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The noble Lord said: Subsection (6) of new Section 4C gives the Secretary of State the ability to guide the senior traffic commissioner on how to exercise his functions under this section. Further, subsection (7) states that the senior traffic commissioner must have regard to this guidance.
I question, as we all did at Second Reading, the involvement of the Secretary of State at all, given that the Bill ostensibly gives the traffic commissioners the autonomy that they need to operate effectively. What guidance does the Minister envisage that the senior traffic commissioner will be given, and how will the phrase have regard to work in practice? If the senior traffic commissioner is to make the decision to deploy other commissioners, will the Secretary of State provide guidance on how to do that? If so, this is hardly the bottom-up approach that takes into account the needs of areas that would work best. This is reminiscent of the first group of amendments but I should still like the Minister to pursue this matter.
Given that the budgetary implications of the modified traffic commissioner network are hardly spelled out in the Bill, will the Minister clarify whether the Secretary of State would give guidance based on financial restrictions, for example? If the network is to function, funding should not take precedence over need, otherwise the entire purpose of the network will be undermined.
I suggest that these subsections be removed as they are an unnecessary feature of this part of the Bill, whose tone is otherwise one of giving traffic commissioners more independence. If nothing else, they serve to confuse the situation. I beg to move.
The Earl of Mar and Kellie: Were my noble friend Lord Bradshaw here, I am certain that he would extol to the Grand Committee the virtue of the senior traffic commissioner being independent, and it strikes me that the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, would achieve that.
Lord Berkeley: I managed to get hold of various documents from the Printed Paper Office this morning, including the outline guidance and governance. I have not had time to read them all this morning and I do not know whether this guidance is the guidance referred to here. If it is not, can the Minister, perhaps before the next stage, tell us when some draft guidance or other ideas on how the guidance will be developed will become available? If we are in the business of making the senior traffic commissioner similar to the independent rail regulatorI should have thought that independence and local accountability were a very good ideathen that is a major step. On the other hand, if he is just a sort of paid lackey of the Secretary of State, which I am sure he would not be, then we have to look at the issue in a different way. It would be good to hear in which direction the Government are thinking of going.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: As has been explained, the amendment would remove the Secretary of States power to give guidance to the senior traffic commissioner on the directions and guidance that he or she may issue to the other traffic commissioners.
We should remember that the effect of the amendment on the Bill would be to remove the existing power under Section 4(4)(a) of the Public Passenger Vehicles Act 1981 and the corresponding power in the goods vehicles legislation for the Secretary of State to issue directions to the traffic commissioners over the exercise of all of their functions. This is a significant step which further reinforces the commissioners overall independence.
Given the Secretary of States responsibilities for the overall policy and work of the operator licensing system and the statutory functions of the traffic commissioners, as well as general responsibilities to Parliament and compliance with European legislation, there should be a statutory requirement for the senior commissioner to have regard to any guidance issued by the Secretary of State as to the exercise of powers under this new section. It is only a requirement to have regard to such guidance, not to obey directions. There is a difference.
Given that and the significant moves that we have already made in regard to the Secretary of States powers in this area, I would encourage the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment. I understand the desire that noble Lords may have to secure autonomy in this area of activity, but there is a necessity for some level of political accountability. We need to strike a balance between autonomy on the one hand and accountability on the other. Ultimately, the Secretary of State is politically responsible for this and, unless there are some levers and methods of accounting, we could reach a situation where the accountability route breaks down. I am not sure that the autonomy gained as a by-product of that would necessarily secure some of the advantages and improvements that we all want to make through this legislation.
Lord Hanningfield: I would like to explore that a little further. In my experienceI am sure in the Ministers experience as wellunder every Government, different Secretaries of State seem to get involved at different levels. That is why I am seeking to clarify whether this really is a bottom-up approach. Being professional people, the traffic commissioners should be allowed to sort out the problem without too much political interference. Perhaps the Minister will comment on that. He is nodding his head.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: It is not that the Government require great interference; that is not the purpose of our approach. That is why we have been prepared to move some way in underwriting the independence of the traffic commissioners. I am sure the noble Lord will appreciate from his own work in government that there has to be a time when the leader of a council says, I am ultimately responsible here. I have got to make clear our view, and the way to do that is through guidanceon school admissions, catchment areas or whatever the subject happens to be. There has to be that line of accountability. Then, of course, the operational effect of the work that is done closer to the ground by officials has to be considered, and it is that balance that we are seeking to strike. We are at one in wanting to ensure that the service close to the ground works well and is in tune with what is required locally and by necessity.
