HC Deb 20 April 1988 vol 131 cc918-29
The Minister for Public Transport (Mr. David Mitchell)

I beg to move amendment No. 22, in page 19, line 12, at end insert 'and'.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Miss Betty Boothroyd)

With this it will be convenient to take the following Government amendments: Nos. 23, 33, 34, 24 to 32, 61, 63 to 65 and 62.

Mr. Mitchell

The purpose of this group of amendments is to change the financing of passenger transport authority expenditure from precepting on the collection fund to billing the metropolitan districts. The change is designed to increase accountability. I am sure that hon. Members will have issues to raise and questions to ask to which they would like to have replies on the record. As there is only a short time available for debate, it may be for the convenience of the House that I hear the points that hon. Members want to make and reply fully to them.

Mr. Peter Snape (West Bromwich, East)

It is deplorable that this group of amendments should suddenly appear on the Notice Paper as part of this appalling Bill. The Minister's speech was entirely in keeping with the Government's view of local democracy and the view of the Department of Transport towards national transport policy matters. When I saw that the Minister was to move the amendment, I thought that we would get the usual carton of powdered valium sprinkled over us. That is something for which the hon. Gentleman is fairly well known. It seems that even the valium is in short supply when he treats the House with such contempt.

There is no excuse for these amendments appearing during our debates on Report. If any function and service has been overly messed about—I put it at its kindest—since the Government were first elected, it is public transport. As recently as March 1986, as a consequence of the Transport Act 1985, metropolitan county councils were abolished. The deregulation of bus passenger transport in all areas, with the exception of London, consequently took place. New passenger transport authorities .were formed from within the metropolitan districts and the passenger transport executives were obliged to part company with their bus undertakings. Moreover, since 1986 the passenger transport authority has become a precepting authority on the districts. Until the Bill is enacted, it will have a separate needs assessment for grant purposes.

This massive reorganisation of public transport was in part justified by the Government by removing public transport from what they considered to be remote and out-of-control metropolitan counties and giving it to locally elected districts. My hon. Friends who have sat through our consideration of the Bill will be aware of the quality and calibre of the Secretary of State for the Environment. There is an old political saying about the Peter principle and rising to the level of one's incompetence. The Nicholas principle takes people far beyond that level until members of their own party actually notice.

In 1984 the right hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley), the then Secretary of State for Transport, spoke about the precepting of new passenger transport authorities. He said: In the metropolitan counties we accept the need to provide a continuing mechanism for decisions on a countywide basis—for instance, on the provision of subsidy for socially necessary but unprofitable services. That is why we shall provide for joint passenger authorities with members appointed by the constituent districts. That reverts to the previous arrangements which worked perfectly satisfactorily."—[Official Report, 7 November 1984; Vol. 67, c. 202.] He was referring to the Local Government Act 1972, which was another attempt at legalised ballot-rigging by the Conservative party. The passenger transport authorities created under that Act were regarded as being eminently satisfactory in 1984, yet we are told that for reasons of accountability they are unsatisfactory in 1988.

9.15 pm

The consultative paper that accompanies this shabby piece of legislation states: The principal objective of the new finance regime is to promote accountability to the electorate. The new Conservative doctrine on accountability is to stop locally elected councillors from taking decisions. If anything illustrates the lack of confidence, despite the public relations puffs, emanating from Conservative Central Office about the result of the local elections on 5 May, it is a piece of legislation such as this. Far from being confident of taking control of many of the constituent bodies that make up passenger transport authorities, the Government, through this piece of legislation, are reduced, as usual, to removing accountability from locally elected councillors and taking it upon themselves.

How is this shabby piece of legislation to work? We all know the philosophy behind it. Because nobody took advantage of the Transport Act 1985 as it related to passenger transport authorities, they are being encouraged to do so under this piece of legislation.

