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As the Bill passes through the Commons, we want consultation requirements strengthened, not weakened. For example, given the impact that congestion charging can have on rail services, it is vital that the consultation process includes rail and freight operators. I note the
useful representations received from Network Rail on that point, emphasising how important it is that local authorities take into account relevant rail plans, such as route utilisation strategies in a range of activities touched on by the Bill, including the local transport plans covered by clause 9.
We have said time and again that these schemes should go ahead only if they are locally ledif they have the consent and support of local people. That is why we will table amendments to empower and encourage local authorities to hold referendums either before introducing such schemes or once they have been up and running for a trial period. We do not seek to mandate this approach, but we wish to send the signal that a referendum should always be seriously considered as an option, and we will seek to clarify the legal status of local referendums. It is a concern in Bolton, for example, that should the referendum that the local authority is contemplating in that area go ahead, it would have no legal status at all.
During the passage of the Bill, we will do all we can to ensure that it cannot be used as a Trojan horse for the introduction of the Governments untried, untested spy-in-the-sky national road pricing scheme. Our steadfast opposition to such a scheme is just one of the reasons why we shall oppose clause 115, which could make Wales a potential test bed for the Governments national scheme by giving the Welsh Assembly power to introduce charging on all Welsh trunk roads. No such power for equivalent English roads is included in the Bill. Why should the Welsh have to put up with unpopular policies that the Government are, as yet, not quite foolhardy enough to put into practice elsewhere in the UK?
It is a matter of huge concern that that significant revenue-raising power is being introduced by the back door in a transport Bill without the high-level debate on the constitutional implications of the change proposed. As the noble Lord Glentoran pointed out in the other place, the clause effectively gives the Assembly the power to levy taxation in Wales, despite the fact that it has no such power within the current constitutional settlement. There is, of course, every danger that the provision could be used as a stalking horse for a UK-wide scheme.
Labours deeply unpopular spy-in-the-sky national road pricing policy just will not seem to die; just when we think we have nailed it, it returns to grab us by the throat again. The national scheme was announced with a fanfare by the now Chancellor during his tenure at the Department for Transport, but the Government seemed to signal a retreat on it after 1.8 million people signed the Downing street petition opposing it. Given the shift in emphasis to local projects, it began to look as if the Secretary of State had recognised how misguided the Governments plans for a national scheme were. Yet sadly it transpires that, just as happened with home information packs, her voice is not heard very loudly in the Governmentlo and behold, the Chancellor suddenly announced plans to revive national road pricing in his Budget.
The truth is that such a scheme is fraught with risks. In the hands of the Government, an IT system to track every one of the 33 million vehicles on every road in Britain, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, is simply a public procurement disaster waiting to happen. There is
no reason to believe that the DVLA has the quality of data needed to make such a system operate smoothly in practice, given its inadequate performance on rogue drivers and tax evasion. Even the Governments own figures suggest that details for as many as 7.5 million drivers may be wrong. Above all, how could we possibly trust this Governmentthe people who lost in the post the personal details of every family in the countrywith sensitive data on where every vehicle is on every road on every day of every year?
There might have been technical ways in which to tackle those privacy issues, but the catastrophic breaches of data security in recent months show clearly that the Government simply could not be trusted to put them into practice in a competent way. The series of data disasters show that the Government have failed in their basic duty to safeguard the interests of the people whom they were elected to serve. The Government have well and truly forfeited the right to be trusted in running the national road pricing scheme that they propose. That is one of the reasons why we shall oppose giving the Bill a Second Reading.
In conclusion, we believe that in their 10 years in office, the Government have wholly failed to tackle congestion. We have the most overcrowded roads in Europe. The Government have abandoned their targets for cutting congestion, broken their promises and left many local communities waiting years for much-needed bypasses. Their quality contract proposals were always a retrograde step, and it is no wonder they have lain unused, gathering dust on the legislative shelf, since the Government introduced them. We have seen the Government running for cover on their flagship roads policy, and 1.8 million people expressing their strong opposition. The Bill fails to make up for the 10 years of Labour failure on local transport. That is why we have tabled the amendment.
Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge) (Lab): I rise to support the Bill and oppose the amendment. My contribution will be brief, but I want to welcome the Bill. This Second Reading follows last nights approval of the financial regime for the new national concessionary fares scheme; together with this Bill, that spells a good week for public transport.
The Bill is long overdue, of course; as the Minister pointed out, the privatisation of bus services has led to a 20-year decline in bus ridership. Conversely, that has been accompanied by 20 years of healthy profits for the big five bus companies, which have cherry-picked the profitable routes, leaving thousands of our citizens with an inferior, and in some cases non-existent, bus service.
