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Norman Baker: I am afraid that it is, because that is exactly what does happen. It is sometimes even worse than that when the operator says that it wishes to withdraw from a subsidised service. In those circumstances,
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there is a tender process, the tender price has to increase, and the same operator then bids again and gets the contract. I do not wish to castigate all bus companies, but the fact is that some of them are making a great deal of money. Bus prices are going up and bus ridership is going down, and that is not a combination that I wish to see.

Andrew Gwynne: The hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly good point. Am I correct that that could not happen in London because Transport for London has the regulatory powers to operate the network and it, not the bus operators, decides where the services should run?

Norman Baker: Yes. I would not want to say that Transport for London is perfect in all aspects, because it certainly is not, but there is a coherence to the London network that does not apply elsewhere. I have constituents who have got a job somewhere because there is an early-morning bus to get from their village to the nearest town, but the company running the service then notifies the traffic commissioner that it is going to withdraw the service. Where does that leave that person and their job? Such unpredictability means that people cannot rely on buses, which is why people who are failures, in Mrs. Thatcher’s words, use buses. They have no alternative. I want buses to be the best they can be, which they are in many towns, so that we can get people using buses because they are good. Buses can be good, and can make a real contribution to our public transport system—far more so than at present. We need to move towards such a situation, and the loosening up of the regime for quality partnerships and contracts gets us some way towards it.

I want to talk about the mixed picture in the country because the situation is not uniform. The London system works well, but there is a subsidy involved. I take the point made by the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer); even before the Mayor’s subsidy, there had been a stabilisation in ridership—the word we are expected to use this afternoon. Nevertheless, a heavy subsidy is involved, so that is a downside. In Brighton and Hove, Roger French is the managing director of a very good and innovative bus company that is not necessarily supported by the local authority. He certainly has not been supported in the way he ought to be by East Sussex county council.

Other passenger transport executives and local authorities are forward looking—I include Manchester in that. Manchester PTE has a very forward-looking collection of people, who are not necessarily well served by the bus companies. I would categorise Norfolk Green, the Norfolk bus company, as a good one that has the support of the local authority. The patchwork arrangement throughout the country means things can be very different, meaning that different solutions are required for different areas. Deregulation was a mistake, but absolute re-regulation is not necessarily the right policy, given the position we are starting from and some of the successes in the country.

The trick is to get more people on buses, which means hitting those targets to which I and the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) referred to a moment ago. Getting people on to buses would also help in
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dealing with climate change because that is better than having lots of different road vehicles all following each other.

The key to the Bill, and its heart, is the relationship between the bus operator and the local public transport body. Getting that balance right is the difficult bit. I am not sure that the Government have got it right yet, but they have had a stab at it. We need to explore the matter in Committee to ensure that the balance is just right. We do not want to give bus operators too much power or we would have a continuation of bad practice, but we do not want to give local authorities too much power because they might eliminate—perhaps by default or by accident—some of the good practice that exists. Getting that balance right is the difficult part.

The concept of having partnerships and contracts is right. The concept of cross-subsidy is right; we can now have socially provided services subsidised by profitable services. That is a good idea, and the fact that we lost that opportunity during the past 20 years is part of the problem, particularly in rural areas. We must not remove what works well, and we do not want successful routes diverted to serve odd roads because some constituents want those roads served; that would minimise the success of the main route bus service. We do not want the livelihood of small successful operators to be removed, which theoretically could happen under the quality contract regime. I have some sympathy for the Conservative position on that, if I understood it correctly.

I referred to Norfolk Green earlier, and the Minister is familiar with its case. It has a well-patronised coastal route service between Fakenham and Norwich. It is a small company, which has established that route and patronage of it through its own efforts. It is possible, if a quality contract zone were established, that that route would be taken away from the company. The employees would be protected, thanks to amendments to the Bill passed in the Lords, but the company would not be. That is a genuine issue. We must ensure that individuals who have done well in a deregulated world and have provided a decent service do not lose out as a consequence of moves to make a more coherent stance in local government for bus contracts. We have to be careful how we frame the legislation.

Dr. Blackman-Woods: The hon. Gentleman makes a number of interesting points. Would he accept, however, that the Bill allows local authorities to introduce plans for their area that can include a combination of commercial routes, community transport and subsidised services? That should enable greater flexibility and, hopefully, a greater meeting of local needs as a result.

Norman Baker: I accept that the Bill does that, and that would be an ideal solution. Clearly, it is not in the interests of a local authority to run Norfolk Green or a similar company out of town. It ought to use such a company’s expertise in part of the contract. Nor would it be sensible for the authority to put all of its eggs in one basket and have only one bus company for a big area, leaving it vulnerable the next time the contract is up for renewal. I think that the Minister made that point to me when we had a conversation about it. Nevertheless, the arrangements theoretically allow the Norfolk Greens of this world to lose business, and we have to be careful about that when framing the legislation.

