Whilst the rest of Westminster (and beyond) is talking about Brexit and the emerging leadership contests in both the Conservative and Labour Parties, legislating continues in the House of Lords at least.
Ros has been a proponent of transport policy for many years, and this particular bill is especially important to her, offering as it does a chance to improve transport links for those living in rural communities like Creeting St Peter. She isn't terribly impressed by the response of the Government to some of the points that she has already raised though...
Baroness Scott of Needham Market (LD)
My Lords, I wish to speak to my Amendment 5A, which is in this group. When I reread the Second Reading debate and reflected on the amendments which have been tabled, it struck me very forcefully that a huge number of them relate in some way or other to the question of accessibility, whether that is accessibility of ticketing and information or in terms of proper provision for people with disabilities or people in rural areas or of different age groups. That led me further to think that perhaps the fact that so many amendments are being tabled about accessibility suggests that there is something fundamentally missing in the ambition of the Bill. I have tabled this amendment because it is important sometimes to have aspiration and to say right up-front that this is not just about stopping the decline, as my noble friend said earlier, but about something more than that and about actually improving the standards of services. That is why I have tabled this amendment. Otherwise, there is a danger that it becomes primarily a sort of regulatory and financial Bill that is not underpinned with aspiration.
I am particularly concerned about rural bus provision—coming from a rural area, I guess that that is inevitable. As I said at Second Reading, I can understand why tiny villages like mine no longer have bus services, but we are now in the position where quite sizeable communities no longer have bus services after, say, 6 pm, or at all on Sundays. Some quite large villages now have no bus services at all. The community transport network has, to a large extent, stepped in to meet that provision, but in Suffolk and other local authorities that is under threat, too. I am disappointed not to have received a written response from the Minister’s department to the points I raised at Second Reading, and, specifically, to one which has emerged in Suffolk, where the retendering of community transport in the Mid Suffolk area, where I live, has resulted in passengers no longer being able to use their concessionary bus passes. The noble Lord is an imaginative man, and I am sure he can understand how much distress this has caused people locally. I would like to review this issue in the regulations which say that a nine-seater vehicle cannot be eligible for the use of bus passes. I did raise this, and I would like him to respond—not today probably, but in writing.
My understanding was that we would also have something about rural proofing in time for this stage, and we have not received that either, unless it is in the impact assessment, which I have not had time to read in detail. I have had a look through and have not spotted very much—my noble friend is now indicating there is very little. I think that means there may be some rural issues that we will have to return to on Report, as we clearly cannot deal with them now.
This franchising approach can really deliver for rural areas if we get it right, so I am very positive about the general provision. I have been in contact with people in Jersey, where they brought in a franchising system. They have 80 buses serving a population of 100,000; yet, in that very small pool, they have had an increase of 32% in passenger numbers in the last three years, and, significantly, they have saved £1 million in public subsidies. This shows that this is not just about scale—you can have a win-win situation of saving money and improving accessibility. I do think that, if we get this Bill right, we can deliver that for our rural areas.
I asked the Minister at Second Reading about links with home-to-school transport, which is again significant in rural areas. It is not just about access to education—although, goodness knows, that is the most important reason for the provision of transport to young people—because there is a close relationship between the provision of education bus services and the normal services. However, it goes deeper than that, because local authorities spend a significant amount of money on public transport for pupils, particularly those with special education needs. Young people and children with special educational needs are encouraged to use public transport as a way of preparing them for leading full lives later. Indeed, the Children and Families Act 2014 specifically encourages the giving of bus passes to young people with SEND. Yet in rural areas there are increasingly no buses on which to use the bus passes. For example, Surrey currently spends £25.5 million a year on SEND transport. If we can find a way of bringing some of this together, we can get much better value and improve the services. But there is a fear among community transport and smaller operators that the Bill as drafted is just there for larger companies, and will not help them.
Finally, there is one way I think this might be dealt with. It came to me rather late, and I apologise for that—otherwise, I might have tabled a separate amendment. We do have the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012, which includes transport services. I wonder whether the Minister could undertake to include reference to this in the guidance to remind local authorities that, using the social value Act, they can take a broader view of the services they provide in terms of placing a value on social as well as financial outcomes.
For the rest of the debate, here's the link to Hansard...