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An advertisement in last Friday's edition of Kent Today , placed on behalf of the ABB train manufacturing company and sponsored by the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) and my hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Bayley), states:
"although British Rail has been due for some time to place a follow-on order for the next phase of Networkers, it has still failed to do so.
If the order is not received by the manufacturers, ABB Transportation Ltd in York, within the next few weeks, the factory will run out of work and close with the loss of its entire workforce.
This will mean no new trains for three years".
Column 737Will Ministers explain how the loss of 750 jobs, the closure of one of the country's last train manufacturing companies and no new trains for at least three years will benefit anyone, let alone provide a better service for the public?
That is the central point about this piece of privatisation: whenever the question is asked whether privatisation will lead to a better service, the answer is a resounding no, whether we are talking about fares rising by double the rate of inflation, the loss of a central timetable, the loss of inter-availability of tickets or a lower passenger service requirement. We no longer have to predict the effects of privatisation; we can already see them.
Mr. MacShane: The fundamental hostility of Ministers to the very existence of a rail service is reflected in the answers given to my parliamentary questions. Last year the Prime Minister used the rail service just once and the Secretary of State for the Environment, who should be using the rail service instead of elite, chauffeur-driven limousines, used it just five times. The President of the Board of Trade, who is supposed to be committed to British industry, used the rail service just nine times last year. The Government Front Bench have no interest in and no knowledge or practical experience of our rail service.
Ms Jackson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, which will appear in the public record. My constituents have raised that subject with me on more than one occasion, and it deserves a wider audience.
Almost without exception, the effects of privatisation are bad for the rail passenger and bad for the country as a whole.
The Government have no coherent strategy for improving the rail service. One has only to look at the new funding regime: the budget for British Rail and Railtrack will be cut by more than £400 million in the coming financial year, with the shortfall supposedly made up by privatisation receipts to be received sometime in the distant future. Consider what happened yesterday: the Rail Regulator made one announcement about access charges and the value of those receipts was cut by an estimated £2 billion. That sum was lost to the industry in one day because of one announcement.
Rail investment has become a privatisation lottery, with the Secretary of State for Transport the Noel Edmonds of the rail industry, constantly promising each rail manager that he will be the one to receive a Treasury windfall, when in reality the Minister is totally unable to influence events or to deliver on his promises or those of his predecessors. One can almost hear the right hon. Gentleman saying, "Don't worry, Sir Bob, it could be you". In this environment of fragmentation rather than co- ordination, of competition rather than co-operation, and of investment on the never-never, it is no wonder that the quality of service offered to passengers is deteriorating daily--and that is why this privatisation will ultimately fail. Whatever Ministers pledge, whatever excuses they
Column 738give and no matter how often they point to the privatisations of the past, at the end of the day people will judge privatisation on the basis of the service that they receive. As the fiasco over through ticketing has so graphically illustrated, privatisation can mean only one thing: a poorer rail service and a country that is the poorer for it.
Mr. Barry Field (Isle of Wight): There we have it: independence for Scotland, independence for Wales and nationalisation for British Rail--a policy so popular in uniting Her Majesty's Opposition that only 12 Labour Members are present for the debate. The Opposition constantly call for more power for the regulators, but as soon as a regulator makes a pronouncement they invite the Secretary of State to intervene, clip the regulator's wings and subdue him.
It seems to have escaped hon. Members' attention that British Rail has already been privatised. For a number of years it operated the ferries to the Isle of Wight--which were run for the sole inconvenience of the passengers. As one crunched one's way through the paper cups and fag ends, if one found a seat that was not covered with seagull poo it was probably occupied by a burly British Rail seaman. If the train arrived on time, the ferry left early; if the train was late, the ferry left before it arrived. I should also mention the wonderful British Rail sandwich available on the Isle of Wight ferry, which was so curled from staleness that when one bit into one corner the other corner poked one in the eye.
Mr. Waterson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. Has it escaped his attention that the Labour spokesman, the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher), spoke for more than half an hour without making one solitary suggestion as to how renationalising British Rail would improve services to passengers?
