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6.9 pm

Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley) (Lab): I very much welcome the Bill and am pleased to have an opportunity to take part in the debate. I was in the Chamber for the introductory speeches, and am sorry that I missed the middle part of the debate. I am as amazed as my hon. Friends—our amazement is shared by Liberal Democrat
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Members—at the opposition of Conservative Members to the Bill. It seems perverse and strange. The Tory script about road pricing is also becoming slightly monotonous.

Derbyshire has some good-quality local partnerships, but I know the frustrations of its public transport unit and councillors about the limitations on what they can do to preserve, promote and save bus services when operators want to pull the plug or jack up fares. Other Members have quoted examples of such frustrations, and how they have had to be dealt with. I want to focus on the Bill’s community transport provisions, which have been mentioned only briefly: clauses 52 to 54, which amend sections 19 and 22 of the Transport Act 1985.

I come to the debate via discussions of the concessionary fares scheme, its impact on community transport in Derbyshire and how to retain the excellent gold card scheme promoted by the excellent Labour county council—a scheme that is well in advance of our very good new national scheme. Last night, my hon. Friends the Members for High Peak (Tom Levitt) and South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd), with whom I have worked closely on the matter, flew the flag, and I want to carry on today by explaining some of the connections.

Just before I came into the debate, I spoke to the chief executive of Amber Valley community transport, who described the Bill as a “lifeline” for our local dial-a-bus services. I shall come back to explain why that is the case. It is partly because of the way in which Derbyshire services operate, which might not be the same as other community transport services. I applaud community transport, which is itself a lifeline for many people who would otherwise be isolated at home and unable to access commercial scheduled services. Anything that can be done to promote that service, which the Bill does by providing additional flexibility, is very important.

Amber Valley community transport was founded in 1986, when it managed to get three staff and a small group of volunteers. It mushroomed, and today has 18 vehicles, a staff of 40 and support from more than 100 volunteers. It operates dial-a-bus, dial-a-ride, rural bus challenge and contract services for groups. In Amber Valley alone, it transports more than 1,500 people a week on 250 journeys, with 36 different scheduled services. Dial-a-bus has 500 trips a week to eight different towns. Eight community transport services in Derbyshire all operate on a similar basis.

A complex range of services is provided to a large number of people, and that is why it is pleasing that the Bill contains provisions enabling the community transport sector to have more flexibility in relation to two aspects: the vehicles that can be used and allowing drivers of community bus services to be paid. That will have an important impact. I will return to the impact on our dial-a-bus services and concessionary fare schemes, but I will give another example of how the new provisions will help.

Clause 52 would remove the current restriction that prevents the use of public service vehicles with fewer than nine seats under a section 19 permit. The effect will be that younger drivers, who have licences to drive but not necessarily for larger vehicles, will be able to operate scheduled community transport services. That will provide
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a broader range of drivers who can operate dial-a-ride services for, say, single wheelchair users, not the large buses. That will greatly increase the number of people who can use that service, which individuals pay for, but at a subsidised rate. That service provides assistance to a large number of people in our area. That is the first example of how the flexibility can be used.

The second example relates to the relaxation on volunteer drivers. That is important for us because we have an excellent gold card scheme, operated county-wide, under which the dial-a-bus schemes in Derbyshire have been brought within the free fares scheme. That might have been lost because of the difficulties of translating it into a new scheme. Our services in Derbyshire differ from those in many other areas because they are scheduled—there are 36 different scheduled services in Amber Valley alone—and have printed timetables.

I first got involved in the scheme with my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak when community transport came to us and said, “Why don’t we get the fuel duty rebate? We run scheduled, registered services, according to a printed timetable. If we were a commercial service, we would be getting fuel duty rebate, but because we’re not, we don’t.” We trailed around Transport Ministers—they kept changing at the time; I am pleased that we now have a bit of stability—and eventually, to our great delight, a Budget came along that extended the fuel duty rebate to community transport.

The argument is relevant to this debate. It seemed unreasonable to say that because someone was disabled or elderly with mobility problems, that person could not get on to a scheduled bus service and would therefore have to pay more, because, unlike with a commercial service, there was no fuel duty rebate for the services used. Why should it also be the case that that person cannot access the concessionary fares scheme when we have scheduled services with printed timetables?

The services are demand-responsive. If a commercial operator bought an adapted mini-bus and was prepared to pick up in isolated areas, it could register as a demand-responsive service under the concessionary fares scheme. Yet community transport could not register under the scheme even though it has a timetabled service that picks up disabled and elderly customers for shopping trips to local towns. It uses volunteers to assist in doing that, and I have travelled on those buses and helped those people on their shopping trips. It is an important lifeline for them to get their shopping every week. However, by virtue of the Bill and extremely useful discussions with Transport Ministers and officials, we have ensured that the Bill recognises paid drivers, which means that our dial-a-bus services will be registered section 22 services. As they have organised and regular scheduled timetables, they will be eligible to come under the concessionary fares scheme with a few adaptations. I thank Ministers for giving us that flexibility and enabling us to do that.

