Local Transport Bill [Lords]

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Clause 31

Approval of continuation of scheme
Stephen Hammond: I beg to move amendment No. 215, in clause 31, page 28, line 45, leave out from ‘authority)’ to ‘applies’ in line 1 on page 29.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 216, in clause 31, page 29, line 2, leave out from ‘one’ to end of line 3.
No. 217, in clause 31, page 29, line 4, leave out subsection (2).
No. 218, in clause 31, page 29, line 14, leave out subsections (3) to (10).
Stephen Hammond: Clause 31 provides the same approvals process that we have discussed previously. As I understand it, it is stating that the approvals process can apply to extensions as well unless they are deemed to be exempt extensions. That and the strong independent process of approval are vital and I am wary of circumstances in which they may be bypassed.
The clause sets out circumstances in which such an exemption would apply but the rules are somewhat complicated. If the Government believe that they are formulating an approvals process that does the job it is intended to do, can the Minister tell us why should there be exemptions from the process? It does not seem that there is any particular reason or benefit to the public validity of an approval or an extension that certain ones can suddenly become exempt from the process.
The approvals board is designed to be independent. It is a qualified group of individuals with the power to make decisions in the best interest of local people. That is the purpose of the board and that is what it should be allowed to do. I am, therefore, looking to the Minister to give us some clear indications of circumstances in which such exemptions might apply.
Ms Winterton: The amendments would move us back to the position where, in all circumstances when a local authority proposed to continue a quality contracts scheme beyond its initial period the scheme would have to be made again from scratch, with a full approvals process in every case.
We want to change the current legislation because it is not possible under that legislation for a quality contracts scheme to continue beyond its initial period—the authority has to go back through the full process of making a new scheme. We want there to be a more flexible, lighter touch, which we are bringing in under the Bill.
Under the provisions, an authority that wanted to extend its quality contracts scheme would need to publish a consultation document reporting on the effectiveness of the scheme so far, as well as making the case for continuing it for up to a period of a further 10 years. The proposals would be subject to the same consultation procedure and approvals and appeals process as a new scheme, but with appropriate modifications and certain exemptions from the approvals process.
In particular, where it was proposed that the scheme should not be expanded to cover additional services, the scheme would not need to be submitted for approval. The new approvals process with certain modifications and exemptions would apply to any application to continue a quality contracts scheme beyond 10 years. We have set out the conditions that would need to be met if the scheme is to be exempt from this process and impose a requirement on the local authority to publicise any such proposal. Other than for exempt proposals the application would need the approval of the approvals board or Welsh Ministers. Only schemes that had achieved their stated objectives or were well on the way to doing so, and where there would be public benefit, would be likely to be approved.
We now come to the exemptions. Proposals in the draft Bill would have required every continuation scheme to go through the approvals process. However, one of the key functions of the approvals process is to ensure that the effect on deregulated services is properly taken into account. If a quality contracts scheme is already in force and will usually have been in force many years, as long as the scope of the scheme is not widened, there will be no such services to take into account. In those cases, there seems little point in submitting the continuation scheme to the approvals board or Welsh Ministers.
However, we accept that some authorities will want to modify the schemes when they continue them, either to adjust the boundaries to take account of road or planning developments since the existing scheme was approved or to vary the description of services that are excluded from the scheme or to bring in additional services. If any changes of that sort meant that services previously operating outside the scheme would be part of it, it seems appropriate for the approvals process to apply. That is a necessary safeguard because without it a local authority could greatly expand the scope of an existing scheme, making it virtually a new scheme, without going through the approval process.
In order for a continuation scheme to be exempt, two sets of conditions need to be satisfied. The first is that there is no increase in the geographical area, or only to such a minor extent that no existing bus services or additional local authority would be taken into the scheme. Any one of those conditions must be satisfied.
Norman Baker: Where the approvals process kicks in, in the circumstances described by the Minister—for example, an extension to geographical area—I assume the approvals process would look only at the impact of any amendment rather than looking at the entire scheme again.
Ms Winterton: No, the scheme as a whole would be looked at in terms of the continuation process because in those instances it has reverted, and because it has changed it does not come under the continuation process.
Norman Baker: Would the approvals process be able to take into account comments people had fortuitously taken the opportunity to make about elements of the scheme that would not in fact be affected by a geographical extension?
Ms Winterton: Obviously, if the scheme went through the entire approvals board process again, people would be able to make comments about the existing scheme. The continuation scenario would be that if the local authority issued a consultation document, people could appeal against it. If the scheme reverted to going through the whole approvals board process because it had changed, people would be able to make representations to the approvals board in the same way as previously.