Mr. Sykes: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, especially as the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson) refused to do so. Does my hon. Friend think, like the rest of us, that the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) was contributing to the wrong debate? As he was all at sea, perhaps he should have been speaking in the fishing debate which begins at 7 pm.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has visited the Isle of Wight. He travelled there on the ferry, which is almost the only way to reach the Isle of Wight--as the escapees from Parkhurst discovered the other day--via one of the car ferry routes. With regard to Mr. Swift's arrangements for through ticketing, as my right hon. Friend tried to point out-- though he had difficulty getting it through to Labour Members-- this is a consultation document. It is clear that the Opposition do not intend to produce any policies on the subject today. According to Lord Stanley, it is the duty of Oppositions to oppose everything and to propose nothing, but I was not aware that he had also said that Opposition Members must remain silent whenever they are asked about policy.
Column 739The debate presents an ideal opportunity for me to put forward my ideas about through ticketing on behalf of the people of the Isle of Wight, knowing that my right hon. Friend the Minister will be present on the Front Bench and as attentive as ever. Mr. Swift suggests in his document that Ryde pierhead should be the through-ticketing office for the Isle of Wight, and the hon. Member for Oldham, West alluded to it in his speech. That is an extraordinary suggestion as Ryde pierhead is the most difficult of the three through-ticketing offices on the Isle of Wight to access. The other two have car parking facilities and passengers do not have to catch a train, have a long and drafty walk, or buy a ticket for their motor car and drive the length of the pier to reach those offices. Ryde is also an extraordinary choice because it is the route on which services are most subject to cancellation due to bad weather.
Whenever I am asked to advise Ministers about travel arrangements to the Isle of Wight--it happens from time to time--I find that their staff always choose the Portsmouth to Ryde route. That seems to be the preferred route because it appears in the British Rail timetable, but it is not the most convenient route. Passengers can catch a train from Waterloo, arriving in Southampton just over an hour later, and then catch the Red Jet--which was built on the Isle of Wight-- to Cowes, which takes 20 minutes. Red Funnel has had a franchise for through ticketing for British Rail for years and I am sure that it will be most concerned at the prospect of losing it. At Yarmouth, car parking facilities are conveniently located outside the ticket office.
Mr. Bayley: The hon. Gentleman will recall that the Isle of Wight rail services were initially in the first tranche of franchises that the Government intended to put out to contract--indeed, they were due to be franchised by October last year--but the Government subsequently withdrew the Isle of Wight services from that tranche. Does the hon. Gentleman welcome the Government's decision to withdraw Isle of Wight services from the franchising timetable, or does he wish that they had gone ahead in October last year?
Mr. Field: The hon. Gentleman is incorrect: the Government did not withdraw them. I will return to that point later in my speech. If he can contain himself, he will find that the train will eventually arrive at its destination.
At Yarmouth passengers can purchase a ticket for the half-hour ferry journey. It is one of the few services where the train arrives at the pierhead near the ferry service in Lymington. It would be extraordinary if one had to travel virtually the length of the island--from Yarmouth to Ryde pierhead--to buy a through ticket, when at present one can buy one at Yarmouth, catch a train through to Brockenhurst, which is on the main system, and on to Wales or Scotland.
I have taken quite an interest in British Rail and another extraordinary matter puzzles me. British Rail invested heavily in a computer system, which I understand is called Sportis. I travel regularly from the House to the Isle of Wight by train. If one does not have a ticket, the ticket collector comes round and uses a portable piece of equipment to issue one. It will issue a ticket to almost anywhere in the United Kingdom, but for some reason British Rail left the Isle of Wight out of the computerisation. Every night, when the ticket inspector goes off duty he downloads the information on to the
Column 740British Rail mainframe and that is how the costs are analysed. Having acquired that mainframe computer and the ability to issue tickets on the train throughout the system, it seems extraordinary for anyone to suggest that through ticketing is to go. Indeed, perhaps we should shut down the ticket offices and issue tickets only on the trains.
Mention has been made of British Airways, which has a giant mainframe computer able to allocate seats and tickets all over the world.
Mr. Jacques Arnold: It may be of interest to my hon. Friend and to the House that one can book flights on Virgin Airways through British Airways by means of the computerised booking system developed by British Airways after it was privatised, so the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson) is totally wrong.