When one looks at bus services across the former metropolitan county areas, one is struck by the number of cross-district boundaries through which those services pass. For example, in Greater Manchester no less than 65 per cent. of bus services cross a district boundary. In the Conservative party's attempt to justify this piece of legislation, it is a pity that passenger journeys do not match the dreams—if that is the right term—of civil servants who thought up the boundaries in the first place. As I have said, in Manchester 65 per cent. of journeys do not match up to that dream. In Merseyside, south Yorkshire, Tyne and Wear and the west midlands about 40 per cent. do not match up and in west Yorkshire 30 per cent. do not match that view.

When local authorities are being encouraged to secede, as they are, do they secede completely or can they do so partly? For example, can they opt out of the concessionary fare scheme that covered the former county council areas while remaining in the scheme for socially necessary bus services? Instead of listening to the Whip who is telling him how long he has to speak, will the Minister write these questions down? If we do not have any other opportunity to hear the reply, we shall see that the same questions are asked in another place where we hope a bit more time will he allowed. Will part secession be allowed under the proposals?

I know that the consultative document talked about the need for economic efficiency. I believe that that was the phrase used. If we are to remain with that phrase, how is economic efficiency to be promoted if all the different aspects of administration at passenger transport authority level are to be spread throughout the districts and if those districts that secede are to be responsible for such things as socially necessary bus services? On a matter of concessionary fares, will part opting-out be allowed?

From the consultative document one would have thought that only railway services were involved. Obviously they are important. We must ask what will happen in the future to such splendid passenger transport initiatives as the Tyne and Wear Metro, Merseyrail on Merseyside and the light rail transit proposals for the Greater Manchester area and the west midlands. Will authorities like Solihull be encouraged to reduce the amount payable to the former precepting authority because the initial proposal for the metro system in the west midlands does not include Solihull? Is not that likely to be the outcome of the encouragement which is being given to metropolitan districts on secession?

If a new scheme does not pass through a local authority area, that authority will be encouraged to ask why its ratepayers should be responsible for part of the scheme. That doctrine does not appeal in London where authorities south of the river are still expected to pay towards London Underground, most of which is north of the river. That doctrine does not apply in the last bastion of rural Toryism, the shire counties, where the niggardly amounts of support given to public transport are paid on a shire county rather than on a district council basis. Why do the Government single out these authorities? The explanation is simple. All of them are guilty in the eyes of the Government of being controlled by members of the Labour party. That is what the legislation is about and that is why this tacky amendment has been moved.

The Minister, in his second major contribution to the debate, shakes his head. He talked about accountability. If we are to be held accountable for public transport, why do the Government not make the same proposals for the police and the fire service? They do not because such a proposition would be laughed out of court. Even some of the tame and neutered tabby cats who sit behind the Minister, hoping for office, would be likely to object. I had better be careful because the Secretary of State for Transport is sitting beside the Minister. However, even some Tory Back Benchers would think that it was going too far to vote for so-called accountability for the police and the fire service.

Because of the deplorably short time which has been allowed for this debate, I shall have to conclude by putting some questions to the Minister. How will the proposal improve the accountability of passenger transport authorities to the local electorate? We would appreciate a deep insight into Government thinking on that philosophy. How will the billing of district councils improve their accountability to the local electorate? What is the difference between billing and precepting? Perhaps most important, what financial resources will district councils have to pay the passenger transport authorities' bill? Will the Minister, if he ever manages to clamber to his feet again, give an assurance that the resources available to district councils will amount to as much as is given to passenger transport authorities currently?

Why do the Government claim that fears that district councils will secede are exaggerated when, in the consultative document, they encouraged district councils to do so? What effect do the Government expect secession to have on value for money in support for public transport, given the likely duplication of resources to which I have already referred? Do the Government understand what the effects will be on passengers, operators and the quality of service in metropolitan areas if they alone are no longer able to support public transport on a county basis?

