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6 Dec 2007 : Column GC35

6 Dec 2007 : Column GC35

Grand Committee

Thursday, 6 December 2007.

The Committee met at two o'clock.

[The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Viscount Allenby of Megiddo) in the Chair.]

Local Transport Bill [HL]

(First Day)

Clause 1 agreed to.

Clause 2 [Traffic commissioners]:

Lord Hanningfield moved Amendment No. 1:

The noble Lord said: In moving these amendments my primary concern is that, despite the increased flexibility of the traffic commissioner network proposed in the Bill, it could remain out of touch with local transport authorities, rather than working alongside their needs. Not only will these three amendments increase involvement for local authorities; they also emphasise the network’s independence from central government. That is inconsistently applied throughout Section 1.

In Amendment No. 1, I raise the question of the role of the Secretary of State, who is the sole person able to choose the number of commissioners to be appointed. It is sensible that any number considered appropriate may be appointed to deal with problems that currently have insufficient resources applied to them. If the traffic commissioner system is to function as intended, surely there is a case for the local transport authorities to have input into the arrangements. Local transport authorities are best placed to ascertain the transport needs within their boundaries and with that can ensure the correct level of resource to be allocated. Further, I contend that as the Bill seeks to place the senior traffic commissioner on a statutory footing, he too should have a say in the matter. Presumably he or she would be best placed to appreciate the budgetary restrictions on the number of traffic commissioners to be appointed and ensure that the very best people are recruited for the roles. Indeed, exactly how the framework needs to be resourced also requires further clarification from the Minister.

For similar reasons I suggest that LTAs should additionally be consulted on the deployment of traffic commissioners. Amendment No. 2 would do just that.

I reiterate that local transport authorities are certainly the best placed bodies to understand needs within their boundaries. Consultation with those LTAs to be affected by a deployment will make certain that the resourcing is adequate and appropriate. There may be instances when LTAs possess local knowledge over and above that of the senior traffic commissioner and can thus ratify or make suggestions to his proposals affecting present or future transport needs.

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In addition, the relationship between the traffic commissioner network and the LTAs in question will benefit and become stronger if they are consulted on such deployment, rather than having commissioners imposed on them. A co-operative relationship should be paramount.

I propose Amendment No. 3 for two reasons. As the clause stands, the senior traffic commissioner must consult a rather comprehensive list of people and bodies before giving guidance or direction to the traffic commissioners. Included in that list is a requirement to consult the other traffic commissioners themselves. I suggest that that will lead to a scenario where the senior traffic commissioner is obliged to consult the traffic commissioners on all that he intends to direct them or guide them to do. Given that earlier parts of this subsection place the authority of the position on a statutory footing, I can foresee that it will lead to unnecessary consultation. Of course, there may be occasions when the senior traffic commissioner can benefit greatly from consultation with his subordinates, but that does not necessarily have to feature in the Bill as a requirement.

Furthermore, subsection 3(e) gives the senior traffic commissioner the ability to direct commissioners as to circumstances in which a traffic commissioner must consult some or all of the other traffic commissioners before he exercises any particular function. Could the Minister provide some clarity about how that will work in practice? As I see it, and I have already become slightly confused when talking about all the consultation, the senior traffic commissioner will have to consult the other traffic commissioners when considering giving guidance about how the traffic commissioners might consult other traffic commissioners. The mind boggles.

The second effect of this amendment is to change consultation with traffic commissioners to consultation with local transport authorities affected by the guidance or direction. As the list given in subsection (4) is almost exhaustive, I presume that there is a case for LTAs to be involved in any guidance or directions to be exercised. I beg to move.

Lord Rosser: My Amendment No. 4 is in this group. It would ensure that when the senior traffic commissioner is consulting on guidance and directions that he plans to issue to the regional traffic commissioners, local transport authorities are statutory consultees. The Bill provides that the senior traffic commissioner must consult a number of persons. As has already been mentioned, it lists the Secretary of State, Scottish Ministers, Welsh Ministers, other traffic commissioners and,

Unless I have misunderstood it, there appears to be no requirement to ensure that the senior traffic commissioner also has the local transport authorities among the statutory consultees. As one can see from the Bill, it is intended that the traffic commissioners, to put it mildly, may have quite an influence on what a local transport authority may be seeking to do under

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the terms of the Bill. It seems entirely appropriate that there should at least be a requirement for the senior traffic commissioner to consult local transport authorities. That is the purpose of my amendment. I hope that my noble friend will feel able to take it on board.