Mr. Field: My hon. Friend is ahead of me. I understand that the system is called Galileo and that the Ministry of Defence has adopted the same system for its own air transport requirements because it is so successful in allocating space.
As for the hon. Member for Oldham, West misleading the House and being mistaken, one of the keynotes of his speech was that there was investor apathy for the privatisation of the railway. That was the spur which made me apply to speak in the debate.
As hon. Members will know, I have been a keen advocate of privatisation of the Isle of Wight railway, which is just 12 miles long and runs from the end of Ryde pierhead to Shanklin. When I met my hon. Friend the Member for Hampshire, North-West (Sir D. Mitchell), the Minister responsible for the railways at the time, he said, "If you are going to do this, Barry, we must first assure ourselves that ministerial powers are available for the Isle of Wight railway to be sold." That took a few months. Then he said that there might be a problem with the Monopolies and Mergers Commission because we had formed a consortium on the Isle of Wight. I use the royal "we" because although I am not part of it, I was an instigator of it. The consortium involved one of the privatised bus companies which have been so successful. We read about Opposition Members being shareholders in such ventures and we know how tremendously successful that privatisation has been. There was concern about whether the MMC might rule out the consortium and not allow it to bid for the Isle of Wight railway system, but we got MMC clearance for the bid as the consortium does not want to be the majority shareholder and is quite happy to be the minority shareholder. Tomorrow morning I shall be meeting my hon. Friend the present junior Minister to raise the matter with him.
I also met my right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Portillo), when he was in charge of railways, and we had several discussions. There was a feeling that, because privatisation was on the manifesto agenda, it would happen in due course anyway, so it would be premature to do it in isolation from the rest. That was fair enough. Then I met my right hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Freeman), who is something of a steam and railway buff and he was very enthusiastic about the Isle of Wight railway being privatised. So much for the suggestion by the hon. Member for Oldham, West that there is investor apathy: on the Isle of Wight there is investor anger that we have not got on with
Column 741it yet. My right hon. Friend the Member for Kettering came to the Isle of Wight and met the consortium, bringing with him one of the Rail Regulator's staff. We were all horrified to be told that it was all rather difficult and that perhaps the Isle of Wight would not take first place after all.
Another ingredient made me decide to speak today. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) also made a journey to the Isle of Wight and travelled on the railway system. I did what I always do after any hon. Member has visited the Isle of Wight, including the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown). I always thank them for coming to the Isle of Wight because we need all the tourist statistics we can get. When I asked the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East how he had got on and whether people on the Isle of Wight and had made him welcome, he said that they had and that he thought that privatisation might just work for the Isle of Wight railway line.
That is what really annoys me about the politics of the House and of the nation, and it gets right up the nose of the British people. The Opposition's policy has nothing to do with whether privatisation or nationalisation is right or wrong: it is about the Labour party's own agenda and delivering clause IV, and I can prove it. If the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East were the chairman of British Rail and we gave him half a billion pounds to improve the rail structure, I can say with certainty that he would not begin by expanding the railway system on the Isle of Wight. If my right hon. Friend were to make me the chairman of British Rail and gave me half a billion pounds to expand the system, I would not begin by expanding the railway system on the Isle of Wight either, and nor would my right hon. Friend. Certainly British Rail will never expand the system on the Isle of Wight.
We have ideology for its own sake and we cannot get the project through even though a consortium of local business people and hoteliers believes that we can expand the system on the island. The Liberal Democrat county council is also in favour of expanding the railway system on the Isle of Wight, although it pretends not to be and the Liberal Democrat spokesman will be speaking against it today. To give the Liberal Democrats their due, however, they have backed the project fully and are as disappointed as I am that it has been delayed.
It is a remarkable situation: I want to privatise British Rail on the Isle of Wight, and so do the Liberal Democrats, the people on the Isle of Wight, the consortium and the Ministers. Only Mr. Swift clearly does not want to privatise the railway line on the Isle of Wight. The other day he announced that the legal bill for doing so would be much too big and that it would have to be put on the back burner.
