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14 Oct 2009 : Column 131WH—continued

The union Unite has done a cracking job in organising a campaign to rally behind CityBus. It has overwhelming support from people in Plymouth, including many Conservative voters and Plymouth's Labour councillors. Our priorities are clear: unlike the Conservatives, we will support a tried and tested company that is working. We will support the young, the elderly and those on low incomes, who rely on these services and who would lose
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out if another bus company were to run them. We will support environmentally sustainable transport and we are prepared to put our money where our mouth is in relation to that.

To spend £962,000 of Plymouth people's money to investigate the sale of a bus company that people do not want to be sold is wasteful, arrogant, damaging and it is already upsetting a recipe that has worked well in Plymouth for a long time. Why spend so much money now on a valuation? It is perverse.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): I am grateful to the hon. Lady for allowing me to contribute to the debate. I certainly accept that CityBus is a very impressive company, but does she agree that although it is owned by the council, it is not run by the council; it is run by its own board. Why on earth would a private company spend millions on buying CityBus and then slash its routes and reduce its services in the way she has described? I am bound to ask whether she is just scaremongering and using the issue to launch her election campaign.

Linda Gilroy: I launched my election campaign in 1997 and have not stopped since. I do not think the hon. Gentleman can have listened to what I have said. If he needs to study what makes up the economic argument I am advancing, he need look no further than the market survey of the Office of Fair Trading, which may be about to prompt a full blown Competition Commission inquiry. I would be delighted to brief him on the detail of how the margins and the profits are deployed in a different way when a company is wholly publicly owned-in fact, I am about to come to that.

According to Marc Reddy, who is the managing director of First Devon and Cornwall-one of two companies to have withdrawn their initial interest in the proposal-the bidding process set up by Plymouth city council to find out how much the company is worth is a "shambles" and could end up costing "many millions of pounds."

Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Devonport) (Lab): My hon. Friend has made the range of opposition to the sell-off that exists in the city clear and flagged up the critical reaction of the managing director of one of the other bus companies. In fact, Mr. Reddy has also expressed concern that the whole management exercise has been a "total disaster" and that it could cost the taxpayer millions of pounds-far more than the optimistic figure quoted by the council. In his response, I hope that the Minister will consider the fact that, in addition to the wholly negative effect of a bus war, pressure may be put on Plymouth city taxpayers. Far from being an asset sale, this is a Dutch auction.

Linda Gilroy: I could not have put it better myself. To put it simply, CityBus works. It works by providing value for money, excellent access and environmental efficiency in an age that calls for responsibility, public service and sustainability.

In concluding, I want to say to the huge number of people in Plymouth campaigning to expose the folly of selling CityBus, "Keep up the good work. I will do everything I can to back you." I know that the Minister does not have powers to halt this stupid proposal-I wish he
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had-but I feel it is important to tell him about something that works in the world of bus public transport, particularly at a time when the Office of Fair Trading is focusing concerns on how things are not working in many other cities and communities. I hope that he will take note of this important example of how operations in the world of bus transport can and do work, and that he can point us in the direction of how we can hold the Tory council in Plymouth to account over its appalling stewardship of this green jewel in our city's crown.

I would like to think that the Tory council's negligent handling of this issue and taxpayers' money could open it up to being surcharged. I guess it is too much to hope that the Minister will be able to point me in the direction of such powers, but I hope that he will draw the appalling record of the Tory cabinet in Plymouth to the attention of his colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government, so that it is fully taken into account in the assessment of the council's hopeless and hapless performance on this issue.

4.16 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Chris Mole): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) on securing the debate and thank her for bringing these matters to the attention of hon. Members. She may be aware that I have strong empathy with her view in that Ipswich Buses, along with Plymouth CityBus, are two of only nine remaining municipal bus companies. I am well aware of the depth of feeling that the proposed sale of Plymouth CityBus is causing in her constituency. I congratulate my hon. Friend on the part she has played in raising the profile of the issue.

Of course, we all know how important a strong local bus service is to communities everywhere in the country, urban and rural areas alike, and that people have entirely justifiable concerns when their local service appears to come under threat. Central and local government provide more than £2.5 billion in support and grants to the bus industry every year, which is three times the level of support provided a decade ago. Support for local transport will remain a priority for the Government.

A reliable bus network that offers good value for money is vital to further reducing urban congestion, improving air quality in our cities and lowering carbon emissions from transport by providing a real and credible alternative to the car for many short journeys. The bus is also key to improving access to employment and other services for a great many people, especially, but by no means exclusively, those without a car.

