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Points of Order

3.31 pm

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I wonder whether you will inquire into a matter that does not seem to be anybody's responsibility, but is clearly a House of Commons matter. In the front of the House of Commons parliamentary diary, there is a list of notable dates, many of which will be found in any diary in the land. However, it also includes some which are not found in other diaries and which are inappropriate. They include the dates for the end of pheasant and partridge shooting, the expiry of game licences, the beginning of grouse and partridge shooting, and the end of grouse shooting, but, most importantly, "fox hunting begins" is in the diary as a notable date. That diary bears the name of this place, has the portcullis on the cover and is sold here. I have received a complaint about that. I wonder whether in future years you can rule that we should not have such controversial and, arguably, unacceptable practices publicised in documents bearing the coat of arms of the House of Commons.

Madam Speaker: Is the hon. Gentleman certain that it is a House of Commons diary? Perhaps he will let me see it. He might refer the matter to the appropriate Committee, which I think is the Administration Committee, rather than raise it on the Floor of the House. Perhaps next year we can put my birthday in the diary so that I might expect flowers all round.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I am looking forward to sending you flowers on the appropriate day. May I assist you on another matter? I am an enthusiastic supporter of your campaign for terser questions at Question Time. Have you noticed that on the past four occasions when questions have been asked by Members from Welsh and Scottish constituencies, Ministers have been instructed to add a coda to their answers, saying that they could not answer the question if there was Welsh and Scottish decentralisation? That is a campaign which wastes time at Question Time. It is unfair because hon. Members cannot answer such a statement and it is tedious and futile.

Madam Speaker: I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman is trying to co- operate with me in seeking brisker questions and answers. I shall continue to ensure that that happens at every Question Time. I am sure that it is a great advantage to Back Benchers--I can call more of them if answers are brisk and questions are equally so.

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Protection of Animals (Amendment)

3.34 pm

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North): I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Protection of Animals (Amendment) Act 1954 to require the courts to order the disqualification for life from owning animals for any person convicted of severe cruelty to a companion animal.

I have no pecuniary interest in this matter, but I have the honour to hold the British Horse Society's award of merit for outstanding services to the horse world. Clearly, the British Horse Society is concerned with the welfare of horses.

Millions of pets are kept in Britain and, thankfully, most of them are loved and well cared for. Whatever they are--dogs, hamsters or budgies-- they all play a special part in people's lives. It is well established that pet owners and pet lovers generally live longer and more healthily than others, so they gain much from their pets.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): I have two cats.

Mr. Greenway: In that case, my hon. Friend will live a long time. However, it is, sadly, not true that all companion animals are loved and well cared for. In 1993, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals secured 3,065 convictions against people who caused cruelty to animals in their care, the very animals that rely on human intervention for their welfare needs.

The House should be in no doubt that the cruelty inflicted on animals comes in many forms. Animals may be starved through neglect, viciously beaten, left to die in hot cars, denied urgent veterinary treatment or simply thrown from a building for the fun of it. Some of the cases that come to court defy belief. For example, a dog died after being locked in a microwave; a cat was thrown from the top of a cathedral; a hamster was held under hot water, thrown against a wall and then sealed in an airtight container before being dumped in a freezer; and a kitten had its claws removed by a 12-year-old boy before being thrown into a freezing pond.

However, it is not only the domestic pet that suffers at the hands of cruel owners. Some people take pleasure in organising illegal events such as dog fights and cock fights. They are evil forms of sport--so-called--which cause enormous suffering to the animals involved. Incidentally, such events are a growing problem in the west London area and elsewhere, and all in the name of sport.

What price do people pay for inflicting needless cruelty on animals? The maximum penalty is six months in prison and/or a £5,000 fine.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): What about calves in crates?

Mr. Greenway: I accept what the hon. Gentleman says. The cruelty caused to calves kept in crates is unacceptable and the country will not tolerate it. I am glad that the Government are examining what can be done, but we must keep up the pressure.

As I was saying, the maximum penalty for cruelty to animals is six months in prison and/or a £5,000 fine.

Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South): It is not enough.

Mr. Greenway: I agree that such penalties are not sufficient but even they are used only in cases of the most

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severe cruelty. If someone is convicted of cruelty, no matter how sickening, it is possible for him to continue to be allowed to own animals. At the moment, magistrates can order a ban on the ownership of animals, but that option is used in only a small percentage of cases.