One of the most important things to come out of that is the need to have partnerships, which is why the Opposition’s opposition to the Bill is so bizarre. The whole point is to promote partnerships. My little example of how it will help our community transport services highlights the partnership that we have developed on our new scheme with excellent help from Transport Ministers and officials and a visionary Labour county council, which helped to develop and support it in the
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first place. The council has agreed to retain the subsidy to community transport while it moves on to the new system. That is very important. Derbyshire county council is excellent. It always gets top ratings in the Audit Commission reports, not just for transport, but across the board. It is a fine example, particularly as a former Conservative Prime Minister was extremely keen to get rid of it. Derbyshire county council was a real bĂȘte noire of previous Conservative Governments, and it is interesting that it is now one of the councils that is most applauded by the Audit Commission.

The partnership between the Government, a Labour county council and an excellent community transport service—its staff and volunteers are brilliant—is what we need to make progress. They are helping people to stop being isolated and get out of their homes, and providing a range of services that are critical to the social mobility, fairness and justice that we say we want. I believe that those are the most important developments that the Bill and our transport system could bring about, and I applaud all the elements that have made them possible. I hope that we shall go from strength to strength in developing and expanding our bus services even further.

6.20 pm

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): I welcome the Bill. My constituency contains a metropolitan authority, and I have some interest in transport because I am one of the few Members, if not the only Member, who used to be a bus driver. I drove a bus for three years before entering the House. However, I appreciate that the Bill is not just about buses.

I was very saddened by the speech of the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers). I have done quite a lot of work with the hon. Lady on Finance Bills. We have worked on two or three so far, and she has shown herself to be thoughtful and well prepared. However, most—although not all—of her speech today revealed that the Conservative party’s transport policy, particularly on public transport, is an absolute shambles.

The hon. Lady said that the higher patronage of London buses had much more to do with subsidies than with regulation. Nevertheless, perhaps understandably, she would not commit her party to increased subsidies in metropolitan districts such as mine in the west midlands, where subsidies are far lower than in London—unfairly, I must tell Ministers. That represents a contradiction in the Conservative party’s policy. Another contradiction is that the hon. Lady said that she wanted competition laws to be amended so that discussions could take place between operators on co-ordination—I stress that she was not suggesting the introduction of cartels—although the Conservative amendment seeks

The hon. Lady said that voluntary arrangements were preferable to statutory ones, and that because many voluntary arrangements around the country were working well, we did not need statutory arrangements for quality contracts and so on. At the same time, however, she readily agreed—I think that the facts are blindingly obvious to all of us—that bus patronage outside London, particularly in the metropolitan areas, had fallen. That is a third contradiction.

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A key factor on which I think there is general agreement among Labour Members, although apparently there is none on the Conservative Front Bench, is that regulation has been a major factor in increasing bus patronage in London, although it is not the only factor. I readily concede to the hon. Lady and her party that the increased subsidies in London have been helpful, which is why I would like them to operate in my metropolitan area in the west midlands and other metropolitan areas. She said that she preferred voluntary arrangements to statutory ones, but as patronage has fallen outside London, the availability of voluntary contracts has clearly not worked very well in the rest of the country.

Mr. Stewart Jackson: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Rob Marris: I will give way briefly.

Mr. Jackson: The hon. Gentleman is right: there is unity among Labour Members in terms of their visceral, anti-competitive approach and their desire for enforced top-down bureaucracy and regulation. However, it is a bit of a cheek to lecture us on disunity and not having a consistent policy when some of his colleagues have said that the system will not work because it will marginalise the authority and autonomy of local councillors. Some of them have said that they would rather have quangocrats running their bus services. That represents a lack of consistency on his side of the House.

Rob Marris: The hon. Gentleman brings me nicely to my next point. The hon. Member for Chipping Barnet said that her party strongly opposed clause 104 because she wanted the consultation requirement to be strengthened, but let us consider the changes that clause 104 would introduce. The explanatory notes state that the clause

of the Transport Act 2000—

This is of relevance to a point made by the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson). Clause 104 addresses removing top-down measures and it says that local areas can still hold inquiries, but that is decried by his Front-Bench colleagues. That is another contradiction in their position.

The hon. Member for Chipping Barnet said she wanted a greater number of voluntary arrangements, but she also said that a deregulated bus system is the best way of proceeding. Labour Members do not want it both ways, but she does. Either she wants these voluntary arrangements, and a light-touch competition law so there can be discussion between operators, or she does not. Her reasoned amendment says she wants free competition, and she also says that a deregulated bus system is the best way. I do not believe that a deregulated bus system is the best way. History has shown us that since 1986.

