Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Bradshaw: I thank the Minister for that very full explanation. Viewed from the point of view of a local authority, when a quality partnership is set up facilities previously enjoyed by people are often taken away. For example, streets are closed to motorists or carparking charges are substantially increased. People then feel forced into using the public transport provided. If a facility which people have heretofore enjoyed is taken away from them, they need some reassurance that what is to be put in its place is suitable. Setting aside fares, in judging the suitability of any transport service, frequency and reliability are consistently at the top of people's lists of requirements. When designing an integrated transport policy one would wish to ensure that buses actually meet trains at the station. That involves timing. Buses should start and finish at certain times of the day. When spending several million pounds on a park-and-ride scheme, a sufficient frequency of buses should run in order to make the scheme convenient to users. It should not be a matter of helping the bus operator to fill every bus regardless of how long people have to wait.

10 Jul 2000 : Column 71

By providing a park-and-ride system and taking away the ability to park in the centre of a town, people are to some extent being forced to use the bus service.

What my noble friends propose is not that frequencies and timings should be a compulsory part of a quality partnership. They cannot be so because by its nature it is a voluntary agreement. Towards the end his speech the Minister offered some comfort. He said that there is no harm in these matters being covered in a voluntary quality partnership; they can be part of a voluntary quality partnership. I should like to be sure on that point. If one had to go out and sell to the electorate a scheme which involved them giving up their previous method of travel and adopting a new method, in a democratic process, some reassurance would need to be given that what they would receive was at least as good as, and one would hope better than, that which they had previously enjoyed. Taking away road space to create bus lanes inevitably means that the facility for people to park in front of their house or in front of shops is denied to them. It is a bargaining process between the local authority and the electorate and between the local authority and the bus companies.

What we are seeking is that nothing should be ruled out of the discussion. Using the word "may" in our amendment is intended to make it clear that a quality partnership does not allow a local authority to specify in detail the timings and frequency of services but rather requires it to give a broad specification of the kind of service which people can expect.

I am also concerned, as is the Minister, about the influence of the Office of Fair Trading. We can probably return to that issue at a later stage. I shall leave my remarks there, save to say that many voluntary quality partnerships are extremely successful and many of them include reference to timing and frequency.

Lord Berkeley: Before the noble Lord sits down, perhaps he will consider something a little less prescriptive than what he has proposed. My noble friend the Minister gave a very clear exposition of what is expected from the partnerships. If a local authority is introducing bus lanes, or whatever, obviously the local authority will want to see something in return. Some of the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, were probably more relevant to quality contracts, but perhaps not.

At the moment we seem to have the standard of service being confined to special types of bus and so on. I wonder whether it is possible to introduce a minimum level of service without specifying timetables. That would get over the concerns raised by my noble friend the Minister and make the provision a little less prescriptive. It would mean that at least some services operated rather than none.

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: In response to the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, I am happy to reconfirm what I said earlier. It remains open to local authorities and bus operators to reach voluntary agreements on

10 Jul 2000 : Column 72

matters of timing and frequency. Just as it has been done in the past, so it can be done in the future. In reply to my noble friend Lord Berkeley, I would simply say that we can leave the matter to the creativity and the self-interest of the parties involved to ensure that they develop new levels of service.

7.15 p.m.

Lord Dixon-Smith: I am grateful to the Minister for an extremely comprehensive reply which ranged over the field rather more widely than the specific amendments. The fact that he had the full attention of the Committee shows that it was recognised as a significant response.

I am also grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, for what she said about her amendment. I am grateful also to the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, for supporting the argument. However, in his response the Minister certainly gave us serious cause for thought. We shall need to study with care what he has said, but I do not think that we shall find it necessary to return to the subject, which will be of intense relief to the Committee. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 132 not moved.]

Clause 113 agreed to.

Clause 114 [Notice and consultation requirements]:

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Strabolgi): If Amendment No. 133 is agreed to, I cannot call Amendment No. 134.

[Amendments Nos. 133 and 134 not moved.]

Clause 114 agreed to.

Clause 115 agreed to.

Lord Dixon-Smith moved Amendment No. 135:

    After Clause 115, insert the following new clause--


(" . The Competition Commission may at any time investigate whether the appropriate authority has acted in the interests of the public in connection with a scheme and issue a report setting out any changes to a scheme which it regards as necessary to protect the interests of the public.").

The noble Lord said: Amendment No. 135 seeks to give the Competition Commission an opportunity to look at what is done under quality partnerships. There are a number of arguments in favour of that. However, it appears unnecessary to go over those arguments in view of what the Minister said in his previous response. I do not at this stage wish to take up the time of the Committee on the amendment. I shall need to look carefully at what the Minister had to say in his previous reply. I beg to move.

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: I submit that the Bill already contains sufficient provisions to promote the public interest. I hope therefore that the noble Lord will feel able not to press his amendment.

10 Jul 2000 : Column 73

Lord Dixon-Smith: I tried to get out of pressing my amendment! I apologise; I tend to muddle the procedures a little every now and then. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 116 agreed to.

Clause 117 [Effect of scheme]:

Lord Dixon-Smith moved Amendment No. 136:

    Page 71, line 35, leave out subsections (4) and (5).

The noble Lord said: If I have read it correctly, this part of the Bill seeks to bar other operators from using the facilities provided in a quality scheme. We do not think that that is right. If the new quality partnership schemes are to deliver good services, they should be open to all those who wish to become involved.