In a recent RSPCA cruelty case, a Kent man pleaded guilty to causing unnecessary suffering to a friend's Jack Russell. In a statement to an RSPCA inspector, the man admitted kicking and beating the dog. When the inspector found the dog, it was lying outside an oven covered in grease. Traces of dog hairs were found inside the oven. Yet the man responsible for causing that appalling suffering was banned from keeping animals for only five years. In 1999 he will be able to keep pets again.

In another recent case, a young foal was fitted with a head collar when it was a few weeks old. As the foal grew, naturally, so did its head, but the noseband did not. After a while the noseband began to eat into the flesh on the animals' face, causing enormous pain--so much so that the poor creature could not bear to open its mouth to suckle from its mother. The penalty for knowingly inflicting such pain was a derisory fine. The owners were not imprisoned, nor did they receive suspended prison sentences, but they knew what they were doing. Our legal system allowed them to continue keeping horses and, to my knowledge, they still own four horses.

If such astonishing cruelty is hard to understand, it is even harder to punish. How can it be right that someone convicted of mindless cruelty should hear the magistrate order an RSPCA inspector to hand the animal back to the guilty party? How can we stand for that? It is not right or just. Anyone convicted of causing cruelty to animals should be banned for life from owning another such animal. What can be done?

Mr. Terry Dicks (Hayes and Harlington): We should treat them in the same way.

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Mr. Greenway: The point is taken.

A mandatory life ban on keeping companion animals for those convicted of causing cruelty must be introduced. That will serve to protect animals that have already been mistreated and will prevent people causing more suffering in future. That is the basis of my Bill. I seek to extend the principle that already exists and is enforceable, and to make it compulsory--a life ban from keeping companion animals for those convicted of cruelty.

I am grateful to you for your indulgence, Madam Speaker, and for having this opportunity to raise the matter in the House. I know that many of my constituents feel extremely strongly about it. I hope that in years to come I and other hon. Members will not need to return to this issue to highlight further cruelty and suffering, when a sensible and rational change in the law will offer magistrates the power to penalise that minority of people who have so little regard for an animal's suffering. That will go a long way towards stamping out a serious and malicious evil.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Harry Greenway, Mr. Tony Banks, Mr. Nigel Waterson, Dame Jill Knight, Sir Marcus Fox, Mr. Menzies Campbell, Rev. Martin Smyth, Mr. Sebastian Coe, Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones, Mr. Michael Stephen, Mr. Richard Spring and Mr. John Marshall.

Protection of Animals (Amendment)

Mr. Harry Greenway accordingly presented a Bill to amend the Protection of Animals (Amendment) Act 1954 to require the courts to order the disqualification for life from owning animals for any person convicted of severe cruelty to a companion animal: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 17 February and to be printed. [Bill 36.]

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Opposition Day

[1st Allotted Day]

Through Ticketing under Rail Privatisation

Madam Speaker: We now come to the first debate on the Opposition motions. I have selected the amendment standing in the name of the Prime Minister. I have not thought it right in this debate to limit speeches to 10 minutes, but I ask Back Benchers to exercise voluntary restraint in their speeches. In the spirit of the Jopling report, I also ask for the co- operation of Front Benchers to give Back Benchers opportunities to speak.

3.44 pm

Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West): I beg to move,

That this House, noting the repeated assurances already given by Ministers that it will be mandatory for rail operators to ensure through-ticketing following the franchising of passenger services, calls upon Her Majesty's Government to guarantee that these promises will be honoured.

The aim of the motion is clear, simple and straightforward: that the unequivocal commitments that Ministers have made on several occasions that through ticketing will be fully maintained after privatisation shall be honoured. During the Second Reading of the Railways Bill on 2 February 1993, the then Minister for Public Transport, the right hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Freeman), stated in the clearest terms:

"we have said that it will be mandatory for rail operators to ensure through ticketing."

Later in the same speech he reiterated that point even more clearly when he said:

"Through ticketing will be mandatory through the licensing system. Anyone who wants to run a passenger train service must ensure that through tickets are available for all journeys. That will be an obligation."--[ Official Report , 2 February 1993; Vol. 218, c. 242-58.]

On discounts, he further added:

"I firmly believe that discounts on through tickets, which amount to 10 or 20 per cent. off the sum of the fares on individual lines, will continue. The intention is to continue to use British Rail's ticket issuing machinery."--[ Official Report , 18 February 1993; Vol. 219, c. 258.]

