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The need for viable, workable quality contracts is nowhere more pressing than in Greater Manchester. In my constituency, Manchester, Withington, we have seen
some of the worst results of bus deregulation. It is true that certain routes have seen additional buses, particularly the Wilmslow road corridor, but that has been at the expense of other less profitable routes. Overwhelmingly, bus deregulation has not increased competition.
Where other bus companies have tried to competefor example, on the 85 and 86 bus routes from Chorlton to Manchesterbus wars have ensued. Stagecoach flooded the routes with extra buses taken off other routes and introduced cheap fares. Buses were prevented from entering the bus station or stopping at certain stops. However, as soon as the competition was run off the road, the additional buses disappeared. Now the cheap fares have been phased out too, despite a local outcry from residents.
Bus companies have used deregulation as a way of making services more profitable by cutting out parts of routes that are less profitable or that affect reliability. Again, in my constituency, that has resulted in fewer services running to the most deprived area in the whole of the constituency because more profit can be made by ending most of the services at the bus station. Similarly, the bus companies have attempted to hold the passenger transport authority to ransom on some routes by demanding subsidies to run services for part of the day, particularly in the evenings. When passenger transport authorities have been unable to add that subsidy, the services have disappeared.
Those service failings can be addressed through quality contracts and they will need to be if the proposed transport innovation fund bid is to go through in Greater Manchester. The Greater Manchester passenger transport executive has been quick to assure me that the bus companies are keen on partnership working to deliver an improved bus network for the area; I am not surprised, given that £3 billion is at stake. However, I am less convinced that the companies will agree to partnerships whose profits would be low.
In Manchester we will rely on the new bus services to provide an easily accessible alternative to the car and persuade some motorists to change their behaviour, and we cannot trust the bus companies to provide such services voluntarily. That is why it is vital that the Bill should provide local authorities with the opportunity to introduce quality contracts without the fear of a long, protracted appeals process.
John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): Like other Labour Members, I commend the Government on amendments Nos. 124 to 128. I also join the celebration of the life and works of my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton) and welcome the arrival of my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Paul Clark) to the Front Bench.
We are promoting an excellent piece of legislation today, and I particularly commend the amendments that I mentioned. I am the co-ordinator of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers parliamentary group, and I accordingly draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members Interests. About 6,000 of the unions 80,000 members work on the buses. When the Bill was initially brought forward in the Lords, it contained no protection for the workers in respect of the potential for them to be transferred when a contract was awarded. As a result of the really constructive dialogue between Ministers, civil servants, the RMT and other transport unions and the TUC, we have a set
of amendments that affords workers extensive protection. TUPE protection has now been introduced, and it has been extended to the transitional period; that will assist in protecting the work forces of operators that fail to win a quality contract.
Some of those protections will be laid out in detailed regulations. I shall refer to three particular issues that I would like the regulations to address and in respect of which I would like them to offer specific protections. A number of the unions have been pressing for a dismissal to be automatically construed as unfair under the regulations if it was given by an operator that did not win a quality contract or that decided to withdraw services instead of bidding for a quality contract. TUPE applies to many such workers, but we would welcome that specific protection against unfair dismissal. That would strengthen the unions hand in deterring the almost truculent treatment by employers that lose a contract.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) about the need for an extension of the deregistration period. That would allow local authorities to protect services and jobs and plan accordingly. The amendments constructively and helpfully ensure that there will be protection when employees transfer to a quality contract so that the new pensions are broadly comparable to the previous ones. That is a major breakthrough and will give reassurance to many in the industry. It is suggested that the protection will be based on a formula similar to that used in the local government pension procedure. I welcome that. It has been pointed out in some of the discussions that some of the workers may be eligible to join the local government pension scheme. It would be useful if that was addressed specifically in the regulations; a number of transport workers would welcome the opportunity to join the scheme and gain benefits and security from it.
Overall, I welcome the amendments on behalf of the unions. I am the son of a Liverpool docker who became a bus driver for 30 years; if my father were alive today, he would be heartbroken at what has happened to our bus services across the country as a result of privatisation and deregulation. However, he would broadly welcome this legislation, which gives our bus services the potential for a new future and a firm footing for the delivery of services on which so many of our communities rely.
Mark Hunter (Cheadle) (LD): Let me start by suggesting to the Minister that the characteristically generous reference by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech) was probably due mostly to the fact that he is, like me, a Manchester City fan. We both have fond memories of beating Gillingham in the play-offs final some years ago.
