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My constituents complain not just about being unable to get to Sheffield for work or Meadowhall for shopping, but about being unable to get to Barnsley. For those who live in the north of Sheffield, Barnsley is just as likely a destination for work or leisure as Sheffield city centre. The key point for most of my constituents is that their local bus service does not meet their needs, and does not connect them to essential services such as local hospitals and shops.

Workers are also giving up using the bus to get to work. When the bus on which they rely fails to turn up not once, not twice but three times and more, making them late and embarrassed when they finally get to work, it is no wonder that they give up using the bus and take to their cars. If they cannot rely on the bus service to get them to work on time, of course they will turn to their cars. However, if they have no car because they cannot afford to buy or run one, what option do they have? Their employment and their relationship with their employer are put at risk. That is why the Bill is so important.

I want to talk briefly about the quality of the experience. At long last, buses in Sheffield are improving, but for too long they were unacceptably old, unkempt and dirty. Too many of them are still inaccessible to the elderly, the disabled and women with young children in pushchairs. Indeed, many of my constituents still hold on to the romantic notion of a return to the old days of conductors on buses. Conductors were able to help people with heavy shopping or pushchairs to get on to the buses. Indeed, one of the reasons that the supertram service in Sheffield is so successful is that it has reintroduced conductors. The reintroduction of that service has made an unbelievable difference to the usage of that network.

Bus drivers are often under intense pressure to deliver to timetable, with the consequence that journeys are often uncomfortable, with buses swinging round corners and moving off from bus stops before passengers have had a chance to sit themselves down. That point was made strongly by Help the Aged, and the problem could be resolved by quality contracts and quality partnerships, which would give local authorities some control over frequencies and routes.

For all those reasons, the Bill is really welcome. The proposal to establish a new passenger watchdog has widespread support, but the work that it is expected to do will have to be fully funded if it is to be effective. The strengthening of the role of the traffic commissioner in enforcing better punctuality is also welcome. The suggested relaxation in the regulation of community transport provision is welcome, as that will incentivise greater use of the service. I am pleased that that subject has been mentioned today by every speaker so far, because I believe that community transport matters have been overlooked in the general debate so far. In the long term, they could prove to be one of the most effective means of connecting the elderly and people who live in hard-to-reach communities to mainstream transport services.

An area in the north of Sheffield, Stocksbridge, is an incredibly hilly community, built on the steep sides of the Don valley. It is very difficult for the elderly people there to use the mainstream bus service, because they
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simply cannot get from the bus stops to their homes. The local community transport service, the Stocksbridge Flyer, has proved invaluable in providing a service to help the elderly and disabled people in Stocksbridge to get about and to get to the shops at least twice a week. I attended the anniversary of the establishment of the Stocksbridge Flyer last year, and I know just how valued that service is.

The proposals to make quality partnerships and quality contracts easier to use look promising. At long last, a range of options is to be made available that will allow decisions to be made locally about how bus services should be delivered. I am frankly astonished that the Opposition should suggest that it is somehow wrong to give local authorities more power to decide how to run their bus services. I am astonished that the party that pretends to be in favour of the devolution of services has made a commitment in the Chamber today that it would revoke quality contracts and quality partnerships if it came to power. I am confident that, when my constituents hear the Tory views on re-regulation and on the proposals before us today, they will decide that the Tory party will not be the party of government for them when we get to the next general election.

The Bill offers a promising way forward for local bus services, but that does not mean that it cannot be improved. It contains provisions that will require careful scrutiny and thorough discussion if we are to get the legislation that we know we need to transform our bus services. For example, quality partnerships are to be enhanced in order to allow the specification of timings, frequencies and maximum fares, which makes sense if local transport authorities are to invest in bus priority lanes and improve bus shelter provision. However, the Bill as it stands gives operators a wide-ranging right of objection to proposed timings, frequencies and maximum fares. This aspect of the Bill must be thoroughly aired in Committee because, while it is reasonable to assume that bus operators entering into quality partnerships will want to be assured that it is worth their while to do so, such concerns could be raised during the negotiation of the agreement itself. If a local transport authority proved to be intransigent in its approach, the bus operator could, and surely would, just walk away.

Sheffield has initiated the one and only quality partnership in operation in this country, and the city fully supports the extension of partnership rights to cover timings, frequencies and fares. At the end of the day, if the right of objection in the Bill is intended to calm the nerves of the operators about the extension of partnership powers, that is surely not a sufficient reason for its inclusion in the Bill. I reiterate the key point that it is right that bus operators’ expertise and concerns should be properly reflected in any partnership agreement, but that right does not need to be included in the Bill.

