On Monday, the government’s Bus Services Bill continued its passage through the House of Lords, reaching the Report Stage, which is the final opportunity for detailed scrutiny before the Bill continues into the House of Commons.
Speaking in the debate, Labour’s spokesperson, Baroness Jones tabled two amendments, both supported by the Co-operative Party, and focussed on recognising the vital importance of bus routes to the communities they serve.
The first of these, Amendment 97, would enable communities to designate bus routes as assets of community value – giving them protection from being withdrawn without warning. As Baroness Jones put it, the amendment:
“recognises that there are some areas where the local bus route is a lifeline for the local community, particularly for the elderly and low-paid residents who rely on the bus to transport them to the nearest shop and workplaces.”.
While in his response, the Government Spokesperson Lord Ahmad accepted that local bus services “have a real community worth”, the Government declined to support the amendment. It argued that enhancing the role of Traffic Commissioners (who, under the amendment would be responsible for determining a route’s value to the community) would undermine the role of local authorities.
One of the key aspects of the Bus Services Bill, from the Government’s perspective, is the introduction of new mechanisms which would enable local authorities to adopt franchising and ‘enhanced partnership’ agreements with bus operators, and with it, greater oversight of routes, timetables and fares.
Amendment 73, which was also discussed on Monday would require local authorities wishing to adopt these new powers to consider social value, as defined in the 2012 Social Value Act, when commissioning bus services.
Rather than focusing on, in Baronesss Jones’ words “a narrow definition of value” local councils would be required to consider “the wider economic, social and environmental benefits” of bids to run bus services in their area. Doing so, she argued, would “encourage those bidding for contracts to be more imaginative about the community benefits their service could bring”.
Responding, Lord Ahmad, conceded that the government “accepted the principle”, but argued that the amendment itself wasn’t necessary as the 2012 Social Value Act already applies to certain aspects of local authority procurement. Nonetheless, he promised to strengthen the guidance accompanying the Bill to ensure local authorities are aware of this fact. Such official guidance, while not part of the text of the legislation itself, does nonetheless carry the force of law.
In this debate, as in the months of debate which have taken place since the Bus Services Bill entered the Lords in May, Co-operative peers and our Labour colleagues have pushed the Government to recognise the wider social value of local bus services to the communities they serve, and worked to make people, rather than profit, the Bill’s priority.
As the Bill now enters its final stages in the Lords before continuing to the House of Commons in November, Co-operative Party peers and MPs will be working in partnership with Labour colleagues to continue holding the Government to account. Via our People’s Bus campaign, both in and outside of Westminster, we’ll be standing up for passengers and continuing to make the case for a fairer, better way of delivering local transport to the people who rely on it most.