I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for having been so generous in taking interventions from many Members, including me. I intervened on her when she said that funds raised by local congestion charging projects should stay local and be devoted to transport. That sounds
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awfully like hypothecation to me, and when she kindly let me intervene, I asked her whether the Conservative party is now in favour of hypothecation. I have an open view on hypothecation, but the leading Opposition party ought to have a clear position one way or the other on it, because she cannot have a little bit of hypothecation; it is a principle, and either her party agrees and buys into the principle, or it does not.

Mrs. Villiers: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Rob Marris: I shall do so in a moment.

Ms Angela C. Smith: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Rob Marris: No, because of lack of time.

I was not aware that the Conservative party had embraced hypothecation until the hon. Lady spoke. I put that to her in an intervention, and she said that this was not going to be hypothecation. I cannot see what it is in that case; it seems to be a big contradiction.

Mrs. Villiers: It is the Government who have claimed that the money raised will be devoted to local transport projects. I want to hold them to that promise and make sure that they cannot wriggle out of it.

Rob Marris: The hon. Lady said earlier today that she and her colleagues will test the relevant clauses strongly in Committee, to do all that they can to ensure that no such circumvention is possible and the funds stay local and remain devoted to transport. That is not simply saying, “I want to keep the Government on the hook”; it is saying, “Our policy is to have these local funds kept locally.” That might be a good idea, but it is hypothecation. The Conservative party has embraced hypothecation, certainly on transport. That is a new policy from its Front Bench, and when I heard it I was somewhat taken aback—and I was further taken aback when I was told that it was not hypothecation. All Labour Members were a bit surprised when the hon. Lady said that.

The Bill is welcome. It will be welcomed in metropolitan areas such as the west midlands, and it is sad that Her Majesty’s Opposition have a policy which is a complete shambles and full of contradictions. It demonstrates once again that they are not fit for government.

6.28 pm

Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): May I first put on record my thanks to the Minister for inviting me to a meeting with her officials last week to discuss some of the issues in the Bill?

The Minister treated us to a rose-tinted opening to this debate, frequently ignoring both history and reality. The history that bus patronage fell fastest between 1950 and the mid-’80s was conveniently sidestepped. The important fact that investment in our bus fleet is now at its highest was forgotten. A lot of the time the Minister was, like her Government, mired in complacency.

Over the last two years, I have had the pleasure to participate in six Westminster Hall debates on buses. [Interruption.] Is the hon. Member for Manchester,
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Blackley (Graham Stringer) laughing? If so, that is because they follow a predictable pattern of which both he and I are aware. Labour Members rant ancient socialism and bureaucratic central control, and do not want to listen to examples of where partnerships are working. I then cite examples of where those partnerships are working and where bus services are improving and have improved, and we all troop off to do something else afterwards, no one having convinced anyone of anything. Today, we will follow that pattern. I could have exactly predicted so many of the contributions from Labour Members, and interesting though those were, they failed to convince anyone.

The contributions that I heard from my hon. Friends were interesting. My right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) gave a typically coherent and clear speech exposing the flaws in the Government’s position on road pricing. He talked clearly about the impact of the coercion of local authorities by national Government with no regard to local transport needs.

My hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) made a number of interesting points about the need for tighter restriction on foreign-registered vehicles. My hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones) raised well-founded concerns about the clauses on Wales and the possibility that the Bill would be a way of introducing tax-raising powers for the Welsh Assembly. My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Scott) made a short speech, which included the important point about the need to consult on congestion charge schemes.

I listened with interest to the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker). He was quick to criticise my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) by saying that she was making an incoherent argument, but at no stage did he answer her principal reasoning, which was that quality contracts and statutory quality partnerships have not been taken up because so many people have realised that they cannot be taken up, that they are wrong-headed and that they are not the way forward. He failed to give any answer to that point

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith) told us that she would make a brief contribution, and at one stage during it she talked about buses being the No. 1 issue in her postbag. The No. 1 issue in my postbag and in that of the majority of my hon. Friends is some of the failings of her Government: her Government closing local post offices without regard; her Government causing chaos on welfare and tax credits; and her Government’s inability to grasp the problems of the immigration system. Those are the top three issues in my postbag. [Interruption.]

The hon. Member for West Bromwich somewhere —[Laughter.] The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) mentions buses in Wimbledon, and he, of course, brings me on to the real problem with them: the fact that Transport for London is a regional body, not a local one. When the suggestion was recently made that it needs to space out some of the bus stops to help with particular problems in respect of children waiting outside our town centre, it failed to listen. We do have problems with buses in Wimbledon—

Rob Marris: You need more central regulation.

Stephen Hammond: No, I do not want regional authorities to be involved.

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