The privatisation took control from elected local authorities and left local councils with little power to protect local services, except at considerable public cost. Given that public subsidy to the bus industry provides 33 per cent. of bus operator profits and that every bus is subsidised to the tune of £35,000, the public have a right to demand a say in how and where services are provided.
The Bill begins to address the anomaly, and has the potential to reverse the decline in bus ridership. I say the potential because, good as this measure is, there
could, as the Bill stands, be opportunities for bus operators to frustrate the desire of local transport authorities to provide better services to their communities. The system of approvals boards, appeals tribunals and possible judicial review, which is open to exploitation by bus operators, could delay the implementation of quality partnerships or quality contracts for years, during which operators would be able to continue to run unsatisfactory services or, in some areas, not to provide services at all.
Given that there is an urgency to improve public transport, attract motorists out of their cars, reduce congestion, improve local economies and clean up the environment, we cannot afford for progress to be unreasonably or unnecessarily frustrated in the interests of bigger profits for the bus companies.
I do not oppose private businesses making profits; on the contrary, I worked for a private business for more than 20 years, and I never thought it a good idea that my employer should make a loss. However, the profits in the bus business are very healthyhealthy enough for the bus companies to co-operate with the local authorities as the Bill intends without causing shareholders too much concern. The era of take, take by the bus companies has to be replaced by a system of sensible and responsible co-operation in the interests of all. I hope that during its consideration in Committee and on Report, the Bill can be strengthened to reflect the legitimate public interest that stems from the public subsidy to which I referred earlier.
Ms Dari Taylor: My hon. Friends point is incredibly valuable. I know of bus services that are cancelled, delayed, taken offnobody knows about it and nobody answers when we ask why. Is he suggesting that a system of penalties should be included in the Bill so that operators know that if they do not deliver, we will?
The Bill also makes provision for the creation of integrated transport authorities that would replace metropolitan passenger authorities such as the Tyne and Wear passenger transport authority. It is vital that the new authorities be made up of locally elected councillors with the statutory power to ensure the provision of good-quality, comprehensive, integrated, public transport systems. They should not be frustrated in that task by bus operators or unelected quangos. If Ministers mean what they say when they talk about giving more power to local people and enhancing local decision making, they have the opportunity to make actions follow words by ensuring that the provisions of the Bill bring that about.
This morning, I welcomed to the House a group of students from Gateshead college, which is in my constituency. One of the issues that they raised with me was the lack of convenient public transport to get them to the magnificent new college premises on Gateshead quayside, and the cost of such buses as there are. I hope that the new ITAs will have the power to deal with the provision of such services and that, even now, the PTAs in the region can, in consultation with bus operators
and other stakeholders, make progress towards the introduction of a new concessionary fare system across the north-east for young people in full-time education. That would do much for the young people themselves; it would also help close the skills gap and do much for the local economy.
Dr. Blackman-Woods: Does my hon. Friend agree that the young people whom we have met in the north-east have made an extremely valid case in favour of having such support from local authorities and the Government as they continue their education?
The Bill also deals with local congestion charging or road charging, which, while it may have its place and may even be inevitable in some areas, must be preceded by the provision of much improved, widely available, good-quality, efficient and affordable public transport. The provision of the latter may well, to some extent, negate the need for the former. However, we have to face reality. Many people will still use their cars, and road transport will still be the major form of transport in the United Kingdom for the foreseeable future. A properly linked-up, well maintained road network is an important part of local transport planning and provisionindeed, buses themselves need such provisionso roads will still need to be improved and, in some cases, new roads built. That, too, must be part of efficient transport planning.
I welcome the Bill and congratulate the Government on introducing it. I hope that during its passage through the House it can be fine-tuned so that it can bring about the revolution in public transport provision that is so badly needed, and needed now, by our local communities.
Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): Let me begin by welcoming the Bill and indicating clearly that my colleagues and I will support its Second Reading. That is not to say that we do not have problems with itnaturally, we doand we will seek to raise some of those this afternoon and again in Committee. However, the Bill undoubtedly takes us in the right direction.