Similar binding commitments were given in another place. On Second Reading in their Lordships' House on 15 June 1993, Lord Caithness, speaking for the Government, stated:

"Through ticketing will continue to operate across the network and operators will be required to participate in common ticketing and revenue allocation arrangements."--[ Official Report , House of Lords , 15 June 1993; Vol. 546, c. 1428.]

In all those commitments, Ministers simply confirmed Government policy as it was expressly laid down in the White Paper of summer 1992. Paragraph 88 of the White Paper on network benefits states: "The Government is concerned to ensure that, so far as possible, passengers and freight customers continue to enjoy the advantages they get from a national rail system, including through ticketing, cross validity,"--

I think that that is another word for inter-availability-- "discounted fares, and a national timetable. This will be taken into account in the arrangements made for timetabling and ticketing."

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But Ministers went even further than that. In March 1994, the Department of Trade and Industry issued a leaflet for general distribution to the public entitled "Franchising of Rail Passenger Services". It is written in the form of questions and answers: "Can I still buy a through ticket to any destination?

Yes. Through tickets will continue to be available as at present."

I do not think that it could be any clearer than that.

Time and again, Ministers in both places have repeatedly made unequivocal commitments that, following the franchising of passenger services, through ticketing will continue to be available on exactly the same basis as at present. I remind the House that through tickets are now available at more than 1,300 stations throughout the country.

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way at such an early point in his speech. What does he mean by "on exactly the same basis"? I understand that, of about 2,500 stations in the British Rail system at present, only 440 offer a full through-ticketing and seat reservation service.

Mr. Meacher: The fact is that 1,316 stations are staffed and 1,580 stations currently offer through ticketing in one form or another. The Department's literature made it clear that arrangements would continue "as at present". That is what we are talking about; that is the key issue in today's debate.

It was reported 10 days ago that the Rail Regulator was expected to limit the purchase of through tickets to just 294 core stations throughout the network. That produced an immediate and strong reaction from the Secretary of State, and I give him credit for that. On the Saturday he issued a press release saying:

"If the regulator is proposing that the number of stations offering through ticketing should be fewer than now,"--

I emphasise those words--

"that is unacceptable. There must be an improvement".

Presumably, he was referring to an improvement on the current position. However, 48 hours later he was back-pedalling fast. On Monday, he was forced to make the humiliating admission that the Rail Regulator, not the Minister, would have the final word in determining the number of stations offering through ticketing. With that admission, echoed several times by the Prime Minister and again yesterday, all the proud boasts, which have regularly been repeated by Ministers, that network benefits would be fully preserved under privatisation, collapsed ignominiously like a pack of cards. As hon. Members will know, the right hon. Gentleman has sought to cover his embarrassment by putting forward three defences of his position. Each repays some examination. First, he makes out that the Rail Regulator's proposals are purely consultative, but even a cursory reading of the Rail Regulator's report can leave no one in any doubt that the other two options are purely tacked on as a cosmetic in order to allay the political furore that the main proposal provokes.

I presume that the Secretary of State is perfectly well aware that Mr. Swift devotes no fewer than 21 pages of his document to the issues arising from putting a limit on 294 core stations, while the other two options-- one of which is to leave things as they are-- get fewer than four pages. The thrust of the document is about eroding the

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number of through-ticketing stations and the only argument is about how far and how fast that can be achieved. The document is consultative in name only.

Mr. George Kynoch (Kincardine and Deeside): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that at present not only stations sell through tickets, but that there is a large network of travel agencies and telephone sales? Does he also accept that it would be in the interests of private operators to ensure that they get the best possible access to their potential customers of through tickets? Does not he accept, therefore, that there are ways of providing through tickets other than just through stations?

Mr. Meacher: No one is objecting if there is an improvement on the present position and there are more outlets for the sale of through tickets. We are objecting to the fact that the number of stations, which are used overwhelmingly for the purchase of through tickets, will be dramatically reduced.

Several hon. Members rose --

Mr. Meacher: Anyone who reads the Rail Regulator's report knows perfectly well that that is the direction in which policy will go and, as I shall explain, the Secretary of State cannot stop it. The right hon. Gentleman's second defence is that the Rail Regulator is laying down no more than minimum standards with which train operators must comply. He wants to believe that private operators will go further of their own accord. They may to some degree do so, but that is not the point.

