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Mr. Kynoch rose --
Mr. Meacher: The regulator did not propose 294 core stations because he wanted to improve services for passengers. That never entered his head. When asked whether he considered that passengers should be no more than an hour's drive from a core station selling through tickets, he said, amazingly enough, that he had considered that, but he thought that the value of such a criterion "was not obvious".
The irrelevance of the interests of passengers could hardly be clearer. The reason why the regulator wants to cut the number of core stations by 80 per cent.--meaning that people will be forced to travel up to 50 miles out of their way to buy a through ticket, which is of absolutely no interest to him--is to secure a sale of the passenger franchises at any cost.
Madam Speaker: Order. That is not a point of order at all. It is a point of argument. It is not a matter for me what the regulator says. There has been no breach of Standing Orders or of our procedures here.
Mr. Gary Streeter (Plymouth, Sutton) rose --
The hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) must try to correct the Opposition spokesman in debate, not through a point of order.
Madam Speaker: Order. Let me try to explain the art of debate in Parliament. If hon. Members feel that another hon. Member is quoting incorrectly or is giving incorrect information, the way to correct that is to catch my eye. That is the way to do it, not through a point of order. Do we all understand now how points of order should be used and what the art of debate is? Very good.
Column 722passenger franchises at any cost. That is what underpins the debate. The Secretary of State said on 14 December that he intended to effect the sale of at least 50 per cent. of those franchises by April 1996. The fact is that there is such investor apathy about the sales that minimising the conditions that franchisees must meet, as in through ticketing, is a vital part of the exercise, and the interests of the passengers come absolutely nowhere. That is the first reason why this zany proposal has emerged.
Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman sees any correlation between the argument that he is making now and what happened with British Gas. Is he aware that British Gas closed a number of showrooms in which people could pay their gas bills, but at the same time it did a deal with the Post Office, which means that there are 20,000 new places where people can pay their bills? Does he regard that as an improvement for the customer or a decline in the service? I regard it as an improvement.
Mr. Meacher: I do not think that there is any parallel at all, for the simple reason that people expect to be able to go to stations to buy through tickets. If they can buy them at the local taxi company or the local showroom, fine, but that is not an acceptable substitute for a reduction of 80 per cent. in the number of through-ticket stations.
There is a second reason, too, for this ridiculous proposal. If one breaks up an integrated national rail system into 85 different companies, which is what the Government are doing, one is forced to devolve ultimate power in policing the railways to an independent regulator and his staff, to prevent the conflicting interests that have been unleashed getting out of control. Once one gives such power to an unelected quango, one is handing over to an unaccountable body extremely sensitive political decisions that should be taken only by a political representative. But that, of course, is precisely the logic of privatisation. That is why it is so flawed. That is why a large and growing majority of the population is so passionately opposed to this privatisation.
Those people know that it is madness to split up a single integrated rail system into 85 separate, conflicting companies, which will produce a mountain of bureaucracy. They are opposed because they do not want the regulatory and safety framework of the railways undermined. They are opposed because they know that services will have to be cut drastically in order to generate the profits that shareholders demand, pushing the railways into a vicious spiral where higher fares will lead to fewer passengers, which will then force fares still higher. They are opposed to £700 million being frittered away in City and legal fees, money that could have been far better spent on redressing crumbling investment.
A growing majority of the population is opposed because there are no guarantees on season tickets or off-peak fares, because inter-availability is already being eroded and because the blight on investment imposed by privatisation is already producing serious damage. Temporary speed limits have had to be imposed on several lines because major track renewal work is simply not being done. Back-up for train breakdowns has been cut to the bone, so that one lost train can now wreck a day's timetable as cancellations and delays build up and,
Column 723as we found in our recent survey, trains are increasingly having to run on no spares, so that branch line trains are having to be transferred to keep busier lines operating.
