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4.45 pm

The second part of new clause 15 deals with the powers of the tribunal, were an appeal to be made. My amendments (c) and (d) would allow the tribunal to quash the decision of a local authority, not only where there were specific details in the scheme to be remedied. The right of appeal is undermined by the new clause, which would be undemocratic and unaccountable. I hope that the Minister will carefully consider the amendments that we have tabled.

New clause 16 provides that certain extensions to quality contracts will be exempt from having to go through the approvals process. It is my view that a suitably equipped and independent approvals regime is the key to this whole process. Every quality contracts proposal, and every quality contracts extension, should go through the approvals process. I do not believe that we should be able simply to extend a quality contract without it being subject to the procedures and processes of the expert and independent scrutiny board that has supposedly been set up for that very purpose. I hope that if the Government are still in listening mode, they will have regard to the concerns that were expressed in Committee and that are still being expressed on this matter.

There is a tranche of Government amendments in this group that are of a consequential nature. However, the substantive amendments Nos. 124 to 128 discuss the application of the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations—the TUPE regulations. As employees are now to be afforded greater protection under TUPE in the case of the quality contracts scheme, and if there are extra costs to be borne as a result, who does the Minister think will bear those costs?

Amendments Nos. 224 to 239 relate to certain circumstances in which a quality contract is extended, but where the extension is deemed to be exempt from having to go through the full approvals process. I commented on this matter in Committee, and I have done so again today, so I shall not go into it again at length. However, I ask the Minister to consider seriously whether, having put in place an independent scrutiny process, he thinks it is right that a local authority should be able to extend the schemes without those processes and procedures being undertaken. Amendments Nos. 240 to 244 are in a similar vein.

I want to probe the Minister on amendment No. 262. It seems to provide that the Secretary of State may make provisions relating to individual quality contracts schemes, and even interfere in the whole approvals process. It seems, therefore, to be extremely significant. Will the Minister tell us in what circumstances he anticipates the measure being used, and for what reasons?

The Minister will have noticed that we have tabled five amendments in this group. I should like to explain the rationale behind them. Amendments Nos. 5 and 6 are crucial, as they seek—as I did in Committee—to tighten up the public interest tests that must be passed by any proposal for a quality contract. I have already
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said that I oppose quality contracts, but if they are to be placed on the statute book, even for a limited period, they must be introduced only when the benefits of voluntary partnerships and statutory quality partnerships have been exhausted. The places where bus services have improved the most are those where there are strong partnership arrangements between the local authority and operators. That is absolutely the best way to align the local authority’s priorities with the investment and innovation of the private sector, and such arrangements should be encouraged.

Amendment No. 5 therefore modifies the second of the five criteria that must be met by any proposed quality contracts scheme. It would ensure not only that the scheme brought the benefits and improvements for people using bus services covered by it, but that those benefits would be

This is a straightforward, important and fundamental amendment, so I will seek your permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, at an appropriate time to test the will of the House on it.

Amendment No. 6 would modify the last of the five criteria, which is slightly clumsy in stating that

That brings up a whole host of problems, as we discussed in Committee. How can personal well-being be quantitatively, or, indeed, qualitatively, measured? How can the effects of the scheme on local people be usefully compared with the effect on an operator?

The Minister’s predecessor wrote to me on this subject on 20 May, following the Committee’s final sitting, citing the European Court of Human Rights in explaining how this might work out in practice. I remain wholly unconvinced, as I do not believe that we are talking about like for like. My amendment would thus get rid of that ill-defined and awkward test and replace it with one that is not only simple, but measurable and more effective—namely, that there be

My other amendments in the group relate to clause 20, which deals with the consultation document that any local authority must issue if it desires to make a quality contract. The local authority is required to publish the document

Amendment No. 7 would remove those words. Unlike other words in the Bill, I do not think that “publish” is open to wild misinterpretation. Government Members will recall our enjoyable time spent in Committee trying to define “economic”, “efficient” and “effective”, but we did not try to redefine “publish”, which I do not think is subject to wild misinterpretation. The phrase

is unnecessary. The subsequent subsections of clause 20 prescribe quite tightly what must be included in the consultation document, so it is extremely unlikely that the authority would be able to get it wrong. I hope that the Minister will thus look kindly on amendment No. 7.

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Amendment No. 8 extends the list of people to whom the consultation document, once published, is to be distributed. Those people are: the chief fire officer for each fire area, covering the whole or part of that area; the head of the local ambulance service; all persons living within 150 m of any part of the specified routes; and representatives of local groups representing disabled people. The problem is that the Government have set out a list that already includes certain people such as the chief of police; it seems odd that others who should be included are not. There is already a list of consultees, so it is difficult for the Government to argue that people who should be consultees are not on that list.

