HL Deb 15 April 1999 vol 599 cc906-9

8.10 p.m.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton rose to move, That the order laid before the House on 10th March be approved [12th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the purpose of the order is to create a new Welsh traffic area to replace existing arrangements where North Wales is part of the north western traffic area and South Wales is a separate traffic area.

Traffic areas exist for the purpose of administering the system of licensing for operators of public service vehicles—that is, buses and coaches—and heavy goods vehicles, and for the registration of local bus services outside London. Great Britain is divided into eight traffic areas. Licences are granted by independent traffic commissioners appointed to those areas.

Operators must have a licence issued for each traffic area in which they have an operating centre, specify such centres and how many vehicles may be kept at each. The licence holder must inform the traffic commissioner of the registration marks and changes of vehicle specified on the licence.

The order makes detailed provision for dealing with licences affected by the boundary change to ensure a smooth transition and continuity of traffic commissioner functions and responsibilities.

Broadly, the order provides that, on reorganisation, a former South Wales traffic area licence becomes a Welsh traffic area licence; a north western traffic area licence which specifies only operating centres in Wales becomes a Welsh traffic area licence; a north western traffic area licence which specifies operating centres in both England and Wales is split (in consultation with the licence holder) to create a Welsh traffic area licence for the operating centre and vehicles based in Wales, and an amended north western traffic area licence for the operating centres and vehicles based in England; where as a consequence, an operator finishes up with two Welsh traffic area licences, those licences would be amalgamated in due course (within five years).

Specifically, the order amends the Traffic Areas (Reorganisation) Order 1990 by defining the limits of the north western traffic area to exclude from it the former counties of Clwyd and Gwynedd and to add the areas of those former counties of the present South Wales traffic area to create a new all-Wales traffic area. I beg to move.

Moved, That the order laid before the House on 10th March be approved 112th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton.)

Earl Attlee

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for her explanation of the order. Before saying anything substantive I should like to declare an interest in that I am president of the Heavy Transport Association and no doubt I have several members in the affected area.

When I first saw the order I skimmed through it, but I noticed on page 4, Article 2(1)(b) a reference to "good" not "goods" operator's licence; that typographical error should be corrected.

It was not apparent to me at the time that the traffic area office for Wales will be in Birmingham. I accept that the previous government would have had a single traffic area for Wales for reasons of economy, and that initially the office may be in Birmingham, but the situation has now changed. The Government have set up a Welsh Assembly. How will Welsh goods vehicle operators and PSV operators feel about having to correspond with a traffic area office in Birmingham, in the centre of England? It does not concern operators only, but some people may wish to object to a goods vehicle operator's licence and will have to communicate with Birmingham. These objectors often raise sensitive issues; for example, access to and egress from premises in residential areas. They could be made by relatively unsophisticated, if sensible, people. Therefore, objectors may lack confidence if, in the light of the existence of the Welsh Assembly, they have to communicate with a traffic area office in England. The objectors do not have to pay for the traffic area office but they do have a stake in it. Presumably there are Welsh speakers at the Birmingham traffic area office, but it would be much easier to recruit them in Wales.

I believe that there will be a certain amount of disappointment that post the setting up of the Assembly the traffic area office will be in Birmingham and that the money for operating that office will go to Birmingham rather than somewhere in Wales.

I am sure that the Minister will point out that the DVLA is in Swansea, but that covers the whole of the UK and it has to be located somewhere. It certainly does not need to be in London, and for obvious economic reasons Swansea is a good place to locate it.

The Minister will also tell us about IT problems. These problems were known before the election. The Government have been in power for two years. There are only 8,000 operators in Wales and therefore the amount of data to be handled by the IT system is riot excessive. Can the Minister say how old the IT system is which operates in Birmingham?

The Minister in another place was asked about the timescale for moving the office to a location in Wales, but she could not help honourable Members in Committee. I hope that the Minister can be a little more helpful this evening because we are very likely to ask that question.

I am grateful to the Minister in another place for supporting my proposed Bill to facilitate the impounding of illegally operated goods vehicles. However, that could not work very well without a first-class IT system. It would be desirable if operators were able to notify the traffic area office electronically using the Internet. When I wish to buy electronic or mechanical components, I can do so on the Internet through RS Components. It took humble me only an hour to master the system. It would be of great benefit to operators if they could make their notifications immediately electronically.

In conclusion, I am content, but I believe that post-devolution the people of Wales will be surprised to find themselves communicating with an office in England rather than in Wales.

Lord Thomas of Gresford

My Lords, I am taken back, by nostalgia, to the days when I used to argue on behalf of local bus operators, very profitably, in front of the North West traffic commissioners, who will no longer have any sway over my part of Wales. I am concerned that South Wales appears to be gobbling up North Wales, which is entirely against the principles of devolution, as discussed in the Government of Wales Bill.

However, the references to Birmingham do not appear in the order. I would have assumed that the bringing together of these various areas is in order that the powers may be devolved to the Welsh Assembly. If that is the case, where is the office to be located in future?

Earl Attlee

My Lords, I did not notice that the traffic area office was to be in Wales: I found that out when I was reading the proceedings in another place.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I apologise that an "s" was omitted. All I can say—and I say it with caution as someone who had a Welsh grandfather—is that, living in the north, I can understand why people use the word "good" in error.

The equipment is approximately 10 years old. The timescale for the introduction of new IT equipment to be considered and for the process to be completed is 2000, when electronic notification could be introduced. It would also be the appropriate time for consideration to be given to any representations for relocation within the Principality.

The function is not to be devolved to the Welsh Assembly but, having worked closely for a long number of years with representatives of the Welsh counties, it would not surprise me if representation were to be made at that stage regarding that. A very wide consultation exercise was carried out with the industries concerned and with a wide range of other interested parties in England and Wales. Perhaps on a separate occasion I would be interested to find out from the noble Lord whether he was successful in the representations that he made.

The Birmingham traffic area office which will administer the Welsh area licences will provide facilities for operators who wish to conduct their business in the Welsh language. The traffic area network agreed in 1998 was a Welsh language scheme with the Welsh Language Board. Every effort has been made to ensure that operators based in Wales are not inconvenienced by this arrangement. There have been no complaints about the impact in terms of routine business. When a traffic commissioner decides to hold a public inquiry, it is always held locally by the traffic commissioner or his deputies. Our proposal for a Welsh traffic area, if it is approved, is for it to be run from Birmingham, which already deals with the larger number of operators based in Wales.

Perhaps I may respond to some of the points touched on by the noble Earl, Lord Attlee. An office was located in Cardiff before March 1997 serving South Wales, but it was closed by the previous government. At the same time, the office in Manchester, which served operators in North Wales, Merseyside and the north-west, was also closed. Licensing administration for operators in South Wales was switched to the traffic area office in Birmingham for North Wales and for the north-west to the Leeds office.

I hope that I have answered the points raised by noble Lords. If I have omitted to answer any fine point of detail I will of course write to the noble Lord concerned. I commend the order to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.