Local Transport Bill [Lords]

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Clause 44

Applications for registration where quality contracts scheme in force
Stephen Hammond: I beg to move amendment No. 239, in clause 44, page 40, line 20, leave out subsection (3).
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments No. 240, in clause 44, page 40, line 23, at end insert
‘and the appropriate approval authority’.
No. 241, in clause 44, page 40, line 24, leave out subsections (5) and (6) and insert—
‘(5) The traffic commissioner shall decide whether to accept or reject the application.’.
Stephen Hammond: Under the Transport Act 2000, operators are prohibited from registering additional services in an area where there is a quality contract scheme in operation, subject to certain qualifications. Clause 44 re-examines the issue and makes some modifications to the rules that govern the registration of services in areas where a quality contract scheme is operational.
My belief that the clause requires some change stems from a number of concerns. That will be no surprise to the Committee. First, is it right to restrict free competition, let alone in an area with a quality contract? Should other operators not be able to run services alongside the quality contract if they see a demand? Last week, the Minister put it on record that if a service was not detrimental to the quality contract she would regard it as acceptable. The services provided under a quality contract may or may not suffice in providing the services that locals require. It is possible that the network of services could be improved.
Secondly—I return to my fear that the traffic commissioners will end up being micro-managed—the provisions of the Bill and of previous legislation are designed to ensure that traffic commissioners are given certain functions and that they have the appropriate proficiency, resources and independence to carry out those functions. Beyond that, it should not be necessary to interfere in their work. One of the most important functions of traffic commissioners is the registration of buses. They receive the registration application and, having weighed all the pros and cons, they have to decide whether to accept or reject it. Under the clause, they will be told who to consult and how to reach that decision, but that calls into question the very independence of the traffic commissioner.
The clause removes from the traffic commissioner the function of accepting registrations It does so by placing an obligation on the traffic commissioner to invite representations from the relevant local authority. If he receives a clearance certificate, he has no choice but to accept the application. If he does not receive a clearance certificate he has no choice but to reject the application. All he is at that point is a thoroughly pointless middleman who does nothing but pass the application on to the local authority to be approved, or not. I am not sure that that was what the Government intended the traffic commissioner to do at that point. One wonders why he becomes just a pointless middleman.
My amendment would work in two ways. First, it would put an obligation on the traffic commissioner to consult not only the local authority running the quality contract scheme but the approvals board that approved it. That is important, as the board will consist of independent, qualified individuals with an intimate knowledge of the arrangements of the quality contract scheme and its impact on the registration of additional services. Secondly, the amendment would remove from the clause the subsections that require the traffic commissioner to comply with the issuance or non-issuance of a clearance certificate. A traffic commissioner should not need to be told by anyone how to do his job. His job is to decide on the registration of bus services, but the clause takes that away.
A need or demand may arise, however, during the lifetime of a scheme for services that were not anticipated when the scheme was developed, and which might be advantageous, or further niche services might be identified that would not particularly affect the viability of the scheme one way or another. It would be very unsatisfactory if there were no way of allowing those services to be provided other than by formally amending the scheme. The clause would give the local transport authority the discretion to allow operators to run additional services that were not detrimental to the scheme, and those services would be registered with the traffic commissioner in the normal way.
In normal circumstances, traffic commissioners do not have the power to reject applications to register, provided the operator is licensed. It is right that the local transport authority that made the scheme in the first place should decide whether a proposed new service is compatible with the quality contracts scheme. The amendments would take that function away from the local authority and give it to the traffic commissioner. He would apparently have total discretion as to what to allow and what to reject. Although the local transport authority would be consulted, the decision would be entirely out of its hands. That would make it possible, for example, for an operator to register a service that would compete with one provided under a quality contract, possibly undermining the financial basis of the contract.
The aim of providing flexibility is to allow the local authority to say that it accepts that a particular service will not undermine the quality contracts scheme, and that it is happy for it to go ahead and for it to be registered with the traffic commissioner. We believe that the local authority that made the scheme should have the discretion to do so, and we do not believe that the decision should be handed over to the traffic commissioner. I hope that that explanation is useful and that the hon. Member for Wimbledon will withdraw his amendment.
Stephen Hammond: That was helpful in some ways, but not entirely. I was trying to explore why the traffic commissioner becomes just a middleman at this point. What is his function if he simply passes round pieces of paper? It is right that the local authority should be consulted, but ultimately the traffic commissioner should have the chance to look at the application.
Stephen Hammond: Again, I was listening carefully to the Minister, and I am somewhat reassured by what she said, although I might like to test this point again on Report, if given the opportunity. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 44 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 45