In his amendment to our motion, the Secretary of State talks about his plans to reverse the decline in rail use. But the facts are clear. The biggest barrier to greater rail use in Britain at present is the Secretary of State and his privatisation plans. The large-scale abandonment of through-ticketing stations is but the first of the disasters that will hit millions of passengers if rail privatisation is allowed to proceed.
The regulator has made a monkey of the Secretary of State and all that the right hon. Gentleman can do is to repeat plaintively that it was Parliament that decided that there should be a regulator. He has made no mention of the fact that it was not Parliament but Ministers who decided to privatise the railways in the first place, not Parliament but Ministers who decided that there should be 85 separate companies that required regulation, and not Parliament but the Secretary of State's predecessor who guaranteed that through ticketing would be fully protected in the privatised system. It is Ministers who have produced this mess. It is Parliament that can still stop it. In the 60 most marginal Tory seats, there are now 173 stations. Under the regulator's proposals, only 24 of those will be core stations selling through tickets. Tory Members of Parliament have a clear and straight choice tonight. Either they take the Secretary of State at his word that any cut in through ticketing would be unacceptable and support our motion, or they support the Whips and vote down their constituents. But I give them this warning. This is a campaign on which we shall not let up until we have stopped this detested privatisation in its tracks by the next election. 4.17 pm
"reaffirms the Government's commitment to maintaining through ticketing; welcomes the publication by the Rail Regulator of the Consultation Document `Retailing of Tickets at Stations'; endorses the view expressed in the document that the continuation of network benefits such as through ticketing `will be one of the key tests of the success of the restructuring of the industry'; notes that despite massive investment in British Rail the proportion of travel undertaken and freight moved by train has steadily decreased during nationalisation; and supports the Government's commitment to seeking to reverse this decline through the creation of a flourishing railway system operated by the private sector which will offer a better deal for passengers and for freight customers.".
I have always thought that the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) wanted to enter the Labour party's hall of fame of bons mots which go down in history and are remembered, such as that of the right hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Orme), on the Gas Bill, who said:
"There is no evidence that the Bill will . . . produce cheaper gas".--[ Official Report , 10 December 1985; Vol. 88, c. 780.] or that of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar), who said that the British Steel Bill was
"totally irrelevant to the real interests of the industry, and it is based on dogma. The Labour party is unequivocally, implacably opposed to it".-- [ Official Report , 23 February 1988; Vol. 128, c. 238.]
About British Airways, the same hon. Gentleman said:
"It will be the pantomime horse of capitalism if it is anything at all."-- [ Official Report , 19 November 1979; Vol. 974, c. 125.]
Column 724I invite my hon. Friends to read Hansard tomorrow and perhaps we can have a ballot on which of the statements made today by the hon. Member for Oldham, West will go down alongside those bons mots of expressions of Labour party policy. I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman because he has not had a comfortable week. Last Wednesday, this debate seemed like a good idea to him. I bet that he regrets it now.
Last week, the hon. Gentleman appeared to be in charge of Labour's policy-- whatever it is. Today, the whole country knows that it is not the hon. Gentleman who controls Labour's policy, but the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott). On Sunday afternoon, it was the hon. Gentleman who was to be on Monday morning's "Today" programme with me; by Sunday evening, he had been dumped.
Today's debate is entitled "Through Ticketing under Rail Privatisation". I wish to deal with the issue of through ticketing first, but I assure Opposition Members that I shall then deal with the privatisation issue, as did the hon. Member for Oldham, West.
Mr. Andrew Welsh (Angus, East): Who is in charge of the Government's policy? Why did the Government make so many promises to maintain through ticketing, and then hand over that policy to an unelected, unaccountable regulator?
The Government's commitment to through ticketing is absolutely clear: it has been a constant theme of our privatisation proposals. It was in our 1992 election manifesto, and in the White Paper that we published in July of that year; it was reiterated when we introduced our legislation at the beginning of 1993, and it is now in the Railways Act. Section 4 of that Act places a duty on the Secretary of State to promote measures to facilitate journeys involving more than one operator, and states specifically that through ticketing is one such measure. The same duty applies equally to the regulator, and it was in the exercise of that duty that he published his consultation document on the retailing of tickets at stations.