The proposed legislation is deplorable. We shall encourage as much disruption as possible in another place. I say that conscious of the fact that those other tame tabbies who are dining at the moment but who normally sit in the Press Gallery will once again accuse the Labour party of fomenting discontent nationwide. The Government detest public transport. They detest local accountability even more. For those two valid reasons my right hon. and hon. Friends should vote against the amendment.

Mr. Gary Waller (Keighley)

I want to put to my hon. Friend the Minister some questions that are perhaps more serious than those raised by the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape). The Government's objective, which is to bring about greater accountability in passenger transport provision, as in numerous other local government services, is admirable. The question is solely whether the new financial regime for the passenger transport authorities will bring about greater accountability. The theory is that, because members of the PTAs are appointed by the districts and are not directly elected, they are not accountable directly to the electorate. I accept that the existing system lacks that element of full accountability.

There is quite a strong argument in favour of direct election of the members of PTAs. The question is whether a financial regime incorporating levies instead of precepts would provide greater accountability. There is possibly a question mark hanging over the matter. It seems to be a fairly finely balanced judgment. The trouble is that even if districts believe that they are paying too much they have no sanction available, other than the threat of secession from the PTA if the Secretary of State agrees. It is either one thing or the other. There is no half measure. Secession from the PTAs should be contemplated with the greatest caution. I do not know of any metropolitan district that has considered having recourse to section 42 of the Local Government Act 1985 in respect of any service administered by a joint board.

Short of seeking to secede, the district representatives, it may be claimed, will apply greater pressure if the districts are billed. I believe that in reality they would want to apply exactly the same pressure if they favoured better value for money, even if the community charge payers were precepted. To put it another way, would a Conservative council put across a muted message because the ratepayers or community charge payers were precepted?

Dispensing with precepts has certain accountability disadvantages. A major point in favour of the community charge is that it enables the individual responsible for paying it to judge the performance of his or her local authority, with no ifs or buts. The fact that, following the enactment of this legislation, the charge will incorporate an element covering the PTA levy will blur the edges of accountability. It could enable high-spending authorities to claim that the responsibility for increases is not theirs but someone else's. This would confuse the elector and perhaps damage the pure accountability of the community charge system.

The elector will not see on his or her community charge demand a separately itemised figure for local transport services. Even now, I believe that many ratepayers welcome the fact that since the creation of the joint boards they have been able to assess the amount that they are paying for these jointly funded services. This measure of accountability, which was so recently granted for transport, is apparently now being snatched away again.

I should like to ask my hon. Friend the Minister some questions about secession and to ask for some reassurances for those who live in the metropolitan districts. A large number of passenger journeys cross district boundaries, and commuting journeys in particular fall into that category. Districts do not necessarily coincide with commuting patterns. To give an example from my constituency, the town of Ilkley is in the Leeds travel-to-work area, even though it is in the Bradford metropolitan district. Many people travel each day from Keighley in the Bradford district to work in Leeds.

The problem arises mainly with train services, which generally cross district boundaries, but also with bus routes to a considerable extent. If a district such as Bradford or Leeds decided that secession was in the interests of its residents, what reassurance can my hon. Friend provide that the district would not be able to secede without proper provision being made for those who do not pay a community charge in the district, but nevertheless depend on transport routes which extend into that district?

In summary, I wish to ask my hon. Friend two questions. First, cannot the possibility of secession, which is meant to encourage passenger transport authorities to provide better value for money—that is a worthy objective—be allowed for with fewer disadvantages under a precept regime than under a levy system? Secondly, what reassurance can he give my constituents who fear that the proposals might be a threat to the cross-boundary services on which they depend?

9.30 pm
Mr. Merlyn Rees (Morley and Leeds, South)

I shall be brief, in my view far too brief for the needs of the subject. The fact that it is being dealt with in 45 minutes is not just a result of the guillotine motion. The matter came on the scene far too recently for proper discussion. As my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) said, whatever else happens tonight, the matter will have to be opened up in another place. The classic reason for the existence of another place is to give a chance for a reappraisal, in this case the first real appraisal of a problem that affects the areas of the disbanded metropolitan counties.