However, once again, I understand that the Minister may well have covered this area in his previous reply. However, I look forward to receiving an assurance that that is the case. If it is, then I shall be clear about my next action. For the time being, however, I beg to move.

Lord Bradshaw: Perhaps I may speak to Amendment No. 137. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, has already responded to this point, but for the sake of clarity I should like to cover it briefly. This clause covers the question of enforcement by the traffic commissioners of a quality partnership. Our amendment seeks to establish how those undertakings, which form a part of the quality partnership, will be enforced.

If I have understood correctly what has already been said, the traffic commissioners will have knowledge of the quality partnership in all respects. An operator seeking to register a new service within that quality partnership will need to give an undertaking to the traffic commissioners that the service complies with the quality partnership. The service will then be registered and will be able to run.

However, I am concerned about what will happen if it is found that the service being provided by the new entrant operator does not comply with the details of the quality partnership? Who will bring that to the attention of the traffic commissioners and what action should the commissioners take? Would they deregister the service concerned; namely, take away the licence? Furthermore, does a public hearing need to be held to process this, or would a fine be imposed under the arrangements described later in the Bill which are to replace the withholding of 20 per cent of fuel duty rebate?

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: Both of these amendments relate to the enforcement of quality partnership schemes. The first amendment, tabled in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, and his noble friends, seeks to omit subsections (4) and (5) of Clause 117. Those subsections prohibit a bus operator from using quality partnership scheme facilities unless he has given a written undertaking to the traffic

10 Jul 2000 : Column 74

commissioners that he will provide services to the necessary standard, and will do so when using the scheme facilities.

These provisions go to the heart of a statutory quality partnership scheme. They are what crucially distinguishes it from existing voluntary arrangements. Schemes under Clause 113 represent a partnership in which both operators and local authorities agree to enter into commitments. As I said earlier, the authority will undertake to provide certain facilities such as bus lanes or other bus-related infrastructure. In return for using those facilities, the operator will agree to provide services to certain standards which may, as was pointed out by my noble friend Lord Berkeley, involve the bus itself. However, other aspects such as driver training and customer care may also form parts of those services. Once the scheme has been made, those commitments will be binding.

Under the clause, authorities are under a duty to provide and maintain the facilities, while operators must meet the standards if they are to enjoy the use of the facilities. Omitting subsections (4) and (5) would, I believe, negate the whole object of Clause 113. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, anticipated that I would not commend that course to noble Lords. It would critically weaken a central plank in the Bill.

The second amendment, tabled in the names of the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood and the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, would extend the regulation-making powers in Clause 121 to include regulations with respect to the means of enforcing such undertakings and enforcement with regard to,

    "operators ... excluded from the partnership".

I think this may arise from a misunderstanding of the Bill. It may therefore be helpful--the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, invited me to do this--if I take a moment to explain exactly how the enforcement mechanism is intended to work. I hope that that will persuade noble Lords opposite that no further provision is needed.

The position is as follows. As I have said, there is a balanced partnership in which both local authorities and bus operators must bring something to the benefit of the travelling public. Once a quality partnership scheme has gone through the consultation process and has been agreed, it is duly made and brought into force under Clause 115. Bus operators can choose to opt in or out of the scheme. If they opt out, they may continue to run bus services in the area, subject to the normal registration process, but they will be denied access to the special facilities provided by the local authority in connection with the scheme. They could not, for example, make use of a new bus lane to avoid traffic congestion on the route, or perhaps they could not use the new quality bus shelters provided with real time information displays about when the next bus is due. If they do, they will be operating in breach of Clause 117(4). That in turn means that they will be open to action by the traffic commissioners. One can imagine that other bus operators, as well as the local authority, would be keen to report any breaches of the prohibition. It would otherwise be a case of one bus operator, who had not invested, trying to steal a march on another who had.

10 Jul 2000 : Column 75

On the other hand, operators choosing to opt in to the quality partnership scheme must give a written undertaking to the traffic commissioners under subsection (4) that they will provide bus services to the necessary standards while using the scheme facilities. If they fail to do so, except in the circumstances set out in subsection (5), they also risk sanction from the traffic commissioners.

Perhaps I may remind noble Lords that the range of sanctions open to the traffic commissioners for breach of a quality partnership scheme is the same as currently applies to breach of the bus registration system. As paragraph 95 of the Explanatory Notes explains, this is secured by virtue of Schedule 11, paragraphs 10 and 22. Those paragraphs apply the relevant powers from the Transport Act 1985. They include the power to levy a financial penalty on the operator, currently in the form of a requirement to repay 20 per cent of the fuel duty rebate received for the preceding three months.

As I explained, in the past the traffic commissioners have shown themselves ready to impose such penalties on under-performing operators. Additionally, Clauses 154 and 157 of the Bill provide for greater flexibility both in the circumstances in which penalties can be paid and in the size of those penalties. They will ensure that the financial penalty available is effective and flexible, and thus capable of being varied to suit the circumstances of a particular case. Beyond that, the traffic commissioners can impose conditions on the operator's "O" licence, limiting the number of vehicles he may operate or, in extreme cases, prohibiting the bus operator from running any local services for a specified period of time or until other appropriate remedial action has been taken.

I hope that that satisfies noble Lords that a wide range of penalties has been provided. In our view, further provision by way of regulations on enforcement are not needed. With those remarks, I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page