Lord Berkeley: I hope it would be convenient for the Committee for me to speak to my Amendment No. 1A with this group. It fits very closely with the other four amendments. I, too, feel a bit confused about the role of the senior traffic commissioner. He or she is appointed by the Secretary of State and deploys other commissioners. He has a deputy. He has only occasional interference possibilities with Scotland. I am sure the noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie, will tell us more about that. He has powers to give guidance and he must consult his other colleagues. He cannot give guidance in Scotland and he gets extra money for being the senior one. That is fine, but the one group of people whom he is not required to consult are the customers—those who use the buses. Presumably in this context they should be represented by the Public Transport Users Committee for England—it applies only to England. It seems to me that the customers should have a very strong voice in this, otherwise everyone else, including the bus operators and the freight operators, will be telling or advising him what to do, with nothing coming from the customers. Maybe my noble friend can say that that is covered in the long list of all the people he should consult in new Section 4C(4), as my noble friend Lord Rosser said, which covers,

I put it to the Minister that making a specific requirement somewhere to consult customers is a good idea.

The Earl of Mar and Kellie: I am grateful to the Minister for his reply that he sent to all of us, not only to me in particular. I asked at Second Reading whether the traffic commissioner for Scotland was barred from being the senior traffic commissioner. The answer was that such a person was not barred. When I hear words that do not mean anything in Scotland, such as “local transport authority” and the “Public Transport Users Committee for England”, I wonder how the senior traffic commissioner, who is wrestling with the partially devolved, partially reserved transport system in Scotland, will be an expert as well on these matters for England. Therefore, I continue to wonder whether the Bill really tackles the devolved/reserved issues and whether there was not a requirement for what used to be known as a Sewel motion, but is now known as a legislative consent motion, in the Scottish Parliament. Is this Bill fully up to speed? Is the Department for Transport ultimately one of those Anglo-UK departments which does not quite take devolution into account?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: I welcome everyone to this all-embracing Committee with a whole range of interests. It seems to stretch from the consideration of matters Scottish from time to time through to the detailed workings of the statutory senior traffic

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commissioner. I am sure that given the breadth of interests already expressed we shall have long and fruitful sessions on this rather uncontroversial Bill.

Noble Lords have raised some useful points and issues in this first debate. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, for including his amendment in this group, because it is an adjacent issue.

The truth is that there will be a lot of consultation. The traffic commissioner will find him or herself very busy talking to a lot of people. I understand noble Lords’ disappointment that not every detail of who the commissioner might talk to—and how he might talk to them and when—is expressed clearly in the Bill. As anyone who has worked in local government—and there are a few of us in the Committee this afternoon—can confirm, how consultation should be carried out is probably not always best specified and set out in detail; it is something that one has to work away at and it becomes iterative. As we know, primary legislation, in particular, tends to be considered in a rather precise manner and for that reason can be very constraining. That is my first thought on the issue.

I listened carefully to the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, about the dangers of being out of touch. That is a very important point. However, the world of traffic commissioners will probably change a bit as a product of this Bill and they will have to develop different qualities and a range of relationships, but that should not obscure the fact that much will stay the same in terms of volumes of activity and particular areas of work that the Bill does not look at in detail.

Two factors influence our consideration of this amendment. The first is that traffic commissioners are under a statutory duty to discharge their obligations under domestic and, importantly, European law and the Secretary of State must, therefore, ensure that there are sufficient commissioners to fulfil those obligations. That is a specific statutory duty there for the Secretary of State. Those requirements can, of course, change over time—hence the need for flexibility—for example, in response to the changing needs of the industries or new European requirements.

2.15 pm

The second factor is that Clause 2 would remove the statutory requirement for a commissioner to be appointed to each traffic area, with jurisdiction in that traffic area only. This would create a pool of commissioners able to act anywhere in England and Wales—that partly picks up the point made by the noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie, that the cross-boundary flexibility is needed, for very good reasons—with the additional prospect of individual commissioners working specifically in specialist areas, for example on bus service registration and punctuality. However, we must bear in mind that, for practical reasons, individual commissioners will still be allocated on an administrative basis to an individual traffic area.

