learn from the precedent set by the high-quality research produced by Passenger Focus in the rail context.

I turn now to the Bill’s more controversial provisions, and specifically to clauses 13 to 18 on statutory quality partnerships. An invention of this Government, these statutory arrangements have lagged behind voluntary partnerships in delivering service improvements. According to the passenger transport executive group, only one statutory quality partnership has been implemented since the partnerships were introduced in the Transport Act 2000, and I understand that it is to be found on the A6135—the Barnsley road—in Sheffield.

I very much hope that that scheme is successful, but the fact that it appears to be the sole example of the use of this fundamental element of the Government’s bus policy must lead us to question the effectiveness of such arrangements. I have yet to hear from the Minister exactly what can be achieved using a statutory arrangement that cannot be delivered using the voluntary arrangements that already have a proven track record in many areas of the country.

Ms Angela C. Smith: I represent part of the city of Sheffield, and I draw the hon. Lady’s attention to the fact that it proved extremely difficult to put in place the contract for the Barnsley road quality partnership scheme. Does she agree that that underlines the need for this Bill, as it will make quality partnerships easier to use in future?

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