The bus provides a connection with a community-particularly for the more vulnerable people in society-which is why, in addition to providing free off-peak bus travel across the whole of England to all older and disabled people since April last year, we are continuing to look at how concessionary fare reimbursement is paid, so we can ensure that it is administered in the fairest and most cost-effective way. Precisely because local buses are so important to the communities they serve, it is Government policy to ensure that local authorities are empowered to make decisions on the best way to manage their local bus service. That is why the Local Transport Act 2008 gave local authorities the powers they need to build stronger working relationships
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with bus operators so they can create binding arrangements that provide better and more sustainable bus services, with better facilities and a higher standard of service for passengers.

The 2008 Act introduced new powers to allow local transport authorities to sign voluntary partnership agreements with multiple operators for the first time, or to encourage further the use of binding quality partnership schemes, which compel operators to provide services to a minimum standard in exchange for local authorities improving facilities for passengers and vehicles. Indeed, the Act makes quality contracts schemes a realistic proposition for the first time, under which a local transport authority can introduce a London-style franchise system and take full control over the way buses are operated in their authority area.

James Duddridge: Just to clarify, does the Minister oppose the sale?

Chris Mole: The point I am making at this stage of my speech is that we have provided the powers across the piece for local authorities properly to hold bus companies to account. However, the situation would obviously be different in a case where the local authority has ownership, which is something I will come to in a moment.

We are already seeing many examples of close partnership working across the country, which is reaping real benefits for passengers. We continue to work hard to promote those new powers, providing guidance and advice to local authorities and encouraging them to make full use of the powers contained in the Act. Of course, we meet regularly with our colleagues in local government and with representatives from the bus industry, and it is clear that there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

Bus operators operate routes where people use them the most, and the economic sense of that is clear. In addition, local authorities can, and do, subsidise routes that provide a further social benefit-indeed, 500 million vehicle km run on that basis every year.

There are many important services and only a finite amount of money, but the message is the same: decisions on local bus services are best made by those locally elected to take them. Councils are elected to work in the best interests of the communities that elect them. While it is for central Government to provide the legislative framework that gives councils the tools to do their job, Westminster cannot, and should not, seek to control their actions. The same is true for the assets owned by local authorities.

4.20 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

4.30 pm

On resuming-

Chris Mole: I was saying that councils are elected to work in the best interests of the community that has elected them, and that we in Westminster should not seek to control their actions. I was about to say that the same is true for the assets owned by the local authority. In many ways, this addresses the point raised by the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge), who is no longer in his place. At the end of the day, it is for locally elected councils to use their
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assets in a way that provides the best benefits to the people who elected them. Plymouth city council is ultimately accountable at the ballot box to the people of Plymouth for its actions, not to us in Westminster.

Alison Seabeck: On the question of assets, if the Office of Fair Trading decides to call in and look at the impact of sell-offs and bus wars, would the Minister think it appropriate for the sale to be halted while the investigation is undertaken?

Chris Mole: People would have to look at the competition implications of a change in circumstances on a case-by-case basis. As my hon. Friend knows-I shall deal with this briefly-there is the question of the OFT review.

In all our work with the bus industry and local authorities, two clear messages come across: local buses are best managed at a local level, and transport works best when operators and local authorities work together. Our consistent improvements to the regulatory framework contribute to those goals.

Of course, there is a case for competition where it has a role to play. Hon. Members may be aware that the OFT recently published a report that encouraged more competition in the bus industry. I commend it on the depth in which it has examined this issue so far. The Department for Transport will continue to work with the OFT to decide the best course for the bus industry. We can see that even though car ownership has risen, people are still choosing to travel by bus.

So where do we go from here? The bus is absolutely key to achieving every part of the Government's transport strategy. We want to demonstrate that measures designed to support and encourage sustainable travel, including walking, cycling and public transport use, which together we have termed "smarter choices", can help to ease congestion, increase physical activity and reduce environmental impacts from transport.

Local authorities are beginning to consider their next local transport plans, and we expect to see smarter choices as a key component, as is already the case for many authorities. By implementing measures on smarter choices, including encouraging the greater use of buses, local authorities, businesses and local communities will be able to harness the benefits in their areas.

I have said that the bus is a key weapon in meeting this country's obligations on carbon reduction, and that is true, but the bus is of paramount importance to many people for any number of other reasons. Nearly one fifth of all commuting trips are now made by public transport, and I fully expect to see that figure rise even further through the support of smarter choices. With the introduction of free off-peak local bus travel anywhere in England, older people now have more freedom to travel in retirement than ever before. People feel safer and more comfortable when travelling than in the past, and those factors are reflected in rising patronage, which reverses a trend that had been drifting downwards since the 1950s.

