What we want from the Busses Bill wash up
The Bus Services Bill is due to complete its passage through parliament this week, because of the election it will be agreed through wash up. It was initially due to enter Ping Pong on April 26 following its third reading in the Commons. The snap election called last week means that the bill has to be passed this week or fall. Barring an unexpected upset, it will pass today and will receive Royal Assent on 27 April. Trade unionists and others with an interest in decent public transport provision should watch with interest.
The Bus Services Bill was intended to address the historic failures of de-regulation that have plagued regional bus services since the 1980s (NB: London transport is organised differently). In England, outside of London passenger journeys declined by 38.7 per cent between 1985/6 and 2015/16. Popular routes are often over supplied by bus operators in order to preserve a monopoly position, while local authorities are forced to tender out and subsidise less popular routes to ensure more remote service users receive adequate provision. Bus de-regulation has been a double failure, not only has it failed to improve standards and reduce costs for service users, but it has not even succeeded in creating the competitive market that was intended to achieve this. The majority of bus services are provided by one of five operators: Arriva, First, Go-Ahead, National Express and Stagecoach, who collectively control 70 per cent of the market and rarely compete. Crudely, in place of the current system, mayoral combined authorities would have powers to create an a new partnership with an existing bus operator, under terms that would improve current provision; or create a new franchise to run local bus services where they felt it would be beneficial.
While the Bill as first presented to the Commons was a distinct improvement on the current status quo, the Bill saw a number of beneficial changes during its passage through the report stage and the Lords.
In particular the Lords removed an explicit ban on councils creating municipal companies to step in and run services. They inserted a requirement that companies consult with a recognised trade union or employee representative on behalf of workers who would be affected by the scheme, and a requirement that new service providers meet the eligibility requirements of the new bus low-emissions scheme. Finally they removed the clause that required the Secretary of State to give permission before district and borough councils could begin any process of enhanced partnership or franchising. (For the complete list of amendments check the Parliament website).
However, when the Bill completed its third reading in the Commons, these positive changes were removed. In ordinary times the Bill would now pass back and forth between the Lords and the Commons while some of these amendments were negotiated further and some were confirmed until eventually a wording was found that both Houses could agree to.
However, at the risk of repeating a post-Brexit truism, these are not ordinary times. The calling of the General Election brings the current parliament to a close. Any legislation not completed at the end of a parliament falls and has to either be reintroduced from scratch in the next one, or it simply disappears. The Bus Services Bill has cleared enough stages now that it will almost certainly not fall, though there are other Bills that have not been so lucky. Instead Government and Opposition whips will negotiate to find a model they can both live with and then the Bill will be passed.
It will be interesting to see which amendments survive this process and which are thrown overboard. Our priority would be to see municipalisation allowed again, and the return of a requirement to consult with a recognised union. In the absence of these, a win on allowing smaller local authorities to franchise without seeking the Secretary of State’s permission would be of real value as well.
Keep your eyes peeled, there is all to play for on busses today.