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26 Mar 2008 : Column 262

Other hon. Members have talked about the hurdles that are in place for quality contracts. We have had two Transport Acts now, but only one quality partnership contract has been signed. The problem is not, as the Minister suggested earlier, stopping other bus operators muscling in, because that is a problem only in a limited number of areas. In fact, such contracts are missing because the bus operators do not want to play ball and allow their frequencies and their fares to be controlled. At the moment, the operators have the whip hand.

We have seen two failed attempts at introducing quality partnerships and quality contracts, and the Government need seriously to consider the proposals that are being made. I have always taken it as a fundamental principle that the best people to decide on which services there should be in an area are directly elected local people, whether they are councillors, MPs or whatever. The problem with the quality contract legislation is that although there are two stages beyond the transport authority’s making a decision, I know what will happen with the likes of FirstGroup, Stagecoach and so on. They will prevaricate, delay, hold out and make it impossible for local authorities and transport authorities to get contracts up and running.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) had the right idea— although the transport commissioners or the transport tribunal ought to be consulted, the decision ought ultimately to rest with the transport authority. That puts the responsibility where it should be, but it does not take away bus operators’ ability to go to the High Court if they are not happy with the decision. Let us be clear that when we are talking about quality contracts or quality partnerships, the system is the same as that which operates so successfully with the railways. We are talking about a franchise that people bid for.

There need to be safeguards for small operators. Two in my local authority, Bu-Val and Rossendale, provided a service when First Bus refused to do so. I hope that when the quality contract for Rochdale is decided, those two operators will be properly included. Let us make it clear: if we are setting a quality contract, we do not have to set every route and give every route to one operator. There needs to be a dialogue. The problem at the moment is that it all goes one way. If the bus operators cannot get their way, they walk away from the service.

The Bill gives those powers to transport authorities, and I welcome that. I hope that in Committee Ministers will consider how we can simplify the process as well as speed it up and put the responsibility back where it belongs, with local authorities.

Finally, I want to talk about road user pricing. I am disappointed that the Government have bottled out of introducing national road user pricing. I remember coming into the House when the Chancellor was Secretary of State for Transport; at that time the Government were talking about running a pricing pilot for freight and lorries. The idea was to make it cost-neutral for British lorries but to introduce a system that ensured that the foreign lorries that use our roads and pay nothing would have to contribute. Such systems operate in Austria and the Czech Republic. When a driver gets to the border, they have to buy a beacon. They register it and they are then charged for the miles that they use on that road.

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Such a scheme would have brought in an additional £250 million in revenue for the Government that could have been used to improve transport. It would have involved no extra tax for anybody in this country, because we would want to make it cost-neutral for British lorries. It would have removed the unfair disadvantage that many of our hauliers face when foreign lorries come over the border from Ireland or wherever. The hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) spoke earlier about the traffic offences that such drivers commit. If they had a beacon, they would be registered and easy to chase up.

The scheme would have given us extra resources, and the Government ought to go back to it. Opening the hard shoulder on our motorways at times of peak traffic is not a solution. As I said earlier, we do not merely need solutions for what has happened in the past 20 years; we need to talk about future problems and what needs to be done. A national road user pricing scheme needs to be introduced, and I think that launching it for lorries would have been non-controversial and allowed the Government to evaluate the pilot and put the scheme into operation.

I support the power of local transport authorities to introduce their own schemes. I have supported Greater Manchester passenger transport authority in putting forward its scheme, but I have always made it clear that we must have investment up front. As I said earlier, we should be talking about dealing with the problems of the future, not those of the past. If we are to move people from cars to public transport and get that modal switch, public transport must be cheap, clean, efficient, environmentally friendly and readily available. In far too many of our conurbations, that is not currently the case and there is no choice.

There must be an integrated transport system, with rail, light rail and buses working together. I am disappointed that the Government have not approved the Greater Manchester scheme yet, and I hope that they do. I hope that in Greater Manchester we can demonstrate that such schemes can deliver the sort of service that is not being delivered elsewhere. It is essential that we do so nationally, and I am disappointed that the Government have bottled out of any discussion of, or meaningful move towards, a national system of road user pricing.

Notwithstanding that, the Bill is welcome and represents a vast improvement on the situation that we faced in the past. The bus has arrived late—11 years too late, in my view—but thank goodness that the Government have listened and that in future, we will perhaps have buses that are regulated and on time, and fares set by democratically elected politicians.

5.21 pm

Stephen Hesford (Wirral, West) (Lab): I begin by declaring an interest over and above the fact that I legitimately represent my constituents, a point to which I shall return in a moment. Prior to the 2005 election, in common with many Members who have spoken, much of my mailbag was about the appalling public transport situation in my constituency and the surrounding environment. Hon. Members will have different ways of expressing their relationship with their electorate at
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election time, but as a result of the sheer volume and persistence of that mail, I gave a personal pledge in my election address to seek re-regulation of local bus services to some extent in this Parliament.

