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Session 2007 - 08
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General Committee Debates
Local Transport

Local Transport Bill [Lords]

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairmen: David Taylor, Ann Winterton
Baker, Norman (Lewes) (LD)
Betts, Mr. Clive (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab)
Carswell, Mr. Douglas (Harwich) (Con)
Hammond, Stephen (Wimbledon) (Con)
James, Mrs. Siân C. (Swansea, East) (Lab)
Kidney, Mr. David (Stafford) (Lab)
Knight, Mr. Greg (East Yorkshire) (Con)
Laxton, Mr. Bob (Derby, North) (Lab)
Leech, Mr. John (Manchester, Withington) (LD)
McCarthy, Kerry (Bristol, East) (Lab)
Scott, Mr. Lee (Ilford, North) (Con)
Smith, Ms Angela C. (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab)
Stewart, Ian (Eccles) (Lab)
Stringer, Graham (Manchester, Blackley) (Lab)
Watts, Mr. Dave (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
Winterton, Ms Rosie (Minister of State, Department for Transport)
Wright, Jeremy (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con)
John Benger, Annette Toft, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Tuesday 6 May 2008


[David Taylor in the Chair]

Local Transport Bill [Lords]

4 pm

Clause 41

Competition scrutiny of functions and agreements relating to buses
Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): I beg to move amendment No. 258, in clause 41, page 36, line 20, after ‘area’, insert
“including actions to ease congestion on a highway network.”.
Good afternoon to you, Mr. Taylor. I am happy to move the amendment. Before the break, we heard about the enthusiasm for voluntary partnerships, which I am happy to tell the hon. Member for Wimbledon I share. They are indeed a useful way forward. If they can be made to work, they are preferable to quality contracts—although they too have a role. The amendment would make them as attractive as possible by making it explicitly clear that a voluntary partnership arrangement can cover
“actions to ease congestion on a highway network”.
The amendment would write that definition of a voluntary partnership agreement into clause 41(2). The Minister might say that such matters can certainly be taken into account by a voluntary partnership agreement. If she says that, I shall be happy to withdraw the amendment in due course. However, it is important to put on the record that a voluntary partnership agreement should cover such matters, not least because there is reluctance among some local highway or transport authorities to recognise that they too have a role to play in delivering better bus services. It is not simply a question of encouraging bus companies to put on more or better buses. If there is a problem with the highway network, it can lead to congestion and delays, which in turn is a significant disincentive for people who wish to travel by bus.
An example in my constituency is Brighton and Hove Bus and Coach Company, which has been successful with a voluntary agreement with the local councils. It has put on extra buses through Lewes to Ringmer and almost as far Tunbridge Wells, and to Brighton in the other direction. That has been successful, but there is a major problem with the junction at Earwig Corner, which is out of Lewes on the way to Ringmer. There has been complete inaction from the local county council in dealing with the junction, and the consequence has been a knock-on effect on punctuality all along the network from Brighton to Tunbridge Wells. Bus passengers all along that route are being severely disadvantaged. A voluntary partnership in that area, and more generally, ought to pick up such problems. That should be a key part of dealing with any agreement between bus companies and local councils. I would welcome the Minister telling me whether that is the case. In parenthesis, if she can put any pressure on East Sussex county council to sort out that junction, it would be even more welcome.
The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Ms Rosie Winterton): Welcome back to the chair, Mr. Taylor.
As the hon. Member for Lewes has noted, the definition of a voluntary partnership agreement requires the local authority to undertake to provide facilities that might include bus lanes, new bus shelters and so on, or do anything else for the purpose of bringing benefits to bus passengers. We have deliberately cast that definition quite widely because of comments that we received during the consultation process from the Passenger Transport Executive Group and others.
Obviously, it seems likely that if a local authority agrees to take action to help address traffic congestion, it should deliver benefits to bus passengers in the form of reduced and more predictable journey times. As long as passengers are expected to benefit in that way, the existing definition of a voluntary partnership agreement in the Bill already delivers the effect that the hon. Gentleman’s amendment would have. I understand the point that he is making, but I think the matter is covered in the Bill. I hope that provides the reassurance that he is seeking and enables him to withdraw his amendment.
Norman Baker: I am grateful to the Minister for confirming that those sorts of measure are included in the wider definition. I thought that they probably were, but it was useful to check. Accordingly, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): Good afternoon, Mr. Taylor. I want to register some other issues about competition and to get some comments from the Minister.
As the Minister said earlier, the Government are working closely on this part of the Bill with the Campaign for Better Transport and she has rightly acknowledged the input of that organisation. I would like to raise an issue that has not been tackled and which concerns the organisation—that the changes made by the clause and by schedule 2 affect the way in which agreements between operators and local authorities are deemed to be in the public interest or not. In effect, they allow competition law to be relaxed so that bus companies can discuss how best to work in partnership.
What has not yet been discussed is how that competition law might relate to the integration of other modes of transport. Although bus companies compete with one another, they also compete with other modes of transport, most commonly the car and the tram.
Norman Baker: That is an interesting contribution from the hon. Member for Wimbledon. There is also the question of what happens when the bus competes with the train and whether that should be taken into account, particularly if the bus company and the train company are run by the same parent, which does happen. Companies such as First run buses and trains, sometimes in competition with each other. How do we deal with that situation?
Ms Winterton: The point is that what we are trying to achieve here is limited to the competition between bus services. We are talking about voluntary partnership agreements between local authorities and bus operators. I take the point that there might be times when it is important to take into account that a railway service might be running along the same route but we are talking about the specific situation where bus operators are allowed to run along particular routes as and when they want, if it is a commercial service. In other areas a subsidy can be given by the local authority.
We are trying to get over the fact that it has been difficult for one or more bus operators to sit down with the local authority and work out, for example, what might be appropriate in terms of the frequency of patterns of service—that is definitely between the bus operators themselves. We have discussed at other points in the Bill whether it would be a good idea, when considering overall integrated transport plans, to look at how bus services fitted in with rail services, for example. However, in this case, we are talking specifically about the issues of bus operators, because they would be talking about running along particular routes—the local authority would like to sit down with them and organise such things as the patterns of service. I take on board the comments made by the hon. Member for Wimbledon, but that would fit into another part of how the local authority or integrated transport authority would want to look at other services in its overall transport plan.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 41 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Schedule 2 agreed to.
Clause 42 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Schedule 3 agreed to.