A piece of correspondence was given to me and to other hon. Members when a deputation from the West Yorkshire PTA came to see us. I noticed then that the first letter from the Department of Transport was dated 22 January and that comments had to be received by 15 February. Three weeks is not a sufficiently long period for proper consideration.

The first point that I want to make is perhaps not too important to those of us who represent the city of Leeds, which is probably the most powerful and richest part of West Yorkshire. The cost of the PTA will now be based on the size of the adult population. That may be fine for Leeds, but it may not be excellent for Calderdale and those areas on the sides of the Pennines.

I noticed, incidentally, that the note that came to the PTAs from the Department of Transport—I read it as a justification—stated: It is proposed to abolish the power of the PTAs to set a local tax rate—a community charge". The Department of Transport appears to be against a community charge.

I promised to be brief so that my hon. Friends could also contribute to the debate, but I wish to raise two points in respect of the same piece of paper mentioned by the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller). We all asked for that to be made available to us. We asked that it should be made available to the Minister for Public Transport. I telephoned and asked that that should be done and, therefore, we were working under the assumption that the questions would be dealt with by the Minister when he opened the debate so that, when we contributed, we could take the matter a step further. Apparently, that will have to be done in the other place.

I wish to put in practical terms question No. 6 asked by my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East in respect of West Yorkshire. We were told that the services in West Yorkshire that would suffer, if they did not disappear altogether, would be countywide tickets, such as metrocards and saver strips, which are valid with all bus operators and on rail services. What about the uniform concessionary fares scheme? Will we have a separate concessionary fares scheme in all five districts? The public information services cover the whole of West Yorkshire. The timetable changes still occur every two or three days. They have to be published quickly or in advance to cover all operators under the new legislation.

What about support for the local rail network, the patronage of which has increased by 50 per cent. in the past four years? The cross-boundary services in West Yorkshire account for 80 per cent. of the services. If West Yorkshire is to be split up, if there is to be secession or if the scheme will not work as well as previously, 80 per cent. of West Yorkshire's bus services will require some public financial support. One third cross one district boundary or more.

What about the management of the infrastructure—bus stations, shelters and stops—and support for innovation? In Leeds we are talking about trolley bus services and light railways, and that would be paid for by the people of Calderdale. I first went to Leeds 25 years ago when it was an old county borough and we are proud of having our bus services and so on. But we are not going back to that; we are going forward to a disjointed service between the five parts of the county.

In the past week I have listened carefully to all the talk about the community charge. The possibility of community charge capping was put to us. I do not want to take up time and go into that question, but the West Yorkshire PTA is greatly worried that there would be community rate capping there. If we in Leeds implemented a light rail scheme which had to be paid for on the other side of what used to be the county, Calderdale could find itself community charge capped, despite a perfectly proper decision by the PTA to undertake major expenditure elsewhere. I shall not develop the point because I imagine that the Minister is well aware of it.

Those two points out of the six put by my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East worry us in West Yorkshire. I do not believe that here in London where people are used to the bigger area of the old London county council and the Greater London council the Government appreciate the position in the disbanded metropolitan counties. We require answers to those questions tonight. We shall lose the vote. This is not the exciting stuff of two days ago, but the matter will be raised again in another place. There is great anxiety in West Yorkshire and it has been my aim to bring that again to the Minister's notice.

Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge)

I, too, shall be brief because of the disgraceful shortage of time to discuss this important issue.

The Government's case appears to be based on the argument that PTAs are not accountable. Yet only a couple of years ago the Government abolished democratically elected councils which were directly accountable to the people who elected them and were responsible for running transport. We know that the police, fire and civil defence authorities will retain precepting powers although they are in exactly the same position as PTAs.