There was considerable support in Committee for this type of amendment. I had hoped that the Minister would revisit the issues through Government amendments on Report; I have looked for them in the huge barrage of Government amendments that the Minister tabled 10 days ago, but I did not see them there. I still hope that he will give these amendments serious consideration.

Amendment No. 9 re-addresses an issue that was brought up previously. We are going to have quality contracts scheme boards, which are to be chaired by a traffic commissioner, who is to be appointed by the senior traffic commissioner on the basis of his or her knowledge of the local area. Clause 22(8) states:

appoint a traffic commissioner, the Secretary of State will do so. I would be interested to hear from the Minister in what circumstances a senior traffic commissioner would not be able to carry out this duty. It is hardly his most arduous duty. When does the Minister expect the measure to be necessary and how will the Secretary of State consult to ensure that the traffic commissioner he appoints is an appropriate person?

Finally, I see that some new clauses have been tabled by the Liberal Democrats and the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley. I do not propose to speak to those at length because in many ways they are similar to some Government amendments and I have already given our critique of those.

Graham Stringer: I shall speak to amendments Nos. 98 to 100, which stand in my name, Government new clause 9, new clauses 7 and 8, Government new clauses 13 to 19 and Government amendments Nos. 124 and 128, but before doing so I want to thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton) for all the times, not just in Committee, that she debated the issues with right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House, as well as for the time that she took out to have discussions with us, the trade unions, bus operators and local authorities to try to get the Bill right. What she did was above and beyond the call of duty.

With all due respect to the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Paul Clark), I think that, thanks to the amendments, he and my right hon. Friend are presenting us with a much improved Bill. I am delighted with some of the amendments, and I will have one or two things to say about them, but there is no doubt that the Bill is going in the right direction and is much improved.

The position taken by the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) is extraordinary. He expects a Minister taking a Bill through Parliament, having listened
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to arguments from all sides, never to change her mind. If we believed that, as he seems to, we could all save our time and not turn up for Public Bill Committees. His is an absurd position to take in a parliamentary democracy.

Stephen Hammond: As I said in my speech, the right hon. Lady listened in the Public Bill Committee, but gave no indication that she was going to change her mind. She told us that the process she was putting in place was essential and dismissed any objections, including those of the hon. Gentleman. That is why I said what I did.

Graham Stringer: We could look at the Official Report to find out, but my recollection is that my right hon. Friend, while arguing the case in defence of the Bill as it then stood, also made it quite clear that she would continue to discuss the matter with hon. Members and interested parties from both sides.

When answering my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith), the hon. Member for Wimbledon exposed his position. He wants to fight with the facts. He is at odds with the evidence. My hon. Friend asked him whether he would change the Conservatives’ position and support a quality contract, once it was up and working, and once the evidence showed that it provided a better public transport system, better use of public money and that the travelling public liked it more. His answer was, “That can’t happen.” No. He is arguing with the evidence. That is because, unusually for him, he has taken up a completely ideological position. I do not know whether that has been forced on him from the centre of the Conservative party.

We have had the argument many times on Supply days, in Adjournment debates, in Bill Committees and on Second Reading. The evidence is overwhelming. I will not repeat it all, but we can compare London with the rest of the country, and also make comparisons with every other part of Europe. Every continental city has a regulated system. There may be more public subsidy or less, but the public transport systems in all those cities are better than the deregulated system that we have in this country.

5 pm

Mr. Truswell: Is there not another fatal flaw in the argument of the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond)? He talks of the benefits of competition, but we know—especially those of us whose constituencies are in passenger transport authority areas—that such competition simply does not exist. We have de facto monopolies: evidence of that is seen every time a tender is made for a subsidised service. Usually there is only one tender, in some cases there may even be none, and, despite increasing levels of public subsidy for private operators, we are seeing no commensurate increase in services.

Graham Stringer: Precisely. My hon. Friend has exposed the aim of the Conservative party, which is to defend the vested interests of private bus companies rather than those of the travelling public outside London. Since deregulation, bus fares in passenger transport executive areas have doubled in real terms and patronage has halved. The profits—the bottom lines—of the bus
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companies are two or three times as great as before. Companies are making the same profits outside London as they are in London, where there is a better public service. Not for the first time in the Conservative party’s history, it is on the side of vested interests and against those of public transport and the travelling public.

