House of Commons
|Session 2007 - 08|
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General Committee Debates
Local Transport Bill [Lords]
Local Transport Bill [Lords]
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
John Benger, Annette Toft, Committee Clerks
attended the Committee
Public Bill Committee
Tuesday 22 April 2008
[Ann Winterton in the Chair]
Written evidence to be reported to the House
LTB 01 Passenger Transport Executive Group
LTB 02 Guide Dogs for the Blind Association
LTB 03 Greater Manchester Momentum Group
Amendment proposed [this day]: No. 1, in clause 3, page 5, leave out lines 39 to 43 and insert
4D Guidance to senior traffic commissioner by Secretary of State
(1) The Secretary of State may give the senior traffic commissioner guidance as to the exercise of any of the senior traffic commissioners functions.
(2) The senior traffic commissioner must have regard to any guidance given under subsection (1) above...[Ms Rosie Winterton.]
Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.
The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with this we are discussing amendment No. 27, in clause 3, page 5, line 39, leave out subsections (6) and (7).
The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Ms Rosie Winterton): Thank you, Lady Winterton. It is a great pleasure to be serving under your chairmanship.
Earlier, I was in full flow explaining the difference between the general directions that the Secretary of State currently issues to the senior traffic commissioner and their replacement, the guidance that the Secretary of State will issue in future. Following that, the senior traffic commissioner will be able to issue guidance and general directions to other traffic commissioners. It is all perfectly clear. The idea is to increase the independence of the traffic commissioners as a whole, but also for the senior traffic commissioner to have greater powers to introduce consistency among other traffic commissioners, while at every step of the way not interfering with individual decisions, which will continue to be made on a quasi-judicial basis.
Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): In essence, my point boils down to whether the Minister can tell the Committee where in the Bill it states that guidance issued by the Secretary of State cannot amount to an instruction in a specific case. If it is in the Bill, my argument falls and I will have nothing more to say about the matter. However, if it is not in the Bill, my point arises because the Ministers amendment No. 1 gives the Secretary of State the power to issue guidance and directs that the senior traffic commissioner must
Ms Winterton: As I understand it, we have not said that specifically in the Bill. Clearly, general principles would be in the guidance. The Secretary of State could not direct a particular case and say that a commissioner ought to find in a particular way. The guidance is not legally bindingit is guidance.
The type of issue that might be covered could be that bus punctuality should improve. The guidance would look to the traffic commissioners to do that. General guidance to traffic commissioners might be to look at how they can work to improve bus punctuality, but a traffic commissioner would not be breaking the law if he or she did not succeed in improving bus punctuality, because that would obviously be unreasonable. I assure the Committee that the guidance will be about general principles. From the senior traffic commissioner onwards to the other traffic commissioner it would be about how to achieve; for example there could be details about how other traffic commissioners might achieve bus punctuality. The guidance is only about the exercise of the senior traffic commissioner functions, not individual traffic commissioners.
Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): While we are on the subject, may I explore the meaning of the well-used phrase in legislation, with regard? Does it mean that the senior traffic commissioner is simply obliged to read the guidance from the Government and cogitate on it, or that they are obliged to attempt to implement those guidelines?
Ms Winterton: The traffic commissioner should have regard to the guidance, which means that they should take it into account in the exercise of their duties. What it does not mean, as I have said, is that they would be breaking the law if they did not manage to improve bus punctuality. It comes back to the issue of how to do things such as monitoring performance. The guidance would need to be about the principles relating to how the senior traffic commissioner carries out his functions.
Norman Baker: But if the Minister says to the senior traffic commissioner: We want you to improve bus punctualityto take her exampleis the senior traffic commissioner obliged to try to improve bus punctuality or are they free to conclude that there are other issues of more importance that ought to take priority?
Ms Winterton: Like any guidance in such circumstances, if there were good reasons for divergence from the letter of the guidance in a particular case, the senior traffic commissioner may be able to do so. The idea of guidance is to guide, not to force in unreasonable circumstances. That is why we have tried to make a distinction from the previous situation where there were general directions that could have been more specific. What we want to achieve in the Bill, to assist with the issues of independence, is for the Secretary of State to be able to set parameters
Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): I want to tease a little bit more from the Minister. We have talked about the Secretary of State issuing guidance about improving bus punctuality, which is general guidance. My right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire might ask whether the intention is that the Secretary of State can say to the senior traffic commissioner: You must improve bus punctuality in Manchester, Southampton and other places. Is there to be instruction about a specific point? That is the concern.
