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Mr. Malins: My hon. Friend represents the commuting constituency of Wimbledon. He will know, as I do from representing Woking, how important commuting by train and bus is. I note that the total expenditure on Passenger Focus is something in the order of £11 million or more per year, but I am not sure that the service has been getting better for my constituents or those of my hon. Friend. Does he think that Passenger Focus represents good value for taxpayers’ money?
Stephen Hammond: In a number of cases, the service has not been getting better. Although there are regular and frequent services in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend, there are clearly issues of overcrowding. He and I would have severe differences with the Minister about how that issue is being addressed.
There might be some cross-party support for the view that Passenger Focus has provided clear, independent and audited evidence of the performance of various train companies. The relevant study is used quite often to assess the bonus criteria of executives of those companies, and that has had a driving effect on rail companies to perform because their managements know that there will be an assessment and an independent audit. Although we can argue about whether we get good value for the £11 million, the operation of the body has led to some beneficial consequences.
I understand that three pilot areas are being established for the work that Passenger Focus might do in relation to buses. When are some of the results of those pilot area studies likely to be in the public domain, and should we expect that prior to the general election?
I should like to touch on a couple of other issues. In his speech, the Minister anticipated that Passenger Focus would take on a much more limited role in the resolution of passenger complaints than most people expected, because of the establishment of the Bus Appeals Body. Does he anticipate that Passenger Focus will study the complaints and that all appeals will go to the Bus Appeals Body? Alternatively, does he think that most appeals will be dealt with by the companies themselves and that Passenger Focus, or the new body, will increasingly play more of an ombudsman’s role rather than a direct individual complaints role? I would be grateful if the Minister gave some guidance on that, as it is hugely important.
I am also slightly troubled by the Minister’s comments about the roles of London TravelWatch and the new body. If I heard him correctly, he said that the new body can look at services that come into London, but that London TravelWatch would not be able to look at services that might start in London and go outwards. Is that what he said and what he intends? If so, is that not applicable only to coach and tram services, and should not the matter be more carefully defined?
I also want to press the Minister on the guidance that he will give the new body on two current issues for the bus industry that would have a significant impact on passenger complaints and the role of the industry. He knows that there are European Union proposals to toughen up the compensation requirement, so that a bus operator would have to pay in the event of an accident, whoever might be at fault. The previous Minister of State ensured that the Government would be on the side of the industry in relation to that issue. Does this Minister of State intend that that significant live issue should be looked at by the new council? Equally, will he confirm whether the recent referral of the bus market to the Competition Commission will have any legal ramifications for the initial workings of the body?
Bar those few questions, I believe that the matter is non-controversial. Given the assurances from the Minister, I will be happy to give my party’s support to the order, which would make Passenger Focus take on the role of representing bus, coach and tram passengers. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
5.3 pm
John Hemming: The Minister is definitely right about one thing; I share his pleasure in serving under your chairmanship, Mr. Howarth.
I would like to carry out what I call the “No. 41 bus test” on whether the new watchdog and the order are of any use. At times, it is good to look at specific problems and at whether they are likely to be improved. The No. 41 bus served part of Birmingham and Solihull until the weekend, and its withdrawal has caused major problems, particularly in Stockfield road, Dolphin lane and Shirley road. We have to ask whether giving the powers to Passenger Focus will enable something to be done for those local residents—probably not, I would say.
Together with local councillors, I have lobbied to keep the No. 41 bus service, but we have just been ignored—well, “ignored” is not exactly the right word; we have had meetings with the transport authority and with National Express. Passenger Focus has the right to ask for information, but not to prevent the service from being withdrawn. As a watchdog it has a bark, but in practice it does not have a bite. The transport commissioners may have a bite, but the bite to retain a bus service does not exist, and that is where the matter fails the No. 41 bus test.
Councillors Iain Bowen and Paula Wagg proposed a circular bus route. That could have been proposed via Passenger Focus. The National Express Group has turned that down, and Passenger Focus would not make any difference to that. As the market stands, we can go to another bus company and say, “Could you do a circular bus route?” That brings us to the really crucial point. If we are to improve bus services outside London, we need London’s system for managing bus services—the sector tendering system. That is the crucial point.
