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Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: Amendment No. 132, which stands in my name, is grouped with Amendment No. 131 and tries to achieve much the same result but by slightly different means. Clause 113(6) determines the standards that can be specified in a quality partnership scheme. Clause 113(6)(b) excludes local transport authorities from adding frequency and timing of services to those standards. Amendment No. 132 states not that they must do so, but that they may do so. I hope that that will meet the "flexibility test" as it is not a demand.
However, these standards can be specified in a quality contract. We understood that the Government consider that, as regards the provision of bus services, quality contracts may be, as it were, younger sisters or less important members of the clan. However, if one can obtain these standards only by going down the quality contract route, that is what these authorities may be tempted to do, bearing in mind that the two matters that passengers most frequently cite as being important are precisely timing and frequency of services.
Lord Swinfen: My name is attached to Amendment No. 131. As I mentioned when we discussed Amendment No. 125, I degrouped from it Amendment No. 134 and said that I would address that amendment with Amendment No. 131.
As I see it, the purpose of Amendment No. 131 is to allow quality partnerships to specify details of timing and frequency of services. Amendment No. 134 would require local transport authorities to consult
Timing and frequency of services are key factors that stop disabled and elderly people from being able to go out independently. Timing has a bearing on when to shop, when to visit friends and places of entertainment, and on how disabled people get to work. If an authority or authorities propose to make a quality partnership scheme, they must give notice of the proposed scheme and, inter alia, consult such organisations appearing to the authority or authorities to be representative of users of local services as they think fit.
For reasons that I stated earlier this evening, I should like to see local transport authorities specifically required to consult disabled and elderly people and their organisations, whether or not they are current users. It is extremely important that both elderly people and disabled people without their own private transport know the frequency and the timings of public transport.
The Minister of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston): In responding to these amendments I am very conscious that this is an issue relating to Part II of the Bill which is of concern to several noble Lords. I respect their views, but I should like to argue that there is another point of view, which I shall try to set out for the Committee.
I begin by looking at some matters of legal principle. We have two quite separate concepts in the Bill: quality partnerships give local authorities new powers to set overall standards for bus services as a condition for the use of facilities that the local authorities provide; quality contracts give local authorities powers to determine all the details of bus services in a particular area, including the specific details of timetables.
There are different procedures for the two concepts. Quality partnerships are a matter for a local authority's own discretion, subject to various consultation requirements; quality contracts require the consent of the relevant national authority, which seems only right for such a significant and substantial departure from the present arrangements under which bus operators have quite a margin of commercial discretion.
These amendments would seriously blur the distinction between quality partnerships and quality contracts. They would give local authorities a very significant degree of control over the details of the bus operators' timetables and frequencies in the circumstances of a quality partnership. The result would be that the quality partnership would take on some of the crucial characteristics of a quality contract and other important aspects of quality contracts would be side-stepped; in particular, there would be no need for the consent of the national authority to such a quality partnership.
So we would have legislation with two blurred and overlapping concepts; we would have something which looked very much like a quality contract but achievable by the quality partnership procedures--achievable by the back door, some might say. I cannot think that it would be right to put such provisions on to the statute book.
Perhaps some noble Lords may seek to argue that I am relying on technical legal arguments. I would therefore seek to underline my point by looking not at the legal issues but at the practical ones. As the Bill stands, quality partnership provisions in Clauses 113 to 122 give local authorities the power to set mandatory standards for bus services as a condition for the use of the facilities which the local authority has provided. A typical example of a facility might be a new bus lane; an example of standards set by a local authority might be that all buses must be less than three years old.
A key feature of these standards is that they apply to all bus operators even-handedly; the local authority does not need to negotiate separately with individual bus operators. The standards are set and publicised and all bus operators therefore know where they stand; they either meet the standard or they cannot use the bus lane. Enforcement is for the traffic commissioner. So if a new operator wants to come in, he does not need to seek any approval from the local authority; he merely registers his service with the traffic commissioner in the usual way. In making that registration, he will confirm to the traffic commissioner that he meets the published standard for the use of the bus lane.