I am the only Opposition Member to speak in the debate so far who was not involved in the Public Bill Committee, but I want to contribute not least because before I came to this place I spent several happy years as a member of Greater Manchester passenger transport authority. I believe very strongly, as do other hon. Members, that the Bill will be a way forward as regards the deficiencies of our local transport system. It would be churlish to deny that as a result of the concessions made by the Government and the acceptance of
amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) and other Members, we now have a much better Bill than we did previously.
I want particularly to support new clause 6. I agree with colleagues that quality contracts, if we can get them right, are vital for ensuring that bus services are up to scratch for all local residents, whether they live in city centres, town centres, busy suburbs or remote rural villages. In many areas, bus routes are being reduced or even discontinued, often leaving people isolated because bus companies do not believe that they can make the routes profitable, while busy urban routes are often served by more than one bus company. That is hardly the best distribution of resources. Even when there are services we have problems with efficiency and reliability, with many people being put off using buses because they are not frequent enough or they cannot be confident that they will arrive on time.
There is consensus on both sides of the House that we can and must do better in providing a truly efficient bus service fit for purpose across the country. We need to put passenger needs first, and I genuinely believe that quality contracts are an essential step towards helping to accomplish that. When they work as they should, they can give local people and their representatives more control over local services. For quality contracts to work properly, we need to ensure that the process for making them is easier. In the Bill as originally drafted, there were many hurdles that made that process too slow, time-consuming, complicated and expensive an option for many authorities. That is why I am pleased to acknowledge that the Government have accepted the argument that unelected approvals boards recommendations are treated as being advisory only so that local authorities have to listen to their opinion of the scheme but do not necessarily have to follow their advice. If local accountability is to mean anything, it is vital that local councils should have the last word.
I hope that these amendmentsconcessions made by the Governmentwill make the process easier and ensure that this Bill, unlike the last one, does not sit gathering dust on the shelves but is used for the purpose for which it is intended, which is to give my constituents and those of all other hon. Members a much better bus service in the future.
Ian Stewart: May I add my voice to those who have thanked and congratulated my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton), and my hon. Friend the Minister? It was outrageous for the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) to accuse the Government of not listening and then complain that the amendments came so late. Of course the Government listened. My right hon. Friend listened and discussed these important issues not only with Labour Back Benchers but with Members from all Opposition parties. In the short time that the Under-Secretary has been in the Front-Bench team, he has worked hard and been rigorous in consulting and listening to Back Benchers from all parties. My thanks are sincere to both Ministers.
I declare that I am a lifelong trade union member, and proud of it. I spent 20 years working for the Transport and General Workers Union as a regional officer in north-west England. Since becoming an MP, I have probably initiated upwards of nine or 10 debates in Westminster Hall and this Chamber on transport issues.
That was not because I was a trade unionist in a union for the transport and public transport industry, but because it was one of the biggest demands of my constituents. The ability to get around the community, particularly for the elderly, the disabled and young mothers, is important to the debate about adequate public transport. Indeed, the economic interests of an area depend greatly on people being able to get to work on time.
In the Standing Committee considering the Transport Act 2000, some of us spoke to the then Ministerin the Committee and privatelyand tried to highlight the fact that there was an imbalance since the Conservatives had deregulated public transport outside London. That imbalance was not in favour of local people, and we argued strongly that it should be put right by giving local elected passenger transport authorities more powers. It is well recorded that, like my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer), I would like to see public transport run by locally elected people in the interests of local people. But that is not the case; we still have a system in which private operators deliver the services. That is fine, but if we have to accept that, there should be a good balancing effect, with local, democratically elected members making sure that the process is carried out in a fair way that looks to the interests of the operators earning reasonable profits and keeping people in work, and most importantly, to ensuring that the service is adequate and affordable for our constituents.
I turn to the question of deregulation being a matter of local democracy, and how the Bill will redress the imbalance. When the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) spoke earlier, he referred to a provision in the Bill that says as it sees fit. That related to local decision making, and the attitude of the hon. Gentleman was an attack on local democracy. The phrase as it sees fit implies local knowledge, and if we chose to remove those words from provisions to do with locally elected or public bodies, we would indeed be reducing local democracy.
Stephen Hammond: I am glad to have the chance to correct the hon. Gentleman. When I used those words, I was talking about a specific element of the Bill: the obligation to consult and to publish in the way that is seen as fit. He will remember, as he was a member of the Committee, that we discussed that wording several times and in several places. In this case, I was referring to the requirement to publish. I am sure that he listened carefully to what I said later, and I made the point that there could be no misinterpretation about the word publish. Therefore, the phrase as it sees fit would not add anything to the wording of the Bill.