Clause 43

Determination of applications for registration where restrictions in force
Stephen Hammond: I beg to move amendment No. 225, in clause 43, page 38, line 14, leave out subsection (5).
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 226, in clause 43, page 38, line 18, leave out ‘that question’ and insert
‘whether to accept the application’.
No. 227, in clause 43, page 38, line 19, leave out ‘those representations’ and insert
‘any relevant representations made by a relevant authority or a relevant operator’.
No. 228, in clause 43, page 38, line 25, leave out subsection (7).
No. 229, in clause 43, page 38, line 28, leave out
‘If subsection (7) above does not apply,’.
No. 230, in clause 43, page 38, line 29, at end insert—
‘(za) accept the application;’.
Stephen Hammond: I am speaking to a series of amendments dealing with one particular theme, which we discussed when we looked at the quality partnerships part of the Bill. Local authorities have some powers to impose restrictions on bus services that operate in an area where a quality partnership is also in operation. Clause 43 looks at the issue from the other side—that of the prospective traffic commissioner. My amendments are motivated by a concern that some unnecessary and inappropriate restrictions are being placed on traffic commissioners carrying out their functions. Under the provisions of the clause, when the traffic commissioner receives an application for a registration in an area where a quality partnership is in operation, he must first give notice to the authority and the operator or operators party to the new quality contracts scheme. The authority or the operator may make representations to the traffic commissioner, which he must consider in making his decision.
I am trying to see why that provision is necessary. When traffic commissioners decide whether to accept the registration applications made by the operators, they already take into account all local circumstances that might be affected by such a registration. The traffic commissioner will know about the quality partnership in the area, and will bear in mind the impact that he believes additional registrations would have. I am not clear why he needs to be placed under the obligation to take into account additional representations. It seems to me that an element of the clause is telling the traffic commissioner how to do his job, which is neither necessary nor appropriate.
Ms Winterton: The clause will give traffic commissioners powers to determine whether applications to register new services, or to modify or withdraw existing ones, would be detrimental to a quality partnership scheme. That is linked to measures in clause 13, which would allow a local transport authority to include registration restrictions in a scheme. When making such decisions, the traffic commissioner must apply the registration criteria contained in the scheme. The clause sets out the procedure to be followed when an application to which such restrictions apply is received. If the traffic commissioner decides that an application would be detrimental to the quality partnership scheme, he may turn it down, he may require the applicant to amend it or he may require them to undertake that they would provide services to the standards specified in the scheme. The clause also provides a right of appeal to the Transport Tribunal against decisions of the traffic commissioner.
We included the provisions in response to concerns that a successful quality partnership scheme could be undermined by disruptive competition—by competitors not prepared to meet the standards specified in the scheme. The purpose is to protect operators and authorities that might have made significant investment in facilities or standards of service. The provisions also provide protection for the passengers who benefit from the improvements in service that a scheme should bring.
4.15 pm
The amendment would prevent the traffic commissioner from making an assessment as to whether a registration application would be detrimental to services provided under a quality partnership scheme. He would instead be limited to basing his decision on the registration criteria and the representations and evidence put before him. He would obviously have to consider representations from operators and authorities as part of the decision-making process. Indeed, if no such representations are made, the legislation stipulates that he must accept the application.
We believe that the changes are necessary. It is important that the traffic commissioner should be able to make such assessments, as that will ensure that quality partnership schemes cannot be undermined in the ways that I outlined earlier. We included the provision for registration restrictions to help prevent destabilising competition—it is often seen in so-called bus wars—which can affect operators that have invested in quality partnership schemes and the passengers who need the services. We believe that limiting the assessment strictly to the relevant representations with authorities and operators would diminish the commissioner’s ability to make an informed decision. That is why I urge the hon. Member for Wimbledon to withdraw the amendment.
Stephen Hammond: I listened carefully to the Minister, and I am reassured by her words. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 43 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
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