Norman Baker: The point I am trying to get at is this: if it is deemed sensible to make a small geographical extension to the scheme and that triggers the process, I understand why it has to be looked at, but if the whole process or scheme can be looked at again, that is a disincentive to make that small geographical amendment.
Ms Winterton: Again, we have to strike the right balance between changing the current legislation, which requires any scheme to go through the approvals board process all over again, and having flexibility, so that if a scheme is extended outside the geographical area or there are additional services, the scheme can be considered as a whole. Frankly, the alternative is to have a continuation in one area and a new scheme in another area. It is obviously in a local authority’s remit to be able to do that.
The second set of criteria that come under the exemptions are that there should be no reduction in registered bus services previously excluded from the scheme. Both of those conditions must be satisfied for a continuation scheme to be exempt from the approval process. As I have said, that is the right way forward in striking a balance between the two processes. I hope that, in view of that, the amendment will be withdrawn.
Stephen Hammond: I think I heard the Minister say that, except for minor alterations, all alterations to quality contracts that are proposed as an extension will have to go through the approvals board. If that is so, I am happy with that reassurance, and on that basis I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 31 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clauses 32 to 35 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 36

Regulations about schemes
Stephen Hammond: I beg to move amendment No. 222, in clause 36, page 33, line 28, leave out paragraph (b).
Clause 36 is mainly uncontroversial and makes small amendments to the Transport Act 2000 that are consequential to changes made in the preceding clauses. As I understand them, they relate to regulations that can be made about quality contracts. The changes in the clause merely ensure that the regulations can be made about continuations as well. However, if I understand it correctly, subsection (3)(b) makes a change of somewhat greater substance. It provides that the regulations may be made by the appropriate national authority in addition to matters already listed in the act, namely
“the procedure for determining such applications”,
meaning, of course, the applications for approval of quality contracts. Why is subsection (3)(b) necessary? In what circumstances would those regulations be made, and what sort of regulations are they? The amendment is entirely probing.
12 noon
Ms Winterton: The amendment would remove the regulation-making power in clause 36 that enable regulations to be made to set out the procedure for determining applications for the approval of quality contracts schemes or the continuation of such schemes. In a sense, the amendment would mean that an approvals board’s actions would not be defined. The Government believe that it is important that the procedures for an approvals board should be clearly and legally defined, and that is the purpose of the clause. Subsection (3)(b) refers to the
“procedure for determining such applications”,
which deals with how the approvals board would receive applications. Removing it would mean that it would not be possible to set that out in legislation.
Subsection (3) is simply about the regulations and how the approvals process might work. Removing paragraph (b) would undermine the whole system of quality contracts and approvals boards, so I invite the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment.
Stephen Hammond: The purpose of the amendment was to probe and to understand exactly what was meant and exactly what procedures were referred to. Given the Minister’s reassurance and explanation, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 36 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 37 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 38

Guidance about quality contracts schemes
Stephen Hammond: I beg to move amendment No. 223, in clause 38, page 34, line 8, after ‘authority’, insert
‘, the Senior Traffic Commissioner, and the Public Transport Users’ Committee’.
I regard clause 38 as slightly ominous. It deals with the whole issue of guidance and what may or may not be in guidance, regulations and the Bill. Proposed new section 134A of the Transport Act 2000 states:
“The appropriate national authority may issue guidance concerning the performance by local transport authorities of their functions under this Part in relation to quality contracts schemes”.
Inevitably, it goes on to say:
“Those authorities must have regard to any such guidance”.
This morning, the Minister has been helpful to our understanding of the Bill and its language, and I am sure that she will be helpful again now. However, I am unsure that she will be able to satisfy us why only the “appropriate national authority” will be able to issue the guidance.
I am not suggesting that every body should be allowed to issue guidance to which local authorities must have regard. That would clearly be unsustainable. However, but two bodies in addition to the “appropriate national authority” are competent and qualified enough to issue guidance: first, the senior traffic commissioner, whose functions include the registration of bus services and the overview of bus services in local areas; and, secondly, the public transport users’ committee, which is the dedicated passenger watchdog.
We should remind ourselves that the guidance is about the performance of local authorities in respect of quality contracts. As has been discussed, the stated aim of quality contracts schemes is to bring about improvements for bus users. Who better to judge whether that aim is being achieved than bus users themselves, through the organisation set up to represent them? Another stated aim of the quality contract is to ensure that other bus services will not be adversely affected. Who better to pass judgment in relation to that criterion than the traffic commissioner?
Beyond the appropriate national authority, the senior traffic commissioner and the public transport users’ committee could offer useful, appropriate and constructive advice to local authorities when carrying out their function of regulating bus services, particularly in this part of the Bill. The thrust of the amendment is to say to local authorities that there are two other bodies beyond the appropriate national authority that could help them to formulate better policies.