The hon. Member for Wimbledon is not just trying to fight the evidence from an ideological position. As may become clear when we discuss later amendments, he is also fighting against local democracy and local decision making. He recalled the arguments advanced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, Central in Committee about the need to protect the process of moving from judicial review to quality contracts. The arguments were advanced for perfectly good reasons. The bus companies that are making two or three times as much profit since deregulation are going to fight like ferrets in a sack to prevent the introduction of quality contracts. It is not a question of partnership in most of the passenger transport executives.

There is, however, a major principle in opposition to the pragmatic facts that my right hon. Friend had to consider. Labour Members believe that matters that can be determined locally should be determined locally, by locally elected people. The hon. Member for Wimbledon would clearly prefer such matters to be determined by appointed people such as traffic commissioners, if that is possible.

I believe that my new clauses 7 and 8, and the Government’s new clauses 13 and 19, solve the practical difficulty posed by the need to respect the wishes of locally elected people by proposing the establishment of a super-consultative body, the quality contracts scheme board, which must be consulted by means of a special process. It will be able to judge whether the public-interest criteria have been met, and, if there is agreement, the position for which we argued in Committee will be achieved. Bus operators will be able to appeal only on matters of process and procedure, which is as it should be.

I have one worry, and I would like my hon. Friend the Minister to comment on it. There is some ambiguity to the way in which the QCS board can view public interest, and one can go into all sorts of detail about whether a proposal is viable or is meeting the better public transport criteria—these are difficult issues. I have been either associated with or a part of local government for most of my adult life and I am a great supporter of local democracy, but I acknowledge that—very occasionally—local government introduce crazy schemes. I hope that there will be some guidance on this measure, even if only in response to my hon. Friend saying that it is intended to weed out any extraordinarily badly conceived or wacky scheme that local authorities might propose by making it possible to say to them, “This simply isn’t going to work, chums, and you should go back to the drawing board”, and that the intention is not to go into intricate details such as, for example, the percentage differences in the cost-benefit analyses of one route as opposed to another. This is an order of magnitude issue, and I would like some reassurance from my hon. Friend on it. I do not intend to press my amendments to a Division, however, and I shall support the Government new clauses.

On the TUPE amendments, I never had any doubt that the Government wanted to get TUPE right. This is a difficult issue, as there might be a gap between one
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operator moving out and another operator coming in. I understand that a defining time for when a quality contract comes into operation appears in the Bill, but does not appear in the amendments. I would like my hon. Friend the Minister to say whether there is any significance in that, whether it is a difference without meaning, and whether it might be better if we were to use the same clear definition throughout the Bill.

On the operator of last resort and amendments Nos. 98 to 100 and Government new clause 9, as we argued in Committee, an operator of last resort is necessary; otherwise, large areas of the country and considerable proportions of the population could be left without any public transport. I do not share my Government’s worry that such operators might try to re-municipalise bus services—I would welcome it if they did. However, leaving aside that possible back door to municipalisation, there is the possibility of a gap lasting longer than nine months plus three months on appeal. This is a particularly testing issue and bus operators might make a challenge on human rights or procedural grounds, leaving an area without services for longer than that period. My hon. Friend the Minister rightly proposes to allow quality contracts to start during this process. Where an integrated transport authority or a transport authority is searching for new operators because the operator has pulled out of an area, I do not think the market will be attracted to the area for what might be only a very short period. If there is a dispute in the courts, I can foresee times the process taking longer than 12 months. Will my hon. Friend reconsider that? The first nine months, to be used under normal circumstances, may well cover virtually all situations, but if a fight was going on, a three-month extension with all the safeguards that he has included may well not be long enough. Again, however, I shall not press my amendments on that point.

Finally, a matter that is not currently dealt with in the Bill, but may well be later in secondary legislation, is the deregistration period. The short period of deregistration is one issue that has destabilised public transport in many areas, and I would welcome a clear statement from my hon. Friend of whether the deregistration period will be increased, and to what. I hope that it will be doubled compared with the previous period.

In many ways the engine of the Bill is improving bus services and allowing local determination of transport priorities, such as the control of bus fares and networks. My hon. Friend the Minister and his predecessor have done a good job of proposing improvements to the Bill.

Norman Baker: I welcome the Minister to his new role. I am not sure whether he or his predecessor is responsible for the amendments that the Government have tabled, but either way they are sensible and take the Bill forward productively, and I thank Ministers for listening. The hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) is a very affable chap, but the idea that Ministers should not listen during debates, and that if they do they should disregard what is being said no matter its validity, seems a rather curious proposition. If the Government had accepted amendments tabled by the Conservatives in Committee, heaven forbid, I wonder whether the same argument would have been forthcoming. I suspect not.

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