Ian Stewart: If the hon. Gentleman wishes to try to retrace his steps and his words, that is for him to do. It does not mean that I need to accept it. Implicit through all his curmudgeonly and negative approach to the Bill has been what I described earlier. I do not accept his explanation.
We talked about the importance of local democracy delivering for local people, and one of the issues raised by hon. Friends and Opposition Members is TUPE. In our efforts to ensure that the interests of our constituentsmeaning the publicare looked after, we sometimes forget that the workers in the companies involved are also constituents and that we should be looking to their interests. I spoke at length in Committee on TUPE. The matter is complex, but it is fundamentally a question of recognising the limitations of any system that throws people into unemployment. It should be a duty of politicians to look to making that as short a period as possible and, where possible, ensuring that workers are kept on, and kept on under terms and conditions that are at least equal to those they enjoyed under their previous employer. Having gone on at length about that matter in Committee, I am satisfied that the Government have moved forward and provided a protection that is probably as good as possible, with the exception of what was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell); the question of dismissal needs to be looked at more closely. I support my hon. Friend on that point.
I met privately with the Under-Secretary on the question of last resort, among other issues, and I said that there is an unknown in this case. We all want to see the matter settled before nine monthsand certainly before 12 monthsbut there is an unknown. We do not yet have an adequate explanation of what happens when we move into the period after 12 months. I ask the Under-Secretary to consider the matter before the next stage. I say again, however, that a good step forward has been taken on behalf of working people.
When I heard the Member for Wimbledonhe is not yet honourable, I do not think, not for a long time yet. [Hon. Members: Hes not right honourable.] When I heard the hon. Gentleman assertI shall try to remember correctlythat it is hard to quantify well-being, I totally and utterly disagreed. The whole Bill is about the quantification of well-being. What does that mean in English? It means looking after the interests of the public and ensuring that workers and operators get a fair deal.
Stephen Hammond: Hansard will recall what I said previously, but on this point, can the hon. Gentleman tell us what tests he suggests the Government should have so that they can quantitatively measure personal well-being?
Ian Stewart: The man is a mind reader. By the way, I do not care if anybody calls it dogma, but I think that the matter is straightforward. The well-being of my constituents in Eccles and the city of Salfordand of the hon. Gentlemans constituentsis served by ensuring that buses are provided on routes where they are needed, that they are modern and safe, run regularly and turn up on time, and that travel on them is affordable. That looks after the well-being of our constituents, and if it is dogma, I admit to being dogmatic. I would like my constituents to be able to rely on the Bills delivering those objectives by giving more power to locally elected politicians and passenger transport authorities. Only the Labour Government can deliver thata Conservative Government could never do so.
Paul Clark: An interesting range of contributions has been made to our discussions about one of the major elements of the Bill. It was interesting that the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) started with an attack on my ministerial colleague, my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton), who undertook a great range of work in listening carefully to the comments of not only Labour but Opposition Members.
I have, of course, listened very carefully to a lot of the points that have been made today and I would not in any sense wish to indicate that I would not take them away and consider them; that is the point of the Committee stage. [ Official Report, Local Transport Public Bill Committee, 29 April 2008; c. 220.]
The hon. Member for Wimbledon also told us how hard pressed the bus companies are. There are undoubtedly problems, as there are for operators of any services in the current economic climate, but let us not run away with the idea that all is doom and gloom. The latest survey of company annual accounts and interim results for all the major bus companies, including First, Stagecoach, Arriva and Go-Ahead, clearly shows higher operating margins and profit levels this year than the same time last year. Those are facts and we should take them into account.
The hon. Member for Wimbledon made several points about quantifying the benefits to passengers. Let us not get the idea that local authorities are not adept at quantifying costs and benefits of all kinds for all schemes, including transport schemes. There is nothing novel about that, and local authorities are familiar with the Departments guidance on transport scheme appraisal. Clause 19 clearly sets out the criteria that must be fulfilled, and they are relevant to several points that were made in other interventions and contributions to the debate. They are that the proposed scheme
will result in an increase in the use of bus services...will bring benefits to persons using local services in the area... will contribute to the implementation of the local transport policies of the authority or authorities...will contribute to the implementation of those policies in a way which is economic, efficient and effective.
any adverse effects of the proposed scheme on operators will be proportionate to the improvement in the well-being of persons living or working in the area.
Ian Stewart: Earlier, the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) asked about effectiveness, efficiency and so on. He asked whether such matters could be quantified properly, and for a philosophical and contextual definition. Does my hon. Friend agree that locally elected people are best suited to determining on behalf of local people whether a scheme is effective or efficient?
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