HC Deb 25 June 1984 vol 62 cc726-31

Lords amendment: No. 17, in page 40, line 14, leave out "they apply" and insert "well as".

Mrs. Chalker

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendments Nos. 18, 33 and 34 in clause 66, page 62, line 31, at end insert— () Section (Excursions and tours with stopping places in Greater London) of this Act shall come into force at the end of the period of two months beginning with the day on which this Act is passed. and amendment (a) thereto, in line 3, leave out 'at the end of the period of two months beginning with' and insert 'on'.

Mr. Snape

I beg to move, amendment (A)——

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member will move it when we come to it. It is an amendment to amendment No. 34, which is on page 14.

Mr. Snape

I apologise, Mr. Speaker. I shall merely comment on the amendment to Lords amendment No. 34 and move my amendment in due course.

The Opposition welcome Lords amendment No. 34, which will at least give some power to control the use of stopping places by excursions and tour operators. Those hon. Members who served on Committee will be aware that I detained, if not entertained, the Committee for a considerable time by speaking about the difficulties that some private operators have caused.

The House will be relieved, as I have no doubt you will be, Mr. Speaker, to hear that I do not intend once again to relate the saga of how difficult it is for me to get away from my office on the Norman Shaw embankment, due to the problems caused by a number of private operators who persistently ignore parking regulations and leave their buses and coaches there for long periods despite the "No waiting" signs. I understand that—judging from the revelations from both sides in Committee—hon. Members have at various times, correctly, been issued with parking tickets for leaving their vehicles in that spot.

Although we were somewhat churlishly treated at the end of that debate in Committee, because neither the Minister of State nor the Secretary of State seemed inclined to take our view seriously, it is with some pleasure that we note that in another place, presumably, similar arguments were advanced. Ministers there may be more receptive to arguments similar to those advanced in Committee. We feel, however, that the two-month delay in implementing the clause is not just unnecessary. It may allow operators to try to evade the new regulations by applying for a licence before this part comes into effect. Subsection (4) of the clause allows operators to apply for a licence before the end of the two-month period. As I understand it, that is without having recourse to the traffic commissioners. Existing operators, who were the main bones of contention in my speech in Committee, are exempted for five years after the Bill comes into force. If the two-month delay to which the amendment refers is accepted, it may enable operators to book extra starting points, if I can put it that way, either for immediate use or for use some time next year.

6.30 pm

I understand that at present no fewer than four local London tours are proposed by private operators. That could, and I submit should, give rise to objections about the starting and stopping points that are proposed along the routes of the tours. It has been the practice, since private tour operators first proliferated, for them to use the stopping places normally provided by the London Transport services. Private operators have always had the benefit of stopping facilities provided free by the ratepayers, a group of people for whom the Minister of State in particular professes to have great sympathy when she is talking about other public expenditure. Yet she seems anxious to ignore them in this respect.

The Opposition believe that if private operators wish to run tours they should take the financial responsibility for providing proper facilities. We take exception to private operators using bus stops provided by London Transport when running stage carriage services, even in competition with London Transport. The position is much worse when it comes to tours of London, which are extremely popular. It is a custom and practice among those running the tours to make sure that, as far as possible, there is always a vehicle available so that those who wish to take a tour can book a ticket and wait until the tour departs. Often that happens a long time before the tour is due to leave, especially given the amount and proliferation of competition for tours within London.

A tour may leave at, say, 11 o'clock in the morning and the next one at 11.30 am. The operator's drivers are instructed, and I am informed that they obey the instructions, that when the tour timed to leave at 11 am departs from its starting point—which is provided by London Transport at ratepayers' expense—the bus scheduled to depart at 11.30 arrives. In that way, a vehicle is always at the starting point for those who wish to book for the following tour.