I should also remind the House that the regulator issues licences under a general authority from the Secretary of State. The general authority issued to him on 31 March last year makes it clear that he is obliged to include through-ticketing requirements in the licences that he issues.
In addition, Parliament has given the regulator responsibility for protecting passengers' interests, and the decision on what ticket retailing requirements should be imposed is for him, although it is open to me to give him guidance under the Railways Act. Incidentally, the hon. Member for Oldham, West was wrong: the regulator is not free to ignore that guidance as though it had not been given. He is under a statutory obligation to take account of it.
Column 725Dr. Mawhinney: Not yet. As I have said, the regulator is under a statutory obligation. In other circumstances, the hon. Member for Oldham, West has ascribed some importance to that.
As the regulator is turning his mind to the issue of ticket retailing for the first time, he has decided to issue a consultation document to establish the views of those who would be affected by the requirements--the operators and, importantly, the passengers.
Dr. Mawhinney: I said that I would give way in a moment. That is an entirely new development. In the past, no one consulted passengers about the kind of ticket retailing requirements that they wanted from the railways. Again for the first time, the regulator proposes that passengers should have guarantees that a specific level of ticket retailing service will be safeguarded.
Neither of the two new services that I have just described operated in the old public-sector railway, and both are characteristic of the future rather than of the past.
The regulator's document contains three options--a requirement that operators maintain the current ticketing arrangements unless they can justify any changes to the regulator; the designation of core stations that will be required to offer the full range of ticketing facilities, with operators left free to decide what services to offer at other stations; and a two-tier approach, with core stations providing the full range of tickets and a less demanding requirement to be placed on other stations. The regulator is not committed to any particular option. He will carefully consider the responses that he receives before reaching any decision. The hon. Gentleman should be more careful about what he says in public about the regulator than he was in the debate. I shall quote what the regulator said on "Newsnight" on 11 January because, as my hon. Friends will understand, it goes precisely to the heart of the hon. Gentleman's argument and blows it away. The regulator said:
"I have never committed myself to a plan to reduce the number of stations at which through tickets can be bought to 294. That is absolutely absurd."
Mr. Stevenson: I was a bit worried that the Secretary of State might have gone beyond this point before giving way. Given his commitment that the present level of through ticketing would be maintained, if after the consultation the regulator produces a plan to reduce the availability, what will the Secretary of State do to maintain the commitment?
Column 726yesterday, and the Prime Minister answered in exactly the same terms as I have answered. It is all in the record for the hon. Gentleman to read. [Interruption.]
The regulator and I have the same statutory objective: we both want an improvement in passenger services. The idea, which is absurd--to use the regulator's word--that the hon. Member for Oldham, West has been peddling to the House does not fall within the statutory remit that the House gave to the regulator. The hon. Gentleman needs to understand that that is the essence of the consultation document. If I were to tell the House that there would be so many stations providing a certain service at a certain cost on certain days, the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends would say, "Why have a regulator and a consultation process in the first place? Why is the Secretary of State standing at the Dispatch Box and undermining the regulator's role?" That is exactly the point that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made yesterday to the Leader of the Opposition.
If the Opposition had voted in Committee against having a regulator with such powers perhaps the House would be more impressed by their arguments now.
Mr. Stevenson: I am trying to help the Secretary of State because he is clearly in a hole of his own making. I thought that he would have reached the part of his script that would have given me some answers but he has not, so I will repeat the question. If, after the consultation, the regulator comes up with a reduced number of stations that can provide through ticketing, what will the Secretary of State do to honour the commitment given by him and by the Prime Minister to maintain the present level? Will the right hon. Gentleman please answer the question?
