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3.56 pm

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): First, I wish to say how much I enjoyed the speech of the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer), who is obviously an expert on the subject. I am not, alas, but I want to make a few points. I declare an interest: I am, by nature, a bus enthusiast. I actually enjoy travelling by bus. On the No. 148 and the No. 12 in the mornings, I have my best ideas—they are few and far between, but I do have them occasionally.

The buzz word nowadays is “integration”. I remember spending a family holiday in central France and southern Brittany back in the mid-1980s. The brand new car that I had bought a month before going on holiday broke down irreparably. I had to leave it there and travel back, with a baby and a young girl of three, by train from central France. We were in a rural setting, and I was absolutely dreading the journey. We went from one village to the next by train and then stopped, occasionally changing to a bus that was waiting to take us to the next railway station. Even now, I think that that is the benchmark for integration, even though it was back in the mid-1980s. I would love to see that situation mirrored in rural Wales, and I hope that one day it will be. It behoves us all to do what we can to ensure that public transport is available, reasonable and convenient.

I made an intervention on the Minister earlier about consultation on subsidies. There are members of the Select Committee on Transport in the Chamber, and I understand that it suggested until about eight months ago that the issue of subsidy should be part of the Bill. Although I had a full reply from the Minister, it would appear to fly in the face of advice given by the Select Committee.

Local authorities are obviously in a good position to play a major role in transport—that is quite clear. Like many people in this Chamber, a frequent complaint that
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I hear in advice surgeries is of a lack of co-ordination in the provision of public transport. That brings me back to the idea of integration. Sometimes a bus service where I live arrives at a town, allowing less than 30 minutes before the last return service from that town. At other times, an unduly long wait is in prospect, which is also quite hopeless. Travel to work is also an important issue.

The situation is made more confusing by the existence of the cross-border factors that are common in rural Wales. My constituency of Meirionnydd Nant Conwy is covered by two county councils. They do their best to provide good bus services, but the area also has two train operators running two separate lines. I welcome the parts of the Bill that deal with integrated transport schemes, and I hope that they lead to an improvement in due course.

The regulations under clause 18 will give Welsh Ministers responsibility for ensuring that services are properly timed, with reasonable fares, frequencies and so on. The quality contract schemes were discussed earlier, and I accept the contention from the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley that they will be complex. In Wales, however, they will be a matter for Welsh Ministers, and clause 18 sets out the criteria—frequencies, timings, fares, as well as maximum and minimum intervals between services and so on—that must be taken into consideration. If those criteria are implemented properly, the bad examples to which I have referred will become less frequent—in the area that I represent, throughout Wales and, of course, beyond.

I hope that the Bill will ensure better co-ordination of bus and train services in the future; otherwise, the offer of free travel to senior citizens will be something of an empty promise.

Furthermore, it is plain that the co-ordination of good services is an economic imperative. A growing number of people—although perhaps still too few—would prefer to use public transport if it were reliable, timely, safe, clean and relatively inexpensive. It should also meet all the other criteria that we all take for granted, and there is no doubt that those criteria will weigh heavily on the minds of those who, under the legislation, will approve transport schemes.

There is nothing new about subsidies. Clause 64 amends the Transport (Wales) Act 2006 and extends the powers to subsidise public passenger transport services to cover standards of service—the frequency or the timing of a service, the days or times of day when it is provided, and the vehicles used to provide it. The latter condition, of course, has to do with the quality-safety issue that we discussed earlier.

I hope that another criterion can be inserted into clause 64, as there needs to be a requirement for co-ordination with other local services. Integration of that sort is very important, especially given that we do not have passenger integration authorities in Wales.

The clauses dealing with road charging have led to fierce debate, even though they have been included in previous legislation. It is an understatement to say that the proposals have caused an argument, as the question of road charging seems to be one of the main reasons why the official Opposition will vote against giving the Bill a Second Reading.