I hope that the amendment that has been accepted in another place will enable the Department and, if necessary, the traffic commissioners and the Metropolitan police among others to tackle the problem. While we are debating this, may I ask the Minister of State whether there is any intention to start a tour outside the gates of the Palace of Westminster? I understand that an application was made recently to start such a tour from Parliament square. I make no plea for exceptions for hon. Members, but it might be interesting for us to know the Government's general reaction to such an application. Indeed, we should like to know whether the applicant will be required to provide his own facilities in Parliament square for parking his vehicles.

The purpose of the amendment is to strike out the two-month provision. We appreciate that it was inserted in another place so that adequate consultation, or at least some consultations could take place between LRT and tour operators. It is well known that the Bill has been very contentious, and it has probably been thoroughly scrutinised by those who wish to operate tours. It seems to us that to leave the two-month period in the Bill, as the other place has seen fit to do, would merely enable tour operators to evade their responsibilities in future while those in another place had correctly insisted that tour operators should undertake such responsibilities.

Regrettably, the Government—especially the Minister of State—declined to see the sense of such a procedure in Committee. I am not a vindictive type. I would not say to the Minister, "I told you so." But Ministers in the other place have at least shown some sense in trying to solve the problem. I hope that we shall persuade the Minister of State to go all the way, and drop what seems to us an unnecessary two-month delay.

Mrs. Chalker

I shall deal with the new clause and comment upon the other amendments, as well as with the hon. Gentleman's wish to amend the new clause further. We have made available to hon. Members the notes on the new clause in the usual way. I hope that they have been helpful.

Lords amendment No. 18 empowers the Metropolitan traffic commissioners to control the use of stopping places in Greater London for vehicles being used for excursion and tour services. They are one of three types of bus service defined for licensing purposes in section 35 of the Public Passenger Vehicles Act 1981.

At present, the traffic commissioners have very limited powers under that Act to refuse to issue a road service licence to an excursion or tour operator. The hon. Gentleman knows that I listened carefully to his long speeches in Committee on the issue. I am sorry that we have not seen him at the Dispatch Box for a while. We welcome him back. I notice that he has lost none of his panache in seeking to persuade me to his point of view.

I am eminently persuadable of something that is sensible and when it has been examined and properly worked out. As I said in Committee, we have noted the growing number of sightseeing tours that pick up and set down passengers in London. We know about the traffic management problems in a few central London locations.

Traffic is already heavy in those place and there is limited scope to provide bus standing facilities. That is why, after thorough examination and proper drafting of the new clause, we have concluded that the licensing system should be extended to take traffic management problems into account when issuing road service licences to operators of excursions and tours. That is in the new clause.

Where a service applicant proposes that the service should pick up or set down passengers in Greater London, the Metropolitan traffic commissioners will judge whether the application is against the interests of the public. This test is not imposed on applications under the existing section 35. In order to judge whether the application under the new clause is against the interests of the public, the traffic commissioners must consider whether the proposed stopping places for the service are suitable; a stopping place is not to be regarded as suitable if they are satisfied that its use for the purpose would be prejudicial to the safety or convenience of the public.

I shall take up the invitation of the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) to comment on an application, of which I have not heard, for a picking up and setting down point in Parliament square. I am sure that, in the spirit of the new clause, those considering such a road service licence would not, given the current amount of traffic in Parliament square, consider it to be either a safe or convenient place. It may be convenient for those wishing to hop on or off the bus, but for everyone else who uses Parliament square there would be great inconveniences. I have no doubt that a more convenient picking up or setting down point could be found to give a similar service.

The new clause gives local authorities and the police for the areas to be covered the right to make objections or representations. It gives the traffic commissioners power, in granting a licence, to attach such conditions as they think fit, having regard to the objections or representations, in order to ensure that passengers are picked up or set down only at specified points or are not picked up or set down between specified points. It also gives traffic commissioners power to alter, remove or attach additional conditions.