In practical terms, given the responsibilities of the senior traffic commissioner to move resources around to meet workload peaks and troughs, it would be difficult, if not impossible, for the Secretary of State to make decisions on the number of commissioners

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required without consulting them. Therefore, we believe a statutory obligation to do so is unnecessary.

It also follows that the number of commissioners required is directly related to the workload. For example, the volume of licence applications and variations is determined by the demands of bus and lorry operators themselves. The resources required to deal with HGV impounding cases will depend on how many are impounded by VOSA. The volume of bus punctuality work will depend in part on the performance of local bus services and the outcome of the ongoing work that the Government are doing with stakeholders to devise a punctuality regime. That will not be uniform across the country. It will vary from time to time and from place to place.

As I have already made clear, the Secretary of State, guided for practical reasons by the senior traffic commissioner, must ensure that there are enough commissioners to deal with the workload. While local transport authorities may have views in particular about the bus work of the commissioners in their area, they may not be in a position to see the wider picture across the whole of a traffic area, and across the whole spectrum of the traffic commissioners’ functions. We therefore believe that the amendments offer little to influence resourcing decisions usefully, while potentially imposing additional administrative burdens.

I shall now deal in more detail with the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, which provides an opportunity to discuss how the interaction between the traffic commissioners and any new bus passenger watchdog might work. I am grateful to the noble Lord for raising that issue. Traffic commissioners have a key role in the Government’s drive to improve local bus services, particularly in relation to enforcing standards of punctuality and reliability. Any new bus passenger champion would rightly have an interest in such matters, and may want to influence key issues such as the setting of standards in this regard. However, it is also paramount that the traffic commissioners’ decision-making role must not be compromised in any way when deciding individual cases, and, in particular, in the exercise of their day-to-day duties.

On 4 December we published a consultation paper, Options for Strengthening Bus Passenger Representation. It was designed to create stronger passenger representation by enhancing the role of Bus Users UK, which is a non-statutory body. We are also including powers in the Bill which would enable the Secretary of State, if this option were chosen, to add functions to the statutory Rail Passengers’ Council, which is also known as Passenger Focus. If following the consultation it was decided to expand the remit of Passenger Focus, for example, the purpose of this amendment would be lost.

Any new statutory bus passenger champion would be able to make recommendations to the Secretary of State on matters in relation to prescribed public passenger transport. I am sure they would want to make recommendations about punctuality and reliability standards. The Secretary of State also has powers to issue guidance to the senior traffic commissioner on

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matters of generic process and policy, for which the senior traffic commissioner must have regard.

In my opinion this would be a far stronger avenue for the views and recommendations of any new bus passenger champion to be channelled through to the traffic commissioners.

Lord Berkeley: Before my noble friend leaves that subject, if there is a proposal to merge Passenger Focus for railways and buses it sounds very good and well worth looking at. This probing amendment may be in the wrong place. The duties on the senior traffic commissioner to consult are on page 5 of the Bill, as my noble friend Lord Rosser said earlier. It worries me to hear that the number of traffic commissioners appointed will depend on the workload, including impounding of lorries. One of the groups the senior traffic commissioner is required to consult is the road haulage operators, who have a vested interest in not being impounded. I understand why they should be consulted, but, if the Bill specifies that road haulage operators and passenger transport operators should be consulted, I do not see why customers are not, whether it is Passenger Focus or somebody else. Alternatively, on Report perhaps we should consider deleting paragraph (e), leaving just the Secretary of State, Scottish Ministers, Welsh Ministers, other traffic commissioners and “such other persons”.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: I was about to offer the commitment, picking up on the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, that we will make it clear in guidance that passenger interests have to be consulted. Similarly, we will want to ensure that all those in local government are consulted as well. There may well be a continuing need to ensure that we have iterative consultative forums. It is important to recognise the value of local consultation. We must ensure that there is effective strategic oversight. That is how we see this best working.