Such changes do not happen suddenly, but take place over time, as people adapt their behaviour to a modern
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world in which we need to be more conscious of our carbon footprint, and in which we cannot rely on building new roads to cope with increased demand for transport. Behaviour change is absolutely integral to our strategy, which the evidence shows is working. I genuinely believe that we have the right regulatory arrangements between central Government, local government and the private sector in respect of the bus industry, and we will continue to work to build on the improvements that we have made and to construct a stronger, more robust network for the future.

I promise my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton that I will raise her concerns with my ministerial colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government. If she believes that Plymouth city council has done anything inappropriate, there is obviously a role for the district auditor to look at the use of resources. However, as I have said, at the end of the day, it is for the people of Plymouth to make a judgment on decisions taken by the city council.

I understand that CityBus provides the people of Plymouth with good access to bus services and that it is a popular service, especially with older people and because of its school-run capacity. I have spoken a great deal about the influencing role that councils can have.

Linda Gilroy: To follow through on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck) as to whether there should be a suspension if there is a reference to the OFT, would the Minister agree that, with a bus company that is as successful as Plymouth CityBus, there would be a good reason to consider putting the whole thing in suspension pending the OFT's consideration?

Chris Mole: I come back to my central point, which is that the framework that we have established puts the primary responsibility for making such decisions on the local authority. It will have to do that in the context of that knowledge, and I am sure that my hon. Friend will ensure that everyone in Plymouth knows that the city council knows that those are the circumstances.

Mr. Streeter: I want to be clear about what the Minister is saying. He is not saying that his Government are telling Plymouth city council not to sell CityBus. Is that correct?

Chris Mole: I made it clear that the framework in which we see councils having a relationship with bus companies is one for the local authority. However, having said that, I have entirely described the set of relationships between local government and bus companies, and how those can be improved by many of the frameworks that we have put in place in legislation over the past few years. Any local authority that owns a bus company should cherish the opportunity that it has and make the most of owning a bus company, because it may find that the power to influence may not always be as great as it has been through direct ownership of the bus company.

4.38 pm

Sitting suspended.

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The Maldives

4.40 pm

Mr. David Amess (Southend, West) (Con): I have the honour to be chairman of the all-party group on the Maldives, following in the distinguished line of the previous chairman, Lord Naseby. I am delighted to see attending this debate my hon. Friends the hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter), for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) and for Braintree (Mr. Newmark), all of whom have a real interest in the Maldives.

The all-party group was set up some eight years ago at the request of the then Maldivian high commissioner and a great deal has been achieved during that period. Last year, I had the privilege of visiting the country, together with my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley). We were charged with the task of monitoring the preparation for the 2008 presidential elections and exploring avenues for mutually advantageous co-operation between our two countries. This debate gives the Minister the opportunity to respond to a number of points, on which I hope the British and Maldivian Governments will be able to work together.

The Maldives has made incredible progress, with the first multi-party elections being held in October last year, President Mohamed Nasheed being sworn into office and President Maumoon Gayoom stepping down after more than 30 years. That is undoubtedly a triumph for democracy and an example that the rest of the world should applaud, as the transition to democracy was made without violence or bloodshed. That is a proud achievement for all Maldivians. Setting a similarly positive example, I am delighted to tell hon. Members that the new Government of the Maldives-a Muslim nation-has recently re-established diplomatic relations with Israel after 15 years, which is another splendid achievement.

President Mohamed Nasheed travelled last week from Malé to Manchester to address the Conservative party conference. The President spoke about the economy, democracy and climate change, which he described as a matter of "life or death" for the country.

During the summer Adjournment debate on 21 July, I reported that the high commissioner, Dr. Farah Faizal, had advised me that no funding had yet been received from the Department for International Development and that she could not get a meeting with the relevant Minister. I am delighted to say that since then DFID has met the Maldivian Foreign Minister, Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, but unfortunately the outcome is still far from totally satisfactory. DFID is offering relatively little support to this fledgling democracy, to which our country owes an obligation, given our historic ties, as the Maldives seeks to overhaul the public sector, institute democratic reform, reduce the budget deficit, improve governance and deal with the threat of climate change.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): Although I understand that DFID might take the view that the country falls outside its framework for assistance, does my hon. Friend agree that, being a Muslim country that is now a fully fledged democracy, if its Government and democracy were allowed to fail, it would send a bad signal to the wider world and that Britain ought to ensure that it succeeds?

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