(7) The Secretary of State shall give guidance to the traffic commissioners on appropriate minimum and maximum speeds and journey times for buses in urban and rural areas and the traffic commissioners shall have regard to this guidance when registering timetabled services.
The noble Lord said: I feel comforted by what my noble friend said in responding on the previous amendment, and I shall reflect on it further. Perhaps there is baggage in my mind about some of the problems that traffic commissioners have had in the past. We shall have to see.
On the basis that the traffic commissioners will receive guidance, it is worth exploring whether that guidance should include the matter of bus service performance. Looking at public transport as a whole, we see that enormous efforts are made to make the trains run on time and that they are getting better. There is independent rail regulation, Network Rail, penalties and other things. I know that trains are different but it is remarkable how much the rail service has improved, possibly as a result of such incentives. My noble friend may say that that cannot be applied to buses because of traffic jams, but we could try to have a performance regime that addresses not only speeds and journey times but whether the bus runs at all. It seems reasonable to say that if the traffic commissioner is taking a greater role, which I welcome, there should be guidance on the performance of bus services so that customerspassengerscan be more confident that what they expect to occur will occur. I beg to move.
Baroness Crawley: My noble friends amendment concerns the scope of the guidance, but the Government feel that it veers towards micromanagement rather than general guidance. I understand his concern about bus speeds and timings. Within the industry it is a matter of endless debate whether it is better to have a bus service that aims to be fast but is often late or to have one that is slow but always on time. The passengers point of view may depend on where on the route he is waiting for the bus. If he is getting on near the start and making a long journey, he will hope that it is as fast as possible and will accept that it will sometimes be a little late or very late, whereas someone waiting near the end of the route will be looking for the greatest certainty about when the bus will turn up. These are very local issues which are affected by local conditions. The ideal is that bus services are reasonably fast and reasonably punctual, and to achieve that there has to be co-operation. I agree with my noble friend that what is needed is the co-operation of the traffic authorities as well as better performance by the bus operator. We shall be looking at that in some detail when we turn to Part 4.
While recognising that this is a serious issue, the Government fail to be convinced by the mechanism
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Lord Berkeley: Perhaps while my noble friend is considering her answer I could help her a little. On the question of performance, when is a late bus a cancelled bus? I was in Cornwall a couple of years ago and waited an hour for a bus that did not come and got the next bus. The same thing happened on the way back. I wrote to the bus company chairman and said that his bus had not come either way. I asked whether, given that he received a six-figure subsidy from the county council to operate the service, he should not make his buses run. The answer was, Well, the driver didnt turn up. If that was the case with a train, there would be questions here if it happened too often. The driver did not turn up so what do you do about it? Oh, dearyou wait an hour. This is the difference.
I accept my noble friends argument that this is probably the wrong place to put an amendment, but somehow we have to get this into a traffic commissioners remit that it actually matters if a bus does not turn up just because a driver did not turn up. What about a spare driver?
Baroness Crawley: I should think that if that problem became a serious issue it would become part of a disciplinary role for the traffic commissioners. This whole discussion underlines the necessity to have a body for passengers that will have some teeth. On the question asked by the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, I understand that random surveys are commissioned by VOSA to keep a regular update of punctuality figures. If I receive more detail on that I shall write to him, but random surveys seem to be how it is done at the moment.
The noble Earl said: In moving Amendment No. 5B I shall speak also to Amendment No. 5C. The
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The Secretary of State is the only person able to dismiss a traffic commissioner. Presumably the senior traffic commissioner will be more in touch with the performance and needs of the network and better able to make a judgment based on the criteria given. The Secretary of State will generally be away from the day-to-day operation of the traffic commissioner network and only informed of developments through the requirements of new Section 4C(4). Can the Secretary of State really make an informed judgment on the performance of the commissioners, given that the information will be supplied by the senior traffic commissioner anyway?
Does the Minister agree that giving the senior traffic commissioner that additional responsibility would emphasise the positions role in overall responsibility for the network of the traffic commissioners? Of course, occasions may arise when the senior traffic commissioner misbehaves or is unwilling or unfit, but the proposed retention of the Secretary of States powers to dismiss covers that eventuality. I beg to move.