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Mr. Betts: Can the hon. Gentleman be a bit more precise about what could be done to amend the Bill to cover that point? Surely it would not be possible to amend the Bill to allow a situation where such a small company could be protected and possibly compensated without opening the doorway to compensating Stagecoach, FirstGroup or other companies for routes that they may lose.

Norman Baker: That is a fair point and leads me to the approvals board and the arrangements that the Minister described in her opening comments. She made a sustainable case that there should be external validation of such contracts. That is right. If there were no external validation, I am persuaded that it would be easier for bus operators to take legal action, which would cost local authorities a lot of money, and the operators might be successful in that action. The idea of some sort of external validation is probably right. I do not like it much as a concept, but it is a logical step.

To return to the intervention of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts), what sort of external validation process would pick up the points I have raised? How can we get a process that is legally sensible and protects local authorities without making it so cumbersome that the inadequacies of the Transport Act 2000, which the Minister recognised in her opening comments, are repeated? We do not want a system of hurdles that is merely a different set from the one in the 2000 Act. We want to ensure that this Bill achieves something. If we come back in five years’ time with yet another Bill, we will have collectively failed.

What balance should be struck? I am uncomfortable with the idea that there should be an approvals board and a referral to the transport tribunal—and, in theory, the High Court beyond that. There will be three levels of hurdles that can stop a local authority—which is democratically elected, after all—from pursuing a policy. It would be more sensible if there were an arrangement where the approvals board came up with a conclusion and made a recommendation to the PTE, so it could have the final say. Such a system would resemble what happens when the Environment Agency makes recommendations to a local council on flood defences. The planning authority still makes the final decision, but the Environment Agency makes the recommendation, and woe betide the local authority should it ignore it. Most local authorities will pay attention to such advice, but the elected members still have the final say. It would then be possible to have an appeal to the transport tribunal thereafter. One of the hurdles would be cut out.

Alternatively, the approvals board could make the decision, as the Minister suggested, and the transport tribunal could be cut out with appeals going directly to the High Court. Either of those scenarios would ensure two hurdles rather than three. That would be more helpful in getting the balance right between local authority power and the operator’s right to appeal. It would still have the proper right of appeal, and such a state of affairs would be legal-proof. I will be considering amendments along those lines in Committee and I hope that the Minister will sympathetically consider the points I raise.

A number of objections have been made about the present arrangements by the Passenger Transport
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Executive Group, as the Minister will know. It makes the point that there are no limits on the grounds of appeal to the transport tribunal, and an appeal can be made by any consultee to the original quality contract application. That dangerous situation leaves the door wide open. We do not want a situation where local authorities face more risks, hurdles and delays.

I am concerned that the traffic commissioners, good though they are at dealing with overweight lorries, do not yet have expertise in the area in question. There is a training function to deal with. They are being given substantial new powers that are important in the Bill, and I am not necessarily convinced—I mean no disrespect to the individuals concerned—that they have the necessary training to undertake such a role. We need to understand what the Government have in mind to ensure that the traffic commissioners are able to undertake the role allocated to them in the Bill.

Secondly, the traffic commissioners say that they are underfunded and that there is not enough money for their current functions. If we load more functions on the traffic commissioners without allocating more funds to them, I fear that a lot of decisions will be made rather quickly and not very well, which would be in no one’s interests. By the way, I would like to add in passing that it is good that we have an arrangement whereby traffic commissioners can deal with unsafe buses more robustly than previously.

I do not have a problem with unelected persons being members of integrated transport authorities—I am old enough to think that ITA means “independent television authority”—but I feel strongly that it is inappropriate for them to have voting rights. By all means let us bring in expertise, but the danger of having unelected people with voting rights is that there will be a temptation for those who appoint them to load up the ITA with those sympathetic to their views. That might undermine a democratic local election result that had produced a majority for one party, which could be transformed by the appointment of unelected people of a different political persuasion. I therefore hope that unelected members will not have votes.

I welcome the proposals on community transport, which both the Minister and the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet mentioned. It is sensible that we can have drivers who are paid when bigger vehicles are used. I also welcome the amendments in the Lords, which will enable passenger transport executives to provide vehicles to community transport operators. I am concerned about the bus users’ arrangements, however. We need to make them more robust and ensure that they are more independent of bus operators and more accurately reflect bus passengers requirements than they appear to.

Lastly, I listened with interest to the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet on road pricing, just as I have listened with interest to Ministers on road pricing over the past few months. A variety of policies have emerged, none of which is particularly consistent with the others, so let me make plain where my colleagues and I stand on road pricing—we do not mind saying so. We think that the answer is a national road pricing scheme, which would give the necessary coherence to transport planning and would allow, for example, road tax to be abolished entirely, which cannot be done if we have only local schemes. We also think that a national
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scheme would enable us to price transport movements by carbon emission across the country. A national scheme would also be potentially much fairer—it would also be revenue-neutral, by the way—to those in rural areas, who currently pay far more for petrol than those in central London, which cannot be sensible.