The argument is not only grossly hypocritical, but is incorrect, because PTAs are accountable. Indeed, they have a statutory duty under the Transport Act 1985 to consult local councils, local operators and other interests and individuals when formulating policies for public transport systems. They have a statutory duty to consult the business community, and during such consultations Tyne and Wear chamber of commerce and major privately owned bus companies have shown that they share the PTA's concern and have offered their support and efforts to change the Government's attitude. The authority must also work in close co-operation with local councils, which provide PTA members. Clearly, Tyne and Wear PTA lives up to the spirit as well as the letter of the law and has welcomed consultation and discussion.

It is equally clear that if the Government are promoting the disintegration of countywide integrated transport, the Department of Transport is openly canvassing secession and the countywide provision of transport is again under threat. We know that if canvassing does not work, pressure will be applied to the district councils to secede.

Tyne and Wear is the smallest conurbation in England, and the need for the countywide co-ordination of transport services is widely recognised. Those services have made a great contribution to the area's economic regeneration. The proposal before the House poses a threat to the Metro system on Tyne and Wear, which is the envy of the world, and to the future expansion and realistic fares structure which that system encompasses. Concessionery travel and special needs transport will also be under threat if secession goes ahead, because of the loss of economies of scale. Deregulation has also had its effect on passenger confidence in the public transport system, which has been a significant casualty.

If the Government want to destroy integration in Tyne and Wear, as would appear to be the case, and to destroy the Metro system, why do they not just send up a squad of SAS men to put a bomb under it? That would be just as effective as the proposal before the House.

Mr. Allen McKay (Barnsley, West and Penistone)

I shall be brief because the case for the six metropolitan transport authorities has been highlighted by my hon. Friends. We must also put on the record the objections of the South Yorkshire transport authority, because it prided itself on the service that was provided when the South Yorkshire county council was in being. It was what people wanted, and that was consistently reflected in their votes.

Deregulation was then introduced, and various Acts dispensed with South Yorkshire county council. The Government set up the residuary bodies with the intention that those bodies and the joint authorities should be accountable. The Minister of State said at the time: We are faced with an authority being set up to provide a service which, inevitably, is wider than any individual district council. That, of course, is the logic and the rationale behind joint boards for police, fire and transport, so that there can be a co-ordination of policy and an agreement to run what is in essence a public service."—[Official Report, Standing Committee G, 12 February 1985, c. 1337.] The Minister also said: We accepted from the beginning the need to co-ordinate certain aspects of public transport, especially support for rail, decisions about subsidy or unprofitable services in different areas, and concessionary fares. None of that is under threat. That was said in 1985. Now, in 1988, it is all under threat.

We have a right, on behalf of our constituents, to ask why it is wrong now when it was right in 1985. What has happened to make the Government change their mind? We think we know, but we would like the Minister to tell us. We think that it is in the Government's mind to destroy public transport and public transport authorities.

What will happen when the levy is introduced, and the district authority says, "Sorry, mate, but we want to spend the money on education or social services, not on transport"? What will happen to the existing infrastructure? The light railway in Sheffield has been mentioned. What is to happen to all the bus stations and the combination of train and bus stations in the area? In south Yorkshire, 40 per cent. of the transport services cross other boundaries, as do many of the railways.

We need time to get over the legislation that has already been introduced, and we need this provision like we need a hole in the head. We are trying to get over the destruction that has been caused by previous policies, and they should not be compounded now. We want to leave matters as they are and wait to see whether the Government were right in the views that they earlier expressed.

Those are some of the matters that concern us, but to allow others to speak I shall stop now and hope that we will return to these matters on another day.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

Can the Minister give an assurance that Calderdale will not be squeezed out of the new area? We are desperate because, either way, we shall lose. I will not go over our arguments but will the Minister give a guarantee that Calderdale will be given some form of protection?

9.45 pm
Mr. David Mitchell

I thought that a number of other hon. Members would rise to seek to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I am happy to have the opportunity to reply to the points that have been raised.