The amendment to clause 44 simply modifies the declaratory statement in subsection (1), to take account of the fact that the new clause introduces another difference between Greater London and the rest of the country. The amendments to clause 66 provide for the new clause to come into effect two months after the Bill receives Royal Assent. That is the point with which the hon. Gentleman's amendment is concerned. He wishes to delete that two-month gap, as he fears that there might be pre-emptive applications under the existing power. It is possible that tour operators will apply under the existing powers to preempt the stricter powers. That always happens when the House passes legislation. But the proposals are already well known from the Greater London Council (General Powers) Bill. The opportunity for pre-emptive applications has always existed. The inclusion of the new controls in the Bill means that they are now likely to come into operation sooner than would otherwise have been the case. I have no reason to believe that there will be a pre-emptive rush. In any case, it would be quite unreasonable at this late stage to decide that an important new clause was to come into operation overnight and without more than a few weeks warning.

The new clause, which was put into the Bill in another place, is to be welcomed. It is reasonable that there should be a two-month gap after the Bill receives Royal Assent, to give all concerned a suitable opportunity to prepare themselves for the new system. I do not believe that it is unreasonable. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman's amendment will help and I hope that he will withdraw it. However, I commend amendments Nos. 17, 18, 33 and 34 to the House.

6.45 pm
Mr. Snape

With the leave of the House, may I say that the Minister correctly stated that, with regard to private operators, the "problem"—her word, not mine—was already well known. A sign that the action that has been discussed under the clause and the amendment was in the offing was provided in the Greater London Council (General Powers) Bill earlier this year. I should have thought that it weakened the Minister's case for an additional two-months' warning if it was fairly common knowledge earlier this year that such a provision was to be made.

I am always anxious to help when I see that the Minister is in any difficulty. My attention has been drawn to amendment No. 18. I ask the hon. Lady whether, under amendment No. 18, it is possible to vary the terms of a road service licence retrospectively if the GLC or the Metropolitan police feel it necessary to ask the traffic commissioners to do so. I have neither the time nor the assistance that the Minister has to obtain such a definition as quickly as she can, but if it were possible to vary the terms of such a road service licence retrospectively, that would take care of the problems that I have outlined.

Mrs. Chalker

I remind the hon. Gentleman that I said that the new clause gives the traffic commissioners the power to alter the terms of a licence or remove or attach additional conditions. Once the Bill receives Royal Assent, if there is a problem with an existing service, and in the interests of safety, it will be quite possible for the traffic commissioners to alter the conditions of a road service licence. One cannot change what has already happened. Therefore, the Commissioners will not have the power to alter the terms of the licence retrospectively. I hope that the hon. Gentleman understands my meaning.

Mr. Snape

That explanation was hardly a blinding revelation——

Mrs. Chalker


Mr. Snape

The hon. Lady should not be too churlish. I am trying to be nice. If she wishes me to remain in this mood, she should accept compliments, however ungracious they seem, when they are tossed her way.

I do not know whether it is correct to talk about such an alteration being made retrospectively. The terms of a road service licence might be subsequently altered by the traffic commissioners, perhaps as a result of an appeal made by either the GLC or the Metropolitan police. Again, I am anxious to help the Minister of State. If a problem arose in the two-month period to which the Opposition take exception, and an objection were made, surely it would be possible to vary the terms of a licence that had been issued to take care of that problem. I see that the cavalry, in the shape of various yellow flags, has arrived for the Minister of State——

Mrs. Chalker

What cavalry?

Mr. Snape

I do not suppose that the notes that one sees going backwards and forwards to Ministers during debates are anything but assistance of one sort or another. It might be paper cavalry, but some of us believe that this is a paper Administration.

The Minister of State asked me to withdraw the amendment. However, I have been advised that as I have not yet moved the amendment, its withdrawal would present some difficulty. I shall look carefully at what the hon. Lady said. Who knows, when the proper time comes, she might be in luck.

Question put and agreed to.

Lords amendment No. 18 agreed to.

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