Mr. Bayley: The hon. Gentleman kindly answered my question by saying that he is disappointed that privatisation on the Isle of Wight has been deferred. The original proposal involved what was termed a vertical privatisation whereby the private owner would own the infrastructure of the track and run the services. Is the hon. Gentleman advocating that as a pattern for privatisation
Column 742in England, Scotland and Wales? If so, will he explain why? If not, why does he feel that that should be the case on the Isle of Wight, if he still believes it to be the case?
Mr. Field: I am glad of the opportunity to ask the hon. Gentleman why his party's manifesto does not include devolution for the Isle of Wight. As I often tell my constituents when they talk about problems in England, I am responsible only to the Isle of Wight, whose electorate sent me here, and I hope that I do a reasonable job in representing them.
Dr. Mawhinney: I pay tribute to my hon. Friend's commitment to his constituents. He is saying, in effect, that the private sector's enthusiasm and commitment to passengers will be so great that it will not need to be told that ways must be found to make it easy for people to buy tickets. The private sector understands that that is an essential part of its success. As regards the consultation document, I hope that my hon. Friend and his constituents will make their views clearly known to the Rail Regulator as this is the first time in British Rail's history that they have an opportunity to help shape our future railways.
When an industry, business or other undertaking is in the hands of the state, the customer is seen as the enemy--a bit of an inconvenience. When such concerns are privatised, however, customers are seen as an opportunity and as friends. That is precisely what has happened with privatisations thus far. When British Rail ran ferries, we saw staff with glum faces and scruffily turned out, scruffy ships and all the problems to which I alluded earlier. Everything was done for the sole inconvenience of the customer. Today, the same employees who once worked for a nationalised industry are smart in appearance, proud, know who they work for and, above all, know that the customer is king.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Kettering was 100 per cent. behind the Isle of Wight consortium to which I referred. The other day, he telephoned me with remarkably good news from the Ministry of Defence. He said that the Government were ordering 24 of the C130J Hercules aircraft, which is good news for Westland Aerospace. When I asked my right hon. Friend whether they would be operational from the moment they were delivered, there was a long pause. Then he said, "Yes, they will--why do you ask?" I replied, "Because I would like their first task to be to bomb the office of the Rail Regulator so that we can get some action by him as soon as possible."
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): I shall not take a journey around the Isle of Wight because I want to return to the subject of the debate. That has nothing to do with the fact that, when I visited the island recently, I was not welcomed by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Field), even though I took full advantage of its transport facilities.
Unfortunately, the Secretary of State has left the Chamber, but I shall pay the same attention as he did to the detail of statements. He made much fun of statements taken out of context, but I shall quote a statement precisely in
Column 743context. It was made to my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Mr. Harvey) after hon. Members in the House and in Committee, from all parties, pressed for information about what guarantee the Government would give on the continuation of through ticketing. The right hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Freeman), then Minister for Public Transport, 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 , Standing Committee B , 18 February 1993; c. 258.]
According to members of the Government Front Bench, that statement can now be interpreted as meaning that anyone who wants to run a passenger train service could provide only one outlet offering through ticketing--for example, the west of England could be covered by just Port Talbot station and, if the Secretary of State is right, the obligation would be met. That is patent nonsense. Even if that is the way that the Secretary of State intends to interpret the assurance given by the right hon. Member for Kettering, the House will not tolerate an attempt to undermine an assurance which, no doubt, was made with all honesty and integrity.
The Minister said also that there was a statutory obligation to take account of the Secretary of State's guidance. If we cannot be told what the guidance is, what is the statutory obligation? Promises and performance do not tally.
We are confronted with the extraordinary core list. The Minister said that it was only one of three options. It is curious that the core option is spelt out in so much detail but that the two others represent a diminution of the present position. The regulator's document makes a token examination of the two other options, and nothing that the Secretary of State said this afternoon has changed the rationale behind the document.
There is madness afoot, in the way that the regulator is approaching the planning of our rail network. Towns as large as Yeovil and Peterborough seem to be denied through ticketing. The right hon. Member for Peterborough (Dr. Mawhinney) may care to explain why his town has been overlooked.