The right hon. Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) complained about the short period for consultation. We issued the discussion paper on 22 January, and asked for responses by 15 February. However, we have continued to receive responses subsequent to that date. We took full account of those responses, including a meeting that I had with the Association of Metropolitan Authorities on 2 March. Moreover, as late as 28 March I met Manchester Members of Parliament to hear their views. While I entirely understand why the right hon. Gentleman raised that point, I feel that that will reassure him.

My hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller), the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape), the right hon. Member for Morley and Leeds, South and others asked a series of questions about secession. I noticed in particular that the hon. Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland) claimed that the Department of Transport was actively canvassing secession. That is entirely untrue. Indeed, let me go further and tell the House that when the Transport Act 1985 was going through the House we were told that it would lead to a massive amount of secession. That has not happened: not a single metropolitan district has seceded. The reality has not borne out the assertions made by the hon. Gentleman and many others during our debates in 1985.

Mr. Clelland

Is it not a fact that it is because that situation has not arisen that this measure has been brought before the House tonight? That is what I mean by openly canvassing secession.

Mr. Mitchell

I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that that is not the purpose of the measure. In a moment, I shall give the reasons that lie behind it.

The point that I am trying to make is that we were assured previously of wild rumours of a massive degree of secession, and it has not materialised. One district came to us and made inquiries about the conditions that would be attached to secession, but did not return with further proposals. I have no reason to believe that the measure will lead to secession by districts. I do not anticipate such a development, and I can give any hon. Members who are genuinely worried on that score an assurance that if any authority asks for secession my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will look very carefully at the proposals, and set conditions that will have to be met. On that ground, hon. Members can be reassured that secession will not result.

Mr. Rees

What sort of conditions is the Minister likely to lay down? I do not quite follow him.

Mr. Mitchell

For example, if the passenger transport authority is sustaining a rail network, the condition might well be attached that any district that sought to secede would still have to contribute towards that network. We are seeking to ensure fairness if secession were ever to take place.

Let me repeat, however, that the amendment is not designed to bring about secession. I should like to explain what it is designed to do, and why it has been introduced.

Mr. Snape

Before the Minister does that, may I ask him a question arising from the sentence that he has just uttered? If a district council opted for part secession, continuing to contribute towards the railway network but not towards certain aspects of the bus network, how would the affairs of the passenger transport authority be debated and decided upon? Would that part-seceding district council be allowed to speak and vote on matters on which it had partly seceded?

Mr. Mitchell

If a metropolitan district secedes, it loses its representation and its commitment to being involved in or contributing to the expense of the PTA.

Mr. Favell

This may be slightly outside my hon. Friend's remit, but can he deal with the point raised by the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape)'? Why are police and firemen not included under the same provisions? Many Conservative Members who were involved with the old metropolitan counties believe that there should be similar provisions for them. There is no earthly reason why there should be a countywide fire, and possibly police service in Greater Manchester.

Mr. Mitchell

There are considerable differences between the police and fire services and PTAs. My hon. Friend should be aware that the Home Secretary already controls 51 per cent. of the finance of the police, and there are inspectorates for the police and fire services to ensure efficiency and standards of service. So they are very different. This case is left very much to the PTA. In the case of the fire and police service, standards are set, so there is not the same degree of discretion.

Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

Why the change?

Mr. Mitchell

I am coming to that. I want first to deal with the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley, who asked whether accountability could not be increased by directly elected PTAs. As the expenditure of the PTAs amounts to only about 6 per cent. of the expenditure of the districts it would not be realistic or practicable to have an election merely to control such a small expenditure.

Mr. Bob Clay (Sunderland, North)

The Minister spoke about the conditions that the Secretary of State would want to be met for secession and part secession. What would he the position on historic debt charges? The hon. Gentleman answered one example about revenue costs. Tyne and Wear has huge debt charges because of the Metro system. Would the Minister oblige a district council that wanted to secede to make a contribution to historic debt costs?