Ministers gave repeated commitments, and their publicly distributed literature made it clear that through ticketing would continue as at present, and at present it is available at more than 1,300 stations across the country. They insisted that services for passengers would improve after privatisation, but no amount of fantasising by the Secretary of State will lead private operators to increase the number of through-ticketing stations to anywhere near 1,300.

The Rail Regulator has pulled the rug from under the Secretary of State when he concedes that private operators are unlikely to want to be burdened by excessive costs. The truth is that the Secretary of State's defence that minimum standards will be substantially bettered does not cut ice even with the regulator.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere): The hon. Gentleman mentioned minimum standards. Can he assist the House by saying what British Rail's present minimum standard is?

Mr. Meacher: I am well aware that one feeble excuse made by the Secretary of State is that there is no statutory binding commitment at present. The point is that the public know that they can go into more than 1,300 stations and buy a ticket to any destination that they choose. That facility will be eroded by the regulator's proposals.

The Secretary of State's third defence is that he can issue formal guidance to the regulator. Although that is true, it is worthless because the regulator does not have to comply. In Committee, Ministers reserved to themselves the power to override the regulator in two specific respects-- the granting of exclusive franchises

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and the limiting of track access charges. Significantly, both powers were designed to restrict competition on behalf of franchise bidders, not to assist passengers. The key point is that there are no other specific respects in which the Secretary of State can override the regulator.

Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham): Is the hon. Gentleman aware that this debate is the most appalling waste of time? Franchisees will want to maximise their ticket sales. I refer the hon. Gentleman to the post- nationalised British Airways and the Galileo system. The hon. Gentleman will find that computerised booking systems for every form of transport are developing fast throughout the world. At a time when national lottery tickets are available at petrol stations, newsagents and the like, through on-line computer terminals, this debate is farcical. We are entering a world of thousands of outlets.

Mr. Meacher: If the hon. Gentleman is so convinced that commitments made by Ministers can be guaranteed and will be honoured, we shall be glad to welcome him in our Lobby tonight.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey): I support the hon. Gentleman in putting it to the Government that the system has already broken down. A letter dated 14 January, but which arrived on 16 January, bears out the fact that the commitment to a national network timetable has not been honoured. If one asks for an InterCity timetable at Waterloo station, one is told that Waterloo is not an InterCity station and is given a telephone number, which one must call to request a timetable to be sent. If the network provision of services is to be guaranteed by the regulator, does not the hon. Gentleman agree that the regulator has already failed?

Mr. Meacher: I shall refer later to many aspects of the beginning of the erosion of inter-availability and national timetabling systems.

Ministers have repeatedly affirmed that there will be no reduction in through ticketing after privatisation. The regulator, on the other hand, is clearly determined to reduce core stations offering through ticketing to perhaps as few as one in eight of Britain's 2,500 stations--and the Secretary of State cannot lift a finger to stop him. The right hon. Gentleman, in all his splendid isolation and irrelevance, sits there like a beached whale. He is a monument to the crass ineptitude of a privatisation that is fast running out of control. The fact is that the right hon. Gentleman is wholly unable to carry through the commitments that his predecessors gave, and he is being humiliated by what the regulator is doing.

The absurdity goes even further. We are told that the list of 294 was drawn up using a set of criteria to ensure that the key towns and cities, airports and recognised commercial centres would have core stations. The bizarre result is that travellers will be able to buy tickets to any destination from the Kyle of Lochalsh--a little-used station that is also a port on the west coast of Scotland--or from Ryde Esplanade on the Isle of Wight, or from Llandrindod Wells in mid-Wales, through which only three trains a day pass.

Mr. Jacques Arnold: Spell it.

Mr. Meacher: Conservative Members are being exceedingly silly, because they know that they have no defence against the thrust of our argument. They are

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deeply embarrassed by the way in which commitments have been given, which the Government are now totally incapable of carrying through. At the same time, some of the stations at which ticket sales will be limited are among the busiest in Britain. They include Lichfield in Staffordshire, with two stations and 185 trains a day. It will have no core station. Yeovil in Somerset, a base for Britain's aerospace industry, will be without one, too. Under the regulator's proposals, there will be an 88-mile stretch between Salisbury and Exeter, with Yeovil at its centre, with no core station. Thus a passenger wishing to travel from Yeovil to Birmingham will have to detour to Bristol or to Swindon to get a through ticket. [ Laughter .] I agree, it is laughable. The hon. Member for City of Chester (Mr. Brandreth) is right to laugh. It is an absurdity that beggars belief.

