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MaggieJones2014.JPGMaggie Jones on the government’s plans for bus service provision, as the current bill concludes its Lords Committee 

Yesterday, Peers completed the final day of Committee considering the Bus Services Bill – legislation that represents a welcome, if long delayed, volte face for a government previously wedded to a market driven provision of public services.

Ministers have finally accepted that deregulation of bus services in the 1980’s has been a failure for passengers, transport planners and localities alike. The facts speak for themselves. In Greater London, the only place currently allowed to operate a franchise model overseen by the elected authority, passenger numbers have doubled since 1986, bus mileage has increased by 74% and fare increases have been lower than in other city-regions. Conversely, outside of the Capital where a free market exists, bus patronage has declined, fares have shot up faster than wages, and routes and services have been axed.

Labour has welcomed the Bill’s underlying intention to bring back some order to bus service provision, reverse the decline in passenger journeys taken, and improve quality and reliability. Sadly however, it does not go far enough in empowering local authorities to make real decisions about the shape of services. We have also been keen to build in stronger minimum standards, improved passenger and employee consultation, and greener buses.

Crucially, we have moved amendments to enable all councils to adopt a franchise model of delivery if they feel it’s in the best interests of local communities. At present, the Bill restricts this right to combined authorities with an elected mayor. There is no logic to this restriction, which is clearly a political move designed to offer a carrot to councils to adopt the mayoral system, particularly in the ‘Northern Powerhouse’. With George Osborne off the scene and Chris Grayling now in place as Transport Secretary, I hope this unjustifiable restriction will be removed and ministers will be persuaded to devolve such decisions. Interestingly, we have received cross party support for our related amendment, including from Conservative Peers.

Labour has also been active in opposing the section of the Bill which prevents local authorities awarding a bus contract to a municipal operator. Another deliberately political move which flies in the face of the evidence. Currently, municipally owned bus services are some of the most successful in the country, with good quality provision and high levels of passenger satisfaction. Nottingham City Transport for example, has been UK bus operator of the year three times. Again, we believe that councils are best placed to make the decision about the delivery model best suited to them.

Some of our other amendments have received a more sympathetic response from the government, with offers of ministerial meetings to discuss improved disability access to buses and compulsory staff training on disability awareness. But following last month’s referendum vote, there is now uncertainty about how EU regulation will apply to the UK – and one critical piece of EU legislation due to come into effect in 2018 requires bus drivers and terminal staff to complete disability awareness training. Clarity is lacking on whether this will still come into effect, and its probable impact.

We also expect further discussion before Report stage on how to incorporate minimum environmental specifications on all future buses; better reporting on traffic congestion, air quality and safety standards; guaranteed consultation with trade unions and passenger groups when changes are proposed; and how to embed a responsibility for councils to take into account the wider social value of their transport services.

With the Bill not back before the House until the autumn, there is plenty of time for ministers to take on board many of our amendments beforehand. We stand ready however, to win our arguments on the floor of the Lords and, if necessary, push these issues to a vote.

Baroness Maggie Jones of Whitchurch is Shadow Environment Minister in the House of Lords

Published 21st July 2016

Legislative update 2: Bus Services Bill

Maggie Jones on the government’s plans for bus service provision, as the current bill concludes its Lords Committee 

MikeWatson.jpgMike Watson on the government’s plans for vulnerable and looked after children, as current proposals clear the Lords Committee stage

After five days of Committee in Grand Committee, the Children and Social Work Bill now hides away until October – when it will come to the floor of the Lords for Report. Debates so far have been characterised by broad-based opposition to the more controversial proposals. Crossbenchers and LibDems have joined us to back amendments on issues of concern to councils and charities which deliver support for some of society’s most vulnerable young people.

Part 1 of the Bill is dominated by a proposal to give the Education Secretary additional powers to exempt a local authority from requirements under social care legislation. These could apply for up to three years and be extended by a further three. But to exercise such powers would require new regulations, with some approved without a full debate and vote in Parliament.

Labour has led opposition to this issue in Committee, working with others to try and rule out profit-making for children’s social care functions. The government has to date failed to explain how G4S or Serco would be prevented from establishing a not-for-profit subsidiary to deliver their services.

As with existing outsourcing in other spheres of council services, the local authority would retain ultimate responsibility. Previous experience shows that the organisation taking on delivery can end the contract unilaterally, leaving the council to pick up the pieces while children suffer. There is real determination across political lines to pin ministers down on this matter, with more to come at Report.