Traffic regulation conditions for anticipated traffic problems
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): For the benefit of the Committee, will the Minister put this clause into context and tell us what eventuality will be covered by it that escapes the scope of current legislation? Will the clause be used to deal with transient problems or only where there is a persistent and permanent problem or an anticipated persistent and permanent problem?
Ms Winterton: The clause will extend the circumstances in which a traffic authority may ask the traffic commissioner to impose traffic regulation conditions on bus operators to include situations in which the authority foresees a likely traffic problem. Under current legislation, a traffic commissioner can impose traffic regulation conditions on operators of local bus services following a request by the traffic authority in response to a traffic problem in a particular area. Traffic regulation conditions may be imposed only to prevent danger to road users, to reduce severe traffic congestion or to reduce or limit noise or air pollution. The conditions are attached to the public service vehicle operator’s licence of the bus operators providing services in the area where the conditions apply. For example, they may prevent certain operators from using certain routes, or stipulate that operators may stop at certain places for no longer than a given time. They may also restrict the use of noisy tourist commentaries or specify minimum emissions standards.
In response to consultation on the draft Bill, a number of people told us that the problem with those provisions was that they could be used only where a problem had already arisen, resulting in a delay before the conditions could be imposed, during which time serious problems might arise, such as severe congestion and danger to road users arising from so-called bus wars. We appreciate that difficulty, so provisions in this clause mean that a traffic authority can make a request to the traffic commissioner for traffic regulation conditions to be imposed in anticipation of a problem, rather than after it has arisen, which will help traffic authorities to be proactive in dealing with potential problems. I believe that that will help reduce congestion and provide a quicker, safer and more reliable service for passengers. I hope that the Committee will support clause 45.
4.30 pm
Mr. Knight: I thank the Minister, who has answered most of my concerns, except the point I made when I caught your eye, Mr. Taylor. Will the provision be used to deal with transient problems? For example, the borough of Sandwell has an annual transport weekend on which it takes over a large field and has a display of vehicles going through the town centre. Will the provision be used to deal with such occasions, which perhaps occur only once a year, but when they do are massive, change the pattern of congestion in a town or city and clearly need to be addressed?
Ms Winterton: The point is that they could be either. However, if the problem were transient, we would expect the traffic regulation condition to be transient as well.
Graham Stringer (Manchester, Blackley) (Lab): I am grateful to the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire for bringing this issue up under the clause stand part debate. I know that the Whips want us to bounce on very quickly, so I will not take much time. Will the Minister tell us whether the regulations, because they refer to the safety of passengers, will deal with the situation that arose in the north of Greater Manchester where the wheels kept falling off FirstGroup’s buses? This is not a joke; it was a serious danger to passengers. An inquiry found FirstGroup in Rochdale in north Greater Manchester not fit and proper to be running that route. It registered a wholly-owned subsidiary of FirstGroup to run exactly the same routes. The traffic commissioner was just applying the law. The passenger transport authority, which had instigated this inquiry, was incensed, as were the travelling public. Will that anomaly and unfairness be dealt with under this or any other section?
Ms Winterton: I believe that that would be an issue for existing road safety rules, which are for the traffic commissioner to enforce. For example, the traffic commissioner would be able, through a licence condition, to take action in that instance. I will take away my hon. Friend’s point and if there is different advice that I ought to be giving, I will write to members of the Committee.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 45 ordered to stand part if the Bill.
Clause 46 ordered to stand part of the Bill

Clause 47

Fees for registration of services
Stephen Hammond: I beg to move amendment No. 242, in clause 47, page 41, line 26, leave out subsection (2).
The purpose of this probing amendment is to encourage the Minister to explain to the Committee why a bus operator should be required to pay a fee for cancelling the registration of one of its services, if that fee is beyond that which covers the administration. A fee is already payable when a service is registered under the provisions of the Transport Act 1985. The circumstances in which a fee is payable are extended by this clause so that a fee can also be incurred when a service is continued or cancelled.
I would like to be reassured by the Minister that the only purpose of charging a fee is for recovering administrative costs. If so, could she give us some indication of how she intends to give guidance on how these costs will be calculated and how the traffic commissioners are going to set these fees? Can she reassure us that they are set only at a level that covers administrative costs. I am sure that in the interests of maximum patronage, in certain areas operators must be given flexibility to respond to the demands of the travelling public. If it were a punitive fee, there would be some serious issues about what was being provided. I understand that costs must be covered, but I seek a guarantee from the Minister that the purpose of the clause is to cover administrative costs only. What guidance does she intend to give on how those administrative costs might be assessed?
Ms Winterton: It might help if I put it in the context of what we are trying to achieve in clause 47, which will allow the Secretary of State to update the range of fees payable by the operators of local bus services. I stress that any new fees would be set out in regulations and subject to further consultation.
The regime covering the fees paid by the operators of local buses has remained unchanged for the past 20 years. Before an operator can start running a bus service, he must register the particulars of that service with the local traffic commissioner, and a fee is payable then. If he wants to vary the details of the scheme—for example, by introducing a new timetable or changing the number of services—a further fee is payable. However, he does not have to pay a fee if he cancels the service altogether, which carries a transaction charge, or if he simply leaves it as it is.
The clause will allow the Secretary of State to make regulations to provide for fees to be payable in additional situations. For example, a fee could be charged for the cancellation of a local service. What is known as a continuation fee could also be charged—perhaps an annual fee where registration particulars are unchanged. Holders of a bus operator’s licence already pay a fee in order for their licence to continue in force. A number of right hon. and hon. Members have pointed out that we need to ensure that the traffic commissioners are properly resourced. They are at the heart of ensuring that bus operators deliver good services and will play an important role in enforcing the new punctuality regime. I stress that no decision has been taken to increase the fees burden on operators at this stage, but it is important to think ahead. That is why we have taken the powers. I hope that the hon. Member for Wimbledon will understand why we have done so and withdraw his amendment. [ Interruption. ]
Stephen Hammond rose—
Ms Winterton: You weren’t listening, were you?
Stephen Hammond: I was listening carefully and attentively to the Minister, as ever, but I was worried that the Whips need to make progress and that the door handle might have come off. I listened carefully to what she said, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 47 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clauses 48 and 49 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
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