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The amendment uses rather extravagant language. It states that the House should decline to give the Bill a Second Reading

Is that hyperbole, or what? If the Conservatives are serious, they should tell us when any such scheme has ever been set up. To give Ken Livingstone his due, my journey every morning on the No. 12 bus is 10 minutes shorter than it was before he brought in his reforms. It is all very well to say that Wales could be a test-bed, but London has been used in that fashion anyway and, by and large, the operation has been very successful. It is disingenuous to hide behind the idea that we in Wales are suddenly to becoming guinea pigs.

The hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) asked why we in Wales should have to be subjected to the road pricing scheme. With respect, the answer is that the National Assembly for Wales said that it wanted it, because it wants to think about the environment, as it wants to set an example. Cardiff is a conurbation, albeit a smaller conurbation than many others, and it could be a beacon of good practice. We could start something new. We could show that such a scheme can work not only in London, but elsewhere. However, I take her point about the need for an alternative public transport strategy to be made available as soon as possible after the introduction of the scheme, or even when the scheme is introduced. That point is well made.

With regard to the Conservative view, a gentleman by the name of Andrew R.T. Davies, an Assembly Member in Cardiff, actually pleaded with the First Minister for the power to be brought to Wales. I shall quote from the Hansard of 11 March, just a few days ago. He said:

schemes to which he had referred—

He was pleading for road charging in his constituency, and said that it was high time that road charging was introduced.

I hoped that the Conservatives would have a settled view on a matter as important as road charging, but I do not for one moment accept that road charging is any kind of stealth tax. It is rather too obvious to be a stealth anything, really. If it works properly, its benefits will be equally obvious. To go back to a point that I tried to make earlier, any moneys recovered under a road charging scheme would be hypothecated for further road improvements, so in that respect we are not talking about a levy, with money being put into the general pot. There are safeguards that come into play.

Clause 115 allows for the creation of trunk road charging schemes in Wales, giving the National Assembly for Wales additional powers to pass Assembly measures under fields 5 and 10 of schedule 5 to the Government of Wales Act 2006. In other words, the clause allows the Assembly to impose charges on vehicles on Welsh trunk roads, in cases where Welsh Ministers are the traffic authority. One such trunk road is the A470, which runs the length of Wales from my constituency all the way to
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Cardiff. I do not think that Welsh Ministers are getting ready to impose charges on the entirety of that road. I hope that they will be thinking of roads near built-up areas—perhaps those areas where new bypasses are required—roads that carry large volumes of traffic, and certainly areas where there is an alternative public transport option. Common sense dictates that the areas should be those with viable public transport. The rather extravagant language of the reasoned amendment would make one think that we in Wales are suddenly to be crushed by an almighty shock in the next few months. Frankly, I do not foresee that, having read the Bill fairly carefully.

Clause 114 is important because it states that any moneys derived from road pricing would go straight back into schemes. Again, there will be a requirement on Welsh Ministers to consider asking the local charging authority to consult on, or allow a Welsh Minister to hold an inquiry into, a local charging scheme. That is appropriate. If a local charging scheme is to be imposed, a Welsh Minister will decide whether there will be a public inquiry, and I think that that is absolutely right, to go back to the point made by the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley. Meaningful consultation must be a core part of the Bill, and appears to be so in relation to the Welsh clauses.

By and large, the Bill will be useful. It will empower the National Assembly to do far more to provide good, sustainable, affordable public transport in Wales, but some legitimate concerns have been expressed about omissions from the Bill. The Freight Transport Association sent us all, I am sure, a briefing which refers to civil parking enforcement. The FTA says that that has led to a meteoric rise in the number of penalty charges issued in London to companies making legitimate and essential deliveries in the capital. It goes on to say that evidence from FTA members suggests that that effect is spreading well outside London as civil parking enforcement is adopted. The Bill might have been an appropriate means for changes to be made. The concern seems to be genuine. The FTA states:

Further elucidation of those views might be forthcoming in Committee. The point is well made by the FTA that there is nothing in the Bill to promote the delivery and movement of freight. Perhaps that will also be considered in Committee.