Ms Winterton: I thought the right hon. Gentlemans concern was that if the traffic commissioner was sitting on a case involving a disciplinary matter, the Secretary of State would somehow direct the traffic commissioner on how to find in the case. That is the point that the right hon. Gentleman made and I confirmed that it was not the case because in those circumstances the traffic commissioner would be sitting in the quasi-judicial capacity that we have talked about. The idea behind issuing guidance to the senior traffic commissioner is that it would generally be what the Secretary of State would like to see the traffic commissioners do in carrying out their duties. I used the example of bus punctuality because I think it is appropriate to the Bill, given the discussions that we will be having on the operation of bus companies. It is not about how to find in individual cases when we are talking about a quasi-judicial function.
Amendment No. 27 would remove the power that the Bill would give the Secretary of State to issue guidance to the senior traffic commissioner about the exercise of his or her functions. Because the whole point of the Bill is to give the Secretary of State power to issue guidance, rather than the general directions that exist at present, I am afraid that we wish the Committee to reject the amendment. The point of the changes is to enable the issuing of guidance and as the proposal remove that provision it rather undermines the purpose of our changes.
Amendment agreed to .
Question proposed, That the clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill.
Mr. Knight: Can the Minister give us an idea of the sort of salary that a senior traffic commissioner will receive? How does that compare with the current salary of a basic traffic commissioner? I shall quite understand if she needs to consult about that question.
On the power to give guidance and directions, on page 5, subsection (4) states:
The senior traffic commissioner must consult each of the following persons before giving any guidance or directions under subsection (1).
It then lists a number of people who were referred to in our previous debate. Can the Minister confirm that in practice it will be consult as appropriate? For example, why would the senior traffic commissioner want to consult Scottish Ministers about an issue or concern
Ms Winterton: As I understand itI will correct this if it is wrongan ordinary traffic commissioner receives a salary of approximately £90,000 per year, while a senior traffic commissioner receives £100,000. On the right hon. Gentlemans point about consultation, if we refer back to the Bill, it reads subsection (1) above. I believe that is because it is about the exercise of the traffic commissioners functions under any enactment. The key may be in enactment. However, I confess that I would be more than happy to come back with further information about the meaning of enactment. I suspect that it is not about every single decision taken, but that in particular instances relating to an enactment, the commissioner would have to consult with the appropriate people.
Norman Baker: Perhaps I can help the Minister. Subsection (5) includes a specific reference to a situation whereby a Scottish traffic commissioner is consulted.
Graham Stringer (Manchester, Blackley) (Lab): Although I said that I wanted to take part in the debate on clause 4 stand part, with your permission, Lady Winterton, I think that my comments are more appropriate to clause 3.
As I listened to the debate about senior traffic commissioners and traffic commissioners, their terms and conditions and how long they are appointed for, a number of issues and questions arose, not least whether members of the Committee have ever met a traffic commissioner or senior traffic commissioner. There is a sense in which this debate has taken placeas in one sense it shouldin a theoretical vacuum, without really understanding the terms and conditions, what traffic commissioners have done in the past and how they have been appointed. We must remember that if the Bill goes through unamended, it will give traffic commissioners considerably more powers than they have had in the past.
I am worried about some of these things. My experience of traffic commissioners is that some of them have been extremely hostile to local government and that some of them have known more about the regulations of Her Majestys services than they have about traffic regulations.
I shall put that into the context of what I am about to say, because at the heart of the Governments decisions about independence and accountability and whether or not there should be long or short-term contracts for senior traffic commissioners is the real tension between independence and accountability. I think that they are contradictory, and that the hon. Member for Lewes was getting to that point. If a senior traffic commissioner is independent, however one tries to surround that commissioner with regulations and contracts, he is still independent. If, however, the strength of the regulations is such and the period of the contracts is so short that they are very constrained in what they are doing, they are not independent.
My core question for the Government is whether they really mean independent, or whether they mean what a Conservative Minister once said to me when we were asking for lottery money to be applied to the Commonwealth gamesit could have applied to anything. She said that what was wanted was for the Government to breathe on the lottery funding bodies. I get the impression that these rules and regulations and short-term contracts are about breathing on the traffic commissioners. Will all these people be independent? If so, they need long-term contracts, fixed or otherwise, because when I have employed people and wanted to control themapart from their expertiseI have had them on a very short leash and a very short contract. If one wants them to be genuinely independent and come to independent views, they should either be given long fixed-term contracts, or be made permanent. I would like an answer to that question.
