Local Transport Bill [Lords]

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Clause 56

Traffic commissioners to keep records about such permits
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Stephen Hammond: I have no particular concern about the clause, but I just want to check with the Minister that the traffic commissioners will keep records of such permits. Can she confirm that such permits will be open for public inspection as will the detail of what the permits grant?
Mr. Knight: My hon. Friend has asked one of the questions that I was about to ask the Minister. Who will be able to see the permits? For how long will the records need to be kept? What length of time will the data have to be kept on file?
Ms Winterton: As Conservative Members have said, the clause will require traffic commissioners to keep records of community transport permits granted by them and copies of permits submitted to them by designated bodies. It is important that we have a better record than we do at the moment of what community transport services operate. The existing legislation does not place an obligation on the traffic commissioners to keep records of permits, although we understand that records are held by the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency on their behalf. As I said, we believed that it was important to improve our record keeping of community transport operators and that it was right to impose a requirement on traffic commissioners similar to that on designated bodies.
Mr. Knight: I do not want to make a meal of this. I think that the Minister has been helpful, but may I make two points? First, would she write to all members of the Committee and not just to my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon on that particular point? Secondly, would she be prepared to reflect on the length of time these records should be kept? For example, there did not use to be a legal duty on lawyers in the United Kingdom to keep the papers when they had finished a case, but most lawyers now keep the papers for about seven years in case an issue arises after the matter is finalised, where the papers can be of help. I realise that this situation is not entirely on all fours with what lawyers do with case paperwork, but an issue may arise after a permit expires for which it would be helpful to see the document itself, to see if any conditions were imposed in it and so on.
Perhaps the Minister could reflect on that and tell us on Report whether she feels—I am not suggesting that it should go into the Bill, but perhaps it should be in practice directions—that it is something on which she would want to advise the traffic commissioners.
Ms Winterton: I shall certainly consider whether there might be circumstances where retaining the paperwork was appropriate, and the reasons for doing so. I would not like to ask the traffic commissioners to maintain excessive amounts of information, but I am prepared to ask the community transport sector whether that is something that would be helpful. I do not think that that would be a matter for the face of the Bill, but it might be something that we could talk to the traffic commissioners about in guidance.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 56 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 57

Attachment of conditions to related licences
Stephen Hammond: I beg to move amendment No. 244, in clause 57, page 49, line 14, leave out from ‘to’ to end of line 20 and insert
‘the licence mentioned in subsection (1) above’.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 245, in clause 57, page 49, line 21, leave out ‘conditions are’ and insert ‘condition is’.
No. 246, in clause 57, page 49, line 25, leave out paragraph (b).
No. 253, in clause 57, page 50, line 8, leave out from ‘to’ to ‘a’ in line 9 and insert
‘the licence mentioned in subsection (5) above’.
No. 254, in clause 57, page 50, leave out lines 11 to 17.
Stephen Hammond: This string of amendments relates to the power of the traffic commissioner to attach conditions to operator licences. These conditions can be attached if the operator in question has failed to comply with the requirements and specifications of his licence. Such conditions can relate to the specific vehicles that can or cannot be used by the offending operator. Broadly, that is something that everybody will support, but the detail of clause 57 contains a much wider extension to the power of the traffic commissioner and I am not sure whether the Government meant that intentionally.
I am looking for some reassurance from the Minister regarding the Government’s intention, for the clause will enable the traffic commissioner to attach conditions not only to the licence of which the requirements have been breached, but to other licences held by that operator, and even to licences held by other operators connected with the offending operator. I am worried that those powers are excessive in the extreme, and that the punishment would be worse than the crime.
It seems wholly inappropriate that if an operator breaches the rules of its licence, another operator, even a related or subsidiary company, can be punished for the same offence, unless the traffic commissioner were going to attach conditions to all those licences as well. I cannot think of similar circumstances where such wide and varied penalties have been proposed.
Furthermore, if an operator holds several licences and one of them is breached, is it fair that every other licence could have conditions attached to it? The licences could relate to different types of service, for instance.
Obviously, the traffic commissioner needs the function to attach conditions to a licence if the licence is breached by the operator, but the powers that clause 57 gives him are much wider than that. Was that the Government’s intention, and, if so, in what circumstances does the Minister envisage those wide and excessive powers being used?
Ms Winterton: As the hon. Gentleman said, the amendments would, in effect, negate the purpose of clause 57, which is to extend the powers of traffic commissioners to take enforcement action against operators who fail to provide services of a satisfactory standard. It is the first of three clauses that will give traffic commissioners new or enhanced powers.
At present, traffic commissioners have at their disposal several powers that they can use to take action against operators who are not delivering a reliable service, who are not delivering the services that they said they would deliver, or who are using vehicles that do not meet the necessary safety standards. One of those powers is that the traffic commissioner can attach conditions to an operator’s licence. The conditions can be used to prevent the operator from providing certain services, and can even go so far as to prohibit an operator from operating any bus services at all in a particular area.
That is an effective tool, but there are several difficulties with it. When we debated part 1 of the Bill, I referred to the fact that Great Britain is divided into eight traffic areas. When an operator applies for a public service vehicle operator’s licence, he must apply to the traffic commissioner for the traffic area in which the vehicles are based. Those vehicles may then be used anywhere in Great Britain. But a large operator with vehicles based in more than one traffic area will have separate licences for different traffic areas.
Under the current legislation, it is generally accepted that there is no power for a traffic commissioner to attach conditions to a licence held by an operator in another traffic area. This means that even if conditions are imposed, an operator can continue to provide services under a licence held in a different traffic area unless and until the appropriate traffic commissioner takes action against him.
There is also no power for a traffic commissioner to prevent operators from circumventing the effect of licence conditions by transferring the operation of services to a subsidiary of the same holding group of companies. Such potential loopholes weaken the powers of the traffic commissioner to take action if operators are failing.
The clause will give traffic commissioners the option, where conditions have been attached to an operator’s licence, to direct a traffic commissioner in a different traffic area to attach conditions to other licences held by the company. The other traffic commissioner could refuse only if there were good reason to do so.
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The clause will also give traffic commissioners powers to attach conditions to licences held by operators connected with the original, defaulting operator, such as subsidiaries of the same holding company. I hope that the Committee will agree that it is only right that a bus operator should not be able to use the current limitations on the imposition of conditions on licences to circumvent enforcement action and, by doing so, to continue to operate bad services. That is exactly why clause 57 is in the Bill.
The hon. Gentleman’s amendments would undo those important changes, leaving operators the opportunity to continue to circumvent enforcement action. Moreover, amendments Nos. 245 and 246 would go even further, watering down existing powers so that traffic commissioners would no longer be able to impose a licence condition preventing a licence holder from operating any services in a particular area. Because the group of amendments would undermine the whole purpose of clause 57 and leave traffic commissioners with even weaker enforcement powers than they have at the moment, I cannot accept them, and I urge the Committee to reject them. With that explanation, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw them.
Stephen Hammond: I am not sure whether I agree with the Minister’s contention that the amendments would weaken the existing powers. I accept the possible need for an arrangement for holding companies or subsidiary companies, so that licences could not be switched from one company to another, as that would clearly not be right. I am still not convinced that she has addressed the point about the traffic commissioner’s greatly increased powers under the clause. The powers could give the traffic commissioner the ability to impose conditions on the licences of operators that are related, although not through a holding company arrangement. I may wish to consider the matter again on Report, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 57 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 58