Dr. Mawhinney: I do not propose to anticipate what the regulator will produce by way of a response. I reaffirm to the hon. Gentleman the statutory requirement that through ticketing will be available and will be maintained. I remind him that I have the opportunity to provide statutory guidance to the regulator on that point, if I judge it necessary. So that everybody understands it, the fundamental difference between us is that we have plans to create an environment in which it will be advantageous for operators to do what passengers want. The hon. Gentleman is firmly in the grip of those trade unionists who want no change and, indeed, want to go backwards. I reaffirm that I have also made it clear that the idea that the retailing of through tickets should be restricted to 294 stations is unacceptable. The regulator and I are as one on that. As he said in the same interview from which I have already quoted:
"So far as I am concerned there is no difference at all between my objectives and the objectives of the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister, that is to get better value for the passengers and better services."
Lest anyone doubt the regulator's commitment to ensuring that passengers' interests are protected, I shall quote from his document, which states:
"Privatisation and restructuring of the railways are intended to improve services to customers and stimulate innovation. In looking at new proposals to replace British Rail's current arrangements I will want to be satisfied that they are likely to achieve these objectives."
Column 727He also said:
"In going out to consultation on the issue of ticket retailing at stations, I want to be satisfied that there will be a better rail network and better use of the network by reason of the decisions I take."
Ms Jean Corston (Bristol, East): As the Secretary of State appears to be incapable of dealing with reasonable questions from my hon. Friends, which reflect the genuine concerns of our constituents, I shall put a simple question to him. What advice would he give to my 81-year-old father who lives in Yeovil, has no credit card and so would not be able to make telephone bookings and who regularly travels to Bristol to visit me? How would he get his tickets?
Dr. Mawhinney: I advise the gentleman to do two things--first, not to vote for his local Member of Parliament, and secondly, not to listen to his daughter. What his daughter and her right hon. and hon. Friends are doing is trying to scare him into believing that something will be the case when in fact the very Act of Parliament on which the proposal is based makes it clear that our aim is to produce a better service rather than a worse one.
Mr. Bob Dunn (Dartford): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Labour party should make it absolutely plain this afternoon that the price of a deal between Labour and the trades union bosses is the handing over of British Rail under a Labour Government--if there were to be one--to be run by the trades unions?
Dr. Mawhinney: My hon. Friend anticipates what I had already warned the House would form the second part of my speech. After I deal with through ticketing I shall deal with privatisation. The regulator is proposing minimum obligatory standards which will be imposed on operators. That is also new. Under its old nationalised structure British Rail was under no such obligations. The same was true for other aspects of its operations. It was free to vary levels of service--and it did--subject only to very general constraints such as the statutory closure procedures. The railway operated under a system of bureaucratic centralised control with BR taking all the decisions-- [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Oldham, West need not sigh; it happens to be the truth. It is slightly depressing that he does not recognise the truth.
Under privatisation things are improving. Not only will passengers get better services, they will have specific safeguards for levels of service. Henceforth, passenger services will be provided under franchise agreements that provide clear contractual obligations that operators have to meet, unlike now. They will have to provide a specified level of service set out in the passenger service requirement. They will have to meet specific standards of punctuality and reliability, unlike now. They will have to provide discounted travel for the elderly, young and disabled and--where necessary--there will be safeguards against excessive fare increases. So under privatisation passengers can look to enjoy not just better, more efficient services, but greater security that the railways will be run for their benefit.
Let me repeat--the regulator is seeking to establish a minimum requirement to act as a safeguard. I do not believe that that minimum will in any way become the norm. It is self-evidently in the interests of operators to
Column 728make their tickets widely available. Indeed, it will be more in their interests to do that in the future than it is in BR's interests now.
Mr. McLoughlin: Is not the difference between the Government and the Labour party that we are not prepared to see the railway industry fossilised, as it has been for some time? Is my right hon. Friend aware that my constituents are not bothered if they buy their rail tickets at a station? They want to know that they have access to tickets, whether from a shopping centre or a railway station.
