Roy Kennedy on the changes made to the Bus Services Bill, ahead of its departure from the Lords
The Bus Services Bill is, on the whole, a positive piece of government legislation that Labour generally supports. Nevertheless, we have used the Bill’s passage through the Lords (where it started) to propose various changes, and in doing so have won decent concessions and key votes.
Back in 1986, bus services were deregulated in England outside of Greater London. This has created a free for all that has proved to be a disaster for passengers and communities alike, with falling bus journeys, reduced routes and higher fares. In the Capital meanwhile, the number of bus journeys has risen and fares are generally lower because Transport for London has the power to decide prices, routes and timetables.
Clause 21 of the Bill has been the most contentious. This is the section that prohibits local authorities from forming municipal bus companies – even though they are among the best performing in the industry and have won numerous awards. As the proposal is clearly driven by ideological nonsense, we have voted successfully to remove the entire clause.
In contrast, one of the most positive aspects of the Bill is the plan to award franchising powers to enable bus services to be run on the same basis as they are in London. It comes however, with a major caveat that restricts automatic receipt of these powers to those combined authorities that have opted for an elected Metro Mayor. Every other type of authority would have to apply to the Secretary of State for approval and with no guarantee of success.
Not only does this seem rather unfair, it also undermines the promotion of devolution deals where councils can work out what’s best for their area. And we were successful in a vote on our amendment to extend these powers to all authorities.
The Bill also presents an opportunity to improve facilities for blind and deaf people to help them on journeys. Labour peers and others supported campaigns by charities such as Guide Dogs for the Blind, and prompted by our amendments the government has now agreed that all buses in England will be fitted with equipment to enable audio and visual announcements. This is a really positive step and again gives passengers outside of London the benefit of services enjoyed for some time on the Capital’s buses for some time.
Incidentally, the SNP – which refuses to have peers in the House – has rather bizarrely tried to claim credit for this Labour Lords -led win without even namechecking us, as the government is also extending the new policy to Scotland. Something I’m sure our colleagues in the Commons will be quick to jump on when the opportunity arises.
Elsewhere, further protections for the environment were also a key priority for us on the Bill and amendments have also gone through that place greater obligations on bus operators to have more environmentally friendly services. Plus, the Bill also allows the development of Apps to help passenger’s access timetable information by requiring data on journeys to be made public. Another feature of London bus services for many years.
The Bill leaves the Lords in good shape and ready to improve bus travel for millions of passengers. Not very battle is won just yet, as I suspect the government will seek to reverse our wins on Clause 21 and the extension of franchising to non-mayoral authorities. So, it now up to our colleagues in the Commons – working with campaigners outside – to take up the defence of these changes. While Labour peers of course, will ready ourselves to defend the progress we’ve made when the Bill comes back to the House in the New Year.
Lord Roy Kennedy of Southwark is a member of Labour’s frontbench team in the House of Lords. He tweets @LordRoyKennedy
Published 23rd November 2016