As a party, we support giving those powers to—
Stephen Hammond: The hon. Gentleman has just said that he supports the system in London. Will he therefore confirm, on the record, that the Liberal Democrats are happy to make that £680 million spending commitment?
John Hemming: We need to be aware that the profits made by bus companies are very high outside London. At the moment, a massive subsidy—
The Chairman: Order. The order is very specific; it is not about bus regulation in general. The hon. Gentleman would be wise to stick to the principles involved in the order, rather than wider transport policy.
John Hemming: Thank you, Mr. Howarth. I would give the answer that the London system would not cost anything like that amount. It would not necessarily cost anything at all, because of the other factors.
I was just about to finish my comments about the order. Even though what we are doing is giving more bark to a watchdog that has barked but not bitten, to an extent we are happy to give it more bark—although we would like it to have some bite as well.
5.7 pm
Colin Challen (Morley and Rothwell) (Lab): It is a great honour and privilege to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr. Howarth. I make no apology for prolonging the sitting for another two minutes, as it may be my first and last opportunity to serve under your chairmanship.
I want to ask three or four questions. I have read the explanatory notes and have noticed the attached document that says that there will be no extra cost involved in this development. How can that be so? The document also states that bus passengers account for 4 billion journeys a year, which suggests that there might be quite a work load involved in the inclusion of bus travel.
As some of us know, first-class rail passengers can be very articulate and powerful people. They can make their points very well to all the appropriate authorities. Bus passengers might not be so well served. I hope that in taking on this extra responsibility, Passenger Focus will be able to provide all the services for bus passengers that it currently provides for rail passengers. In my experience as an MP, rail passengers generally seem to have a good voice and a well-organised lobby, and I would like to hear more about that. At a time of public restraint in finances, if Passenger Focus cannot do its work on its current budget, what provision is there for it to be able to get more money to pay for the extra work?
Following on from comments that have already been made, what will the relationship of Passenger Focus be with bodies such as West Yorkshire Metro, which already does a good job of representing the interests of bus and rail passengers? How will that relationship develop? I am sure that it will be positive, but it would be interesting to know. One of the problems that many passengers will have is that their only acquaintance with such bodies may be through some leaflets stashed in a rack inside an office. A lot of this stuff simply passes over the heads of many passengers. They would not know where to start looking if they wanted to make representations. It will be interesting to see how the new body will be marketed and whether it will be promoted properly and do a good job.
The document also states that there were only 37 responses to the national consultation. How many of those were from private individuals and how many were from bus companies? It would be useful to have a breakdown of that.
These are very important issues. I support the proposal, which makes a lot of sense. It is another step towards the full integration of public transport, which was promised many years ago. I welcome the proposal, but I have concerns that some of the details do not add up.
5.10 pm
Mr. Khan: All the points raised have been good ones, and I will deal with them in turn. I remind the Committee that the draft order is needed to confer statutory duties and obligations on Passenger Focus in relation to bus, coach and tram matters. It also sets out the responsibilities placed on others in relation to how they respond to Passenger Focus. It will give bus, coach and tram passengers statutory representations for the first time, and that has received widespread support. Passenger Focus has secured many benefits for rail passengers through evidence-based campaigning and advocacy. We are confident that it will be able to transfer that capability to champion the interests of bus, coach and tram passengers.
The hon. Member for Wimbledon asked about the pilot work of Passenger Focus. It has been shadowing the relevant work since April 2009. In addition to the work in the six passenger transport authorities using the 1,200 researchers, it has piloted its own regular surveys. Passenger Focus intends to release its initial findings shortly, and it will also take over the Department’s bus passenger satisfaction survey from April 2010.