Powers of traffic commissioners where services not operated as registered
Mr. John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): I beg to move amendment No. 260, in clause 58, page 51, line 25, leave out from ‘and’ to end of line 27 and insert ‘to the local traffic authority’.
The amendment would require that, where a bus service is not operating as registered and the traffic commissioner, after investigating, issues a report recommending remedial measures, a copy must be sent to the local traffic authority, regardless of whether the local traffic authority is expected to take remedial action. The Bill stipulates that a report must be sent to the local traffic authority only if it must implement any of the recommended remedial measures. The explanatory notes give an example where the local traffic authority might be expected to make changes to help with bus punctuality. There will be occasions on which the local traffic authority is not expected to take any remedial action, but we believe that it should be informed about what action bus operators are to take, regardless of whether it is expected to do anything.
Ms Winterton: Clause 58 is extremely important. In response to consultation and discussions on the Bill, many people told us that poor punctuality sometimes occurs when the local traffic authority is failing in its duties, perhaps because it is not taking appropriate action against parking or bus lane contraventions, or because poorly planned road works are disrupting bus routes. The clause will give traffic commissioners the power to hold traffic authorities to account where their actions are part of the problem.
Graham Stringer: If I remember rightly, about two and half years ago, in answer to a parliamentary question about responsibility for traffic delays and congestion, one of the Minister’s predecessors said that two thirds of the problems with late buses were caused by the bus operators themselves. Does she have an update on that figure? That is an important matter, because part of the large bus operators’ propaganda is that it is always the local authorities’ fault. In fact, it is usually their own fault for not having the right engineering facilities or drivers available.
Ms Winterton: I do not have an update on that figure, although I accept what my hon. Friend says. As I said, however, we cannot ignore some of the results of the consultation on the draft Bill, which showed that it is important to ensure that local authorities fulfil their side of the bargain.
Mr. Leech: The point of the amendment is not to suggest that local authorities are never responsible, because they clearly cause some of the problems, whether to do with congestion or whatever. I agree with the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley: most of the time the operators are at fault. The amendment would ensure that local authorities are informed of what actions need to be taken, regardless of whether they have to take remedial action. That is not to suggest that they should absolve themselves of any responsibility.
Ms Winterton: I accept that point; I was simply explaining the background to clause 58 and why it is important. The approach taken in the clause is the right one. The traffic commissioner should send a copy of any report to the relevant operator and, if any of the remedial measures are for implementation by a local traffic authority, to that authority. However, the hon. Gentleman’s amendment would require a copy of every report to be sent to the local traffic authority regardless of whether any of the measures were for implementation by the authority.
I accept that the local authority might have an interest occasionally, and it would be possible for the local traffic commissioner to send a copy to the local authority if that were the case. However, I feel that the approach in the hon. Gentleman’s amendment would be too burdensome. We believe that it is better for the local traffic commissioner to have discretion over which authorities should receive particular reports, rather than to be prescriptive in the Bill. In view of that, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw his amendment.
Mr. Leech: I will withdraw my amendment, although we might want to revisit the issue on Report. However, I do not quite accept that it would be too burdensome to send the local transport authority a copy of the report that is sent to the operator. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 58 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
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Prepared 7 May 2008