The Minister for Railways and Roads (Mr. John Watts): I do not want to allow the hon. Gentleman to go too far down a dead end. There was a transcription error in the document, whereby parts of Edinburgh were included twice and Peterborough was omitted. It was never the regulator's intention not to include Peterborough.
Mr. Tyler: The Minister took the words out of my mouth. There was an oversight. The document was issued without Peterborough being included, which is precisely my point. Such sloppy thinking has gone into--
Column 744error"? Has that not been translated by the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) into "an oversight"? Are not the meanings quite different?
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris): My hearing is exceptionally good and the hon. Gentleman is correct--but it is not for me to judge how any hon. Member interprets words used on either side of the Chamber.
Mr. Tyler: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's support. My point is that, if the transcription was a mistake, why was it overlooked? I hope that the right hon. Member for Peterborough will explain to his constituents why such an important railway station came to be overlooked.
Mr. Tyler: I shall not give way again; I must make progress. I suspect that the Peterborough question--or the Yeovil question, if the House prefers--will come to haunt the Secretary of State, as the West Lothian question has come to haunt the Leader of the Opposition.
Other areas of the country will not have the benefit of through ticketing. Newbury, serving a large area of Berkshire, will be without it, as will Lichfield, Stowmarket and Liskeard. The whole of south-east Cornwall will be without even one core station. People in that area will have to cross the national boundary into England, to Plymouth, to obtain through tickets. That will not only cause inconvenience but mean additional costs. If people have to take one single ticket journey after another, it is quite possible that there will be an increase of about 20 per cent. in the cost of their journey.
Mr. Nigel Evans rose --
The rationale for this proposal--if that is not too flattering a word--is that the Government want all the train operators, of which there will be dozens after privatisation, to be able to issue their own tickets. Unfortunately, however, the Minister does not seem to have realised that the combinations that result from that are so complex, with so many different tickets, that only a few highly trained squads of crack ticket task forces will be able to understand what on earth is going on, hence the proposal for core stations. Of course, ticket chaos is already rife. I am advised that there are now no fewer than 17 different return tickets for journeys between London and Birmingham alone, and the difficulty of getting information out of stations at either end is already considerable. The Minister says that this is all done to encourage diversity and choice, but diversity is a sham when no one can explain what is on offer, and choice means chaos when the consumer cannot weigh up the options.
As the hon. Member for Isle of Wight mentioned, there is a system that allows those who cannot get a ticket at an unmanned station to obtain one for most destinations from a portable computerised ticket machine. For instance, on the Newquay to Par branch line, people can obtain through tickets to almost anywhere--as long as the British Rail network is still in existence. What we have not heard from the Secretary of State today is whether it is intended that that system should be taken apart or made obsolete or whether some new system of portable through ticketing should be made available in its place. It is
Column 745because such a system fills in the gaps in the network at present that those who start their journeys from one of the unmanned stations can obtain a reasonable service en route.
We should surely be demanding an expansion and improvement of the ticketing system. After all, the technology is in place already; I understand that any station with a telephone line can provide this service. We should, therefore, not tolerate any retreat to a second-class service.
There is a sinister undercurrent to all this. The debacle is symptomatic of the Government's attitude towards privatisation in general; it is a portent of things getting worse. If through ticketing is for the chop, what are we to make of ministerial assurances about integrated timetables which we were given at the same time? My hon. Friend the Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) has already referred to the difficulties of obtaining timetables. In many places, passengers will have to cross- reference between piles of pamphlets. What we need is a national passenger information service, providing seamless journeys, through ticketing and through timetable information.
What are we to make of the promises we were given at the same time about through train services? Horror stories are already surfacing about the difficulties that have become apparent even before the franchisees come on the scene. Operators will become so desperate to meet their punctuality targets that they are likely to decide that connections are of less importance. The logical conclusion is that, if operators ran no trains at all, they would be able to guarantee 100 per cent. punctuality.
It takes no genius to see that the upshot of all this is that even more people will desert the railways for their long-distance journeys. At present, a number of important holiday resorts in Devon and Cornwall benefit from Saga Holidays' use of through trains, with through ticketing and through services--not to mention the through timetables which are of critical importance to Saga's elderly holidaymakers, who routinely travel by train from the north of England to most of the major resorts in the south-west. In future, Saga says, they will go by coach. That will lessen the chances of maintaining a viable rail service and will put more pressure on the roads.