Given my experience of traffic commissioners and their expertise in other areas not necessarily the problems of transport in ManchesterI would like to know what sort of training and qualifications will be proposed as entrance requirements for what are important positions. I suggestI am interested in my right hon. Friends reaction either now or in the futurethat the senior transport commissioner should be subject to interview and interrogation by the Transport Committee. In the Prime Ministers proposals for constitutional change he listed a number of posts for which people should be interviewed by Select Committees before appointment. The new post of senior transport commissioner is important, and if this Bill is passed as it is, that person will have immense influence over any quality contracts scheme and over the bus network in this country. It seems to memy right hon. Friend the Minister may not have thought about thisthat that is exactly the kind of person who should be subject to interrogation and interview by the appropriate Select Committee. I would be pleased to hear her response on that point.
I may have spoken too harshly about the influence that the Government tend to want over independent people. I know that the Government were badly burned by the actions of the rail regulator after the Hatfield crash, when the rail system effectively came to a halt. The rail regulator, who was independent, was responsible for billions of pounds, but the Government would not necessarily have endorsed the expenditure. The debt now carried by Network Rail is the result of that persons actions. The Railways Act 2005 abolished that position.
I recast my question. I want to know whether the position of senior traffic commissioner is proposed simply to avoid independence and to keep some sort of controlas I said earlier, either through guidelines or short-term contractsso that we do not suffer a repetition of that problem, although it would be at a lower level because that sort of money is not now available. I should be grateful if my right hon. Friend would clarify those points.
Ms Winterton: My hon. Friend was in Committee this morning, and that is exactly the point that I made when explaining why we rejected the idea of short-term contracts. Amendment No. 152, tabled by the hon. Member for Lewes, would have introduced a short-term contract, and my hon. Friend may even have voted on
Hon. Members need to bear in mind that we believe that the Secretary of State should issue guidance rather than general directions, which is the position now, because it will improve the independence of the traffic commissioner. We have clarified why we want to change the position.
My hon. Friend asked about the issuing of guidance. It is important that traffic commissioners should be independent when making quasi-judicial decisions. It is important also that they should be accountable for the way in which they use public money and for their overall efficiency in carrying out their duties; and there should be accountability to Parliament, as the Secretary of State can issue guidance on some of the principles of operation. The traffic commissioners work will involve decisions about large sums of public money. In future he may also have to make decisions about bus services. It is important to ensure that the Secretary of State has the ability to issue guidance in that way. I would have thought that right hon. and hon. Members would think it rather odd if that were not the case given that the implementation of any Governments transport policies depend on them being able to consider what guidance they want to put out.
With regard to training and experience, the main criteria is the ability to run a tribunal and have experience or knowledge of road transport law and practice. Those are the main qualifications for a traffic commissioner. I am not sure that I can see the Transport Committee as some kind of interviewing panel for the position of senior traffic commissioner. I do not know whether that would be appropriate if we want to ensure independence. It is a matter for the Select Committee to decide who it invites to give evidence. During the draft Local Transport Bill, I recall the traffic commissioners being summoned before the Transport Committee. I know that the Committee commented on the traffic commissioner proposals, particularly pointing out that it wanted to ensure that there was adequate funding. Therefore, it is up to the Transport Committee to be able to summon whoever it wants as witnesses. I hope that that is helpful.
Graham Stringer: Of course the Select Committee can invite anybody it wishes to attend. The point that I was making is that the Prime Minister has suggested that Select Committees should look at important public appointments, and that before a person takes up a post, they should discuss with them their attitude to the job. I was asking my right hon. Friend whether she thought that this important position should be one of those posts in which the applicant is automatically interviewed by the Select Committee.
Ms Winterton: If those are general criteria that are decided on a cross-Government basisI have not seen the detail of those proposals to know exactly who they are thinking about in those circumstancesthen they should be taken into consideration. I am sure that we
Norman Baker: I shall be brief because we have gone around the houses on this. The contribution of the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley has been extremely helpful in crystallising some of the issues that we have been discussing. He is right to say that they are to some degree a trade-off between independence and accountability. He is also right to draw attention to Tom Winsor and the history of the rail industry. If in doubt, we should come down on the side of accountability because we are talking about public funds and the discharge of important public functions. There is considerable potential for an individual, with or without Government guidance, to behave in a way that is not sympathetic to Government policy, to the local authority in the area that they look after or to the needs of bus passengers and others.