Sir Donald Thompson (Calder Valley): The Labour party Front-Bench spokesman has been kind enough to show that party's quinquennial interest in my constituency by naming a few stations there. My constituents are convinced that the privatisation of the railway industry will be as successful as the privatisation of British Airways. The railway industry will have a chance to compete, just as BA and BT compete. The hon. Gentleman is stuck in the steam train era.

Mr. Meacher: I am grateful for that intervention. The whole House would like to know how the hon. Gentleman intends to justify to his constituents the fact that two of the stations in his constituency, Hebden Bridge and Todmorden, core stations at present, will, under the regulator's proposals, cease to be so. Perhaps he will explain that to the House--if he catches Madam Speaker's eye.

It beggars belief that it is seriously intended, as part of the privatisation of the rail system, that the number of stations selling through tickets should be reduced by 80 per cent; and that as a result people will be expected, when necessary, to divert to another station on the same line--or even, from there, to another station on another line. They must then get off the train to buy a through ticket. Having purchased it, they will almost certainly find that their train has already departed, and they will have to wait for the next connection. [Interruption.] Perhaps the Secretary of State would like to tell us why he finds that so funny. Millions of rail passengers will find it quite intolerable. The fact that the right hon. Gentleman sits there giggling just shows his contempt for millions of people around this country.

The Secretary of State for Transport (Dr. Brian Mawhinney): Subject to catching Madam Speaker's eye, I shall have an opportunity to respond.

Mr. Meacher: Instead of the Secretary of State looking so pleased with himself, perhaps he will accept that I should be pleased if, on this crucial issue, he intervened in my speech. I should be glad to give way to him. Perhaps he would like to explain. We shall be waiting for his explanation, but noting that he seems extraordinarily reluctant to give it following my offer to allow him to intervene.

Mr. John Sykes (Scarborough): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Meacher: No. I am concerned with the Secretary of State.

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Is the right hon. Gentleman seriously telling us that what I have described is the new Tory vision of a smart and efficient railway system, or if it is not, that there is nothing that he can do to stop it happening?

On Monday, the Prime Minister at his press conference, which I believe was designed to prop up sagging Conservative party morale, announced that he intended to turn Britain's railways from a stand-up comedian's joke into the envy of the world. Not for the first time, the irony of the situation seems to be sadly lost on the Prime Minister. It is he and his policies that are the stand-up comedian's joke. Proposals such as the one that we are discussing are making him and his Government the laughing stock of the western world. Even Harry Enfield could not have managed to produce a better script. Why are the Government in such a position? It is not because the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State are stupid. None the less, they obviously fail to recognise the consequences of their policies. The internal contradictions of privatisation are driving events in the direction that I outlined.

Mr. Gyles Brandreth (City of Chester): Will the hon. Gentleman give way on his point about internal contradictions?

Mr. Meacher: I do not believe for a moment that the hon. Gentleman will intervene on that point. He has been persistent, however, in his efforts to intervene, and I am glad to give way to him.

Mr. Brandreth: When my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister wants to make an announcement about his policy on the railways, he at least makes it himself, whereas the Leader of the Opposition has his press secretary sort it out for him.

The hon. Gentleman is either being mischievous or is hopelessly muddled. We are talking about a consultation document. A minimum standard is being talked about. Two of the purposes of the exercise of privatisation are to improve service and to increase the availability of tickets. That is what the thrust will be. The hon. Gentleman must understand and recognise that. That is why we find what he is saying risible. There is no thrust to his argument. He is tilting at illusory windmills.

Mr. Meacher: The hon. Gentleman is not a silly man--

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): Oh yes he is.

Mr. Meacher: He is not silly by the standards of Conservative Members, but he is being disingenuous. If the Government's proposals are about improving standards, why is it that there is not one line in the regulator's report about improving the current system? The report is all about worsening it. The only issue is the degree to which and the speed with which that will come about. If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that a consultative exercise is taking place, perhaps he is sillier than I thought. If he reads the report, he will find that it is clearly about severely reducing the number of stations that can offer through ticketing. The key point is that, consultative exercise or whatever, the Secretary of State cannot stop whatever the regulator decides to implement.

Why are the Government in such a situation? The regulator did not propose 294 stations because--

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Mr. Kynoch: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Meacher: I shall not give way again.

The regulator did not make that proposal because he wanted to improve--

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