The conclusion to be drawn from all this muddle is that the Government want a minimalist, slimmed-down railway which will not pose a challenge to the great car economy which they used to champion. No doubt, the Minister will say that he is building a railway fit for the 21st century, or some such platitude. He came close to using one again this afternoon. More probably, he is building a railway fit for the scrap heap.
The motion is drawn in strictly limited terms, but the Government amendment opens up the whole privatisation can of worms. No doubt that is why a number of Conservative Members seemed to be shaking in their shoes. Perhaps they have been listening to their constituents on the subject of the unpopularity of this "privatisation too far" or, as The Daily Telegraph calls it, this "poll tax on wheels". I have good news for them. For the reasons that I set out in Monday's debate, I believe that the privatisation of Railtrack before polling day now
Column 746looks increasingly unlikely, so Tory Members may be spared the experience of going to the electorate with Railtrack already in the private sector.
I believe, too, that the alleged attractions of the franchises are proving far from convincing, which is why so few bids are in. For our part, we have said--I said it on Monday--that we shall use our influence to retain or reclaim a golden share in Railtrack, to ensure that the network remains a public service. The Secretary of State quoted my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown). I agree entirely with what my right hon. Friend said. We have repeatedly made it clear that we have no objections to introducing an element of competition--to the Isle of Wight or to any area where that would be appropriate but within a national railway network and only if there is a framework of guaranteed public service obligations, together with a national long-term transport plan.
Next week, we shall be able to take stock again, because we expect then to have the announcement by the Office of the Passenger Rail Franchising Director on minimum service specifications. If that announcement is in line with the sort of thinking exhibited by the Secretary of State this afternoon, and by last week's report from the regulator, we shall have further confirmation of the fact that standards are to be drastically lowered. Even the limited requirement that last year's timetable should form the base point for improved services in future will be torn up.
Perhaps all this does not bother Ministers. We know that the Prime Minister does not use trains--I understand that he has been on one only once since becoming Prime Minister--but the travelling public cannot afford to be so optimistic. This plan for rail privatisation is a one-way ticket to disaster. It is time someone pulled the emergency cord and stopped the train.
Regrettably, far too much time was wasted earlier in the debate. When I saw the Opposition motion on today's Order Paper, it struck me that this was a debate of National Union of Students standard--it was all about playschool politics. It gives me no pleasure to say that the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) came into the Chamber today with few notes and very little of substance to say. One of the benefits of a national railway network is through ticketing. Parliament has expressly required the regulator to promote through ticketing as a network benefit, now and in future. That is why the Opposition motion is so silly. I feel that the hon. Member for Oldham, West could have done a great deal better. He did not even answer any of the points put to him by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. We heard only the usual mishmash, "One day we will renationalise; the next day we won't." I feel sorry for the hon. Gentleman, because all too often in recent days I have heard remarks on the subject of transport made by the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson), who is no longer an Opposition transport spokesman but who appears to give advice to the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. McLeish). The right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), also no longer an Opposition
Column 747transport spokesman, appears to have taken the lead in these matters, and Alastair Campbell seems to be telling Opposition Members what they should be saying.
The Transport Select Committee quite rightly took a critical but constructive look at the Government's proposals, and the Government listened and acted on virtually all its suggestions. I was struck by how many British Rail employees privately told members of the Committee that they, acting as individuals or collectively, could provide a better service for the travelling public.
In this debate, as in similar debates over the past couple of years, we have heard far too little from Opposition Members about the necessity of improvements for the travelling public. That is what the Government's proposals are about. It is all very well for the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) to say that he and his party agree with increased competition, when he wants British Rail to remain lock, stock and barrel in the public sector. There must be change if some of the improvements that the Government want are to come to fruition.
Mr. Tyler: If the hon. Gentleman reads Hansard tomorrow, he will find that what he suggests is not what I said. The commitment that I gave this evening and on Monday was specific. I hope that he will do me the honour of at least reading what I had to say in Hansard .
