Select Committee is wrong-footed

Our man in Westminster is somewhat dismayed to learn that the Transport Select Committee is to conduct an inquiry into the Bus Services Bill. He welcomes this, but not that the inquiry will be held five or six months after the Bill was published, being too late to inform the debate

I’m not a great fan of the parliamentary Select Committee process. Not because I don’t agree with the need for strong scrutiny of the Executive by parliament. It’s just that I don’t see a great deal of evidence that the Select Committee process is that effective holding the Executive to account.

So I was a touch dismayed when the Transport Select Committee announced that it is to conduct an inquiry into the Bus Services Bill. Not because of the inquiry in itself – I was expecting the Committee to conduct an inquiry into the Bill – but because the inquiry will be held some five or six months after the Bill was published.

The Bill in itself won’t increase passenger numbers for one simple reason. The Bill does nothing to address the problem of increasing congestion

The aim of the inquiry is to inform the House of Commons in time for its deliberations on the Bill, but you might have thought the Committee would have held a short, sharp inquiry as soon as the Bill was published so that it could also inform the House of Lords in its consideration of the Bill. Perhaps it could not have done so in time for the Lords Second Reading on the Bill, but surely it could have done something in time for Committee Stage?

And given that the overall quality of the debate in the Lords was poor and showed a worryingly low level of understanding of the issues, especially by the Labour frontbench, the Committee might have done us a service for once and actually produced a report which improved their Lordships’ knowledge of the issues.

The terms of reference for the inquiry are pretty general with the Committee simply asking if legislation is required in this area, and if the Bill addresses the correct issues. The Committee says it also wishes to receive evidence on the extent to which the Bill is likely to improve passenger services, increase passenger numbers and deliver a robust bus sector. I think I might be able to be of assistance to the Committee.

This Bill is largely unnecessary because franchising – the primary driver of the Bill – can be achieved under existing legislation. We’re told the existing hurdles to justify a franchise are too high, but so they should be, and if an authority has a compelling case surely these hurdles can be jumped over?

Enhanced Quality Partnership proposals, which I have no problem with, would not have emerged without the Bill. Ultimately this Bill was driven by George Osborne’s devolution agenda and the franchising proposals that emerged from this. The Bill isn’t necessary because existing legislation already does much of what this Bill delivers.

And I would say this to the Committee. The Bill in itself won’t increase passenger numbers for one simple reason. The Bill does nothing to address the problem of increasing congestion.

It’s congestion that is the primary cause of service unreliability and it is unreliability that is a primary factor in people’s decision to use the bus, or not. London has witnessed a decline in bus patronage because of increased congestion. Deal properly with the curse of congestion and you will start to see bus patronage rise.

Nor do I see how the Bill in itself delivers a robust bus sector. It could, in theory, actually have the opposite effect if franchising, or the threat of franchising, deters investment and results in existing operators losing part or all of their business. Anyway, given that the Conservatives enjoy a majority on the Committee perhaps it might come out with a report promoting the benefits of deregulation!