Ticket retailing will be an important part of a franchisee's business. It is his main interface with his customer. I expect operators to build on the current arrangements, using the new technology available to provide a better ticket retailing service to passengers. They do not need to be told that. No one tells the airline industry how to retail its tickets, but it has developed sophisticated, flexible and highly effective ticketing systems admirably suited to the needs of its customers. I believe that the privatised railway will do the same.
I confirm the point made earlier by some of my hon. Friends. There is a widespread myth that all BR stations provide a full range of ticketing facilities. Even now, ticket availability at individual stations is restricted by limitations on staff resources, fares information about remote journeys and ticket-issuing equipment. At least 1,200 of BR's stations are totally unmanned and offer no staffed ticketing facility, and only about 440 stations have direct access to the seat reservation data.
Ticket retailing will not be confined to stations. Some operators will choose to sell tickets on trains. Telephone sales will become more usual. There will continue to be sales through self-service ticket machines, and travel agents will have a role to play. Large organisations with staff using the railways will continue to be able to use travel warrants.
So the position is clear. Through ticketing will be maintained and passengers can have an influence on its form by responding to the regulator's consultative document. For the first time in history, they can influence the sort of service that they would like to enjoy. Passengers will enjoy an expanding range of services as franchisees develop policies to satisfy existing passengers and to attract new ones.
Dr. John Marek (Wrexham) rose --
More broadly, competition on the railways will offer passengers and freight customers a better deal. Do not take just my word for it. I remember being impressed by an impassioned speech which I heard at a party conference in Blackpool a few years ago. The speaker said: "Nothing would more stimulate a change of attitude to the travelling passenger, than allowing a little competition for the privilege of our custom".
I agree. That is why we are privatising the railways.
Incidentally, the House will want to know that those words were spoken by the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), the leader of the Liberal Democrats. He
Column 729seems to have changed his mind. What is the right hon. Gentleman's policy today? Does he still want to see competition on our railways? If so, he and his hon. Friends will be voting with the Government this evening. If he does not, it will come as no surprise to my hon. Friends. His party does not change. It says one thing in one place and does something different somewhere else. Never judge a Liberal by his words --just look at how he votes.
But I digress. Let me turn, for a moment, to the amazing performance of the Labour Front Bench in response to the regulator's consultation document. My hon. Friends may have thought that today was pretty amazing, but today was not the first occasion. The hon. Members for Oldham, West, for Fife, Central (Mr. McLeish) and for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson) each issued a press release. Taken together, they were an embarrassment to Labour.
[Interruption.] Let me help the hon. Members. The hon. Member for Oldham, West, on behalf of Labour, thought that the regulator's three options were all different and he picked the one that he liked. The hon. Member for Fife, Central, on behalf of Labour, condemned all three options, saying that they all
"amount to the same thing".
The hon. Member for Fife, Central, on behalf of Labour, claimed that I had been "humiliated" by the regulator. The hon. Member for Cunninghame, North, on behalf of Labour, said that I had hung the regulator "out to dry". The hon. Member for Cunninghame, North, on behalf of Labour, said:
"I understand Mr. Swift threatened to resign . . . That is why Mawhinney backed off."
On "Newsnight" the regulator replied:
"I certainly did not threaten to resign."
The interviewer said:
"That's what Labour are saying."
and John Swift said, "Well, they are wrong". What a shambles. It is no wonder that the Labour party cannot formulate a policy; it cannot even formulate a sensible press release.
Certain facts are not in dispute. Since nationalisation, under Governments of both parties, £54 billion has been invested in the railways. Every Conservative Government since the war has increased investment in British Rail. Since 1979, the Government have invested more than £15 billion in British Rail--more than £6.5 billion in the past five years. Yet, the proportion of all travel undertaken by train has fallen dramatically. In 1953, 17 per cent. of all travel was by train. Today, it is 5 per cent. In 1953, 24 per cent. of all freight was moved by train. Today it is 5 per cent.
To be fair to the Labour party, in speeches, the hon. Member for Oldham, West and his hon. Friends have said the same as we have. Both parties have said that