HL Deb 14 February 1991 vol 526 cc222-7 3.45 pm

Lord Brabazon of Tara rose to move, That the order laid before the House on 19th December 1990 be approved [7th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move the first order standing in my name on the Order Paper and, with the leave of the House, I shall speak also to the second order for 1991.

First I wish to explain why we are taking two orders on the same subject. The reason is that at a very late stage we detected an omission from the 1990 order. Cumbria had been left out of the definition of the revised north western traffic area, and the 1991 order amends that deficiency in the 1990 order.

The 1990 order is the main order. Subject to the approval of your Lordships' House and with effect from 1st June 1991, this order will reduce the number of traffic areas covering Great Britain from nine to eight. It will establish a new pattern of traffic area boundaries. The changes form part of a reorganisation of work which involves the closure of the traffic area offices in Newcastle, Nottingham and London.

I hope not to detain your Lordships for too long, but I think it would be useful if I described the present composition of the traffic area organisation, before explaining why we wish to reorganise it. The present organisation consists of nine traffic areas and eight traffic commissioners, one of whom is responsible for two areas. There are 11 traffic area offices, one for each area except the north eastern and eastern traffic areas, which have historically been served by two offices.

In June 1989, my department commissioned a review by Mr. John Palmer of the functions of the traffic commissioners and the traffic area offices. We were conscious that a number of legislative and other planned changes would affect the role and workload of the traffic commissioners and their staff. We wanted to ensure that these did not unduly affect the efficiency and standards of performance of the organisation as a whole.

The resulting report—the Palmer Report—found that, although the workload of the traffic commissioners had changed only a little in recent years, the workload of the staff in the traffic area offices was reducing fast, and would reduce even further as statutory and other administrative changes in their functions were implemented.

These changes involved the transfer of a large amount of executive work to some of the department's executive agencies. Examples are the transfer of responsibility for driver test bookings to the Driving Standards Agency, which took place in 1989. Responsibility for issuing HGV and PSV drivers' licences is transferring to the Driver & Vehicle Licensing Agency with effect from 1st April this year.

We agreed with the Palmer Report that there was a need to preserve the efficiency of the traffic area organisation through and beyond this period of change. Thus we looked at a variety of options for altering the structure of the organisation to ensure that it matched its reducing workload.

The department considered a number of options for organisational change. It was eventually concluded that the organisation best suited to meet future needs involved the closure of the traffic area offices in Newcastle and Nottingham and the abolition of a separate metropolitan traffic area; a reduction in the number of traffic areas from nine to eight, and some consequential adjustments to the traffic area boundaries to reflect the redistribution of work among the remaining offices and commissioners, and to bring them fully into line with county boundaries.

These proposals will result in an organisation of fewer but more viable offices, sensibly located in their areas and offering scope for further improvements in efficiency. The organisation is largely self-financing, through licence fees paid by the road transport industries. The new structure will reduce staff numbers by around 8 per cent. and the cost of the organisation by an estimated £600,000 per annum.

The new traffic area boundaries are described in Article 4 and Schedule 1 to the order. The western traffic area will be extended to include the counties of Oxfordshire, Berkshire, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. The eastern traffic area will lose Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire to the north western and north eastern areas respectively. But it will be extended south and westwards to include the counties of Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire and Essex. The remainder of the present south eastern traffic area will be combined with the remainder of the present metropolitan traffic area to form a new area comprising London, Sussex, Surrey and Kent.

We have thoroughly consulted the bus and freight industries, local government associations and other professional and judicial organisations with an interest in the work of the traffic areas. We also consulted the trades unions, and in particular the traffic commissioners themselves. The vast majority of those affected recognised that this reorganisation would preserve efficiency and standards of performance.

The traffic commissioners, who are perhaps most directly affected, agree that the new structure will meet the changing needs of the traffic area organisation. They are in particular pleased with the disposition of the new boundaries as they will introduce a greater degree of consistency in their respective workloads.

At this stage perhaps I should offer your Lordships a brief guide to the main provisions of the 1990 order which, as so often, looks rather complex and technical for what I have described as a relatively simple measure. The main operative provision is Article 4. That brings the new boundaries into force on 1st June 1991, and the new boundaries are defined by reference to Schedule 1.

The remaining articles deal with internal matters which are uncompleted on reorganisation date, such as public inquiries about proposed operating centres.

Schedule 2 deals with the treatment of applications for licences that are still to be processed when the boundary changes take effect. These provisions are intended to minimise the disturbance to the road transport industries and have been carefully drafted in consultation with the relevant trade associations.

As I have explained, the 1991 order amends Schedule 1 of the 1990 order so that Cumbria is included in the definition of the revised north western traffic area. This is a modest administrative reform, and I commend both orders to your Lordships. I beg to move.

Moved, That the order laid before the House on 19th December 1990 be approved [7th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Lord Brabazon of Tara.)

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his explanation of the orders. I am sure that the good citizens of Cumbria will rejoice in the streets tonight when they discover that the omission has been rectified. I wish to raise a number of points which give rise to some concern. I am sure the Minister will be able to answer those points as I gave him notice of them before the debate.

First, as regards the closure of the traffic area office in Newcastle, the Minister will know that that has been opposed by the Tyne and Wear Passenger Transport Authority, the Tyne and Wear Passenger Transport Executive and by a number of the metropolitan district councils in that area. To what extent were the views of those bodies taken into account by the department? As I understand it, their anxieties encompass the following points. The matter of prime concern to them is the fact that the new proposals leave some conurbations—for example, those in the North-East—somewhat remote from an area office. How can that situation be expected to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the administration of the operator licensing system, as the previous Minister responsible for roads and traffic asserted would be the case in his press statement of 19th June last?