London TravelWatch represents users of services that are operated, procured or licensed by TfL, including London buses, London underground, docklands light railway, Croydon Tramlink and dial-a-ride. Passenger Focus may consider such matters as part of a wide investigation into services elsewhere in England, such as those in Dartford. London TravelWatch will continue to represent passengers making local journeys by coach within Greater London—from Victoria to Heathrow, for example—and people using Victoria coach station. Passenger Focus will represent passengers making longer-distance coach journeys inwards and outwards; my tongue may have slipped when I addressed that point during my opening remarks. The draft order makes no changes to the existing responsibilities of London TravelWatch.
The issue of funding was also raised. Passenger Focus is funded by the Department for Transport. It will receive £2.25 million in 2010-11 for its work representing bus, coach and tram passengers. We have also been assured that it has a good reputation for value for money in relation to its rail work. The hon. Member for Woking is right to ask whether we are getting value for money, and I hope that the explanation on the work of Passenger Focus in relation to rail reassures him.
The handling of complaints and appeals was also raised. Although Passenger Focus deals with rail complaints and appeals, we have not given it a similar role in relation to buses and coaches, because the Bus Appeals Body already fulfils that role. Although Passenger Focus raised concerns that the Bus Appeals Body does not consider complaints on routes, timings, level of service or pricing—that point was raised by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley—it found no conclusive evidence that the body was not effective. Steps are being taken to improve the Bus Appeals Body, such as inviting Passenger Focus to sit on the board as an observer and a proposal to prepare reports on the nature of complaints received.
A question was asked about the traffic commissioner and whether there would be guidance to Passenger Focus on referrals. We expect Passenger Focus to work collaboratively and to use its powers only as a last resort. It will be for the commissioner, as the independent regulator, to decide whether to exercise powers.
The issue of statistics was raised and the hon. Member for Wimbledon asked whether we are satisfied that we will be able to cope with the methodological differences. The short answer is that I am satisfied that Passenger Focus recognises those differences. It has piloted regular surveys that will compare the level of satisfaction in different areas. Moreover, the pilot undertaken in the six passenger transport authorities will be rolled out to the rest of the country.
The hon. Gentleman had another important concern in relation to the referral to the Competition Commission. The Office of Fair Trading has referred the bus market to the commission. The OFT was concerned that there was insufficient competition in some areas, leading to higher fares and poor competition for tendered services. We do not believe that the referral will affect Passenger Focus.
On the point raised by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley, I should say that complaints will be dealt with by the operator in the first instance. If passengers want to appeal, they can appeal to the Bus Appeals Body.
Passenger Focus will have no role in dealing with the individual complaint and will refer complaints received to the Bus Appeals Body. There is no point in duplication and the Bus Appeals Body can deal with the complaints that are appealed in the first instance.
Passenger Focus fed into the consultation on the proposed EU regulation and will carry on during the negotiation process. The proposed regulation has now left the Council and gone to the European Parliament, and it is important that the UK’s interests should be articulated in the European Parliament as well. All the rights that we were asked to secure have been secured from the Council. The important thing is to make sure that they are safeguarded when the regulation goes through the European Parliament.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley also asked about franchising and the London model. The question was ruled out of order, but I would just add that from 11 January, local authorities can use quality contracts to have the franchising system that London enjoys.
My hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Rothwell raised some important points. His question about West Yorkshire Metro being kept in the loop is important. He will be pleased to learn that it is in one of the pilot areas. It will work in partnership with Passenger Focus and pass on some of its expertise. Passenger Focus has taken on some of the mystery travellers who survey the work of different bus operators and it is important that we do not lose their expertise.
Another important point raised by my hon. Friend concerned leaflets gathering dust on the shelves and people not being aware of Passenger Focus. It is important that Passenger Focus makes passengers aware of the new body that will come into operation in April. Finally, I will write to my hon. Friend to tell him who the 37 respondents to the consultation were. We do not want a situation in which bus operating companies, which have made huge profits at the expense of commuters, get away with there being a champion of commuters that does not look after commuters’ interests. The balance has been a fair one, judging by the responses to the consultation.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the draft Passengers’ Council (Non-Railway Functions) Order 2010.
5.18 pm
Committee rose.
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