Lord Borrie: I feel a certain surprise at this amendment. As was elicited by noble Lords from Ministers this afternoon, the senior traffic commissioner is a traffic commissioner. He is asked to be the senior traffic commissioner with certain roles prescribed by the Minister, and that is what he is. It seems rather surprising that one traffic commissioner should have a power of dismissalwhich in this field, as in so many others, is a very serious matter indeedsimply because for the moment he is the senior traffic commissioner. I would be surprised if the Minister felt that he was justified in accepting the amendment.
Baroness Crawley: I thank both noble Lords who have taken part in this short debate. My noble friend Lord Borrie is right that we would not be able to accept the amendment tabled by the noble Earl, Lord Attlee. This is on the groundtwo grounds, reallythat the senior commissioner and other commissioners are employed by the Secretary of State and that the accountability to Parliament can happen only through the Secretary of State and not through the roles of the commissioners.
The amendment would allow the senior traffic commissioner a say in determining whether individual commissioners were performing to a satisfactory standard. All traffic commissioners are appointed by the Secretary of State under Section 4 of the Public Passenger Vehicles Act 1981. The senior traffic commissioner, who must be a serving traffic commissioner, would be similarly appointed by virtue of the new sections which would be inserted into that Act by Clause 3 of
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Of course, in practice, the Secretary of State would take all relevant factors into account, and, as the noble Earl, Lord Astor, saidI am sorry, the noble Earl, Lord Attlee; I am giving the noble Earl a new titleparticularly the views of the senior traffic commissioner, who would have responsibility for the deployment of traffic commissioners, and the issuing of guidance and directions to them. But other views are also important, such as those of the bus and lorry industry itself. Therefore, in practical terms, we believe that it is the Secretary of State who is best placed in the end to weigh up all the views and factors put to him and decide what is necessary. I should add that the amendment would also have the unwelcome effect of allowing the senior traffic commissioner a say in determining his own competence, which would clearly be inappropriate. I hope therefore that I can persuade the noble Earl to withdraw his amendment.
Earl Attlee: The noble Lord, Lord Borrie, should not be surprised that I moved this amendment, because we will explore all aspects of the Bill that we need to look at. The Minister thanked us for a short debatebut of course it is not over yet. I wonder what would happen if the Secretary of State was unwilling to take action, perhaps for short-term political considerations. He may have some form of conflict of interest and may need a bit of persuasion from the senior traffic commissioner; he may be too busy running another department. However, I thank the Minister for her response and, subject to the usual caveats, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The noble Lord said: I propose that we remove the part of new subsection (2ZB) regarding the duty to take into account guidance issued from a Secretary of State on protection or improvement of the environment. Paragraph (a) of the same subsection mentions that LTAs are,
issued on the subject. While it is understandable that local transport policies should take in environmental matters, I am uncertain why the Bill requires a
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Lord Bassam of Brighton: I am grateful to the noble Lord for explaining his amendment, which is presented with a strongly localist flavour. I am probably at one with him in seeking to ensure that we work very closely with the local authorities on the work that they undertake to guarantee that local transport plans consider the impact of their transportation policies and projects on the environment, whether it is the landscape, biodiversity, noise or air quality or climate change.
As the local government White Paper of 2006 made very clear, we are trying to ensure that local authorities are not overly burdened with guidance and targets from central government. However, we are committed to ensuring that transport contributes even more to reducing carbon emissions and improving the environment. It is vital that local authorities are fully aware of government policies on the protection and improvement of the environment as they develop and evolve over time. It is for that benign and important reason that we must be free to issue guidance from time to time, obviously at suitable intervals so as not to burden local authorities, to offer them support, encouragement and advice as they develop and implement their policies and plans in tackling issues such as climate change and in protecting the wider environment. So it is a benign feature of the relationship.
We think that local government can benefit from that sort of guidance and that it is valuable to establish benchmarks, quality thresholds and so on. Guidance is a useful and helpful way in which to do that, and guidance that is produced nationally has the benefit of drawing on the experience of many different local authorities and perhaps helping to illuminate and elucidate some of the better practices that local authorities such as Essex might develop. So we look at this in a positive sense rather than seeing it as over-centralising. It is there to assist and enable the better development of environment policies through the development of good-quality transportation planning.
Lord Hanningfield: What I was trying to get from the Minister was why it was, to a certain extent, mentioned almost twice. I accept his answerthat they are trying to reinforce those issuesas long as the local issues are taken into account in developing it. That is the important thing about it. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
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