When the opportunity arises, therefore, we will be arguing for a national road pricing scheme, albeit probably not in this Bill, because it is outside its scope—at least I suspect that it will be, if I try to move amendments to that effect. In so far as we have local road pricing schemes, I welcome them. Local authorities should have the opportunity to innovate and experiment as they wish. I do not regard that as a restriction on local authorities, but a power for them to take forward if they choose to do so.

My only hesitation, if I am honest, is that the Government are running a bit shy of road pricing. They are happy for local authorities to take a couple of hits and to see how schemes bed down, before they take forward a policy themselves. That is an abdication of the Government’s responsibilities, so I was pleased that the Chancellor mentioned national road pricing in the Budget. We need to move towards that, both for the good use of the road network and for environmental reasons.

The Conservatives are hostile towards road pricing, but perhaps they ought to talk to their friends in the CBI, which is quite in favour of road pricing when it talks to me, as are many environmental groups. Once again, I fear that the Conservatives are showing themselves to be completely out of touch with business, the environment and bus passengers, just as they have done throughout this Second Reading debate.

I conclude by welcoming the Bill. We shall be moving amendments in Committee in respect of some of the issues that I have mentioned, but I assure the Minister that we, at least, shall approach the Bill in a constructive manner.

2.33 pm

Ms Angela C. Smith (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab): I intend to be fairly brief, because I fully expected a 10-minute limit on speeches, given the importance of the debate. However, the lack of Opposition Members in the Chamber has given us an unexpected amount of time in which to make our speeches.

Obviously I welcome the Bill. It represents a great opportunity to create the powers necessary to enable integrated transport authorities to put passengers first. The Bill is long overdue. For too long, many bus passengers outside London have suffered from unreliable services, reductions in services and, on occasion, even the withdrawal of services, all at the behest of the bus operators, who, as things stand, have to give only 56 days’ notice before a service is withdrawn.

Every three months in Sheffield and across South Yorkshire, services are withdrawn, changed or reduced. That can no longer continue. Where services to deprived or isolated areas have suffered, the passenger transport authority has had to plug the gap with publicly funded subsidies. However, other areas have not been so lucky, suffering from patchy provision that fails to meet the needs of local people. The statistics speak for themselves.
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In the major urban areas outside London, bus use has halved in the 20 years since bus services were deregulated. In the past year, the use of light rail services has increased by 9 per cent., but the use of bus services has increased by only 4 per cent. That is a welcome upturn, but in the context of increased usage of light rail and trams, bus services are still lagging behind.

People are voting with their feet. In London, the use of bus services last year increased by 6 per cent., but outside London it increased by only 3 per cent. I would suggest that London has got something right—something that the rest of the country needs to follow. The Bill offers the metropolitan areas and every other area outside London the opportunity to catch up.

Patchy service quality is evident throughout the country, with around 16 per cent. of all buses spot checked by the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency issued with prohibition notices. Nearly 12 per cent. of bus services by mileage have disappeared altogether in the metropolitan areas in the past eight years alone. We also have poorly co-ordinated services. One of the biggest complaints from my constituents is that buses, trams and trains in South Yorkshire are not integrated. There are examples of passengers boarding buses at stops near their homes, but having to get off and use services run by other operators and having to buy more tickets. That is crackers and, in the interests of the passenger, it must change.

No wonder complaints about bus services form by far the largest part of my correspondence with my constituents. I have called a number of public meetings since I became an MP three years ago, including two public meetings over the withdrawal of bus services. With little notice and little effort, the rooms were packed with local people complaining about the withdrawal of services. Given South Yorkshire’s past, it is no wonder that bus users in the area are so disgruntled. Most people who talk about the glory days of South Yorkshire transport refer to the cheap fares policy, with a 12p maximum fare for adults and a 2p fare for children. London is now emulating that, with its free bus rides for children, but those days have gone.

One of the best aspects of the service in the ’70s and ’80s, which is often not remembered, is how well it worked in terms of routes and frequencies, how it got people to work and leisure activities, and how it got children to school. For instance, it was no problem getting from Rotherham, on one side of the Don valley, to Sheffield, on the other, by bus. Even on a Sunday, it was relatively easy to get a bus from one part of South Yorkshire to another. It was not difficult for pensioners to enjoy market days across South Yorkshire—Barnsley one day and Doncaster the next, as well as Sheffield, for its then renowned Castle and Sheaf markets.

The ability to get around and make the best use of leisure and shopping services across the area is important to pensioners. However, pensioners in particular complain that their buses do not turn up. They complain of frequent changes to the routes that they use regularly. Indeed, not very long ago I was a local authority councillor in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts). Down in the south-east of Sheffield, the complaints were about the withdrawal of services and about services to local shops and hospitals not turning up. Now that I represent
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the north of Sheffield, I hear exactly the same complaints from constituents in High Green, Chapeltown and Ecclesfield.

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