However, if the local authority had the power to set standards in respect of timetables or frequencies, we would find ourselves in an entirely different world. No longer would we have the even-handed approach as between different operators; instead, the local authority would have to take a view not only on each individual bus operator but on each individual bus service. So every operator would need to go to the local authority and negotiate over the timings of each service before they could be allowed to run.
We can see, therefore, what the inevitable result of these amendments would be. Even if we look only at frequencies rather than at detailed timetables, it is clear that different frequencies will be appropriate for different services. The frequency that is right for a service to an outlying rural village will be quite different from that required to link a city centre to a railway station or for a busy commuter route. So one frequency fitting all simply will not work. The local authority will have to take a detailed view, case by case. The same will be all the more true if the local authority is looking not at overall frequencies but at full timetables. So the local authority will be taking detailed control over services run by operators.
I hope that I have made it clear that this amendment is much more significant than it might at first sight appear. It would upset the balance that underlies the idea of quality partnership--the balance between the local authority (which should be given new powers, as
Certainly, the present position is not perfect. That is why we are giving local authorities the important new quality partnership powers in the Bill. For the first time, these will allow local authorities to require bus operators to meet certain standards. That is a significant step forward.
The Bill retains the principles of balance and of quality partnership, with local authorities and bus operators working together. Local authorities will use their skills in traffic management and provide facilities, and they will be able to impose legal conditions on the use of those facilities. Bus operators have their own skills, too, and they will be able to contribute their operational judgments on timings and frequencies.
The Committee can find the definition of "quality partnerships" in Clause 113(2), where that idea is reflected on the face of the Bill. The Committee might then look at the definition of "quality contract" in Clause 123(4) to see the clear difference between the two.
Let us not forget that we already have a range of success stories up and down the country with voluntary quality partnerships, which have already produced examples of significant increases in bus patronage without detailed local authority powers over timings and frequencies. We believe that it is right to strengthen local authority powers, as I have indicated. That way, both local authorities and bus operators can invest with confidence, knowing that low quality bus operators will not be able to make free use of facilities and undermine the quality standard.
Given those success stories, I am not persuaded that detailed powers of local authority control over timetables are appropriate. I should stress, as the Committee will know, that it remains open to local authorities and bus operators to reach voluntary agreements on matters of timing and frequencies. That has been done successfully in the past; it can be done in future--in ways, incidentally, that keep the Office of Fair Trading happy. I suggest that it is the appropriate way ahead, offering the prospect of successful partnerships rather than a relationship based on control.
It has been suggested that this is all very well but that we are now working under a new Competition Act regime, and concern has been expressed about the attitude of the Office of Fair Trading to such voluntary agreements. It is not for me to speak for the OFT, but I believe that these fears are unfounded. I see no reason to think that voluntary agreements between operators and local authorities on frequencies and timings--even if they are caught by the Competition Act--will inevitably be outlawed by the OFT. Of course the OFT is concerned for the travelling public--as are we all--and it wants to be sure that operators are not making cosy deals under the guise of a voluntary quality partnership. But the OFT will also be concerned with the public interest; the important point is to discuss the
I recognise that many in local government and the bus industry are keen to see guidance from the OFT on its approach to both voluntary and statutory quality partnerships. Frankly, I share that view and I shall make representations to the Director-General of Fair Trading accordingly. I very much take the points made by noble Lords over time in that respect.
I turn now to Amendment No. 134, which seeks to add organisations representing disabled people to the consultation process. As my noble friend Lord Whitty said earlier, the Bill already acknowledges the needs of disabled people in Clause 111, which requires authorities to have particular regard to their needs in the context of the local transport plan and bus strategy. We shall be encouraging local authorities to be inclusive in their consultation and policy making. I am concerned that if we were more prescriptive than that by seeking to put such organisations on the face of the Bill, it would be more likely than not that we would probably omit one particular interest group or another. I would argue to the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, that we can safely leave it to the authorities to decide how best to meet the spirit of what is required by way of consultation in the light of the guidance on local transport plans which has been issued.
I submit that the provisions in the Bill on quality partnerships already give local authorities significant and valuable extra powers which, on all the evidence, will provide the basis for successful partnerships in future. The Bill already lays a firm foundation for such future success. These amendments would entail a significantly different approach. Therefore, I cannot recommend them to the Committee.
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