If divisional offices acting on behalf of the traffic area offices are to go, is it not much more probable that the result will be an inferior service compared with that provided under the previous arrangements? I know that to some degree this is a matter of conjecture, but I should like to hear further comment from the Minister. Will the Minister also indicate whether he has any proposals for divisional offices?

Secondly, there appears to have been a failure on the part of the Department of Transport to take advantage of the restructuring of the area offices so as to increase resources for the traffic commissioners, particularly as regards their responsibility for policing the operation of bus services under the Transport Act 1985. After all, the reorganisation which this order seeks to achieve is part and parcel of the Government's response to the Palmer Report to which the Minister alluded. That report concerns a review of the traffic area organisation.

A number of organisations including the Association of Metropolitan Authorities have expressed concerns—those concerns were noted in the report—that no systematic monitoring of registered bus services was carried out by the commissioners. That is an extremely serious matter. It was manifestly clear from the report that what happens at present is that the traffic commissioners only use their powers, affecting bus operators who fail to operate bus services in accordance with the registration details lodged under the 1985 Act, when serious and substantial complaints of failure to run registered services are brought to their notice. That situation is not good enough. The public are entitled to know that the 1985 Act is being properly and efficiently implemented and enforced. I do not believe that what the Minister said today in that regard is likely to allay those concerns. After all, the spirit of the relevant provisions in Sections 6 and 111 of the 1985 Act is that operators must run bus services in accordance with registered particulars and, furthermore, that it falls to the traffic commissioners to police and enforce that duty.

I wonder whether the Minister is aware that there is a considerable contrast between the operation of the Airports Act 1986 and the Transport Act 1985. The Airports Act provides that the Civil Aviation Authority should act only on complaints that have been received, whereas there is no such provision for the traffic commissioners in the Transport Act 1985. If Parliament had wanted to impose such a restriction it would have done so through legislation. What appears to be happening is that the traffic commissioners are imposing the restriction on themselves. I suggest that the reason is that they do not have adequate resources to carry out their duties as Parliament has deemed appropriate, notwithstanding what the Minister said. I raise the point because although the order makes some attempt to make the traffic commissioners more efficient, the fact is that they simply do not have the resources to enable them to carry out their present responsibilities.

In addition to the questions which I have already put to the Minister, I hope he will say whether he considers that the performance of the traffic commissioners as regards the policing of the operation of bus services under the 1985 Act is satisfactory in the light of the concerns expressed by the Association of Metropolitan Authorities and other such bodies. Is the department taking any steps to remedy any deficiencies in their performance?

I conclude by saying that what worries many organisations is, first, that the traffic commissioners will be required to cover larger areas without any commensurate increase in staff. Indeed the reverse will happen. It appears that they will have fewer staff. That could well lead to greater delays on the part of the commissioners in giving information to local authorities regarding bus service registrations. Can the Minister allay those anxieties?

Secondly, it appears that the commissioners' resources—for example in monitoring bus services in the light of complaints—will be stretched further than ever. I hope the Minister will reply to those two points as well as to those I made earlier.

Lord Callaghan of Cardiff

My Lords, I have one question for the Minister and I apologise deeply for the fact that I have not given him notice of it. However, I am sure he knows the answer. In 1947 Mr. Attlee asked me to become a parliamentary secretary at the Ministry of Transport. I was deeply grateful for that appointment. At that time I found myself embroiled in a dispute about appointments to that distinguished body of men, the road traffic commissioners.

I was asked to approve an advertisement which stated that applicants for those posts could not be appointed unless they had reached the minimum required age of 40. As I was not then 40, I asked why such an age was thought to be appropriate. I was told that the duties of a traffic commissioner were much more responsible and onerous than those of a parliamentary secretary at the Ministry of Transport. I am sure the Minister totally disagrees with that view. I made a most vigorous protest and I was promised that further consideration would be given to the matter. Has a reform been introduced?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, for his reception of the order. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan, for reminding us of his former distinguished career in the Ministry of Transport. I do not yet know whether I shall be able to answer his question. If not, I undertake to write to the noble Lord. I am sure that we must have done something between 1947 and now but whether it will please the noble Lord I do not know.

The noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, referred to the closure of the Newcastle office. All views were taken into account. There have always been large urban areas without traffic area offices. Liverpool is an example. The noble Lord was also concerned about bus services. There is systematic checking of bus operators. Enforcement staff will continue to be available to commissioners for the purposes of regulating public transport requirements, including bus services.

Turning to the question of the commissioners' resources, enforcement in respect of goods and passenger vehicle operators and vehicles is being increased. More vehicles are being inspected and the resources made available for enforcement have matched the requirements of the traffic commissioners. I believe that they are being used more effectively.

As regards voluntary and local bus services, traffic commissioners can call upon the services of traffic examiners to monitor bus services where there is a significant volume of complaints. Following one of the recommendations of the Palmer Report we are considering employing temporary staff to carry out such duties. An experiment along those lines is being set up in the south eastern traffic area. I hope that the noble Lord is satisfied with that reply; we must hope that the experiment is successful.

The noble Lord, Lord Callaghan, asked about the age limit for traffic commissioner appointments. There is no statutory minimum age limit. We look for people with the necessary aptitude and experience in transport; so obviously something has changed since 1947.

On Question, Motion agreed to.