I hope that the Minister will accept that we need to improve accountability procedures. She has already given one or two hints that she might be willing to look at matters such as annual reports and so on. Without over-egging the pudding, it is important that we have some answers. With the best will in the world, the Government want to see bus services improved. They may try to adapt the Transport Act 2000 to bring about those improvements and they will have support from many people in the country and in this House. However, there is a danger that they could be thwarted by the actions of individual traffic commissioners who will be beyond control from the systems put in place by the Government. When the Minister reflects on those matters, I hope that she will consider whether we need further controls. I do not mean day-to-day controls on the traffic commissionersno one is suggesting that they be micro-managed or that their individual decisions be regulated on a day-to-day basisbut there should be regular checks to ensure that they are doing their job properly and are in line with public policy. I do not think that there are mechanisms for doing so. I have suggested a fixed-term contract as one way to do it. If the Minister does not like that, we must find a different way, but we cannot just allow people to be appointedI agree with the point about the Select Committee, by the way; it is a useful suggestionand then run off to do their own thing irrespective of what the public at large need or what local authorities or indeed Ministers want them to do.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 3, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Amendments of Schedule 2 to the PPVA 1981
(7) Paragraph 1 of Schedule 2 to the PPVA 1981 (grounds for dismissal), as amended by this section, shall apply to deputy traffic commissioners..
I apologise, Lady Winterton. When I intervened earlier, I failed to welcome you to the Chair. I remember that you chaired the Standing Committee on the Crossrail Bill last year. I enjoyed it immensely, and I am sure that we will enjoy this Committee immensely under your chairmanship as well.
This is a sensible amendment that I am sure the Minister will want to accept. It concerns deputy traffic commissioners, and in particular their dismissal. I genuinely hope that it will not prove controversial, because it appears to me that there is a loose end in the Bill. As things stand, the Secretary of State has the power to appoint traffic commissioners and to dismiss a traffic commissioner who
(a) has misbehaved; or
(b) is unable, unfit or unwilling to perform the functions of traffic commissioner to a standard which the Secretary of State considers satisfactory.
I do not think that anyone has a problem with that provision.
The Secretary of State has the power to appoint deputy traffic commissioners, who have a number of set functions. They carry out many if not all the functions of regular traffic commissioners. However, as I read them, the measures and their parent Act contain no provisions for dealing with a deputy traffic commissioner who misbehaves or is unwilling or unable to carry out his duties. If both traffic commissioners and deputy traffic commissioners are appointed by the Secretary of State and have the same functions, and if there are provisions for the dismissal of the former, should there not also be provisions for the dismissal of the latter?
Mr. Knight: I can see why my hon. Friend might want that point in the Bill, but would not his concerns be covered by proposed new paragraph (3)? It states:
Appointment as a deputy traffic commissioner for England and Wales shall be upon such terms and conditions, including conditions as to the time to be devoted to the duties of the office, as the Secretary of State may determine.
It seems that the Secretary of State could quite easily put into the contract identical disciplinary and dismissal provisions to those for full-time commissioners.
Stephen Hammond: I dispute that. It might well be possible, but the proposed new measures contain set conditions for the dismissal of traffic commissioners. As the Bill states the set conditions for appointments, it seems normal to put in an amendment such as mine. As far as I can see, my right hon. Friends comment refers to conditions that may apply but would not necessarily do so, whereas my amendment would cover the eventuality and give the Secretary of State the power necessary to dismiss deputy traffic commissioners. I hope that the Minister can either give me some reassurance that I missed the point altogether or accept my amendment.
Ms Winterton: I would not like to imply that the hon. Gentleman had missed the point altogether, but I hope to give a little clarification that might assist him. The amendment, as he said, would extend to the 17 current deputy traffic commissioners the clearer powers under clause 4 to dismiss poorly performing traffic commissioners. As we discussed earlier, the competence with which
Currently, as we have discussed, and which will continue under the Bill, a traffic commissioner is appointed until retirement and can be removed from office only by the Secretary of State on the grounds of inability or misbehaviour. As I said earlier, the Government believe that such power is not explicit enough. For example, it does not make clear what inability means. It does not state whether it refers to those who do not have the professional expertise to perform their functions in a competent and proper fashion, whether it means someone who does not work efficiently or someone who is just unwilling to perform their functions to an acceptable standard. The Government believe that the power should encompass all such situations and that all commissioners must have the professional competence to carry out their functions and be properly accountable for ensuring that they do so in as efficient and effective way as possible. That is why we want clearer powers.
However, deputy traffic commissioners work on a part-time and pro rata basis. They are paid only for the work that they do, and they work only at the request of the full-time traffic commissioners usually when they have an enormous amount of work and need helping out with particular cases. Unlike the traffic commissioners, the deputies are appointed on fixed three-year contracts. In the case of poor performance, it is true that the Secretary of State can decide not to renew their contract or that another new deputy could be recruited to the area. It would be possible simply not to use the deputy traffic commissioner if it were felt by the traffic commissioner that they were not competent. That would not be at a cost to the public purse because deputy traffic commissioners are paid only when they work.