Having been re-elected in 2005, I immediately wrote to the then Secretary of State for Transport about the matter, to urge that it be taken forward. As other Members have said, the process has been slow, because the Government placed their faith in the Transport Act 2000—not unjustifiably, although we have ultimately had to revisit our position. Quality contracts could not quite get over the hurdle that was set in that Act. When I originally wrote, and certainly when I made my election pledge, I privately said to myself, “I don’t know whether we are going to make progress.” It was a risk, but I felt I had to do it, so I declare that personal interest. I know that other hon. Members have been plugging away at the matter for a lot longer than I, and I am glad to be on board with them.

I shall say a little more about how we got to where we are. There was a change of Secretary of State when my right hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, South (Mr. Alexander), who is now the Secretary of State for International Development, took up the post in 2006. When there is a change, we often think that we might be able to make a bit more progress. I went to see my right hon. Friend the then Transport Secretary on 23 October 2006, a date that I am given to understand was the 20th anniversary of deregulation. I cannot remember whether the meeting was open or for Labour colleagues only, but my right hon. Friend announced that the Government intended to revisit the question of regulation, I think for the first time since 2000. That news was very welcome to me and to many other hon. Members, although I shall return to the Opposition’s response in a few moments.

My right hon. Friend was not able to say that regulation was a done deal, or that everything had been sorted out. As today’s debate has shown, problems remain that need to be discussed. The matter has never been straightforward, but at least we are now able to have the debate and to make progress. I hope that the Bill will become law and thereby change the lives of people in three sections of the community that I represent. I shall say more about that later, too.

In a small way, it was an historic meeting. Coincidentally, the next day I had a meeting with the former Chancellor, now my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. The questions of whether we could afford regulation, and what model we should adopt, remained uncertain. I told the former Chancellor that the Transport Secretary wanted to make progress but that we needed the Treasury’s agreement. We did not expect a blank cheque to pay for the proposals, but it was clear that there needed to be agreement and co-operation between the Departments involved if the scheme was to work.

The then Chancellor said, “Stephen, I completely understand what you are saying. If we can’t get a grip of this type of measure, what are we in government for?” That is precisely the task before us today—to take matters forward. In that regard, I commend both of the right hon. Friends to whom I have referred already, and also my right hon. Friend the Minister of State who opened the debate. She has taken up the story and brought the proposals to fruition.

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My right hon. Friend the former Transport Secretary said that the proper provision of transport was a matter of social justice for all our constituents, and I think that that puts the Bill in the right context. That is why I find the Opposition’s response so surprising. As I said earlier, I made an election pledge to my constituents that a Bill along these lines would be brought in, but I did not anticipate that it would not get cross-party support. I was not expecting a fight, although now I am looking forward to it.

This Bill divides the Government from the Opposition. The hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) will probably say that there is clear blue water between us. I welcome that, as it gives me an opportunity to explore the Opposition’s lack of support for the Bill.

The Opposition’s approach is anti green, in that it rejects the idea of congestion charges—although I am more interested in the question of bus regulation. Their approach is also anti localism, in that it would take away discretion in this area from local authorities. The Opposition’s approach is also very much centred around London and the south. It is anti the rest of the country, because the measure will help the parts of the country that are not London. It is a very small view. Of course, the Tories can make their electoral calculations. I do not know whether bus companies—Stagecoach and others—make electoral contributions to the Tory party; perhaps we could be told. That might be part of the story; I do not know. I am struggling to understand why the difference in opinion has come about. I do not think that I am the only one to have been taken by surprise by it.

The reasoned amendment could not have been put in clearer terms. It is about re-regulation, as I call it—I know that that is not the Front Benchers’ preferred phrase, but it is my shorthand—and refers to

That is where the Opposition have located themselves—they are not with the ordinary folk who need to use the buses, but completely on the other side. There is an issue to be teased out there.

Let me come on to why I made the issue the subject of an election pledge, and the people who are contacting me in large numbers. We all have stories to tell about the issues that result in the biggest postbags. There are a range of such issues, and as I say, the issue at hand is one of them. As other right hon. and hon. Members will know, the subject is frustrating, because one cannot do anything about the problem. We can lobby and have discussions—I have had countless discussions with the private operators—but we do not get anywhere. The operators give us the flannel, and the public relations soft soap. They know that they have us over a barrel.

I have said that three parts of my community are particularly affected. I shall give some insights into the stories that those people commonly tell. On the issue of surprise, hon. Members will no doubt have seen the Help the Aged briefing produced for Second Reading. It begins by saying that the organisation welcomes the Bill. Why is that? Well, it is no coincidence or surprise to me that one of the three groups of people in my constituency who come to see me in large numbers on the issue are the elderly, who are particularly affected by the sometimes rogue operation of private bus services.
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The elderly do not have choices; they simply have the bus service—or, more commonly, they do not have the bus service.