The right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) called the Bill a curate’s egg and said that we should not swallow it whole. Swallowing eggs whole is best not done because there is the risk of indigestion and it is not good manners. I have one or two misgivings about the Bill. I do not suggest that it should be given carte blanche, but there are far more good things than bad in this curate’s egg. My colleagues and I will therefore vote against the reasoned amendment. On the admission of the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet earlier, there are several good things in the Bill. I agree. A policy of throwing the baby out with the bath water would be rather unwise.

4.12 pm

Mr. Paul Truswell (Pudsey) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow most of the contributions to the debate, and particularly pleasurable eventually to follow the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight)—I apologise
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for mentioning him when he is not in his seat—who admirably performed the role of the parliamentary equivalent of a speed hump.

I am delighted that the Bill has come before the House. My comments are intended to be supportive. Like some of my hon. Friends, I shall suggest ways in which it might be improved. For years, various Labour colleagues and I have striven to make the case for bus operators to be made more accountable to the communities and passengers whom they serve. Indeed, on occasions I have referred to myself and my hon. Friends the Members for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) and for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts), among others, as

Now, we are joined by some energetic sisters in the shape of our hon. Friends the Members for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods) and for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith) and my right hon. Friend the Minister.

During at least nine years of debates in the Chamber, Westminster Hall and elsewhere, it sometimes felt as though we had fired off all the ammunition supplied to us by constituents and our own personal experiences, only for it to bounce off the rather thick-skinned responses from Ministers suitably briefed by their civil servants. That is one point on which I agree with the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers); beyond that, however, I cease to agree with anything that she said at all. While I am mentioning the hon. Lady, I should say that I displayed geographical ignorance earlier by not identifying the fact that she is herself a London MP. Given that, I wish to change what I said earlier and say that it is a pity that, if her party has its way, the benefits of regulation in London, which her constituents enjoy, will continue to be denied to my and most other Members’ constituents.

I accept that it is desirable for us to move forward on a voluntary basis if we can; one voluntary agreement is probably worth 10 pressed ones. I also accept that we need not necessarily always go down the road of quality contracts and that a range of measures could be deployed. Indeed, there might not be a quality contract for the whole area of regions such as West Yorkshire—not even for the whole of Leeds, where my seat is located; the contract might apply only to parts where it has been impossible to provide decent services by any other means.

The hon. Lady painted a rather rosy, Elysian-fields picture of the products of bus deregulation, but it in no way conforms with my or my constituents’ experiences. I wish I could say that it did and that the Bill was unnecessary. I cannot remember a time during my 11 years as an MP, or the years that I served as a councillor, when I have not been involved in taking up constituents’ concerns about the removal of, or damaging changes to, services provided to local communities.

Since deregulation, quality and standards have fallen dramatically and fares have gone up by almost 50 per cent. in real terms in West Yorkshire. The number of passengers has fallen by almost 40 per cent.—in round figures, that represents about 100 million passenger journeys. The declines in most other passenger transport
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executive areas have been even more precipitous; I understand that in PTE areas overall, patronage has fallen by about 50 per cent.

The problem with the deregulated system is that bus companies can pick and choose what services they provide and make profits even when they provide a poor service. Services are chopped and changed and are missing or late. Passengers feel powerless and vote with their feet, if they can, by using their cars. Many people in my constituency—and I am sure that this picture is replicated the length and breadth of this country—are being denied a reliable and affordable service to work, schools, colleges, shops, health centres and hospitals. As a result, they turn to councillors, MPs and the passenger transport executives, but they find that nothing can be done to resolve the problems.

While my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough was talking about having held public meetings, a Conservative Member shouted, “What next?” My hon. Friend did not rise to the bait, but we all know what is next—nothing at all. Communities, passengers, MPs and councillors can bring no power to bear on bus operators to ensure that they address the needs of passengers and communities.