Under the other powers in the Bill, the senior traffic commissioner would have the power, for example, to use deputies from other areas to cover short-term needs until, if necessary, a replacement was found. We do not consider it necessary to have within the role of the deputy traffic commissioner the same powers and the same need to go through the dismissal process that applies to a full-time traffic commissioner. That would complicate matters. The position, as it rests at the moment, provides the necessary mechanisms to take appropriate action in respect of poorly performing deputy traffic commissioners. I hope that I have been helpful, have clarified the position and given the hon. Member for Wimbledon the reassurance that I expect he seeks.
Stephen Hammond: The Minister was certainly extremely helpful. It was interesting to learn that deputy traffic commissioners are on a fixed term of office. I certainly understand her point that, given that it is a short three-year term of office, it might just be easier to leave someone on the list who would otherwise fall into the category of unwilling to perform functions to the standard required without going through all the dismissal procedures. I assume that that is what the Government would
I have listened to the Minister and am reassured that there are means of, if not getting rid of, at least sidelining deputy traffic commissioners who are not performing their functions. The key is being able to perform to the standards we are all concerned about so, with that reassurance, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Mr. Knight: I still have concerns from our earlier debate about the question of guidance issued by the Secretary of State. When one looks at clause 4, a ground for dismissing a commissioner is that that commissioner has misbehaved. Will the Minister give an assurance to this Committee that misbehaviour will never be deemed to have to taken place where a traffic commissioner ignores guidance that, in effect, emanates from the Secretary of State? Unless she is able to give that assurance, it seems to me that the Secretary of State could, by issuing specific guidance, interfere with the quasi-judicial functions of a traffic commissioner.
Norman Baker: I understand the point the right hon. Gentleman is making, but I would be more concerned, pursuant to his argument, about subsection 2 (b) which allows a dismissal on the basis that the traffic commissioner has not performed to a standard which the Secretary of State considers satisfactory. That is more of an open goal than misbehaviour.
Mr. Knight: The hon. Gentleman anticipates my journey, which I do not criticise him for. In addition to my concerns over this phrase has misbehaved, as the hon. Member for Lewes has rightly said, it may well be that a traffic commissioner feels his duty to a particular area is to make, or not to make, a certain decision and that it could be argued under this clause that he was unwillingnot unable, not unfit, but unwillingto perform the functions of a traffic commissioner. It goes to the heart of how independent these commissioners will be in practice in the light of the wording of this clause.
Ms Winterton: What we need to consider is the fact that traffic commissioners are appointed and employed to carry out a public service on behalf of Government, through Parliament. Whatever Government were in power, if the Secretary of State wished to issue guidance as to how, for example, a senior traffic commissioner should operate their service, Parliament would expect that there should be some appropriate action if somebody
I emphasise the fact that the Government hold traffic commissioners in high regard. We would only be talking about going through an entire dismissal process in extreme circumstances, for example, if a traffic commissioner consistently refused to comply with directions issued by the statutory senior traffic commissioner appointed under clause 3, or if there was clear evidence that a commissioner had acted improperly, such as acting for personal gain. I emphasise, however, that if one is talking about an appointment lasting until retirement, as opposed to a fixed-term contract, all of the processes would be open to an individual if they alleged that they were being dismissed for having made a particular decision.
It is quite clear that the Government do not want to use this power to erode the commissioners independence. We have come forward with the power because it was felt that there was a decision to be made about going down a line of short, fixed-term contracts. As I replied to my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley, we did not want to do that because we did not want to erode that independence and perhaps be faced with somebody coming to the end of their three-year contract. How would a person feel in those circumstances? Would their decisions be influenced? One would hope not. My judgment was that it is better to have a normal process of recruitment and dismissal to overcome the feeling that people might be coming to decisions because they are reaching the end of their contract.
The powers that we are taking will extend only to the administrative competence of the commissioner. Their judicial competence, the decisions they make about individual operators, will remain a matter for the existing appeal mechanisms, the transport tribunal and the court of appeal. I emphasise that this goes hand in hand with the belief that not having short, fixed-term contracts is a more appropriate way to ensure traffic commissioners independence. However, we want to reflect some of the concerns that have been raised about the fact that it is not possible to take action if an individual consistently refuses to comply with directions issued from the senior traffic commissioner. We have tried to get the balance right and we believe that we have done so, but I reassure the right hon. Gentleman that we are not talking about interference with quasi-judicial decisions.
Mr. Knight: I thank the Minister for that comprehensive reply. I would like to reflect on the points she has made; I am not entirely convinced that more does not need to be done, but that can be left for another day and I shall not seek to divide the Committee.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
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