Mark speaking on the reforms to the bus system

October 27, 2008 8:00 AM
By Mark Hunter

Let me start by suggesting to the Minister that the characteristically generous reference by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech) was probably due mostly to the fact that he is, like me, a Manchester City fan. We both have fond memories of beating Gillingham in the play-offs final some years ago.

I am the only Opposition Member to speak in the debate so far who was not involved in the Public Bill Committee, but I want to contribute not least because before I came to this place I spent several happy years as a member of Greater Manchester passenger transport authority. I believe very strongly, as do other hon. Members, that the Bill will be a way forward as regards the deficiencies of our local transport system. It would be churlish to deny that as a result of the concessions made by the Government and the acceptance of amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) and other Members, we now have a much better Bill than we did previously.

I want particularly to support new clause 6. I agree with colleagues that quality contracts, if we can get them right, are vital for ensuring that bus services are up to scratch for all local residents, whether they live in city centres, town centres, busy suburbs or remote rural villages. In many areas, bus routes are being reduced or even discontinued, often leaving people isolated because bus companies do not believe that they can make the routes profitable, while busy urban routes are often served by more than one bus company. That is hardly the best distribution of resources. Even when there are services we have problems with efficiency and reliability, with many people being put off using buses because they are not frequent enough or they cannot be confident that they will arrive on time.

There is consensus on both sides of the House that we can and must do better in providing a truly efficient bus service fit for purpose across the country. We need to put passenger needs first, and I genuinely believe that quality contracts are an essential step towards helping to accomplish that. When they work as they should, they can give local people and their representatives more control over local services. For quality contracts to work properly, we need to ensure that the process for making them is easier. In the Bill as originally drafted, there were many hurdles that made that process too slow, time-consuming, complicated and expensive an option for many authorities. That is why I am pleased to acknowledge that the Government have accepted the argument that unelected approvals boards' recommendations are treated as being advisory only so that local authorities have to listen to their opinion of the scheme but do not necessarily have to follow their advice. If local accountability is to mean anything, it is vital that local councils should have the last word.

I hope that these amendments-concessions made by the Government-will make the process easier and ensure that this Bill, unlike the last one, does not sit gathering dust on the shelves but is used for the purpose for which it is intended, which is to give my constituents and those of all other hon. Members a much better bus service in the future.

Just a few moments ago, when we were discussing the previous group of amendments, the Minister agreed about the importance of local democratic accountability. He made the point forcefully that the local authority would have the final say on quality contracts, and that it would not be left to advisers. Will he explain to the House why this is a different principle? Why does he feel that the matter that we are discussing now should be at the discretion of local authorities, and why is the principle of democratic accountability not just as important on this matter as on the one that we were talking about just a few moments ago?

A goodly number of hon. Members appear to share a concern that the Government are creating an unnecessary problem. Nobody is making the case that other people should not be involved in these organisations, and nobody is saying that their expertise as transport users and so on might not be useful. We are simply saying that they should have advisory status only. Given the arguments about democratic accountability that the Minister was advancing just a few moments ago, I simply do not understand why he has set a hare running on this issue. With the best will in the world, it is clear from some of the answers given that he does not have a clear response to the various points being made by his Labour colleagues.

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