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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty): My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his explanation of what lies behind the amendments. I hope that I can persuade him that they are unnecessary. I note his position in relation to quality contracts but, within that, we have to make sure that they operate fairly.
Perhaps I may deal first with Amendments Nos. 105 and 111, both of which require a local authority to compensate bus operators if they suffer loss because the local authority has postponed a quality partnership or a quality contract. We must first recognise that the probability of any loss to a bus operator may not be very great. Indeed, the main reason for the postponement provisions is exactly so that bus operators should not suffer loss. The provisions are there, for example, to cover cases such as where a local authority is not able to proceed as
It must be stressed also that both postponement provisions have attached to them a requirement to consult bus operators who would be affected by the scheme. Therefore, operators can make their views firmly known. The extent of a postponement is in any case limited to 12 months in the case of a quality partnership and to a period to be specified in regulations in the case of a quality contract.
Moreover, in the very rare case where a loss may arise, a bus operator may also be able to seek judicial review, with the possibility that the court may direct the local authority to proceed. It is even possible in extreme cases that damages may be payable in such circumstances. Such legal rights exist already without the need for a special provision in the Bill.
On Amendment No. 110, I have some sympathy with the noble Lord. I can see that it may well be appropriate to end a quality contract scheme if circumstances change in a way in which the essential criteria for such a scheme--as set out in pursuance of Clause 123(1)(a) and (b)--no longer applied. But I should draw the noble Lord's attention to Clause 131(4)(a), which provides already for a local authority to revoke a scheme if the conditions in Clause 123(1),
Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his response. In regard to Amendments Nos. 105 and 110, I note what the Minister said about the possibility of a judicial review in the peculiar circumstances--it is to be hoped that they will be peculiar--where someone may suffer a financial loss. The reason for getting this provision onto the face of the Bill is that it would obviate the need for a judicial review. The process of litigation is inevitably and always greatly expensive, and I had hoped to avoid that necessity.
In relation to Amendment No. 110, I heard what the Minister said about Clause 131(4)(a), which I shall check and cross reference. I shall study the noble Lord's reply. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment No. 109 seeks to reduce the period required to introduce a quality contract from the 21 months proposed in the Bill to a period of six months. From these Benches we argued in Committee that a shorter period is necessary to preserve the interests of passengers, given that consideration will be given to quality contracts only where there is deemed to be some failing in the bus network.
At that time the Minister said that 21 months represented a reasonable time for the operators to wind down existing operations, to create new networks and to make their preparations. However, since we were in Committee, the Transport (Scotland) Bill has been considered in the Scottish Parliament and a six months introductory period has been agreed there. We touched on the Scottish question in our discussions last week on the inclusion of fares and frequencies in quality partnerships. At that time, the Minister said that it was a matter of policy and therefore for the Scottish Parliament to decide.
I do not disagree with that. But the question of the introductory period is different in that it is a purely operational matter for the bus companies. If operators in Scotland can make these preparations in six months, then operators in England and Wales should be able to make them in the same period. They certainly should not require 21 months, especially when many of them are the same companies. I beg to move.
Baroness Carnegy of Lour: My Lords, when he replies, will the Minister tell us precisely why it would take so much longer in England and Wales to do the work than it would in Scotland. Obviously, the Scots Parliament has the ability to make a separate decision, but is this a sign that in Scotland arrangements are more efficient?
Lord Whitty: My Lords, as I have said previously, this is a matter for Edinburgh. Our decisions do not bind the Scottish Parliament, just as its decisions do not bind us. Arrangements in England and Wales for the introduction of the changes may be different from those in Scotland. Our judgement is that the provision for at least 21 months is an appropriate one.
Of course, we cannot be absolutely sure. The Government do not always get matters right first time. That is why we have taken a power under Clause 126(10) to give ourselves the ability to vary the period by regulation if experience shows that to be desirable. We must start somewhere. We believe that the time periods are reasonable in the circumstances. The transition to a quality partnership will be a significant step. Operators who are unsuccessful in winning a "quality contract" contract will need time to adjust
Some local authorities consider this period too lengthy; certain bus operators may feel that it is too short. That indicates that we are in the right ball park. The maximum period suggested in the amendment seems unduly constrained. We continue to believe that a 21-month period--which may only be 18 months after tenders are invited--is not unduly generous. As I said, authorities will need time to go through the tendering and contracting process.
Lord Harris of Greenwich: My Lords, perhaps I may ask the noble Lord a question. He says that this is a matter for the Scottish Parliament to decide. He is entirely right; and we need not do precisely what the Scots do. However, the variation between the English situation and that in Scotland will surely be so sharp that some fuller explanation is required. There is a substantial discrepancy. Did the noble Lord's officials discuss the matter with officials in Edinburgh to find out why the Scots believe that a shorter period is appropriate in the circumstances described?
Lord Whitty: My Lords, there has been some discussion between ourselves and Scottish Executive officials on this matter. As I understand it, the Scottish provisions will allow for some variation if in due course the Scottish figure proves too low. We are both making a stab at this. Scotland is starting at one end of the scale, and we are starting at the other. At the end of the day, we may well end up somewhere around the 15-month period when the system has been running for five or six years. We believe that we need to provide some degree of stability and reassurance to operators, and 21 months seems about right, working backwards from that to the time that it takes not only to complete the tendering process, but also for an operator to withdraw from existing routes and redeploy resources if that operator is not successful in terms of the quality contracts scheme. I am not being dogmatic; it is just that a longer period seems appropriate and would provide a degree of smooth transition as distinct from a potentially precipitate transition from one operator to another in certain circumstances which might be envisaged by a six-month figure. Our Scottish colleagues take a slightly different judgment. That, for now, is our judgment. As I say, we would take powers, under the subsequent subsection, to vary the period should experience prove us wrong.
Lord Biffen: My Lords, I understand the noble Lord's exposition of the difference. Nevertheless, this place would not be doing its duty if it did not probe further the factors behind this division. I appreciate that the noble Lord does not bring a departmental view to the matter. But, for example, could the Public Accounts Committee be given the chance to carry out an investigation? We are talking about a substantial factor in terms of the length of contract and it has caused a great deal of public interest.
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