Before I come to those concerns, I must say something about the speech by the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers), which was the apex of incoherence as regards putting forward any sort of argument. She said that the statutory quality partnerships and contracts that had already been introduced were not working. That is quite true, and Bill has now been introduced to ensure that they do work by making it easier for local authorities to take part. She then said that certain issues in the Bill are worth exploring and acknowledged that it has some good points, but she then reached the conclusion that we should vote against Second Reading and abandon
the Bill entirely. But that would mean that we would be unable to discuss those good points as they come up in Committee, unable to reform the current quality partnerships and contracts that she recognises are not working, and that we would be forced to carry on in some sort of Neverland where buses do not work properly, bus fares are going up and passengers are unable to get the service that they require. I do not know what kind of transport policy that is. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mark Hunter) says, it shows the strategic understanding of Olive from On the Buses. We deserve rather better than that. The hon. Lady said that she did not want to wind things back to the 1980s, but that is precisely what she is doing. She may not look like Mrs. Thatcher, but she certainly sounds like her at times.
The Minister was kind enough to nick my line from last night about Mrs. Thatcher saying that that nobody over 30 uses a bus unless they are a failure in life. That is part of the problem. Buses have not been seen as a sensible transport alternative; instead, people have been driven on to the roads, and the consequence is that congestion is worsening, climate change is worsening as result of increased emissions from transport overall, and bus usage is declining. The Bill does not offer the perfect answer to that problem, but it goes some way towards resolving it.
The Conservatives alternative, in so far as there is one, is to go back to the days of unrestricted deregulation in the 1980s, but that has failed us. Hon. Members may remember Nicholas Ridleythe person who wanted councils to meet once a year to hand out contracts and who said, when he was Transport Secretary, that the aim of deregulation was
to halt the decline that has afflicted the bus industry for more than 20 years.[ Official Report, 12 February 1985; Vol. 73, c. 192.]
Since then, there has been a catastrophic decrease in bus usage, which has halved from nearly 9 billion journeys in the 1970s to 4.7 billion. However, there has been an increase in bus journeys in London20 years ago one in five journeys were made by bus in London, and now it is almost two in five. London has been a rip-roaring success and the fantastic deregulation-world presented by the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet has been a total failure.
I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman about that. There has been a decline in both periods. However, the objective of deregulation, according to Nicholas Ridley, was to halt the decline, but it has not done sothe decline has got much worse over that period. That is not simply to do with the number of buses running and the passengers using themthere is also the cost aspect. Any analysis of the cost of travelling by bus shows that in recent yearsI regret to say that it is also true under this Governmentit has gone up significantly, while the cost of going by car has gone down. All the wrong signals are being sent. Since 1997, the cost of going by bus has gone up, in real terms, by 13 per cent. above inflation, while the cost of going by
car has gone down by 10 per cent. We need to address thator are we content that people who make green choices pay more than those who make un-green choices?
Mr. Stewart Jackson: The hon. Gentleman is delivering a masterclass in ideological myopia, which we are used to from the Liberal Democrats. He is surely being disingenuous in not seeing a causal link between bus usage and the demographic changes that have happened across this country over the past 20 years, particularly in respect of real incomes and car usage. This is not just an ideological political issue.
Norman Baker: Demographic changes have occurred in other countries as well. There are fantastic successes in bus usage in other European countries. As a matter of fact, demographic changes have occurred in Brighton and Hove, as the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet said, and we are seeing success there. Demographic changes have occurred in London, and there are increases in ridership there. The implication of the hon. Gentlemans intervention is that when people get rich, they stop using buses. That is not true at allor at least it should not be. I can tell him that I certainly use buses, as are more and more people. He seems to be repeating Mrs. Thatchers view that people who are successful do not use buses and people who do use buses are failures.
Mr. Stewart Jackson: That is a gross distortion of anything that Mrs. Thatcher ever allegedly said. I merely invited the hon. Gentleman, for whom I have a great deal of respect, to comment on the fact that this is not solely an issue of dogma and political theory. It is not that rich people do not want to use buses but that people who have opportunities to use cars in their local neighbourhood and beyond will choose to do so if the bus service is not clean, efficient and priced correctly.
Norman Baker: I entirely agree with the hon. Gentlemans last point. We need to achieve a standard whereby buses are reliable, have a good regular services, are clean and reasonably cheap, and people feel safe using them. If we get all those things lined up togetheras in most of Londonwe will find that people do use buses. Those are the key aims to hit, but that is not happening under the current system. The regulatory regime across the country is not delivering, except in sporadic locations. I am afraid that my own local authority in East Sussex has had a system of cutting bus support continually over 20 years. It has not been able to cross-subsidise unprofitable services from profitable services because that option was taken away in 1986, and the consequence has been that large numbers of my constituents are now without buses.
Mr. Truswell: Is it not a simple fact that deregulation has failed even on its own narrow, dogmatic terms? In most areas, certainly in my own, services are usually provided by a monopoly provider, and when subsidised services are put out for tender, there tends to be just one bidder, so the notion in the Tory amendment about free competition nonsense in practice.
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