Mr. Mitchell

It would be wrong for me to give a detailed answer to a hypothetical question, as no district in Tyne and Wear has expressed an interest in seeking to secede under these provisions.

It is right that I should now come to the point that the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) has been pressing me to answer—the central issue of this group of amendments, which is accountability. The Bill provided for the costs arising from PTA policies to be met by precepting on the charge payers at large—broadly, the electorate. However, the PTA membership is not chosen by the electorate and we wish to improve its accountability to the electors by bringing the districts and PTAs closer together in the decision-making process. It is the metropolitan councillors who are directly elected, so the metropolitan district councils must be accountable, and seen to be so, for the expenditure. Under the proposals they will receive the PTA's bills. They can consider them and instruct their representatives on the PTA on the future level of service provision and spending that they want.

Mr. Robert Hughes

They can do that now.

Mr. Mitchell

The big difference is that if the electorate at large receives the bill but does not elect the PTA it can have no direct influence on the PTA's policies. This measure will mean that the district council will receive the bill, consider it and instruct its representatives about what future bills will be acceptable—or unacceptable. Hon. Members may doubt the importance of accountability, but experience with transport services in metropolitan counties before the introduction of precept control is a good example of what happens if there is not adequate accountability.

Mr. Hughes

The Minister must justify why, after the Bill was published, revelation and enthusiasm for accountability suddenly came to him like a bolt of lightning. Did he fall or was he pushed by the Treasury, or by somebody else?

Mr. Mitchell

I can reassure the hon. Gentleman on that point. The reason that it has come about is the recognition that, as events have unfolded, districts have taken little interest in what has been happening with PTAs. The reason they have taken little interest is that they were not going to pick up the bill. The hon. Gentleman and other Opposition Members are annoyed because it means that districts will pick up the bill, scrutinise it, and consider what is or is not acceptable in it.

Mr. Hughes

That will not do. That must have been known to the Minister when the Bill was published. On the face of the Bill was the right for PTAs to be precept-charging authorities. Why, after the Bill was published and when it was being considered in Committee, did he suddenly decide to change the legislation in the way that he now proposes?

Mr. Mitchell

I have just explained to the hon. Gentleman why that is. I must ask him to accept that explanation. Accountability is the gravamen of the whole case. If we look at the period before precept capping came along, we can clearly see the real problem. Subsidising bus services, either by lower fares or by increased services, is popular—

Mrs. Mahon


Mr. Mitchell

I shall finish this point and then I shall give way.

Subsidising bus services, either by lower fares or by increased services, is popular with the voter but less popular with the ratepayer. If the voter and the ratepayer are not the same person, there is an almost irresistible temptation to buy popularity by spending the ratepayers' money for them.

Mr. Snape

That is not true.

Mr. Mitchell

The hon. Gentleman knows that that is true.

When we introduce accountability and make the people who are meeting the bill send representatives to decide what size the bill will be, we shall genuinely have accountabiity and a way of stopping runaway expenditure. If the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East and the House want proof of the validity of that point, I remind them that, before precept control, on average, a. shire county spent £5.45 per head of population for bus service subsidies. In Avon, which was very nearly made into a metropolitan county, the figure was £5.12. As soon as we consider the metropolitan counties and the action that I have been describing took place—

Mrs. Mahon


Mr. Mitchell

I just want to finish this one point.

Instead of it being £5 in Manchester, the figure was about £24 per man, woman and child. In Merseyside, it was about £45 per man, woman and child, and in South Yorkshire it was about £59 per man, woman and child. That demonstrates what happens when we do not have accountability. That is why it is right that the House should pass the amendments and give the accountability that is so needed to protect ratepayers in the metropolitan areas of the country.

Mrs. Mahon

The Minister has not answered the question—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Lady has spoken.

Amendment agreed to.

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