Mr. Banks: If I am wrong, I shall, of course, apologise. I know from personal experience, however, that the hon. Gentleman is not different from his Liberal Democrat colleagues: he says one thing in this place, one thing in his constituency, one thing at one end of his constituency and another thing at the other end of it. Those of us who want to improve the quality of service to the travelling public back the Government's rail privatisation proposals. We should give those individuals who have said privately that they could do better individually or collectively the chance to do so through the franchising mechanism that the Government are putting in place to give a better deal to the travelling public. We must make rail travel more attractive and, above all, attract more people on to the railways and off the roads.
The hon. Member for Oldham, West talked about the number of through stations where we can buy a through ticket. Even though only half the stations in the United Kingdom are staffed, there are wide discrepancies between the sort of tickets that we can buy from different British Rail operators and from different stations. It is necessary to book in advance for many tickets to obtain them at a competitive price. It is necessary also to book a seat. Booking is necessary for a variety of other reasons, all of which are positive and are designed to improve the service that is available to the travelling public. I am not concerned at the fact that many tickets and fares are available.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) talked about the airlines. A person who wants to use one route from one destination to another will find that a wide range of fares is available. That choice is important. All too often, we hear, especially from trade union sponsored Labour Members--particularly those sponsored by the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers--about what is important to the union interest. Insufficient consideration is given to the travelling public.
Column 748Ticketing in the current British Rail set up has not been the result of statutory regulation or legal obligation; instead, it has been brought about by the commercial wisdom and know-how of those within British Rail. That is exactly what will happen within the new privatised franchises. Those who run the franchises will have a vested interest in encouraging as many people as possible to use their services.
The introduction of new ideas and privatisation will increase choice. That has happened in and between the airlines and it will happen within the railways. British Airways is not, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said in quoting an Opposition spokesman, the pantomime horse of capitalism; instead, it has been a rip-roaring success. When the travelling public recognise the benefits of franchising in years to come, they will not see renationalisation as something on the menu that they might wish to choose. They will not take that view when they have experienced the substantial improvements that franchising will bring about. As I have said, British Rail has no current statutory minimum service for ticketing. That is the point behind the regulator's consultation document. The hon. Member for Oldham, West said that there are just one or two paragraphs in the report on the existing system and a great deal on core and secondary services. It is not necessary to write many paragraphs on the present system, because everybody knows about it. We want maximum opportunities for passengers to buy through tickets to continue. The best solution to emerge from the debate would be new standards in the provision of service, with independent decision making by operators and standards prescribed and enforced by the regulator.
The current arrangements must form the starting point. For a period, the regulator should approve all changes within certain criteria. After a given time, operators such as British Rail should be able to exercise more and more of their own commercial judgment when introducing new ideas and innovation to improve the service that they provide. In short, changes must be gradual and incremental. I have no doubt that that is exactly what will happen.
We have not heard Opposition Members, and especially those on the Opposition Front Bench, set out their ideas on how they would improve the service. I have referred before to the fuddle and muddle of Opposition statements. Indeed, a press officer for the Leader of the Opposition has contradicted Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen. It is sad to look across the Chamber and recognise that if ever there were a Labour Government, probably not one of the present Opposition Front-Bench team--well, possibly one for the sake of continuity--would end up as a Minister in the Department of Transport.
At one stage, the Leader of the Opposition is back-pedalling on renationalisation; the next minute, he is saying, "Yes, we need to follow that route." Where is he? I gather that he is travelling the country trying to drum up support for getting rid of clause IV. Why is there fuddle and muddle on the Opposition Front Bench? The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers and other union influence have ensured that the Leader of the Labour party knows that he will not be able to ditch clause IV if he does not stick to his guns on renationalising British Rail.
Column 749What a way to carry on. What a contradiction. That is not the way forward. The public will not be fooled now or at the ballot box come the next general election by such nonsensical thinking by Opposition Members.
If the Labour party were to win the next general election, the union barons who are their pay masters would come out of the woodwork, as they are beginning to do now. I have no doubt that the interests of the unions would be put before the interests of the travelling public. It is the interests of the travelling public that have made me so supportive of my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Government Front Bench. The Government amendment contains the most sensible balance to be found in the Order Paper and I shall have no hesitation in supporting the Government.