Lord Hanningfield: I totally agree that there should be strategic oversight, but I do not know whether that should necessarily happen in Whitehall. I can see that it could happen in local government regional offices. I am concerned because, although there is a lot in the Bill about traffic commissioners consulting other traffic commissioners—I got confused about that—there should be something a bit stronger about them consulting local government. The LTAs are paramount, as the Minister has admitted. I want to strengthen the role of LTAs, which are obviously the focal point. I am not asking for very much.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: The noble Lord never asks for too much. I think it is best left to guidance. We are talking about several hundred LTAs, potentially. If we put it in the way that the noble Lord seeks, we could end up with consultation overload, as the noble Lord touched on.

Lord Hanningfield: As the noble Lord will know, we have an Eastern region now and many things are now done by it. For Essex—I hate going back to my Essex again—the issues of north Norfolk are not very relevant. Issues affecting London and the M25 are

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much more relevant for us. I want to make sure that our traffic commissioner is not the same one as for north Norfolk. We know the problems of transport and buses in our own areas. I want to make certain that we get the right sort of involvement.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: Of course the traffic commissioners will have a local input. They will also have a regional input. Part of their role is to ensure that a reasoned and balanced view across the region is taken into account. The Secretary of State will need to reflect from time to time on that. I do not want to impose a burden in the legislation that so constrains how consultation might work at a local level that it becomes unworkable. I think that noble Lords will understand what I mean. As I said earlier, the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, seemed to understand that point in putting his own argument. As he said, he was a little confused about who might have to consult whom over what.

The way in which we have phrased the provision provides reasonable clarity. We have the flexibility to express in guidance how consultation would work and who will be consulted. We recognise the importance of consulting the LTAs because they will understand the things that are most local to them. There is no doubt that they will want to have input in determining the level of resource that is required from them.

Baroness Scott of Needham Market: Does the Minister accept that there are occasions, and this may be one of them, where it would probably be better either to mention no one in the Bill and leave it all to guidance or to put everyone in? I hope that the Minister will consider that, when it comes to implementing the provision, there may be people who say, “We’ll do what it says in the Bill, but because these bodies are not mentioned, we don’t have to”. The argument about local choice, flexibility and discretion is right, but it leads me to the conclusion that we would do better to have less in the Bill and more in guidance, rather than decide that one group of people or organisations should be outside.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: Scottish and Welsh Ministers might feel a little aggrieved if no reference was made to them. The beauty of the clause is that new Section 4C(4)(e) states,

If we were to state in guidance that a range of organisations was proper and fit to consult, and a flexible approach could be adopted to that, we would have the best of both: we would know where we were with a certain group and ensure that we made provision to pick up passenger transport interests and consumer interests.

Lord Rosser: The Minister said that new subsection (4)(e) states,

What, then, is the objection to my Amendment No. 4?

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Lord Bassam of Brighton: The short answer is that we do not see too much to object to in the noble Lord’s amendment.

Lord Rosser: Well, then, are you going to accept it?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: I was about to say to the noble Lord that we are prepared to look at it further and, I hope, come back with something which works.

The Earl of Mar and Kellie: If I pretended that this was a wildly controversial Bill in Scotland, that would be knocked on the head by the fact that this is the only issue extending to Scotland on which any amendments have been proposed. No one is furious about the Bill—at least no fury has been expressed to me. Will the senior traffic commissioner have a traffic area, or will he be set above it?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: The commissioner will have a specific area, but he will also have an oversight role. For that purpose there has always been a senior administrative traffic commissioner. We are now making that much plainer and clearer. However, we want to have somebody in a position where, having looked at the field, he can deploy resources according to where the work pressures are.

2.30 pm

Lord Berkeley: On that subject, can my noble friend have a look at subsection (5), half way down page 4 of the Bill? If as the noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie, said, the senior traffic commissioner could be Scottish, might he not require the Scottish traffic commissioner, who is presumably the same person,

and so on? What does that provision mean?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: In that situation, having taken into account that he is the senior traffic commissioner, he would obviously have to talk to someone else within the organisation, who would then take on more of that role and its responsibility. That is how I think it would work in practice and I think that my noble friend knows that.

Lord Hanningfield: I think that the Minister has accepted one amendment in this group but I still hope that he will reflect on what the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, said. Perhaps we should take a lot of the consultation and put it in guidance as well, leaving some in the Bill and some not in the Bill. I am sure that we will all reflect on this matter before Report, as I hope the Minister will do. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

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