I hope that the Minister will accept that the senior traffic commissioner and the public transport users’ committee are experts; they are independent and qualified and they should be able to issue guidance to local authorities on this matter, which rightly falls within their remit. That would help local authorities and ultimately, help passengers by encouraging local authorities to ensure, by having regard to what they have said, that the bus services for passengers will be better. I hope the Minister will accept the amendment.
Norman Baker: I have a simple question. The Minister has been telling us throughout our discussion of the Bill that we do not need to have everything written into it and we should rely on regulations or other informal means. I am struggling to understand why the clause needs to be included at all, given that the Minister or any national authority can issue guidance at any time it likes.
Ms Winterton: As has been stated, the Bill confers a power on the Secretary of State and Welsh Ministers to issue statutory guidance to local authorities about quality contracts schemes. Local authorities would be obliged to have regard to such guidance. The amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Wimbledon would empower the senior traffic commissioner and the public transport users’ committee to issue such statutory guidance, as well.
The guidance is intended to assist local authorities in deciding whether a quality contracts scheme is a realistic option for their area and, if it is, how they might introduce it. The Department has produced draft guidance, which is available to the Committee and is also on the Department for Transport website. We will be issuing a revised draft for formal consultation later in the year.
As far as involving the public transport users’ committee is concerned, the hon. Gentleman will no doubt be aware that the Secretary of State announced on 8 April that we intend to widen the remit of Passenger Focus, the rail watchdog, to include functions relating to local bus and scheduled coach services in England. That followed public consultation on how to deliver strengthened bus passenger representation. Subject to working up the details of conferring these official functions on Passenger Focus and further consultation, that means that the powers to establish a public transport users’ committee for England would not be taken up immediately. Retaining the powers in the Bill, however, gives us the flexibility to establish such a multi-modal committee in the future.
As I have said, we have already issued draft guidance and will revise it later in the year. Waiting for the bus component of Passenger Focus to be established so that it could help to write the guidance would delay the process of making guidance available to local authorities. Passengers might be best served by their passenger representative groups offering comments on individual quality contracts schemes when consulted.
Stephen Hammond: I hear the Minister’s point about the potential delay, but surely that can be covered by issuing additional guidance?
Ms Winterton: Would that be different to the original guidance that has already been published? If we wanted to publish some guidance fairly quickly to be able to assist local authorities that wished to take up quality contracts, we would not like to then delay further. I will deal with the matter of consultation later.
It is not clear why the hon. Gentleman thinks that the relevant national authority—the Secretary of State in England and the Welsh Ministers in Wales—is not best placed to develop statutory guidance. The purpose of the guidance is to provide authorities with an overview of the legislation and to assist them in the development of schemes to ensure that they can work up realistic and well structured proposals where that is the right thing for their area.
To answer the question put by the hon. Member for Lewes, the reason that this provision appears in the Bill is that the guidance is statutory guidance. Local authorities will be obliged to have regard to it, which gives the guidance more weight. In any appeal against a scheme, the local authority’s actions and decisions will be considered in the light of the guidance. That is why it is included in the Bill in this way.
The traffic commissioners and the passenger representative body will look at quality contracts from a particular perspective. The traffic commissioners will have a major role in the approvals board for schemes, and a separate power is introduced in the Bill for the Secretary of State to issue guidance to that board. One of the strengths of the approvals board structure is that it provides an independent and impartial assessment of proposals to make a quality contracts scheme. As I have said before, we believe that it is important to preserve that independent role; we do not want it to be compromised by the senior traffic commissioner having the power to issue statutory guidance to local authorities. That is why we believe that the best method of issuing guidance is to have it prepared by the Secretary of State and the Welsh Ministers.
We also have concerns about statutory guidance potentially emanating from three different sources: the relevant national authority—the Secretary of State or Welsh Ministers—the senior traffic commissioner and the passenger representative body. We think that that would be rather confusing for authorities, especially if they were expected to have regard to guidance that sought to represent the stance of very different bodies.
That said, we will, of course, consult the traffic commissioners and passenger groups on the guidance and will continue to seek their views, particularly those of the traffic commissioners as they gain approvals board experience. I hope that that explains why we have taken our stance and that the hon. Member for Wimbledon will consider withdrawing the amendment.
Stephen Hammond: I listened very carefully to the Minister. I am not entirely satisfied with the explanation or the rationale behind the senior traffic commissioner not being involved in issuing guidance. I take the point that there may be some confusion, but I still think that that gentleman has a role to play. None the less, I wish to go back and have another look at this. I give notice to the Minister that I might raise this matter again on Report. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 38 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
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