The hon. Member for Chipping Barnet talked about empowering customers, yet her party’s amendment would deprive communities and their elected representatives of the ability to bring to bear powers that would provide the exact empowerment for which she purported to argue.

Passenger transport executives subsidise about 13 per cent. of services, and the rest are simply out of their control. There is little or no competition for contracts, so it is absolutely impossible to gauge whether there is value for money. I intervened earlier to drive home the point that even in its own dogmatic, market-driven terms, deregulation has been a failure.

The local network in my area comprises high-frequency routes such as service 4 into Pudsey, the 16 to Farsley and the 42 to Old Farnley, together with a combination of other routes on the Leeds-Bradford corridor. Services that serve local communities have been subject to successive changes that tend to have concentrated bus resources on high-frequency major routes, which are obviously primarily focused on generating profit. We talk about voluntary partnerships, but partnerships always exist on the basis of what bus operators are prepared to do; there are very few concessions to meet community needs.

I will not run through the roll-call of services that have been lost in my constituency over the past 11 years, because it would take up far too much time. For example, changes to services in Guiseley and Yeadon have resulted in the loss of significant links with nearby Bradford, which has caused tremendous hardship for regular travellers who depend on those services. Frequency has been reduced on services that penetrate local housing estates and provide links to Pudsey town centre, to the Owlcotes shopping centre and to Bramley. There is a frequent service through the centre of Farsley, one of the small villages in my constituency, yet half a mile away older people living in sheltered accommodation have lost their vital bus link into the Farfield estate. Links to local facilities such as health centres, post offices and supermarkets are often ignored as part of the operator’s service planning process. Another notable example in my constituency of the lack of bus links is the lack of
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any services to the recently rebuilt Wharfedale hospital and to primary health care facilities at Eccleshill in Bradford. I cannot remember a time when I have not been taking up bus service-related issues, and the present time is no exception. At the moment, my constituents and I are pursuing issues surrounding the removal of the 81 service, which serves several communities, and the 966 service that serves Yeadon.

As other hon. Members have pointed out, the decline in bus services and patronage affects not only passengers but everyone, whether they use buses or not. Poor services lead to increased car use, which creates even more congestion, pollution and road safety hazards in our communities. The message in the Conservatives’ amendment is, “We’ll just have more of the same; we’ll do nothing.” They said that the Bill could have been introduced in various guises of which they might have been more supportive, but we have not been given any examples of what those approaches could have been.

It is absolutely crucial that we get quality contracts right. We cannot have another false dawn such as that which many of us predicted in discussions relating to what eventually became the Transport Act 2000. It has taken us many years of cajoling and debate to get the message across that we needed to replace the “only practicable way” test. Like many of my colleagues who have this issue engraved into our very hearts and souls, I have some reservations about the process that is being proposed for the introduction of quality contracts. It feels as though having achieved the long-sought breakthrough, we are beginning to bend ever so slightly to the will of bus operators and, dare I say, the advice of civil servants. Quality contracts should be the last chance saloon; they should not be resorted to glibly or mischievously. Far from being in the last chance saloon, bus operators, through the process laid down in the Bill, will be able to engage in a quasi-legal pub crawl in the taprooms of the traffic commissioners and the transport tribunal before going for a big judicial booze-up in the courts. That will unnecessarily delay the process that is laid down. To move on to another analogy, I do not want an insuperable legal high-jump to be replaced by an interminable bureaucratic marathon. We do not need a long period of instability and uncertainty created by unnecessary tinkering with the structures and processes.

It seems to me, especially in discussion with those responsible at the sharp end for delivering the measures in the Bill, that the new process could involve agreeing a plan with the Government on funding for associated bus priority measures, an inquiry by the traffic commissioners, an inquiry or appeal by the transport tribunal and, potentially, a judicial review. My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley made it absolutely clear that whatever safeguards are built in, we will still find ourselves subjected to judicial review by bus companies that fight tooth and nail to prevent the introduction of quality contracts.

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