Help the Aged gives a little example to show the unsatisfactory way in which the system interacts with the elderly. It mentions a community of elderly people who live at the bottom of a hill, and a bus service that was moved to the top of the hill. That has happened in my constituency. The people affected find it extremely difficult to get from the bottom of the hill to the top. It sounds so simple, but it is life-changing for those people. We are talking about an elderly community in sheltered housing, and those people’s one means of getting out. Hon. Members have made the valuable point that bus services allow such people to get to the shops, to get a chance to go to hospital and to visit other parts of the constituency. Under the scheme that is to be introduced on 1 April, they will be able to get around the country, but without that, or if they feel excluded from getting on the bus, all those things are denied to them.

Without being over-dramatic about it, one could say that the life chances of those elderly people were affected. They have put in, paid their taxes and brought up kids and grandkids. It is a time in their lives when things should be made easier rather than more difficult, and they should not be excluded by being unable to join in. The measure will enable us to get a grip of those issues. There will always be stresses and strains—other Members have spoken about quality contracts and the like—but there will be occasions when we can win. I hope there will be more occasions when we win than when we do not. We will have to see how the system operates.

Another group in my constituency who wrote, making the case, although not in such large numbers, were mums with kids. Some took the kids to school and were trying to stop people driving Chelsea tractors to school, but more commonly, they were mums who do not have a car. Some took young children shopping with them. They reported that services that used to run in a way that helped their lives were cut off or late, or did not turn up, or were so unreliable as to make those trips not worth while.

One could predict that those two groups would be affected by the lack of bus services, but the third group—young people—stunned me. While I was receiving correspondence and being lobbied by the first two groups, several mums came to see me independently. One mum told me that her 17-year-old daughter had gone to the pub in another village. Perhaps she should not have been going down to the pub, but I will not censure her for that. The girl had come out of the pub at 11 pm and gone to the bus stop on her own. She was waiting in a fairly isolated little village and the bus did not come.

What can be done about a vulnerable young girl in that potentially horrible situation? It was not her fault. She had behaved responsibly. I could not get from the bus operator a sensible explanation of why that had happened or any recognition that there was anything wrong. I was told that it was one of those things. Fortunately in that case nothing happened, but we have all read about less happy outcomes. I do not want to be part of a system that inherently allows that to happen.

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I put on the record my thanks to my local passenger transport executive, Merseytravel, which for a number of years has been pushing for measures such as quality contracts. I look forward to the time when it becomes an integrated transport authority, stepping in in some of the cases that I have outlined. I welcome the Bill and I welcome what my right hon. Friend and others have done. I look forward to the fight in due course and to explaining the issue to my constituents, who will be amazed that there is still something to talk about.

Several hon. Members rose

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. I inform hon. Members that Front-Bench speeches are due to start at 6.30 pm. Quite a few Members are still hoping to catch my eye; perhaps those speaking will bear that time in mind.

5.39 pm

Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): First, I apologise for not having been here for the opening speeches; unfortunately, I have been engaged in the Welsh Grand Committee for most of the day.

I am particularly anxious to speak in this debate as I wish to address the uniquely Welsh aspect of the Bill. It starts in clause 115, which is designed to create framework powers conferring legislative competence on the Welsh Assembly. It would do so by inserting a new matter in field 10 of part 1 of schedule 5 to the Government of Wales Act 2006, effectively conferring competence for the making, operation and enforcement of road charging schemes for vehicles on Welsh roads. That provision concerns me considerably, as no equivalent provision is proposed in respect of English roads. Indeed, Members will recall that when a similar proposal was mooted last year, it attracted opposition in the form of 1.7 million signatures on the Downing street website. Until recently, at least, it appeared that that had resulted in the proposal being abandoned.

As with the framework powers inserted in the Planning Bill, the clauses on framework powers appear to have been inserted relatively late in the day. The proposal was not contained in the draft Bill that went out to consultation in May 2007 and could not therefore be considered by the Transport Committee when it performed pre-legislative scrutiny in summer last year.

Furthermore, it is clear from the Hansard record of a debate in another place that even in November last year, Ministers were not fully aware of the background to the proposal. Lord Bassam of Brighton dealt with the clause rather perfunctorily, saying:

Proposals to impose charges for the use of roads will inevitably cause concerns, and such concerns have been raised on several occasions in Welsh debates. The former Secretary of State for Wales, the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Hain), consistently sought to downplay the impact of the proposals by asserting, as he did during Welsh questions last year, that the powers sought by the Welsh Assembly Government were

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We do not need to examine the clause in any great detail to see that if it is anything, it is not specifically targeted. Indeed, were it specifically targeted to create an M4 relief road by tolling, my party would have no objection to it.

On 13 November last year, the Welsh Assembly Transport Minister gave a briefing to Members of this House. He made no mention at all of the M4 relief road, but said that the Assembly Government had been

but had not yet adopted policy to introduce road charges. However, he said that the Assembly Government would like the power to do so. In other words, that Government have no idea of the use to which they would put the road charging powers, but would nevertheless like those powers. The vagueness and opacity of that Government’s stance was underlined by an Assembly Government statement, made by the same Minister on 4 December 2007. He said:

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