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The noble Baroness said: I confess to being slightly confused by the grouping. I can only hope that it is because somewhere among the different amendments to which I shall speak is a prize for me. I hope that the Committee will bear with me. Amendments Nos. 316A to 316G relate to independence for the rail passenger councils from the strategic rail authority. Amendments Nos. 337A and 338B refer to disadvantaged passengers. Amendment No. 338A refers to duties to provide information and access.
Amendments Nos. 316A to 316G to Schedule 17 are among a number of amendments standing in my name relating to the powers of the body that speaks for passengers of rail services. My amendments have the support of the recently relaunched rail passengers council and have been promoted by the National Consumer Council. As I indicated on Second Reading, I seek to measure the rail passenger council against the government-funded National Consumer Council blueprint, which sets out the key characteristics of a consumer body.
Rail follows a pattern seen in other sectors where a competitive market does not operate fully and there are regulatory and consumer advocate bodies. Consumer organisations--whether for energy, postal services or rail--need a range of powers to keep the companies and regulators on their toes. That is particularly true of rail, where the long-suffering passenger usually has no alternative when things go wrong.
The Utilities Bill and Postal Services Bill this Session have enhanced the role of consumer bodies for those sectors by making them independent; giving them a remit for disadvantaged consumers; and imparting powers to access and publish information. While that legislation may not be ideal, it is significantly better than the provisions in the Bill.
The amendments to Schedule 17 may appear technical but are aimed at enshrining the independence of the rail passenger council from the SRA--transferring all responsibility for establishing, appointing, administering and funding the council and committees to the Government. Regulatory and
At some point in future, when the personnel and atmosphere have changed, the council may find its activities compromised by a lack of independence. The council's first responsibility and accountability should always be to the passenger. It is difficult to reconcile that objective with the fact that the council's staff will be employed by the SRA, which will also determine the council's budget.
Earl Attlee: My amendments in the group build on the amendments in the name of my noble friend, Baroness Wilcox. Subsections (7B), (7C), (9B) and (9C) allow the Secretary of State to limit the scope of the activities of the rail passenger council and committees. Amendments Nos. 338 and 339 remove that power. The council and committees have been entrusted with various general duties and should be allowed to get on with their work without the Secretary of State telling them those parts of the service in which they can or cannot become involved. If the council and committees are not allowed to deal with the overall picture, their effectiveness could be severely impaired.
I turn to Amendments Nos. 342 and 343. Subsections (6) and (7) allow the public to be excluded from sections of meetings not only where the items to be discussed are genuinely confidential but also if the rail passengers' council or committee so decides in accordance with an order made by the Secretary of State. In the interests of open government, neither the Secretary of State nor the rail passengers' council or committee should have power to make meetings of a public body closed. Any grounds in addition to those already specified in legislation on which they can be closed should be spelt out in the Bill so that they can be subjected to proper parliamentary scrutiny.
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: As the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, told the Committee, these amendments are based on similar provisions in other regulatory Bills this Session. Having taken part in the Financial Services and Markets and Utilities Bills I recognise a
Under the 1993 Act OPRAF and the rail regulator share consumer protection functions. That has not worked very well. Therefore, we are consolidating the consumer protection functions in the strategic rail authority. That clearly distinguishes the position here from that in other regulated utilities. I accept that the roles of consumer protection and economic regulation need to be kept separate. That principle was in the earlier legislation, and under these new arrangements they will be. The rail regulator is the economic regulator. The SRA is the strategic body for the industry, with a specific remit under Clause 206(2)(a) to protect the interests of users of rail services. In its armoury it has strong levers to influence the performance of the passenger companies through the franchising process. That is not an undesirable conflict; it is a valuable opportunity for the passenger voice to be registered at first hand.
I turn to the specific amendments. Amendments Nos. 316A to 316G would transfer a number of the rail regulator's existing duties in respect of the rail passengers' council and committees to the Secretary of State rather than the SRA. They would make the chairman of the rail passengers' council responsible for appointing the chairmen of the rail passengers' committees, which is currently the responsibility of the Secretary of State. In the light of what I have said, it is clear why I do not believe it would be appropriate for the Secretary of State to be given these duties. The authority is the regulatory body with statutory responsibility for the protection of railway passengers' interests. It is only right that it should also be the sponsoring body of the rail passengers' council and committees.
The statutory independence of the RPCs is clear. They have clearly defined statutory duties which the SRA will have to take into account in its dealing with them, and they will be free to express their independent views under the sponsorship of the SRA, as they are at present under the sponsorship of the rail regulator. But they will have an integral role within the SRA. They will be close to the decision-makers and well placed to ensure that the SRA's decisions take into account the real issues affecting passengers.
The amendments also propose that the chairman of the rail passengers' council should become responsible for appointing the chairmen of the committees. This is the responsibility of the Secretary of State, and we believe that that should remain the position. The committee chairmen also serve as ex-officio members of the rail passengers' council. I accept that the council chairman has an interest in new appointments. I am aware that currently he is given an opportunity by the regulator to comment on prospective candidates. All of these committee chairmen posts are advertised
Amendments Nos. 337A and 338B would add to the duties of the rail passengers' council and committees by specifically requiring them to take into account the interests of groups of passengers who are disadvantaged or who have special needs. I recognise those categories from the Utilities Bill, but I do not believe that it is necessary to put them on the face of this Bill. After all, gas and electricity utilities are used by everybody, but rail passengers, while a significant body of people, are not the same as the general population. The rail passengers' council and committees have a duty to represent all passengers and to deal with genuine problems. They will have the freedom to reflect these special needs as appropriate.
Amendments Nos. 338 and 339 would remove the power of the Secretary of State to exclude from the remit of the rail passengers' council and the rail passengers' committee specified services or to restrict their remit in respect of specified services. We intend those to be used only in the marginal cases of heritage lines, such as the Bluebell Line, which are not part of the national network and where the powers of the rail passengers' committee would not be appropriate, particularly as regards the lines run by voluntary enthusiasts. That is the only purpose of the exclusion.
Amendments Nos. 342 and 343 take away from the Secretary of State the power which this Bill gives him to make an order defining circumstances when the public may be excluded from meetings of the rail passengers' committee and the rail passengers' council. Those bodies have asked us to include the exclusion provision for those items on the agenda needed to preserve confidentiality and to discuss issues relating to their management; for instance, individual pay or disciplinary matters. There is no intention of using them in any wider sense.
Amendment No. 338A sets out a set of duties on the council to make proposals, provide advice and information and represent the views of passengers. That is already covered in Clause 227(4). The wording of the amendment would have some odd results with which I shall not weary Members of the Committee.
Amendment No. 338A also relates specifically to the rail passengers' council's access to information. It would empower the Secretary of State to make regulations limiting the type of information to be provided and to establish a body to arbitrate in cases of dispute. The council needs access to information about individual complaints, but that is provided by the passenger licence which requires licenceholders to provide the rail passengers' committee with reasonable information for the proper performance of its functions. I expect the SRA and the regulator to co-operate with requests from the council for information. We will be issuing instructions and guidance to the SRA on this matter under provisions elsewhere in the Bill.
I respect the origin and motivation of the noble Baroness's amendment, but I believe that the regime for passenger representation, which is set out in the Bill, is consistent with other legislation and the needs of rail passengers.
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