Part 2 of the Bill is threadbare. To such an extent that we took the unusual step of tabling an amendment at Second Reading to highlight this fact. Ministers are increasingly playing fast and loose with parliamentary procedure by submitting bills that have been hurriedly put together and with large gaps to be filled later on by regulation. Anger at the blatant use of such practice has seen trenchant criticism from both the Constitution Committee and the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee.

While all of this has been water off a duck’s back to the government, a change of tack may follow the withering comments of my colleague Phillip Hunt at the final session of Committee on proposed changes to the regulation of social workers. The existing governance model for health care professions is a longstanding arrangement to ensure distance from ministers and to enable regulators to independently discharge their primary function – the protection of the public.

Earlier this year however, Nicky Morgan announced that a new body would take responsibility for all social work standards, training and regulation – including of those who work with adults and those not in public employment. This announcement was made without any detailed consultation with interested parties in the profession. So we are seeking a meeting with the new Education Secretary, Justine Greening in the hope that she will see sense and back off.

Backing off however, will not be in our minds when the debate on this ill-thought out Bill resumes in October, with Labour Peers set to lead the way on ensuring it is in better shape before it proceeds to the Commons.

Lord Mike Watson of Invergowrie is Shadow Education Minister in the House of Lords

Published 20th July 2016

Legislative update 1: Children and Social Work Bill

Mike Watson on the government’s plans for vulnerable and looked after children, as current proposals clear the Lords Committee stage

JeremyBeecham.jpgJeremy Beecham on the Conservatives continuing attacks on access to justice

There is a biblical injunction which proclaims “Justice, justice shalt thou pursue”. To this the current government adds an addendum: “providing thou canst pay in advance a fee equal to or greater than would be required to ensure that the full cost or more  of court and tribunal  proceedings can be recovered for the benefit of the taxpayer”.

Yet access to justice is crucial to the rule of law, on which our country prides itself. Already eroded by savage cuts in legal aid, it now faces a new round of significant increases in fees. And what makes matters worse is how Ministry of Justice has handled the issue.

Last year, the government commissioned a review – including a report on the impact of its earlier imposition of substantial charges, which it said would be completed by end of 2015. The Justice Select Committee pointed out that in early October that the report was said by an official to “be in the hands of the Minister” (Shailesh Vara MP) and that “it was hoped that the Minister’s position would be known by the end of the year”.

A Freedom of Information request for a copy of the report was declined on 29 December, with the comment that “the review is currently underway and will report in due course”. Successive requests were made to the Minister in early February and late March, the latter seeking publication or at the least the supply of a copy in confidence – all without success.

But this is a sensitive and highly contentious area. There has been, in the Committee’s words, “a startling drop” – of 70% - in the number of applications as a result of the initial imposition of fees. The Committee concluded that the existing fee system “has had a significant adverse impact on access to justice for meritorious claims” – not least in relation to claims by pregnant women for detriment or dismissal. What confidence can we have therefore, in the range of new and increased fees imposed in other areas?

There is to be an increase from £410 to £550 in divorce proceedings. Given there is now no legal aid, this flat rate charge will impact relatively more harshly on less well-off petitioners, at what will of course be a time of acute emotional stress. The President of the Family Division, Sir James Munby accused the government of “putting up the fees until it becomes another poll tax on wheels”.

Even more objectionable is the astonishing increase of 600% in fees for the Immigration and Asylum Tribunal, where the original proposal was 100%. This will effect some of the most vulnerable people and is likely, as the Law Society has pointed out, to lead to more people overstaying illegally and risking criminal prosecution. Even under the present system, in only 5600 cases were fees remitted out of 41,000 applications.

In addition, we have a 10% increase in fees for civil claims, increases in fees levied in other tribunals and the particularly invidious increase in the fees for judicial review proceedings, where the government itself might well be the defendant.

The government’s record over access to justice, and stretching back to the Coalition period, has favoured the interests of the powerful – from employers to insurance companies. Moves towards fixed costs in civil claims and clinical negligence cases echo the same approach. So, it will be interesting to see whether new Prime Minister Theresa May’s claims for compassionate conservatism translate into action, with justice policies providing an early test.

Lord Jeremy Beecham is Shadow Justice Minister in the House of Lords. He tweets @jeremybeecham

Published 20th July 2016

Courting controversy

Jeremy Beecham on the Conservatives continuing attacks on access to justice

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