I particularly welcome the measures on franchising. They will probably have the greatest application in the metropolitan areas, where quality contracts will be substantial enough to secure operator interest. Franchising offers a real opportunity to think through routes, frequencies and fares in a strategic manner, with the public interest at the heart of the process. It offers a real opportunity to put passengers first. However, the Bill proposes a process for securing franchising that could involve not
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only an approvals board—as the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) mentioned—but a transport tribunal. And, at the end of that process, there would still be the option of a legal challenge. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that that process appears cumbersome. Those of us who have waited so long for this legislation are feeling nervous that we might stall at one of these hurdles in the Bill, while we are in the process of putting the quality contracts in place.

I entirely understand that the referral of a franchising application to an approvals board might well offer a degree of protection to integrated transport authorities against legal challenge by bus operators. I agree with the hon. Gentleman and the Minister on that point. We must be careful, however, not to compromise the right of local people to determine the shape of their services for themselves. As the Bill stands, there is a danger that that could happen. In other words, while it is probably helpful that the process of franchising be tested, especially in the context of a possible legal challenge, it is not helpful to include in the remit of the approvals board the decision to franchise. This is an important point on which I would appreciate clarification when the Minister winds up the debate. By all means, let us have an independent voice involved in the scrutiny of franchising agreements, to ensure that the interests of all parties involved have been met, as far as that is possible. At the end of the day, however, bus operators will continue to engage in the provision of services on a commercial basis, and that reality will have to be reconciled with the need to meet the interests of passengers.

Let us not forget that bus operators will benefit from franchising. Long-term contracts will allow them to plan provision and rationalise costs. In return, therefore, they should recognise the need to shape services in a way that puts passengers first. It should be possible for franchising to reconcile the interests of all parties involved and the Bill needs to reflect that fact. I repeat, however, that it does not need legally to bind decisions to franchise to the approvals board.

As the Minister mentioned earlier, in looking at proposals for quality contracts, the approvals board would make an interpretation of the term “public interest”. What worries me—and I am sure, as the Minister should know, it worries many other Labour Members—is the degree of nervousness among us about how that term “public interest” will be interpreted by the approvals board. The Bill needs to be tightened up to ensure that we do not fall into the trap of using the interpretation of public interest views to turn down applications for quality contracts, which are demanded by the vast majority of passengers in areas like South Yorkshire, Greater Manchester, Tyneside and so forth—

Stephen Hesford (Wirral, West) (Lab): And Merseyside.

Ms Smith: And, of course, Merseyside.

Mr. Deputy Speaker, the Bill offers a more rational approach to the delivery of bus services. It offers potential social and economic benefits to areas like South Yorkshire, which needs to improve its transport provision if it is to develop economically. Although provisions for road pricing, which I support, are in the Bill, it sensibly refrains from forcing those provisions on localities.

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I have to say once again that I was dumbfounded by the earlier comments of the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers), which seemed to suggest that we were talking about national road pricing by the back door. If we are in favour of devolving power, surely we should all support giving local authorities or integrated transport authorities the right to introduce road pricing, particularly if road pricing is right in itself. Road pricing may be required in any case, as and when congestion acts increasingly as a brake on economic development, which is why the CBI supports the Bill.

In Sheffield, there is only 15 per cent. capacity left on our roads. At some point, road pricing will have to be seriously discussed, but I agree with the CBI that it should be introduced only in the context of an adequate public transport infrastructure—a critical point. That is why the introduction of road pricing measures has to be voluntary; it has to be down to local authorities to decide when to do it. As far as South Yorkshire is concerned, better buses, integrated with local tram and train networks, provide the right context for road pricing, but the carrot should not precede the stick—and I am sure that that will apply across the country.

I support the Bill, despite its few shortcomings, and hope that it comes back to us on Report and Third Reading as an even better Bill than it is now.

2.52 pm

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): The debate has been interesting so far, but I do not buy the synthetic surprise of either the Minister of State, Department for Transport, the right hon. Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton), or the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), who made a big thing of expressing amazement that the Conservative party intends to vote against the Bill. The Bill is something of a curate’s egg in that, irrespective of what view one takes, the proposals are not entirely satisfactory. We have heard that from the mouth of the hon. Member for Lewes himself and indeed from that of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith). They are clearly not entirely happy with the Bill as it stands. Surely if it is perfectly legitimate to vote for the Bill and seek to amend it in Committee, which is the Liberal Democrat position, it is perfectly legitimate for the Conservatives to say that they do not like the Bill and want it taken away in favour of something else. That is the essence of the Opposition’s reasoned amendment.

Stephen Hesford: If I understand the right hon. Gentleman correctly from his intervention, his main interest is in road pricing. Are he and the Conservative party being straight with the House on that matter? Is their objection to road pricing an “in principle” or ideological objection to what he terms “stealth taxes”?

Mr. Knight: I hope that I am always straight with the House. I oppose road pricing, but my opposition is not necessarily one that cannot be overcome. I shall explain that more fully in my remarks, if I may. The point I was making earlier is that it is quite legitimate to say that the Bill has some good parts, but that we do not want to support it. I know what would happen if the Conservative party did not oppose the Bill. If road pricing ran into serious trouble further down the line and became hugely
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unpopular, both the Minister and the hon. Member for Wirral, West (Stephen Hesford) would say, “Well, the Conservative party did not oppose it”, so I believe we are right to oppose the Bill at this stage.

I suppose I should start by declaring an interest as a motorist and as the owner of a number of motor vehicles, although I have to say that I currently do not own a bus. The Greater London Authority Act 1999 and the Transport Act 2000 established the legal framework for local road pricing schemes in England and Wales. Those two Acts provide the basis of the existing schemes in London and Durham. The crucial change in the Bill for local road pricing is the removal of the requirement to get the Secretary of State’s approval before introducing such a scheme.

In the draft Bill, the Government set out the case for that change, saying:

That is what we were told, but it seems to many of us that that device is simply a way of moving responsibility for a potentially unpopular policy from the Government and on to local politicians.

I notice that the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) is not in her place and I have heard a rumour that she is poorly. I am sure that the whole House will join me in wishing her a speedy recovery to robust rude health. During the Transport Committee’s work on the draft Bill, it heard evidence from motoring organisations that opposed the move to introduce local road pricing schemes. The main area of concern of those motoring groups was what they view as the lack of proper consultation before such schemes can be implemented.

The Association of British Drivers said that

I totally agree with that assessment.

Back in 2004, the Government commissioned a feasibility study of road pricing in the UK, which concluded that, with technological improvements, a national road pricing scheme could be feasible within 10 to 15 years. The study also concluded that a national road pricing scheme could, if properly implemented, reduce congestion by up to half the estimated levels in 2020. However, against that background, as I mentioned in an intervention on the Minister, the Labour party’s 2005 election manifesto stated:

The pledge was quite clear: if we were going to have road pricing, motoring taxes would be reduced or cut elsewhere. I think that most of us would be willing to consider a road pricing scheme if that pledge was kept, but the Bill does no such thing. It seeks to introduce
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local road pricing without any commitment to reduce motorists’ taxes elsewhere. In 2006, the then Transport Secretary, now Secretary of State for International Development, said that the Local Transport Bill would

He made it clear that he saw the Bill as a test bed for a national scheme. In February last year, however, an e-petition appeared on the Downing street website calling for the scrapping of the Government’s plans—I think it still holds the record for the number of signatures on any petition, at more than 1.7 million. The Minister of State said that she was happy to talk to passengers, and that it was clear what they wanted. She also ought to listen to motorists, because it is clear that they do not want another stealth tax, which is how they regard national road pricing, given the lack of a concrete commitment by the Government to abolish or reduce taxes elsewhere.

Norman Baker: The right hon. Gentleman is making a sensible contribution. Does he agree that the Government failed to get the message across? Had they presented national road pricing as a revenue-neutral arrangement, in the context of other road taxes being reduced, they might have had a different response.

Mr. Knight: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The Government should also have made more of their pledge to seek consensus by opening up discussions with all the major political parties before bringing forward a scheme.

In the immediate aftermath of the petition, the Government announced an abandonment of the proposals. A few months later, abandonment changed to distancing themselves from road pricing. They stated:

Asked to comment on where that left the national road pricing policy, the Transport Secretary said:

We heard nothing more about the matter until the Budget earlier this month, when the Chancellor put it firmly back on the agenda and announced funding for pilot scheme projects to develop road pricing technology.

The Government have continually stressed that if they choose to introduce a national road pricing scheme, they will have to introduce a separate piece of primary legislation. So why are they bothering with the local schemes in this Bill? If they want road pricing, they should bring forward a national scheme and engage in a national debate on the issue, not bring forward such piecemeal local proposals. I have concerns that the Government intend to use such local schemes to test public opposition to road pricing.

The Transport Committee has rightly criticised the Government for forcing councils to adopt local road pricing:

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